Testing gone mad

Joe Nocera, writing for the New York Times, links us to a report by Marc Tucker on accountability, the reigning buzzword of the current education reform movement. Tucker, the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, believes that America’s approach to improving academic achievement is all wrong. Nocera:

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile. When I suggested that American cities couldn’t afford to pay teachers the way we pay engineers or lawyers, Tucker scoffed. With rare exception, he said, the cost per pupil in the places with the best educational systems is less than the American system, even though their teachers are far better paid. “They are not spending more money; they are spending money differently,” he said.

In the report’s executive summary, Tucker tells us:

Other countries have pursued very different policies [than the U.S., which, among other things, relies on “cheap teachers”], with much better results. Although many of them, like the United States to this day, long had policies that treated teachers like blue- collar workers and held them accountable in the ways that blue-collar workers are held accountable for their work, the top performing countries have abandoned those policies for policies designed to compensate, recruit, educate, train and manage their teachers in ways that are very similar to the ways in which they compensate, recruit, educate, train and manage their doctors, accountants, attorneys, architects and other high status professionals. And they are much more likely than we are to hold their teachers accountable in ways similar to the ways in which they hold their high status professionals accountable.

Tucker seems to be describing the Finnish way, which I’ve written about previously (e.g., here). The Finns emphasize teacher training and collegiality among professionals. (But they also support wrap-around social services to promote academic achievement, which are sorely absent in America). Tests are used to diagnose learning deficits and not as bases for teacher accountability.

While I share the objections to testing gone mad, I question Tucker’s ultimate objective in pushing for a more Finn-like reform of America’s schools. He argues that we need better teachers in order to better compete in the global economy. To the contrary, education is all about maximizing the potential of individual students, wherever expressed, from the arts to science to math to music.

Moreover, I reject the premise that American schools are failing. Diane Ravitch takes this accusation head on in her most recent book, Reign of Error, wherein she debunks the more popular education myths. In brief, if students are fully supported economically and socially, they do as well, if not better, than their European and Asian counterparts. The problem with American schools, now more than ever, is inequality. The children of the Haves consistently outperform the children of the Have-nots.

I also object to the implicit argument of Nocera and Tucker (and, for that matter, the Obama administration) that education is the pathway out of poverty, rather than the reverse. Poverty negatively impacts learning. Period.

Nevertheless, heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing dramatically shortchanges children and does nothing to deliver better students or teachers. Politicians and educational reformers (e.g., Bill Gates) who cling to the test-based accountability mantra deserve a big, fat F.

Federal overreach

This will sound quite Republican of me, but I would abolish the Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top. Heck, why stop there? I’d get rid of the U.S. Department of Education, since no federal official is better positioned than a classroom teacher to determine curriculum and pedagogy. Nor could Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, know what’s best for individual students, though he presumes as much.

But I’m not finished.

I urge states to withhold from the U.S. Department of Revenue the equivalent of their respective contributions to the U.S. Department of Education. Use that money instead to help fully fund public schools sans testing regimes.

The Obama Administration, some have argued, violates the Constitution by insisting on a national set of standards, called ‘Common Core.’ As proof, one could cite this recent move to deny Oklahoma a waiver from No Child Left Behind for rescinding those standards. That state would join Washington as the only two states to be denied waivers. In our case, it was the legislature’s refusal to tie teacher evaluations to their students’ test scores.

The loss of waivers should finally shine a light on NCLB’s ridiculous requirement that 100 percent of all students, regardless of circumstances, pass standardized tests by this year. If only one child flunks, her whole school is deemed a failure. Here in Washington, nearly 90 percent of the schools are failing.

Writing for the Everett Herald, Jerry Cornfield reports:

Overall, 1,916 schools, or 88.1 percent, did not meet the standard and needed to send out letters. Only 260 schools met the standards based on student performance last school year.

Lake Wobegon, anyone?

Fools on foot

No U.S. city makes the list of the world’s most livable cities, which are generally found in Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia. In my humble opinion the absence has everything to do with transportation.

America was largely formed after the advent of the automobile. Cars are king. Pedestrians and bicyclists are second-class denizens, if not lower. The typical U.S. motorist treats the walkers and peddlers as annoyances, inconvenient obstacles. Fools on foot hope to merely survive steps on pavement, perhaps for the next day’s anxious adventure.

A couple of weeks ago an out-of-town visitor lost his contest with a couple of tons of metal. He was crossing an intersection in what is called “downtown Everett” (Wash.), whereupon he was struck by an SUV and killed instantly. It was a bright, sunny day just before noon.

Yesterday my wife and I nearly succumbed to the same outcome. A woman was making a left turn while talking on her cellphone (illegal in Washington state) and obviously didn’t notice the two of us as we were nearly halfway across the intersection with the walk sign. The driver saw us at the last moment, slamming on her brakes to just avoid the collision. She never missed a syllable of her conversation. As she resumed her turn, I slammed my open hand against her window, yelling, “Get off the damn phone!”

Over the years, transportation engineers and urban planners have fixed the built environment to accommodate the automobile, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists at the mercy of oblivious drivers. The motorist, so coddled, has a sense of righteous superiority in plying our nation’s streets. They drive as if in their living rooms while talking on their mobile phones as if in a coffee shop. Oh, there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I suppose I should stop.

A livable city, it seems to me, would have a built environment in which cars were rare and benign. Pedestrians and bicyclists would be the rightful inhabitants and thus enabled to travel freely and safely amidst well-protected urban pathways.

Here’s a photo off the Internet of a Helsinki street. The city is judged one of the most livable.



A car would be out of place. I say Amen to that.

Becoming Seattle

A radical past, to be sure, and perhaps another step in that direction awaits us, with the election of Socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. She’s determined to thwart corporatism on behalf of the Rest of Us, one rhetorical lashing at a time, whether or not anyone’s listening. That was one takeaway from this insightful piece by Ellis Conklin in the Seattle Weekly

Conklin came to Seattle via Los Angeles in 1989 to report for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He describes a largely laid-back cityscape, marked by Boeing booms and busts. That was before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks emerged as economic juggernauts. He writes:

There were coffee houses on every corner. Residents flocked to Frederick & Nelson dressed in Eddie Bauer fleece. The air was cleaner above snow-capped mountain ranges, and the grunge scene was in full bloom. Nirvana was two years old and Pearl Jam was about to form. Microsoft was on the verge of launching Windows 3.0. In a few years, Newsweek would put then-Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley on its cover. Remember that one? He was clad in a yellow raincoat next to an open-mouthed salmon, with the headline: “Swimming to Seattle: Everybody else is moving there. Should You?”

Times have changed. Seattle has morphed into a major metropolitan headache, with a tiny sliver of the population doing quite well, thank you very much, while everyone else struggles to make ends meet. Conklin:

The beat went on, and the tug-a-war continues between old Seattle and a new urbanized Seattle. The old maritime and industrial economy, replete with dark taverns, dive bars and famous greasy spoons like the former Dog House, yields to globalization, to a high-tech new order.

Can you say expensive? Buying a new home in the city is nearly impossible, unless you can pay a million or more in cash. A one-bedroom apartment will set you back $1,300 a month. On a minimum wage of $15 an hour, a full-time worker would be spending nearly half her income for a roof over her head. 

And it’s almost as impossible to commute into and out of the city, as the main freeway, I-5, is perpetually clogged with hundreds of thousands of cars. There is no public transportation to speak of.

On to this scene of Haves vs. Havenots arrives Ms. Sawant, who deposed long-time incumbent Richard Conlin with fiery words that resonated with enough voters to propel her onto the council. Here’s a sample:

Last year, a cold late-November rain spilled down the blue poncho of Kshama Sawant. The dark-haired socialist, having only days before been elected to the City Council, stood before union workers assembled in support of Boeing machinists and declared, “The workers should take over the factories and shut down Boeing’s profit-making machine…We don’t need executives! We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers—by the community!” She’d later exclaim that Boeing was making war machines (she meant drones), and ought to devote its giant assembly plants to pumping out buses.

Bracing. Unapologetic. And good luck with that.

If socialism is to reign in Seattle, Sawant will need others on the council and elsewhere. There are few signs that a revolution is taking hold. But a new demographic could affect future electoral outcomes: Conklin:

In Seattle, says Sandeep Kaushik, the main architect of Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign, there are two kinds of candidates these days. “There is what I call the communitarian populists who solve problems, who build consensus and are incremental in their approach. And then there are the populist progressives. They are filled with righteous indignation, unwilling to compromise and will fight the good fight.”


This latter group, believes Kaushik, is growing in number. “They are younger, more impatient and believe in confrontational politics,” adds Kaushik. “Even though both sides embrace the social welfare agenda, there is a battle going on between the two factions, the more radical political agenda versus older-style incrementalists—and that right now is the battle for Seattle’s soul.

Oscar Wilde reportedly said that “the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” We’ll see if enough young Seattleites don’t mind.

Bird kills

Years ago, when I was working as a policy analyst for the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), the region confronted a question: Should owners of the Centralia Coal Plant, including the PUD, sell their shares? The answer depended on a host of issues, including economics, the environment, alternative strategies, etc. I researched and analyzed, eventually producing a report, which I have evidently misplaced. In the end, the several utility owners, including the PUD, decided in the affirmative. 

One of the issues I investigated for the report was bird kills. At the time, there were many groups opposing the construction and operation of windmills on the grounds that they killed birds. In my research I discovered that far more birds die from Centralia plant emissions than are killed each year by wind turbines. 

Recently, there were reports that concentrated solar arrays in California were frying birds that strayed near them. Estimates ran as high as 28,000 killings per year. U.S. News looked at data on various resources and their impacts on birds. Here is a chart that I produced based on that data:

bird kills


Yet another reason to leave coal in the ground.