Though local newspapers did not bother to ask them, any teacher could have named a key reason why state math scores are soaring while the federal TUDA for NYC is largely flat. In spite of their own best professional judgment, their complaints, and their protests, teachers in New York City have been compelled to teach narrowly to a narrow state test, and to use test results to determine what to teach. Teach to a test — and worse, teach to a bad test — and you can’t expect kids to know very much. In fact, you can’t expect them to get much of an education at all, beyond the education that is politically convenient for some and gratifies the ideological enthusiasm of others. NAEP asks for more of education, and that’s the more we are denied from giving them in NYC.
The ideology to which I am referring of course is the penchant everywhere to replace real learning with a spreadsheet education: education by the numbers sliced and diced and then sliced and diced again. The enthusiasm is understandable; data has its appeals. It isn’t hard (I say this from experience) to get hooked into spending too much time clicking through Excel spreadsheets, looking for patterns, seeking the grail. Data appeals because it allows us to believe in — and even impose — a kind of order on the chaotic world in which we wake up everyday.
In the case of schools, the chaos we try to codify is education. “Well, look at that!” says the principal. “In your class, 25% of students got question #7 wrong, which tests their ability to know the meaning of words in context. Teach them that skill, and then…? Test them again.”
It is comforting, but it is wrong.
You can’t teach by the numbers. The tests are not reliable, and even if they were, you can no more translate an isolated skill into real knowledge than you can transfer attendance at a lecture about unicycles into riding down a Manhattan street on a unicycle, in the rain.
Teachers know that, but teachers have been forced.
And still, after eight years of this kind of failure, when TUDA shows — again — flat scores for NYC, and that the achievement gap has not narrowed one iota, the papers don’t even bother to ask a teacher what is wrong.