Monday, October 7, 2013

Four Fallacies of Educational Policy

Originally posted by Jeff Bigler on the blog, Waterboarding the Horse

One of the easiest ways to make a parent angry is for people who do not have children of their own to give parenting advice.  Now suppose that those childless people were given the power to make rules that parents had to follow.  This is the situation in education—educational policies are forged and enacted by people who have an agenda and zero classroom experience.

Educational policies that have given us the current climate of test-and-punish are causing the very failures they were allegedly enacted to protect us from.  As our students become more and more ill-prepared for college, the laws and standards become more draconian and unrealistic in response.

The entire argument is based on the premise that we have assessments that can accurately measure the quality of education that a student has received.  There are at least four basic fallacies that work to create this premise.


  1. If a student can get the correct answer reliably on an assessment, then the student has a deep knowledge of the subject.  While it is possible to construct assessments that make this statement true, such assessments are few and far between.  Most assessments—certainly the ones that can be scored by a machine—are testing snippets of knowledge rather than deep understanding.  Students can be taught to recognize patterns and to select a correct answer with little or no understanding of the concepts that the test is supposed to assess.
  2. If a student scores highly on an assessment that tests at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, that student must have a similar level of understanding at the higher levels. Standardized tests are tied to state frameworks.  States use standardized tests to generate data that show how students perform on each of the standards.  For this reason, almost every question addresses one and only one standard.  Because the standards are broken down finely, a question that addresses only one standard will almost certainly require recall or understanding, and not any of the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  While a student with a high-level understanding of a subject can certainly answer low-level questions, the reverse is, of course, not necessarily true.
  3. If the students from a given school or district score highly on an assessment, then the school or district must also be living up equally well to its other responsibilities, and the test scores can therefore serve as a proxy for evaluating the school with respect to those other responsibilities.  Whether we believe this or not, most rankings and evaluations of schools and school districts are based solely on test scores.  Society tacitly assumes that a school with high test scores is a good school, and it therefore must be doing a good job with everything that schools do.
  4. If the students from a given school or district score poorly on an assessment, then the school must be doing a poor job of living up to its responsibilities. If this is the case, the cause must be that the teachers have too much academic freedom, and are spending too much class time on things that don’t matter.  Again, the tacit assumption is that a school with low test scores is a failing school, and it therefore must be doing a bad job with everything else that schools do.


The real difference between the high-performing vs. low-performing schools is usually that the effects of poverty make it impossible for students in low-performing schools to get as much out of their education as the students in high-performing schools.  My own experience bears this out—the second year that I taught AP Chemistry was in a very high-performing, high socioeconomic status (SES) town.  All of my students passed the AP exam, most with scores of 4 and 5.  If I had stood in front of the class and picked my nose all year, most of those students would have learned the content on their own and passed the exam anyway.  The following year, I was certainly a better AP teacher, and my students certainly got a better AP Chemistry class.  However, I was teaching in an average-performing school in a much lower SES city.  Approximately one-fourth of my students passed the AP exam, and those who passed earned a 3 or 4.

The “fix” that is often applied is to give teachers in low-performing schools scripted lessons from teachers in high-performing schools.  The problem is that the teachers in the high-performing schools are generally no more talented at teaching than the teachers in the low-performing schools.  (I have taught at high-, average-, and low-performing schools, and my observations support this claim.)  Moreover, lessons that are designed for students in high-SES districts generally do not work out-of-the-box for students in low-SES districts.  If the teacher is not permitted to modify the lessons to suit the students’ needs, the scripted lessons fail to improve the performance of students from low-performing schools.  When this happens, everyone assumes that the difference must be caused by the difference between the teachers.  The obvious conclusion is therefore to fire the teachers in the low-performing schools.  Unfortunately, not only does this not solve the problem, it results in the low-performing school having to hire new teachers, who actually are less talented at teaching, due to their lack of experience.  When the students fail to improve under the new teacher, the cycle repeats itself, again and again.

The problem of how to make education work for students living in poverty is pervasive, and any solution will need to be multi-faceted.  However, in the short term, if we give teachers in low-performing schools the freedom to teach students the way they need to be taught, we might at least stop losing so much ground.


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