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They’ve got their talking points. Where are ours?

Those who control the conversation call the shots

I recently listened to a call-in show on a local National Public Radio station. The head of the state’s board of education was interviewed about the recent standardized test scores in her state. Two teachers called in. Here’s my takeaway from the conversation (somewhat out of context, but the words are accurate):

Board head: “The results from the new assessments will give educators, parents, policy makers and the public a more realistic picture of where students are in this pathway to becoming college and career ready.”

First call-in teacher: “On the second day of the English test some of my top students, kids who scored fours in previous years, were not able to complete this test. My kids were weeping.”

Head: “First of all, the highlighting of the testing in terms of what’s been going on in the press, in terms of what parents are reading in the local newspapers, I think that added to the stress. Additionally, I think teachers were well aware that this was the first year in (my state) where student test scores were going to be used as a barometer of teacher performance. I think all of those factors have added to an unusually stressful situation.”

Second call-in teacher: “We can make our own exams. We don’t need another metric. All the professional development will be about how to pass the tests and how to raise scores.”

Head: “Two years ago the state announced a shift to the Common Core. In some districts there has been a magnificent amount of capacity building around professional development to teach to the Common Core. Other districts not so much. As we go forward here, I’d like to remind your listeners that (my state) spends over $1 billion a year toward professional development. We need to raise standards because…”

And so on.

This was not a fair fight. The head of the board of education was prepared with her talking points and she calmly and clearly stated them again and again. The teachers were speaking personally and anecdotally about students in their classrooms. I’ll bet no minds were changed after that segment.

We can yell all we want but we can’t hear one another.

Civil discourse around educational issues has become impossible because we are speaking to two different audiences about two different subjects. Sir Ken Robinson, in his spot-on 2006 TED Talk (“How Schools Kill Creativity”), begins by asking about being invited to dinner parties. “Oh,” he says, “Teachers don’t ever get invited to dinner parties, do you?”

The people who determine educational policy have a particular mind set. They seldom interact with those who spend their time in schools. And most educators seldom get to hang out with those who set educational policy today.

Being heard

So we need our own set of talking points, whether we’re on a call-in show or invited to one of those fancy cocktail parties. But here’s the key: We need to agree to use them. How about these for a start:

  • There are more important uses for the money we spend on testing. One state will be spending between $32 million and $64 million over five years to develop just the math and ELA exams. Aren’t there more effective uses of that money? The company that designed those exams made close to $800 million in 2011 from its North American education division. Couldn’t we spend that money on better breakfasts, more books in our libraries, or field trips for kids to learn firsthand about the rest of the world?
  • Poverty, not testing, is what we should focus on. If we begin to educate our 4-year-olds, the additional cost to states and the federal government, combined, would be somewhere between $10-15 billion per year. Let’s put the test prep money—the cost of creating, administering, and assessing the tests, and buying the connected textbooks—into universal pre-K. Overcoming poverty will increase opportunity.
  • There are better ways to spend students’ time. What else could students be learning in the time it takes to be tested? Art? Music? Drama? Science? Last year, students in grades three through six in one state spent a total of 250 minutes, over five days, taking their ELA and math tests. That is 50 minutes a day, on average. This year, students will spend a total of 540 minutes over six days—90 minutes a day, on average. (Source: New York State Education Department, Memorandum from Ken Slentz, Deputy Commissioner, NYSED, December 2011)
  • There are many ways to assess mastery of a standard. If a student can demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a concept, why must she be held to one example? Can’t surgeons practice hip replacement in several approved ways? Can a web designer exhibit understanding by creating several iterations of an idea? Does every opera singer, artist, and writer produce the same work? When do we get to assess what kids do know instead of what they don’t?

It’s time we learned that education is politics. If we’re not in it to win it, we’ll never again see public education as the hallmark of our democracy.

Nancy Letts is the executive producer of “Going Public,” a documentary about the privatization of public education. She also consults with school districts, professional organizations, and public sector agencies throughout the United States, Asia, and Australia.