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IN THE POWER OF TESTING! David Brooks believes in tests. But how much does he know about schools? // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18, 2009

The Gaels and the French and the jam and the carrot: As she opens this morning’s column, Maureen Dowd has Barack Obama speaking “a bit of Gaelic.” Before long, though, we see Andrew Cuomo borrowing from the French:

DOWD (3/18/09): There’s a thing in the law called force majeure,” Cuomo said. “That means there’s a different force at work and we’re not in a position to honor the original term of the contract.”

If we may borrow in turn from Steve Martin: “Those French! They have a different word for everything!” (The paragraph we cite is from Dowd’s hard-copy column.)

Dowd, of course, is writing about the bonuses at AIG. But along the way, she showed her skill with a third language—upper-end journalese:

DOWD: At first, on the nutty bonuses, Team Obama thought it could get away with the same absurd argument used to justify the nearly $8 billion in unnecessary earmarks it allowed Congress to jam into this year’s overdue spending bill: It was written last year; we’re just signing off on it; we’ll do better in the future.

Poor Dowd! She’d been “off,” and hadn’t had a chance to complain about the earmarks Congress jammed into that bill. Like all languages, journalese is acquired through repetition. Dowd rattled one there for the team.

(“Unnecessary” earmarks? Quick translation: Dowd doesn’t live near a pig farm!)

Many languages marble through this morning’s fist-waving column. But Dowd’s first love is for We Irish. As it turns out, the president isn’t quite Irish enough, unlike the columnist’s dad:

DOWD: Mr. Obama is still having trouble summoning a suitable flash of Irish temper at the gall of the corrupt money magicians who continue to make our greenbacks disappear into their bottomless well. He’s got to lop off some heads.

As he watches the fury of ordinary Americans bubble up at those who continue to plunder our economy, he should keep in mind one of my dad’s favorite Gaelic sayings: “Never bolt the door with a boiled carrot.”

Good advice! As we see in that example, no one reasons quite so clearly as Dowd’s Gaelic, non-journalist clan.

We were struck by one last passage, though we can’t make it fit our theme:

DOWD: Geithner, who comes from the cozy Wall Street club, and Liddy believe it’s best to stabilize the company and keep on board the same people who invented the risky financial tactics so they can unwind their own rotten spool.

Isn’t that like giving bonuses to the arsonists who started a fire because they alone know what kind of accelerants they used to start it?

Set aside your views about Geithner. Does this scribe know a bit too much about the way people start fires?

For those who prefer their hypocrisy themes: Reciting from upper-end press corps scripts, Dowd complains when phony Obama recites from a teleprompter. (See Dowd’s opening graf.)

Special report: David Brooks believes!

PART 2—IN THE POWER OF TESTING: Big pundits sometimes tend toward omniscience when they discuss public schools. In last Friday’s column, David Brooks surrendered to this impulse as he rated the various parts of Obama’s education agenda:

BROOKS (3/10/09): The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Assume Obama’s agenda is enacted. How does Brooks know that merit pay and teacher dismissal will turn out to be more important than early education provisions? We don’t have the slightest idea—and the omniscient rarely explain.

At any rate, Brooks believes in merit pay—not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s possible that some form of merit may might turn out to be helpful somewhere—but there are certain obvious problems with such proposals too. One of the major possible problems involves the possible use of test scores in determining teacher pay. But then, David Brooks believes in the power of testing. Despite his apparent omniscience, he doesn’t seem to have heard about one problem which lurks in some uses of tests.

Brooks believes in the power of testing—not that there’s anything wrong with it. We believe in annual testing ourselves; indeed, such testing was already the norm when we taught our first fifth-grade class, in 1969-70, here in Baltimore. (In those days, every Baltimore student took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a widely-used set of standardized tests. The ITBS came with detailed technical manuals, unlike today’s statewide tests.) Absent some sort of annual test, big school systems can tell you anything about the spectacular state of their progress—and some big schools systems surely will. Tests can be put to unfortunate uses. But we can’t imagine running a major school system without them.

But Brooks doesn’t just believe in tests—David Brook really believes. That said, it doesn’t take long before he makes some odd remarks about testing—the type of remarks big pundits make when they may not really understand schools. In our view, Brooks is smarter than most major pundits. But sorry—this doesn’t make sense:

BROOKS: New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later—a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.

Sorry—that’s just strange. Who wouldn’t have guessed that “progress on tests between the third and eighth grades” would correlate with high school graduation, four years later? Who did Brooks think was likely to graduate—the kids who kept going downhill on tests from the third grade through the eighth? And Brooks isn’t content, in this slightly odd passage, to gape slack-jawed at a correlation any eighth-grader could have predicted. It’s also strange to see him declare that the predictive power of Klein’s data represents “a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments” (these tests). In reality, those assessments only become important if they somehow help teachers know how to reverse the decline of the kids who seem to be failing. Do Klein’s assessments do that? The answer is far from obvious, but there’s no sign it occurred to Brooks to ask. But so it sometimes tends to go when pundits proclaim about schools.

Indeed, Brooks’ odd statements about Klein’s data run a bit deeper than we have shown. As this longer passage shows, Brooks seems to think that these miracle tests are something we have only now— “today.” As Brooks explains what “today’s tests” can do, experienced teachers, slightly embarrassed, will look off, averting their gaze:

BROOKS: Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later—a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.

Today, “tests can tell you which students are on track?” “Which teachers are bringing achievement up by two grades?” Did we mention the fact that we administered the Iowa Tests to Baltimore kids in April 1970? Sorry, but those tests were really quite good at “telling you which students are on track.” Are Klein’s tests more powerful in some way? We doubt it, but there’s little chance that Brooks knows the answer to that.

Uh-oh! Unless we’re grading on the curve, we’d have to say Brooks is floundering here; his column just isn’t on track. And as he continues, a mustachio-twirling demon of a familiar old story appears. That demon is the evasive, unhelpful “education establishment,” of course. (As Brooks closes, “liberal orthodoxy on school reform” presents as a demon too.) We’ll only review the scribe’s first complaint, leaving more for tomorrow:

BROOKS (continuing directly): The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.

Earlier, Brooks praised “merit pay for good teachers.” Here, he complains that his demon—the education establishment—is refusing to use today’s wondrous new data to “reward good teachers” this way.

For ourselves, we have no huge view about merit pay. But we do understand that there are a few down-sides to this ballyhooed “reform” idea. Brooks believes in the power of tests. But he doesn’t seem to know about the possible problem we will now reveal:

Many “reformers” are now suggesting use of test scores to help determine teacher pay. Conventional experts tend to agree, before they knock off for their three-hour luncheons; for that reason, major pundits tend to swear by this widely-affirmed idea. One example of such a proposal: In Washington, new superintendent Michelle Rhee has proposed paying truly big bucks to teacher who give up tenure and produce good results in the classroom. In this recent news report, Bill Turque cited Rhee’s “plan to pay teachers as much as $135,000 a year in salaries and bonuses.”

This isn’t about Michelle Rhee; her proposal may turn out to be well-crafted. But we’ll now ask a question Brooks didn’t offer: Do you know how much some teachers will cheat to snag a high salary like that? Do you realize how worthless “today’s tests” will be, if teachers engage in this cheating? And yes, we ask about “cheating” here, not about “teaching to the test.”

“Today, tests can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year?” That’s only true if the tests are administered in an appropriate manner. But those tests are normally administered by classroom teachers—by the very people who will get that large pay if the results are strong enough. And yes, some teachers will cheat their keisters off to earn $135,000.

Yes, Virginia (and we’ll get to that state on Friday): For decades, teachers and principals have frequently cheated when pressure is put on these testing programs. (For a recent, front-page example, click here.) This has been recorded again and again, but experts and journalists rarely seem to incorporate this into their world view. We’re always struck by the omission when experts and journalists discuss merit pay without discussing this obvious problem. As the piles of money at stake grow larger, the obvious hole in such discussions becomes more remarkable still.

Brooks believes in merit pay, which is fine with us; we would assume that some such plan could be constructive in some situations. He seems to believe in the power of testing, quite deeply—but he doesn’t seem to know about the pitfalls which sometimes lurk. In his column, Brooks praises Obama, who “has broken with liberal orthodoxy on school reform.” Obama “will build on a Bush program that gives states money for merit pay so long as they measure teachers based on real results,” Brooks exclaims, believing truly. Does he know that teacher cheating is one way those results get unreal?

Sorry—we hate to ruin a novel. But it’s crazy to talk about basing huge salaries on test results—if the teachers who give those tests are the people who end up getting those salaries. We’ll assume this thought would occur to most teachers; this may explain why some demons in the “education establishment” aren’t quite as high on merit pay as Brooks’ “reformer” luncheon guests. Any teacher could spot the shape of this problem. Routinely, the omniscient do not.

Brooks believes in “reform”—in the power of tests. Truly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But reading his column, a question came to mind: How much does he know about schools?

Tomorrow—part 3: In “higher standards”