Friday, January 18, 2013

Are South Bend Schools Up For Auction?

In a stunning case of burying the lead, The South Bend Tribune slid the following little gem into the 4th and 5th paragraphs of a recent story mostly about the election of officers to the South Bend Community School Corporation Board of Trustees.

After two years in the position, outgoing board President Roger Parent said last week he was ready to turn over the reins to someone else. 
Parent said he wants time to focus on big-ticket issues, such as potentially hiring an outside provider to run low-performing schools in South Bend.   (emphasis mine)
I've been told the Board has not discussed this at all, but in any case, following a course of action like this would be a pretty big deal and very controversial.  Just what local media thrives upon.

( I've written the other Board members for reactions and  I'll include any I get in a later post.)

So did the Tribune dig into this?  Heck no!  Apparently the editors felt it more important to re-hash the events leading up to and including the censure of Trustee Bill Snaidecki - something they've done three to five times already.

As I've mentioned previously, Parent is something of a loose cannon, but he should not be dismissed.  He has well established connections and is fully confident of his own vision and wisdom.  If he has in mind to do this, he will certainly put significant effort into it.

My late father gave me several valuable pieces of advice when I was growing up.  One of the most useful was, whenever possible learn from the mistakes of others.  In this case Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, and many other communities have walked down this road already.  So we know what we can expect.

But let's back up a bit.  It's important to remember that tactics like hiring private management companies are a response to a defective assumption that standardized test scores are the end-all, be-all measurement of student proficiency.  The trouble is, there is no such magic stick.

For the most part, tests were designed to evaluate progress in individual students so that teachers would know what needed more emphasis in that child's learning process.  Sure, there were always some high stakes tests: the SAT, ACT, LSAT, PSAT, etc., etc. - but these tests began late in a High School Career.

Someone, somehow got the idea that we should start using these throughout a student's career (there are pre-school admission tests now for cryin' out loud) - and the stakes are high not only for the student, but even the teacher, the Principal, the district...  It's nuts.

We all agree (I think) that every child is entitled to a good education.  Our goal as a society is to provide that.  Some of us think that the goal lies even beyond that:  We think that a good education is a strategy towards the goal of every citizen having a satisfying life.

But those things are hard to measure, so some folks have come up with test scores to serve as a proxy.  As a result, we have become dedicated to working towards the proxy instead of the actual goal.  But there's the rub - in many ways the two things are mutually exclusive.

The good education/satisfying life approach is collaborative.  Creativity is critical.  Exposure to all sorts of diverse learning and participation increase the likelihood that even a challenged student can find something that lights her up.  Critical thinking and sound argumentation are important skills.

The high stakes testing approach is competitive.  Conformity is encouraged.  Subject matter which does not directly serve the Testing God is a luxury - either held out as a reward for test mastery, or discarded entirely.  At a local Intermediate Center, students are pre-tested every three weeks for 90 minutes, in service to the once a year ISTEP.  Imagine the opportunity lost for real human growth.  Imagine the minor damage done to these young souls each time faced with the same drudgery.

This contradiction was recently noted by education writer Anthony Cody:

Last week there were two important studies released. One tells us that the international test data used to declare our schools broken and uncompetitive is bogus. The other tells us we have a very different crisis we should be concerned about: the percent of students who are engaged and excited about school drops dramatically between elementary and high school. The policies being pursued to fight the first, phony crisis are likely to be making our real problem of declining student engagement worse.

So bad strategies lead to bad results.  In the next installment, we'll look at how bad we're talking about.

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