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ARE WE RUSHING “RACE TO THE TOP”?: A Math Teacher’s Perspective
Every election cycle, presidential candidates offer the same promise to fix our educational system here in the United States. Our nation seems to be losing its edge in the changing global economy. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science School Study (TIMSS), U.S. math proficiency falls below many other countries. The results of this study have been the carrot (or stick, depending how you look at it) for making education top priority in this country. The question is whether we can achieve math success by inducing a fear of numbers through an unending regiment of legislated testing. Principals and superintendents in the Westchester area have expressed concern with the growing reliance on standardized tests as a measure of the success or failure of students, the success or failure of teachers, and the success or failure of schools.
What we have here is a failure to teach math.
Teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance on math assessments, but these tests measure only a student’s ability to memorize discrete, often unrelated, “info-packets.” Students are deprived of a more holistic, cumulative approach to critical reasoning. “When incentives encourage teachers to focus narrowly on the material included on a particular test, . . . understanding of the untested portion of the content standards may stay the same or decrease.” (Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, National Resource Council of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2011.) In other words, the students miss the forest for the trees.
Government initiatives should improve graduation rates and readiness for college, right? You decide.
“No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” were instituted to improve “student outcomes,” the former through testing, the latter through school choice. Unfortunately, “test-based incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement.” (The National Academies, Press Release, May 26, 2011,) Similarly, the push for charter schools has not produced any noteworthy results. Like public schools in general, some charter schools excel and others perform poorly. (See The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts, Final Report, June 2010, U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan, Secretary.)
The pit and pendulum of education policy.
Fourteen years ago, I was a member of my superintendent’s task force on math achievement. Our charge was clear: explore creative ways to improve the quality of learning. Professional development emphasized drawing students into the language and art of mathematics. However, after the popularity of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the policy pendulum swung away from alternate assessments driven by learning styles to the current one-size-fits-all emphasis on skills crunching and test sophistication. Teachers hesitated to experiment lest their interim assessment results lagged behind those of their colleagues who remained “on track” with the instructional itinerary.
While there is definitely a role for common assessments, there is no consensus on what the results really mean and what to do with them. Data dashboards with unknown standard deviations have become the measure of a teacher’s success—as if producing well-informed graduates is comparable to churning out “widgets.” Minimum benchmarks for teacher effectiveness have paradoxically become maximum standards for student achievement. Teachers fear pushing their students beyond the scope and sequence of what is tested by the state.
There is hope, however. There is now a call among academics for relevant and meaningful curricula. Parents recognize that time spent on test preparation is time lost on instruction. Although I still hear euphemisms like “data-driven instruction” and “student outcomes,” I believe the pendulum may be swinging back to a focus on contextual analysis rather than rote mechanics. Maybe we will return to brainstorming the best practices for teaching mathematics rather than the best practices for “teaching to the test.”
Steve Brunnlehrman, B.A, Harvard, J.D, Fordham University School of Law, has New York State permanent certification in math, grades 7—12. He has been a classroom teacher for 14 years.