Analysis: The Principals' Revolt is Good for Education

Passing a multiple choice test doesn’t establish definitively whether or not a boy or girl is learning.

School principals throughout the state are in revolt against the State Department of Education for imposing a system that is supposed to guarantee reliable testing for students. The leaders of the principals’ rebellion charge that the system doesn’t actually accomplish that. Instead, it degrades the educators in our schools.

One principal, Bernard Kaplan, of Great Neck North High School on Long Island, told me: “It’s stupid. It makes no sense.”

Kaplan told the The New York Times: “It’s education by humiliation. I’ve never seen teachers and principals so degraded.”

The Times says: “President Obama and his signature education program, Race to the Top, along with John B. King Jr., the New York State Commissioner of education, deserve credit for spurring what is believed to be the first principals’ revolt in history.”

A total of 658 principals around the state signed a letter denouncing the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers’ and principals’ performance.

The letter from the principals focuses attention again on the practice of teaching to the test. As various educational scholars have pointed out, this action diminishes whatever value a test can have. The teachers have been encouraged to give away the questions and answers on past exams -- to raise student test scores and thereby improve their own standing and that of their principal.

It’s a sick way to make the system better. It results in a kind of corruption of the values that should be most important in education. Passing a multiple choice test doesn’t establish definitively whether or not a boy or girl is learning.

Indeed, the increased use of testing in our public schools has created what amounts to a scandal. The testing companies charge for their services and it costs the educational system big bucks. We’ve created a new group of entrepreneurs who devise exams for our young people and charge plenty for their services. This money would be better spent for more individual instruction in our schools. Basically the finest education comes from the direct contact between teacher and pupil. As the years pass, do we remember our exams or our fine teachers?

The Times reported that “an unusually large number of students have obtained exactly the minimum score needed to pass the exams, which are required for graduation and are often graded by students’ own teachers.” On a recent algebra exam 8,451 students in New York got grades of exactly 65. This has to make one wonder. If you think it’s likely that a large number of students get exactly the passing grade, 65, maybe you’d be interested in buying a bridge.

The principals’ letter made it clear that, when teachers zero in on end-of-year testing, “there inevitably will be a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers focus more on test preparation and skill and drill teaching. Enrichment activities in the arts, music, civics and other non-tested areas will diminish.”

It’s sad that we don’t seem to be getting nearer to actually confronting our basic educational issues. While some people, including Mayor Bloomberg, seem to think that children can be evaluated by feeding numbers into a machine, the sad fact is that this isn’t so. Education involves flesh and blood teachers -- and parents as well as principals.

The great need is to devise a system where all the factors that go into educating a human being are in harmony and numbers count less than the zeal and warmth -- and relationship of teachers and students.

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