Monday, June 13, 2005

Hearing voices selectively

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, writes that minorities overwhelmingly support standardized testing. This in spite of perpetual educationist railing against such tests.

Likewise, African-Americans favor high-stakes tests by large margins. To be sure, activist groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have criticized NCLB and state graduation exams. But the black rank and file tell another story.

According to a 1998 survey by Public Agenda, nearly 8 of 10 African-American parents want schools to test children and publicize black-white achievement differences, just as NCLB requires.Only 28 percent say that standardized tests are "culturally biased" against black children, as critics often maintain. Many of these critics work at schools of education, where the standardized test serves as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American teaching.

According to the Ed-School Gospel, as I call it, schools should reflect student interests, not the sterile demands of "the curriculum"; they should employ a wide variety of classroom materials, not just the district-approved textbook; they should promote group learning and cooperation; and they should evaluate each student based on her or his own progress, not on district or statewide norms.

In every way, the argument goes, standardized testing harms these goals. It ignores the interests of the individual student; it promotes needless competition and anxiety; it turns learning into a lock-step exercise, inhibiting exploration and imagination; and it measures students against an arbitrary standard, ignoring their idiosyncratic abilities and attributes.
The great thinker himself -- an ardent advocate of democracy -- lost confidence in the people's ability to know what is good for them.

Unfortunately, we also have a rich tradition of ignoring popular sentiment. Even John Dewey, the greatest tribune of modern American democracy and education, questioned whether citizens should influence school policy. "Are the schools doing what the people want them to do?" he asked in 1901.

"The schools are not doing, and cannot do," he continued, "what the people want until there is more unity, more definiteness, in the community's consciousness of its own needs; but it is the business of the school to forward this conception."

In other words, educators should tell the people what they really need. That's fine, so long as we listen to them as well.
Educationists hear voices -- selectively.

Ed-school professors love to talk about "hearing the voices" of blacks and Hispanics, who are too often excluded from America's educational dialogues. But when minorities express an opinion that we don't like, we turn a deaf ear. That's a lousy model for education, and an even worse one for democracy.
Hat tip: Chris Correa.

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