Last week, a very distinguished panel convened by the National Research Council published an Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia. The report is 341 pages long and cost millions of dollars to produce. What’s most impressive about this Evaluation is how very far removed from reality it is.
The experts who contributed to the analysis relied principally on data sets that covered the city’s DC-CAS standardized tests, the NAEP nationwide standardized tests, and the local teacher evaluation model called IMPACT. They also considered other data such as graduation rates, attendance, dismissal, and teacher retention. The third of three major recommendations from this Evaluation cannot be denied: the school system needs to address the so-called “achievement gap,” which—as noted elsewhere—has been greatly exacerbated since “school reform” came to the District in 2007.
What are recommendations one and two? The first is to create “a comprehensive data warehouse.” The second is to pay for ongoing independent evaluation of this data. Really.
The purpose of this column is not to criticize the National Research Council’s Evaluation. To be fair, the Council did what it was asked to do. The problem is not this particular study; it is how this Evaluation perfectly illustrates the way our nation’s education debate has become a shipwreck, adrift in a sea of numbers. In search of objective “metrics,” education experts have lost sight of the purpose of public education: to provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life.
To compile a real evaluation of the District’s public schools, one needs to interview teachers who have served long enough to remember what the school system was like before the mayoral takeover of 2007. (Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of experienced teachers have been driven out of D.C.’s high poverty schools, and those few who are left insist on anonymity because truthful testimony would surely get them fired.) But here is what they would tell you:
(Thanks to a half-dozen current and recently-retired DCPS teachers for the information above.)
How can any objective group evaluate a school system and miss all these crucial facts? By focusing on “data”! When dealing with the behavior of human beings, only the tiniest slice of useful information can be quantified. In real life, almost everything about humans is too complex to be reduced to averages. The testing/data mania in education is not only failing to measure how well schools are serving their students, it is acting as a smokescreen that covers up the real problems in public education.
America needs public schools that focus on offering every child his or her best opportunity to learn. To accomplish that, we have to recognize there are no standardized children; every single child has different strengths and weaknesses. That’s why all our schools—and especially high-poverty neighborhood schools—must offer a complete curriculum provided by professional teachers who have the training to give the individualized attention every child needs. We’re not doing that in the District of Columbia—we’re doing the opposite! And D.C. is not unusual. By making “data” the be-all and end-all of evaluation, we are failing our nation’s children and damaging our nation’s future.