Thoughts on education

(NB: This was originally a note on Facebook from last summer.)

I just finished rereading one of my favorite books – Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

That seems like an odd way to start a post on education, since the book is about Moses’s acquisition of power in New York City and the State of New York. Education is barely mentioned, and then only to discuss the schools that weren’t built while Moses was building roads, bridges, and parks. However, there is one striking parallel between Moses’s roadbuilding and modern American education.

The map of New York was irrevocably changed by Moses. He built bridges and roads to lessen the load on existing bridges and roads, then built more bridges and roads to lessen the loads on the ones he built, then built more bridges and roads…well, you get the idea. Everytime he built a new bridge or road, he promised it would reduce traffic on some other bridge or road. However, this never happened. A new bridge would open and almost immediately become clogged, but the bridge which was supposed to get relief never did. Traffic was now horrible on two bridges. So he’d build a third, which would promptly fill up; now there are three congested bridges and no relief. Moses remained convinced that one more bridge would always do the trick, and he used his power to make sure he could keep building those bridges – to the detriment of tunnels, subways, buses (he purposefully built some roads and bridges in such a way that buses could not run on them), railways, etc. His refusal to see anything wrong with a system that clearly did not work – indeed, one that made things worse – not only led to the metastisizing of that system, but also made it impossible for alternatives to develop or flourish.

Let’s take a look at high-stakes testing. Now, this is just me blowing off steam on Facebook, so I haven’t actually done anything real like looking at data, but anecdotally – I’ve been in the classroom since 1998. I’ve seen standards drop right and left as testing has become more important. Anyone else notice this? The oligarchs, anti-teacher types, and “we should run education like a business!” folks looooove tests as the arbiter of funding and status because they remove actual education from the equation. Test scores may go up and down, but I have seen nothing to indicate that learning is any better than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. In my darker, more conspiratorial moments, I believe this is a feature, not a bug. Public education was the great equalizer, and if there’s one thing oligarchs hate, it’s an equalizer.

And so, like Robert Moses with bridges and roads, the all-testing-all-the-time types shut down other means of education reform, tie teacher pay and school support to test scores and not to learning, and use the force of funding and law to make sure a non-testing-based approach to school quality assessment never has a chance to develop, all the while piling more and more tests and clogging up the system further. This system cannot long endure.




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