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Slate on Fixing Education in America
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This is a nice follow-up to my last post. Slate has a piece today that outlines some fairly specific ways of improving education in America. The author starts out by saying No Child Left Behind shouldn't be scrapped, but overhauled, which sounds like what Barack Obama has in mind. But what about specifics?

On testing in particular, the author suggests a broader range of testing, but fewer overall tests. He says that NCLB tests relentlessly throughout elementary and middle school, mostly on math and reading, but some on science as students get into higher levels. The author suggests expanding the scope of testing to include history and social studies, but only testing students every 3-4 years.

On testing, he also says:

Many tests that are given further narrow the focus of education by relying on multiple-choice questions that reward memorization and regurgitation rather than analytical and creative thinking.

This guy is supposedly an education professor. Look, if you're not going to use multiple-choice tests, what are your alternatives? The more content you have students freely produce correlates with a massive increase in effort to evaluate that content. In other words, essays take a shitload longer to grade than multiple choice. And if you're talking about a nationwide test, you're talking about extremely long turnaround times on getting results back to schools, and huge increases in costs for grading those tests.

I'm not saying the investment shouldn't be made necessarily. But another issue is the old-style paper and pencil tests. Handwritten answers are even more difficult to read and evaluate. One mitigating solution is to administer all the tests on computers, but we're still a long way from being able to administer standardized tests to every kid in this country on a networked computer.

Then he says:

The second problem is that looking at just a sheet of test scores is a lousy way to judge school quality. Standardized test results tend to track socioeconomic status. As a teacher once remarked, the most accurate prediction you can make based on a student's test score is her parents' income.

So this wouldn't also be true of other forms of testing? Those poverty-stricken inner-city youths are going to flourish on essay tests while floundering on multiple choice? I don't think so. In general I like some of things this guy has to say, but some of it is just boneheaded.

He talks about instituting national standards for core subjects, using other criteria such as graduation rates and parent satisfaction along with test scores to rank schools, paying teachers more, creating more high-profile programs to lure qualified teachers out of college, and boosting pre-school programs.

In case you hadn't noticed, almost all that stuff costs money...a lot more money. According to this Wikipedia entry on last year's budget, about 3% of it was allocated to education spending. In other places, I've read that only about 10% of education expenses come from the Federal level, with the rest coming from state and local sources.

If we really want a more top-down approach to education in this country, we're either going to have to raise taxes, go further into debt, or cut into one of the other programs or spending areas. Even if we withdrew from Iraq next week, military spending isn't going to be drastically reduced overnight, and reallocation from other social programs is political disaster. Then again, so is raising taxes.

The less top-down approach would be to push in the direction of privatization and competition, but even the hard-core capitalist in me isn't sure he wants to see America's children educated by corporate America. And the cynic in me isn't sure anything significant will be done about education no matter who gets elected.

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