In which I differ with a friend

My longtime friend Checker Finn wrote a critique of Randi Weingarten's inaugural speech as President of the American Federation of Teachers. Checker chastised her for endorsing the idea that schools should help the neediest kids by offering health services and social services in addition to their customary academic fare. Checker notes, rightly, that Randi's vision echoes the manifesto of the "Broader, Bolder Approach."

Checker warns that this means that Weingarten and people like me are "abandoning hope for schools that significantly boost student achievement" just at the time that more states are reporting "stronger test scores" in reading and math. He labels ours a call for "schools that do everything but teach."

I couldn't disagree more. I care as much about academic achievement as Checker or anyone else in the world, but I don't see any contradiction between caring about academic achievement and caring about children's health and well-being. Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--most especially children who are living in poverty--if they have access to good pre-K programs? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--most especially the neediest children--if they have access to good medical care, with dental treatment, vision screening, and the like? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--the children whose lives are blighted by the burdens of poverty--to have access to high-quality after-school programs?

Checker argues that the "‘broader, bolder' crowd" (me, Weingarten, Tom Payzant, Richard Rothstein, Marshall Smith, etc.) are making an awful mistake because schools can do only one thing at a time--and they must focus on academics first. To the extent that they worry about character, social development, and physical health, he says, they lose that focus and abandon their pursuit of academic achievement. Hmm. Checker, wasn't it Secretary of Education Bill Bennett who said that "character, content, and choice" should be the three C's of American education? Was he wrong then? Should he have stuck with the three R's instead?

Surprisingly, Checker points to gains on state tests as proof that the strategy of standards & assessments & accountability is working. Surprising because it is Checker's organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (I sit on its board), that published The Proficiency Illusion, which showed how phony many of the states' definitions of "proficiency" actually are, as compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last fall, for example, NAEP reported that New York State had made no gains in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, or eighth-grade math, yet half a year later, New York reported that its own tests showed yet another round of dramatic gains in reading and math in almost every grade. Which shall we believe? NAEP or the states' self-reporting, the numbers from which soar towards 100 percent proficiency by 2014?

To make matters even more confusing to this reader, Checker notes that even as test scores are rising (even as we neglect poor children's health and well-being), "America's standing on international comparisons continues to sag and employers despair over their inability to find adequately skilled and knowledgeable workers for our faltering economy." It would take lots of time to unpack this illogical finding. If test scores are steadily rising, why do our standings in international comparisons continue to sag? If the schools are getting better and better just because of their testing regime, why are employers despairing?

Here is a clue: On July 20th, the Dallas Morning News reported that students in Texas are sailing through the high school language arts tests but can't write a coherent answer to a short-response question. Years of testing have prepared them to fill in the right bubble, but they cannot write a sensible sentence.

Checker, I ask you: Is this the kind of "academic achievement" that you find satisfactory? Is this what American employers are hoping for? Is this the performance that will raise our standing in the international league tables? I don't think so.

So, I explain my dissent briefly: One, what we are doing now--the standards & assessments & accountability strategy alone--bears little or no resemblance to genuine academic excellence. And two, children who come to school hungry and ill cannot learn no matter how often they are tested. And three, a good education must include attention not only to academics but to children's character, civic development, physical education, and physical health.

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