High Stakes Testing vs. The Barber Shop

In the novel I’m reading*, an Italian barber boasts that, “I get the flower of men’s thoughts, because I seize them in the first moment after shaving.”   His shop, he tells his customer, is a “haunt of the Muses, as you will acknowledge when you feel the sudden illumination of understanding and the serene vigour of inspiration that will come to you with a clear chin.”  The barber shop doubles as a spa of the intellect, where people’s minds are refreshed and revived.

This barber is a kind of intellectual midwife – he doesn’t do anything to anybody’s mind; he just opens up some space for it to do its thing. Then, he watches and listens, moved and inspired to be in the presence of thoughts coming into the world.  It doesn’t matter to him at all what the thoughts are; it is the energy of the new idea that is so magical.  As a teacher, I relate to this wonder at the birth of a new thought.  I am less concerned with what students are thinking and much more with creating a space where they can think, want to think, and where their thinking grows and flourishes.

I read this  barber shop scene last night after coming out of a forum on testing, where teachers and parents came together to testify to the toll of frequent high-stakes testing on kids (see the video of  Madeline Kobayashi in the blog post  linked below for a vivid description of kids under the stress of a high-stakes test) — and to organize for change.  For, unlike the energizing space that the novel’s barber shop provides for its city’s thinkers, the testing-room is for many students a place of bewilderment, defeat, and demeaning disregard for who they are, what they know, what they care about.

When a test is integrated into curriculum and serves precise educational goals efficiently, it is useful and meaningful.  As a colleague responded when I asked about assessment in her English classes at Francis Parker School:

I ask myself: What’s going to be useful in the world they are inheriting, and that leads me to: Exposing them to multiple perspectives as readers, then supporting them as thinkers, speakers, and writers to bring forward their thinking in diverse contexts for a diverse audience. So I assess on the basis of clarity and polish and thoughtfulness of expression so that they may gain an audience as speakers or writers, and I assess on the basis on whether or not they have cast their language and their writing in a way that will gain the audience they seek and deserve.

Assessment that respects students’ and teachers’ intelligence is a vital part of education. (Click here for research, methods, and other resources for authentic assessment.)

However, if tests are repeated to an excessive degree (12 standardized tests for kindergartners! Tests for preschoolers!  Up to 30 class sessions spent on testing!), and loaded with huge consequences (most disastrously, school closings), they are unconscionably damaging.  And clearly a result of incompetent, unorganized, inefficient leadership.  A well-coordinated and well-planned system of assessment would not be experienced by thousands of students and teachers as “out of control” (one teacher calculated that one of the twelve tests that teachers had to copy and administer over the course of the year was 68,000 pages.  That’s at one school).  It’s time to test the testers: Chicago school communities are not seeing evidence of clear thinking on the part of CPS decision makers.

 For another blogger’s account of the forum, click here.

*George Eliot’s Romola


Warped policy: notes on Counts’ critical analysis of school board composition

“To a degree and in a fashion seldom grasped, the content, spirit, and purpose of public education must reflect the bias, the limitations, and the experience of the membership of this board.”

— George Counts

 As I watch the campaign build for an elected school board in Chicago, I am thinking about the questions raised in George Counts’ 1927 monograph, “The Social Composition of School Boards.”   Counts argues that education for democracy is threatened by the fact that school boards, by and large composed of the dominant social classes in America, don’t represent the interests or the capacities of people in the public schools.  I am not sure why I am so surprised by the relevance of Counts’ analysis to education policy today.

Counts’ study of school board demographics and bylaws in districts across the United States, rural and urban, county and city, is driven by the questions: “Who are the men and women composing the boards that control public education in the United States?”  “What is the probability that they will support a type of education which seeks to make the coming generation genuinely intelligent about the present complex civilization and its numerous problems?”

Counts finds that the vast majority of school board members are high-income men – he cites chancellors’ job descriptions of school boards, noting that women and “unsuccessful” men are explicitly excluded, as well as the “uneducated.”  Seeing this term used to harden social boundaries made me rethink the label ‘uneducated’ — used with the same tone of denigration today that it was 90 years ago by chancellors who made sure people who hadn’t gone to university had no place at the table of education policy.  But the term suggests a deficiency in the individual, when the attention instead should be on the conditions – more specifically, the people and interests — that keep a person from being educated.

“The outstanding conclusion to be drawn from this study of the occupations of the members of boards of education is that the control of education and the formulation of educational policy are intrusted very largely to representatives of the more favored classes.”  So far nothing new.  But Counts goes on to name a democratic principle that now as then is seldom considered: people of one class are ill-suited to represent people of another class: “The argument may be advanced that these board members, though drawn from a restricted class will, because of the superior educational opportunities which they have enjoyed, rise above a narrow loyalty to their own group and formulate education policies in terms of the common interest.  We all wish that this were so, but there is little evidence from the human past to support it.  The rare individual will strive earnestly to have regard for the best interests of all classes, but no one can transcend the limits set by his own experience.  The best of us are warped and biased by the very processes of living.”  Laid out this way, I become uncomfortably aware of an assumption I make that education, experience, and professional duty enable an upper-class person – such as a member of our current Chicago Public Schools Board – to advocate for the best education for lower-income students.

My assumption is based in large part on my value for higher education.  But Counts addresses this bias in a way that I find compelling: “if intelligent men and women can be found in the community who have not attended college or even the secondary school, they might be expected to bring to the deliberations on educational policy a certain freshness of point of view which would be helpful.  When all the members of the board are to a large degree products of the same educational system, they are likely to manifest a uniformity of outlook which will make difficult the adjustment of the procedures of the schools to the changing needs of society.”  Why do I imagine that people who have had access to higher education are best prepared to make policies that impact access to higher education?  Won’t people who haven’t had such access be more invested, focused, and knowledgeable about what limits and what enables access to higher education?

Counts’ monograph strengthens my commitment to working for an elected school board in Chicago – but it also compels me to work for equitable representation on the school board.   People who have been denied quality education are the ones who we most need to lead the fight for quality education for all.