I do not remember the name of the speaker at my doctoral graduation ceremony, but I do remember his message. He said, "You cannot make a cow fatter by weighing it." Perhaps because I grew up in farmland, his analogy for standardized testing, which had taken hold of the public school system as part of No Child Left Behind, resonated with me. "You cannot make children smarter by testing them." The statement, to me, is self-evident.
Unfortunately, since my graduation day, the field has gotten worse, not better. Testing permeates education, and students' performance on one-shot, high-stakes exams is now tied both to school funding and to teacher pay. Testing takes away from opportunities for creativity, and it causes stress for children, their families and their teachers. Though I am a fan of diagnostic assessment, where teachers determine what an individual child knows and considers how to help the child reach instructional goals, as I've written before, I do not like the current environment that over-inflates the usefulness of tests. In fact, I applaud my colleague and fellow New Jerseyan, Will Richardson, for choosing to opt his son out of state testing.
Though there are many issues, part of the problem with tying school and teacher performance to scores on standardized tests lies in the fact that schools (and teachers) are not the only influences on a child's education. Education involves parents, and unless we work diligently to fix societal issues that contribute to a child's success or failure, no education reform will succeed in its goals.
However, legislation that would tie student performance to welfare benefits, as proposed in Tennessee, is surely not the answer. We cannot make cows fatter by weighing them. We cannot make children smarter by testing them. And we cannot make families succeed through carrot and stick measures. Daniel Pink suggests that motivations are complex - and the research that he cites demonstrates that carrots and sticks do not work well for motivating creativity and critical thinking. His arguments have helped me to articulate why merit pay for teachers might not be effective, and the same is true for this new wave of reform that would attempt to hold parents (those who receive welfare) accountable for school performance.
It isn't clear to me what "school performance" entails in this case, but given the current environment I do not doubt that standardized test scores will be the dominant factor. Unfortunately, the logic is off. How can children do well in school when they are hungry? How can they perform better on tests when their home life is disrupted? How can a single mother who is trying to survive find more time to support her children and still be able to work in an attempt to overcome the need for welfare?
As is mentioned in the article, opponents of the bill in Tennessee explain that the legislation unfairly targets those struggling the most. And it is this inequality that lies at the heart of the problems in public education. The answers to the problem are complex, and I don't pretend to have a grand solution. I do know, however, that weighing the cows doesn't work. We need to provide the pasture that feeds them well. Creating that pasture is the real issue to be tackled. If only politicians would realize it.