It’s hard not be cynical about the consultant-driven adjunct of the tech industry we call "education" in this country.
Like most lines of business these days, education is bad news for everyone involved. Its employees are not always paid especially well. Its clients, so to speak, are getting almost nothing for their money, unless being able to brag about how proficient their offspring have become at filling in bubble sheets that will be assessed by a robot is evidence of "learning."
Few things are more dispiriting than the fact that the national conversation we are having right now about the remuneration of teachers can be reduced to the the performance of the children under their care on an absurd alphabet-soup series of standardized tests. The venerable trio of reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic has been replaced by compliance with the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assesment Program), OAT (Ohio Achievement Test), SC PASS (South Carolina Statewide Assessment Program), and — for real — NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program). The names themselves are an obstacle to literacy.
Never mind the fact that decades of research have shown that tests designed by upper-middle-class white adults in order to demonstrate the brilliance of upper-middle-class white children in whose flourishing they have a vested interest tends to show minorities and lower-income Americans performing poorly by comparison. It is difficult to see how even the proposed alternatives to our standardized testing regime have to do with the real business of educating young people. To say, as the president of something called the New York Performance Standards Consortium does, that "proven practitioner-developed, student-focused performance assessments" are better than whatever the professional pedagogues have come up with is to miss the point entirely. To devise a test or an "assessment" that reduces the achievement of a student to a data point that can be incorporated into a graph and, eventually, a study is impossible.
The truth is that something as extraordinary as the education of children can never be measured. There is no quantitative assessment that can evaluate what it means for a very small person to read for the first time. Nor is it possible to say that a teacher who devotes all of his or her time to ensuring that students perform optimally on a state-mandated examination has done a better job, and is therefore deserving of greater remuneration, than a single kindergarten instructor who has made it possible for even one student who was previously unable to count to 10 to do so. There are hundreds of moments I spent in a classroom between the ages of 8 and 11 being encouraged by sympathetic adults, who cared about things like my favorite scenes in The Three Musketeers and whether I thought lavender was a beautiful color, that I would not trade for a perfect SAT score or a job making eight figures at the nation’s most prestigious corporations.
I am very lucky to have been born in the post-Boomer twilight of the ’90s, after the obsession with standardized testing had spread to the powerful and the great but before a generation of educators had been trained to regard it as anything but a moronic bureaucratic fad. "The MEAP test is a test that show will your parents and the people in Lansing how good you are at taking the MEAP test" is how it was explained to me by my aging hippie teachers in fourth grade. The inculcation of cynicism toward the schemes proposed for my improvement by those with wealth and authority has been as valuable to me as anything I have ever been taught in my life.
We need to take a more old-fashioned and romantic view of education. Teaching should be considered a vocation rather than a job. Most Americans who are not management consultants or tax attorneys could do with a raise; teachers deserve one not because they have charts showing that their students have "met" the ludicrous standards imposed by a state governing authority that has paid out hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in consulting fees over the last decade, but because they deserve a living like anyone else for their work, which, in the right places at the right time, really does change lives forever. Hold "school" outside whenever possible. Teach jazz and poetry and the names of the flowers. Put a compost heap behind the building and ask different students to take turns dumping their lunches into it. Sing songs and have an annual day where third-graders go to school in their pajamas and do nothing but read books of their choice. Make students learn cursive and Latin and the rudiments of Anglo-Saxon prosody and other things that they will spend the rest of their lives being told are absurd. Listen to teachers when they say that the surfeit of technology at home and in the classroom is doing young people very little good.
Ignore the alphabet soup tests.