My dinner with John Merrow…

This is John’s note, and you can try to guess which “guest” is me!
“If YOU had the power to make ONE major change in American public education immediately, what would you choose to do?”
I posed the question to my dinner companions, three authors and one editor. But before I tell you how they answered the question, please take a minute to decide what you would do. (and I urge you to post your answer below.)
OK, time’s up.
Let me set the scene: five adults, three white men and two African-American women, all of us left-leaning. Four writers and one editor. Late in the evening, after good food and several bottles of wine, I posed the question.
The man I would describe as the group’s traditional liberal was the first to respond: ‘I would double our spending on education.” Pressed to explain, he pointed out that most states had either cut spending or had failed to bring it back to pre-‘Great Recession’ levels, which has led to huge class sizes and cuts in programs that used to be considered essential, such as art and music, as well as the elimination of field trips and other opportunities.
One of the women ran with that idea, saying that she would increase spending selectively to achieve equity. “Not equal spending,” she said, “but equitable spending, so that we spend what’s necessary for each child to have a fair chance at succeeding.” (The public–and some reporters–often equate the two terms, equity and equality, but they mean very different things. An equitable system levels the playing field, which by definition will require spending more on some children.
Here’s a quick explanation from the Education Trust: “Yes, making sure all students have equal access to resources is an important goal. All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there.Here’s where equity comes in. The students who are furthest behind — most often low-income students and students of color — require more of those resources to catch up…”
With that explanation is this helpful graphic: three boys of differing heights are trying to peer over a fence that’s too tall for any of them to see over. Treat them equally, and all get the same size box to stand on, even though that doesn’t guarantee that all three can see over the fence. An equitable solution gives each kid whatever size box is necessary to allow him to see over the fence. With equity, all kids are standing on different size boxes but have the same view.
The other woman in the group then spoke up. “High quality free universal pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds. That’s what I would do if I had the power to make one change,” she said. “Early education sets the stage,” she added, “but not lots of instruction, because that would kill it.”
The writer I would describe as the most radical in the group then chimed in. “More money is a great idea, and so are equity and universal pre-school,” he said, “But I would want to do something that would make society commit to quality education.” He paused. “If I had the power, I would require every state to pledge to support the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it states that education is a fundamental human right. That would move the needle.”
Later that evening I looked up the 1948 document, which has been translated into more than 500 languages. Sure enough, Article 26 states:
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
At that point everyone turned to me, and, even though I am much more comfortable asking questions than answering them, I plunged ahead. “I would eliminate standardized testing.”
Everyone seemed shocked. Including me. Never before had I expressed that thought. To the contrary, like most critics of testing, I have always argued for ‘multiple measures’ that included–but minimized the importance of–standardized, machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests.
“Get rid of them completely,” one asked? “Yes,” I said, “because about 75% of what they do is destructive: dumbing down the curriculum, making school a pressure-cooker, equating a person’s worth with his or her scores, falsely evaluating teacher quality based on a single number, and so on.”
I continued. “Maybe about 25% of what they do is worth-while, but, if we got rid of them completely, we would be forced to develop alternative ways of assessing learning, and we could come up with approaches that weren’t inherently destructive.”
Some of you reading this are thinking that I am throwing the baby out with the bath water, as the cliché goes. I disagree. I am throwing out the dirty bath water and the bar of soap, and we can always buy some more soap to clean the baby with. I am actually saving the baby!!
For the rest of the evening we went back and forth. Yes, it was an exercise in fantasy, because none of our five proposals has a chance of being adopted tomorrow.
But at least two of these bold ideas–more money and ending standardized testing–are actually alive and well. Because of the ‘wildfire’ teacher walkouts in at least five states, public spending at the state level is increasing in Arizona, West Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere. And the push to limit standardized testing continues, as the continuing success of the Opt-Out movement testifies. Ironically, as I was writing this, Diane Ravitch’s wonderful blog came across my screen. In today’s edition she posts a powerful column by Chris Churchill of the Albany Times Union, in which he argues for eliminating standardized testing. Here’s part of what he has to say:
As far as I can tell, the only beneficiaries are the big bureaucracies that want more control over classrooms and the big corporations that provide the tests.
The tests certainly haven’t benefited our kids, who, in many districts, are getting shorter recesses so teachers can spend more time in service to the looming tests. Or who, as many parents can attest, view testing days with anxiety and dread.
If the tests were just tests, they might be relatively harmless. But they epitomize something bigger: The madness that applies a production mentality to education. Everything can be neatly quantified, yes siree, not to mention automated, regulated and homogenized!
But children aren’t widgets and schools aren’t factories. You can’t measure the success of a classroom with data points. Standardized testing tells us nothing important about how children experience school.
You may read the rest of his piece here.
So, what is your dream? If you were granted the power, what big change would you make?
John Merrow
former Education Correspondent,
PBS NewsHour, and founding President,
Learning Matters, Inc.

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