The Corner

Re: Brooks v. Ravitch & The Failure of Urban Liberalism

Jonah, David Brooks’s column is truly outstanding. I think that the most effective argument in it is the passionate attack on the idea of standardized testing as the enemy of holistic education. First, Brooks recognizes the tension:

If you make tests all-important, you give schools an incentive to drop the subjects that don’t show up on the exams but that help students become fully rounded individuals — like history, poetry, art and sports. You may end up with schools that emphasize test-taking, not genuine learning. You may create incentives for schools to game the system by easing out kids who might bring the average scores down, for example.

In sum, Ravitch highlights a core tension. Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.

Then he brings a healthy dose of reality:

This is true, but look at which schools are most distorted by testing. As the education blogger Whitney Tilson has pointed out, the schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics.

In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change. They are one way of measuring change. But they are only one piece of the larger mission. The mission may involve E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curricula, or character education, or performance arts specialties. But the mission transcends the test. These schools know what kind of graduate they want to produce. The schools that are most accountability-centric are also the most alive.

Think of excellent versus mediocre schools you’ve attended, sports teams you’ve played on, or companies where you’ve worked. The best organizations almost always focus on ultimate outcomes — profit, market share, success of graduates, won-lost records, etc. — and subordinate individual needs to the requirements of success. They build feedback systems to get additional external information related to ultimate success faster and cheaper — customer evaluations, standardized test scores, benchmarking, and so on. No one measurement is complete, but they demand feedback, and hate it when it’s all good. They passionately want to improve, and a system that only gives out As doesn’t help to focus time, energy, and resources.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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