Charles Murray at the NY Times (h/t Ross Douthat) discusses recent results which seem to indicate the Milwaukee charter school program is not moving past non-charter schools. He concludes that perhaps this method of measurement is the flaw:
So let’s not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.
This is a standard complaint of most groups that are not seeing the school/program of their choice meeting expectations. While I am not a big fan of the ‘some kids don’t test well’ excuse I am willing to admit that many important skills cannot be covered in these tests. So then where do we go? As consumers of a product (education) I think we need to be able to measure performance. Murray suggests one criteria: how happy we are with the school.
Here’s an illustration. The day after the Milwaukee results were released, I learned that parents in the Maryland county where I live are trying to start a charter school that will offer a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline. This would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county’s other public schools.
I suppose that test scores might prove that such a charter school is “better” than ordinary public schools, if the test were filled with questions about things like gerunds and subjunctive clauses, the three most important events of 1776, and what Occam’s razor means. But those subjects aren’t covered by standardized reading and math tests. For this reason, I fully expect that students at such a charter school would do little better on Maryland’s standardized tests than comparably smart students in the ordinary public schools.
And yet, knowing that, I would still send my own children to that charter school in a heartbeat. They would be taught the content that I think they need to learn, in a manner that I consider appropriate.
This is an important point in a couple of different ways. The first is that the educational program and the atmosphere at a school is extremely important even if it cannot always be measured by tests. My own experience as a graduate of parochial schools is that, especially in high school, the things that made my school successful were beyond test scores. We were given a classical eduction similar to the one described in Maryland and a robust foundation we could build on in college. While I graduated disappointed with my mediocre grades, I soon found that I was still more prepared for college than many of my peers in my first year as an undergraduate.
Another point I am choosing to take from Murray’s article essay is that maybe as parents we need to look beyond report cards and assess our children through our own criteria. Yes, obviously good grades demonstrate hard work and I’m not suggesting we tolerate or encourage a lack of effort. But maybe there’s more to it. For me, I am impressed that both of my daughters have a keen interest in nature and this was aptly demonstrated when we were at the Natural History Museum in Washington DC this spring. Not only were they engaged and interested but they demonstrated acquired knowledge with their comments and their recognition of the things they saw.
I see other areas of encouragement. Understanding of and a desire to use technology. A willingness to listen to a be challenged by new ideas. Independent thought and self-directed learning on subjects that matter to them. The proof of their intelligence is there every day in places other than a report card or the results of a standardized test. We just have to look for them.
I may voice concerns that the American constitution isn’t taught enough or that the books being assigned are not tough enough or interesting enough, but at the end of the day i like the schools my kids attend. I’m happy they go there and I see results. We have choices and those choices are meeting our expectations. Maybe this is the best thing we can ask for in the public school environment.