Dumbing Down The SAT
March 25, 2002 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Dumbing Down The SAT I was reading this article and several recent news stories came to mind (sorry, can't find links). One was regarding the resistance of teacher's unions to adopt teaching techniques that have proven successful in private schools (phonics would be an example) and the other was a radio news story about a teacher's union defending three schools that had failed to meet state requirements as to quality of education being provided. So, my question is, are teacher's unions interested in educating children or simply fighting to lower the standards?
posted by billman (66 comments total)

 
...and toughening up the math section, which in its present form does not require students to have taken advanced courses such as Algebra II.

The posted article contains no evidence that the SATs are being "dumbed down", in fact, it asserts that it may be expanded to include more advanced course material than it has in the past. It also says nothing about teacher's unions support for said "dumbing down", nor phonics, nor "lowering the standards", etc. I can't argue with the links you didn't provide, but if the one you did is representative, I can't see how these support your point of view.
posted by swell at 11:07 AM on March 25, 2002


Well, since you didn't provide any links, it's impossible to determine if the teachers are "fighting to lower the standards." And the link you did provide could provoke discussion about the usefulness of standardized testing, but it has nothing to do with teacher's unions. So I'm not sure how to begin to answer the question, except to say that blaming teachers for lowering educational standards is like blaming the maintenance crew for lowering architectural standards.
posted by varmint at 11:11 AM on March 25, 2002


1. Who says phonics isn't taught in public schools?

2. Teacher unions are AGAINST standardized testing. Preparing kids for standardized tests takes valuable classroom time away from teaching kids what the need to know to advance in grade level. So the kids pass the tests, but don't learn anything of value. There are loads of examples of "smart" kids not doing well on a standardized test.

Standardized tests do not reflect cultural and socio-economic differences in a school district, a town or a city.

3. Any teacher or educational union leader who read your quote are teacher's unions interested in educating children or simply fighting to lower the standards would want to kick your ass. Teachers have always put the children's education as their first priority.
posted by malmec at 11:25 AM on March 25, 2002


The SAT and the way it is used needs a drastic overhaul. Just as many universities are depending upon it more than ever, the test itself is no more indicative of how a student will perform in a university environment than it ever was. From a liberal arts standpoint, the kind of thinking it asks for and expects in the verbal section is not particularly useful in a college environment...While the math section is in many cases so elementary that students have simply forgotten the skills necessary by the time they take the test.

As for the relationship of the link to billman's argument -- it's tenuous at best. Except to point out that teachers teaching for their students to pass a standardized test, and teachers teaching to develop thoughtful and inquisitive young minds are two entirely different things. The more we use these kinds of tests to judge the intellectual capacity of most students, the more we're going to be disappointed with their ability to actually think.
posted by dogmatic at 11:33 AM on March 25, 2002


"are teacher's unions interested in educating children or simply fighting to lower the standards?"

Teachers Unions exsist soley to keep as many teachers emplyed at the highest possible pay for as long as possible, at any cost, just like any union.

This *can* work against giving a student a good education, though not always. Yes, they will fight change. Mostly, I'd say things would be worse with out the unions.
I'm sure they are not interested in lowering standards.

I was a teacher, both union and non-union, and most everyone in my family is a teacher as well.
posted by Blake at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2002


I need to clarify that, I was a non-union teacher in a unionized school, I was not a unionized techer, sorry.
posted by Blake at 11:41 AM on March 25, 2002


Bill, I hate to go editorial on you, but where in the article does anyone say they want to dumb the SAT down or make it easier? There isn't a single mention of teacher's unions or even a quote from a teacher in the linked article, it's all UC administrators talking overhaul.

We all know unions can become corrupt of falter from their path of protecting workers once in a while, but I didn't get any of that from the article on CNN.
posted by mathowie at 11:44 AM on March 25, 2002


The SAT was "dumbed down" years ago. As some point in the early 1990s, they literally just starting jacking up the scores by 100 points on the math and 100 on the verbal. So if you took the SATs before then and scored over 1400, congratulations; you're perfect under today's scoring system.
posted by aaron at 11:45 AM on March 25, 2002


the problem with standardized tests in general is rooted in a paradox that surrounds the idea of constructing the illusion of 'fairness'.

In order to create a process by which students coming from totally nonanalagous academic environments can be quickly judged (mathematically -- because this is mostly for the first step in the college selection process, long before the essay and the interview, etc.), the testing people came up with the idea of totally standardized tests which are given simultaneously, and which test after test, year after year, deal with a specific group of concepts in a specific format.

But, there is an inevitable side-effect. In order for the standardization to be accurate enough for the number to mean anything when compared between test versions and test dates, the test has to commit to a kind of consistancy that makes it totally predictable, and therefore very easy to study for.

I used to teach for Kaplan, as a second job and a job when i was in school. For what it's worth, i taught SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE and the verbal parts of the MCAT. For the vast majority of the time that i taught these classes, i was still an undergraduate and had ONLY taken the SAT -- and i was in art school and hadn't taken a math class since Trig in 11th grade. The material is incredibly learnable, and the logic of the test itself becomes very easy to predict once you've been exposed to the right kind of process and had a chance to take a hundred practice tests.

Also, the testing service has long held to a tenet that just as the correct answer must be provably correct, all of the wrong answers must be provably wrong (due to several law suits from students who maintained -- and won -- that their answers were also right). Which makes the test even more formulaic, because there are really only a couple of wrong answer formats for each type of question, and they become easy to spot fairly quickly once you become familiar with the test.

I think the whole process is really flawed, and that the testing services are ugly opportunists, and the students are often silver-spooners -- and admittedly, staying in that job was an incredibly cynical thing to do. But i aced the GRE when i finally took it.

The fairness is less disturbing to me in the end than the lack of connection between the skills necessary to take the test and the 'knowledge' or even 'skill' or 'intelligence' which the material is supposedly measuring. Test taking is a very specialized (and in our culture, pretty useful) skill. But it is not math or science or english or logical aptitude. it's 'test taking'. The kind of thinking that allows someone to do well on tests can surely be useful and applied to other things, and even might have something to do with intelligence -- but the whole process loses credibility for as long as people pretend that the tests have anything to do with the other skill sets -- especially when the topical concepts are so rudamentary.
posted by milkman at 12:40 PM on March 25, 2002


Recentering the SAT was not "dumbing it down" -- the test is the same! It gave the numbers meaning -- before, if someone got an 1100, you had no idea what that score meant. Now, you know that the student scored a standard deviation above the mean -- significantly higher than someone who scored a 1000.

I won't even go into how the mean was set in the 1940s -- they asked a bunch of Harvard undergraduates to sit down and take the test, and set the mean based on their scores. Seriously.

Recommendation: Nicholas Lemann, "The Big Test"
posted by MikeB at 12:41 PM on March 25, 2002


Teachers Unions exsist soley to keep as many teachers emplyed at the highest possible pay for as long as possible, at any cost, just like any union.

Uh huh. That's why teachers get paid so much and have such great working conditions. From what I can tell (my wife is a teacher) the union functions to keep teachers appeased with as little as possible for as long as possible while offering the mirage of a better future which never comes. If the union actually served the interests of the teachers there would be strikes and better contracts and fair working conditions and good infrastructure and, you know, all the things that unions in every other sector have managed to accomplish for their members. The teachers union in its current form is a complete joke and serves the interests of the taxpayers and, to a lesser extent, the school board and administration.
posted by plaino at 12:41 PM on March 25, 2002


It's not that simple, aaron -- the SAT I always reflects a normalized score, based on the normal values of the previous testing cycle. The scores took a 100 point leap over a year or two because the students taking it were, as a group, stupid.

A 1400 is not an absolute score. It's relative to the previous testing group, scored against your own. And, yes, a 1400 in the late 80s is a higher score than a 1400 in the 90s. But, it wasn't just "jacked up". It's a side effect of the normalization process for the test.
posted by dwivian at 12:42 PM on March 25, 2002


The SAT is a standardized test without a pass or fail and is intended as a secondary tool in college applicant evaluation. How exactly can you dumb down a standardized test when the relevent measure is the percentile performance? This is kind of like complaining that the long jump is too easy when measured in centimeters instead of inches!
posted by srboisvert at 12:46 PM on March 25, 2002


Plaino: as an almost-teacher, child of a family of teachers, I can say this about the union -- it's much more powerful than you realize. But I agree with what you say: most of the money paid in does not go to get teachers better salary. It goes to lobby efforts to prevent quantification measures of education (which is notoriously difficult to quantify, anyway), preservation of public school jobs over private opportunities (which pay less, as they are usually not unionized), and to the salaries of union staff.

After watching the union, and seeing what I'd make doing the job I'd spent too many years in college studying.... I decided to become an IT professional. Pretty damned good move, if I say so myself.

I learned a lot about the education system, the union, and testing and measures. It's all good info, and has been useful later (in discussion of recentering SAT results, for instance). But, I know that the union exists for the union and the teachers, **NOT** for the students. They've even said so.
posted by dwivian at 12:52 PM on March 25, 2002


i think standardized testing isn't so much a problem because smart kids don't do well (which may or may not be true.) what a lot of teachers are complaining about is that instead of being able to teach more advanced topics they have to teach the test only, because if people don't pass the test, the school will lose funding. so, i'm in texas and had to take the taas all the time. i graduated high school in 96 so that was a while ago, and apperantly it's gotten more taas-centric now, but i don't believe the test has changed.

anyway, the taas test is easy no one i knew failed it, and you certainly didn't need to study for it, normal school was plenty to prepare you. but some people did fail, they were not the honors classes kids though. so from what i understand their classes slowly became more and more "taas test taking skills." now, you might think this is fine, if they needed it, but it's not like they all needed it, i'm sure in normal-english no where near 100% failed, yet they were all held back to study ad naseum for the stupid taas. so it creates an artificial stratification, some people get into honors classes, and we can assume don't need any extra taas work, and others we have to make sure don't fail at any cost, even though few would fail anyway. without the test, yes, some less math-inclined people wouldn't get algebra drilled in their heads a million times until they could repeat it in a testing environment, but many others would actually get to move past basic algebra, and they might learn that english is more than reading comprehension.
posted by rhyax at 12:59 PM on March 25, 2002


Not all teachers' unions are created equal. In some states, they have a fair amount of political (and economic) muscle behind them. In many states, however, they are swiftly losing relevance or are completely neutered.

In many states, all the union can do is enter into collective bargaining agreements with the state/county/whatever. However, that doesn't mean they have the power to enforce the agreement. The state can often change the agreement later.

The teachers (and the union) may grumble a bit, but the state can count on most of them to still show up the next day (and it seems the state's often rely on this tactic to get contracts approved.) After all, in many places it is illegal for teachers to strike. For example, New Jersey teachers recently were arrested for striking.
posted by ahughey at 1:12 PM on March 25, 2002


Preparing kids for standardized tests takes valuable classroom time away from teaching kids what the need to know to advance in grade level. So the kids pass the tests, but don't learn anything of value. ... Standardized tests do not reflect cultural and socio-economic differences in a school district, a town or a city.

I've never understood this line of argument. Why should cultural and socio-economic differences have any importance whatsoever? Is algebra different for poor people than it is for rich people? Do black people read differently from white people? Should they? And if standardized tests don't test things of value, things that are needed to advance in grade level, why are they given? It seems to me that, if you're a teacher, "teaching to the test" (a common gripe) is no different from teaching to a syllabus, except that you know in advance that the students will actually be tested on the material, which means you will actually have to do your job. If a teacher has a problem being held accountable, then perhaps they should find another line of work, or maybe just join the ranks of the unemployed, because there is no job worth doing in which you're not held accountable.
posted by kindall at 1:28 PM on March 25, 2002


So if you took the SATs before then and scored over 1400, congratulations; you're perfect under today's scoring system.

That's a bit of an overstatement. If you're looking exclusively at composite scores, 1490 and above is equivalent to a recentered 1600. (Even then, comparing total composite scores also seems to unduly penalize folks who maxed out on one or the other section on the recentered test; looking at the score-equivalencies of both sections separately seems like the most accurate way to go.)
posted by youhas at 1:30 PM on March 25, 2002


rhyax: you hit the nail on the head, there....

Many teachers are resentful of standardized tests being used to govern funding, because the necessary response is to teach the test, to be assured of continued income. And, as we learned from milkman, learning to take the test is less learning the material, and more learning test-taking skills.

So, now we have a generation of people that can figure out how to solve a problem by elimination of obvious bad results, but otherwise can't actually solve the problem without being given the solution as a possible course of action. Oh, that's such an improvement! *ugh*
posted by dwivian at 1:30 PM on March 25, 2002


Perhaps the flaw in the philosophy of Teachers' Unions is that the orientation of a union is as a blue-collar organization. Some years ago I suggested that the NEA and the AEA could profit their membership mightily by adopting the same professional organization ideology as the AMA or the ABA.
Aha! We cut right to the quick of the matter. The unionist I talked to was horrified with the idea! for though it might improve conditions for teachers, it would take away that unionist mentality of solidarity and communal action!
They would be propelled upward to join with their hated enemies--the white collars!
I know this sounds bizarre, but it seems that a lot of them are hardwired for "socialistic" tendencies, and the idea of working as an individual scares them half to death.
posted by kablam at 1:33 PM on March 25, 2002


After all, in many places it is illegal for teachers to strike.

It is not illegal for them to quit. In this case I think the distinction between quitting and going on strike would be pretty small.
posted by plaino at 1:36 PM on March 25, 2002


Is algebra different for poor people than it is for rich people?

Well, yes.

Not the basic math of it, but the method used to describe it. There are cultural differences that allow or hinder communication. The choice of words used in an example can have significant meaning to one class of student, and be completely without meaning to another.

A simple example:

2 (x) + 3 (y) = 6 : basic formula for a line

This is rather straight forward. But, try to explain to derive it, without using the formula. You can say:

2 products on production line one and 3 products on production line two use 6 L brackets total. Show this relationship mathematically.

But, this word structure implies a basic understanding of production mechanics. I know this, because I tried it on a 10yr old and she had no idea what I was asking. I used this one next, and she was crystal clear on it:

In an effort to sell off the last of their cookies, Troup #14 decided to sell two boxes of tagalongs and 3 boxes of trefoils for $6. How would you write that?

It's cultural, you see! And, my darling girl was even smart enough to notice that this meant that the trefoils were being given away for free, as a box, in general is $3.... She found one of the intercept points! But, she has no idea she did this -- we were just discussing the merits of learning word problems.
posted by dwivian at 1:39 PM on March 25, 2002


SAT verbals are close to worthless when predicting college performance. At my campus, one of life's more aggravating experiences is trying to get a student kicked out of regular freshman composition and into the remedial section. The faculty member says that the student can't handle the work; the folks handling placement retort that the student has a decent SAT score, and therefore won't be moved into the basic section (with results that are frustrating for both the professor and the student). It's the difference between recognizing the correct answers on a test, and actively performing the skills in the classroom. An essay on the SAT might help, although I hope that they're paying the readers a lot to grade them.

Teachers: would-be teachers make up a big chunk of our major, and our graduate program is almost entirely composed of teachers who need MAs to retain their credentials. Some of them are brilliant. Some of them are not (the would-be primary school teachers are almost always my worst students--they're the most interested in "kids" and the least interested in the material). At the graduate level, I've seen them produce everything from really scintillating prose to "oh my God, this would have earned an 'F' in comp." The latter group are the most frightening, needless to say.

Unions: College professors in my state belong to a larger union for educators, as well as our own UUP branch. Neither one strikes me as much of a powerhouse--we keep losing :) Being unionized or non-unionized doesn't mean too much, however, as we're required to be "fee-payers" whether or not we belong to the union. Not quite so much fun as the time when I worked for the University of Chicago press, which is a closed shop organized by, of all things, the Teamsters.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:42 PM on March 25, 2002


Why should cultural and socio-economic differences have any importance whatsoever?

I don't even know where to begin. Warning, gross generalizations to follow: Basic nutrition. Healthy kids have an easier time concentrating and learning. Poorer kids/school districts have access to fewer resources (dictonaries, encyclopedias, computers, etc.) than wealthier kids/schools. If you have two part-time jobs, it's not very easy to get your homework done every night. Bad neigborhoods offer all sorts of distractions. Expectations are different. The wealthier students tend to have more involved parents.

This is just a quick off-the-cuff list. For more info try:

Susan Ohanian: One Size Fits Few

Alfie Kohn: The Case Against Standardized Testing and The Schools Our Children Deserve.
posted by ahughey at 1:44 PM on March 25, 2002


Ok, didn't think I was stepping into a line of fire so perhaps let me elaborate a tad further than would have been appropriate on a FPP.

First off, for those of you who ask "where does it say that they want to dumb down the SAT":

The change faces some opposition on the board and within UC because of concerns it would lower standards.

Also, not mentioned in the CNN article, but getting slightly more mention in California is the fact that Atkinson's move has been seen by many (even by some who support his move) as a way around Prop. 209 which outlawed giving preference in admissions based on race. So, it seems that Atkinson has said, if we aren't allowed to overlook the SAT scores, we should simply do away with them. Since California is one of the largest customers of the College Board who administers the SAT's they are attempting to modify the SAT scores to the Atkinson's likings, which, as previously noted, is to circumvent Prop 209.

Though this might seem like a slight distinction, the changes proposed in the SAT tend to measure achievement rather than aptitude and with aptitude being the A in SAT, that seems rather odd. Achievement is the ability to parrot back information given to you. Aptitude is more a measure of your capability to reason. This being one of the reasons why when preparing for the test, a large part of the prep is teaching students how to effectively guess at answers. The analogy tests, which are on the table for being eliminated or cut back, do exactly that. They test your ability to reason. You don't have to know the rote definition of the word, you have to understand it and in what context it is being used. And even if you don't know, you should be able to eliminate enough wrong answers to give yourself a high probability of being right (sort of like counting cards in blackjack ). Why would this be changed? Well, California has very large Latino population for whom English is a second language. Of course, part of this problem is that the "educational system" has resisted attempts at English immersion teaching methods (despite successes) and instead prefer to teach children in Spanish and slowly introduce them to English which puts them at a disadvantage on such tests. So, the objective is not to get a better analysis of student's potential, rather it seems oriented towards modifying or hiding the results of ineffective teaching methods.

So perhaps "dumbing down" was not the correct way to characterize the recent moves. Rather, it is an attempt to modify the testing procedure to allow for the inefficient teaching methodologies employed in K-12. Personally, I would argue this is just one of many attempts to divert attention away from charter and pilot schools which have been showing great success.

Also, for those of you asking for links on the other issues I wrote about, I eventually found the one on phonics, Are They Teaching Phonics to Your Child?

The other was a radio news report on KFI640AM in Los Angeles and I've checked on their website and did some searching but can't find it. In a nutshell, the state is threatning to take over 3 schools who have failed to meet the requirements set forth by the state. The teacher's union takes the position that the state is unqualified to evaluate the success or failure of the school and should let the teachers decide what is best for the students. What struck me was how dotcom-ish that sounded. :-)

And for those who argue that teacher's unions are supportive of students . . . please explain how the teacher's unions have become one of the largest contributors to the Democratic party. I don't disagree that teachers don't make a lot of money, but that does not mean that the union doesn't make a lot of money which is put into the campaigns of school boards, Democratic party candidates, and conducting research that says that the way to improve education is via more money rather than any sort of overhaul of the education system. To be honest, I don't believe that the Republican party believes in school vouchers as much as it believes in taking kids (and thus money) out of the grasp of the teacher's unions. And for you link addicts, here's a nice article I found via Google on how the teacher's union in California is unionizing charter school teachers in an attempt to regain power they have lost as many of these charter schools have become very successful.

posted by billman at 1:44 PM on March 25, 2002


It is not illegal for them to quit. In this case I think the distinction between quitting and going on strike would be pretty small.

Some teachers do quit, especially those in their first couple years of teacher. However, many others don't for the same reasons they accept the abuses of the state at their expense. Someone has to teach the kids. If you quit teaching, then maybe you're giving up on the kids, too. The guilt over quitting really consumes some teachers.

One line of thought goes that if you quit, then "they" have won. The government can then replace you with a govt. trained teacher (or just increase the class size/load) who will "teach the test" and produce cogs and widgets ready to be fitted for jobs suitable to the output of this kind of factory teaching. Some teachers feel a moral imperitive to keep "fighting the good fight." Of course, others are just in it for the long vacation.
posted by ahughey at 1:50 PM on March 25, 2002


What is the purpose of unions?


"The mission of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, is to improve the lives of our members and their families, to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of the services we provide, to bring together all members to assist and support one another and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world."

From The AFT Mission Statement.
Note: Find the word student and win a prize.

Hint: It's not there.
posted by Blake at 1:55 PM on March 25, 2002


i also think it's worth mentioning that -- at the risk of my job -- i often deviated from the Kaplan curriculum when trying to explain some fundamental concepts (in math and in verbal) especially to minority kids. (I was teaching in NYC, and the SAT classes were hugely made up of black and hispanic kids on partial scholarships from the state trying to make up lost ground).

When i found myself scrambling to stay afloat with a class that wasn't making progress inside of the Kaplan curriculum, i would try to return to very fundamental math and grammar -- as i learned it anyway -- and found that much of it was completely foreign to these kids.

Ideas like diagraming sentences and seeking to understand the simple subject and simple predicate did not meet blank stares as often as they met shocked students for whom these ideas made fundamental sense, but who had never been asked to think in those terms. on more than one occasion i found myself introducing Parts of Speech to 11th graders -- who were completely literate and capable of understanding these concepts, but had simply never been asked to think about them and give them names.

many students similarly had never been asked to learn basic algabraic terminology. they knew how to do a lot of the figuring, but they could not tell the difference between a rational and an irrational number. they had not been taught the order of operations.

this was totally amazing to me. i never figured out if it has to do with the poor resources of the NY public school system (i also have non-certified peers who teach in the worst schools and i have heard some crazy stories), or if there really is a shift in educational theory away from defining these fundamental concepts early in order to build on them later.
posted by milkman at 2:00 PM on March 25, 2002


kindall:

Standardized tests are fine as metrics. They're not good as bases for curriculum. For instance, a standardized test on American history would surely consist mostly of repeating back facts, and any class that taught, as you say, "to the test" would have that orientation. A good American history class, I would argue, should be built around themes, issues, large-scale processes, analysis, comparison, research skills, writing and current events. This would come along with, yes, a backbone of factual information. But to build a class around facts -- well, as Reagan said in a moment of inadvertent wisdom, facts are stupid things. Let them direct the class and everything that was alive about history goes gray.
posted by argybarg at 2:09 PM on March 25, 2002


I'm suspicious of anyone who enjoys teaching in the kind of environment in which my schooling took place (an "excellent suburban school district"). And even more suspicious of anyone who would want to teach in a typical urban public school environment. Seems like the unions just perpetuate such.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:17 PM on March 25, 2002


...charter and pilot schools which have been showing great success.

Socio-economic factors would, of course, play absolutely no part in their success, right? These are schools that accept all students regardless of handicap, family background, neighbourhood, wealth, or suchlike, right? We do want to make sure that there's a fair comparison.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:19 PM on March 25, 2002


kindall: It seems to me that, if you're a teacher, "teaching to the test" (a common gripe) is no different from teaching to a syllabus, except that you know in advance that the students will actually be tested on the material, which means you will actually have to do your job.

The difference is in what the students take from a class. Teaching to the test takes away from the curriculum because it de-emphasizes critical thinking and replaces it with rote memorization and Kaplan-esque test taking strategies. In a perfect world, high school students should be taught how to critically think for themselves...However, standardized tests don't analyze whether or not a student has an adept mind. By increasing the exposure of students to standardized testing and the emphasis placed on the outcome of the tests, you're in effect lowering the bar for students in the name of standards.

IMHO, the class time spent in such an endeavor could be better spent, oh I dunno, teaching the actual subject at hand rather than pandering to the how-tos of eliminating wrong answers on a fill-in grid.

billman: The analogy tests, which are on the table for being eliminated or cut back, do exactly that. They test your ability to reason. You don't have to know the rote definition of the word, you have to understand it and in what context it is being used. And even if you don't know, you should be able to eliminate enough wrong answers to give yourself a high probability of being right (sort of like counting cards in blackjack ). Why would this be changed?

I call bullshit on your assessment of why the analogies section is being taken out. The real reason is that the analogies portion of the exam is most likely like nothing students taking the test have ever seen or will ever see in their academic careers. Therefore, it's an academic anamoly and not a good indicator of what a student will do in college. In other words, it's like judging a history student on how well he can write a film critique or asking a biologist to explain the order of the solar system. An essay section would be a much clearer indication of one's verbal skills.

Well, California has very large Latino population for whom English is a second language.

Believe me, transitioning to an essay will in no way help the large latino population that you claim is being courted through the dismissal of analogies.

on preview - argybarg, well said.
posted by dogmatic at 2:38 PM on March 25, 2002


ParisParamus - feel free to be suspicious of me. I teach in an urban public school, and I love it. I'd consider teaching in a charter or private school - but only if I could work with the same population. A school full of only advantaged students doesn't appeal to me. I'm curious, though, what you mean by "typical urban public school."

Blake - sure it's not there. The teachers' unions are not about students, for the same reason that a union of factory workers isn't really about the factory's product. It's about protecting the interests of the workers. The going logic is that if you give the teachers the right conditions - untie teachers' hands and give them a decent salary and decent conditions, that they themselves will be able to teach and help students more effectively. Sometimes this logic is dubious, sometimes not.

And billman, your anti-union post is so full of generalizations as to be meaningless. Teachers' unions have quite a few problems, to be sure, but they've become utterly demonized as the sole source of educational malaise.

Consider this: two years ago, a group of bureaucrats got together and put together a new set of "science standards" for Massachusetts. They told me that - according to the new standards - I should be teaching genetics to my eighth graders without ever mentioning DNA, and teaching stellar fusion to my seventh graders without having first taught them the basics of atomic structure.

A bunch of teachers howled at this, myself included. And naturally we were painted as being "against high standards for our students." The union in my district got involved to clarify that we were to take the new standards as a "guide" and a set of suggestions, not as anything definitive.

The union won the actual fight - I am free to teach what I know to be correct. (I would have done so anyway). But they always lose the PR war, because it's just too easy to portray them as headless monsters holding back educational progress.

(The same, incidentally, goes for phonics. Research has shown that phonics is a necessary component of early reading instruction. Unions, in many cases, are fighting bureaucrats who have come down with a mandate of an all-phonics all-the-time reading program - which quite simply is not supported by research).
posted by Chanther at 2:41 PM on March 25, 2002


Teachers have always put the children's education as their first priority.

Riiiight, malmec, there are no bad teachers? I don't think this statement is any truer than "McDonald's employees have always put quick, friendly service as their first priority' or "Used car salesmen have always put your transportation needs and financial situation as their first priority." I know almost all my teachers in high school were there to make a buck. Most of them were there because they'd failed at another job, or decided they'd never be able to afford a BMW as a DJ, but he could teaching high school (coaching helps, too.)
posted by dagnyscott at 2:47 PM on March 25, 2002


The SAT's do serve a purpose. As some have mentioned above, they measure reasoning skills. Being able to choose from a set of answers *is* a useful skill. And concerning the math section: Why increase the difficulty if many kids clearly can't do the "elementary" math that's already tested?

SAT's are not the only measure of student success in college. They are simply one tool. No one except for anti-SAT crusaders thinks they're anything else. Every college already looks at whether you've had a disadvantaged childhood or had to keep two jobs or had to babysit your three younger siblings. All top colleges make you take the SAT 2 writing, which does have an essay component. The SAT is very good at what it does, measure basic reasoning. It never claimed anything more.

And what's ironic about the California Dean wanting to change the SAT is that the general sentiment is that Cal schools rely on the SAT (and SAT2) more heavily than any other school in the nation. They literally use a formula to determine your acceptance. A good friend of mine, 4.0 student, Vice President of her school and probably the nicest all-around person I have ever met in my life, got denied by UCLA. She only scored a 1250 on her SAT. She got into Northwestern and USC, though, both schools that have higher SAT averages and GPA's among their incoming class, because, I believe, the admittance officers at those two schools actually read the application rather than complain that the numbers they pump into a formula aren't accurate enough.
posted by Kevs at 3:02 PM on March 25, 2002


Why should cultural and socio-economic differences have any importance whatsoever?

I don't even know where to begin. Warning, gross generalizations to follow: Basic nutrition. Healthy kids have an easier time concentrating and learning. Poorer kids/school districts have access to fewer resources (dictonaries, encyclopedias, computers, etc.) than wealthier kids/schools. If you have two part-time jobs, it's not very easy to get your homework done every night. Bad neigborhoods offer all sorts of distractions. Expectations are different. The wealthier students tend to have more involved parents.

Well, yes, those things will tend to make you do poorly in school. But if you are tested, the test should reveal that you are doing poorly; it should not compensate for your lack of nutrition or whatever. A test should not be a tool for telling you that you're doing well for someone with all your handicaps.

A good American history class, I would argue, should be built around themes, issues, large-scale processes, analysis, comparison, research skills, writing and current events.

I agree that a good history class would be exactly as described. However, there are so few good history classes by this definition in public schools that I doubt "teaching to the test" would prove deleterious in any way. And at least you'd know whether the kids did actually learn the facts, which you have to test anyway if you're doing your job, so where's the big deal of having a standardized test as well?
posted by kindall at 3:06 PM on March 25, 2002


the SATs, it seems to me, measure two things: one, they measure the knowledge of the student as falls under a given subset of curricula; two, they measure the ability of the teachers to impart the knowledge of the curricula, given the school environment, to the student.

i can understand teachers wanting to focus greatly on the SATs; schools are penalized for low SAT scores (though i can't imagine that such penalties really help the problem get better). down the line, it seems, someone misses the point. the SATs should test transparently: you shouldn't have to study for the SATs, because that skews the measurement. as to who misses the point -- the makers of the test for fashioning such a beast or the teachers who submit to this academic euthanasia -- i can't say.
posted by moz at 3:24 PM on March 25, 2002


I know that some people have simply pointed out how socio-economic differences can impact test scores, but for those who believe we cannot or should not use test scores as a form of evaluation, I guess I have a few questions.

For instance, dwivian's post makes a good point about being able to relate the material to one's life experiences. Now, since every school has a cookie or candy sale of some sort, why can't a cookie or candy sale be a universal experience that word problems are posed in? Poor ghetto kids are just as likely to understand the mechanics of a cookie sale as are rich white kids. The examples are always from some extreme point of view like "If Biff has four riding ponies and Buffy has three . . . ". And the obvious answer then is to throw our hands up in the air, say socio-economic conditions prevent equal teaching so let's lower the standards for this or that group or do away with the tests alltogether.

Now, I agree that Biff living in the upper middle class neighborhood might have specific cultural advantages such as parents who are business people so certain values and ideas are taught to him at an early age but the commonly used argument that the questions are in and of themselves racially or otherwise biased seems to be a cop-out.

There are also some glaring holes in this that we seem to overlook as well which is that Asian students tend to dominate mathematics and the "hard" sciences like economics which are very math based. That domination continues into college, graduate, and eventual "real world" situations. If the tests are socio-economically biased to rich white kids, why do Asian students kick the crap out of rich white kids in mathematics?

One also has to question why phonics which has many years of research behind it, is used in many private schools with great success, and as in the story in the link in my previous post has been "required" by the school board, meets such great resistance in the teaching community but Ebonics, went from idea to the most revolutionary new tool in education before being debunked.

Bottom line, for me, is that in my K-12 education I would guesstimate that only 20% - 30% of the teachers I had, possesed both the knowledge and the caring required to be teachers. There were some with knowledge but couldn't give a rat's ass about their students and there were some who cared but even as say a high school student, you could tell they probably couldn't pass the tests that they were administering if they didn't have the teacher's edition of the book in front of them. Personally, I would be willing to pay teachers twice what they make right now if you could eliminate the 70% - 80% underperforming teachers and recruit intelligent, caring people to take their place. I have heard some recommendations for recruiting retired business executives and others who can bring real teaching and experience into the classroom. It seems strange that we don't explore more ideas like that instead of continously lowering our standards to accomodate the declining quality of educators.

argybarg: I actually agree with what you're saying and classes that invited thought were always more enjoyable to me but the problem is, we're not even doing a good job at teaching the basics. A student in a history class should know basic dates or at least sequence of events. We don't even teach that today. If the students can pass the standardized test (i.e. know timelines) then move on to more ambitious goals that bring the information alive but if all you're doing is giving children information that goes in one ear and out the other then you're failing the requirement of teaching history regarldess of whether or not it was taught in an interesting manner.

five fresh fish: Actually, one of the best (and worst) examples of this was in the Oakland school district. There was an excellent piece in LA Weekly but their search feature doesn't seem to allow more than one word without coughing up SQL error messages. Short of it was that the school which was one of the worst in the district, with most white students having been pulled out by parents, was turned over to a corporation to see how they could run it. Not only did it turn around, but it actually increased the number and percentage of minority students, raised test scores to levels that had never been seen at the school, and parents were actually pulling their children out of other district schools and attempting to put them into the charter school. Response from the school board? Shut it down! The school board had spent 10 years telling people that it was impossible to raise the quality of education at that school and was proved wrong in less than 2 years. In fact, the reason they used for closing the school was the fact that the company running the school was close to turning a profit and the school board said that schools should not be run for profit, thus it should be closed. Now, and I wish LA Weekly would let me find the article, LA Weekly is a fairly left-leaning publication. Even they were pointing a finger at the school board and the teacher's unions for killing the school because it made them look bad. And if you look around at the charter schools being run by the Walton family and Wayne Huzeinga (sp?) you'll find most of those schools are not in rich neighborhoods, rather in neighborhoods in the worst districts because those are the only places they can get board approval to open shop.
posted by billman at 3:27 PM on March 25, 2002


These things go in cycles. Especially in science education the big debate is whether to teach science as a method and use the content in order to highlight the method, or just teach the content and give a brief nod to the method. The problem is that if a biology class spends large chunk of the semester crossbreeding and growing domestic peas in order to re-create Mendel's experiment, that takes quite a bit of time away from trivia such as identifying the testes of a earthworm.

Anyway, 20 years ago the big concern was the transfer problem. Drill and practice ended up with a bunch of kids who could answer the flashcards, and even score well on the SAT, but drew a blank when they were asked to quadruple a recipe. Then the focus was on teaching people how to solve real-life problems which of course meant that they were less able to regurgitate for standardized tests. I suppose the cycle is swinging back again.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:36 PM on March 25, 2002


Earthworms have testes?

Malcolm Gladwell on Stanley Kaplan.
posted by solistrato at 4:15 PM on March 25, 2002


billman: My guess is that you're referring either to the OMI Charter School (Oakland Military Institute) or Edison Charter School.

One can well imagine that a "military institute" school would do well. But, then, so do most charter schools, at least initially: to get your kid into a charter school, you must actively apply for it. The very act of applying makes you an active parent, which in turn means your kids are better-off than most.

An active parent is one who reads to their children as toddlers. Who takes an active interest in what goes on in their child's life. Who limits television, encourages reading, engages in conversation, spends time with the kids, and does all those things that parents are supposed to do.

Naturally, their kids do better.


Anyway, in most cases Edison Corporation has been a disaster. Districts put it on probation more often than not, the schools have a consistently atrocious turn-over rate, and are reknown for cherry-picking students. There have been some pretty ugly problems, and if Edison doesn't garner a clue soon, one can expect that they'll soon be a pariah.

Who wants to read this about their schools: "Wall Street analysts who track the education 'industry' called Edison's acquisition of the privately held company, LearnNow (LN), for $38 million a 'good strategic and financial move,' increasing Edison's penetration in four urban markets with higher-than-average revenue per pupil and capacity for expansion"? Scary stuff, profits being more important than actual education.

Charter schools set up an environment of competition, and there is one big fault with that: in order for one school to 'win,' another must lose.

What happens to losing schools? Less funding, less opportunity, more failure. What lucky kids!

Sorry this post is a little disjointed. I'm trying to do three things at once. :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:47 PM on March 25, 2002


billman: First off, for those of you who ask "where does it say that they want to dumb down the SAT":

Here's the context of the one sentence that your argument's based on:

Following Atkinson's suggestion to scrap the SAT, a UC faculty committee recommended in January that the university develop a new test on reading, writing and mathematics tied to what California students learn in the classroom. The committee is also recommending that students take three subject-matter tests.

The change faces some opposition on the board and within UC because of concerns it would lower standards.


Note that "the change" clearly refers to the switch from SATs to some California specific test, not a "dumbed down SAT". I'm not sure whether you're reading your agenda into something that clearly doesn't support it, or if you're being intellectually dishonest, here.

I'd also point out that political commentators frequently are a bit sloppy with out-of-context quotes. "I heard it on the radio but I can't find any real world evidence" doesn't really fly as a source for most of us.
posted by swell at 4:50 PM on March 25, 2002


sjc: Excellent link! Thanks.

KirkJobSluder: I suppose the cycle is swinging back again. Or perhaps swinging back to the center which is probably closer to the truth.
posted by billman at 5:05 PM on March 25, 2002


Shoulda put this in the post above, but here are some excerpts from the educational experts from the link billman provided.

They instruct the teachers that this is a political battle and parents who want their children to learn phonics are members of the "political and religious Far Right."
Can't figure out where they got that idea.

"Instead of saying that teachers should provide phonics, it should say that they must do so," Barbara Anderson, co-director of Citizens for Limited Taxation told Massachusetts News. She says she taught phonics to her son back in the 60’s before he went to school and he was reading at the third grade level when he entered first grade.
Can't figure out why a group of educational experts would call themselves "Citizens for Limited Taxation", but okay.

In a sense, it’s like the Chinese method of learning a different "sign" for every word.
So, how ARE the ChiComs involved with this insidious plot to brainwash our children?

It began in 1898 when John Dewey wrote an essay in which he advocated shifting the emphasis in primary schools away from the development of academic skill, particularly reading, to the development of the social skills. "This was necessary," says Blumenfeld, "if the education system were to be used to bring about a socialist society where collectivist values would be favored over individualistic values."
My god! Whole language turns kids into god-hating COMMIES!

"Teaching intensive phonics is also a way of keeping children’s attention on doing what they’re told and keeping them from reading or thinking for themselves." Weaver tells the future teachers that the proponents are motivated by a desire "to promote a religious agenda and/or to maintain the socioeconomic status quo."
There are loons on both sides of the issue.

The above quotation was cited in a scornful manner by Constance Weaver in her book for teachers, Reading Process and Practice, which advocates the "look-say" method. The quotation is from a newsletter of Phyllis Schafly.
Some people do question Phyllis Schafly's credentials as an educator.

The state constitution currently forbids the use of "vouchers" for private religious schools, though a petition drive is under way to amend that provision.
Some of us wouldn't have any problem with the above if the people promoting it would deemphasize the religious part of it.

BTW, I support phonics education because that's how I was taught, and it worked. However, I'm uncomfortable siding with people who don't seem to think that whether or not it works matters.
posted by swell at 8:03 PM on March 25, 2002


She says she taught phonics to her son back in the 60’s before he went to school and he was reading at the third grade level when he entered first grade.

And then there's me: never took phonics at all, and was reading college-level by grade five.

Diff'rent strokes, diff'rent folks. 100% of either phonics or whole-language approach is probably not optimal for most children, save those who are going to become voracious readers no matter what they're taught.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:30 PM on March 25, 2002


Some more links for those interested.

Back door quotas -- Thomas Sowell

Never underestimate the ability of unelected bureaucrats to overturn the expressed will of the people -- Linda Chavez

The Sowell article talks about the UC move away from the SAT as being an attempt to circumvent Prop 209 and the Chavez article speaks to the fact that Gov. Davis is currently doing something similar with the English immersion law passed under Prop 227 (this being despite the fact that since Prop. 227, the number of limited-English-speaking students scoring above the median in reading has gone from 18% to 31%).

Talk about link surfing, I was reading frequent MeFi'er, Steven Den Beste's, comparisons of Muslim Extremists and Japan before their surrender in WWII, which was linked to an article making a similar point on Gunner's weblog, which in turn had a link to an article by Thomas Sowell. Perhaps my bizzaro surfing habits explain why I can't always find the links to stories I've read. :-)

swell: First off, I agree with you that the article has some pretty whacky stuff in it. But the debate going on is real. What is also real is that educators are expressly attempting to circumvent the will of the people via a loophole between "should" and "must". I think the two articles I've linked to by Sowell and Chavez further demonstrate the point that despite the fact that California voters have passed these measures by considerable margins, educators (UC) and teacher's unions (via contributions to Gov. Davis' campaign) will simply upend any legislation they don't agree with . . . even if it's showing better results!

And as for your ending statement:

BTW, I support phonics education because that's how I was taught, and it worked. However, I'm uncomfortable siding with people who don't seem to think that whether or not it works matters.

I don't support phonics. I support what works. Phonics may or may not be the best way to teach children (or it may -- who knows?) but from I've read, from the success stories from home schoolers, private schools, and tutors, I think it has some merit. And it appears that there is growing support for this opinion everywhere except for the public education system. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work but to refuse to try it is a crime. And really, the argument isn't about phonics. It's about the refusal of the educational system to do what's in the best interest of children while they cry out each year that the problem will go away if we just give them more money -- despite the fact that historically, the more money that has been spent on education the less, percentage-wise, has actually reached the classrooms.
posted by billman at 8:40 PM on March 25, 2002


five fresh fish: Sorry I missed your post earlier. But to answer your question, it wasn't OMI that I was talking about. It think it was Jingletown Charter Middle School but I could be mistaken on that and it's looking like LA Weekly isn't of much help either. But I do remember the story as not only did I read it but the LA Weekly story was discussed on several LA radio talk shows.

Also, your statement:

Charter schools set up an environment of competition, and there is one big fault with that: in order for one school to 'win,' another must lose.

Then couldn't the same be said about colleges?

And there have been some charter school failures such as Edison and Cato but even that is not the point. The point is that ding, ding, ding . . . parents are starting to get pissed off that the educational system cannot educate their children. You see charter schools, voucher programs, etc., etc. as a response to their frustration. The objective isn't to send kids to charter schools or private schools but to get them out of public schools. What does that say about the education system today? Voters are passing laws and standing in line for hours for the chance to get their kids out of public schools. And, the biggest irony of this whole thing is that it was Bush who introduced a reform package because the Democrats are too far in bed with the teacher's unions to dare put up their own legislation.

Like I've said, I'm not for phonics. I'm not for charter schools. I'm for what works. I think that until someone breaks the back of the teacher's unions, that real reform is unlikely to happen. In the meantime, I'm more inclined to support certain measures because they put children into environments where they actually have a chance of getting an education.
posted by billman at 9:27 PM on March 25, 2002


it's a weird sensation to see someone wish that others "break the back" of an institution that supported one's father for many years. it makes me feel very self-conscious of my own strong choice of words; do you ever feel likewise, billman?
posted by moz at 11:19 PM on March 25, 2002


"Teaching intensive phonics is also a way of keeping children’s attention on doing what they’re told and keeping them from reading or thinking for themselves."

Yeah, those right-wingers are tricky bastards: keeping children from reading by teaching them to read!
posted by kindall at 12:12 AM on March 26, 2002


it makes me feel very self-conscious of my own strong choice of words; do you ever feel likewise, billman?

Quite often, moz. :-)

I don't wish evil things on teachers or teacher's unions but I do think that they need to have their power put in check. As they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
posted by billman at 12:14 AM on March 26, 2002


Why should cultural and socio-economic differences have any importance whatsoever?

I don't even know where to begin. Warning, gross generalizations to follow: Basic nutrition. Healthy kids have an easier time concentrating and learning. Poorer kids/school districts have access to fewer resources (dictonaries, encyclopedias, computers, etc.) than wealthier kids/schools. If you have two part-time jobs, it's not very easy to get your homework done every night. Bad neigborhoods offer all sorts of distractions. Expectations are different. The wealthier students tend to have more involved parents


I agree that the parental involvement/environment are important, though two of your statements are flawed: 1.) no one under 18 who attends school is allowed to work more than 18 hours. Period. You have to get a work permit from your school. 2.) Everyone has access to libraries, which means they have access to dictionaries, encyclopedias, computers, reference books, etc.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:38 AM on March 26, 2002


"Teaching intensive phonics is also a way of keeping children’s attention on doing what they’re told and keeping them from reading or thinking for themselves."

Kindall, there is a political / historical context for that statement. The whole reason that whole language arose in the first place is because of phonics programs which disallowed teachers from giving their children books to read until the kids had gone through a "prescribed course" of phonics instruction. You'd find first and second grade classrooms with plenty of worksheets but few books. You'd find schools where children weren't doing independent reading in real books until third or fourth grade.

And then the "true believers" in whole language decided that phonics was evil, and banished it from the classroom - with disastrous results.

And now the "true believers" in phonics are filing bills in state legislatures not just mandating phonics (which is a good thing), but also prohibiting any other form of reading instruction.

And so in ten years we'll be right back where we were in the mid 1970's. And we'll have people on MeFi complaining that those awful teachers are just giving their kids worksheets and preventing them from reading real books.

... and meanwhile, billman thinks we teachers have absolute power. LOL.
posted by Chanther at 7:57 AM on March 26, 2002


1.) no one under 18 who attends school is allowed to work more than 18 hours. Period. You have to get a work permit from your school

i don't know where you live, but if this law really exists, it certainly is rarely enforced.
posted by milkman at 8:21 AM on March 26, 2002


1.) no one under 18 who attends school is allowed to work more than 18 hours. Period. You have to get a work permit from your school

i don't know where you live, but if this law really exists, it certainly is rarely enforced.
posted by milkman at 8:23 AM on March 26, 2002


billman:First off, I agree with you that the article has some pretty whacky stuff in it.
*sigh* Okay, I'll keep playing. You posted a link, and stated your position. I pointed out that the link didn't support your position, and in fact refuted it. You then trotted out a single sentence, which, taken out of context, does appear to support a small portion of your anti-union screed (ie: that someone, somewhere is dumbing down the SATs for unknown reasons). I then provided the context, and pointed out that you were being at least a bit intellectually dishonest. Then, you posted the article that we're discussing now. I questioned the educational expertise of the Citizens for Limited Taxation, and Phyllis Schafly.

Well, now you're refusing to point out how that particular set of screeching supports your position, because it's "pretty whacky". Now, I haven't read the pieces by Sowell and Chavez (mostly because I think this thread's dead), and I don't know what Chavez' credentials are. However, Sowell is certainly not an educator, but a commentator.

I don't support phonics. I support what works. Phonics may or may not be the best way to teach children (or it may -- who knows?) but from I've read, from the success stories from home schoolers, private schools, and tutors, I think it has some merit.

I do support phonics, as I said, because it worked for me. The argument is whether or not its a better approach IN GENERAL than whole language. Unlike the Citizens For Limited Taxation, I don't pretend to be an expert on education.

posted by swell at 11:19 AM on March 26, 2002


As far as I can remember, I learned the basics of reading from my mother, and a little bit from preschool and kindergarten, and the rest came from reading a lot on my own and asking questions to whatever adults were around (usually my mother). If I have children, I feel at this point like I would want to either put them in some sort of alternative private school, or home-school them (not just myself, but with a curriculum including classes from other people). Just reading the comments in this thread about phonics, and different school reading education environments, I'm remembering how much of my primary school education was spent from my point of view. I sat there, not paying attention to the class, because the book I had hidden in/under my desk, usually at a high school if not an adult level of writing, was much more interesting to me than what was going on. At the time I did feel somewhat guilty about this; in retrospect, I wish I had been part of a system where the teacher had said "Oh, so you would rather read a book. Fine, read this." and handed me something challenging and difficult and just barely comprehensible to me, and at the same time relevant to the kind of stuff I was supposed to be learning. That's the sort of thing that motivated me, and still does, I guess. You can't expect that kind of individual attention in most, if any, schools, of course. I don't know what the answer is.
posted by bingo at 12:03 PM on March 26, 2002


Swell: I'm really so sorry I'm annoying you. What I don't understand is that since this thread was not really about phonics as much as teacher's unions, why you even felt the need to get involved if you have no expertise on education and only have an opinion on phonics -- which you then go on to hedge somewhat.

I don't mean to sound like I don't appreciate opinions but your condesending *sigh* seems a little uncalled for in this context. I think the point I made about altering the standards of the SAT, though poorly worded in the FPP, was agreed to by at least a few people so the idea, though not popular obviously, still holds some merit.

Also to clarify, I was not backing away from the article, simply trying to put the article in context. I brought up that article in the context of "One was regarding the resistance of teacher's unions to adopt teaching techniques that have proven successful in private schools (phonics would be an example)" and it was you who decided to then turn this into a pro/con conversation on phonics when as has been repeated over and over the issue is the teacher's unions failure to implement teaching methods -- in this case mandated by the school boards. And to each of your posts about phonics I have replied that I am not pro or con phonics, I would simply like the teacher's unions to quit acting above the law. You're the one who keeps trying to disprove a point I am not attempting to make. Of course, that's going to be very easy to do since I'm not defending phonics.
posted by billman at 12:03 PM on March 26, 2002


Well, let's see. So far we've pretty much established that (a) they're not dumbing down the SAT, and the article you adduced didn't say they were, and you admit "dumbing down" wasn't right anyway; (b) teachers aren't opposed to phonics, only to mandating that only phonics be allowed, and the only articles accusing teachers of this have been opinion pieces by political organizations and political commentators, and (c) there was some story on some radio station about some teacher's union defending some schools in some unspecified way, which you can't find a link to, and (d) another story, which you can't access, about Oakland turning over some of their most at risk students to charter schools, with a (disputed) positive result, maybe; and (e) teacher's unions are "above the law," in some sense, though in the only case I've seen (phonics) the facts of the law are in dispute; (f) miscellaneous observations about teachers not being suited for their job and analogy tests, none of which really added much to the argument.

You're the one who keeps trying to disprove a point I am not attempting to make.

So what is your point? Basically, this was a nothingburger thread, a political complaint with no factual basis that you can find, just some opinionizing, which you say don't really care about anyway, because everyone is ignoring your larger point, which was--what was your point again? Teachers' union bad? It's like, you've lost every battle in the thread but you want to win the war anyway.

I'm not unsympathetic to some of what you're saying. My kids go to a charter school that teaches reading with phonics (alongside whole language) (although I doubt Phylllis Schlafly would approve of it, since it's run by lesbians and also teaches environmental education). But you just haven't made your case here. It's like you have this preconceived sense of being right, and if the evidence isn't there, well, dammit, it should be.
posted by rodii at 12:46 PM on March 26, 2002


rodii:

Let's see,

(a) That the SAT tests are being modified for political reasons rather than educational reasons.

(b) That this is not the first, nor will it be the last time the educational system works against the will of the voters and the parents.

On the very first post following the FPP I made on this, I corrected my wording:

So perhaps "dumbing down" was not the correct way to characterize the recent moves. Rather, it is an attempt to modify the testing procedure to allow for the inefficient teaching methodologies employed in K-12.

So taking that into account, my two major points in the FPP were that:

(a) It is an attempt to modify the testing procedure to allow for the inefficient teaching methodologies employed in K-12.

(b) Are teacher's unions interested in educating children or simply fighting to lower the standards?

I don't feel anybody has made a convincing argument that the SAT is not being modifyed almost exclusively for the UC system, and Atkinson has made it very clear that the UC position is to directly counter the effects of Prop 209. In fact, his words defending the move are almost the same exact words he used when defending affirmative action in the UC system (when Prop 209 was on the ballot).

Now, the point that was brought up but has been lost in the chaff, is that the UC system is well known to over-emphasize the SAT scores in admissions for non-minorities. During affirmative action, the UC schools could overlook minority SAT scores while creating heated competition for other groups. When giving preference based on race was made illegal, the UC system decided to abandon the use of SAT scores because they didn't provide the racial mix the UC system wanted. Now, I guess you have to believe the above analysis in order to make the logical link to the fact that if the objective is to produce a certain racial mix, rather than assess true intellectual apptitude, then the tests must be modified in such a way as to compensate for the poor quality of education being offered to minorities in the K-12 arena.

Now, I have not seen anybody provide any sort of substantial argument to that thesis. Perhaps that is because of my poor original wording of the question which diverted the discussion very early but I fail to see where even in the fog created by my faux pas, anybody has done anything other than offer opinions about whether or not analogy questions are harder than essay questions.

So my second point is/was that there exists a question as to whether or not our schools/teacher's unions are more interested in educating our children than they are pushing their political agenda. Of course, that political agenda, one can easily assume, is biased towards teachers rather than students. Someone even posted the text from the AFT site which fails to even mention education! And perhaps I am tainted by my own experiences where I hear daily pleas on the radio from the teacher's unions to write my Congressman to stop those nasty beauracrats from imposing curriculums and those pesky performance standards. I'm sure there are those who feel that teachers do do everything in their power and constantly raise the bar of excellence, but I am not one which is why I posed the question. And while it wasn't my intent to argue the merits of phonics, the point was why do the teachers refuse to even introduce it? I made no argument for a 100% phonics methodology (though the article I linked to which was *intended* to draw attention to a different point did), only that it seems odd that voters must legislate action in order to introduce change. Why must the state pass legislation in order to get teachers to teach immersion English? And why once the law has been passed, test scores have improved, do the teacher's unions then try to upend the law by choking off funding and support? Hint: Bi-Lingual teachers get paid more under the old program. I felt this question was a valid question, and an important question.
posted by billman at 2:26 PM on March 26, 2002


Billman: Teacher's unions are absolutely organizations dedicated towards the well-being of teachers. Why should they be otherwise? That's their entire reason for existence. Teachers, on the other hand, are by and large dedicated to their students. Teachers call on the teachers' unions to provide muscle when they a) think they're being treated unfairly, or b) prevent others from interfering in their ability to effectively educate their students.

The problem is that you are continually confusing the two.

Why, pray tell, should I jump every time a politician says 'frog'? If you'd been in my shoes, and someone told you to teach genetics without teaching DNA, wouldn't you have done something about it? More to the point, wouldn't you have had a responsibility to do something about it?

You see, your argument hinges on the idea that "everyone" knows the best way to teach students, and dammit, why don't those stupid obstructionist teachers get out of the way and do what's best?

So, let's take the bilingualism issue head on. Test scores have risen, yes. Test scores have risen in all categories - kids who speak only English and LEP kids alike. Add this to the fact that test scores were already rising before the passage of Prop 227 (the link shows 1996 to 2000, but scores rose between 1992 and 1996 as well). Add this to the fact that test scores improved by comparable amounts in districts that had high percentages of LEP students and didn't have a bilingual education program in the first place.

I would submit, actually, that the rise in California's reading scores has a lot more to do with the other hot topic of this thread - the move towards including phonics instruction. This is supported by the fact that the gains have been much larger for 4th graders than for 8th graders, but I admit this is just a hypothesis and I don't have real data to back it up.

But of course, politicians with an agenda see the rise in test scores and say "Of course! Ending bilingual education is a resounding success!" And in the meantime, the bureaucrats are busy shoving new rules down teacher's throats - such as being unable to talk to a kid in his native language, no matter what circumstances. And when politicians try and shove rules down teachers' throats, and teachers see that they're being hindered in their work with kids, they pull in the unions.

I'll absolutely admit that there is some self-interest going on, even to the point of putting teachers' needs above those of students. This is wrong. But I completely reject your facile hypothesis that every thing would just be so much better if we could just get the unions out of the way. Doing so makes the assumption that the politicians are always in a position to know exactly what's best for students. And that's not always the case. Unions are not pretty, but they do serve as a useful check against the latest political fads.
posted by Chanther at 3:59 PM on March 26, 2002


Argh, there should have been a second link in the post above - showing NAEP scores in 1996 and 2000 - this can be found here
posted by Chanther at 4:05 PM on March 26, 2002


When I hear about "cultural differences" as some reason to explain disparity in test results I kinda chuckle. This is America. I just drove from LA to Boston and aside from some slight variances in weather, elevation and sports arenas - it ain't all that different. Chalk most of this problem up to uninterested kids and parents, short sighted bureaucrats and teachers who aren't willing to bend.

I'm certain that America will be behind the rest of the world for the forseeable future because of this pigheaded inertia.
posted by owillis at 4:33 PM on March 26, 2002


Chanther: I'll give you that I tend to leap back and forth between union and teacher without always (or you might argue, ever) giving credit to the full distinction between the two. However, I would argue, you are doing the same in equating politicians (by which I assume you mean elected officials) with parents and voters. Listen to the words, Prop 227. Prop 209. These had to be put on the ballot by voters because politicians wouldn't do it. Groups of concerned citizens went out, gathered signatures to qualify for the ballot and then the voters of the state of California voted. In the case of Prop 227, over 61% of voters indicated this to be their wish.

[NOTE: "You" is being used below in the royal sense, not as a reference to Chanther"]

Now, I'll tip my hat that educators have a tough job and they don't get paid well to do it but when the citizens of the state tell you that you will do something, I don't give a damn what you think, do it! You know what happens to the rest of us when we are told to do something and we refuse to do it because we don't agree with it? We get fired. In the case of educators, they are actually in violation of the law. If you don't agree with it, then do what the citizens had to do to pass the law and petition to have it changed. You don't have the right to defy the law because you think you know better than the parents, or the voters, or even politicians. Perhaps you do know better but that doesn't change the fact that what you are doing is illegal. There are a ton of laws I don't agree with but I don't get to violate them without consequence and neither should any educator. And doing an end-run around the law isn't any more noble. You've got Davis up there with his pockets full of teacher union cash choking the hell out of the system set up to implement the will of the people to basically render ineffective what the voters have overwhelmingly asked for.

And in regards to shove rules down teachers' throats. The whole point is that we shouldn't have to shove rules down the throats of teachers. We have no desire to. Had the teachers unions implemented an accountability system and policed it's own ranks you wouldn't see voters across the country trying shove things down anybody's throat. I think what you are seeing is a public who feels that their trust have been violated. Obviously when you see measures like 209 and 227 being passed, when you see the measures that Bush was able to get into his education bill and have the Democrats gulp it down because they didn't feel the public would back them in opposing it, when you have parents forming their own charter schools, home schooling, and working two jobs to send their children to private schools, it should speak volumes about the damage that has been done to the trust relationship between parents and educators.
posted by billman at 5:03 PM on March 26, 2002


Chanther: Thanks for the thoughtful insight into your honorable profession. This led me to check out your blog. You've inspired me so that I finally signed up today to be an in-school tutor for our local district, something I've been considering for some time.
posted by JackFlash at 5:34 PM on March 26, 2002


: I'm really so sorry I'm annoying you. What I don't understand is that since this thread was not really about phonics as much as teacher's unions, why you even felt the need to get involved if you have no expertise on education and only have an opinion on phonics -- which you then go on to hedge somewhat.

The front page post read like this - Dumbing Down The SAT I was reading this article and several recent news stories came to mind (sorry, can't find links). One was regarding the resistance of teacher's unions to adopt teaching techniques that have proven successful in private schools (phonics would be an example) and the other was a radio news story about a teacher's union defending three schools that had failed to meet state requirements as to quality of education being provided. So, my question is, are teacher's unions interested in educating children or simply fighting to lower the standards?
You very clearly state that phonics is "proven successful", but you provide no evidence. My OPINION is that public schools should stress phonics more than they currently do. That's my OPINION. This does not make it fact,as you state. There isn't any "hedging" there, it's an OPINION, not a fact.
Others, obviously including the people who we pay to think about these things, disagree.

As for the relevance of phonics to the front page post, you brought it up, not me. The article you linked to had exactly the same number of references to phonics as to teacher's unions.
posted by swell at 6:57 PM on March 26, 2002


JackFlash - I'm very humbled that my blog would tip you over the edge into signing up. Best wishes with your students - and may you find it as rewarding as I do!
posted by Chanther at 11:01 PM on March 26, 2002


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