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National Review Online


High-Stakes Editorializing

February 23, 2004

By Jay P. Greene, Marcus A. Winters

Times education columnist tugs the heart, clouds the mind.

The New York Times’ weekly education column is perhaps the most widely read and influential newspaper space for education policy. The column, which for the last year has been under the pen of Michael Winerip, could be used for a rational discussion of the facts about education. Unfortunately, Winerip uses his weekly space in the Grey Lady to muddy our thinking with tear-jerking anecdotes. The column is perhaps the most dangerous newspaper space in the nation for those interested in education reform.

Hard evidence has no home in Winerip’s column. Each week Winerip, a former education reporter for the Times, deploys human-interest stories meant to reduce even the most hardened education reformer to weeping; then, having blinded the reader with tears, he leaps to his favored conclusion — especially when it comes to his pet subject, high-stakes testing.

Take Winerip’s recent column about a kindergarten teacher in Orlando, Florida. The first half of the story is a heartwarming description of this gentle teacher nurturing her students. “Precious darlings, we have a day that’s bigger than big,” she tells them. “You are the b-e-s-t — kiss your brains for being so smart.” Watching a video of her students, she cries “pink tears” — that is, the happy kind. She’s irresistible.

Then, halfway through the article, Winerip lowers the boom. The teacher is quitting because she doesn’t approve of Florida’s new high-stakes test and thinks it will force her to change her teaching style. Since Winerip devotes virtually the whole article to describing how sad it is that this teacher is leaving, he doesn’t provide any real discussion of the merits of her complaint against high-stakes testing. But he does provide a painstaking description of the teacher’s last day at school, when she sheds “blue” (sad) tears.

Maybe it’s a tragedy that an experienced and dedicated educator is leaving the profession because she doesn’t like standardized testing. But to let that be our sole guide for policymaking would ignore the simple truth that teachers of such exceptional quality are a minority in the public school system. We know that schools are failing to adequately teach basic skills like reading and math, and the evidence indicates that high-stakes testing improves education. Winerip simply ignores such research. To him, none of that matters if this one teacher is shedding blue tears.

Winerip returns to this subject in another column, this one about respected educator Debra Meier. Meier is the founder of several schools that utilize individual instruction and progressive teaching methods. These schools have been an unbridled success, so much so that praising Debra Meier has become more or less a mandatory practice for education policy writers, like politicians extolling motherhood and apple pie. Meier believes, and Winerip certainly agrees, that high stakes testing is “pushing public education toward mediocrity.” She worries that such tests may require teachers to abandon methods designed to teach a child broader skills, not simply how to read or do math.

Of course, “pushing public education toward mediocrity” may actually imply improvement rather than decline. Be that as it may, the larger point is that Winerip is distracting us from the facts. Debra Meier’s educational successes deserve our highest praise. If we could put Debra Meier into every public-school classroom, public education would certainly improve dramatically and standardized testing would be unnecessary. (Having praised her, we can now keep our education-researcher membership cards.) But a public school system requires hundreds of thousands of teachers and we simply don’t have hundreds of thousands of Debra Meiers.

For the last several decades, our policy has been to treat all public-school teachers as if their performance were as reliable as Debra Meier’s, regardless of whether they have earned such treatment. As a result, many children — particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among them — are sentenced never to acquire the basic skills they need. Standardized testing does not provide these children with an ideal, Debra-Meier-quality education, but at least it guarantees that they do not graduate without being able to read and do basic math, as so many hundreds of thousands have done for so long.

In another one of his columns bemoaning high-stakes testing, Winerip describes seriously disabled students who are given a mockery of a standardized test because the state requires that they be tested. We visit a school for students with mental retardation severe enough that they cannot hold a pencil, let alone knowledgably answer questions on a standardized test. Why should we test these poor students, Winerip wants to know, when we already have a process for evaluating the performance of special education students in the form of Individualized Education Plans (IEP)? Winerip implies that it is unnecessary to test any student who has an IEP.

The problem is not that testing severely handicapped children isn’t a farce; it is. But such students are only a small fraction of all students with IEPs, though you’d never know it from reading Winerip’s column. A full majority of students with IEPs have diagnoses that fall into the category commonly known as “learning disability,” and many others have other relatively mild disabilities such as speech impairments. There is legitimate disagreement about whether students with these comparatively mild disabilities should be required to pass standardized tests, but it’s just plain dishonest to make the case against such testing by holding up severely disabled, wheelchair-bound kids.

While high-stakes testing is by far Winerip’s topic of choice, he routinely defends many of the other priorities of the teacher unions and their fellow travelers. He often does this not by singling out particular education reforms but by conveying a sense that whatever is wrong with education has nothing to do with schools.

The most striking example of his blaming society for education’s problems is that in his tenure as Times education columnist Winerip has managed to write a column about orphans. The column doesn’t address any educational issue; it simply points out that life is difficult for orphans. But this Winerip article and others like it implicitly support the teacher-union political agenda by conveying a sense that the inadequate results of many public schools are entirely the product of poverty and other social problems. Can we really expect schools to teach orphans how to read, with all the disadvantages they face? Is it really fair to expect them to pass a standardized test before they graduate?

Michael Winerip’s education column employs the most powerful weapon in the teacher union’s arsenal: the sad stories of a few teachers and students. But the evidence shows that for each child Winerip portrays crying about standardized tests, there are thousands who would not learn basic skills without those tests. And for every naturally motivated Debra Meier, there are hundreds of teachers in inner-city schools who serve their students better because they are held accountable. Yet Winerip’s defenses of the status quo are placed prominently on the pages of the New York Times every week. It’s enough to make you cry “blue” tears.

Original Source:



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