‘Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it’ — Obama hint on testing

June 16, 2009 at 7:00 pm 1 comment

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PRESIDENT Obama spoke, briefly, at his June 11 Green Bay town hall meeting on education as well as health… and gave a hint of some hope and change that may not be as bad as many educators feared when he announced the appointment of the militaristic, test tsar Arne Duncan as his education secretary.

Local teacher Matt Stein of 20 years challenged the president: “One of the things that I’ve learned in education in the last 20 years is that the system is not broken. And it bothers me when I hear politicians, and even my President, say that our educational system is broken.

“This system works in cases. There are great things happening in Green Bay and Appleton and all over the UP. And there are things that can be reproduced. My question is: When will the focus be on reproducing those things — smaller classrooms, creating communities in your classrooms — and moving the focus away from single-day testing and test-driven outcomes?”

The president responded:

“So here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to step up our game — which brings me to the next point in your question, which is, how do we do that? I agree with you that if all we’re doing is spreading around a lot of standardized tests and teaching to the test, that’s not improving our education system.

“There’s a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, ‘Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.’ You can weigh it all the time, but it’s not making the hog fatter.

“So the point being, if all we’re doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn’t assure that we’re actually improving educational outcomes.

“We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids.

“Maybe it’s just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom.

“There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability, number one.”

Obama’s remarks heavily focused on the need for a change in health care in the US. They were reported as such.

But as the town hall was held in a school — SouthWest High School — a likely question on education was predictable. Obama’s remarks may have been less off the cuff than appears. Buried and almost lost in the extensive arguments on health care, the remarks on education could be seen as an early precursor of things to come.

Arne Duncan is at present on a “listening tour”.

When Arne Duncan was first appointed as education secretary there were fears across the education community, based on his draconian approach to bringing change to education in inner-Chicago — see Hope and change in my classroom.

But balancing Duncan, Obama also appointed the much more radical Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford, as head of his education policy transition team, a champion of constructivism and reduced testing. She was the choice of those who understand how children learn as Alfie Kohn put it.

Could it be that we’re going to see Duncan as the hard cop in the public eye, while some of the soft cop’s more thoughtful and intelligent policies make it into the classroom?

Stanford’s teacher training program now includes on its reading lists for aspiring teachers the radical (for the US) pamphlets and research of Kings College London’s Prof Paul Black and friends.

The record of the president’s remarks can be read at: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Below are the president’s remarks in full on education:

Well, let me — first of all, thank you for teaching. My sister is a teacher, and I think there is no more noble a profession than helping to train the next generation of Americans. (Applause.)

I completely agree with you that there is a lot of good stuff going on in American education. The problem is, is that it’s uneven. (Applause.) Well, let me put it this way. There are actually two problems. In some places it is completely broken. In some urban communities where you’ve got 50 percent of the kids dropping out, you only have one out of every 10 children who are graduating at grade level — this system is broken for them.

Q Crime — (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m going to get to that. We can’t have too big of a debate here. You got your question. (Laughter.) Don’t worry, though, I’m going to answer your question.

So there are some places where it really is completely broken. And there, yes, a lot of it has to do with poverty and families that are in bad shape. There are all kinds of reasons. And yet, even there, there are schools that work. So the question is, why is it that some schools are working and some schools aren’t, and even in the worst circumstances, and why don’t we duplicate what works in those schools so that all kids have a chance?

Now, in other places, Green Bay and Appleton and many communities throughout Wisconsin and Michigan, the average public school is actually doing a reasonably good job — but can I still say that even if you factor out the urban schools, we are falling behind when it comes to math; our kids are falling behind when it comes to science. We have kind of settled into mediocrity when we compare ourselves to other advanced countries and wealthy countries. That’s a problem because the reason that America over the last hundred years has consistently been the wealthiest nation is because we’ve also been the most educated nation.

It used to be by a pretty sizable factor we had the highest high school graduation rates, we had the highest college graduation rates, we had the highest number of Ph.D.s, the highest number of engineers and scientists. We used to be head and shoulders above other countries when it came to education. We aren’t anymore. We’re sort of in the middle of the pack now among wealthy, advanced, industrialized countries.

So even with the good schools, we’ve got to pick up the pace, because the world has gotten competitive. The Chinese, the Indians, they’re coming at us and they’re coming at us hard, and they’re hungry, and they’re really buckling down. And they watch — their kids watch a lot less TV than our kids do, play a lot fewer video games, they’re in the classroom a lot longer. (Applause.)

So here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to step up our game — which brings me to the next point in your question, which is, how do we do that? I agree with you that if all we’re doing is spreading around a lot of standardized tests and teaching to the test, that’s not improving our education system. (Applause.)

There’s a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, “Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.” (Applause.) You can weigh it all the time, but it’s not making the hog fatter. So the point being, if we’re all we’re doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn’t assure that we’re actually improving educational outcomes.

We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids. Maybe it’s just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom. There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability, number one.

Number two, we do have to upgrade the professional development for our teachers. (Applause.) I mean, we still have a lot of teachers who are — we’ve got a lot of teachers who are well-meaning, but they’re teaching science and they didn’t major in science and they don’t necessarily know science that well. And they certainly don’t know how to make science interesting. So we’ve got to give them the chance to train and become better teachers. We’ve got to recruit more teachers, train them better, retain them better, match them up with master teachers who are doing excellent work so that they are upgrading their skills.

If after all that training, the teacher is still not very good, we’ve got to ask that teacher, probably, there are a lot of other professions out there; you should try one. (Applause.) I mean, I’m just being blunt, but we’re going to have to pick up the pace.

Now, the key point I want to make is this: We should focus on what works, based on good data. And Arne Duncan, my Secretary of Education, this guy is just obsessed with improving our education system. He is focused a hundred percent on it, and he is completely committed to teachers. We think that teachers are the most important ingredient in good schools. We’re going to do whatever works to help teachers do a better job — (applause) — we’re going to eliminate those thing that don’t help teachers do a good job. Some of it is going to require more money, so in our Recovery Act, we have more money for improving curriculums, teacher training, recruitment, a lot of these things. But you can’t just put more money without reform, and so some of it is demanding more accountability and more reform.

There’s one other ingredient, though, and that is parents. (Applause.) We’ve got to have parents putting more emphasis on education with our kids. That’s how we’re all going to be able to pick up our game. (Applause.)

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Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Testing, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Nuagenangesip  |  December 11, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Truthful words, some true words man. You rocked my day!!

    Reply

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