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Testing's not the key to educational success

by and

Governor Andrew Cuomo and other critics of education view teaching and learning as a business – and as such, they believe teachers and schools should be held accountable for students' successes and failures. But they measure success and failure only by outcomes on standardized tests and supposedly objective evaluations of teacher and school effectiveness.

They don't seem to care that these measures tell them very little and are not used by countries whose education systems are out-performing our own: places such as Singapore, China, South Korea, Finland, New Zealand, and Canada. Indeed those countries focus less on measuring and much more on strategies proven to be effective:

• Making education a much more attractive profession by drawing teachers from the top 30 percent of university graduating classes and compensating them with salaries comparable to engineers.

• Making time for professional development in which teachers work with each other to improve their teaching skills and professional practices.

• Using selected data to adjust and inform instruction, not to punish teachers.

• Moving the best and brightest teachers to schools where they are needed or having effective schools adopt and take responsibility for helping struggling schools. (Indeed in these countries it is often looked upon as an honor and recognition of your professional quality to be asked to help a low-achieving school).

But the governor would base our teacher evaluations and rewards on assumptions proven to be false by decades of research. Among those mistaken notions:

• Extrinsic rewards like bonuses will result in increased student achievement.

• Good teaching may be emotionally demanding but it is technologically simple.

• We can successfully measure good teaching by linking teaching with student test scores.

In his work on motivation, celebrated business author Daniel Pink points out that extrinsic motivation doesn't even work in the corporate world except with the simple and non-skilled jobs. Indeed linking pay to performance in professional fields actually leads to less collaboration, more scripted work, and standardization and less critical thinking by workers.

The problems with schools and teaching, especially in poor urban and rural areas, are real. Schools must work to become more accountable, but we should learn from the research and tap into the expertise of educators across the state and region.

For example, charters were originally designed as laboratories for best practice, so let's stop punishing schools and teachers who deal with the poorest and most disadvantaged students in our community and use the best charters and suburban districts to work with urban schools on accountability, assessment, and achievement issues.

Pitting school against school and district against district creates an even more fractured system of education that punishes teachers who choose to work with the least prepared students. And into this breach will step more untested charter and for-profit school companies that will harden the positions on both sides and lead to even less collaboration and more competition and punishment.

We are at the tipping point. Regional conversations, like those advocated by the Great Schools for All Coalition, are far more likely to generate ideas for change than an obsessive and wrong-headed reliance on test scores with dubious validity that will divide us even further.

Our community and state can do this if we stop throwing stones at each other, listen and learn from educators who are succeeding, and concentrate our efforts on creating systems that share, not compete.

Isn't that one of the first things we learned in kindergarten?

Jeffrey Linn is Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the College at Brockport; Mark Hare is a retired journalist. Both are members of the coordinating committee of the Great Schools for All Coalition.