Steroids and Bubbles

The sky is falling! 

That’s what some observers would have you believe after the scores students around New York State attained in standardized tests plummeted this year. At Harlem Link we do not want to confuse a sense of urgency with a counterproductive panic. We know that only long-term and comprehensive solutions are going to fix the problems that have plagued our schools for generations. 

Has the state of our national educational program gotten worse? The problems our schools face have been compounded by globalization, the technology revolution and a rapidly changing world, but let’s face facts: Our nation has never provided equitable education, not since compulsory schooling began to take hold in the 19th century. And before then – good luck, unless you were landed, male and white.

Speaking of race, are you worried about a racial achievement gap? (I am.) In my office I have a 1950 issue of Life magazine, on which a white girl graces the cover with the headline “U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis.” Sixty years later, we’ve had wave after wave of educational reform driven by panic and hyperbolic assessment of this “crisis.” 

1950 Life Magazine Cover

Reflecting on these facts has helped me put the change in the state test scores this summer in their proper context.  In  sum, New York State Education Department (SED) commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch acted with a courage and an integrity rare among public officals when they decided to ratchet down scores that had been demonstrably inflated over the past five to 10 years. They noted in a July press conference that the state tests had become increasingly predictable and unchallenging. The announcement included a promise to overhaul the state exams and make them more rigorous in coming years. Moreover, the Regents and SED would be holding all students to a higher standard for tests already taken this year.  

In recent years, New York City’s racial achievement gap had appeared to be steadily closing, at least if you believed the test scores, but overnight that gulf re-appeared in force. Suddenly there were heated reactions in the state educational community about the tests and what they had to say about student achievement. Did anyone really think that things had gotten much better?

The critics were merciless.  Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute was quoted in The New York Times the day after the press conference as saying, “The state test is completely unreliable.” Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor, said in a Times article the next day, “We just really can’t trust the state tests for judging whether the quality of education in New York City has really improved.” New York City Mayor Bloomberg appeared ruffled by the sudden drop in scores.  “Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” he said. Later, he infamously added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

The furor reached a head at the August meeting of the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), during which parents protested the drop in test scores and the previously inflated scores so vociferously, bullhorns and all, that the meeting was shut down early.

My view is that for all the reforms, all the changes ebbing and flowing in curriculum and assessment of student achievement, all the fads and the gimmicks, things have not changed all that much since the “crisis” of 1950. Proficiency rates on state tests should not be the goal; student independence and success in higher education and in life ought to be the goal.  So I see this drop in test scores as just the popping of another bubble – not unlike the home run bubble created by steroid proliferation in baseball and the stock market bubble created by an unsustainable housing boom. Do these two graphs appear to have anything in common?

40 Home Run Hitters per team, 1924-2009

Dow Jones closing averages, 1924-2009

Down, up, down again, WAY up, and then, BUST!  If I were a betting man, I would bet that the New York City proficiency scores on 4th and 8th grade tests, if plotted over time, would show the same pattern. (I have searched the Internet, but this data is demonstrably harder to find than baseball and Dow Jones statistics.) 

As with the dreadful state of the economy, panicking in the face of these test scores will get us nowhere. If we are going to have lasting change, we need to ignore fads and focus on what will bring long-term improvement. In the wake of the housing meltdown, hucksters sprung up to “rescue” defaulting homeowners from their crushing debt, only to be prove to be just another bunch of scam artists. There are no quick fixes.  There are no shortcuts. 

In education, we know what works.  School by school, change is possible with a committed group of competent educators focused on a clear and compelling mission, a shared community emphasis on student goals, robust home-school communication and, finally, a clear vision to which everyone subscribes to make those elements come to life. Everything else – all the bells and whistles and promises and panics – is just another manifestation of the crisis thinking that, if obeyed, will send us back into yet another false boom and bust cycle.

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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