Thankfully the presidential campaign has avoided arguments over education. There is still time for the two candidates to slug it out over non-cognitive skills or regression analysis, but that seems as likely as the Redskins (despite my pre-season hopes) getting to the Super Bowl.
Our failure to politicize education policy is a blessing. Smart people in both parties may explore the best ways to help children learn without offending the ideologues at party central. We will need such tolerance even more after the election because no matter who wins, the school-saving schemes the parties favor are due for major adjustments.
Watch any school board meeting, educator conference or TV education panel and you see reality nibbling away at our favorite theories of teaching and learning. The changes will be messy and confusing enough without the two parties picking sides.
Here is the bipartisan consensus of the moment: We should give third- through eighth-graders as well as tenth-graders a long, detailed standardized test each spring and put heavy weight on the results. All states use test score averages to rate schools. In about half the states, high school students risk graduation if their scores aren’t high enough. Several states and some big cities are moving toward evaluating teachers at least in part on how well their students score.
At the moment, the conventional wisdom is to give the best teachers more money and fire the worst teachers. It wants to stop giving high school diplomas to students who cannot read, write or do math well enough to get jobs, but it also wants more students graduating, particularly in cities where half fail to do so.
Some of these goals — like having both better graduates and more graduates — are obviously contradictory. The rest make sense to us only because we have not pursued them long enough to see the pitfalls.
Take standardized tests. We are a meritocratic culture. We are always going to have measures of this kind. Our species has tried other definitions of merit — muscle, gender, ethnicity and class background — and found them wanting. Some educators make a good case for moving from multiple-choice exams to essay exams, oral exams or portfolios. But if we embrace those alternative assessments, we and our children will soon be freaking out over them as much as we do now when faced with the SAT.
Yet our battles over using test results to rate schools and teachers reveal how reluctant we are to make them the sole measure of educational quality. The Obama administration is letting states change some assessments. We will see more experiments with teaching and grading students by character traits and time-management skills and other steps away from high-stake bubble tests.
Standardized teacher evaluations won’t survive. They are too irritating for all concerned. They remind me of the evaluation schemes we have found unworkable in the Washington Post newsroom. Schools seem to be giving principals more opportunity to manage through personal contact with each teacher, the approach that works in the best schools.
Let’s celebrate presidential elections that revolve around issues other than schools. The key education debates will remain where they should be: at the school board meeting, in the principal’s office, at the Friday night football game, at the neighborhood barbecue, and other places where parents and educators can talk to each other about what they want.