Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Counting the Wrong Things

My drive to school everyday takes me through fifteen miles of wooded countryside following the flow of the Federal Creek. Recently, some logging activity along the riverside has reminded me of how often in so many ways we count the wrong things.

In this case, the logging company will count sales and the quick profit they have turned in just two weeks of stripping the timber, including a number of beautiful walnut trees, from the river side. But they will be long gone when the fall rains begin and the creek flows out of its banks as it always does. With the trees gone and the earth churned up by the heavy equipment the topsoil will find its way into the creek. I already know what will happen; over the next three to four years this area will erode away and before long the creek will begin to edge toward the road.

After the logging company is gone the state will be left to pick up the check for repairing the road. And the silting in the creek will decrease the water quality and flow. The ecosystem will be altered for decades to come; long after the profit loss sheets are forgotten.

How similar this is to so many things in our society.

The economy is in a slide because Wall Street demanded instant profits rather than careful business practices. Mountain tops are removed and streams filled in throughout West Virginia and Kentucky to for easy access to coal. And schools have narrowed curriculum and engaged in the most limited of teaching practices in order to raise scores on standardized tests.

The single-minded focus on testing continues to damage our schools long after it has been established that such scores are, at best, just one indicator of what goes on inside the school walls. Even those who used such scores to assail public schools have found that raising scores are not only easier said than done, but maybe not the most important thing they could do. And recently David Berliner, Past President of the America Educational Research Association, has called for a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing given all the problems with this strategy for school improvement.

As Berliner found in his research, “high-stakes high school exit exams did not improve scores on other tests such as the SAT or NAEP tests, and contributed to higher drop out rates.” We should not be surprised by this or the fact that, as Berliner goes on to point out, corruption “invariably occurs when an indicator of any kind takes on too much value. Both the indicator (test scores, stock prices, return on investment) and those who work with it are frequently corrupted.”

I do not think the people cutting down the trees that once graced my drive to work are bad people. But I think they work in a bad system. One that rewards the quick scalping of the landscape more than it rewards the careful harvesting of trees and the restoration of the land.

Unfortunately, educators are working in a bad system as well. One that only rewards test scores and ignores the human cost in terms of increased drop outs and narrowed curriculum. It could be different, if we changed the accountability system to take into account the entire picture of what makes a good school—from graduation and retention rates to teaching for and assessing higher order thinking skills across the curriculum.

When I drive by this clear-cut every morning I am reminded of that old saying of not seeing the forest for the trees. When it comes to what counts in school, we also seem bent on destroying the forest while measuring the trees.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post - a poignant and vivid example to drive home a crucial point.