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Op-Ed: Five Reasons Why New Jersey Will Once Again Fail to Resolve School Testing

We refuse to learn from experience, we want easy solutions, we’re not interested in other points of view, and winning is everything

Richard C. Ten Eyck
Richard C. Ten Eyck

Recent articles in NJ Spotlight and an editorial in NJ.com continue the discussions concerning the administration of the high-stakes PARCC assessment for New Jersey children. Once again, we are offered the opportunity to reflect on why such discussions inevitably fail to resolve anything of significance. Make no mistake, however, these too will fail to resolve the issues involved in our continued attempts to do the wrong thing better. Here are five reasons why this will happen.

1. We don’t know what, or whom, we believe

We live in a time of changing “stories,” a time when many of the stories with which we were raised no longer seem to apply. In education, one of these stories goes something like this: Go to school. Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college. Get a good job. Have a secure future.

Ask a parent of a young college graduate with $100,000 or more in debt and no job in their field of study if that story is working for them. For an increasing number, it is not. But the story persists.

We are between beliefs in our understanding of school and learning. We’ve had decades of reform following Sputnik and the Reagan-era document on education reform, A Nation at Risk. The story was that better, more rigorous standards and equally challenging assessments would “solve the problem” of “underachievement.” But what do we do when our belief in such strategies is shaken by disappointing results, relatively flat academic performance, significant increases in costs, and continued gaps in achievement?

Do we revisit our beliefs to see if we’re headed in the right direction? No. We hang on to old beliefs and we get trapped in what Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff call the confusion of trying to do the wrong things right versus doing the right thing.

The path to the right thing begins with learning and…

2. We refuse to learn

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” (Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy)

We remain committed to hurling beliefs at one another as if they increase in validity the louder we shout them. Fifty states have a mandate to evaluate their students. There are now two that remain committed to the use of PARCC. Why is that so? How do we discern this? Not by continuing to provide forums for folks who have refined their talking points more than their listening skills.

How can we grow in McLuhan’s “insight and understanding”? Maybe those charged with making decisions about the ways in which testing can/should inform and improve student learning might begin to learn more about testing and focus less on winning the testing debate.

For a place to begin this process, Daniel Koretz, a testing proponent and the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard University, offers a highly readable and informative work, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

3. We’re more committed to solving proxy problems...

We, as a society, have grown to expect and demand quick solutions. We have no patience for the time it takes to analyze a situation thoroughly to find the root causes. We place great value in leaders who propose quick, aggressive solutions. When such solutions inevitably fail, we focus on assigning blame, refusing to revisit the wisdom of the original solution or the accuracy of the original problem definition.

The current iteration of the testing debate will fail because we continue to have no idea or willingness to confront what all previous large-scale assessments have revealed to us in large font — that such assessments reflect the socio-economic status of the test taker far more accurately than the quality of instruction or the innate ability of the test–taker. But poverty and racial divides are too big and too inconvenient to deal with. Better to throw multi-million-dollar testing solutions at the wall with little or no understanding of the folly of expecting all kids to reach identified levels of proficiency simply because they have lived the same number of years as their peers.

4. Sensible argument cannot compete with good theater

“There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theater” (Laurie Penny in Longreads, September 2018)

A quick review of the research on confirmation bias will reveal what we all know to be true. We exist primarily in the echo chambers of our beliefs and these beliefs are less susceptible to alteration than we might like to admit. Regardless of our feelings about the direction of the current administration in Washington, D.C., it should be clear to most of us at this point that our (to us at least) logical arguments in support or opposition go largely unheard by those who hold the opposite positions.

Over time the talking points get more sophisticated and often better reasoned, all with limited impact. Theater may not be in the form of high-energy protests or rallies. Theater may be the convening of yet another group of “experts” or interest-group representatives whose qualifications may reflect shared ignorance as much as shared knowledge.

5. Winning is everything

Perhaps the most important reason for the predictable failure of attempts to resolve the issue of large-scale assessment, its promises, its shortcomings, and its impact on learning is that the various participants see this as a win/lose contest. Winning is critical — for the support base, for the political gain/damage, for testing companies, etc. Interestingly, it is also critical for a group that may never have been represented in any such discussions — the students affected by these decisions.

Bottom line: Ego trumps common interests

It is tragically ironic that, in the pursuit of measuring learning, we persist in demonstrating an unwillingness to make our own learning/understanding about testing the cornerstone of our deliberations. Hurling beliefs at one another makes marketable theater and further demonstrates the distinction between doing wrong things right and doing the right thing.

In a 2016 essay posted on the Ackoff Center Weblog, Will Richardson offers a quote from an interview with Russell Ackoff: “Peter Drucker said ‘There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.’ Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is the righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become… Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter.”

For those involved on either side of the “discussion,” positions have been repeated so frequently that they have become deep-seated beliefs, taking on moral implications. Conversations continue to focus on adversarial positioning, a type of bargaining strategy that is based on the consequence of winning or losing. As long as egos continue to be more important than thoughtful problem analysis and mutual acceptance of common interests, there is a predictable (and regrettable) end to this story. It will be a “doubling down” on trying to do the wrong thing better.

From a teacher to superintendent of schools, Richard C. Ten Eyck has spent more than five decades in education. In 2005, he retired from the New Jersey state Department of Education as an assistant commissioner. Since his retirement, he has worked as a senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network. He is co-founder and a partner in R & R Education Consultants. His work currently focuses on the ways in which our system of public education can respond to the changing needs of modern learners.

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