The appointment of Cathie Black as Joel Klein’s replacement for Chancellor of NYC schools set off a firestorm of resistance from teachers and parents who bristled at her corporate media background. As part of an uneasy truce and in recognition of her total lack of familiarity with the workings of public education, NY’s mayor appointed Shael Polakow-Suransky “Chief Academic Officer” as her number two.
What kind of response did that garner from NY parents and educators? Reflexive disgruntlement? Pre-emptive grumbling?
I had to chuckle when I read the NYT’s opening ‘graphs describing Polakow-Suransky’s own educational experience: a Brown University graduate? As someone who graduated from the nose-to-the-grindstone Cornell, we were always amazed that Brown allowed you to opt out of grades and was still considered part of the Ivy League. You heard me. In 1969, the “Brown Curriculum” instituted pass/fail classes and narrative evaluations; it seems only recently that students are able to choose conventional letter grades as well as Satisfactory/No Credit.
Mr. Polakow-Suransky spent his own high school years at a place called “Commie High”–a loving jibe at Community High School’s “experimental structure” in the college town of Ann Arbor, MI. His parents are both professors–faculty brat two times over. (I say this as a faculty brat myself.)
Hello? Have we forgotten how to decipher code words for “raised by hippies”? I think it’s possible that Polakow-Suransky says students need more testing, but qualitatively better testing along with quantity. And frankly, I’m heartened by an educator who believes those tests should consist of asking students to
“…write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we’re measuring are basic skills,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said in an interview.
A sad, unattractive truth of standardized testing, however: bubbled-in scores on a machine-scanned test are easy to grade, and thus multiple choice tests are well-adapted to getting data back on large numbers of students.
Portfolios of journals/performances/3D models, open-ended math questions in which you show your work, lab journal results of experiments, drafts of re-written papers leading up to the polished draft, narrative self-evaluations as well as ones written by the teacher–these are all much more labor- and time-intensive to grade. Good, serious teachers prefer them and spend hours assessing their students’ work, but let’s not kid ourselves at the amount of time involved.
I think it’s honorable of Polakow-Suransky to broaden how we assess students in an effort to measure their ability at a higher level (beyond “basic skills”). But it very likely means squeezing more out of already stretched teachers if class sizes remain at 40 students per teacher. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
Quality student work, measured by quality assessments, will work best when there’s a reasonable class size. Otherwise, the sheer scale of students who need to be evaluated will push teachers and administrators to use standardized tests. Teaching is a hand-made, artisanal craft. We demand that it occur at machine-like speeds and scales. And I’d like to see Polakow-Suransky’s response to that reality.