How (and Why) I Reported My Latest Feature Story

Over at This Week in Education, Alexander Russo has a critical post about my new feature, "The Test Generation." Alexander is correct to point out that just because some school districts–like the one I profile in the piece, Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs–are pursuing value-added evaluation of teachers through way more high-pressure standardized testing of kids, it doesn't mean all districts will do so. I acknowledge so much in the piece. But it's important to note that when districts do pursue this strategy, they are doing so partly in response to federal incentives. We need to see how these federal guidelines are playing out on-the-ground in classrooms, because otherwise, we won't know how to guard against the possible unintended consequences of well-intentioned programs like Race to the Top.

I want to address a few other issues Alexander raises in his post:

Did I interview "too many teachers who wanted to talk to [me], a common mistake in education reporting?"  Alexander suggests I somehow sought out teachers with an axe to grind against testing and merit pay. This accusation is simply false. I reported this article with the full cooperation of the Harrision District 2 administration, and I want to commend them for working with me openly and honestly. The vast majority of the teachers I report on in the piece are teachers the administration introduced me to–people whom they felt would reflect well on the district and even support administration policies. This includes the art teacher who opens the piece and is critical of test prep; the literacy instructor who tells me about the stresses of teaching with his classroom door open and expecting random observations; and the guidance counselor who enthusiastically supports the district's merit pay plan. 

In addition to visiting schools and observing classrooms, at the district's invitation, I attended a focus group meeting of teachers from various schools; the woman randomly seated next to me found out I was a journalist and leaned over to tell me she was unhappy and anxious. At that same meeting, teachers spoke openly to Miles about their fears about over-testing. An honest dialogue took place.

On my own, I met a few other Harrison District 2 teachers through the local teachers union, the Pikes Peak Education Association. These teachers, however, would not agree to go on the record, and so none of their stories appear in the piece. Suffice to say, I feel I met a broad range of Harrison educators with varying opinions on their district's policies. The piece contains a lot of criticism from teachers because that is what I heard on-the-ground; that said, I also made sure to cite district poll numbers that suggest a small majority of teachers do support the outlines of Miles' merit pay plan. 

Is it really true that parents oppose too much standardized testing?: Yes. Polling has been remarkably consistent on this question. But as I note in the article, the parents who tend to organize to push back against over-testing are wealthier and more educated than the parents in Harrison. (Think Scarsdale, New York, or the popularity of the documentary "Race to Nowhere" in affluent communities.) Because of this, experiments in new types and uses of testing tend to be conducted disproportionately with low-income kids.

Is testing only stressful for kids because teachers make it stressful? While some teachers amp up testing stress and some teachers effectively play it down, it seems clear to me that a district where students sit for high-stakes tests 25 days per year or more is going to have a different day-to-day, week-to-week feel than one where kids take just a few standardized tests in the spring. Teachers are not the people who set these policies, so I don't think it's fair to hold them wholly responsible for the stresses they cause. Harrison's superintendent, Mike Miles, acknowledges this stress and is unapologetic about it, because he believes anxiety is a fair price to pay for accountability. That's a debate worth having.

Now, onward and upward! I have a post coming later today or tomorrow about student debt and the college drop-out rate, so stay tuned…

4 thoughts on “How (and Why) I Reported My Latest Feature Story

  1. Joanne Jacobs

    It would be astounding if teachers weren’t anxious about the testing — and about frequent observation visits. These are big changes.

    I liked the story and linked to it from my blog.

    I’d love to know who wrote and approved the art test that asked first graders to write a paragraph about Matisse.

  2. Adrian

    Ms. Goldstein, thanks for all of your writing about education. You and Diane Ravitch (sp?) have become important voices of sanity in the debate surrounding “education reform.” Keep up the good work! You subjecting some very fashionable ideas to deserved criticism.

    Forgive the “gender essentialism,” but as a male reader, I think it’s going to take women progressives to challenge the testing-fetishists in the liberal commentariat. Something about the male mind loves data, scantron sheets, and No. 2. pencils. I’m not saying it’s a biological thing — boys are just trained to love and trust numbers.

  3. Dana

    Thanks for these comments, Joanne and Adrian. The art test was created by a group of Harrison administrators and consultants who work on instruction and curriculum. The head of the committee working on testing in “specials” (art, music, gym) is a former PE teacher. She was very committed to the project and when I met her in November, she told me about her experience attending a conference of art educators and learning that Harrison was really going to be among the very first in the nation to try out this new type of non-traditional testing. She felt that art, gym, and music were being “elevated” by the fact that they were being tested.


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