Recently, a Kansas school district proudly demonstrated its computerized system for tracking student achievement. For next fall, a teacher could bring up the roster of their students within any academic discipline for which there was standardized testing, and see the student as a series of numbers linked to specific defined outcomes in the state standards.
The example used was mathematics. There, on a computer-generated grid was each student’s precise test results: about a dozen data points taken every 3-4 weeks. The audience was impressed. How state-of-the-art! How “scientific”!
How terribly wrong.
The best teacher I have ever known, a legend who has produced hundreds of scientists and
changed thousands of students’ lives, was once approached by a community member.
“You teach biology, don’t you?” the citizen asked.
“No,” responded my colleague.
“I’m sure you teach biology,” the citizen puzzled.
“No, I teach students,” my colleague replied before totally exasperating his questioner.
No one joins me more strongly in defending the central importance of content and you-can’t- teach-what-you-don’t-know philosophy than my colleague. But by stressing that he “taught students” he was clarifying how teaching each unique student was a unique mission.
Not only are Kansas kids not California kids, and rural Kansas kids are not suburban Kansas kids, but Betty is not Sue and Frank is not Joe. He taught individual students as individuals. He knew where each student stood in the full richness of their social and intellectual maturity. He knew their intellectual status because he gave his own tests and quizzes that were far more discerning than these curriculum-aligned, norm-referenced, cookie-cutter standardized scores.
And he knew his students’ fuller status as persons because he engaged them daily, observing them and helping in their social and intellectual growth as whole individuals. He taught honesty. He set them up for responsibility. He built their work ethic. They came to respect themselves. These are lessons that really count, and there is no data grid for them.
The new tracking grids, far from being a “scientific” educational accounting system, strip education to a tedious impersonal core of simplistic numbers. Betty is a 15-21-14..., Joe a 12, 14, 11...etc. And the teachers’ task today is to solely focus on raising that set of numbers for the next NCLB report.
An ironic moment came when the presenting school flashed the real data on the screen and all of the student names were instantly converted to numbers—the anonymity required by FERPA law.
As the theme to “Secret Agent Man” said, for the students of today’s brave new world of educational accountability, “we’ve given them a number, and taken away their name.”