Monday, October 19, 2009

Teaching for tests, or testing teaching?

There's a short piece in the New York Times today about a charter school taking kindergartners to a suburban farm to learn that bacon comes from pigs and eggs are laid by chickens so as to be able to take achievement tests that start in the third grade.

A problem that stymied urban kids: if there 42 corn stalks in 32 rows, how many corn stalks are there? City kids screwed up because they didn't know what a corn stalk was.

The story mentioned that kids in New Mexico were flummoxed by test questions that had a context that included escalators and city blocks.

Beyond the fact that the teachers apparently aren't teaching logic and analytical skills, it bothers me that by the time city or rural kids get to the point that they are taking achievement tests they haven't been exposed between home and school to anything that isn't in their neighborhood and they are now being exposed only to give them a leg up on an achievement test.

I was a city kid that had the advantage of having two relatives with farms with in driving distance of home (Hedy: South Lyons and Milford). At an early age, I had no problem with chickens, eggs, pigs, bacon, escalators and running around the block. But, I had no exposure to the Great Wall of China, whales, ghosts, the planets in the solar system (they lied to me back then about Pluto) and so on.

I didn't know about them until my parents and teachers gave me access to books that told me about the greater world. And they didn't give me the books so that I could pass some test at the end of the school year (we took Iowa Achievement back in my grade school days).

Maybe this "teaching to the test' that I hear more and more about is a good thing; but, it isn't how I learned. It seems backwards to me. Shouldn't you start with deciding what people need to know, teach it, then figure out a way to determine if the teaching was good and then if the kids got it?


Dr Jenn said...

Like you I had exposure growing up and these word problems never threw me off balance. However, as an adult I have been boondoggled by some of the questions that have been on Mandy's homework. At one point last year I called Doc and read him a word problem that had thrown several adults. He came up with the answer before I finished the question. LOL. I was thinking statistical and it was basic math.

As far as testing teachers I think it is a great idea. One of my favorite teachers was 5th grade Mr. Gimby in 29 palms California. We explored the world with him. We learned stupid facts like how the chocolate chip cookie progressed into an American phenomenon... etc so on and so forth. Then he lost his job because they said he was a child molester (ten years after I had him).

Or you look at Mrs. McKinney that Mandy had last year. The woman was insane and mean. But got away with hardly teaching them the basics.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know how, with television and the internet, kids are growing up not knowing what corn and escalators are.

molly gras said...

Sounds like a bunch of "educators" justifying a class field trip!

It's probably one of the biggest reasons there's such a huge homeschooling movement in our country ...

Jeni said...

I do agree with your theories here Dave. In my opinion, reading -and wanting to read other than comic books too (although, reading anything is still reading and is good, isn't it?) is fundamental. (Where have I heard that line before, huh?)
I am constantly frustrated by the lack of basic knowledge the 17-year-old here has and she is graduating h.s. next spring. Well, theoretically -provided she passes every class this year! Textbooks the kids have given to them and which she never cracks open -history, for one. Tell me teachers don't assign reading of those books and then, test on the materials in those chapters? Otherwise, how can she possibly pass when I know she has no clue about most things pertaining to history. Just one example there. My teachers sure didn't operate that way! The ability to read, comprehend and REMEMBER then too what you read -too often doesn't seem to be there.

The Curmudgeon said...

My wife's a teacher, so this is close to home.

I wrote about accompanying the junior high on a trip to the Lincoln sites -- how a kid looked out the window of the bus at cows grazing and said, "Look! Horses!"

City kids. Sheesh!

But I find completely bogus to claim that kids can't figure out 42 times 32 because they 'don't know what corn stalks are.'

Substitute widgets, apples, beans or bullets if you must... the problem is the same. All you need to know is how to think abstractly, just a teeny bit.

I'd have to see the question from New Mexico before venturing the same criticism... but that's because I'm a cautious lawyer and not a TV talking head.

You are correct that books are the passport to learning about the great, wide world.

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, but I still think back to Older Daughter's semester in Spain, now some years ago. She was incensed -- and her budget for the term was ruined, ruined! when she found out that the tuition was expressed in euros... as opposed to dollars. Because of the exchange rate, she had far less left for discretionary spending than she planned.

I was unsympathetic. I'd never been to Europe -- still haven't -- but I fully understood that people there would use their own currencies.

We have to stop making excuses for kids and their teachers. Standardized tests are a good way to see whether our kids... and our teachers... are measuring up. And when they don't measure up, the answer is not to change the test. The teachers, perhaps.