Math Plus Reading Does Not Equal Learning

I stirred up some conservatives in the Twitterverse earlier this week with my thoughts on unions and charter schools. In particular, I was asked how I'd explain the success of Harvest Prep, a charter school in north Minneapolis. You can read a glowing profile of the school by conservative columnist Katherine Kersten here. That profile and data from the Minnesota Department of Education go a long way to explaining Harvest Prep's “success”.

First, a description of what Kersten calls Harvest Prep's “top-notch instruction”:

Every day, Harvest devotes 100-minute time blocks to reading and math. In early grades, the school teaches phonics and math facts using “drill and kill” methods that would drive most education professors shrieking from the room.

The results of this speak for themselves:

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Harvest Prep handily beats state math averages, and has recently pulled ahead in reading. But in science, the school lags far behind.

Now, math and reading tests are administered to more grades than the science test, but the gap we see here is more than statistical variation. The gap we see is a poignant testament to the perils of our narrow testing obsession.

There's no question that Harvest Prep has achieved impressive results in its math and reading scores, and it has been highly lauded for its achievements in this area. Unfortunately, the data above support the hypothesis that what isn't tested isn't taught (or at least not with the same intensity).

We need to remind ourselves what the goal of our education system is. It's not just about scoring well on the tests we have, it's about comprehensive student readiness for post-secondary success. To punish and reward schools using just one and a half subjects (reading comprehension being only one part of English/Language Arts) is to encourage a narrow-minded focus on low-level testable skills. The MCAs disproportionately assess students at the lowest levels of learning; the skills necessary for critical thinking, effective creation, and original problem-solving don't make the cut.

We need to reverse these twisted incentives and reopen the debate about what we test and how we use that data. To do otherwise is to risk encouraging the development of increasingly narrow pedagogy that hurts our students' chances in the long run.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Student Assessment 

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