I grew up in a big family—6 kids—and when we were little, we had a ritual that you may recognize. First we’d take off our shoes and stand—as tall as we could—up against the wall by the kitchen door. Then Mom or Pop would mark our height and write our name and the date next to the mark. We’d do this every six months or so, and that let us see if we were getting taller. I’m sure lots of families still do that.
Public education has embraced that concept. Naturally, educators have given it a fancy name, ‘the growth model.’ In education it means testing a student at the beginning of the year and then again at the end, to see how much the student has learned.
This education ‘growth model’ is now the latest ‘best idea ever.’ Many liberals, who think the federal law known as No Child Left Behind placed too much emphasis on a single end-of-the-year test, approve of the ‘before and after’ approach. Some conservatives see the growth model as a way of finally being able to measure teacher effectiveness.
The family growth model works especially well if families don’t move to a new house. But, even if a family moves from New York to Oregon, the measure—that yardstick—remains the same. Parents can copy the numbers, put them on the wall of the new kitchen, and keep on taking measurements.
However, adapting the growth model for schools is problematic in two important ways. In many urban schools the student turnover rate often exceeds 50 percent. By late spring more than half of the kids who started at one school in September are now going to other schools. A niece of mine who taught elementary school in Orlando told me that her class changed 40 percent by mid-January. If she taught half of her kids only half of the year, who’s accountable for learning? Is she, or the other teachers? Or, to put it in terms the conservatives can easily understand, which teacher are you going to punish?
So it doesn’t work as a reliable way of holding teachers accountable. What about for kids? There’s a problem here as well. The yardstick that parents use is the same wherever they are: 36 inches to a yard. Education is different. While tests can be given at the beginning and the end of the year no matter how many schools a kid attends, if the test results are to have any genuine meaning, the curriculums must fit, and the tests must be assessing what’s been taught. That’s rarely true.
In other words, given the high rate of mobility, to have a valid growth model in education we need a common yardstick and a generally agreed upon curriculum. That means national standards, a direction we are now moving in. Nearly all the states have endorsed national standards, but let’s not rush to set standards without a vigorous debate about what belongs in the curriculum. Because an inevitable corollary of national standards is common measures—and probably common tests as well, let’s figure out what sort of performance measures make sense, before we—educationally speaking–put our children up against the wall.