Deborah Meier’s Six Alternative Assumptions to High-Stakes Testing

from Will Standards Save Public Education, Beacon Press, 2000

edited by Kathy Emery

“State standards and high-stakes tests “will not help to develop young minds, contribute to a robust democratic life, or aid the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.  By shifting the locus of authority to outside bodies, it undermines the capacity of schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that schools in a democracy should be fostering in kids -- responsibility for one's own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences.  Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment.  It thus decreases the chances that young people will grow up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements.  And it squeezes out those schools and educators that seek to show alternate possibilities, explore other paths.  The standardization movement is not based on a simple mistake.  It rests on deep assumptions about the goals of education and the proper exercise of authority in the making of decisions -- assumptions we ought to reject in favor of a different vision of a healthy democratic society. [my emphasis] Drawing on my experience in schools in New York City and Boston, I will show that this alternative vision isn't utopian, even if it might be messy -- as democracy is always messy."  (pp. 4-5, Debbie Meier, Will Standards Save Public Education, Beacon Press, 2000)

1.  Goals:  “There are multiple, legitimate definitions of ‘a good education’ and ‘well-educated’ and it is desirable to acknowledge that plurality” (p. 16).  Exposure to different and competing goals is morally and intellectually invigorating.  The community needs to be constantly involved in such a debate.

 2.  Authority:  “Experts should be subservient to citizens” (p. 16).   Good examples of this come to mind: Donald Graves helping Nancie Atwell (In the Middle) and Shirely Brice-Heath in the Carolina Piedmont (Ways with Words).  Parents, teachers and students need to be experiencing democratic decision making in order for democracy to be practiced.  Educational researchers and business leaders can provide expert consulting to that process.

3.  Assessment:  “Important decisions regarding kids and teachers should always be based on multiple sources of evidence that seem appropriate and credible to those most concerned” (p. 16).   When Meier was at Central Park East in Harlem, the school was able to gain a waiver from the state’s standardized tests and evaluate graduates’s portfolios and presentations according to the criteria of “Five Habits of Mind”: (1) Connections (what is the relationship between A and B); (2) Perspective (who is speaking?); (3) Evidence (how do we know what we know?); (4) Significance (why is it important?); and (5) Supposition (how might things have been or could be different?).

4.  Enforcement:  “Sanctions should remain in the hands of the local community to be determined by people who know the particulars of each child and each situation.  The power of both business and the academy are already substantial; their access to the means of persuasion (the media) and their power to determine access to jobs and higher education already impinge on the freedom of local communities” (p. 17).

5.  Equity: “A fairer distribution of resources is the principal means for achieving educational equity” (p. 18).  All schools are under funded but many schools’ budgets have been eviscerated.  This situation is exacerbated by a polarization of living standards.  A student with a full belly and a calm mind learns better than one with an empty stomach and a life full of anxiety.

6.  Effective Learning: “Improved learning is best achieved by improving teaching and learning relationships” (p. 18).    The business model assumes that human beings are chess pieces that can be moved about according to simplistic rewards and sanctions.  But people are much more complex than that.  The nature of our relationships with others fundamentally affects our motives and actions.  Teaching is an art, not a science, thus cannot be reduced to numbers.