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Avoiding the Poverty Issue

The New York Times online forum Room for Debate asked the question Testing Students to Grade Teachers:
What do we know about using student achievement tests to judge teacher performance?
Here's Paul Thomas' answer. He was the only respondent who addressed the real issue.

Paul Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He is writing a book on poverty in the United States. You can follow his work at Radical Scholarship and on Twitter at @plthomasEdD.

by Paul Thomas

Since the 1890s, public education has been criticized for its failures and simultaneously heralded as the sole cure for all of society's ills. And for almost a century, the U.S. has been a culture fully committed to measurement while also not completely sure what test scores reveal.

Focusing on tests, schools and teachers allows political discourse to keep our attention distracted from the social failures reflected in our schools, not caused by our schools.

Evidence and basic logic refute the use of test scores to evaluate the quality of teachers. Many examinations of using test scores in teacher evaluation have exposed the complexity and difficulty in identifying teacher quality and measuring it. But beyond that evidence, we should consider the tension created by our faith in accountability and the flaw of holding teachers accountable for the outcomes of their students.

Overwhelming evidence shows that student outcomes in education are connected to out-of-school factors -- from about 60 percent to as much as 86 percent. But admitting and accepting that student achievement and education quality are overwhelmed by cultural and social dynamics speaks against our idealized view of our culture and our enduring faith in rugged individualism.

Continuing to place faith and power in standardized test scores -- despite decades of evidence that test scores reflect more significantly the lives of children than the quality of teachers or schools -- reveals our social refusal to examine our commitments and the undeniable inequity of our society.

Test-based claims of education in Finland being superior to our system help mask our failure to care about childhood poverty as a society. The U.S. has well above 20 percent of children in poverty, while only 3 percent to 4 percent of children in Finland are poor.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed: "We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

Focusing on tests, schools and teachers allows political discourse to keep our attention distracted from the social failures reflected in our schools, not caused by our schools.

Why do we cling to test scores and demonize our teachers and schools? To avoid facing the plight of poverty on our children and our schools.

— Paul Thomas
New York Times Online Room For Debate





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