In September, I hosted an Education Forum that provided an opportunity for community members to hear from State Education Commissioner David Steiner and a variety of other education policy experts about New York State’s goals for public education and what we believe an educated person should be. I held this presentation because I have been struck by the lack of substantive discussion about what our real goals are when we all argue about how to best improve education. Questions about which qualities make the most effective teachers, the proper role of testing in encouraging student improvement, and the effectiveness of public versus charter schools as alternative models for improving education, are just some of the many topics discussed. In addition to Commissioner Steiner, the panel included Clara Hemphill from, which offers independent reviews of New York City public schools, and Dr. Stephan Brumberg, Professor of Education at Brooklyn College.

There were a number of key insights that I believe came out of the discussion. The most extensive discussion of the evening had to do with the role of testing. While the panelists emphasized different points regarding testing as an evaluative tool, there was general agreement that we have not found the right way to use tests. Although testing is important as a tool it has become an end in itself, not just a means to an end, with teachers and students feeling that success or failure is measured just by test scores and that if it isn’t going to be on the test… it’s not worth teaching or learning.

Why does this happen? I think two key explanations emerged from the panel. First, there is an understandable and justifiable desire to measure outcomes. Second, and less justifiable perhaps, is that testing is a relatively easy education technique, particularly when relying on multiple choice tests that have clear right and wrong answers and can be quickly graded.

The problem is that not everything we need to teach children in order to create educated citizens is measurable by a multiple choice test – or even by more ambitious testing mechanisms. So the first thing we need to do is determine what it is we want to be teaching – we need a curriculum. However, a major problem is that too often the tests become the curriculum.

According to Commissioner Steiner, an educated citizen is “someone who is not a complete bore to themselves.” Or, someone who has a store of experiences that can occupy and entertain his/her mind. While this is an admirable goal, I think the definition should include something about imparting the skills students will need to succeed as adults in the modern economy.

Many of the skills for both of these definitions are easy to measure by tests – factual knowledge, reading comprehension and the like. But others are not so easy to turn into right and wrong answers – skills such as judgment, creativity and interpretation. And maximizing the ability of teachers to impart these skills also involves giving teachers the freedom to be flexible in their approach to education and relate to student as individuals, something that a test-centered approach to education often undermines.

The discussion of testing was related to a broader discussion of educational goals, which identified another problem with much of our education: we don’t start with the goals and work backwards. So, just as we need to design tests around curriculum and educational goals, and not the other way around, our educational system in general needs to be “backward engineered,” as Commissioner Steiner put it. We need to start with where we want students to be when they graduate high school and design our educational system by working backward all the way to pre-K.
Currently, educational goals tend to be set by focusing on what should be imparted in a given year, rather than starting with this ultimate outcome.

I left the forum with a sense that there are some clear paths we can take to improve education, regardless of the financial constraints we may find ourselves in. Of course change is hard, and often undermined by institutional and political realities. But I know I will be drawing on the discussions at this very informative forum as I think about what decisions the State should be making to encourage the implementation of changes that will allow our public education system to do a better job of creating educated citizens well prepared to succeed.

Video from the event: