• Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.



Lessons for educators from a new Broadway musical.

April 28, 2013

In Matilda, the outstanding new Broadway musical, Matilda’s parents are horrified that she is into reading.  The mom, who didn’t want this child, is into her looks and her dancing while the dad, who didn’t want a girl, is into scheming to sell his used cars at new car prices.  Even with these revolting parents and an even more revolting school director, Matilda perseveres over all evils with her love for learning and reading completely intact and hopefully a Tony on the way as well.

 My kids are bright and good readers and hopefully have a home life and school environment absent the stress that Matilda encounters.  But this week hasn’t been a good week for my younger daughter who has spent three days and 4.5 hours taking a reading assessment.  These tests will be followed up this coming week with math exams. Now some background on the reading exam will be helpful to the reader. First, the exam is based in part on the new common core curriculum; however, the students are just being exposed to that curriculum now.  Second, the exam is being scored much harder than the exam in previous years so that the expectation is that failures will be up by at least a third.  And third, the exam is not so much a method for grading the students as it is aimed at grading the teachers.

 What is New York State thinking?  I have written before on using student test results to judge teachers.  I know from firsthand experience that excellent teaching makes an important difference but the home environment is nevertheless crucial. Household conditions and the support mechanisms at home make an enormous difference and there is a strong correlation between these conditions and test results.  Why then do teachers shoulder so much of the responsibility with only a limited opportunity to make the difference?  Every child is not a Matilda, able to overcome tremendous odds against succeeding in school.

 The jury on the common core curriculum is still out but there is no doubt that most of the students being tested have had limited exposure.  How then can you justify that tests are oriented around the common core?  Do we want kids to fail? Once again, not every kid has the resilience of a Matilda. Which, of course, leads to the most critical point which is that an increasing number of kids will not pass this exam.  How do we explain to them that we are really not judging them via the exam?  Or how do we explain that the material is oriented to a curriculum design that is not yet fully implemented? The reality is we will not be able to successfully convince our children that it really isn’t a reflection on them if they don’t pass.  There is no question that self respect will suffer and that some children will feel inferior as a result. 

 But as I have indicated before, what will suffer the most is the love of learning.  Too much of an emphasis on tests and tests which are too flawed will impact our children negatively.  And while the story for Matilda ends happily ever after, I am not at all convinced that this will be the result for a significant number of children in New York.

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