This week, we hosted The Nation‘s third live chat, our first ever using the CoveritLive platform. A discussion on testing and education reform, the chat featured writer Dana Goldstein and teachers Mark Anderson and Tara Brancato. During the hour we were live, over two-hundred readers stopped by, many of them educators. In addition, in the days leading up to the event, readers posted a number of their own smart comments. The result was a nuanced discussion that addressed holistic ways of assessing students and teachers, the pressure on educators to "teach to the test," and the need for teacher input in public policy, among other issues. You can read a replay of the chat and access the comment thread here.

Below are some great comments from that event—both from the chat itself and the comment threads—as well as some sharp insights posted in a few of our other pieces.

A taste of our Education and Testing Reform live chat:

Mark Anderson:I would say that we are measuring the wrong things. We should be measuring the learning environments of schools via direct observation, and assessing the content that schools are delivering to students. Right now, we are acting like students are products of individual teachers.

Tara Brancato: Some students are naturally critical thinkers, but have difficulty in standardized assessments. By trying to engage them on their level, and really encouraging those higher level abilities that they’re trying to express in non-traditional ways, I think we’re really preparing them for life beyond high school, not just testing. Testing can’t be the only preparation they get for those thinking skills that they need.

Dana Goldstein:Morna: It is true that the testing industry is highly involved in education policy-making, including in creating the Common Core and the tests that will go along with it. We need to make sure that politically, we are advocating for the idea that test scores alone do not define whether a school or teacher is a success or failure. School closings are a VERY tough issue. Polls of low-income parents show they would rather their local schools were "turned around" rather than re-opened as charters. But charters are also a very popular, over-subscribed option among parents.

David Ginsburg:Shamekka hit on a key word: PRESSURE to teach to the test. I’ve worked in urban schools for 20 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator–and have consistently seen test scores take care of themselves when schools provide rich curriculum AND provide teachers the support they need to implement it. In other words, focus on teaching rather than testing. The problem is that many school leaders think this is a leap of faith and continue to respond to test score pressure by having teachers teach the test.

Smith: Maybe we need to ask some of the big questions, like who benefits from the way things are now (standardized tests and other pressures of accountability that make good teachers and school vulnerable to poor practices). That helps explain why things don’t change very fast. Those that benefit the most may have something to lose. Education is political, and whoever brought up the idea of getting involved with policy is right. Pockets of wonderful things help, but usually remain pockets of good things – unless and until we make it clear that public schooling is a priority value, and that thoughtful and talented teachers are the key. Policy makers need to get the message. Nothing about us without us. Too often, folks who sit outside education are making decisions about education. We need our voices to count.

From the comment threads of our live chat:

Nana38: Many years ago, a friend of mine was quite upset because her small child had taken a test (perhaps to test social skills – I’m not quite sure), and what I do remember is that when there was a picture of sharing cake, she did not give the father figure a piece of cake, and that, of course, was judged incorrect. The fact was that her father did not eat cake. One example of the negative side of "standardized" tests.

The absolutely worst thing that has happened to schools is the growth in classroom sizes caused by school closings and/or "jointures."Small class sizes allow for much better education, period—it is one of the first things one learns in the study of education. It has also been shown that younger students learn well with guidance from older students. That is why those one-room schools worked so well. Besides individual attention, the students also learned just from hearing what older students were learning.

As long as we allow this to continue, our "testing" will continue to indicate the USA falling further and further behind.  Political leaders who take more and more funds away from education are either fools or brain dead – however, the funds should not be spent on buildings, but rather on more teachers with smaller and smaller classrooms, most particularly in early childhood.

Caliber1: As a now-retired clinical psychologist and research methodologist, I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life studying tests and testing, in schools and other settings. Color me ambivalent, at best. In schools, the trade-offs seem pretty clear. On the positive side, standardized tests provide a quantitative basis for accountability, for tracking change in student (and teacher and school) achievement, and for preventing lack of progress from going unnoticed. On the negative side, standardized group tests provide a less than great basis for measuring learning, for many student groups (ESL, easily distracted, anxious, unengaged, special needs, etc.) and for many learning domains. Moreover, high-stakes testing and resulting teaching-to-the-test distort and diminish subject matter curricula, reducing the time available for engaging teaching and real learning.

I grew up in rural upstate NY. The high school course I hated most was social science, where the well-meaning teacher spent the entire year prepping us for the state regent’s exam. We all aced the test, but learned nothing else. By contrast, my dad rode a horse 10 miles each day to his multi-grade, one-room schoolhouse, from which he emerged with solid foundations in all three Rs and with a life-long interest in learning. To this day, I can’t see how he suffered from lacking, or how I profited from having, all those standardized tests. And that was long before today’s much greater emphasis on testing.

One other short anecdote: while GW Bush was governor, I was asked to evaluate Texas’ then-new and much-touted high school graduation test program. Before I was fired for asking too many unwelcome questions, I became convinced that the main explanations for apparent improvement in test scores over the first several years of the program were test-specific learning (i.e. teachers and kids getting to know the test’s unusual features and requirements) and, more importantly, driving large numbers of ESL (Hispanic) kids and other poor test-takers out of the school system early, seeing themselves as hopeless failures. My takeaway: the testing program was doing way more harm than good, punishing the kids who needed help and wasting large amounts of everyone else’s time.

What’s the alternative to frequent high-stakes group testing in our schools? Can we somehow reverse the Texas situation, using tests mostly to diagnose and help kids with learning problems, and finding some better basis for measuring teacher and school effectiveness?

Richard D. Erlich: ‘ll be on the road and unable to participate in the "chat," so I’ll throw in now this much after having been in on this debate since the mid-1960s.

The 1960s "radical critique" of US education went mainstream ca. 1970 with the Carnegie Commission report CRISIS IN THE CLASSROOM. That book and analysis should re-enter the discussion.

I had a colleague who taught high school teachers, and he said the major change he’d seen in his career was, with Second Wave Feminism, "the loss of the women’s subsidy." As with nurses, so with teaching: After the 1970s, American women had more options, so fewer of (sorry about the expression) "the best and the brightest" automatically went into teaching. To a far lesser extent but similarly for young men: It was the explicit policy of the Selective Service System to use its selection criteria to push young men into jobs the US government want filled, which included teaching. I felt that my choices were between a career in teaching and one as a tunnel rat in Vietnam and was rather surprised and happy when I liked teaching.

Given the loss of the women’s subsidy (and the hiatus at least in drafting young men), it becomes more important to make a career in teaching attractive to people likely to make good teachers. The "standards-and-accountability" people seem to be moving toward making teaching into another US deskilled job. What passes as a "reform" movement more generally looks like an attack on teachers.

If I had to do it again, I’d still pick teacher over tunnel rat, but I doubt I’d be surprised and happy nowadays trying to teach most places in the USA.

From other posts:

Roseviolet: Two groups that have high rates of poverty are the disabled – blame genetics, blame our decidedly-not-a-system health care "system" that makes access dependent on insurance and insurance dependent on employment, but don’t blame us – and those subjected to domestic violence (and in this group blame abusers because if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be domestic violence). Both of these groups may or may not have children. If you’re disabled without dependent children and you hit a point where you require medical care odds are good you’ll end up being told by the local county/public health care system to apply for Medicaid and that part of the process will be applying for SSI or SSDI because the state Medicaid decision for disabled people tends to be based on the decision of the Social Security Administration. Cuts to public health have made it dependent upon Medicaid and Medicare. Cutting it further is going to make this worse. Yet what many don’t realize is that if you get Medicaid due to disability you’re subjected to stricter limits on assets and income than the ones most people know about because most people know the rules for regular Medicaid (the kind given to families with children). This is one of the reasons why the disabled have long pushed for better funding of public health and for real health care reform – to stop this catch 22 that helps to force us onto disability just because we need insurance to have access to the health care we need to have a chance at working. So I know a bit too well that cuts proposed by the Ryan budget are "penny wise and pound foolish."

If you’re subjected to domestic violence, it’s not uncommon to get out – literally – with your ID and the clothes on your back. Worse, due to funding cuts (and stuff authorized by VAWA but never properly funded) you may never get the legal help you need unless you pay for it or manage to somehow navigate the legal system all on your own. Furthermore, many local authorities are (at best) lax about enforcing domestic violence laws and protection orders. As if this isn’t enough, domestic violence can be a cause of disability (post traumatic stress disorder) for all of those abused (the adult and any children). It’s not like abusers are identified by neon signs. The guy I married was very charming until he realized I could make more money working contract than he ever would in normal jobs but for me to do it required me working in male dominated fields. At which point he admitted to some "insecurity". Over the years, he slowly went off the deep end. Looking back, it was like boiling a frog. I can see it from this side but until he was absolutely batcrap and it was next to impossible to get out, it was very hard to see how bad he was.
In response to Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty: Republicans Define ‘Low-Priority Spending.’”May 11, 2012

mbrosnahan: Katha—I always look forward to your column, but I think you missed the mark on this. I’m a single mom (recently widowed), who runs a fairly large organization dedicated to eradicating homelessness. I’m mentioning these facts, just to put my comments in perspective. I read Bill Sears books while pregnant and when my son (now age 9) was an infant and found them extremely useful. Of course anyone could go overboard after reading virtually any parenting/health book.

Did I follow ALL of Dr. Sears’ advice on EVERYTHING? NO! But what I took away from it was a gentle, compassionate voice in birthing and child-rearing. I wanted to have a more natural child birthing experience, but wound up having a C-section after 32 hours of labor. I imagined nursing my son longer, but frankly he weened himself around six months.

Was I devastated? Absolutely not. Some of these mothers, frankly, represent a lunatic fringe. People who go to extremes, GO TO EXTREMES. If they weren’t overindulging their role as demi-mommy-gods, they would be OCD’ing on something else!

Could you imagine everyone who ever read a Julia Childs cookbook insisting on forever more cooking each meal in such a complicated and time consuming fashion? Of course not! Whatever happened to taking the good stuff from people who have devoted their entire lives to an area and leaving the rest? I’d like to point out that Dr. Sears is a leading voice AGAINST corporal punishment and for that reason alone, I continue to admire him.

I see the truly catastrophic fall out from our nation’s lack of investment in housing and childcare every morning in our waiting room. But some of us who appreciate a lot of what Dr. Sears has to say DID return to work after a few weeks and ARE trying to juggle immensely complicated lives with humor and joy.

Can we have a bit more sane conversation than the overtly sexualized cover shot on Time Magazine vs. a witch hunt on attachment parenting?
In response to Katha Pollitt’s “Attachment Parenting: More Guilt for Mother.” May 16, 2012

jonelle: I always appreciate your sharp, succinct, commentary, Ms. Pollitt! I believe that attachment parenting manifesto by Dr. Sears is generally followed by those looking for a manifesto—that is, those who are not confident that they know how to parent, those who feel isolated, those who want to feel validated in their choice to sleep with their baby or breastfeed longer than someone else thinks is normal. Those who vehemently shun others’non-harmful parenting practices also lack confidence in their own. Why aren’t we, as a society, more confident about how we raise our children? Why are we (myself included) fascinated with how the French do it? I think it’s largely due to lack of support by the government.

Subsidizing good childcare and placing more emphasis on child development—not just test scores, but developing nice, civil people—would make it seem as if the government showed appreciation for mothers and actually care for our children. Mothers and children could be viewed as assets to support and encourage rather than a festering problem that always needs to be managed. As it is, as mothers (and fathers, too), we feel we have to reinvent the wheel with every child, because, since there are no recognized high standards of care and education, surely what our mothers and grandmothers did wasn’t right.

I’ll also posit that I believe that many women, like me, actually prefer the “mommy track” to the extent that it allows us to (try to) participate in the full range of what we want to experience as adults and mothers: keep a comfortable house we clean ourselves, eat and serve our families food we cook ourselves, hold our children’s hands and share activities with them before they grow up and shun us, and do work we are proud of, have a meaningful career, and nurture adult relationships. But although a part-time work schedule is best for this sort of full existence, at least when the children are small, good day care is so expensive that the work schedule must be full-time or nothing at all.
In response to Katha Pollitt’s “Attachment Parenting: More Guilt for Mother.” May 16, 2012