Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bushisms and Campbell's Law

President Bush is famous for his “Bushisms,” what Slate calls his “accidental wit and wisdom.” My favorite Bushism is the time he invoked The Who by saying, "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." Here’s a Bushism most educators will remember. “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” This one is only sort of funny since “passing the literacy test” has become the goal of reading instruction in many school districts across the country.

In one of my classes at Boston College we’ve been reading and talking about genre theory as it applies to the teaching of reading and writing. Last Wednesday during a discussion of an article we’d all read one of my students (I’ll call her Marsha), a veteran teacher in a large urban school district, shared a personal anecdote. Marsha said she had been telling her principal about some of the articles on genre she’d been reading and what genre theory had to say about how they taught writing in their school. The principal told her that she wasn’t to worry about different ways to teach writing in her classroom. Her job was to “teach the (state) writing test.” (“Teach a child to write and he or she will be able to pass the writing test.”)

I’m currently reading a book by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner called Collateral damage: How high stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. I recommend it. In Collateral damage, Nichols and Berliner refer often to “Campbell’s Law” which stipulates that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor” (pp. 26-27). Nobody has to tell Marsha’s how high stakes testing is distorting and corrupting the teaching of writing in her school.

In today’s Boston Globe there’s a comic (“F Minus”) in which a man is seated at a table across from a potential employer who says, “The job you’re applying for will require you to know long division, state capitals, and cursive writing.” The cartoon caption reads, “Dale’s fourth-grade education pays off.” I suggest substituting this caption with a different one: Thank goodness this was on the state test.

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