I stumbled last week into two of the more interesting conversations I've had on education. With the school year beginning and debate revving over President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, these talks struck me as getting down to the rub about our future. Without better schools, we're sunk.
The first conversation was about the value of testing students. The second dealt with innovation in the classroom.
Our educational enterprise rests on these two elements: accountability and innovation. And get ready, as you're about to hear a lot more about them. The cornerstone of Bush's educational agenda comes up for renewal on Capitol Hill next year, and critics from the left and right are taking their shots because they hate the law's emphasis on states administering annual achievement tests.
I wish these critics could have listened in on my conversation with Jean Rutherford of Just for the Kids in Austin, Texas. She crunches test data for a living so schools can use the information to figure out where they must go. I talked to her while writing about the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills - the dreaded TAKS, the state's achievement exam. Here's what she said:
This year's TAKS scores show more schools have earned the top rank, but that doesn't mean their students have mastered subjects like math.
To prove her point, she and I went to www.just4kids.org, which has information about every school in Texas (and many other states). We selected the elementary school my children will attend. It received an acceptable ranking, which sounds OK but looks different as we dig deeper into the data.
We selected the school's fourth-grade math test and found that 61 percent passed the exam. Not bad, I thought, until Rutherford pointed out only 12 percent of that 61 percent did well enough to reach the "commended" level.
"Commended" means they mastered the subject. Or put it this way: They "got" the curriculum.
What does that tell us? Like many schools, students pass but fail to master the material. Talk about leaving children behind. We expect them to move up the math food chain into tougher subjects like calculus, when many absorb only enough to pass a test but not really grasp the substance.
Aha, some will argue, get rid of the test. If kids aren't getting, say, fourth-grade math, it's because too much teaching emphasis goes toward one test.
But think about it: How will we know where children need help if we don't have data?
That information is especially helpful for teachers. It lets them zero in on gaps. Rutherford says high-performing schools use the numbers to see if their kids have grasped their material - and, if not, what they must do to get them there.
And that gets us to Part II of this equation - innovation. Accountability points schools in the right direction, but test scores alone can't show them how to turn classrooms into challenging, fascinating places.
That requires innovation, a subject about which Southern Methodist University's Geoffrey Orsak has given considerable thought. The school's engineering dean is on a national campaign to make math and science, well, cool.
When he stopped by for an editorial board meeting last week, he remarked that young children often are great experimenters. But they lose that by their middle years because schools don't do enough to encourage their creativity.
As he said this, I had my own aha moment. I thought of how my young son loves to pick up plastic baseballs and roll them down our sloping front walk, watching them gain speed and crash into the street. My wife calls this his physics lesson. The question: How do you keep alive that thrill of discovery?
One way is to make experiments relevant, Orsak said. Let students build things they can use. Dallas' School of Science and Engineering magnet, rated as one of America's top high schools, does this. Other schools can apply that creativity, Orsak emphasized, as long as they expect students to perform.
In other words, innovate in the classroom and hold kids accountable. Upon those pillars rest our hopes for better schools, and we can't have one without the other.
We may want to remember that as schoolhouses open and Washington's education debate fires up.