Mistakes Were Made: End the Black Box Fallacy & Give Teaching Back to Teachers

Mistakes were made: Education… yeah, that’s not a very big target… How did we get to the point where the institution of education needs to be rescued? Before we dive into this one, I don’t mean to ask the question with the intention of starting a firestorm of finger pointing, especially in this political season. Ack. But I do have a highly speculative long-view theory about how we got here. And yes, lots of mistakes were made along the way.

I grew up in Southern California in the 1960s and 70s and it was a time of rapid unpredictable change, inside and outside of the classroom. Spanking and corporal punishment were permitted at home and in the assistant principal’s office (as I learned in the seventh grade). Our elementary school was built without permanent walls between classes, following the open-classroom model. Reading books were being replaced by something called the SRA Reading Laboratory kit (which I hated because I never got beyond the basic colors… not that I’m bitter) and then there was new math… which still evades explanation without coming off as pedantic. Let’s just say that post-World War II society went through radical social shifts that caused enormous pressures on all institutions trying to keep up.

For example, there was no such thing as bilingual education when I was in elementary school and I’ve heard numerous horror stories from contemporaries who came to school not fully fluent in English. An example of less offense, was when one of my middle school teachers decided that my last name, Bustillos, was too difficult to remember, so he took to calling me “Joe Burrito,” as if that wasn’t insulting. When my older sister, Michaela, began teaching in the late 1970s, schools were clamoring for Spanish-speaking teachers, trying to address the rapidly changing demographics. By the time I started teaching fifteen-years later, in the mid-90s, one of the teachers at one of the elementary schools where I student-taught laughed at the notion of bilingualism because they were serving a population that spoke over a dozen languages and the law was such that these non-English-speakers needed to be served in their native languages. How do you adjust to that kind of change?

During the experimental years of the 1960s and 70s public education was well-funded with smaller class sizes and money available for specialists when needed and for conferences and teacher training, according to friends who remember those halcyon days. Then prop 13 hit in 1978 and California public ed went from leading the way to it’s slow decline. Depending on the source, California public education is somewhere between 43rd and 46th in K-12 spending per student compared to the other 50 states and the District of Columbia. And this isn’t to imply that the other 49 states are suffering from not having enough places to stash their money. One thing I learned when I worked for Pacific Bell, is that in a place like California with an ever expanding population you have to invest in infrastructure long before you might see revenue from the population you’re serving. You have to spend up front to meet the growing needs of the growing population. Public education in California was doing the exact opposite, cutting the budget as the needs continued to expand.

So, to recap, over the past 60-plus years education has had to deal with huge shifts in population and population density, growing language and cultural sensitivity issues and shrinking funding to the point of evaporation. Outside the classroom we went from spanking as a normal form of discipline to lawsuits for spilled hot coffee, from the Jesus Freaks of the 1970s to the radical atheists, from MAS*H (the TV show) to Reality TV and American Idol, from the mythical nuclear family (dad, mom, two kids and a dog) to “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” from Mayberry RFD to a loss of trust of anything related to the government or politicians. And in the early 90s there was a real fear that crime would soon be completely out of control in our cities. Something needed to be done to regain a sense of control.

I vaguely remember some special testing done when I was in elementary school, rumored to be IQ tests. When I started teaching in the mid-1990s there was mid-year testing that was used to track student populations in math and language arts and at my school to select which sixth graders would go to the premiere 7-12 school in the district. The testing process was mostly managed in district and with all three sixth grade teachers and some reading specialists grading or assessing the written portions of the test. The testing was mandated but managed within the district and was used primarily to identify where improvements were needed within school populations and grade levels, comparing the performance of the schools within the district, and the results shared with the community. As far as I remember the tests were not used to reward high performing schools or punish low performing ones. It was used to manage areas of need on a school-wide/district-wide level. It was a pain in the ass and mentally screwed with the mindset of the school population that the most important tests of the year would come long before the end of the year, usually around March, leaving students and staff exhausted with several months still left after testing to finish the year. This was the beginning of standards-based instruction and later data-driven decision making/instruction. It was bad, but it was nothing compared to what happened when the higher ups decided to connect school funding and later teacher assessment to these tests.

Again, the notion was that something was needed to track whether our students were getting a quality education. But it was a bit of a black box problem in that it’s difficult to measure everything that goes into the process of teaching and learning, so we’re going to stick a device on the output side of the black box, and based on the results of this one test or series of tests will establish that this school or this teacher are doing their jobs and should continue to be funded/continue to have their jobs. An analogy of this process could be I buy a car and it runs pretty good for a while, then I notice that it’s getting a bit sluggish when I try to accelerate and my gas mileage seems to be getting worse. Around this time I get a notice from the government that they’ve notice that cars from my manufacturer aren’t performing well and that I need to bring my car in for a test. I bring it in, they put a device on my tailpipe to measure this, that and the other thing. It takes a whole day and possibly more than a day for some very well-paid contractors to run the tests on my car and several dozen other cars that are at the dealership. I find out that this is happening all over the country and am amazed at how expensive this most be to do nationwide. When they’re done, they shake my hand, thank me for my time and send me on my way, saying they’ll publish their findings in a few weeks or so. When they publish their findings, it’s a lot of numbers that indicate that the manufacturer did subpar work, they levy fines against the manufacturer and threaten to increase their business taxes, basically making it more difficult for them to do business. In the meantime nothing was done to actually make my car run better. Not only am I expected to trust that they measured the right things, but the results of the tests do not directly do anything for my poorly performing car.

When all of this started gaining traction, with “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) in 2001, the fear was that we needed to get a handle on what was passing for a good education, that every child deserved to get a good education and we were going to figure that out by administering standardized tests in reading and math nationwide. And however the numbers turned out the responsibility for the outcome was going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the teachers, administrators, schools and school districts. Stick a device on the tailpipe and let’s see what the numbers tell us. Even though education, teaching, learning are difficult processes with endless variables, let’s take a test and judge the whole process based on the outcomes of this one yearly test. I remember sitting in meetings as the testing industry was being ramped up and being told that by 2014 all students in the United States, 100% of the population, would be at grade level in reading. While the goal was certainly commendable, I had serious doubts that the framers of this policy had ever actually worked with any human population of any size. Getting 100% compliance is not how humans work. Imagine the laughs if lawmakers were to say that crime in our cities was going to be 100% eliminated by 2020 and that as we approach 2020 police departments are expect to move toward that number and will be rewarded or decommissioned based on how they did reaching those numbers. Or how about if it was decided that 100% of Americans will have perfect dental hygiene (meaning no cavities) by 2020 and that dental practices are expected to comply with the numbers as we approach 2020 and those who don’t lose their license to practice dentistry. Or that 100% Americans will be at optimal weight by 2020 with doctors either getting further funding or losing their license based on the compliance of the community these doctors serve. It’s not that the goal isn’t worthy of the effort, it’s the uninformed manner in which it’s been mandated, which leads me to believe that there are other agendas at work here not related to quality education.


When I taught my first sixth grade class I gave them the district issued Social Studies text to work from and because most of my students were not at grade level reading, the majority of my students failed the first few units. The text was written beyond their reading level and personal experiences, so there were no means for them to connect with the content. Instead of writing off my students as ignorant and assuming that they would never understand the content, I turned to the state framework for social studies and figured out what the learning goals for my students were and pulled together outside materials (videos, computer games, reading, worksheets) that were more in keep with my students learning styles. Instead of suffering through a social studies text that might as well have been written in Cyrillic, we enjoyed reading stories together about the people from these times and watching documentaries. They had so much fun that I would have students visit years later and ask about Utnapishtim from our reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. I bring all of this up because if the powers that be are really interested in truly assessing learning then they should start with the state frameworks of the subject that they want to assess, then look at how teachers are working within the goals of the framework and look at how teachers are assessing the learning of their students. There’s no need to create special tests, disrupt the school year, and mobilize an army of testing specialists and proctors. Look at the state framework at what is expected, examine how it is being implemented (especially where teachers and districts have found ways to work specifically with their populations) and share information of how those schools and districts are finding successes with those schools and districts needing additional help. By the way, cutting funding or threatening accreditation doesn’t help anything, especially with populations needing special help. Check out the work of Daniel Pink on motivation (check out the video at the bottom of this post) and quit treating educators like lazy failures only interested in Summer break and stop treating schools like human factories. Give teaching back to teachers.

Show and Tell - explaining the rain game by woodleywonderworks
Show and Tell – explaining the rain game by woodleywonderworks

If you need to assess their performance as teachers then spend time in the classroom as they are teaching, spend time with their students, spend time in the communities. It’s not that there isn’t room for improvement or that there aren’t teachers and administrators who should be doing something else. It’s just that you are not going to do a very good job determining that with the once a year tests. It’s a bit like dropping a predator drone into some remote community and assuming after peering down on these people for eight-hours that you know or understand the people of the community. You are making the rest of us suffer in pursuit of the few incompetent folks in the crowd. If you are really interested in helping education quite using testing instruments that cannot begin to communicate the complexities and challenges of what an educator must do day in and day out. We’re in the business of preparing the next generation of educated individuals, stop treating this like we’re assembling new cars or new computers. Help us do a better job, by letting us do our job and helping those who could probably do a better job. Anything less is just political rhetoric. Education dropped the ball in the 80s and 90s, shifting from one idea to the next and not doing a very good job communicating to the public. But then the public wasn’t really listening, so there’s enough “mistakes were made” to go around. That was then, we didn’t have a handle on it. We’ve learned a hell of lot since then but we still need to do a better job communicating with our communities and stakeholders. So, please get the testing-cart out from in front and put it back in the back-end of the process where it belongs and let us do our jobs. And please feel free to observe, comment, question, challenge and help us make education better. It’s not like were going to eliminate mistakes… mistakes will continue to be made. Let’s just do a better job learning from them.


One Comment

  1. jmakley

    This brought back memories of the SRAs in the early 60s. I was a very high scoring reader on the normed “achievement test” (also given in my Catholic school during the same years,) but those SRA cards were different. They had great information on a variety of topics, and I was just too busy learning all that. I did feel bad that other people were getting to the higher colors (and we all knew which those were,) but not bad enough to change my tactic from reading about cool stuff to skimming for answers.


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