This week the writers ramped up the education subplot in a scene where Tilghman’s principal and vice principal order teachers to spend the next six weeks preparing students to take an upcoming standardized test. The word has come from downtown: Teachers are given test preparation materials and enjoined to drill students in how to answer “clone questions” that closely parallel the questions that will be on the test—and only the reading portion of the test, so Prez’s slowly improving math lessons must be put aside. Prez draws a parallel to his experience in the police department, where top brass, under pressure from politicians to improve public safety stats, periodically sent word to “juke the numbers” to create the impression that crime was going down and/or arrests were going up.
One way to read what’s happening is this: The No Child Left Behind law is putting pressure on educators to improve test scores, so they are “being forced” to substitute dumbed down, drill-and-kill test prep for real teaching and learning. That explanation has pretty much become part of the national discourse over the past five years. “Teach to the test”—It’s such a suggestive, seductive, even alliterative (four t’s!) phrase, one that critics of NCLB use quite effectively to conjure up outrage on demand. Fortunately for them, it’s also one bit of conventional wisdom that is very seldom questioned.
But it should be. Let’s break it down. In The Wire’s scenario, Prez and his colleagues are being told they must teach to the test, but not by No Child Left Behind. The directive is coming from the school’s administrators, who are, in turn, passing on a directive from downtown. Okay, perhaps the district administrators are being forced to force principals to force teachers to teach to the test. But that would be true only if one of the following conditions is true: 1) There are no other strategies Baltimore’s schools could use to raise test scores, or, 2) If there are other strategies, teaching to the test is the only strategy that can raise scores sufficiently to meet the demands of NCLB.
But according to the best research available, neither of those conditions holds true. For example, researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research conducted a three-year study analyzing classroom assignments and student gains on standardized tests across more than 400 Chicago classrooms in almost 20 elementary schools. They found that students whose teachers assigned them more “authentic intellectual work”—tasks that called on disciplined inquiry, complex thinking, and deep conceptual learning—logged much higher test score gains than students whose teachers relied on “drill and kill” assignments normally associated with teaching to the test.
That means good teaching produces higher test scores than “teaching to the test”! Not coincidentally, it also produces better educated citizens equipped with a more powerful set of intellectual skills increasingly in demand in today’s workplace. Of course, a little test prep, such as helping students become “test literate” so they understand how tricky questions can prevent them from showing what they really do know, can be healthy in small doses. But there is no legitimate reason to spend months on the kind of soul deadening test prep materials Tilghman’s teachers were given in this episode. (More on all this here.) Prez is right to question the school system’s choice about how to handle NCLB and standardized testing, even more than he realizes.
The police department has made a similar choice to juke the stats rather than to engage in authentic police work—such as the investigations conducted by the Major Crimes Unit over the first three seasons. (I won’t spoil it, but McNulty gets some screen time next week in small sub-plot that very effectively underlines the choice between juking the stats and doing real police work.) Like authentic instruction, authentic police work is better for better for the professionals as well as the citizens they serve, and better for the city of Baltimore as a whole because it promotes real improvements in the quality of life.
This makes for a much more complex storyline than the “forced to teach to the test” narrative that many viewers are reading into The Wire’s education subplot, and it leads to a much more compelling question: Why do these systems make the choice to game the numbers rather than promoting good teaching or good police work, especially when the latter will produce better results over the long term? To some extent, that is the single biggest overarching question The Wire has been exploring for the past four seasons. Unlike Tilghman’s teachers, the writers are unlikely to spoon feed us the answer.
— Guestblogger Craig Jerald