12 May 2010: Authentic education escapes Sen. Dan Gibbs

Teaching to the test is not education

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” — Albert Einstein

I have written about Greg Mortensen’s heroic attempt to bring secular education, particularly for girls and women, to Pakistan and Afghanistan. His story is uplifting, inspiring and noble. Beyond Mortensen’s efforts, though, the subtext is that of the troops on the ground, not American soldiers but Afghan and Pakistani adults who work tirelessly to bring Mortensen’s dream to reality.

The title “Stones into Schools,” the sequel to “Three Cups of Tea,” is both metaphoric and literal as the schools in the mountainous hinterland are built with blasted boulders that served, interestingly, as symbols of martyrs who fought invaders over the centuries, including the Russians of Sputnik legend.

Throughout his endeavors, Mortensen learned and still practices a guiding principle: Listen to the troops on the ground — a best practice, one our politicians refuse to learn.

The tradition can be traced to 1957 when those brainy Russkies blasted Sputnik into space, showing how dumb American kids, not adults, were in math and science in the age of duck and cover. Twenty-five years later at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Nation at Risk report argued we were doomed to eat the Soviets’ dust.

Another quarter-century later, it’s standardized test scores proving kids ain’t lurnin’ and lazy dolt teachers ain’t doin’ their job. Educational reductionism rears its head anew, and state Sen. Dan Gibbs is among the latest to succumb to it.

Since Sputnik, the public schools have been one of the wingnuts’ favorite political footballs. That’s to be expected from intellectual troglodytes, but closed-mindedness and lack of intellectual curiosity are a disappointment in an otherwise promising young legislator.

Gibbs’ primary area of expertise is the pine beetle and wildland fires. He made a name for himself by helping to stop state Sen. Chris Romer from imposing a toll at the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels and writing the Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery bill, famous not because of what it does but because its title is a most clever acronym: FASTER. But, because of it, it’s hard to remember what the bill does. Sometimes one can be too clever.

But on the most profound issue with which he has dealt, Gibbs failed to achieve proficiency, a permanent blight on what was a solid performance in the legislature, by co-sponsoring and voting for the bill that equates educational success with test scores.

A letter writer to the Denver Post made it clear that he, despite being a Democrat, would not vote for any candidate who did not support SB 191. Objecting to the litmus-test approach to politics, at one time I found single-issue voters such as he frustrating. Politics is, after all, the art of the impossible, of compromise.

However, I now find myself becoming such, induced by the best and brightest, or so they think, who give evidence to Mark Twain’s comment, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It was painful to watch both the legislature cut well over $200 million from the schools and the once comedic, now tragic dance of smarty pants equating learning to test scores. When it comes to debasing education, though, by tying a teacher’s performance and tenure to inane and meaningless measurements, it cuts to the quick.

If the letter writer and I are indicators of a larger vortex, the Democratic Party might be facing a costly rupture. How can teachers in good conscience vote for a candidate who dumbs-down education to a test and tells them, “You’re gone if your students blow it on CSAP”? I recall ol’ Mrs. Clark, a no-nonsense math teacher and teammate in my earliest days of teaching, telling her “kiddos,” “I did my job; now you do yours.”

Gibbs’ House colleague from Summit County, former school board president Christine Scanlan, co-sponsored SB 191 in the House. When challenged about division in the Democratic caucus, Scanlan sniffed that it is stronger than one issue. That might be, but when it becomes the minority with teachers and other supporters of authentic education sitting on their hands in November, it will be a cozier one as well.

Convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” Under SB 191, Socrates would not be forced to drink hemlock, but he would be out of a job.

Prior to the vote, I left two messages with Sen. Gibbs. I’m still awaiting the courtesy of a return call.

Program note: At 3 p.m. May 15 on KYGT, I’ll be asking gubernatorial candidate Andrew Romanoff for his thoughts.

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