Why the Danish Love to Test. . .

Mike–in an entertaining comment on my recent post about testing in Denmark that outlines the trend of fad adoption in American education–asked:

Pity too that the Danes won’t learn from the mistakes of others, though it may not be too late for them. I wonder, does the Danish public listen any better to their teachers?

This echoes a question asked by my TLN colleague and friend Rick Wormelli, who wrote:

I’m curious, though, about Denmark:  Why are they changing things now?  What is it the conservatives you mention in Denmark are using as justification for such unwelcome testing changes?  How has the public supported or not supported such thinking?

What was most interesting to me was that educators in Denmark seem to face many of the same challenges with marginalization as we do here in the States.  Teachers openly speak about feeling disrespected and undervalued by the communities that they serve and sense that their thoughts and opinions about what is "right" for students are overlooked. 

This trend towards dismissing the professional expertise of educators can be seen in policy decisions taking place in Denmark.  The most obvious is the new move towards standardized testing as a measure of student achievement.  Think about the message that this change sends to teachers—the community is moving from a system of assessment that completely relied on the professional judgment of the classroom teacher to a system that is more "concrete" and "defensible."  By default, this decision implies that the decisions of teachers are insufficient as accurate measures of student learning.

You can also see this shift in teacher education institutions in Denmark.  There is a real trend towards dismantling teacher preparation programs and requiring that students interested in becoming educators major in a content area and then pick up certification to teach through those programs.  "Pedagogy" as a course of study is rapidly disappearing and schools of education are being dismantled and absorbed.  Teaching, in a sense, is being deprofessionalized.

Does any of this sound familiar?

While I didn’t have the opportunity to dig deeply into the motivations for these changes in the Danish education system, I suspect that they are tied to the reality that Denmark depends on a strong economy to support its social welfare state—which provides free healthcare, child care, college and elder care to all citizens. 

Generating revenue to support these welfare benefits is at once a priority and a constant fear for Danish residents.  To meet these demands, Denmark’s economy has shifted to knowledge based industries that reach into all aspects of the global marketplace.  Technology has replaced agriculture as the primary component of the Danish economy.  IBM has established a foothold in Denmark, as have companies like Bluetooth—which is actually named after a Danish king!

Denmark has been remarkably successful to date at responding to the changing nature of the world economy, but their continued success is completely dependent on having a highly educated workforce that can continue to drive innovation and attract cutting edge enterprises.  Understanding the importance of providing a continuing supply of capable employees, the school system has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.  While that attention is a nod to the important role that education plays in the success of the nation, it brings with it constant pressure for improvement.

The debate then becomes focused on the question of, "How does one drive productive change in an organization?"  For influential non-educators whose experiences are rooted in the Danish economy, the answer can be found in the practices of successful businesses—-accountability and competition!

I think what I’m starting to realize is that the push to quantify everything related to teaching and learning isn’t a result of wicked efforts to dismantle the public school system.  Instead, it is a result of honest—yet misguided and underinformed—efforts to ensure that countries provide employers with the highly educated workforce necessary to succeed in today’s interconnected marketplace.  In that sense, Denmark’s move towards standardized testing as a tool for assessment isn’t unusual at all—even if it does seem destined to cheapen what is a system of evaluation that we admire. 

I’m also starting to realize that schools in both Denmark and the United States will be stuck with standardized testing until members of the teaching profession can convince the general public that all classroom teachers can reliably and accurately assess student "learning" and "ability."  Holding schools accountable for student learning is simply a must for any nation interested in competing with the developing economies in countries like India and China that are pulling jobs away from citizens of nations that have traditionally dominated the world economy. 

Yet judging peformance is not something we’re trusted to do.  Assessment has been removed from our hands because the task is critical and outsiders don’t believe that our "opinions" are as valid as other indicators of student performance.  It is that lack of trust that we must tackle if we want to play a larger role in evaluating children.

7 thoughts on “Why the Danish Love to Test. . .

  1. Bob

    Thanks for your response. We appear to agree on several basic principles, although we use different rhetoric to express it. I hope you change your mind and talk more about why teachers do not accept empirical data abot learning as a basis for selecting instructional procedures.

  2. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    Ah. Now I understand your reluctance to address the real points of what I’m saying; you’re a Direct Instruction (if that’s what it’s being called these days) advocate.
    I asked myself, “self,” I asked, “why won’t Bob admit the obvious? Why won’t he agree with what the rest of humanity understands and accepts?” That being that when people gain education, experience and certification in a given field, it is not only reasonble to listen to them and to allow them to dictate policy for their field, but it is foolish to do otherwise. The scope of human knowledge is vast and growing every day, thus we offer hundreds and more of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in disparate and specific disciplines.
    If I’m flying in an airliner, for example, I don’t suddenly decide that I have a system for flying the plane that is pilot proof, nor do I suggest that the pilot’s assumption of his abilities to safely fly doesn’t exist outside of pilots and their supporters. The pilot has the education, knowledge, experience, skill and certification to fly, and I’d be an idiot not to trust that or to imagine that I could do better.
    Again, I’m sure that those in your profession wouldn’t think kindly of outsiders lacking your experience, education, certification and skill telling you what to do, and in that, you’d be completely justified. So why won’t you admit that simple fact of human experience? Direct Instruction.
    For those reading this post, DI is simply a system that assumes that teachers are the primary problem in education, and that if the right curriculum is presented–certified teachers aren’t necessary, the curriculum does the teaching–students will suddenly and magically learn at heretofore unheard of rates. In fact, it’s best if teachers, who are after all, not true believers, have little or no input into the curriculum at all. Thus, on July 10, at 10:02:15, all 10th grade American math students across the nation will be working problem 12 on page 87 of the mandatory DI text. And English students will be reading page 1005, paragraph 3, line 6, word 11, and so on.
    In such a system, teachers are superfluous. The magic curriculum does all the work. Of course, in order for this type of system to be acceptable, its advocates must deny that teachers have any value in the educational process. Anyone can present such a magnificent curriculum with amazing success.
    Of course, in order to buy this bill of goods, one must also accept the idea that all students are willing, ready, able, indeed, eager to learn, can learn successfully in this single way, and lack only the right curriculum, delivered in only one prescribed way, to excel. Anyone who is truly a capable teacher understands the falacy in that way of thinking.
    Bob, the reason America hasn’t implemented Direct Instuction–or whatever it’s being called this week–is simply because we know better. We don’t know better out of self interest or because of evil intent, but because we have millenia of experience in teaching and learning to understand what works and what our society needs.
    I understand that it’s not possible to get a true DI advocate to change their mind, or even to admit that those who don’t agree with them have the best interests of kids at heart, or that they might have a point here and there. After all, it’s only the misinformed, self-interested or evil teachers that keep the wonder of DI from American students, isn’t it? So this will be my final post on this topic.
    Good luck and Godspeed.

  3. Bob

    Thanks for elaborating your point. I agree that you probably stretch points here and there to emphasize what you consider a factual situation. I also agree with Renee – most of the teachers I know support your point and passion.
    I think you know this: Your basic argument appears to assume that learning and teaching are mysteries known only to those who have special access by virtue of certified exposure.
    General agreement on that assumption does not exist outside of some schools of thought held by teachers and their supporters.
    You probably know this also from your teacher prep classes or inservice sessions. For example, the largest single empirical research program about affects of teaching on student academic performance resulted in higher learning rates than from conventional teaching practices based on assumptions and situations like you describe.
    The study originated with the assumption that a “teacher proof” system developed by a few teachers and business oriented people could yield higher academic performance than conventional instruction by conventionally prepared teachers.
    The many teachers who used this system did not substitute their opinions, judgments, experiences, etc. for the protocol, the same way surgeons, pharmacists, aircraft pilots, some plumbers, et al. follow protocols (agreed upon rules of procedures) to conduct their businesses.
    Teachers used a simple system, no mysteries for teachers to decode, no special certification required to share increased learning benefits with students.
    Students from families eligible for Headstart in NC were among the first 100 of the later 1 million or more students to use it.
    Here’s why I asked if you jest. It amazes many of us why more students don’t receive such increased learning rate benefits when it appears possible.

  4. Renee Moore

    On your response to Bob’s question (one I’m sure many other people share about education and the role of teachers in it)—
    AMEN. (Loved the plumber analogy).

  5. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    No, I don’t think you’ve quite grasped my point, and I’m not jesting (well, maybe just a little!). The main thrust of my original post was simply that business “solutions,” however well intentioned, generally don’t work in education because it’s not a business and students aren’t products. Education, you see, is a life-long process, and at the end of the 12th grade individuals are not completed “toasters,” if you will. We can make various business comparisons and analogies that, at least on the surface, might seem to apply, but education is very complex and requires intensive, daily interaction between teachers and individual students that do not lend themselves to business models. That’s why we demand a very high level of education and continuing training for teachers, but it doesn’t explain well why we then tend to ignore what they have to say.
    Because public schools are political animals by design, it is certainly reasonable for the public to have their say, and every competent educator welcomes it. But democracy also requires that we elect, appoint and hire professionals to do the work on behalf of the public that we cannot reasonably do for ourselves. So you see, the public’s say is, by design, primarily–but not entirely–in their choice of elected officials and their careful monitoring of the performance of those elected officials. If we refuse to use the skills of those professionals, if we refuse to listen to them, if we impose “solutions” on them without regard to whether those solutions make sense or even apply in their field of endeavor, we are not only ignoring the factors that make democracy work, but we are ensuring that it will not work.
    Yes, educators know what to do because they are professionals who spend many, many years attaining the knowledge, skills and certifications required to do their jobs. Do you hire a plumber, and then stand over him, demanding that he do things your way, regardless of whether you are a qualified plumber? Of course not; that would be foolish and wouldn’t solve your plumbing problems. I don’t suggest that teachers are perfect, but any good teacher enjoys speaking with parents and showing them what really goes on in the classroom, because in the classrooms of good teachers, what goes on is good indeed and is what the public expects and pays for.
    I don’t know your profession, but I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to do it, yet a great many people think that they are more than qualified to dictate education policy. It might interest you to know that in my career, I’ve had a few education critics who have been willing to actually spend a day or two in the classroom with me at my invitation to better understand what education really is. In each and every case, they’ve been amazed at how complex it is, what hard work it is, and how much educational success depends on good, dedicated teachers and involved students and parents.
    You’ve (the public) elected your representatives to hire qualified professionals to do the job of educating our young. I’m one of those qualified professionals. Shouldn’t my opinion, based on my experience, education and skill count for just a bit more than the opinion of someone who doesn’t have that experience, education and skill?

  6. Bob

    Do I understand your point: Educators know what to do; just give us taxpayer money that we want with no strings attached, and let us do what and when we decide we should do, because no one other than a certified educator can know what to do, and anything else is unfair politics? You jest, right?

  7. Mike

    Bill:
    You’ve hit on it exactly. High stakes testing is indeed a political solution for an education problem that doesn’t exist, but a poitical solution that relies on business mechanisms to accomplish its goals. Like you, I do not believe that then Texas Governor Bush had evil motives for his educational initiatives. I believe he was genuinely concerned with a small set of facts, facts that indicated, among other things, that minority children weren’t reading as well as non-minority kids. Unfortunately, his only frame of reference for solving this was business, and he assumed that the application of successful business models would translate directly into education, not only on the state, but the national level as well.
    We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Who, after all, are our state legislators? Certainly not teachers, but primarily businessmen and attorneys, people who can leave their occupations for long periods to do the business of a legislature. And even attorneys are, in a large sense, independent businessmen. There are, of course, those in the legislatures who actively hate teachers and public education and who do all that they can to harm it, but that’s not usually the primary motivation.
    As a result, we end up trying to treat the education system like a dysfunctional factory assembly line and our kids like defective toasters. Simplistic measures are applied to ensure quality control and one size fits all solutions are mandated.
    This works in manufacturing, but not in education. Testing to see if our Johnny toaster can’t read isn’t helpful to the Johnny toaster’s teacher who already knows that the Johnny toaster can’t read and is doing their best to resolve that deficit. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as installing a new part in the Johnny toaster or in correcting an assembly line fault, for you see, the Johnny toaster has a mind of its own and can decide not to be assembled at all. The Johnny toaster can even leap from the assembly line and run out the door of the factory! And as useless as the testing is in helping the Johnny toaster and his teacher, it’s even less useful for all the other toasters who can read or figure, or recite history.
    The business model also assumes a completely top-down system of management. The workers on the assembly line putting parts into the toasters need know only the minimum information required to do their individual functions, and no one in their right mind would listen to what those proles have to say; they’re not qualified, or they’d own their own factory, wouldn’t they? Perfect business logic.
    And so we turn out government certified toasters without any concern for their abilities beyond those required to earn that certification. Again, a perfect business/political solution to education problems that, for the most part, don’t exist and to the small degree that they do, can’t be repaired through the application of those “fixes.”

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