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Billionaires Invest in Advertising Campaign to Save High Stakes Testing in NYC

May 7, 2019

As noted in several posts in this blog, New York City’s insistence on equating high scores on a single test with “merit” is foolish and counterproductive and contributes to the current admissions dis-equilibrium dilemma whereby black and Hispanic students are underrepresented and Asian and white students are over-represented. Fortunately NYC’s current mayor, Bill DeBlasio, sees the absurdity in using a single test as the determinant to enter the “elite” schools in the city and is proposing a fairer method for selecting students, one that might result in a student population at the “elite” schools that mirrors that in the city as a whole.

But some in the city favor the retention of the current test: the parents of those children who test well, the parents who can afford to spend thousands for “test prep” courses, and now billionaires who sincerely believe that “merit” and “high scores on a single test” are equivalent. As reported in a NYTimes article late last month by Eliza Shapiro, two billionaires, Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, and Richard D. Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup, are spending millions on a PR campaign to save the tests used to screen students for “elite” high schools. Why? From what I can tell both men are invested in maintaining the political status quo that is reflected in the status quo of public education:

They (Mr. Lauder and Mr. Parsons) are championing a range of educational ideas that include more gifted and talented programs, more test preparation, better middle schools and more elite high schools. Mr. de Blasio’s administration, on the other hand, is skeptical of high-stakes testing and academic tracking in the school system.

Mr. de Blasio is seeking to replace the test for the eight so-called specialized schools with an approach where top performers from each middle school would be offered spots.

Ms. Shapiro’s article indicates that this is yet another battle between the proponents of Terman and those of Dewey. In the early 20th century a there was a battle between two schools of thought regarding tests. One one side were those like Edward Thorndyke and Lewis Terman who believed tests measured an absolute “intelligence” that was largely unchangeable. On the other side were those like John Dewey who saw the social environment on the activity of mind and behavior as more crucial than innate intelligence. Indeed, Mr. Dewey and his acolytes were dismissive of public education as a means of sorting and selecting and transmitting a fixed set of facts, which was implicit in the views of Thorndyke, Terman, et al. Rather, Mr. Dewey saw the purpose of education as “…the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.”

In NYC, it appears that Mr. Lauder and Mr. Parsons are supporting Thorndyke and Terman while Mr. deBlasio is supporting Dewey. At the macro level, Thorndyke and Terman prevailed and their legacy is the reliance on testing as the main means of sorting and selecting children, teachers, and now, thanks to NCLB and it’s successors, schools. Mr. deBlasio is countering that movement. Here’s hoping he succeeds.

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