Everybody wants a fix for the crippled system for educating our kids, but we're all alchemists. We think we can discover that elusive perfect formula, the magic bullet, the miracle elixir, the silk purse fashioned from a sow's ear, but all we get are mixed metaphors. The latest discovery is the "Obama effect."
Three distinguished professors say they've discovered a closing of the performance gap between black and white since the election of the new president. President Obama has not yet turned water into a mellow Cabernet, but perhaps it's because he's been busy raising low test scores to higher ones simply by occupying the Oval Office.
In a study of 472 Americans -- 84 black and 388 white, ranging in age from 18 to 63 -- who took a test of 20 questions before the presidential election, blacks got only 8.5 correct. Whites got 12 answers correct. After Barack Obama was elected, Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt and one of the authors of the research, tells The New York Times, the gap between black and white became "statistically nonsignificant." The test questions were taken from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Exam.
Conceding the small sample, Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who studies black-white achievement disparities, nevertheless says the study suggests that "Obama's election could increase an African American's sense of competence, and it could reduce the anxiety associated with taking difficult test questions." If true, we should anticipate racial disparities on standardized tests to diminish at least as long as we've got a black president. Who needs to read great books when the teacher in chief can wave a magic wand?
These results may merely emphasize poor research by professors who must publish or perish, but it casts a flashlight if not a spotlight on the idea of test scores as a measurement of learning. Students learn what to expect and study for scores rather than for knowledge. Testing usually tells very little about what a person has learned.
We've seen a dramatic change in the perceptions of how children absorb information. We've learned that there are simply no quick, easy ways to raise learning levels. Self-esteem and "role models" have little to do with learning -- parents must monitor their children's study habits. Merit pay and teacher accountability help school administrators pinpoint the best teachers, and this would help if the unions don't obstruct the clearing out of teachers who should get jobs in other lines of work. That's a very big if.