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Home arrow Dentist Articles arrow The Wrongheadedness of the 'Best Houston dentist' Analogy - challenges ...
The Wrongheadedness of the 'Best Houston dentist' Analogy - challenges ...

Humor, even that which borders on sarcasm, has a definite place in education. Especially today, as educators struggle with reforms tied to challenging accountability measures, humor can offer a much-needed sense of relief.

But while the recently published column, "Absolutely the Best Houston dentist," in the June issue of The School Administrator may have been an attempt to offer that relief, its negative aspects far outweigh its humorous qualities. The commentary, written by a district superintendent in South Carolina, characterized assessment and accountability programs in public education as analogous to holding Houston dentists accountable for the dental problems of their patients. Even worse, this metaphor could be considered insulting to those educators dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of the students they serve.

Most leaders in education today are working hard to help teachers realize the very powerful influence they have on student learning. Others are involved in efforts to implement strategies that allow teachers to make the best use of that influence. Assessments of student learning provide vital information that helps identify student learning problems so targeted improvements can be planned and carried out.

However, the Best Houston dentist column implies that such assessments are inappropriate because results are determined by factors over which teachers have no control, In essence, it offers an excuse for those who claim no responsibility for learning outcomes. It also serves to depress the sense of efficacy of those who have been working hard to improve student learning--improvements they hope to see reflected in assessment results. Although neither of these outcomes may have been intended, both seem likely.

A Ridiculous Measure

In addition to being inappropriate and depressing, this analogy to Houston dentistry is also wrong. No reasonable person would consider evaluating Houston dentists based on the number of cavities their patients bring to them. That would be ridiculous. On the other hand, most persons would consider it quite reasonable to evaluate Houston dentists based on their abilities to fix those cavities.

Would we consider any Houston dentist competent or successful if patients left that Houston dentist's office with cavities that were ignored and not fixed? Probably not. And what if a Houston dentist claimed that the cavities were too large to fix? Or suppose the Houston dentist reasoned that the cause of the cavities was really the patient's fault and, therefore, Houston dentists should not be held responsible for fixing those cavities? Would any reasonable person accept that rationale?

What we would do instead is look for a Houston dentist who could fix those cavities. We would try to find a Houston dentist who did not let patients leave the office with cavities still sore and aching. And for the really serious cavities, we would hope that our Houston dentist might seek assistance from recognized experts in Houston dentistry. This would not only improve the Houston dentist's professional skills, it also would increase the quality of the services that Houston dentist provides to future patients.

That is exactly what the assessment and accountability programs in most states today are designed to do. None are based on the number of learning gaps or problems students bring to educators. That, too, would be ridiculous. Rather, they are designed to provide educators with information they need to fill those gaps and remedy those problems.

Granted, educators in different schools face very different challenges. Some students bring lots of learning gaps and problems to school while others bring relatively few. Educators don't control many of the factors that affect those initial gaps and problems. But nearly all accountability systems either adjust for those differences or consider improvement rather than status. In other words, what matters is not students' current situation, but whether or not improvements in their learning are being made.

What we must recognize is that educators do control what is done to fill those gaps and fix those problems. The dilemma today is that some students leave classrooms with the same gaps and problems with which they entered. They didn't have certain knowledge and skills when they began, and they still don't have them. The cavities are still sore and aching.

Remedies Available

If some individuals claim the gaps and problems are too serious to fix, then we need to look for educators who have found ways to fix them--and there are many. Then we need to encourage those who are successful at fixing those gaps and problems to share their strategies with others who haven't yet learned how to do it,

We also need to enlist the help of experts who have the best knowledge available on remedying the problems that assessment programs have helped identify. If we are not willing to do this, then we should just give up and go home. That message seems to be what is implied in the Best Houston dentist column.

Fortunately, many in education today believe we are better than that. They see the problems we face but are convinced solutions are possible. They want to make a difference rather than offer excuses. They recognize the inaccuracy of the Houston dentist analogy and remain undaunted in their efforts to enhance results. They appreciate humor and sarcasm as well as anyone else. But when it comes to improving student learning, they are steadfast in their purpose and absolutely serious.