Jan Carr, an author of children’s books, is a dedicated public school parent. She wrote a post wondering why the powerful elites in our society are so obsessed with testing and data. She wondered why they care so little for developing critical thinking.

Jan wrote: “I’ve been a scrappy public school mom for 12 years and counting, and I’ve watched the increasing encroachment of the data and accountability business, which would have our kids prepping for and taking deadening tests at every turn, and our teachers endlessly graded and derided for test results that are a meaningless distraction from real learning. A rich and full education digs deeper; it’s inextricably entwined with books, literature, writing, and the life of the mind; it develops critical thinking.”

I read her latest post and asked Mike Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute to respond to it. I have known Mike for many years, and I hold out hope that someday he too will evolve and renounce the reforms he now champions. I think this will happen when his own children encounter them, as Jan Carr’s did.

I invite readers to comment on this discussion.

This is Mike’s commentary:

Dear Ms. Carr,

I enjoyed reading your post about critical thinking; it sounds like you and your son have been lucky to have had some very talented teachers.

l’ve never met Bill Gates, or Eli Broad, or Michael Bloomberg, or Rupert Murdoch; I can’t speak for what lies in their hearts. But I find it very unlikely that they don’t want children to “think critically” because they want to produce a generation of drones. I know that sort of rhetoric is common on the left (including from the late Howard Zinn) but to believe it you have to also believe that Barack Obama, the late Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon George Miller, and countless other liberal supporters of education reform are also out to unplug our children’s minds. That doesn’t pass the “critical thinking” test.

What motivates these folks, as I understand it, is an earnest belief that in today’s knowledge economy, the only way poor kids are going to have a shot at escaping inter-generational poverty is to gain the knowledge, skills, and character strengths that will prepare them to enter and complete some sort of post-secondary education–the pathway to the middle class. And that while reading and math scores don’t come close to measuring everything that counts, they do measure skills that have been linked to later success in college, the workplace, and life.

I suspect that all of these men would like to see students engaged in more of the kind of critical thinking that you describe, and that’s one reason many support the move to the more rigorous “Common Core” standards for English Language Arts and math. The ELA standards, in particular, are designed to push students toward this sort of complex thinking.

The testing movement has caused a lot of harm, I agree, in terms of narrowing the curriculum and encouraging bad teaching. Moving to better standards and tests is one way to address that. But by throwing out the baby with the bathwater we risk going back to the days when poor and minority kids were held to very low expectations–and their achievement plateaued as a result.

In the last two decades, poor and minority kids have made two grade levels of progress in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The hope–and it’s really only a hypothesis at this point–is that those greater math and reading skills will help a generation of kids do much better in college and the real world than they otherwise would have. The question for educators and reformers is: How do we keep the good that’s come from testing and accountability while eliminating the bad?

Mike Petrilli