Friday, September 30, 2011
Thursday, September 29, 2011
(This is a repost of the third of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. Here is a link to part one. And here is a link to part two. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a third and final sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)
Thomas Jefferson was the first American leader to propose public education in the U.S., right around the time the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was getting underway. His concept, an idea that was shared by most of the founding fathers, was that democracy required a well-educated citizenry in order to thrive.
This was the beginning of the historical era we now call the Age of Enlightenment, a time when reason came to be understood as the only legitimate source of authority rather than traditional and more arbitrary things like birth, religion, or military might. The American Revolution was a direct result of the Enlightenment as was the Industrial Revolution. These two progressive and revolutionary tracks evolved in tandem, ushering in an explosive era of intellectual and economic growth not seen in Western society since the Renaissance.
As mass production grew as a share of the economy, more and more trained workers were needed on the factory floors and industrialists came to look at public schools as a convenient institution for quickly and effectively converting the largely agricultural population into the type of labor needed to work on their assembly lines.
This tension between the competing needs of democracy (which requires well-educated citizens) and industry (which needs well-trained workers) continues to be an underlying dynamic in public education in the US and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.
In case there is any question, I believe that the economy is here to serve “we the people,” not the other way around, yet increasingly we see our public educational system, which is vital to the continued survival of our democracy, being shaped to serve the needs of business, a process that has accelerated over the past three decades.
I’ve already written (here, here, and here) about how our schools increasingly emphasize math and science at the behest of economic interests, leaving humanities education (the basis for educating properly functioning citizens) to founder. And in my writing about multi-age classrooms I've pointed out that the single-age model of education is based upon assembly line manufacturing techniques imported to the US by way of Prussia. Indeed, the very structure of public education, with its hierarchical, top-down organization, concentrating power in the hands of politicians, superintendents and school boards, is a direct reflection of how business organizes itself.
And standardized testing, with its false promise of producing relevant data, is exactly the kind of solution one would expect from number crunchers.
Schools are not businesses. Education cannot be measured in terms of balance sheets. The purpose of business is to earn a profit. The purpose of public schools is to produce well-educated citizens. The business model cannot succeed in education any more than my preschool’s model can produce an economic profit: that is, both can to a degree, but only as an accidental by product.
Yesterday I wrote about the Perry School study which is finding that the most important thing for schools to teach in order to produce successful citizens are attributes like motivation, sociability, and an ability to work with others. These are not things that can be measured by standardized tests, nor are they skills that can be produced on assembly lines like widgets. To an economist, anything in a business that does not contribute to earning a profit can be considered waste. To an educator, anything that does not contribute to developing these skills (like high-stakes testing) can be considered a waste.
One of the most distressing side-effects of this “businessification” of schools is that instead of students, teachers, parents and administrators coming together as a community of learners, we find the kinds of competitive adversarial relationships characteristic of the business world. I’m going to stick to my area of knowledge here, leaving the goodness of competition to the business-types, and the application of these principles beyond elementary school to those who work with older kids. But every model of early childhood education I’ve ever studied holds at its core the idea that children learn best in nurturing environments where teachers, parents and facilities (a category under which I include "management") function as a kind of three-legged stool. It’s a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one.
Advocates of standardized testing are generally standing on the ground of “accountability.” They have the idea that these "slothful," unionized teachers are somehow trying to get away with something and they must be compelled to do their jobs. Administrators, even in the best of times, are in a financial pinch and are forced to choose between math/science and the humanities, saddle their teachers with ever larger classes, and resort to imposing assembly line educational methods. Parents are stuck in the middle, not really knowing what’s going on their child’s classroom, seeing the flaws in our system, yet feel helpless to do anything about it.
So what can we do?
But it seems clear that there are four fundamental things we must strive for if we are going return public education to its proper function of educating citizens:
1) Put real educators in charge of curriculum, measurement, and accountability, while reducing the influence of business interests.
2) Provide administrators adequate funding to have smaller classes and offer a complete education that includes humanities, arts, and physical education.
3) Give parents a more influential voice in how our public school systems operate by bringing them into the center of their children’s educational lives, and
4) Empower our teachers to teach.
How we get there is up to all of us and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011
(This is a repost of the second of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. Here is a link to part one. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a second sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)
As a preschool teacher, I’ve never been involved in testing my students, although I’m constantly observing and evaluating skills and progress. I do have a long check list of social, cognitive, expressive and motor “objectives” (developed by Tom Drummond of Descriptive Cue Sequence fame) that I use when a parent requests a written evaluation of her child, but this can’t be considered “testing” in the sense I’m discussing here because the child has no idea he’s doing anything other than the kinds of things he normally does at school. Mostly, I’m just collecting data to make sure I’m on track as a teacher.
As a student who had highly developed test-taking skills and an eye on the prize (i.e., good grades) my academic life mostly took the form of cramming, testing, then blissfully forgetting. I’m sure some of the information stuck in there somewhere, but it’s an all too familiar pattern designed to reward those of us with the ability to quickly store tons of information in our short term memories. I guess it’s a form of learning, and I’m not exactly disappointed with the education I received in school, but wonder what’s lost when we emphasize test scores and grades to the extent we do.
And we continue to up the ante, especially when it comes to standardized testing. In 1965, the federal government, concerned we were falling behind the Soviets, mandated standardized testing in public schools. The 2001 “No Child Left Behind” act tied school funding to these tests, making it a virtual life-or-death matter for already struggling school districts. Public school administrators have had no choice but to pressure teachers to “teach to the test,” compelling them in many cases to set aside what they know is best for their students in favor of what is best for the financial well-being of the school. (The current administration has recently announced it will grant states waivers from this policy, but only if they agree to abide by "Race To The Top," their own, only slightly less onerous, high stakes testing plan.) This might be a good model for the perpetuation of the institution, but deeply flawed when it comes to education, as almost any teacher will tell you.
Although evidence of standardized testing can be found as early as China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), it didn’t become a part of the Western tradition until the 20th century and the advent of the I.Q. test which purports to measure innate intelligence. The underlying theory behind these tests is that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and that, in turn, largely determines how successful we will be in life. In the late 1950’s an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today. You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was that the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.
An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains in the Perry School study faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. Critics of Head Start used this to attack the program as a failure, but the Perry School research continued. While the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems. This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being “smarter” than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. Now in their 40’s the test subjects are more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid’s lives, and are less likely to be involved in crime. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of preschool.
In other words, whatever was being measured by these standardized tests, it didn’t seem to have any bearing on achievement.
The assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not IQ. (Nobel Prize laurete economist James) Heckman is now working with psychologists to try to understand how the preschool may have affected the development of what he calls "non-cognitive" skills, things like motivation, sociability and the ability to work with others.
These are critical skills that help people succeed at school, at work - and in life.
Every teacher, in her heart of hearts, already knows this. These are the skills we're here to teach. And these are skills that will never be measured by a standardized test.
(Please stop by tomorrow for part three. Thomas Jefferson plays a key role!)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
(This is a repost of the first of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)
Last night I was talking to a woman named Lucy whose son is a good student, but struggles when it came to taking tests, especially the multiple-choice parts.
As a student, the opposite was true for me. My grades were decent, but my scores on the standardized tests were always higher, sometimes significantly higher, than one would expect based on my classroom work. I especially loved taking multiple-choice tests. It was like a strategy game to me. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had boasted about my skills so much that a friend challenged me to take his biology test, a subject I’d never studied at the college level. It was one of those anonymous 200-person survey courses so an extra body wouldn’t be noticed, and since the results were being tied to social security numbers and run through a computerized grading system we figured we could get away with it. I didn’t beat my friend as I’d threatened, but my 81 put me in the upper fifth of that class of students who had presumably attended the lectures, read the books, and studied.
When I offered to teach Lucy’s son some test taking techniques, she laughed and said that they had already hired a “testing tutor” to learn some strategy.
As a guy who enjoys games, puzzles and sports, I’ll never find fault with learning to think strategically, but obviously there’s something wrong here. As I understand it, the fundamental purpose of academic testing is to assess and benchmark the acquisition of knowledge. Clearly the multiple-choice test is, at best, a flawed measuring tool if some bonehead journalism major can ace a biology test and there are people making careers out of coaching kids to pass them, regardless of subject. They're like using elastic yardsticks.
But to be honest, I didn’t just game the system on my college multiple-choice tests. I also figured out that when a professor is faced with grading a stack of essay tests, she places a high priority on things like organization because a well-ordered piece of writing, whatever the content, is simply quicker to grade. I found that I could almost always raise my grades by as much as a full letter, simply by writing what appeared to be a tiny outline in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. It would look something like this:
I. Intro.II. (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)III. (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)IV. (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)V. Conclusion
This gave my teachers the impression of an orderly, well-considered answer right off the bat. I also made a point of not just regurgitating the key words, phrases and concepts I remembered from lectures verbatim, but also underlining them to make it easy for the grader to find them. I’m pretty sure there were some professors who never even read my essays, but instead just put checkmarks by these convenient highlights and scrawled, “Well organized!” across the top of the page.
My test-taking strategizing was all-inclusive. For instance, I rarely participated in my classes unless it was explicitly required. As I saw it, every time I raised my hand to answer a question, I was giving something away to my competition. After all, we were being graded on a curve and it could only hurt my grade to share knowledge with my classmates. If I had a question, I always saved it for office hours so that the professor’s answer only benefited me, and not the rest of those yahoos against whom I was being judged.
None of this had anything to do with education, of course, but rather about running up the score. Since the lion’s share of my grades were based on testing, my college grade point average went up sharply over what I’d done in high school, where more of my grades had been calculated by a teacher’s far more meaningful and accurate personal evaluation of what I’d actually learned.
Fortunately, during my junior and senior years I was in smaller classes that didn’t rely so much on testing and actually learned something.
I continue to be a skeptic about testing of all kinds and especially the standardized, high-stakes academic testing being used in our public schools. I know they’re probably out there, but I’ve yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t resent these tests, especially when the scores play such an disproportionate role in the academic lives of their students, as well as their own careers. If the people I talk to are representative, the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” is a real one, causing great teachers to forego what they know is best for their students in favor of becoming glorified “testing tutors.” Teachers know that doing well on tests is to a large degree a kind of trick that can be taught, but doesn’t really have much, if anything, to do with actual education.
I’ve never met a teacher who got into education for the fame or fortune. Every single one of us chose the profession because we genuinely believe we have something to offer to children. Our political and governmental leaders keep telling us that public education is broken, but more testing, incentive pay, charter schools, and the rest of those business-style solutions are not the answers.
(Tune in tomorrow for part two of the story and another, even better, picture of the "talking box.")
I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!