Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What's Wrong With Education?

In today’s Care2 posts there is a two-part story on “What’s wrong with education?” It’s a timely issue, as Care2 tends to make its focus. Among the comments in the story were the following:

Before the advent of television, video games and computers, children would sit quietly in their classrooms and pay attention, no problem. Without the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, we didn’t have to be quick enough to notice the fingers moving under the desk, silently texting (how do they do that without looking?), or have to spend time communicating with parents about why their child had a cell phone confiscated yet again. It was just a whole lot easier back then. So they say.

But were we actually teaching? Despite the broken promises and political games surrounding the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it did uncover an unfortunate truth about our nation’s educational history: Many of our children were left behind.

Shining a light on these children has been a good thing, but as any teacher knows, it’s just plain wrong to judge a student solely on the basis of a few tests. Yet that is exactly what NCLB has put in place. (Did they check in with any teachers when they were devising this system?)

Here is my response:

Having been on both sides of the desk before the advent of distracting technologies, I would say it’s a bit naïve to suggest students were necessarily paying attention prior to their arrival. The reality is that students passed notes, circulated slam books, planted whoopee cushions in the seats of unsuspecting classmates and whispered among themselves. That was particularly true in classrooms packed with 38 seventh graders sharing 20 text books as was the case in my middle school in 1976.

That was also the time when high stakes testing arrived. Mid-school year in 1977, we were told to throw away everything we had been doing up to then, that the new Florida statewide testing standards would be what we would teach. Of course, most of us were already teaching its basics – appropriate usage of punctuation, correct spelling, subject/verb agreement and reading comprehension. But we now had no choice about what we taught or how it would be taught. Our in loco parentis state Department of Education knew better.

Our students did particularly well on the tests. Our county came in second out of 67 counties statewide. Of course, our county was 97% white and largely middle class, the demographic out of which high stakes testing arose and whose children traditionally do the best on such tests. We had virtually no students speaking English as a second language and few special ed students, the demographics which tend to drag test scores down.

But what did it prove? Certainly not that our teaching staff was proficient and deserved recognition if not compensation. In the year our students scored second highest in the state, our teachers were in their second year with no contract, our starting salary was $8000/year gross with no medical benefits and our school board was fined by an independent mediator for refusing to negotiate with a union handicapped by state law which prohibits strikes. Our classrooms remained packed with more students than we could ever handle.

The test results also did not prove that our students were learning any more than they had previously. The same students excelled on the tests who excelled in the classroom. And the same students, many of them sadly headed for dropping out of high school, failed the test just as they failed our classes.

As was the case with NCLB, teachers were actively ignored in the process of creating the conditions for conducting the very enterprise for which they were trained and most intimately involved. The focus shifted from children to numbers, a dehumanizing move which also signaled the loss of any concern for context or complexity of circumstance. It is a rather mindless reductionism on a good day.

The notion that a single test score on a standardized instrument can tell an educator everything they need to know about a student’s educational process is naïve at best. Standardized tests were designed for diagnostic purposes, not evaluative. What such tests do best is identify the areas where students require more development. The employment of such tests as high stake, do or die events, signals a fundamental misuse of standardized testing.

Even more misguided is the use of such test results as somehow indicating the performance of a teacher. Horace Mann, teaching a group of students from the lowest scoring demographics, might well appear to be incompetent if his students’ test scores were all that was considered. And even a mediocre teacher with a group of college bound AP or IB students might appear to be a stellar pedagogue. Test scores alone say little about a teacher’s capabilities or performance. It’s a bit like a local supermarket offering a shipload of overly ripe peaches for sale and then suggesting that the parents of his area do not want their children to eat healthy food when the peaches failed to sell.

At the heart of this problem lies two fundamentally erroneous paradigms. The first is that bureaucrats and elected school officials are in a parent/child relationship to teachers. Admittedly part of the problem here is that former teachers who have been in parent/child relationships with actual children fail to adapt to a new reality when they are promoted to roles managing adults. The reality is that many teachers are at least as well educated as their administrators and have a lot more insight about the realities of the classroom than those who are removed from them , some for many years.

The second problematic paradigm comes from the broader societal belief that somehow everything worth knowing can be reduced to numbers. Numbers rarely convey complexity or context. And they are particularly poor indicators of human experience. Ask yourself about some of the most important aspects of being human: how much does love weigh? How do we measure the intensity (and thus the sincerity) of the grief of a widow or a parent who has lost a child? The reality is that if we want to know what children have learned, we have to do the hard work of actually observing their behavior. Such rarely lends itself to reduction to the instant gratification of a set of data.

Underneath all of these questions is a much darker concern. The reality is that Americans have steadily defunded public education even as they have increasingly regulated it and demanded more from it. More demands on fewer workers with less pay sounds a lot like free market fundamentalism with its predictable pathologies. But it does not sound much like a society that values an educated public, hence its operation of a healthy, productive public school system. Standardized testing is the mere tip of the iceberg here. Ultimately, the real question is who we wish to be as a people.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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