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Faulty Reform

I often think about how education ‘reformers’ continue to push their tougher standards, raise achievement mantra. Of course, when they say tougher standards, they mean standards that not all children can achieve, and when they say raise achievement they mean higher test scores.

I’m disheartened daily by these ‘reformers’ obsessive need to reduce something as messy and beautiful as learning to a standard and a test. Does anyone in their right mind actually believe that if all teachers simply taught common standards and achieved high scores on a standardized tests that the challenges our schools face everyday would simply evaporate?

What’s more, ‘reformers’ tend to scoff at anything that can’t be ‘properly’ reduced to a number.

When I show people some of the projects my students do through out the year or even as a substitute for a multiple choice final exam, I often get suspicious looks. Responses sound something like this: that’s all well and good that the kids are doing this, but how do you grade it?

This response frustrates me because it fully acknowledges the real learning that occurs during such projects but a knee-jerk obsession with measurement seems to entirely trump this acknowledgment.

I find this excerpt from Alfie Kohn’s Schools Our Children Deserve aptly explains why real learning is so often trumped by numbers:

Anyone trying to account for the popularity of standardized tests may also want to consider our cultural penchant for attaching numbers to things. One write has called it a “prosaic mentality”: a preoccupation with that which can be seen and measured. Any aspect of learning (or life) that resists being reduced to numbers is regarded as vaguely suspicious. By contrast, anything that appears in numerical form seems reassuringly scientific; if the numbers are getting larger over time, we must be making progress. Concepts like intrinsic motivation and intellectual exploration are hard for the prosaic mind to grasp, whereas test scores, like sales figures or votes, can be calculated and charted, and used to define success and failure. The more tests we make kids take, the more precise our knowledge about who has learned well, who has taught well, which districts are in trouble, and even which schools (in this brave new world of for-profit education) will survive another day.

Until we demand policy makers be actual educators – professionals who actually work in the field they are suppose to be running – education reform will be plagued by outsiders who at best can make uneducated guesses at applying solutions from the business world for classroom problems.


About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


3 thoughts on “Faulty Reform

  1. Kirsten and I are fans of The Wire, a show supremely concerned with how people behave in systems, and how systems impact people’s behavior. It’s very much a whole lot of inter-abyssal staring.

    I think here of all the anecdotes I’ve heard about what happens to teachers who become administrators. I’ve actually been thanked for going back to teaching after working half-time as an administrator. (Sorry, here I am again, kind of.)

    So I have two questions for you, Joe, and I hope neither makes me sound too much like a middle school English teacher.

    1. How would you prepare an educator to be a policy-maker? How would you protect against corruption or personal destruction in the political system?

    2. If I wanted to draft a argument directed at “reformers,” who are openly skeptical of Kohn, who or what would be my Trojan Horse?

    You can reject the premise of either question – I kind of do myself – but I thought I would ask –

    Happy weekend,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 20, 2010, 4:01 pm
  2. Thank you for the interesting post,

    I’m equally concerned with the ubiquitous need to attach a number to anything and everything. I hear the interesting anecdote that people who work in papers often present their work to the editors and they consistently get their work back with the comment, “Good, add some numbers.” I heard this from a program I love called, “One the Media.”

    I think these ideas are connected and I’m a little afraid of the two things I’m going to say next but here goes.

    I think we’re trending toward a future in which technophilia is going to lead towards increasing dependence on computers to do our thinking for us. This dependency on numbers is a step toward the increasingly mechanistic thought pattern of people. If you can’t put it into an equation that can be easily run with whatever local variables you’ve got then it’s worthless or immature. I see all around me thinking that boils down to a linear cause and effect equation built on the premise that you can isolate this mode of production from that one.

    I want a school system that by design fosters deep understanding of students and communities. I don’t want to grade my student’s work, I want to study it, know it, and help them uncover their own thought patterns, logical fallacies and artistic affinities. I see grades and test scores as the dehumanizing commodity of education and society. If a test or a project in school does not give others insight about their understanding then it’s not really worth our time. If it’s a method for reducing knowledge to discrete measurable bits then it’s actually teaching that understanding = computing power.

    The second point is this, that mathematical reasoning is a beautiful, organic, human capacity for understanding. Reducing something to it’s mathematical representation can often reveal fascinating patterns that were not evident to non-mathematical analysis. I also notice a trend in modern society that mathematical reasoning is not personable, not friendly, not meaningful, not human. Being fascinated by math is often equated with social ineptitude and I want to move toward school where subjects are more integrated and mathematical reasoning is incorporated into everything we do. Good math, however, requires our thoughtful participation, what perks my antennae up is when people start using the language of linear cause and effect that makes our decisions “obvious”. I often find that the shadowed reasoning taking place allows for specific blinders to be put in place for intentional reasons.
    “In my darker days I think standardized tests are doing a job for which they were cleverly designed.” A. Kohn. PACE Lecture series.

    Thanks for the conversation,
    Happy weekend,

    Posted by jsteele1979 | August 22, 2010, 10:34 am
  3. joebower,

    It seems that your frustration is that creativity cannot be measured by a standardized test, which I agree with. If I’m wrong, show me the test!

    But there are important basic things that can be and should be measured, such as reading ability, vocabulary, grammar, composition, addition, and multiplication.

    But most important, I think that you have some faulty ideas about reform.

    1. The ‘reformers’ that you refer to are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. They defend of the status quo by setting up smoke screens to obscure the real problem. They are busy rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    2. The answer is not to have politicians with teaching experience.

    The real problem is that no politician or “policy maker” should be making any decisions about education in the first place.

    What do I mean? Parental Choice in Education is the only solution.

    The real hole in the boat is the government-protected monopoly. Innovation and excellence are not rewarded, and failure is not discouraged. So the result is mediocrity defended by the unions.

    Right now teachers are government-workers. Under school choice they would be professionals who could negotiate their own salaries, or start their own schools.

    But the unions will defend the monopoly at all costs. Until a majority of the teachers reject the unions, they will be kept in chains so the unions can feed off of their government paychecks.

    I hope I wasn’t too blunt. I meant to be persuasive. As you can tell from my handle, I am passionate about this issue.

    Posted by letschooseschools | August 23, 2010, 6:38 pm

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