Monday, November 22, 2010

Eliminating Recess Hurts Kids When Testing Pressure is Too Great, We All Lose By Nicholas Thacher

The suburban New England town in which I run a small elementary school has just been obliged to eliminate morning recess for its public school children. This has, as one can readily imagine, caused a lot of palaver, dissension, anger, anxiety, and finger-pointing. Our excellent superintendent had the unenviable task of moving from one acrimonious evening meeting to another in the opening weeks of our school year, trying to explain why, since standardized-test scores haven't met the designated benchmarks, the schools have been mandated to eliminate morning recess and force the children to spend their midmorning time swotting up on their academic skills.

This is the "trickle down" of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and a commonwealth that takes occasionally justifiable pride in its challenging standards for its public schools. The thinking is that more minutes in the classroom will enable the youngsters to sharpen their minds and raise their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS tests.

This is not a new idea, but it's a patently boneheaded one—a virtually perfect example (like the recent anti-bullying legislation cobbled together by the Massachusetts legislature) of why establishing educational policies from on high is a pointless practice, however well-intentioned. It puts me in mind of the safety stickers mandated for child strollers: "Remove Child Before Folding." But this is no joke, and it is definitely not funny.

Any child, parent, or teacher can explain why keeping young kids at their desks from 8 a.m. to lunchtime is a poor idea. Even the stegosaurus, reputed to be "so dumb as to only be dimly aware that it was alive," must have understood the importance of physical exercise. The latest research on learning and cognition, summarized in a recent New York Times Magazine article online, gives increasingly persuasive evidence that exercise and fitness have positive effects on the immature human brain. According to Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois: "Just 20 minutes of walking" prior to a test raises a child's score, even if the child is otherwise unfit or overweight. The latest studies, using MRIs to measure children's brains, show that fit children have significantly larger basal ganglia, the portion of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and "executive control."
Let's forget the worship of standardized testing, however well-intentioned. Let's just consider, for a moment, what school is going to feel like for all the little boys and girls imprisoned in my town's elementary schools.

Of course, correlation isn't necessarily causation, and it isn't breaking news—at least in the teaching profession—that children who periodically get a little exercise are apt to be more alert when they return to a less active classroom setting. And good teachers and good schools have for centuries been well aware that more learner-based, active engagement in the classroom leads to stronger academic performance in the long haul.

Tragically, the kids in the public school classrooms in my town are about to learn what the phrase "the long haul" really means. It means their opportunity to burn off calories and energy, to practice the social skills that lead to successful interaction with peers in a relatively unstructured setting, to master the challenge of a long slide or a swing set or simply to take a moment, like Prince Hamlet, to study the clouds or listen to the wind—all of these learning opportunities have been hammered out of their dreary mornings on the anvil of No Child Left Behind. A long haul, a long road, a long march.

I'd like to propose that we forget the pointless bickering, the finger-pointing, the ascribing of blame to this federal administration or that state mandate. This just doesn't pass the proverbial smell test. It's a kind of educational pornography that Justice Potter Stewart would have identified in an instant. Let's forget the worship of standardized testing, however well-intentioned. Let's just consider, for a moment, what school is going to feel like for all the little boys and girls imprisoned in my town's elementary schools, what it's going to feel like for all those teachers who are devoting their lives to the unbelievably arduous challenges of running a classroom.

In other words, let's give them all a break. Their lives—and, ultimately, the increasingly decaying fabric of our national culture—will be the better for it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'Ready to Learn' Equals Easier to Educate, by Alfie Kohn

The phrase "ready to learn," frequently applied to young children, is rather odd when you stop to think about it, because the implication is that some kids aren't. Have you ever met a child who wasn't ready to learn -- or, for that matter, already learning like crazy? The term must mean something much more specific -- namely, that some children aren't yet able (or willing) to learn certain things or learn them in a certain way.

Specifically, it seems to be code for "prepared for traditional instruction." And yes, we'd have to concede that some kids are not ready to memorize their letters, numbers, and colors, or to practice academic skills on command. In fact, some children continue to resist for years since they'd rather be doing other kinds of learning. Can you blame them?

Then there's the question of when we expect children to be ready. Even if we narrow the notion of readiness to the acquisition of "phonemic awareness" as a prerequisite to reading in kindergarten or first grade, the concept is still iffy, but for different reasons. For one thing, researcher Stephen Krashen points out that "about three-quarters of children who test low in P.A. [phonemic awareness] appear to have no serious problems in learning to read."[1] For another thing, the premise that one must be ready to start by a certain age is contradicted by evidence that children who don't learn to read until age 7 or even later tend to make rapid progress and are soon indistinguishable from those who learned earlier.[2]

Thus, "readiness to learn" may have more to do with a schedule that's convenient for others -- or, worse, with preparation for standardized testing -- than with what is necessary or even desirable for a given child. Perhaps the phrase is an attempt to put a positive spin on what is really just developmentally inappropriate practice. In any case, I fear the effect is to set up children (or their parents) for blame when certain goals aren't reached. "Well, what did you expect? This child arrived in our classroom not ready to learn."

Sometimes, though, readiness is invoked not as a justification for premature instruction but as a criterion for admission to a selective school or program. Only those certified as "ready to learn" are deemed eligible. For the moment, let's ignore the moral implications of making 4- or 5-year-olds compete for access to an elite educational setting. When the demand exceeds the (artificially scarce) supply, the decision is usually made to choose the most advanced children, the "smartest," the readiest.

But why?

Presumably because they will be the easiest to teach.

Martin Haberman, who coined the phrase "pedagogy of poverty," related a conversation he had with his grandson's kindergarten teacher at a selective school. "Wouldn't it make more sense to admit the children who don't know their shapes and colors, and teach them these things?" he asked. The teacher looked at him as if he were "leftover mashed potatoes," but he persisted:

"Next year my grandson, who is already testing in your top half, will have had the added benefit of being in your class for a whole year. Won't he learn a lot more and be even further ahead of the 4-year-olds who failed your admission exam and who have to spend this year at home, or in daycare, without the benefit of your kindergarten? Will the 4-year-old rejects ever catch up?"

This question did even less to endear him to the teacher, but Haberman by now had realized what was going on more generally, and he summarized his epiphany as follows: "The children we teach best are those who need us least."[3]

As it happens, I had stumbled across this truth while thinking about education for a very different age group. Some years ago I was weighing the relative predictive power of high school grade-point average against that of the SAT or ACT. Some critics emphasize (correctly) that these exams are much less useful than grades at predicting college performance, but I was at pains to point out that grades have their own problems and in any case it would be more sensible to lump them together into a compound variable called "gradesandtests", which fails to predict anything other than future gradesandtests; it tells us nothing about who will be creative or a deep thinker or excited about learning or happy or successful in his or her career.

But even this reframing of the discussion failed to challenge the premise that I, too, seemed to share with more conventional participants in the colloquy about college admission. The eminent psychologist David McLelland, known for his theory of achievement motivation, delivered a public lecture at the Educational Testing Service in 1971. This talk was devoted primarily to raising pointed questions about the value of intelligence tests (Do such tests predict "who will get ahead in a number of prestige jobs where credentials are important"? he asked rhetorically. Sure. And so does "white skin.")

In an almost offhand way, McClelland then issued what struck me as a truly provocative and profound challenge. Why, he asked, do we spend time trying to figure out which criteria best predict success in higher education? Why are colleges looking for the most qualified students? "One would think that the purpose of education is precisely to improve the performance of those who are not doing very well," he mused. "If the colleges were interested in proving that they could educate people, high-scoring students might be poor bets because they would be less likely to show improvement in performance."[4]

Of course that's not how most colleges see the purpose of education. Like other institutions that get to choose whom to admit, they're looking for the applicants they think are ready to succeed. When you boil it down, that means excluding those who most need what they have to offer.

It's one thing to admit this guiltily, and something else again to build an admissions industry -- from kindergarten to graduate school -- around an unapologetic attempt to find the students who will be easiest to educate.

1. Stephen Krashen, "Low P.A. Can Read O.K.," Practically Primary, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001: 17-20.
2. Stephen Krashen and Jeff McQuillan, "The Case for Late Intervention," Educational Leadership, October 2007: 68-73.
3. Martin Haberman, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty (W. Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1995), p. 80.
4. David C. McClelland, "Testing for Competence Rather Than for 'Intelligence,'" American Psychologist, January 1973, pp. 6, 2.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Gini Index and Educational Achievement By Walt Gardner

With reformers relentlessly demanding that schools produce measurable outcomes, it's curious that the Gini Index is rarely mentioned. I say that because what Italian statistician Corrado Gini wrote in 1912 has direct relevance to today's debate.

Sometimes referred to as the Gini coefficient, it measures the range of income inequality in a society from 0 (no inequality) to 1(total inequality). Sweden, for example, has an index of .23, while Namibia has .7. The U.S. has one of the world's worst Ginis for an industrialized country at .468 in 2009. This is not surprising since wealth is being reconcentrated in the upper one percent of the population in a way not seen since the Gilded Age.

The change has not escaped the attention of commentators. In his Nov. 7 New York Times column, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote that the U.S. "now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana" ("Our Banana Republic"). Echoing this view, on Nov. 8, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely based on a sample of 5,000 people, including young and old, men and women, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. They found, among other things, that "Americans reported wanting to live in a country more like Sweden than the United States" ("Spreading the wealth").

The implications for schools are inescapable. Researchers have repeatedly emphasized the effects that poverty has on performance. According to UNICEF, the U.S. already had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world long before the latest Census Bureau report showed that one in five children are now living in poverty. Overall, the share of Americans in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level since 1994.

If Gini were alive today, he would find great material for his index. When any society is characterized by a high index, it is bound to exhibit the kind of socioeconomic differences that impact schools. Students can overcome their backgrounds, but they tend to constitute a small percentage of the overall population. That's why it makes little sense to compare test scores of one country with the test scores of another. Just as Zip codes serve as a reliable predictor of scores on standardized tests, so too does a country's Gini serve an equally valuable purpose.

This does not mean that inspired teachers can't help students from chaotic backgrounds. As Richard Rothstein recently explained in his keynote at ASCD's 2010 Conference on Teaching and Learning ("One-Third Agenda Won't Close Gaps"), teachers are the most important in-school factor in achievement. But teachers are not miracle workers. By themselves, they cannot compensate for the deficits that students bring to the classroom. These out-of school factors play a disproportionately large role in academic performance. The Harlem Children's Zone recognized the distinction. That's why it provides its students with wraparound services, which are underwritten by wealthy philanthropists.

In light of these facts, I have a proposal. Require that whenever test scores are published, the Gini index must be published with them. After all, federal law has long mandated that stocks may not be sold to the public without a prospectus. Why should test scores be any different? They are evidence of investment in public education. The more relevant information taxpayers have, the better able they will be to make judgments about the performance of schools.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

De-legitimizing public education. by Marion Brady

The quality of American education is going to get worse. Count on it. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, the main reason isn’t going to be the loss of funding accompanying economic hard times.

Follow along and I’ll explain:

Step One: Start with what was once a relatively simple educational system. (For me, it was a one-room school with 16 or so kids ranging in age from about 6 to 15, and a teacher who, it was taken for granted by the community, was a professional who knew what she was doing.)

Step Two: Close the school, build a big one, buy school buses, open a district office, and hire administrators to tell teachers what they can and can’t do.

Step Three: When problems with the new, more complicated system develop, expand the administrative pyramid, with each successive layer of authority knowing less about educating than the layer below it.

Step Four: As problems escalate, expand the bureaucracy, moving decision-making ever higher up the pyramid until state and then federal politicians make all the important calls.

Step Five: Give corporate America - the Gates, Broads, Waltons, etc. - control of the politicians who control the bureaucracy that controls the administrators who control the teachers.

Step Six: Pay no attention as the rich who, enamored of market forces, in love with the idea of privatizing schools, and attracted by the half-trillion dollars a year America spends on education, use the media to destroy confidence in public education.

Step Seven: As a confidence-destroying strategy, zero in on teachers. Say that they hate change and played a major role in the de-industrialization of America and the decline of the American Empire.

Step Eight: As the de-professionalization of teaching and the down-grading of teachers progress, point to the resultant poor school performance as proof of the need for centralized control of education. So, what’s next?

I don’t have a clue. But if I were forced to guess, I’d say that what’s next is whatever the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable - eyes fixed no farther than the next quarter’s profit - want to be next. They’ve been wildly successful thus far.

It’s possible, of course, that education policy next year will be just another excuse for partisan warfare, with little or no change in the status quo. Or it may be that some small congressional caucus will stick a wrench so firmly in the legislative gears that the simplistic, reactionary
education "reform" machine built by corporate America, sold to Congress, and showcased by non-educator-educators like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, will simply grind to a halt.

What particularly grieves me is that, whatever happens, it won’t be a consequence of any real understanding of education. Neither will it cause the education establishment itself to take seriously what Erica Goldson said in her June valedictory speech at Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York:

"We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

"Some of you may be thinking, "Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

"I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system."

And whatever happens next won’t support and encourage educators to get a spine. They need to scream bloody murder at stupid policy, reject inappropriate use of market forces, point out mainstream media educational naiveté, and demand that policymakers listen before serving up dysfunctional programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

And when they do so and are dismissed as self-serving whiners who don’t want to be held accountable, they should take to the streets in protest.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Sell Conservatism: Lesson 1 -- Pretend You're a Reformer. By Alfie Kohn

If you somehow neglected to renew your subscription to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you may have missed a couple of interesting articles last year. A series of studies conducted by two independent groups of researchers (published in the September and November 2009 issues, respectively) added to an already substantial collection of evidence showing that "people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate."

As is common with social psych studies, all the subjects were college students, so extrapolate to every other member of our species at your peril. Still, in a variety of different experiments, everything from the formula used by a university for funding its departments to unequal gender arrangements in business or politics was likely to be regarded as fair simply because, well, that's how things are already being done. Subjects also tended to prefer the taste of a beverage if they were told it was an established brand than if they were told it was new.

If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then existence apparently is nine-tenths of rightness. At the same time, though, we seem to enjoy the smell of fresh paint (as Sartre put it). There's something undeniably alluring about the new-and-improved version of whatever product we're used to buying -- as long as the product itself hasn't changed too much. We may be seized by an urge to throw the bums out every other November, but don't ask us to question the two-party system itself. After all, if that's how things are done, it must be for good reason.

For a shrewd policy maker, then, the ideal formula would seem to be to let people enjoy the invigorating experience of demanding reform without having to give up whatever they're used to. And that's precisely what both liberals and conservatives manage to do: Advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it.

But conservatives have gone a step further. They've figured out how to take policies that actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that's long overdue. In many cases the values and practices they endorse have already been accepted, but they try to convince us they've lost so they can win even more.

This phenomenon is easiest to notice in the realm of public policy. It's pretty obvious to all but the most doctrinaire libertarian that the financial cataclysm of 2007, from which we've yet to recover, was a direct result of inadequate regulation of the investment banking industry. (Even Ayn Rand protégé Alan Greenspan admitted that his faith in the free market was, er, somewhat misplaced.) This failure to regulate, in turn, reflects a sneering distrust of government that has been carefully cultivated at least since Ronald Reagan took office 30 years ago. And of course it's not limited to banking. The private sector's license to function with minimal oversight seems to have played a leading role in one recent disaster after another: the catastrophic BP oil spill, the deadly West Virginia mine explosion, the recall of half a billion eggs following a salmonella outbreak, and the San Bruno gas line explosion, to name only the most prominent examples from only the last half year.

Yet those who have drunk the ideological Kool-Aid -- a lot more than tea is served at these parties -- portray themselves as revolutionaries by virtue of demanding even further restrictions on the ability of democratically elected officials to regulate corporate conduct in the public interest. By framing the primary threat to our well-being as Big Government, conservatives succeed in marketing as something qualitatively new and different what is actually a ramped-up version of the very free-market dogma whose consequences we've been experiencing for quite some time.

Interestingly, this same artful maneuver also shows up far from the domain of Goldman Sachs and BP. Consider the way children are raised in our culture. I think it can be argued that the dominant problem with parenting isn't permissiveness; it's a fear of permissiveness that leads us to be excessively controlling. For every example of a child who is permitted to run wild in a public place, there are hundreds of examples of children being restricted unnecessarily, yelled at, threatened, or bullied by their parents, children whose protests are routinely ignored and whose questions are dismissed out of hand, children who have become accustomed to hearing an automatic "No!" in response to their requests, and a "Because I said so!" if they ask for a reason.

But traditionalists -- who, when it comes to children, include a discouraging number of political liberals -- have persuaded us to ignore the epidemic of punitive parenting and focus instead on the occasional example of overindulgence -- sometimes even to the point of pronouncing an entire generation spoiled. (It's revealing that similar alarms have been raised for decades, if not centuries.) To create the impression that kids today are out of control is to justify a call for even tighter restrictions, tougher discipline, more punishment. And, again, this is billed as a courageous departure from contemporary parenting practices rather than identified for what it is: an intensification of the control-oriented model that, as I've argued elsewhere, has already done incalculable damage.

Consider, finally, the case of education. Seymour Papert, known for his work on artificial intelligence, began one of his books by inviting us to imagine a group of surgeons and a group of teachers, both from a century ago, who are magically transported to the present day. The surgeons visit a modern operating room and struggle to understand what's going on, but the teachers feel right at home in today's schools. Kids, they discover, are still segregated by age in rows of classrooms; are still made to sit passively and listen (or practice skills) most of the time; are still tested and graded, rewarded or punished; still set against one another in contests and deprived of any real say about what they're doing.

Those tempted to point defensively to updates in the delivery system only end up underscoring how education is still about delivering knowledge to empty receptacles. In fact, snazzier technology -- say, posting grades or homework assignments on-line -- mostly serves to distract us from rethinking the pedagogy. Interactive whiteboards in classrooms amount to a 21st-century veneer on old-fashioned, teacher-centered instruction.

But enter now the school "reformers": big-city superintendents like Joel Klein and, until recently, Michelle Rhee; big-money people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and a batch of hedge fund managers; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his ideological soulmates who preceded him in the Bush Administration; Waiting for 'Superman' director Davis Guggenheim; and the reporters, editorial writers, and producers at just about every mass media outlet in the U.S. School reform, as these people understand it, and as I've discussed in a previous post, involves a relentless regimen of standardized testing; a push to direct funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations; a weakening of teachers' job protection -- and the vilification of unions that represent teachers -- so that those who have failed to raise their students' test scores can be publicly humiliated or fired; threats to shut down low-scoring schools; initiatives to dangle money in front of teachers who follow orders and raise scores, or even in front of certain (low-income) students; and a contest for funding in which only (some) states willing to adopt this bribe-and-threat agenda will receive desperately needed federal money.

This business-style version of reform is routinely described as "bold" or "daring" -- in contrast to the "failed status quo," which is blamed on the teachers' unions. (With education, just as with parenting, even people who are reasonably progressive on other issues suddenly sound as if they're auditioning for Fox News.) There's much to be said about each of the policies I've listed, but for now the point to be emphasized is that, just as with the Tea Partyers who rally to stop the "tyranny" of mild federal checks on corporate power, or the parenting writers who urge us to "dare to discipline" our children (even though 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admit to spanking their children), the school reformers are in fact accelerating what has already been happening over the last couple of decades.

Even before the implementation of what should be called the Many Children Left Behind Act, states and school districts were busy standardizing curricula, imposing more and more tests, and using an array of rewards and punishments to pressure teachers and students to fall in line -- with the most extreme version of this effort reserved for the inner cities. Before anyone outside of Texas had heard of George W. Bush, many of us had been calling attention to the fact that these policies were turning schools into glorified test-prep centers, driving some of the most innovative teachers to leave the profession, and increasing the drop-out rate among kids of color.

Yet the so-called reformers have succeeded in convincing people that their top-down, test-driven approach -- in effect, the status quo on steroids -- is a courageous rejection of what we've been doing.

Here's what would be new: questioning all the stuff that Papert's early 20th-century visitors would immediately recognize: a regimen of memorizing facts and practicing skills that features lectures, worksheets, quizzes, report cards and homework. But the Gates-Bush-Obama version of "school reform" not only fails to call those things into question; it actually intensifies them, particularly in urban schools. The message, as educator Harvey Daniels observed, consists of saying in effect that "what we're doing [in the classroom] is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner..."

Real education reform would require us to consider the elimination of many features that we've come to associate with school, so perhaps the reluctance to take such suggestions seriously is just a specific instance of the "whatever is, is right" bias that psychologists keep documenting. At the same time, traditionalists -- educational or otherwise -- know that it's politically advantageous to position themselves as being outside the establishment. Our challenge is to peer through the fog of rhetoric, to realize that what's being billed as reform should seem distinctly familiar -- and not particularly welcome.