Monday, March 31, 2014

The Two Fronts

The battle for better public education has two fronts: the work to change the system, and to help those kids who are stuck in it now.  

The effort to change the system seems to be taking place in Maine districts that are moving to what we call the proficiency-based, or customized learning system. But we need to cast a very careful eye on what this change means for kids.

As the proficiency-based system unfolds in my school district, I become less convinced that it can really hold a key to creating a healthy education for all children. The effects of punitive measures for "not learning" are, IMHO, dire, both for those who appear to succeed and those who don't. This new system occasionally softens, but doesn't remove the worst aspects of the traditional model of public education.

To have the goal of students be the successful accomplishment of standards makes assessment more important than learning. I know all the arguments against that statement; I know how hard teachers are working to make that not be so. Just listen to the Twitter conversations among Maine teachers about the "science" of assessment! But the constant assessment is, and it always will be more important than learning, as long as we impose all of the same standards on all children regardless of their identities, their interests, comprehension and connection.

There are people who are working incredibly hard to make this system work. They believe in it deeply and defend it staunchly. They are trying, using all the tools they have, to take an assessment-driven system and make it look, sound, and behave like progressive, child-centered education. But it just won't scan.

Proponents of the proficiency-based system believe that in order for kids to be adequately educated, the same list of standards needs to be accomplished by all kids at just about the same time and regardless of interest and connection to the learning. This embeds in the system a fatal flaw, but public education has no other choice. These things are required by law and enforced by testing. The daily problem teachers face is: how to get kids motivated. But this is only a problem when their natural motivation is ignored; ignore it long enough and it will go away.

"The basics," those fundamental skills that we all believe kids must acquire in order to succeed in life, come when they have been made irresistibly interesting through students' activities. Public education is terminally topsy-turvy; you have to "learn the basics" before you get to do the fun stuff.

In my district both the middle school and the high school had special weeks where kids got to choose from a variety of fun and interesting things. At the middle school, my daughter got to work on puppetry and making solar cars. At the high school, my son got to do robotics, photography, and bridge design.

Those who had not finished the required standards did what they called "intensives." What's that? Can you guess? Catching up on unfinished standards. This probably seems right and natural on the surface. But it is punitive, and that is the way it will be taken by students. If you succeed in this system, you get to do cool stuff. If you don't, you don't.

What's wrong with this picture? Why does it have to be this way? Why does the system have to go against what would make kids happier, rev their engines, build self-respect from the accomplishment of really good work?

I think once again about Saul Kaplan's concept of connected adjacencies: rather than tearing down a flawed system, build a new one next door.  All kids need this option; those whose parents can homeschool or send their kids to a private school, and those whose families do not have that option. It has to be a community effort, with many families sharing the burden of providing a healthy education for their kids.

We need to think about two things: how to push back against this system and install one doesn't have directly or indirectly punitive consequences for "not learning;" and how to help the kids who are stuck in it now and are not thriving. Both endeavors need your help. 


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  2. Well... Punishment, or as we tend to say in school, consequences (which mostly means negative consequences actually) do not work. I may need to cite the science. Most of us still equate punishment with negative reinforcement. They are very different. How can we punish kids (or adults) when we don't know what we are talking about. Let's have that discussion. As educators, we seem more interested in understanding unpacking than punishment.

    1. I use punishment very broadly. Is the result of the action of an adult designed to make a kid feel better or worse? Simple enough. When you don't learn something, you have consequences in this system and that is just complete horse hockey.

  3. I am opposed to the Mass Customized Learning, or the so-called "Proficiency-Based" movement because it is really standardization by another name. Until we get out from under this "one size fits all" notion of education, we will be oppressing teachers and students alike. What's sad to me, as an education professional, is to observe how many educators in Maine are drinking the Kool Aid, trying to "make it work."

    1. I totally get why teachers are working hard for it. Actually, in my district, the whole process has resulted in a greater discussion of learning, in more team playing, and a greater community feeling in schools. They are focusing their attention on the best way to introduce their individual kids to the concepts and skills they are teaching. Whenever you have the teachers' lounge conversation be about how students best learn, education is going to get better. That's not MCL or standards-based learning -- that's just good practice. But the shift to PBE has made it happen, and in my district, it's resulted in some very engaged and happy classrooms.

      I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself. I don't believe the standards-based system can work in my district in the long-term (too many low-income kids, too many towns with 80% free/reduced) but I have no complaints about the teachers,

    2. If what you say is true, that sounds like progress. However, I question the validity of the approach and the driving force behind it (former Ed. Commissioner whats-his-name with ties to Heritage Foundation).