Friday, October 10, 2014

To Algebra or Not to Algebra

(We interrupt this series to bring you this small point.)

Why is this meme so right on target?
The whole system is structured around imposing, not exposing. I'm all for exposing, but exposure to algebra without context just doesn't produce all that many lovers, or even appreciators, of algebra, any more than you can really love a hammer before you know that it hits a nail that holds boards together.

Also, a system organized around "just in case" or "it's for your own good" learning finds that the sheer quantity of things kids "may need to know someday" pushes out the things that kids might really want to know right now, to such a degree that by high school so many kids look at learning as an annoying chore, something that is being done to them.

Let's not forget that we don't have that "expose" system right now, we don't give kids a taste of algebra, we give them a whole damn year of it. Learning that is forced pushes out the ideas that can be developed into real meaningful learning...and that will most definitely include algebra, as soon as a kid figures out that it is a key to what he or she wants to do.

What we lose with this approach is more tragic than what we lose if we stop teaching kids stuff they might need someday.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Myth of “Knowledge Gaps”

Third in a series about poverty and education

This post is a bit of a side-note in my series on education and poverty and Ruby Payne's work, but I found I couldn’t continue until I had explored this issue. There are ways in which the current education system is particularly oppressive to children who come from the lower classes. I want to present these ideas before going into that further.

People who oppose education “reform” efforts such as the new Common Core standards and excessive state standardized testing, often cite some combination of the following as their reasons:

  • The high-stakes testing culture narrows the curriculum to that which is tested.
  • Transfer of information is the prioritized pedagogy.   

  • Learning material that can be measured takes priority over other skills.

  • Exploratory or interest-driven learning is marginalized.
  • Teachers have been vilified or driven out of out of the profession.
  • Test-driven teaching and learning has a disproportionately negative impact in     low-income districts.

All of the above are true. There is, however, something happening under the surface of the Great Education Debate that is insidious and difficult to decipher.

After nearly two decades of reform, adults still appear to be gripped by fear and anxiety for the future.  There is a terrible fear that we have a system that allows kids to pass through with critical gaps in their knowledge and abilities. Their answer is to put the hammer down.

The hammer is being held by the education power cabal. This group includes the past two presidential administrations, large reform-minded foundations like Walton, Broad and Gates, such vocal leaders as Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush and many more. They have looked at education, and identified the right problem: student underachievement. But the reforms put into place over the past fifteen to twenty years provide a solution to a very different problem, having more to do with profit than pedagogy.

Their solution is backed by the kind of money that assures success and also manipulates the national narrative on education. To most people it appears to be reasonable and right. Their solution is based on a principle that is so simple and so familiar that most adults in this country don’t see anything wrong or even different about it. Teachers have always defined for students what is to be learned, and the students’ job was to endeavor to learn it.

With education reform, this practice has been converted to a pedagogy on steroids. We've been living with it so long that many educators don't even remember a time when there was anything other than a ticking clock on skill-building. Pushing an impossible quantity of education standards that are enforced by excessive punitive testing are moves that seem almost impossible to effectively demonize. The ground has been prepared with enough fear to keep it going.

I don’t want to present a history of the issue here -- but I would like to deconstruct that fear.

I conducted an unscientific study including a dozen or so friends, mostly homeschooling parents. I wanted to determine what exactly hangs in the balance when standardization of learning wins out over learning that is determined and directed by students? Is there a “before-it’s-too-late” risk?

I asked this question:

Is there really a developmental window of opportunity when learning needs to happen, and if it doesn’t happen at that time, can never effectively happen?

The discussion revolved around the window for foreign language learning, which many of us know vaguely to be around three or four years old, and is mostly effective in an immersion-type program. Some say musical learning should start early; others say no.

How about reading? Opinions vary wildly but most of the folks I talk to, who are involved in literacy, homeschooling or alternative education, point to the success of simply following a child’s interest in reading, and watch while the child turns into a reader. Micro-managing the age a student learns to read does not translate to a higher rate of success; for some the opposite is true.

My own conclusions are more uncertain when it comes to math. I never learned arithmetic well enough to stop using my fingers to add, or reach for a calculator when multiplying single digits. The thing is, I worked just as hard at it as my friends, and as my math genius brother and sister. So maybe my math wiring is screwed up. The point is, I’m not comfortable with arithmetic, but I function, more or less normally, as an adult.

For the most part, the parents and others I spoke with provided ample anecdotal evidence that there isn’t a real reason to worry about a window of opportunity for learning closing forever. Fear of knowledge gaps only fuels a system of learning that is producing more and more unprepared students. Maybe that’s why the fear is giving rise to panic. More tests! More standards!

Adults fear the loss of opportunities open to our kids if we allow them to graduate from our systems ignorant of what we feel is important. We fear our kids won’t be able to go to college, get good jobs, support themselves, have families, be happy and secure. Many parents and others observing these trends in education still believe that it these reforms are appropriate reactions to the failure of the system.

But what people are afraid of doesn’t exist! It’s a chimera! A mirage you can only see because you are too frightened to see that it isn’t there!

We must liberate our minds from the idea that our children are in danger if they do not learn a huge quantity of information, knowledge, skills predetermined by distant entities. In fact, all we really need to teach children is that they can learn anything they want to learn, whenever they need to learn it. And it turns out, that’s not even something that can be taught. All we need to do is give kids all the support, resources, help and guidance they need.

Putting kids truly in the driver’s seat of their learning means that perhaps every child won’t have learned everything that all adults combined feel they desperately need. But what they have learned, they learned well...far better than under this fear-driven system.

Yes, it sounds radical, but when you realize that the conventional wisdom is absolutely wrong, then the radical becomes reasonable and normal.

I recently read that Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty has been part of professional development in 70% of our nation's districts. Her approach is also known as “deficit thinking”; it “answers” the problem of poverty by pointing at the weaknesses of poor and minority children, painting them as lacking the ability to function as well as middle-class and wealthy white children. Since her diagnosis is that these kids are broken, her solution is to fix them.

However, children from disadvantaged families are not the only ones who need a change. Every single child suffers from the campaign of fear in schools, and stands to gain a better education if it is based on building on their strengths, allowing them to follow their interests, to play, and explore, and create. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, says that play develops into passion, and passion turns to purpose. That is what is needed.

The current education system is engaged in reforms that have nurtured, fed, and encouraged fear. We’re in an endless cycle; the more afraid we are, the more we grasp for solutions that don’t work.

You might have come to the end of this post thinking that I don't believe there is anything to be afraid of. But I do. There are things our kids desperately want and need, and some of those things are respect, trust, appropriate guidance and support, the freedom to think for themselves and plenty of practice making choices and decisions. There are things the world needs from them: ideas, innovation, solutions to intractable problems.

If kids aren’t graduating with the ability to learn whatever they are going to need to learn, then we are failing -- failing them and failing ourselves -- and that is what scares me.



Please add yours if you don't see it here! In future posts, I will try to articulate or point to what I think might be some answers.

Do you think that because homeschoolers don’t encounter these gaps in knowledge, that whole school systems can operate that way as well?

Are you saying that children don’t need to learn things if they don’t want to? What about reading and math?

How can we make sure schools are doing their jobs if we don’t hold them accountable?

These ideas sound a bit fluffy. What’s your proof that kids will learn without being pushed?

Isn’t learning to overcome dislike of the subject matter important? Kids won’t always be able to choose what to know or be able to do all their lives!

You make vague reference to the role of the teacher in your new Utopian education system, Can you elaborate on it?

You make things sound so simple. Isn't more complicated than that?

Do you really think simply following kids' interest in reading will work with kids from families who don't read to them?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Poverty and Public Education: a summary

Second in a series

In my last post I promised a look at poverty and its effect on education.  It was an ambitious promise.

What is the national narrative about poor students and schools today? Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?

I’m going to attempt to tackle the first question today.

Some facts about our current situation: poor children, for the most part, do badly on state standardized tests, the current measure used to judge the value of our schools. The stakes couldn’t be higher: under NCLB (No Child Left Behind), low scores on state standardized tests brought sanctions and mandates.

Today, many states have NCLB waivers protecting them from those sanctions, but test scores still initiate scrutiny from state departments of education; teacher evaluations are tied to test scores now, and some states have issued “school grades” drawn almost entirely from test scores. (The impact of this grading system is on more than just the schools. Want to buy a house in a district that has two Fs, three Ds and a C? If you have a family, are thinking of starting one, and can afford to pick and choose, the answer is no.)

Test scores are still thought to be the gold standard of school district quality; in truth, they are only an accurate measure of income level of district families. Study after study has shown that when you compare standardized test scores of kids in similar socio-economic backgrounds, you see that the scores are similar from one school to the next. School quality -- however you define that -- makes no difference to the test scores.

So what does poverty have to do with public education?

This short blog post from Matt Bruening contrasts unfair, mistaken notions about poverty and education, with the real effects of poverty on children’s success in schools. The bullet points on the list are interesting; Bruening inventories the popular theories about why poor kids do badly in school:

1. Genetics. Poor kids just aren’t smart. (Both he and I say, BZZZT. Wrong.)

2. Poor parenting. Bruening summarizes deficit thinking pretty well in this paragraph: “The conditions of poverty create a subculture with its own socialization, behaviors, and attitudes. That culture then transmits itself across generations, which accounts for why poor kids remain poor, and might therefore also account for why they do worse in school.”

That seems like a reasonable viewpoint, and it may sometimes be true, but whenever we form a stereotype in our minds, and approach individuals with those stereotypes, we are in danger of making hurtful assumptions. Why can’t we regard all students as individuals, with strengths of their own?
On the other side is the thought that “...poor parents are poor ...because they are lazy, stupid, and otherwise self-destructive. The same thing that causes them to be poor — these behaviors — is what causes them to be bad parents, and therefore what causes their kids to not do well in school.”

“Blaming the poor for being poor” is a very convenient notion, and comes packaged with a handy way of dismissing larger economic and social problems.

The most constructive way to regard the impact of poverty on parenting is to pay attention to the next bullet point:

3. Effects of poverty. “...economic instability, deprivation, risk, stress, and neighborhood effects that accompany poverty best account for why poor students do not perform as well.”  In other words, it is poverty itself that is the enemy of learning.

Bruening also states that poor kids live in circumstances that make psychological, developmental and cognitive difficulties more prevalent than their better-off peers.

4. Bad Schools. In his final point, he tackles the idea that spawned the Education Reform movement: “...schools in poorer areas are underfunded, mismanaged, and attract lower-performing teachers. As a result, poor kids do worse in school.”

Bruening says, “...when you control for socio-economic background, students that go to the same schools and very different schools tend to perform very similarly. If the schools are what make the difference, this is not what you would expect. Additionally, intense and widespread efforts at reforming schools and teaching models have had little to no success at improving the educational achievement of poor students.”

I had to ask a few people what all this meant, as my mind doesn’t wrap around statistics very well. If you have the same difficulty as me, perhaps multiple answers will help you too!

Laura Faith Tallant: “It just means that no matter which school they attend, across the board, students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds always perform poorer than their more affluent peers. And that the location and style of education doesn't affect this factor.”

Mark Moran: “It means that students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds show similar performance in school, regardless of where they go. By "control" they mean they only compare students with similar backgrounds so that it is removed as an explanatory factor.”

Elaine Walker “1) we removed socioeconomic status as a influencing variable, and found that kids perform about the same at very different schools. 2) thus, this type of research attempts to "prove" that socioeconomic status is one of the most important variables predicting future success -- not matter what kind of school they kids go to. So, in other words 3) socio economic status is more important, in general, than the quality of a school in predicting future student success. In middle school language we'd say ‘money trumps everything’”

It means, in essence, that statistics bear out the premise that socio-economic status is the single biggest factor contributing to students’ performance at school.

In different ways, various interest groups and stakeholders in the area of education are trying to fix the wrong problem -- at least, promote the wrong definition of the problem, so that they can sell the wrong solution. Teachers don’t cause poor students to do badly. Nor do poorly-funded schools. Poor genes and bad parenting are inflammatory and essentially useless non-starters. It’s poverty that makes poor kids do badly in schools.

More than ever schools and districts are responding to the high stakes of standardized tests by focusing on how to raise the test scores of our poorest students. In my next post I’ll address the second question: Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?