Posts Tagged ‘grading’

Education talk is so frustrating.  Especially those who wear the self-appointed label of “reformer”.  The frustration comes from their having misnamed themselves- they are no more calling for meaningful reform than would be the case if “Oreo reform” was a call for red cookies on the outside instead of black.

Now what’s being discussed is the collective reference to the “school reformer movement” that has groups (Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst) pushing against the status quo and teachers unions.  It’s supposed to be about these groups wanting something better, etc.  BUT all they call for is “value added” assessment of teachers’ performance, measured by test scores.  really??  We think we can assess teachers by how much stuff their students “retain” (let’s not bother calling it “learning” – see elsewhere on this site for that discussion).

Why is it so hard to get the point across? Is this going to  reform anything of substance?  If you keep standardized tests and add measuring teachers by the progress made on them, don’t we see the writing on the wall: motivation to cheat, to be easy graders, teaching EVEN more to the test and other forms of dysfunction and mismanagement?  Do we really think that teachers will “teach more or better”?  And with what methods? The same old ones that have failed for generations, focused on the wrong things, etc.  THIS is where the reform is needed- why is this so hard to see?  What are we looking for? “the king is dead, long live the king”? new paradigm same as old paradigm?

When will the meaningful talk of TRUE reform come to the forefront?  What will that take?

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Educators can learn a lot from the parenting author Wendy Mogel. She’s a clinical psychologist who took what she learned from listening to parents and their children and has written two books that basically tell parents to “chillax”.

On the heels of the Race to Nowhere phenomenon, stories of helicopter parents, long lines to get children into the “best” preschool, parents vying for the preferred second grade teacher like it will matter for the rest of their 7 year old’s life, and so on…. Mogel tells it like it is: none of this matters.  She understands that the problems created by all this stressing out, for parents and their children, is just that: problems created, manufactured.  All could have been just fine if left alone.

Schools, teachers, educators of all sorts are complicit in this game, this destructive culture.  How often do teachers tell parents that it doesn’t matter  which  teacher they get?  Or that it’s okay if their child doesn’t get straight As?  Educators need to begin to deflate this myth.  We need to help parents appreciate that their children are not, as Mogel puts it, “your masterpieces”, nor are they a reflection of you.  Mistakes are what we learn from, where wisdom comes from; and our present culture of perfection and one-upmanship to get into the “few” good college spots is harming our children as well as presenting a picture of the world that is not real.

Mogel echoes the spirit of Ken Robinson when she tells parents that your children will be what they will be and that if your daughter or son is meant to be a baker it’s a waste of your time to try to make a doctor out of them.  More than just a waste: you’ll make both of you miserable in the process, turn them into unhappy adults who will, what?, make the world around them unhappy (because that’s what unhappy people do) and contribute more misery to the world.  Yes, there are a lot of dominoes that will fall if you try to make a doctor out of  baker.

Educators need to step  up with this message.  Let each child discover their own passions and skills and let them bring that best self to the world.  What follows then is amazing – isn’t that the world we all want to live in?

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If we’d like a culture of poorly motivated and critically-thinking impaired people then- sure, let’s emulate China’s education system.

Wait!  Don’t they “perform” really well by international standards?  Aren’t they the ones we’re chasing on math and science tests?  Don’t they win most of the competitions in US schools and always “do well”.. why wouldn’t we want to emulate the system that gave rise to this?  Because our world will fail if we do.

To begin, regular readers of this blog do not need a reminder of why “doing well on tests” doesn’t matter (you can search for that content on this blog).  “Performing” is not living, and no indicator that you’re ready to live or succeed in the world.  But the biggest reason why Chinese education should be shunned is because it kills creativity and stifles innovation – the motors of development and growth.  That’s why even the Chinese are making serious efforts to  change their education system.  Chinese author Yong Zhao has written about this very subject in his book Catching Up.  He describes China’s desire to undo the damages of testing and standardization; and he accurately notes that “Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students  who excel at regurgitating dictated spoon-fed knowledge”.

American “reformers” who think that the ANSWERS to our current “testing” crisis lie within the model of Chinese/Asian education are just plain mistaken.  Well, let’s correct  that.  The answer to our testing crisis may very well be in that model – the problem is that our crisis in NOT one of testing – it’s much worse, much more fundamental.

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Some parents do a very good job of messing up their children’s lives.

Some fail to prepare their children for their futures. Some think they are preparing them and are in fact doing harmful and destructive things.  In the latter category you can squarely place the recently published law prof-cum-author Amy Chua.  Her recent memoir, as she presents it, tells of her successful efforts to see to it that her two daughters turn out to be perfect, or just shy of it.  That’s right, she wants to “see to it” (my words) that her daughters turn out “just so”.   She will stop at nothing to get her girls to reach perfection: only As, top of all their classes, top musical performances, and so on.  She resorts to threats, punishments, insults – all are fair tools in Chua’s mind to get her girls to turn out as she has planned.  You can read the N.Y. Times article.

Is this what parenting is?  Are children clay in the hands of parents, to mold as they see fit?  I thought parenting was about child-rearing: fostering independence and health and preparing children to live in the world.  Is it the role or responsibility of parents to shape their children’s lives? to select careers? Do parents  have this right even?  Is it a crazy new-age, “soft” idea to allow children to “discover themselves” or make of their lives what they would like? Chua’s approach is controlling and totalitarian: she sees her children as tools for her to manipulate for her own ends. Like a benevolent dictator she claims to know what’s best and they’ll become that, like it or not.

Chua doesn’t allow sleep-overs, parties, or after school activities. “No time”, she says, must practice!. They need 2-4 hours a day to practice piano and violin.   And she stands over them, literally, seeing that they put their all into it.

What are these children learning in the process?  To not love learning or making an effort.  To not care about things. To feel like your life is not yours to direct. How is that going to help them in life?  It’s the very opposite outcome that we’d want.  We want children to become able thinkers who enjoy putting forth all the effort that it takes to work hard, practice and persevere.  When you force people to do this they do not learn how to do it, i.e. make the effort, for themselves because you’re the one doing the doing. Just as traditional schools do too much for students- scheduling their time, controlling when they do their work, focusing on remembering instead of understanding, this approach of forcing children to “work hard” will not teach them to work hard but to hate work.

Has Chua been successful?  If by this we mean “did she achieve what she set out to do?”, then yes.  Her girls have performed beautifully in all areas.  So what?  Who are they as people?  Are they happy? Will they contribute to the world anything meaningful?  Or will they be two more frustrated adults who don’t know what they want and don’t have a sense of personal accomplishment?

The end does not justify the means. Punishing children is highly effective to get them to do what you want – just keep increasing the punishment as they get older and they’ll acquiesce.  It works as a form of discipline.  But it’s wrong. It’s a horrible way to treat children- all people for that matter.  Punishment works in the short-term, but in the long term the recipient has not learned how to be self-disciplined because someone else, the one holding the punishment over their head, did the doing.  You only learn to be self-disciplined when you have to control yourself- make the effort.  This is a huge area in developmental psychology these days (often called self-regulation or executive functions).

Parenting plays a HUGE role in how and what children learn.  If we’re sending them off to school every day fearful of the next test score and stressed out about always having to “be the best”, what are we doing to them? What are we saying life is about? Has Amy Chua not seen the recent film Race to Nowhere?

Here’s a quote from Chua about her own experience as a student in law school, where she didn’t really care, she admits, about the rights of criminals and never wanted to be called on in class: “I also wasn’t naturally skeptical or questioning: I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it”.  There you go, nothing’s hidden.  All that mattered to her was “pass the test”.  Learn something?  Care about what you’re learning or doing?  Who has time to care?  This is who she’d like to populate the world with.  You want to live in that world?

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So I’ve spoken quite a bit in this space about how testing doesn’t lead to, or reveal, learning.  I’ve argued that a test will not tell you what a student has learned, only what they’ve remembered.  Recently I’ve also mentioned how the Chinese are turning their backs on standardization and testing because they are realizing that they can produce “grade-A” test takers, but that these same people are no good at “life”.  “Ultimate Prep” – remember?

Since I don’t make this stuff up, really, here’s some interesting information.

In 2008 the National Science Foundation conducted research which was reported in their “Science and Engineering Indicators” which measures science literacy – i.e., one’s understanding of science and engineering. One of their questions asked “Is the center of the earth very hot?”  88% of Americans answered correctly (“yes”), while only 39% of Chinese said “yes”.  One summary of the report, presented in the style of the Olympic games with medals awarded, showed the US at the top of the many countries involved, with 8 total medals, while China had 1 and India had 2.

This phenomenon of “high scores and low ability” is beginning to get some attention. Testing well is not worth very much, in the end.  What matters is what you “know”, and what you know is what you understand.  It is understanding that leads to thinking about a subject and to being able to be creative and innovative within it.

There is more support for this finding.  The 2007 book Collateral Damage reveals how high-stakes testing destroys ingenuity and education.  A survey of multinational corporations showed that  Chinese workers lacked ability as well as commitment to and passion for their work.  This held true even for engineers who had graduated from the best engineering schools.

The Chinese are reevaluating their schools because they are witnessing a growing creativity gap between their students and US students.  Our system leaves much to be desired, but chasing the Asian model should not be part of our “fix”.  (Will someone please tell the authorities – we need to repeal NCLB.)

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Really?  Is it truly possible that 50% of Harvard undergrads are “excellent”.  That’s what the grades say.  Today half or more of Harvard undergrads receive a grade of “A”, while fifty years ago that figure was closer to 30%.

Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield spoke about this not long ago.  He describes grade inflation within Ivy League schools a a real problem.  Some are beginning to attempt to address it, but it’s not gone away and not going away any time soon.

So we graduate “excellent” students from “excellent” schools who we routinely hear cannot get the job done, can’t think or write thoroughly or succinctly.

Whether it’s due to post-modernist ideas of “well who are you to judge me?” attitudes, or lingering 1960s era notions of it being “oppressive” for “powerful” college profs to evaluate students, or entitled students of this modern day feeling like the world “owes” them (what, just for existing?)… whatever the explanation, it’s simply another symptom of a system that is broken and beyond mere “fixing” or “reform”.

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So this story has been around some news circles of late: The Shadow Scholar.  Heard of him/her?  This person earns decent money working full time as a writer for students’ college papers.  That’s right. Paid to help students cheat.  Grad courses too, in ALL disciplines.

But why?  Because school/college isn’t about learning, it’s about grades.  Yes, that old rant of mine.  But hey – as long as the evidence keeps piling up… and until the system changes… there’s clearly a need to keep talking about it.  Otherwise the silence will die (what does that mean?  sounds like a good turn of phrase though).

This person has now written an essay explaining what he/she does, why and how he/she came to this profession.  It’s sad, really, but it’s simply another indicator of how massive of a phenomenon this is.

And yes, it’s caused by a system that says “get the grades and everyone’s happy and no one asks questions.”  So students chase the grades and move on.  Learning?  We’re not so much asking about that.  What does the author say? “I’ve never had a client complain that he’d been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken.”

And he goes on with a hard question “For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?”  Well?  Exactly.  The SYSTEM is helping these “students’ to get by…. get the grades….. move on.

Solutions? Abandon the grades and start focusing on whether anyone is learning anything.  We remember learning, right?

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