Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Monday posing a set of questions raised in a Washington Post op ed essay on benchmarking by Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves. In the essay Hargreaves describes his perspective on the rationale behind benchmarking, which came to the public’s attention in the 1990s as part of the response to the fallout from A Nation at Risk. Hargreaves rightfully points out that benchmarking– especially international benchmarking— has been used by “reformers” as a means of “proving” that US schools are deficient and, therefore, should be overhauled. But, as I noted in a comment to both posts, benchmarking is nothing new in public education.
For decades individual student performance has been based on benchmarks. Teacher-made tests served as the de facto benchmark for determining whether a student passed or failed. The aggregated set of grades a student earned (i.e. their transcript) served as a benchmark for determining whether a student gained entry to particular colleges or not. Students were disciplined based on standards set forth in student handbooks and or standards set by a classroom teacher.
In most cases these standards were normative and not formative: a student was not compared to a set standard but rather compared to his or her cohorts. One of the reasons for setting benchmarks was to devise standardized tests like the SAT that provided a means for colleges to determine if a student with all A’s at East Podunk HS was as prepared as a student from an elite private school. Another reason to move away from this normative comparison of cohort groups was to avoid using it as a basis for homogeneous grouping that identified some students as “high perfuming” and others as “slow”. An important reason was to establish a means of implementing a mastery learning model whereby students progressed individually instead of as a cohort.
Before decrying benchmarking I think it is important to realize it’s been in place— and not necessarily to good effect.
An anecdote from my experience as a HS Principal in rural ME illustrates two approaches to the “benchmarking” teachers used to grade students.
In November of the first year I was Principal I reviewed the computer print-out listing the grades each teacher assigned to students and discovered that every student in one of the science teachers’ classes received an “A”. I asked my secretary (this was 1977— we didn’t have “administrative assistants” at that time) to schedule an appointment with this teacher after school. My intention was to make certain he understood that we wanted to have higher standards in the school and that “giving all A’s” was unacceptable. When I asked the teacher to explain why he had “given” all of his students an A, he replied that he hadn’t “given” them anything, they earned it. He believed it was imperative that all his students master the information presented in order for them to understand the information he would be presenting in the coming units and so he insisted that they re-take tests until they earned an “A”. That meeting in my office stayed with me for years to come…. and was on my mind later that year.
At the end of every school year, there is invariably a student who falls short of a passing grade… and invariably a case where a teacher can decide whether a 64.5 is an “F” or a “D”. One young woman had started the year off badly because of issues she was dealing with at home and done very poorly academically as a result. As the year progressed, a combination of her emerging maturity and the amelioration of her problems at home resulted in an upward trajectory in her grades. Several of her teachers were sympathetic to her problems and recognized that the improvement was genuine. Her social studies teacher, however, who was skeptical of my “higher standards” mantra, threw it back in my face when the student fell .75 short of his “high standard”.
Both teachers had benchmarks, but each was using them for different ends. As readers of this blog realize, I’ve come to realize that the science teacher’s benchmarks are the ones we SHOULD be using when we grade schools and students. Unfortunately, it’s the social studies standard that is in place thanks to NCLB, RTTT, and “education reform”.
Vermont ROCKS! Here’s what’s distressing, though… the Burlington Free Press had to add this editorial “insight” to it’s reportage:
However, the state’s high graduation rate has not translated to significant gains in college graduation rates. Many Vermont teens graduate and find they must pay to take non-credit bearing remedial courses even at open-admission community colleges.
The headline of a recent post from Reason.com reports on the findings of a recent survey they conducted:
Poll: Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised
Here are the distressing findings of their poll:
68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.
What’s more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).
When I read these kinds of reports I recall my adventures as a five-year old exploring construction sites and red ant hills in Salt Lake City, my adventures in the woods outside of West Chester PA when I was in early elementary school grades, my adventures walking along the railroad tracks between Lee School and my house seven blocks away in Tulsa OK in grades 4-6, the many pick up baseball, football, and basketball games I played in as a middle and high school youngster… and I feel sad that my grandchildren might not have the same kinds of experiences, especially my two grandkids in Brooklyn.
But I also recall the unsolved disappearance of a seven-year old who was walking to school in Exeter NH when I was superintendent. It sent shock waves through the community, shock waves that were dampened by cooler heads in the area. Fortunately, many parents in that community did not want to restrict their children’s ability to play without supervision or discourage their children from walking to school unaccompanied. The PTAs and Chamber of Commerce head arranged to have guest speakers come to public forums. This helped dispel the panic and encourage parents to allow their children to experience childhood…. but I am certain this episode contributed to the fears of many parents in the region and may still be used as evidence for those who want to criminalize parents for allowing their children to play without supervision and walk unaccompanied to the neighborhood store or playground. Unfortunately, as we know all to well, fear trumps love and so we find ourselves raising our children in a world where we prefer spending money on arms instead of butter.
I just read two articles in the last hour that make me wonder what the conversation would be like if the two writers had an improbable meeting.
Anthony Grafton’s review of “Excellent Sheep”, a recently published book by Yale professor William Deresiewicz, describes our countries elite universities as factories that take well-behaved, high achieving and affluent entrants and turn out soulless graduates who learn “…that they are superior to all others, and that even if they break rules or fail, they will never suffer.” In effect, Deresiewicz asserts that professors have little or no influence on the students who entered the hallowed halls of elite colleges. He writes: “The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens” and, as noted above, suggests the specimens are not forced to question their own worth.
In contrast, Houston Baptist College professor Collin Garbarino writes in an essay in Canon and Culture that our universities are churning out moral relativists who are being brainwashed by progressive professors… that is the professors HAVE more agency than Deresiewicz is observing and they are using that agency to turn students away from “their parents worldview”.
So… putting these two conclusions together one can only assume that the Ivies are doing a great job in Garbarino’s view: the students entering school leave with the same world view they brought to the institution! As for Garbarino’s perspective on moral relativism, all I can say is followers of ISIS are not moral relativists… and the world would be a lot more peaceful if we had fewer ISIS followers and more secular humanists!
Here’s the title of a blog post from Beta Beat that requires no further comment:
University Bans Social Media, Political Content and Wikipedia Pages on Dorm Wifi
Oh… and it’s not a private religiously affiliated university, which arguably COULD get away with restricting the freedom of speech of its students… but state funded Northern Illinois.
Sometimes I think people look too hard for conspiracies. Diane Ravitch’s recent blog post on LAUSD is a case in point. Titled “Breaking News: LA Officials Met with Apple, Pearson a Year Before Taking Bids”, the post insinuates that these meetings constitute evidence of collusion. I’m not sure at all. A more likely explanation is that LAUSD was doing due diligence. Here’s my comment on the post:
This is NOT intended to defend LAUSD because I do not know the extent to which they wrote their bids to proscribe other offers… but… as a Superintendent who was interested in integrating technology into the schools my staff and I often met with software and hardware vendors to gain a better understanding of their products and to gain a better understanding of what was possible… When we chose to specify Apple operating systems over DOS (an unpopular decision in an IBM town) it was because we determined that there was more application software available… when we explored data warehousing we met with a vendor who was connected with a college professor I knew and learned a great deal about what was feasible at that time and what we could incorporate into a bid specification… A prudent administrative team will take a lot of time deliberating on what kind of hardware and software they need for a school system before committing resources. It’s POSSIBLE that LAUSD administrators were doing due diligence in convening extended meetings with Apple and Pearson… and those letters from Pearson are unsurprising and, from my perspective, unpersuasive “evidence” of collusion. Education salespersons use the same approach and same language as every good salesperson: they want to strike up a personal relationship with the purchaser and enter into a “partnership”… Have you looked at buying a car lately? You’ll get the same kind of email from a car salesman.
When I was superintendent in NYS there was an audience member who had his own public access TV show and who was convinced that every action we took as administrators was somehow part of a shady deal and/or part of our effort to promote “constructivist” education theories. His show was creepy. It included grainy footage of my home and the church I attended where he thought folks should picket to protest whatever scheme he imagined I was involved with. He would receive copies of our board packets and highlight memos flagging evidence of administrative misconduct. While no one ever picketed my home or my church and no one gave much credence to his rants and analyses, the show did make me look at all allegations of administrative misbehavior with a more jaundiced eye. It’s possible the LAUSD administrators engaged in misconduct— but it’s more plausible that he and his staff were doing their due diligence in gaining an understanding of the best way to match their technology purchases with their education needs…. and from Deasy’s perspective having a robust technology-based standardized testing program is an “education need”.