Jessica Lahey’s recent NYTimes article, “To AP or Not to AP, That is the Question” did a good job of outlining the dimensions of what I call the AP Paradox. For some students and teachers in some districts, teaching to the AP test is a constraint. In other districts where students are not typically college bound and funds are tight, introducing AP courses that enable a student to earn college credits is an incentive.
Having led districts that serve predominantly affluent and well educated parents and less affluent districts that had relatively few college graduates among the parent population, I have lived through both sides of the argument involving AP testing and ended up with the belief that the value of AP is situational.
In the two affluent districts I led, the reputation of their high schools was well established in college admissions offices and most of the students were applying to competitive colleges who generally do not award academic credit for AP classes. Moreover, in those districts the talent level for teachers was high because the upperclassmen required content that was typically college level. Many of these teachers believed that teaching-to-the-AP-test limited their flexibility and academic freedom and argued, as Lahey noted in her article, that students were free to take AP Tests even if they did not take an “AP Course”. In these districts I fully and whole heartedly supported the teachers’ argument even though some in the community expressed concerns about the loss of status because we didn’t offer explicit AP courses.
In the one largely blue collar district I led the AP “credential” was helpful for students. It helped those aspiring to competitive colleges because it provided a standard that admissions officers in those colleges could use to rate applicants even if they never heard of the high school. It helped first generation college students applying to community colleges or State colleges because it gave them an opportunity to earn college credits as an undergraduate. The AP credential was also helpful in our efforts to expand our programs at the high school level because voters understood that by offering AP Courses we were demonstrating a commitment to academic rigor and helping students prepare for college and the careers that required college degrees. In this district I wholeheartedly supported the Principals, central office staff, and Board in advocating for the introduction and subsequent expansion of AP courses.
And therein lies the AP Paradox. I personally believe that criterion referenced tests are superior to standardized achievement tests, which leads me to fully support the opportunity for students to take the AP tests. Yet I also believe that Boards and administrators should honor the professionalism of teachers; and because some districts (and ETS) believe that AP Tests should be linked to AP Courses and those AP Courses have prescribed curricula the teachers’ flexibility and freedom is diminished. Moreover, the notion that passing one standardized test administered in one sitting can replace a college course is unsettling. Criterion referenced tests can measure accumulation of knowledge but some form of observation or skill measurement is also required to provide assurance that a student has mastered the concepts included in a college course.
To AP or Not to AP? Here’s Lahey’s concluding paragraph, which takes the question out of the school or district level to the personal level… which in the end is where it belongs:
A.P. courses are, for the most part, rigorous, challenging and demanding, and can be a real boon to students motivated by intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. For students looking to please their parents or for those in pursuit of transcript padding and other false academic idols, A.P. courses can be an unpleasant and unhealthy slog. Therefore, in deciding whether or not an A.P. class is “worth it,” students and parents must figure their own motivations and values into the equation.
A few weeks ago Time magazine hit the news stands with this horrific cover:
When the article came out progressive bloggers went ballistic and Facebook was full of links to send letters to the editors of Time to decry their cover, which stated (wrongly) that is was impossible to fire a teacher. Having written several posts on this topic, I clicked on the AFT’s link and sent a letter explaining the reality of the situation, namely that teachers have a probationary period that is typically three years and that some of the teachers who “opted out” of the profession were, in fact, counseled out. Because of this, the reality is that 98% of the teachers are doing well in their work even though this fact vexes politicians like Andrew Cuomo.
My daughter in Brooklyn who shares my frustration at the bashing of public education sent me a link to this blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who dedicated most of the space to a well researched letter to Time in response to their reprehensible cover. Written by Nancy F. Chewning, assistant principal of William Byrd High School in Roanoke, VA, the letter includes the following points, some of which I have not made in my earlier posts decrying the bashing of teachers:
- Aspiring teachers are held in low esteem on campuses
- Teachers make substantially less than others with an equal education
- The OECD reports that “American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad.”
- No other professions are held to a 100% standard- Only teachers!
- And this gem: “According to a new study from the Journal of Patient Safety, 440,000 people per year die from preventable medical errors. In fact, this study found that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States today.” Are we closing hospitals because of this? Are doctors losing tenure because of this?
- The NEA [National Education Association] ranks 221st in terms of lobbying expenditures… WELL behind banks, military, and other professions— like doctors– who are not depicted as “Rotten Apples”
The letter describes the money teachers spend on their own supplies and to provide their students with food, school supplies, and clothing. It describes the time teachers spend advocating for their children outside of school. It describes the responsibilities teachers are asked to assume for the well-being of their children. And it describes the devastating impact poverty has on the children in Roanoke, VA, impact that is felt in every district that serves children who are raised in poverty across the country.
I wish some political leader in our country would stand up for public education and especially for the teachers who work tirelessly to help children raised in poverty…. but it’s easier to blame teachers than to blame poverty because “fixing” poverty requires the redistribution of wealth and (gasp) spending money on people in our country who are in need. Here’s hoping the silence about poverty ends as we consider who to elect for President in 2016.
Two posts yesterday and an experience I had in a yoga class prompted this post today.
One post, by Bill Boyarski from Truthdig titled “No One Is Paying Attention to the Real Battle For Power”, describes a heretofore overlooked and crucial election result: Republicans captured 32 State Houses and a majority of the State governing bodies in the US… and this does NOT include three prominent “reform” Democrats: Cuomo, Malloy, and Raimondo. In essence this means 35 governors and state governments will be dancing to ALEC’s music when legislative sessions open early next year. Given this political reality, it is hard to imagine that 2/3 of the states will be open to changing the current “reform model” even IF they choose to abandon the Common Core as the basis for the administration of standardized tests.
The second, from Diane Ravitch, described the latest activism undertaken by the Lower Hudson Study Council (LHSC). Her post summarized the points the LHSC made in their meeting with the editorial board of the Journal News, a regional newspaper in suburban NYC, and closed with these sentences:
Since no part of Race to the Top was based on research, it is unlikely to produce good results. What it has produced is disruption, demoralization, outrage, and a vibrant anti-testing and anti-Common Core movement, led by parents.
On Monday evening I attended a yoga class in a local studio where one of the students was a first grade teacher with four years’ experience. She was lamenting to another class member who works in education that the test preparation begins in first grade and her little children. She indicated that the students are expected to complete “really rigorous” assignments and that many of them are struggling as a result… but she was accepting this as “the way things are today” in education.
All of this leads to the conclusion that the “old guard” Superintendents and principals need to speak as one because the “new breed” of TFA and Broad grads are in accord with the thinking of the “reformers”…. and the veteran teachers need to join in because many of the teachers hired in the past decade, like my yoga classmate, only know teaching as a “test prep” activity and see that as “the way things are today” in education. Finally, all of us who oppose the test-and-punish “reform” methods need to make certain we elect school board members who are on the same page… because with 32 Republicans (and Mario Cuomo) in State Houses the pushback on “reform” will have to come from the bottom up.
I just read Nick Kristoff’s post mortem on the election in today’s NYTimes, an essay that included the following paragraph:
I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.
Unfortunately I must agree that Wendy Kopp has changed education in the past decade more than any elected official… but I view that as a major problem because she is complicit in the privatization movement that has reinforced the opposition to “government schools” aka public education. As reported in a recent article by George Joseph in The Nation, TFA has eroded the teaching profession by replacing government funded career employees with privately funded short-term contract employees. TFA provides many privatized charter schools with well-educated and well-intentioned novice teachers who are focussed on raising test scores but has diminished the profession in doing so. And worst of all, from my perspective, TFA has accepted funds from foundations whose implicit mission is to erode the public’s trust in government.
According to The Nation, TFA’s last three years of available tax filings indicate they spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion… and it is evident from Kristoff’s reporting that her money is getting TFA’s message across to college students, which is too bad because every student drawn to TFA is a student drawn away from the idea that government can work.
Earlier this week the NYTimes Op-Talk section featured an article by Anna North titled “How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids”. The article described three brain myths that are prevalent among teachers and potentially damaging to students:
- We only us 10% of our brain
- Some learning disabilities are genetically linked to brain structure and cannot be remediated
- Students learn best when the teaching approach matches their learning style.
Drawing from the findings of Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education, North’s article dispels each of these myths and does so in a fashion that is not demeaning to teachers nor blames them for this. Instead, Howard-Jones makes the following points:
“Something we have to get across to educators is the fact that the brain is plastic and the fact that its function, structure and connectivity changes as a result of education.”
“There is something kind of ironic here,” he added, “that we place such an emphasis on science education, and yet the science of learning is very often not included in the training of teachers.” And as he notes in his article, accurate neuroscience information can be hard for teachers to get, because it often appears only in specialized journals.
To dispel neuromyths, Dr. Howard-Jones advocated a collaborative approach: “We need messages, ideas and concepts that are constructed together by neuroscientists and by educators.” And, he said, “we need a field that actually combines concepts from both of these areas in a meaningful way.”
I know that Dartmouth College is making an effort to bridge this gap between neuroscience findings and applications in education and have long believed that teacher education program content could be enhanced by placing a greater emphasis on emerging research in child psychology and neuroscience. But there is one obstacle that neither North nor Howard-Jones acknowledge: these myths have taken root because they are “agreeable fantasies”. The notion that we could all be geniuses if we only drew on more of our neural capacity… OR that it is impossible to teach a segment of the population whose brain scans show they have neural deficiencies… OR that matching teaching styles with learning styles will yield better outcomes… each of these could make it easier to accomplish the goal of getting all CAPABLE students to a higher level of learning and sorting out those who are INCAPABLE. One other obstacle in place now: removing the myth from the minds of teachers. A bad myth, like a bad habit, is hard to displace. Once a mental model takes root in the mind, even though are brains ARE plastic, once a neural passage is dug in, re-routing it requires conscious effort.
North’s article concludes with this paragraph:
A former teacher himself, Dr. Howard-Jones was clear on one point: “These myths are not because teachers are stupid.” Part of his goal in writing about neuromyths was to emphasize how important teachers are in the drive to dispel them. The ultimate message of his article, he said, was, “we’ve got a problem here, and it can only be solved by neuroscientists and educators talking to each other.”
Let the conversation begin!
Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.
In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.” I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.
That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.
And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!