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Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Conservatives Discover Mastery Learning, the Flaws in the Carnegie Unit… Can Their Abandonment of Standardized Tests be Far Behind?

February 18, 2020 Comments off

I make every effort to read every perspective possible in my education feed, and as a result I received an article from The Hill by Margaret “Macke” Raymond titled “The Diploma Dilemma”. Ms. Raymond, who is the founder and director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University recently authored a policy briefing of the same name as part of the Hoover Education Success Initiative. And what is the dilemma as Ms. Raymond sees it?

Despite evidence that our students’ performance is flat or declining on many levels, our high school graduation rates have continued to rise significantly over the past six years. This paradox may not be widely known or understood, as politicians and policymakers have consistently trumpeted the steady rise of graduation rates. The casual observer would be led to believe that public education is improving because more students are being granted a diploma.

The truth is, in most states, there is a critical chasm between the rising graduation rate and the underlying knowledge and skills of large shares of degree holders. Many students, especially low-income students and students of color, are inadequately prepared to take the first step of college, training, military service or employment, let alone have the foundational knowledge needed to improve their lives in the future.

The truth is that US public schools are not as bad as standardized tests make the out to be or as good as graduation rates make them out to be… except for those underfunded schools serving low income students and students of color. The data on this truth have been evident for generations and yet nothing has been done to address it. After decrying softer grading standards, seat time as a metric, and “low expectations”, Ms. Raymond offers this idea to close the gaps at the high school level:

So what’s needed? States and school districts need mastery-based approaches to capturing and rewarding high school learning to ensure that students earn a high school diploma that provides a fair and clear signal of its value. Better and more frequent measures of high school students and courses would illuminate the pathways that students follow, and the benefits gained from them.  Linking course passing with known requirements for post-high school options will improve the success that holders of a U.S. high school diploma can achieve. In order to realize these things for our students, school systems leaders will invariably be placed in a diploma dilemma —strengthening requirements will almost certainly mean falling graduation rates in the short-term. 

Ms. Raymond’s prescription sounds very familiar to this blogger. In the early 1990s I attempted to launch a district-wide initiative called “Teaching for Mastery” based on the premise that TIME needed to be the variable and LEARNING needed to be the constant. Here’s what I learned from that experience: changing the dominant paradigm as a Superintendent was beyond my reach. Indeed, Ms. Raymond seems to miss the entire point of mastery learning, which is that TIME must be a variable if LEARNING is constant and so time-driven metrics like standardized testing and graduation rates tied to a student’s age are meaningless.

Our current system was implemented in the 1920s and it was designed to sort and select students with no regard or expectation that ALL students would master the K-12 curriculum. There was an expectation that many of not most students would fall short of the standards and find work in the fields or factories. And thanks to labor unions many of those jobs paid well and enabled workers to have good life. That economic paradigm disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s and it isn’t coming back any tie soon. When oh when will our education paradigm change? When will TIME be a variable and LEARNING constant?

Study Proves Mindfulness Reduces Stress, Improves Academics… But There’s Another Benefit

September 2, 2019 Comments off

A few days ago, Science Daily reported on two studies at MIT that came to the same conclusion: “…mindfulness — the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle-schoolers.”

I have been a formal mindfulness practitioner for roughly 15 years and can attest to the positive effects it has had on my mental acuity and physical well-being. But as one who has practiced mindfulness, I believe that the studies’ focus on the positive impacts on children are understated. Here are the conclusions of the studies as reported in Science Daily:

Synopsis of Study #1: After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.

Synopsis of Study #2: Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.

The first study’s conclusions are drawn from brain scans while the second study’s conclusions were drawn from an analysis of questionnaires. John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the scientist from the second study, emphasized that mindfulness cannot be taught in isolation or offered as a one-time course. It needs to become a habit:

“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last. It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”

These reports and this conclusion bring to mind a talk given at a retreat by Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh who was approached by the military to offer mindfulness training to soldiers to help them improve their functioning. While he was disinclined to refuse the opportunity to offer the training because he knew the power of mindfulness, he ultimately rejected the proposal because he saw mindfulness as a PATH and not an end in itself. While this sounds like a call for a dogmatic “religious” approach, it reinforces the message offered by the MIT researchers. The mindfulness trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh require a wholistic approach, a willingness to not only go to the gym every day but to commit to a regimen of healthy living, to adopt habits of mind and habits of living that are sustainable for the individual and the planet. Those habits of mind will lead to a level of self-awareness that will help preclude the fear that grips us today, fear that leads to hatred of “the other” and a sense of isolation that ultimately can lead to unhealthy thoughts, speech, and deeds.

If mindfulness is approached as a path, as part of a mental regimen, it will do more than lead to better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions…it will help transform the mental formations that are leading us in the wrong direction… mental formations that compel us to think that better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions is all we need to change in schools.

The Unshakeable Myth of Horatio Alger Lives On… Facts Notwithstanding. But Then So Does Sorting Students by Age and Standardized Testing

July 5, 2019 1 comment

It is difficult to NOT to sound haughty and dismissive when I react to large swaths of the population in our country who cannot accept the fact that unregulated capitalism works against their needs. Today’s NYTimes, for example, had an article by Patricia Cohen titled “Southerners, Facing Big Odds, Believe in a Path Out of Poverty“. The article describes how most Southerners see no need for any kind of government assistance because they cling to the Horatio Alger myth that “anyone with enough gumption and grit can clamber to the top”. It also describes how those holding this belief are unshaken when confronted with facts illustrating that social mobility in their region is the worst in the country and worse than it has ever been. And what was even more astonishing was to read research showing that that this optimism persisted and even increased in the face of segregation. Social scientists di find one factor that DID make a difference: an individual;s political viewpoint:

Whether people think opportunity is equally available, though, often depends on their political viewpoint.

Liberals are generally more pessimistic than conservatives about the ability of poorer Americans to hoist themselves up economically, and they are more inclined to support government programs meant to ease the route. Tell them that social mobility from one generation to the next is less than they thought, and their support for public assistance increases.

For conservatives, none of that is true. Learning that they have overestimated the odds does not increase their support for government intervention, but causes it to drop even further.

To this New England liberal, this conservative unwillingness to face facts seems backward! How could anyone NOT want to change an economic system that reduces the odds for their children to have a better life? But then I reflect on my own life experience and realize that I often ignored cold, hard facts when I applied for jobs and worked hard in my teens and in my workalike to “clamber to the top” thanks to “gumption and grit”. I could easily create a narrative based on this personal experience that anyone who applied themselves, persisted, and accumulated the prerequisite skills could realize their dreams without any help from the government. But this narrative would have to overlook the reality that I was born as a white male into a family where both parents had college degrees and were able to provide me with food, clothing and shelter throughout my youth.

In the early 1990s I read a book by Joel Barker titled Paradigms, a book that drew on the then arcane research of scientist Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Barker posited that the collective rules that govern our thinking, our paradigms, can often block us from seeing potential business opportunities and can often lead us to cling to ideas that are outdated and unsubstantiated by facts. I showed the video that accompanied the book to faculty members and administrators in the district where I was working at the time, linking Barker’s message to the changes we were making as we converted our “junior high schools” to “middle schools”, our budgeting toward a school-based approach as opposed to a centralized one, and our student grading system towards a mastery approach. The conversion to middle schools was relatively easy, challenged primarily by budget constraints that made inter-disciplinary team organization scheduling very complicated. The school-based budget was also relatively easy to accomplish: most of the Principals readily accepted the idea that they could allocate a pool of money among accounts instead of having the central office mandate budget lines for supplies, texts, workbooks, and equipment. The student grading system, though, seemed impervious to change. I hoped that we would move away from a bell curve to a j-curve, away from letter grades that compared students to each other toward a system that measured each individual against a series of performance standards, a system that used time instead of mastery as a variable. What I found was that the imprint of the bell curve and the rules that accompanied that imprint, were seemingly impervious to change.

The lesson I learned from this is that some mind shifts can occur fairly rapidly, especially when the benefits of the shift are relatively painless to achieve. But when a mind shift requires a corresponding change in deeply imprinted paradigms like the bell curve, a mind shift can be measured in generations unless some kind of shared experience compels us to think differently.