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A Speech I Gave Repeatedly in the Early 1990s is Newsworthy Today– But Moving Away from Age-Based Cohorts in More Difficult than Ever

January 15, 2020 Leave a comment

A title of a Deseret News article by Marjorie Cortez caught my eye:

If every kid is different and learns differently, why does cookie-cutter approach to K-12 education persist?

And as I read the article, which reported on a presentation given at Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Summit by Scott Palmer, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, “a mission-based education consulting firm dedicated to significantly improving the U.S. education system“, I got a deep feeling of de ja vu. The topic of Mr. Palmer’s speech was captured in this statement:

Palmer… noted that “variability is the norm when it comes to human development. And yet we have schools and systems that are too often based on age-based cohorts.”

Which Mr. Palmer reinforced with this anecdote:

Utah parents, raise your hand if you have more than one child.

“How many of you noticed that they tend to differ from each other? In some profound ways, right? And these are your own children”

This observation by Mr. Palmer was no more original in 2020 than mine was when I made it in 1991 as part of an effort to launch something we called “Teaching for Mastery”… an idea that instead of covering the course material and having students “pass” with a “D” (a 60!) we would require them to “master” the coursework by attaining an 80— or better yet by moving through the material at a rate that matched their readiness.

The obstacles we faced in introducing this idea of self-paced mastery learning were much higher operationally than they would be today. We had no data-banks of questions to draw on and no means of readily tracking student progress using computers. The obstacles I faced– and the ones Mr. Palmer will face– in in introducing the idea of self-paced mastery are even higher though when it comes to paradigmatic change. Parents and voters, especially those who were successful under the existing model of schooling that is based on age-based cohorts, cannot fathom why a change is necessary. After all, the existing system sorted them into the “winners” group– a standing they “earned” our to “merit”. Anything that changes the existing system might diminish their accomplishments or, even worse, make it more difficult for their children to replicate those accomplishments and remain in the “winners” group. This results in a self-perpetuating cycle where “winners” can buy homes in schools that are populated with other “winners” all of whom believe they “earned” their placement based on “merit”. The “winners” see no reason to change the existing paradigm of schooling nor do they see reason to change the paradigms used to fund schools.

There is one more factor that makes a shift to mastery learning more daunting now than it was in 1991: the use of norm-referenced standardized tests as the primary metric for student success. Norm-referenced standardized tests do not measure individual student progress against pre-determined benchmarks. Instead they measure a student’s progress as compared to his or her age-based cohort. In this way, standardized testing and age-based cohorts are inextricably linked.

Unfortunately, Mr. Palmer does not get into this issue at all, focussing instead on how teachers who draw on the science of learning are more likely to be successful at personalizing and building trust with students. That may be true. But until the organizational structure of schools reflects the science of learning the age-based grouping paradigm will persist.

 

 

Data Gathering Without Financial Support is Worthless… or Worse

January 9, 2020 Leave a comment

This article from a periodical touting the benefits of technology suggests that the mere collection of data can help schools address mental health issues, a notion that implicitly assumes that teachers have the time and training to intervene. Unless schools are able and willing to take on mental health issues as part of their mission and the public is willing to provide the funding to make that possible there is no way that data collection will help. Indeed, If the data is collected in schools and reported to the public it will be viewed as one more area where schools are “failing”.

Little Libertarian Home Schooler on the Prairie and Cato Homeschooler in Cambridge

December 25, 2019 Comments off

Earlier this month, the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian economics site dedicated to promoting the ideals of Milton Friedman and his acolytes, posted an article by Kerry MacDonald extolling the virtues of home schooling based on the mid-20th Century works of Rose Wilder Lane. Ms. Lane, whose mother Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House on the Prairie series beloved of children (including my two daughters) and the basis for a TV series of the same name, was a staunch opponent of any and all government coercion, including public education. Ms. Lane’s views on public schooling, written in 1943, are quoted in Ms. MacDonald’s article:

American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth.

Surprisingly, I find myself concurring with Mr. Lane on this perspective, particularly given the increase in surveillance and the introduction of “good guys with guns” in schools. And Ms. Lane’s observation that:

…this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom”

But I was a bit unsettled when I read her ultimate thinking about schooling, which effectively sought to eliminate all compulsion:

(Ms. Lane) laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force.

Maybe Ms. Lane’s 1943 memory of “American free education” was untarnished based on her prairie experiences, but urban children who three decades earlier worked in mines, mills and factories probably appreciated compulsory education as compared to compulsory slave labor. And, while Ms. McDonald, who resides in Cambridge MA is able to provide her curious and well educated children a robust curriculum outside the conventional classroom, it is unlikely that some of her neighbors who are working two jobs in the gig economy can do the same thing for their children. But in the rarified atmosphere of the Cato institute these discrepancies probably don’t matter.

 

Networking with Mentors COULD Offer Opportunities for Equity

November 18, 2019 Comments off

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The kind of networking described in this article mirrors the kind of networking Ivan Illich envisioned in Deschooling Society. I’m glad to see technology being used for this kind of initiative.

Is the SAT About to be Abandoned? If So, Will Standardized Tests Follow?

October 15, 2019 Comments off

A recent PBS New Hour segment reported that many colleges are giving serious consideration to abandoning the use of the SAT as a primary metric for admissions. Why? Here’s one reason:

Critics of the tests have long argued that they reflect income more than ability, a chorus that is growing louder. And this year’s notorious Varsity Blues admission scandal — in which parents, through an intermediary, bribed test administrators to change test scores or let students cheat — reinforced the idea that the tests can be gamed, legally or illegally, by families with enough money.

My hunch is that there is another reason: the SAT score, viewed as a proxy for “academic excellence”, is the basis for lawsuits contending that colleges who use the test as the basis for entry are screening out many Asian-American students who attain higher scores on the tests than either African-American or legacy students.

The so-called “competitive colleges” have many high scoring students to choose from and, in some cases, more than ten times as many applicants as they need in order to sustain themselves. These schools have the luxury of picking and choosing who they want and, consequently, they select based on “diversity”. In many cases “diversity” provides a means for the colleges to avoid affirmative action challenges from African-Americans by accepting students-of-color with SAT scores that are below those of rejected Asian Americans. But “diversity” also provides a means of appeasing graduates who are large donors and whose children SAT scores are middling, a means of fleshing out orchestras, athletic teams, and a means of “creating” geographic and economic diversity in each class.

As the PBS report indicates, when “competitive colleges” ignore SAT scores it does not dilute the academic strength of the school. It DOES, however, undercut any argument that these schools are denying access to “less qualified” students at the expense of one group who consistently scores high on those tests. For Asian-Americans this abandonment of tests is, arguably, bad news. But for those who are born into poverty, who attend public high schools outside the affluent suburbs or college towns the abandonment of the SAT as a basis for entry is good news… for it forces college admissions officers to look at their applications and determine if they have what it takes to succeed in higher education.

From where I sit, the faster SATs are abandoned the better… and with any luck at all those who measure the “quality” of public schools based on standardized test scores will follow suit. If that happens, instead of defining individual “excellence” based on a single test 8th grade students seeking entry to NYC’s “competitive” public schools will be examined in a more wholistic fashion. If that happens, instead of schools receiving a “grade” based in any way on a standardized test they will be carefully assessed using a wholistic accreditation process, one that involves a self-assessment as well as an external one. Would such a system cost more money? Yes— but it would be fairer, more focussed on each student’s individual needs, and would greatly expand the opportunity for students to engage in creative activities. Here’s hoping it happens soon!

Another Article on Gifted and Talented Programs in NYC… Another Case of Acid Indigestion

October 11, 2019 Comments off

I just finished reading another article lamenting the proposal to end Gifted and Talented programs in NYC public schools. In today’s NYTimes Eliza Shapiro describes a highly successful program for elementary aged children in East Harlem, one that has “only” 64% of its students drawn from Asian and white students. The problem with this success story is that 31% of the total school population is Asian or white. I was immediately skeptical of the so-called “racial balance” of the “model school” since it did not reflect the city at large. I was even more skeptical when I read that standardized tests remained as the primary “gate” for determining who was “gifted”.

Too many gifted and talented advocates and parents seek acceleration instead of breadth. They want to teach three year olds how to read and third graders algebra and trigonometry. This acceleration on a narrow path limits “giftedness” to those skills and “work products” that can be readily measured and omits skills that defy easy measurement and divergent thinking. Whenever a single test is used, Campbell’s law will kick in and parents seeking to have their children identified as “gifted” will spend precious time and money for test prep programs. The result is that many 4 year olds are missing art, music, athletics, nature… and day dreaming.

The net result is what Neil Postman called “The Disappearance of Childhood” several decades ago when parents began to interpose themselves more and more into the lives of their children. When kids lose the opportunity to explore information on their own, explore their environment on their own, and play games they invent with their friends they learn much more about life than when they are coached to take tests and only engage in sports that are overseen by adults.

The solution for NYC might be to adopt Joseph Renzulli’s enrichment model that broadens that curriculum for all children instead of accelerating a narrower curriculum for those who can learn quickly. Renzulli’s ideas about giftedness are broader than those of Terman— the father of standardized testing. He believes that many children are gifted in ways that cannot be readily measured by a pencil-and-paper test and that it is pointless for children to move quickly through a narrow curriculum that is based on skills and work products that are readily quantifiable. But in our “meritocratic” system where standardized tests have displaced teacher recommendations when it comes to identifying “gifted” students and where statistical artifacts like “reading at the ninth grade level” are viewed as important by parents there is no room for “slow learners” with creative skills.

 

Criminalizing the Disease of Addiction is Wrong Approach

September 4, 2019 Comments off

As reported by apple.news/AboIG8hxxRZ-, an NBC news story indicates that 38% of the school districts in the US will be doing some kind of screening for drugs, up from 25% a year ago. At the same time the money being spent on prevention programs at the elementary level is declining. The bottom line is that we have decided to spend scarce dollars on law enforcement instead of spending it on medical prevention. This same approach is also being used to address the issue of school shootings where we are devoting billions to hardening schools to protect students from alienated outsiders while slashing budgets for student services. Fear is a potent force and protecting children from bogeymen is a powerful narrative. We need to use medical science and data to guide our decision making… not fear and compelling stories.

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