Education

The Deseret News, my esteemed local birdcage liner, has been pushing education reform, floating a number of proposals ranging from mainstream/sensible to nutso. This letter to the editor contributed, I thought sensibly, to that debate.  My grandmother was a teacher, so was my Mom, two of my aunts, three of my sisters-in-law, a niece, my father.  And me.  And now, my son.  So let’s talk education.

A counter-intuitive but awesomely true principle of quantum physics is that, even at the sub-atomic level, the behavior of particles changes when they are observed.  That same principle is clearly evident in education.  Students today are subjected to more standardized tests than ever before, and their scores on those tests do not suggest education improvement.  I don’t think this is accidental.

If teachers are told that raises and promotions depend on how well their students perform on standardized tests, then teachers will inevitably teach to the test.  If students are tested repeatedly, then teachers will focus on developing students test-taking competencies.  This means, often enough, stressing rote memorization, which is the worst possible kind of teaching and learning.  I would suggest, therefore, for starters, eliminating all standardized tests.  All of them, forever. Permanently.

I have a personal reason for loathing standardized tests.  From 7th grade through 12th, I was part of a program called SCAP.  I was a six-year SCAPPY.  The Secondary Continuous Advancement Program.  A key to it was standardized testing–you were graded, not according to achievement, but to how well you achieved based on how well you were supposed to achieve, as measured by test scores.  I vividly remember a spelling test, in seventh grade, where I missed 2 words, and got a D minus.  The kid next to me missed 9 words, and got a B plus.  See, I was supposed to do better than that–for him, that was a good score.  This did not encourage me to work harder.  It simply fed my paranoia. ‘It really is true,’ I mused, amazed.  ‘They really are out to get me.  It really is personal–they really do have it in for me.’  This is not a mindset conducive to learning.

As it happens, I’m good at standardized tests, a skill that seems to have transferred to my kids.  We’re all ace test-takers.  I have a son who scored a 29 on the ACT (an outstanding score by any definition), and who gets teased by his siblings, all of whom did better than that. The GRE, man, I even did well on the math part of the GRE, 90th percentile, despite the fact that I’m such a math doofus I can barely balance a checkbook.

So getting rid of standardized tests would negatively impact people like me and my kids.  I’m in still in favor of it, and for this reason: teaching to the test is lousy teaching.  It doesn’t foster creativity, or self-reliance, or confidence, or problem-solving, or leadership, or any of a hundred far more important life skills.

More than that, though, I loathe the message it sends to teachers.  What it says to teachers is this: ‘we don’t trust you. We don’t think you’re doing a good job.’ I know, the buzzword is ‘accountability.’  Well, screw accountability. I am, as a teacher, accountable to those kids in that classroom.  Period.  Don’t tell me I don’t take that charge seriously.

Education policy is, for too often, managed by state legislators, anti-tax small business people, realtors and attorneys, people who sort of fundamentally don’t trust education or educators.  Or corporate types–the ‘we need kids with these skills in the workplace’ crowd.  Or the ‘we need to introduce competition to education’ buffoons. And education policy seems inordinately influenced by people who make the biggest mistake of all–treat education as a science, and not as an art form.

Teaching, done well, is fundamentally creative, fundamentally empathic.  What you need is imagination, intuition, creativity, empathy.  You have to be able to read a classroom, sense what those students need that day, and sometimes it requires improvisation.  You have to prepare, of course, you have to plan.  But the greatest teaching moments are often spontaneous, those moments where a kid asks an awkward or ingenuous question, and suddenly there are all those faces, looking at you, and you realize your lesson plan just flew out the window.  And above all, you have to love your students.  You have to care about them, embrace their vulnerable humanity. Teach to their needs, that day.

My last couple of years at BYU got less fun, because of some ridiculous nonsense called ‘assessment.’  That’s a education theory buzzword, the latest fad; the word itself reeks of administrator mistrust.  It’s all about objectives and outcomes and rubrics; it’s about coming up with some kind of (spurious) statistical profile demonstrating that your students’ (sorry, ‘learners’) outcomes were congruent with the who-knows-and-who-cares.  Sorry, it’s not really possible for me to discuss assessment without going on a rant, which I will spare you.  I do know it doesn’t work. Australia recently outlawed it; allow me to suggest to any American student looking for an excellent, possibly offbeat college education experience: look to Australia. The ubiquity of assessment, unfortunately, renders the possibility of excellence in an American university unlikely; go somewhere where they don’t have it. Or find college teachers who don’t bother wasting their time with assessment–the majority, in my experience.

Because the essence of educational excellence is providing scope for teachers to be excellent.  All educational reform should flow from this one principle: let teachers teach.  Trust teachers to do their job.

So specifically: increase education spending to reduce class sizes.  My niece teaches in a class with something like 38 students.  Elementary classroom.  We could substantially increase education spending by reducing military spending, and by federal law mandate class sizes of no more than, say, 18.  That might necessitate building more schools; fine.

Increase teacher salaries, to attract qualified people with degrees in other areas than el ed, and to allow veteran teachers to be able to afford to stay on their jobs, without having to work as a Walmart greeter or something to make ends meet.  A teacher should be able to support his or her family with only a teacher’s salary.

I do support a longer school year.  I do support some limitations on teacher tenure–not abolishing it, but making it a bit more difficult to obtain.  I do not support a greater emphasis on math and science; art and music and PE should be part of the curriculum.  If high school football were to go the way of the dinosaur, I wouldn’t shed a tear. But teachers need union protection; any right-to-work nonsense has no place in education policy.

Above all, we need state legislators to butt out.  We need corporations to go away.  We need the driving force in education reform to be spear-headed by teachers.

Finland!  The best educational system in the world is that of Finland; lets study what they do over there, and do some more of it here.  I like the European model in which students with an interest and aptitude for a vocation have a track designed for their needs.  Not every student should go to college, though every student who wants to should be able to afford it.  Let’s remove cost from the equation, and see if Americans can compete in global markets driven by imagination and innovation.

My brother and I were talking about this the other day, and he said ‘well, you need testing; it’s very difficult to tell a good teacher from a poor one.’  I don’t think it’s difficult at all.  Just walk unannounced into a classroom.  See how engaged the students are, see how animated the teacher is, see how creatively classroom space is utilized.  We don’t need what are essentially artificial accountability measures. Get rid of the tests. We can see good teaching without them.

A school is a temple; not a laboratory.  Teachers are acolytes, not social scientists. My niece is an amazing teacher, not because she wears a lab coat well, but because she’s so wonderfully full of love.   We’re very fond in this country of paying lip service to the importance of education.  So, okay, American taxpayer: fish or cut bait.  Double education funding, for starters, give teachers a raise and fewer students and let them do their thing.  Trust teachers to teach.

5 thoughts on “Education

  1. Garry Jantzen

    95% of all test questions are memory questions – ALL! This includes K-12 to Univ. Not my opinion. The research proves it. Unfortunately, the PhD level course I took was long ago (I doubt the stats have changed in 40 years!) and I’ve forgotten the citation. Essay questions are not necessarily better than well-written multiple choice. Well-written test questions are, of course the key, not the the format. Too many teachers get caught in this trap. I also learned that testing is not necessarily (hardly ever is!) actual evaluation. Unfortunately most people believe it is. That’s a large part of the problem. They believe that testing somehow proves something when, as you know, all it does it prove the person is a good test taker.

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  2. Julie Saunders

    We had really good test scores in the school district I grew up in, because the teachers used to take at least one full day (usually more like two) before every single standardized test in which they taught us how to take that particular test. Every time. Even at the time I used to sit there wondering what interesting things we could’ve been learning about if it weren’t for the dumb test. I knew from a very early age that test-taking was a skill completely separate from actual knowledge.

    Now I am going to ramble:

    Sometime in middle school, the state of Oregon decided to try out this program called CIM, or Certificate of Initial Mastery. It required extensive tests that we took in addition to the already mandated tests, and which were supposed to test our learning by requiring us to explain how we got each answer. So, for example, they’d give you a math problem, and then you’d basically have to answer in the form of a two page essay explaining each step you took to get to the answer and why and how you chose it. They were, in a word, the worst.

    We students quickly figured that earning our CIM meant nothing – colleges didn’t care about it and it certainly didn’t enhance our educational experience. But CIM scores must’ve really influenced the funding our schools received, because they would spend days and days teaching us how to take each test (including administering practice tests), and then started pulling us out of class to retake any tests we missed or underperformed on. We lost so many class days to these dumb tests.

    Now, on the bright side, I wrote some fantastic creative writing on those things out of sheer frustration and boredom. I used to analyze the characters in each word problem, speculate on their motivations and possible intelligence levels, perhaps take a guess at how they got into this situation and why they brought their silly problems to me, of all people. I had to spend an hour on the test, after all. I never got marked down for it, presumably because the bored teachers scoring the things (oh yes, they made our teachers take time out from classes to grade these things, which meant we either got days off or languished with subs) either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. So while I wouldn’t say it was a complete waste of time, it was very very close.

    Last I heard, they canceled the program. Which is kind of a shame, in a way, since I can’t imagine a more thorough lesson in how stupid standardized tests really can be.

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  3. Julie Judd

    Eric,

    There are a few problems with your argument here. First of all, your assessment that “Don’t tell me I don’t take that charge seriously” concerning how teachers feel about how well their students are doing is a massive generalization. I can name many teachers I’ve had over the years (mostly middle and high school) that it was perfectly clear they hated their jobs, but they had been there so long and probably where not trained to do anything else, so there they were and we were the sad recipients of their lack of enthusiasm and creativity. Now don’t get me wrong, I had some fantastic teachers as well, you among them, who were major contributors to my life direction and were frankly inspiring. And those teachers learned to work within perhaps a broken system, but they did it, and the students learned and sometimes developed a love of a subject they had once really struggled in. But you certainly can’t blame the bad teachers I had on testing, because some of those subjects didn’t even have “tests” so to speak.
    Secondly, your idea that if you just walk into the classroom unannounced you can see how the teacher is doing and if the students are engaged, is currently unworkable. The same unions you support (and I do as well) that work to protect teachers wages and workplace benefits, are the same groups that at least in the state of Washington don’t allow administrators to “just drop in” to a classroom to see how things are going, at least in K-12 public schools. I am sure that is the case in other states as well. Those unions have negotiated contracts that require a principle to schedule appointments to visit so that the teachers can be prepared. After 3 scheduled visits, and they must have breaks between visits, then the admin can visit unannounced, but those later visits can’t coun’t toward that teachers performance, so if the classroom is in chaos, the admin can make note of it but it will not hold sway in the evaluation of that teacher. This is a requirement of the union. If teacher evaluations were eliminated, then perhaps the unions would give up this current requirement, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.
    Also, my mother, father, 2 uncles, 2 aunts, and one sister-in-law are all teachers as well. My mom went back and got her admin credentials and was a middle school/elementary principle for the last 12 years. One of the things we have discussed a lot is the focus on teacher accountablity with regards to special education. I have seen for myself, with my daughter being in several special ed programs, that testing these kids is a positive thing. Decades ago these kids were relegated to separate rooms where very little learning took place, basically babysitting rooms. But ever since the No Child Left Behind was put in place, learning from this group has gone places even these teachers didn’t think was possible. You must hold students accountable. There must be expectations, or the children or teachers will never rise above what they think they can do. I understand that testing can and I know does, impede some teachers from doing what they would like in a classroom, and if your classroom is full of kids who are not behind, then those teachers can spend time “creatively” teaching and engaging with all those students. But that model does not take into account children who enter the class behind in reading, math, reasoning skills, or vocabulary, there must be ways of measuring if those students are making progress in the skills they will need in order to get a job after graduation, or into a technical school, or even into college. I whole heartedly agree that smaller classes and higher pay are essential to getting the highest quality teachers, and because we haven’t had those 2 benefits, it means we don’t currently have the highest quality teachers. There are some very mediocre teachers that shouldn’t be let loose with no oversight and no way to fire. The real problem is that you really can’t implement your changes until we have the best teachers in the classrooms and congress doesn’t want to fund them because that $ will go to the current lot, some great, some not so great. It is a chicken and egg issue.
    –Julie Judd

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  4. admin Post author

    Julie, I certainly agree that there are unmotivated and uninspired teachers. I would suggest that in most cases, the combination of long hours, large class sizes and lousy pay would be the main causes. I think those same teachers could excel, given motivation. I also agree that union rules can absolutely prevent excellence. I know of other school districts where principals can’t just drop in unannounced. Union rules can be negotiated, and unions could be persuaded to change rules if offered sufficient incentives in pay increases.
    Where we disagree is in the area of standardized tests. Certainly there are students who have reading or math deficiencies. I would argue that testing exacerbates those issues. I’m against ‘accountability’ if it’s defined so unimaginatively.
    In part, I’m arguing for an educational ideal; your arguments, which are as usual articulate and well founded, reflect bitter reality. It’s easy for me to argue that we should increase education funding by 80 billion dollars–realistically, that’s probably not going to happen.

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