Sh*t Out of Luck

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

           In Virginia we have the Standards of Learning, commonly referred to as the SOL’s.  Either the committee who named these had a terrific sense of humor or were a bunch of idiots or were realists.  I’m not sure.  I’m going to speak to these specifically, however most states have their own versions of SOL’s (hopefully better named) and I suspect that the other states standards/processes share many of the same problems.  If you have any insight as to similarities and differences among states feel free to comment below.

            Like NCLB (see previous post) the intentions of the standards are admirable.  No longer will kids say, like we did as children, “we never got past World War 2 in history class.”  Also, children who move within the state are likely to find the curriculum similar from school to school and so in our mobile society there will be less gaps in learning.  And finally, there is a way to collect data and measure student mastery of the curriculum and teacher and school effectiveness.  All are noble goals that have been achieved to a certain extent, but at what cost?
            When I was in the classroom, I balked at claims that SOL’s squash teachers’ ability to be creative and to make learning engaging.  This is not true; many teachers are wonderfully creative.  However, now that I have time and space to consider the outlets for said creativity, it seems wasted.   Many of the standards require the memorization of facts.  If teachers merely handed the students a list of facts and told them to memorize them, the students would be bored.  A few would be successful, but many would not.  And so, instead teachers give the facts context.  This is good and important.  But we also create fun games and “dog and pony shows” to make the memorization fun.  An example, when I used to teach about the Great Plains I’d print out pictures of buffalo, write questions on the back, hang them on the walls, and let the students throw balls at them.  If they hit one, I’d read the question on the back.  Creative?  Yes.  Fun?  Yes. But my creative energy was being spent encouraging the consumption of information rather than the production of it.

Having students memorize a body of knowledge, even with context, has little merit. First, long term retention of this information is weak.  How many of you remember the three types of rocks (a fifth grade science SOL)?  See answer at bottom.  The show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? demonstrated that most adults have forgotten the information they learned in elementary school.  And other than losing money in a game show, who cares?  I have a full life without knowing anything about Mali (a current third grade SOL).  I’m sure Mali is interesting, but I don’t believe that a third grader needs to know about it.   Finally, if I want/need to know anything about Mali or rocks, I can find the information instantly on the Internet.  What’s the value in memorizing it?
              I have less of a problem with skill based SOLs (particularly in reading, writing, and math), but even these have issues.  By pairing the standards with certain grades rather than mastery, some students aren’t being challenged and other students are left behind.  This is obvious as early as kindergarten.  Here is one SOL:

K. 7 The student will develop an understanding of basic phonetic principles.
a)  Identify and name the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
b)  Match consonant and short vowel sounds to appropriate letters.
c)  Identify beginning consonant sounds in single-syllable words.

I know quite a few preschoolers that have achieved these, and for them to spend valuable classroom time practicing these skills when they are ready to go further is wasteful.  Attempts to differentiate will result in teachers naturally spending more time with children who are struggling and leave the more developmentally advanced children to their own devices.  They tend to give them more work, rather than more challenging work because they don’t have the time to guide them through the more challenging work when they are busy helping struggling students.
            SOL’s impose an artificial pace and superficial mastery.  And while they’ve successfully ensured that all educators state-wide are on the same page, it isn’t a very impressive page.  

Answer:  The three types of rocks are sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.

"No Child Left Behind" Leaves Behind Thinking

Sunday, January 15, 2012

            I’ve had over a decade of classroom experience.  I’ve taught fourth, fifth, and seventh grades, college, and even done some corporate training.  When I was working full-time in a classroom, I was so busy planning lessons, grading papers, meeting parents, etc. that the limited time I had left for reflection was usually spent dealing with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, in the trenches sort of stuff. Since I became a mother, I’ve been able to swing some part-time gigs, which keep my feet wet, but also allow me the luxury to reflect on my practices, curriculum standards, classroom methodology, and educational outcomes.  And I’m concluding that our education model is out-dated.  That we are in fact training a generation for success in the 20th Century and then tossing them into the 21st Century. 
            Today, I’d like to take on a few of the unintended realities of No Child Left Behind.  First, over time the standards themselves have been revised and watered down, and even more blatantly the tests have been “dumbed” down. Several years ago, I served on a committee that put together one of the state tests.  In that role I was privy to conversations where committee members would reject questions that required higher-level thinking.  They argued that the test was supposed to be a basic competency test, that too many students wouldn’t be able to answer such questions, and that schools shouldn’t be held accountable for a student’s inability to think.  So, the exam evolved into in a basic recall test that the committee felt reflected the standards, and fairly assessed whether teachers had covered the curriculum and students had memorized the content.  Whoopie-do-dah.  Tests scores went up.  But not, I argue because teachers were doing a better job, but because they’d learned to teach to the test.  And the classroom became a place where random information is jammed down throats and then regurgitated by students.  And multiple guess tests became the determiners of success.

            I think a brief segway is in order here.  I don’t mean to imply that I think all teachers are doing a bad job.  Like any other profession, some teachers are all-stars and some should find a new line of work.  My point here is that I don’t think that testing encourages teachers to do a better job.  In fact, I’d argue that it forces them to focus on an out-dated skill set (more on that in another post).
However, I do mean to say that the inordinate amount of time spent taking multiple-choice tests to assess student growth, would be better spent fostering creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking.  Multiple-choice is perhaps the worst format for assessing real knowledge or thinking processes.  Its appeal is in the ease of grading and the equity of evaluation.  Unfortunately, if the state tests are multiple-choice, then the teacher tests will be too.  Why?  Because NCLB encourages educators to teach to the test.
            In teaching to the test or the standards (however, you choose to phrase it), I found myself focusing on the curriculum rather than the students.  The result of which is a teacher-centered classroom with an artificial pace.  Weak students are in fact “left behind” and the strong ones are bored. The teacher is the holder of all knowledge and the student is the vessel.  This model allows for too much passive learning, but ensures the curriculum is covered.  Most (not all) attempts I’ve seen at differentiating are bogus. Attempts to track students into smaller groups in one classroom often fail because most teachers don’t have the training, time, and/or skill base to manage such a scope in a teacher-centered classroom in any way that makes in real difference.  Separating the students results in some improvements, but if the teachers are still expected to teach the spectrum in separate classes, then the teachers are still not able to specialize.  When I worked in public schools, I taught regular students, gifted students, ESL students, and special education students.  I did not have the time, resources, or expertise to truly differentiate for all of these needs.  So I took a lesson, added a component for the gifted students, structured it differently for the special education students, and added visuals and a more accessible vocabulary for the ESL students.  That sort of modification took time and thought and helped, but in the end no one really got what they should have because I was pulled in too many directions. I wish now that I had worked to create more of a student-centered classroom, but that is scary in a climate in which my competence was measured on students’ ability to spit back specific facts, rather than to find information, evaluate it, and then use it to create new relevant learning.
            Finally, NCLB encourages schools to focus on the bottom rung.  When a school’s success is based on passing a test, the curriculum, the methodology, and teaching practices center around helping “at-risk” students pass.  This is good for “at-risk” students, but it means that high achievers are often ignored.  One school administrator suggested to me that he didn’t care which teachers taught the advanced classes because those students were going to pass the state tests anyway.  If our brightest students are left to fend for themselves, instead of pushed to excel, create, and think, what does that suggest about our future?
            The intentions of NCLB are good, and I’m certain that the program has led to some real improvements in some schools.  However, it would be foolish not to look past the intentions of the bill and address some of the unintentional problems it has created. 
            So dear readers, do my observations ring to true with your reality in the current educational climate?  I’d love your comments.