Friday, September 23, 2011

It was, admittedly, not going to get the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartoon of the Year.

A man stood at a table, with a tree in the background to lend scenery. A line of animals faced him: a cat, an elephant, a seal, a goldfish (in bowl), an ape, a songbird and a frog.

“To ensure a fair selection you all get the same test. You must all climb that tree,” he said, pointing.

While many a nail-biter is on the verge of shredding their cuticles with regards to either the U.S. economy or the U.S. political morass, some of us are looking to U.S. education with the same anxieties and fear. Like the other two, education, at this moment in time, is a deeply divided subject.

Since 9/11 the legislation of No Child Left Behind, co-written by Bush and Boehner amongst others, has been firmly in one camp of thought. This is a school of thought is embraced from the Beltway to Bill Gates. The reasoning behind this camp is so straightforward a child of six could understand it: by standardizing education you can see what areas need attention, get an indicator of success, and can compare results against students, states, school districts, or countries.

But because of the legislation’s implementation she might not actually be able to understand it. NCLB has been widely criticized for its failures: in financing, in achievement, and in coming to grips with reality. (As any teacher can tell you you’ll never get 100% pass rates on anything. They could hand out a test tomorrow for all school children to write their names – and some would still bungle it.) The ideals, however, are different from their execution, would argue proponents, and many still take the basic concept to be worth saving.

This notion of assigning a number to something, and thereby giving special power, is deeply rooted in us (at least since Archimedes). That’s what a standardized test wants to do: put a number on whatever is being measured. Comparing numbers is easy work. Five is greater than two, 93% is more than 56%. Specifically, Americans were one of the first to really go for this concept. Quantifiable data has perhaps always appealed to business-minded, efficiency-driven Americans. Open a magazine and you’ll see numbers and data, whether it’s the Economist, Newsweek, or Cosmo. And let’s not be mistaken: quantifiable data is really, very useful in hosts of ways. Tracking crime rates, pathogens, and census data all leap to mind. Without it we mightn’t know as much about linguistic patterns of New York City or the extent forest loss has on endemic species, or the correlations between price at the pump and voter confidence.

With regards to this standardization vogue I turn to the original test developed by Binet and Terman, the IQ, and Time Magazine, (no shirker on those numbers):

“But the broader and more controversial use of IQ testing has its roots in a theory of intelligence--part science, part sociology--that developed in the late 19th century, before Binet's work and entirely separate from it. Championed first by Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, it held that intelligence was the most valuable human attribute, and that if people who had a lot of it could be identified and put in leadership positions, all of society would benefit.
“Terman believed IQ tests should be used to conduct a great sorting out of the population, so that young people would be assigned on the basis of their scores to particular levels in the school system, which would lead to corresponding socioeconomic destinations in adult life. The beginning of the IQ-testing movement overlapped with the eugenics movement--hugely popular in America and Europe among the ‘better sort’ before Hitler gave it a bad name--which held that intelligence was mostly inherited and that people deficient in it should be discouraged from reproducing. The state sterilization that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes notoriously endorsed in a 1927 Supreme Court decision (with the slogan ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough’) was done with an IQ score as justification.”

This cuts to the fundamental issue at stake: that standardization is not as democratic as it might seem. Using numbers to sort people has non-beneficial uses, counter to the utilitarian ones aforementioned. We have the luxury of seventy years of research to show that intelligence is not a genetic trait: if it were otherwise then two brilliant professors wouldn’t have the heartache of raising a child with severe Aspergers, and there would be no hyper-intelligent children suffering the complete loneliness of being raised by adults who aren’t as sharp as they are. So we’ve moved on from eugenics to the next best thing: the educational system.

Make no mistake: school is stressful, and often cruel. So too, many would claim, is the life we’ll have after it. But if we’re not going to even engage in optimism or ideals than we might as well just scrap public education altogether. Aspirations should be, and used to be, a fundamental component of that concept, and without them the public school system in America has taken a nasty turn. Most children in this country look back at their school days and have some good fond memories, but these have always been tempered by hard lessons, shameful and embarrassing actions, and regrettable mistakes. These won’t go away – no matter what the over-protective parent might hope. But we can take steps to minimize them. Most critically, we need to move away from standardization.
The allure of ‘data’ is not just for the Republican crowds since “bleeding hearts” such as Obama have fully embraced this concept. The very notion of a “Race to the Top” has some queasy implications, most notably: what’s to be done with the losers? This mindset is fairly sick, when we examine it. In a recent magazine each state’s achievement on standardized tests was compared relative to each other and other countries. Massachusetts was at the top, and the ‘losers’ were at the bottom.

Why should students lose due to where they were born? Why should we delight in the failures of millions, on the grounds that they make our state look better? We’re not betting on horses at the track: education is too important to be a race, and too important for us to see most fail while a few succeed.

Returning to cruelty, as we increase standardization we’ll continue to increase the stakes of our tests, until we end up with a monster: a high-stakes exam that will help determine your entire future. I’m surprised those who think the administration leans towards Soviet Russia haven’t jumped on this. It’s a very old concept (originating in China) and leads to bureaucratic elites (also China). There’s a few reasons for this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for now let’s really picture what life will be like for this student when they go through school. I’ll use Singapore as an ideal model, one of a number which have chosen to take this road already.

Competitive parents will start young, as they already do in the U.S., with finding the right preschool. Private education is to be considered better than public in more than nine cases out of ten, and so, immediately, you have the origins of real ‘class warfare’. Poor students do worse – literally hundreds of studies have confirmed this over decades of research. So the playing field begins to tilt in one direction if you’re lucky to be born to the affluent, and another if you’re not: at the age of four.

Moving on, the child goes to primary school, and now the bureaucrat steps in saying: we have to test the child sooner or later to see if they’re meeting standards. If you wait too long… well, something bad will happen, is implied. Since primary ends at age 11 in Singapore that’s when they test them, which seems rational since the next year they enter a new school and get a new set of subjects to master (for a new set of tests). Eleven is the minimum age you’re allowed to drop out in Singapore – if you do very poorly on the tests then you’ve no academic future, and thereby no future at all. For some this is the end of the line, and it’s been shown that it links to poverty (and implied links to minority race): a sobering reflection for Americans to consider.

At the end of Secondary there’s another test at 16, and then another at 18 to determines if you’re allowed in college. These tests are ‘cuts’ – they are designed to weed out, sort out, drop kids out of the system. We know that education is the most reliable means of achieving a higher pay scale and the best tool in the fight against poverty, which should mean something to a country of the unemployed. No Child Left Behind made the basic aim of standardized testing blunt: failing schools weren’t propped up, they were closed. Failing students aren’t supported, they’re axed. Fine as a business model for handling bad performance, but ludicrous for children: where else can they go?

So by this point most have been “weeded out” and the metaphor is apt as we treat most of our children and the generations following them as contaminants of Academia. By doing so we reinforce that these children would become contaminants of middle and upper-middle class society. This, then, is what is cruel. It is the stress of being eleven years old and knowing that your performance of a few hours of your life may well determine the rest of it. It’s the anxiety, fear, and crippling burden that teens face knowing that their exams will either make or break them. How can we, as compassionate humans and parents of our children, wish this upon them? Are we so selfish that we prefer the ‘A+’ on the refrigerator, no longer earned from interest but purely to ‘achieve’ and please, no matter the cost to our child’s mind, emotions, and health?

Such parents disgust me.

(Those who cite South Korea as a goal for educational reform and ‘tough’ parents always fail to mention, or are perhaps so ignorant as to not know, that the country is also experiencing a profoundly worrisome and tragic increase in suicide rates amongst their youth, buckling under the pressure and strain of an unrelenting system.)

Too many factors, well-known but unaccounted for by the sterile tests, account for performance on tests, standardized or otherwise. The other students in the room, the time of day, the student’s race and gender both, how much sleep you had the night before, heck even which nostril you’re breathing through have all been shown to change outcomes, processing times, and performance scores. Boys do better or worse than girls, blacks better when not sitting with whites, early clear morning results will be better than those on a rainy afternoon. These results have been measured, demonstrated, and shown to be significant. Standardization, by design, takes account of none of these. Not to mention the big factors from parent’s income to whether a student works better alone or in groups, to whether they’re better at expressing themselves in a written or oral exam.

Standardized testing is anti-diversity, a lesson we should be very wary about embracing. We can each name our favorite genius who didn’t do well in school, or exams: there are enough to choose from. In a non-democratic country like Singapore, which equates ‘diversity’ with ‘challenge’, standardization suits them nicely. But in America the values are very different. Singapore has produced generations of fine test-takers, but no Nobel Prize winners. Do we want our students to be good test-takers?
What happens if we take that path might look something like this, and we’re seeing it already: as high-stakes testing takes over our country many will simply do the easy thing and cheat. These scandals are to be expected, especially if scores remain tied to performance. As stated earlier, you’ll never get 100% pass rates, so if that’s the demand than the results will be fudged so teachers don’t lose their jobs and schools don’t shut down leaving students with nowhere to go. Since the test is so critical they’ll start to focus increasingly on test-taking skills. These can make a huge difference, as hundreds of thousands of us wealthy enough to take test-prep courses know. (In Singapore it’s called ‘tuition’, is lucrative, and if you can afford it, you will pass your exams.) So public education will begin to realign towards ensuring that kids pass the test and in the process they’ll miss out on any non-relevant material, and more importantly, non-relevant learning skills.

Unless they are careful, and ensure that certain types of skills are necessitated, these skills will be lost. The ability to do research, to give a presentation, to work in groups: skills our employers would love to see more of. Even if time is carved out in theory, or legislation, such provisions often don’t translate to reality in the classroom, nor are they likely to do so as the consequences of failing tests become more dire. Maybe on the syllabus there’s a week devoted to oral presentations, but if it’s approaching revision week, forget it.
Standardized tests, like any test, are good at doing one thing: showing how prepared a student is to take them. The SAT, America’s standardization of choice, doesn’t correlate well to happiness, IQ, success after college, or even success in college. The entrenched bureaucrats of the College Board are profiting on a test that refuses to die but, by all accounts, doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. We all know it can be gamed, and has little correlation to real ability, and yet it persists.

These tests aren’t really that good at showing skills – because we never need to demonstrate these skills out of context in real life. When was the last time you faced a problem that needed an immediate solution and you weren’t allowed to use any resources to solve it? And there was only one possible answer? It’s ridiculous – we don’t encounter ‘testing conditions’ ever in real life. Stripping the context from our reasoning isn’t somehow ‘purifying’: it’s just bad sense, and further discredits those who may think or learn differently. Trying for laboratory conditions doesn’t make sense in preparation for the complexities, or relative ease, of problem solving later in life.

As for myself I think best when walking and moving. Perhaps I’d be considered to be a ‘kinesthetic’ learner these days. When I face a problem I go for a walk, and if literature is any indicator so do many other people. Others really do like to sit down and have a good long think, but that’s not me. I’d wager those are the minority, and that most people solve problems in a variety of diverse ways, all of them nonreplicable through standardization. Watson and Crick didn’t get their insight the same way Ray Kroc or Mozart or Fleming did. It’s an individual process.

So these are the people we are discrediting, causing a life of trauma and alienation, as we continue to standardize. Anyone who is doesn’t fit in a particular, relatively arbitrary, mold, one which we know is not the only possibility for success or brilliance, is stigmatized and fails. Somewhere in our minds we know this isn’t true: we wouldn’t have Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg, Howard Hughes and Rockefeller otherwise (none of whom completed college).

The generation of test-takers produced will lack diversity, skills, and will be inherently non-democratic. We will lose many good minds, useful minds, along the way (either through failure due to circumstances beyond their control, or in a far more sinister sense.) These students will be bad citizens. They’ll lack approaches to problem-solving, creativity and curiosity, team-work abilities, critical thinking and analysis skills. They will prove to be a dangerous body of citizens, for, as Jefferson said: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” If they are not well-informed, and this generation will lack the skills to distinguish between pundits and policy, Jon Stewart and Walter Cronkite, then by implication they can’t be trusted with government. We will have tested the ability to uphold democracy out of them. In a place like Singapore, or the top-achiever on the recent tests, Shanghai, you don’t need a citizenry that can think for itself. The U.S. might want to consider if implementing their models inherently contradicts our values.

Moreover, democracy itself is under scrutiny as new views look at splitting two elements of the fundamental concept. American democracy, as I understand it, means that with hard work anyone can make it, and that everyone has a responsibility to play an active role in their country. We directly elect our officials – and so we are held responsible for the laws they pass, and the work they do. But the spilt has arisen between giving everyone the same chances (or a “fair shake” if you prefer) and saying that government has no right to intervene in our lives. But both lead to problems: we elect representatives so that government can get work done, which has to affect our lives and so too with our immigrant history we try to attract the best and brightest to compete with us, on our own turf, yes, but with equal opportunities. The notion that we must choose reinforces a false dichotomy. It wouldn’t be such a problem if we could work around it, but in fields like universal public education that’s not possible.

(This is not new: twice before we’ve encountered this rather serious debate. Using the terminology of the last encounter, it is a debate between populists and progressives. Populists are the hands-off camp, and the progressives want Washington to get stuff done. The populists, cutely named the People’s Party, in the 1890s managed to elect people to local government, lasted 20 years, and tried to elect William Jennings Bryan for President three times – yes, the fellow arguing against evolution in the Scopes Trial. But Progressives held D.C. from Theodore Roosevelt through Woodrow Wilson, and after the Republican Depression were revived by FDR. The strength of progressives led to the end of the populists – for a while at least.

The earlier example may be more familiar, and in that case the ‘hand’s-off’ argument, at that time known as ‘states’ rights’, was more successful in Washington, leading to such infamies as the Missouri Compromise and, eventually, the Civil War. That time the populists, the ones wary of government interference, got their way for so long that it became entrenched beyond repair, to the point that government was no longer functioning properly, and slaughter followed. Based on some of the rhetoric of the current Tea Party perhaps violence is what they want this time as well.)

And so we return to take our last looks at NCLB. The role of the federal government in education has been questioned time and again (consider desegregation in the 1950s – and what would’ve been the outcome if ‘state’s rights’ proponents had gotten their way). Currently most of the states are so cash-strapped they’d gladly accept money from Washington, regardless if they’re told to leave no child behind or race to the top or jig on the moon. The bureaucrats will oversee the transition of the new policy, the tests will arrive, and the governors and legislators will deal with the next emergency, not thinking about education seriously until teacher’s votes are an issue.

I hope to have shown that standardization is not the way to go for America, and is damaging not only to our children (and teachers), but to our national interests. Now it comes time to consider the alternatives. At the start a divide was posited. We’ve engaged one half of the issue, now to engage the other.

What does school without standardization look like, and how do we know it’s effective? These, I think, are the questions proponents of non-standardized schooling must be prepared to answer. Unlike standardization, which we’ve seen produces the same sort of child the world over, there is no one descriptor for non-test students, or non-test schools. By design they are diverse, catering to different needs and talents, types and skills. However examples can be provided, once we consider the goals of education.

For the test-mongers the goal of education is to get everyone on the same page (literally). Sad for them, not that they admit it, they fall far short of their goal, as shown above. The numbers they assign are meaningless. As educational reformer Sir Ken Robinson points out, this is because standardization is part of a factory model, which is the model we run public schools by, from the bells for shift changes to educating in ‘batches’, and which is designed to create the same thing, over and over, rather than individual things (like human beings).

If we prize individuality then we must account for individual’s different goals, and these will create different educational goals. These can range from rehabilitation and societal reintegration to specific skill sets to broad concepts such as increased freedom, spiritual needs, or democratic schooling. I will attempt to give a quick overview of the main branches from the most radical (that is, compared to our current PS 136 factory/test school) to the more recognizable.

At the least regulated end of the spectrum you have schools where the student is in charge of their education. Summerhill, in the UK, is probably the most famous of these. As a student you choose what classes, if any, you want to take and everyone from administrator to teacher to child has an equal vote in the rules and practices of the school. Its main objective is to make happy students, as its founder A.S. Neill said “I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.” Beyond the thee R’s little is required as our futures will be so very different. (A welcome argument for every child who has asked what the importance of geometry, chemistry, French, or history is to them, only to receive a dubious response.) Summerhill has been going since the 1920s, and the British government has started to warm to them, by observing that students there are in fact doing well in life.

Criticisms of this model are wide-ranging. One might question a child’s ability to self-regulate and the use of producing an adult who knows little about this or that. Of course they’d respond in defense by saying that ‘knowing this or that’ is not the purpose of their education – but to instill their core values of democracy, equality, and freedom. For Neill this meant foremost, play: lots of it and lots of self-discovery. By telling students answers or explaining things to them we rob them of the experience of figuring out answers for themselves. This jives, basically, with the notions of childhood forwarded by Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist who said children are like little scientists: curious and trying to make sense of their world through discovery and research. Certainly watching young children might confirm this, from the questions they ask us about their world to actions of their play activities.

Perhaps it’s best to pause and distinguish between two basic models of education. The first is the one just described, of self-discovery. The latter is that of modeling, and has maybe been in place longer. Modeling runs through every task from an apprentice copying the paintings of the master, to copying out translations, to a teacher showing their class how they mark an essay before engaging in peer marking. You see how the task is done, and then work on replicating it. It’s copying, and depending on what it is you’re copying these days it’s seen as either the best way of learning or totally unacceptable. At any rate it has been in place for thousands of years, but, of course, this need not mean that it’s the best or preferred method, and Piaget and Neill’s view of childhood is very persuasive.

Moving down the line we might next consider Waldorf schools. These emphasize the role of imagination and the arts in balancing the analytical and ethical. To teach at a Waldorf school you need to go through specific training, that is, it takes the approach of a specific model or program, and thus is more structured than a place like Summerhill. The classroom is rather freewheeling, and teachers are given great leeway in their classrooms – but the basic purposes must be met, and naturally this means that students can’t choose to skip out on classes as they might at Summerhill. Basically, though, Waldorf is cut from the same fabric as Piaget, with students working in blocks for extend periods of time on a specific subject of interest, just as a young child may become fascinated by something for a few days or weeks before moving on.

Few children do not delight in the arts, which are so central to the Waldorf model, and for that matter few adults would say they don’t like good music, acting, dancing, or visual art either in fashion or galleries or design. But of course there are some people don’t, whose turn of mind isn’t the same as the majority, and find solace at a young age for example amongst the abstractions of algebra and calculus. Globally Waldorf is, however, on the rise and many parents think it is the best means for their child to be in touch with themselves, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Similar in basic approach to Waldorf is Montessori, advocating partial freedom for students. So, too, is it more along the lines of Piaget in that it advances freedom for students to develop within a prepared environment – one designed to foster their psychological development. Like the prepared environment there are specific materials to be taught. Still, many features familiar from Waldorf remain, from long blocks of time for tasks to the emphasis of self-discovery. These schools are more common than Waldorf, globally, and begin at an earlier age, even in infancy, unlike Waldorf which begins primary at age six or seven.

By now we must assume we’ve lost A.S. Neill. Montessori would be considered too structured and rigid for his tastes by far. Montessori is not the same as the factory/test model, but it is notably top-down, with a specific guide and framework for what is to be covered, and more importantly, how. Waldorf has a little more bend, and some may say balance, between these: a specific idea of how kids learn and freedom in child’s actions.

Now we come to the last model I’ll consider in depth, and this is Progressive education, as formulated by John Dewey. Unlike the other models Progressive education began in the United States, during the heyday of the movement at the turn of the last century. It is still Piaget – learn by doing – but doesn’t have the specific foci of the others, and is generally top-down, attempting to balance democratic ideas and student freedom in a structured way. This moves away from modeling, but as a methodology rather than prescriptive philosophy it can be integrated as means of studying any subject, and can therefore meet state or federal requirements. That is, unlike Waldorf’s art focus, or Montessori’s specific prepared lessons, Progressive education techniques can be applied in any classroom, if the teacher is willing.

Progressive education techniques have seeped into our classrooms, from studying American history simultaneously with American literature to laboratory work in the sciences. Like Waldorf there is a focus on critical thinking skills, although the role of imagination is not as emphasized. Collaborative work and community service, in line with Dewey’s strongest emphasis on valuing democracy, are highlighted as well. Evaluation accounts more for projects than tests, or abandons tests entirely, and textbooks are uncommon. Elements of all of these were probably experienced, in one form or another, by most who were educated in the U.S. but few, now, get the whole package.

At this point a good amount of ground, but by no means all of it, has been covered in answering the first question posed of what do schools without standardization look like. My first teaching job was not a standardized school, for example, but was very different from anything we’ve covered, as it was designed for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Standardization was out of the question, but the days were repetitive, balanced by an unrestrictive classroom environment (well, restrictive only regarding their safety and mine). There are many types of alternative education, from prisons to online degrees, with varying success rates and societal acceptance. But examining all these would draw us away from our intended goal, which is to focus on public education, of the mandatory variety. Summerhill, Montessori, Waldorf and Progressive models could all be, tomorrow if legislated, nation-wide replacements for our current system.

The other question raised was if other models are effective. We’ve examined one particular branch of the non-standardized tree, focusing on models that promote values I think most Americans could get behind – childhood curiosity, democracy, freedom, ethics and empathy – which, to varying degrees, each model covered (1). But how to rate their effectiveness will differ widely depending on what each hopes to achieve. For Summerhill effectiveness would be measured in happiness of students as adults. For Waldorf and Montessori it would be based on how well the child thrived according to the ideals and boundaries placed upon them. For the Progressive educators every individual implementation would require analysis of effectiveness.

Yet, for those who are skeptics it’s worthwhile to address their concerns. As such we can take a look at a case study of non-standardization on a countrywide level which has, nevertheless, proved to be effective when tested by traditional means: Finland.

Unlike Singapore or the American education system, I do not have direct experience to fall back on. But the policies of Finland are well-known to those who concern themselves with such matters. Foremost, there is no tracking. That is, students aren’t split into groups based on ability. This still happens in the U.S., although it is not allowed in some areas, as it tends to be very damaging for lower-level students (who lose the benefit of working with better students, who, in their turn, benefit from further application of their abilities helping those who are struggling). Singapore grades students and separates them out extensively in the lower levels in different tracks, again based on those high-stake exams. In Finland the distinction of ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ does come to play a role at sixteen, and, like the U.S. and Singapore, post-secondary is differentiated (as we have our community colleges and state schools, or Singapore’s polytechnics, junior colleges and universities).

After nearly universal preschool, focused on play rather than teaching, all students begin comprehensive schooling. Interestingly there are private schools allowed, but they cannot be selective – no tracking of any sort is permitted. As many have advocated for in the U.S. class sizes are kept small (as is also the case in Singapore, where a class I taught of 26 was seen to be enormous, and where I had classes as small as 9). Multiple languages and arts classes are required (the former is also the case in SG). There are none of the high-stakes tests in vogue elsewhere, very limited homework, and considerable teacher autonomy in determining how to implement the curriculum. Grades are not received initially. If you fail an end of year test you retake it. Free health care and lunch are provided. Some books are provided by the government starting in infancy.

Internationally Finland was ranked 6th in Math (SG – 2, USA – 30), 3rd in Reading (SG – 5, USA – 17), and 2nd in Science (SG – 4, USA – 23). It is, then, as or more effective than the high-stakes standardization model, less damaging to students (unlike South Korea) and better received by them, and far more capable than what the U.S. has – and the U.S. now requires more testing than any other nation on earth.

Thus we have seen that standardized tests are not the way to go, by any consideration. We need a total, wholesale reform of our educational system. I would suggest one that places emphasis on student well-being and development, while fostering those American values we wish all future citizens to possess. A diversity of models should, and can, be employed preserving equity and remaining globally competitive. Moreover adopting such measures will notably improve those other areas of concern in society, our political discourse and representation as well as our troubled economy, producing candidates employers want to hire. We cannot do any less.

(1) Those who don’t like Piaget’s theories are free to embrace others, such as Vygotsky or Freire. Vygotsky noted that children don’t develop in vacuum, and that cultural background is a critical component, which Piaget overlooked. He appears in classrooms today also under the related concept of scaffolding – helping students move from a top-down modeling approach to one of self-achievement. Freire, amongst other ideas, said that the very duality of teachers and students is problematic. In all, then, the options are out there to explore for those who wish to do so.

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