Saturday, February 6, 2010

students should graduate with a résumé, not a transcript

Consider that title for a moment, at least one moment.

The words are from Arnold Packer, principal author of what is know as the SCANS report, (SCANS = Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, and the Secretary was of the Dept. of Labor). I encountered that phrase in a recent piece by Grant Wiggins, writing for The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development's new EDge professional social network project in piece titled Abolish the Diploma.

There is an important message, contrary to most of our discussions about educational policy. What if we totally abandoned the idea of a high school diploma meeting certain common standards, what might that mean for education, for the money we spend on standardized tests? Can we consider the implications, at least for a moment? If you are interested in the idea, please keep reading.

Wiggins is one of the great advocates of Authentic Learning and Authentic Education (you can read about his ideas here, with an undergraduate degree from St. John's Annapolis and an Ed. D. from Harvard. But he is not afraid of challenging conventional thinking about education. Consider how his blog post starts:

Imagine the following HS requirements being recommend to the School Board:
• 3 years of economics and business
• 2 courses in philosophy – one in logic, the other in ethics
• 2 years of psychology, with special emphasis on child development and family relations
• 2 years of mathematics, focusing on probability and statistics
• 4 years of Language Arts, but with a major focus on semiotics and oral proficiency
• US and World history, taught as Current Events - backwards from the present
• 1 Year of Graphics Design, Desktop Publishing, and Multimedia presentation

Outrageous? Hardly – if we do an analysis of what most graduates actually need and will use in professional, civic, and personal life. How odd it is that we do not require oral proficiency when every graduate will need the ability. How absurd it is in this day and age that students aren’t required to understand the capitalist system. How sad it is that physics is viewed as more important than psychology, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. Requirements based on pre-modern academic priorities and schooling predicated on the old view that few people would graduate and fewer still would go on to college make no sense. Ask any adult: how much algebra did you use this past week?

Keep in mind these phrases pre-modern academic priorities and few people would graduate and fewer still would go on to college because I will revisit them.

Or consider another paragraph:
We are once again confusing standards with standardization in education. Our misguided quest for a set of one-size-fits-all requirements shows that we do not yet know how to make education modern – i.e. client-centered; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, properly determines curricula; and where the future is re-invented regularly, and far more personalizable than our forebears dreamed possible.

Let me offer a few shorter quotes from the piece before I begin to offer some thoughts of my own:

We badly need a Hippocratic Oath for schooling: Above All Else, Do No Harm.

It is absurd to mandate standardized prescriptions in a pluralistic democracy. Enforced uniformity, whether required in school or a country, has no place in a modern world.

About the last of these, I am immediately reminded of two lines from magnificent opinion, the famous Pledge of Allegiance case, where in opposing mandatory participation in the Pledge Ceremony he writes
Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

For me, a compulsory and uniform approach to education is parallel to the coercive elimination of dissent to which Jackson objected. It denies our students their individuality, their right to explore their own gifts, subordinating them to different priorities - the presumed economic needs of large corporations or national policy, for example. And I think it ultimately robs us of the riches our students could produce if allowed greater freedom to explore more broadly. Increasingly we are locking them into ever more rigid academic programs. In the process, we produce high school graduates who are not used to taking intellectual risks, who have not learned that one can try and fail and perhaps learn even greater lessons than those who never encounter any academic difficulty, who stay on the approved paths to academic "success." We have forgotten about play, although I assure you that given a chance many of our students can quickly rediscover it.

Let me return to Wiggins. One size fits all - standardized assessment driving standardized instruction to the detriment of real learning. Allow me to point at another recent offering, by UVa Psychology Professor Daniel Willingham, in a Boston Globe op ed, Turning schools into Registry of Motor Vehicles. Consider this, written in opposition to evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students:
We do not have good tools to measure teachers, and when you hold people accountable with poor measures, things don’t just fail to improve. They get worse.

The reason is simple: Accountability changes workers’ focus from “do a good job" to “do a job that looks good according to the measure."
There is much more in Willingham's piece, and he is not opposed to accountability per se. As he concludes:
Advocates of teacher accountability often acknowledge these problems, yet insist it’s better than nothing. Not true. A poor system could make teaching worse and a failed attempt will allow opponents to dismiss accountability as a failed policy. Accountability is a good idea, but we have to get the measures right.

What Willingham writes about accountability for teachers connects with my concerns about what we are doing to our students in our approach to education, and I would argue is essential to the points Wiggins is making. We set a standard for high school graduation, we tie everything to that, we are in theory gearing that towards having all student ready for college upon high school graduation even though many will never attend, still more will not attend immediately, and in the process we are pushing kids out of school because they cannot fit into that narrow model. Are our schools serving those kids? If not, is not our entire approach to schooling flawed?

Wiggins puts it bluntly, that we are confusing standards with standardization in education. I do not oppose the idea of having some criteria in various domains that students should strive to meet. But in the process of attempting to agree to common standards we seem to fall into one or several traps. Either in our attempt to agree we create standards that are very narrow, that is, they only concern a few of the many domains of learning. And/or to get concurrence we begin to throw in so many criteria to be met that the standards become little more than check lists. We have seen both occur in the various iterations of standards movement, including the current effort to define common corp standards among the states in English Language Arts and Math, an effort that has largely excluded the voices of classroom educators, the professional organizations of educators in English and Mathematics, or even the voices of relatively recent graduates of our high schools who might be able to offer some meaningful insight as to what was effective and what was not in their own experience. Instead we have people from think tanks, testing companies, and the like. And in the entire process we begin to find ourselves standardizing for its own sake rather than really understanding what it is our students really need to know AND WHY, because we do not step back and ask a basic question - how does this serve the real interests of our students? Why is it that we presume that a common high school diploma necessarily serves to prepare our students for life, or even for college? Is not that the challenge with which Wiggins presents us? And if we are bothered by that challenge, do we not step back and reexamine our entire approach to education, rather than doing we we now see happening:

... the Common Core Standards

... the insistence on ever increasing "rigor" as if "raising the bar" will somehow magically lead to better performance

... shaping educational policy on the failed framework of NCLB, even as we may drop the idiotic demand that all students be "proficient" in 2014 ( which no one ever really thought was achievable, which is why ever increasing numbers of schools fail to make AYP)

... assuming the best way to serve our children is to make states compete, when our obligation should be to serve ALL our children, not just those whose states are willing to conform to ever narrow visions of education such as those required by the criteria of Race to the Top

We ignore the advice of real experts. W. James Popham is a retired professor from UCLA and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, and his area of expertise is testing and assessment. Like Willingham, he is opposed to tying teacher compensation to test scores. In Test scores and teacher competency, which appeared on Thursday, he warns
many of the items on state accountability tests end up being linked to students' inherited academic aptitudes, such as a child's innate quantitative potential, or to the socioeconomic status of a student's family. Because inherited aptitudes and family status are nicely distributed variables, test items influenced by these factors tend to create the needed spread in students' test scores. Yet, inherited academic aptitudes and family status reflect what students bring to school, not what they are taught once they get there. Many of today's accountability tests are laden with items tending to make them instructionally insensitive.

It is not that Popham is opposed to testing, any more than Willingham is opposed to evaluating teachers. Both raise real issues about how our current methods of assessment are flawed, and how conceivable using the results on student tests will definitely drive the instructional process. Some might argue that is a good thing. I think given the current tests - and standards - driving our educational process, both of these gentlemen would object.

Wiggins certainly would object. Because he would argue that the issue is far greater than the sensitivity of the test and their ability to control for non instructional factors such as family wealth and education, or the tendency of many in any domain - not just teaching - to distort what they do to achieve better performance on measures that affect their income and position. Consider that if police are given awards on how many tickets they issue or arrests they make, our courts will be clogged with cases that may not lead to convictions. If instead you give awards on the percentage of cases that lead to convictions, then police may be inclined only to arrest those whose cases appear to be slam dunks for conviction. In either case what should be the real goal - of ensuring public safety - takes a back seat to meeting the standard of measurement, and yet again demonstrates the wisdom of Donald Campbell's famous law, The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

All of this is important to understand, but mainly so that it enables us to break free of our conventional patterns of thinking about education and step back.

And when we step back, perhaps we need to ask questions that should be more basic, such as why do we have schools, what is the purpose of an education, what does it mean to be educated, why do we think students need to learn certain things, what do we really need to know about students, how can we best fulfill the various and sometimes conflicting goals we have . . .

Should not one goal be that we can know what a student can do, what passions s/he has, what turns that young mind on? Can we really judge that by a transcript that indicates how many credits, at what level of class (basic, honors, AP/IB), even when accompanied by various test scores, sometimes with reports of performance on subdomains? Is everything important quantifiable, or is it that we focus on those things we think we can quantify because we are lazy, because we want to resort to a single number?

When I was growing up, one quarterback with a very high completion rate was Milt Plum of the Cleveland Browns. He had few interceptions. He also often hung on to the ball too long getting sacked, or took a safe pass for a completion that did not keep a drive alive. He was not that effective a quarterback, although if we only examined his completion percentage he was at or near the top. Does a transcript necessarily tell us all we really want to know about a student? Might not a narrative, with products (eg, a portfolio) that demonstrates in real world situations what a student has done not give us better, more meaningful information? Yes, we can find correlations between SATs and first year college performance, or between the "rigor" of the high school transcript in terms of challenging courses undertaken and so-called college readiness. Yet I teach AP. And the requirements of preparing students for the AP test restricts my ability even as a skilled teacher to fully give my students the opportunity to explore topics in depth, to follow their passions, because there is so much material that I must "cover." I would think if you ask my students why they take my AP government class, for some it is for the weighted GPA, for others it is for the hope of college credit, but for many it is the chance to experience a teacher who will challenge them, who will provoke them, who wants them to challenge him, to develop their own ideas. I care more about their developing as caring persons who use their intellect positively than how well they do in my class or on the AP exam, and perhaps it is that care that is part of the reason so many do so well, because they begin to understand that learning is more than the score on a test or the grade on a transcript.

I used Wiggins as a starting point. I used his quote from Packer. Let me repeat that quote: students should graduate with a résumé, not a transcript If, like me, you thing that has some relevance. . . if, like Wiggins, you then raise real questions about the increasing standardization of our schooling . . . then why are you not letting your policy makers know of your concern?

I began with computers in the Marines, in the mid-1960s. I spent 20+ years of my life working in that field, but I keep clearly in my mind what was regularly printed on the punch cards that were the primary means of transmitting data when I began: "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate." Should not how we do our education at least treat our students with the same respect with demanded for punch cards? Are not we, in our insistence on standardization, folding, spindling, and mutilating the dreams and personas of our young people?

students should graduate with a résumé, not a transcript or at least, not JUST a transcript.

Thoughts from a certifiable teacher on a snowy day in Northern Virginia.


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