Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blag War! Education Reform - Round 2

Steve's reply is up. Have a read and my response is below.

As usual, I'll break it up into direct portions I'm responding to.
starting from 0% and adding points for things (in the context of the material being graded) would force the students to actually know what they were testing about and have a grasp of it. In other words there is no BS'ing ones way through it.
This is an excellent point. However, I don't think it can cure BS'ing nearly as much as one would expect. As educators, we often try to give our students the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, even if working from the bottom up, grades can just as easily be artificially inflated going that way as from going down. It's still mathematically equivalent unless the teacher is doing something horribly wrong.

Furthermore, I don't think there's really that big of a distinction between the actual methodologies as is being implied. Even when grading tests in American systems, the general practice is to decide how much each question is worth, award points, and then add up all the points given. So in that respect, we do have a bottom up system. In other respects, especially written papers, we tend to look for things to take off, so that would be a top down.

I don't see either as being better than the other in any real respect. If there's statistical data out there that is well constrained to this topic, I'd like to see it, but I don't see any real advantage either way.
As for your citing that Japanese schools have highest rates for suicide (which Southern India now holds apparently) you know as well as I do there is a Cultural basis here for it.
Indeed I am aware. In general, suicide rates are higher in cultures in which the practice is more acceptable. However (and I'm not certain on this), I seem to still remember suicide rates for schools being well above even the cultural norm. Thus (if this is true and my memory is serving me), this isn't a cultural effect and is endemic to the school system (although it would then be arguable whether or not the scoring system played any large role). This isn't really that important to the main topic so I won't pursue it.
Success on the standardized tests has been at the expense of Native American language and culture in the classroom.
I think this is a key issue here and where one of the biggest problems I had with your original posting lay, although I couldn't completely identify it at the time. I think you're fighting two battles and losing sight of the differences between them. Let me break it down into the two arguments I think you're making:

1) America's School System Sucks for Everyone - This was the main focus of the video cited and what you seemed to be getting at with your later arguments regarding the bare minimum of standards.

2) America's School System Sucks for Autonomous Cultures- This is the back argument that seemed to be what most of your actual citations (from your partner came from).

As I see it, I think you're trying to use arguments for (2) to argue (1) when in fact, they don't transfer since you're talking about radically different populations. Citing studies on distinct sub-populations doesn't have bearing on the larger population unless it's a statistically significant and well selected demographic which, by intent, they aren't.

Thus, I think I completely agree with you on (2). But I still have to take large exception to (1) despite your claims that, "many of the details in her research can and have been applicable across the board and within all demographic categories."

I need to see further backing on this because the major points of your argument thus far (like the one in my last blockquote) fail to be true when the tests are targeted for the appropriate culture.
In her current research she found that standardizations in education follow political patterns. Standardizations have been customarily linked with the ebb and flow of national politics and their main concerns in education for that era.
This is obviously true and can easily be further demonstrated by the constant flip-flop of science standards in places such as Kansas. But I don't think this (either your point about Native Americans or mine on science standards) demonstrates a large net problem with standardization in general. While I'd agree that getting bad standards in place is very harmful (such as the recent debacle on the Texas state standards removing prominent founding fathers), overall I maintain it's largely necessary for cultural (American, that is) cohesion. While bad standards are bad, good standards are good. Thus, standards are whatever they're made (again, to the proper populations).
Part of this was already answered earlier. But teaching kids how to pass a test based on the principals of the test is not conducive to learning. If you learn to pass a test, just how much of that material is actually being learned?
This is another major point that needs to be addressed in some depth and I'll preface it with some of the philosophical underpinnings to education to make it more clear.

As I stated in my last response, one must learn to walk before they can run. This is a philosophy that is critical in education and is the idea behind what's known as Bloom's Taxonomy. The short version of it is that, you start with basic memorization, build up proficiency through application, and finally master material through analysis, critical thinking, extending, and creating. The latter are higher levels of thinking that must be worked up to.

Sadly, many students find themselves stuck near the bottom, at application. Thus, schools are forced to spend a lot of time at these levels. And any time a new skill is introduced, that's where it will start, and likely get stuck.... again.

So how does this relate to tests? A well designed test will cover the topics for which its designed by asking questions on each topic on each of these levels. Poorly designed ones will use will only check for understanding at low levels. Thus, if it's a good test, it will test in manners that go beyond simply asking questions that are strictly memorized. The test becomes an opportunity to practice and demonstrate the higher orders of learning.

We can of course argue about whether or not tests (especially standardized ones) achieve this goal. But we'd also have to consider how far long the progression of learning we expect students to be at a given point. We'd also have to ask how reasonable it is to test all skills at the highest levels of reasoning, which cannot generally be done with questions that are multiple choice since they are more subjective and take far longer to grade. Thus, what expectations are reasonable for the test?

I think that having national standardized testing should meet somewhere in the middle. We can't expect every student to retain knowledge well enough to be able to critically analyze every topic off the top of their head. We should select a few to test at that level and only require moderate proficiency for less fundamental topics. Thus, the tests cover what expectations we can reasonably have. I don't find fault with them. As such, it follows that I can't find too much wrong with teaching ways to do well on the test (assuming again, it's a well written test). I think there should certainly be more room for some extra material, but that's not going to happen until the high stakes placed on such tests are diminished, which is the main issue I have with the standardized testing.
“The GRE definitely does NOT measure your intelligence, nor does it measure how well you will do in graduate school. The sooner you accept this the better off you will be. Despite what ETS says or admissions officers think, the GRE is less a measure of your intelligence than it is a measure of your ability to take the GRE.” (pg. 16 Cracking the GRE 2010 Edition, The Princeton Review). So, the question is, does this same philosophy apply to school aged children?
Absolutely it applies. But again, if the test is well written, it aligns with the goals and objectives set forth for what we want students to learn.
Say a student makes a statement in class that, according to the teacher, is a bit off color. The teacher can encourage the student to find credible source material to back their claims and come back to explain the statement for everyone to understand better.
As nice as this sounds, it doesn't tend to work well in practice all the time. Students being given extra assignments not shared by their peers will often take it as a punishment and refrain from speaking out in the future, discouraging participation and group learning.

A better way to handle this is for the teacher to be knowledgeable enough about the subject to see where the student was coming from and help him expand on it if time allows. But time is often a key issue in classrooms. As you pointed out, imagine how overwhelmed students feel with the material they have to cover and imaging what spending much time on things that aren't very closely aligned to the curriculum will do!
“..there are CBE methods taught in native schools that teach science in story form.” This is difficult for many in our American society to grasp, as story telling is not a big part of our lives anymore, with the domination of visual media these days.
I think this is a fantastic point. Science is a narrative. It's a story of discovery with great characters. This makes for a great way to teach science because it goes through the whole chain of logic to build up our scientific understanding.

However, as I just mentioned, time is always a crucial issue in the classroom. How much can we cut from the story and still have the important curriculum topics intact in a learnable manner? That's ultimately the key issue.

I'll agree the balance is awful. Science books are filled with a collection of facts that need to be memorized and applied (andlet's face it, real synthesis and evaluation can't really take place in science before the college level) and then random inserts of character profiles. How silly. Either keep a narrative or don't. Half-assing it with random snippets is just a distraction.
I surmise that First there are those students that are wired differently. Be it from chemical (possibly genetic) issues like ADD and ADHA, or Cultural insights, MOST students will fall into a norm (statistical).
This is exactly what I was getting at. A population of student will fall into a statistical distribution and as such, the "best practice" (this is a term used frequently in education) is to teach to that norm as best as possible. Unfortunately, the inherent truth recognized by seeing a Gaussian distribution is that there will always be outliers that you can't reach without shifting the distribution of your teaching and then missing more of the other side! This is is the fundamental problem. How do we cater to as many students as possible without wasting precious time and without letting student interest for those not being catered to wane?
when I was in grade school I was at various levels of education (grade) for math reading and writing, and half way through the year I would be tested for ability, and either stay at the same level or be moved up, even before the year was over. So how hard would it be to do this for upper level classes?
A very fair question, but also a very simple answer: It's damn near impossible.

The reason is that when you start putting every student on their own pace, it requires the teacher to spend a great deal of extra time individualizing instruction. This requires a large amount of extra planning work for the teacher (which they already receive little time to do so it's largely done on their own time without direct compensation) as well as the logistical nightmare of having to keep track of where every student is.

I had experience doing this with my math class this past year. Essentially, I gave a test 1/2 the way through the year. Half the class was allowed to move on. Half didn't. Thus, what was one class, became two. I had to plan and organize accordingly. Additionally, it required me to budget classroom time differently. I had to spend the first half of the class instructing and guiding the "advanced" students, and then the second half with the "slow" ones (for lack of a better term). This created behavior problems as students that aren't being actively engaged in some way or another are impossible to manage.

Thus, it doesn't work well on many levels. While it's possible to do some bifurcation, too great of an extent of this will cause chaos in the classroom without a much better teacher/student ratio.
He coached me through some Pre-algebra (after school)
This is an excellent teacher. Keep in mind that teachers time after school is often their own. While some are required to have office hours for some time, spending such a large portion of them tutoring and not working on their lesson plans and grading, is done of his own free will and extremely charitable. To be fair, I believe most teachers would do this as the reason we go into teaching is to help others succeed and are willing to invest much of ourselves in it, even if it means working large amounts of time other than what we're strictly paid for and even receiving rather substandard pay.
OK, so if this problem inundates the higher educational arena, exactly what criteria are public schools attempting to pattern?
Good question.

As your quoted source stated,
college rankings system is merely a list of criteria that mirrors the superficial characteristics ... Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues of how well colleges and universities educate their students and how well they prepare them to be successful after college, the magazine's rankings are almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth, and exclusivity.
Those last three things are the judge of the college apparently. So what things are high schools compared by? Generally, I see things like attendance rate, drop out rate, scores on national testing, and diversity being reported as well as the rate of students that goes on to higher education.

I think the standards are pretty different.
But national standards still allow for ranking systems to be rather top heavy when it comes to the elite --- and standardizations have yet to equal the playing field in this arena.
This I agree with and is one of the things I find the most fault with NCLB for. It punishes schools that don't perform by cutting their funding. Yeah.... that's going to help. It only serves to enlarge the divide between the successful and those that aren't.
The United States would like to see the academic standards increase for all students, and rightfully so, but attempts to provide equal opportunity can actually be detrimental when standardizations usurp culturally based education, which is instrumental in successfully educating the nations indigenous population.
This is a pretty self obvious statement. By allowing any population to do more of the things they're good and familiar at, their skill will improve. So.... why not include it?

It's much the same question as asking, "If we were to allow Creation myths in schools in the proper context (meaning in Social Studies or Comparative Religion classes), which ones would we teach? Which would we leave out?"

The problem is there's so many sub-populations that all need recognition that addressing them all would jumble the curriculum. Thus, something's got to give. I obviously speak from the privileged white, male, majority so I may come off as cavalier by saying this, but I can't see a workable solution that would allow us to include everyone as you'd like. And even if we tried to, I think this next statement highlights another problem:
Study after study shows that if students from other cultures are allowed to express that culture in their own work ... they do much better as students.
I'd agree allowing and helping a student to express their own identity assists in learning. But at the same time, how well would a teacher that's not familiar with that culture be able to grade it? If they got the general gist of it and found it to be wanting, how much pressure would the teacher be under to pass the student anyway for fear of offending the culture, much in the same way teachers must tread carefully when giving bad marks to positions that are overtly religious in the classroom. I fear this may cause grade inflation and may contribute to the apparent success of the students.

A sticky situation to be sure.

Closing remarks: As stated before, I think you're arguing two points. I disagree that the system is deeply flawed at its core as the argument the video stated and you implied with several other remarks. There's problems, but as I've tried to highlight, they're very difficult to fix.

One of the largest problems is what to do with minorities seeking identity. This is an even thornier topic and one I can't comment much on except to highlight (as I've tried) the difficulties of integrating.

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