Tuesday, March 29, 2011

School for babies

Here’s a short piece worth reading about why preschools shouldn’t focus too much on direct instruction. An excerpt:

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific -- this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. . . .

Knowing what to expect from a teacher is a really good thing, of course: It lets you get the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. Indeed, these studies show that 4-year-olds understand how teaching works and can learn from teachers. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.

I’m generally cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions about education from human-subject research studies, but none of this is earthshaking news. Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to have three- and four-year-olds sitting quietly while a teacher instructs them on -- well, whatever it is that four-year-olds absolutely must know? (Okay, I mean, does anyone other than the federal government think that? The author points out that the No Child Left Behind Act specifically encourages more direct instruction in federally funded preschools. Seriously, is there anything NCLB doesn’t get wrong?)

What’s interesting is that the author confines her discussion to “young children.” Is there any reason to think those same conclusions wouldn’t apply to, say, elementary-age children? That “wide-ranging learning” is any less natural for older children? Or that teaching those children to narrowly focus on giving right answers to closed-ended questions would not be similarly detrimental to their educational development?

A few weeks ago, I described some educational reformers as “busybodies,” and I’m beginning to think that that term describes an awful lot about our society’s approach to education. America’s default reaction to the existence of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child. Let’s do something to it! (For its own good, of course!)” We’re so ready to intervene in the lives of children that only the slightest excuse is necessary -- any theoretical possibility that intervention will be “good for them” is enough. It’s as if there is nothing at all on the other side of the scale -- as if kids’ time, autonomy, and freedom is entirely without value.

I’m certainly not against all intervention in our kids’ lives -- if my child’s appendix bursts, she goes to the hospital, whether she wants to or not. But I do think that kids’ autonomy has both educational and intrinsic value. Before “making” the kids do this or that, shouldn’t we be pretty sure that the value of doing so outweighs the value of leaving them alone? This is one the main arguments for minimizing or even eliminating homework in elementary school. The question shouldn’t be, “Is there any chance they might benefit from this homework?” At the very least it should be, “Are we confident that this is a better use of their time than what they would choose to do on their own?” How many times have I seen my kids spending time on worksheets of very questionable value when, given their own choice, they would be reading books, playing outside, or spending time with their family?

And doesn’t the argument for giving kids more say over how to spend their time only get stronger as the kids get older? What better skill to take into adulthood than the ability to make good decisions about how to use your time? If we constantly send the message “We know better than you do how to spend your time,” and deprive them of opportunities to make their own decisions, we’re not educating them, we’re infantilizing them. If preschoolers don’t need “school for babies,” older kids need it even less.

“A rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play”: at what grade level would that no longer describe an educationally ideal environment?

Quote for the day (lip service?)

“One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”


A Montessori charter school in Iowa City?

One of my readers has been keeping me apprised of the progress of a bill in the Iowa legislature that would make it possible to create a Montessori-style charter school here in Iowa City. (Iowa’s current charter school laws are apparently very restrictive, with the result that there are only seven charter schools in the entire state.) I’m afraid I have failed this reader by not becoming more informed about the specifics of the bill. I blame that on my general lack of enthusiasm for the concept of charter schools, which, under the No Child Left Behind Act, rise and fall on their standardized test scores just as much as regular schools do. (On that topic, see this post.) Nonetheless, I thought I should at least post a link to other, more informative sources about this bill.

I agree that if the people of Iowa City would like to offer at least one elementary school that operates on the Montessori school model, there’s no justification for state and federal laws that would prevent that from happening. But the bill itself apparently contains some provisions -- for example, one that would exempt charter schools from the state’s collective bargaining laws, and one that would remove them from the jurisdiction of the local school board -- that would sure give me pause. With the right amendments, though, I could see how such a bill would give people at least a little more choice than they currently have.

More information appears here and here. Beyond that, I leave it to commenters who know more than I do.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Just say no?

Here’s an awesome post that should be read in full: Opting Out of No Child Left Behind. When time permits, I will revisit this topic.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

After a month in which we’ve watched protesters in Middle Eastern countries bravely taking to the streets carrying signs denouncing autocratic regimes, and crowds of people in Wisconsin rallying with signs to protest the governor’s attempts to slash school funding and break teachers’ unions, what was on the agenda at last night’s school board meeting in Iowa City? A proposal to . . . prohibit people from carrying signs at school board meetings.

The proposal, which the board had approved on its first two readings, failed on its final reading last night on a vote of 3-3, apparently because one of its supporters happened not to attend the meeting. Its supporters had justified the proposal on the grounds that it “was necessary to keep control of board meetings,” and because “some signs and placards could cause some members of the audience to not speak out, particularly when there are several people speaking on a hotly debated topic.” Credit goes to Tuyet Dorau, Michael Shaw, and Sarah Swisher for voting against the proposal.

Leave it to our public school officials to suggest that the government should control the way in which people peacefully express themselves at a public meeting -- because otherwise things might be, you know, chaotic or scary! It’s one more example of the school system’s reflexive attachment to order and control at the expense of all other values. Free expression, limitations on authority, tolerance of dissent -- those are hallmarks of meaningful democracy. Why are my kids being educated by people who seem to find those things so frightening?

Related post here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reality test

To the list of biases that standardized tests are accused of, we can now add: a bias against kids who don’t watch television. The most recent SAT included an essay question on the topic of reality TV, which apparently flummoxed kids who don’t watch reality shows or immerse themselves in pop culture.

Most revealing was the testing company’s defense of the question. “The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” one company executive said. “Everything you need to write the essay,” another explained helpfully, “is in the essay prompt.”

Set aside these executives’ willful blindness to the whole idea of bias. (Apparently there would be no gender bias in a question about football scoring, for example, as long as the “prompt” explained how football scoring worked.) It is probably true that virtually any essay would tell you something about the author’s writing ability. But what a strange conception of writing these tests embody. “It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about the topic, or whether you have anything to say. Just demonstrate your writing skills!

Take any human quality, dumb it down until it’s unrecognizable, and you can measure it. Hardly the principle to build an educational system on, but here we are.

Here’s one teacher’s take on the kind of teaching these tests produce.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Yeah, I think that’s what they call learning.”

Am taking a brief break from blogging this week, but since I feel guilty if I don’t feed the blog, here is a link to an interesting piece in the New York Times about how high school kids might be allowed to become, at least a little, “the authors of their own education.” I’m not sure, though, whether this idea could satisfy the rigorous standards of our assessment industry.

(c/o msf)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The “Right to Work,” Junior Edition

A few months ago, Kid Friendly Schools had a short thread about how “homework expert” Harris Cooper thinks kids should be working six to nine hours every day on school work. I commented:

Now that everyone seems to think that we need to use the kids to maintain our “competitiveness in the global marketplace,” and that we need to make them work more and more hours to achieve that goal, why don’t we just go ahead and repeal the child labor laws? What exactly do people think the reason for those laws is, anyway?

It turns out that I should be more careful about what I sarcastically suggest.

(c/o Balloon Juice)

Quote for the day

“America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. It acted on this belief, it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.”
--Louis D. Brandeis

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Scapegoats and red herrings

Given how critical I can be of the school system, I think some people expect me to be more critical of teachers as a group, or specifically, of teachers’ unions. I think teachers’ unions are self-interested and can’t be counted on to do what’s best for the kids, so I certainly wouldn’t write them a blank check. But I’m not on board for union-bashing, or union-busting. Unions are one of the few things protecting the poor and the middle class from becoming even worse off than they already are. And making the poor and the middle class worse off is the worst possible thing you could do for education in America.

There will always be people who want to scare you into thinking that we all need to work harder for less money if we ever hope to compete with the Chinese (or whoever this week's bogeyman is).  I don't buy it.  This country can afford to become a very different place than the one it is becoming. It’s not teachers’ unions that are standing in the way.

The same idea, in joke form, here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Something has changed

The other day, KD commented that “Both my parents and my in-laws experienced periods of major poverty growing up. I think something has changed between now and then with regards to [how] our schools operate.”

I thought of that comment when I read this post over at Balloon Juice. It’s not specifically about education, but I think it’s getting at that same change that seems to have occurred, without ever having been consciously chosen.

I’m guessing that a lot of us could tell similar stories.

The choice they don’t want you to have

I always feel a certain irony when I hear proposals for “school choice.” Many of the people advocating for school choice, after all, are the same people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act, which was designed to coerce school districts into adopting policies that they otherwise would not choose to adopt. Not exactly a choice-friendly concept.

Under No Child Left Behind, my local public schools -- and all public schools in America, in fact -- now must pursue the policy of raising standardized test scores at all costs. School officials who don’t raise standardized test scores can end up losing their jobs. But if they turn out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who’ve never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to them.

When I complain about the effects of that policy -- for example, about the fact that my kids’ lunch periods have been cut back to fifteen minutes or less, in the name of maximizing instructional time -- I can count on local school officials to sympathize with me, and then to patiently explain that they are just responding to No Child Left Behind’s pressure to raise test scores. If I’m concerned about what’s happening in my kids’ elementary school, I should write to President Obama. Not exactly empowering.

Yet many so-called school choice advocates are fine with all that. In fact, their “choice” proposals require you to choose a school that operates on No Child Left Behind’s premises. They remind me of Henry Ford’s policy about the Model T: You can choose any color you want, as long as it’s black.

Take charter schools. The government gives charter schools an exemption from many of the laws and regulations governing other public schools -- but only in exchange for a commitment to be accountable for student performance, as measured by the same standardized testing criteria that other public schools must meet. For a parent who objects to the whole idea of letting standardized test scores drive educational policy, charter schools offer no choice at all. “We want to give you lots of choices,” charter school advocates seem to say, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with our imposition of a uniform concept of education on the entire country.”

Here’s the school choice experiment I’d like to see tried. Let our school district require every parent to make an initial choice between two options. If the parents want to put their kids in a classroom governed by policies dictated by the federal government, they could choose the Federal Option. If the parents would prefer classrooms that are governed by policies chosen by the local community, they could choose the Local Option.

For the kids in the Federal Option, school would look a lot like it does now. No Child Left Behind would be in full force, and the district and its school personnel would have to meet NCLB’s standardized testing benchmarks or face the statutory penalties. In these classrooms, the district would do whatever it takes to raise math and reading test scores, regardless of the other values that might have to be sacrificed. Subjects with no direct bearing on standardized test results, such as art and music, would be cut back as necessary. Recess and lunch would be minimized. Untestable qualities such as curiosity, skepticism, creativity, and initiative would not be pursued. Whether the kids actually enjoy learning would be a secondary concern, at best. To keep the kids from squirming during their lengthy test prep sessions -- er, I mean, lessons -- the teachers would instruct them on the importance of unquestioning compliance with rules, and would single out the quiet and obedient students for special praise and rewards.

Down the hall, though, would be the Local Option classrooms. What would they be like? That would be entirely up to the people of our district. Maybe they would decide that there is more to being well-educated than what is measured by standardized tests. Maybe they’d give the teachers more autonomy over what and how to teach. Maybe they’d put more emphasis on developing the kids’ intrinsic motivation and pleasure in learning, and less emphasis on external rewards. Maybe they’d challenge the kids to think critically about the world around them. Maybe they’d recognize that kids need downtime, physical activity, and a decent lunch to learn well and to develop social skills. Maybe they’d treat the kids more like kids and less like employees. Maybe they’d take a few lessons from Finland. Or maybe they’d do none of those things, and come up with their own ideas. Who knows what our community might choose. It’s been so long since anyone asked.

I suppose there could be some awkward moments, when the kids in the Federal Option classrooms, with their ongoing math and reading drills and their nightly worksheets and their behavior charts and their abbreviated recesses and quiet fifteen-minute lunches, saw their friends down the hall having what would likely be a more meaningful -- not to mention enjoyable -- educational experience. Since the Federal Option classrooms would, by definition, be less likely to reflect the parents’ preferences, it might be hard for parents to choose those classrooms for their kids. But as things stand now, we all choose them every day. We’re just not constantly reminded that there could be another way.

Right now, of course, this experiment is impossible. My district could set up Local Option classrooms, but it couldn’t use tax money to pay for them. Why? Because the people who brought us charter schools don’t really believe that communities should be allowed to run their own schools.

What do these people have against choice?

Scott Walker, the latest product of our bipartisan education consensus

E.D. Kain has an interesting new blog on school policy over at Forbes magazine, of all places. His post today discusses Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s threat to cut one billion dollars in aid to schools and local governments.

[T]he hallmark of the modern education reformer is a policy of top-down, authoritarian reform. Scott Walker is taking the same exact approach that various school reformers have taken across the country, from Michelle Rhee to Chris Christie. The difference is that Walker is presiding over a united state government, whereas Rhee was only a chancellor of the D.C. schools and Christie has a divided state government.

In another post, he discusses how prominent Democrats paved the way for Walker.

[Michelle] Rhee didn’t bother trying to work with teachers, unions, or parent groups. Her approach to school reform was top-down and authoritarian. In 2008 Rhee said that “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated.” . . .

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a Democrat appointed by a Democratic president, is a fierce advocate of school choice, Teach for America, merit pay, and other fashionable reforms. His program, Race to the Top, rewards reformers like Bersin, Rhee, and others who make radical changes to the system. Like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top is a program aimed at accountability. But advocates of accountability have never specified what they’d like to hold schools, teachers, and students accountable to – insisting instead that test scores are a good enough metric by which to gauge the success or failure of schools and American students. There are deep flaws with these assumptions and with their prescribed remedies. . . .

Democrats, the media, and these large foundations have all played a roll in the fight against teachers’ unions and the place of traditional public school in society. This has played nicely into the hands of Republicans like Scott Walker and Chris Christie and other GOP politicians at the state and national level who have long gunned for teachers’ unions and for a break-up of the public school ‘monopoly’. Indeed, the demonization of teachers plays a central part in the modern school-reform movement. . . .

The accountability movement has shifted the focus away from American ingenuity and creativity in favor of strict testing regimes in an attempt to compete with Japan and Finland. This is the wrong approach. . . . If anything, we should be looking for ways to make education more creative and diverse, and to make American students more well-rounded and independent. The current reforms achieve just the opposite.

Kain is a former conservative/libertarian, trending leftward, who seems to be genuinely wrestling with the difficult issues posed by educational policy. I’m looking forward to seeing where his thinking goes.