Monday, March 15, 2010

The problem with improvement

The key to educational reform is simple. Promote higher and higher standards by continually raising the bar, and the learning will take care of itself.


I mean, who in there right mind could oppose higher standards? What would that mean? That you promote lower standards?

And here is where policy makers who are not educators bully their critics. They create a false dichotomy that forces people to polarize towards either one or the other. Well, quite frankly, who wouldn't feel the urge to gravitate towards the Tougher Standards Movement.

But if we stop and think about this whole 'raise the bar' kind of educational policy making, I think we can bust open the destructive forces that are poisoning our attempts to reform education.
Alfie Kohn writes about the paradox that is the Tougher Standards movement in his article Standardized Testing: Seperating Wheat Children from Chaff Children.

About a year ago, Deborah Meier and I were having one of those dinners where we try to figure out the fundamental nature of the Tougher Standards movement before the check arrives. On that particular night we stumbled upon a very dark possibility, one that is perhaps best communicated in the form of a thought experiment. Suppose that next year almost all the students in your state met the standards and passed the tests. What do you suppose would be the reaction from the politicians, businesspeople, and newspaper editorialists? Would these folks shake their heads in frank admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers are good”? That possibility, of course, is improbable to the point of hilarity. Every time I’ve laid out this hypothetical scenario, audiences tell me that across-the-board student success would immediately be taken as evidence that the tests were too easy.
So what does that mean? The inescapable implication, as Meier points out, is that the phrase “high standards” by definition refers to standards that everyone won’t be able to meet. If everyone could meet them, that would be taken as prima facie proof that the standards were too low – and they would then be ratcheted upward – until failures were created. Despite its sugar-coated public-relations rhetoric, the whole standards-and-accountability movement is not about helping all children to become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. Just the opposite: it is an elaborate sorting device, separating wheat from chaff. And don’t ask what happens to the chaff.
Frankly, I'm not willing to subscribe to a pedagogy that defines success by the number of kids that are required to fail so that others may be defined as successful.

As a classroom teacher, I can totally relate to Kohn and Meier's discussion. I taught a boy named Garett who once told me:

Marks are like a doggy pile. It feels good to be on the top, and I'm one of them, but what about the students who need to be on the bottom so I can feel good.
For a grade 8 boy, Garett was remarkably reflective. He was very successful in school and had become accustomed to achieving all the accolades at school. When he said this to me, I could tell he was empathetic towards those less fortunate than him at report card time.

Kaylin, on the other hand, showed far less empathy towards her fellow classmates when she said:

I like to compare myself to others because it makes me feel good to do better than others.
This kind of compare and compete attitude is a zero-sum game that gets us no where. And the sooner we see that the Tougher Standards movement is contributing to this problem the better.


  1. While I feel raising standards will not necessarily lead to an upward spiral of expectations, I do agree with your position. The desired standard might be a benchmark all or most can achieve. In practice, the natural tendency is to continually reach just beyond the average grasp. This does create the dog pile your empathetic student identifies. I wonder if your two students would react favorably to being part of a collaborative pyramid where each person's strengths contributed to the structure.

    I trust the expertise of educators and believe our voice should be heard and attended to. We have to recognize that our field is not so arcane or abstract. Non-practitioners of formal education have educational knowledge and can contribute to the discourse. I get uncomfortable with the Kindergarten Cop genre of films where a novice demonstrates better teaching skills than the trained experts. We have to acknowledge that it is not an impossibility and formal education is not the only form of learning. Those of us embracing educational technologies recognize these other paths to learning. Young people are not the only ones following them.

  2. What's worse is that students who are told (explicitly or not) that they're the chaff, often become the chaff. They internalize the arbitrary designation of inferiority and stop trying to learn. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy too, as our system produces the chaff and then, since we "know" it's there, we feel the need to identify it, which again produces it.

    If we want numbers, we'll get numbers, but then we're shifting our energies from helping every student succeed to documenting their failure.

  3. Wow, what timing - just found this quote by Beth Moore:

    "I'm concerned that the maximum-load mentality of our culture could potentially turn us into minimalists. We're growing too exhausted to go the extra mile. Sometimes we do only what we must to get by on a project because we have 15 other projects nipping at our own heels. We're pushed too far and too fast to go the extra distance excellence demands."

    She's talking about business, but I think this applies to higher standards in education as well.


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