Choosing to Ignore Your Past


After reading his weekly columnin the Monday Washington Post, I wonder whether Jay Mathews is confused. Or recanting everything he’s written for the past two decades or so.

In the article, he seems to agree with Yong Zhao, who has argued against the trend to standardized testing and for more student choice in their education. Early on Mathews praises these thoughts from Zhao’s new book:

To help each child achieve his or her full potential, we need an education that starts from the child’s passions and strengths, instead of prescribed skills and content.

The education system rarely cares about the children’s individual passions or talents. The only passion it cares about is the passion to become a good student. .?.?. Worse, the current education system actively suppresses individual talents and passions by defining what educational success means and convincing students, parents and the public to accept the definition.

Then Mathews takes all that and goes off the rails to arrive at this conclusion:

I saw why so many critics of the American system have wrongly trashed the true sources of our nation’s power to fuel individual passions. They are high school activities: band, football, field hockey, robotics club, hip-hop club, drama, choir. The list is endless.

I have yet to find an American high school that successfully suppressed individual talents or convinced students and parents to sacrifice all for study.

He uses as “evidence” the lack of homework done by high school students and the popularity of extracurricular activities to declare that Zhao is wrong. That the American education system is already allowing kids the kind of choice to follow their passions and talents. Although I’m not sure high school band and football would be especially good examples for that “choice”.

As for not being able to find American schools that suppress individual talents or convince students to sacrifice all for academic work, Mathews only needs to read some of his own writing.

This is coming from the man who created a ranking of high school quality based primarily on the number of Advance Placement tests taken by students. A scale, coming this spring to a district press release near you, that pressures schools to increase the numbers of those tests taken.

For that matter, Mathews is totally in love with the whole AP program, one of the most standardized curriculums ever created. A collection of syllabi largely dictated by colleges, and which offers students no choice in what they study.

He also regularly writes about heaps praise on the KIPP chain of charter schools, whose regimented and highly structured educational program offers students few options to follow their passions.

Ok, so maybe Mathews isn’t confused or having a change of heart. It’s possible he’s just punking those of us who have been reading his dreck for these many years.

Either way, it’s time for Jeff Bezos and the Post to find a better, more relevant education writer to fill that scarce resource quarter-page of newsprint every week in the Metro section.

This picture is of a maze installation at the National Building Museum from about four years ago and just seemed appropriate for the twists and turns in Mathews’ logic.

Image by Brett Davis, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I’m not sure why the online title for this piece is completely different from the headline in the printed version: “Want kids to really achieve? Focus on nerdy clubs, team sports instead of tests.” Starting with the term “nerdy”, there is just so much wrong with that, although both headers could have been written by an editor instead of Mathews.

Changes in Isolation

The concept of “block” scheduling of high school class has been around for a long time, at least since before 1992 when it began to seep into Fairfax County, the district that used to employ me. The basic idea is that, instead of having five to eight hour-long “regular” class periods in a school day, students would study a specific subject for 90 or more minutes every other day.

Why? Well, the advantages of that format were never clearly explained beyond everybody would have more time. Except they really wouldn’t. And, we were told, teachers would have more room for creative teaching and students would improve their learning. Except the record on that is also pretty murky.

Now a much smaller district in this area is considering changing to block scheduling for their middle schools and Jay Mathews doesn’t like it.

Many people, including me, think block scheduling is an attractive but unproductive fad. A 2006 University of Virginia study said students in high school block schedules did somewhat worse in college sciences than those who had regular schedules. A 2010 review of British research said block schedule results were slightly positive but “are not strong enough to recommend their implementation.”

I’ve read of several other studies that also found very little to support the change in schedule.

However, there is a much larger problem with block scheduling (and most other “reform” ideas) than the lack of supporting data. It, and most of the research, assumes that the current school format is a valid way for students to learn. And, in the case of blocking, all we need to do is rearrange the time to make it better.

In almost all high schools and most middle schools, a student day is divided up in to neat little discrete blocks of subject matter. When the bell rings, kids must switch gears and move on to work on a different specific subject, commonly in isolation. Chemistry here must never mix with Algebra there, and neither should be associated with social studies or literature. Keep that art and music far, far away from our labs, please.

So taking the same knowledge silos and making them larger is not really a change. Information and ideas in the real world swirl about and intermix freely but in school we treat each like the streams in Ghostbusters that must never get crossed, lest we get total protonic reversal.

The way time is organized in most schools is just one part of the issue with changing to a block format. Helping teachers adjust their pedagogy to best use the new schedule is another. For all I know this district is addressing all of this, but based on my experience, I doubt it.

Anyway, the last word should come from one middle school parent in Mathews’ story who asks an excellent question about the planned changes: “We would like to know exactly what they’re trying to accomplish at Williamsburg and why they think block scheduling is the answer.”

We should all demand the same discussion around any educational reform – and get good answers before making any changes.

Failure is Just One Option

A few weeks ago I noticed a large sign hanging in a high school classroom that read “Failure is not an Option”. Since the poster had no obvious historical connection, to the Apollo program, for example, 1 I gathered it was supposed to be motivational for the kids.

But is that really a philosophy you want to teach students? That you want them to adopt?

Even if you go back to the space race example, no one working on that complex project actually believed everything would be completely error free. On the contrary, they knew that  something was going to fail at some time. Which is why they prepared for failure, spending a relatively large amount of time and effort planning, modeling, practicing for what everyone would do when something went wrong.

In a few weeks, the students of our overly-large school district will be in the middle of testing season, and their teachers are already making clear (directly or by implication) that failing to pass the SOLs (or whatever the high stakes tests are called in your state) is not an option. Or at least one that will be very unpleasant for everyone concerned.

However, instead of telling kids that failure is not an option, that it’s something to be reviled and feared, we should helping them understand how best to cope with situations that don’t go according to plan. Creating a plan B (maybe even plan C). Find a new approach. Repurpose the pieces of a project that doesn’t work.

Learn that failure IS an option, and to think of it as a starting point, not the end of the line.

Learning the Academic Game

For as long as I’ve been associated with high schools, which would be both attending and teaching at that level for many years, the primary focus has always been on academics, with the ultimate goal of our kids piling up enough of the right kind of credits to get them into a “good” college. Preferably one that when mentioned, everyone in the room solemnly nods with an understanding of what a great academic institution it is.

Very few of us, however, ever question if that path was the best one for every student, at least not with the force and eloquence of this post at the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

No sugar coating there. And that’s just the opening paragraphs. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing for more of Shelley’s thoughts on why our education system is very wrong to focus on creating “academic” kids who are good at playing the school game.

A Very Narrow Definition of Challenging

Not long ago the headline in the Washington Post (and in their now-defunct publication Newsweek) would claim to provide the ranking of America’s best high schools. These days their list presents merely the “most challenging”.

Other than the slightly altered verbiage, nothing has changed in fifteen years. This is the Post Company’s annual attempt to define school quality in the most simplistic, meaningless way possible using a system created by their education writer emeritus, Jay Mathews.

For those who have missed the annual ritual, here’s how the “challenge” index works:

We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June.

That’s it. Nothing about how well students actually scored on those tests. Or of how they may have been academically or intellectually challenged at their schools in other ways, using assessments other than standardized tests.

The list completely excludes very challenging schools like the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia which is entirely project-based, assessing student learning without these “higher level” standardized tests at all.

As I’ve ranted in this space in previous years, there’s nothing wrong with compiling lists based on arbitrary criteria, and I doubt many would even notice if the Post called this a ranking of the schools most oriented to pushing test-driven college prep programs.

But listing schools only based on their abilities to herd students into particular testing programs is a very narrow, superficial way to define an educational challenge.