Wasted Space


There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?

Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

21st Century Kindergarten

I’ve never taught elementary school but this NPR report about changes in the learning expectations for young children is damn depressing.

Researchers analyzed the federal Department of Education’s 2010 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which surveyed roughly 2500 kindergarten and first grade teachers, and then compared their responses to a similar group from 1998.

Why 1998? “Because the federal No Child Left Behind law hadn’t yet changed the school landscape with its annual tests and emphasis on the achievement gap.”

Some of the changes they found in just twelve years: more standardized tests, less music and art, fewer engaging activities, and don’t bother asking the kids about their interests.

More testing. In 2010, 73 percent of kindergartners took some kind of standardized test. One-third took tests at least once a month. In 1998, they didn’t even ask kindergarten teachers that question. But even the first-grade teachers in 1998 reported giving far fewer tests than the kindergarten teachers did in 2010.

Less music and art. The percentage of teachers who reported offering music every day in kindergarten dropped by half, from 34 percent to 16 percent. Daily art dropped from 27 to 11 percent.

Bye, bye, brontosaurus. “We saw notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Bassok, the study’s lead author.

Less choice. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

As I said, damn depressing.

Why Testing?

A post in a new-to-me newsletter called Education Dive tries to explain “Why testing prevails in K-12 education“. It starts with the president’s call from last October for a reexamination of the purpose for the current testing structure in most American schools.

“The president said students “should only take tests that are worth taking – tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everyone is on track,” testing shouldn’t take up too much classroom time, and the assessments should be one tool in a more complete toolbox to help schools get an indication of student progress and school and teacher effectiveness.”

The rest of the piece is a pretty good review of the arguments on both sides: the incredible amount of instructional time diverted by testing and test prep, countered by the administrative and political need for data, data, data to provide “accountability”

However, it’s not until the very last paragraph that the writer arrives at the primary reason why the spring standardized testing ritual now underway in most American schools will continue for the foreseeable future: “Testing…makes a lot of money. Lots of it.”

Pearson, and the bureaucratic infrastructure built to support standardized testing, must be fed.

Where It All Started

I am a big fan of the writing of Neil Postman. His 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner) was a major influence early in my teaching career and the concepts he discussed in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1988) only seem to get more real and frightening thirty years later.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban reprinted a talk Postman gave in 1998 titled Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change, based on his “thirty years of studying the history of technological change”. It’s full of sharp ideas and well worth your time to read. But this observation of American education seems especially prescient.

Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests. [emphasis mine]

Remember, this predates the glorification of standardized testing that was No Child Left Behind, although it was about the same period in which the Texas education “miracle” of George W. Bush and his first education secretary Rod Paige (then Houston superintendent), the godfather of NCLB, was taking shape.

Postman follows that accurate assessment of where our current educational system was born with this equally accurate assessment on the birthplace of 21st century American politics.

A second example concerns our politics. It is clear by now that the people who have had the most radical effect on American politics in our time are not political ideologues or student protesters with long hair and copies of Karl Marx under their arms. The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them. [emphasis mine]

A one-paragraph explanation of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Performing Mathematics

It seems as if there have been a lot of critiques of how we teachmath in the past couple of months. And now the author of a new book that links success in learning math to the “mindset” concept1 weighs in for The Atlantic, explaining the Math-Class Paradox.

If you ask most students what they think their role is in math classrooms, they will tell you it is to get questions right. Students rarely think that they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to ask deep questions, to explore the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject; they think they are in math classrooms to perform.

Students from an early age realize that math is different from other subjects. In many schools across the U.S., math is less about learning than it is about answering questions and taking tests–performing.

This school view of math as performance comes from their teachers, especially in elementary school, who “boil the subject down to producing short answers to narrow questions under pressure”. Hoping, of course, that this approach will get the kids to produce on the all-important spring standardized tests.

However, you can’t really blame teachers. They are working with the math curriculum, pretty much the same one taught in K12 for a hundred years or more, they have been given.

The fact that a narrow and impoverished version of mathematics is taught in many school classrooms cannot be blamed on teachers. Teachers are usually given long lists of content to teach, with hundreds of topics and no time to go into depth on any ideas. When teachers are given these lists, they see a subject that has been stripped down to its bare parts–like a dismantled bike–a collection of nuts and bolts that students are meant to shine and polish all year. Such lists not only take away the connections that weave all through mathematics, but present math as though the connections do not even exist.

Those connections, not only within mathematics but the applications to many other disciplines, was what I found most interesting when I taught the subject. And I tried hard to convey those connections to my students. But even in the pre-NCLB era when the end-of-course exam did not loom as large, the curriculum was still overloaded with crap. Time for open-ended questioning and exploring the messy world of applied math was still limited.