Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Education reform

I found this entry in my "drafts" folder, and I swore that I posted this, but I couldn't find it anywhere. As you can tell, I spent a lot of time on this, so I thought I should at least publish it once. However, knowing how often I change my mind, I might not even believe what I wrote anymore--heck, I wrote it in February of last year (as Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"). Also, the article I refer to in this post is very long, but ultimately fascinating. Print it and read it later.

Enough of my yakkin'...let's boogie.

I just read the most ridiculous recommendation for fixing public schools. It was published in Walrus Magazine, a Canadian magazine that has published, in the past, some wonderful pieces, including one on the economic value of the online game EverQuest. The article shows how an economist calculated the true economic value of the entirely virtual world of the game. The economist:

gathered data on 616 auctions, observing how much each virtual item [from the EverQuest game] sold for in U.S. dollars [on eBay]. When he averaged the results, he was stunned to discover that the EverQuest platinum piece was worth about one cent U.S. — higher than the Japanese yen or the Italian lira. With that information, he could figure out how fast the EverQuest economy was growing. Since players were killing monsters or skinning bunnies every day, they were, in effect, creating wealth. Crunching more numbers, Castronova found that the average player was generating 319 platinum pieces each hour he or she was in the game — the equivalent of $3.42 (U.S.) per hour. "That's higher than the minimum wage in most countries," he marvelled.
Then he performed one final analysis: The Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned out to be $2,266 U.S. per capita. By World Bank rankings, that made EverQuest richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia.
It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world. And it didn't even exist.

This is a great article, and I expect great things from the magazine. However, the piece by editor and publisher Ken Alexander is one of the silliest things I have ever read. He proposes to solve the education crisis by a three pronged effort. I understand he is attempting to solve Canada’s education crisis, but I am assuming that Canadian education—and Canadian children—are not that different from the American versions.

First, he suggests replicating the small university seminar at the high school level. All classes would be conducted in this way. Like Alexander, I have fond memories of seminar classes, and I would love to teach in such an environment. However, if you have ever taught freshman, you realize what a silly idea this is, but I’ll forgive him for his naivete.

Next, he suggests good old fashioned tracking (grouping by ability level). Most schools already do this here, what with honors and AP classes.

Last, he suggest taking away all class choices in high school, submitting students to a core curriculum of only English, history, geography, math, science, art and physical education. This is the craziest idea of all. How does one propose teaching failing students to read by simply changing the subjects they are taught? The problem is not a lack of content, the problem is a lack of basic skills.

My friend Mark has a freshman class in which only one student is reading at grade level. These kids do not need more English classes, they need more rigor. They need to learn to read. This will not be done by simply giving them more classes. This will be done by radically altering how schools are structured. First of all, the idea of grade levels must be abolished in favor of skill levels. Ninth grade, as a concept, is simply a grouping based on age. Some ninth graders read at a fourth grade level, while others read at a post-high-school level. We must group them according to skill.

Next, the key is to have high expectations. If parents have low expectations for their students at home, we must have high expectations for them at school. These kids in Mark’s class who are all reading well below grade level will graduate from high school still reading below grade level because we have determined that everyone deserves a high school diploma, and that you should get one just for showing up. We can no longer blame parents for not educating their children. We must have a high standard.

The key to education reform lies in the following paradox: We will not raise achievement in this country until we increase failure. Too many people are graduating. I once had a student who had more credits waived than he had earned in his high school career. We did him no favors; he is almost thirty, and he is still a clerk at Blockbuster. We should have told him he will not graduate. He would have been bereft, sure, wondering what he was going to do with his life without a diploma. Then he would, maybe for the first time, have had a chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps, to determine to make himself better. The students in school these days skate by with D’s and we keep passing them from class to class, from grade level to grade level. A colleague of mine at work calls this the doctrine of the Infinite Last Chance: kids know that they have no deadline, no point of no return. Fail English? Take it again. Fail it again? Take summer school. Fail summer school? Do an online class. Fail the online class? We’ll figure out a way for you to get that diploma. Until we determine that, at some point, students will have reached the end of the line, we will not solve the education crisis. In ensuring that everyone gets a diploma, we have lowered the standard so much that students can pass it without effort.

The difficulty with this, though, is that, once we determine so many students need remediation, we must then be prepared to give them the instruction they need. That is why we take the students reading at grade level and put them in classes of 35, maybe even adopting the seminar idea, while we take students reading below grade level, put them in smaller classes, and give them intense reading instruction until they are up to grade level.

We also have to be prepared to allow our graduation rates to drop and not to panic. A sudden drop in graduation rates would be a PR nightmare. But, with patience and clarity, we could demonstrate that the falling rates represented true school reform.

Another possibility is a graduated diploma. One diploma could be called a Certificate of Mastery for the person who (a) is reading at or above grade level, (b) has passed the state’s standardized test for graduation requirement, (c) maintained a certain grade point average, and (d) earned a certain number of credits. That diploma would mean something. All others would receive a certificate of completion.

The fact is, we don’t need tougher material. This just makes the kid with low skills fall further behind. An analogy: You don’t take a second string JV player and put him in a varsity game. You have him learn one skill at a time: one, then another, then another, until he is ready to step on the field. That is how all instruction works.

In that sense, all of the exit tests across the nation have the right idea. Let’s have a diploma mean something again. Let’s have it signify that a person has these basic skills.

Getting rid of electives such as woodshop is not the answer. Students across the nation already have over 150 hours of English instruction per year in high school. That should be enough time to teach the skills they need. If we expect the students to learn at a brisk pace, if we hold them accountable for that learning, and if we make them responsible for learning it, we might have a revolution on our hands.

Our goal should not be every kid passing. No Child Left Behind is the antithesis of what our goals should be. We must be prepared to leave children behind. If every kid is passing, we are doing something wrong. Think of your graduating class you had in high school. Did every student deserve to pass high school? I can think of a number of my classmates who needed help, who needed motivation, because they didn’t learn a darn thing. And they wore the mortarboard. Did we do them a service by giving them a diploma they didn’t earn?

At the end of the article, Alexander writes, “As part of the exit criteria from high school, all students should be paraded down to the cafeteria, given five or six sheets of blank paper and two hours, and told: ‘Okay, one of the entrance requirements to university and college is a ten-paragraph essay on the colour red. Take your time.’ For regular readers, such an assignment might even be pleasurable. Either way, it represents a good test of accumulated skill and a clear indicator to colleges and universities of student ability.”

This is the stupidest idea I have ever heard. I love to read and write, but if somebody asked me to do such a stupid assignment, and told me that my graduation depended on it, I would laugh, then puke. Never again in any person’s history will he/she be asked to write such a ridiculous piece of prose. Writing it in an acceptable fashion proves nothing except a facility for bullshitting. Is this the best you could do for an exit test, Ken? This idea is not about standards based learning. It’s not even about learning for its own sake. It’s about the ability to write on a topic nobody cares about (I teach advanced kids, and I couldn’t imagine grading the pieces of shit the students would produce based on a prompt like that). It’s about writing something that is unnecessary and ridiculous--much like Ken Alexander’s editorial.


Anonymous said...

Amen brother Eric. A very conservative view you have on education. Not bad!!


Karyn said...

Wow, honey,that was really interesting. But I am really shocked that you and Jim actually agree on something. Has that ever happened before???

Eric said...

More times than I would like to admit.

Anonymous said...

Write for two hours on the color red? Is this guy for real? He speaks of advancing the cause, but that is the kind of shit I hated back in high school...the expectation from teachers to write so many words on something so trivial.

Nice retort my man, Eric!

PS Under this guys rule, colorblind students could never reach the level of higher education. What a tool.


Eric said...

First, good point, Rob. Colorblindness as a grad requirement. That's rich.

Second, looking at the comments, I have posted this before. Oops. I switched to the "new" blogger and it "unposted" some of my older posts. Weird.

You get what you pay for, I guess.

Billy said...