The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Why Doesn’t Learning Last?

Today’s post was stimulated by an article in the January 27 issue of Education Week that reviewed the research on various approaches to helping children get a head start in school that would set them on the road to success. What intrigued me most about the research referred to was the fact that none of the programs seemed to help students in the long term. I couldn’t resist the temptation to explain my own theory of why that happens.


The article I read, “Studies Explore Reasons Behind Fade-Out Effect” alluded to several studies that failed to find any lasting positive results from early programs designed to help children succeed academically.  In the short term those programs appeared to help students make significant academic gains.  But when they were followed over time, the gains disappeared, often right after the students had left their special programs.

Researchers in all areas seem to be befuddled and disturbed by those findings.  With pre-kindergarten classes now springing up all over the country, what if they are a waste of time, money and effort?  As a result of the widespread uncertainty, several institutions are pushing for additional and more precise research on the question. For example, the Institute of Education Sciences is offering $26 million in grants to create a network of teams focused on identifying ways to sustain preschool growth throughout the following grades.

I must admit that there was not enough information in the article to allow me to identify the problems or suggest solutions.  I have to guess at what is meant by the “gains that faded out over time.”  For one particular study, IQ is mentioned and for others a wide range of areas is named: “skills, beliefs, and behaviors.” Yet, it appears that the research studies used “academic achievement,” measured by some type of testing, as the sole criterion. If so, not only students’ “beliefs” and “behavior” were not examined, but also their self-confidence, enthusiasm for learning, positive feelings about school, curiosity, and persistence.

In the end, I felt I had to return to the evidence of the Perry Preschool Project of the 1960s and the Abecedarian Program of the 1970s and my own professional experience.  Researchers in those two preschool programs followed students’ progress up to age 35 or 40 and were more interested in several other results than in K-12 achievement, such as high school and college completion, adult job status and income, criminal involvement, child bearing age, and need for public assistance.  In all those areas the people who had participated in early childhood programs were doing significantly better as adults than those in the control groups.  Although some of the data has been questioned, it’s hard to discount the fact that the majority of poor African American children who participated in those programs received long lasting benefits from them.

Does that mean that one positive school experience in which  you are encouraged, valued, given choices, and submerged in meaningful learning positively affects the rest of your life?  I think so.  Although my own experience as a teacher and a principal did not involve creating any special pre-school programs or doing any formal tracking of students after they left my oversight, I saw that when kids were regularly treated as smart, caring and important people they learned how to be that kind of person from then on, even  when they had a few bad experiences later on.

I believe that all schools can do through all grades for all students. pretty much what the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Program did for pre-schoolers.  But it takes a different kind of teaching and treatment than those being advocated today. Although I have no doubt that “All children can learn,” to bring that about requires that the education establishment abandon its obsession with raising test scores. You can’t quantify the expanse of the human mind or the human spirit, but you can nourish them.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment »

What It means to Be a Teacher of Writing

Today, for personal reasons, I am writing about my own experiences as a student, teacher, writer, mother, and friend rather than what is happening in the world of education.  I think you’ll understand why as you read.


In college I had a split major in English and Dramatic Arts.  I never thought I would become a writer, actress, or even a teacher, but those things appealed to me more than anything else.  Because teachers were scarce in those days I got a job after taking only one summer course in Education.  I did no student teaching.  Over the years that followed my husband and I moved a lot because of his job, and I taught various elementary and middle school grades in several schools.  My last teaching job–before becoming an elementary principal–was high school English.

Since I had no training or experience in my new role I designed the program the way I thought best. I had only one hundred students and an extra daily planning period that teachers of other subjects didn’t have.  But still my job wasn’t easy. For the sake of my sanity, I set up a series of three-week writing units for each of my classes over the school year, none of them overlapping.  In each unit we examined a great story, essay, or piece of poetry as a class, then I asked students to write something with a similar structure, beginning it in class and finishing it on their own time. When they handed in their work the following week, I had only 25 papers to read and critique. I tried to make at least one positive comment on each paper, refer to the general weaknesses I saw, and give specific suggestions for changes where they were most needed.  Then I gave back the papers to be revised and handed in the following week.  My final review was easier.  I read each final paper, commented briefly, and gave it a grade. Throughout eight years in that job I felt that most of my students made good progress in learning how to write well, and I still had time and energy for my own life.

Many years later I still follow many of the same practices with my family and friends.  I edit my husband’s work very closely–even though I know little about his field of science.  I edit and comment on my grown granddaughter’s job applications, have done similar editing for my children in the past, and I help friends with important pieces of writing by commenting and suggesting changes as specifically I can.

I share my experiences with readers today because two important things have just happened: my son Alan had a letter published in today’s New York Times and a friend thanked me for helping him improve an essay he was working on.  Although my son did not need my help this time–or any other time recently–I feel proud yet humble about any support I have been able to give him and others in the past.  It’s so good to feel that my work as a teacher of writing is still relevant.

 

 

3 Comments »

Issuing Retroactive Diplomas is Not Charity

After ten days of sleeping late and watching too much television, I wasted my first weekend at home doing laundry  and dabbling wiith crossword puzzles.  So now I need to get back to the work I love.  Fortunately, I read some interesting articles while I was away and will use them as the basis of my own blog entries for a while.  Today is the first such effort. 


In Education Week last month I read an article about six states, including Georgia, Texas, and California, that are issuing retroactive high school diplomas to students who did not pass the required exit exams over the past several years. The numbers quoted in the article show that tens of thousands of former students have already received diplomas and many more are awaiting confirmation of their eligibility.  Some of the states justify their actions by explaining that the exit exams for high school graduation that were mandatory over the past 20 years or more have now been replaced by end-of-course tests which more fairly and comprehensively measure students’ knowledge and skills in various academic areas.  Looking back, school officials see many weaknesses in those exams that made them unreliable. What they also recognize, belatedly, are the crippling effects that a lack of a high school diploma has on the futures of young people.  Countless numbers of intelligent and hard working individuals have found it impossible to enroll in college or get a decent job without that credential. They wind up being considered as undesirable as those who have a criminal record.

As might be expected, the distribution of retroactive diplomas has generated a flurry of objections in many quarters. In the eyes of some politicians, business leaders, and ordinary citizens the people receiving them are irresponsible, incompetent slackers who do not deserve special consideration.  Moreover, their late diplomas devalue the ones received by the students who did pass the exams.

Despite the objections and the weak reasoning described in the article, I consider the issuing of late diplomas good news– but for reasons that were not mentioned.  Over the past several years many school conditions have adversely affected students who otherwise would have graduated and gone on to more education, specialized training, or good paying jobs.  Adverse conditions, such as age-inappropriate standards and too much testing still exist.

But the major problem in our schools today is the refusal to recognize that children mature at different rates and with different skills and interests.  Our policy makers completely ignore the fact that many students are still immature at age 17 or 18, often acting foolishly in and out of school, but more importantly, unable to demonstrate their strong potential in various areas.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of successful late maturation is what happened after World War 2 when military veterans were given free college tuition and most of them succeeded in their studies and subsequent jobs. In their 20s or 30s, they were able to do the studying and write the papers they would have been unsuccessful with in previous years.

Through my own experience as a teacher, a principal, and a mother of four children, I have come to understand that the rate and range of human development vary widely. For many young people more years and world experiences are needed to bring out their full potential.  It is not only kind but also wise for schools at all levels to remove the barriers to success and allow students to demonstrate their skills and learning power under  circumstances  for which they are ready.

 

 

 

5 Comments »

Ignorant Armies Still Clash By Night!

In November of 2007 when my term as the president of the National Council of Teachers of English ended, I was expected to give a speech.  Since no particular topic was required I decided to rage against “No Child Left Behind” and all the unreasonable demands being put on public schools at that time. Today seems like a good time for me to post my speech  because many of the problems that existed under NCLB still remain.  Also I will be out of town for the next two weeks and will do no writing during that time.  Finally, remember that this is a speech, not a written essay.  It’s long, it’s complicated, and it’s intended to move an audience to action.


Although the title of my presidential address, “Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night,” was taken from Matthew Arnold’s (1867) poem “Dover Beach,” the political and cultural battles we face today are quite different from those Arnold believed were threatening his society in 19th-century England. Still, they are no less dangerous, and we have no less reason to be fearful as we see a misrepresented and futile war in the Middle East; threats of further war; hatred between religions, tribes, and countries; suicide bombings; debilitating poverty in the third world and here in the richest country on earth; worldwide climate change caused by human selfishness and neglect; government corruption here and abroad; and an American president who believes he is king.

Compared to all the forces tearing apart the larger world, the destruction of American education may seem a minor matter. But it looms large in my small world and, I think, in yours. Perhaps no one will die because our federal government has usurped the right that the U.S. Constitution delegated to states to establish and oversee public education and which the states, in turn, largely delegated to local communities. But the policies put into federal law, the practices that have emanated from those policies, and the belief system that generated them in the first place have already damaged the lives of students and teachers and eroded the excellence, flexibility, and vitality of American education.

Over the more than forty years I worked in public schools as a teacher, principal, and district superintendent, I was always proud of our American system and my own small role in it. I believed that we had arrived at a place in the last quarter of the 20th-century where we really cared about children and demonstrated our caring with child-centered teaching, meaningful curricula, and sensible school operations. Moreover, I believed that the hallmark of American education was second chances. We didn’t give up on strugglers, late bloomers, or even dropouts, but worked relentlessly to help them replace failure with success.

The most illustrious example of second chances was the opportunity after World War II for servicemen and women to go back to school at government expense. Our national confidence in these veterans was vindicated by the fact that so many who had been indifferent students when they were young succeeded amazingly the second time around. I’m not ashamed to admit that two and three decades later my own children benefited from second chances in public schools and were also able to succeed. On the other hand, I am ashamed to say that I think neither my children nor anyone else’s would get second chances today.

The difference is that American education in the 21st century is caught in a morass of false theories and foolish practices. Under the direction of the federal government, narrow paths and high barriers have replaced the principle of second chances and the supports to make them work. Using test scores as the sole criterion of effective teaching and learning, federal law now puts derogatory public labels on schools, humiliates teachers, and robs school districts of the resources they need to serve students effectively. Meanwhile, all this destruction goes unnoticed by the decision makers in Washington. Blind, deaf, and ignorant, they press on with their negative tactics, exemplifying the popular satiric saying, “Beatings will continue until morale improves.”

So far, elementary education has taken the largest share of the beatings, but secondary schools have also felt the sting of the whip, and colleges and universities, especially those preparing teachers, are next in line. Recently, we have seen the grading of high schools in New York City, proposals for mid-course high school exams that would decide who goes on in an academic track and who gets diverted into job training, calls for college exit exams, private agency rating of teacher education programs, and Department of Education scrutiny of college professors’ curriculum vitae to see if they have the proper ideological backgrounds to serve as consultants. And above all this noise is the persistent drumbeat telling us that American education lags far behind that of other industrialized countries.

To be fair, I must admit that this is not the first time schools have come under attack. The history of educational criticism is as long as the history of education itself. American public schools have had their share of critics from their beginnings, charging that various curricula were not serving the needs of students or the public good, that the prescribed course of schooling was too long or too short, and that students were not being taught to read and write. Over the course of my own career, schools have been castigated for undermining parental authority, inflating grades, allowing students to read “dirty” or atheistic books, and, most often, for not teaching phonics, or enough phonics, or phonics the right way.

Yet, for all the critics and all the criticism that education has endured, this is the first time that the federal government has exerted its power over the nation’s schools, telling them what and how to teach, and judging whether or not students have made sufficient progress in certain skills and areas of knowledge. Under the unassailable slogan, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government has stretched its tentacles of control into every corner of American classrooms, sweeping aside the hard-earned knowledge of researchers and teachers and confidently asserting that “we know best.”

In both its design and application, the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB from here on) is deeply flawed: punitive, disrespectful toward students and teachers, dependent on unreliable evidence, underfunded, and beholden to ideologues and profiteers. But while many commentators have pointed out these flaws, too few have cut to the heart of the matter, making clear that the creators and implementers of the law do not understand learning, teaching, or human behavior. Has any commentator dared to say that without these understandings, no one has the moral authority—nor should they have the legal authority—to make decisions for the education of America’s children?

One key misunderstanding about learning stands out in the language of the law and its supporters. While NCLB repeatedly mentions “high achievement” and “improving student achievement,” it rarely, if ever, speaks of learning. These two words are not synonymous. Achievement is the information you spout in class discussions and write on tests; learning is what you do with that information in real life. As Alfred North Whitehead says in his 1929 book, The Aims of Education: Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self- development . . . Your learning is useless to you till you have lost your textbooks, burnt your lecture notes, and forgotten the minutiae which you learnt by heart for the examination.

Under pressure from NCLB to focus on achievement rather than learning, our schools have all but abandoned their basic mission. They have narrowed the curriculum to only the subjects to be tested and narrowed those subjects to only mechanical skills and low-level information. In the field of reading, the mechanical skill of matching vocal sounds to letter symbols becomes everything in the primary grades. And later on, reading words quickly is the goal. Even the literal meanings of texts get little attention until the intermediate grades, and then only formulaically through prescribed “strategies.” In the teaching of writing, spelling, grammar, and punctuation receive the most emphasis, followed by attention to the structure of paragraphs and essays.

In addition, schools are attempting to manipulate their test data by pushing certain students “in” and others “out” of the competition. Teachers are told to concentrate their efforts on the so-called “bubble” kids—the ones close to passing the tests—a practice that results in neglect of both the most able and least able of their students. Retention data from all school levels show that the greatest numbers of students are being held back in the grades preceding tests, and high school dropout data show the same pattern. These facts and reports from teachers, students, and parents show clearly that schools are concerned not with learning but with the numbers that symbolize achievement.

In the few years since the passage of NCLB, many journalists and book authors have confirmed the facts above in their moving stories about real children hurt by school practices and real teachers demoralized. Recently, I read Linda Perlstein’s (2007) book, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, and found that she saw the same kinds of abuses in an Annapolis, Maryland, school that I have seen in schools in and around Portland, Oregon. Specifically, in a first-grade classroom at one wealthy suburban school, I saw children working straight through a six-hour school day with only a 40-minute break for lunch. Under the teacher’s direction they exercised indoors by walking around the classroom and stretching their bodies a few times. Their reading activities included a daily choral recitation of the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet—although most of the children were already reading without difficulty—and the memorization of technical literary terms, such as onomatopoeia and metaphor. These young children were also expected to identify the plot, characters, setting, mood, and climax of the stories they were reading. The only story elements they were spared were “theme” and “denouement.”

In a Reading First school, I observed a kindergarten reading lesson that had children go through a small book by decoding all the words without stopping to talk about the illustrations or attempting to find any story hidden there. I also saw several writing lessons where the emphasis was on spelling words correctly rather than producing a clear and interesting story.

In addition to misunderstanding what learning is, NCLB misunderstands how learning works. This error is most apparent in the law’s insistence on “explicit, systematic instruction” in reading. The notion that children learn best from this type of teaching, rooted in mid-20th-century behaviorist theory and pretty much discredited by later research, was revived by the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000. Unfortunately, two factors that strongly influenced the panel’s recommendations for explicit, systematic teaching go unacknowledged and, perhaps, unrecognized by the people who developed the process for schools to get money under the “Reading First” section of NCLB. One of those factors was the preference of the majority of the panel’s members for behaviorism, and the other was the nature of experimental research, which the panel selected as its source of research studies. To be considered well-designed, experimental studies must use treatments that can be clearly described, checked for fidelity of application, and replicated by other researchers. Thus, all the studies the NRP chose to examine focused on teaching methods that were explicit and systematic. In practice, “explicit, systematic instruction” means that any skill or body of information is divided into discrete, step-by-step lessons to be learned by rote. The instructor presents the object of each lesson, the principles, the process, and some examples of application. The students memorize those elements and practice by applying them in controlled situations. Practice continues with decreasing teacher supervision and support until students can apply the principles or the process correctly and automatically on their own.
The problem with this type of instruction is that it does not square with what we know about how children learn. Decades of research on children’s learning show that children tend to be random, concrete, piecemeal learners. Children do not start learning anything by rules and systematic steps. They experience concrete examples of phenomena, draw what they think are the principles from them, and then experiment by creating their own examples. If the created examples work, children accept their original principles; if not, they adjust them and try again.

Two other characteristics of children’s learning processes are important to note: (1) In creating examples, children approximate correctness and are satisfied with it for a time until they perceive a need for greater exactness. (2) Children tend not to complete the learning of any skill or body of information in one continuous attempt. Rather, they leave things partly learned whenever their attention is drawn elsewhere and then return to them when they again have a strong need or interest.

A classic example of the natural pattern of children’s learning and the minimal effect of explicit, systematic instruction on it is recounted by psycholinguist David McNeil (1966) in his chapter in The Genesis of Language. He reports a conversation between a mother and a young child in which the mother directly and explicitly attempts to teach her son correct English grammar:

CHILD: Nobody don’t like me.
MOTHER: No, say, “Nobody likes me.”
CHILD: Nobody don’t like me.
(Eight repetitions of this dialogue)
MOTHER: No, now listen carefully: say, “Nobody likes me.

ChildOh! Nobody don’t likes me.

This pattern and its variations are characteristic of students’ learning well into their teen years. Complete and systematic learning processes normally develop in late adolescence under pressure from schools, parents and/or employers to “get organized.” Even so, many successful people remain concrete, random learners all their lives.

The preference for explicit, systematic instruction is not the only misunderstanding about children’s learning embodied in NCLB, however. Although some are worth mentioning here, I will not take the time to go into full explanations; the reasoning and evidence behind them are already obvious.

  1. Prescribed ranges for “average yearly progress”(AYP) do not make sense when we remember that different children learn at different rates. It is not unusual for a child’s learning to plateau for a while and then leap ahead.
  2. Expecting children to excel in all academic areas is not realistic. All of us have strong interests and abilities in certain areas and little in others.
  3. Fluency, which is the ability to read quickly and correctly, does not mean that a child understands what he or she is reading.
  4. In attempting to measure learning, we cannot assume that all of it takes place in school or is the result of teaching. Much important learning happens at home and in the community, without anyone teaching, as children read, write, listen, observe, and interact with other children or adults.
  5. The fact that children are able to memorize and reproduce technical terms and advanced academic content does not mean they understand those things or will remember them.
  6. Attempting to assess children’s learning with one standardized test a year is a fool’s errand.

Underlying the creation of NCLB is a profound mistrust of schools and teachers, concealed by the term “accountability.” Certainly, any person or entity receiving public money should be accountable for the spending of that money. But to whom and how should accountability be demonstrated? Public schools and teachers have always been accountable to their communities through various demonstrations of student learning, such as report cards and the ongoing performance of graduates. School operations have always been transparent because children and parents talk about what goes on there. Teachers, in addition to being accountable to their communities, have also been accountable to their employing school districts, formally through yearly evaluations and informally through parent complaints and commendations.

Only now has the federal government demanded a further layer of accountability—to itself—through school test scores and attendance rates. And only now has the federal government specified the means that schools and teachers should use to meet its standards of accountability. Most prominent among those means recommended for all schools, and required for Reading First schools, are so-called “scientifically based” or “research-based” reading materials. This heavy-handed government approval of certain texts exemplifies NCLB’s mistrust of teachers’ ability to recognize good materials on their own. It also exemplifies NCLB’s misunderstanding of the nature of teaching.

Almost all of the government-approved materials for teaching reading are scripted programs. These programs tell the teacher exactly what to say and do in each lesson. They also lay out a strict daily timetable for instruction, and some of them forbid the use of supplementary books and teaching aids that are not part of the program. These programs are often supplemented by formulaic training sessions that are erroneously labeled “professional development”; the programs may even recommend the use of “literacy coaches,” who in reality are monitors and enforcers of the material’s faithful use.

The fallacy in scripted and overly directive materials is that they don’t acknowledge that the only person really qualified to decide what, when, and how to teach reading is the teacher on site who knows the students involved and who can respond to their performances and to classroom happenings. No text writer at a distance, regardless of knowledge or experience, can do as well as a good teacher physically, mentally, and psychologically in touch with students. In favoring scripted programs, the Department of Education implementers of NCLB reveal that they do not understand that teaching demands contextualized planning, personalized treatment of students, and circumstantial decision-making.

Further evidence of this misunderstanding of teaching is the use of the phrase “delivery of instruction” in documents, articles, and speeches supporting NCLB. Teaching is not like a freshly baked pizza that can be placed in one neat box and given to students to consume and digest on their own. It is the ongoing interaction between a knowledgeable, skilled teacher and a particular group of students that leads those students on an uncharted journey to some new place. Actually, I should say, “on uncharted journeys to new places,” because students do not all travel the same route or end up in the same place. Teachers know this; scripted program supporters don’t.

Still another NCLB misunderstanding about teaching is defining “highly qualified teachers”solely in terms of subject matter knowledge. Although such knowledge is a part of a teacher’s qualifications, it is not the whole package. Just as important are a teacher’s abilities to inspire students to learn, to incorporate their interests into the curriculum, to earn their trust and cooperation, and to channel their energies into productive work. The narrow view not only devalues teachers who are working effectively in areas they did not initially prepare for, but also creates insoluble hiring dilemmas for many small or rural schools. In addition, the government approved practice of certifying people with academic degrees but no teacher preparation or experience has put many novices into situations they can’t handle, shortchanging their students.

Finally, what NCLB does not understand about teaching (and what few people anywhere understand) is that teaching is a performance profession like law, medicine, and acting. A performance profession is one that requires a great deal of individual, unobserved work to prepare for and reflect on each brief public performance. Teachers, like the other professionals named, spend as much time and thought—and use as much of their skills—in preparing for and evaluating instruction, keeping records, and reporting on student progress as they do in the teaching act itself. Yet the law treats them as if they were unskilled, hourly employees.

The last big misunderstanding is perhaps the worst. In its misreading of human behavior, NCLB uses fear and punishment as tools for improving student achievement. By instilling fear in schools, teachers, students, and parents, it seeks to move them toward its own goals. By leveling punishments for not reaching those goals, it hopes to make them try harder. The trouble is that human behavior responds to punishment only superficially and only for the short term. Desire, freedom to choose, self-confidence, and small successes along the way are much better motivators.

In reality, children come to school because they have to. Whether or not they cooperate there, learn, or attend regularly are personal choices based on how rewarding school is for them. Good teaching, appealing materials, interesting work, positive relationships, variety in activities, academic and social success, and fun move children to choose school and learning. Ironically, NCLB denies children almost all of the experiences that lead to good choices.

Older students make the same choices and more: whether or not to work for good grades, try to please their parents, aim for higher education, put effort into state tests, drop out of school. Unfortunately, while NCLB offers no positive motivations for these students to make the choices that society wants and that are in the students’ best interests, it does motivate schools to hold back the strugglers or force them out.

Unlike students, teachers come to school by choice. But like them, what they do there and whether or not they stay are choices, albeit ones influenced by economic needs and professional loyalties. The onerous burdens placed on teachers by NCLB and its disrespect for their abilities make them less likely to put heart and soul into their work and less likely to stay for the long run. No wonder that statistics show a large percentage of teachers leaving the profession during their first five years.

Fearing NCLB sanctions, many teachers have also chosen to teach for student achievement rather than learning. In other words, they “teach to the tests.” Some teachers have also stretched the limits of allowable assistance to students during tests, dishonoring their profession and themselves. Why do teachers do these things that go against their beliefs and their sense of right and wrong? Because they are acting out of fear, trying desperately to save their students and themselves.

Although not now a part of NCLB, merit pay for teachers whose students score well on tests has been promoted by many of the law’s supporters and adopted by some states and communities. Other supporters have advocated merit pay for teachers who volunteer to teach in high-poverty, low-scoring schools. Most teachers, on the other hand, seem uninterested in merit pay. They would much prefer better working conditions, greater autonomy, and respect. What teachers mean by better working conditions is more planning time, chances to work with their colleagues, self-chosen professional development experiences, and a significant role in school decision making. Autonomy means being able to select appropriate materials and methods for their students,

NCLB also misunderstands what motivates parents. The law gives parents of children in failing schools the right to ask for extra instruction for them or to transfer them to other schools. Yet very few parents take advantage of these opportunities, especially the transfers. For poor parents a major reason is the difficulty of transporting their children to a distant school, but for middle-class parents the most-often voiced reason is that they are satisfied with their local school and want their children to stay there. Right or wrong, parents’ responses are in line with normal human behavior.

Without realizing it, Charles Dickens passed the final judgment on NCLB and its misunderstanding of learning, teaching, and human behavior. One hundred fifty-three years ago in his novel Hard Times, Dickens described an English public school classroom under government control with a “highly qualified” teacher using an explicit systematic method like this:

So, Mr. M’choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honorable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and- thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

As good and as true as Dickens’ view of government-mandated education is, I don’t want to end this review of NCLB on a negative note. I believe there is strong reason to hope that the law will be changed for the better in 2008 and eliminated during the next presidential administration. Too many voices from both political parties, from a broad spectrum of professional organizations and think tanks, and from the public have spoken against it. And there are indications that Congress has heard and will act. For us on the fringes of Congressional attention, the choices are few but still powerful. We must keep telling Congress and the public about the damage NCLB is causing to our schools and our students. We must continue doing real teaching for real student learning. We must go on with our own learning. And we must communicate with and support each other. All these things are implied in the last stanza of “Dover Beach.” Let’s listen to the whole of it for immediate solace and future guidance:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night

 

Our students, our colleagues, our knowledge, our ideals, our profession; these are our loves. We must be true to them all.

 

1 Comment »

Not Everything Can Be Measured

When I first read the news story in the NY Times that makes up most of today’s post, I loved it.  It makes good points about the problems of using data to judge the effectiveness of doctors and teachers. However, when I read it again today, I realized that it does not go far enough–especially in reference to teachers.  The last paragraph really disappointed me in calling for “more targeted measures” rather than advocating for abandoning measurement altogether.  So, I decided to write a new concluding paragraph explaining what would be a better way to evaluate doctors and teachers, who–by the way– are not machines in “industries” but complicated human beings.


Two of our most vital industries, health care and education, have become increasingly subjected to metrics and measurements. Of course, we need to hold professionals accountable. But the focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.

Through the 20th century, we adopted a hands-off approach, assuming that the pros knew best. Most experts believed that the ideal “products” — healthy patients and well-educated kids — were too strongly influenced by uncontrollable variables (the sickness of the patient, the intellectual capacity of the student) and were too complex to be judged by the measures we use for other industries.

By the early 2000s, as evidence mounted that both fields were producing mediocre outcomes at unsustainable costs, the pressure for measurement became irresistible. In health care, we saw hundreds of thousands of deaths from medical errors, poor coordination of care and backbreaking costs. In education, it became clear that our schools were lagging behind those in other countries.

So in came the consultants and out came the yardsticks. In health care, we applied metrics to outcomes and processes. Did the doctor document that she gave the patient a flu shot? That she counseled the patient about smoking? In education, of course, the preoccupation became student test scores.

All of this began innocently enough. But the measurement fad has spun out of control. There are so many different hospital ratings that more thatn 1,600 medicalceners can now lay claim to being included on a “top 100,” “honor roll,” grade “A” or “best” hospitals list. Burnout rates for doctors top 50 percent, far higher than other professions. A 2013 study found that the electronic health record was a dominant culprit. Another 2013 study found that emergency room doctors clicked a mouse 4,000 times during a 10-hour shift. The computer systems have become the dark force behind quality measures.

Education is experiencing its own version of measurement fatigue. Educators complain that the focus on student test performance comes at the expense of learning. Art, music and physical education have withered, because, really, why bother if they’re not on the test?

At first, the pushback from doctors and teachers was dismissed as whining from entitled and entrenched guilds spoiled by generations of unfettered autonomy. It was natural, went the thinking, that these professionals would resist the scrutiny and discipline of performance assessment. Of course, this interpretation was partly right.

But the objections became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to “look good,” had led them to turn away from the essence of their work. In medicine, doctors no longer made eye contact with patients as they clicked away. In education, even parents who favored more testing around Common Core standards worried about the damaging influence of all the exams.

Even some of the measurement behemoths are now voicing second thoughts. Last fall, the Joint Commission, the major accreditor of American hospitals, announced that it was suspending its annual rating of hospitals. At the same time, alarmed by the amount of time that testing robbed from instruction, the Obama administration called for new limits on student testing. Last week, Andy Slavitt, Medicare’s acting administrator, announced the end of a program that tied Medicare payments to a long list of measures related to the use of electronic health records. “We have to get the hearts and minds of physicians back,” said Mr. Slavitt. “I think we’ve lost them.”

Thoughtful and limited assessment can be effective in motivating improvements and innovations, and in weeding out the rare but disproportionately destructive bad apples.

But in creating a measurement and accountability system, we need to tone down the fervor and think harder about the unanticipated consequences.

Measurement cannot go away, but it needs to be scaled back and allowed to mature. We need more targeted measures, ones that have been vetted to ensure that they really matter. In medicine, for example, measuring the rates of certain hospital-acquired infections has led to a greater emphasis on prevention and has most likely saved lives. On the other hand, measuring whether doctors documented that they provided discharge instructions to heart failure or asthma patients at the end of their hospital stay sounds good, but turns out to be an exercise in futile box-checking, and should be jettisoned.

************************************************

Measurement is not the proper tool for judging any form of human behavior. Doctors and teachers are not automatons.  They have good and bad days, work under continually changing conditions, make errors and have lucky guesses; all the while trying to have a positve effect on other human beings who are as complex and vulnerable as they are.  The best we can do in assessing the competence of such professionals is to examine the realities of each situation, then choose the best overseers and clients from within and trust their judgments. In medicine those people are the department heads and patients; in education they are the school principals and students.  The results will not be perfect, but they will be better than trying to measure the immeasurable.

 

 

Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: