Still Progressing Toward the Standard

That phrase is from my favorite sentence in Dahlia Lithwick’s recent funny-sad Slate essay (penultimate paragraph). Thanks to Dahlia for saying aloud what all of us have long suspected, educational jargon is out-of-control.

Why so? Because education is so much more complicated than in the past? That might explain a tenth of it. More consequential, educator’s confusing language reflects muddled thinking.

Here’s a recent fav example from the torrent of acronyms and tortured language I have to wade through daily. It’s from the promotional materials of a highly sought after teaching consultant.

Students advocating for educational improvement, researching classroom climate, and leading new approaches to learning and teaching stand together in the architecture of involvement, effectively demonstrating what school change looks like when the hearts, heads, and hands of students are infused throughout the process.

Come again? The “architecture of involvement”. Please stop. The more times I read that sentence, the more confused I become. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.

I should start a contest for the best example of educational jargon by a non-computer, and by “best” of course, I mean worst. But participants would probably cheat by using this educational jargon generator. The situation is so desperate that humor is the only viable response.

Switching gears, I added the briefest of postscripts to Friday’s triathlon post. Basically, a link to the results. If you take the time to skim the results, you’ll see that I HMAHTM (that’s a triathlon acronym which stands for Had My Ass Handed To Me). Props to Kennett. I can’t complain. I raced well and was only 2 seconds slower than two years ago. At this stage of my life, I’ll gladly give Father and/or Mother Time one second a year.

Kennett passed me early on the bike and then we leap frogged a bit. The first time he said, “You’re in the duathlon right (a separate bike/run division)?” To which I said “No.” Afterwards I thought of better responses like, “Yes” or “You don’t swim that fast.” A few miles later, when he passed me again, he asked me my name and I didn’t reply. Regretted that and so when I passed him back a mile later, I told him my name and asked his.

When racing I enjoy taking time checks on the guys ahead of me to see if I’m gaining ground or not. When they pass a landmark I glance at my computer and then glance at it again when I pass the same place. Throughout the middle of the bike his cushion yo-yoed from 11 to 31 seconds. By the 56 mile finish he had put about 2 minutes into me. I was hoping I could run him down, but he ran really well and beat me by 7-8 minutes. Based on athlinks.com, it was a career day for him. Afterwards, he didn’t bother to thank me for pushing him to a personal record and when I congratulated him on his race he barely acknowledged me. The only consolation was he could barely walk and looked like shit. In contrast, after a quick dip in the lake, and a change of clothes, I was my normal uber-handsome self.

Right now, according to edmunds.com, my 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid with 100k miles on it, is valued at $6,800. His bike cost well north of that. More triathlon jargon—Cervelo P5, Di2, Zipps. My old hand-me-down, heavyish, Dura-Ace 9 speed time trial bike is probably five minutes faster (over 56 miles) than my roadbike. I think I might gain another five on his bike. Then it would just be a matter of those pathetic/disastrous transitions. Send money so I can take revenge next year!

A jargon-related footnote. In my postscript I said I got spanked, which is of course, sports jargon. It’s a synonym for ass whupping. A few weeks ago, the GalPal said some team really “spanked the other”. To which I immediately said, “No!” “What?” she said innocently while smiling. She knew just how dangerous it was for her to start down the path of sounding like she knows what she’s talking about. I told her that you have to have an athletic background to use the work “spank” or “spanking” in a sports context. The zenith of her athletic career was when she laid the basketball in the opponent’s basket while “starring” at Peralta Junior High School in Orange, CA.

Fight the power this week, write and speak plainly.

If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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Compared to Teaching, Charles Barkley’s Job is Easy

In a round about way, this provocative Selena Robert’s piece about Tiger Woods highlights what’s unique and especially challenging about teaching well. Robert’s quotes Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers. Most damning, Chamblee says Tiger extracts from the game but doesn’t give back to it.

Usually, the most popular analysts and critics—whether in sports, the arts, or politics—are extremely opinionated. People like analysts and critics who aren’t afraid to rip a failing player, actor, or elected official. In sports, Brandel Chamblee is simply following in the footsteps of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley.

What the best teachers do 180 days a year is infinitely harder than what Chamblee and Barkley and other popular analysts and critics do. Teachers have to thoughtfully provide constructive criticism to young people with whom they work closely day-after-day. Young people whose self esteem is a work-in-progress.

Chamblee knows he’s never getting invited to Tiger’s pad to have dinner so what does he have to lose? When Sports Illustrated wrote about Michael Jordan’s gambling problem he never spoke to any of their writers again. Which of course made it even easier for them to be critical. It’s easy for analysts and critics to rip failing public figures from the safety of their websites, studios, and media stages.

Teachers, on the other hand, often have to tell students up close and personal that their work doesn’t measure up. And most challenging of all, students are sensitive in different ways and to differing degrees meaning teachers have to continuously tweak their message. The best ones challenge students to do better without crippling their confidence or harming their relationship. It requires a mix of respect, tact, diplomacy, and care that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate. I’m most successful at it when I lead with students’ strengths. Encouragement makes everyone more receptive to how they can improve.

Parents face similar challenges on a daily basis. They often have to tell their children, “Sorry, that wasn’t thorough, thoughtful, or responsible enough.” The most successful ones do it in loving and supportive ways that are educative. Their actions communicate, “I want you to become more competent and independent”  rather than “Don’t forget I’m in charge.”

Compared to the teachers at the school down the street from you, Brandel Chamblee’s and Charles Barkley’s television jobs are a piece of cake.

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An Open Letter to College Admissions Committees

From Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School–originally published here. See my response at the bottom.

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

• They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

• They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

• They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

• They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

• They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching. [end of letter]

Props to Mr. Knight for having the courage to point out the emperor has no clothes on. However, he doesn’t go far enough. Denise Clark Pope illustrates the problem in gory detail in her 2003 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Knight’s solution to the problem of grade engineering, introduce high stakes Advanced Placement-like end of course exams, is an unsatisfying fix.

We must dig deeper. We have to not only acknowledge the detrimental effects of academic competition, but experiment with narrative forms of assessment and learning structures where students are expected to work together in substantive ways, like most of us do in our families, in our civic organizations, in our workplaces. Myopic, “grades as an end-all, be-all parenting” and intense individualism endemic to the U.S. are the greatest impediments to change. When honest, many “A” students say what they like most about getting “A’s” is knowing their classmates don’t receive them. I don’t see how A.P.-like exams will do anything to dent the zero-sumness that explains most of the behavior Knight laments.

Adolescents are the most social of animals, yet in school, we almost always require them to work individually and we assess their work individually. And of course, college admissions offices assess them individually too. But talk to eighteen and nineteen year olds about what they most value from their high school experience and almost to a person they’ll say the groups they were apart of—band, drill team, service clubs, student government, choir, orchestra, drama, athletic teams. Why? Because in contrast to third period physics, they develop collective identities in those activities and enjoy the community that results from them.

What do you think about Knights’ description of the problem and proposed fix?

Grade Fog

New and improved.

Props to Tyre for clearly posing the question. “Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized, and hard-working? Or should grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?”

The buzzword is “standards-based grading”.

The better question is whether grades should represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material or whether more subjective variables such as their attitude, citizenship, and effort should also be taken into consideration.

It’s hard to disagree with the standards-based graders assertion that assessment must rest primarily on mastery of course material. I want master pilots, plumbers, surgeons, and bridge builders. The question though is how far down that road to travel. For example, inevitably some students can demonstrate mastery of course material without attending class at all so why not eliminate compulsory attendance laws?

Related to that, why require athletes to attend practice, or musicians and actors to attend rehearsals if they are gamers who inevitably rise to the occasion once the race begins or curtain goes up? In actuality, the advocates are arguing for “standards-based grading lite”.

Also, everyone of us knows a litany of really smart people who never fulfill their personal or work-life potential because their flawed interpersonal skills and/or anemic work ethic.

Returning to my extracurricular references. Obviously athletes on a swim relay team, musicians in an orchestra, and actors in a drama troupe have to work together to achieve success. Just as it’s preposterous to think about a basketball player showing up at a game and trying to run a complicated offense or an actor showing up on opening night and having the necessary timing down, most students are going to take jobs that require them to be team members.

The standard grade-basers are arguing that as long as the student has the necessary knowledge in her head, she’s good to go. But is she?

Let’s start with the necessary knowledge, but not end there. I’m down with factoring in everything in Tyre’s opening list except “compliance” which is antithetical to independent, critical thinking upon which a meaningful education is built.

School-based teacher teams should identify important dispositions and interpersonal skills and then assess them in and outside of classrooms. Self-assessment should play an integral role. No doubt narrative will prove more useful than traditional letter grades.

LSU Removes Tough Professor

Props to my brother for highlighting this blogworthy “LSU Removes Tough Professor” article.

Mid-article I was thinking of this assessment axiom—the quality of your students’ work is a direct reflection of your teaching effectiveness. Therefore, if 90% of your students are failing, something is seriously wrong with your teaching. However, in the second half of the article, Tough Professor explains that she factors in improvement, most everyone was improving, and most people would eventually pass the course just not with the A’s and B’s they’re probably accustomed to.

I’m trying to figure out why LSU administrators caved simply because students complained. A worrisome precedent. A key point is LSU is supposed to be the state’s flagship institution; therefore, shouldn’t administrators error on the side of academic rigor? Why didn’t the administrators say something to the effect of, “If you’re not willing to work harder, maybe you should have picked a different state school.”

The administrators probably succumbed to enrollment pressures and said in effect, “We can’t afford to lose students.” But are short-term enrollment numbers worth the crippling of faculty morale and the chipping away of the institution’s academic reputation in the medium and long-term?

A statistic and a story come to mind. We know nothing about the gender of the students that complained, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a disproportionate number were males. The statistic. In 1960 there were 1.6 males for every female graduating from a U.S. four-year college. In 2003, there were 1.35 females for every male who graduated from a four-year college. I’ve written about this in the past, but from my limited vantage point, female students are leaving their male counterparts in the dust. The story. A couple of years ago I’m driving daughter and daughter’s Yale-bound friend somewhere. Me, “I’m curious, why Yale?” Her, without missing a beat, “Because I want my nose to the grindstone for four straight years.”

Our challenge is increasing the relative percentage of “nose to the grindstoners”.