What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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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?