Monday, November 26, 2012

Another Reason Teacher Appraisals Should Not Include Student Test Scores

In addition to the reasons I listed in June (and I think my argument about the backwash effects to be the most compelling), another has become apparent to me after reviewing the assessment procedures of the International and European baccalaureates, which I admire: not only will this proposal lead to constricted curricula, reduced learning, worse teaching, and less talented Americans; it will also reinforce limited assessment practices and therefore, again, reproduce more limited learning and learners.

The kind of assessment mainstream American education reformers commonly conceive of these days is a state standards test, which is generally a machine-friendly, human-unfriendly multiple choice instrument -- an externally conceived and scored, written (although it often requires no writing) exam. This is all obvious, but look at all this description leaves out (see what isn't there, which is never obvious):
  • relying heavily on such exams means that internal assessment, already in decline, will dwindle to nothing, making teaching less intellectually appealing than before and therefore less likely to satisfy the bright young people we would like to bring into teaching; 
  • it means that oral assessments, included in both the IB and EB as well as in European national systems but absent from general American practice prior to doctoral exams, will continue to be missing, so our speaking and listening standards will be even less taught to and therefore less learned than at present, and our students will remain relatively inarticulate prior to entering a collegiate and business world increasingly interested in persuasive oral communications, including PowerPoint presentations; 
  • it means written coursework will likely be less undertaken than at present, regardless of what the Common Core says, since the teachers will have little incentive, in a world of big student loads, big bonuses, and big bad consequences for bad test scores, to go through the time-consuming and painstaking work of teaching students to write well, regardless of the future consequences for their students (this is a good example of a way in which this reform is inconsistent with the principle of putting students first). 
All of my friends in the education reform world, and in particular President Obama, need to disabuse themselves from this proposal, which, if implemented, will harm American classrooms and children in so many ways.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What's Wrong With PBS's American Graduate Project

"Graduating to Nothing": that was my alternative title for this entry.

In short, PBS's American Graduate project has the same shortcomings that plague America's thought leaders with respect to education: it's based on a 20th century, domestic view of the world, when we are actually living in a more globalized 21st century.

If you watch the advertising for American Graduate, you see the usual American emphasis (a legitimate one) in such public service broadcasts, which is on those being left behind by our compulsory comprehensive ("K-12", although too many of these students don't reach 12th grade, which is largely the point) public education system. We are informed that roughly one quarter of all students don't graduate from high school, which we are to infer is a terrible problem (it is, when it equates to being a "dropout", that is, one who self-excludes [I take the term from Bourdieu & Passeron, Reproduction, p. 42] from the taxpayer-supported education system we make available for free but which is being rejected even at that price); and we are also led to believe that the correct alternative goal is to graduate, to receive that diploma. But to graduate, in its etymology, means to "move on" to a next, higher level, or grade -- it's a beginning of something new, not a conclusion -- and it may fairly be asked, our high school graduates whom we celebrate with so much energy, with balloons and caps and gowns and rolled paper, are graduating to what? To college success? Data from the ACT and other organizations show that the average American student does graduate from high school and moves on to college, but because of poor secondary school preparation for higher education, has to undertake remediation and gain thereby a premature debt burden, falls behind in obtaining credits, grows discouraged, and drops out without a degree, but with over $25,000 in debt, typically owed to a cohort of higher social class (bankers, college marketers, guidance counsellors, and so on) than the student. What kind of inheritance is this?

But if instead this student the American Graduate is concerned about attempts to find work, good luck: a quick perusal of youth unemployment rates around the world shows that those developed countries that pursue a strategy of extending general education to as many students for as long as possible, as opposed to those that end general education after around nine years and then force students into a choice between college and vocational preparation, suffer much higher youth unemployment than the latter group. Compare, for example, youth unemployment in English-speaking nations (who are under considerable American influence) and similar formerly imperial nations of western Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, French-speaking Belgium) with those of central Europe that have long respected the mastery of trades and, by extension, for labour: I am thinking specifically of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany (the Netherlands and Norway are Germanic neighbours that also have low youth unemployment, and east Asian countries like Japan and Singapore are also on the right track). Where would that relatively low-achieving (in academics) student be better off, here or there? Here, if he (or she, although the problems are piling up faster for our young men than our young women) decides against more humiliation and debt via schooling, the only likely choices are between crime and unemployment; there he or she would have access to job training leading to a legally established qualification, employment with good social benefits, and self-respect.  

What kind of legacy are we leaving the underprivileged next American generation? And how long will it take our thought leaders to discover that their advice may well be leading to social disaster, exploding into our own version of the Arab Spring?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Good Book for a Big Problem

The New York Times today has come out with an important article on how technology is changing the way our students think, in some ways for the worse. In particular, teachers are complaining that today's students are increasingly unable to develop their ideas in writing, and given the emphases of increasingly influential educators like Doug Lemov (who wrote a piece on the value of repetition that was published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal), this problem may well grow worse.

An antidote to the problem of dull formulas being taught to our high school English students may be found in the excellent Writing and Learning in Cross-National Perspective, which I hope to establish in the center of our writing program at One World Secondary School. In this fine book, David Foster and David R. Russell, both English professors in Iowa, study how writing is taught to students making the transition from secondary to tertiary education in China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, and South Africa. Among these countries, most of whose assessment systems give substantially more emphasis to writing than ours does, they find that France stands out as the only one in which students learn techniques in upper secondary education that lead to success in higher education as well; in all of the others, students experience some shock when faced with the new expectations of the university. In particular, French students learn to write the dissertation, which is translated as "a persuasive essay related to a reading", which differs from the Anglophonic essay structure in some interesting and important ways. A key difference is found in the placement of the thesis statement: we typically teach our students to place this at the end of the introductory paragraph, to be defended in (too often three) body paragraphs preceding a (too often redundant) conclusion. By contrast, in a dissertation, the answer to the problem or question posed is only arrived at in the concluding paragraph, after a student has tried out a tentative thesis and considered its antithesis earlier in the essay. This structure has the virtue of making the development of the composition more stimulating for both writer and reader, since, instead of having discovered a facile answer to a facile question in the 2-5 minutes available for planning in our short timed essays (AP English generally allows for 40 minutes per essay, the ACT and SAT still less) and then proceeding to defend it in a mechanical way, the French student will have four hours available for a single essay (the German student still longer), half the score of which will be determined by the student's plan, and so the student has the opportunity to spend plenty of time considering the various ramifications of more highly intricate questions, and may end up with a conclusion quite different from the one tentatively proposed hours before.

I have been experimenting with adapting the dissertation into the learning of English, and will keep interested readers posted as to our progress.