Yesterday I introduced a handful of random articles about education that I thought were worth sharing. But today’s three are the best I’ve read in a long time. I feel like they really get to the core of the biggest problems in schools, and I only wish the people making big decisions about education, especially the ones who have never been in charge of a classroom, would take these ideas to heart.
This article is great because it reveals the unstated assumptions behind most of the rhetoric we read and hear about education, and shows why they’re wrong. I love the description of test-prep-driven schooling as a “hamster wheel”:
My favorite points are the ones attacking standardized testing, the international competition mentality, and the idea that students should be motivated to learn because it will get them a good job someday. This last myth, #4, is spurious for a couple reasons. First, learning should be intrinsically motivated. Second, the idea of eventual financial reward is only motivating if a student can look that far into their own future and reasonably believes they will get that reward. Very young students have no concept of adult careers, and don’t know how present effort is related to eventual success (and when they’re young is precisely when they begin to fall behind). But what’s most depressing to me is how cynical some students are about whether their hard work will ever pay off. They have never known anyone personally who succeeded in real life, so they figure there’s no point in trying too hard because they’ll be discriminated against, or be unable to afford college, or success will elude them in some other way that’s out of their control. When that’s the case, it’s totally rational and even smart for them to put in a bare minimum of effort. Sad but true.
Once you’ve debunked and rejected those myths, the question remains, what is wrong with schools and what can be done to help the situation? This article does a good job of explaining why trying to reform schools by focusing primarily on teachers is misguided:
I don’t think many people know that the statistic about four years of good teachers in a row closing the achievement gap is based on extrapolations, not on some experiment with lucky low-income children who had four great teachers. Researchers took measurements of student growth from one year of good teaching, and projected that out to see how many years it would take to close the gap, using equations based on predicting the growth of corn, because children’s learning is exactly as predictable and regular as the cultivation of a genetically engineered crop. Policy makers are focusing on teachers because of research like this, but they’re ignoring the biggest factor, poverty.
Poverty is one main focus of Diane Ravitch, who may be my new favorite education policy person. She has a new book out, called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. I’ve started reading the book, which is long and involved, with lots of graphs and charts and citations. I’ll review it here eventually, but no promises as to when. Ravitch has been giving great interviews to promote her book:
And what does work? She suggests better prenatal care, early childhood education, and health services in schools. My favorite of her common sense solutions:
The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong.
I guarantee you will never find an actual teacher who will disagree with that. And here’s more Ravitch, summing up all of our problems in education in about two sentences:
the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores. That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.
Amen, Diane. This is the bottom line: our schools and our communities are reflections of each other. You can’t improve our schools without improving our communities at the same time. Any effort that focuses too narrowly on one or the other will fail. As long as our society has incredible income inequality, there will be incredible inequality in educational opportunity.