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A Glaring Fundamental Flaw In Education Policy

CJW, April 29, 2010 8:36 AM


"Truly effective teaching meets each student at his or her own level and
raises that individual to a higher level.

The Fundamental Flaw in Education Policy

By Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.

Education policy in the United States is built on a fundamentally flawed chain of reasoning. The underlying assumption is that student achievement depends on the abilities of the teachers, and that achievement is measurable with standardized tests. Therefore test scores identify successful teachers. High test scores result from high-quality teaching that should be rewarded and emulated. Low test scores mean that the teachers are incompetent. Schools with consistently low scores are failed institutions that should replace their teachers or be closed.

The flaw in this reasoning is so glaring that I am amazed that these assumptions drive national education policy. A simple thought experiment exposes the fault. Imagine two schools at opposite ends of the test-score spectrum. For example, in Baltimore where I live, there are private college-prep schools filled with students who score in the 95th percentile and above on standardized tests. There are also public schools filled with students who cannot read at grade level, and that have graduation rates less than 50%. Many of the public schools are labeled as failures because of their low test scores. Imagine the following experiment: move all the students from one of the private schools to one of the failed public schools, and all the students from the failed school to the private school. Do not change the teachers, administrators, or curricula. A year later, test all the students again. If the assumption that test scores depend on the teachers is true, the test scores at the two schools should not change.

Of course, our assumption would be proven false. We don't have to actually do this experiment to know its outcome. Test scores would follow the students, not the schools or the teachers. In fact, we could keep the students in place at their respective schools and switch the teachers. Under these circumstances school test scores would not change, which means that the "successful" teachers at the private school would now be labeled "failures," and the "failed" teachers at the public school would now be labeled "successful."

I've taught college for many years, and I have observed that the results of the tests I give depend more on what I call the "meta-skills" of the students than on any other factor. Two weeks into a course, before I have had a chance to teach much of the material, I have a good sense of how much each student will learn by the time the course ends. I know who the successful students will be simply by observing their behavior. Successful students rarely miss class; they sit in the front and center of the classroom, and are actively listening to what I say. They take notes and ask questions that reveal knowledge of the assigned reading. None of this behavior is taught by me. Successful students come into the course with the meta-skills needed to learn the knowledge and skills I plan to teach them.

This is not to say that I, the teacher, do not matter. Teachers do matter. I am the person with a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject that I will work to communicate. I am the person with the expertise necessary for evaluating the students and assigning meaningful grades. The students might have the "meta-skills" necessary for learning, but they need guidance and feedback from a teacher to learn a specific subject.

The reality is that the teacher-student interaction is a relationship. By definition a relationship requires the consent and efforts of two people. A relationship cannot be imposed on another person. The factory model of education, in which students simply show up and have knowledge transferred to them by the teachers, is not valid. Learning is an active process, not passive.

The good news is that there is no single, correct way of having a student-teacher relationship, anymore than there is a single correct way of having friendships, marriages, and parent-child relationships. But, the fact that different students have different needs that require different kinds of student-teacher relationships has to be recognized. Teaching students who have the meta-skills necessary for learning requires a different approach than teaching students who do not.

For example, at the private college where I teach, a chronic problem is too much parental involvement. The phenomenon of "helicopter parents," who do not let go and allow their children to become independent learners, undermines our educational goals. We also have students who have never experienced frustration or failure before, and have to learn to accept that not everything they do will be a success. Learning to cope with failure is an important lesson in becoming an adult.

But, public schools with low test scores often face an opposite set of problems. For many students, their parents are not involved enough their education. The fact is that parents teach most of the meta-skills that successful students have, not their teachers. Many of these students flounder because their parents did not teach them how to have a productive relationship with a teacher. And, many of these students have only experienced failure; success remains elusive.

This is the problem with "standardizing" our curricula, methods, tests, and expectations. The circumstances that determine teacher-student relationships vary greatly. Teaching methods that work for Bob might be ineffective for Ben. Expectations that are too low for Alice might be unrealistically high for Anne. Truly effective teaching meets each student at his or her own level and raises that individual to a higher level. That means that each student-teacher relationship should be unique, which makes it impossible to identify truly effective teaching with a standardized test.

Joseph Ganem, Ph.D., website here, is a professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland, and author of the award-winning book on personal finance: The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy. It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make financial decisions.

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It's always interesting to hear college professors' take on students coming in from the K-12 system and what you said seems to be pretty consistent with much we're hearing. One prof at a top tier college recently told me that "the A's are better A's than they used to be, but the B's are gone, replaced by more C's and D's", which is a growing concern. In other words, the chasm between students seems to be getting larger, and we're not even talking disadvantaged kids here, which is troubling. We're also hearing about the inability to take "risks" as you you mentioned, which in this case, could be a simple as a project without specific written instructions, allowing the student to "figure it out".

As to the good news that you had mentioned, we are encouraged to see schools like Harlem Village Academies http://bit.ly/dua411 incorporating those meta-skills in the school culture with notable success. This school serves the most disadvantaged, where the leadership understood not to expect those skills or much structure/discipline at home.

As to the non-disadvantaged students . . .

Sometimes I wonder if the students who are disengaged in college class may be so for other reasons, such as college for them may just be something "to get through" or to buy time, or because they came through a K-12 system that was just about the test, and they learned how to play the "education game" and not so much learning how to learn and wanting to learn more.

We also talk to a lot of students and when we hear comments (mainly from High schoolers) to the effect that they stop listening in class when the teacher tells them "it won't be on the test" (and where they just start studying at the same time for what WILL be on the test), it makes one crazy to think what an education is all about.

I've shadowed numerous classes K-12 and it is amazing how different the SAME kids will act with different teachers; how some teachers just have a way of connecting to most students where they engage them on a completely different level compared to their teacher peers even in the same school. I've sat in classes where the teacher is dull as dirt where I could not imagine myself sitting through the class, let alone a 8 year old. These are the teachers who are trying to "get through the material" rather than trying to connect to the students. They are disengaged or gave up a long time ago. Plus you see the better teachers are constantly honing their skills. Kids can sense the difference when a teacher "sees" them, as you so well described the individualized, unique relationship. Try measuring that into standardized test. . .or what about where it may take a few years (time: give it a value) before a teacher's effect, good or bad, kicks in?

With all things being equal (leadership, environment, etc.), teachers make the (corrected: a) difference. Too many studies show it. But we all know it without the studies. Maybe the strong A's would be there no matter what, but if we are "losing" the other students in their K-12 journey because of the "factory" mentality in your post, it may explain the enormous college drop-out rates, too.

I'm feeling that if so many students are going through the K-12 system with mainly a mind-numbing experience about learning, it only makes YOUR job that much harder time they get to you...

Great post - - C.J.

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We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next twelve years telling them to sit down and shut up.
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