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.
Originally Published by The Daily Riff April 2010
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.