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Friday, May 9, 2008

Schools are in the Business of Creating Low Achievement

Currently education reforms efforts operate like cosmetic concealer. Reformers focus on superficial solutions when the problems are profound. Researchers often fail to identify unexamined assumptions, leading to fatal flaws in the research. A good example is test scores. Test scores are low so we need to raise them. So we mandate and implement all sorts of myopic strategies for raising test scores. Then if test scores go up, the cosmetic concealer has been successfully applied and we can declare the problem solved. These strategies are myopic because they do not begin to address the deeply embedded, underlying features of the system. As long as superficial features take up our time and attention, we hardly notice, much less address, the deep systemic problems.

The public accepts increased test scores as an encouraging sign of improving academic achievement, in part because powerful education stakeholders, via the media, have conditioned us to consider test scores an acceptable proxy for achievement. Whether test scores do indeed serve as a valid proxy is a major unexamined assumption. Once in a while, the public becomes aware of an incongruity in the assumption. But we do not stop to question it closely.

For example, in the case of Head Start, whose goal is to give kids the advantages and opportunities they might not be receiving at home, early gains are lost by the third grade. Why is this happening? What is going on in school that is undermining the progress that the kids have already achieved? Is their achievement leaking out? Was it never there to begin with? Or is there a problem with the tests? The public simply is not demanding answers. On the contrary, society seems resigned to accepting low levels of academic achievement. Why could that be?

Let's ask Judge Joe Brown, an African-American TV judge, on Fox TV. On May 9, 2008, speaking to an African-American defendant, the judge declared, “There are not enough jobs to go around. So society is depending on people like you to get themselves in trouble, get locked up, and take themselves out of the job market.” Judge Joe Brown did not originate this idea; sociologists have been saying the same thing for fifty years. The judge is right. The unemployment rate is about 5 percent right now. Imagine what the rate would be if all people were educated to their full potential and much fewer were warehoused in prisons. Think too of all the people the criminal justice system supports. According to at least one account, criminal justice is one of the biggest growing occupational fields today. People who have accomplished high levels of academic achievement expect to be rewarded with a relatively high level job. Society needs to create people to take what society deems to be low level jobs. A PhD does not want to drive a taxi.

So children are legally compelled to go to school where they are exposed day after day and year after year to being molded to the specifications of society. One of the ways school shapes children is through a combination of low expectations and mislabeling the curriculum. Here are some examples:

1.Critical Thinking

What passes for critical thinking is not critical thinking. A second grade critical thinking workbook (critical thinking workbook? a workbook?) asks, Do you like African elephants or Asian elephants? Curriculum tells students year in and year out that any kind of opinion is critical thinking. In college, students often misinterpret an evaluative essay question to be an opinion question. When they lose points, they complain that everyone is entitled to their opinion and therfore there are no right or wrong answers to opinion questions. If so, there would be no point in ever having essays questions which ask for an opinion.

They do not understand that an opinion may be well defended or poorly defended. They have become used to assignments for which they are asked to give opinions without basis. For example, after a lesson on global warming, they typically might be asked how they would solve the problem. Scientists themselves have not figured that one out. Students are also encouraged to consider responses that are tantamount to “I think because I think” to be excellent critical thinking because they get good grades when they write such nonsense. After a lesson on the features of viruses and the debate among scientists as to whether viruses are living things, students might be asked whether they think viruses are living things. The most obvious approach would be to compare viruses to the characteristics of living things and evaluate whether they measure up or not. A response like, “I do not think viruses are living things because I think only living things can make other living things sick” is worthless.

Critical thinking is not just another subject like math or art. Critical thinking is integrative and interdisciplinary requiring research, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and defense. It is not supposed to be just one more piece of an already fragmented curriculum. By mislabeling poor thinking as “critical thinking,” schools betray that they do not really expect students to exhibit good thinking.


There are lots of good reasons to integrate the curriculum. For one, an integrated curriculum reflects the integrated nature of real life problems and promotes critical thinking. In practice, integrated curriculum is nothing but themed units. For example, the teacher might pick “the ocean” as a theme. In reading class, the story will involve the ocean somehow. Science may involve a topic from oceanography. The story problems for math will add and subtract fishes or shells or whatever. In reality the curriculum is as disjointed as it ever was.

At the next level, if “the ocean” is the organizing concept, then maybe the teacher would show how to determine the age of clam shells, or how Fibonaci numbers work in the spiral of sea shells. At an even higher level, the teacher would choose math, literature, science, social studies, art, and music topics where the ocean is integral to understanding the connections between the topics. In “The Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway describes the anatomical effects of the old man's battle with the fish. This would be a good time to study the anatomy Hemingway describes. The anatomy illuminates the novel and the novel illustrates the anatomy. It would also be a good time to study not only Cuba, but American expatriates in Cuba. I am not saying that elementary teachers should teach Hemingway, but how about a fifth grade book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What an opportunity for a compelling social studies unit. By mislabeling themed units as integration, schools betray that they do not really expect students to synthesize knowledge.


Grades are intended to be a reflection of understanding, but they can be more like a fun house mirror with a distorted reflection. The problem is students do not know they are looking at a distorted reflection. A good grade is taken to indicate solid understanding. Students who get an “A” in math thus "know" they are good at math. However, the “A” may only mean the student has a good memory for recipes. The student is able to remember and execute accurately the mechanical recipe for solving a particular type of problem. A student can go a long time like that, but sooner or later, very often in algebra class, they find out they never really had a profound understanding of math. I cannot tell you how many struggling algebra students have complained that they do not understand why they are having so much trouble with algebra because they have always gotten an “A” in math. I often find they are harboring basic misunderstandings of place value, fractions, and other topics.

I surprise college students on a regular basis by telling them that they will not be able to earn an “A” or “B” by relying on partial credit. Too many of them respond as if I were breaching some implicit unwritten social contract. By mislabeling good grades as evidence of understanding, schools betray that they do not really expect deep levels of understanding because such understanding is not essential to earning a good grade.

Many educational buzzwords mislabel, resulting in a kind of Newspeak that allows society to maintain a structure for perpetuating and reinforcing the status quo. Here are few for the dear reader to think about: empower, diversity, self esteem, mentoring, student-centered, collaboration. I will leave it to you to consider how such words obscure more than they elucidate. Perhaps some of you will be able to add other words to the list.

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