from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A response to Tom Vilsack 

As some may know, I am one of several educational bloggers who has participated in a dialog with Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and others, over at HeartlandPac. Recently the governor posted a message entitled Focusing on a complete education, in which he comments about his concern that test scores in middle school seem to show a decline in achievement as students progress from elementary grades to the middle school years.

What appears below is the comment I posted in response. My comment does not address all of the issues Gov. Vilsack raises, but does draw on my experience in teaching 7th and 8th graders , something I did for 4 of my 10 previous years in public school teaching.

Because I believe education is such an important issue for the future of our nation, and because I have little time recently for doing any other blogging, I am offering this as my educational diary of the day.


You deserve some feedback, and given the importance of the issue of education, I thought I will put my money (okay, my words) where my mouth is.

Let me start by noting that in my 10 previous years of public school teaching 4 were spent in middle school, 3 with 8th grades in a grade 7-8 school that was 93% African-American, and one with 7th graders in a 6-6-8 school that drew mainly (not exclusively) from a fairly wealthy (and white) section of Arlington County VA.

The phenomenon of test scores decreasing as students ascend the grade ladder is one on which a number of astute observers have commented over the years, among which is Gerald Bracey. And yet few people have meaningfully (at least in my opinion) examine why that might be. To understand, one has to think from the perspective of a modern adolescent, with ages ranging from 11-15. For one thing, one is dealing with the onset of puberty, a period of life with all kinds of additional pressures, as I hope many here can recall. There are biological changes in one's body, one's appearance. Hormonal balances are not stable. These are issues that have a profound affect on the worldview and lives of our young people, and far too often our schools do not fully account for this.

It is also a time where students are beginning to try to define themselves independently from their parents. That often creates stress at home, in ways that may not result in a positive environment in which school activities can flourish.

And also, it is a time when the structure and emphases of far too many of our schools robs the students of joys of learning and of exploration.

Remember, the vast majority of students begin schooling with excitement, with a real desire to learn. We have known for years that the further they progress up the K-12 ladder, the less they retain that excitement, that joy of learning for its own sake. Increasingly they absorb from the (no so ) hidden curriculum that what matters is scores on tests and grades. This tends to discourage the kind of intellectual exploration that involves risk of failure. And yet it is precisely such "risky" exploration that tends to result in the greatest amount of real learning, including the ability to self-correct, to monitor one's own learning processes. Instead students begin to narrow the focus of their academic endeavors. It becomes very common in middle school to hear the plaintive inquiry "is this going to e on the test?" In one sense the student is exercising mature economic thinking -- how do I maximize my score on the tests (which adults seem to think are so important) if I spend any time learning something that won't be tested. That puts pressure on teachers not to spend time on things that won't appear on the test, even if those are things that excite the students, or which provide context in which the testable content can be better understood.

Middle School is also a time where some students begin to systematically attempt to discern what it is the teacher wants, rather than what the truth might be. After all, teachers have a great deal of power over their lives -- they give the grades, they can refer a student to the administrative and disciplinary folks, they can give you detention, taking you away from friends and things that are far more enjoyable. And they can make the dreaded call home to the parents, which can result in consequences from no tv to severe beatings, depending upon the health of the family and the dynamics of the family culture. It becomes reasonable for students to devote effort to figuring out what the teacher wants so that their efforts are maximally directed towards those things that will result in positive consequences such as higher grades and the absence of negative consequences such as those just described.

The problems noted begin in high school. They clearly intensify for many students during their high school years. Again, far too much of what students are learning are not the real intellectual or moral lessons they should be learning. If the consequences of test scores are made increasingly severe, then it becomes far easier to justify and rationalize actions such as narrowing one's intellectual endeavors to that which will be tested, and even to cut corners -- or worse -- in the effort to achieve higher scores. We (adults in general) threaten them with consequences, such as being held back, or not graduating, or not getting into a good college, or getting a good job.

I accept that we will continue to test students, although I believe we need far less testing than we already have, and that such measurement should be done with instruments that are far more subtle than the ubiquitous 4 or 5 answer selected response exams upon which we so heavily rely because they are easy to score. We are measuring, but since the answer is binary, with no partial credit for a second best answer, and no opportunity for the students to correct her reasoning, the items are far too blunt to provide MEANINGFUL information to either the student or the teacher about the proper correctives that are needed.

But I do think we need to examine whether or increasing emphasis on "performance" is not in fact contributing ot the decline in the scores on the very tests we are using to measure (and I think not all that accurately) what our children know and can do.

This is not merely a question of educational philosophy. It also requires an understand of adolescent psychology, family dynamics, and social pressures. In the latter category one can not that by middle school years one can already notice the phenomenon where some Africa-American students face the pressure of NOT succeeding because if they succeed they will be accused of "acting white." It is also the time where gangs seriously begin their attempts at recruitment. Drugs, alcohol and sex begin to be parts of the lives of far too many students.

If we want our students to truly thrive, in every sense of the word, we cannot merely look at test scores and decide how we are going to improve them. We need to seriously reexamine the way we structure our schools, the expectations we place on our adolescents both within and without the walls of the schools. We need to accept that the official curriculum is not all that our students learn. And we need to be honest about what we - the adults and the society we run - are doing to our adolescents. Lower test scores are at most a symptom of a far more serious issue.

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