The elected leaders of New York State passed a budget that included education reforms that have been 30 years in the making. These reforms represent the worst that education has to offer. These reforms came about in part because educators lacked the ability to counter the relentless attacks that insisted that our education system was failing. We failed to provide a narrative of what we envisioned for future of education.
What happened? How did Data Become King?
The march toward, reform begins with a Nation A Risk. The report recognizes that education in our country was extremely uneven. With alarmist rhetoric, it paved the notion that education could and should be quantified and datafied. This movement toward ever increasing statistical comparison coincided with the advancement of more sophisticated computers and the fed the nation’s need for quick information. No Child Left behind and Race to the Top continued the data crunching legacy. As data became more prevalent and easy to disseminate the public demanded more of it. We ushered in the era of school report cards and demanded more and more reporting from schools. Schools now crunch numbers to produce reports concerning the growth rates of minorities to the number of violent incidents in a school. Data is king. It has become the reason that schools exist. As more data is produced the more the public insists that data must be produced. Then we falsely believe that we can make important decisions based solely on numerical data.
Data tells a limited story
As we have increased our reliance on data, we have discredited non-comparable information as being subjective and therefore not useful for comparison. Taken out of the philosophical world and into the real world this would be be akin to purchasing a car by statistics only. Imagine purchasing a car by comparing the numbers only. How many MPG does the car get? How much horsepower can be produced? How reliable is it? By comparing a limited amount of statistical data points car companies could could be evaluated based upon these numbers. Since we know the numbers we could buy the car sight unseen. Would it matter if the car had no creature comforts? In this world, there is no need for test drives or even to look at the vehicle.
We rationally know this is obscenely ridiculous. This is not good for objects like cars and it certainly should not be good for complicated people. Yet we have been accepting of it for children.
We have now created systems to make judgements based upon data points without ever meeting the teacher, principal or the student. Non comparable traits, and subjective information such as compassion and empathy are immediately discredited and removed from any evaluative processes. Our children and teachers are reduced to scores and numbers. During classroom observations, the observer records what the teacher says and how a student responds. How the teacher delivers a question, tone of voice, or clarity of the voice doesn’t matter, so long as the appropriate words are used. Humanistic characteristics are discredited even as teachers note the increase of children with poor impulse control, bullying behaviors and lacking empathy.
Datafication leads to a limited view of education
What does it mean to be educated? Intelligent? The framers of the Common Core, clearly and distinctly define education as someone that is college and career ready. This is contrary to previous educational philosophies that contend education is necessary for a well functioning civilized democracy. Others have countered that education is necessary for an individuals well being. This is exemplified by the statement “the unexamined life is not worth living”. These notions of education have been rejected. They harder to quantify and measure. They do not created data points.
Datafication leads to number spinning
Several international scoring agencies ranked our education system in the middle of the pack. However, not all nations allowed all students take the tests. The nations that rank highly tend to be homogenous nations with a culture of authoritarian rule, where children live to perform on tests. Yet anecdotal information from citizens of these nations speak of bribery and corruption in order to ensure children achieve high scores. Students speak of cramming information into their heads, for an exam, then they promptly forget what they have learned. Granted these students are now studying here in our country, but they speak of the ability in our country to ask questions and gain a deeper knowledge of a subject. They speak of higher standards in their country, but recognize that their education systems are not designed to educate all students.
Those who want to demonstrate that we have the better education system parse the data that works for them, and visa-versa. Reports have indicated scores are better from one country because there is a greater girl to boy ratio. Data has been shown to prove countries with longer school years and days perform better and data has been used to show that the length of school days and years have no bearing. Numbers are used to spin a point of view and still sound valid.
Datafication combined with fear leads to intense control.
Freedom of speech a founding principal of America has been removed from teachers and from college professors. Teachers now need to sign non-disclosure letters and need to be wary of how they approach topics that may carry a message that is different from the school administration. While whistleblowing laws are in effect, they effectively allow us to tattle on our colleagues breeding mistrust and contempt. We are not free to share our opinions. This has had the effect of supporting state policies by silencing those that disagreed. In the absence of a counter narrative one assumes the prevailing narrative must be correct. During what is now called the “roll out” of the common core, (it was then the “unpacking”), a resounding silence by some teachers was interpreted as acceptance. Those that did not think that this was a better way of educating, wondered what they were not understanding.
Controlling the message has become increasingly important, the state is now requiring to approval for professional development. While there is a legitimate interest in making sure training is “rigorous”, it also ensures that the message is clear and by effect, state sponsored. While teachers complained about teaching from a script, those training teachers also used a script. During some professional trainings, a fellow trainer attends as a “peer reviewer”. This ensures the message of script is followed and this “peer” provides back up for the trainer if a contrary question arises
Using the public’s fear, from Columbine, and Sandy Hook, our schools are increasingly looking like fortresses. Great expense has gone into surveillance cameras and controlling the entrance points to schools. Personnel often wear badges like they work in a high security building. Teachers are encouraged to find places where they can hide their children in the event of an unwanted intruder. While in today’s climate these precautions seem reasonable, it is interesting to note that during the 90’s schools were being built with exact opposite philosophy. At that time, teacher on student conduct was the rage of the day. Newspapers ran stories about the molestation of children by educators. These schools were built so that there was no place that a student and teacher could be alone unseen.
Intense control means that outside visitors are not generally welcomed. They may be ushered in quickly to the auditorium for an assembly but they are not encouraged to see what is happening within the building. Teachers, in their efforts to control their time with the students have limited guest presenters. They say they simply can not give up their time. The result is that schools are an increasingly secretive place even to their own taxpayers.
What counter vision of education do we have? What have we lost?
Regurgitation of acquired knowledge seems to be largely useless in an age where information can be gathered so rapidly. Deep understanding and curiosity are necessary to solve tomorrow’s problems. Soft skills, that are difficult to measure, are needed to work collaboratively in teams. This is acknowledged by the trainers of the Common Core. They have discuss and demonstrate ways of how we can encourage these skills within the classroom. Many teachers cite this as reasons why they like the Common Core but this was done long before the Common Core. Cooperative learning was a favored technique among social studies teachers 15 years ago.
Before the Race to the Top, required Common Core Curricula, we were moving, albeit it slowly, to a new method of learning. This new way of teaching and learning had connections to the local community, individual skills and an understanding of individuals. We can not provide every child the exact same nutrition and expect everyone to thrive equally, nor we can not provide every child the same education and expect the same outcomes.
We came to believe, thanks to the work of Howard Gardner, that there are many different types of intelligence’s. Some people can excel in one area but not another. When we enter the “real world” we recognize leaders as people that are good at identifying an individual’s strengths and weakness, or how they are intelligent. We recognized that working through a student’s strength was a stronger way to work on skill deficits. Model schools began to integrate community interactions. In one example, a school took the first week to look around their community identifying problem areas, they spent the next several week working on written drafts that would eventually be given to the town council where they would present their findings. The council would approve a project and the students would then work toward creating solutions. In one town, the students learned from the lobstermen that barnacles grew on their boats, yet they had no way of knowing when it was bad enough to have to remove the boat from service. So they periodically pulled their boats from service, losing that day’s catch. The students solution was to create remote controlled submarines that could inspect the boat while it was still in the water.
Under this style of learning, learning is inquiry based, personal and immersive. As we moved toward this model of learning the Board of Regents began to work on individual learning portfolios, with a concept that students work with a teacher to develop target goals. Teachers would be a support system for students teaching ancillary skills rather than broad based content skills. Though content knowledge and understanding would be necessary. Schools would be set up in workstations like those found in many business. Some students may be afforded flexible school hours so that they could maintain a job and attend school. In this environment schools may be open 24 hours a day and students may come and go as they wish. A system like this puts the responsibility of learning on the student rather than the teacher. Students could be assessed on a spiraling system where a skill once mastered leads automatically to the next skill. Evidence of mastery would need to be provided and retained in a student workfolio.
While it may still be beneficial to have norm referenced assessments-assessments that show what others are doing at a given age they would not be tests that can be passed. A college or employer would be given a written summary of skills strengths and weakness. Using the car metaphor, this would be a written auto review. They could go to the workfolio for actual work samples. Educators call this type of assessment authentic assessment. One of the advantages of authentic assessments is that it is virtually impossible to cheat. The means and incentive to cheat is removed.
We would not need signed disclosures and rooms especially designed to protect the integrate of tests.
The Innovative Economy
We spoke of the innovative economy, where we would have practicing professionals coming to schools to share their knowledge. When a student has a banking unit they would learn from an actual banker- facilitated by a teacher. Schools would be inviting and welcome the community.We began building networks of teaching experts that would be willing to come into our schools-collaboratively. This work had started and was dropped.
We discussed having alternating quarters of the year spent toward traditional school work with field based learning.
Theory even at a young age would be paired with meaningful practice. Using this as a model, teachers were learning ask inquiry based questions. Strong teachers would never explain but rather learn good questioning techniques in order to lead children to discover the answers or assess their work. Some of these practices have been incorporated in the Common Core implementation, but can it not effectively be done when a particular outcome (answer) is required. Under inquiry based learning children must be active participants in their learning as learning objectives while present are not always the focal point of a lesson. In real life, we rarely have objectives and clearly defined assessments. We must learn to adapt to our environment and make decisions based upon the available resources. In this style of education, money is spent on materials that fosters immersive and experiential learning. These types of schools would be encouraged to work and strengthen their communities that support them. There would be a direct return on investment. Innovation, and collaboration would allow students and teachers to experience real world technologies, while the schools could support localities with new technologies and expertise while training business and students. These schools would be proactively seeking 3d printers, robotics and computer programming-without worrying about where it fits in a narrow curriculum. Schools could support business by investing in an infrastructure that individual business alone may not be able to afford.
As teachers focus on performance reviews, and test scores, it is important to understand what we are giving up on the name of expensive bureaucratic accountability. We are ushering in the age of punishment and compliance. We can only pray that our students are able to see beyond what is modeled for them.