Impossible goals

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(A post for all.)

What is happening in education today? Essentially, we are threatening people from the top down. “Get those test scores up! Do it or else!” I have been known to glibly assert that if more people in education actually knew what they were doing, this management-by-threat system might work. “Do it or else!” has been used effectively in private industry for years.

I doubt the truth of my assertion, though. “Do it or else!” has been in place since 2003 when No Child Left Behind first bared its teeth. Yet schools in many areas show scant improvement and much of that improvement probably results from teaching directly to specific tests, narrowing academic content in an effort to push up scores with little regard for the long-term usefulness of abandoned content.

“Do it or else!” will not work when “it” is undoable. The boards in a Home Depot store cannot be used to build a skyscraper. I can say “Put a colony on Mars or else!” I might even be the President of the United States talking to NASA’s leaders. My threats will not necessarily result in a Martian colony. Budgetary, technological, supply and personnel issues are in play.

Threats have not produced the desired results in education today and at least part of the problem has to be our attempts to regard children as fungible goods. Back when I was studying for my Masters Degree in Business and Public Management at Rice University, we discussed fungibility. Fungible goods are goods that are interchangeable, possessing essentially identical characteristics. For example, if you and a friend go shopping together and you both buy 10 pound bags of Pillsbury flour, you won’t care who gets which bag when you split up later. Sugar is a fungible good. Depending on your needs, refrigerators may be fungible goods.

Children are virtually never fungible goods. Sam is not Abby is not Emma is not Joel is not Danielle is not Max and so on across the planet. You can’t exchange Joel for Max. And you can’t come up with a one-size-fits-all educational program that will meet Sam, Abby, Emma, Joel, Danielle and Max’s needs.

Since No Child Left Behind, however, we often appear to be trying to do exactly that. In effect, what happens today is simply silly. Administrators buy 7th grade math and science textbooks specifically written to a test – without regard for how well their students can read the books. They know the bulk of their students are reading at a 5th, 4th or even 3rd grade level, but they can’t buy the 6th grade book. That book doesn’t have “the right material.” It’s not geared to the 7th grade test. So they hand the kids a book that many can’t read, instead.

The phrase, “You can’t get there from here,” comes to mind.

A few years ago, I asked both my Assistant Principal and the Bilingual Director for my district for help getting reading-level appropriate Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) prep booklets to use in my afterschool ISAT tutoring classes. As usual, I had received books based on grade level rather than reading ability. The 8th graders were hanging in with their 8th grade books, challenged but not lost. The 7th graders might as well have received instructional materials written in hieroglyphics.

My 7th graders were reading sections about marathoners without knowing what a marathon was, and without enough English vocabulary to use context clues to figure that out. They would laboriously translate words in the reading sections. Translating one three paragraph section could take one-half hour for some of them. They were frequently totally missing the point of passages. These students were in the bilingual program because they could not pass a fairly easy English-language learning test that indicated they were ready for regular, English-language classes. They were going to have to take the ISAT along with everyone else.

My Assistant Principal told me he could not get 5th grade books, but he would see about 6th grade books. He knew what I was asking and why I wanted those materials. He also knew he risked upsetting multiple higher-ups by admitting to the need for these books. For political reasons, we had to be studying “appropriate” material. I need to note that my now-former Assistant Principal is a bright, savvy man who keeps up-to-date on best practices in education.

The Bilingual Director said, “But how will those books help get them ready for the ISATs?”

I simply pointed out that material in the 5th and 6th grade books contained numerous items that were repeated in some form on the 7th grade test. There seemed little point in continuing the discussion. When administrators think that students who are challenged by some of the vocabulary in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” are somehow going to pass the middle-school ISATs – well, the zombies are nearing the gates in my view. In fairness to my Bilingual Director, her focus on seventh grade ISATs was entirely understandable; her job potentially depended on student scores.

I never got any new books.

Handing those students grade-level prep books was not useless. They learned many new vocabulary words. They devoted hours each week to academic English, frequently picking the wrong answer at first, but then adding to their knowledge base while I patiently explained that the answer was not “B” but “C” and they needed to pick “C” for a set of reasons I carefully broke down for them.

But the prep books were still the wrong books. Handing a student in Physics 101 the textbook for Physics 102 or 103 will sink most students. In a small group, with my attention, these prep books weren’t sinking my seventh grade students, but they weren’t preparing them for the Illinois State Achievement Test either. When a student doesn’t know the majority of the relevant vocabulary in a passage, answering questions on that passage provides little test preparation. Fifth grade books would have taught my students considerably more English by virtue of being much closer to their understanding level. They would have been able to put much more material in context — a critical aspect for learning. Those fifth grade readers needed fifth or sixth grade books, books that would have allowed them to use context clues to figure out unfamiliar vocabulary.

In terms of the larger educational agenda, easier books would also have encouraged my seventh grade students to keep reading. If our goal is to foster independent reading, reading has to be fun sometimes. Enjoyment of a book depends heavily on reading speed. When a page takes too long to read, kids become bored. For many kids, too-challenging equals too-discouraging. For my seventh grade tutoring group, the ISAT prep books I had been given were nothing but exhausting and scary.

Common core proponents advocate for more complex, demanding literature and reading materials in the classroom, arguing that America’s students should be given the opportunity to read rich, complex text. I don’t disagree with that position. But not all books and not all materials are appropriate. My tutoring group never read those ISAT prep books: They deciphered them instead, almost as if they were scholars interpreting hieroglyphics.

Eduhonesty: Can we raise standardized test scores? I am sure we can, but I do not believe we can do so without radically overhauling education as we currently practice it. In particular, we should exempt students are going to get completely clobbered by those tests and put them into a longer school year with a longer school day, emphasizing the math and vocabulary they need in a rational, linear fashion. If the book matches the test, but the test does not match the student, we are wasting an opportunity and may even be wasting our student’s time.