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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Entering Educational Dead-Time

 Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride. 
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull... 
                                                                            From "The Leaden-Eyed" by Vachel Lindsay

It's January. Students and staff have returned to school. September is a distant dream, and the long march through February, March and April stretches ahead. It's like the sequence of the python eating an antelope on the Nature Channel: It's hideous, but you can't look away. It's the beginning of the dreaded test preparation season.

Standardized testing—especially that borne of  No Child Left Behind and further supported by Race to the Top and the Common Core standards—is an entrenched ritual of the education industry driven by profit and politics. On January 8, it will have been 12 years since NCLB oozed its way into the system. With it came a lot flawed ideas about education and, as always, any number of idiocies that had nothing to do with classroom reform, including the little-discussed mandate that any school receiving federal funding must allow access to military recruiters.

My chief complaint about NCLB is supposedly its chief asset, one that most politicians praise: the mandate that funding will only be used for programs and teaching methods supported by "scientifically-based research." Did congress have any idea what this would mean in practice?

[Boredom Alert: you may find the following paragraph tedious. Feel free to skip to the next.]
Research in education has traditionally followed the methodology of the social sciences. This sort of research focuses on humans in the course of their lives rather than rats in a lab, and tends to be observational, descriptive and qualitative. This is necessary because we can't control variables outside the lab, and every human in a group represents and behaves according to a great quivering mass of unpredictable, heterogeneous idiosyncrasies. The literature of education, as anyone might guess, speaks to behavioral and cognitive tendencies that appear to occur in certain situations. Such studies are held to a moderately rigorous statistical probability level of  p 0.05—there is a 5% chance that differences between an observed group and the rest of the population is due to chance. Like the rest of the social sciences, education also makes use of meta-analyses, a  statistical method of combining the results of studies even though they may have been designed differently. Scientifically based research, on the other hand, reflects the lab setting and is held to a very rigorous probability level of p 0.01, the same as is used with pharmaceutical testing.

As Stetphen Metcalf puts it in his seminal article, "Reading Between the Lines,"
[NCLB] ...  led to a feeding frenzy. Educational Testing Service, maker of the SAT, has always been nonprofit; but it recently created a for-profit, K-12 subsidiary, ETS K-12 Works, to provide "testing and measurement services to the nation's elementary and secondary schools." To help market it, the company replaced CEO Nancy Cole, an educator with a background in psychometrics, with an executive from the marketing wing of the pharmaceutical industry.
And so it began. Several decades worth of research, teacher practice and educational materials were no longer valid or funded because they did not meet a pharmaceutical measure for predictability.  And out with the bathwater went a lot of curriculum that was no longer emphasized because the results of its study (and testing) couldn't be replicated scientifically. Instead, emphasis was on "minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market." (also Metcalf). Most schools, faced with "exposure" as failures, complied. It wasn't just art and music that suffered this time; free reading time, projects that put learning in real contexts, guest speakers, even class discussions -- cut back or, in some cases, banished. Publishers whose reading series had been adopted included mandatory classroom checks by company representatives to make sure schools were complying with the new curriculum to the letter. I know a teacher who was written up because the script with which he was provided was sitting on his desk rather than being held directly in front of his face. No kidding. And all of this was followed by tests, often designed with the help of the publisher with whom a district had contracted.

 NCLB is now subject to flexibility waivers, but the new legislation still mandates that annual standardized test scores are used as a "significant factor" in the performance evaluations of teachers. Change takes place slowly education. I'm afraid we'll continue to see children and teachers marching leaden-eyed to the drumbeat of institutionalized boredom and mediocrity unless there is a push to re-liberate enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity in schools  -- a push just as compelling and well-funded as the one that stifled education 10 years ago.


  1. Unfortunately, I think you have hit the nail right on the head. Great post.

  2. Thanks, JD. It doesn't pay to be right...