Archive | March, 2015

Standards Based Education is Bad Education Theory

30 Mar

While discussing a student’s next class schedule with an outstanding student counselor, I learned my colleague had become dependent on testing data to place her students. That is not a surprise; it is one of the fundamental errors permeating education globally. Standards based testing is a fraud; a mirage that falsely projects an aura of objective analysis. As soon as high stakes are tied to these tests, their validity is undermined.

The learning standards upon which high stakes testing is based come from a mistaken philosophy of pedagogy that posits: a standardized learning rate, standardized interests, linear learning progression, developmental alignment, etc. Humans are not standard. Some learn to speak at 16 months and some don’t acquire that skill until 72 months. Some are short, others are tall. Some are fast, other are not. A child from urban Chicago has different perceptions and interests than a child from Winnemucca, Nevada. A global curriculum will not meet the needs of an endlessly diverse population. One size truly does not fit all. Even if it did, it would still be a bad idea to have political entities in centers of power deciding what that curriculum should be.

About 500 BC, the ancient Pythagoreans were a mathematically based cult. One of their beliefs (mathematical standard) was that there was no such thing as an irrational number. An irrational number is a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two numbers such as ½. The most famous irrational number is the ratio of the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter which is expressed as π (≈3.14). The writer, Morris Kline, claims that the man credited with the discovery of irrational numbers was a Pythagorean named Hippasus who had the bad sense to announce his discovery while at sea. He was thrown overboard for his heretical thinking![1] This story may be apocryphal but it does delightfully illustrate the danger associated with ossifying thinking with standards.

The longest most sustained use of standards and standardized testing arose in China more than 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty. It was an attempt to select government official based on some sort of meritocracy rather than feudal family station. However, local Lords were able to subvert the testing criteria and maintain the power of appointment. Starting in about 200 AD, China entered a 400 year long warring states period of instability.

In 581 AD, the new Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty achieved a coup over his employer the Northern Zhao and then militarily unified China. Emperor Wen believed he needed to protect himself from the power of feudal lords, so he reintroduced the ‘keju’ or testing system to select government bureaucrats. Meritocracy based on test results became the sole path to a government position. University of Oregon’s dean of global education and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Yong Zhao, recently wrote about the ‘keju’ system:

“The emperor’s biggest concern was keeping China unified under his family’s rule. Learning from his own example, he realized he needed a way to weaken the hereditary power of certain families and tribes. Thus, he needed to find people who could help govern the country without relying on the existing ruling class. He also needed a way to prevent capable talents from rising against the empire and reinforce among his subjects the need to obey the rightful rule of the Son of Heaven.

We can’t know how much Emperor Wen planned and strategized, but the establishment of keju accomplished every one of the goals.”[2]

The ‘keju’ exams focused on memorization of the Confucian cannon and interpretive expository writing about the cannon and current political affairs. By far the most prestigious position in pre-industrial China was a government appointment obtained by success in these exams. This testing became the focus of education for virtually everyone living in the most advanced civilization on the planet.

It has been estimated that in 600 AD China had at least a 400-year scientific lead on the rest of the world. So why didn’t the industrial revolution occur in China? Former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, Justin Yifu Lin posits:

 “I believe the real reason of the absence of scientific revolution was not due to the adverse political environment that prohibited the creativity of Chinese intellectuals, but due to the special incentives provided by the civil-service examination system. Because of this examination system, curious geniuses were diverted from learning mathematics and conducting controllable experiments. Because of this system, the geniuses could not accumulate crucial human capital that was essential for the scientific revolution. As a result, the discoveries of natural phenomena could only be based on sporadic observations, and could not be upgraded into modern science which was built upon mathematics and controlled experiments.”[3]

 In China’s case the test became the education standard and that has been an ironclad law of standards and standards based testing ever since. Even David Coleman, the man who sold the Common Core to Bill Gates and then directed their development, knows that the tests become the real standards that will be taught. In a speech, he said:

 “It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, and ‘They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.’”[4]

For America the first large scale standards movement was led by the Committee of Ten which published its report in 1894. Prepared under the auspices of the National Educational Association, this report was first published by the Bureau of Education, at Washington DC. The Committee of Ten was lead by Harvard University President, Charles W. Elliot. The ten members supervised the development of standards for 9 different subjects. Nine subcommittees of ten members each worked in various locations around the country on their particular field of expertise.

There was an attempt to insure that the subcommittees were constituted by members representing diverse geographical locations. The committees were dominated by college staff and administrators but there were one or two classroom teachers on most of the committees, but the largest group of educators in America appears to have been ignored. There were no women on any of the committees.[5]

Two of the published standards – and there are many more – illustrate the innate problem with codified standards:

 “They recommend ‘that the course in arithmetic be at once abridged and enriched; abridged by omitting entirely those subjects which perplex and exhaust the pupil without affording any really valuable mental discipline, and enriched by a greater number of exercises in simple calculation, and in the solution of concrete problems.’”[6]

So in mathematics the committee called for more drill and skill which is exactly the kind of teaching Benjamin Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’ called into question. The following comes from the science standards:

 “As regards Resolutions 3, 4, and 5, it should be said that the order recommended for the study of Chemistry and Physics is plainly not the logical one, but all the members with one exception voted for Resolution 3 because they felt that the pupils should have as much mathematical knowledge as possible to enable them to deal satisfactorily with Physics, while they could profitably take up elementary Chemistry at an earlier stage.”[7]

This decision is why to this day we teach biology then chemistry then physics. This order is exactly backwards. To read a biology book a student needs knowledge of chemistry and to understand the forces that drive chemical reactions the principles of energy from physics is needed. San Diego Unified School District tried to rectify this order but they abandoned their expensive effort. The district was unfairly punished when their 9th grade student test scores did no compare well with the scores of mainly 11th and 12th grade students from across California on mandated standardized testing.

Mark Silver of John Hopkins reports, “The standards movement has its roots in curriculum content and skills. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) was one of the first national professional organizations to publish national curriculum standards and goals.”[8] These standards were guiding documents for the development of the California math standards which are widely considered superior to the common core standards. The common complaint I heard from fellow teachers implementing the California math standards was that they were “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These standards took us from “uncovering” mathematical principles to “covering” the material. Constructivist approaches like problem based learning were completely undermined and math instruction was pushed back to 1894’s drill and skill model. The high stakes involved made success on a narrow range of tested material paramount.

Since the inception of the California math standards, ossified standards have existed; for example rationalizing denominators. This procedure insures that there are no square-root factors in a denominator. Before calculators, rationalizing denominators significantly eased difficult arithmetic, but after calculators dividing by radicals became no more difficult than dividing by sums. Still the California teachers were compelled to drill their students on an antiquated algorithm.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan and China reacted differently to being behind the West scientifically and technically. China maintained its education culture and purchased technology. Japan completely changed its approach to education and engaged in a strenuous effort to catch the West in science, mathematics and manufacturing. The hallmark of Japan’s approach was authoritarianism. The goals of education became modernizing and producing loyal disciples for the Emperor. These purposes were to be insured by tested education standards. The education reformer, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, criticized both the goals and the methods. He denounced mechanized education and agonized over putting children through “testing hell”.

With authoritarian standards based education, Japan became both a world power and a menace. China’s equally authoritarian standards based education led to weakness and vulnerability. Both countries were on a path of ruin. The renowned historian, Arnold Toynbee established criteria for judging whether a civilization was in a stage of growth or decline. He wrote:

“We must ask whether, as we look back over the ground we have traversed, we can discern any master tendency at work, and we do in fact unmistakably decry a tendency towards standardization and uniformity: a tendency which is correlative and opposite of the tendency towards differentiation and diversity which we have found to be the mark of the growth stage of civilizations.”[9]

Both John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi counseled against standardized education. Dewey stated “Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional.”[10] And Makiguchi theorized that “Education integrated into the life of society will yield benefits of well-planned living, without the undesirable effect of mechanical uniformity an inherent danger in standardized education.”[11]

What is the root of the persistent and two millennial old tendency for politicians with minimal knowledge of education creating education standards and mandating testing accountability? It originates in a deep rooted innate and evil desire in humans to control other humans. If we do not fight this tendency, we are doomed to live in an authoritarian society where political elites ensure subservience by controlling education standards enforced by standardized testing.

A better path forward is the development of consensus about the purposes of education through continual dialogue. Then allow professional educators to create curricular guidance by a process of peer reviewed research. Community schools should use that curricular guidance in the best way they see fit and should be encouraged to experiment. Statistical sampling identical to the National Assessment of Education Progress should be used to assess progress and provide information for the purposes of continued dialogue, research and further progress. It should be an ongoing process with no shortcuts; no silver bullets and no miracles.

As for my colleague’s concern about guidance in student class placement, teacher grades and recommendations along with input from the student and their parents is a far more reliable method of placement than relying on dubious standardized test score.

  1. Morris Kline (1990), Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, page 32. Oxford University Press
  2. Yong Zhao (2014), Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Page 38
  3. http://www.uq.edu.au/economics/cepa/docs/seminar/papers-nov2006/Lin-Paper.pdf
  4. http://atthechalkface.com/2013/12/23/this-is-the-common-core-you-support/
  5. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7129384M/Report_of_the_Committee_of_ten_on_secondary_school_studies
  6. https://archive.org/stream/reportofcomtens00natirich#page/105/mode/1up
  7. https://archive.org/stream/reportofcomtens00natirich#page/119/mode/1up
  8. http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Transforming%20Education/Articles/Trends%20in%20School%20Reform/
  9. Arnold Toynbee (DC Somervell), “A study of History” abridgement Volume 1 – VI, Oxford University Press, 1946, page 555
  10. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
  11. Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press. 2001 Page 18

iPads in School – Not Even if Free

1 Mar

Last November I trudged over to Chula Vista High School for the mandatory get trained up on the iPad or else session. A harsh cold front had dropped the local temperatures into the low 50’s and I actually had to wear a sweater (something we San Diegan’s rarely do) which I forgot because it was so warm when I left. It’s tough working in San Diego County, but I digress.

When I left Silicon Valley to become a teacher in San Diego, I was a big technophile. As each year passes, I become less enthralled with technology in the classroom. I teach some physics classes so I would like carts of laptops loaded with digital acquisition systems and I certainly like photo-gate timers that allow students to meaningfully investigate kinematics. I could see spending on high speed video equipment and electron microscopes but not on toys like the iPads.

I also teach mathematics. Before digital boards were installed, I had whiteboards all around a very shabby classroom. I could send multiple students to the boards which increased engagement and provided me with real time assessment. Now I have less board space to accommodate the expensive equipment. Spending on the digital whiteboards has dubious value. They make the teacher more dependent on a fragile technology that does not significantly enhance teaching and lessons are undermined when the technology fails and technology does fail. iPads are wonderful for checking social media, or email, or looking up restaurants, or playing games, but they do not solve any pedagogical problems. They are a technology that fails from time to time and unlike electronic whiteboards they introduce management nightmares to the classroom.

The number one application of the iPad at schools is – by far – gaming. Students quickly figure out ways to load games and play them instead of engaging in the learning. One of the major points of emphasis at my training was learning how to quickly assess what off-task things the students are doing with their iPads.

These devices have relatively small screens but school districts are buying licenses to load e-books on iPads instead of buying printed textbooks. Seven years ago, my math students were given the opportunity to check out an e-text instead of a printed book. Printed texts are heavy and we have no lockers at my school, so many students opted for the e-books. Within the first six-week grading period every student who opted for an e-text went to the library to get a printed book. In general, math textbooks from the giant publishers are poor, but they are wonderful when compared to studying mathematics from a giant publisher’s e-book. Of course on an iPad, e-texts are even worse, because the screen is too small.

To nurture the use of iPads in classrooms a learning management system must be in place. The system in my school district is called Canvas. Canvas may have the worst interface of any program I have ever used and that is saying a lot. One of the reasons this system has such a difficult interface is that it is designed to facilitate online education. Maybe this explains why schools are being pressured into buying iPads and learning management systems. The real purpose may be to put public schools on line, profit corporations that sell into the system and reduce the need for teachers.

That is a recipe for substandard education, but elites in this country do not seem to value quality education for common people. Bill Gates and his children went to Lakeside School, Barak Obama’s children go to Sidwell Friends School and wealthy people where I live send their children to schools like La Jolla Country Day. All of these pricey private schools have small class sizes ranging from 10 to 20 students and they do not give their students textbooks on iPads.

During my training in November, the youthful teacher who was leading the session was clearly excited by the possibilities with iPads. We were all required to make a video, use an app called Prezi and take a Kahoot quiz. Videos made with an iPad are of less quality than existing technology from those deprived pre-iPad days. Prezi is an app that has similar but reduced capabilities to PowerPoint which is a tool often associated with boring didactic lessons. Kahoot is an interactive group quiz facility that has limited application but could be used to start a conversation.

A colleague mentioned that some bright young teachers have made a few creative lessons with iPads. I am sure that is true, but I bet those same teachers could make creative lessons that do not involve iPads. iPads are not the seed of creativity. That seed exists in the person with a desire to bring teaching and learning alive.

Even if iPads were free, I would recommend against introducing them into the classroom and they are definitely not free. Spending on technology in public schools is straining budgets and causing class sizes to balloon. For fifty iPads and the support infrastructure required for their use in a classroom, another teacher could be hired and class sizes reduced.

Is it ethical to give these devices to students? Recently I read in the New York Times that Steve Jobs limited his children’s use of technology and that other hi-tech leaders like Chris Anderson were concerned about the danger to their children from these devices. An excerpt from the article:

 ’“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

“Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends. …

“The dangers he [Anderson] is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents.”[1]

The BBC has been conducting surveys about the dangers of internet enabled devices and the awareness that parents have of these dangers. They report:

 “Many children aged nine to 11 are indulging in very risky behaviour online, suggests a survey. Many are sharing personal information and playing games rated for much older children, found the survey drawn up by the ISC2 IT security education group. In addition, 18% of the 1,162 children queried said they had arranged offline meetings with friends made via the web.

“Meanwhile, a second survey suggests 55% of young people in England accept cyberbullying as part of everyday life. Security experts have urged parents to help their offspring stay safe by being more involved with what they do online.” [2]

With schools giving cyber-space enabled devices to their children, parents lose the ability to control their child’s exposure to the dangers of the World Wide Web. Children become more sedentary and device addiction is a real threat. Giving every student these devices is probably not pedagogically helpful, fails any reasonable cost-benefit analysis, and is not ethical.

1) Bilton, Nick, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent”, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/fashion/steve-jobs-apple-was-a-low-tech-parent.html?_r=0

2) BBC, Technology News, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-24580139