Archive | September, 2015

Standardized Control

24 Sep

“He had been educated only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man but kept a child.” [1] Henry David Thoreau’s description of his visitor at Walden’s pond seems a likely description of the result of standards based education and testing. Known derisively as “test and punish” education, standards based education is a behaviorist theory. This is a philosophy that is antithetical to human growth and development; to the development of capable actors in a democratic society.

Education is a social science. Societies are so complex that cause and effect relationships are obscured. Therefore, education theories are not provable in the same way as physics theories. Our beliefs about education are necessarily driven more by philosophy than experimental result. Of course skilled social scientists observe pedagogy in action and share their observations, but it’s still only good guidance and not a proven principle like buoyancy.

During graduate school at UCSD, my chemistry buddy and I would marvel at the kind of weak evidence that was offered as proof for education theories. In my previous career, I had seen theories with substantial evidence supporting them – obliterated. There used to be a theory that the paramagnetic limit for the amount of information that could be magnetically stored was 20 gigabits in a square inch. I was on a team that demonstrated 78 gigabits in a square inch. That breakthrough has led to today’s cheap terabyte hard-drives and the abandonment of a popular theory. In social science, theories are never so clearly defeated.

Today, education is rife with unproven assertions which are often not tested at all. Such as: standards based education is good, a national curriculum is needed, common core standards are internationally bench-marked, college and career readiness standards must be implemented, international testing is producing important data proving the failure of US schools, standards based testing is meaningful, teacher evaluations should include value added measures, no-excuses charter schools are good pedagogy, public schools are failing, private business can do education better and cheaper, teachers and their unions are the biggest obstacles to improved education. The list of assertions without proof in education is seemingly endless.

It is how we think about human value that is the prism by which we must construct our education programs. Last year, two German writers, Sija Graupe and Jochen Krautz, wrote an article about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) “From Yardstick to Hegemony.” They tell us that “ the OECD which – as initiator of the PISA assessment process – has since the 1960s and on its own account “become central, providing indicators of educational performance that not only evaluate but also help shape public policy.”

Gaupe and Krautz make their point through quoting OECD documents:

“The OECD program has declared war on the established plurality of educational goals and discourses (which have consistently reflected and renewed these goals) in order to replace it with a single novel concept: ‘Schools should lay the very foundation for the attitudes, desires and expectations motivating a nation to pursue progress and to think and act economically.’

“The OECD Conference documentation of 1961 declares unequivocally: ‘It goes without saying that the educational system must be an aggregate of the economy, it is just as necessary to prepare people for the economy as real assets and machines. The educational system is now equal to highways, steel works and chemical fertilizers”. Thus the claim can be made “without blushing and with good economic conscience that the accumulation of intellectual capital is comparable to the accumulation of real capital – and in the long range may outmatch it.'”

The OECD has it philosophically backward and that leads directly to behaviorism and dehumanized education. The OECD views citizens as state assets instead of seeing the state as existing for the benefit of its citizens. From Yardstick to Hegemony contains this clear analysis of the situation:

“The environment to which pupils and students are to adapt is not the economy of real experience but rather a mere ideal concept generated by mainstream economists, particularly those of the Chicago School of Economics who, in their pursuit of ‘economic imperialism’, have applied it to education: Its concept of a market is a purely abstract super-conscious price and coordination mechanism according to which all human activity must be aligned. What this unrealistic worldview setting in turn impedes is any critique or will to change because rather than being understood by the public as a theoretical construct it is, according to the neoliberal economist August Hayek, accepted by most as an immediately evident truth. Whether they are true or false, economic theories and all assessments based on these (such as PISA) determine reality. Those who choose criteria as a yardstick for everything else establish an arbitrary point of standardization where verification need not be feared. These ungrounded criteria then become – untested and without further thought – the defining norm for all further actions. As long as people believe having more PISA points is better than less in order to be successful economically they will, of course, do everything they can to acquire more. Education is then forced to uncritically yield to the pressure of comparative assessment, even if it is based on pure assertion.

In 1891, the National Education Association met in Toronto, Canada. It was at this meeting that James H. Baker’s committee made its report on the need for standardizing education. It’s a natural tendency that as a movement matures people will appear who want to standardize it. The main argument for needed standardization was the difficulty high schools were having creating classes that prepared students for entry requirements at Universities because the requirements were so varied. The Baker Committee report led to the establishment of the Committee of Ten and the first curricular standards in the United States in 1894.

I wanted to read the Baker Report myself and while looking for it I found a wonderful essay called “The School of the Future” by Francis W. Parker from the Cook County Normal School, Chicago, Illinois. He was writing about the common school movement (page 82):

“It was the inspired conviction of our forefathers that common education is as essential to democratic government and growth as air is to life. Our forefathers had an inspiration and a belief; they had no prescribed plan, or no precedent for that plan. They did not have the least conception of the mighty growth of the seed which they planted.

“The common school furnishes the essential principles in the development and perpetuation of a democracy, and its growth and progress has been purely democratic; it has been and is, “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” The common school had its birth in the New England school district; and the New England school district with the town is the root from which sprung all the democratic forms of government which have developed in our country. In a word, the spirit and nourishment of the common-school system has always depended, and depends today, entirely upon the will of the majority. State and national officials are given little more than advisory influences.

“There has been no active attempt at centralization. It is exceedingly difficult for our foreign friends and critics to understand our so-called school system. They are accustomed to look upon public schools from the standpoint of centralization, which produces uniformity, conformity and evenness, so that the endless variety, the total lack of uniformity, the innumerable differences which our schools present, is to them almost incomprehensible.

“Each and every school district has a pronounced individuality. Every state and stage of progress, from the early nebulous formative period to the highest products of Oswego and Bridgewater, may now be found in adjoining districts.

“The soul seeking peace and comfort under the dominance and permanence of fixed ideals shrinks with dismay from the inevitable blunders, stupidity, ignorance and calamities that invariably accompany all democratic growth. The short road of centralization seems to reach in a day that which takes years to accomplish under the patient waiting for that slow dawning of intelligence which leads to right action on the part of democratic communities.

“Our foreign critics mistake variety and honest individual striving for chaos. That which has its birth in the desires and intelligences of the people, and is applied by the will of the people, becomes an organic, permanent factor in the progress of civilization of that people. It is rooted and grounded upon the people-‘Vox populi. Vox dei.’ But that which is imposed upon a people by any authority below heaven breaks into atoms when the intelligence and power of a people can reach and control it.

“Centralized power may be a necessity for infancy, but manhood sheds it off for the strong wings of freedom.”

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.”[2]

I believe there is a superior way. Both John Dewey and the Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi counseled against standardized education. Dewey stated “Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional.”[3] 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.”[4]

In 1894, when the Committee of Ten was doing its work, very few teachers were well educated. Many only had high school diplomas. It is understandable that education leaders felt the need to provide teachers with detailed curricular guidance. Today that is not the case.

Salesmen trying to advance their charter schools might claim that they are innovative but they are not. The no-excuses charter schools are little more than behaviorist test preparation institutions. It is regressive education that borders on child abuse. The charter school movement which was originally viewed as an innovation incubator, but it has devolved into a blatant scheme to enhance corporate profits at the expense of tax payers.

There is an alternative. In 2015, there is scarcely a school district that does not have multiple professionals in education with doctorates and masters degrees on staff. Our public schools are perfectly positioned to lead American education to new heights and they do not need imposed standards. We have the intellectual and human resources needed for unlimited advancement, but they are being stymied by politicians and billionaire dilettantes that have no understanding of what good education is.

Stop all this imposing standards and testing baloney and allow our highly educated, dedicated and skillful national teaching corps to once again dazzle the world. Preserve our amazing public education system and protect it from voracious profiteers and their schemes to steal public funding for education.

  1. Thoreau Henry David, Walden, Thomas Y. Crowell Company (Apollo Edition, 1966) © 1961. Page 196
  2. Arnold Toynbee (DC Somervell), “A study of History” abridgement Volume 1 – VI, Oxford University Press, 1946, page 555
  3. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
  4. Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press. 2001 Page 18

Lunch with Larry

6 Sep

I recently wrote an open message to my congressman, Scott Peters, urging him to reject the proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In it I said, “When fads like “new math”, “phonics only” or “whole word” came along, they infected many jurisdictions but not a majority of the country. As their weaknesses manifested, these fads were abandoned before serious damage occurred.” Federally centered power would end that protection from bad policy. After reading this post, Professor Larry Lawrence invited me to lunch to discuss “new math.”

I met Larry briefly in Chicago at the April NPE conference. I knew he lived in Carlsbad, California less than 30 miles north of my San Diego home. I was intrigued by his proposal to get together and discuss the “Zen of teaching math.” So I agreed to meet him at a spot between our homes.

Larry has been called a “consummate teacher of math” and has a significant pedigree. After graduating from Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, Larry did his undergraduate work at Occidental College where he was a classmate of star quarterback, Jack Kemp. Barack Obama also attended Occidental. When finished there, Larry went on to Columbia University’s Teacher’s College pursuing a Masters degree.

It was at Columbia that Larry was introduced to a more profound grasp of the principles of mathematics and how students can successfully develop mathematical thinking. In 1958, almost 30 years before California’s 1985 adoption of “teaching for understanding” also referred to as “new math”, Larry was learning from the movement’s fathers. (1)

Referring to the 1985 adoption of “teaching for understanding” Elizabeth Green tells us in her book Building A+ Better Teacher, “… the California teachers were struggling to understand students’ ideas, figure out what the students needed to know, and then use that information to respond.” (2) Larry and I agreed that this was the essential weakness with “teaching for understand” – the elementary school teachers did not have the training to do it.

On day one of his first math class at Columbia (Advance Algebra), the teacher gave an instruction for an assignment that stumped Larry. He went throughout the dorm asking everyone he could find to explain to him what “one to one correspondence” meant. No one knew! In 1958, few people apprehended the fundamental principles of mathematics.

Larry also brought along a prompt from his professor. I have shared the setup here:

Arithmetic by mail: Stan Brown had a pen pal, Al Moore, who lived in Alaska. Stan and Al corresponded quite frequently. Stan liked to receive letters from Al because he wrote about interesting things like hunting and fishing and prospecting for gold. Al enjoyed hearing about the things Stan did, especially about school, for Al had had very little opportunity to attend school. One day, Al wrote to ask if Stan would mind teaching him some arithmetic. Stan agreed but decided he needed to know how much Al already knew. So, in his next letter to Al he included a simple test, and asked Al to write in the answers and to return the test to him. Al sent the test back immediately; he said it was very easy and asked Stan to send some harder questions next time.

Take 2 away from 21.                                                  1

What is half of 3?                                                        ͻ

Add 5 to 7.                                                                  57

Does 2 x 4 ½ equal 9?                                                No

Which is larger, .000065 or .25?                                .000065

How many times does 3 go into 8?                             Twice

How many times does 9 go into 99?                           Twice

Which is larger, 3 or 23?                                              23

What is a number smaller than 4?                               4 (written smaller)

What is a number larger than 4?                                 4 (written larger)

Some of Al’s reasoning follows.

Anyone can see that 3 goes into 8 twice, and pretty neatly too, without any 2 left over. You put 3 into 8 the regular way and then you turn another 3 around and put it in on the other side of the 8.

In question 4, you don’t even need a ruler to tell that 2 x 4 ½ is different from 9.

In question 8, 23 is larger than 3 because 23 already has a 3 in it and a 2 added on in front.

Larry was an early adopter of “new math” when in 1959 he returned to Morningside High School to teach mathematics. Since taking that decision, he has dedicated his life to improving education in California. In the early 1960’s, Larry may have been the first California teacher to teach calculus in high school.

His career includes a stint at UCLA working in the lab school then known as Seeds. In 1975, he received his doctorate from UCLA and went on to work as director of curriculum for the Turlock School District. He also served as the principal of an elementary school in Upland California. In 1982, he returned to UCLA to again work in the lab school training elementary school teachers how to teach mathematics.

Larry’s story is also the story of education reform gone wrong. There are many Larry Lawrence’s out there who have dedicated their lives to understanding teaching and learning. They are a treasure. They have both theoretical knowledge and practical experience, but as Elizabeth Green reports (and then praises) people like Doug Lemov and Stacy Boyd purposefully shunned people like Larry when they formulated their “no excuses” charter school movement and embraced pedagogy spiced with “disruption.”

Larry told me that in 1993 he got involved with developing a charter school. The lab school at UCLA was having a difficult time surviving and they decided to become a charter. In retrospect, Larry says that was a mistake because on the whole, charters are damaging the public education system. Whether they are good or bad, “charters harm public education.”

It was a wonderful lunch at a second floor corner table overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The drive from La Jolla along old highway 101 to the Ki restaurant in Cardiff by the Sea is among the most breathtakingly beautiful drives in America. The restaurant Larry chose had a wide variety of; wraps, smoothies, tofu dishes and teas. The staff knew Larry by name. I had the cheeseburger.

  1. Green, Elizabeth. Building A+ Better Teacher, W.W. Norton & Company New York and London, ©2014 by Elizabeth Green – page 102
  2. Ibid. page 105