Saturday, April 10, 2010

Systems-Centered Standards

flickr CC image via PinkMoose

The problem with education standards in North America is they are system centered. My friend Gord Atkinson (via Twitter @Principal20) came up with a sadly accurate definition of a system-centered education system- he characterizes it as budget crossed with social engineering. Brilliant, and tragically a massive reason why we're not moving education reform forward toward what it should be; a child development centered system.

It sounds crazy that a system centered approach to education would ever be good- like restaurants serving food without asking the customers what they want. Gord's assessment that budget and social engineering are at play makes the issue easier to understand, if not to accept.

To state the obvious, there is a cost to education. Of course fiscal responsibility is critical if government is to continue to provide any sort of education system; this isn't at question, but how much really is our system dependent on the almighty dollar? In "Why Is It Always About the Funding?" I stated that,
...obviously funds are required to support many elements of the education system. Teachers need to get paid, resources need to be supplied and schools need to be built and maintained, however, when it comes to ideas supporting better practise, I would submit that perhaps the best education reforms require no financial support whatsoever...  As intelligent professionals who know tacitly what works and what doesn't in their classrooms and schools, teachers typically integrate and synthesize their philosophical thoughts in an effort to reform their personal practise and refine their craft. I've had enough professional conversations with my teaching colleagues to know that collectively, we also have a lot to say about how these efforts can be extrapolated to a broader education reform context.
We need to accept that politics are politics, (party agendas, personal political aspirations, fiscal realities and the never-ending quest for power are obvious factors that affect not just the funding of education, but every publicly funded institution,) and if we're going to tip education reform so that it reflects a child development-centered philosophy we need to get past our obsession with blaming government for our system inadequacies. Government is what it is; it will always require that education answers to a set of standards that reflect the relative success of the system. Understanding this, and also being pedagogical experts, it's incumbent upon teachers to show government that we too aren't interested in removing standards, but that we are interested in defining better ways to reach them. Let's let the government define the standards, while we define the path to get there.

As opposed to what we seem to approach as an absolute process with end goals, education reform should be a ubiquitous, constant, never-ending process. If we intend to move toward a child development-centered education system, teachers need to take the lead role in showing government that we know better ways to teach and evaluate kids so learning is evident, and that in many cases will cost less. The obvious example is weaning the system from high-stakes, standardized testing routines. We have come to accept these tests as just something we do, but this hasn't always been the case.This interesting article from the New York Times highlights the arbitrary and inconclusive nature of these tests. Amidst this controversy and considering the massive cost to administer these tests, why not instead let teachers decide to what degree learning standards have been met by individual students? After all, teachers spend two hundred days with their students every year; can we not trust their insight into how well curriculum goals have been met in each student's case?

Another cost-saving measure could be to move away from unsustainable forms of teaching and learning resources; paper textbooks being the obvious example. As soon as a textbook is published, contemporary access to digital information has made it yesterday's information. There is also an argument that textbook learning perhaps isn't the most effective way to learn anyway. Teachers know that authentic learning is displayed when it's relevant, current and applicable to a student's future, and they also know that a textbook isn't required as part of the process. Let's increase access to the digital universe, and allow teachers unfettered access to assist in creating relevant, current and applicable learning environments.

High-stakes standardized test routines and textbook style learning resources are not necessarily the only ways to measure and apply teaching and learning. They are multimillion dollar enterprises though, and the cost to education is unimaginable. All of a sudden, teachers start to look like a bargain at twice the price when compared to the cost of standardized tests and textbooks considering we can provide better, more authentic, child development-centered learning and assessment environments without either of these influences.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Sean,

    I came across your blog the other day and really like what I've been reading. I'm the mother of a high-school freshman who is LD classified and has struggled in school since kindergarten. Thankfully my daughter's difficulties in school lead me to research education, learning theory, brain development, etc. It didn't take me long to see the inherent flaws in the system.

    I agree, wholeheartedly, with what you have written here. But I find myself wondering about the question you posed about trusting teachers insight to how well curriculum goals are met. While I agree with you, I've been under the impression (and Please correct me if I've understood this wrong)that part of the reason we have standardized tests today is because of the high rate of illiteracy among HS graduates back in the day because they were not being assessed thoroughly enough, and because large districts were encouraging teachers to pass students through to cut down on overcrowding.

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  2. Hey, thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments!

    Admittedly, I am finding that issues in the ed. world south of our Canadian border are significantly more convoluted than they are in my neck of the woods. You could be right about the original intent of standardized exams in the U.S. Although I hadn't heard that particular story, I have heard of some issues down south that are so crazy, for something like what you've described to happen wouldn't surprise me much at all.

    I'm going to use an overworked analogy, (sorry about that,) relative to the question regarding whether teachers are well-equipped to assess students either alongside some form of standard asessment, or perhaps in replacement of them. When doctors assess their patients, we trust them generally speaking. I have never heard of a standardized exam to double-check that doctors are covering the health care checklist (curriculum) adequately enought to ensure repeat visits to their offices don't happen.

    When we display limited trust in the professionalism of teachers to assess their students' understanding of the curriculum at every level, we are doing a disservice to both teachers and students in my opinion.

    This is a huge issue to be sure, and a major element of the problem is the bursting-at-the-seams amount of knowledge crammed into state and provincial curriculum guides. I think we are asking too much of kids to be honest... we seem to favour quantity over quality. I wish what we do would focus more on the other end of Bloom's Taxonomy away from the knowledge level, and more into the higher order skills like synthesis, analysis, etc. We need to teach kids to think at requisite levels as opposed to 'knowing' at those same levels.

    Again, I really appreciate your comments and perspectives... looking forward to hearing more from you. As a teacher and administrator, I place tremendous value in the opinions and perspectives of parents, and how cool is it that I'm getting yours all the way from the good ol' USA... awesome.
    Sean

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  3. You're Welcome Sean.

    It figures that in order to find a like minded teacher and administrator I'd have to look outside my own country lol :) Obviously, I some how missed that you're in Canada, but it is definitely cool to share perspectives. It seems like our schools have similar issues even if the reasons are different.

    I get the point you're making about the doctors, but one of the problems we had here back in the late 70's early 80's was inner city and sparsely populated school districts cutting costs by hiring unqualified teachers and/or by pushing students through to keep class sizes down (again, this is if I'm remembering it all correctly as I was just a kid myself then). All I know for sure is that from the time I graduated HS in 1987 to the time my daughter started kindergarten in 2000, school had become a very different place thanks to No Child Left Behind which morphed from an older piece of reform trying to share the wealth and level the playing field where teacher qualifications are concerned.

    You are absolutely right that we are asking too much of kids and it starts earlier and earlier. The work my daughter was doing in middle school was work I didn't do until high school. She was even starting to learn algebraic concepts in elementary school! It seems like the school year is nothing more than a sprint to the test.

    The thing I find most frustrating is the disconnect between the curriculum requirements and the way the brain develops and how we learn and use information.

    I started my blog The Education Renegade to share the things I've learned and to connect with others who want real education reform because, frankly, I got tired of the parents in my community looking at me like I have 3 heads when I would dare question the system. I also decided to start it because while my daughter is done in 3 years, I can't stand to see children continuously demoralized and beaten down in the name of education. For what ever reason, the universe has seen fit to bless me with a child whose school struggles opened my eyes to all that's wrong with school today.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts and finally being able to have a open discussion about education with a teacher and administrator.
    Renegade (a.k.a. Nicole)

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  4. Thank you Nicole,
    I wrote a post a while back questioning teaching as a profession... I know, perhaps self-defeatist... but when compared with those other professions, teaching is lacking in a couple of fronts.

    One, at least where I live, we don't have a governing body. In my province, teachers get their accredidation from the gov't. dept. of education as opposed to a professional body that governs from within.

    The other reason is simply the way we are perceived by those we serve. Everyone went to school, and everyone has an opinion about what teaching should look, sound and feel like, and there's nothing wrong with that per se. However, it does breed a lack of trust in teachers from those who didn't necessarily enjoy a positive learning experience when they were young.

    Having said that, where I live the standards governing teacher qualification are stringent, (and I understand this isn't necessarily the case everywhere,) and many classroom teachers hold Master's Degrees in their respective areas of interest. You may want to pick up a copy of "The Fourth Way" by Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves... an awesome book detailing four contextual paradigms within the history of contemporary education, the last being where the authors feel we should go next- very compelling.

    In the U.S. as I understand it, the legislative trail of destruction started with Public Law 94-142 targeting special education issues. That morphed into IDEA 97, then the NCLB Act and finally Obama's version, Race to the Top... we in Canada understand these bits of legislation as basically similar, but tageting the 'problem' from different zeitgeist perspectives. The "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" thing comes to mind.

    I appreciate your involvement in public education, and invite you to read my bit on teaching as a profession from Saturday, April 3, 2010... thanks again!
    Sean

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  5. Thanks for the book suggestion, I already it added it to my B&N "To Read" list.

    I'll go check out your post questioning teaching as a profession.

    Education is such a tangled knot of issues - and, yes, part of the knot is the special ed. issues. I don't even want to get started on that here because I can go on long enough to make this post as wordy as "War and Peace." But simply, yes, the changes to special ed. and IDEA has added to the destruction, if not started it.

    In a nutshell, having too broad of a definition of "special ed." and applying it to students of varying issues and insisting on the "least restrictive environment" (in other words, being PC and treating everyone as if they were the same)coupled with the lack of training in the area of Special Ed. breeds an atmosphere of anger and frustration between parents and teachers in my neck of the woods.

    All the bits of legislation do add up to doing the same old and expecting new results - a tad insane really.

    I'll check out the recommended post, but first I must get a chicken in the oven or there'll be no dinner tonight :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cool... I just responded to your other comment and would like to hear your thoughts on Personal Learning Stories from Feb. 7, 2010.

    Please also pass this blog around to your tribe of followers/friends... my intent with writing it is to share ideas and perspectives in as open a manner as possible... your background in education from a parent's perspective appears to mirror mine form a teacher's perspective. I find collaborating with you thought-provoking and intriguing, and I'm sure you belong to a network of similarly-inclined people in your part of the world.
    Cheers!
    Sean

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  7. I have listed your blog on my "interesting blogs" lists, but I don't have a following yet. I know one or two people who will find your blog interesting and hopefully will jump into the conversation. Unfortunately, since moving to a new school district a few years ago, my tribe has shrunk to almost nothing. When I moved I was shocked by the blind faith and support of the system by the parents.

    Our blogging intents are the same, so feel free to share to my stuff too. I'm enjoying our collaboration as well. It's refreshing to discuss the system with a teacher/admin. who doesn't see parents as "them." You have also affirmed my belief that teachers must feel their hands are tied by a system dictated by policymakers so far removed from a classroom that they couldn't find one without a GPS.

    When I started to really look at the education laws I realized that parents and teachers are two sides of the same coin and that only by working together could we begin to demand real reform.

    I'm off to read your other comment and your Feb. 7th post.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. "Us" and "them" seldom works well... although we are all independent, (thank God...) adults need to discover the power of interdependence.

    I'v developed a learning theory that I'm working on presenting in this blog... the Hope Wheel. Please watch for it. Check out my prezi on Resiliency as well under the page heading 'Presentation." I speak on this topic often to teachers and parents.
    Cheers!
    Sean

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  10. Finally got a chance to check out the prezi - Wow! We can all use a reminder that it really is just Us here, right now, in it together. Nice work!
    Namaste,
    Nicole

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  11. Thanks Nicole,
    Used that at a middle school conference last month, and although it's still just a vessel to deliver background information for discussion, prezi is so much cooler than PPT, don't you think?

    Thanks again... I'm writing a book using resiliency as a framework to tell stories of how we can all overcome adversity with the right kind of support and intestinal fortitude... Although yours is still being written, it would be a great addition.

    Have a great day!
    Namaste

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hey Sean,

    Sorry It's been a crazy week. Prezi is so much cooler than power point. I bet it draws in the audience much further by touching their emotions in addition to their intellect.

    I wouldn't mind having my story as part of your book - my daughter on the other hand . . . Some time soon I actually plan on writing a blog post or two about how I down played the role of school and immersed my daughter in outside interests to counter the negative effects being a poor student was having on her. If they seem like something you want to include in the book, let me know.

    I love that you are now using Namaste - isn't it just the best notion though?

    Namaste

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  13. Love the stories... I beleive very strongly that it's the personal stories that touch our human spirit and that can be powerful catalysts for change... we don't tell enough stories.

    I worked in First Nations communities for 6 years, and witnessed the power of the oral tradition first-hand. Many cultures around the world have used the spoken word as their primary medium for social cohesiveness- I like that.

    Namaste, yes... my wife is Indian- I'm familiar with Eastern phiolsophy, and Indian language/customs in particular. Love my butter chicken!

    Namaste!
    Sean

    ReplyDelete

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