"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Setting Real Goals For Education

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said on the US House floor yesterday that the US involvement in Afghanistan was a "national embarrassment and a moral blight." She inferred, from public polling results, that people did not think the war was not worth fighting. A better worded poll might have shown that people’s frustration with the war was due more to our lack of success there which many have said is a result of our lack of a reasonable goal and the subsequent tying of our military’s hands in trying to achieve it. Roger Stone, long term political consultant and, in his own words, Ron Paul conservative, responded on the Dana Loesch show that he agreed the US did a terrible job strategically in Afghanistan, that we did not look seriously enough at the war history in the country before we settled on a mission. If we had, we would have seen that military giants from Britain to Russia failed in traditional boots-on-the-ground campaigns there and yet that is exactly the kind of effort the US has engaged in. We would have been better served to develop a radically different definition of success in that country and design an out of the box military campaign to achieve that success allowing the full force and expertise of the US armed forces to accomplish the task.

So why talk about US strategy in Afghanistan on a blog dedicated to education? Because the same lack of well thought out definitions of the final goal, the continued reliance on a model that has not proven successful and a disconnect between intentions and implementation are exactly what mires the US policy on education. And it is not a huge jump to see how such failings in the military can similarly be predicted in a centrally run education system like that envisioned in Race To The Top.

Generally speaking, in the United States, we have made our goal to graduate students. We say our goal is to educate students, but the metrics we use to achieve that tell a different story. Every school meticulously collects and publishes data showing graduation rates, college entrance statistics, and drop-out rates. They don’t show statistics on whether parents and kids thought students were prepared for the real world. They don’t show how students’ talents and gifts are nurtured and supported. They don’t track kids who do not go to college and ascertain whether they are able to sustain themselves with the 12 years of education the public gave them.

Instead, we have developed surrogate metrics that try to get at these goals. Take, for example, the requirement that students attend school for a minimum number of days. This requirement recently caused the Francis Howell district, which lists itself as “accredited with distinction,” to add 5 minutes to every day in order to make up for 5 lost days in their new traditional school schedule. The case could perhaps have been made that additional learning would take place if they added those 5 days to the beginning or end of the school year. But adding two minutes to the start time and three minutes to the end time of each day can hardly be argued as a case for additional learning time. It did, however, meet the surrogate metric for learning.

The St. Louis School District has proposed requiring kids to be in school from age 5-18. Here again the focus is on an arbitrary assignment of age that is supposed to guarantee successful education, but in fact merely defines the terms for graduation. Why does the 5 year old, who not only knows his alphabet and numbers, but can maybe even read a little, need to be in school when the majority of students there will be focusing on learning what he already knows? One assumes that the school district is trying to get to the kids who arrive at school at age 7 without basic knowledge of letters, numbers, colors etc. and who become a drag on the 1st grade teacher’s ability to get to their curriculum while they try to catch those kids up. This is laudable, but the proposed requirement is a contorted means of achieving that goal. A truer focus on education might instead say, bring your 5 year old in to take a test of basic skills. If they pass the test, we don’t need to them to come in for another year. The school district could then focus their efforts only on the kids who needed the help, saving time and money, and retaining the commitment to education.

A lot of this stems from the disconnect between intentions and implementation. This disconnect is part of being human. Any mother who has chaired a PTO or other volunteer type committee has seen this played out when volunteers are given instructions for accomplishing a task. Interpretation, misreading, lack of time or personal opposition to the source of the instructions can all lead to a result that is far from what you intended. It’s why it is so important to have those writing rules be as close as possible to those implementing the rules.

And THIS is why Common Core Curricula and RTTT, no matter how well intentioned or written originally, are doomed to fail. Because implementation of them will take place far from the creators and is likely to produce a whole host of unintended consequences. It will foster a system whose goal is destined to become its own perpetuation and comfort, not education. It's why you can bet that future polls of the popularity of our education system are likely to have the same results as the current poll of the war in Afghanistan.

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