Monthly Archives: July 2012

Grade Harder? Wrong Question

This morning I read a newspaper article on the horrors of grade inflation. (Easy Grading Fails to Serve Students’ Education The idea that we need to grade with more “rigor” is rampant.  It is the motivation behind NCLB and Race to the Top.  And it certainly ties into our overly masculine, puff your chest out, win at any cost culture.  I guess my problem with it, though, is that, in terms of learning, it really doesn’t make much sense.

Let’s construct, and then deconstruct this view of “hard” grading briefly.  To construct:  The idea is that students need to be motivated and grades are the motivation.  Grades provide both positive reinforcement, good grades are the carrot, and negative reinforcement, poor grades are the stick. And if we want students to work hard to show their achievement, then the standards must be high and difficult to meet. With difficult standards, and only a small percentage able to meet them, all are motivated to work as hard as possible in order to be one of the few with high marks. The job of the teacher is to maintain that high standard in order to force students to maintain their effort. On the surface this seems to make sense.

However, when we address some of the assumptions, it begins to make absolutely no sense.

To deconstruct:

First of all, the idea of public schools functioning as a sorting mechanism is very conservative in that it serves to maintain the status quo.  Those who start with much will continue to benefit the most.  Students from highly professional backgrounds whose basic needs are met, whose parents are educated, who come from professional, high socioeconomic backgrounds have a huge head start in this view of education as a race to the top.  The fact of the matter is that these advantaged students start at the top, and will mostly like not lose this advantage over the course of their education.  Those who start at the bottom, due to poverty and/or other obstacles, are likely to stay at the bottom.  If education is, at least ostensibly, about giving everyone an equal opportunity this is certainly a move in the wrong direction.  An important point, but not the one I want to focus on here.

For the purpose of this post, I want to look more deeply into the assumptions of learning that underlie the “grade harder” approach (a corollary of the “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas writes of).  This view assumes that learning is not something that people find valuable or important or motivating, and they therefore need to be driven by extrinsic motivators.  This is where grades come in.  They are the motivator.  The assumption is that people wouldn’t do this kind of activity unless they are driven to do so for some purpose outside of themselves, and providing this purpose is the function grades serve.  Why else would students do work sheets, read from text books designed for schools and no other actual place or purpose, sit obediently in straight rows and have their focus reduced to a person speaking at them?  Of course grades are necessary to manipulate students to do what is believed to be necessary in such an environment!

“Grade harder” misses the point of learning while it reinforces an obsolete view of schooling.

The more we need to emphasize the importance of grades, the less meaningful the work must be. 

I hope it is obvious now that  ramping up the importance of extrinsic motivators points to the need to artificially increase student motivation (might “manipulate students” be a more accurate description?)  Grades, then, function to make students do what they wouldn’t do otherwise.  Discussions about the difficulty or ease of a grading system is a distraction from the real question, which is, what the hell are we having students do in schools?

In addition, focusing on grades not only hides the question of the relevancy of the work, it damages students’ attitude towards the potential for real learning .  In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn convincingly shows 3 main problems with grades:

1. Grades tend to diminish students interest in whatever they are doing.

2. Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task

3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

(Just as relevant, read Kohn’s Confusing Harder With Better)

So, by increasing the emphasis on grades we are also exacerbating these negative effects as a direct function of the misleading idea that humans need to be coerced into learning. And we know this misleading idea simply isn’t true. When learning is relevant, when students have choices, and when there is an opportunity for mastery, there is no need for coercion. The human brain is intent upon pattern making .  Under conditions where our needs are being met, we can’t help but learn, to ask questions, to push boundaries, to tire of the old and reinvent to create the new. (If you don’t believe me, ask Dan Pink.) The traditional school view has simply stifled students, and continues to do so.

The next step is to realize that if students are doing real life, meaningful work, the issue of rigor changes substantially. If students are doing meaningful work, then they are actually trying to make some kind of difference in the world. They are trying to become creators rather than passive recipients. Students engaging their worlds in this manner don’t wonder so much about the grade they receive, rather they wonder, did my creation (project, service, etc.) have the effect I wanted it to? Did I meet my goal? Did I accomplish what I wanted to? Did my effort make a the difference in the world that I wanted it to? These are the standards that become the measure of success.

The right question is, how can we begin to shift away from an emphasis on grades as a motivator towards the work itself as a motivator?  How do we involve kids in real life, meaningful work, work that they will do even without a grade?  (And the challenge for the group of teachers I work with is exactly this-  Are we engaged with students in such a way that they are involved in work that they would choose to do even if there weren’t grades?)

For starters, see the work of Ron Berger

Joe Bower does a fantastic job of diving deeply into the  of grades  here.

For a transition into this, start with David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole

This article is about an alternative school in Seattle that is working to knock down the walls of school in order to access the world.

It’s About Priorities; Sports Culture and Education in America

Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love sports.  And my sports resume is impeccable.  High school football, basketball and baseball, college intramural gym rat extraordinaire, sixteen seasons of coaching middle school and high school basketball, 4 year involvement with AAU basketball coaching, over the top college football fan, and amateur college basketball obsessive full of far too much twisted recruiting information and arcane facts, along with  2 children who have been recruited to play college sports.  (By the way, the picture above was chosen because not because it is representative of the problem with sports culture, but because my partner of many years is clearly seen in the background, my daughter’s little head is peeking up to view this unseemly violence and I am sitting to the right of the photo crop- excellent photo editing.  All of this is simply more evidence of my impeccable sports background.)

However, something clearly has gone awry.

The Penn State situation makes this obvious.  If you are still reading, I think it’s safe to assume that you know about the Penn State situation so I won’t waste your time covering that at all.  (However, if you’re interested in some great analysis, check out Ira Socol’s blog.)

What needs to be recognized, is that Penn State is symptom.  That situation is symptom of a crazed cultural obsession with sports, and the ways in which this obsession leads to an incredible imbalance.

For an example of all that is right about college sports, I give you Tom Izzo.  I absolutely love Tom Izzo.  His coaching represents everything that’s right with college basketball.  He doesn’t cheat.  His kids graduate.  He sets boundaries.  He cares deeply about them as more than basketball players.

He is wonderful.  I could go on and on about how great Tom Izzo is.

And he makes over $3 million dollars a year from Michigan State University.

He’s a coach.

Let’s compare this to the average teacher salary of $57,958 in 2011.

When we look at Izzo’s overall mission and compare that to your average teacher, they seem fairly similar.  Izzo’s fundamental task is to give instruction to young men for the sake of their betterment and for the betterment of the team.  A teacher’s task is to create an environment that allows for the betterment of the students in that teacher’s care and for the betterment of society.  Granted, there are differences of scale between Izzo and the average teacher, but these differences of scale have to do more with our society’s obsessive attention to sports rather than  attention to, for instance, the conditions of poverty that a teacher may have to work with.

Izzo receives his salary at a time when public funding for higher education is at a 25 year low.  As a result of decreased state funding, tuition and fees have increased by over 70% for public, four-year colleges. In spite of protests from the far right, the national tax rate is extremely low at home and internationally.  Our national priorities have shifted from funding the public good to funding private corporations.  This has occurred across state and county governments, and across the board in k-12 and high education.  All of this, while, as this article from the Detroit Free Press points out, the salary of a charter school CEO grows to  over $500,000.  The same article references  “…non-profit schools in the U.S. with revenues of $20 million annually…”  (Excuse me, but how do “non-profit schools” have revenues that high, while they pay their CEO’s that much, while public school funding continues to be cut?)

We continue to hear about the need to cut teacher pensions and salaries..

And we continue to see coaches’ salaries increase.

I’m starting to think that there is enough money to pay for what our priorities are, it’s just that our priorities seem bit confused.

What are we really about?

I’m not arguing that teachers should be making 3 million a year.  I’m also not necessarily arguing that Tom Izzo shouldn’t be making 3 million a year.  I am arguing that these price tags are representative of value choices that we make.  We make these choices when we buy tickets, when we buy Doritos for our Superbowl viewing, and when we do or do not pay taxes.  In one way or another, we are making societal investments.  You can call these investments a tax, you can call them increased tuition costs, you can call them expensive tickets on Stub Hub.  But we are paying a cost.  I am arguing that we need to be aware of what these investments are and why we are choosing to make them.  And we need to be aware of who is benefiting from these choices (note my Doritos reference) and who is not.

Think about it.

Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages

All schools have an explicit curriculum, one that is intentionally taught and measured in some way. They also have a “hidden curriculum,” the curriculum through which students learn about things like the power structure of the school, who matters and who doesn’t, values, etc. Sometimes this hidden curriculum is addressed explicitly and consciously by schools and teachers, usually it is not. As schools move towards more standardization, more testing and more measuring, students are learning, via the hidden curriculum, that the power to make decisions lies with others; that is, choices about what is studied, how this is assessed, and even why it is important, are beyond their agency. Their ability to engage with content in a way that makes sense to them is beyond their agency. Their ability to choose content is beyond their agency. Students become trained in passively receiving bits of information rather than being creators of their worlds. Will Richardson recently addressed this concern here, and Yong Zhao here.

An additional, subtle, yet important, idea that is taught by the hidden curriculum is the message of what it means to be human. Although recently the idea of the hidden curriculum’s effect on relationships (which is the means through which we learn what it is to be human) has gone a bit out of fashion, this is because of the framing of educational topics by the corporate ed reform movement rather than any inherent truth. (And for a crucial analysis of this frame, see Paul Thomas’s “Giving Power a Pass”.) Relationships create the context for “instruction,” and context matters. As clumsy examples:  Students learn that it’s okay to bully when teachers use their power to manipulate students to do what they want. Students learn that who they are is clearly not important when teachers don’t know their names after a week in the classroom. Alternatively, students learn the value of being heard when teachers ask them how their day is going, and then stop to actually listen. After a recent surgery, my daughter learned the importance of consideration when her basketball coach stopped by the house to check on her. She knew that she was more than a “thing” to her coach.

Here is another example that I’m not proud of. A few years ago the schools where I work were under some pressure to pass AYP. We had some trouble with this NCLB measurement (you know you’re heading for trouble when the acronyms start popping up) because certain categories of students didn’t have a high enough percentage being tested. I was to make sure that our special education population was fully tested. Unfortunately, this put me into direct confrontation with the wishes of Crystal (a pseudonym), who had no desire to be subjected to 3 days of mandatory testing. Why? These tests were boring, and were a painful reminder of all of the things Crystal wasn’t good at. They were a source of shame for her, and she fought me. I was actually proud of her, but I wasn’t proud of myself. In order to get that AYP, I wheedled, begged and pressured Crystal into finishing the test. She did, and still resents me for it I’m sure (although we maintain a good relationships years after this incident), and Crystal promptly skipped the next week of school.

Who was going to benefit from Crystal taking the test? Not me. Certainly not Crystal. In fact, when you look at the shame she was put through combined with the loss of esteem from “giving in,” combined with the loss of the 3 days of learning, combined with the loss of the week of skipped classes, it’s easy to see that Crystal certainly didn’t benefit. The benefactor was this abstraction, the high schools trying to pass AYP.

So the hidden curriculum lesson for Crystal was that she had no value outside of the data that she could provide. The personal battles that she was fighting, the healing that she was attempting, her own sense of self-worth, none of this was important in the face of this data that needed to be collected. And I was a simple bureaucrat acting in support of a faceless institution.

The greatest danger of the corporate education movement may be in its tendency to encourage those in power to see abstractly, to see human beings as data, the way I saw Crystal. This may also be its most insidious effect. As Diane Ravitch writes,

“I was certainly influenced by the conservative ideology of other top-level officials in the Bush administration who were strong supporters of school choice and competition. But of equal importance, I believe, I began to think like a policymaker, especially a federal policy maker. That meant, in the words of a book by James C. Scott that I later read and admired, I began “seeing like a state,” looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.” (Italics are mine.)  The Death of the Great American School System (2010)

One of the most important tasks for us mired in the struggle for a liberating view of education is make sure that maintain our humanity, and to act first of all from our humanity. One of my heroes is Thomas Merton, who wrote, “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope…Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man (sic) for it is the image of God.”

Foregoing the religious reference, remember that, ultimately, we are in a struggle over what it means to be human.

Please add your story to the “comments” here. Show how abstract data affects concrete human lives.

The Continuing Folly of Merit Pay

A couple of days ago I read an article titled  “Consider the Merits of Merit Pay”   in the Detroit News.  Got me a bit steamed, as these writings promoting the wrong things tend to do.  Simply put, the idea of merit pay is a misaligned imposition of a business solution on a public entity.  Why misaligned?  Excellent question.  (What follows is my somewhat simplistic explanation of the misalignment- for a more thorough one, see The Folly of Merit Pay.)

Business is designed to make money via a process of competition.  Education should be designed to create learning via a process of cooperation.

Competition creates a dynamic of “us vs. them.”  This means that resources (information, knowledge, product, etc.) must be protected and hoarded.  Less for them means more for us. We win, they lose.  Learning, on the other hand, requires sharing.  If I, as a teacher, know more (using content knowledge as a resource in this example), I have more to share with my students, which thus benefits us all.  If my teaching peers know more than I do, and I am able to access their knowledge, I become better.  If a culture of cooperation is in place that allows me to access the skills and knowledge of my peers, we all benefit.

With these assumptions stated, it makes it a bit easier to see why the imposition of a system of competition on schools negatively affects kids when the core value of that school system, learning, is foundationally based upon the necessity of cooperation.  If, as a teacher, my pay is dependent upon my ability to be “better” (regardless of the measurement), why share my knowledge and expertise?  It will only hurt my pay. Paul Thomas does an excellent job of analyzing this effect here.

But the purpose of this whole post really is simply to provide a context for Hargreaves and Fullan’s quote on this topic.  The quote comes from the preface of their book, Professional Capital.

“In the United States, state departments of education have committees stacked with economists who are coming up with formulas to pay teachers according to their indvidual performance- especially in relation to their students’ test scores…This strategy has no historcial precedent of success, it flies in the face of psychological resarch indicating theat financial reward only improves perfomance in areas of low-level skill, not in complex jobs like teaching, and it creates perverse incentives for expert teachers to avoid difficult students or challenging classes that might depress their test schores.  At best, performance-related pay will motivate a few teachers while alienating others and neglecting the majority.  I’ts a political fix that will lead to professional folly, and we should steer well clear of it.”  (Italics are mine.)

This is simply another example of economics being extracted from context.  We must begin to see  the ways that a culture is connected to economics, history, tradition.  If economics continues to be the one lens through which we see the world, we are in for some serious trouble ahead.