Friday, October 10, 2008

The Education Depression

The shenanigans playing out on Wall St.are playing havoc with more than just money, retirements, and the viability of unbridled capitalism. The market chaos has touched off a series of unfortunate events that will effect schools everywhere.

First, education is funded by local property values. And now that the real estate bubble has burst so has the artificial house of cards that dictated the quality of local schools. The game that is played in Connecticut was that school quality was used as a real estate value metric for housing. Richer community schools scored the highest scores on the ever-friendly high stakes tests administered in public schools.

The game is fairly air-tight. The communities, schools, administrations, parents, and tax-paying bystanders all wittingly understood the rules by which the social pecking order was maintained.

But now that property and mortgage values are being questioned, the game and the rules will change.

As State budgets become strained from years of feather-bedded state employee retirement benefits, school budgets will be mercilessly slashed and recalculated. Local communities will become ever more responsible for the crushing cost and obligations of decades of bad and expensive education legislation.

This coming tsunami of educational destruction will offer a rare opportunity for educators to re-evaluate and correct the pedagogy of school testing.

In an article in Edutopia called Reinventing the Big Test: The Challenge of Authentic Assessment, Grace Rubenstein argues;
Cold, hard numbers have a way of seeming authoritative, but accountability tests are not the infallible and insightful report cards we (and our state governments) imagine them to be. The educational assessment tests states use today have two fundamental flaws: They encourage the sort of mind-numbing drill-and-kill teaching educators (and students) despise, and, just as important, they don't tell us much about the quality of student learning.

"We are totally for accountability, but we've got the wrong metrics," says John Bransford, a professor of education at Seattle's University of Washington who studies learning and designs assessments. "These tests are the biggest bottleneck to education reform."
Hobbled by History

Jennifer Simone, a fifth-grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School, in Edgewood, Maryland, is acutely aware of the limitations of standardized tests. Her curriculum must emphasize subjects for which the state accountability test measures proficiency -- math, reading, and science. Social studies? Though the subject is on her master schedule, if there is a shortened school day, it gets dropped.

Moreover, Simone says, the test scores don't truly reflect her students' abilities and are too vague to help her pinpoint individual needs. She longs for an assessment that relies on more than just written problems, that could capture the more diverse skills visible in her classroom and valued in the workplace, such as artistic talent, computer savvy, and the know-how to diagnose and fix problems with mechanical devices. Simone asks, "If we differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of all the learners, why aren't we differentiating the test?"

The fraud of standardized testing today is not that it is cost-effective nor that it in fact demonstrates proficiencies but rather that they plausibly deny any change to the status quo of teaching as lecturing.

Authors Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg wrote a book called, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track in which they explain the problem.
Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant.

In most schools, memorization is mistaken for learning. Most of what is remembered is remembered only for a short time, but then is quickly forgotten. (How many remember how to take a square root or ever have a need to?) Furthermore, even young children are aware of the fact that most of what is expected of them in school can better be done by computers, recording machines, cameras, and so on. They are treated as poor surrogates for such machines and instruments. Why should children -- or adults, for that matter -- be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can? Why doesn't education focus on what humans can do better than the machines and instruments they create?

When those who have taught others are asked who in the classes learned most, virtually all of them say, "The teacher." It is apparent to those who have taught that teaching is a better way to learn than being taught. Teaching enables the teacher to discover what one thinks about the subject being taught. Schools are upside down: Students should be teaching and faculty learning.

In the end it will be the devaluation of property and the revaluation of citizens that changes schools. Children may matter yet again. It's not a certainty but the glimmer of hope is there. The rubble of Wall St. may make the rebuilding of public education a necessity and we must embrace the task with an open mind toward building a future instead of recreating the past.

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