left behind

I sent out a link to a Newsweek story this month to a few colleagues, describing how science museums are seeing lower numbers because of increasing pressures on schools and their students to pass tests.  Kids and teachers need to stay in class, or at least they think they need to stay in class, in a state of fear.


One thoughtful response was:

I just think it sucks that all the little kids don’t get to go to all the places, because they are busy memorizing that the answer is b.  It’s a tragedy, and everyone I know (blue and red alike) thinks so, so I can’t figure out why we are still pursuing NCLB.  Do you understand why a huge stink hasn’t been made that undoes this legislation?  


I thought of a few answers:

1. No, I don’t understand.
[not a very good answer, but the most honest]

2. There is good, perceived and real, realized and virtual, that is embedded into NCLB.  The simple ideal of “let’s make schools do more for our children and our future and let’s make sure that all children succeed” is a pretty good one.  It’s tough to argue with this.  I think the consensus (right or wrong) is that this goal is good, it’s just that there are other flaws.

3. We have a limited view of what teachers can do.  I think we underestimate what is possible.  This is especially the case in terms of assessment of students.  Because we don’t trust our own teachers and their training and their abilities, we create these mandated tests.  I’d much rather see a system that invests time and money into helping teachers conduct more valid, in depth evaluations of what students know and don’t know.  I don’t think that most of the public and political establishment believe (or would think to consider) this possibility.

4. We have a limited view of what it means to learn.  (This is the nature of my talk that I’ve taken on the road this semester.)  If we view knowledge as static, pieces of information that are either in the mind or not, then it’s easy to map learning to the filling in of the bubble next to answer b.  I think the public has this view of knowledge because it doesn’t know any better — we’ve done a bad job of demonstrating alternatives.  There are also all kinds of “helpful” books that describe “what your 3rd grader should know,” staying in line with the E.D. Hirsch, cultural literacy, essentialist view of knowledge.  Learning, in this sense, is just re-reading everything that’s already been read and being able to tell someone else about it, or at least answer their questions about it.  This is offensive to the human condition and capacity, in my mind; yet education has done a poor job of articulating the alternative.  We (i.e., academics) still quote Dewey because it can’t be said any better, but we never get this message out there except in some rare cases.

5.  As I was just writing about in the symposium piece that colleagues and I are presenting at NARST next month, scholars do a really poor job of getting messages out and doing something about public conditions.  It’s not because we’re bad people or because we don’t realize there are issues.  Rather, we don’t know how to do differently.  A co-author writes eloquently about how the entire tenure process in academia is bias towards research in the traditional sense, rather than rewarding individuals for doing anything that actually impacts society.  So, the people who really think hard about these issues are embedded in a system that doesn’t give them motivation to bring their work into the fold of society — in fact, to do this would take away from efforts that would actually get them tenure and promotion.  And, as the very people who train us, our professor mentors, are part of the very system that we enter into, we are ill equipped to understand any alternative model to how we do our work and how we structure the academy as a whole.  Of course, this will all change as soon as our symposium is presented . . .  I’ll start working on it myself, once I’m sure that the symposium gives me the appropriate research credit towards promotion.

So there are all my answers.  One of them might be right.  On the multiple choice test, I’d have to circle all five, and undoubtedly I’d be scored as “wrong.”

– – –

In other news today, I’m now a poet.  In fact, this poem was commissioned based on a previous blog entry:

You said you were
worried, that maybe
I think too much.

You said you could
only wonder, imagine what
is running through my head.

I said it’s true that
I’m a real intellect, standing
before you in the kitchen

in my boxer shorts
my fuzzy slippers
on my feet.

And, I got the aforementioned symposium almost ready to submit for the final proceedings.

And, I’ve been thinking about how my mother-in-law is trying to kill me.  She sent me two vials of little dissolvable homeopathic herbal things that are claimed to aid in “healing of surgical wounds and broken bones” and helping with “trauma.”  The problem is that I decided to look up what these things actually are.  Both are lethal to ingest.  Yeah, yeah; so are lots of things in the wrong amounts, but, still, it’s toxic to things that eat it!  On the other hand, there’s a list of close to a hundred (I’m guessing) things that it aids or alleviates.  Hmmmm.  The potency is supposed to be good until 2011.  I’ll hang on to it.

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One thought on “left behind

  1. If you give yourself 6 choices, you can choose ‘all of the above’! ; )

    Number 5 especially rings true for me, partly because it’s been my own recent experience, and partly because it’s the thing I could do something about, by making changes in the way I act, speak and think.

    But while I also recognize the statement that we don’t understand what learning is, I would argue that it’s not quite the actual problem. It’s not that we don’t know what it is. It’s not even that we don’t know how to measure it—teachers did that for generations before NCLB. It’s that we don’t know how to measure it for millions of children all at once, all on the same scale, without going to the least common denominator.

    This, I think, is part of a larger problem. In our zeal to perform quantitative assessment (in all areas of society), we have lost track of what we are ACTUALLY trying to measure… keeping a score of ‘happiness’ is much harder than keeping a score of ‘wealth’. Keeping a score of ‘health’ is much harder than keeping a score of ‘sickness’. Our assessments are proxies for what we really want to know, but if we can slap a number on it that changes in the way we want over time, clearly we are ‘better’. (Humph. Snort. Inarticulate rejection of the whole idea.)

    Thanks for these thoughts.

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