Learning on the bubble

For several of their elementary school years, my sons attended the International Community School, a charter school whose student body includes a large percentage of immigrant-refugee children, many of them very recent arrivals to the United States. For a great many reasons, my family’s experience with ICS was a rewarding one – for my sons in terms of their formal education and their socialization and understanding of other cultures, and for me as a professional educator in my exposure to a fascinating laboratory of learning.

The backgrounds of the students at the school were incredibly diverse, including the fact that many had come to the U.S. after several years in refugee camps, deprived of formal education. But the sense of community that was fostered in this school environment was something very special. One observer shared with me that the attitude towards learning was different here than at any other school she had experienced. “At other schools, students copy the answers from each other’s papers. At ICS, students show each other how to find the answers.”

The attitude of cooperation encouraged at ICS should not be unique to schools operating under special circumstances. Background and culture are not the only factors affecting how we learn. The diversity in the human family is broader and more profound than even the wide range of life experience can explain.

People absorb what they learn differently. Some take more time than others to reach the same level of proficiency. Some understand different aspects of a concept more completely than others. For some the way they apply the learning is different from the way that others might do it. Some need help while others may not. For those who need help, the quality of assistance called for may vary widely.

Modern public schools acknowledge the existence of different learning styles and different needs among the students. Most schools have some kind of framework for providing differentiation of instruction. Some even make demonstrating these processes a requirement in their teacher evaluation system.

But schools are fighting against their own organizational structure when they attempt to provide differentiated instruction aimed at facilitating real learning. Public school students are required to attend classes on the same schedule as all other students, regardless of their learning needs. They are required to take the same standardized tests, regardless of their ability or level of preparation.

At one public school I have visited, the principal addressed the upcoming battery of high-stakes tests by instructing the teachers to differentiate instruction as follows. First identify which students will be able to pass the tests with little or no additional help from their teachers. Then identify which students will be unlikely to pass the tests no matter how much help they are given. Neither of these groups would receive any extra help.

Only the students who were “on the bubble,” and might pass or fail depending on teacher intervention, would receive special attention. Teachers were instructed to focus their test preparation efforts on these students. It was students in this middle group who could affect the school’s overall performance on the standardized tests. If only a few more of the students in the middle group passed, the school could show improvement over the previous year’s pass rate.

For me, there could hardly be a starker illustration of the cost of making higher test scores the goal of our system of public education system.

The goal of education should be learning – for all students. We all learn differently. We are all “on the bubble.”

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Americans have always had a complex relationship with authority. It is a feature of American culture that extends from our roots as a people and is rife with contradictions that are alive in the modern classroom.

English Puritans in the 17th century bristled under the authority of the Church of England, and so they came to North America to set up a community that operated under their own rules – a system that was far more rigid and intolerant than the one they left behind. The conventional version of U.S. history holds that the founders of this repressive social order were seeking “religious freedom.” But high school history courses seldom fail to mention Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson – two early settlers who were expelled from the Puritan colony for espousing divergent views on religious authority.

The decade prior to the Revolutionary War was marked by tax protests, petitions, demonstrations, and occasional acts of violence. But during most of this time even the most vocal dissidents considered themselves loyal British subjects. They weren’t trying to overthrow their government, just cut a better deal for themselves.

Americans like mavericks, rugged individualists, pioneers. We admire those who step around the rules – from a distance. We don’t have much time for those who challenge the system itself. How is it that we can admire outlaws and yet support the very laws they flaunt? It is because of the way we were raised.

The American educational system is designed to force feed conformity to young people who are in the process of discovering themselves and exploring their potential. Because it is based on a mass-production model, school requires uniformity in behavior, and uniformity in work product. It is fundamentally at odds with the revolutionary spirit that we are taught was instrumental in our country’s founding. We are taught that the mavericks, the pioneers, the outlaws are American heroes – the ones who bring about innovation and reforms. Then on the sound of a bell we have to report like trained animals to our next class, we line up single file to go to the cafetorium, and beg permission to be excused to perform basic bodily functions.

For kids growing up in the system, it is very easy to reach the conclusion that school is the enemy. If we ever want to achieve the kind of individuality that adulthood promises, the kind of freedom that apparently is our American birthright, we are going to have to escape the shackles that bind us to the plastic chairs with laminated desktops that imprison us for seven hours a day.

Escape can take several different forms. For kids who are good at performing the assigned tasks, school can be a source of positive reinforcement. All that is required is to play the game, accept praise when offered, and take advantage of opportunities that are available to students who conform to expectations.

For kids who struggle with learning, with behavioral requirements, with any number of social and developmental issues, school can be a waking nightmare. Instead of using the school experience to build confidence and the skills required to work within the system, these kids develop tools to avoid taking responsibility for the tasks that they cannot or will not perform. They become outlaws, but not American heroes. Their form of protest works best if it receives the least notice. They do nothing to reform the system itself. More troubling is the fact that they do so little that will help them to succeed in life.

We need school to be an empowering experience. We need to resolve the contradiction between celebrating individualism in history classes and enforcing conformity in daily life. We need to encourage kids to become the best that they can be without forcing them to become outlaws.

The question is, how to do it.


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In the 1880s, one of America’s first sports heroes, Mike “King” Kelly was notorious for playing on the edges of the rules in the game of baseball.

He sometimes skipped second on the way to third when the umpire was not looking…. Once, he was sitting on the bench when a high foul ball arced towards him and clearly out of reach of the catcher. The rules then allowed a substitute to enter the game “on notice to the umpire,” so Kelly jumped up, shouted “Kelly catching for Boston!,” and caught it for the out.

- Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns, from Baseball, An Illustrated History

Americans have always had a wonderful aversion to excesses of honesty, and baseball has always been able to express that. The sense in baseball is that the reason they put those four umpires out there is to enforce the rules, but if you can get outside the rules and outside the umpires, it is a very reasonable question to ask whether you might not be allowed to do it.

- Thomas Boswell, from Baseball, A Film by Ken Burns

We voice a great deal of respect in this country for the rule of law, and yet our behavior frequently demonstrates a healthy disrespect for the spirit of the law. Whether it is in the context of fun and games, driving in traffic, or advancement in our careers, the rules – and even the principles of fair play – often take a back seat to self-interest.

It is no surprise, then, that Americans tend to skirt the rules that form the rigid structure of schools. But it is a bit of a shock to some when it is adults who are doing the skirting. As I write these words, a trial is getting underway in Atlanta concerning widespread cheating by teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools system. The highly publicized scandal has been a constant presence in local news for several years, and now it promises to provide more fodder over the anticipated three months the trial will take to unfold.

But is should not come as a surprise to anyone that educators would break rules. In their 2005 best-selling book, Freakonomics, Steven B. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner discuss cheating by teachers in the Chicago public school system after high-stakes tests were introduced as part of a strategy to increase performance. In their analysis, the benefits of falsifying test answers simply outweighed the costs. The benefits of having students whose scores went up would include greater job security and potential professional advancement. The costs to the teacher would be the risk of being caught as well as any moral objections – both seen as negligible. The cost to the students of having inaccurate test results reported was not even considered.

By making higher aggregate scores the goal, the school system created an incentive that was realized by reporting higher numbers, not by doing a better job of educating children. In a very real sense that is rooted in American values, the teachers and administrators who changed students’ answers to improve test scores are less cheaters than they are creative problem solvers.

What do you think?

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Lost in the crowd

Halfway through the class, Cody strolled through the door.

“Where have you been?” I asked him.

“I was at the ice cream social,” he replied. “You heard the intercom.”

There had been an announcement over the intercom an hour earlier that students who had participated in the Homecoming planning committee were invited to have ice cream in the cafeteria after the last lunch period had ended.

“Yes, I heard the announcement,” I said, “but you still need a pass to come to class late.”

“Just ask Mr. Jones, he can tell you I was there,” Cody said, taking his seat.

I sighed. “Cody, it is your responsibility to be in class on time. If you have an excuse for being tardy, you need to show it to me. I didn’t get a list of students who were invited to have ice cream, and I have no information about when students were dismissed from the cafeteria. If you are late to class, you need to have a pass. You know that is the way it works at this school.”

“Just ask Mr. Jones,” Cody insisted, not moving from his chair.

“I don’t know who Mr. Jones is, Cody. It is your responsibility to account for your absence the first 20 minutes of this class. It is not my responsibility to research whether your story holds up. Now, go get a pass.”

Cody was playing a game that is fairly common at large schools – getting lost in the crowd. He was counting on the likelihood that it would be too much trouble for anyone to bother checking whether he was in the right place at the right time. It is a game that has a high probability of success for the students who play it, at least at schools like the one where I worked and that Cody attended.

Built just a few years earlier to accommodate 1500 students, last year it had an enrollment of over 1800. Beautiful in appearance when empty, its flaws were evident to anyone who experienced it in use. Its hallways and classrooms bulged with students throughout the day. Its design included numerous corners and alcoves that broke up sightlines and made it easy for students who got out of class to hang out in the hallway for extended periods of time without being seen.

But the physical plant was only the backdrop for the real problem. The school was just too big to be efficient. Up to a point, there is a certain amount of sense in operating a larger school. There are economies of scale – efficiencies that are possible by consolidating tasks, particularly in administrative positions – that can’t be managed in a smaller institution. But here, the tipping point for greater efficiency had been passed a long time ago. The administration was stocked with more people than I had ever seen at one school, and they all seemed to be overworked. Yet at the same time, it was extremely difficult for a new teacher to find out which administrator handled which areas of responsibility and who could answer which questions.

Because schools serve children who deserve a safe environment in which to learn, they need to have a sense of community, and that requires both personal accountability and institutional memory. Schools that are too big for anyone to know more than a small fraction of the students cannot foster personal accountability. For most students, the adults they pass in the halls might as well be strangers they would pass on a public sidewalk. The best these schools can do is to create a draconian system of hall passes and crowd control that buries everyone in more paperwork and has nothing to do with education. Schools that are too big for any one person to know how everything works or even what everyone’s job is cannot take advantage of institutional memory. It is too fractured. People spend too much time investigating how to solve the problems that crop up instead of simply dealing with them. Those schools lose any sense of continuity, of family. No one belongs there; they simply go to work there.

In large schools, it is easy to get lost in the crowd, easy to be overlooked, easy to trade away an opportunity to learn for a moment when no one is telling you what to do.

Achieving autonomy through education and the development of good habits should be the goal of every student, and schools should be designed to help students achieve that goal. Students deserve the individual attention they need to develop competence in the areas that will be crucial to their success as adults. Devoting time and energy to crowd control is a misuse of talent and limited resources – something schools can ill afford to do. It turns teachers into policemen and students into faceless suspects. That is not the lesson we need to be teaching.

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Overcoming obstacles

Food fight in the cafeteria. Everyone is out of their chairs, and from the edge of the room, I can see plastic bottles and pieces of food arcing across the room. This is not an angry fight. Most of the thrown objects are tossed into the air, not hurled at another person. But several students have taken the opportunity to use the cover of confusion and are gleefully contributing to the airborne mess.

I walk into the middle of the room, hoping that an adult presence will suppress some of the activity and keeping a sharp eye out for anyone who is careless enough to be caught in the act of this mischief. Twenty feet in front of me, a boy falls to the ground, and lying with his back on the floor heaves a plastic bottle across the room. I am astonished that he would do this right in front of me and bewildered as to why he would lie on the floor to do it. …

* * *

Human beings are brilliant at overcoming obstacles. Sometimes it takes us a while. How many millennia passed before someone invented the wheel? But once we recognize a way to save labor and achieve our goals, we eagerly adopt the devices that make our lives easier.

There is a certain inventive genius that seems to be packaged within human nature. We are living in an era in which creativity and innovation can yield tremendous financial rewards. We have come to expect new technology to make our current tools and toys obsolete in just a few years, so the upheaval these changes bring to our lifestyle are forgiven as we celebrate the new and learn not to grieve for the old habits we give up.

But there is also a natural tendency to hold on to the old ways of doing things. How many millennia passed before someone invented the wheel? We are creatures of habit, and there is a practical side to refusing to move forward. It excuses us from the labor of learning new skills and buying the new hardware that makes our still functional older system obsolete. Just as greater efficiency can be achieved by moving forward, sometimes it makes sense to stick with what we’ve got.

From an adult perspective, every child should embrace the opportunities offered in a free education. But the reality is not so simple. Even children understand, on an intuitive level, the trade-off between holding onto a less-efficient way of operating and throwing themselves into learning a new body of knowledge that may yield better results in the long run, but costs time and causes disorientation now. Children learn to pick and choose where to put their efforts. Some identify which subjects are the easiest for them to learn, and decide to put full efforts there. But for the subjects that require more effort to master, children may choose to put in less. Then the task shifts away from learning new material to making excuses for neglecting assigned responsibilities. The inventive genius of the human spirit is devoted to a task that seems somewhat anti-social, even self-destructive.

As difficult as it is for many adults to accept, a child’s refusal to learn may be a rational choice for that child. The cost of learning may just exceed any perceived pay-off. When the high-stakes tests in school are all multiple-choice, why should a student who struggles with writing even try to master that skill?

But even more important to the student may be the fact that making this decision on his or her own terms is a way of asserting control. Students don’t have any choice about being in school. Typically they have little or no say over what they are taught. Their social behavior, their manner of dress, even the timing of when they are allowed to go to the bathroom are in the hands of other people. Making the decision about how to navigate through the rules and expectations of school may be the only opportunity they have to use their inventive powers in a way that feels beneficial to them directly.

We need to make it clear to students why it is to their benefit to learn useful new skills and information. We need to hold them accountable for mastering these new systems with assessments that truly test their proficiency, and don’t just reward them for choosing among A, B, C, or D. We need to make the effort they might put into avoiding the consequences for neglecting their responsibilities at school seem like a bad bargain. Applying themselves to learning should be the obvious choice for them to make, with clear rewards for the energy they devote to it.

* * *

I escorted the young man who had thrown the bottle to the assistant principal’s office and described what I had seen. The A.P. spoke to the lad, then sent him to wait in the outer office until a parent could be located to take him home to begin his suspension.

I spoke with the administrator, saying that it was obvious the boy had not seen me nearby or he would not have thrown the bottle in my clear view. But, I wondered out loud, why would this young man lie on the floor to do it?

“It’s because of the cameras,” he said. “The cameras in the cafeteria don’t pick up the entire room, and the kid knew that part of the floor was a blind spot.”

Human beings are brilliant at overcoming obstacles.

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Who’s responsible for learning?

There was a time when students went to school to learn. If they couldn’t learn, or wouldn’t learn, there would be hell to pay at home.

There was a time when an education was regarded as a privilege, and the opportunity to get an education was seen not only as a ticket to a better quality of life, but as a status symbol itself. Children who were in school were children who were not needed as wage-earners to support the family.

In our nation’s past, when public education was not universally provided, it was regarded differently. Like anything that is scarce in a commercial society, it was understood to have an economic value. Those who were fortunate enough to have been granted the opportunity were seen as fools if they failed to make the most of it.

But it was, in the end, their choice, and the consequences that came with the choice belonged to person making it.

Things are a little different today.

Today, education is seen as a right, not as an opportunity, and certainly not as a mark of distinction. Everyone in the United States is allowed to receive a high school education for free. In fact attendance is mandatory until the age of 16 in most places.

The difference this has made in attitudes towards formal education is staggering – and it is only natural that it should be so. Opportunities must be seized. Rights can be claimed … or waived. If something is available to us just for the trouble of bothering to pick it up, we adopt a passive attitude towards it. We can have it any old time.

But certain education “reforms” of the last few years have made things even worse. We have become sidetracked from the fundamental goal of providing educational opportunities for all, to the elusive and ultimately pointless goal of measuring how we are doing compared to others. We claim to be interested in the progress of individuals, but we obsess over the progress of educational institutions. We have reconceived schools from places of personal advancement and excellence into institutions that must be standardized and idiot-proofed. And then we have instituted data-gathering on a massive scale so that we can have numbers to compare.

We have standardized curriculum, standardized testing, and standardized assessment of teacher quality – all in the interest of comparing apples to apples. We have leveled the playing field so that numbers will tell a story when lined up in neat columns. But at what cost?

Students are perceptive. They understand that the emphasis is on schools’ performance, rather than on individual students’ performance. They know that teachers and principals have as much to lose as the students themselves if they don’t pass the tests.

So why should they care? For most students the material they are required to learn is not relevant to their immediate lives, and they don’t understand its relevance to the world they are entering. While some teachers do an extraordinary job helping students make connections with the required subject matter, even their best efforts are undercut by the very nature of the high-stakes assessments students are required to take. The standardized tests we are giving call for rote memorization – the lowest level of intellectual engagement. There is no serious downside to students putting in little effort. They will not be put out of school for failure. But teachers who have large numbers of failing students may lose their jobs.

We have created a school environment where students don’t value their education, and even see themselves as unwilling pawns in someone else’s numbers game. There was a time when things were very different. There will be a time very soon in many of these students’ lives when they will wish they were better prepared for the challenges they are facing.

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Keeping score with standardized tests

We have fallen into a trap, and as we struggle to break free, we are pulled further and further in. We all seem to agree that schools need to be improved. We are concerned about the competitive disadvantage of having an educational system that is inferior to that of our neighbors. So we ask ourselves, how bad have things really gotten? And then we pull out a measuring stick.

There are two kinds of tests, administered at two different points in the learning process. Formative assessments are given while learning is underway, to check progress, and to indicate areas for improvement. The timing and the content of formative assessments is crucial, and can include pretests, comprehensive tests over all material covered, and then tests on specific areas that were shown as weak on earlier assessments and then re-taught. When effectively used, they are tools for both the teacher and the student, each taking in the relevant information and taking responsibility for the work that needs to be done to complete the learning task at hand.

Cumulative assessments are given when the teaching and learning process is complete. It is a measure of mastery achieved once all opportunities for improvement have been offered.

The standardized tests that dominate the lives of schools are formative assessments. They are snapshots of progress, given midstream in a child’s education, without regard to the individual learning needs of the students, given at the same time and under the same circumstances everywhere they are administered. They should be used to gather data, and to evaluate students’ needs as learning continues. They should be used to guide the further instruction of individual students.

The tests might be a useful tool for instruction – if they were actually used as formative assessments for the students who take them. But they are not. They are regarded as measuring sticks for schools, not for the children who attend them.

For the students, these standardized tests are treated as cumulative assessments. They are given at the end of the school year, and their scores are sometimes used in calculating a grade for a class.

Instead of using data from standardized tests to help the students who actually took the tests, schools react by making changes that are intended to improve scores the following year. Often these changes amount simply to increased instruction in test-taking skills. Because we value the scores as a statement of a school’s status in measuring up to other schools, we look at progress in test scores from year to year and ignore the fact that the students who took the test one year are not the ones being tested the following year. We use whatever data we collect to inform instruction for the next set of test-takers. For schools with limited resources that are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate “improvement,” helping the students who performed poorly this year becomes a lost cause.

Do we really care more about the progress of a school as a whole than we do about the students in it?

We are misusing this tremendous opportunity to improve the education of our students – the individual children who deserve the best education we can provide. And we are doing this because of our obsession with keeping score. We want to know if we are falling behind our neighbors more than we care about our own kids.

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