Education’s Catch-22

Social Science Improvement Crap

We write so much about improving education, but we get so little improvement. The following list of Education Week white papers exemplifies our current approach to improving education. Furthermore, this list speaks volumes about our need for a new approach. Nobody looks at it and concludes, “Reading and following the suggestions in these reports is sure to inspire improved teaching and learning.”

• Longitudinal Data Systems in Education
• Digital Teaching Platforms: A Research Review
• The Blackboard K-12/Education Week Survey of Online Learning Preparedness 2010
• Learning in the 21st Century: Taking it Mobile!
• Same Goal, Different Strategies
• Differentiating Instruction: Teaching Differently to Improve Student Outcomes
• Center for Technology in Learning: The Power of Project Learning with ThinkQuest
• The Middle School Algebra Readiness Initiative
• Blended Learning: Combining Face-to-Face and Online Instruction
• Leadership Series: Improving Classroom Learning

Education and political organizations publish reams of improvement ideas from social scientists, technology proponents, education scholars and political think tanks. Rarely do we hear from philosophical teachers and principals. Education Week published my explanation for this in 2001.
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2001/05/23/37hurley.h20.html?tkn=PRPFtTMz6UfavQ0Qu5fV8TCZPzi0hxP6g8xY

Ten years later principals and teachers are still too busy to make their voices heard. When my graduate students, who are principals and teachers, express frustration over this, I say, “If you are ignored by those who sponsor and write education improvement reports, why do you pay attention to them? Do you always pay attention to people who ignore you?” This isn’t spite or sarcasm; it’s recognizing the worthlessness of the social science improvement paradigm.

Cut the Crap

In other words, I won’t read the white papers because:

1. They define being “educated” as achieving high test scores, which is a definition that does not inspire teaching or learning.

2. They assume teachers should be more “effective,” even though no “effectiveness” idea ever improved education, if it did not first enhance teacher appreciation for students, subject matter, and what it means to be educated. The irony is that school reformers and policymakers look for “effectiveness” because they are too blind to see that appreciation improves schools every day.

3. Finally, reports like these don’t discuss either the virtues of our educated nature or the vices of our uneducated one.  They discuss the teaching of knowledge and skills instead of virtue. They believe in social science research findings, which blinds them to the fact that all good teachers are philosophers, not social scientists. All who believe in the social science improvement paradigm should submit a description of a situation that was improved through the application of research findings.

My question is always the same. Was that improvement possible without greater appreciation for students, subject matter and what it means to be educated? If not, why don’t we promote greater appreciation for students, subject matter and what it means to be educated?

We have a Catch-22. Teachers, administrators, policymakers, professors, and reformers attended K-16 schools that modeled and taught understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that fears truth, and generosity based on pride. Reports come and go, but public education stays the same because improving education requires imagination, courage, and humility — the virtues not taught in K-16 schools.

Why is that so difficult to understand? It’s because we lack imagination, courage, and humility. Can you say Catch-22?

The Art and Science of Teaching

Here are my undergraduate students’ unedited exam descriptions of the art & science of teaching.  All of them left high school just a few years ago.

Male Student — Teaching is more of an art than a science. An art is focused on appreciation. Appreciation is at the core of the classroom. If a teacher appreciates the subject they will be better suited and more inspiring to their students. Appreciation is necessary from both the students and the teachers towards each other in order to be an effective teacher. The teachers that were my best teachers were more focused on appreciating the students and the learning process than on the effectiveness of them. By appreciating these things, the teacher was able to be a more effective teacher. The teachers that were not as good were the ones that tried to be effective teachers but did not put forth any appreciation. My classroom will be built on appreciation. I will make sure that the students see how much I appreciate them, the subject, and the learning process. I will ensure that they appreciate each other and what each of them brings to the classroom.

Female Student — I don’t think teaching can be defined as either an art or a science. I think it can only be defined as a combination of both. If appreciation is the only thing a teacher is concerned about, while the students may have high confidence levels and feel like they are important, they won’t have the skills that they need to realistically succeed. On the other hand, if teachers are only focused on effectiveness, the students may develop good skills and do well on tests, but they might not be able to apply it to themselves on an individual level. The teachers that I learned the most from were very encouraging and appreciative of the natural abilities that I possessed, and were also willing to find ways to help me with the things that I struggled with. I also had a few teachers who neglected both of these who I learned the least from.

Female Student — I believe teaching is a combination of an art and a science. I think you need to have a deep appreciation of what you teach, and be able to express that in a way so that your students will have an appreciation for what you are teaching. If they appreciate it, they will perhaps understand it more or easier, and won’t mind learning about it as much. At the same time, you need to be effective at how you teach to get it across the best way. Some of my best teachers were very effective, while the appreciation might not have been there. My US History teacher in high school drilled the information into our heads. We would quiz everyday and go over what we had just learned. He was very effective at teaching the subject because I received a 98 on the EOC exam, but his appreciation was a little off. We learned more about what happened exactly, rather than why, or who it affected, or what it affected. My worst teachers were not effective. My chemistry teacher stopped teaching altogether halfway through the semester, but she would show us things about chemistry and she loved it. It was great that she loved it, and I could appreciate how cool chemistry was, but she did not teach us how to do it, and thus we all came very close to failing the class because of this.

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Standardized Testing Experiences

Here are my undergraduate students’ unedited exam descriptions of their experiences with standardized tests.   All of them left high school just a few years ago.

Female Student — I’ll admit that standardized tests can be helpful in examining the curriculums set up. They can assist in seeing which methods are working and which are not. They are also cheap to produce, administer, and grade. That is as much as I am willing to delude myself with the idea that they are a good thing. They have horrible effects on teaching, curriculum, at-risk children, and increase the probability of dropouts.

Teachers face a huge amount of stress because of these tests. Standardized tests end up determining the curriculum because teachers want to keep the administration happy which means getting good scores. Thus, they are forced to teach whatever is on the course of study for the tests and end up sacrificing a ton of other topics to teach about because they need their students to be as prepared as they can be.

Not only do standardized tests affect teachers negatively, it affects students negatively. Stressful and sometimes depressing there has been an increase in the rates of dropouts in states that have graduation tests. At-risk children are even worse off; the unfair comparison of demographics that these test provide end up “failing” children in this situation.

The last thing I must say about these tests is that the subjects that are normally seen as a relief from stress and worry like music, physical education, drama, and art are made less important because of standardized testing. The emphasized curriculums are placed on math and English class and often times the other classes are cut short or end up going without adequate funding. This is perhaps one of the worst problems these test cause; the subjects that are necessary for well-rounded learning experiences are not being taught.

Female Student — I do not agree with standardized test in American public schools. Some students just aren’t very good test takers. I get so nervous about a test that I can’t even focus, then studying becomes pointless. I would rather do my homework and have a pop quiz than have to study and be prepared for a big test. Many teachers don’t even agree with big standardized test either because they have to take the time from their original lesson plans to make time for all this extra review so that their students do well. Teachers would also agree that if they can’t get new materials or textbooks for their classroom every so often then why are the states wasting money on all this extra costly stuff to provide for standardized test. Also, another reason I don’t like standardized tests is because I feel like I could have got accepted other places if they would have interviewed me rather than looking at my SAT score. High-stakes tests hurt students who are very smart, but just don’t test well. When I become a teacher in a few years I’m not going to be able to teach what I want, but instead what is on that big test my students will have to take at the end of the school year. When children have practice test they cheat just to make a good grade, but then when the big real test comes they are given different test and some end up failing. I just don’t believe standardized, high-stakes test are fair.

Male Student — I believe that public schools place to much emphasis on standardized and high-stake tests. I say this because I know plenty of people who are very good students who are awful standardized testers. How can a standardized test really determine what college a student should attend? In my opinion colleges look to those scores more than they should be. If I were the head of admissions at the University I would set up an interview with students, and let that be the determining factor of whether they get into the institution or not. But this whole notion that we can measure the intelligence level of a student through the SAT or ACT is ridiculous.

I am very passionate about this because I was a good student in high school who never did well in these kinds of tests and because of it I was labeled as not being as smart as everyone else. I do not believe that public school teachers need a score to let them know how their students are doing in class. And I do not think it is right for us to be comparing success of students in a school to the success of students all over the country. Who cares how students are doing all around the country? As a teacher it is your responsibility to teach your students and not worry about national scores.

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The Visible, Hidden & Extra Curricula

Here are my undergraduate students’ unedited exam descriptions of their experiences with the (a) visible, (b) hidden, and (c) extra curricula.  All of them left high school just a few years ago.

Female Student — Being what I would consider a “professional student” of fifteen years I feel that I have seen and recognized the hidden, visible, and extra curriculums incorporated into school curriculums. The hidden curriculum would be school rules, classroom rules and school mottos for example. The visible curriculum would be standardized tests and the pressure from the school board for local schools to excel. The extra curriculum is often pushed by parents, school employees and colleges to a certain extent encouraging students to participate in sports, clubs, and community service in order to be a more well rounded person. During my time as a student my most powerful educational experiences are contributed to the hidden and extra curriculums present in schools.

The hidden curriculum to me would be the rules listed in the classroom for all to read or the syllabus of what is expected of you in a course that is handed out on the first day of class. This curriculum is not hidden to anyone, teachers share it with students and parents so all parties know what is expected of them from the get go. It is important because when followed it allows you to excel as a student because you complete assignments in a timely matter and you respect your teacher and classmates allowing you to do your best in your classes. I would include this in my most powerful educational experiences because by following the hidden curriculum such as school rules and classroom rules I personally gained close relationships with teachers and faculty members that have helped me in furthering my education.

The visible curriculum to me personally was not as influential as the hidden and extra curriculums because I consider the visible curriculum being standardized test scores and the push for students and schools to improve and excel on their yearly state tests. The visible curriculum is known it’s not a complete secret, but it’s not as publicized as the class or school rules and policies. The visible curriculum is important but test scores are not what have helped me through my education, what has helped me has been strong relationships with teachers, faculty members and other students. Test scores are used to analyze progress I understand that but I am a terrible test taker and I personally don’t feel that standardized tests have reflected my understanding of the subjects being tested. Personally I do not think the visible curriculum is as important as school boards and officials make it out to be.

The extra curriculum is important for social and personal growth because it allows students to focus some of their energy into other areas besides academic work all day long. Extra curriculums include sports, clubs, and community service these extra activities help shape students into well rounded individuals capable of a life outside of a school setting. It is important that students participate in other activities so that they do not become overwhelmed and discouraged from school work. Extra curriculum activities provide students with opportunities to meet other people that they might not have had the opportunity to meet in a school setting. Personally some of my best friends still are friends that I acquired through extracurricular activities.

Female Student — The visible curriculum is one of the curriculums I saw the most in high school and now in college. Teachers have handed out syllabi since day one of high school, and I continue to get them every semester. Syllabi help me visualize what is to come in a course or what is expected of me in the class. It is visible curriculum that helps me to succeed in classes.

The invisible curriculum is exactly as it sounds. It cannot be found in a syllabi or anywhere else. You can learn the most from the invisible curriculum. I get the most out of my education from this curriculum because it can relate to me or life personally. I believe the invisible curriculum helps me connect with my professor and classmates more than a visible curriculum would. Class discussions that are similar to a topic in class is like an invisible curriculum, it will help you understand material in class and relates to you.

Extracurricular activities fall under the extra curriculum. These extra activities such as sports or a club have been proven to help a student’s grades if school and the extra activities are healthily balanced. I had extracurricular activities in high school. I was the yearbook editor and chief for all four years of high school. The extra curriculum did not really help me, but it did not hinder me either.

Female Student — An example of the invisible or hidden curriculum would be when we use to have recess in elementary school and I would run to the dolls first and would collect all of them and not want to share with anyone. Then the other girls would complain and I would have to share with them. The lesson that I learned here and what the other children are learning also is that for me I have to share my the dolls that I got to first with every person who wants to play with one meaning that I have to learn to share and the other children who did not have dolls at first had to accept the fact that they did not have them and had to figure out a strategy on how to get the dolls and have one of their own.

With extracurricular activities that would involve either playing a sport or attending an after school program that you were involved in. I had an extracurricular activity every day of my life. Even in elementary school I had extracurricular activities. I have been running track since I was five years old and after elementary school I would go and run with my dad and practice different things. When I was in middle school I played basketball and we had practice every day except for on Fridays. While in high school I played junior varsity basketball and I ran track. I think that extracurricular activities keep a lot of children out of the streets and it gives children an opportunity to try out something new and something that they enjoy doing that makes them happy. I know that it made me very happy and I really enjoyed it a lot.

With the visible curriculum in my schools and even in college my teachers would hand out syllabi and they would have everything that you were doing from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. I actually like these because you could turn in homework early or start on assignments early because you have it right in front of your face. The only thing that I do not like about syllabi is that most are tentative and they change if your behind schedule most teachers skip to the next thing to catch back up or either take something out of the syllabi and you do not learn about it.

The visible and the extracurricular activities experience played a major role in my life the most because this is what I was growing up on in school and these are all of the things that were given to me to follow and use. I was always given a syllabus in classes even in middle school we had syllabus and like I stated earlier I was always doing an extracurricular activity after school. I was even tutoring and being tutored after school and before school so I was always a busy person.

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School Effectiveness

Here are my undergraduate students’ unedited exam descriptions of how their schools compared to “effective schools” on the criteria of (a) strong leadership, (b) a clear school mission, (c) a safe and orderly environment, (d) monitoring student progress, and (e) high expectations.  All of them left high school just a few years ago.

Male Student — I believe that yes my school was an effective school. The school had great leadership in the office and in the classrooms. They constantly pushed you to do your best in any subject and would be more than willing to help you out too. Which brings me to the fact that my school did expect a lot out of their students, they even had a school motto to help push you which I guess you could use as a mission statement too. But on top of this you could go to school and feel safe during the day! The environment was great and the teachers really tried to help you.

My school was full of leaders; it wasn’t just the principle that would take charge. Yes there was a system of leadership or what you could call a chain of command but the teachers where not afraid to speak up either. For example, my music director would make sure her classes were taken care of. If the principle decided something that was not best for the music classes she would, in a polite manner go up to him and tell him. We also had very few teachers that would not take control of their classrooms. If you misbehaved they would not tolerate it. The principal rarely made decisions that would affect parts of the school in a negative way, he tried to always find the right answer or the best answer.

Which brings me to the mission statement; however this statement really wasn’t the official mission statement it worked just the same. “Shoot for the stars and you will land somewhere in them”. We all knew by this statement what the schools administrations goal was and at the same time we were not bored reading it on the school handbook, where some schools have those long mission statements that no one reads but the parents because they were boring the administration made one that we would pay attention to as students. So even we knew what they expected of us.

The great thing about this statement it meant that we knew coming into this high school that the teachers would expect a lot out of us. The staff would push us to succeed through all odds even when we felt we would fail. I remember my calculus teacher in particular, he was not easily impressed with what you got right but he was determined to make sure everyone understood what he was talking about. In class at the beginning of that year I was a senior and did not really pay attention in the class because it was in the morning first thing. So when December rolled around and we were half way through the class (it being a yearlong class) he started to push me to start paying attention and to do all my work. I believe if there had been any other teacher that was teaching that class I would not have do as well because he had the expectation for every student in that room to pass and we did. Because he kept such a close eye on my progress and others progress he knew where we stood and what our weakness were. He would find those weaknesses and help us even if it meant meeting on a Saturday, which he did a few times.

The final part I want to talk about is how safe the school was or at least felt. Even though the school was not tight on rules people knew what to and not to do. Everyone was like family so we watched out for one another. There was rarely any fights for the simple fact that everyone in the school would get punished if there was. We were given the task of making sure fights did not break out or if they did we were asked to try and break them up. So where as other schools may have students crowd around the fight to watch we as a student body would crowd around to grab each person and get them away from each other. You would think that this would put other students in danger of getting hurt but when the students that were fighting got grabbed they would know what was going on and they would not hit anyone else, however they may try to get away so they could continue to fight with the other student.

So yes I thought of my school as being effective. We learned a lot academically but not only that but also we learned some life lessons. We were a close knit school because of the teachers and administrations views and policies. We all tried to strive for the stars and those who missed still landed in the sky!

Female Student — I feel like the only schools that I went to with really strong leadership were the ones I attended while living in Illinois. I don’t know what it was, but I felt like I was in better hands with them. Especially my elementary school principal, he is the only principal that I ever recall having a conversation with besides in the case of me doing something wrong. He was always in and out of classroom and I remember he was very responsive to parents and teachers problems. On the contrary, my High School administrators seemed to be focused on the bad. They only wanted to be involved if there was an issue and it was never in a positive way.

All of my schools have had a clear mission, but most of my schools weren’t extremely effective in carrying them out. When my high school started implementing the smaller learning communities, I remember they had all these great goals but not really any effective way of reaching them. It seemed like there was a lot of disconnect between the different administrators of the different schools and I personally think this was one of the main reason it wasn’t as effective as they thought it was going to be.

I never felt threatened or unsafe at any of the schools I went to, even my high school which had the occasional fights and bomb threats. They did regular searches and sometimes they would put metal detectors at the front of the school. They also had security guards roaming the halls. I think all of this contributed to the feeling of security for the school.

Every single one of my schools has monitored student progress closely, but it wasn’t really discussed or evaluated, at least what I can remember. If we didn’t do well on the test, the response was just that we needed to do better on the test. No one tried to figure out why it was that some students weren’t succeeding, it was just blamed on the teacher or that the student wasn’t smart.

Some of my teachers had very high expectations and other didn’t. Although I don’t specifically remember experiencing this personally, I remember more than a couple instances where unconscious prejudice came into play. I also remember that although it annoyed me at the time, I responded more and did better in classes of teachers who said things like “Mary (pseudonym), I know you can do better than this.”

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