Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's wrong with standardized testing?

Standardizing works well on a car assembly line. That's because all the car parts arrive at their appointed place on the assembly line,  each part exactly the same as all the others of its type. If one part is faulty, it has to be scrapped so that each car can be assembled in exactly the same way with identical cars coming out at the end.  That's why you will rarely see a two door Ford with four doors and a wheel on the roof.

Children, alas, don't come don't arrive at school as identical parts; nor. I should hope, would we want them to be identically assembled at the end. Children come to school very different from each other, and those differences have a profound affect on how and what they will learn. Some are poor, from families that have been poor for generations. That has an affect on how they see their future, and on their attitude to learning. Some come from cultures such as Judaism or Chinese, with a long tradition of respect for learning. They come with very different abilities and interests and potentials, both physical and intellectual.

We cannot make them all the same. NOR SHOULD WE WANT TO MADE THEM THE SAME.  WE SHOULD WANT EACH CHILD TO BE THE BEST HE OR SHE CAN BE.  If what you want coming off the line at graduation day is a warm-blooded robot, send the kid to dog obedience school.

What standardized tests do is to force all the teachers to teach very different students all in the same say. In the process, they have throw away the years of training they had at a great expense for both them and us. It puts pressure on them to teach from the texts, and even at the same pace. All that is reminiscent of the education minister in France who said, "Ah, two o'clock on Thursday. Every grade six child in France is on page 104 of mathematics."  That used to be a joke. Now, in New Brunswick, it's no joke. It's farce become tragedy.

The use of stadardized test forces teachers to teach for the test - not for the subject, and certainly not for the children.  As well, it profoundly discourages any innovation by teachers. Teaching is a trade you learn at university only in its basic form. From that point, much of the learning of how to teach comes from the experience of teaching. Why on earth is New Brunswick throwing all that experience into the rubbish heap?

In effect, teachers are being forced to do a job that cannot be done, and should not be done. The strain on them is terribly demoralizing, particularly as some principals will want their schools to do well on the tests so that they can get promoted. (Yes, Virginia, there are such principals.) Nor is it fair to put the full blame on such principals. To take a stand against a policy advocated by the Board, the Department of Education, and others I shall come to later would be a career-ending move.

What really puts the heat on is publication of school rankings based on such tests. Such publication reduces education to a horse race, misleading the public to think the rankings are due to teaching quality. They aren't. As we've seen, all sorts of factors enter into standardized test results. Even worse, the words standardized and ranking suggest to the general public this is really scientifically designed. It isn't. And it can't be. Science works on standard and defined subjects with everything repeatable. That's why you can't even mix hydrogen and oxygen and be sure of getting water.

As well, the notion that pubication of results encourages schools to compete is nonsense. For a start, any competition produces only one winner. Hat's off. It also produces hundreds and even thousands of losers, who are not likely to be much improved by the experience. I was a loser in high school. I know what losing does to most people.

In any case, such a competition, even if it happens, simply encourages bad education.

And it gets worse.

Earlier this year, the Department of Eduation circulated a questionnaire for parents. It was the most incompetent and useless such document I have ever seen. Consider this question, for example.

Is your child's teacher working hard to improve the quality of education in the class?  Yes    No

1. How many average parents can have the faintest idea of how hard a teacher is working?
2. How many parents have the training and exposure to know how to judge quality of education?
3. If a gifted teacher is not working hard, but it producing high quality education, is the answer yes or no?
4. If a teacher is working hard, but is still a bad teacher, is the answer yes or no?

No questionnaire maker I have even seen would produce such an incompetent and useless form. But the experts at the Department of Education did. And all the other questions are just as good.

So why did the editorialist of The Moncton Times&Tribune write such a kiss-kiss editorial about  standardization? Why were the news reports written by a person who seems to know little about education? Why did the editor ignore the damage this is doing to chldren and teachers? Well, yes, it's true that the editorialist probably did know,  and generally seems pretty dozey on the subject of education. But, then, if you know nothing about a subject, why write an editorial on it?

That's linked to another question. In a continent that has thousands of experts, why is the government of New Brunswick modelling its schools on advice from The Atlantic Institute of Marketing? And why is the AIMS taking a role in the testing? It doesn't sound like an education organization.

We'll take a look at that. But, first, there are things we need to know about "think tanks", things The Moncton Times&andTranscript is not likely to tell us.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

a brief interjection

If you are reading t his and are in the Moncton area, I have a current events group that meets in the Moncton Library at 2 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. The next meeting is this Thursday, May 6. All are welcome.

The Origins of Standardization in North American Schools

     As I walked into grade one of tiny, Crystal Springs School in north end Montreal, I saw a room exactly the same as every grade one in the whole province of Quebec. Indeed, it was same as every classroom all the way through high school. There were six rows of desks and seats, always exactly six, bolted to the floor. At the front was a chalkboard. The teacher's desk was at the head of the class, alway dead centre. Even for a six year old, it was clear that meant order, discipline, authority, sameness. Standardized education.

       I learned on my way through four schools that every day started at 9, and ended at 3:15. When, in grade six I arrived minutes late, I was suspended for a day. All text books were standard to produce us as standard products. We were, for example, trained to be loyal subjects of a British Empire that was on its last legs, and from which Canada had become independent a generation earlier. The History text, largely fiction, was titled, "Canada: A British Nation". (My class was largely made up of Italians, Syrians, and a scattering of East Europeans.)

    We learned to line up before going anywhere, and to go there in perfect rows without talking. We learned to keep our bowels under strict control except for breaks at recess and noon. We learned to obey. We learned to memorize. We learned to be on time. The school board knew we weren't going to university, or even going to finish high school.  Even we knew it. And not one of us from that grade one at Crystal Springs ever did finish high school. Some of us dropped out as early as grade four.

     But we were the standard products the board was aiming for. Each grade ground out a product that could be gauged by grade to perform at slightly varying levels as obedient and reliable robots to do low level jobs in factories and offices.

     After flunking out, then doing my turns as factory and office worker, I became a teacher. At teachers' college, we learned all about what was wrong withproducing standardized robots. So I looked forward to my first day of teaching at Parkdale School in a Montreal suburb. It was an almost new building. I went in, walked down the hall, walked early to room 22, and looked with excitement over my first classroom.

    Wow! The desks and chairs weren't bolted to the floor. They could be moved. I could put students in friendship groups or tutoting groups or private study groups. I could move the teacher's desk out of the way.  So we all had a great time that first day, moving things around, and seeing what worked best.  Then the principal dropped by.

     "Oh, no, Mr. Decarie. The desks have to be in rows. Straight rows. Six of them."
     "It makes it easier for the janitor."

      'Oh'" he said in parting (he was fond of "oh"), "talk to the other grade seven teachers to make sure you're always together on the same pages of the text books ."

       Standardized education goes back at least a hundred and fifty years in North America. At that time, the children of the rich, like the children of the rich today, went to private schools where they were groomed for universities which were largely playground/finishing schools for the rich.

       Lower down the scale, some would pay small fees so their children could get very basic education from a local, needy person who could read - perhaps a widow. The rest got no education unless they came from a religious tradition that encouraged reading for religious purposes - like Methodism or Judaism.

     Public school really took off in the provision of standardized and measured education for the masses around the middle of the century as industrialization took root, and as families left the farm for salaried work in the cities.  It's purpose was to provide low level workers with adequate reading skills to read simple signs, adequate mathematical skill to do what a Hollywood Hilllbilly used to call Guzintas, drilled to respect punctuality and orders, and trained in  the conventions of  knowing their social place. ("Not rising above their stations," as the old folks used to say.)

      Over the years, especially as the years after 1945 showed a growing demand for office workers, the system responded by requiring students to stay in school for more years, by offering a wider range of courses for everybody, and by raising grades to avoid the truth that too many people were failing in the standardized system,thus creating a glut of failed students. Any glut was too expensive in its demand for more space and teachers.

     From 1950 on, the universities became, in effect, a higher and expensive level of the public school system. They, too, raised grades and taught all sorts of things that would be forgotten within months of the final exam. In the process, the universities created a crisis for themselves. They needed more and more students to pay fees in order for the universities to maintain the research on which academic status and egos depended. They simply could not afford to let people flunk out. So the universities, like the high schools, taught measurable but largely useless information.

      Don't think so? Could you still pass a high school trigonometry exam? or that university course in itntroductory sociology? I had eight years of university education; and I don't remember even the names of most of the courses.

       Next, we'll take a look at how standardization causes damage to both students and teachers.


Monday, April 26, 2010

What this is about

The idea for this blog came from an editorial and several news stories in the Times&Transcript in the week of April 21. The editorial was on the recent publication of school rankings as based on standardized education testing.

I have no interest in a general attack on the paper. The Moncton Times&Transcript is a paper much like any other small city daily across Canada. As with most such papers, its local news is heavy on local boosterism. It had better be if it hopes to survive in a shrinking print market, and if it wants to attract advertising. The sports staff is good. It has to be. The news media in general can get away with sending the village idiot to cover trivia like education, politics and nuclear war. But God help the paper that tries to sell sports news written by a staff that doesn't know the nickname of the player who assisted on the last goal of a big game. Celebrity gossip gets similar attention and expertise. That's not the paper's fault. That's ours.

Canadian and World News, reflecting a general lack of interest in it, is slim. As well, its language is heavy on propaganda. Muslims who set bombs to kill at random are "terrorists". American religious cranks who do the same are "militias". Western pilots who to the same from a couple of thousand feet are "heroes". Pilotless drones that do it are "life savers". But that's pretty much in line with most Canadian news media. At worse, it comes nowhere close the debasing of journalism that has happened south of the border.

On the positive side, The Moncton Times&Transcript has some solid columnists, indeed. Despite a few hacks of the worst sort (and you will find those in any paper), the majority of the columnists would be a credit to any newspaper -and at least two are quite oustanding.

What drags the Times&Transcript down is the quality of editing, particularly in the selection of items for the news pages. And even deeper into the gloom and bottom ooze are the editorials.
A close reading of them suggests what is really wrong with the paper, and why it is not going to get better.

It was the news stories on standardized testing that got to me. It was the publication of school rankings that got to me. It was, above all, the dreadful kiss-up tone and general ignorance of the education in the editorial that got to me. All of these indicate a failure of the Times&Transcript to give adequate information to readers so they can understand the news. It is a failure so obvious it can only be deliberate. And that makes it dishonest.

I plan to write several blogs covering...

1. Why, on a continent that has thousands of world rank authorities on education, does the New Brunswick Department of Education take educational direction from the Atantic Institute of Marketing Studies?

2. What is the Atlantic Institute of Marketing Studies? Why would it be offering advice on how to teach children? Why, for that matter, is it in charge of the testing?

3. Does the editorialist for the Times&Transcript have any training or experience in education? His or her editorials seems to display an abysmal ignorance of the subject. Surely, an editor would be wise to stay from such a topic. That's why we see so few editorials on brain surgery, quantum mathematics, or how to knot a knecktie. So why was this editorial written?

4. What is the motive behind standardized education and testing? And why is it not only a bad idea, but a terribly destructive one? In fact, far from being new, it's an idea at least a hundred fifty years old - and a bad one from the start.

I look forward to hearing a variety of opinions in response. Feel free to range over both strong and weak points of the Times&Transcript.