Education Evolutions #119

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The new year for a high school teacher always means the sprint to the end of the first semester has begun. This week marks the final week of classes for me and many others with exams looming in the near future. Consequently, that means a lot of grades will need to be reported. So I offer support and solidarity to all the teacher readers of this as they make their way through the mountain of material to wrap the end of term.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is a toss-up between the first and last one. The last one usually gets that honor but anyone unfamiliar with what goes on regarding state demands and textbook production should give the first one a look too. The final selection focuses on issues related to data which gets a fair amount of attention in this newsletter. It will come as no surprise that part of the point is students are more than data.

I have certainly mentioned Anand Giridharadas and his book Winner’s Take All previously here, including a video of him in issue 113. For anyone that has not read the book or not seen a lot of him in the media, this video RSA Minimate: Winners Take All | Anand Giridharadas (4:54) is a really good 5 minute summary of the ideas he is advancing. The visuals are great and help enhance his points. I wish he would have called the Silicon Valley education scheme he mentions what it really is – little more than a digital indentured servitude.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories. – The New York Times – Dana Goldstein (10-minute read)

First, I included this story because it is an under-reported issue in education, but even more, it should be understood that this is not news. This textbook editorial wrangling and shaping has been going on for decades. It is not new nor does it look like it is going away anytime soon. Moreover, Texas and California with some nod to New York have always been the states that play an outsized role in this kind of ad hoc, revisionist historiography because of their market size.

Also, make no mistake, one of the factors in the Common Core movement was a profit motive. Textbook publishers were looking for ways to cut costs by avoiding having to produce the kind of multiple versions the main state markets were demanding. No matter what kind of spin there was about all American students learning the same standards, which might seem like an appealing idea, publishers wanted to pad their profits with one-size-fits-all solutions that are cheaper and more efficient to produce, not to mention all the gravy available from the new testing schemes.

Of course, the real problem is that history is never a single, iron-clad narrative. Someone decides what is included and what is not in any story, real or imagined. This what historians spend their lives exploring, interrogating, and producing multiple histories that reveal a grander narrative. Of course, there can be wild disagreement in assembling history, as we have seen recently (The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts). What should be more unsettling about what is included in this article is the degree to which politically appointed boards of non-historians are shaping the narrative available to millions of students who are only beginning to understand that the very discipline of history is a contentious one, especially considering the different versions are not only sold in the states that shape them alone. Again, multiple versions are expensive to produce.

Why Are Grades Important? Some Teachers Say They Do More Harm Than Good – Teen Vogue – Zach Schermele (6-minute read)

It is not every day the publication Teen Vogue makes an appearance in this newsletter. In fact, they have been having some journalistic growing pains of late. Still, this was an unexpected and well-sourced piece written in a magazine whose target audience includes secondary students. The breadth of the sources Scermele uses is deep and wide, including practitioners and experts in the education field and mostly avoids a lot of the traps many mainstream education articles find themselves.

First, it is an interesting choice to use an AP teacher as the hook for a going gradeless story. The College Board and Advanced Placement program certainly contributes to a competitive academic culture. So to see an anecdotal lede that demonstrates that the teacher’s experience going gradeless has had no impact on the AP test scores helps strengthen the reporting that aims at revealing more about this alternative approach to grades at the K12 level. Add more classroom teachers to the mix and the story deepens.

Then, adding higher education academics and experts to the story helps add some weight and validity to the topic. Plus, any article that asks Alfie Kohn for comment probably will get my attention. Yet, his research and work is not the only one that the reporter taps. There are other quality sources with links that make this pretty strong piece of reporting on the subject for anyone unfamiliar or new to the topic and looking for some good places to investigate more. I will admit that I was a bit disappointed to see the ever-present John Hattie mentioned, given that he remains the current soup de jour of the education world, despite his meta-analyses being more suspect than is often acknowledged. Still, this article is a great primer for the whole idea for a K12 teacher interested in learning more about going gradeless.

A Teacher’s New Year’s Resolution: Stop Fixating on the Data – The Chronicle of Higher Education – David Gooblar (6-minute read)

While this piece may be in a publication for higher education, there is plenty to consider at the secondary level too. For one, anyone that has not read John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities yet, I cannot recommend that book highly enough. It is not just for English teachers by any stretch. Another reason that bears directly on secondary education is the fixation on data, what can be easily measured versus what cannot, and what implications are communicated to students as a result.

I recently had a couple of conversations with different colleagues about the challenges presented with data availability, use, and challenges. The common thread in both involved how any kind of data might be used and what do we even believe it is telling us, which for me is definitely never above interrogation. Also, one fo the great things about the conversations was a baseline understanding that no one metric was particularly useful, something that is not always a given. Yet, as those conversations marinated in my mind, I keep essentially returning to the eye test, what do my direct observations reveal. Any data that I might consider when assessing a student usually must be coupled with my eye test.

As an educator, I am constantly looking for ways that I can afford students and teachers for that matter choices. It has been one of the steadfast principles of my teaching career. What I like most about what Gooblar writes is how he addresses the challenge of understanding how much help to provide and how much to let them struggle. Chasing the answer to that question in a perpetually changing context for each individual is one the enduring and most satisfying endeavors of the whole enterprise of teaching, at least for me. That has a lot less to do with cold, collected data, although it can at times help inform, and a whole lot more to do with connecting to warm real human beings. It also has a lot to do with my thoughts on grades too, which may be just another data point.

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