Education Evolutions #99

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Maybe just maybe spring has finally sprung in New England. This has been the nicest weekend weather I can remember this year. That made putting together this newsletter a bit more challenging.

Not sure that there is much of a theme to this collection of articles. However, there is a kind of thread of tests. Even the article about athletics and leisure time activity hinges on a test of sorts, even though it might not involve ticking boxes. Still, all of these articles ask some pretty interesting questions.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is probably the first one. They are all interesting in their own right but Peter Greene has been producing some excellent pieces since starting to write for Forbes. He is definitely an education writer worth following, either at his blog or the magazine. His blog has more of his acerbic wit, but his Forbes pieces retain a sharp perspective and give him a potentially much wider audience.

So, enjoy this selection of shorter reads. I kept it brief by design in the hopes everyone might go outside for a walk or something.

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

Have We Stolen A Generation’s Independent Thought? – Forbes – Peter Greene (4-minute read)

Peter Greene commonly appears in this newsletter. An avid and excellent teacher blogger, he now regularly contributes to Forbes on edreform issues. His blog Curmudguation has long been on my reading list. Having spent nearly 40 years in a high school classroom, he is a keen observer with a jaundiced eye. He has seen a lot of education fads and silliness come and go through the years and writes about it with great insight. Here the very fact that the title poses the question it does kind of hints at the answer.

Using the frame of contrasting an open-ended question and a closed multiple choice question, Greene highlights some possible consequences. Anyone that tries to encourage the kind of open-ended exploratory thinking suggested here with high schoolers has to have felt similar frustrations with students’ intense focus on “correctness” or the “right answer” from time to time. These consequences have always existed, as Greene deftly explains, “This is not a new issue in education, but we have ramped it up, systematically injected it into every level of K-12 education, and incentivized it like never before.”

While I completely concur, I wonder if part of this phenomenon is also simply linked to maturity. Some of the desire to know the “right” answer is linked to engagement with abstract thinking. That is not easy for all students and takes time to develop. It is a readiness issue. I remember a couple of my favorite teachers in high school saying things when I was a student to the effect, “What you will learn soon enough is that there are very few “right” answers.” I also remember being slightly frustrated when confronting that reality as a young person. THat may only be anecdotal evidence but I believe Greene’s central point is accurate.

How High School Ruined Leisure – The New York Times – KJ Dell’Antonia (5-minute read)

This column was timely, considering the recent article I posted about the professionalization of high school sports and the mental health toll that it might be taking on our youth. It also reminded me of a recent conversation with a graduating senior about quitting track. It all sharpened the point that Dell’Antonia was trying to make, for me at least.

I definitely feel an acute awareness of high school being the end of an athlete’s career for many students and how that can have a substantial impact on them. Even in my own experience, I was fortunate enough to play a sport at the collegiate level for a time. I can remember even feeling the dawning recognition that continuing to play at the next level was a major intrinsic reason I wanted to even go to college and that might not be the soundest rationale. While injury forced me to reevaluate where I put my focus, I count myself fortunate. Still, I reached the “end of that achievement conveyor belt” just a little later. I later watched both my siblings wrestle with the situation too in opposite ways. One simply stopped and the other played as long as he could at the highest NCAA level, eventually getting cut. Eventually, the end became more of a turning point but each of us felt the loss.

So when I recently had a conversation with a student I discovered had quit running track during her senior year, I asked why. Sports are valued at a significantly high standard where I teach and the female athletic program is the most successful, especially track. Her reasoning was both thoughtful and mature. She no longer felt the need to compete like that anymore. She knew where she was headed for university, where athletics were not going to be the priority, and she realized she could run just for enjoyment. It was an impressive and refreshing explanation. That was a kid who had already started answering Dell’Antonia’s question “Do you still do your thing — whatever your thing is — when no one is watching?” Her answer was “Yes,” and I suspect she is pretty happy with the decision too.

Dear STAR Test, We Need to Talk Again… – Pernille Ripp blog – Pernille Ripp (9-minute read)

For those that don’t know, Pernille Ripp is a pretty blogger and elementary teacher. She has written multiple books and is definitely an in-demand educator. In this post, she takes on the STAR Reading test once again, a few years after the last time she considered the use of the widely used reading assessment. As the title might indicate, she is still not impressed.

Aside from the playful and entertaining approach Ripp takes, she makes a seriously important point that is overlooked so often it borders on maddening. A whole lot of these assessments districts buy and impose on students do not even render reliable or even valid data. In the case that she presents, the scenario sounds a bit horrifying but not as bad as it certainly could be. Even more impressive is the depth of information that she has culled from STAR Reading’s own marketing material to highlight the dubiousness of the whole enterprise.

This whole data obsession that has swept through education is profoundly problematic. The new, even greater emphasis on testing and metrics, prompted by testing and software companies, to improve education is certainly symptomatic of a wider cultural disease that has roots in surveillance capitalism. Yet for some reason, decision-makers in policy and education keep taking the bait. One of the biggest problems is often there is a presupposition that the data being collected is valid, despite significant evidence that it is not. This willing dismissal of the contrary taints the whole decision-making process. Resources are engaged and decisions are made to address issues revealed by tests like STAR Reading and many others all the time. Plenty of decision-makers may say that determinations are not made based on any one assessment but if bad data is infecting the process it still influences the decision-making. Failure to recognize that fact is just folly.

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