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Cross-posted at Education Week
Commencement speakers typically exhort their captive audience to follow their dream instead of being careerists. Everyone else is telling young people to be practical, forget the liberal arts, pick out a career in a high-demand field and go for it. In an age in which college graduates are thankful just to get jobs as waiters and waitresses and can’t imagine how they will ever pay off their college loans, leave their parent’s house and get one of their own, the commencement speaker doesn’t stand a chance.
But the commencement speaker is right…sort of. And so are the advocates of practicality…sort of. In a job market in which jobs are scarce, employers want someone who can hit the ground running with a high level of technical skill that fits the employer’s needs. If they can get it…why not?
But be careful. Fewer employers these days are offering full-time jobs with benefits and clear paths to a career in the firm to most of their staff. They are offering that only to a small core. More and more are offering temporary contract jobs with no benefits and no career paths. Jobs are being automated at an unprecedented rate in more and more fields. The specialized job for which you are preparing may not be done by humans when you get your sheepskin. Entire industries are being put out of business by disruptive technologies.
This sounds like a no-win choice: either specialize in a high demand field and find yourself without the skills needed to do something else when that field collapses or prepare yourself for everything in general and nothing in particular and find yourself waiting on tables.
But that is not the choice. The challenge, I think, is clear. Young people do need to enter the job market with strong marketable skills that include the technical skills needed to both do the work they are first given and to pursue a career in that field, whether that young person is going to be a specialty welder, a computer systems analyst or an attorney. But they need more arrows in their quiver than that.
Now, more than ever, they need a solid education in the liberal arts. That is partly for very old reasons—because we need responsible citizens who vote and can make well-informed decisions when they go to the polls; adults who understand where liberty and freedom came from, how fragile they are and what it takes to preserve them, people who as adults will know what is right and what is wrong and will do the right thing even when no one is looking; and adults who are able to appreciate the finest art and music the world has ever known.
While the idea of an education in the liberal arts is widely written off these days, much is made of the need to help our students grow up into adults who are creative and innovative. But what does it take to do that? Experts in creativity like Amabile, Gardner and Sternberg think that one of the major wellsprings of creativity consists of the application of the conceptual framework from one field or discipline to the problems being worked on in another field or discipline. That only works, though, for people who have a deep knowledge of both fields. Which is how Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics. But where does the deep understanding of the concepts and frameworks from these fields come from? The answer, of course, is the kind of understanding that lies at the heart of a sound education in the liberal arts.
But there is another reason that the liberal arts are more important than ever. While many people think of an education in the liberal arts as the antithesis of a practical education, I think otherwise. Nothing is more practical than being ready to undertake another career as the one you chose becomes obsolete, or to undertake many careers at once, as a growing number of independent contract workers are doing either by choice or design.
The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days. But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly. We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in. The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.
And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge. But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level. As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them. Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.
One hundred years ago, people thought that learning required thinking and thinking required mental discipline and mental discipline could be taught by studying something that obviously required mental discipline, like, say, Latin. But we know now that this is not true. Being facile in one discipline may give one some novel tools to analyze phenomena in other disciplines, but there is not much transfer. Each discipline has its own rules. This is yet another reason for studying the core disciplines with care to build a firm foundation for later learning.
But what does it mean “to think”? It surely has something to do with the ability to analyze complex problems and, at the same time, with the ability to synthesize information from many disparate sources to find a solution to a complex problem. When you think about it from this vantage point, it should come as no surprise that what it means to think is different for problems in physics than for problems in literary analysis or marine engine repair. Nor should it surprise us to find that gaining a lot of experience in analysis across the liberal arts should make it easier to learn a new field. You have more frameworks to hang new knowledge on, more tools to analyze new problems with, larger and more complex frameworks with which to integrate new information with old, more possibilities for bringing fresh perspectives to old problems by bringing the frameworks from one field to bear on the problems in another.
And now consider writing. If you cannot write well about it, you probably don’t understand it. If you cannot marshal the facts from a wide assortment of sources to make a compelling, logical argument, your command of the facts may be shaky and your ability to weave them together in a logical way may be just as shaky. Writing and complex thought are close companions. Even if you have got it straight in your head, if you cannot communicate it clearly, then you are at a huge disadvantage in today’s world, a world in which little can be accomplished by individuals who do not work in concert with others. From my point of view, good writing is the acid test of a good liberal education.
I have been presenting here an ideal of a liberal education which is far from the reality in too many places. Too few students leave college able to write well, whether or not they have studied the liberal arts. At too many colleges, the liberal arts curriculum can be no more than a random assortment of giant survey courses and idiosyncratic subjects tied more to what interests the faculty than what students need to build a solid foundation. Many universities and colleges make it all too easy for young people to study a discipline in the liberal arts in the expectation that it will lead to work in that discipline when little or none is available while, at the same time, failing to offer a broad and deep education in the liberal arts.
But there are colleges that still offer a first-rate education in the liberal arts of the sort I have been talking about. So hold the idea of that sort of education in your head for a moment. And now imagine that that it is married to the idea of preparing all of our students not just with a strong liberal education, but also with the skills and knowledge needed to hit the ground running with a strong technical education in a specialized area in strong demand from employers. That is what many people call the “T-shaped curriculum,” a curriculum that goes very deep in one area, but sits on top of a very strong liberal arts foundation that provides the flexibility for the entire workforce to keep learning and changing occupations throughout their entire life.
To do this at a price that nations and individuals can afford will require a much more efficient education system than most nations have now. We cannot keep piling on cost and more years of education. We will have to figure out how to educate everyone far faster and far more deeply then ever before, and we will have to figure out how to make academic education far more applied from the very beginning, with no sacrifice in academic understanding.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Two weeks ago, I published a blog post suggesting that some leaders of the civil rights community might want to reassess their support for annual testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then Kati Haycock and Jonah Edelman, two ardent supporters of annual testing, have taken issue with me. In this blog post, I respond to their comments.
Haycock says that she is astonished at my arrogance in attacking the leaders of a civil rights community that is “unified” on this issue and accuses me of “baiting” them. What she does not do is rebut any of the arguments I made or offer any evidence that would call my arguments into question.
The civil rights community is not united on these issues. A recent piece by Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera is titled “DC civil rights organizations fail to represent education civil rights agenda.” In it the authors, all respected figures in the civil rights community, take issue with the civil rights leaders who signed on to annual testing and take positions on the issue very similar to those I have taken. They are not alone. Far from being unified on this issue, the civil rights community is rather divided.
I have great respect for the leaders of the civil rights community. But I often disagree with people I admire and they often disagree with me on particular issues. The charge that I was out to “bait” the leaders is outrageous.
Haycock is certainly entitled to her own views on these issues. But I think she owes her readers more than a personal attack on me as a response to what I have written. She owes it to them to respond to the points I have made with counterarguments of her own, point by point, and she owes them solid data and research to support the positions she takes. I argued that there is no evidence that the tough accountability measures contained in NCLB, including annual testing, have worked. I argued that the research shows that poor and minority children have been harmed by the systems required by NCLB more than majority students. I argued that a different testing regime with fewer, higher quality tests could provide data on the performance of specific groups of poor and minority students every bit as effective as the results obtained from annual testing, and that poor and minority students would be much better off if that happened. I offered solid evidence for all these propositions.
As I said above, Haycock offered neither rebuttals to my arguments nor evidence that would refute them. Until she does, I stand by what I wrote.
Unlike Haycock, Jonah Edelman does address at least some of the points I made. But his first point is a non sequitur. “In arguing against the need for annual assessments,” he says, I “…seem to forget America’s long and sorry history of neglecting kids at risk.” That is not an argument. Edelman evidently takes it as obvious that, if you care about kids at risk, you should be for annual testing. But the second half of this proposition does not follow from the first. My whole blog post made the case that, if you care about kids at risk, you should be against annual testing. I am against annual testing precisely because I care about kids at risk.
I cited several research studies showing that the design of our test-based accountability system creates powerful incentives for teachers to focus on kids just below the pass points and to ignore kids who are doing marginally better than that and, most frightening, kids who are really struggling and who will therefore be harder to bring to the pass point. Edelman attempts to refute that point by citing a statement by a group of teachers of the year in Education Week. It is a statement supporting the Common Core (which I also support). It says nothing at all about the merits or demerits of annual testing or any other point I made in my blog. Edelman says it proves that award-winning teachers all across America disagree with me. It proves nothing of the sort.
I made the point in my blog that, because annual testing is being used to drive teacher accountability, it is leading to an exodus of high quality teachers from our schools, especially those serving poor and minority children, and to a plummeting rate of applications for admission to education schools. Edelman responds by pointing to recent data showing that 70 to 80 percent of new teachers remain in the classroom for at least five years, rather than the 50 percent previously reported. That is bit of a non sequitur too. The data Edelman cites simply don’t address the core point I made, which has to do with the rates of retirement of experienced teachers; the choices that good, experienced teachers make about which schools to teach in and the rate at which young people are choosing to go into teaching.
I also made the point that the requirement for annual testing is forcing schools to buy many cheap tests, rather than fewer and much better tests. And I said this is more of a problem for poor and minority kids than for wealthier majority kids because teachers of wealthier and majority kids tend not to teach to the basic skills tests because they know their students will do well on those tests anyway. Instead, the teachers of poor and minority kids give them an endless round of deadening drill and practice for the basic skills tests, thereby denying them access to richer and more challenging curriculum. Edelman’s response is to point out that the cost of testing is only one half of one percent of the cost of schooling. But personnel costs typically account for 80 to 85 percent of school district expenditures. Only 15 percent to 20 percent of the total cost is available for everything else, including testing. In the wake of the Great Recession, school districts all over the country were laying off teachers, after savaging every other part of their budget. Most districts have not yet fully recovered. Good tests cost three to four times what we have been spending on accountability tests. For all these reasons, the costs of the tests cannot be dismissed.
Edelman ends his piece by getting to what he says is his bottom line: “Civil rights leaders wisely understand that the growing resistance to accountability is directly related to the fact that it’s starting to work.” I’m sorry, but that is not true. It is not starting to work. I pointed out in my blog that, after 15 years of NCLB, there is no evidence that poor and minority students leave high school any better off than they were before NCLB. And I also point out that the rate of improvement of academic performance for poor and minority students before the passage of No Child Left Behind was greater than it has been since it was passed. Edelman did not refute that data. Nor did he offer any evidence for his assertion that tough test-based accountability is working for poor and minority children.
I pointed to several studies showing that tough test-based accountability creates incentives for teachers to ignore the kids with the worst academic performance, kids who are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Edelman offered no evidence to the contrary. I pointed out that tough test-based accountability creates incentives for the most capable teachers to avoid schools serving poor and minority kids. Edelman offered no evidence to the contrary. I pointed out that countries without any form of tough test-based accountability systems are producing not only much higher average student achievement, but also much more equity than the United States. If, as he asserts, tough test-based accountability is so essential to higher performance for poor and minority students, how is it that countries without it are doing so much better for their poor and minority kids while we, who have been using such systems for fifteen years, are doing so much worse. Edelman says these countries don’t have as many poor kids as we do. He’s wrong. Some of the top performers have higher proportions of poor kids. More to the point, socio-economic status is a better predictor of academic achievement in the United States than in many countries with higher proportions of poor kids and no test-based accountability systems.
The facts ought to count for something. What both of these critiques come down to is an assertion that I don’t have any business urging established leaders of the civil rights community to reconsider the issue, that I simply don’t understand the obvious—that annual accountability testing is essential to justice for poor and minority students, that anyone who thinks otherwise must be in the pocket of the teachers unions. Well, it is not obvious. Indeed, all the evidence says it is not true. And anyone who knows me knows that I am in no one’s pocket. I know the leaders of the civil rights community to be people of great integrity. They aren’t in anyone’s pocket, either. I think they want what is best for the people they represent. And I do not think that is annual testing.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Stories about computers taking jobs away from humans are in the news these days. This blog will turn the tables, at least a bit. It is about the need for teachers to take on a job that computers have long done: scoring student achievement tests.
Unlike the countries with the highest student achievement, the United States has relied mainly on computer-scored, multiple-choice tests for most of its students and for virtually all of its accountability testing. That is mainly because it is cheap. For our elite students, the ones going to selective colleges, those taking the International Baccalaureate, AP exams and Cambridge A-levels, it is another matter, of course. We are willing to pay five to ten times as much for those tests as we do for our accountability tests.
What’s the difference, besides the cost? The answer is quality. The more expensive tests can be used to assess a much broader range of skills, including and especially the complex skills needed for the better jobs employers are offering. The reason they are more expensive is that it takes a live human being to score them. In some cases, it may take two or even three human beings.
It is true that computers can now score student writing, but they do it with a set of rules that make them pretty good at figuring out whether what is written is grammatical and employs good diction and so on. They can even figure out whether a short essay has a beginning, middle and an end. But they are not so good at flights of fancy, getting metaphors, catching the brilliant insight or the subtle joke. They might give E.B. White an A, but they might also give William Faulkner an F. Of course, if what is being judged is the quality of a business plan, or a portrait done in oils or a toy truck designed to be controlled by a radio using a computer, all bets would be off unless a human is doing the scoring.
In Denmark, the national tests are scored by the student’s teacher and a teacher in another school who does not know either the student or that student’s teacher. If their scores are significantly different, another teacher is engaged. Many of the top-performing countries have systems like this. In these countries, teachers are not paid extra to score student work on required exams any more than they are paid extra to score student work during the year on tests that they set for their own students. It is part of the job.
The irony is that it would be part of the job here, too, if it were not for the fact that the United States embraced multiple-choice, machine-scored tests more aggressively than any other country years ago. So we’ve made it exceptionally hard for ourselves to embrace the kinds of tests our students really need, indeed the very kind of tests our teachers would prefer we use.
The price we are paying for thinking that it is up to our testing companies, and not our teachers, to score accountability tests is higher than you might think, higher than foregoing the use of better tests. It turns out that scoring student work on essay-type exams—the sort of exams used by the College Board, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International Examinations—is one of the best forms of professional development a teacher can have. When teachers work together to score exams—and to learn how to score exams—using a rubric derived from the standards and the curriculum on which the exams are built, they end up having a conversation about what the standards really mean, what student work that meets the standards looks like, and, perhaps most important, what kind of teaching is needed to produce student performance that gets high marks on the exams. These conversations are invaluable. They enable the teachers not just to internalize the standards, but to agree on what kind of student work meets the standards. When that happens among many teachers, across entire states or countries, they come in time to set the same expectations for all students. At the same time, they come to agreement on what teaching practices are most likely to produce student work that meets the standards. To the extent that all professions are built on common standards of practice, a system in which teachers score student work on high-quality, required accountability tests can become the very foundation of a true profession of teaching.
So, you might say, let’s just decide that we are going to use high quality tests and require our teachers to score them as part of their assigned duties. Un-huh. Sure.
Because teaching in the United States is not presently treated or organized as a profession but instead as a blue-collar occupation, teachers expect to be paid more for taking on additional duties. That is true even if we think of test scoring as a form of professional development. That’s because, under the prevailing system, teacher training that is not done during the regular school day is supposed to be paid for by the employer. Unless, of course, the teacher is taking courses with the expectation of earning credits that will count toward increased pay. In effect, in many places, teachers receive pay bumps for taking courses that may or may not have anything to do with their assigned duties or any connection with the plan their school may have for improving student performance.
Suppose we changed all that. I have argued elsewhere that we should do less accountability testing and that the tests that remain be much higher quality. We could, that way, get higher quality tests without spending any more money. Amendments already submitted to the No Child Left Behind Act would accomplish this goal. That would get us the kind of tests we need at a price we could afford (zero).
Now suppose that states and districts, negotiating with their teachers, got rid of the unproductive laws paying teachers to take Mickey Mouse courses and paid them instead to score accountability tests, a much more effective form of professional development. The university and third-party courses they take for credit are only part of the problem. The other part is all the stand-and-deliver training the teachers get from parties contracted by school districts that, research shows, does very little good. Suppose that money—it is a very great deal of money—was used instead to give teachers more time to work together in teams to improve student performance in their schools in a very disciplined way, as teachers do in the top-performing countries. Teachers who do this spend a lot of time in each other’s classrooms, observing other teachers’ practice and then, later, talking about what works and what doesn’t as colleagues evaluating their practices to spread those that work and shut down those that don’t. Teachers who score student work together, talking about how one teacher was able to get more of her students to high standards than the other teachers in the group, are engaged in another form of the same conversation as the one that the teachers who are working in teams to improve, say, the teaching of fractions at a particular grade level, are engaging in.
This country is wasting an enormous sum of money on practices that buy us very little. It is, I suppose, not obvious that the scoring of tests, inservice teacher education and school organization are—or at least could be—intimately connected. But, if we actually connect them, in the way I have described, we could produce a breakthrough in student performance for little more than we are spending now.
Cross-posted at Education Week
So we now have the civil rights community accusing those who oppose annual accountability testing of deliberately undermining the civil rights of minority children. The No Child Left Behind Act required not only that students be tested each year in grades three through eight and one additional year in high school, but it also required that the scores for students in each minority group be published separately. Take this requirement away, the civil rights groups say, and we will go back to the era in which schools were able to conceal the poor performance of poor and minority children behind high average scores for the schools. Once that happens, the schools will have no incentive to work hard to improve those scores and the performance of poor and minority kids will languish once again.
None of this is true, though I am quite sure the civil rights community believes it is true. First of all, the data show that, although the performance of poor and minority students improved after passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, it was actually improving at a faster rate before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the 15-year history of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no data to show that it contributed to improved student performance for poor and minority students at the high school level, which is where it counts.
Those who argue that annual accountability testing of every child is essential for the advancement of poor and minority children ought to be able to show that poor and minority children perform better in education systems that have such requirements and worse in systems that don’t have them. But that is simply not the case. Many nations that have no annual accountability testing requirements have higher average performance for poor and minority students and smaller gaps between their performance and the performance of majority students than we do here in the United States. How can annual testing be a civil right if that is so?
Nonetheless, on the face of it, I agree that it is better to have data on the performance of poor children and the children in other particularly vulnerable groups than not to have that data. But annual accountability testing of every child is not the only way to get that data. We could have tests that are given not to every student but only to a sample of students in each school every couple of years and find out everything we need to know about how our poor and minority students are doing, school by school.
But the situation is worse than I have thus far portrayed it. It is not just that annual accountability testing with separate scores for poor and minority students does not help those students. The reality is that it actually hurts them.
All that testing forces schools to buy cheap tests, because they have to administer so many of them. Cheap tests measure low-level basic skills, not the kind of high-level, complex skills most employers are looking for these days. Though students in wealthy communities are forced to take these tests, no one in those communities pays much attention to them. They expect much more from their students. It is the schools serving poor and minority students that feed the students an endless diet of drill and practice keyed to these low-level tests. The teachers are feeding these kids a dumbed down curriculum to match the dumbed down tests, a dumbed down curriculum the kids in the wealthier communities do not get.
Second, the teachers in the schools serving mainly poor and minority kids have figured out that, from an accountability standpoint, it does them no good to focus on the kids who are likely to pass the tests, because the school will get no credit for it. At the same time, it does them no good to focus on the kids who are not likely to pass no matter what the teacher does, because the school will get no credit for that either. As a result, the faculty has a big incentive to focus mainly on the kids who are just below the pass point, leaving the others to twist in the wind. This is not because they are bad people. They are simply doing what the accountability testing system forces them to do. But this means that the kids who need their teachers the most and the kids who with a little more attention could do much better don’t get the attention they need.
So, how did we get here? Why are the civil rights groups fighting so hard for annual accountability testing when there is no evidence that it helps poor and minority kids, there is evidence that it hurts them and there are other, far less obtrusive ways to make sure that we know how poor and minority students are doing in school?
It turns out that there is one big interest that is well served by annual accountability testing. It is the interest of those who hold that the way to improve our schools is to fire the teachers whose students do not perform well on the tests. This is the mantra of the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama Administration. It is not possible to gather the data needed to fire teachers on the basis of their students’ performance unless that data is gathered every year.
The Obama Administration has managed to pit the teachers against the civil rights community on this issue and to put the teachers on the defensive. It is now said that the reason the teachers are opposing the civil rights community on annual testing is because they are seeking to evade responsibility for the performance of poor and minority students. The liberal press has bought this argument hook, line and sinker.
This is disingenuous and outrageous. Not only is it true that annual accountability testing does not improve the performance of poor and minority students, as I just explained, but it is also true that annual accountability testing is making a major contribution to the destruction of the quality of our teaching force.
Teachers are not opposed to annual accountability testing because they are enemies of their students’ civil rights. They are opposed to annual accountability testing because it is being used to punish teachers in ways that are grossly unfair and singularly ineffective.
Many of the most highly respected American scholars have repeatedly pointed to serious methodological flaws in the systems being used to tie student performance to the work of individual teachers. These methods do not take into account the differences in the backgrounds of the students a teacher gets, the differences in the preparation of those students, the influence of the work of other teachers of the same students in the same grades and so on. The result is that a given teacher can be shown by the data to be a top performer one year and a lousy one the next. On the basis of such systems, some teachers are fired and others retained. One of the most important features of these accountability systems is that they operate in such a way as to make teachers of poor and minority students most vulnerable. And the result of that is that more and more capable teachers are much less likely to teach in schools serving poor and minority students. How, I want to know, is this helping the students the civil rights community is trying to help?
Applications to our schools of education are plummeting and deans of education are reporting that one of the reasons is that high school graduates who have alternatives are not selecting teaching because it looks like a battleground, a battleground created by the heavy-handed accountability systems promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and sustained by annual accountability testing.
It is, in my view, time for the civil rights community to rethink its position.
Date: June 19, 2015
Date: June 11, 2015
Date: June 5, 2015
Date: May 29, 2015
Date: May 22, 2015