Charting the Course of Teaching and Learning in a Networked World
The current structure of the No Child Left Behind program guarantees that children will be left behind for two specific reasons. The purpose of this note is to elucidate those reasons and suggest concrete solutions.
Educational Standards in the 19th Century
The most important reason that NCLB can not succeed is inherent in the goals that have been set. The Educational Establishment wants to go “back to basics” and has concentrated on reading and math. But reading and math are seen in framework of an obsolescent skill set: the skills essential in the 19th Century. In effect NCLB is purposively leaving students back in the 19th Century rather than moving them forward into the 21st Century.
The workplace of the 19th Century demanded skills of penmanship, reading, writing, computation, spelling, etc. During the 20th Century those skills were automated through the integration of the computer and the Internet. We are moving further into the 21st Century, but K-12 education is still based on the skills of the19th Century.
Today babies and todlers interact with keyboards and screens and have a familiarity with them. This is considered a very positive thing because it prepares them for life. But then the child comes to school and we put a screeching halt to their growth. We take the computer away and put a pencil in their hands. Why? Continue using computers for reading, writing, and computation. Teach paper and pencil in addition, but not as the basic tool.
How did we “learn” to hear, to listen and to converse? It was a dynamic process that was guided first by your parents and then by many others. Those skills developed simply because this is what you do.
We can expand that process into reading and writing. Teach reading and writing and keyboarding all at the same time. The child hits the ”a” key rather than putting the letter “a” with a pencil on paper. When the child puts together the letters “cat”, the picture and sound of a cat as well the word “cat”. Teach them to send email, skype, and chat. They will learn to read and write the way they learned to speak and listen.
Math has always a controversial topic. We hear how we are falling behind the rest of the world in science and math. Experts have been saying that since the Cold War, but somehow we stay on top. Be that as it may, there is clearly a problem in mathematics for far too many people.
Return to the 19th Century. Arithmetic was essential for moving to higher mathematics and computation was essential to bankers, accountants, and other professions. In the 21st Century, the spreadsheet automates arithmetic so a person can concentrate on the more important aspects of the task.
The student of the 21st Century would use a spreadsheet to learn mathematics. It has the advantage of a flexible workspace with automated arithmetic. The time used to teach arithmetic would be used in dealing with mathematics. Children are not taught long division for 4 years but it is a trivial operation on a spreadsheet.
Just as there would be supplemental classes in paper and pencil, there would would be supplemental classes in computation. The emphasis should be on approximation rather than the exact answer. We need to calculate a tip on a bill, but an approximation is good enough. If precision is essentail then I would not want to depend on mental arithmetic, but would look for a computer.
I am not suggesting the elimination of paper and pencil and computation skills, But they should not be the basis by which we teach and evaluate our students.
The second reason NCLB cannot succeed is directly related to the evaluation technique: the standardized test. The most basic reason that such tests are inappropriate is that the workplace does not consist of multiple choice tests. In addition, there are internal contradictions in the concept itself.
A standardized test means the test has been created to follow a normal curve. In any normal curve half the students must be below the median. If a test has been created so that half the students do poorly, then half the students in your school will do just as poorly. So we need to have a test where everyone is above the median. Of course if that happened they would have to revise the test.
The Wechsler intelligence test was revised because students were watching too much TV and learning too much. The test designers had to revise the test upward to drop the Mean score back to 100. This had the effect of making everyone less intelligent. And all because of TV.
In New York City Mayor Bloomberg was pointing to the educational gains in the city, when the State came down and said City tests were too easy. How do you define what is hard or easy and who defines it? I could just as easily say that New York City was fine, but the State test was too hard. Who decides that?
How did we become so enmeshed with standardized tests. As early as the 1950’s the College Entrance Examination Boards (which evolved into the SAT) were developed because colleges wanted an easy way to rule out students. “We will not take anyone with an CEEB of less than 1000.” And Pandora had opened the box.
It is time to close it. Standardized tests have their place, but not as the sole evaluation criterion of whether a child has or has not learned. The purpose of a test is to predict how a student will respond in the future. But why not look at the behaviors themselves. About 20 years ago Authentic Assessment was the hot topic. Authentic Assessment examines what a student has actually produced. The teacher is the primary evaluator and can point to specific student projects to illustrate any rating. The ratings should be as simple as Inadequate, Adequate, Exceptional. Colleges, Universities, Employers and look at what the student has accomplished rather than looking at a score that is supposed to predict what a student can accomplish.