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20.10.08

Compromising achievement fails both students, LA

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and their superintendant of education should feel leery when suggestions of designing two tracks to a high school diploma that may satisfy the needs of politicians, but not of students.

Certain members of BESE and in the state Legislature are suggesting the current high school curriculum in the state, the foundation of which is college preparatory, is inadequate for some students. They cite as evidence a stubbornly-high dropout rate and that they “lose” students because of that curriculum. Thus, they suggest an alteration of curriculum for those who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

Already there exists the Louisiana Core Curriculum, designed for the non-college-matriculating student, differing from the college-bound Louisiana Core 4 Curriculum by requiring five fewer units leaving eight units as electives with which to use in preparation to pursue a career. But this seems inadequate for the critics, although what they have in mind for change is unclear.

From what little they have said, however, it can’t be good. State Rep. Jim Fannin said traditional math, English and science classes have failed to keep lots of students in school. As an indicator of the difference between “traditional” and potentially a new kind of English class might be like, state Rep. Frank Hoffman argued that could entail teaching the popular literature of somebody like John Grisham rather than classic works of English literature. These critiques cover both content and method.

Such a view entirely misunderstands what education is designed to do and how best to achieve it. Education is not just knowledge of certain things that are integral to knowing how the world works, to understanding the society within which we live, and in communicating ideas, but in the ability to think critically. Using literature as an example, the considered great works of it gain that distinction because they explain the human condition and in ways that stimulate the critical faculties. Having never read him, while I’m sure that the Grisham oeuvre is entertaining, I have my doubts that it explains the human condition in a compelling way that really gets one to thinking.

The same dynamic applies to alteration of math requirements, also suggested by Hoffman. If nothing else, math encourages critical thinking skills, the solving of problems using numbers. This skill is more in demand than ever in America as our levels of achievement in it continue to decline relative to other states in the developed world. Therefore, to move the focus of the curriculum away from its purposes of informing about important ideas and developing critical thinking, despite what Hoffman and others assert, is “watering down.”

What the critics miss is that changing content to be less challenging is an ill-advised attempt to solve a problem by shaping standards to level of current achievement, rather than shaping achievement to meet standards. An apparent assumption being made here is that too many students are just too “dumb” to meet these standards, that they cannot inherently reach this level of achievement hence their diversion into something that appears easier to gain the same reward.

But as Superintendant Paul Pastorek rightly points out, raising standards raises achievement – or in this context, maintaining them will produce a state workforce more capable of economic development. The Core Curriculum looks to be more than adequate in promoting the kind of knowledge base and critical thinking that all graduates need to maximize the state’s economic development. The problem, then, is not in the curriculum itself that needs to be changed to make it easier, but in getting students to achieve to its standards.

And here lies the real failure in Louisiana’s secondary education: standards are not just a function of curriculum, but also of instruction. To restate it: the more demanding the instruction, the greater the likelihood that student achievement will increase. Teachers who hold students accountable to learn more material and to use that material in more difficult critical thinking exercises will produce greater learning.

(Pastorek observes that student performance generally rises when standards go up, but calling it “counterintuitive.” As anybody who has taught at any level for some time will tell you, there’s no mystery to this at all. If stimulated – by a teacher, the imperative of having to pass a test, because you like to learn, whatever – human beings respond by putting in more effort. Demand more out of students, and, unless they have no interest in the rewards of learning at all in which case level of standards don’t matter, they will produce more.)

Why this may be a stumbling block to improved education is that to be more demanding as a teacher simply takes more work as a teacher. For example, covering less material means less preparation for a teacher to make and a reduced need to be organized. Or, giving multiple choice exams rather than essay-based ones makes it a whole lot easier to grade or even to compile the questions, but you’re probably going to get a better idea of the critical thinking and communicative abilities of students with the latter approach. And these things take more work in a system that, frankly, provides little incentive for teachers to make the necessary demands on students to develop their intellects and knowledge bases to higher levels.

In our present approach to education in Louisiana, after a probationary period you’re pretty much set as a teacher. You get automatic pay raises and, when the political winds blow right, more on top of that regardless of your classroom’s performance. In fact, you are informally discouraged from being rigorous because that means you might give more failing grades which to some only makes the school look worse. Thankfully, standardized testing at least provides some incentive to ensure that there are some minimum standards at which to aim other than grades which are so unreliable in measuring quality that a student making a C in one classroom will have learned more and better developed critical thinking skills than others elsewhere who make an A.

Meaningful teacher accountability programs such as subject area testing would solve some of the lack of quality teaching in Louisiana. But hampering it also is the attitude taken by the likes of these legislators who seem to believe the problem is with the standards, not in the expectations of students to meet these standards which will require demanding more, not less, out of both students and teachers. Increased expectations of both students and teachers are the key to improvement and reducing dropouts. Dumbing down the curriculum may be a feel-good political solution that allows lawmakers to take less heat and puff out their chests more with pride, but it disserves those students and the state.

2 comments:

James S said...

Doc,

When mediocrity is the norm in our esteemed legislature, expecting superior (or even adequate) performance from them is a frustrating exercise. I no longer think it's a joke to offer them double pay to stay at home during sessions...

T. Wong said...

Good post. Once again, folks confuse education with training. Unfortunately, you can even go through higher education and get a lot more training than education. For example, I got a degree in Accounting. I took core courses, but most of my business courses had a lot more to do with training me than educating me.

Then I went to law school. Despite all the b.s. you hear from the professors, law school is merely a trade school for those who want to be lawyers. If you want to really learn about government, study Poli Sci.

A core, liberal arts education teaches students how to think. We need to value that.