Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Those Counterfeit Diplomas

An editorial in today's NYT suggests that some recent high school graduates are not competent in basic skills that should be required to earn their standing. The headline refers to these students' diplomas as counterfeit, implying that students had a hand in conspiring to be granted documents under false pretenses. A better word for them might be undeserved, as the diploma requirements are unwittingly incomplete or inaccurate.

The article concerns itself primarily with claims of weak curriculum in many states, citing a rise in high-school graduate rates matched with a decrease in successful college entrance exams:
"Nationally, graduation rates are rising - yet less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for math and reading at the college level....more than one in five recent high school graduates could not meet minimum entry test standards to enlist in the Army."
The editorial board writing the article leans heavily on teachers unions, who opposed standardized testing used as a means to evaluated teachers based on how much students learned. The article concludes that,
"Many states reacted by settling for cosmetic changes in school curriculums and using weak tests that virtually anyone could pass. This allows them to hide how dismal their schools actually are and misleads families and students into believing that high school diplomas have value."
Canada's school systems differs from the states considerably, but we often follow where they have led. There are certainly commonalities here, but some important issues have been conflated.

On Teaching Evaluation Tied to Student Ability

It's a bad idea. As I've written previously, if we decide which teachers can keep their jobs based on the results of a standardized test then,
Demographics will play a big part in the results, and teachers in schools near the universities or RIM will appear to be phenomenal, while those of us in the downtown core will look like imbeciles. If we want to accurately assess teachers based on their ability to get students to a certain level, then we'd have to randomly assign students to schools. Unwise and unlikely.
But more importantly, teaching just doesn't work like that. We don't become better teachers because suddenly our lives depend on it. People generally want to be effective in their chosen field. Dan Ariely, a professor of "behavioural economics," writes about the effectiveness of social norms and how quickly market norms can override them, i.e. bringing money into the picture makes people work less:
"Standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. . . . Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instil in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. . . . Market norms also erode the pride and meaning people get from the workplace (for example, when we pay schoolteachers according to their students' performance on standardized tests)" (93-99).
I believe few teachers practice ineffective techniques because they'll be paid the same regardless; it's not the case that they avoid working hard if there's not a giant career-killing carrot or stick prompting them. We have many smaller punishments keeping us in line. Rather, it's far more likely that we have some poor practices because we erroneously believe they're effective. And we think they work because sometimes they do.

There have been studies on best practices that are useful. I think by far this little handbook - The Science of Learning - is the best I've seen. BUT, people are all different. Students are not easily catalogued. Some need a firm hand and others need leeway. Some need rubrics and others won't read them preferring a more open-ended approach. Some need myriad examples, and others want to figure it out themselves. Sometimes films and powerpoints help, but sometimes they hinder. Some students learn best by reading the textbook and filling in handouts even though we're not really supposed to do that anymore. I get my students to evaluate what worked and what didn't for them in each class each year, and then I just have to fly with the majority on any significant changes I make to my practice. There's a science to learning when we look at students in general, yet it's clearly an art when we focus on each individual. And we're supposed to be individuating each lesson and assignment, but, to the degree that we can hit every student every time, that's impossible.

On Rising Grades Coupled with Diminishing Excellence

I completely agree that grades are inflated. I said so here a couple years ago:
A sneaky thing's happened over my last 20 years of teaching. The median grade in most courses used to be in the high 60s, and now it's in the low 80s. Yet I don't think the grads are significantly more knowledgable nor skilled. In fact, when I look at what I've taught since I started, when I look at saved exams and assignments, my courses have gotten more and more watered down each year. The fact that many of the grade 12s entering my course don't know how to cite sources or really what plagiarism is (something I learned cold in grade four) or that many grade 10 Academic students need reminders to capitalize the first word in a sentence and the word "I", really, leads me to believe I'm not the only one cutting out content to ensure everyone passes with flying colours. Out of fear of not measuring up with other countries we've lowered the bar so more kids can jump it successfully. Now our students have the marks to compete with international students for university entrance, but I worry about the monster we're creating.
However, it's not clear to me that this is about the quality of teaching or of the curriculum. I think it's about student expectation. Due to a few interacting forces, students have been able to get away with learning less content and fewer skills. I've written about this previously as well:
From what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin, [a Trent University prof], goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful.

About that Downward Spiral 

I think it looks something like this:

There's global pressure to rank in the top for education which is, in some cases, measured by graduation rate, but, in other cases, measured by standardized tests. Neither of these, I argue, actually show student ability. The former is marred by the move to make courses easier so grades are higher than real ability would indicate: for an additional example, the same English tests that used to be given in one class is now allotted two classes. The latter is marred by a program of teaching to the test that drills students in only the areas being measured, and results in other, arguably more important skills, warranting less attention. Our literacy tests are also skewed by the amount of help given during the test to the point of some students having the questions read to them and their oral answers written down, enacting the very antithesis of literacy testing.

This pressure to rank well internationally is countered by parental pressure for their child to do well individually. Parents are terrified their children won't be able to compete for scholarships or even university entrance. With fewer good, stable jobs to go around, the competition becomes more fierce, and parents pleading for higher grades often get what they demand. That concern is well-founded, but unfortunately results in elevated grades. But beyond the economics of the situation, we have a culture focused on our children's grades instead of focused on what they're actually learning in school. I'm okay with my daughter, in grade-school, doing poorly on a project but spending hours of time showing me what she learned. It tells me she's able to learn, but not yet able to show her learning in the way that's expected for the assignment. But who cares? She'll figure out how to play that game soon enough. But it can be difficult to disallow lower grades from provoking significant anxiety in parents instead of mere disappointment. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the masses.

But the biggest factor in the spiral, is that teachers have become entirely accountable for student ability. It used to be the case that if a class did poorly on a test, then the teacher was taken to task and would have to prove the efficacy of the test and prior lessons. But now if a student does poorly, even if all the other students in the class do exemplary, the teacher is still taken to task for that one student's inability to do the work. It's no longer possible for a student to do poorly in a subject because they're just unable or unwilling to do the work. When I was a student, we used to look long and hard at the ranking that appeared beside our report card grades, dreading an LQ, which indicated we were in the lower quarter of the class. We cared about how well we ranked in the classroom, not in the world. It was a clear indicator of how hard we were working, or, if we were slogging books home each night, it showed us our general ability in the subject. Students can still compare their results to the course median, but with medians in the 80s, and all the marks squished into a smaller percentage range (75 to 95 instead of 35 to 95), distance from the median is a less useful indicator. This is particularly true when students, parents, counsellors, and administrators badger teachers to adjust their marks just a bit.

If a student refuses to do work, it comes back at the teacher for making an assignment that wasn't strongly enough tied to student interest. We're to call home any time a student misses an assignment, but half the class might miss a most fascinating project. We can't just impart information and rest on the reality that much of it is fascinating to us, and therefore will be fascinating to others. We can't be boring. And in a world of diminishing attention spans, that's getting harder and harder to do without a secondary degree in song and dance. This has created a climate in which many students are quite convinced that neglecting work is entirely due to teachers failing to make the work fascinating enough for students to be fully motivated to try their hand at it.

If students don't feel a smidgen of guilt or shame for neglecting their studies, in a world rife with alternative activities at their fingertips, then, really, it's amazing that any of them do any work at all.

The focus on who's to blame for the weak skills of the recent crops of grads is a final concern. We need a cultural shift that cajoles us into challenging ourselves to learn something new and difficult each day, something that makes us struggle just a bit. We're a society of passive viewers, and we've accepted that label without complaint. To save ourselves, we need to rally against that sloth-like view of ourselves. It's not enough to continually reinforce what we're interested in or what we're good at. It's really comfortable to focus on what we already know when we embark on learning, but it's only fruitful if that one area has enormous potential. For the masses, we need a breadth of understanding and knowledge and skills that we'll only attempt if we are ashamed when we don't live up to our own potential regardless the entertainment value of our teachers or the quality of our leaders.

Barring a complete shift in culture, one more concrete tactic we could take to change things is to require university entrance exams. The SAT exams (lots of fun practice questions here) are a useful means to determine if a student is skilled enough for a particular program. And the fact that the exams exist, mean students will be motivated to develop the right skills to an excellent degree regardless their interest in each facet of learning. If they want to enter a general English lit program, they will have to learn the nuances of grammar regardless how much more interesting it is to enjoy some poetry than to learn the particulars of principal clauses.

And then their diplomas might mean something.

ETA - Here are some letters to the editor about the original editorial with a few points of agreement:

"In many states the strategy has been to raise standards and then lower passing scores on exit exams in order to maintain or even raise the graduation rate."

"The graduation rates increased because parents and politicians demanded that they increase. Instead of improving education, states lowered standards."

"Does the fact that a high school diploma is now essentially meaningless cause problems for colleges, private employers and the military? Not really. Colleges have the ACT and SAT for potential entrants. . . . The only people really harmed are the marginal students who were passed on instead of helped."

"Taxpayers are entitled to know that students are receiving at least a basic education. Instead, they are told a comforting fairy tale that shortchanges all stakeholders."

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