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Quick! Put All Your Eggs in This Basket! | Ecology of EducationEcology of Education

Quick! Put All Your Eggs in This Basket!

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E. D. Hirsch Jr makes a number of compelling arguments in his March 22, 2009 NYTimes op-ed piece regarding tests that do not tap into students’ knowledge base.  His basic assertion that even random “content neutral” reading passages contain knowledge-based material that unfairly targets disadvantaged students effectively highlights one of the many injustices of our current “Kafkaesque” accountability system.

Unfortunately, he then tips the balance toward a more cookie cutter approach to content and knowledge that sounds more like a Donna Reed idyll than a reflection of the diversity in our classroom.  When talking about standards he suggests that, “It would be far more useful to set out what exactly children should learn about the 13 colonies or Paul Revere’s ride,” than the more vague state standards currently in operation.

I agree with the idea of improving vague state standards. And I definitely agree with the need for a strong social studies program rich with historical content, however, I strongly disagree with specific content based standards for all students at each grade across the country.

Who picks the standards?

Who deems one content strand more important than others?

Is there flexibility for “teachable moments”?

What angle do we take on slavery and the Civil War?  The north’s? The south’s? The slave’s? What’s more important: the causes, the effects, the dates, the people, the ramifications, the technological/medical advances during, the strategies, the economic?

Do we really want to force (limit) all of our nation’s teachers to only teach content picked by some faceless D.C. committees bickering over which content item is more important? Something smells a little funny about that to me.

I can see it now, the Creationists vs. Darwinians face off in one room while the Global Warmers vs. the Deniers go toe to toe down the hall.  The literature classics proponents arm wrestle against the team from Border’s Emerging Voices division.  And, for the Tag-Team Teaching Standards Title of the World, E. D. Hirsch and Daniel Wellington don their Nacho Libre spandex against Ken Kay and the CEO from Legos.

At the end of months of bouts we have what amounts to watered down content sufficiently bland to accommodate all palates.

As much as E. D. Hirsch has been a leader and provocative proponent for improving the learning outcomes of our nation’s children, his brand of reform limits teacher professional growth, content exposure, and capitalizing on emerging technologies for the classroom.

When it comes to identifying problems, his sight is good, but his vision is blurred.

We do need to change our tests.  While I would love to see a more dynamic and complex assessment battery utilized for the summative assessments of our schools and classrooms, I can see the practicality of multiple choice tests in terms of simplicity, norm referencing, and culling discernible data.

However, simply moving “from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to” ignores larger trends in learning, education, knowledge, and globalization.  Insisting that all students learn the same content all across our country risks flattening the very innovation, creativity, and engagement we need to be inspiring in our nation’s classrooms right now.

Content is important, no doubt about that.  But does it all need to be the same content from the same texts?  That sounds awfully bland to me.  Our schools are different.  Our states are different. Our students and teachers are the most diverse collection in the world.  Do we really want to limit that collection of diverse brain power to one set of knowledge? I don’t.

I want topography.  I want to know that a teacher with a deep and rich understanding of slave revolts has the opportunity to share his/her passion with their students through in-depth investigation, even if it means the Civil War gets a little less press in that classroom.  I want that teacher to stay in the classroom.

Barring their knowledge for the sake of a text book flattens the profession and closes the door on innovation.  Let’s change the tests, but let’s avoid narrowing the knowledge to one set.

Here is an interesting article that highlights some of the ideas and trends that are getting more and more tred in the innovative ed circles around the internet. Here are the Letter to the Editor responses to his piece.

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn
  • Todd Albert

    I think the major difference in philosophy boils down to either seeing the teacher as a professional, capable of creating their own unique and valuable curriculum, and seeing teachers as robots that need to be fed very specific instructions. And perhaps the biggest problem is that there are some teachers out there that help perpetuate the latter idea.

    Great response on your part!

  • Todd Albert

    I think the major difference in philosophy boils down to either seeing the teacher as a professional, capable of creating their own unique and valuable curriculum, and seeing teachers as robots that need to be fed very specific instructions. And perhaps the biggest problem is that there are some teachers out there that help perpetuate the latter idea.

    Great response on your part!

  • http://www.edlegare.com Ed Legare

    Your ‘key’ statement here is…and I quote…”Is there flexibility for “teachable moments”?”…every teacher has a strength that he/she can give to the students…every teacher leaves his/her students with an ‘eternal’ impression that is a reflection of that strength…this is the best teachable moment that a teacher has to give…so standards be damned…

    As a teacher in a liberal arts college prep school I find the biggest deterent to good education to be the college board and the standardized testing groups. The SAT, ACT, AP exams, MCAT, LSAT…these are all pablamized assessments that defy good education…they place inreasonable demands on individual curricula and do not adjust for learning styles and personal strengths…not to mention that they require a great deal of study and preparation that takes time away from the classroom dynamic. These assessments are for the colleges and universities who need Federal money for survival…so the emphasis is citizenship, patriotism, and the need to follow the norm and ‘not rock the boat”…

    Still ranting and raving.

    Peace

    Ed

  • http://www.edlegare.com Ed Legare

    Your ‘key’ statement here is…and I quote…”Is there flexibility for “teachable moments”?”…every teacher has a strength that he/she can give to the students…every teacher leaves his/her students with an ‘eternal’ impression that is a reflection of that strength…this is the best teachable moment that a teacher has to give…so standards be damned…

    As a teacher in a liberal arts college prep school I find the biggest deterent to good education to be the college board and the standardized testing groups. The SAT, ACT, AP exams, MCAT, LSAT…these are all pablamized assessments that defy good education…they place inreasonable demands on individual curricula and do not adjust for learning styles and personal strengths…not to mention that they require a great deal of study and preparation that takes time away from the classroom dynamic. These assessments are for the colleges and universities who need Federal money for survival…so the emphasis is citizenship, patriotism, and the need to follow the norm and ‘not rock the boat”…

    Still ranting and raving.

    Peace

    Ed

  • Jessica Luallen Horton

    After having worked for several years writing FCAT science test questions for district practice, assessment, FCAT explorer, etc…. I can tell you that writing a question that provides equal opportunity to all kids is near impossible. Standardized testing is a way for politicians to assess the education system by comparing apples to apples (even though there is actually a variety of fruit in the state basket). I understand the need for standards as there have been educators in the past who have settled into a few select units of study (i.e. Voyage of the Mimi anyone?) and fail to expand their instructional methods beyond their comfort zone. However, I see that as a failure of the state/district. Who cares if you need 200 hours to recertify if you get them all in the same subject matter? Our teachers need to be diversely trained, and although I will probably get kicked out of the club for this one, they need to be required to do it. We are creatures of habit, and sometimes our habits need a swift kick in the rear.

    But back to the fruit basket, if you don’t have objective standards, then you face subjective scrutiny. We do not have the system in place for public schools to be able to do it all. Heck we weren’t even allowed to pick our own textbooks, the district made that decision. To have the freedom to define your own standards, would be public school chaos… in terms of dollar allocation that is.

  • Jessica Luallen Horton

    After having worked for several years writing FCAT science test questions for district practice, assessment, FCAT explorer, etc…. I can tell you that writing a question that provides equal opportunity to all kids is near impossible. Standardized testing is a way for politicians to assess the education system by comparing apples to apples (even though there is actually a variety of fruit in the state basket). I understand the need for standards as there have been educators in the past who have settled into a few select units of study (i.e. Voyage of the Mimi anyone?) and fail to expand their instructional methods beyond their comfort zone. However, I see that as a failure of the state/district. Who cares if you need 200 hours to recertify if you get them all in the same subject matter? Our teachers need to be diversely trained, and although I will probably get kicked out of the club for this one, they need to be required to do it. We are creatures of habit, and sometimes our habits need a swift kick in the rear.

    But back to the fruit basket, if you don’t have objective standards, then you face subjective scrutiny. We do not have the system in place for public schools to be able to do it all. Heck we weren’t even allowed to pick our own textbooks, the district made that decision. To have the freedom to define your own standards, would be public school chaos… in terms of dollar allocation that is.

  • http://www.ecologyofeducation.net Jason Flom

    I agree that “freedom to define your own standards would be public school chaos” and just in terms of dollar allocation. It would be along a whole host of additional quality control issues. However, that is swinging the pendulum too far.

    I think schools and districts need flexibility and autonomy to meet the needs of their unique population. Where I am in north Florida the student population represents an entirely different demographic than in south Florida. Should south Floridians be forced to study what we think is most relevant or should we study what they think is most relevant? Compromise, one might say. Meet in the middle? Water’s it down, I say. We need rich, relevant content, not determined on a teacher by teacher basis, but on a district by district basis.

    Of course, that feeds the issue we face in accurate and equal measure of a school’s quality. Which is why I believe we need to develop and begin using more sophisticated assessment tools that test patterns within the culture and norms and professional behavioral expectations of schools.

  • http://www.ecologyofeducation.net Jason Flom

    I agree that “freedom to define your own standards would be public school chaos” and just in terms of dollar allocation. It would be along a whole host of additional quality control issues. However, that is swinging the pendulum too far.

    I think schools and districts need flexibility and autonomy to meet the needs of their unique population. Where I am in north Florida the student population represents an entirely different demographic than in south Florida. Should south Floridians be forced to study what we think is most relevant or should we study what they think is most relevant? Compromise, one might say. Meet in the middle? Water’s it down, I say. We need rich, relevant content, not determined on a teacher by teacher basis, but on a district by district basis.

    Of course, that feeds the issue we face in accurate and equal measure of a school’s quality. Which is why I believe we need to develop and begin using more sophisticated assessment tools that test patterns within the culture and norms and professional behavioral expectations of schools.