Students Have “Complete and Ultimate Control” Over Achievement

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2011

Will Fitzhugh didn’t get the memo.

Everybody knows that teachers are the alpha and omega in education.  The only thing standing between every child, a college degree and a lifetime of prosperity is that child’s teacher.   This is “settled wisdom among Funderpundits and those to whom they give their grants,” observes Fitzhugh.  But students still exercise “complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be” in a school, he notes.

“This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.”

Fitzhugh, the publisher of The Concord Review, the only known journal to publish research papers written by high school students, laments a view of education and ed policy that does not acknowledge students’ responsibility for their own performance, and instead assumes they are merely “passive recipients of their teachers’ influence.”

“Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools.  What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, history, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them.  Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.”

The view that teachers are the prime movers is not just wrong, but stupid, Fitzhugh concludes. “Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote that, ‘For education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.’”

“When Will I Ever Use That?”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2011

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. 

The problem with math instruction is that it’s just not relevant to the lives or future careers of our students.  Writing in the New York Times, Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford say there is no “single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st-century careers.”   The authors are the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications; and an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown.  They write that, in fact, “different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.”

“How often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.”

Say goodbye to algebra, geometry and calculus. In their place, Garfunkel and Mumford propose “a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering.”

“In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.”

Hey, I get it!  It’s project-based learning!  Again.

It all sounds sensible, even seductive.  The worst ideas in education always do.  “Relevant” isn’t supposed to be a synonym for dumbed-down, for example.  It just always seems to work out that way.   And my hunch is that students might struggle less with algebra, geometry and calculus if they showed up in high school with a strong foundation in basic math skills.  As is often the case, Garfunkel and Mumford seem to be offering up a classic false dichotomy.  Of course we want students who can calculate a tip, understand mortgage pricing or understand credit card interest payments.  But we also need a math track that will produce scientists, engineers and mathematicians, who are already in short supply.  

Anyone seen the baby?  She was right here when I threw away the bathwater…

Over at Joanne Jacobs, she asks, ”Math or quantitative literacy?” (echoing Garfunkel’s and Mumford’s preferred term).   Here’s another good rule of thumb:  When someone describes a content area as a “literacy” watering down follows.

Weary Tiger, Hidden Dilemma

by Robert Pondiscio
August 24th, 2011

Samantha Bee is on vacation with her three children, and she’s exhausted.  The Daily Show correspondent writes in the Wall Street Journal that she is a “tiger mother” to her three children, but the kind of tiger “who lays there helplessly in the sun as her tiger babies climb all over her, tugging on her fur and generally having their way with her.”  A self-described child of the ‘70s, Bee remembers spending her summers in front of the TV and wandering around aimlessly.  “Nobody cared if I read. Nobody cared if I wore sunscreen, or pants. I was like a house cat; my parents barely even knew if I was still living with them or whether I had moved in with the old lady down the street who would put out a bowl of food for me,” she writes.

“Thus, this emphasis on summer enrichment activities and exercise and fresh air and learning today feels unfamiliar to me. Whatever happened to letting kids’ IQs backslide for three months, all the way back to March? I can’t be the only one who wants to sit on a lawn chair parked in a kiddie pool all day while my children gently splash me with cool water, can I? I mean, isn’t it good for the brain to “cocoon” or something, to spin itself into some kind of intellectual chrysalis—to “hibernate” for a few months so that it can get hungry again and mate in the fall? That is a proven fact from a scientific study that I just conducted in my brain.”

Bee’s humorous piece is not intended to be a commentary on education, but the reader comments on the Journal’s site read like Meg Ryan’s deli scene in When Harry Met Sally (“Oh, yes…Yes!…Yes!!”) Clearly there are a lot of parents out there who, like Bee, have little interest in turning concerted cultivation into a blood sport.

The piece, and the chorus of tired Tiger Moms shouting their agreement, present a bit of a dilemma for those of us worried about low-income kids, low student achievement, and the general plight of academic have-nots.  For Bee’s kids, lying around all summer is not the cognitive equivalent of Malik and Jose lying around their apartment in the South Bronx.  Bee’s kids have literate, verbal parents, who stimulate their kids just by talking to them, and a steady level of interaction with educated adults.  They’re not even lying around.  They experience different environments (two weeks in the country, farmer’s markets, the lake) and probably spend a lot of time engaging in self-directed creative play with other kids.  They run around with friends outside and probably, when bored, end up inside watching Animal Planet or Arthur on PBS Kids.  It’s highly unlikely Bee is letting them hang out playing Mortal Kombat all day.  Her piece notwithstanding, the standards of even laissez faire middle class parenting make it equally unlikely that she’s going to completely disregard their health and nutrition.  The Bee kids in short, are growing up in a well-resourced, culturally rich and literate community among similarly literate kids and verbal, well-educated adults.  They practically absorb cognitive benefits through their pores. 

Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parents loom large in the public imagination, and there can be little doubt that standards of middle class parenting have become far more aggressive since the 1970s.  But I suspect that most parents, consciously or unconsciously, do the cost-benefit analysis that Bee’s piece implies.  “My childhood summer vacations were spent languishing in front of the TV watching Phil Donahue and eating Boo Berry until my skin turned purple. Nobody cared if I read,” she writes, without completing the thought:  And I turned out just fine.  The upside of all the additional enrichment she lampoons is unclear, and (many parents surely suspect) not even unambiguously positive.  “OK,” you might think, “My kid isn’t a piano prodigy and it would be cool if she were doing science camp at MIT at age 10.  But she seems happy enough.  She’s well-rounded, interested in different things and gets along with other kids. And she’s still doing pretty well in school. That’s probably enough.”

And it almost certainly is enough for Bee’s kids and many, many others.  They may not end up running Google or winning the Intel Science talent search, but you could safely bet real money they end up doing just fine, thanks.  Cognitively speaking, they’re already on third base.

Summer slump?  Low educational productivity?  Year round schooling?  Forget it.  Other nations may be outeducating us, sending their children to school for 200+ days every year, but I suspect it will never happen here.  Affluent parents will never accept it.  The imperative of economic competitiveness is a non-starter among the parents of those who were born economically competitive.

Old Navy’s Apostrophe Apostasy

by Robert Pondiscio
August 23rd, 2011

Let’s not…er…dog.   (h/t Alex Smith)

Hear Today, Score Tomorrow

by Robert Pondiscio
August 23rd, 2011

Hearing rich, sophisticated language in preschool continues to pay dividends for kids years later–with effects showing up on reading comprehension and word recognition tests in 4th grade. 

That’s according to study in the journal Child Development digested on the website futurity.org.  David Dickinson, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, and Michelle Porche of Wellesley College looked at the language experiences of children from low-income homes when they were in preschool and found “robust relations between early classroom support for language and later language and reading ability.”

“The frequency of sophisticated vocabulary use during informal conversations predicted children’s kindergarten vocabulary, which correlated with fourth grade word reading. The teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary also correlated with children’s kindergarten print ability, and through that word reading skill, the early vocabulary exposure indirectly affected fourth grade reading comprehension.”

The takeaway?  “We need to take very seriously the importance of teaching language in the preschool years,” says Dickinson.  We pretty much knew this already, but it never hurts to have more evidence. Likewise, it’s not news that the  principal cause of the achievement gap is a language gap.  The implications of this research are that oral language matters a lot, and that effective use of school time, if started soon enough, can mitigate some of the worst effects of the achievement gap. If a child from a relatively language-poor, low-income home is exposed to a rich verbal environment from the earliest days of school (a key rationale for the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, by the way) with quality preschool followed up by a strong, rich kindergarten and elementary education, the gap-closing results can–and should be–pronounced.

Class Warfare—Over What?

by Guest Blogger
August 17th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

In a whopping 437 pages, Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (Simon & Schuster, 2011) recounts a dramatic and vicious battle between two education camps: on the one side, hedge fund managers, aggressive chancellors, determined charter school leaders, teachers who work endlessly, all fighting for reform as they define it; on the other, the big unions who use their clout to block, complicate, or slow down reform. The book has good guys, bad guys, and a surprise twist. Yet it does not stop to consider what education is, what it contains, or what ends it serves. This weakness is not particular to Brill or his book; it is at the core of the battles he describes. But Brill takes part uncritically.

About a hundred pages into the book, Brill describes Anthony Lombardi, a tough-minded middle school principal in Queens, New York, who “would target the teachers he thought were laggards and make life miserable for them.” One of Lombardi’s initiatives was the implementation of a new curriculum that he had developed “with consultants from Columbia Teachers College”; at his urging, teachers uncomfortable with the new curriculum left the school. Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein told Brill that “Lombardi had emptied his whole school of the incompetents”; Brill accepts this assertion at face value, without looking into the curriculum or the objections. At the very least, Brill could have examined the curriculum; those who resisted it may have had good reasons for doing so.

As the book continues, so does Brill’s error, his dismissal of the substance of education. When describing Children First, the initial education plan of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, Brill fails to mention the new mandated curricula: Balanced Literacy, Everyday Mathematics, and Impact Mathematics. Balanced Literacy contained more pedagogical prescriptions than subject matter: for instance, a teacher’s direct instruction was to last no longer than 10-15 minutes, and students were to spend much time in groups. Literacy coaches told teachers how to arrange their rooms, what to say in their mini-lessons, and how to praise or correct students. None of this is brought up in the book. Brill notes that Randi Weingarten (at that time the president of the United Federation of Teachers) asked for “teacher input into textbooks and class configuration, more teacher discretion in classroom instruction,” and more. Instead of taking these demands seriously, or even considering them, Brill appears to join in with Klein, who “laughed off these demands from the union.” What is so laughable about a demand that teachers be able to exercise their best judgment? If they are not allowed to use their minds, how will they teach their students to do so?

In Brill’s view, the great teachers are the ones who do what they’re told (and much more), give students their cell phone numbers, agree to work longer days without extra pay, never sit down, and raise test scores. (Later in the book, he grants that teachers should be allowed to sit down now and then.) But education is not a hundred-meter sprint. To teach anything of substance, a teacher needs time for solitary planning and preparation, time to meet informally and formally with colleagues, time to confer with students, time to think. The class needs time to contemplate and discuss interesting topics, even when they are not related to the immediate goals. Often the goals are well served by such forays, as students learn to consider the subject from different angles. Such time does not exist in abundance, but there is nothing heroic about taking it all away.

To Brill, such quiet and ruminative work is unheard of. He criticizes the New York City teachers’ union (the UFT) for “Circular 6,” a rule that reduced teachers’ scheduled non-classroom duties from two periods to one daily. The other period would still be allotted to professional duties, but teachers could choose from a list, and they did not have to be in a specific place at a specific time. To Brill, this means an “extra period off during the day, a perk”; apparently, if teachers are not given tasks at specific places and times, they will do nothing. This assumption is false; it is precisely the self-motivated teachers who need flexibility and will be driven away by an overly prescriptive schedule. Suppose, for instance, that a teacher wishes to help write the school’s curriculum in a particular subject. She will need to write on her own, consult with others, and examine resources. To do this, she cannot always be in a specified location; she should be trusted to move around as necessary to get the work done.

Many other initiatives discussed in Brill’s book—charter school co-location in public school buildings, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, the Los Angeles Times’ publication of teachers’ value-added ratings, the mass firing of teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island—evade the question of what the schools are seeking to teach. Brill visits a KIPP classroom that in his view resembles other KIPP classrooms he has seen: “full of focused, connected children with a magnetic teacher in front of her room.” But KIPP co-founder Dave Levin sees all sorts of things wrong with it: in Brill’s words, “an imperfect bulletin board, three students whose eyes were wandering, the teacher turning her back to face the blackboard, an incomplete reading log.” Brill does not question or scrutinize Levin’s criticism, but he should. There is a fine line between “sweating the small stuff” and neglecting the larger picture. Do wandering eyes necessarily mean lack of interest or involvement? How does a bulletin board affect the lesson, the course, and the overall education of the students?

Such classroom descriptions make up only a fraction of the book. Brill seems much more interested in the politics of education reform: who is aligned with whom, who knows what about whom, and so forth. Some of his favorite reformers share his predilection for power play. Brill describes a 2008 memo written by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) leaders who sought to prevent the selection of Linda Darling-Hammond as secretary of education. Their memo stated, among other things, that Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, was DFER’s second-choice recommendation after Arne Duncan. According to Brill, this was an attempt to “lure” Darling-Hammond into a negative response that would weaken her prospects (she had written critically of TFA in the past). Here are influential policymakers using memos not to put forth their views but to manipulate and hurt others. Here is corruption of language and leadership, a void rolling at full speed. Brill rolls along.

Ultimately Brill discovers an error in his own thinking. For most of the book, he glorifies the teachers, leaders, and policymakers who relentlessly pursue success (in terms of student achievement on tests). Later, he acknowledges that such people—especially those who actually work in schools—cannot be sustained, let alone duplicated. He quotes a Harlem Success Academy teacher who reports feeling “overwhelmed, underappreciated, and underpaid” and who says that “this model just cannot scale.” Recognizing that not all teachers are or can be extraordinary, Brill recommends that reformers work with unions—particularly leaders like Weingarten—to “motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file to respond to this emergency” (that is, the emergency of failing schools).

Reasonable as Brill’s conclusion sounds, it rests on a flawed definition of “extraordinary.” Extraordinary runners are those who run the fastest or longest (or both). Extraordinary—and good—educators are those who bring subjects to their students in compelling and lasting ways. Some may look like Brill’s high-energy heroes; some may not. A sense of urgency is helpful if one knows what one is doing and takes both a long and a short view. There are quiet teachers who teach their subjects with passion, knowledge, and expertise. There are schools that resist frenzy and fads and educate their students well.

Results are important, but only in relation to what we are trying to do. We may not agree on what we are trying to do, but we should ask what it is, listen to ourselves and others, and follow our best understanding. Class Warfare does not even pose the initial question; it reads like a video game, where the goal is to win points, period.

Diana Senechal has written for American Educator, Education Week, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, and numerous blogs. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale and taught for four years in New York City public schools. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November.

“Teaching Cultural Literacy is a Matter of Social Justice”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 15th, 2011

This op-ed by Gregory R. Meece, school director of Newark Charter School, a Core Knowledge Visitation School, originally appeared in the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware.  Newark Charter School was named a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School — rp.

Growing up in Newark, I was much like the average kid today — shooting hoops in the driveway, attempting to duplicate Evel Knievel stunts on my bike, spending too many hours watching what my mom used to call “the idiot box.”

But unlike most kids today (and a good many adults) I could liken the experience of tubing on the White Clay Creek to a Huck Finn adventure.

I could compare a spring afternoon to an Impressionist painting; describe a sit-in on a college campus as an act of “civil disobedience;” and pick out the grandfather character in the composition “Peter and the Wolf” by the sound of the bassoon. And, of course, I learned none of this in school.

I was fortunate. I grew up in a home filled with “core knowledge.” The “haves” in this country had “core knowledge” in their homes too. Many “have-nots” didn’t. But if they were lucky they attended a school that stressed the importance of, well, important things. They were exposed to that which binds our culture together, a common understanding — cultural literacy. Those who wish to function in the world of the “haves” need to know what they know. In a democratic society, it is public education that should be the equalizing force. It should give every child a fair chance to achieve success. But it hasn’t.

For decades, American public schooling has veered toward so-called “reforms” in curriculum and instruction. These feel-good initiatives typically offer vague theories of learning at the expense of coherent content. What students need to know has become relative or, worse, irrelevant. Teaching Johnny about his neighborhood is just as useful as teaching him about the Renaissance. The problem is, if we only teach children about their neighborhoods they are forever limited by the boundaries of those neighborhoods. And for too many kids, their neighborhoods aren’t great.

Teachers are conditioned to plan lessons around what they believe students might be interested in. Effortless engagement, not knowledge, is the goal. And it is the student who comes from a disadvantaged background who is cheated by it the most.

Core Knowledge is a coherent list of what every American student through 8th grade should know. It is not a curriculum, a movement, or a reform. The scope and sequence of Core Knowledge was developed by university professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and the Core Knowledge Foundation after years of consensus-building among teachers, scholars, scientists, and others.

Hirsch realized that there was something missing from what nearly every other “expert” on education was writing about — namely, common sense. But the education establishment cautioned that a curriculum that exposed fifth graders to atoms, molecules and compounds and sixth graders to plate tectonics was developmentally inappropriate (translation: “hard and boring”).

The freedom granted charter schools allowed Newark Charter School to adopt Core Knowledge as the content portion of its curriculum. We found that the school’s curriculum not only met, but exceeded the state standards. While Core Knowledge is heavy in history and geography, Delaware standards demand more economics and civics. It wasn’t that the Core Knowledge Foundation didn’t believe that economics and civics were important. Rather, it found that schools became so enamored with “social studies” that they forgot to teach world and American history and geography. It got to the point where the late-show comics were having a field day interviewing adults on the street who couldn’t locate China on a map.

Knowledge builds on knowledge. In the words of columnist William Raspberry writing about the need for Core Knowledge schools in African-American communities, “The more you know, the smarter you get.” Hirsch calls it “Intellectual Velcro.”

If you were a lucky kid you were exposed to the events, literature, ideas and arts that changed our world. If you were not so lucky, you might be like the person at a party who doesn’t “get” the joke the host just told. You didn’t understand the meaning behind the punch line’s reference to a “Trojan Horse.” But our school’s 11-year-olds would be laughing out loud!

A content-rich curriculum isn’t the only reason for a school’s success. The most important resource in any school is the classroom teacher. But when good instruction is coupled with a curriculum rich with substance, clarity and cohesiveness, young students will have doors opened to places they never dreamt of. Core Knowledge provides a path to all of the most desirable education goals: the ability to think critically and problem solve, greater reading comprehension, and higher test scores — because all of these things are functions of a broad base of background knowledge.

The role of a democratic “common school” is to make sure that “intellectual capital” is not only for the privileged. Having access to important “core knowledge” isn’t school reform. It’s social justice.

Calm Down the Classroom Walls

by Guest Blogger
August 11th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

With the beginning of the school year just weeks or days away, many teachers will be returning early to set up their bulletin boards and classrooms. That is an exciting time—except that there’s so much stuff to put up. In addition to organizing the room and making it inviting, teachers must put all the required teacher-made pieces in place, lest an omission be noted in a walkthrough observation.

Growing up, I attended eight different schools—public and private, progressive and traditional, in the United States and abroad. I have sat in bare and decorated classrooms, and I found something appealing in both. In elementary school, I usually preferred cheery, colorful places; in high school, I liked the calm of sparse rooms. But today’s classrooms are often neither cheery nor sparse. Across the grades, teachers are expected to cover the classroom walls with charts, lists, standards, rubrics, tasks, reminders, and student work. The argument is that children will learn more in a “print-rich” environment.

There is basis for the “print-rich” argument, especially in the elementary grades. Exposure to print, combined with explicit instruction, can boost students’ reading considerably. But even in kindergarten classrooms, the “print-rich” factor can be overdone. It is difficult to take in anything when there’s so much staring at you. One becomes immune to posters on strategies and processes (which often aren’t “rich” to begin with). Also, there is a hint of condescension in such overdecoration, as though students could not learn without prompts coming from every angle. Why so much stuff? There is something strong about a room that doesn’t protest too much, and it sets a good example for the students.

Even displays of student work may not always help students. If student work is posted just because it must be posted, it loses meaning. Few students, teachers, or administrators actually take time to read it. If it is on a hallway bulletin board, students may deface it (intentionally or not) when rushing by. Moreover, as David Riesman noted decades ago in The Lonely Crowd, the public display of student work can promote sameness of topic and voice. The treatment of all writing as publishable or displayable does not give students a chance to take risks, learn from mistakes, struggle with syntax, structure, and style, and work out ideas.

In addition, there is a problem of resources; classroom displays take time and supplies. Locating the appropriate materials—bulletin board paper, borders, staples and stapler and staple remover, construction paper, markers, and so forth—is only the beginning. There are the inevitable errors: lopsided letters, bad stapling, the omission of a required rubric. Finding space on the walls can be a challenge; it is common to see clotheslines strung from wall to wall, with student work hanging from them. If you’re short, you may have trouble hanging things up in high places; if you’re tall, you may find yourself bumping into the clotheslines.  Then there is the wear and tear: items falling down from the walls, taking pieces of paint along. After a few rounds of decorating, the room looks more dilapidated than ever.

Of course, no one wants a dreary classroom. It is exciting to enter a room and figure out immediately what is taught there. Sometimes this is conveyed invisibly; a good high school course has its own character, and there may be no need for displays at all. At other times, displays have a place. There may be descriptions of chemistry experiments, or biographies of composers. Some student work on the walls can be impressive and inspiring. A classroom display may reflect ongoing discussions; teachers may post questions intended to provoke further thought.

But what about all those charts and lists that are needed? Well, we have to consider whether they truly live up to their mandatory status. Take, for instance, the charts of the “writing process,” which hang on many classroom walls. They do not apply to every situation or student. Yes, writing often consists of five stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing. But within this, there is a great deal of variation: one may revise a piece at a late stage, and one might not publish it at all. If students have substantial and regular writing assignments, they need no chart to remind them of the basic steps. By contrast, vocabulary lists, chronologies, and scientific and mathematical formulas may well be useful.

To have good schools, we need focus and simplicity. Teachers should be able to concentrate on planning and delivering lessons; students, on learning the material and developing ideas. Schools should have the gumption to sort the essential from the extraneous. If schools stopped requiring the display of charts, lists, tasks, rubrics, and student work, they would have room for interesting displays. They would also have greater calm, on the walls and elsewhere. To do good work, one must have room for it; one cannot be crammed and crowded to the brim.

Diana Senechal has written for American Educator, Education Week, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, and numerous blogs. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale and taught for four years in New York City public schools. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November.

Yetis, UFOs and Term Papers

by Robert Pondiscio
August 9th, 2011

Update:  Cedar Reiner posts a research paper-length blog post on this from his perspective as a college professor and cognitive scientist.  Stick with it.  The conclusion is worth the wait.

Ask a high school student – any high school student – when they were last required to submit a research paper.  Not a five paragraph essay or a “personal response,” but a paper – an in-depth piece of academic research and original writing, drawing upon deep reading of multiple sources.  Think footnotes.  A bibliography.  The MLA Handbook.  Research papers are the academic equivalent of the Yeti or UFOs: sightings are rare and those who argue for their existence are routinely dismissed as cranks or nuts.  You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that research papers are the sum and symbol of all that ails American education.

You didn’t know? 

Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan becomes, by my rough calculation, the 18,938th pundit to suggest that the real problem of American education is its adherence to a 19th century model.  What we need, she writes, is a “digital-age upgrade.”   She cites the wholly imaginary “statistic” that 65% of today’s grade school aged kids “may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”   Thus, we can’t keep preparing students “for a world that doesn’t exist.”

“Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.”

(Psst!  Have a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the 10 most common occupations for Americans.  Shockingly low-skill, low-pay, and low-tech, isn’t it?   Clearly there are some old-timers who don’t recognize what work looks like right now.  Digital careers?  Tens of millions of Americans are still working with their digits.)

We cannot, Heffernan insists, “keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own.”  Set aside for a moment the curious notion that we should reimagine education around skills kids are developing on their own.   No, what’s really “inhibiting today’s students” is their teachers’ and professors’ insistence that students write papers.  “Semester after semester, year after year, ‘papers’ are styled as the highest form of writing,” she writes. “And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.”  Heffernan’s touchstone for her attack on research papers is Now You See It, a “galvanic” book by the MacArthur Foundation’s Cathy N. Davidson, which argues, per Heffernan, against the “industrial-era holdover system that still informs our unrenovated classrooms.”

“Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: ‘What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?’”

Online blogs directed at peers, Davidson observed by contrast, “exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”  At Flypaper, Kathleen Porter-Magee, struggling heroically to overcome the handicap of her own industrial-era education, answers with an elegant and persuasive blog post of her own:

“Heffernan seems to have missed her own point. As she implies, we are no better at predicting what today’s elementary students will be doing in twenty years than Hanna-Barbera were at painting what 21st century life would look like in the Jetsons. And so, our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology, but rather to identify the timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment.”

Ten years ago, legendary Yeti hunter Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review and an unsung hero of American education, oversaw a study of the state of the research paper in U.S. schools.  The results will surprise only digital fetishists who confuse contemporary schools with Dickensian workhouses:  While 95% teachers surveyed believed writing a research term paper is “important” or “very important,” 62% never assigned a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length; 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.  And that’s ten years ago.  Unless there has been a renaissance of scholarly rigor that I’ve somehow overlooked, I suspect the percentage of 2011 high school graduates who have ever produced a research paper of any length or substance is now a single-digit number.  A small one.

Why?  Writing a research papers, as anyone can tell you, is not an “authentic” learning task.   The average student is already far more likely to “demonstrate mastery” by creating a poster, an advertisement, a blog post, or a series of tweets than writing a research paper. If the future of education means an end to the tyranny of the paper, rest assured the future is already here. The fresh-thinking offered up by Heffernan and others who wring their hands over our anachronistic schools is as least as old as John Dewey, and its triumph is very nearly complete.  Just ask a high school student. 

What Heffernan is offering up, sorry to say, is a blander version of 21st Century skills, which privileges skills over content, and devalues actual academic work.  The sad parade continues.  We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic.

“Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new,” says Fitzhugh via email.  “I don’t forsee the day when ‘witty and incisive blogs’ will be able to take the place of legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any  of the other vital tasks of a literate society,” he concludes.

Wurman: “Science Appreciation” Won’t Solve STEM Crisis

by Robert Pondiscio
August 5th, 2011

The National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education amounts to little more than “science appreciation,” complains Ze’ev Wurman, demanding little actual science or mathematical knowledge of students. 

Known in education circles as a math standards and assessment expert, Wurman is the Chief Software Architect for MonolithIC 3D Inc..   In a blog post on his company’s website that is being passed around widely via email, he points out that fewer and fewer American students are interested, let alone able, to enter demanding science and engineering programs.

“ In 2006 the fraction of foreign undergraduate students in engineering reached 45%, in computer science 44%, and in physical sciences 40%. In 2007, the fraction of foreign students receiving doctorates in science and engineering was even larger: 62% in engineering overall, 73% in electrical engineering, and 57% in computer science.”

Given these alarming numbers, Wurman not unnaturally assumed the NRC’s Science Framework would tackle the problem head on.  “Yet as I kept reading the document’s 280 pages of lofty prose, I noticed something odd.  The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science,” he writes.

“For example, the framework promotes a practice called Using Mathematics, Information and Computer Technology, and Computational Thinking (p. 3-13). Yet one observes that after singing paeans to the importance of mathematics, it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in ‘recognizing,’ ‘expressing,’ and ‘using simple … mathematical expressions … to see if they make sense,’ but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics.”

The Framework’s “overarching goal” he points out, is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade “all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.”  Observes Wurman:

“Suddenly it all became clear. This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.”