Words Get in the Way

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2012

This blog has long kvetched about the tendency to use terms like standards (what proficiencies kids should be able to demonstrate) and curriculum (the material that gets taught in class) interchangably.  Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH school observes that education lacks a common vocabulary, which makes life harder for teachers.  “They get bombarded all the time with new products, websites, software that all claim they can get students to ‘deeper learning.’ But without a common understanding of what actually qualifies, it’s hard to know if X even purports to get your kids where you want them to go,” he writes.

Goldstein compares education to medicine where there is broad agreement, for example, on the five stages of cancer–and that makes it easier for for medical professionals and patients to work together.  “When scientists come up with treatments,” he notes, “they often find them to be effective for cancers only in certain stages. So when they tell doctors: ‘treatment only effective for X cancer in stage two,’ everybody knows what that means.”

In education, no such common vocabulary exists.

“Our sector talks a lot of “Deeper Learning.” Or “Higher-Order Skills.”

“But what does that mean? There’s not a commonly-accepted terminology or taxonomy. Instead, there are tons of competing terms and ladders.

“In math, for example, here’s language that the US Gov’t uses for the NAEP test. Low, middle, and high complexity. I suppose they might characterize the “high” as “deeper learning.”

“Here’s Costa’s approach, a different 3 levels. Text explicit, text implicit, and activate prior knowledge. Again, perhaps the last is “deeper learning.”

“Here’s another take, more general than math-specific, from Hewlett.

“A software like MathScore has its own complexity ratings.

“And so on. You could find 10 more in 10 minutes of Googling.

Goldstein posts a question from Massachusetts’ MCAS tests, a perimeter question that shows four different rectangles and asks, “Which of these has a perimeter of 12 feet?”

“First you need to know what perimeter means. Second you need to know you that you need to fill in the “missing sides.” Third you need to know what to fill in, because you understand “rectangle.” Finally you need to add those 4 numbers. If you only understand 3 of the 4 ideas, you’ll get the question wrong.

“Does this question probe “deeper learning” for a 3rd grader? Who the heck knows?

If this strikes you as mere semantics, think again.  A lack of an agreed vocabulary — what is a “basic skill?”  What is “higher order thinking?” — is not merely irritating, it can lead to bad practice and misplaced priorities.   A third-grade teacher looking to remediate a lack of basic skills might seek help from a software product but she would have “no real idea on how ‘deep’ they go, or how ‘shallow’ they start,” Goldstein notes.  “No common language for ‘Depth’ or ‘Complexity.’”

I would add that the problem is more fundamental than that.  If a teacher is told “teach higher-order thinking” she might incorrectly assume that time spent on basic knowledge, math skills or fluency is a waste of time.  Or, in the worst case scenario, that reading comprehension or higher order thinking can be directly taught.  

In reality, without the basic skills and knowledge firmly in place, there’s no such thing as higher order anything and never will be.  Yet terms like “higher order thinking” and “complexity” are held up as the gold standard we should be teaching toward.  Basic knowledge and prerequisite skills are the unlovely companions of “drill and kill” rather than, say, ”fluency” or “automaticity.” Mischief and miplaced priorities are the inevitable result.

A common vocabulary of diagnosis and treatment would help. 

 

 

 

 

 

Mandatory Testing for Homeschoolers?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 29th, 2009

Should homeschooled children be required to sit for state exams to ensure minimum competency in reading and math?  And what should happen if they fail?    Indiana University School of Education professor Robert Kunzman, who studies homeschooling, proposes in the journal Theory and Research in Education that states require a basic skills test for homeschoolers.

Seconding Kunzman’s article, Miller-McCune magazine asks, with as many as 2 million students currently being homeschooled, whether ”it might be time to consider some sensible oversight.”  In theory, the magazine notes, a required basic skills test “could be a useful tool to help homeschooling parents understand which areas their child is excelling and struggling in and, if constructed properly, could illuminate where to focus additional attention.”

Above all, it’s essential that the test be crafted by individual states (just as individual states create tests for public schools in compliance with federal testing mandates) and be viewed as “neutral” (evolutionary science off-limits?) by parents and students. Then perhaps local homeschool organizations could work with the state to create a skills assessment that contains no ideological or moral “litmus test.” The result, as Kunzman conceives it, “would involve computation skills (adding, subtracting, multiplication, division) and reading comprehension.” In other words: a simple, rudimentary, noncontroversial test that even a serviceably educated student could pass.

Even that won’t be simple, however.  At the website Homeschooling Research Notes, Milton Gaither, a professor at Messiah College sees several problems with Kunzman’s proposal:

First, he is not clear about exactly when these tests would need to be administered or what would happen if a student failed them.  By what age must a child be able to read, write, and cipher?  For some unschoolers such skills are not deliberately taught until a child wants to learn them, which could be as late as 10 or 12.  Such children would fail the Iowa test of Basic Skills, perhaps repeatedly.  What then?  Kunzman says in a footnote that failure doesn’t mean kids should be forcibly placed in public schools, for they might do even worse there.  All he says is that repeated failure shoud prompt “a closer look by the state into that particular homeschool context, the quality of instruction, and the needs of the student before deciding how best to protect his or her educational interests.” (p. 328)  This I find unhelpful and vague.  Why bother administering the test at all if there’s no clear consequence for failing it?

Kunzman’s website has a lot of interesting information and resources about homeschooling (his state-by-state chart of homeschooling regulations is fascinating).  While I understand the impulse behind his proposal–he points out we really have no objective information about how homeschooled students truly perform academically–but I think it’s unlikely that many, perhaps even most, homeschoolers will see mandated testing as anything other than an unwarranted intrustion.  “The underlying assumption of this proposal seems to be that the citizen is somehow subject to the standards set by the state,” writes one homeschooling blogger.  “Or perhaps that the state has a more compelling interest in the well being of the child than the parent. As any homeschooling parent can tell you, we don’t need a test to tell us how our child is doing. They are not a name on a roster, they are our focus of attention.”

In short, prepare for a fight.  Given the relatively low performance of most states, it will also be hard to make a credible case that they know best or are even minimally competent to gauge, let alone assure academic success.