Asking Better Questions, Part 1

 research on schools, teacher quality, academic success, testing, grading

Efforts to improve the public education system usually involve studies that attempt to discover
what is needed to
improve schools.

Currently, the favored standard measures are test scores and graduation rates, and the usual solutions are reducing class size, more test preparation, and linking test scores to federal funds and merit pay for teachers.

But if we are asking the wrong question, what good is the answer? There are a few basic factors in education that can determine academic success, and those I want to examine here are the instructed, the instructor, and the environment.

The instructed:

In a traditional school, children are segregated by age, regardless of their mental or physical development and readiness for formal study in a traditional classroom. Then information is presented to the students via the teacher; chapters are read and vocabulary lists are memorized; tests are given to measure understanding. Proficiency is then classified as below average, average, and above average, with accompanying percentages and letter grades. Regardless of the results of the tests, all the children proceed to the next concept. 

Where did the current grading system come from? A little history here by Mark W. Durm gives the answer in a nutshell. One pertinent quote is as follows:

I. E. Finkelstein (1913)... offered the following: When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicate scholastic attainment of the pupil or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system. School administrators have been using with confidence an absolutely uncalibrated instrument...

Grading is simply an organizational tool to efficiently categorize student progress. One of the biggest flaws with grading is that those who perform 'below average' are often tagged as Learning Disabled or diagnosed with ADD/ADHD simply because they are mentally and physically not ready to sit quietly at a desk for 6 hours. These children are condemned to believe that they are somehow inferior, and this feeling can follow them all the way into adulthood.

Children who test 'above average' are sometimes not further challenged unless they qualify for the school's gifted program (if the school has one). They get some extra attention as 'academic stars' , but they are also the target of disdain from their classmates. Many realize that to 'blend in' they must produce mediocre results. This can cause them to cease to be curious and engaged, to ask or answer questions. Being exceptional carries as much baggage as developmental delays.

There's the average kid who may become invisible, not needing any sort of extra attention. 

Then there's the twice exceptional student, who excels in one area but has problems in another. Grade point averages are detrimental to these kids, because grading forces teachers to aim for generalization instead of specialization. In other words, instead of the child's strengths being recognized while weaknesses are properly dealt with, the goal is for a child to at least be average in every subject, regardless of interest or ability.

"You wrote The Great American Novel? That's nice, Junior, but you suck at math, so get back to work."

There is evidence that stress can impair the learning process. The traditional school environment is stressful in a variety of ways:

  • zero tolerance policies
  • peer pressure
  • bullying/violence
  • academic pressure/overbooking
  • sleep deprivation
  • sexual misconduct by teachers

Public education cannot address these issues in its current state for a variety of reasons, some of which could be a lack of involvement on the part of parents with kids in the system, an emphasis on standardized test results and national learning standards, and the assembly line structure of the system itself.

The instructor:

The Abell Foundation did some interesting work attempting to pinpoint the qualities that make a teacher a good teacher.

The teacher attribute found consistently to be most related to raising student achievement is verbal ability.

In doing some research on teacher quality, the emphasis appears to be focused on factors that don't directly impact students, such as teacher program requirements and coursework, financial incentives and pensions, licensure and career ladders. . . but what about:

  • the ability to convey information in a clear and interesting manner?
  • an affinity for children?

What difference does it make how much you pay a teacher if they aren't able to inspire or motivate; if the students aren't engaged; if the teacher is not a skilled communicator?

Teacher's unions make sure that ability is a non-factor when it comes to tenure, and this kind of job security is unconscionable. In most vocations, ability and performance are recognized and rewarded, while those who are lacking in the necessary talents are not promoted and are often let go. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we all have different skill sets, and most of us have the sense to pursue a vocation consistent with our abilities. We are not surprised if a poor performance affects our ability to hold a job.

What makes a great teacher?

Here are some comments about teachers from the English Teachers Network:

Believe it or not my favorite teacher was named Mr. Yelle. He taught seventh and eighth grade math, science and music... He spoke to us "at eye level", and had infinite patience and tolerance for anything except unkindness. We did incredible projects for the science fairs. To this day (and I'm talking 40 years ago) I remember our lessons on meteorology (we built a weather station!) and on human anatomy (which 12-year-old boys and girls were able to take seriously with not an offensive word, leer or sneer).

My best teacher was Elaine Hoter... Her lessons were extremely interesting, efficient and absolutely fascinating. She always practiced what she preached: her methods of teaching us demonstrated the desirable teaching methods for our use. Her lovely personality also contributed to the success of her teaching and lessons...

My best teacher ever was my Geography teacher in 8th grade. Why? Because we did projects! Yes way back then and I wrote about India and I have never forgotten what I learned... Maybe that is why I embrace the projects today. He brought to life the culture by letting me become part of it. He also listened to us and was always ready with a kind word. So in my opinion the best teacher is the teacher who listens to his/her pupils.

Gail Anderson was my grade 9 English teacher. She was one of those hippy types but she treated us with respect and cared about each one of us... She took the time to really teach us literature and how to write. I will always remember how she would write meaningful comments and suggestions for writing, organizing and presenting better work. We always wanted to please her and in the end pleased ourselves.

Sense a recurring theme? 

Note that the effectiveness of mentoring and tutoring is unquestioned. It is even utilized for teacher training. Why isn't this method employed more in our schools?

Homeschooling is different

How are these factors impact or are impacted by choosing home education? In most cases the negatives are immediately eliminated. The reason many parents have chosen to homeschool is that they asked these questions and found that the public education system could not provide an answer.

For the home educated, there is no age segregation or classroom management. There are no brains, geeks, or class clowns. No one is voted Most Likely To Succeed or Best Dressed. Parents can assess their children's work, not required by unbending lesson plans to advance to the next concept until the child has mastered the previous one.  If the goal is proficiency, the all homeschooled kids can get straight A's eventually because they are able to correct mistakes, practice, and try again.

Mom is also not frisking the kids for nail clippers or bringing in drug sniffing dogs. The family is free to keep a schedule that allows kids to get 8 hours of sleep and three squares a day plus plenty of fresh air and exercise.

Sure, homeschooling has its own negatives - but that's another post.

The homeschooling parent should adopt the role of learning facilitator rather than "teacher." The term "teacher" carries with it the connotation of a lecturer; a top-down relationship that places the responsibility for learning on the teacher instead of the student.

Home education negates this, replacing the usually antagonistic relationship of student-teacher with the close, personal relationship of parent-child. Homeschoolers replace lectures with conversation. The power to learn is where it needs to be--with the parent and student, not a far removed federal agency.

Not every parent can home educate, but what home education has taught us is that we do not have to be satisfied with the status quo. We can ask some hard questions, and what's more, we can ask the right questions.

Follow up on this post with Asking Better Questions Part 2.

Share your comments below!