Why the Elephant Appeals to Blind Men

elephantYet another Anchorage Daily News puff piece about Anchorage School District performance produced reader comments prominently featuring the usual suspects on the Distant Right engaged in the obligatory Gnashing of Teeth.  The problem here, as is so often the case, is that folk like David Boyle and Bob Griffin see a piece of the problem, and thereupon assume that they see the whole picture clearly, and therefore can provide a simple and comprehensive solution.  Unfortunately, more often than not, they are just benighted Fellows of the  IBMC (Indostani Blind Men’s Club, see below).

Despite the howling “on the left” the data available appear to make it very clear that Alaska, like most states, was overstating student performance and that new testing regiments are now consistent with the kind of results that were produced by NAEP testing (I have posted before about the Brookings’ discussion of the comparison between typical AYP testing regimes and the NAEP, so will not go into that again save to say that the NAEP is a more comprehensive regime). The result is that we are finally seeing that broadly speaking only a third of our students are really proficient (that is to say, have basic skill mastery) in core subjects.

Yet, as we know, virtually all Alaskan educational institutions identify a letter grade of “C” as representing student mastery (a copy of the Anchorage School District grading system is appended below) and ASD has been increasing graduation (and therefore GPA). There is clearly a gap, and the gap is not a testing artifact nor is it illusory.

Unfortunately, the Fellows of the IBMC want to throw the baby out with the bath water. They are argue that all and sundry have failed, and the only solution is to put education in the hands of parents (who arguably are the real culprits here). Their arguments are the direct result of their (some would claim intentional)  failure to appreciate the complexity of the problems the educational system faces.  They are devotees of the silver bullet, and as I am perhaps overly fond of saying, there is no silver bullet to address out educational woes.

As anyone with a knowledge of high school physics will acknowledge,  just because you can demonstrate that light behaves as a particle,  does not mean that it does not also behave like a wave.  Yes, we have a gap, but if you want to meet the elephant in the room,  you have to become acquainted with something beyond its hind quarters.  Teachers face twice as many students as they could possibly cope with, presenting an educational and socio-economic continuum that we know are critical obstructions to effective instruction. We also face a cadre of parents who dispute the value of education, see education as valuable only through individual ROI (return on investment), and convey their disdain for schools, teachers, and the educated to their children. Of course, we also have inept administrators coupled with a deplorable lack of educational leadership.

I would also argue that we suffer from an appalling number of incompetent teachers, but there are a couple of problems with such a claim: 1) no one can agree on what education is, let alone how it is to be delivered and it is difficult to argue that an educator is not doing their job if you can’t objectively quantify that job, and 2) even if we were to try to seize on some metric, there are so many possibly variable that any rubric would on its face be meaningless (and that of course includes the suggestions that anyone could intelligently employ standardized testing to assess teacher effectiveness).  No, I don’t think that lets teachers off the hook.  Peer review is an excellent start to generating some common language and perception regarding instruction; in other words, teachers need to lead the way, and they clearly are not.

But despite all the problems, it seems that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else! And as noted, since there is ample “fault” to go around, as long as they have their blinders on they feel satisfied that they have the answer. The elephant is the age old foil of the hubris involved.

The villain, once upon a time, was agreed upon to be the student.  Lazy and shiftless, they were sifted and then beaten into an acceptable shape. Hopefully we have a more sophisticate understanding of minors today than hundreds of years ago. But I think it only fair to acknowledge, as I think most teachers will agree, that students today evidence two major educational deficits that are not of their making.  First, they are not developing their ability to memorize.  For decades, educational reformers have argued against “rote” learning,  but in doing so, have also abandoned memorization, a pillar upon which all classical education relied. We have seen the same kind of results in the whole language and Chicago Math debacles, where an interest in increasing the depth and breadth of instruction essentially resulted practically speaking in the abandonment of effective instruction for almost a generation of students

A second culprit is the shadow of intentional forgetting (both in the technical sense and in a broader lay sense). While many students will demonstrate mastery of a skill, within weeks access to that skill will seem to have disappeared. Many curricular programs have sought to address such problems by including cumulative review in instruction, but this becomes a huge uphill battle, and that battle is inevitably lost in May of every year.  Proposed solutions run the gamut from “turn off the gaming station and take away the smart phone” to implementing a parade of tortures for the child on his way to Paradise Island.  Despite all we do, high school Math students spend some 40% of instructional time relearning what they supposedly had mastered the year before, and they do that without ever having an inling of why.

No silver bullets anywhere, but we do have to understand that if we want our children to learn what we have placed before them, they have to be embedded in an environment that supports their learning.  In fact, we are so busy bickering that we have largely lost sight of this.  No, standardized tests and regular probes don’t hurt the student any more than asking them to learn how to use a pencil.  Increasing homework, where the student is doing the work wrong and developing an antipathy for the work, the teacher and education, is not going to be helpful at all. Attacking teachers, haplessly paid to keep their fingers stuck in the dyke, does nothing to address their training, their resources, or the ridiculous demands made of them.

If you want to see  “the trouble with education” quit groping the elephant and take a look in a mirror.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan, To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant, (Though all of them were blind) That each by observation, Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant, And happening to fall Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to brawl: “God bless me but the Elephant Is very like a wall.”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,Cried, “Ho! What have we here So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal, And happening to take The squirming trunk within his hands,Thus boldly up and spake: “I see,” quoth he, “The Elephant Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt around the knee, “What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain,” quoth he; ” ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: “E’en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun About the beast to grope, Than, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope, “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each of his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!

by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

Grading System
“A’’ This mark indicates the student has done work in quality and quantity far in excess of the standards set forth for a satisfactory grade in the course.
“B’’ This mark indicates that the student is doing work in quality and quantity above the standards set forth for a passing grade in the course.
“C’’ This mark is a satisfactory passing grade. It indicates that the student is acquiring the necessary information to proceed in the subject. He/she is meeting the standards set for a passing grade in the course.
“D” This mark indicates that the student is not effectively mastering the work assigned but has sufficient understanding of the subject to justify the opinion that more growth will result from advancement than from repetition of the course.
“F’’ Insufficient progress in the subject to merit granting of credit in the course.
“WF ’’ Student has been withdrawn from the course “failing.’’
“J’’ Audit— Principal approval is required. Indicates a student is auditing a course for his/her benefit. This does not count towards credit for graduation and must be approved prior to the 10th day of the course. Students are still required to complete course work.

Anchorage School District 2014–15 High School Program of Studies pg ix

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