The Grand Academy of RAT

During his stay on the flying island of Laputa, Lemuel Gulliver visits the Grand Academy of Lagado to see projects that Jonathan Swift has imagined satirically. They include a project to build houses from the roof down and one to extract nourishment from excrement[1]. In a modern development proving that truth is more pungent than satire, the Grand Academy of RAT (RAce to the Top) has developed its own projects to amaze the visitor. Here are a couple of my favorites.

In Tennessee is a project to evaluate the success of physical education teachers by examining their students’ English and math test scores. Another seeks to have administrators evaluate teachers during five one-hour visits, each visit requiring ratings on 116 criteria, or one rating every 31 seconds, including time to watch the lesson. More can easily be found, for the RAT Academy is bursting at the seams.

Even Swift could not have satirized the reality that precedes these bizarre projects: applicants for RAT money, who need 2700 hours to fill out the application, discover that they must have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” student “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards, including those “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.”  (Emphasis added.) If I were building this house starting at someplace lower than the roof, I would require as an “absolute priority” the assessment of students, and their teachers, against standards that can be measured—or, better, judged. That means not “measuring” teachers using formulas based on no standards, whose confidence interval spans 53 percentiles, and proceeding as if there were no confidence interval at all.

But even then we would not be starting construction with the basement. Diane Ravitch has often suggested beginning with maternity and early-childhood education. And in a recent articleshe reminds her readers that Finland begins building schools at the basement and has some of the best schools in the world to show for it. What does starting at the basement involve? She notes that Finland “rejects all of the ‘reforms’ currently popular in the United States, such as testing, charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, competition, and evaluating teachers in relation to the test scores of their students.”

And where, asks Ravitch, did Finnish schools get many of the ideas that they do use? From the United States—an earlier United States. One idea Finland did not get from the US, which seems like another basement feature to me, is insistence on the thorough preparation of teachers in highly competitive and demanding teacher training programs. (Finland’s accept one applicant in ten.) Having trained their teachers, the Finns then repose in them absolute confidence to do their job, allowing them to devise their own programs and tests.

The contrasting domestic reality, full of people trying to extract nourishment from excrement, seems to be solidifying, though the product remains nutrient-free. This does not keep people like an assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education from saying that “the process is leading to rich conversations about instruction.” I can imagine how wonderfully rich they are, and how deeply satisfying. The minutes of them could probably fill a Bristol barrel.


[1] “[the ‘projector’] had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.”



Coach of Many Colors

Readers of my posting on the flexible classroom (“The Class of a Thousand Spaces”) know that in a room where little is nailed down, much is possible. The other requirements of a successful flexibility are 1) a teacher whose approach to learning varies with the kind of learning to take place, 2) students who are ready to learn, in numbers that make flexibility feasible, 3) school administrators who are educational leaders (rather than, say, Ukrainian commissars or bean counters), and 4) things that work properly.

Teaching is, broadly speaking, of three main kinds: didactic instruction for imparting knowledge, coaching for development of skill, and Socratic teaching for encouraging the achievement of understanding. In the flexible classroom the flexible teacher will manage all three. Regrettably, most teachers’ focus tends to be entirely or mostly on didactic instruction.

It is also the focus of most educational software. Unlike the software, however, a practiced teacher can shift to coaching and Socratic instruction at need. Is there a good math teacher alive who does not insist that students show their work? That is because knowledge of the correct answer is only part of the learning involved. If a teacher sees a problem in the work, he or she can coach in the skill needed or try and establish an understanding in the student by asking particular questions based on the work and the student’s response.

And not just a math teacher. Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Objection to Being Stepped On,” which opens “At the end of the row/ I stepped on the toe/ Of an unemployed hoe.” I invited my students to read it, at first without accompanying notes. One of them surprised me by saying that “this is a poem I can relate to.”

“Really?” I said. “Why is that?”

“Because it’s about a hoe!”

I suddenly understood, but pretended not to, and asked, “What interests you about a gardening tool? Do you enjoy gardening?”

He was puzzled, so I drew a hoe and explained its use. Though disappointed that the poem was not about a whore, he was already partly invested in it and ended up deciding that the rest of the poem made sense even if he could no longer relate to it. He eventually got the allusion to Isaiah and the wry, dry joke of a hoe as weaponry. I felt that he would not have got so far into it if someone had opened the discussion with a didactic statement (or internet screen) that “this is a poem about a man who hurts himself stepping on a garden tool.”  He would just have gone into parrot mode and learned the knowledge he needed in order to mimic understanding.

One of the reasons I was able to speak to him as much and as often as I did was that the class had fewer than fifteen students in it. Such numbers allow an extent of coaching and Socratic questioning that becomes impossible in a larger class.

This would be true not just in a poetry class but also in a math class. A math teacher in a small class can ask students to show their work, presumably not just to verify that they have actually worked, but also to see how they are proceeding or going astray. The aim should be to discuss the work and advise how it might go better. This, too, is easier in a small class than in a large one. The I. B. math tests require students to show their work and give (or withhold) marks for work done well, poorly, or not at all, regardless of The Answer (though of course the correct answer gains marks too). It is hard to see how software could do the same thing, or how a math teacher with students in three figures could examine each one’s work thoroughly.

Much of what I am reporting on seems to lie behind the success of the Mooresville (N. C.) schools in improving the quality of their students’ work, but that is not what The New York Times focused on. True, the subheadline said “It’s Not Just About the Laptops,” but the tag for the article at the top left of the printed page gives away the true point of view, saying, “Mooresville School District, a Laptop Success Story.” I would say, by contrast, that the success of the Mooresville schools is due to their trying to structure teaching and learning in more flexible and productive ways, and not primarily to their adopting laptops.

I wish them well, but some elements of their plan look flawed. As usual with schools on a budget trying to adopt expensive IT gadgetry, something has to give, and at Mooresville it is class size, which has risen from 18 to 30. When they have to get their students to a level of achievement that embraces skill and understanding as well as knowledge, they are going to find it more difficult than they think if they have abandoned a class size that allows teachers to be coaches and questioners as well as drop-in advice-givers. If, as reported, they divide their attention according to who has lower scores, they are not meeting the needs of the higher-scoring students, who have their questions too.

The following example, though small, is emblematic. Earlier this year a student of mine surprised me by mentioning an author’s use of polysyndeton, not a word I usually associate with 11th-grade criticism. Knowing him, I was sure that he hadn’t just idly copied the note from a source, so I pointed out that the example in question was a complex sentence whose ands did not all link grammatically parallel sentence elements. He understood me and made the needed change in his explanation. His problem is as deserving of attention as the problem of the boy attracted to hoes, and in a small class both problems will be attended to by the thorough teacher.

Mooresville will also have to find ways to deal with what the Times article generously or naïvely calls “growing pains.” I refer to connection and bandwidth problems as well as to the problem of students’ cutting and pasting or otherwise transferring “information” from one tab or window to another without real understanding. These are not “growing pains,” and the solution will not be to let things grow. School storerooms across the country are filled with unused stuff that was first described as having “growing pains.”

And their visitors will have to do something that the Times reporter has not yet done: they will have to see improvement as more than the right “balance between old tricks and new technology.” If studying the geography of a place means no longer having to make salt-and-flour maps, that is a real—but minuscule—advance. Far more important will be exchanging, where possible, the grid for more accommodating classroom models. More important yet will be replacing the monochrome teacher by a coach of many colors, aiming for a class size and classroom flexibility that allow the multifarious coach and questioner and his or her students to thrive in their joint enterprise. It sounds as if Kathryn Higgins, an English teacher referred to in the article, has found some ways to do so. Government officials will also have to start mandating in ways that don’t encourage well-meaning district administrators like Mark Edwards to look at widely publicized but superficial single high-stakes scores rather than exercise the subtlety they would probably like to use when evaluating their students. Reporters will also need to back away in their reporting from the old cliché that all conflicts in education boil down to a contest between The Future and The Old Farts’ Corner.



Read ‘Em and Weep

The homegrown Writing Assessment I discussed in my last posting sought to peg students’ writing against grade-by-grade standards that we teachers felt we could reasonably expect students to meet. The standards started with those of the senior year, and the question we asked of each essay was Would this piece of writing be acceptable to a teacher of first-year students at a good U. S. university? From that standard down to the one governing 9th-grade writing was a series of plausible steps.

At each grade we divided the range of possible writing into six different levels. Any essay that got a 4 or higher met the standard for that grade. (Essays getting 5 were significantly better than what was required, and essays getting 6 were dazzling.) Graduating seniors getting 4 could expect not to be massacred in freshman comp; those getting 3s were in some danger if they didn’t work hard. A 3 therefore meant “not quite at the mark.”

Each essay received a grade of 1 to 6 (or 0 for an evasion or no response) from two teachers, so the total grade was from 0 (rarely given) to 12 (also rarely given).  The two teachers had to be within 1 mark of each other, a requirement not hard to impose. Our work as a department ensured that we would look at our students’ writing in more or less the same way: what does it do that good 12th-grade writing ought to do?

And what characterized a senior essay we rated a 4? The student engaged with the question asked, on the whole successfully and thoughtfully. There was a balance between generalization and detail. The writing was unified and generally coherent. The student had a reasonably good grip on grammar and syntax. There was no waffle or baloney. The writing did not cloy. The diction was suitable to formal circumstances. Spelling was generally good. Having the result graded twice helped ratify the choice of marks (most of our composite grades were in even numbers) or suggested slight deviations from standard.

It is in light of our standard for giving a 4 that I read a startling article this week in The New York Times, which also discussed essays receiving a 4/6—in this case on the New York State Regents’ test. A quoted example began, “In life, ‘no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,’ as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.”  Looked at using our standard, the extract shows no problems of grammar, syntax, or spelling; but then it sinks.  Where is the successful engagement with the question? The balance of generalization and detail? Saying essentially the same thing three times is waffle, and the question-begging in the last sentence shows thoughtlessness. Yet this essay received a 4 from the Regents. I kept asking myself what the writer would need to do to get a 2.

Even that question was not answered in the article, which also showed short-answer paragraphs scored as 0, 1, or 2. The following sentence opened a paragraph getting a 1, presumably something like a 3 on the 6-point scale: “In the poem, the poets use of language was very depth into it.” If this is the opening sentence of a middling paragraph, what would open a bad one? Here are two sentences from an essay that received a 3 from the Regents: “Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.”

I can’t imagine what “standard” such writing in a 12th-grader “nearly” meets. There doesn’t seem to be much use in “standards-based” education with such standards, or “data-based” education with such data. The author of the Times article notes that 12th-grade writers like this actually stood a decent chance of achieving the 65 required to pass the Regents’ test. To hear that the Chancellor of the Board of Regents wants to raise the passing score to 75 is thus not very comforting. I kept wondering how I could “teach” students for twelve years and have them “reach” the point of such an “achievement.”