Saturday, October 13, 2012

Defining "Achievement" in Schools

In my Learning and Cognition course, I've been assigned to read Engaging Schools by the Committee on Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn and the National Research Council.

The following consists of my preliminary reaction to the first two or three chapters and executive summary of the book.

As I've been going through the readings, I'm struck by a number of social problems with the book that most people probably haven't noticed.  They have nothing to do with class or race.  Instead, they have to do with what we consider standards and how we define achievement.

The fact is that there aren't enough jobs for the number of people graduating college.  Entire fields are overburdened with hopefuls in the unemployment line, bearing their degrees that their teachers promised would make them wealthy and give them a better life.  Indeed, I have to ask, is the implementation of these reforms contained in Engaging Schools producing false hopes in students that academic achievement and college are tickets to a meaningful life?

Indeed, it goes beyond standards and strikes to the core of why we teach.  What is our mission?  To see the students succeed, one would assume, especially while reading Engaging Schools.  However, there is a subtle subtext running throughout the book that seems to interpret academic achievement as providing a way to be successful in life.  The constant need to motivate students is countered by the bevy of assessments with which teachers inundate their students.

I'm reminded of Shamus Young's online "Autoblography" where he writes

“Just make sure to do all the work, and you will pass my class.”

"My heart sinks. I hate when teachers say this. It means the bulk of our grade will come from doing things, not from knowing things. It’s the first day of tenth grade, I’m sixteen years old, and I’m hearing this a lot today. Some teachers even go so far as to grade the notes we take in class. This is infuriating to me. In the past I saw school as this perfectly arbitrary trial of mysterious activities. Now I see it as a house of incompetents. Our goal is ostensibly to learn things, but the system of rewards and incentives is often completely divorced from this idea, and sometimes even runs counter to it. 

"If we think of grades as “pay”, then we aren’t being paid to learn. We’re being paid to turn out volumes of worthless forgettable busy work."
Indeed, I fear that the attempts to engage students actually fail because our consistent reliance upon assessment and its equation to achievement and success.

We've already set up a generation of people who have been lied to by their teachers about good grades and success.  The more I speak with many of my fellow Gen X'ers in fields outside of academia, the more I am inundated with statements like, "I didn't learn anything in school," "School was worthless and a waste of time," "School was bullshit," or "Yeah, I learned how to be a student, that's all."  Those who went to college felt as though that was the first time they were able to actually learn something and the point was driven home by the fact that during a single semester, they had two or three assessments and nothing more.  They either passed or failed.  It was actually liberating for some of them.

So what do we have?  A book written by a committee.  The product of bureaucracy and reads as such.  I have little faith in it thus far--Marc Bloch was wrong when he said the bureaucratic mind was the highest form of intelligence.  This committee begins its book with a report on findings and a list of recommendations.  To what end?  What is achievement to produce?  The committee's language in the "Executive Summary" is vague and full of Orwellian doublespeak.

In my interpretation, we are to compete with the Asian schools that are producing competitive workers, scientists, engineers, businesspeople.  It is no secret that schools are pushing math and science to the detriment of the humanities.  History and English teachers aren't nearly as sought-after as math or science teachers.  Meanwhile, we forget that those students are also taught to read and write effectively in their schools.  We are not.

And so we pump out graduates who go to college as if it is the entire goal of education.  This is the teachers' greatest failure.  Education is not, never was, and should never be, simply a vehicle for success.  The fruits of our labor have resulted in apathy among those who know they aren't college material and the unemployment line coupled with staggering debt for those who are.  Why should our students thank us?

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly describes how a single principal overhauled one of the worst schools in Staten Island and made it a success story by teaching analytical writing to students.  Math and science scores improved substantially--a rising tide floats all boats and our disinterest in the humanities have led to student engagement and achievement at a low ebb.

The ability to write effectively means these kids can think effectively.  Engagement in New Dorp High School increased because the students realized that they were capable of achievement, comprehended material better, and therefore had a greater stake in what they were learning.  It started to matter.

The ability to write effectively also means that adults can think effectively.  And this should be the goal of education--a populace that is aware, knowledgeable, and able to think analytically, critically, and creatively.  Sadly, rubrics don't leave room for kids who can think outside the box--rubrics are, themselves, a box.  Furthermore, the goal of education should not be to enrich students' wallets but their lives.  A student who gets straight Cs can still grow up to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society be he a manager at a store, a car mechanic, or owns his own plumbing business.  Somewhere along the line, we gave our kids this idea that hard work and an honest living were inferior to a college degree and

I don't want to engage my students because I think it will help them score high on tests and get them into college.  Indeed, I honestly couldn't care less about any tests, assessments, or colleges.  I care that they learn because I believe what I have to teach them will enrich their minds, help make them better decision-makers, informed voters, and give them a stake in their society and community.  I believe that a car mechanic can be just as important a pillar of his community as a CEO.

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