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Speaking of Education

August 16, 2010

The words we choose provide a window into our underlying beliefs.  As we approach the end of a summer of educational discontent, I find myself disheartened by much of what I read and hear in education policy discussion and debates.  I would like to assume that people I disagree with on educational policy would still agree with me on core educational values – about the importance of education, and the idea that there is more to life than test scores.  I would like to assume that if we could sit down and have a calm, reasoned, extended discussion about students and schools and teachers, that we would agree much more than we disagree about what really matters.

The problem I see is that when we end up talking about Education with a capital E, much of what we agree upon can be subsumed in rhetoric and data that emphasize our differences.  Our debates involve word choices that reveal fundamentally different assumptions about children and education.  So while I expect that our core values are similar and our policy ideas differ, there’s a middle, connecting point that is missing.  When we move from values to policies, we reveal our assumptions about how teaching and learning occur, or should occur.

Here are just a few examples of how language lets us down.

Student achievement – are test scores really achievement?  Are they even indicators of “achievement” in any way that matters?  Among other statistics in education debates, high school graduation might be an achievement.  When I think about achievement for my students or my own children, I promise you that standardized test scores have absolutely nothing to do with it, and graduation is too far off.  The achievements that interest me come from students learning and applying skills in engaging, challenging, authentic ways.  If you’re a parent, think about the most impressive work your children bring home from school.  Think about the presentations and projects that lit a spark in their minds.  Or remember your own best learning experiences, something you didn’t know for sure you could do when you started, but you put in hours of effort and it didn’t even feel like work because you were in “the flow” – and then you discovered something new about yourself, about your capacity to learn, work, and contribute.  That’s student achievement.

Student outcomes – again, in the worst cases, people say outcomes and they just mean scores.  Then there are outcomes like graduating or dropping out – very real and important, but very broad categories.  College matriculation is an outcome of some interest, but only applicable to education conversations focused on one end of the K-12 spectrum.  The outcomes that interest me even more have to do with student skills and dispositions.  The skills I teach barely overlap with anything on a state test, but I still focus on outcomes like the students’ abilities to listen, speak, and write.  Paying attention to important research about learning, I care about outcomes like students developing a growth mindset (Carol Dweck),  intrinsic motivation (Daniel Pink), and a set of 21st century skills (Trilling and Fadel) that go far beyond the basics covered on tests.

Value-added – this term comes from a mathematical, statistical model, but it’s seeping into common education parlance in a frightening way.  We are confusing mathematical value with human values.  I happened to be pretty skilled in all the testable ways up until fourth grade, but I have no positive memories of school in those years.  I doubt very much that there was a lot of room for “value-added” growth in my fifth and sixth grade test scores.  However, in those years, I had a pair of teachers – in a Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school – who added value to my life.  Please pause for a moment and consider that phrase – value to my life.  They made me feel welcome and safe in a new environment, gave me choices and challenges that made learning fun, and helped me find myself just in time, before heading off to secondary school.  You can’t measure that, and every day that we spend obssessing over the value we can measure, we compromise the values we should cling to and fight for.

Status quo – this summer, and this year in particular, I have been accused of supporting the status quo.  They keep saying it over and over again, so it must be true.  Funny, because I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to change the society I live in, trying to improve students lives and the educational system in which we operate.  It doesn’t feel like I’m embracing the status quo when I spend every day trying to create change.  But according to President Obama, Arne Duncan, and the reformers who embrace their agenda, I can only earn my “Status-Quo-Buster” badge by agreeing with their ideas.  These men came into office talking about working with teachers, and now, not only do most of us feel disappointment in their policies, but also insulted by their rhetoric.  And those of us who have serious and legitimate doubts about their policies, backed up by vast experience and research – including not only teachers, but also parents, churches, civil rights groups – are met with accusations rather than respect.

I do believe in the good intentions of those I disagree with, and I don’t expect education policies to align perfectly with my desires.  But in that middle ground where the debates occur and we try to move from core values to policy details, there’s a problem when we use terms and language that reveal a gap in our understandings and expectations for children, schools, and learning.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010 1:35 pm

    Very thoughtfully worded. I agree. As educators we have all been battered by the education debate this summer. It has been equally disheartening for me to have the Obama administration dismiss my disagreement with their policy as “satisfaction with the status quo” and “a general resistance to change.” But so far this administration has shown no signs of trying to meet educators on the middle ground. Instead, they seek ways to deflect our criticisms rather than take them seriously. As the Washington Post Op Ed put it yesterday, “President Obama has been a bully.” He is literally shoving a reform agenda down the throats of every educator in this country.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 16, 2010 3:32 pm

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, John. The next question then is how do we shift the debate. It seems to me that we have to start talking to parents and community more, and I’ll be trying to do that locally. As a broader educational community, we have to expand our audience. The administration seems utterly deaf to our arguments, and oblivious regarding research that would deflate some of the core tenets of their program. Parents, businesses, and higher education need to know that we share their concerns about students, and they need to understand that the Obama-Duncan program will move school systems towards less creative, less engaging, less innovative and less effective preparation of our students.

  2. Ryan permalink
    August 17, 2010 12:13 pm

    Great post, David. This summer I’ve become addicted to education blogs as I’ve needed them to reassure myself that there are other sane people out there fighting the good fight. I am very excited about the prospect of starting my 12th year as a teacher but I have never been more depressed about the prevailing memes on teachers, public schools, and “achievement” than I am right now. Keep up the good work and have a splendid start to the school year.


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