This should be pretty straightforward. There’s only so much to say about a research report that takes the word of eighth graders as a means of assessing the appropriate 'rigor' and quantity of work given to them by their school. Hang on, I’ve got to catch my breath. Not from laughing, but from having the wind knocked out of me just imagining that some organization funded this with actual, real money. In this case the Center for American Progress, an organization whose reports on education often seem to interpret data with the lens of a predetermined agenda. At least the few times I’ve read them. It could be a fluke. Uh huh, could be.
In this report, Do Schools Challenge Our Students?, the authors rely on survey responses collected from elementary school to high school students regarding perceptions of school work. The surveys were “low stakes”, which means the outcomes did not affect kids one bit. And if you know kids, you know that’s a death knell for focus and personal investment. Why put credence into student opinions? The report asserts it's relevance by citing findings from the Gates Foundation that student feedback is a better predictor of a teacher’s performance than the level of degree she holds. I could have told them that over coffee. This is all part of the “mounting evidence” that shows the importance student surveys will play in shaping policy. Yikes.
Diane Ravitch, who continues to breathe life into my hope that educational discussions can move outside of the realm of empty, publicity-seeking rhetoric, took a critical look at the data analysis in this report with the input of a top Penn State researcher. To paraphrase Ms. Ravitch: the report is a bunch of conclusions in search of supporting data. Perhaps student surveys are meaningful markers of something. Just not these surveys.
And here are the conclusions that have everyone talking:
Many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is “too easy.” I have worked in every grade level from kinder to 12th and on into adult school. I have worked in private schools, urban schools, middle class schools and in a school on skid row. I have worked with kids with learning problems, with gifted kids, with ESL kids and with the “average kids” who claim they are bored by anemic assignments that are too “easy". Apart from a few dire, whispered confidences, I can’t remember the last time a high school student told me from the outset that the work was too hard. The only students who get honest fast are the adults who know there’s no point in hiding. The report data shows there's no real difference in students' assessment of ‘ease’ amongst courses and, therefore, it's the same story no matter who is being asked. Kids in Algebra II say it's easy just as kids do in remedial math class. This is a finding with which I concur. Most teens, from those with a third grade reading level to kids in four AP classes, tell me it is easy. And then they ask to come to my office during conference hours for help.
All children want to save face. From second grade on, they are keenly aware of who they are academically vis-a-vis their peers, their parents’ expectations, and the tests given in school. It is so much easier for them to say, 'I’m lazy', 'I forgot', or 'I was bored', instead of saying 'I don’t get it' and risk looking stupid. My own eighth grader routinely tells me how easy her work is. And yet, she does not have straight A’s. In fact every day I check in with her and every day her assignments are 'easy'. When I review her work, it is not uncommon for me to see that her ‘easy’ work is: a) not done completely, b) not done correctly or c) not done with any thought. Doing something half-assed is always easy--as witnessed by the conclusions drawn in this report.
The obvious question is: how do kids who assess their work as easy perform on the state tests? Not so great, about the same as kids who say the work is hard. Oh, the disconnect. The authors offer two explanations, first by pointing to gaps between lessons in the classroom and the test questions. And second, by indicating that kids do poorly on state tests "because they're not challenged in school." Wait, are they actually saying if everything was harder, everyone would score better? Huh. Perhaps kids do poorly because state academic achievement tests are the most boring assessment instruments known to man. And as the report claims, these kids need more excitement.
Many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities. What makes a learning activity rigorous? This goes unanswered. 'Rigorous' is another undefined, sounds good, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it criteria that floats through lots of educational recommendations. The report doesn’t describe rigor -- most don’t --but it is fair to guess that the authors would define it as work that finally results in the use of the adjective 'hard'. Because again, that means something. Bottom line: rigor seems to equal more work and harder work. In fact, the report claims that the image of the American student overburdened with homework is a myth. Perhaps that is a myth you believe because it is actually sitting at your kitchen table right now in the form of your teenager trying to get through the work from the 11th grade. Regardless, their answer to increasing rigor seems to be more homework. This goes against a number of studies, such as one by Stanford professor, Denise Pope or Duke University professor, Harris Cooper. All I can say is: Get your stories straight, liberal education reformers. I can’t keep up!
Students don’t have access to key science and technology learning opportunities. The report states 72 percent of eighth grade science students say they aren't being taught technology and engineering. I don’t know about you, but I've never been taught engineering. Maybe this statistic is a problem of definition or maybe by lumping those terms together the results are a little skewed, as in: Do you frequently visit the park and Paris?
Most eighth grade students already know power point, twitter, garage band, and iMovie -- I just wish they had better keyboarding skills. And my reference point is kids from Pico Union; if kids live in San Marino, they probably know more. But since that kind of technology doesn't send anyone to space, it apparently doesn’t count.
Too many students don’t understand their teacher’s questions and report that they are not learning during class. There are many ways to interpret what is being said here, but no one does so I’ll take my best guess. Students are bored, so they don’t understand the teacher or maybe they don’t understand the teacher, so they are bored. Either way, I am in favor of checking for understanding in smart, meaningful ways. I am also in favor of exciting education, but kids are hard to keep up with in this area. Their bar is always rising. Increasing technology in the classroom can’t turn a lesson into a Nintendo game. That seems to be what they are waiting for. As parents know, many kids don’t 'engage' in much unless it is based in fun technology (you know, the kind that doesn’t involve engineering).
I, too, like to be interested in what I learn, but there is something to be said for persevering through a little boredom in order to reach the other side of accomplishment. Kids today are so used to fast-paced, fast-cut entertainment, they want an editing button on the dissemination of ideas. Just wait until they get into a four hour lecture course in college, completely unprepared to listen and suffer a little boredom all at the same time. Maybe that’s one of the many reasons over 50% of the kids who enter a four year school never finish. Dear Mom, Dad and the Federal Government: say goodbye to your hard earned tuition dollars, I'm bored.
Students from disadvantaged background are less likely to have access to more rigorous learning opportunities. This is defined completely by saying that poorer students don’t understand their teachers’ instruction as well as the richer kids. Who knew?! Everyone. Extensive (real) research shows over and over that low socio-economic status is highly correlated to poor language development due to the amount and quality of communication in the home from birth -- the so-called 32 million word gap. The ongoing, multi-level impact of poverty on a huge portion of kids in this country should not be under-examined or under-emphasized. And yet this report does just that. Read the facts about the effects of poverty from the National Center on Child Poverty and some excellent research from Princeton.
Those are the conclusions. The recommendations? Just as facile. Common Core standards are offered as an answer to increasing rigor, without really giving reasons why these new standards will be the magic shot in the arm of curriculum that the current standards have not been. They also offer up revamped teacher evaluations (de rigueur) and a call for a teacher ethos of always seeking improvement (back at ya!). The authors go on to restate their findings in the final paragraph of their widely read summary, punctuating it all with a call to dissatisfaction. “Too many students report not being engaged…They don’t understand what their teachers are teaching….Our nation can—and should—do more.”
This would be insulting, if it weren’t right. Our nation can --and should-- do more. Starting with creating reports that have substantive, actionable, supported recommendations that do not give vague answers that sound good and mean nothing. Yeah, we should do more. We should not be afraid to increase the rigor and challenge of everyone’s lives by telling parents that they have a major responsibility to participate in this process, to talk to kids, to take away their game sets and the crappy reality TV. Hey, parents, take your kids to a museum. Discuss current events with them and I don’t mean the news about Katie, Tom and Suri. In the process, 'engage' kids in some meaningful, necessary, boring activity so they can see what grown up life is like at least 40% of the time. And what college is like, too, for that matter. I know these recommendations can’t be legislated, but someone needs to at least say it.
Mostly our nation can--and should --do something about the number of children living in poverty. If you want to change education and the future of this country, you have to start with that -- in the research reports, in the recommendations, in the legislature. I know it is more complicated than, say, making assignments hard, implementing common core standards or changing teacher evaluations. But someone needs to start by at least saying it. So I will, even if this report does not.