Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ya Gotta Love the Numbers!

Bernie Madoff was once a respected businessman.
In fact, he was once the chair of Nasdaq.  
It was his earlier reputation which shielded him from the kind of scrutiny that would have quickly exposed his scandalous Ponzi scheme where he duped his investors into believing that money was being made when, in fact, nothing had been invested at all.
In his defense, Madoff claims that the pressure to show quarterly gains led him to fake the billions he assured his clients they were earning.
A lame excuse, but at least it acknowledges how human behavior can be manipulated by the rules.
I see parallels in our current emphasis on proving student growth by distilling learning to sets of numbers.  Though we like to think that numbers don't lie, when personal fortune rises and falls with the numbers, it is a sure bet that some of those numbers will lead the public into a false sense of security that "Our children is learning."
Here's an example:
The math scores in one building were not showing gains.  The solution: at the halfway mark of the year, take all the students who are not showing learning gains (i.e. they are failing) out of the course.  Create a new course that repeats the first semester.  By renaming the course, these students do not have to sit for the spring state tests until much later.
Result: Big jump in scores that year because only students who are adequately prepared take the test.
Well, you say, what is wrong with that?  The students who aren't ready are given the opportunity to relearn the material, aren't they?  The scores jump. The school is no longer 'failing.' Our children IS learning!
Here's where I take issue with scores as a representation of true progress and gains in student learning.
Like Inigo Montoya says to the Sicilian genius Vizzini in Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. ['Inconceivable' for Vizzini. 'Learning' for the rest of us.] I do not think it means what you think it means."
Scores did jump, but it was a deception played on the public.  Nothing was essentially changed except slowing the pace of instruction for some students.  As a result, many who struggle with math are doomed to repeat the same material presented in the same manner, or are subjected to mind-numbing drills designed to prepare them to pass the test.
True reform would exhibit itself in helping teachers locate new ways to engage students who struggle.  And there ARE new strategies out there.  But it would take time for teachers to re-think, re-learn, re-tool an entire course.  No time and resources were part of the scenario described above.
It would mean spending money on professional development for teachers, helping them help students find a way into and through the math puzzle.  No money for that.
But enormous pressure, along with piles of money spent on the bubble tests, must show immediate progress or heads are going to roll.  Desperate people do desperate things.
YOU do the math.
So, what happens to students who must sit through math again?
I envision my recurring nightmare: I have missed a course in high school and they drag me out of my current life, back to my old school to take the WHOLE YEAR OVER AGAIN.  In the dream I am panicked and disheartened.  My whole life is disrupted and, on top of all that, it's boring me to death because I know I can do the work in a week!  But they won't let me!  I would drop out, but I know it would be the death of all my hopes.  The whole dream is bathed in an overwhelming feeling of asphyxiation.  I can barely breathe and wake up in a sweat.
Well...  Some of our kids do drop out, anxious to get on with some kind of life outside of school. Who can blame them?
Our current love of data extends beyond those we consider left behind.  Students in upper-level courses are distracted by numbers represented in SAT scores and fall into a single-minded obsession with high grades in order to compete for colleges.  It perverts their thinking.  And -guess what?- sometimes they cheat.
Just like Bernie Madoff.

Should we hold teachers (well, the whole system, really) accountable?  You betcha.
How can we do it in a way that honors both teaching and learning?  
Some teachers have made suggestions.  Check out this plan formulated by the teachers in the workforce and a part of the Teacher Leaders Network.
Let's get honest about what we are hoping to do and be sure that everything is being measured - including our support for true learning.