Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How far does a Constructivist education get you? Getting by via google, cut & paste, guess & check, and b.s.-ing the rest

Catherine Johnson recently put up on kitchentablemath one of the most concerning blog posts I've seen in a while. It's mostly a testimonial from palisadesk, who has spent some time field-testing recent K12 assessments, and who has noted that many of them are contrived to favor students who've undergone Constructivist curricula like Reform Math, balanced literacy, and Lucy Calkins' style writer's workshop (complete with journaling, personal reflections and peer editing), as opposed to students who've had traditional math, phonics, and grammar-focused, teacher-directed writing instruction.

As palisadesk reports:

Unfortunately, it is true that using Lucy Calkins' methods can raise test scores, due to the design of the current generation of "authentic assessments" (aka holistic assessment, standards-based assessment, performance assessment). I know several schools (including my own) where test scores rose substantially when they STOPPED doing systematic synthetic phonics and moved to a workshop model instead.
How can this be? As Catherine Johnson notes, "somehow I had assumed that, basics being basic, absence of basics would make any test hard to pass." But palisadesk observes that:
It's really not all that unbelievable, if you consider how the testing has changed. Schools used to use norm-referenced measures (like the IOWA, the
CTBS, Metropolitan Achievement Test, etc.) which also have definite limitations, but different ones.

Once they replaced those (as many states have done) with "constructed-response" item tests, variously known as 
performance assessments, holistic assessments, standards-based assessments 
and so on, a more fuzzy teaching approach also yielded benefits. These open-response items are usually scored on a rubric basis, based on anchor 
papers or exemplars, according to certain criteria for reasoning, conventions of print, organization, and so forth. These are variously weighted, but specifics like sentence structure, spelling, grammar,
 paragraph structure etc. generally carry less weight than such things as
"providing two details from the selection to support your argument."

The open responses often mimic journal writing -- it is personal in tone, calls for the student to express an opinion, and many elements of what we would call good writing (or correct reading) count for little or even nothing.

Some of this may have to do with how instructional time is allocated:
[A] school where I worked implemented good early reading instruction with a strong decoding base (and not minimizing good literature, either),
but saw its scores on the tests go down almost 25%. I think the reason
for that is that teaching children to write all this rubbish for the "holistic assessments" is very time consuming, and if you spent your instructional time teaching the basic skills -- which aren't of much value on these tests -- your kids will do poorly.

So much for language arts. And math?
The same is true in math. A local very exclusive private school which is famous for its high academic achievement recently switched from traditional math to Everyday Math and saw its test scores soar on these assessments (probably not on norm-referenced measures, but they aren't saying).
Several commenters provide additional insights. Glen writes:
I've seen this issue in multiple domains, where people seemed to do just fine without much foundation underneath their skills. I'm still often surprised by how many professional programmers are former English majors who can't divide 1/4 by 2/3 to save their lives but seem to do fine at their programming jobs. They learn how to use the systems they work with and do similar tasks over and over, occasionally googling for some online code samples, which they modify for their purposes. It mostly works, and I find myself having to stretch uncomfortably, and often unsuccessfully, to come up with examples of why their lack of what I consider foundational skills matters in the "real world."
Citing foreign language, Glen says:
I've had several interesting experiences with people who had just learned by communicating ("the modern, natural way") and seemed like near natives in proficiency but whose apparent nativeness collapsed surprisingly when something forced them out of their well-practiced comfort zones. But they really did quite well in daily life.
This reminds me of what David Sedaris has written about learning Japanese through Pimsleur. :
Instead of being provided with building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you're left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, "There is a bank in front of the train station,"or, "Mrs. Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years."
Or, in the case of Sedaris and his cab driver:
I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,” I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.
Back to Glen:
I wish there were an easy and persuasive demonstration of the value of building up from foundational knowledge and skills, but people who go right to the task at hand rather than building up to it can be surprisingly successful. Tests that evaluate their "real world" abilities can find them quite competent, and tests that challenge their foundational skills can easily be derided as "artificial."
To this, Magister Green adds:
Unfortunately what this approach has to lead to, ultimately, is a complete ossification of society. Lacking a command of the basics must lead to a lack of ability to deal with novel situations, situations in which one's pre-fabricated responses are inadequate. As such I fail to see how innovation can continue, beyond those ever-so-few geniuses who do understand the basics and thus can see beyond the immediate into the potential.

Teaching the basics is hard, and testing for them is even harder since you often can't test for the basic concept itself but rather are testing for evidence that understanding of the basic concept exists.

So long as nothing in our world ever changes or otherwise requires anyone to work beyond their pre-determined zone of competence, testing and teaching of this sort will do just fine. The depressing thing is that your average medieval peasant had a more thorough and basic education than our kids will receive under this new system.
SteveH and Allison address math scores in particular. SteveH notes:
If you give enough partial credit in math, you can get an 'A' without ever getting one problem correct.
And Allison writes:
Our state (MN) tests have constructed responses too, and again, Everyday Math did better on some scores of some of those tests because now students are given credit for "explaining their thinking". in words. The ELL kids got hammered.

but you can only fake reality for so long. Sooner or later, someone wants you to actually know something, not solve-by-google.
SATVerbalTutor brings up the standardized college admissions tests:
Even on the SAT, it's perfectly possible to score very well on the essay without having anywhere near mastered the basic conventions of correct writing. (If you're curious, go on College Confidential and read some of the "12" essays that people have posted -- they're utterly horrifying).

Even the French AP has been revamped to focus more on holistic "real world" skills; the grammar-based format of the old test was apparently just too hard. The result is that kids can bullshit their way through, and even ones who have no real understanding of the language can pass.
However, as SATVerbalTutor notes, this strategy doesn't seem to work on the Critical Reading section of the SAT:
You see a lot of kids who can score super-high in Math and Writing and then just fall down on CR. They can memorize formulas and apply them to a certain point, but when so many elements are in play at once, they're in way over their heads. Very often these kids will complain that they get down to two answers "but always guess the wrong one" when in fact they have no real understanding of what the passage was actually saying (as evidenced by the fact that one of the answers is exactly the *opposite* of the point of the passage).
Which is perhaps why, when the SAT was recentered in 1995, it was especially the Verbal Reasoning is (now the "Critical Reading") test whose scores were boosted, for most scores by around 60-70 points out of a possible 800. Perhaps another recentering is close at hand.

Even with the recentering, it's crucial to have SATs and the ACTs around as normed tests that nearly all college-bound students end up taking. And, given that there must be a strong temptation for each testing company to change with the Constructivist, "constructive response" times, it's also crucial for the two companies to be competing with one another. Unless both go Constructivist simultaneously, the brightest students can flock to whichever one holds out.

Returning to math, we now have a world-famous scientist arguing in the Wall Street Journal that math skills aren't that important for science (except, he concedes, for "most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology"):
When something new is encountered [in science], the follow-up steps usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward. If that step proves too technically difficult for the person who made the discovery, a mathematician or statistician can be added as a collaborator.
If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have.
For every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.
(A critical response to Wilson's article in Slate notes that some of Wilson's peers have found a decisive lack of excellence in his own recent research on group selection, in particular a possible error in the underlying math.)

To some extent, you can get by in this 21st century world with a Constructivist education. Solve by google, read via key-word searches, answer questions via cut and paste (a high-tech version of the sort of regurgitation that Constructivists claim to abhor), "program" software via cut and paste, do math by guess & check and plug & chug, and, when you need to produce decent writing or do real math, hire a ghost writer or a mathematician to do it for you.

But what if you need to critically read? or critically think? Or understand the complex legalese of the tax code, the fine print, and life and death jury instructions?  Or come up with a new, complex thought all by yourself? And what if your society as a whole needs more than a few elite scribes and problem solvers and idea generators to maintain its place in the modern age?


Anonymous said...

A constructed response item is just an essay question. Also, do you really believe it is possible to answer an essay question citing two sources of evidence from a text and not be able to decode?

MagisterGreen said...

"Also, do you really believe it is possible to answer an essay question citing two sources of evidence from a text and not be able to decode?"

Given what I see, yes.

Joy Pullmann said...

Thank you for highlighting this. I have wondered about this for some time. I would appreciate future posts exploring this further.