Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Five 21st century ways to eliminate the achievement gap (vs. one 20th century way)

1. Tell teachers to arrange students into heterogeneous-ability groups, assign most work to the group as a whole, and give everyone in the group the same grade on this work.

Justify this by saying that this is how things work in the collaborative, 21st century work place.

Justify this to teachers in particular by pointing out how much it reduces the amount of grading they must do.

2. Tell teachers (and educational testing companies) to minimize the cognitive and traditional academic challenge in the various assignments/assessments so that most kids ceiling out on these measures and earn more or less the same number of points on them.

Justify this by saying that in today's world, where you can look everything up on the Internet, and where more and more of the computational and analytical work is done by calculators and computers and technicians in Asia, knowledge and computational/analytical skills matter less and less.

3. Tell teachers to maximize (in the various assignments/assessments) factors based on inherent personality traits like extraversion and sociability ("makes appropriate eye contact;" "engages the audience") and other subjective factors like creativity and outside-the-box thinking ("takes risks;" "shows innovation;" "includes colorful, pleasing illustrations")--where the skills/traits involved are fairly evenly distributed across the academic spectrum. Give these factors an aura of objectivity by making them the headers of columns in quantitative-looking assessment grids called "rubrics."

Justify this first by saying that, since computational/analytical skills matter less and less in the 21st century workplace, creativity and interpersonal skills matter more and more.

Justify this also by touting the inherent virtues of allowing the "type of student" who wouldn't have thrived under traditional measures to shine as never before.

4. Subtly incentivize teachers to use appropriate discretion in assessing the more subjective factors so as to boost the scores specifically of those whom traditional measures might deem the "weaker" of the students.

5. When these erstwhile "weaker" students later fail to thrive in the real, 21st century world, blame it on poverty, prejudice, and the chronic under-funding of public schools, and say that such outcomes are therefore beyond the schools' control.

Looking beyond the "stakeholders" of the 21st century educational-industrial complex, one finds more promising, outside-the-box, 20th century ideas about eliminating the achievement gap. Take linguist John McWhorter, an increasingly prominent spokesperson for disadvantaged children. In an article he wrote for the New Republic over 6 years ago, he reminds all of us about Project Follow-Through:

A solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago. Starting in the late 1960s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation, Project Follow Through, that compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones. DI isn't exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.
In a half-day preschool in Champaign-Urbana they founded, Engelmann and associates found that DI teaches four-year-olds to understand sounds, syllables, and rhyming. Its students went on to kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, with their mean IQ having jumped 25 points. In the 70s and 80s, similar results came from nine other sites nationwide, and since then, the evidence of DI's effectiveness has been overwhelming, raising students' reading scores in schools in Baltimore, Houston, Milwaukee, and other districts. A search for an occasion where DI was instituted and failed to improve students' reading performance would be distinctly frustrating.
...schools of education have long been caught up in an idea that teaching poor kids to read requires something more than, well, teaching them how to sound out words. The poor child, the good-thinking wisdom tells us, needs tutti-frutti approaches bringing in music, rhythm, narrative, Ebonics, and so on. Distracted by the hardships in their home lives, surely they cannot be reached by just laying out the facts. That can only work for coddled children of doctors and lawyers.
But the simple fact of how well DI has worked shows that "creativity" is not what poor kids need. At the Champaign-Urbana preschool, the kids--poor kids, recall, and not many who were white--had a jolly old time with DI, especially when they found that it was (hey!) teaching them to read.
McWhorter was talking, specifically, about the reading gap. But Direct Instruction's efficacy is seen in all subjects, and performance in all subjects, of course, is partly a function of reading skills.

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