Monday, February 27, 2012

Education: "What We Want Is for People Is to Be Able to Problem Solve"

So, I spent some of this weekend catching up on "The Daily Show" episodes with Jon Stewart (thank goodness for DVR!). I finally had time to watch the Arne Duncan/Jon Stewart interview from February 16. And...have to say, not impressed. With Arne that is. Jon of course was his usual hilarious, well-versed self, trying to get a answers from someone who clearly wanted to just spout political-speak but not really provide any real solution or answers.

Here is the 7-minute clip that aired.
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Exclusive - Arne Duncan Extended Interview Pt. 1
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The more interesting conversation occurred after, in the 'extended interview' not aired on TV, but available online. Here is a link that will take you to the full episode, where from 20:35-32:00 you can catch the 'rest of the story', to quote Paul Harvey:

What Jon Stewart attempted, throughout the entire interview, was to get Arne Duncan to address the concern of teachers that just as with NCLB, Race to the Top is really not improving education, but in fact it is continuing the problem of 'teaching to the test' and stifling creativity.The reason being that the infrastructure that has been put in place in order to qualify for this grant money forces the teachers and schools to teach to the test. Mr. Duncan said he agreed with this, but that RTT was trying to fix the problems of NCLB. A confusing answer I think?

My favorite part of the interview (in the extended version) was Jon Stewart's response to Arne Duncan's explanation about the Common Core State Standards, adopted by 46 of the states. 
 Mr. Duncan said "...For the first time in the history of our country, a child in Massachusetts, which is very high achieving, and a child in Mississippi, which is lower achieving, they're going to be measured by the same yard stick.  That's a big, big deal"
Jon Stewart's reply:  "But I guess the point that right? What's the yard stick and how do you design that? I guess my point is, standardized testing, we're all sort of accustomed to this idea of the SAT's, and I'm not saying there shouldn't be accountability and there shouldn't be standardized testing, but, it feels like we've lost what the goal is for education. If the goal is we want you to be college ready, that seems like a low bar. Because what we want is for people to be able to problem solve"
To which Mr. Duncan immediately piped up: "To problem solve, to be creative, for people to be able to work in a diverse group, and I think we have to work on all those skills." 
Jon Stewart: "But to do that we've handed them a worksheet and said you need to learn how to fill this out.  And everyone said, if we don't learn how to fill this out, then we won't get any money So let's take everything out of education except this worksheet and so it has had the opposite effect"
Basically, even though RTT and these standards are saying that we are going to educate students to be more creative, to be problem solvers, to work together, yet, we are going to assess in a way that actually stifles all those standards. We are going to judge you in a way that forces you to focus on the menial and basics, not the broader aspects of learning, which are creativity and problem solving. Mr. Duncan however didn't have a real response to this - just more rhetoric.

It seems that Mr. Duncan spent his time saying what people want to hear, spouting the wonders of Race to the Top without ever acknowledging the flaws and restrictions that are continuing to stymie true innovation and change in education. We never really get more than the political speak from Duncan - how money is being invested at the state, district and local level to create initiatives, how investment in teachers and teacher education is going to make a difference. I am not sure I believe any of it, maybe because I see more of what Stewart talked about than what Duncan talked about, meaning the teaching to the test, the blaming of the teachers for low scores, the disengagement of teachers and students.

It would be wonderful to believe Mr. Duncan when he says "We have to stop focusing on the absolute score, we have to look at growth and gain, how much are students improving....I'm much more interested in longer term outcomes". If this were truly part of assessing teachers and schools, then that would mean there would be a focus on taking the time to do things right - focus on understanding, not memorizing, focus on critical thinking and problem solving, not regurgitating answers...real learning, real education. It's hard not to teach to the test if the goal is test scores must go up and you must reach an arbitrary score by the end of the year.  If the goal instead is to show that your students have shown growth and gains from where they were last year, then the focus becomes the student, not the test, and isn't THAT what education is suppose to be about?!

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