Testing Our Tests

In the last post, I discussed funding – or the lack thereof – that presents serious issues for public schools across the country. For my final post, I’ve decided to close out by discussing the very nature of our own education system. While various scholars kick around different ideas about where education truly took off in this country, I’ll first provide a brief background, and then go on to discuss our system relative to others around the globe.

Traditionally, several scholars agree that our system began with John Dewey, a philosopher and educational reformer with tremendous influence in the 20th century. Dewey provided several quotes and various works regarding the very definition of education, perhaps the most profound being, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” More about Dewey can be found here.

Dewey was one that believed in the value of experience, critical thinking, and hands on learning. He sought to suit the classroom experience to the interests of those in it, which earned him a lot of pushback in the 1950’s, when many associated his thoughts to those of communism. In fact, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Dewey’s system came under fire for students not excelling in the “correct subjects.”

Thus, we come around to the indirect conception of standards in our classrooms. The 1960’s saw a huge new push of achievement tests, with the weight gradually increasing as the global economy saw these as the ideal way to measure a given school’s production of a skilled workforce. Yet, as we discussed in the first post, standards have a way of harming those in the lower classes. Thus, our scores and our workforce looked decent on paper, but in reality, still lacked several components.

If we make the transition to today’s schools, though, our circumstances don’t seem all that different. With standardized tests becoming more crucial than ever – at the state level and for college acceptance – those without the adequate preparation to succeed are underwhelming on paper and left hang to dry until they can up their score. This all started in 1845, when educational titan Horace Mann proposed written tests instead of oral tests so that the “best teaching methods could be replicated and children could have equal opportunities.”

Now, according to several students and teachers, this is probably the spearhead of the movement behind measuring raw intelligence via tests. High school students across the country complain about scores, scores, scores, because they know that if they aren’t high enough, then they won’t hear the “yes” from their top schools. Test scores of all shapes and sizes seem to mean more and more today, detracting from the originally holistic, enlightened American education system envisioned by Dewey.

Yet, there are certainly benefits to this standardized deviation from the norm. For those from the same socioeconomic backgrounds, many argue that there are few better measures of qualification. Further, standardized tests do incredible work in terms of measuring the ability of teachers, as results directly reflect how the students were taught. Major standardized tests also foster prioritization in students.

Still though, many agree that standardized tests do more harm than good. As mentioned, socioeconomic backgrounds are not well considered when scores are released, exacerbating the plight of the disadvantaged. Some schools also resort exclusively to test scores to measure the quality of their teachers. But perhaps worst of all is the fact that more time is spent in the classroom preparing for tests than learning tangible, practical, long-lasting information. This leaves our students as half-capable test robots but deprives them of skills like real analysis and critical thinking.

Thus, the fundamental nature of our education has transformed from a system centered around classroom experience, the ability to think, and hands on learning. Standards may very well be eroding our school system and our definition of intelligence as we know it. With opportunity still not equal and the standards multiplying in both number and difficulty, our way of life is once again placed in the spotlight. Will facilitating the role of bureaucratic agencies catch up with us in the long run? Or will we continue to produce test bots capable of doing nothing but the standardized tasks that they’re assigned? Time will tell.


Image result for standardized testing Sources:



There’s Nothing Fun about FUNding

Classroom in Edgewood ISD, San Antonio, Texas, in 2010. Photo by Bob Daemmrich

In the week leading up to spring break, I certainly attended my fair share of deliberations. Among the rest, two of these stood out to be the most: those on sexual education and disparities in public school districts. I’d like to examine the latter this week, examining solutions for issues like funding and teacher placement. This will include solutions proposed at the deliberation, many of which happen to be held by journalists and educators alike.

Let’s begin by talking about funding. Breaking news: some public school districts have many more resources than others. An immediate example that comes to mind is my school district, Parkland, which lies just outside of its center-city Allentown counterparts. Parkland has a higher median income, more AP classes, more qualified teachers, and no damaged infrastructure. Those in center city have a lower median income, less AP’s, and a higher teacher turnover rate. Upon discussing similar situations and examining several articles, two frequent solutions seemed to be raising taxes and pushing for more federal money to poor districts via block grants. These solutions certainly carry weight, but do not come without flaws.

 In regards to raising taxes, a member of the State College Area school board is quoted saying the following: “State College gets 80% of its funding locally, 18% from the state, and 2% from the federal government.” Clearly, a majority of the funding comes from local and state taxes, with a very small portion coming from the feds. The following source examines this more thoroughly, and also offers insight to the effects of different legislation. One conclusion that can be drawn is that a large portion of public schools get their funding from local property taxes. Yet, many at the deliberation focused on raising the federal tax to allocate more money to schools.

Yes, the fed has the biggest pockets. However, access to these pockets is not easy, as more funding to schools would have to be written into a spending bill passed by Congress. Federal income tax is also something that changes with the political party in office and is not an easy pass either. Plus, our government currently spends 6.28% of its discretionary funds on education, which is something that doesn’t look to be changing soon. If it did, the federal government would package this money into block grants – federal money allocated for specific purposes — and ship it to the states, who would then decide which districts received the funds.

At this point, the federal solution seems rather cumbersome, but remains the most ideal based purely off of the amount of money being allocated. Perhaps we can work on changing this through things like lobbying and protest, but in the meantime, our attention should maybe be geared towards a more localized, smaller-scale solution.

Speaking to the issue of school quality, the deliberation group and many educators alike seemed to agree that quality starts and ends with the teachers. In other words, teachers make or break a student’s learning experience. Yet, as we discussed earlier, many underfunded schools often have a higher turnover rate, meaning that teachers come and go more often. This could be because of the environment, the curriculum, the salary, or other extraneous factors. The underlying question is the same though: how do we get good teachers to “not-so-good” districts?

The easy answer to this question is to up the salary. However, this brings us back to square one, taking the conversation back to funding and taxpayer bases. Other students suggested incentivizing them via the paying of their college loans. This also shifts the conversation back to square one, where that 6.28% comes to mind.

What are we to do, then? No solution is easy, and perhaps this is not an issue that we should tackle on such a grand scale.

For one, I believe that redrawing district lines and raising local property taxes in response could increase the number of students and the amount of money in the district’s account very slightly. This small increase that ideally includes more middle-class tax payers would see a gradual rise in both the quality of education and the amount of funds present in the district. With more money, perhaps an increase in salary or a downsizing of the school itself would occur, resulting in a more manageable issue for those involved.

If one thing is for certain, though, it’s that our nation is full of underfunded schools and struggling students. The United States has purchased an incredibly large stake in its future leaders (today’s youth), but the funds they receive certainly suggest otherwise. Only when this changes will any progress be made. In my mind, and in the minds of others, our children are worth far more than higher local taxes or a meager 6.28%. Maybe we should begin with that. Until then though, the US will remain disappointed with the return on investment that its youth produces. 


A Comprehensive View: How Are We to Learn?

Last week, I discussed AP Tests and the lower average being an issue for students across this country. At the end of the entry, I said that this week, I planned on discussing curriculum. And that’s exactly what’s going to go down. This week, I’d like to focus on the thoughts and opinions of one Marion Brady, the closest thing to an expert that I could find regarding this issue (amongst various others). Brady is now 90 years old, so he’s been around the block a few times. A few years back, he wrote a couple of pieces for the Washington Post all about Common Core, curriculum in general, and how he thinks they’re best resolved.

At the beginning of the above article, Brady argues that as students, we are taught to break apart problems in order to make them easier to understand and thus more “solveable” if you will. However, the opportunity cost, he argues, is that we are immune to facing the consequences of addressing or solving a given problem the incorrect way. MIT Professor Peter M. Senge backs him up on this. According to these two, because modern education doesn’t focus on how the fragments of a problem fit together or interact, the purpose of education – to help the young understand – is fundamentally missed in this nation’s schools.

Everyone is quick to point out the issues in education: standards, accountability, teacher quality, rigor, etc. But, no one wants to pull out the Jenga block that could knock down this tower; that block is curriculum. To pull out this block, however, requires a fundamental shift in the way we go about education in this country. To that end, getting to the top of Everest naked, barefoot, and food-less for a week might be more realistic.

Brady lays out seven steps that he calls a “tweak.” You can find these in the first link, but I’ll summarize below.

1.       Accept that our way of “traditional schooling” might be wrong

2.       Accept that the rest of the world might be right about how to educate the young

3.       Add a synthesizing class at the secondary level in order to “fit the pieces together”

4.       Find teachers willing to be “co-learners”

5.       Accept “hand holding” in regards to classwork

6.       Download some PDF (I’m not advertising this dude for free; pay up, chief)

7.       Accept an evolving curriculum on the terms of the students and teachers

Alright, so in Lehmann’s terms, Brady is saying make K-12 more like college; group students by innate abilities, get the “Gen Eds” done quickly, and let the math kids math, the reading kids read, and the art kids art. Sort of like a major-minor system. At this point, being the slaves to the system that we have been to date in regards to our education, we at least have to ask the question: is this dude right? Is the entire way I’ve been taught not the best way? Well, let me say one thing: if you can’t even bring yourself to answer those questions, or if you think that the way you’ve done it to date is completely, 100% right, you’re proving Brady’s point.

However, to say that the way that we’ve learned to date hasn’t worked would be erroneous. I mean, look how far we’ve come. Look at some of the graduates we turn out. Our generation – as well as the last three, four, or five – have done some simply incredible things. Some students function better under hellbent standards, rigorously competitive environments, and incredibly significant standardized tests.

But, as Brady points out…most do not. Therefore, he has at least a little bit of ground to stand on in suggesting something different. He’s right about at least a few things, and I’m sure he, as well as his opponents, would assert that a “one size fits all” solution is not the answer. Yet, to that end, I would ask, “isn’t that what we kind of have right now?” Some would certainly agree and say yes, reinforced by the test-punishment mentality, standardized tests at the primary level, and of course the Common Core. Some though, would disagree, saying that students value structure above all else in the classroom, and that rules are in place for a reason.

Regardless of where one stands, to think that a certain group is capable of doing one thing in any completely “right” way is conceited and foolish. And, as a student who has benefitted from being educated in this country, I can say that I’ve never questioned the way I’ve been taught. However, that’s because I would have been told I was “wrong” if I did. To that end, perhaps our education system has failed in a sense.

What we learn, how we learn, and who teaches us how to learn are three huge questions that do not have a single correct answer. However, all three fall back on the teachers in this country. Who we’ll talk about next week.  

AP: Advanced Placement or Awfully Poor?

Last week, I dished out some of the issues facing our education system in very broad brushstrokes. I ended on the claim that I was going to discuss where to allocate billions to best help our nation’s schools. Then I thought to myself, “That’s kind of a lot, so I’m going to work up to it.” And what better place to start than the top? In last week’s blog, I focused primarily on lower income students. We’re getting there. But I think there’s some merit to starting here.

Many of us taking this class probably took at least one or two AP classes through the College Board in high school. The very fact that I say, “start from the top” should indicate what kind of student this non-profit appeals to. However, there’s more than meets the eye. Let’s dive into everyone’s favorite: AP Tests.

These tests — which run anywhere from $50-$100 a pop — are taken by students enrolled in AP (Advanced Placement) courses in the hopes that they will obtain college credit by scoring high enough. Recently, the big fuss over these tests is whether or not they should be required for all students taking the AP Class. In private schools, it’s easy: there’s no issue in making people take them, and the cost can be tacked on to the tuition bill. However, the public realm of education isn’t dealt with as easily

Those for public schools requiring these tests say that they act as a litmus test in measuring the rigor of Advanced Placement classes. Those on the other side, however, will say that the tests are too expensive, or that they take too much of a toll on the students. As of last year, 2.7 million students took 4.9 million exams, which averages out to about 2 exams per student. Now, this average is like any other: an estimate. It doesn’t take into account schools districts, or where the tests were required to be taken. In other words, there are some students who took 6, and some who took 1.

However, if we look at the previously cited article a little bit more closely, we see another piece of data that is useful to our discussion. We see that enrollment in AP classes has nearly doubled from 645,000 in 2006 to 1.1 million in 2016, and that the percentage of students earning a score of 3/5 or higher has moved from 14.3% to 21.9% in the same time period. This is the statistic that I wish to focus on.

First off, props to both enrollment and the average score going up, both undoubtedly good things. But, if we say that a 3/5 is a pass, then only about 22% of students are passing these tests. If this were the reality in a high school or a college classroom, you’d have parents calling, teachers crying, and principles swearing. So why is this average so freaking low? One reason could very well be requiring these tests to be taken.

Perhaps a first person account best demonstrates this. My junior year I took AP Biology. Now, I’ve done a lot of stupid things, but taking this class is no doubt in my top three. That’s right after the time I…never mind. Anyway, I opted out of the test because I knew I was going to pay 90 bucks to curse to myself for three hours and receive a failing grade. Another instance that comes to mind was last year’s AP Gov test. This time, my school required the test if you took the AP Class. One of my buddies already had his acceptance letter from a school; a school that didn’t accept AP Credits. Therefore, he had to pay 90 bucks for nothing. So, instead of trying his best, the dude took a three hour nap (baller move though, can’t lie). Another friend found himself in the same predicament and wrote Lil Uzi Vert lyrics for his essays. So, these kids surely brought down the national average.

The case for low income students in the same scenario is a little different, though. One could lay the case that not a lot of them would take AP classes in the first place, leading to a lack of resources, unfamiliarity with curriculum, and rookie teachers. However, one could also argue that these kids taking the tests take AP as a last shot in their hopes to get to college because they can’t pay for it. And in that regard, the system certainly is not helping them out at all. “Here, pay 90 bucks for “AP” to appear on your application” doesn’t really do anybody any sort of good.

So, what have we learned? Even for our nation’s “best” students, this highly regarded academic achievement does not come without its challenges. The same, of course, could be said for low income students. And, according to the organization that creates the tests, just short of 22% of takers actually pass. Now, we’ve discussed some of the potential reason for that average being so low, but it really is egregiously low if you think about it. Think about if only 1 in 5 were passing every single one of your Gen. Eds…yeah. Something needs to be done here, and that’s before any of the “normal” or “college prep” curriculum even comes into question. That we will talk about next week.





Learning About Learning: An Overview of the Issue

What’s your family like? Do you have siblings, two parents, any pets? Did you grow up in the suburbs, the city, or the country? It’s kind of frightening to think that these factors are 1.) completely out of our control, and 2.) determine our position in this country’s social hierarchy. Upon birth, we don’t really get to decide where we grow up, who we grow up with, or the resources that our community makes accessible to us. However, these factors form others’ opinions of us, and more often than not, our opinions of ourselves. Holding these factors constant, however, has one arriving at the conclusion that, upon birth, there is really nothing making human beings inherently unequal; it’s just these factors beyond our control.

For the sake of this blog, let’s speculate that you’re born into an unfavorable situation. Perhaps a broken home, with limited financial resources and an absence of hope compared to the rest of your peers. How do you pull yourself out? The answer from the United States Government — at the federal, state, and local levels — is to excel in the classroom, get to a good college, and get yourself a good job. But to you, the kid coming from a broken home in a low income area with a mom or dad working a couple of jobs to try and keep you happy: how tough is that going to be for you? 

Really damn tough, I would imagine. And it’s even worse when people that appear to have everything tell you to do it their way. But they’ve never had to worry about their school district, walking to school, participating in a plethora of extracurricular activities, getting a textbook, having a teacher showing up to class most days, or having ready assistance with testing and college applications. 

Every student, school district, and set of curriculum is different. However, the way we treat our nation’s students should be the same everywhere. For decades, our education policy has left those like the hypothetical student just discussed hang to dry while the rest of society calls him/her a “failure.” 

So long as we permit this, we’re wasting human capital. It’s really that simple. Because I’m unsatisfied settling for this, I will provide commentary regarding some of the hurdles that low income students have to jump over. I’ll also analyze the solutions that both major political parties put forth to resolve this dilemma. For the rest of this entry, though, I’ll examine past fixes that have gone horribly wrong, particularly the No Child Left Behind Act, which you can read about here.

Essentially, the Bush Administration saw low income schools suffering, and inundated them with government funds. However, this program proved to have little to no effect on what it sought to improve upon, as student achievement barely changed. When held alongside the “100% proficiency rating” that lawmakers sought to achieve, the legislation looks even worse. Math scores changed a tad, but reading scores on test remained almost exactly the same.

Even worse for students, the scope of NCLB focused very heavily on test taking, particularly multiple-choice questions. Reexamining a small piece of the pie that is educating the whole person, schools and legislators around the country eventually were forced to admit that a student really is more than a test score – even if that’s how the federal government chooses to regard them.

Perhaps even more unfortunately for conservatives, dishing this policy issue to the states proved catastrophic. Because proficiency standards in schools are an issue reserved to individual states, the federal government was forced to shift the burden of accountability to them as well. This meant that if a state chose to raise their proficiency standards they were more than welcome too. As states quickly figured out, if they raised the standard without providing the accommodating resources and support to schools, those schools would fail.

Thus, we can learn from the mistakes of No Child Left Behind. A focus exclusive to more funding and better test scores doesn’t help students in low income areas. For the sake of this nation’s students, legislation similar to this will hopefully not be pursued anytime in the near future. What legislation we choose to fill its place, though, is the place we are now forced to put our efforts. This pie chart shows the current portion of the federal discretionary budget set aside for education. I’m not saying we give it directly to schools (see last three paragraphs), but I am saying this: there are students out there who would benefit from better days at schools. A couple billion dollars is a great start, and we’ll talk about where to put that next week.