Education: Tweaks and Tests Don’t Make Kids Smarter

by Judy Ferro       [ Published in the Idaho-Press Tribune on August 25, 2014}     

A parent recently asked me what I thought of the Common Core Standards. I didn’t get a chance to reply, and it is perhaps as well. I don’t have a good answer.

I’ve seen too many educational programs promoted with great optimism that ended up being merely distractions or, worse, disasters. Remember the open schools without walls?

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“New Math” was about as bad. The theory was that kids taught in the way that great mathematicians learned would become great mathematicians. Texts offered verbose explanations and little practice.   Teachers who dared say kids weren’t learning were regarded as dinosaurs who didn’t belong in the profession. Yet, no one is selling new math texts today; kids weren’t learning.

Westinghouse’s experiment with computerized classes during the 1970s failed badly enough the corporation paid to prevent publication of the results.

Some years teachers have been told to allow kids to direct their learning experience and other years they were expected to keep to a strict schedule. Sometimes I’ve been required to spend class time on parts of speech, word roots, poetry and free reading; yet, at some time, teaching of these topics in English has been forbidden.

During the last decade our nation spent millions to discover that No Child Left Behind made no significant difference in student achievement. Now Common Core claims kids will be brighter if teachers use “close reading” and analyze the structure of non-fiction rather than focusing on context and personal relevance. Anyone willing to bet that it will make our kids’ brighter?

Here’s some of the things teachers know and outsiders making education policy don’t know or don’t care about.

  • Maturation is key to skill learning. When a twin who receives daily training can finally climb stairs, her unpracticed sister can do so the same day. Teaching a concept at earlier and earlier ages guarantees more kids won’t get it no matter how skillful or motivated the teacher is.
  • Some concepts cannot be learned out of order. Most kids will start school knowing one-to-one correspondence; those who don’t cannot learn to count. With Common Core is introduced in all grades at once, sixth grade students are expected to know fifth grade concepts that were never taught to them. (When we start in grade one and add a grade a year, the new program is usually abandoned before the students involved reach middle school.)
  • A range of experiences enhances learning. Kids who have milked cows, visited the ocean, been to the zoo, flown in a plane, and seen a ball game relate to printed accounts better.
  • Motivation is key. Kids who will work for praise or self-approval are the best students. For others activities have to fun or challenging. Competition motivates some; cooperation, others. Things that motivate one week will not work the next. Nothing works the week before Christmas.
  • Stress-conflict, illness, fear—hinder learning. Kids face disappointment, rejection, divorce, cancer, etc., and their stress is real.   Poverty is a major deterrent to learning, perhaps because it means a higher stress level in the home and neighborhood.
  • Time-on-task enhances learning. Time spent in testing, not so much. Time with half the class in testing is seldom productive. Time spent in the test room waiting for computer problems to be fixed is a total loss.

Curriculum tweaks don’t even make the list.

For a fact, teachers have little control over the factors listed above. And the larger the class load, the less a teacher can do to individualize learning and develop relationships that might motivate.

So the current plans for Idaho to pay teachers according to test scores may end up rewarding teachers who have fewer or wealthier students.

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