28 September 2009

Measuring Up

Catching Up or Leading the Way is the most recent tome sent to me through my ASCD membership. Written by Yong Zhao, who was educated under the Chinese system, the book examines the whole "grass is always greener" machinations happening between the U.S. and China/India when it comes to education. In the west, we tend to believe that the hours, discipline, and testing present in the east represent a better system. After all, the Chinese are kicking ass and chewing bubble gum when it comes to international comparisons of student achievement. Zhao points out that the Chinese, on the other hand, are working to implement a more American approach because it allows for a workforce with more critical and creative thinking skills.

If you've been around the educational block, then the early chapters of the book will hold no surprises for you. Zhao does a nice job of summarizing the current American NCLB situation and how we got here. I'm curious to see where he goes from here in promoting "what schools can---and must---do to meet the challenges and opportunities brought about by globalization and technology."

What has me intrigued at this point in the book is Zhao's comparison between the benefits of biological diversity and diversity of talent in the workforce. He mentions the strength of populations which are not genetically identical. (Go, sex, go!) They are able to better adapt to changing environments. So, too, can countries adapt to changing economic times. I find this concept interesting, but Zhao has left out two important considerations.

First of all, while sexual reproduction results in variation and adaptability---asexual reproduction also has advantages. My students could never get that past "What fun would that be?" idea; however, the benefits include being able to become established in a new area quickly and jack up your population numbers in short order. You also save a lot of energy this way. No need for pesky mating dances or other displays. People who think lack of diversity is a species killer obviously haven't had to deal with dandelions in their yards.

If we take this a step farther and try to place it into Zhao's comparison between genetics and schools/workers, what does that get us? Is the standards-based education movement the amoeba of models?

Which brings me to my second thought on all of this. The argument that Zhao is making is that the standards movement is stamping out individuality and diversity of thinking---that in our bid to become more China-like in our systems we are losing the one thing that makes American education different: the belief in the individual...the can do. I believe there is some truth there---that the constant comparison by the US to other countries is leading to more of a focus on what we aren't, as opposed to building on strengths. An emphasis on testing is not a replacement for an emphasis on thinking. However, these are outcomes and are not the only possibilities. I also think that most teachers would claim that the standards movement is eliminating individuality and creativity in their instruction---not student thinking.

I do not believe that the [insert country of choice which outperforms US on international comparisons of student achievement] do it this way, therefore it must be the better way to teach X is the right starting place. It's knee-jerk and not purposeful. (And makes about as much sense as the Obama administration saying that we should lengthen the school day/year because that's what other countries do. Talk to me about what's best for kids, would you?) I do, however, think that the standards-based movement has the ability to ensure that students end up with choices. A student who is not expected to read, do math, write, and/or think scientifically ends up with very few choices as an adult. I really don't think this is the kind of diversity that we're after and will do nothing to break the cycle of poverty.

Zhao is right in that academic tests are not the only measure of a student's proficiency and talents; but standards are not inherently evil and not all testing is bad. It's what we do with them and why we do it that makes the difference. In the end, I keep coming back to instruction---that critical link between standards and assessment and the aspect most often ignored. It's the instruction where the magic happens with learning. It's the instruction where diversity of both teachers and students is honoured. And until it becomes part of the conversation, the rest of this discussion is no different than a "Mine's bigger than yours!" sort of argument among nations. Everyone knows that it's not the size of your (test scores; population) that matters, it's what you do with it. What's your position?

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