Why Cooperative-Communal Classrooms Trump Competitive-Corporate Classrooms?

There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think that the only way you can decide whether students learn is with a test.  In fact, Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, has decided to get involved in education in Texas.  Being a guru on testing, he backs the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) system, which calls for end-of-year exams in most high school courses.

Bush said this about testing:

If Texas taxpayers are going to invest in the classroom facilities and personnel to provide students with a physics or history class, it follows that they have the right to know how much students learned about physics or history.

He goes on to say that “the anti-accountability activists discuss ideas for improving schools, but ironically — without testing — lack a credible system of evaluation to judge whether they succeeded or failed.”  Bush thinks that the only way that teachers know if their students are learning is give them a test.  The research on assessment does not support this idea, but in today’s culture of schooling, that doesn’t count (no pun intended).

To their credit, Texas has not adopted the Common Core State Standards, but teachers are still held to an “assessed curriculum, grades 3 – 12.  The tests are based on categories of standards in each content area, and the tests are mostly multiple-choice questions.  For example the end-of-year test in chemistry has 52 multiple-choice questions. Each course ends with a year-end competition largely made up of simple and complex multiple choice questions.  This hardly comes close to “measuring” science inquiry or problem solving, important goals for all students.

So that brings us to the point of this blog post.  Let’s start with an analogy.

Competition is to Cooperation as: 

A) Biology : Contention
B) Business : Sport
C) Conservative : Progressive
D) Empathy : Community

Did you choose “C,” conservative : progressive?   Two models of teaching dominate teaching.  One is fixed in competition.  Conservatives like this model.  The other is grounded in coöperation.  Progressives like this one.

I am going to argue that the values that are implicit in coöperation and progressivism trump the values that ground competition and extreme conservatism.  In school, social interaction, interpersonal relationships,  and collaboration should be the foundation for teaching and learning.

Lets take a look.

Competition and Extreme Conservatism—->The Corporate Model

Having the competitive edge, being able to compete with peers around the world, and reducing the lagging achievement of U.S. students, especially in math and science are front and center for the current cohort of school reformers.  Competition and extreme conservatism lead to a corporate model of teaching.

Their reasoning is sustained by conservative values.  In their mind, how American student do on national assessments such as NAEP and international assessments including TIMSS and PISA answers the question, How are American students doing?  According to the corporate reformers, tests are the only way to answer the question.

As we have said on this blog, these reformers how American students compete in the global economy is the most important result of schooling.  To monitor student learning, these reformers have convinced the American public that the only way to be sure that the cows are getting fatter is to keep measuring them.    Learning in school has been reduced to teaching to the test, and the narrowing of the curriculum.

Competition
Figure 1. Corporate Classrooms

At the international level U.S. students are compared to nations that are very different in culture and size, yet reformers use the rankings in their assessment of science and mathematics education.  Its kind of envy syndrome in that in American culture being number one is the important mantra, especially in sport’s competitions, and now in international achievement test competitions.  If you look further into the concept of envy, it might help us understand the unreasonable emphasis on competition.  One definition is that envy is the propensity to view the well-being of others with distress.  Or envy is pain at the good fortune of others.  In the context of international tests, we probably have a superiority complex, and so when we see other countries’ students scoring higher than U.S. students, what’s a conservative to do?

At the school level, it’s even worse.  Schools, teachers and students are held accountable to some bureaucratic committee’s end-of-year high-stakes tests, like the ones mentioned above when I talked about Texas.   The nature of instruction, the way teachers interpret curriculum, and conservative values create a model of schooling that is narrow and stressful.  Since the No Child Behind Act, a system was put in place that makes it possible for bureaucrats to set up a climate in which schools, students and teachers can fail.

As seen in Figure 1, a variety of words and phrases describe the corporate classroom.  Some of the idea include rivalry, bout, go-for-the-gold, race (to the top?), warfare, fight, tournament. In what way do these ideas affect our classrooms?

Common standards, high-stakes tests, and measuring teacher performance on the basis of high-stakes tests establishes an educational system that is the antithesis of education in a democratic society.  This creates an authoritarian system of education with power concentrated at the top of various hierarchies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, and the various state department’s of education.

If you look the data that the Georgia Department of Education reports on its website on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), you will find state, system and school summaries.  These summaries are Excel spreadsheets of  test scores, and the percentage of students that did not meet, that met, and that exceeded the “standard.”  You can find data for each grade level, for each school system, and every school in the state by grade level and content area.  You can have a lot of fun with these spread sheets.  You can rank order the school districts in the state based on CRCT scores.  You can also scrutinize each school system, and find the “best” and the “worst” performing schools.

The standards have a powerful impact on the day-to-day actions of teachers and students.  They are based on the CRCT.  Dr. Carolyn Wallace  speaks to these issues in a study,  Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.   Wallace found that the authoritarian system of education in Georgia impeded teaching and learning. An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, and were not part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are not participants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, first. That was done by élite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace cites research studies that document the harmful effects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on teachers and students, and especially students-at-risk. Wallace shows that NCLB has diminished teachers abilities to work professionally to interpret curriculum as it relates to the needs of their students. Wallace suggests that there is a consensus that the content and product nature of the standards (or curriculum) limits teachers’ pedagogy in that teaching becomes “less diverse, less contextualized, and less creative.” Teachers must teach the same material because it is discrete, and will be on the test.

The corporate model reformers are working very hard, and with a lot of money to privatize education, and remove the word “public” from public education.  There has been an outright assault on schools, administrators and teachers by the conservative reformers, and they have done a very good job of turning our schools into yearly achievement test competitions.

In George Lakoff’s book, The Little Blue Book, there is a chapter on public education, and how crucial education is for democracy.  Lakoff, however, points out that education is moving in a direction in which money is determining the nature of “public” education, and that  danger lurks.  He writes:

Given this understanding of education, it is natural to view even public education as a business. Schools whose students get good test scores are profitable. Teachers of those good students bring in profit and, like executives who earn bonuses, deserve merit pay. Schools whose students regularly get bad test scores are unprofitable and considered failing schools. Like divisions of companies that lose money, they can be closed down, and just as managers whose divisions regularly lose money stand to get fired, so do teachers whose students don’t get high-test scores.

The belief that students can only be motivated to learn through competition is a dangerous path to follow.  As Ed Johnson pointed out in a guest post on this blog, competition is the life-blood of the way much of schooling is arranged.  The use of grades, prizes, money, stars, happy-faces, and the like are all examples of the use of competition to “reward” the winners.  Here is what Ed Johnson had to say about how competition in learning such a destructive force in learning and teaching.  He writes here about an experience he had as a judge for a Social Science Fair in Georgia.  He says:

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

We need to step back and look at the unintended consequences of using competition within and between classrooms, teachers, and schools.  Do we want to think of education as a process in which some are winners, and the others are losers?  I don’t think so.

Let’s take a look at an alternative.

Cooperation and Progressive Values—->The Communal Model

We often assume that Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection, would name competition as the most important trait for survival for human being.  George Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling discuss Darwin’s ideas about coöperation and write that,  “Darwin explicitly described empathy and coöperation, and not competition, as natural traits of humans and animals and as central to the survival of animal species.”

In fact, Darwin argued that empathy is crucial to species survival.  He said this about empathy:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races  (quoted in Lakoff, 2012).

Figure 2. Cooperation
Figure 2. Communal Classrooms

Cooperative and empathic values should characterize classroom teaching and learning.  We think of classrooms as social learning groups of students and teachers who can work cooperatively to solve problems.  We argue that competition for grades and approvals are not needed to motivate student learning.  In fact, using external motivators like grades and approvals does not motivate students to do anything more than ask, “Is it on the test?”

On the other hand, if students learn that cooperative activities, such as teaching each other, working on small projects together, and discussing and debating relevant content-related issues are relevant, then their attitude toward school, and their understanding of science will be enhanced.

Dr. Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, uses the concept of  the “communal classroom” which involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In an earlier research study, Dr. Emdin collaborated with two of his high school students, Jessica Collins, an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY and has been a student-researcher in science for two years, and hopes someday to be a doctor);  and Lasleen Bennett,an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY.  Lasleen has been a student-researcher for two years. Her favorite subject is mathematics, and she wants to be a doctor, teacher or psychologist.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teacher working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on coöperation and progressive values.

Co-researchers Jessica Collins and Lasleen Bennett comment here on corporate and communal classrooms and give us their insights into life for a studenta in high school classrooms.

Jessica Collins

If things are more communal, you don’t have to worry about who is talking first or who is putting themselves out on the line. We all just talk, figure things out and learn because the classroom is more like part of life. People can get upset or in a bad mood but still figure out how to learn a concept. The communal is pretty much connected to the students’ environment.  You start to see that science is all around you. All of a sudden, everything you see, eat, taste, or hear has something to do with what you are learning in school when it all gets connected.

Under normal circumstances, the teacher gives you information then you have to give the information back. It feels like you are never really learning anything or thinking about it. It’s like we are machines that need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. There are no feelings and no emotions. I feel like if you don’t take care of a machine, it will eventually break down. The process works the same way for students. If you’re treated like a machine, some people will definitely just quit. For some other people, we learn to be more independent. It’s like we are treated like machines but because we go through that, we become strong enough to fix ourselves when we break down.  That is how we learn to survive.

Lasleen Bennett

The major idea that I am getting from what you’ve just said is about the communal and how it’s separate from the corporate. It’s the idea that what we do everyday does make sense and does count and can help the classes. I agree with that point completely. I also see how some people just don’t bother with school being related to the whole idea of being treated like machines. That is why I like being involved in coteaching. It gives me a chance to show that I can understand chemistry or biology enough to pass a test but also lets me teach my friends in a more appropriate manner.

In communal classrooms students’ ideas are accepted, and students are treated with the respect that they deserve, simply as being human beings.  Classrooms that are build around progressive values are more democratic, and more inclusive.  Students feel as if they are participants, not simply recipients of facts and information.  One of the high-school research students, Jessica Collins, speaks to this.  She writes:

The teacher has to be with students and learn their likes and dislikes and then bring what he learns to school to better the lesson. It means that you have to be involved in their lives. The corporate way is different and it really is the way that most of the classes that we are not interested in get run. The students don’t like corporate classes, and that will mean they won’t like the subject. At the end of the school year, the teachers start wondering why the students fail their Regents exams. It’s obvious that the reason is because the class was set up in a way that the students did not want to learn. Teachers should teach in a way that is best for students.  Otherwise, what is the purpose of teaching? The way to teach is about getting your point across in whatever way it takes for the student to understand. For me it’s like, teachers have to see the light whenever they stumble upon the key to their students’ comprehension.

Communal or cooperative classrooms should trump the corporate style of classroom organization that is based on competition and extreme conservative values.  In cooperative classrooms the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Indeed, because of the collaborative nature of cooperative-communal classrooms, there is a greater opportunity for students not only to learn science (or any other subject), but to teach science, and to embody science as a fundamental part of our student’s lived experiences.

In future posts I will describe the communal and cooperative model that I used in more than 30 years of teaching.

What are your ideas on ways to organize school?  Do think cooperative classrooms should trump competitively organized classroom?  Why do you think so?

ResearchBlogging.org

Emdin, C., Bennett, L., & Collins, J. (2007). Exploring the contexts of urban science classrooms. Part 2: The emergence of rituals in the learning of science Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (2), 351-392 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9057-x

Race to the Top Results are In: 16 Winners, More than 300 Losers

The Race to the Top continues with the announcement that 16 educational organizations including charter organizations, urban schools, and consortia, will share about $400 million.  According to the U.S. Department of Education website, 16 applicants, representing 55 school districts in 11 states and D.C.–have won the 2012 Race to the Top-District competition.  The $400 million will be used improve achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for college and career.  They will receive 4-year awards ranging from $10 million to $40 million.

The winners were the top scorers among the 347 contestants.  The 16 winners were selected from 61 finalists.  Scores were determined by a panels of experts who used a scoring tool after receiving training in D.C. on how to evaluate the proposals.  More than 290 reviewers were assigned randomly to read three or four proposals such that each entry was read by three panelists.  After a conference phone call among each panel, final scoring was completed.  Of the 347, those with a mean score of 178 (out of 210) were identified as finalists.  Panels reading the top 61 applications came to DC for the week of November 26 to make the final cut to 16.

Winners

  1. Carson City School District, Nevada (This link will take you to the technical review form, with reviewers comments for Carson City Schools.  Link here to see all the finalists technical review forms.
  2. Charleston County School District, South Carolina
  3. Galt Joint Union School District, California
  4. Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, Kentucky, consortium leader (consortium members: Adair County Schools, Campbellsville Independent Schools, Carroll County Schools, Caverna Independent Schools, Cloverport Independent Schools, Daviess County Schools, Green County Schools, Hart County Schools, Henry County Schools, Logan County Schools, Metcalfe County Schools, Monroe County Schools, Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, Owen County Schools, Owensboro Independent Schools, Russell County Schools, Shelby County Schools, Simpson County Schools, Spencer County Schools, Taylor County Schools, Trimble County Schools, Union County Schools, West Point Independent Schools)
  5. Guilford County Schools, North Carolina
  6. Harmony Science Academy (Harmony Public Schools), Texas, consortium leader (consortium members: Harmony School of Excellence, Harmony School of Science-Houston, Harmony Science Academy-Austin, Harmony Science Academy-Brownsville, Harmony Science Academy-El Paso, Harmony Science Academy-Fort Worth, Harmony Science Academy-Lubbock, Harmony Science Academy-San Antonio, Harmony Science Academy-Waco)
  7. IDEA Public Schools, Texas
  8. Iredell-Statesville Schools, North Carolina
  9. KIPP DC, Washington, D.C.
  10. Lindsay Unified School District, California
  11. Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, Indiana
  12. Middletown City School District, New York
  13. New Haven Unified School District, California
  14. Puget Sound Educational Service District, Washington, consortium leader (consortium members: Auburn School District, Federal Way Public Schools, Highline Public Schools, Kent School District, Renton School District, Seattle Public Schools, Tukwila School District)
  15. School Board of Miami-Dade County, Florida
  16. St. Vrain Valley Schools, Colorado

The Losers

There are too many to list here, but you can see the complete list of applicants, their scores, and ranks among the 372 school organizations. Here is an alphabetical listing of the first 50 applicants, all of whom were not winners.

Listing of some of the districts that lost in the Race to the Top District Competition for $400 million.
Figure 1. Listing of some of the districts that lost in the Race to the Top District Competition for $400 million.

It is interesting to note the terms that are used to differentiate between winners and losers in this school competition include “winners circle,” “snagged the largest grants,” “hungry to drive reform,” “the contest,” “great track record in competitions.”

Competition has become a crucial element in school reform, and there are many that believe that without the desire to win, no one would have the incentive to be disciplined, and progress would be suffer.

Arne Duncan says that there are zero politics in choosing winners.  There is politics in all decision-making, and Mr. Duncan knows that.

The reform of American schooling has been channeled for decades to fit a conservative moral worldview.  In his book, The Political Mind,  George Lakoff, helps us understand that.  According to Lakoff, the radical conservatives have established an authoritarian hierarchy based on the control of wealth and power.  The education reformers tend to be authoritarians who seek to set up a system that is centrally controlled and based on a strict father model by asserting that all teachers and students should be held to the same set of standards, and that their work should be tested with standardized measures.

The Race to the Top is an authoritarian effort by the Federal Government, aided by several powerful foundations including the Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to inflict command and control management on schools.

The problem with introducing competition at this level, is that it justifies competition at the classroom level, from Kindergarten on through high school. Lakoff explains why competition is important to conservative moguls such as Gates, Walton and Broad.  He writes:

Competition is crucial. It builds discipline. Without competition, without the desire to win, no one would have the incentive to be disciplined, and morality would suffer, as well as prosperity. Not everyone can win in a competition, only the most disciplined people, who are also the most morally worthy. Winning is thus a sign of being deserving, of being a good person. It is important to be number one! Strict father families often promote competitive sports and take them very seriously.

 

We have to ask, as Lakoff has,

Why do conservatives want schools to teach to the test and make judgments on the basis of test scores? To determine merit— who deserves to move up into the stratosphere of merit versus who gets to serve people of merit. That should be determined by discipline, punishment, and obedience—learning answers by rote, with punishment for failing to do so as an incentive to be more disciplined.

The result of focusing on a race to the top has trickled down to every classroom in the country.  Instead of creating classrooms based on cognitive and humanistic theory, we have accepted the conservative truths that learning should be a competition, not only among students and teachers, but between states and nations.  There is little evidence to support this model, yet it is the structure that determines the way schools run.

Should The Race to the Top, at the State- and District-Level be the metaphor that describes American education?  What do you think?  Did your school district end up on the list of 16?

Education Secretary Duncan on the TIMSS Results: We’re Being Out-Educated & Out-Competed

If you go over to the U.S. Department of Education website, you will find the Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement on the release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessment.  You can read it online here, and I’ve copied it and posted it below.  Highlighted (my own) words describe the essence of Mr. Duncan’s view of American science and mathematics education.

Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments
Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

Reading the letter that Mr. Duncan wrote in the context of Ed Johnson’s letter which was published on this blog yesterday, I can only say here that Mr. Duncan continues appears to be out-of-touch with our society, and the way children and youth could be educated, respected, and valued.

The letter that Mr. Johnson wrote was first sent to President Obama.  Yesterday, the letter was sent to Mr. Duncan.  Ed Johnson’s letter  was a reaction to the Newtown shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mr. Johnson asks us to consider the larger context of our culture, and wonder if the mass shootings that we have seen for more than a decade are related in anyway to the erosion of “civility and democratic ideas” in the service to the common or public good.

He has been an activist for years in Atlanta, and his letter is a powerful statement about how we need to come to grips with the way we are educating our youth.  Competition seems to rule in the way we educate students.  Perhaps we should reconsider this.  Read what happened to Ed Johnson in a school context.

Mr. Johnson describes a transformative moment after being a judge in a Social Science Fair Contest.  Here is what he recalled:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to check the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

We’ve turned education and learning into a colossal competition that beginning in early childhood, and through competitive testing have wired schools and society to accept a behaviorist-competitive model of learning.  Ed Johnson came to grips with this when he participated in a school social studies fair.  In the context of a competitive fair, there had to be a first, second and third place winner, followed by a long list of losers.  Behaviorist theory suggests that students should be rewarded for the correct answer, or in this case of the “best” social science fair project.  Much of curriculum has been reduced to a common set of statements (behaviors to learn) that trivialize learning.  From childhood through high school students are taught and tested on a set of common standards that are behavioral in nature.

Even though most educators understand cognitive and social psychology, the structure of schooling reinforces (sorry) a behavioral-competitive approach to learning and teaching.

And this is unfortunate

Wired for Empathy and Cooperation

As human beings, our brains are wired for empathy and coöperation.  I written about empathy in teacher education, and how Carl Rogers, decades ago, established empathy as one of the core conditions of facilitating the learning of others.  In nature, coöperation is considered by many naturalists as being as important is not more so than competition in sustainable environments.  

We need to recognize that this is a more enlightened way to learn and teach, a way that at its roots seeks a sacred or humanistic consciousness.  George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, explores the differences between progressive and conservative moral philosophies.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley, and In Lakoff’s theory, our democracy (and thus our education system) was founded by the politics of empathy and responsibility.  Although the role of the government in the context of progressive ideas is equality, freedom, fairness and opportunity, it has taken hundreds of years of social change to move toward this reality.  I have written on this blog on Lakoff’s research and how it can be applied to education and learning.

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is a community.

Empathy by the teacher, and coöperation among learners would be important hallmarks of the enlightened classroom.  Lakoff speaks to the connection of empathy and coöperation to the “wiring” of our brain.  He writes:

We begin with the biology of empathy. Our mirror neuron circuitry and related pathways are activated when we act or when we see someone else performing the same action. They fire even more strongly when we coördinate actions with others—when we coöperate. Mirror neuron circuitry is connected to the emotional regions of our brains. Our emotions are expressed in our bodies, in our muscles and posture, so that mirror neurons can pick up visual information about the feelings of others….In other words, they give the biological basis of empathy, coöperation, and community. We are born to empathize and coöperate.

As Ed Johnson realized and has eloquently written,

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

What do you think?  Is the Secretary of Education out of touch with a more enlightened way that schools should be fostering learning for and among students?  Does Ed Johnson describe a more enlightened way to educate youth?

 

 

 

In the Aftermath of the Newtown Tragedy, an Education Advocate asks the President: Has Rampart Competition Undermined Civility and Democratic Ideals?

Guest Post: Ed Johnson, Advocate for Quality Public Education, Atlanta, Georgia.

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group.  He can be reached by email

On the day after the massacre of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, CT, a group of advocates for improving education in Georgia received a letter from Ed Johnson.  He introduced the letter with the following statement:

The original of the following open letter of mine was first addressed to then-First Lady Laura Bush on June 9, 2003.  Given the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT, I am now addressing a slightly revised version of it to President Obama.  The hope is to prompt asking how might excessive and inappropriate competition, including the Race to the Top Competition, contribute to undermining civility and democratic ideals in service to the common or public good.

December 14, 2012

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

“Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.”

Dear Mr. President:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to review the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

Case in point: a recent year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and legacy featured middle school children in a “Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Writing Contest.” Where is the wisdom in turning the many children into essay writing losers in the name of Dr. King? I suggest there is none. When did Dr. King ever stand to make anybody a loser? I suggest he never did. An Essay Writing Collaboration in which every student would aim to contribute to every other student’s success and joy in writing would have been a far more fitting celebration of Dr. King’s birth and legacy.

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

Once they have destroyed children’s intrinsic motivation and trust in school sufficiently, albeit unintentionally, educational leaders have only extrinsic motivators — ironically, more competition, reward programs, motivational speakers, role models, school reform, high expectations, zero tolerance, accountability, etc. — to address the problem.

Heavy reliance upon extrinsic motivation reflects a failure to understand that children were born motivated to learn. To see this, go get an infant, anybody’s. Then risk blindness by peering deep into the fire in child’s eyes. Wonderfully amazing, those neurons firing!

Educational leaders need only learn what the educational systems for which they are responsible have been doing to gradually put out the inborn fire in children’s eyes and stop doing it. Hence, high on educational leaders’ list of obnoxious utterances should be “every child can learn” and such. Of course, every child can learn. That should never be an issue.

On the one hand, invariably, the few winner kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to perpetuate win-lose behavior as normal behavior, the way the “real world” works.

On the other hand, invariably, the many loser kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to take on self-protective behaviors generally not conducive to anybody’s well being, including their own. The continuing epidemic of school shootings exemplifies this behavior, in the extreme.

Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others. Neither have the many school shootings been senseless violence; in each case, the shooter acted quite rationally in devising and carrying out a plan to “win.” Thus it is quite silly to continue blaming parents and teachers and otherwise holding them accountable for the damage being done to children by our educational system itself that reflects adults’ win-lose value system, however benignly or well-intentioned.

An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published a while back, opined: “Responsibility for education should rest with the parents.” As supporting evidence, the article’s author related: “[A parent] was commenting after [the parent’s son, 13,] defeated 100 other contestants from across the state to win the Georgia Geography Bee ….”

Now, how many once budding geographers, geologists, and maybe lexicographers have since turned their interests elsewhere in order to shake off the “loser” label bestowed upon them during the pursuit of just one winner?

The author’s words can be revealing. Cut away the context words then some of the win-lose thematic words that exemplify the scourge upon K-12 education, public and otherwise, become clear. “Defeated.” “Contestants.” “Win.” These are concepts and behaviors about competition imposed upon students by the educational system itself. These are concepts and behaviors for producing far too few winners and far too many losers, by design. These are concepts and behaviors that reflect the value system whereby children, of all people, must be beaten down and demoralized before being deemed worthy to rise. Nonsense.

Clearly, today’s world demands as many winners as possible, not a many losers as possible. By managing them as athletic-style competitions with attendant rankings and such, our K-12 educational systems cannot possibly help produce the many winners the world needs.

Sincerely,

Ed Johnson

Has our emphasis on competition and winning races, titles and medals, created a culture that is conducive to an uncivil, undemocratic, and violent society?

TIMSS: Always Claiming the Grass is Greener on the Other Side of the Globe

International science and environmental education have been a major focus of my professional work, and so when results on international comparisons are released by TIMSS (Math and Science, PIRLS (Reading), or PISA(Math, Reading & Science), I am eager to write about what these results mean.

On this website there have been many posts devoted to an analysis of international test results and the comparisons that fill the airwaves, the Internet and newspapers.  In the United States  (and in other countries as well) the perception of science (and mathematics) education is driven by published rankings based on science or mathematics achievement test scores.

A few days ago TIMSS and PIRLS released 2011 data on worldwide assessments in mathematics, reading and science.

In the 1980s through 2000 I was involved in a global or international science and environmental science project that began as a collaboration with Soviet science teachers, researchers, and professors of science and ecology.  I’ve written about it here and here. Over the years I traveled more than 25 times to Russia and to other republics in the former Soviet Union, and was involved in teaching in Russian schools, as well as collaborating with other Americans and Russian educators to create the Global Thinking Project, an international science program.  It was an inquiry-based environmental science project in which teachers worked with their students on local environmental issues and questions, used the Internet to collaborate, report, and discuss their findings with peers in other countries.  With time, many other countries joined our effort.  Some of these included Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Czech Republic, Japan, and Spain.

The TIMSS assessments began in 1995, and have continued to the 2012 report, and will continue into the foreseeable future through 2015.  In 1995, at a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual meeting, there was a session on TIMSS at which the directors of the project, many of which represented different countries, spoke about the new international assessment.  I happened to be in attendance, and after the session, I expressed serious doubts about such assessments and later comparisons that would be made.  Even though the directors will tell you that comparisons really are not a valid exercise, it seems to me and many other educators, that comparisons are all that the media seems to report.

Scoreboards

In the media, the way TIMSS and other international (or national) test results are reported is using the sports metaphor of league standings.  TIMSS is kind of analogous to the Olympics in that the main reason for competing is to take home the gold.  In fact, according to the historical record of TIMSS, the U.S. students never score high enough to even merit a bronze medal.  If your country’s students don’t score high enough to get into the top three or four, reports fly in national and local newspapers claiming that the sky is falling, and that the nation’s education is in perilous condition.

The 2012 TIMSS report immediately identifies East Asian countries among the top performers in TIMSS 2011.  Also high percentages of East Asian students reach TIMSS international benchmarks.  Benchmarks are classified by score as low, intermediate, high, and advanced.  These are arbitrary and do not have any basis in research.  They are simply a way to differentiate and classify test ranges.  The media focus on findings such as these, and leaves the impression that comparisons across countries are valid, and helpful.  They are not.

Leader board based on TIMSS Scale Score

Nearly all reports in the media use the data in the first two columns of the chart that I created based on TIMSS 2011, the name of the nation and the TIMSS scale score (either 4th or 8th grade).  Bear in mind that there were 49 countries that participated in TIMSS 2011.  I’ve only listed the top 19.    Note that the top five countries are East Asian and Finland.  The U.S. is in tenth place.

TIMSS Leaderboard based on Science Test Scores, Grade 8
Figure 1. TIMSS Leaderboard based on Science Test Scores, Grade 8

Leader Board Based on Poverty

Very few reports discuss the issue of poverty and its relationship to TIMSS scores.  Here we have listed the countries in descending order based on CIA statistics on poverty levels in the participating nation.  Of the top 19 scoring countries, the U.S. has the 5th highest poverty level.  According the most recent data, the U.S. has a poverty level of 15.1.  Notice that the number of people in the U.S. living in poverty is 46.2 million.  Why we continue to compare countries using average achievement test scores is beyond me.  As many researchers have pointed out, if you don’t take into consideration the poverty concentration of schools, comparisons are meaningless.

The fact is comparisons are simply meaningless, and don’t give one iota!

Nations Listed By Poverty Levels
Figure 2. Nations Listed By Poverty Levels

What is the relationship between student’s scores on TIMSS and poverty? The Pearson correlation coefficient was used to determine the strength of the linear association between poverty and TIMSS scores in 8th grade science.  As we can see here, there is an inverse relationship between 8th grade science scores and the poverty levels in these nations.  The poverty levels, which ranged from 0.9 percent to 24 percent, show a strong negative relationship with science scores.
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The Pearson r for the TIMSS 8th grade Science score and Poverty level = -0.39, which means there is a moderate to negative relationship; in this case the higher the poverty level, the lower the science scale score.

Unless we acknowledge the effect of poverty on achievement, comparisons among countries are not valid.  And if you take a look at Figure 1 again, notice the variation in population for the top 19 countries.  The countries that score at the top of the leader board have populations that range from 2.6 – 15 million, except for Japan which has 127 million people.  Compare that to the population of the U.S. which is 311 million. How can an average score for a country like the U.S., make any sense? The U.S. has more than 13,000 school districts.

Graph of the Relationship between 8th Grade Science Scores and Poverty Levels
Figure 3. Graph of the Relationship between 8th Grade Science Scores and Poverty Levels

 

There are many factors that affect student performance on international tests.  Here are some more factors that play a major role in student achievement as measured on the TIMSS assessment.

Home Resources

As other researchers have reported, socioeconomic factors such as resources available to students greatly affects the success in school.  TIMSS used parents’ reports to decide the level of resources.  Notice that the same inverse relationship with poverty is present here.

Relationship between home resources and science scores at the 4th and 8th grade levels.
Relationship between home resources and science scores at the 4th and 8th grade levels.

 

Affect of Affluence, Safety and Bullying

It is not surprising that students living in affluence and attending schools in affluent neighborhoods do better on tests than students who live and attend schools in poor neighborhoods.  The TIMSS report does discuss the implications of poverty on test scores.  In fact, the word “poverty” only is used once in the 517 page report.  Instead of using the concept of poverty, the managers of TIMSS use the term “disadvantaged.”  Again affluence was directly and positively related to science achievement.

Students also do well on achievement tests when they are in safe environments, there is hardly any discipline problems, and very little bullying.

Student Attitudes

TIMSS reported that students said they liked science did well, and students who had confidence in their ability to learn science, also did well. In project ROSE: The Relevance of Science Education, researchers at the University of Oslo studied the factors of importance to the learning of science and technology (S&T), as perceived by learners.  One finding in the ROSE project was that there was difference in the attitudes of students in Western industrialized nations compared to students in Developing Countries.  It is important to note that students valued science and technology, but students in Developing nations had a positive attitude toward learning science, because students from Western nations tended to have more negative attitudes of school the longer they were in school.

Teaching and Teacher Preparation

According the TIMSS 2011 report, teacher preparation and experience teaching were significant factors in student achievement.  Teachers who had strong background in content and pedagogy were more successful in helping student learn science and math.  And teachers with at least 10 years of experience were the most successful in teaching reading at the 4th grade level, and mathematics and science at the 4th and 8th grade levels.

This is a significant finding in light of the burgeoning business of Teach for America which claims to be successful by preparing teachers to teach in the most difficult schools.  According to TFA, it only requires five weeks of summer training to get élite students ready to teach in urban schools.  According to independent research, TFA recruits teach for only a couple of years.  However, Anthony Cody over on Living in Dialog writes that Wendy Kopp, TFA founder and CEO claims that on average TFA recruits stay in teaching for eight years.  Independent research studies show this not be true, that TFA teachers stay in the classroom for a little more than 2 years on average.

One More Thing

Is the grass greener in other countries?  Is is a valid and useful exercise to test nearly a million kids every few years to publish a report that only pushes the buttons of politicians and policy makers?  What do you think?