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?

 

 

 

Reform From Teachers’ Points of View

In today’s culture of reform, it is governors, corporate leaders, politicians, and a few organizations founded and funded by the previous mentioned groups–people who know little of teaching and learning–that are determining the direction of reform. And that reform is one of standardization, holding schools and teachers accountable by testing the “heck” out of kids using tests that according to these outside experts, measure what students are supposed to learn. If they don’t learn it, its the teachers fault.

Today I read two articles that highlight the importance of learning about educational reform from people who know best: teachers and educators.

The first article was written by Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School, in Alexandria, Virginia.  The article, entitled Schools can’t manage poverty, was published in USA Today, and was written after Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan gave the keynote speech to more than 1,200 educators in the Alexandria Public Schools.  The author expresses the view that is held by many practicing teachers, and that it is unreasonable to use the No Child Left Behind mandate that schools will be labeled failures, and teachers fired if they don’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  As Mr. Welsh pointed out, the assessment of schools and teachers can’t not be done without factoring in the social issues that affect student learning such as family, income and class.

Welsh used an analogy comparing successful or failing schools with Arne Duncan’s 1986-1987 Harvard basketball team, which had a 7 – 16 record.  Here is what Mr. Welsh said:

We teachers were told that Duncan would take questions after his speech. Being an English teacher, I prepared a little analogy to ask him about the rationale for labeling schools on the basis of Adequate Yearly Progress. Duncan’s biographies often mention that he was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team during the 1986-87 season, his senior year. I reminded him that that team won only seven games and lost 17. Such a record, I told Duncan, was the mark of a “persistently low achieving” team, which made no “annual yearly progress.” I meant the analogy to be humorous, but teachers sitting near Duncan said he didn’t seem to take it that way.

I went on to say that I assumed Duncan and his teammates did the best they could with the talent they had, and that no matter what improvements they tried to make, it would be foolish to think their team could ever reach the highest benchmark in college basketball — the Final Four. Like his basketball team, I said, many schools are doing the best they can with the students they have, and it is unfair to label such schools as failing.

The other article was written by Alfie Kohn, and was entitled What Passes for School Reform: “Value-Added” Teacher Evaluations and Other Absurdities.  Kohn is one of the most vocal critics of school reform as conceived by the Standards Movement and the No Child Left Behind Act.  Kohn raises some important questions, and indeed suggests that instead of accepting standardized tests as a means of measuring student achievement and being used to assess teacher performance, we ask questions might result in a conversation about reform, e.g. Does this model provide valid and reliable information about teachers (and schools)?  Does learning really lend itself to any kind of “value-added” approach? Do standardized tests assess what matters most about teaching and learning?

As Kohn points out, there is little conversation about these questions, and it might be because:

Unfortunately, the people who know the most about the subject tend to work in the field of education, which means their protests can be dismissed. Educational theorists and researchers are just “educationists” with axes to grind, hopelessly out of touch with real classrooms. And the people who spend their days in real classrooms, teaching our children — well, they’re just afraid of being held accountable, aren’t they? (Actually, proponents of corporate-style school reform find it tricky to attack teachers, per se, so they train their fire instead on the unions that represent them.) Once the people who do the educating have been excluded from a conversation about how to fix education, we end up hearing mostly from politicians, corporate executives, and journalists.

These are two articles that I recommend to you.

Dear Mr. President: Take the Risk, and Try and Humanize Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow, President Obama will send his education blue print to Congress, which, according to the New York Times article, “strikes a careful balance, retaining some key features of the Bush-era law, including its requirement for annual reading and math tests, while proposing far-reaching changes.”

The blue print is really no different than what was put into practice by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and is steeped in a corporate model of teaching and learning that uses test scores to drive the day-to-day work of teachers in schools.  The blue print is being sent to Congress less than a month after the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.   I am in the midst of reading her book, and I can tell you that the previous administration, nor the current one will appreciate her conclusions, that basically we have it all wrong when it comes to reforming education by means of the NCLB approach which offered no insights about improving curriculum and professional development of teachers, but assumed that the corporate model applied to schooling would result in improved scores on achievement tests, and that using a top-down, dictatorial management style would keep teachers in toe (and off guard), parents worrying if their kid would pass the next test, and students not sure of what to expect, other than the next test.  Ravitch at one time supported the corporate model, and the NCLB act, but has since been convinced that these have been a disaster for the American school, and that instead of a corporate model, what is needed is a communal model that advocates values that advocates humanistic values.

In May, 2009 I wrote a “letter” to the President, and I am republishing it here, to coincide with Monday’s presentation of the President’s blue print for education.  I have great admiration for President Obama, and I hope that he will pursue an educational agenda that challenges what has been the status quo for too many years.  Although I am not convinced that our Secretary of Education is flexible enough to see beyond the corporate model that he is pushing through his reform efforts, especially the Race to the Top Fund.

The Letter

So here is my letter (originally published May 2, 2009),  which I sent onto the President today.

We know you have a lot on your plate—a deep recession, two wars in the Middle East, health care reform, extreme partisanship, the fast spreading swine flu. Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–has yet to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many science teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.

Your beliefs and your experiences are are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming science education from a humanistic science tradition.

Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.

Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and theDepartment of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure. These are all positive initiatives, and I think they have received enormous support within the science teaching community.

The reform of science teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view of science to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm impies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward. I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.

In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.

From the cover of Barack Obama's book
From the cover of Barack Obama’s book

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I will propose here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school. In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching. Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle. The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state department’s of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind. There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the National Science Education Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.

I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).

Humanistic science education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional school science, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science. A humanistic science perspective tends to be context-based or science-technology-society based. Instead of a science concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic science teacher starts with contexts and applications of science. Science concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic science teaching trives in STS programs, environmental science projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations. These experiences shed light on science-related social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about science, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve science-related social issues. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themsleves as citizen-scientists, using social and scientific processes to solve real problems.

Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your able Education Secretary, Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.

I suggest that for meaninful reform in science teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related science education research; refom needs to be in the hands of professional teachers.

Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.

Resources: Grounding Humanistic Science in Research—Starting Places:

Dear Mr. President: The Need for Meaningful Reform in Science Teaching

We know you have a lot on your plate—a deep recession, two wars in the Middle East, health care reform, extreme partisanship, the fast spreading swine flu. Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–has yet to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many science teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.

Your beliefs and your experiences are are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming science education from a humanistic science tradition.

Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.

Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure. These are all positive initiatives, and I think they have received enormous support within the science teaching community.

The reform of science teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view of science to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm impies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward. I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.

In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.

From the cover of Barack Obama's book
From the cover of Barack Obama's book

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I will propose here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school. In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching. Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle. The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state department’s of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind. There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the National Science Education Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.

I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).

Humanistic science education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional school science, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science. A humanistic science perspective tends to be context-based or science-technology-society based. Instead of a science concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic science teacher starts with contexts and applications of science. Science concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic science teaching trives in STS programs, environmental science projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations. These experiences shed light on science-related social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about science, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve science-related social issues. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themsleves as citizen-scientists, using social and scientific processes to solve real problems.

Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your able Education Secretary, Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.

I suggest that for meaninful reform in science teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related science education research; refom needs to be on the hands of professional teachers.

Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.

Resources: Grounding Humanistic Science in Research—Starting Places:

Reform in Science Education?

With the inauguration of President-Elect Obama less than 30 days away, and with his selection of Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, as the Secretary of Education, there has been discussion in the press, on blogs, and in professional education societies about the future of education, and how the new administration will deal with teacher tenure, relationships with teacher unions, teacher education, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the “R” word, “Reform.”

Is the present system of education willing to paint a different picture for students and teachers?
Is the present system of education willing to paint a different picture for students and teachers?

According to many educators, the NCLB act was a movement to reform education, to hold schools accountable to the education of students by implementing stiff standards, and creating tests that would measure student performance and then could be used to induce students to “higher” levels of achievement.  To many, these ideas seemed reasonable.  Who would be against accountability?  Who wouldn’t want more rigorous schools?

In my own view, the ideas that are foundation of current educational reform as enacted in the NCLB act and in the Standards movement are based on a traditional model of education, and to make progress in reforming education, administrators from Washington DC to school systems around the country will need to think and act in different ways.  Conventional wisdom supports current efforts to reform education.  Conventional wisdom supports an educational system that:

  • Generates high-stakes tests to measure student achievement, tests that are typically decontextualized, and of the multiple choice format.  They rarely involve the students in any sort of authentic knowing or learning.
  • Encourages teachers to promote a form teaching that emphasizes rote learning—e.g. memorization, and practicing for the test.
  • Is behaviorist in nature in the sense that rewards and punishments are used to “motivate” teachers and students, and indeed in a growing number of situations, money is used to reward students, and teachers. A corporate model is seen as the cog in educational reform.  How could anyone distrust the corporate model?  Huh!
  • Charter schools are the answer to how schools should be organized, especially if the charter school is run by a corporation.

These are only a few of the ideas that seem to dominate the discussion of educational reform.  Yet, for most of these “innovations,” there is little educational research to support any of them.  For instance, the use of tests to keep student back a grade has been shown to counterproductive, and indeed the use of high-stakes tests have actually resulted in an increased dropout rate, and a decreased graduation rate.

In most discussions of educational reform, even in the thinking of new Secretary of Education, reform is based on the traditional model of teaching and learning which is mechanized, individualistic, dependent on teacher-directed activities, hierarchical—that is students rarely choose content or methodology, and finally I would add the basic emphasis is on literacy—the attainment and achievement of content knowledge—as defined in the standards.

This model of education has been around forever.  Tweaking the NCLB act would only reinforce this model, and in my own view it wouldn’t matter which political party was in Washington.  What is needed is a reformer in Washington who truly would pay attention to educational research, and base decisions and directions on educational research rather than on political will.  Is there research that might help us see education from a different perspective?

Tomorrow I want to explore some ideas that would address the issue of (science) education reform.

In the meantime, here are some ideas to consider:

Is Duncan a good choice for Education Secretary? This is a brief article by a professor at the University of Chicago, who makes the claim that Duncan is not a good choice.

What is Duncan’s view of teacher unions?  An article that shows that Duncan get along with unions, but also is an educational reformer—of sorts.

The Case Against Tougher Standards and the NCLB act by Alfie Kohn. A powerful article that supports the contention that the Standards movement and the NCLB act is moving education in the wrong direction.

The Status of Reform by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes comments about the nature of reform, and unlikelihood that the kind of reform he has in mind is the kind of reform that swirls around DC education circles.