“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

Posted at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled, college instructor Rick Diguette offers a grim picture of first year college writing:

Once upon a time I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall.  But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I read this just after I had been mulling Jessica Lahey’s What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator, and I recognize in both pieces several overlapping concerns that deserve greater consideration as well as some warranted push back.

“Students Today…”

Let me first frame my response by noting that I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina—where I focused heavily on student writing—and now have been in teacher education for an additional 13 years. My primary role is to prepare future English teachers, but I also serve as the university Faculty Director for First Year Seminars, and thus support the teaching of writing at my university.

In both Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces, we must confront a problematic although enduring sense that “students today” are somehow fundamentally different than students in the past, and that difference is always that “students today” are worse. Students today can’t even write a complete sentence (Diguette), and students today are cheating like there is no tomorrow (Lahey).

This sort of “students today” crisis discourse fails us, I believe, because it is fundamentally skewed by our tendency to be nostalgic about the past as well as by shifting far too much focus on lamenting conditions instead of addressing them.

I offer, then, a broad response to both Diguette’s and Lahey’s central points: Let’s not address student writing and plagiarism/cheating as if these are unique or fundamentally worse concerns for teachers and education in 2014 than at any other point in modern U.S. education.

And for context, especially regarding students as writers, I offer the work of Lou LaBrant on teaching writing (see sources below) and my own examination of teaching writing built on LaBrant’s work; in short:

In “Writing Is More than Structure,” LaBrant (1957) says that “an inherent quality in writing is responsibility for what is said. There is therefore a moral quality in the composition of any piece” (p. 256). For LaBrant, the integrity of the content of a student’s writing outweighs considerably any surface features. In that same article, she offers a metaphor that captures precisely her view of the debate surrounding the teaching of writing—a debate that has persisted in the English field throughout this century: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (p. 256)….

…LaBrant sought ultimately through writing instruction the self-actualized literate adult, the sophisticated thinker. She never wavered in her demand that writing instruction was primarily concerned with making sincere and valuable meaning—not as a means to inculcate a set of arbitrary and misleading rules, rules that were static yet being imposed on a language in flux.

Lou LaBrant remained paradoxically rigid in her stance: The writing curriculum had to be open-ended and child-centered; the content of writing came first, followed by conforming to the conventions; and English teachers had to be master writers, master descriptive grammarians, and historians of the language. It all seemed quite obvious to her, since she personified those qualities that she demanded. LaBrant was one of many who embodied the debates that surround the field of teaching English, and she left writing teachers with one lingering question: Do we want our students drawing blueprints or building houses? The answer is obvious. (pp. 85, 89)

Instead of framing student writing and plagiarism, then, within crisis discourse, we must view the teaching of writing and the need to instill scholarly ethics in our students as fundamental and enduring aspects of teaching at every level of formal schooling. In other words, the problems in student work we encounter as teachers—such as garbled claims; shoddy grammar, mechanics, and usage; improperly cited sources; plagiarism—are simply the foundations upon which we teach.

Along with the essential flaw of viewing “students today” as inferior to students of the past, the urge to lament that students come to any of us poorly prepared by those who taught them before is also misleading and more distraction.

We certainly could and should do a better job moving students along through formal education (see my discussion of common experiences versus standards), but the simple fact is that each teacher must take every student where she/he is and then move that student forward as well as possible. Formal standards and implied expectations about where all students should be mean little in the real world where our job as teachers is bound to each student’s background, proclivities, and all the contexts that support or impede that student’s ability to grow and learn.

Now, before moving on, let me introduce another point about our perceptions of how and when students “learn” literacy. Consider the common view of children learning to read by third grade, for example. As reported at NPR, this widespread assumption that students acquire reading by third (or any) grade is flawed because children and adults continue to evolve as readers (and writers) in ways that defy neat linear categories.

As educator professor and scholar Peter Smagorinsky notes in his response to Diguette, “Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.”

On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

None of what I have offered so far relieves teachers of this truth: All students need (deserve) writing instruction and that must include serious considerations of proper citations as well as focusing on the ethical implications of being a scholar and a writer (and citizen, of course).

And while I disagree with claims that “students today” are fundamentally worse writers or more prone to plagiarism than students in the past, I do recognize that we can expose why students perform as they do as writers and why students plagiarize and settle for shoddy citation.

Whether we are concerned about the claims or organization in a student writing sample, the surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage), faulty attribution of citations, or outright plagiarism, a central root cause of those issues can be traced to the current thirty-years cycle of public school accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Smagorinsky does, I want to urge anyone concerned about student writing to consider the conclusions drawn by Applebee and Langer regarding the teaching of writing in middle and high school (see my review at Teachers College Record).

Applebee and Langer present a truly disheartening examination of the consequences related to the accountability era as they impact student writing: Although teachers are more aware than ever of best practices in the teaching of writing (due in no small part to the rise of the National Writing Project in the 1970s and 1980s), throughout middle and high school, students are not writing in ways that foster their abilities to generate original ideas; establish, support, and elaborate on credible claims; and polish writing that conforms to traditional conventions for language.

The primary reasons behind this failure are not “bad” teachers or lazy/stupid students, but the demands linked to high-stakes accountability. Just as one example, please consider Thomas Newkirk’s challenge to the unintended and corrosive consequences of writing being added to the SAT in 2005.

The writing section of the SAT has negatively impacted the teaching of writing in the following ways, all of which can be found in contexts related to preparing students for other high-stakes testing situations related to state-based accountability (although NCTE warned about these consequences from the beginning):

  • Writing (composition) is reduced to what can be tested in multiple-choice format. In other words, students are being taught and assessed for writing in ways that are not composing. Here we have the central failure of allowing testing formats to correlate with holistic performances, and thus, students are not invited or allowed to spend the needed time for developing those holistic performances (composing). See LaBrant (1953) “Writing Is Learned by Writing.”
  • Students write primarily or exclusively from detailed prompts and rubrics assigned by teachers or formulated by test designers. Ultimately, by college, few students have extended experiences with confronting the wide range of decisions that writers make in order to form credible and coherent ideas into a final written form. If many college students cannot write as well as professors would like, the reason is likely that many of those students have never had the opportunity to write in ways that we expect for college students. Students have been drilled in writing for the Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and state accountability tests, but those are not the types of thinking and writing needed by young scholars.
  • Students have not experienced extended opportunities to draft original essays over a long period of time while receiving feedback from their teachers and peers; in other words, students have rarely experienced workshop opportunities because teachers do not have the time for such practices in a high-stakes environment that is complicated by budget cut-backs resulting in enormous class sizes that are not conducive to effective writing instruction.

The more productive and credible approach to considering why students write poorly or drift into plagiarism, then, is to confront the commitments we have made to education broadly. The accountability era put a halt to best practice in writing for our teachers and students so we should not be shocked about what college professors see when first year students enter their classes.

But another source of shoddy student writing must not be ignored.

Within that larger context of accountability, student writing that is prompted tends to have much weaker characteristics (content as well as surface features including proper citation) than writing for which students have genuine engagement (see the work of George Hillocks, for example). In other words, while students are not composing nearly enough in their K-12 experiences (and not receiving adequate direct instruction of writing at any formal level), when students do write, the assignments tend to foster the worst sorts of weaknesses highlighted by Diguette and Lahey.

Shoddy ideas and careless editing as well as plagiarism are often the consequences of assigned writing about which students do not care and often do not understand. (Higher quality writing and reducing plagiarism [Thomas, 2007] can be accomplished by student choice and drafting original essays over extended time with close monitoring by the teacher, by the way.)

And this leads back to my main argument about how to respond to both Diguette and Lahey: As teachers in K-12 and higher education, we have a moral obligation to teach students to be writers and to be ethical. Period.

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter why students struggle with writing or plagiarism at any level of formal education because we must address those issues when students enter our rooms, and we must set aside the expectation that students come to us “fixed.”

In other words, like most of education, learning to write and polishing ones sense of proper citation as well as the ethical demands of expression are life-long journeys, not goals anyone ever finishes.

However, in the current high-stakes accountability era of K-12 education—and the likelihood this is spreading to higher education—I must concur with Smagorinsky:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.

And I will add that if college professors want students who write well and ethically, they (we) must commit to continuing to teach writing throughout any students formal education—instead of lamenting when those students don’t come to us already “fixed.”

Writing and ethical expression have never been addressed in formal schooling in the ways they deserve; both have been mostly about technical details and domains of punishment. The current accountability era has reinforced those traditional failures.

I find Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces both very important and seriously dangerous because they are likely to result in more misguided “blaming the victims” in that too many of the conclusions drawn about why students write poorly and often plagiarize remain focused on labeling teachers and students as flawed.

That students write poorly and often plagiarize is evidence of systemic failures, first and foremost. In order for the outcomes—effective and ethical student writers—to occur, then, we all must change the conditions and expectations of formal education, including understanding that all teachers are obligated to identify our students strengths and needs in order to start there and see how far we can go.

Final Thoughts: Adult Hypocrisy

Many of you may want to stop now. The above is my sanitized response, but it isn’t what I really want to say so here goes.

If you wonder why students write poorly and too often plagiarize, I suggest you stroll into whatever room has the biggest mirror and look for a moment.

As someone who is a writer and editor, I work daily with scholars and other writers who submit work far more shoddy than my students submit.

And as an increasingly old man, I witness the adult world that is nothing like the idealized and ridiculous expectations we level moment by moment on children.

Plagiarism? You too can become vice president of the U.S.!

Lazy student? You can become president of the U.S.!

Now, I absolutely believe we must have high expectations for our students, including a nuanced and powerful expectation for ethical behavior, but many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet. The adults in the U.S. (especially if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are a man) play a much different ethical game than what we tell children.

Children see through such bunkum and that teaches a much different lesson that doesn’t do any of us any good.

For Further Reading

The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?, Thomas Newkirk

On Children and Childhood

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

References

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About IntegrationThe English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writingElementary English27(4), 261-265.

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P. L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P. L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

PISA Brainwashing: Measure, Rank, Repeat

When Mary Catherine Bradshaw, a teacher since 1984 in Nashville, TN, announced her retirement from public schools, Bradshaw pointed her finger at one major reason, standardized testing:

[S]he says standardized testing is the reason….

Testing, she said, has taken away from instructional time and taken the joy out of learning.

Much has changed, she said, since she took her first job as a teacher at Hillsboro in 1984 when she said she was attracted to its diversity and commitment to academic reputation.

“There was more of a focus on the whole student, the joy of learning, building a community and finding one’s own passion in the midst of the K-12 experience,” she said.

“Now, with the focus on testing, data collection and closing a too narrowly defined gap among learners, I have found myself ready to retire from public education.”

Bradshaw’s concern about the loss of joy due to the central place of testing in education is echoed in a recent statement about PISA rankings [1], as Peter Wilby details in Academics warn international school league tables are killing ‘joy of learning’:

Now nearly 100 leading educational figures from around the world have issued an unprecedented challenge to Pisa – and what they call “the negative consequences” of its rankings – in a letter to its director, Andreas Schleicher….

“Education policy across the world is being driven by the single aim of pushing up national performance levels on Pisa,” says one signatory, Stephen Ball, professor at London university’s Institute of Education. “It’s having a tremendously distorting effect, right down to the level of classroom teaching.” Another signatory, Sally Tomlinson, research fellow at Oxford university’s education department, says that, though the Pisa league tables appear to be scientifically based, “you really can’t compare a country the size of Liechtenstein with one the size of China and nor can you compare education systems that developed over the years in different political, social and cultural contexts”.

The signatories are particularly concerned about the UK, the US and other countries imitating schools in Asian countries that come high in the Pisa rankings. They are suspicious of Shanghai’s success. “Shanghai’s approach is an incredibly strategic one,” says Ball. “Their students practise the tests. It’s difficult to see what their maths teachers can say to ours except ‘teach to the test’.”

While international rankings based on test scores have influenced public perception of U.S. public education for at least 60+ years (see Hyman Rickover’s books lamenting U.S. rankings, for example), state rankings based on NAEP and SAT/ACT scores have also been central to perception as well as policy, especially since the early 1980s.

While the open letter to Schleicher is a powerful and important challenge to the misleading influence of PISA, the essential problem is high-stakes testing coupled with ranking as well as a persistent misinterpretation of test data (see this excellent examination of how test scores are misunderstood and misused).

As I have addressed often about the SAT (see HERE and HERE), even when a comparison of states appears fair and accurate—South Carolina with Mississippi, for example, since the states share a similar high-poverty demographics of students—the reality is far more complex: MS has a higher SAT average score than SC because the test-taking populations of students are significantly different despite the overall student populations being similar:

Two Southern states, Mississippi and South Carolina, share both a long history of high poverty rates (Mississippi at over 30% and SC at over 25%) and reputations for poor schools systems. Yet, when we compare the SAT scores (pdf) from Mississippi in 2010 (CR 566, M 548, W 552 for a 1,666 total) to SAT scores in SC (CR 484, 495, 468 for a 1,447 total), we may be compelled to charge that Mississippi has overcome a higher poverty rate than South Carolina to achieve, on average, a score 219 points higher.

This conclusion, based on a “few data points”, is factually accurate, but ultimately misleading once we add just one more data point: the percentage of students taking the exam. Just 3% of Mississippi seniors took the exam, compared to 66% in South Carolina. A fact of statistics tells us that SC’s larger percentage taking the exam is much closer to the normal distribution of the all seniors in that state, thus the average must be lower than a uniquely elite population, such as in Mississippi. Here, the statistics determined by the populations taking the exam trump the raw data of test averages, even when placed in the context of poverty. (The truth about failure in US schools)

Even if the open letter about PISA prompts reform by the OECD, we have evidence that the problem will persist. For example, The College Board struggles with both the statistical complexity of SAT data (see here about the recentering) and the misleading use of SAT data to rank states:

Educators, the media and others should:

8.1 Not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on aggregate scores derived from tests
that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students. Do not use aggregate scores as the single measure to
rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts, or states.

And yet, each year when SAT data are released, the media, political leaders, and public school critics rank states and pronounce schools a failure.

The open letter about PISA implores, “Slow down the testing juggernaut,” adding:

OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. As Pisa has led many governments into an international competition for higher test scores, OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world, with no debate about the necessity or limitations of OECD’s goals. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.

Once we apply the brakes, we must then take a close look at the fundamental policy errors—high-stakes standardized testing, labeling, sorting, and ranking—and then abandon those practices for alternatives that address inequity both outside and inside schools and that honor the essential dignity and humanity of students and their teachers.

For Further Reading

Among the Many Things Wrong With International Achievement Comparisons, Gene V. Glass

More Things Wrong with International Assessments Like PISA, Gene V. Glass

[1] As full disclosure, I am a signatory on the letter.

Writing Is a Journey: Thoughts on Writing, College, and the SAT

A writer’s writer often ignored is James Baldwin, who examines his drive to write in the context of race:

INTERVIEWER

If you felt that it was a white man’s world, what made you think that there was any point in writing? And why is writing a white man’s world?

BALDWIN

Because they own the business. Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket. (The Paris Review interview)

Prompted by the announcement from the College Board that the SAT would be revamped in 2016, including dropping the writing section added in 2005, The New York Times has included a Room for Debate on Can Writing Be Assessed?

So, unlike the moment when the SAT added writing (one that heralded only doom for the field of composition), I want to take this moment to examine writing and the teaching of writing because dropping writing from the SAT may prove to be a positive watershed moment for both.

First, let me offer a few points of context.

I am 53 and have been teaching for 31 years, most of that life and career dedicated to writing and teaching writing. I read and write every day—much of that reading and writing is serious in that it is connected to my professional work. But I also read and write extensively for pleasure, including my life as a poet.

Two facts about my writing life: (1) I write because I must, not because I choose to, and (2) I am always learning to write because writing is a journey, not something one can acquire fully or finish.

As well, I strongly embrace the foundational belief that writing is an essential aspect of human liberty, autonomy, agency, and dignity; this is part of the grounding of my work as a critical educator. Living and learning must necessarily include reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing the world (see Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene, just to mention a few).

Writing is also integral to academics, in terms of learning and scholarship. Writing is part of the learning process, but it is also a primary vehicle for scholarly expression.

Next, considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardized the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.

Adding writing to the SAT in 2005, then, was one of several powerful contexts that have seriously crippled the teaching of writing in formal education; those forces include also:

All three of the above fail the fundamental value in writing because they distract from the process and act of writing as well as misread writing a a fixed skill that can be attained at some designated point along the formal education continuum.

As the Faculty Director of First Year Seminars at my university, I focus primarily on how we address the teaching of writing in those seminars (and throughout the curriculum). That role has highlighted for me a lesson I also learned while teaching high school English for 18 years: Many teachers, including English teachers, do not see themselves as writing teachers and often expect that students should come to their courses already proficient writers.

Essentially, then, using a writing assessment of some sort to identify students as college-ready as writers perpetuates the idea that we can and should have students demonstrating some fixed writing outcomes before we allow them access to higher education; this presumes in some ways that college will not be a place where people can and should learn to write.

In much the same way that the accountability paradigm is misguided in fixating on outcomes over conditions, seeing writing as a measurable skill useful for gatekeeping college entrance shifts our focus away from what experiences students need so that their continual learning to write in college can be better supported.

Yes, student outcomes matter, and samples of student writing in the right contexts may provide some powerful evidence of what students know as writers and what students need as writers. But something in the addition of writing to the 2005 SAT must not be forgotten: One-draft, timed, and prompted writing scored by rubrics, and even by computers, works against the important goals of writing [1].

Just as grading should be shunned for feedback when teaching writing (see my chapter here), the question is not if writing can be assessed, but how do we insure that all students have access to the common experiences necessary at all point along the formal education experience?

What, then, are those common experiences—and once we implement those, how do we document those experiences in order to support both students having equitable access to higher education and to the continual learning to write that must be central throughout higher education?

Some thoughts on common experiences:

  • Rich and multi-genre/media reading experiences that include choice and assigned reading. Students need to develop genre awareness and discipline-specific awareness as readers.
  • Rich and multi-genre/media writing experiences that include the following: choice and assigned writing, peer and teacher feedback and conferences, workshop experiences drafting short and extended multi-draft compositions, and discipline-specific writing experiences.
  • Analysis of and experiences with a wide range of citation and documentation style sheets for integrating primary and secondary sources in original writing.
  • Continual consideration of expectations for writing both in academic/school settings and real world settings—challenging school-based norms such as thesis sentences and template essay formats.

While this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, the point is that instead of seeking ways in which we can assess well test-based writing or continuing to explore tests and metrics that correlate strongly with actual writing proficiencies, we must commit ourselves to all students having the sorts of common experiences with writing necessary to grow as writers—both for their own agency and their academic pursuits.

Finally, if we can commit to these conditions of learning instead of outcomes, we should then find ways to gather artifacts of these common experiences to use instead of metrics as we guide students through—and not gatekeep them from—formal education.

INTERVIEWER

Did what you wanted to write about come easily to you from the start?

BALDWIN

I had to be released from a terrible shyness—an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody. (The Paris Review interview)

[1] See The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us? (Newkirk)From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading, and More on Failing Writing, and Students.

NOTE: For a historical perspective on teaching writing see selected works by Lou LaBrant.

David Coleman’s Latest Khan

Maybe we need a Khan Academy video series to help the public in the U.S. understand the term “free.”

When you are driving late at night, and you are in unfamiliar rural America in need of a hotel, you see a relatively rundown hotel with a sign announcing “FREE CABLE!”

Well, of course, if you stop and pay for the room, that cable is not “free” (the honest term would be “included”); the cost of that cable is included in the hotel’s operating expenses, which are covered by the rates charged customers.

You see, nothing is free in the consumer culture of the United States—even for those people who have been demonized as “freeloaders,” those receiving welfare or disability or some other access to funds that the U.S. public has deemed unfair (oddly, that doesn’t seem to apply to the uber-wealthy and their trust funds or inheritances, hmmm). If someone acquires anything in the good ol’ USA, somebody is paying for it (and somebody is profiting), and it is often the person who is told she/he is receiving it for “free.”

So we must be quite concerned about this: College Board Enlists Khan Academy to Provide Free Online SAT Prep.

Which is the Cool Whip on the dung pie being offered by the College Board—and led by David Coleman: New SAT To Bring Back 1600-Point Scale — With Optional Essay.

In short, don’t buy it, and especially important, don’t swallow it.

The 2016 SAT reboot is all nonsense, but as disturbing is the monstrosity that is forming as Common Core (another Coleman creation), the SAT and presumably other parts of the College Board (President and CEO Coleman), Pearson, and Sal Khan join forces like a really bad Hollywood production of Marvel’s The Avengers (wait, that has already happened).

Lest we forget, below are some reminders about Khan Academy, and I can recycle from my latest post on the SAT reboot: “No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”

Part I: [From Schools Matter, March 12, 2012]

Ever wonder how you can become an educator, education expert, or education reformer?

Well, since 60 Minutes has bought into the most recent con-du-jour, the Khan Academy, let’s consider how people become educators.

How about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

Peter Smagorinsky puts it best:

“Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.”

Or how about Bill Gates? This one is easy, to become an education expert or education reformer, amass billions of dollars.

And Michelle Rhee? Bypass the education establishment by not receiving any degrees in education, become a leader by entering the classroom through TFA, teach three years, and then attain your credibility by firing teachers and creating an education system built on fraudulent test data.

This brings us back to Sal Khan—whose wikipedia page identifies him as an “American educator.” 

Pretty impressive considering he, like Rhee, Duncan, and Gates, has no degrees in education, and like Duncan and Gates, has no experience teaching.

But he got tired of his day job, started tutoring his relatives, made some videos, and now is a full-fledged educator. And according to CBS, he may be the future of education.

I don’t see myself grabbing billions any time soon, or having the connections Duncan and Rhee have to get on the appointment train.

So like Khan, I think I’ll just announce what I am and go from there…

I am a nuclear physicist…

[waits patiently for CBS to call]

Reconsidering the Khan Academy

The Best Posts About The Khan Academy

This Khan Academy History Video Is Just Awful

Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time

Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy

The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy

Khan Academy: Improving school by changing nothing

Part II: Why All the Khan-troversy? [Schools Matter, July 26, 2012]

At The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss has spurred a debate over the definition of slope—not exactly the sort of detailed intellectual stuff we might expect in a newspaper.

The discussion of the finer points of mathematics is more akin to the nuanced conversations you may find in a university math department or a scholarly journal. But the source of this controversy is Sal Khan and his Khan Academy—which leads us to our need to pull back from the slope debate and address just why is there a controversy about Khan?

I don’t know Sal Khan, and I recognize the inherent danger in making claims about anyone’s intent. On the surface, Khan’s drive to make educational videos accessible to more people has some elements of equity and social justice that I share, but those stated goals are deeply marred by the fact that the equity gap embedded in all technology appears likely to wipe out any access advantage Khan claims his academy offers.

This leads to one very important point about the Khan Academy: The problems with the Khan Academy are primarily couched in the many distorted and corrosive messages and assumptions that the Khan Academy perpetuates as well as how political, popular, and media responses to the Khan Academy deform the education reform debate. Here are the reasons for the controversy:

• Sal Khan directly and indirectly (through media messages about him and his videos) perpetuates a popular and flawed assumption that effective teaching is a direct and singular extension of content expertise. Khan’s allure is in part built on the misguided view in the U.S. that anyone who can do, can also teach. Khan has neither the expertise nor experience as a teacher to justify the praise and claims made about him or his academy. Khan is a celebrity entrepreneur, not an educator. [If Khan had created a series of free videos showing people how to do surgery, I suspect the response would be different, although the essence of the venture is little different.]

• The videos themselves are nothing more than textbooks, static containers of fixed content. Learning, then, is reduced to the acquisition of static knowledge. The videos reinforce that content is value-neutral (it isn’t), and the videos allow teaching and learning to remain within a transmissional paradigm that is neither new nor what is best for the purposes of universal public education in a free society. Whether a video, a textbook, or a set of standards, fixed content removes the agency from the teacher and the learner about what content matters. While the videos are offered as substitutes for lectures, Khan and those who support the academy appear unaware that even lectures in classrooms are reinforced by discussions—content is presented and then negotiated among teachers and students.

• Inherent in the allure of the Khan Academy is the naive faith that technology is somehow offering teaching and learning something new, something revolutionary. The blunt truth, however, is that technology has been heralded for that quality for a century now, and it simply isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Khan’s videos are no more revolutionary than the radio, TV, VHS player, or the laser disc. Technology is often, as with the Khan Academy, a tragic waste of time and energy that misleads us away from the very human endeavors of teaching and learning. Technology at its worst is when it further isolates the learner and learning—already a central problem with traditional classroom practices.

• Sal Khan as a celebrity and self-proclaimed educator feeds into and perpetuates the cultural belief that education is somehow not a scholarly field and that education is a failure because of the entrenched nature of the “education establishment.” Khan as an outsider hasn’t thought of anything that hasn’t already been considered by the many and varied scholars and practitioners in education. Does any field benefit from ideas and practices outside that field? Yes, that is not the issue. But Khan is but one of many of the leading voices heralded as educational revolutionaries (think Gates ad Rhee) who have either no or very little experience or expertise in education. The ugly truth is that if education is failing, that failure is likely because the scholars and practitioners in education have never had the primary voice in how education should be implemented. The great irony is that education scholars and practitioners (notably critical ones) are the true outsiders of the “education establishment.” If you want to know something about math and how to teach it, talk with my high school math teacher first, and then you may be able to decide how valuable Khan’s work is.

• The Khan Academy reinforces the misguided faith we have in a silver-bullet answer to complex educational problems. Education in the U.S. is not suffering from a lack of packaged content (in fact, our commitment to textbooks is one of the major problems in public education); education is burdened by social and education inequities that are far more complex than substituting classroom lectures with videos anyone can access (if that person has internet access and the hardware to view the videos). It is easier and less painful to praise the essentially empty solution Khan is offering than to confront the serious failures of inequity remaining in U.S. society and public education.

Without the fanfare and hyperbole, Khan’s quest to make content accessible online may have some real value—if Khan is willing to bring into that plan the expertise of education scholars and practitioners. Khan’s plan would certainly benefit from a strong dose of humility; a first step to real learning is to acknowledge what one does not know.

But Khan and his academy are likely doomed because of the feeding frenzy around him. The public and media have an unquenchable thirst for rugged individualism, a thirst that is blind, deaf, and ultimately corrosive; and Khan appears to present a simplistic message about how to save a very important but complicated public institution.

The controversy about Khan isn’t about the definition of slope, but the slippery slope of believing the hype because that is easier to swallow than the truth.

Note: See the critique by Christopher Danielson and Michael Paul Goldenberg for a more detailed explanation of problems I have identified above.

SAT Reboot 2016: “Nonsense It All Is”

In the often cited scene near the end of Notting Hill when Anna Scott stands in William Thacker’s shabby book store and asks him to love her, few are likely to recall a key point made by Anna.

But let’s imagine for a moment that instead of trying to save her relationship with William, Anna returns to the store to talk to him about the plan to reboot the SAT in 2016, and instead of the “I’m just a girl” bit, we focus on this from Anna:

“No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”

And there you have it, neatly dressed in Hollywood garb, but essentially how we must all respond to the David Coleman-led charge to merge the Common Core (the newest education scam) with the SAT (possibly the oldest and longest running education scam).

Not long ago, I reasserted about the SAT: What is the SAT Good For? Absolutely Nothing, noting in part:

  • The College Board itself cautions against using the SAT for any comparative purposes: “Educators, the media and others should…not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on the basis of aggregate scores derived from tests that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students.” Average SAT scores for any state reflect the affluence of the test takers and the relative percentage of test takes—but certainly not the quality of the schools or the teachers.
  • The College Board’s own research repeatedly confirms that SAT scores are less predictive of freshman college success than GPA. (See Table 5, p. 5)
  • SAT scores historically and currently are most strongly correlated with parental income and level of education for parents. Select any year from the archived data, and these facts are confirmed. In short, the SAT is a metric that confirms privilege more so than identifying academic achievement or academic readiness for college (except in which ways those are inextricably tied to privilege).

I cannot fathom any reason to believe this 2016 reboot will create changes to draw a different conclusion. In fact, this reboot is just another publicity move by the College Board/SAT that falls in line with recent history: the mid-1990s re-centering (scores were dropping due to the testing pool changing and thus the SAT was getting bad press), the expansion in 2005 (the University of California caused a stir by calling for opting out of the SAT and thus the SAT was getting bad press), and now the 2016 reboot (the ACT surpassed the SAT in number of students taking the exam and thus the SAT was getting bad press).

There simply has never been and will never be a way to justify the time and expense needed to implement single-sitting standardized tests in pursuit of doing something for which we already have rich, credible, and free data (GPA) to guide decisions about students entering higher education.

The relentless faith in the SAT (and ACT) in the U.S. is trapped inside a misguided belief in objectivity—even though standardized tests have been shown repeatedly to perpetuate biases related to class, race, and gender.

This is the third major time the SAT has opened the door to reconsidering the test. The first two times, we mostly just walked in and sat right back at the table that was not really different at all except for the table cloth.

This third time, now that the SAT has opened the door again, we must kick it out, and ask Coleman and company to take the Common Core with them.

The 2016 reboot of the SAT is nonsense, “it’s all nonsense, believe me.”

And just as William did (briefly) when Anna came calling once again, we must take a stand and tell the College Board: “Can I just say no to your kind request?”

Please considering the following as well:

“New” SAT Plan Fails to Address Exam’s Major Flaws

FairTest Questions the College Board on Plans for “New” SAT

The key problem the SAT changes won’t fix

At The OnionChanges To The SAT

Our Real-World Dystopia

As a science fiction (SF) fan, partial to dystopian SF, and writer, I would have a great novel on my hands if this weren’t simply the way things are.

How to create a real-world dystopia:

  1. Identify “privilege” as “achievement” using a mechanism that you label “scientific” and “standard.”
  2. Use “achievement” to create the authority class.
  3. Repeat.

Sounds easy, but some may call this outlandish. So let me offer a visual:

SAT 2013 OOS factors

2013 SAT Data

And for those who enjoy the power of the word, let me offer this:

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg – or – the Advantages and Limits of “Research” or, How Children Succeed v. Borderliners , Ira Socol

Dystopias are hard to see when you live in one—just as fish have no idea what “water” means.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf