challenging failure and success

February 20, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about the assignment of ‘failure’ as a widespread condition of the US educational system… I see a deliberate construction of this narrative which is very effectively generating unprecedented opportunities for profit from supporting schools.  The charter school movement is the most transparent locus for profit, but the textbook and testing industries are further examples of profit-driving-policy initiatives and realities.  I see much good happening in many schools, and in some, more good than not.  The crisis focus dismisses the good that IS happening, blames those in the system- students, teachers, administrators, decision-makers as being responsible for this failure. In addition, the definition of success/failure is currently based on faulty logic— international comparisons are not based on similar realities, targets are inflated (what we expect at any grade level is mis-aligned with what we know to be developmentally appropriate), and what we know from motivation science- the reality that a high-stakes environment impedes rather than promotes achievement.  I am intrigued that as a society, we are so ready to embrace rather than counter this narrative…
Yes, I see the discrepancy between the education we provide for children by skin color and economics as a significant failure- and I am confident that test scores only tell a tiny part of that story.  The issue with NCLB for me is that it pushes down standards and expectations that makes ‘average’ into ‘failing’ and only rewards kids who come to school with the sufficient funds of knowledge to do well on the type of test.  This notion that a common curriculum, common standards and common assessments as a way to provide equitable education is based on an erroneous assumption that a specific fund of knowledge is more valuable than another, and that everyone must aspire to that single definition of ‘success’.  And, the fact that real problems in some schools- the poison of low expectations- most often assigned when the worldviews of teachers and administrators are mismatched with the worldviews of the children and families they serve, is not a reason to subscribe to set of singular, common goals, measured in one common manner.  THAT is where I think we are going drastically wrong and need to re-evaluate the definition of success and the paths to get there.
When I speak to ‘average’ becoming ‘failing’ I am referring to the standards and curriculum, that when compared to developmental continuums independent of school expectations… so, the developmental stages of brain development (which we are learning more and more about every day) and continuums of reading and writing development based on age, not grade specifications… what we ask kids to do is A WHOLE GRADE LEVEL before they are developmentally ready.
Several years ago, when the initial standards and benchmarks came out, I was working with cadres of teachers and we compared new documents with time tested developmental continuums and found, especially in early childhood, but also throughout… that what we asked 6 year olds to do (first graders) is actually developmentally aligned with what 7 year olds are cognitively prepared to do.  The crazy thing is, as development is individual, and nurture can support performing on the leading edge of nature… many kids DO perform at these standards and benchmarks… so… we have determined that these are the appropriate targets.  The issue is… many kids, normally developing… appear to be deficient on the standards and get placed on ILPs and identified for additional support.  On the surface, seems reasonable enough, right?  Except for many of them… their cognitive structures simply have not yet developed… so they perceive themselves as less able, and require additional resources (read financial impact on schools) in cases where, had we simply given them the *free* allocation of additional time, they would have met benchmarks right on target.  SO… average, appears failing… and needs scaffolding to reach success…
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