“SAT scores for the Class of 2015 were the lowest since the test was revised and re-normed in 2005.”
“This year’s reading score is the lowest average score ever published. Math scores have not been this low since 1999.”
“Education reform isn’t hitting a wall. It is the wall.”
This is not a clean bill of health for our education system, as discussed in this Washington Post article.
To me, education seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of reform. Working in my ninth year at my current district, I’m working with my second spelling/word study program, a second science program (currently being revised to begin implementation of the third), a third social studies program, and fourth math program. I’m currently attempting to still sort through the revamped LA curriculum from last year and successfully implement a 1:1 Chromebook initiative, which itself requires the knowledge of innumerable applications (Google Forms, Sheets, Docs, Sites, Classroom, Maps, Pear Deck come immediately to mind), along with other supplemental technology programs/software that I use, some required, some not (Xtra Math, Typing Pals, Quizlet, Spelling & Vocab City, Storyworks online, TFK online, and who knows what else I’m missing…).
And there’s, of course, the increase in paperwork. After recently being introduced to the new student referral procedures, I couldn’t help but feel a little exasperated as I looked over to my wife filling out the paperwork for the first step of a procedure now so quantitatively extensive that we’re required to calculate and document the number of breaths and heartbeats of a student as he/she stands on one leg while reading 212 words aloud of a Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment (just changed from TC reading assessments). Don’t forget to document the words per minute, accuracy rate, number of miscues, meaning changing miscues, and self-corrections too!
Okay, a bit of an exaggeration. But only a bit…
As the clock inched its way closer and closer to midnight and I thought about the students I needed to complete this paperwork for, all while responding to parent emails I couldn’t get to during the day (and knew I couldn’t get to the next day because of a scheduled meeting during my prep), I soon began to feel as if I’d need a check up from the neck up!
A Doctor or an Economist?
We all may need a doctor if the direction of education is to continue as is, but perhaps what we really need is an economist. What might that economist “diagnose” as the problem? Maybe a classic case of diminishing returns.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Encyclopedia Brittanica defines it as this:
Diminishing returns, also called law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.
Diminishing returns. This is exactly what a report recently found regarding the use of educational technology. But here’s the thing. Ed-tech is not the only “commodity” being increased in the field of education. It seems as if we’re throwing everything at the wall at once, hoping something will stick. Maybe the result is abysmal SAT scores? But unfortunately, as the number of initiatives continues to grow, the number of hours in a day remains the same.
“Only 24 Hours in a Day”
I’ve used this expression a lot recently, usually convincing myself to go to bed as I leave an ever-growing stack of work for “another day.” There’s just not enough time.
On the topic of time, we had a keynote speaker for a recent professional development day mention an important number.
His presentation was on the Flipped Classroom, and he noted that it takes about three years for change to begin to settle in place. Three years.
But what happens when there’s major change one year, then major change the next, then the next, then the next? The initial change hasn’t really even gotten a fair chance to settle in by the time more change comes.
I’m not against change. I like learning new things. But just as too much exercise will begin to break down the body, too much change will begin to yield negative results. In other words, diminishing returns.
Financial Returns Diminishing Too
With the increase in pension and benefits reform here in NJ, coupled with other factors, such as a property tax cap, the reality is that educators’ net pay has taken a serious hit.
How does this affect learning outcomes? Well, I know many teachers who are working more hours outside the classroom to help offset this reality. Working more hours outside the classroom = less time to spend on items for the classroom + less energy in the classroom.
When time and money are affected, quality inevitably becomes compromised.
Cut It Out
Do you remember Joey Gladstone from Full House and his “cut it out” bit? This was funny (at least to me when I used to watch the show as a kid – seems a little lame now), but cuts due to budget constraints, not so funny. Reading Recovery – “cut it out.” Elementary Spanish teachers – “cut it out.” Techs for each school – “cut it out.” The number of classroom teachers – “cut it out.”
Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” As a result, we cannot expect the action of any cut to come back empty. The reaction comes in the form of more demands on teachers (we now have to try to squeeze in Spanish instruction – umm, I took German in high school and college!), needier students (such as the ones who may have benefited from early intervention services), and less time to help those students (and now more hoops to jump through as you try to help them).
This is a medical term that can mean the inadvertent effects caused by a doctor’s treatment. In the attempt to treat one ailment, for example, other ailments can present themselves elsewhere.
Is this what’s happening in education? In our attempts to “treat” through education reform, are we actually making things worse? Much like a time when bloodletting was believed to heal, are we just unknowingly infecting ourselves?
Unintended consequences – a social science term – is another way to look at it. Maybe we’ve just dug ourselves into a pit of unintended consequences. A lot of them.
Back to the Basics
When someone is sick, we go to what we know works, right? Sleep, rest, good nutrition. This is where I feel we need to spend our time and effort in the field of education. Back to the basics. In other words, best practices. That’s what we believe in and promote here at Powerhouse Education.
What if out of the billions of dollars to be spent on technology, we slowed its implementation to allow for the investment in HUMAN resources? Early intervention teachers? Gifted and talented teachers? Teachers in general. Throwing technology at the problem isn’t working.
What if we focused more on boosting social intelligence than boosting test scores? Certainly, an increase and emphasis on testing isn’t working. Besides, social intelligence is far more indicative of future success.
What if we threw less change at teachers, and gave them more time and training in the implementation of research-proven methods? Piling change on top of change isn’t working. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to forgo getting great feedback from students due to the time involved learning yet another program.
And what if we made teaching more of a profession people aspire to enter than the undesirable one it has become? The current decline in education majors surely shows what we’re doing isn’t working.
A Holistic Approach
I don’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, the more I come to know in life, the more I learn I don’t know.
I do know though that a healthy field of education is dependent on much more than a program or two. The teachers, the parents, the school board, and the community all have vital roles in education’s health and well-being.
It’s as a whole that we must educate each other on what works, what doesn’t, and use this knowledge in good faith to move forward in our pursuit of producing successful students capable of contributing to the health and well-being of this world.
We’re an ed-tech company. In fact, our products support the Common Core Standards (and other standards upon request), the standards to which the bombardment of change we’re experiencing can largely be attributed. So why in the world would we suggest less of an investment in technology? Why would we advocate less emphasis on the testing of these standards? Why are we for less of a rush to align curriculum with these standards?
We do believe in technology. We do believe in high expectations. And we do believe in striving to develop an excellent set of standards.
But more than an ed-tech company, we are teachers working in the trenches each day. We are teachers vested in doing what’s right for students, what’s right for teachers, and what’s right for a better bill of educational health.
So let’s be inspired by those fundamental laws of science and not take actions with equal and opposite reactions proven to prevent progress in education, but rather propel it.