It's Time to Change the Way We Talk About Education


Sometimes when you get enough people beating on the outside of a building, those sitting comfortably on the inside start to feel the vibrations. That’s what it feels like is happening as the voices from the grassroots movement protesting the nation’s oppressive governance of public education are starting to reverberate in the cushy offices and conference rooms of education policy leaders.

At a time like this when policy ideas that once seemed so resolute become shaken by strong voices of opposition, it’s important to reflect back on what kind of thinking went into the policy to begin with.

While the “insiders” of the debate are more often inclined to propose doing the same things better, “outsiders” are more likely to want bold changes. But if the thinking doesn’t change, nothing truly different is likely to emerge.

Fortunately, there’s a new book to help us in the serious work of rethinking the nation’s education agenda. What it proposes is to start that work by changing the way we talk about education.

An Education Policy Agenda In Flux

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, the nation’s schools have been dominated by a regime of standardized testing that started in two grade levels – 4th and 8th – but eventually rolled out to every level for the vast majority of school children. Then, the Obama administration took the policy obsession with testing to extremes. Race to the Top grants and other incentives encouraged school districts to test multiple times throughout the year, and waivers to help states avoid the consequences of NCLB demanded even more testing for the purpose of evaluating teachers, principals, and schools. The latest fad is to test four year olds for their “readiness” to attend kindergarten.

An increasingly loud backlash to the over-emphasis on testing has been growing and spreading among parents, teachers, and students for some time, resulting in mass public rallies, school walkouts, and lawsuits. There are clear signs those voices are starting to have an effect on people responsible for education policy.

Writing for Education Week, seasoned education journalist Alyson Klein recently observed, “there are signs that the movement to limit the number of federally mandated tests students take may be gaining momentum.”

Examples of the changing landscape Klein cited included, “legislation in Congress backed by teachers’ unions that would allow states to give summative tests in math and English/language arts only in certain grade spans” and recent remarks from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that “testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.”

Another article, from Klein’s colleague Catherine Gewertz, reported, “There is a swirl of new activity on the anti-testing front, and it’s yet another sign that the fervor to cut back on testing is moving from the grassroots into the policy world of Washington.”

Gewertz found “a growing chorus of folks … want less testing, or no testing, not different tests. The agitation of those parents, teachers, and activists is helping light a fire under the discussions that are creeping increasingly into the salons of Washington’s alphabet-soup groups.”

How We Got To Here

When you’ve lost your way, it helps to retrace your steps.

A recent retrospective on NCLB by a reporter for NPR tried to do that, observing, “The law set a simple if daunting goal: All of the nation’s students would perform at grade level on state tests … So here it is, 12 years later, 2014. And the law, NCLB, is still in effect. All children, under federal law, are supposed to be at grade level … They’re not.”

The reporter, Anya Kamenetz, asked various critics and proponents of the law why NCLB has fallen so woefully short of its lofty goal. Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California, blamed the failure on the targeted goal, calling proficiency a “crude gauge of student performance.” Another professor, Andrew Ho at Harvard, seemed to think the goal was merely imprecise, more a “rhetorical goal” than a hard-and-fast measure.

All seemed to concede, as Arne Duncan’s former chief of staff to Joanne Weiss stated, “the requirement of 100 percent proficiency … basically incented states to keep dumbing down and lowering their cut score in order to get more kids across the bar.”

But the article seemed to conclude that this “gamesmanship,” as Polikoff called it, could be avoided, and NCLB, or similar legislation, could be improved if the measures were just changed – more precise or nuanced – and a “new accountability” forged.

But isn’t this notion of a “new and improved” measured accountability just the same old thinking in a brand new bottle? What if the whole notion of measured accountability is what is wrong?

Wrong Way To Talk About Education

What if instead of just getting rid of NCLB, we got rid of the thinking that created it? That was a question I asked three years ago when the failed legislation was gasping toward its tenth birthday. At that time, I likened the thinking behind NCLB to an econometric approach to problem solving, which is unsuitable for a pursuit like education that is values driven.

Now there’s a new book arguing that we can’t change the way we think about education policy until we change the way we talk about education. The book is Dumb Ideas Won’t Create Smart Kids: Straight Talk About Bad School Reform, Good Teaching, and Better Learning by Eric M. Hass, Gustavo E. Fischman, and Joe Brewer.

The book queries why federal and state policymakers put so much energy into “reforms” – such as raising standards and standardized testing – that have very little to no evidence of effectiveness. What the authors contend is that policymakers continue down the same never-ending path to policy failure because they operate from a failed “prototype” for education – a way of thinking about teaching and learning that leads to conclusions that sound good but are built on false beliefs (what the authors call “rightly wrong thinking”). And rather than looking for genuine results, policy makers tend to adhere to a “confirmation bias” that dismisses contrary evidence and reinforces the prototype.

The authors observe that we tend to talk about schools – and indeed the whole nation – through the metaphor of the “family.” And whenever we think about family, we tend to think about two kinds: the “strict, authority-based” kind and the “caring nurturance-based” kind. It’s the authors’ belief that current education policy is dominated by the former and needs lots more of the latter.

Policy adhering mostly to strict authoritarian ideals, they contend, promotes a faulty approach to education.

The first faulty approach is to equate education to a process whereby a teacher acts as a “conduit of information” to students who are “empty vessels” to be filled with content. The conduit-to-empty vessel metaphor reinforces thinking of ideas and understandings as objects, lessons and units as containers, and teaching as sending.

The conduit-to-empty vessel metaphor leads to all kinds of rightly wrong thinking, including prescribing a factory model of schooling with standardized curricula and measuring school quality with standardized test scores.

A second faulty approach is the tendency to see freedom as a “lack of constraint.” This metaphorical confusion leads to an emphasis on reform remedies that lift restrictions, unleash “market forces,” and “get the bureaucracy out of the way” rather than providing resources that increase students’ opportunities to learn.

The authors identify Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst, the organization she created and once led, as exemplars of the current faulty approaches, calling for alternative teacher certifications, smaller class sizes, and vouchers, that only make sense if you believe teachers are mere conduits for information and education problems are primarily due to government regulations.

So Let’s Say This

What’s needed instead of this failed strict, authority-based approach is a shift to the caring nurturance-based approach, the authors believe. This shift, they argue, would replace the metaphors we use to talk about education with metaphors that are more compatible with how students actually learn.

Because the conduit-to-empty vessel approaches to education – too much step-by-step instruction, over-testing, and “delivery of lots of right answers” – lead to policies and practices that actually hinder learning, the authors call for a “learning as growth” metaphor.

The learning as growth metaphor would reinforce thinking about students’ minds as “soil” and ideas and understandings as “plants.”

“The logic of learning as growth metaphor is based on two key ideas,” the authors write. “First, people develop or construct their ideas and understandings … Second, people need support to help them construct accurate understandings.”

In this metaphorical description, the teacher’s role is more akin to a gardener and the education process more aligned to cultivation. “It says that teaching and learning are cooperative activities,” the authors write. “Like a plant, a student’s understanding will thrive when he or she gets attention tailored to his or her individual needs.”

The authors also call for replacing the freedom as the lack of constraints metaphor with a “freedom as support” metaphor, which equates freedom to providing the resources teachers need to teach and the students with more opportunities to learn.

“Schools, for example should act as community centers that provide tutoring and library materials, and possibly food and health services,” the authors maintain. “Students need the inputs of basic resources to survive and thrive.”

Time To Grow

Beyond citing research literature, the authors point to promising ideas being developed in the field, including bilingual education, projects-based learning, and simulation games.

They single out the Lindsay Unified School District in California that chucked standards-based approaches for a performance-based system emphasizing open-ended projects and collaborative activities. They cite an approach from the WRITE Institute that develops teachers in San Diego County with increased abilities to teach writing. And they laud the work of the Nation Board Certification that has an evidence-based track record of developing teaching skills that result in higher student achievement.

But “until we abandon the conduit and empty vessel-based model, we will most likely continue to repeat ineffective educational ideas,” the authors conclude. “Better learning demands that students and their families have access to the resources and supports needed to do the difficult work of constructing knowledge.”

Calls for “better testing” and evermore complicated “accountability” metrics are pruning around the edges of a dead shrub. With a new way to think about education, with the language of learning as growth, we can get beyond today’s failed remedies. Let’s talk it up.

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