The Fight Against Average

Bluebirds

 

Schools each want to be above average. Principals may well be wholly altruistic, and not education’s version of corporate climbers, but they too are being tested. If they are good principals then they will be above average. Teachers—who receive penalties and bonuses according to grades—want the kids to be above average, because like poor teacher C, low scores equate to dumb kids. Dumb kids are caused by bad teachers. Bad teachers are employed by poor principals, and this comes from time misspent in superintendent offices, and this is because the state is not above average. So this is why we should leave no children behind, and they should all be smarter than the average.

However dark that may seem, please know that many, many teachers are in the unenviable vise of this kind of numerically indefensible thinking. Parents also want above average kids. They want little Ashton to go off to some above-average college, and get an above-average job and go on to have their own above-average offspring do the same. The pressure to perform and create numbers that are supposed to indicate knowledge and mastery is immense. It starts at the top and often comes from underneath as well. As for the skeptical tone about those in authority, it is unusual not to question each group that are adding pressure but not altering the resources to generate the desired outcome.

Let me rephrase that.  Those who are in authority (they could be principals, superintendents, legislators…) can provide pressure.  This pressure might be implied, i.e. speaking well of certain teachers in school meetings while ignoring others.  Or this pressure can be financial: taking away funding from nonperforming schools; giving financial bonuses to teachers with over performing students. The resources in an underfunded school seldom change with these big NCLB type initiatives.  But the primary resource a teacher has are the very students in their care.  More pressure can be applied from all these levels of authority, but unless instructors are given new resources and results of greater pressure alone made primarily be to make school a drag.

The primary point is that the goal for teachers to all create kids who are better than all the others is absurd and unfair.

My daughters

Yesterday my daughter came up to me, ecstatic, explaining that she had gotten a four on her end-of-course math test.  Those in North Carolina know that end-of-course tests are essentially holistically graded with the scores: 1, 2, 3, 4. These mean what you might imagine they mean. The number “one” implies they don’t get it.  The number “two,” they struggle.  The number “three,” average.  The number “four,” above average. I have another daughter.  Having heard her sister she walks up to me gloomily and says that she only got a three.

My older daughter is the consummate overachiever who is about the grades. My younger daughter is the angelic artist in the family, whose subtle glow is a little dimmer today.  I’m not so certain that putting a big label on daughter one, and a big label on daughter two was such a great idea.  These numbers are necessarily bad things for my girls to know.  I also realize that many people would have many good reasons to disagree with me.  But when I was in elementary school we had reading groups.  The three levels were the crows, the Cardinals, and the bluebirds.  I was a bluebird.  This meant a great deal to me because all the kids knew the crows were stupid.

It turns out that most kids will be average. Really, they will. Smack in the middle. On average most students are average. Certainly the average students are. It is worthwhile to always ask how we are doing. There must be some set of measures for some sets of data. But even spelling tests, and basic math is hard to measure.

It’s out education’s dichotomy.  We value grades.  We reward kids who get good grades.  We have no intention of saying that those who fail and those who get A’s are the same.  We believe in extrinsic motivation.  Grades tell us things about students.  Without assessment school may well be seen as somewhere between pointless and random.  But students are not defined by their ability to do math.  Students should not be judged by their inmate ability to answer multiple-choice questions.  If assessment has merit it is not in judging the value of students but in applying numbers to specific skill sets. The daughter who gets a three, and a daughter who receives a four do not become a three and a four.  Those in authority over this educational meritocracy don’t seem to get it. My daughters have not become crows and bluebirds.

 

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