"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Six Degrees of Insanity: Education "Reform"

Popular culture's six degrees of separation (a claim that each person is separated from any other person by six connections) spawned a film of that name and a trivia game, six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

The current education reform movement, hell-bent on accountability, has recently moved into a phase that has not been recognized nearly as well as its pop-culture cousins: Six Degrees of Insanity.

Starting in the early 1980s, this accountability movement began by focusing accountability mandates (built on standards and standardized tests) on schools and students. Over the next thirty years (despite abundant evidence that the accountability-standards-testing paradigm does not work), that momentum has more recently turned the same accountability mantra on teachers and then teacher educators.

The consequences of that insanity was highlighted for me recently when I received an email from a new teacher who certified in the program where I am a teacher educator (I taught high school English in rural SC for 18 years before entering teacher certification, where I have been for a decade). That email told me that she was being trained to implement the Common Core State Standards, adopted by SC.

Let me pause briefly to note that this new teacher holds a content degree from our university as well as certification, was highly regarded by her content professors, was overwhelmingly identified as an outstanding new teacher by our education department as well as her co-teacher during her field placement, and was a prized candidate for a position among several schools after graduating.

This new teacher came across the following guideline while being trained:
Deemphasize These
Making text to self connections
Exploring personal responses to a text
Accessing prior knowledge
This new teacher was quick to note that this recommendation contrasted significantly the best practice she was taught by me and others in her program as well as the best practice she has embraced as a young educator.

And it is at this example I present the Six Degrees of Insanity now poised to erode further public education in the U.S. Consider these degrees of separation in the process involved to hold teacher educators accountable for the test scores of their teacher candidates:

(1) Certification program and teacher educators teach candidates best practice, pedagogy grounded in decades of research

(2) Teacher candidates study, consider, and implement best practice in field experiences, embracing that best practice

(3) National and state officials embrace and impose curriculum and testing policies that contradict best practice

(4) School-level administrators adopt and require practices of teachers that address federal/state mandates (national/state standards and testing) that contradict best practice

(5) Students receive standards/test-based lessons while also living lives burdened by poverty, language barriers, and special needs

(6) Low test scores

And the outcome of this disaster-in-the-making?

Politicians and the public declare public schools, public school teachers, and public school students are the exact failures they claimed they were (See Diane Ravitch's recent experience with CNN, a media outlet often demonized as "liberal," which reveals the political, public, and media bias toward painting public education negatively).

Six Degrees of Insanity is upon us and growing.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. It is far past time to do something different.


  1. I more or less agree. However well-meaning the new Common Core may be, they amount to a swapping out of one set of standards for another. the fundamental structure of education is not up to the task we are asking of it. More thoughts here: http://ovenell-carter.com/education-aint-broke-so-dont-fix-it

  2. Thank you for a concise explanation of something those of us in education have known for years. And it keeps getting worse and worse! I hope more people will speak up!

  3. The real insanity is upping the required score so even more fail. Or corporate people who firmly believe they have to have high salaries to attract talent also think salary won't affect teaching talent. Or that poverty has no effect on scores even though their children get much more than food security to prepare them for school. Or how about merit pay which has been proved not to work... carrots and sticks called accountability when we know what drives people to perform (which first they must be paid enough to take money off the table) is autonomy, mastery and purpose-a way to contribute (which is what teachers in Finland have). Just a few more more six degrees of insanity.

  4. Ten years ago, I was taught the difference between "field dependent" and "field independent". Students exposed to a rich variety of experiences from an early age, generally characteristic of high SED social strata, become field independent. I would compare them to Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, who was able to win not due to expertise in any area but rather the width and complexity of his cognitive maps. To a lesser degree it was why I did well on tests like the ITBS and generally tested out several grade levels above my actual grade. Students from low SED strata, who may have a very limited range of experiences, who may read only when forced to in school, whose parents may not be able to expose them to a wide variety of activities, do better when information is presented in context, in other words, field dependent. The FCAT and other standardized tests are directed toward field independent students. On the reading test, they may read an informational text about a moment in history, then a poem, then a fictional story about something totally unrelated. Students whose first language is not English or who have grown up in a completely different environment from the test-makers may have a hard time switching gears and "plugging in" each passage into their cognitive maps, even if they know the vocabulary and the grammar is not difficult. The "teaching across the curriculum" has proven successful in many well known programs such as IB. So why can't these so-called "experts" get it?