Locked out of Learning

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I’m in the car I listen to WAMC, and yesterday I heard Roland Fryer’s Dowmel lecture. His specialty is race-based economic issues, and his research projects seek to answer the question of why African-Americans are harder hit by poverty than other demographic groups in America

The focus was education and the data dismal.

Fryer is a brilliant economist, an engaging speaker and he told a compelling personal story – from the streets to Harvard via football, an aptitude for mathematics and the support of his grandmother, a teacher

He says we have to do “Whatever it takes” and “Whatever works” when it comes to lifting achievement of poor performing groups. For Fryer this includes financial incentives and he is one of the voices behind NYC’s scheme to pay students for performance in school.

Data is big in the education world right now. Nothing wrong with that. But what is it data about? There’s the rub.
Data is good. Good data is even better.

One of the key tenets of a progressive approach to education is the attention to the whole child. Education is not about academics only and intellectual growth is not limited to verbal proficiency and mathematical achievement alone. (Beyond that of course – the evidence clearly shows that the arts, physical activity and creative play all boost test scores.) The focus on testing narrows the path and locks the gate for so many children

Fryer spoke of the gold standard of data versus the heart standard of the anecdotal “I know it’s working because I feel it in my heart.” I am all for the gold standard. But – for me that means looking at what we are measuring. Some things are still bigger than the constituent parts and the punishments and rewards built into the current school testing system ignores the realities of what matters most. Test scores often reflect children’s backgrounds more than the quality of a given teacher or school.

The data shows that poor children fail in school and drop out in large numbers. It does not show that they lacked a desire to learn and succeed when they entered. Maybe the issue is not the lack of motivation but something else: The support, encouragement, resources and achievement that accompany active and joyful learning perhaps.

So here’s a thought: If the data shows that students aren’t learning effectively, could it be because of the prevalence and persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our schools?

And a second thought: Let’s work on finding ways to test what actually matters most.

Photo: Ondrej Supitar

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