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Modern Education Pushes Data Collection over Discussion

Ah, the Tuesday after Labor Day, when the reality of September hits us full force, and when school starts in a humane and moral society.

As I take my little one to her first day of school and then zoom across town to my first day in my new classroom (Bonjour, mes amis!), I read with relish this review of Garret Keizer's new book on the over-quantified state of American education. Keizer returned to the classroom after fourteen years and found some significant changes among the kids and his colleagues. Among the most appalling:

Besides the teacher who delivers pizza, there’s one who proclaims proudly: “We’ve just about eliminated class discussions.” Instead of conversing, his students record their comments using an app and vote in class polls with their phones [Nick Romeo, "A Teacher Returns to the Classroom and Gets Schooled," The Daily Beast, 2014.09.01].

Keizer suspects a vicious profiteering cycle in the technologization of classrooms:

Just as the economy profits from both the causes and cures of some health problems—smoking and chemotherapy, sugary sodas and diabetes medicine—schools sometimes pay companies for technologies that compound the very problems they pay other companies to solve. “We make kids illiterate by shrinking and/or wiring their libraries; then we build wired support centers to teach the illiterates how to read” [Romeo, 2014.09.01].

He recognizes my fundamental beef with Common Core and other reforms that take me away from students for the sake of codifying and quantifying our art:

The constant streams of evaluative data that teachers must generate present a similar irony. Every minute spent assigning numbers to student performance is time not spent imparting knowledge that could improve the skills the data is ostensibly measuring [Romeo, 2014.09.01].

Keizer knows that all this data we are gathering will be long forgotten when we and our students still remember those chance encounters.

There’s not an easy way to quantify the value of a conversation with a sophomore who has just decided to share her first poems with her English teacher. The poems were not mandatory, and the conversation occurs after class, so the event falls into a netherworld that the educational bureaucracy doesn’t recognize. But these are the moments that matter most to teachers and students long after the course material is forgotten [Romeo, 2014.09.01].

Good teaching is good conversation. Discuss. (You will be engaged and challenged, but you will not be graded.)


  1. SDTeacher 2014.09.02

    Ah. As a person who got out of bed at 4:00 this morning to work on assessment, this post speaks to me. I feel a strong desire to pontificate, but classes don't prepare themselves.

    Short story for me: I don't have a problem with someone trying to determine whether I'm effective in teaching my students. My primary problem is that I waste an inordinate amount of time pushing papers that one guy reads and then files somewhere. I don't think anyone honestly cares what numbers I collect or generate as long as they are on the proper form and typed in the correct font. If I thought anyone honestly cared whether I was effective or not I'd be far more interested and invested.

  2. Donald Pay 2014.09.02

    First, the Common Core standards are not the same as the standardized testing, which has been going on for years. I think standards are needed, but the overemphasis on standardized testing needs to be re-evaluated.

    Standards present a necessary starting point for structuring curriculum and teaching. It's not an ending point, and it's not a basis on which to evaluate either students or teachers.

    Limited standardized testing is fine, as long as the data is useful, but I think we've gone overboard on this. I'd like to see it be used more as a way to evaluate the breadth of curriculum and teaching, but not teachers. And I think combining it with other data on students (socioeconomic factors, attendance, classroom performance, etc.) can provide useful information. But standardized tests only test for lower order knowledge/skills.

    I think back on what really made my daughter learn by remembering Mrs. Mussel, who always had all sorts of projects for her elementary students to do. They would discuss and start the projects together, then each student would take off on their own part of the project, sometimes collaborating together with others. My daughter would come home and say, "Daddy, look what we did today. Can we do this at home?" My daughter always tested well on these standardized tests, but she never burst out of the school doors excited to fill in another bubble.

  3. Bill Fleming 2014.09.02

    I tend to be in favor of Common Core, at least in theory, but not on all subjects. General literacy, math and science, and self-expression (aka the three R's... readin,' 'ritin,' an' 'rithmatiks" are the biggies.

    Is it the methodology you object to, Cory, or the concept? Isn't it more important than ever that kids need to know the basics, and that knowledge needs to be consistent across all geographic and sociographic venues?

    (I know I'm not on the same side of this argument as you are, CH, but I'd sure like to at least understand why I might be mistaken in my position.)

  4. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.09.02

    When I taught in the old, old days (1976-82) the only mandated test was Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and only certain classes took it. I think students took it every 3rd or 4th year. It was the only fill-in-the-bubble test I tooknow prior to high school. Other than the ACT, I might have taken 2 or 3 bubble tests in high school. Not many in 5 years of college or 4 years of grad school.

    As a teacher, the parents, administration and school board trusted me to have the best interests of my students at heart and make my decisions on my intimate knowledge as their teacher. There were broad guidelines. One that I tweaked the most was history.

    High school students were required to pass 2 years of history to receive a diploma. Exactly what history was not specified. I felt it was critical for my students to fully understand and appreciate America's history. I didn't feel the rapid and cursory pass over that one year of American History provided was sufficient, so I proposed 2 years of American History to satisfy the requirement.

    My superintendent, who was trusted by the school board and parents to make decisions based on what was best for the students, heard me out. Because he trusted me and my motives, my superintendent agreed with my plan and told me to go ahead.

    That kind of atmosphere ruled for a century and a half since 1776. It still rules most of the world. Of course, those other nations and America pre-1980s or so, were not crippled due to Republican right wing attacks on teachers. That's been on going ever since. The lack of respect and trust that relentless public bullying and denigrating brings, will diminish the effectiveness of any group forced to endure it.

    The "education issues" we have now are not due to poor teaching. The cause is directly attributable to the Republican Right Wingnut desire to destroy secular public education and replace it with Christianity-infused schools under their control. The "education issues" can accurately and appropriately be laid directly at their feet.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.09.02

    Bill, maybe my disagreement is more methodology than concept... if the concept we're talking about is making sure kids learn lots of important facts and concepts and learn how to learn more on their own. The methodology that rankles me is all the quantification discusses in the review of Keizer's book, the paper-pushing SDTeacher mentions, and the basis of that methodology in the lack of trust that Deb sees. Hire rigorously trained scholars who love both knowledge and kids, and you will have a common core of standards and learning, with no need for top-down tests or reforms.

    I wonder: could we govern the teaching profession the way we govern medicine and law? Could we replace the Department of Education with a Teachers Bar Association?

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.09.02

    I like your idea about a Teachers Association to govern teachers. Republicans allow businesses to write their own laws. We trust businesses, whose goal is greed, more than teachers, who are devoted to the youngest South Dakotans?

    Some people go into business for greed and self-agrandizement. Teachers are in line to receive neither. Who you gonna call? Teachers!

  7. SDTeacher 2014.09.03

    I heard a fascinating discussion with the author of a new book on NPR last night. The book was called The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. I thought her research was very interesting and her discussion about the societal expectations for teachers and the history of the profession in the US was very insightful.

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