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How Everyone Can Be Better Than Average:

Why “No Child Left Behind” Leaves Kids Behind 

By   Shlomo Maital

   In Garrison Keillor’s wonderful radio program Prairie Home Companion, that aired live from 1974 to 2016 – an incredible 42 years! — Keillor did regular segments on “Lake Wobegone” where “all the children are above average”.

    He always ended the segment with these words: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

   Now, all the children cannot be above average, if you understand what an average is.

   But in fact – it turns out, in one sense, they CAN!! Let me explain.

   In his excellent New York Times Op-Ed (Tuesday June 18, international edition), Alfie Kohn asks, Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?   he makes the distressing point that America’s educational system has for two decades been built on the wrong belief that “excellence is a zero-sum game”.

   Why?

   When George W. Bush was elected President in 2000 (actually, he lost, but Florida’s Republican Supreme Court screwed Democrat candidate Al Gore), the first thing he did was initiate No Child Left Behind legislation. That law mandated widespread standardized testing in US schools. The idea, based on free-market economics, was – you promote excellence only by measuring it.

     But – how do you measure it?

     My wife Sharone, an experienced school psychologist, explained the two alternate ways of assessment: a) norm-reference tests, and b) criterion-reference tests. Please take a moment to understand the difference:

   Norm-referenced tests report whether test takers performed better or worse than a hypothetical average student, which is determined by comparing scores against the performance results of a statistically selected group of test takers, typically of the same age or grade level, who have already taken the exam.

   A criterion-referenced test is a style of test which uses test scores to generate a statement about the behavior that can be expected of a person with that score. Most tests and quizzes that are written by school teachers can be considered criterion-referenced tests.

     Let’s simplify. Norm reference tests are tests ‘on a curve’. There are always those who excel, and always those who flunk. It’s the nature of a curve. Zero sum.

     No Child Left Behind was based on norm reference tests. And as a result a great many kids were and are being left behind.

       There is a better way. Define a criterion for excellence, or anything else you want to measure. For instance: Answering 80% or more math questions correctly.

       Test kids. See how many meet the criterion.   The goal: Let every kid be ‘above average’, like in Lake Wobegone, where ‘average’ means ‘meeting the criterion’.  

       With norm reference tests, 20% of kids, for instance, will get A’s. No matter how hard the rest study, or learn, only 20% can get an A. It’s zero sum.

       With criterion reference tests, EVERYONE can potentially get an A.

       When schools report a high number of A’s, experts say, “grade inflation”. Why? Isn’t the goal of education to be inclusive, to help EVERYONE get an A, to make sure that truly, no child is left behind?  

           But norm reference tests BY DEFINITION leave 80%, say, behind.

           Everyone CAN get A’s.   Everyone can be above ‘average’, as in Lake Wobegone. America has sold a dangerous, false educational ideology to the world, including my country Israel.

           It’s time to rethink how we assess our kids.

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Creativity Capital: We’re Destroying Billions of Dollars Worth!

By Shlomo Maital

money burning

   What is “capital”? For most people, capital is something tangible, like money, houses, or other assets. But for economists, capital is somewhat abstract – it is the summed present value of a stream of future benefits.  

   For instance, a bond pays interest for 10 years or 25 years, and its value is the summed p.v. of those interest payments plus the principal.

   People, too, comprise capital. When you improve your skills, the summed present value of the added income from those added skills is also capital and can be calculated – this is “human capital”.

     I believe there is a kind of capital that we are constantly destroying, rather than building as we should. It is “creativity capital”.

     Here is a small story. The daughter of a close friend drew a picture in elementary school. The teacher said that it was utter rubbish. Even though the young girl’s mother was a skilled artist, and even though she herself had talent – she never again drew a picture.   Perhaps the world lost an important artist; but more important, she herself lost an activity that could have given her enormous pleasure.

     This one case is creativity capital that was destroyed, because a stupid teacher was insensitive and failed to understand that her role is to encourage and empower, not destroy. How many other such cases are there? How many readers have encountered similar massive destruction of their creativity capital?

     How do we get schools to stop destroying massive amounts of creativity capital? What if we tried to put some numbers on ‘creativity capital’ and more important, investment in it (the additions to Creativity Capital)?   What if we tried to measure schools not by students’ scores on stupid mechanical tests, but by the extent to which their students excel in, say, the Torrance Creativity Test?  

     What if teachers’ job definition changed radically, from teaching test-taking skills to fostering ability to come up with wild ideas and then implement them?  

     But – how in the world can we make this happen?  We need creative ideas to create Creativity Capital.

High School Tech: What Schools COULD Become

By Shlomo Maital

High Tech High San Diego

   In another wonderful column, David Brooks (NYT Oct. 16) describes a documentary film, Most Likely to Succeed, by Greg Whiteley, in which San Diego’s High Tech High is featured, started by San Diego high tech and business leaders.   I can do no better than to quote Brooks’ words:

  Greg Whiteley’s documentary argues that the American school system is ultimately built on a Prussian model designed over 100 years ago. Its main activity is downloading content into students’ minds, with success or failure measured by standardized tests. This lecture and textbook method leaves many children bored and listless.

     Worse, it is unsuited for the modern workplace. Information is now ubiquitous. You can look up any fact on your phone. A computer can destroy Ken Jennings, the world’s best “Jeopardy!” contestant, at a game of information retrieval. Computers can write routine news stories and do routine legal work. Our test-driven schools are training kids for exactly the rote tasks that can be done much more effectively by computers.

   In High Tech High….There are no textbooks, no bells… Students are given group projects built around a driving question.     One group studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory. Another group studied diseases transmitted through blood, and made a film.   “Most Likely to Succeed” doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence. There are some great emotional moments. A shy girl blossoms as a theater director. A smart but struggling boy eventually solves the problem that has stumped him all year. In the school, too, teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

   Brooks is not uncritical of High Tech High. In this blog, I have also made the point that in order to foster creativity, you cannot discard the hard tough discipline of mastery – mastering old knowledge, while thinking about how to create new. Brooks echoes this thought.

     The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.   “Most Likely to Succeed” is inspiring because it reminds us that the new technology demands new schools. But somehow relational skills have to be taught alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.

   This is worth repeating. Innovation is INTELLIGENTLY breaking the rules. In order to break the rules intelligently, creatively, first you have to learn them. You have to know physics, to engineer wonderful new devices. The key is, can we teach physics, without ruining the creative spark in those we teach?  

New Thinking About Our Schools:  It’s NOT Rocket Science!

By Shlomo Maital       

Finland schools

   A great many people the world over are troubled about what happens to our children and grandchildren in the school system.   America’s No Child Left Behind Act (2000) has left most children behind, because America still scores poorly in international achievement tests, despite (because of?) billions spent on “Race to the Top”. 

    A simple principle says,  if you want to improve, learn from others.  Benchmark what others do, adapt it,  and get better.   But educational bureaucracies in most countries do not even know what global benchmarking is.

    Take Finland, for example.  Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, has shared Finland’s experience with the world in his 2011 book  Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?   It has been translated into many languages already, including Hebrew. 

    Here are the four key principles Finland used to create a world-class world-leading educational system, for all Finnish kids, not just a handful of privileged ones in Helsinki.

  • Guarantee equal opportunities to good public education for all. In the U.S., that means that schools in rural Louisiana and Mississippi should be up to scratch, as much as ones in Princeton, NJ.
  • Strengthen professionalism of, and trust in, teachers. This is related to pay levels, teachers’ colleges, and in general, how society values those who educate our children. In Finland, it’s really hard to get in to teaching programs, as hard as getting in to engineering.
  • Get parents involved,   educate everyone about education and the key processes, especially assessment       (and note: assessment is NOT just tests).
  • Facilitate competition and innovation among schools; network them, help them learn quickly from one another, let them try experiments and scale up ones that succeed.

 

These principles are easy to state, hard to implement.  But take #4, for example.  President Bush’s very first Act, in 2000,  brought  free-market competition models to American schools by tying state and federal funding for schools to test performance of kids.   Many countries have copied this dumb idea.   

     There is another way to introduce competitive forces into education.  Let schools experiment, and share the results.  This is the REAL free-market model.  To do this, you need to abandon the insane obsession with testing, hated by kids, parents and teachers alike, and let kids learn to love learning, let teachers love to teach, and evaluate by what children can do, rather than what they can memorize and regurgitate.

      In Finland, it worked.  How come?  What can we learn from it?    How many American educators have spent time in Finland, observing their schools, talking to their educators?    And how long will it take, before educational professionals all realize that No Child Left Behind left a great many kids behind, far behind, and that it is time to dump the whole bad idea, not only in America but everywhere.

Fix Our Schools? Ask the Kids!

By Shlomo Maital

                  Genius 1

  It is widely understood that schools (primary and secondary) in the U.S., and in Israel, are broken.  They persist in teaching, and measuring, mainly memory skills, when the Third Industrial Revolution needs creative thinking.  It is a miracle that somehow, a handful of creative kids survive the system with their creative juices more or less intact. But how many do not? 

    Amanda Ripley, an American scholar, has written a new book that sheds new light on the subject.*  She chose the clever method of asking the ‘horse’s mouth’ – the kids.  She enlisted field agents, three American high school students studying abroad (in Finland, Poland and South Korea).  Here are the ‘secrets’ she discovered.

     Finland: “Rather than try to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations andvalue-added data analysis (!), they allow only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs [tougher to get in to them than to get in to engineering], more demanding than those in America. Better-prepared better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.”

    South Korea:  Notes Ripley: “In an automated global economy, kids need to be driven; they need a culture of rigor.”    And “Rigor on steroids is  what [one] finds in South Korea.   Her field agent Eric is shocked to find students dozing in class in Busan, only to realize why – they spend all night studying at hagwons, cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.   True, the Korean “hamster wheel” creates as many problems as it solves.  Ripley says “it is relentless, excessive – but it felt more honest”.

     Poland:  Poland scaled the heights of international test score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: “well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors.”  Field agent Tom notes that in his hometown, in Pennsylvania, sports were the core culture.  In Wroclaw, Poland, there was no confusion about what school was for —    or what mattered to kids’ life chances. 

    Reviewing this book, Annie Murphy Paul asks whether America [and, I add, Israel] “can generate the will to make changes.”   The answer is, no.  In both nations, entrenched mediocre educational bureaucracies perpetuate mediocrity.  This is a doom loop.  Bad teachers fear good ones.  So bad teachers lead to even worse ones. 

     Good teachers love better ones, because they help them get better.  So good teachers generate even better ones.

     Which loop does your country enjoy?  Which would you prefer?  And how in the world do you change a doom loop into a genius loop?   And, what future do your kids have if they go to schools driven by the doom loop? 

 

* Amanda Ripley.  The Smartest Kids in the World.  And How They Got That Way.  Simon & Schuster, 2013.   Reviewed in the Global New York Times, Aug. 24-25, 2013, p. 19, by Anne Murphy Paul.  

       

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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