Sunday, March 15, 2020

Why Education Reform is Failing

Education reform is based on wishful thinking, not science
Starting with the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002 and then proceeding to The Race to the Top, and now to The Every Student Succeeds Act, every reform of public education in the last 18 years has failed. In Louisiana, even though our Department of Education regularly reports imaginary success, like the phony improvement in 8th grade math scores, most of the data collected is indicating total failure of the reforms. The latest average raw scores in math and English on our state tests is only 40% for all children tested in 2019. The reforms have failed to improve student achievement!

How could it be that no improvement is occurring when the entire purpose of education reform was to produce better test scores, and more students succeeding in college? We are producing more high school graduates, but that is because we are now graduating almost any kid with a pulse. There are essentially no standards for graduation in Louisiana. We claim to be preparing students for college, but the latest reports from our Board of Regents for Higher Education indicate that only 18% of our students go on to get any type of higher education degree. This is failure, not reform! 

We should look to science for the answers
Let’s review the basics of learning. Scientists working with rats, pigeons, monkeys, and other lab animals have found that learning primarily occurs because of motivation. Motivation is simply the rewards or punishments that causes learning to happen. Motivation can be either positive or negative. 

Here’s an example: Lab rats can be taught to push a “white” lever if they get a reward of food when they push the correct lever. Rats can also be taught by getting negative feedback (a slight electric shock) when they push the wrong (“black”) lever. That’s how learning happens, whether it is in a highly controlled lab or in the rat’s natural environment. Learning works the same way with children.

Human children are like supercharged learning machines
Learning scientists have come to believe that humans as a species have an extra powerful natural instinct for learning. Just observe little children who naturally investigate their surroundings without prompting of any kind by adults. Teachers in Finland regularly let children run around freely outdoors because they learn a lot through natural play activities. Humans have an accelerated ability to learn language at an early age. Many toddlers start automatically picking up and repeating words. By age six, most children are learning 6 to 8 new words every day! So human children have a natural super-charged desire and ability to learn. That should make schooling a cinch! It actually takes a lot of negative motivation to stop children from learning! But our modern education reform efforts have succeeded in killing much of the drive for school learning in millions of children each year.

Motivation is essential to learning
Let’s go back to the lab rat experiment. Motivation for learning can be either a reward or a punishment. Reward for learning is what educators seek to do. Teachers often report observing a positive reinforcement when children get an intrinsic reward for learning a concept they have worked to achieve. Teachers often say, “I saw a child’s face light up when he finally solved the problem, or understood the concept. Or a teacher calls on a student who answers a question correctly and the teacher says “very good” so that the whole class hears it. The positive rewards for children can be that simple. It’s the pleasure sensation they get from learning or being praised for learning. It’s what locks in the learning and inspires children to seek more learning. But somehow education reform has managed to convert much of our school activities into more punishment rather than reward.

Education reform mandates mostly produce negative feedback
The common core state standards that are the basis of our curriculum now require children to learn rather obscure, complex, and often highly abstract tasks that seldom relate to real life. Then children have to demonstrate their learning by taking standardized tests where often the questions are tricky and are expressed in words and phrases that many students don’t recognize. Many children are getting immediate negative feedback as they take these tests, because they just don’t know the right answers. Many parents report that some little children come home from their testing days crying. 

To make things worse, there is no immediate reporting of results of the testing. The results from the spring testing of our students don’t come back until the Fall. By this time the student has a different teacher. So the students and the teachers don’t get to see their results in a time frame where action can be taken to teach kids to solve he problems or questions they missed. Also, because of test security rules, teachers and students never get to see the actual questions the students got right or wrong. So the constant testing is traumatic to children instead of a reward. It would be like the lab rat getting a whole bunch of shocks by pushing a lot of wrong levers. A huge percentage of our children are missing most of the questions on their spring tests. So putting all this together, it amounts to kids receiving a lot of negative motivation relative to their schoolwork. Kids are getting the message: “Don’t bother trying to learn. Schoolwork is unpleasant and is to be avoided. (Just like the lab rat avoids the black lever.)

Most of the feedback kids get teaches them that school instruction is irrelevant
But here’s the kicker that turns motivation on its head with our crazy education reform system. Eventually the children find out that it makes no difference whether they learn or fail to learn the lessons taught in school. Their parents are often never told how poorly they are doing and they automatically get promoted to the next grade. In Louisiana, automatic promotion happens all the way to graduation.  So for almost half the kids, formal instruction in the classroom becomes irrelevant. Many of those kids begin getting a perverse reward by disrupting the class to get the attention they crave that they are not getting from the boring stuff the teacher is forced to present every day. In many classrooms today, misbehaving children do not experience any penalty for misbehaving because the schools have been forced to prohibit almost all forms of punishment.  (There is a bill in the legislature right now that will make discipline problems even worse. See HB 663) It seems that punishment is thought of as unacceptable no matter the student’s infraction. So many of the kids that consistently fail their state tests are learning! But its not what teachers are trying to teach.

Just like we can’t make the corona virus go away by holding back on testing for it; we can’t make our students learn more by rigging the state test scores to make it look like learning is happening. Science does not respond to wishful thinking or cheating.