Monday, April 22, 2013

Regarding Aaron Ross's Interpretation of Student Centered Learning andthe Well Rounded Student

In his post on his blog, Aaron Ross suggests that their are two polar opposite approaches to the neccessity of a common core, those who want to protect and perhaps even popularize it and those who want to totally abandon it. I liken these extremes as represented by Ed. Hirsch  and Charles Murray on one side and perhaps Mark Barnes and Diane Ravitch at the other extreme.  While it is necessary to understand both extremes, I think there is also merit to understanding a nuanced middle ground which people like me comfortably dwell.

As an educator who is has had the opportunity to teach in a variety of different learning environments, I have been fortunate enough to really learn many different educational models and see them manifested in prominent high schools on a daily basis.  Also, as someone who has quite a few friends who live abroad, I believe I have a certain level of understanding, although mostly anecdotal, of european and middle eastern educational models.  The American notion of a common set of knowledge that all students must acquire is not unique nor is it nearly as organized by a central government that in European nations like Britain or France. (I discuss this back in a post in January.)  In fact, it is actually much less organized and structured by definition because of America's localist tendencies and legal structure.  However, the notion of a creating a "Renaissance Person" is something Americans from the foundation of our nation have advocated for.  How this played out in effect was never so simple.

Without fully going into the history (again see my January blog post for info there),  I believe that in reality in order to engage the learner fully and to truly create a student-centered curriculum, there needs to be student input, but that the student input cannot be haphazard or let to run loose to an extreme.  While Tikvah's club works well in a co-ed high school with AP Lang students and motivated participants of after school clubs, it lacks a fundamental component that schools today rely on- assessment.   Aaron brings up the issue of assessment in another post on his blog later that discusses the tension in how to deal with PBL assessments while being true to the goal of the project and fair to the students and the model.  These were all good points, however, assessment in the most fundamental sense is providing feedback to students in order for them to learn from the experience, grow, and correct errors in methodology of research, implementation of a skill, or lack of knowledge.  This feedback is really essential for students to become better self directed learners which is sorta the whole point of teaching them to begin with, so that they can teach themselves throughout their lives and always continue to learn.

Is there a need for a common set of knowledge that all students must at a minimum possess?  I emphatically say yes.  Does it need to last all four years of high school?  No.  Most countries do not have it last that long. In France at 16 you take tests for specialties in university.  Most students would benefit from 1-2 years of core (in what is now called Freshman and Sophomore year) and the rest of intense focus on areas of specialization they are good at.  I'll never forget reading a story in Ben Bernake's Macroeconomics book.  I think he put it best.  He explained that there was a man who was from a small island off the coast of Italy.  He was a great plumber, a great painter, a great musician, a wonderful cook, and even knew how to work with numbers.  He was not out of the ordinary though.  Bernake went on to explain that most people in this small tiny nation knew a lot about how to be a lot of things.  Bernake then went on to explain that you'd think everyone would be awfully rich being so good at everything, but no.  The nation was extremely poor.  The question he asks was why?  He answers it because they don't specialize.  No one truly does what they do best all the time.  Which means they aren't exercising the most efficient opportunity costs on a daily basis.  The reason we go to a dentist and not a brain surgeon for a cavity is because he specializes in teeth.  He trained in that area.  He knows it best.  We trust and value his expertise and experience.  It is "cheaper" and a better spending of our time to go to him verses someone else or dealing with it ourselves.

Is a common core necessary for elementary school?  Yes. That is the age they need fundamental skills and core knowledge that will last a lifetime.  I adore E.D. Hirsch's curriculum and think it could and should be adapted to be used in yeshivot across the country with a variety of new technologies and teaching methods.  However, depending on the population you work in there may be multiple levels of common core for different target audiences otherwise you risk creating mediocrity or a system where half of all children will fail, which is what the National Common Core does since it assumes one core for all.

If we take what Bernake says to heart, it means we need to avail our children with meaningful opportunities early on that enable them to figure out what they like, what they are good at, and what they can focus on most productively.  I believe this is where internships should be utilized more.  The classroom experience is meaningful, but there is a big difference between liking constitutional law and practicing it.  There is a huge differences between doing well in math and being an accountant.   Instead of waiting till senior year or college for students to explore subject focus, let's enable them to explore it earlier.  Once a week internships start in freshman year might be worth entertaining.  The area of focus could switch every quarter for the first year of high school so students could learn about a variety of different professions before really focusing on subject matter in one area.

Practical considerations also need to be made.  Most colleges require three years of science, four of math, four of English, and three of social studies.  Some even require 3 years of a foreign language.  While private schools have flexibility in what is taught, there still are regulations.  Interestingly enough, there are tons of laws requiring districts to help subsidize books and materials for private schools, but no real requirements of any core.  It says, "a day school in which there is instruction equivalent to that of public schools." This is incredibly vague and probably rarely enforced in any capacity since it is a legal requirement that the enforcement be totally localized.  There is also the matter of accreditation.

Most private schools, especially yeshivas seek to get Middle States Accreditation.  While this accreditation was once a real indicator of the success of a school, it is no longer as popular among NJ public schools.  In fact over seven districts in Bergen County have opted out (including Glen Rock, New Milford, Palisades Park, and Leonia) and one, Fort Lee, is in the process of considering it.  This is because the state now has its own form of accreditation through NJQSAC.  However, the yeshiva world seems to be slow in follow suit because it does not have a solid replacement. Parents looking at schools still consider this an indicator that the school is solid.  Referred to by those that know it as MSA-CESS, this accreditation is something Frisch, Ma'ayanot, and TABC all have.  Yavneh is currently listed as a candidate.  NCPSA is certainly the more popular option for Montessori type schools.  The accreditation process is costly and expensive.  They look at your curriculum and subject it to peer review.  Having been a guidance counselor at Ma'ayanot when they were first seeking accreditation, I can remember how tense it made many in the administration feel at the time.

While there is a record of some pretty out there schools abandoning the common core and allowing students to play video games all day, I am not sure what they accomplish.  Their students often go to small northeastern liberal arts colleges like Bowdin, Vassar, and Bates.  My guess is they turn out fine, but those students are a pretty self selective small bunch.  I would love to see a study on their successes and failures once out in the job market where they will certainly have less opportunities for self indulgence then they are use to.

I might argue that by allowing kids to do anything with their four years, with no form of assessments, with no guidelines what so ever, we are actually crippling our kids.  We are not allowing them to know failure, to be exposed to things that might at first dislike, but then change their mind and like.  We are not allowing our students to overcome not getting what they want all the time.  We begin to become a culture that does not embrace diversity, rather quashes it in favor for an "I want" society.  We have enough of an "I want" society as it is now.  Students in classes often get what they want all the time.  Teachers in many institutions feel like they can no longer grade truthfully for fear of parent or supervisor retribution.  They fear that they can no longer create ramifications for cheating because they do not want to destroy a child's self confidence or have to deal with external assessments that often punish teachers for enforcing policies.  (See CUNY's cheating problem currently as a prima facie example).

I am not arguing for teacher imposed no choice granted factory style education.  However, I think much can be said for creating an exciting learning environment where choice is given within perimeters that help students both in the short and long term. We need to throw out the norms of the structure of schooling, but eliminating fully the common core is not the answer. Allowing students to pursue their passions can be done within a framework. The real problem is our current system. Creating a project based school without classrooms, without bells, without subjects in the tradition sense may be the answer. Our number one question becomes, what is the goal of education?

Barnes, Mark

US Department of Education

Middle States,