Is it about what we know?

Bird Droppings June 25, 2012

Is it about what we know?


“The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what a man or woman is able to do that counts.” Booker T. Washington


I have spent the better part of two weeks up on Black Rock Mountain in Mountain City Georgia involved in a class introducing teachers and teachers to be the Foxfire approach to teaching. It has been some time since I received an email containing a letter from a well-known professor of education at the University of Georgia. The letter was about the emphasis on the testing of what we know, and how this is not a reflection of education. It is simply a gauge of the teaching of students to take a test or borrowing from Sydney J. Harris, it is akin to stuffing sausages. The issue then becomes how we then measure what a person does learn. One of the best methods of measuring learning is a portfolio system. Most elected officials want data in terms of their stay in office not a portfolio twenty or more years in the making.


“I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” John Dewey


I just went back and reread University of Georgia’s Dr. Glickman’s letter and have formatted it and saved it on my computer. John Dewey knew cramming knowledge into a student was not the answer. Modern educators argue as I mentioned several days ago we cannot simply fill an empty bottle with knowledge. In life it is not just in education we want to be able to determine our successes and failures. Over my years many of which have been in industry, indirectly in developing materials for training. Specifically in industry we developed and used a term, an acronym, ISMEC.

In industry there is a goal a rather simple one and that is profit. In order to one key aspect in the increasing of profit is to decrease losses. ISMEC was a tool to do this. There were underlying humanitarian issues in heavy industry, where loss also can mean loss of life as well.  But loss time is the amount of time without a loss and in some industries this is measured between deaths or injuries. For example in deep rock mining which is one of those industries where how many man hours between deaths are calculated borrowing from our recent mining disasters in various mines across the country. The equation becomes how many deaths per million of man hours of work. ISMEC came to industry in the early 1960’s and revolutionized the safety and loss control industries. It is a simple acronym, Identify, Set standards, Measure, Evaluate, Correct and or Commend.

In industry to find and identify you look at the maintenance department for example and find where issues are and build from there. In a community currently we use test scores what if we looked at the maintenance department, those not passing tests, the jails, rehab facilities, counseling services, doctors and such to see where we need support and modifications rather than end result of standardized tests scores. It might cost too much or confidentiality could be an issue and we would have a difficult time accomplishing within our elected officials time in office which for them is a crucial one.


“Our students are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in American history and unparalleled anywhere in the world. Politicians and businesspeople, determined to get tough with students and teachers, have increased the pressure to raise standardized test scores. Unfortunately, the effort to do so typically comes at the expense of more meaningful forms of learning” Alfie Kohn


Renegade educational guru and author Alfie Kohn among so many other innovators and thinkers in education all the way back to John Dewey in the 1930’s have been saying we continue to look at the wrong measures. So what do we do as parents, teachers, friends and families do? How do we change the directions and aspirations of those who set the precedent? We live in a democracy and we hold that power in voting. I recall back in the last election that candidates for President of the United States were arguing the merits of a president’s control of gas prices. I walked into the school building the other day thinking people are buying this dribble, yet whomever is elected will not be in power till January of 2013 and we are then talking long term solutions that may not even be feasible. The general population is excited about saving twenty cents a gallon this summer not waiting for an election and what will not be for another year.

As I close this morning we gain knowledge and we learn and we try and through our voting during elections we can hopefully change society, borrowing from a popular former candidate, yes we can. So many years ago a movie ended with an elderly man offering a bit of wisdom, “use it wisely” as the old knight in the Indiana Jones movie says. Yesterday I received a slate of politicians up for election endorsed by an organization I belong to The Georgia Association of Educators which is affiliated with the National Association of Educators. The list was compiled based on voting records and education support. Here in Georgia on how many voted for and against teachers across there term. Limiting teacher access to legislators banning use of state email systems and state employees emailing their legislators, charter school for profit, (interestingly enough research shows charter schools are less effective on test scores than public schools) school vouchers, furlough days, tenure, teacher’s retirement funds, test scores, and numerous other entities impacting Georgia youth. As I read through the list I could see why on some and on others I sort of want to attach a question mark. I cannot believe elected officials can be this stupid. But it leads me to several questions that I have had in educational thinking.

We have a State school superintendent elected for four years, local school members elected for four years and often in some counties principals and superintendents who are in schools for short periods of time. In this process we change thinking at a local level when a principal changes schools often the schools vision and philosophy alter based on the commander in chief if that is how that person operates. So in effect a student could be going one direction with a progressive innovative educator and in a year’s time switch to a traditional hard line educator. One day being evaluated on learning and one day evaluated on a standardized test of what was remembered.


“The principal target of school time at present, a target many self-satisfied men and women congratulate themselves upon knowing, is the production of high standardized test scores – which correlate with almost nothing of value. Every president since such testing was launched has had a mediocre to poor standardized test score. The same can be said true of corporate executives.” John David Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2010


    So we use for measurement a tool that has no significant intrinsic value and yet base everything in some cases upon this, teachers jobs, students future, and in some cases schools staying open or being closed. A good friend recently because he pushed too hard for changes and for real meaning to education was not returned to a school he had lead for nearly eight years and a school that had improved not only in test scores but in art, music, social awareness and in societal interaction. He did not just stay focused on test scores but was concerned about where do kids from a seventy five percent transient population school go when they leave here. So as always with one additional request as we head to primaries and elections this fall use your vote wisely and please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and in your heart and always give thanks.



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