The Twitter hastag #pencilchat unleashed the facetious forces this week. And as @GrahamBM tweets:
#pencilchat is still going strong after more than 36 hours globally says much about the shared experience of a frozen education system.
Here’s how it began:
johntspencer John T. Spencer
It started it out a few days ago as an allegory for educational technology
Here’s a sample:
@amichetti @chamada it’s not about the pencil! #pencilchat
@drpresident Don’t bring your pencils to the dinner table! #pencilchat
@sangsterphil #pencilchat I have been waiting for 20 minutes for my pencil to do something but to no avail. It just sits there. I’m off for the weekend!
@pgow Peter Gow
Great workshop with pencil consultant today. Only now I can’t remember what he said. But he had a stylin’ turtleneck!
@drpresident We’re having a pencil free week next week. Please leave your pencils at home #pencilchat
A sharp pencil is a very dangerous thing in the hands of a small child. Important to monitor use and restrict time on pencil.
@GrahamBM We need to look at some of health, safety, security & standardisation issues around pencils - we’re simply not ready for BYOP #pencilchat
@MrP_8thsci Kids keep running out of eraser. Sure didn’t have this problem when we used chalk and slate. #pencilchat
@mathrabbit1 Using pencil math in my classroom this year. Now kids can’t do math in their heads. I hate technology! #pencilchat
@dendari The teacher is the only one allowed to use a pencil in my classroom. It’s too expensive and the kids might break it. #pencilchat
@jkylewood @tgwynn I was wondering if our districts could combine efforts in a 1:1 initiative or if you all are going BYOP? #pencilchat
A Head Teacher writes:
We have had pencils in our school now for some time, and we were one of the first to adopt them, but it has been an uphill struggle. There aren’t enough to go around, and often several of the children have to crowd around to use the pencils at the same time. But we are better off than many schools. We have a well equipped pencil suite where the chained desktop pencils are used in special sessions, and often, as a reward for good behaviour children are allowed to come into the suite (under teacher supervision of course) to use the pencils to draw fun things.
Pencils were resisted by some of the teachers at first, because they complained they would have to change their practice if they adopted them. And they were right, pencils are in fact a game changer. Others were worried that they would not have enough time to learn to use them properly.
Little Red Schoolhouse in Lagrange, New York
A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.
By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.
He called me the morning he took the test to say he was sure he hadn’t done well, but had to wait for the results. A couple of days ago, realizing that local school board members don’t seem to be playing much of a role in the current “reform” brouhaha, I asked him what he now thought about the tests he’d taken.
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.
“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.
“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.
A decidedly low tech device, the humble pencil, is providing some tongue-in-cheek insight into current education debates via Twitter. In the past 24 hours, educators have tweeted the hashtag #pencilchat thousands of times. The tweets are undeniably witty, but they also reflect the frustration teachers feel over everything from schools’ technophobia to budget cuts, which may make #pencilchat the best—and most clever—education allegory ever.
Facetiously we can refer to the impact of NCLB as No Child Left Untested or perhaps No Childhood Left. Whatever the name, the intentions may have been worthy but the effect has been pernicious.
Here is Adam Richardson on the Harvard Business Review Blog:
… I still have a fundamental disagreement with the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind. It has a retrograde emphasis on teaching children “the basics” (followed by annual testing on the same) using subjects and methods more relevant to the past mass-production era, rather than the creative, global, innovation- and information-driven economy that we are in.
Less of the Three R’s, More of the Four C’s
To put it bluntly, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) should stop focusing exclusively on the “Three R’s” (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic), and should focus much more on the Four C’s: Creativity, Complexity, Curiosity, and Collaboration. Without a solid grasp on these, we are not preparing students to be meaningful contributors in the current and future world. Ironically, by focusing on the basics, NCLB is increasing the gap between students’ abilities to be successful, not decreasing them.
But how do you test for all those qualities of mind and who has the courage to confront the growing testing industry and tell them to bug off.
And that’s just from the standpoint of preparing students for a world of work. What about also adding a focus on developing children to live a life of purpose - to become contributing citizens of a complex world?
As Richardson concludes:
If we cannot better prepare all students to understand the Four Cs, then the American economy as well as its social fabric are all in grave risk.
The consensus on the skills needed to succeed in the future is strong. Sometimes the words change but not the general concept of the critical “c” words.
NAIS president Pat Bassett has added a fifth: Cosmopolitan by which he means a global awareness, cultural competency and appreciation of difference.
It’s a good addition. But how do schools and teachers find time for any of it with all the testing? And now they’ve turned the test schools into a commodity - tying pay to test results. Recipe for disaster.
get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game
come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain
we’ll give you a complex, and we’ll give it a name
- words from Measuring Cups by Andrew Bird
In the last week before winter break high school students and faculty can choose to be part of Secret Solstice. (I chose to participate). Names are taken out of a hat and small gifts are delivered through the week with a reveal on Friday.
All well-intentioned good fun.
So far this week I have received - electronically - an original poem inspired by e.e. cummings (more on that later) and today - this song.
How brilliant is that?
Independent Schools are fortunate to be able to be forward thinking, innovative and experimental.
Do they exercise that opportunity? Here’s a piece of history on why they why they should.
….The Eight-Year Study was an evolutionary and diverse project that actually combined three interrelated studies carried out primarily by the PEA but sought out and involved a number of organizations, the Carnegie Foundation being one of the more prominent ones. The goals of the study were “to establish a relationship between school and college that would permit and encourage reconstructions in the secondary school” and “to find, through exploration and experimentation, how the high school in the United States can serve youth more effectively.” (W. Aikin quoted in Kridel & Bullough, Stories of the Eight Year-Study, p. 3). The study arose out of concerns regarding the call for more uniformity in secondary educational preparation in response to complaints from the university level about the need for a “standard” college preparation and the dismay of progressive educators seeking to recreate the high school experience without disadvantaging their students in the college admissions process or in preparation for their studies at that level.
Perhaps the most pertinent and compelling findings in the Eight-Year Study for independent schools is the comparative study of the “experimental programs” of secondary education with those more traditional programs. This smaller study paired schools and programs to follow students from high school to college and track their progress at the undergraduate level to see which students had greater successes. The point of this project was not to distinguish the success of progressive versus non-progressive education, but to explore the implications and results of “freedom from a fixed pattern of preparation for college versus the traditional preparation.” (notes from the 1939 PEA Board of Directors quoted in Kridel & Bullough, p. 6).
Within this particular project, there was a “Study within a Study” that paired 323 students from six very experimental schools with students from traditional programs. The findings were quite startling. “The graduates from the six most experimental schools substantially outperformed their peers in terms of academic averages and honors, intellectual traits, and personal and social responsibility.” (Kridel and Bullough, p.7).
Unfortunately, this study is not well-known or even taught in many mainstream teacher education programs and is reserved for those interested in educational and curricular history. Because of the timing of the end of the Eight-Year Study and the release of its results, it was overshadowed by the end of World War II and the rebuilding of the country. Yet, the study stands as a strong argument and support for the task of independent education and the public purposes it serves.
Independent education is fortunate to be able to experiment and modify the elementary and secondary schooling experience. We have the freedom to immediately respond to the times in which we live. The economic and political circumstances of our time do not manifest themselves in the same ways in every locale nationwide. The current call for a national program of education and greater uniformity disregard the great diversity of our country, which is one of the most attractive and unique characteristics of the United States . National mandates discourage the energies of individual educators in shaping meaningful and unique learning experiences and opportunities for students.
Independent education can stand as a place of experimentation and innovations in opposition to this call for uniformity. In fact, it might be said that it is one of the responsibilities of independent education. We have the opportunity to speak out against the supposed inability of individual teachers and educators at the local level to make a meaningful contribution to curricular decisions and the shaping of school policies. We have the possibility of showing how communities of parents, educators, students, administrators, and businesses can cooperate to build schools that are diversified and unique but that still adequately, and usually superbly, prepare students for college, life beyond school, and to be responsible and productive citizens.
In the current economic climate in which enrollment in independent schools seems to be fluctuating, we may be especially weary of experimentation. Such a time seems to make us tentative about straying too far from what is considered mainstream, yet if we forget about our responsibilities and own histories of independent education, we may well forfeit much of what makes us a valuable segment of education. Perhaps it makes our communities idealistic, but I believe many of the stakeholders in independent education work and support our schools precisely because we are not mainstream. If we revert to offering programs and services that are not radically different from other private institutions and other public schools in our area during a not-improving-quick-enough economy, we will continue to have difficulty filling our seats. We will also be doing ourselves and our communities a disservice in not offering a meaningful educational alternative.
Independent schools and educators should remember that we are not just serving our students alone but the communities and society in which we live. Being independent does not mean divorcing ourselves from the larger conversations in education or disregarding best practices and theories. It means studying these carefully and critically and then adapting them and our own creative approaches to the tasks of teaching and learning so that they are appropriate for and best serve our constituents and communities. When considering economic forces and the temptation amid market forces to adopt more conservative positions and policies in an effort to avoid controversies in our own communities, the Eight-Year Study stands as a strong argument to remain “independent” in many senses of the word. Our strength as independent schools lies in our ability to stand outside of the umbrella of federal and state educational mandates. Educating our own communities and the educational community at large to the purposes and public good of this unique position remains an important goal of independent education.
…and we’ll make winners out of them”
There’s a good article in the latest edition of Independent School magazine that challenges some cherished notions of excellence and the hypocrisy of so many claims about diversity, equity and justice.
It is starts with a question and a well-aimed slice at the euphemisms of so many school mission statements.
What does it mean when a school, having rejected a child who applied for admission, explains that he or she just “isn’t a good fit” (or “match”) with the school? In some cases, sure, the phrase would seem appropriate — for example, if there’s a marked discrepancy between the school’s and the family’s religious orientations, or if the school is committed to progressive education while the parents demand grades, quizzes, worksheets, and traditional discipline.Well, you know, here at Tweedle-Dee School, we believe in “guiding our students to reach their optimum potential intellectually, physically, and socially” — so I’m afraid this really isn’t the right place for you. Perhaps you’d be happier at Tweedle-Dum Academy across town, which, in contrast to us, offers a “rigorous college-preparatory education in a caring and attentive school community.”1
More commonly, though, it’s not clear at all how the decision to prevent a child from enrolling is best described as a lack of fit, particularly if the school’s goals and priorities (a) correspond to what most parents (including these) are looking for, and (b) can’t easily be distinguished from those of other schools. Try to imagine an admission director saying something like this to an applicant:
Kohn follows this up with the school admissions testing practices and an irrefutable truth about standardized tests:
It’s particularly painful when schools that think of themselves as progressive, child-centered, alternative, or otherwise enlightened continue to require prospective students to take one of these tests when they apply. Their rhetoric says, “We look at children as individuals and are committed to 21st-century education.” Their use of these tests says, “We still haven’t let go of standardized assessment that represents a throwback to early 20th-century beliefs about intelligence and sorting.”
Here’s what we know about standardized tests in general:1
• Their results are highly correlated with socioeconomic status, to the point that they tell us less about the potential of the child than they do about the size of the house in which that child lives.
Selective school admissions means that schools end up with the children who need them the least and often with a very narrow band of intellectual abilities. So much for mission statements about equity and justice and diversity.
Consider a conversation that the education theorist Martin Haberman reported having with his grandson’s kindergarten teacher at a selective school. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit the children who don’t know their shapes and colors, and teach them these things?” he asked. The teacher looked at him as if he were “leftover mashed potatoes,” but he persisted:
Next year, my grandson, who is already testing in your top half, will have had the added benefit of being in your class for a whole year. Won’t he learn a lot more and be even further ahead of the four-year-olds who failed your admission exam and who have to spend this year at home, or in day care, without the benefit of your kindergarten? Will the four-year-old rejects ever catch up?
This question did even less to endear him to the teacher, but Haberman by now had realized what was going on more generally, and he summarized his epiphany as follows: “The children we teach best are those who need us least.”4
Kohn concludes with this challenge to schools and educators and their faux claims to be schools of excellence:
Take a look at your school’s admissions practices. Then look at your school’s core values and the reason you personally became an educator. How’s the fit?
And if you think this is over the top then read:
It’s a news story that makes Kohn’s case.
This is the educational consultant:
“Schools are looking for consistency in grades, attitude, testing and recommendations,”
And the test-prep tutor on the topic:
“Just like you preheat your oven, you’ve got to get your child ready for the test. Just knowing the format of the test can really help,” said Anderson.
So you can get out the cookie cutter and shape your child into the prescribed and acceptable shape to be well-baked in the oven or you can come to Poughkeepsie Day School where we actually respect cognitive diversity and seek to add value to all children on their individual journeys.