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Op-ed column: Education experts use their summer to cook up more, trendy nonsense

Sunday, August 12, 2012
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Summer isn’t an exceptional time for education experts. They’re accustomed to working in the absence of students and teachers. That’s because nothing messes up a perfectly good education theory faster than real kids.

As July has yielded to August, public education’s pipe-dreamers continue to maintain the standards of irrelevance and wishful thinking that mark their contributions throughout the year.

Consider this telling pair of recent developments.

Those on the lookout for earthshaking research findings will enjoy a study conducted by the education division of the National Academy of Sciences, which recently concluded that 21st century learning “demands a mix of abilities.” The team of who’s who experts set out to “define just what researchers, educators, and policymakers mean when they talk about ‘deeper learning’ and ‘21st century skills.’ ”

‘Revolutionary’ skills

After collaborating for more than a year, the team identified three revolutionary skill categories: cognitive skills like “critical thinking and analytic reasoning,” interpersonal skills such as “teamwork and complex communication,” and intrapersonal skills, like “resiliency and conscientiousness.”

In other words, we now know that in order to be successful, for the first time people will need to be able to think, work with others, and display personality traits like perseverance and diligence.

Wow. And it only took them a year.

And that’s not all. The researchers also discovered that staying in school and completing degrees clearly have very strong effects on success. The editor of the report, however, acknowledged the difficulty schools face in creating 21st century “Renaissance men who are experts in a wide array of disciplines.”

He appears to miss the irony that in calling these ideal, cutting-edge students Renaissance men, he’s referring to a standard set around six centuries ago, which tends to undercut any claim that the skills his team identified are new.

Another team member adds that students have difficulty “transferring” and applying their knowledge to problems they face. She’s determined that a “well-founded knowledge base” is essential for problem-solving but laments that “we just don’t know how to” equip students to make that “deep transfer” of knowledge.

It might help her understanding if she would recall that experts like her own colleagues have been looking down their theoretical noses at a knowledge base and failing to equip students with information and skill for nearly two generations of school reform, sneering at teachers who dared to teach “content” in their classes. Her own report’s recommendation that schools focus more on interpersonal and intrapersonal skills is simply more of that same folly.

There’s nothing wrong with reinforcing cooperation and self-reliance at school, any more than it’s wrong for parents to add to their children’s knowledge of math or literature. But academic instruction isn’t the primary task of parents, and personal development isn’t the principal purpose of schools. Until we rededicate schools to what they’re supposed to be doing, they won’t be doing anything well.

Credit recovery

As they pipe-dream a generation of Leonardo da Vincis, policymakers are also grappling with a phenomenon known as “credit recovery.” Under the terms of this cutting-edge mechanism, students who fail courses and wind up with insufficient credits for graduation can complete “computer assignments or brief term papers” online and receive their diplomas over the summer, a maneuver that simultaneously pleases the students and boosts schools’ graduation statistics.

Critics, including supervising teachers and participating students, report that many students simply Google the answers to the questions and fill in the blanks. This is possible in part because test proctors are often significantly outnumbered by those taking the test and because the tests are often available online at home, which makes it a snap to do your “Googling to graduation” there. YouTube currently features “dozens of student tutorials on how to cheat.”

The charges leveled by critics of credit recovery are almost as damning as the defense offered by its fans. Proponents see the system as a “useful tool for helping at-risk students,” proudly billing it as “the way for a student to complete an entire class in just a week.” As one participating student put it, “It was a shocker to learn what I could get done in a day.”

I’ll bet it was. Who could have imagined covering one fifth of a year’s work on a Tuesday?

In New York, one jurisdiction where credit recovery is thriving, the state’s education commissioner, having recovered from his own apparent personal and professional surprise, has belatedly figured out that “students can’t learn a whole class in a week.”

Nonetheless, despite both his and the federal government’s stated ambition to graduate all students prepared for colleges and careers, and “allegations” of low standards, abuse and cheating in credit recovery, the commissioner recently announced that “there are no plans to crack down on the practice” in his state. He confidently predicted that “educational technology” would somehow solve the problem.

Experts’ sermons about “deeper learning” need to be evaluated alongside the comments of one credit recovery graduate spotlighted in Education Week. She observed that by offering students credit recovery in place of a year’s worth of effort and learning, schools “aren’t teaching them that hard work pays off in the slightest.”

Maybe schools in the 21st century could cover effort under intrapersonal skills. Naturally, there’s no guarantee that every student will work hard, but those who don’t can always get credit online for that one, too.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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