Column: Fear is killing our schools

  • Students walk through the halls at Forestdale Elementary School in Springfield, Va., on Aug. 22, 2022. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Craig Hudson. Washington Post — Craig Hudson

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 10/1/2022 10:10:19 PM
Modified: 10/1/2022 10:10:17 PM

“The beatings will continue until morale improves” is a rather familiar quip of unknown origin. Two recent news stories remind of just how apt the saying remains.

The first was an astonishing New York Times report on the reinstitution of paddling as a disciplinary tool in a Missouri school district. Surprisingly, paddling children in school remains legal in 19 states, although the practice is not widespread. Paddling children is barbaric, humiliating and utterly ineffective. Corporal punishment makes children more aggressive and disruptive. The Missouri abusers attempt to mitigate their own cruelty by saying they only whack kids whose parents give permission. It takes little imagination to understand why a child of such parents would have difficulty in school and draw more negative attention.

Few readers will disagree with my condemnation of beating chidden. I suspect the rest of this post will be more controversial.

The educational world was aghast at the news this month of the “alarming” results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is the supposed gold standard of measurement, also called the nation’s report card. The 2022 tests of reading and math were conducted to assess pandemic “learning loss” and produced the data that researchers anticipated. Reading scores were down 5 points and math scores down 7 points compared to 2020 levels.

“The beatings will continue until scores improve” is the nearly inevitable consequence as education pundits, economists, policy-makers and most parents, wax apoplectic over the “precipitous” drop.

“I was taken aback by the scope and the magnitude of the decline!”

“No more of the arguments, and the back and forth and the vitriol and the finger pointing. Everybody should be treating this like the crisis that it is.”

Pity the children, especially poor children of color for whom the results were somewhat more statistically “significant.” This is a tempest in a teapot and the solution will be far more damaging than the problem.

It is likely to be a reprise of the reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that allegedly showed educational achievement in serious decline. It was not true — a statistical phenomenon led to misinterpretation of the data — but the report drove a frenetic response of testing and accountability that continues until today. And here we go again.

The NAEP scores are not statistically flawed; they are just meaningless and dangerous because of the authority they carry. The Times story included pearl-clutching quotes from educators and hundreds of responses from readers who blamed COVID closings, teachers’ unions, bad teachers, online learning and stupid progressives who have leached the rigor out of education by giving all children trophies.

Immediate remedies are prescribed: longer school days, school on Saturday, summer school, tutoring.

“I don’t see a silver bullet, beyond finding a way to increase instructional time.”

“... low-performing students simply needed to spend more time learning, whether it was in the form of tutoring, extended school days or summer school.”

The arcane nonsense of educational assessment and statistics is an industry unto itself. Think tanks and university departments are full of Ph.D.s, economists and statisticians who essentially drive all public education policy and practice. They speak and write in highfalutin jargon filled with inputs, outputs, doses, instructional units, variances and standard deviations. The assessments assume important outcomes and reverse engineer a set of instructional inputs to achieve those ends. More hours in seats being instructed with the right methods is all that’s needed to close the gaps and erase the deficits. This mechanistic approach is reinforced by its apparent success. If you declare a desired outcome and design rote instruction and practice toward that outcome, short term success is likely.

This would be lovely if children were little machines. But they are not. They are complex humans who learn in different ways, at different paces and learn best through discovery, curiosity and real experience. Even if one accepts the reliability of the NAEP scores, for every child who appears to have lost something, there is a child who did not. It is the simple mathematical truth of averages and means. They tell a story of little relevance to any particular child, yet the prescribed medicine will be shoved down all their throats.

As with so many things in education, the commission of this learning malpractice is exacerbated by the corresponding omission of what children need most.

The return to relatively normal schooling should not be a frantic chase to catch up on “the basics.” It should be a time to re-establish friendships, to play more, not less. If you want them to develop literacy skills, invite them to choose books that ignite their imaginations. If you care about their mathematical development, give them interesting problems to wrestle with, things to count and physical objects to arrange and rearrange as they discover the math implicit in the physical world.

They should sing and play instruments, which may be the best math curriculum of all. They can learn history through theater and learn about biology and botany by hiking in the woods — or desert, or local park — and painting pictures of what they discover. The very best teaching is a guided and thoughtfully curated exploration of the world children inhabit. This learning is durable and can be thrilling.

Instead, driven by the false panic of “learning loss,” they will sit through tedious units of instruction for longer days, longer weeks and longer school years, as they gaze out the windows at the world that should be their classroom.

I suppose it’s better than paddling, but not much.

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