Get A Bigger Hammer

Updated: Sep 26

Look at what the pandemic did to student scores across the nation:

“These results are sobering,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests. The falloff" — which she called “historic — left little doubt about the pandemic’s toll. The average math score of 234 this year was comparable to the average score recorded in 1999, and the reading score of 215 was similar to the 2004 score."

"The Pandemic's Toll." It's a well-worn statement. But we have been back to school for a year and should expect some sort of uptick, or perhaps a sideways-tick. But the scores continue to fall as dramatically as they did during the pandemic. And while effective education was truly a challenge during Covid, we can not use it as the fall-guy forever. Because when I look at the graph, it's hard not to notice that student test scores had peaked and have been declining for more than a decade.

It would be more accurate to say, "The slide in student scores accelerated during the Pandemic. And that trend has continued even though we are back to school".

Why did lower test scores accelerate? There are several ways to answer that, of course. And there is some support for a few of them. But there is a primary reason, one which I have written about before but not in this context. Quoting the James Carville adage, without his expletive: "It’s the model, stupid".

There has not been a meaningful change in education since the industrial revolution. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) supplied a foundation for reform and called on schools to become accountable for the education they were providing, but somehow they missed the obvious. They left in place the basic, centuries-old industrial paradigm of how schooling happens. For the most part, schools still function with all same-aged students learning the same material, at the same time, at the same pace, from a single teacher and textbook, albeit the textbook might now be online.

In the middle of the 19th century, this model was considered the most efficient way of supplying a factory-ready workforce. It was a model that produced industry with workers able to perform repetitive tasks, follow directions and apply basic math and literacy skills.

But now, nearly every effort to improve schooling for today's world is limited by the system's weaknesses and constraints. This was one of the watershed issues at the heart of campus protests in the 60's. Prior to Vietnam, students protested saying they were not there simply to be 'produced'. They were individuals. Ultimately, they lost that one.

NCLB helped to raise academic standards. But it is a long way from the halls of Congress to a Gilbert, AZ 5th grade classroom. When it finally arrived it provided no help for what to do when students begin the school year multiple years behind. Because of that it set unsustainable or unattainable standards for teachers.

NCLB also provided for regular assessments. But by nature they are rigid and made it impossible to adjust to meet a student’s unique educational needs.

The addition of school choice is good, but if the schools that are chosen operate inside the same outdated, industrial framework, there may not be significant differences. We see this today with parents moving their children from a state public school to a charter public school. Overall results are negligible.

The educational system cannot recover from pandemic losses (up to 22 weeks of learning) because the architects are trying to use a model that doesn't fit, and hasn't fit, for decades. If we take an analogy from those in the trades, they jokingly quip about getting a bigger hammer. The idiom refers to a rookie who tries to use a piece of wood or length of pipe or junction box that won't fit. No matter how hard he pushes on it it just won't fall into place. So he says, "Get me a bigger hammer", aka bigger budgets, bigger buildings, higher salaries (which teachers need no matter what), more technology, etc.)

That is what Carville meant. There must be systemic change if we expect change. We all know the definition of insanity - doing the same thing and expecting different results. Well...

So, when the pandemic hit, the implications should have been obvious. Going online proved even less effective because we applied the same failing system and compounded the problem by isolating students which served to demotivate them even more dramatically. It was a substandard solution to deliver the content of a substandard system through a substandard method. Don't bet on that horse.

But now that we are back to school, still, nothing has changed. One would think it should occur to us that, in the 21st century, it will never be the best way for students to learn about photosynthesis, parallelograms or the Vietnam War through the pages of a tedious textbook in the company of 28 same-aged students.

Nor does the factory model work well for educators today. Before the pandemic, teacher satisfaction had reached its lowest level in two decades. Now, more than a quarter of educators want to quit.

If our ways of education are not working for students, for teachers or for the nation, how long will we continue down this path without laying the foundation for new ways of schooling? How do we expect to recover from the pandemic and all the mistakes we made using the same system that was failing before the pandemic?

Sadly, the reason we will not recover what has been lost is because major overhaul is unlikely. And when a broken system like our present educational system functions poorly under ideal circumstances, putting it in crisis mode overheats it and stalls it out completely.

This is one of many reasons why Paradigm Learning Microschools is not a public school nor will we ever become a public school. Jumping into the rut is easier financially, but it removes our reason to exist. Pioneering new and effective methods of education is where we shine. That is what we are doing. Eventually, we hope the system listens.

There are a few changes in this direction. A small wave is beginning. Harvard, Dartmouth, Purdue and 150 other major universities have begun to consider students for admission without a GPA. Some are implementing "Maker Spaces". They are doing this because they recognize the weaknesses of current grading and learning systems and they are rightly concerned that they are overlooking some of the best and brightest.

Our hope is that the changes needed will not merely be our current public education system trying to get the job done by grabbing a bigger hammer. Any attempt to improve schooling without changing the process will always be futile.

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