November 22, 2006

Social Promotion

Instructivist left this timely comment in response to this post:

[E]ven with good curricula and teaching methods you are still facing pupils with bad attitudes, poor motivation and atrocious behavior. There is something very wrong with the school culture. I am more and more convinced that decades of progressive, child-centered education (and the consequent demotion of the teacher) fosters this bad culture.

Educators have taken their eye off the ball. Instead of focusing on outcomes, educators want to focus on the process of education. When you focus on process, learning may or may not take place. When process is the focus of education, there are no winners or losers because no one is keeping score. We're all familiar with this lack of accountability meme.

But today I want to discuss the nasty side effect of stressing process instead of outcomes alluded to by Instructivist -- the unintended, but entirely predictable, consequences of social promotion: student apathy and misbehavior.

Social promotion is a byproduct of focusing on process instead of outcomes. When there is no agreed upon outcome that can be reliably measured, there is no choice but to keep moving children ahead regardless of their skill level. And, it doesn't help that there is some touchy-feely junk science research out there claiming that kids are more likely to drop out if they are held back. In recent years, accountability measures have cut back on this pernicious practice somewhat, but it still thrives in most schools.

Vicki Snider has written about the dynamic:

When there is no accountability, students are unlikely to put forth their best effort. This is especially true at the high school level. It is the rare adolescent who is intrinsically motivated to do well in school, and those that lack the basic skills and background knowledge necessary for success are even less motivated. No one is intrinsically motivated to do things he or she is not very good at. Eighty-one percent of the American public said that students achieve only a small part of their potential (Johnson, et al. 2003; Rose & Gallup, 2001) and even students seem to recognize that fact. Public Agenda found that 71% of students readily admitted that they do the minimum to get by and 56% said that they could try a little harder (Johnson & Farkus, 1997) and a Metlife (Markow & Scheer, 2002) survey found that 73% of students agreed that students in their school do only enough work to get by.


Well, no friggin' duh.

Incentives matter. That's why communist economies fail at a fast rate and socialist economies also fail but at a slower rate. The rate of economic failure is inversely proportional to the amount of incentives to work removed from the system. When you're giving "to each according to their means" and only asking "from each according to their abilities," you create a perverse incentive to do as little as possible. The lefties who control education, haven't learned this economic lesson yet. (In fact, they have no incentive to learn it--to continue my analogy).

Grade inflation only exacerbates the problem. Getting good grades for doing very little just feeds the fire and gives students an inflated sense of achievement. Students end up thinking they know a lot more than they really know. The chickens won't come home to roost until college or their first job when performance is finally demanded and excuses cease to be available.

And here's the kicker.

While no student is served well by focusing on process instead of outcomes, it is the students who arrive at school the least well prepared for academic learning who suffer the worst effects.

Snider is on it again:

One might think that de-emphasizing specific content in favor of thinking skills would benefit smart, curious youngsters regardless of their socioeconomic status or cultural background--but it turns out that 's not true. Children who come from homes where education is not stressed or where the parents are uneducated themselves are less likely to acquire the background knowledge that they need to achieve school success.

This is not intuitively obvious (unless you read this blog regularly), so allow me to explain.

In order to learn, you need to comprehend. Comprehension is highly dependent on your background knowledge. The more you know about what you are trying to learn the better and more easily you will learn it. This underlying knowledge is background knowledge. Those who lack it are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Being a curious youngster, means you are willing to learn which means you are willing to use your working memory to think about something for a period of time. But to actually learn this new thought requires that you understand the new thought well enough to find a place where it fits in your long term memory. To do this, however, requires that you not exceed the limited capacity of your working memory. You manage this feat by marshaling the resources stored in your long term memory, i.e., your background knowledge, to expand the capacity of your working memory and allow you to finish your thought. If you can't finish your thought, you're not going to learn, no matter how curious you are.

Background knowledge is critical to higher levels of learning. The acquisition of background knowledge becomes increasing reliant upon the reading of books. Most books used for "reading to learn" are written at a fourth grade level or above. The vocabulary in these fourth grade books and above tend to contain words that are seldom contained in everyday speech, including on the television. Vocabulary (and the underlying concepts) is merely background knowledge.

Traditionally, schools have been designed to educate the middle class. This means that schools could rely on the students family to impart the vocabulary and oral concept knowledge needed to read at a fourth grade level. Such knowledge is not forthcoming in lower class families. And, most schools have never taken on this responsibility. Right out of the starting blocks, disadvantaged are in a position where it is impossible for them to learn by the time they hit fourth grade.

Focusing on the process of education has created perfect storm conditions in most schools, but especially the schools in which the students have low levels of background knowledge. It's a two-pronged pincer attack:

Prong one: Removing the incentives to learn and the consequences of not learning, creates apathy. Apathy breeds misbehavior and defiance. Misbehaving, apathetic kids are difficult to teach.

Prong Two: Not caring about the content of what is learned, reduces the the already slow process of accumulating background knowledge. Failure to acquire background knowledge reduces the student's ability to learn new stuff. This reduction of capacity to learn increases the effort level required to learn. Kids who find it difficult to learn are difficult to teach.

When the prongs come together in an environment of social promotion under a teaching pedagogy that downplays the importance of teaching content, you have the perfect positive feedback loop: apathetic misbehaving kids with insufficient background knowledge who have no incentive to put effort into learning and who find learning increasingly difficult.

Welcome to hell.

14 comments:

Laura said...

So what are the incentives for the kids to do well under your proposed system? Is it just promotion to the next level of school? Is it scores? Or did I miss some sort of fabulous, instantly gratifying prize that they would actually care about?

In an atmosphere that places on value on the constructs of education, how are these things going to matter or even register as the all-motivating success you predict? Are scores going to make them believe they're good at reading, math, etc. and make them want to keep doing it? Will graduating suddenly matter to them?

Incidentally, I thought of you last week. I've been recruited to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standing Committee Against Censorship--many of whom make me look like Pat Robertson, I confess. What do you think of their assertion that scripted teaching is a form of censorship?

SteveH said...

"Are scores going to make them believe they're good at reading, math, etc. and make them want to keep doing it?"

You betcha!!

Or, are teachers so incompetent that they can't figure out how to create proper tests and grade homework. I'm not talking about trivial state standardized tests here.

Good grades are very motivating. Bad grades and the risk of flunking are also very motivating. High expectations are very motivating. If they don't get those expectations at home, they darn well better get them at school.

"Will graduating suddenly matter to them?"

You're looking at high school kids. Please reread Ken's comments. By the time kids get to high school, all problems look external.


"What do you think of their assertion that scripted teaching is a form of censorship?"

Schools and teachers know all about censorship. They practice it big time. It's called the public school monopoly that allows no input by parents on curriculum and pedagogy. Teachers are experts? Experts in what? Their own opinions.

School choice. Then those teachers can complain all they want about censorship - or just go teach somewhere else.

The arrogance is palpable. Their employer tells them to do their job a particular way they don't like and they call it censorship. This is incredible!

MassParent said...

I suspect when we get to a uniform grading system, rather than applying a grading curve with average kids at a school getting a C, that will work as a disincentive rather than an incentive for individual kids. It might push the standardized test scores up, but if the best kids at a school only score a C+, that isn't much of an incentive.

If you don't want kids to pass in the school but then fail on standardized tests, the logical conclusions are you either lower the standardized test passing threshold, or go to uniform grading.

Wonder what would happen in colleges if we had uniform grading across all colleges. An A at Temple, equal to an A at Haverford.

Tracy W said...

Massparent: If you don't want kids to pass in the school but then fail on standardized tests, the logical conclusions are you either lower the standardized test passing threshold, or go to uniform grading.

May I suggest that another logical conclusion is that you teach kids well enough that they pass in the school and on standardised tests?

This has the beneficial result that not only will they pass the tests, but they'll also know maths a bit better than they were in the old system, which will be useful in the rest of life whenever they use the topic.

Don't lose sight of the idea that tests (be they standardised or grades within a school) are just a means to an end. We don't want kids to get good scores for good scores' sake. We want them to get good scores to the extent that this correlates with actually knowing the subject material.

When a kid goes on to, say, engineering at university, it's their knowledge of the subject matter that matters, not their knowledge relative to their fellow students at school. You either know how to find the roots to a quadratic equation or not, and if you don't you're going to struggle at engineering school. Giving high grades at high school regardless of work, or lowering standardised test scores, is not going to lead to any improvement in knowledge in itself.

So your case of a school where the top kids only making C+s, then the solution there is to improve the teaching of the kids, and make sure they master each lesson as it happens. A school may wind up moving its kids through the curriculum a lot slower than a school with a smarter base student population, but whatever the kids cover they should know. If they wind up taking the standardised test three years after most of the kids at the higher socio-economic school, then so be it.

Quincy said...

So what are the incentives for the kids to do well under your proposed system? Is it just promotion to the next level of school? Is it scores? Or did I miss some sort of fabulous, instantly gratifying prize that they would actually care about?

laura -

You may or may not be surprised to know this, but when teacher sets up achievable challenges and give their students the tools to master them, it feels good to them.

Have you ever had to do something that seemed almost impossible at first because you couldn't quite wrap your mind around the task? Do you remember how you felt when you did it successfully? I'll bet that if you have you'd remember quite well. That's where the motivation comes from.

The best way to create motivation (and self-esteem) is to provide clear expectations before an activity and honest praise and criticism afterwards. If a particular student did badly in relation to the expectations laid out he will know it, so there's no use in trying to hide it. In fact, the web of lies associated with the social-promotion mentality goes a long way in creating apathy among the students it's inflicted upon.

allen said...

laura wrote:

So what are the incentives for the kids to do well under your proposed system? Is it just promotion to the next level of school? Is it scores? Or did I miss some sort of fabulous, instantly gratifying prize that they would actually care about?

How much would it matter what the incentives were as long as the concept of incentives were introduced to the public education system? Right now the only incentives kids are certain to have they bring with them from home like a box lunch. That's quite proper though since there isn't much concern about whether the kids show up. Why exert yourself giving the kids a reason to show up when they don't have a choice?

massparent wrote:

Wonder what would happen in colleges if we had uniform grading across all colleges. An A at Temple, equal to an A at Haverford.

Umm, if there were uniform grading, and grading standards of course, an "A" at Temple would be equal to an "A" at Haverford, or Harvard. And what would happen is that the value of an education and its cost could be easily and accurately compared. The desire for that sort of comparison is made obvious by the popularity of the various college-comparison editions of national magazines such as U.S. New and World Report's "America's Best Colleges".

The lack of standardized measurement methods favors the supplier since the prospective customers have no idea whether they're getting a fair shake or a good screwing.

To answer your question directly, uniform grading would result in expensive colleges providing, at least, a good education and probably some of the other perks of wealth. A cheap college would provide a lousy education. A college that was lousy at education but charged a premium price wouldn't last long, unless it had something other then education to offer like exclusivity based on price. Say, Cartier College or Versace University. An ostentacious display of wealth college. Finally, there'd be the bargain colleges. Colleges that manage to offer a good education for a low price. You can bet that without the obfuscating fog of a standardsless landscape those colleges would tend to do quite well.

SteveH said...

"... the web of lies associated with the social-promotion ..."

Yes.

There are different levels and methods of motivation. It would be nice to think that all students are self-motivated, excited little learners, but few kids are born that way. The main goal is to get them learning and keep them learning. At some point maybe they will realize that they are good at something and the kids will really take off. Maybe not. However, schools have to use whatever motivating tools they can to get kids to that point. If you leave all learning up to their own motivation, then it won't happen.

This isn't a grand new idea. Most parents know that they have to be motivation enforcers for many things. You can't just allow kids to be motivated only for those things they like to do from the start. Someone I knew explained that parents have to be like moving walls; slowly, continually pushing (against all complaints) to keep kids moving in the right direction. At some point, hopefully, they won't need the wall anymore.

Grades set the pace for the best students, and they can be the kick in the pants the least motivated kids need. This doesn't preclude other types of motivation, like a teacher's knowledge and love of the material; like a teacher's caring and support for the kids.

You can easily see this in sports. Few would ever think about not keeping score, but that doesn't mean that coaches don't use many other techniques to motivate kids. Most kids are motivated by scores, but it ends up being much more than that. What is really motivating is that they come to realize that hard work pays off; that they come to value the coach's high standards. It's amazing to see the change that comes over many kids. Scores might me a motivating tool, but the end result is so much more.

Grades are a framework for motivation - not the goal. If schools and teachers are very careful (from Kindergarten) about setting high year-to-year standards and carefully teaching and supporting kids, then the issue of grades would not be so important. Also, many of the problems of grades have nothing to do with grades - they are just the messenger. You don't fix something by saying that the grades are the problem or that the grades are not important.

Problems of motivation do not start in high school, they start in Kindergarten. Social promotion never helps, it just ignores the problem and makes it worse. If you wait long enough, you can then blame it on external causes. That's what schools do.

SteveH said...

"Wonder what would happen in colleges if we had uniform grading across all colleges. An A at Temple, equal to an A at Haverford."

If they enforced this, then few would get college degrees.

I worked at a company and was one of a team that went out recruiting students at colleges. We only went to good colleges. We knew that we would have to pay higher starting salaries, but it was well worth the cost. Students from poor quality schools were just not worth the price.

Most companies know the difference between community college graduates and Ivy League graduates, but usually these people don't vie for the same jobs. Some companies seem to want college graduates (of any sort) because they think it means something. (Supply is greater than demand.) This has fueled the image of college as the key to success. It has also fueled the lower end of college level expectations. Many lower-level colleges seem to be more concerned about whether a student can pay than his or her academic credentials. Besides, there are always remedial courses.

The end result is employer beware!

rightwingprof said...

"I suspect when we get to a uniform grading system, rather than applying a grading curve with average kids at a school getting a C, that will work as a disincentive rather than an incentive for individual kids. It might push the standardized test scores up, but if the best kids at a school only score a C+, that isn't much of an incentive."

You don't understand the concept of a grading curve, I see. The top students would get As.

Tracy W said...

Most companies know the difference between community college graduates and Ivy League graduates, but usually these people don't vie for the same jobs.

Quite probably. But an improvement in education efficiency and a decent groundwork in early maths could still make the lives of community college graduates better and make them more effective employees.

And of course I think we can all agree that getting high-paying jobs is only one of the objectives of schools. Schools should prepare students for life more generally, including giving them the schools to be critical thinkers capable of making up their own minds about political questions, and to manage their own affairs more wisely. Students who go to community colleges are like Ivy League students in that they may well wind up obtaining mortages, calculating and paying taxes, adjusting recipe quantities, etc.

A school should only give out good grades in maths to students who have actually mastered the material. Allowing students to work at their own pace is far more honest than giving them good grades even though they haven't mastered the material.

Catherine Johnson said...

Incentives matter. That's why communist economies fail at a fast rate and socialist economies also fail but at a slower rate.

Definitely.

Then when you add in the fact that students are constantly being tested and graded - i.e. given continual evidence that their not-caring is producing poor learning & performance - everyone gets even more browned out than he/she already was.

It's a miserable environment.

Catherine Johnson said...

Is it scores? Or did I miss some sort of fabulous, instantly gratifying prize that they would actually care about?

A good score makes kids and adults feel great.

When Christian, the young man who works with our autistic kids, passed his college reading test he was THRILLED.

He felt so proud, partly because I'd been lecturing everyone on the importance of reading comprehension, background knowledge, etc.

That one placement test was major validation, and correctly so.

Catherine Johnson said...

tests (be they standardised or grades within a school) are just a means to an end. We don't want kids to get good scores for good scores' sake. We want them to get good scores to the extent that this correlates with actually knowing the subject material.

ABSOLUTELY

The point of good grades has been completely lost inside our schools.

I've said this before, I know, but around here parents are constantly saying, "I don't care if my child gets As" and "I don't want to be the kind of parent who thinks her kid has to get As."

Every time I hear this I come back with, "I am the kind of parent who wants my child to get all As. An A means 90% correct on a test and 90% correct on a test means mastery. I want my child to master the material he's been taught. If he hasn't mastered the material, I want it to be retaught & retested until he does master it."

blank stares

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll add that I don't necessarily want mastery in every single subject Christopher ever takes.....

However, in math, grammar, spelling etc. - in the "basics" - mastery is crucial.

I would object to an overall course grade of a C in any course.

Unless the grading was off, that would tell me that he's essentially mastered nothing and will remember nothing a few months hence.