Tuesday, April 03, 2007

My 15 Minutes of Fame

Education News columnist, Robert Oliphant, has in the past agreed with some of the notions, comments or papers written by myself or others as referenced in this blog. (See for example one of his earlier posts.) While this is quite flattering and I appreciate his perspective, our mission (his and mine) seems to continuously miss the mark—or at least policy makers still don't seem to understand what we are trying to say.

One of Mr. Oliphant's more recent columns continues my call that assessment be "transparent, verifiable and not too complex." As a psychometrician, this is a "no brainer" as the scientific side of psychometrics is ingrained in mathematical statistics, where proofs and reproducibility are paramount. (Most mathematical statisticians I know are still working on the communication and complexity aspect.) Mr. Oliphant applies this principle to national standards—which is just fine by me—and others have applied this principle to instruction, to education in general, as well as to the definition of what the "product" of our school systems needs to be.

While this last aspect sounds simple, the current debate about college readiness and workplace readiness, the rigor of high school (particularly the senior year) and the recent lack of mandated achievement standards for the accreditation of institutions of higher learning speaks volumes. Namely, that we are still thinking about education in far too complicated ways and are missing the "forest for the trees."

Here is how I think about education:
First, we need to link the curriculum (content standards) in a progressive manner that delineates what it is we want students to learn from pre-kindergarten to college—the old-fashion notion of PreK–16 or K–20. This will allow the "compound interest" of learning to continue across the grades.

Second, we have to measure what it is we expect children to learn across the linked system. We can then use these measures to not only improve our instruction but also to manage our intervention. As novel as it sounds, the measurement data could actually inform teachers regarding what is working and what isn't.

Finally, (and this is arguably the most controversial) we have to stop denying individual differences and allowing students without pre-requisite skills to advance. I don't mean that failing students should repeat the grade, but rather, the system should have a continuous feedback/intervention loop such that students will master the pre-requisite skills before moving to the next level of content. Notice I said content level and not necessarily grade level. Students who move on in the current system—many of whom struggle with the mastery of basic skills—are destined to failure at later grades without mastering those skills.
Some people would call these ideas naive; and some would label them as another example of the failed "ungraded systems" that were the rage in education in other decades. I call it a transparent, verifiable and not too complex system of education, and a simple way to focus our attention on what is important: instruction, learning, measuring, and the feedback/intervention loop.

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