Saturday, February 5, 2011

On why we don't know much

One of many reactions to Amy Chua's account of "Chinese parenting" was Elizabeth Kohlbert's observation, in The New Yorker, that American young people test way behind their peers elsewhere but stand out compared to kids in other countries on at least one index: self-esteem. Much as one can (rightly) deplore a demand for excellence that falls into cruelty, calling for achievement by one's kids -- and kids in general -- is good rather than bad.

Is it true that Americans no longer call for achievement by their kids, and that that is the reason our kids seem not to be learning very much? Well, maybe. But these are the same Americans who, it's been found, work quite long hours every year. (Wikipedia presents a table of Organization of Economic Co-operation and Developmwent [OECD] data from 2002 showing the average annual work year in the US at 1777 hours. Only six countries in the table had longer work years, none of them in Western Europe, and workers in a number of West European countries, including France and Germany, annually worked 400 hours less -- as if they had all taken 10-week vacations that their US counterparts didn't get.) We're not, as far as I can tell, a lazy nation. So why would we be indifferent to how much our kids learn?

In fact, I don't think we are indifferent to how much our kids learn. I think many parents, teachers, and kids -- from all sorts of social backgrounds -- are deeply committed to academic excellence. But I do suspect that as a nation we may have become somewhat ambivalent about academic achievement -- even that many of us who cannot stop caring about it and guiding our children to care about it are, at the same time, uneasy about what we are accomplishing. Why?

No doubt there are many reasons, but here is one possibility: that we are ambivalent because we tend to associate high academic achievement with claims to privilege. We have very good reason to want to dismantle the embedded privileges of particular groups within our society. But it is entirely predictable that those who have privilege will tend to be high academic achievers -- since they enjoy the benefit of all the forms of capital, cash and cultural, that fuel high achievement in school. Obviously many unprivileged people achieve marvellously too; I don't mean to deny that in the least, but rather to try to discern why our country seems distracted from fostering high achievement more widely -- and my thought is that it is tempting to discount high achievement, because it appears as a corollary of privilege.

If we say often enough that test scores are not a mark of true talent (and we do say this a lot, and what's more there's a lot of truth to it), perhaps eventually we communicate to the test-takers that their test scores don't matter so much, because those scores don't measure their true talent. And perhaps we also tend to communicate to teachers that fostering high test scores isn't a central objective, because, again, those scores don't measure true talent (or, to extend the idea, true learning). Then we set about to find what might better measure or elicit true talent, and as admirable and valuable as that search is, it may divert attention from more traditional educational steps which likely have considerable power in imparting the knowledge that our young people need to acquire in order to be educated.

Here's another data point. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), report in The Chronicle of Higher Education -- based on testing and retesting of students using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment -- that over a third of US college students "did not show any significant improvement over four years" in the "higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master."

If their finding is correct -- and I'm sure there is much still to be debated on this score -- then it is remarkable on two grounds. First, it forces one to ask what all those students, and their professors, were doing in their years together. But, second, and perhaps even more pointedly, it raises the question of what the accreditation agencies that approved all these schools were doing. My impression is that in universities over the past decades elaborate effort has gone into articulating teaching objectives and assessing their achievement, and as I understand it no college or university today can get accredited without having such an apparatus for demonstrating the success of the educational process in place. So it appears that it is quite possible to have objectives for higher education and systematic assessment of their attainment -- institutional features that incidentally take plenty of time and resources to create -- and ... not educate.

It is possible to argue that the assessment apparatus undercuts true education. This is roughly the case widely made against elaborate objective testing (and I think this case has merit). Yet it also seems possible that actually the assessment apparatus winds up playing a different role -- that it functions to create the illusion of education, while masking the fruitless churning that's actually going on. This function would fit comfortably with Arum and Roksa's sense that despite their findings, higher education is not in crisis, because "the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened." Arum and Roksa note that there is, apparently, a long tradition of college not educating very much. But perhaps something has also changed. I wonder whether our assessment systems have failed to catch this lack of education in part because we created our methods of assessing our colleges at the same time that we were growing ambivalent about simple "achievement" as a central function of schools.

I think that there is a sense in which all our children truly are above average. Human beings are marvelously talented, and a world that allows those talents to flourish will be one with many virtues. If "average" means "just okay," we may all have the potential to be better than that. But not if we don't learn what's needed to make our way in the world.

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