Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Education Reform - Can It Harm Students?

Teachers like to try and change the system.  We all have great ideas about what is wrong with education, and some people actually try and implement these ideas in their classrooms.  Most of the time, I think it's a great idea to try and do something new - teach differently, use different tech, try and explain something in a better or different light.

But, through conversation, I'm wondering if we're doing some of the "reform" wrong.

I've always had issues with teachers who are going to "change the whole system, one classroom at a time." Let's use tests as an example, but know that it's only an example.  Some teachers have suggested that all tests are evil, they should never be used because they don't teach anything and they're poor assessment tools.  I tend to agree with them - probably not in such strong language, but I rarely use tests to assess major concepts and I don't think that they really show learning.

But, and it's a big but, students have come back and thanked me for giving them tests - and showing them how to study for them.  The reason for this is because other teachers don't agree that tests are bad - they happily give a unit test at the end of every unit, and then a final exam, and that's 80% of your mark.

So my question is - if we think that tests are bad, and we stop using them as assessment tools, what happens when students get to teachers who use them?  Haven't we done a complete diservice to the students sitting right in front of us by NOT preparing them for what they may face?

It was suggested that the teacher giving the tests could teach them how to study - yes, and well they should, but it's not a one off thing.  It's not a simple lesson on studying - it's a habit, and a skill, to be able to study and prepare for a test.  And, I know far too many teachers who simply expect students to know how to write a test and have little sympathy for those who don't.  Incorrect attitude?  Of course it is!  But, don't we owe it to our kids to prepare them to deal with something that while unfair is still possibly going to happen?

I've used tests, but lots of other ed reform movements can cause the same problems - anything that a single teacher, or group of teachers decide needs to be done away with or changed that students MAY need seems to me to be something that we CAN'T get rid of.

The question then becomes - where does the change get made?  For certain it needs to start at the very least at a principal level - if a whole SCHOOL does away with tests, at least I know I wont be sending my students off next year to a teacher who is going to use them.  They still have to face them in the next school, or University/College, but perhaps they're going to be better prepared.  Or the school could really focus the last year on writing them.

Better still is a system - the minister of education in Ontario decided that there would be no more late penalties on assignments - no more "10% off per day".  It's a fantastic pedagogical idea - we shouldn't be marking students on when they hand something in, we should be marking them on what they know.  Teachers all over the province freaked out - "How can we get students to hand things in on time, this will destroy my classroom, etc etc etc".  It didn't, and the policy is humming along quite nicely.  The reason that it didn't hurt anyone is because EVERYONE had to do it.

So...education reform - I'm all for it, but it needs to be sensible, and it needs to start at a place where we don't penalize kids next year.

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