Symptoms, Causes, Cures (from 1-13-12)

This past weekend an older post of mine, my “Teacher’s Letter to Obama: A Lesson in Irony” suddenly caught on. As of this evening, it has over 50 thousand hits, and dozens of mostly positive comments. A few of the “commenters” made the criticism that I didn’t offer any solutions, and other commenters pointed out that finding solutions wasn’t my goal in that piece -my goal was to express my frustration. Apparently, in venting my frustration, I expressed what a lot of other people were thinking as well. 

But if solutions are what we want – and I want them as much as anyone -I have one suggestion that is a step toward a solution. My suggestion is a change in mindset.

If you read a lot of the debate surrounding education, people are using data to do two very unscientific things: tell stories and create metaphors. One story goes like this: “Our test scores are low compared to other countries, so it must be the teacher’s faults because it’s too hard to fire bad teachers, so if we just busted the unions and made it easy to fire bad teachers, we’d be fine.” Of course, bad teachers are defined as “teachers whose students aren’t getting good test scores.” That’s one story – and I’ll address that in a later post. What concerns me more today is our metaphors.

The metaphor I particularly want to deal with is a medical one. I think many people view low test scores as a disease, high test scores as good health, and teachers as the doctors who are supposed to fix the problem. I won’t even go into the oft repeated implications of this metaphor, that if you send a sick person to the doctor, and they don’t take follow the doctor’s instructions, then it isn’t the doctor’s fault when they don’t get better. I think that’s an extremely valid point.

What interests me about this metaphor is that when we view low test scores as the disease, all our efforts become focused on the test scores. If test scores are the disease, fixing them will fix the child, the school, the system. If test scores are the disease, we must find a systematic cure that will work in every case, and make every “doctor” use that systematic cure. That cure often amounts to attacking the disease repeatedly. With a bad infection, we give repeated doses of antibiotics. With bad test scores, we give repeated doses of skill-drills on the particular types of questions that are causing the disease. As we’ve discovered with antibiotics, though, overuse can actually make the disease worse. 

We are seeing low test scores as the disease, and standardization of materials, assessments, and approaches as the cure, because we must fight disease in a scientific, systematic way. Here’s the problem. Low test scores are not the disease. They are the symptoms. 

Low test scores are the symptoms, plural, because low test scores are not just a symptom of one problem, but the symptoms of a host of other possible “diseases,” and as long as we are merely treating the symptoms, we will never get to the root of the problem. But it’s easier to treat this one, easy to identify, easy to track symptom, than to get into the messy, real life work of figuring out how what the real diseases are. 

If low test scores are the symptom, what are the diseases? Well, there are lots of educational diseases out there. 

If I look at my students who are “symptom free” because their test scores are good, there are certain traits they seem to have that my low-scoring students often don’t.

For starters, high scoring students tend to be readers. Low scoring students tend to be non-readers. But even that is a symptom. The real disease is this – our low-achieving students have boring-itis. They are simply not very interested or curious about the world around them. When I do an “enthusiasm map” at the start of the year, my high achieving students have dozens of interests in multiple areas of life: sports, movies, food, books, hobbies, video games, and classes. My low achieving students have trouble coming up with ten things they are interested in. 

My high achieving students read a lot because they are interested in a lot of subjects. My low achieving students don’t read because not that much interests them. They look at the world around them and say it’s boring, when in fact, the boredom lies within themselves. What if we could somehow inspired our lowest students to be more interested in the world around them the way many of our top students are? It would cure the disease of boredom, and they might become happier, less bored, more engaged, and more likely to sit down and read a book. And test scores might come along for the ride – the symptom alleviated because the disease was cured. 

Some of our students are interested – but only in a very narrow range of interests, or even in just one interest. But helping a student who is obsessed with drawing manga characters or fantasy football to see that their obsession has connections to literature, writing, math, science, social studies, music, business, art history, and a host of other subjects can make all the difference. 

There are other diseases our students suffer from. 

Home problems so enormous that school seems like a minor distraction. Poverty so crushing that school is a very low priority. Wealth, toys, and distractions so tempting, so addicting, that school seems like a chore. Depression. Lack of self confidence. Poor attitudes. 

Sometimes what looks like an underlying disease may actually be a potential cure. Some students who act out in class because they are bored are actually gifted. Sometimes, as Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out, students’ real interests are so stifled by the way we do school, that they act out, or tune out, in frustration. I was obsessed with drawing cartoons as a student. The teachers who did nothing but yell at me to put my drawings away, who made me feel that my drawing was childish, made me shut down. Fortunately, though, I had many, many excellent teachers who set clear guidelines about when drawing was okay and when it wasn’t, and who encouraged me to use my drawing in school. Mr. Roach let me bring the comic strips magazines I made with my friends into class, and even to distribute them to my classmates. Mrs. Gottung let me create a packet of dittos to teach the other students how to draw cartoon characters. I think in pictures. That’s not a disease. It has been, in school and beyond, the key to every successful thing I’ve ever done. That trait could have been seen as a liability to my test-score performance and discouraged very early on. 

Recent research has indicated that imaginative free play is an important way for children to develop self regulation, imagination, creativity, and problem solving. Imaginative play does not, on the surface, seem to lead directly to higher test scores, and in fact looks like frivolous waste of time. So recess has been cut in favor of more “hard” academic work and more structured play designed to systematically battle obesity. By viewing low test scores as the disease, and good test scores as the highest good and the only worthy goal, we actually end up working against the test scores themselves. 

I suspect many high test scores are seen as a sign of educational health, when in fact they are actually signs that bright children are being under-challenged and bored. We don’t worry about high achieving kids much; we just pat them on the back for landing in the 99th percentile every year because we’re too busy treating the symptoms of our low-achievers.

What if we stopped treating the symptom of low test scores, and looked at treating the real underlying causes of low performance, and, better yet, actually trying to figure out the underlying causes of success? 

In health care we have tried to move away from curing disease to creating health. In psychology we have moved from treating psychological problems to studying and promoting happiness with the positive psychology movement. We need to do the same in education. 

What kind of students are we trying to create? What kind of people do we want to help them be as adults? 

If we want creative students who are interested in the world around them, who read, understand what they read, and make connections, who write with clarity, voice, and insight, who see the beauty and utility and, yes, fun of Mathematics, Science, and History, and who see the connections between all these disciplines and the arts and sports as well; if we want students who are life-long learners, constantly striving to improve themselves, and who can question, think, and bring fresh insights to the things they are studying– if we want all of that for our students, then we must stop treating the symptoms – low test scores – and even go beyond dealing with the diseases of  boredom, poverty, low motivation, and distraction. 

We must look at the conditions that lead to educational health and make them available to everyone. This is not a call to warm and fuzzy feel-good education. It is a call to a level of rigor and thought that transcends any multiple choice test.

So that’s my suggestion, my first one anyway. Change our mindset: treat low test scores as a symptom, not a disease; but then move beyond even treating those underlying diseases to a model we are actively promoting good educational health. 

Unless we have a vision for our children that is broader, deeper, higher, and more nuanced than “high test scores,” we will never make real improvements – not even those almighty scores.