The Toxic Culture of Education
Joshua Katz is a high school math teacher in Orange County Florida. He gave a TEDx talk recently using the metaphor of the super villain archetype to describe the forces that have given us the toxic culture that currently exists in education. The super villain releases a doom onto the world that only a super power can stop, conveniently his super power.
Today’s super villains are private education companies who created a crisis in education that they are prepared to ride in and rescue us from. They did this once they realized they could use the public education system to create a nearly endless stream of taxpayer dollars headed directly to their bottom line.
It is a wonderful video, well worth the 16 minutes to watch. Katz talks about the two worst words in education today – rigor and accountability.
Katz states they have successfully sold us rigor when what we really need is relevance. He gives the example of his request to his district to bring back Home Economics as a math credit. I know a woman who taught in a very poor school in the south. She was supposed to teach math to a group of students who were clearly behind their peers and disinterested in the learning process. So she decided to have them make cookies instead. She gave them a recipe that made two dozen chocolate chip cookies. Many of these kids had little food at home so chocolate chip cookies were exactly the kind of incentive they needed. The students had to figure out how many cookies they each wanted to have, how many they would have to make for each student in class to have that many cookies and then figure out how to adjust the recipe to provide that final count of chocolaty goodness. This involved multiplication, division and fractions. The students ate it up, literally. Relevance, not rigor.
The second word, accountability we supposedly achieved through standardized testing, buying in to the false validity of their testing results. The results of their tests proved we were failing, even though we sent men to the moon without all the helpful products and highs scores they are offering. We have been convinced nonetheless that standardized tests measure student academic growth. This has given rise to third graders who suffer from test anxiety due to high stakes testing.
From a one day one shot four hour computer based test, the future path of a student is set, an academic identity is established and a message is delivered loud and clear, either “You can or you can’t make it.” And no matter what the teacher tells the student about how good they are or what talent they have, if the student doesn’t score well on that high stakes test, the third grader knows exactly what it means and begin to define themselves. And its starting to happen in kindergarten.
It is irresponsible to move forward, at the breakneck speed at which we are currently moving, without considering the consequences of the path we are on. Are we ready to tell kids at the ages of 5, 6 and 7, or even 9 as Arne Duncan says, that we know with all certainty whether they are on our predefined path to success (college) or not? Even if we are wrong because the test is wrong, we will be right as far as that student is concerned. Is this our best hope for our children?