False goals for city schools

Although I agree that our public school system has plenty of room for improvement, it’s misleading to suggest that all students can one day perform “at grade level” in all subjects.

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “False goals for city schools”.  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

7 thoughts on “False goals for city schools

  1. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to point out that an “average” for academic achievement does not necessarily imply that half of the sample is above and half below the target number. That would be the “median”. It is possible, and not uncommon, for many or most individual scores in a sample to cluster around the average, which might then in fact be a reasonable goal for an educational program. There is no way to say until we know more about just what the score that we are calling the “average” actually measures. I’m no statistician, but I hope that when the book is published, if it addresses the same issue as the article, and especially since the subject is education, the author will take care to clarify the argument with respect to the use of statistical terms, which if left unclear, can be very misleading.

  2. I am a retired Philadelphia teacher who would like to thank you for clearly stating what I have been arguing (and sometimes screaming) about since the inception of NCLB. As a math teacher I would like to also point out that it is ridiculous to think that it is possible to have any human activity result in 100% performance. The concept that all children can learn many concepts but not all can learn these concepts on the same day and at the same time should be the goal of education.

  3. http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/20100910_False_goals_for_city_schools.html

    To the editor:

    Christopher Pasley (Inquirer, 9/10) makes a number of points about testing academic achievement. I am afraid his model is incomplete, though I agree with many of his conclusions. First, most achievement testing under the flawed No Child Left Behind model assumes that all children will make equal progress, regardless of their mental, physical or psychological challenges. Under this model, a blind deaf quadriplegic child should be making the same progress toward reading achievement that fully able bodied child would make. Under this model, a child with an IQ of 70 should make the same progress as a child with an IQ of 150. If we do not measure the handicapped in the same cohort, it may very well make sense for most students to be “above average.” If, instead of choosing normative standards based on median achievement scores, we test on the basis of objective standards (as the College Board Achievement tests are supposed to do, and as our curricula increasingly prescribe), then we can equally expect a broad range of students to achieve objective percentages of correct answers, without requiring that half are above average.

    Creating classroom programs customized to student needs and talents — as Pasley rightly recommends — will go a long way to keeping interest in education, among those challenged by normative curricula crippled by budget cuts, and increasingly goose-stepped to the reading/math “basics.” However, it is important to realize that talented musicians, athletes, carpenters, or electricians, may not find resources available for their particular needs within the factory model school classrooms, which largely constitute our school systems throughout the United States. We need many more alternative choices if such customization were to be implemented.

    Ben Burrows
    406 Shoemaker Road
    Elkins Park, PA 19027

  4. The article suggests an interesting point, from a statistical perspective. Rather than a single score that determines who is and is not reading or doing math at “grade level”, would it be possible to design a curve that would represent, for the whole sample of students, the number of students who could be expected to score within each section of the curve if each student were achieving at the highest level that could be reasonably expected at a given level of ability? Obviously I’m not suggesting that the potential of each individual student be determined in designing such a curve, but rather a normal curve of expectation based on a broad base. Although hardly perfect, such a basis for assessing the over-all performance of a school would seem to offer a more honest and realistic measure of success, whereas schools that exceeded expectations, after controlling for such variables as socioeconomic difference, might point the way to techniques that call into question previously accepted limits to achievement at a given level of ability. Too bad if sophisticated measures of progress lack the political punch of simplistic averages, but that’s another educational issue altogether.

  5. Mr. Paslay,

    Excellent article!!! You made some great points. I am also a teacher and your can completely understand what you are saying. Your analogy about the running the 5K race was very good. Anyway, glad I was able read this today. Take care!

    Mrs. Moore

  6. I thought for sure there would be vitriolic responses to this article in the Inquirer’s “Letters to the Editor” section. How dare you suggest that every child (especially my little darling) is not a potential Nobel Prize winner if only the teacher did his or her job, had the right gov’t. mandates, smaller classrooms, fancy teaching gadgets, etc. Well, guess what…we all have different abilities and the powers that be need to wake up to this fact that is being proven more and more by cognitive neuroscience research studies. Back in the dark ages when I attended school, kids were divided by ability. I was in the most advanced language arts classes where the teacher didn’t have to slow down or present a concept ten different ways to ensure the slower kids understood and I was in what was surely math for dummies where the teacher taught very slowly and did present concepts ten different ways–the only time in my life I actually understood math (it was empowering!). I now have a 12-year-old grandson who entered college at age 11 who was bored and frustrated right out the front door of the school because schools are so insistent upon grouping by age, not ability. I taught him at home for most of the time before he entered college–without a teaching degree, gov’t. mandates, fancy teaching gadgets, etc.

    Compounding the failed education of our kids is the dumbing down that has taken place. Has anyone besides me compared textbooks from 20 years ago to today’s textbooks? Either our children really are dumber so the textbooks have accommodated their falling IQs or the professionals believe our children are dumber and have manipulated the textbooks thusly. Oh, gee, maybe it’s so the books can be understood by the students whose talents lie elsewhere or in another subject and the heck with the kids who who could excel if given the opportunity.

  7. Just a few more words on the median/average subject. This originally appeared as part of a guest column in the Chester County Press, November 5, 2008

    … what has come to be known as the “Lake Wobegon
    Effect,” named after the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota,
    created by Garrison Keilor. Lake Wobegon is a place where, among many
    other desirable characteristics, all the students are academically
    above average. It is true that this situation is mathematically impossible,
    as has been pointed out numerous times. But it is not for the reasons
    always given, that “by definition” half the students in any group
    are above average and half below. It is the median that by definition
    has this property.

    The late George Carlin’s perhaps best-known contribution to
    everyone’s list of favorite quotations is based on this same
    misunderstanding. When he said “Just think of how stupid the average
    person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider than
    that,” we all know what he meant, and the statement would only suffer
    from any attempt to add mathematical rigor. We all laugh of course
    because we are secure in the knowledge that we are all members of that
    other half of the population, the smarter than average, an example of
    the Lake Wobegon Effect in action.

    Robert T. Brown
    8 Quail Drive
    Landenberg, Pennsylvania 19350

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