Sunday, March 01, 2009

Tales of the 2nd Grade Nothing

We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ Right now, in too many states, quite frankly, we lie to children. We lie to them and we lie to their families.

Where were you in second grade?

If you were to tell me 10 years ago that I would be married and a father of two, I would have responded: Really?

If you were to tell me 15 years ago, I would be working on Wall Street, I would have told you: Never!

And yet, here I am. Married with children and working on Wall Street.

In college, I was going to change the world through art and poetry. In high school, I took a career aptitude test that said I would be best suited to be a Forest Ranger or a Radio Broadcaster. In middle school, I failed my first test because it was either that or get beat up for ruining the curve. In elementary school, I stuttered, wore thick horn rims too large for my face, and couldn't do math.

If I were me then, now - If I were eight today - and Arne Duncan came to my school would he let me go to his "good" college? Would I be among his... I don't know... Anointed? Chosen? It's like something from science fiction. Do you remember Gattaca?

What a dumb thing for someone in such a high profile and influential position to say! When I first heard his statements on the news, I was angry as a parent, as an educator, and as a former second grader whose family was new to the U.S., who stuttered, had vision problems, and probably had one or more as-of-then undiagnosed learning disabilities!

I am still angry! But not unreasonable. Sadly, I understand where Mr. Duncan comes from. It is a "know your place" mentality that eagerly pigeon-holes people not like him into serviceable and digestible caricatures and stereotypes. For Asians, it perpetuates harmful myths about our households, our role as citizens, and ignores the impact of educational initiatives/programs on our community.

And of course data will be collected to create and justify the molds that Duncan and his supporters will establish in their "Gattacization" of education. I am not saying data is not useful in informing how teachers teach, how students learn, and how critics criticize. I am saying data is just numbers. Who will be allowed to determine what the numbers mean? And who will be collateral damage in the narrowing definition of effective teaching and learning?

Watching the trailer for Gattaca, it is unsettling how well it reflects the world Duncan and his cronies wish to create. The world where a test or a battery of tests in second grade will determine an individual's future prospects.

Diane Ravitch makes some keen inferences in her post on the blog that captures her virtual dialogue with Deborah Meier, Bridging Differences. She points out that appointing Duncan as Education Secretary extends the harmful policies of No Child Left Behind into at least the next four years. She notes that Arne Duncan chose to visit a charter school in Brooklyn instead of a regular public school. She is peeved about his desire for more testing and greater expenditures for churning out data. And she is befuddled by the very comment I am so angry about.

She writes:

Wow! More testing is needed. In New York City right now, students take a dozen tests a year. How many more should they take? How much of the stimulus package will be used to promote more testing across the country?

Are we lying to children? Deborah, you were principal of an elementary school. Could you look second-graders in the eye and tell them that they were on track to go to a good college—or not? Did you know? Did you lie and say that they were when they were not?

In 2008, the Asian Legal Defense and Education Fund released, Left in the Margins: Asian American Students and the No Child Left Behind Act. The report presented the predominantly negative impact NCLB policies on Asian American students. Much to my dismay, it didn't rally against testing enough. Instead it requested additional resources be devoted to preparing students for the tests.

I began the year writing about the need to dream, especially in this day and age. My wife and I have this ongoing argument about what education could be and what education is. She thinks I'm an idealist. She thinks I am well intentioned but ignoring reality. She and many parents like her believe the defining characteristic of a good school is one that prepares students to do well on high stakes tests. Subject matter is secondary. After all, students are not judged on their grasp of subject content but on their test scores.

(There is a difference between content knowledge and test knowledge. The former being familiarity with the subject itself. The latter being only familiar with the components of the content that are most tested.)

To bastardize the line from Gattaca: Where is the test of dreams? Ambition? Innovation? and Resourcefulness?


thisislarry said...

hmmm, I remember reading somewhere that the greatest predictor of collegeness was your parents' education. in that respect, you could give a kid odds the second they were born.

I think Duncan's comments (as I'm reading them in an article in the NYT) were meant to say that at the 2nd grade, you should be able to see whether the kids are on the right track or not to be college-bound. And if NOT, its time to get it straightened out.

It's not about knowing one's place, its about knowing how one is doing, in order to effect future events.

I certainly DO want to have metrics to show how my school / school district, etc is doing, and if it means testing, then testing it is.

As someone with a math / science background, I have to disagree with you about data being just numbers. Data is a truth. It may not be the whole truth, but its a truth. And the truth shall set you free.

Anonymous said...

Not taking any chances with my son and leaving it to the public education system to determine his path to educational achievement and thereby, success in life. We chose the best sperm and egg money could buy and used IVF to create him, despite being Ivy-educated lawyers. Once he was implanted we bombarded him with as much stimulation as we could. Now that he's emerged, we continue to do the same in the hopes of raising an asexual Asian nerd who excels at math and is a violin prodigy and thereby, ensuring his future. No objection to raising the model minority here.

thisislarry said...

Vincent, I actually just finished reading "Disrupting Class" on the plane ride home yesterday, by Clayton Christensen, who wrote "The Innovator's Dilemma".

I'd recommend it as a different perspective of the state of the education system and what could be emerging to change it.

thisislarry said...

V, its me again, you gotta see Dalton Sherman:

inspirational! A friend tells me:

"I saw this kid on Oprah (yes, I watch Oprah sometimes). Quick back story on him: Dalton was a very vocal kid and often got in trouble at school for talking too much in class. One of his teachers decided to harness his tendency to opine and entered him into an oratory competition. He won first place and has been on the speaking circuit ever since. What a wonderful story about a good teacher taking a perceived problem/fault and turning it into something productive and powerful for the child."

Vincent said...

Hi "thisislarry":

Thank you for all the comments. I appreciate the feedback.

I still don't agree that in 2nd grade it is possible to determine whether or not someone will attend a "good college." There is too much that can happen cognitively, physically, financially, and experience wise.

With regard to data being a truth. Have to disagree about that too. If you polled the dads on the rice daddies blog and 51% preferred pistachio ice cream over vanilla, which would be the truth? A majority of Asian American males like pistachio ice cream? A majority of Asian American males dislike vanilla? The data, the 51%is just a number. The "truth" will depend on how the public receives the spin.

Thanks again for the feedback and the link.