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Young: Learning is not a political process

John Young
Special to the Daily

Maybe the most insidious modifier in the ongoing disservice we call education reform is “outcome-based.”

As in, “To make students voracious readers, use this method.”

As in, “To prepare students for four-year colleges, use this method.”

Usually “outcome-based” methods are described as “evidence-based.” Bring out the charts and graphs.

Learning doesn’t translate well to PowerPoint. Charts and graphs may entertain certain policy makers, but they rarely enlighten anyone.

“Outcome-based” sounds like the modus of industry or agriculture and the processing of raw materials. Of course, that sounds just fine to most education reformers, with their corporate, top-down philosophies.

“Outcome-based” requires “input” and treats all students as equals or at least similar, so all that is necessary is an “evidence-based method” on which experts agree. Of course, too often the experts aren’t the ones doing the teaching.

I have my own term for this costly and misleading folderol: destination education.

In destination education, policy makers mandate that from wherever point students might have started, all will end up at the same destination. That, of course, is readiness for a four-year college.

The destination spiel is very focused on core requirements, and for its adherents, “raising the bar” is the ultimate virtue. If some students ultimately can’t scale that bar, say by bombing out on college-level algebra, we don’t look to flawed logic. We blame teachers.

So let’s take a moment to consider and identify the logical fallacies behind the “destinations” built into “outcome-based” education reforms.

The “higher-math” destination — As drawn out by policy makers, our approach to math looks right past how difficult basic math is for some students, as well as the fact that some people will have no use for higher math in their lives and careers.

Once, after writing a column denouncing school reformers’ algebra-at-all costs overemphasis, I heard from a math teacher. I expected him to challenge my premise. Instead, he affirmed it vigorously.

What had happened in the heavily mandated quest to get all students to stay on track for college-level algebra, he said, was that some students didn’t get the emphasis they needed to perform basic math.

Some students do just fine on the state’s time and arrive at the destination in time for college. Some students, he said, needed twice and three times the amount of time spent on basic math. If held to a destination time line, he said, a teacher is powerless to make up the difference. The result isn’t stronger math skills but weaker ones, and students who are completely frazzled as they are nudged up the line — this in a full-throated quest to end “social promotion.”

The “good college” destination — Two logical fallacies bear on this matter. First, though a high school diploma rarely will get a person ahead, not every young man or woman needs a four-year education. Two years at a community college or technical school are all that many need to move into lucrative, in-demand jobs.

Second, the premium attached to a “good college” does not make it a good buy, considering the unbelievably high cost of attaining a diploma.

Baylor University, for instance, long has advertised itself as an affordable private college. I’m sure it can trot out charts to say that remains the case, compared with other private schools. But with an annual tuition of $34,480, even with generous financial aid, Baylor is excluding a lot of promising young people.

Regardless, it is false to assume that people with degrees from, say, a Sam Houston State, or a Florida Atlantic, or a Northern Arizona after two years of, say, Pima Community College, are in any way disadvantaged. And a student may have more opportunities on a smaller campus than on a sprawling, prestige university.

It’s about education, not a designer diploma.

Let’s get our heads out of destination education. Learning is not a political process. It doesn’t translate well to PowerPoint. Charts and graphs may entertain certain policy makers, but they rarely enlighten anyone.

Education comes down to one educator and one child. That’s it. Let teachers do their jobs.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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