March 12, 2010

Performance-based learning? That makes too much sense...

Marc Comtois

In a column devoted to a preemptive strike against the guidelines being floated by the impending Common Core State Standard Initiative, Cato's Andrew Coulson points in a different direction.

The whole idea of imposing a single set of age-based standards on all students rests on a false premise: that children are identical widgets capable of being dragged along an instructional conveyor belt at the same pace, benefiting equally from the experience.

But kids are different — not only from one another, but when it comes to their own varying facility across subjects as well. Any single set of age-based standards, no matter how thoughtfully conceived, will necessarily be too slow or too fast for most children....

[Instead], group students based on their level of mastery in each subject, instead of strictly by age, so that each can progress as fast as he or she is able. By doing so, all children are taught the things they are ready to learn at any given time. No one need be bored into a stupor nor left hopelessly behind.

Not only is this approach feasible in theory, it is already in widespread use with millions of students worldwide, in the for-profit tutoring sector. When a child comes to a Sylvan Learning or Kumon center facing difficulty with trigonometry, he is not taught basic arithmetic or advanced calculus. He is taught the specific material in which his deficit lies. He moves on to more advanced material as soon as he has mastered the prerequisite skills, and not before.

This is easily achievable in high school and even in junior high. I'd venture to say it was basically the form that I followed during my years growing up in the 1970's and 80's. My early school years in Massachusetts were spent in a 5 classes/grade system, divided up based on some measure of ability. Upon moving to Maine, to a much smaller town, the classes were smaller, but by Jr. High, a similar model was followed for 6th-8th grade (though only two divisions/class).

But somewhere along the way, we took the noble goal of trying to give all kids the same academic opportunities by not pigeonholing them from an early age and twisted it into a system where "equal" often means equally inadequate (at least in the elementary schools). By putting kids of varying academic proficiency in the same classroom, we've made fast learners bored and slow learners frustrated. And we've made the job of teachers exponentially more difficult as they have to teach at different levels--from highly proficient to multiple individual learning plans--all within the same class room.

The model of yesteryear that I grew up in may not have been perfect, but it seems, looking back, to have been better than what we have now.

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I think it's better to go back to the "Open Classroom" concept that was promoted by California and tried US wide. You know classrooms without walls so there would be more social interaction and children could listen in on the other classes and share information. Hey it's all about the kids learning!

Who wants to stick with a learning methodology that worked for so many centuries. It's all about innovation! It's all about preparing children to be 21st century leaders so we make sure teachers teach to the test for higher test scores and treat all children the same as if they are all on the same intellectual level and no exploratory free thinking for the children.

That's why parents are demanding computers in class rooms where children have not learned the A,B,Cs yet nor how to spell, type, read or learn proper writing techniques. Long hand writing is becoming a lost art! Cell phone with TXT messaging and camera for sextxting, IPods, ThinkPad's and Xbox are the norm for children.

Somewhere educators must be given back their classrooms and the politicians must step aside and let the educators do what they were trained to do..educate children the best way they know how.

Being a teacher is the only profession I can see that has more politicians and non-professional educated people telling and making laws governing how the teacher do their job than any other profession. It's disheartening and it's going to bite the educational process of children and the USA in the butt!

Posted by: Ken at March 12, 2010 3:07 PM

Ken, you made me chuckle with the open classroom thing...that's exactly what I had in Mass. in the mid-70's, but when I moved to Maine it was back to the walls. (I liked the walls better--open=distracting!).

Posted by: Marc at March 12, 2010 3:58 PM

What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

Must be splitting out the fast learners, right? Nope...

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers.

And, uh oh. GASP! SOCIALISM!

One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck.

Ah, but blaming teachers and scapegoating the dumb kids is so much more satisfying!

Posted by: Russ at March 12, 2010 4:29 PM

I doubt that a picture book from the government at birth is an important reason for the Finns' love of reading.

But making ridiculous claims for the beneficial works of government is so much more satisfying - if you're a "useful idiot" of the Progressive/Communist/Fascist movement.

Posted by: BobN at March 12, 2010 5:13 PM

Yeah, BobN, but the claim wasn't mine; it was from that notorious socialist daily, the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by: Russ at March 12, 2010 7:10 PM

Trying to explain anything to BoobN is throwing pearls before swine. He made up what passes for his mind and the best "argument", as presented here, that he can muster is invective. The poor fellow never goes beyond sticking out his tongue and saying, "Nyah, nyah, nyah". He might try to explain why he disputes what you write regarding the Finns, but the best he can muster is insults. Maybe the poor benighted fool really thinks that calling someone names is an argument.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at March 12, 2010 8:37 PM

No, Russ. The WSJ article (yes I did note the source before commenting) said "One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck."

It did not tie the government program to the Finns' love of reading. You did, by using the quote in an attempt to support your socialist argument. And in that attempt, you failed a simple test of logic. The adjacency of two sentences does not imply a cause and effect relationship.

God, if only these Leftists could learn to debate like adults.

Posted by: BobN at March 13, 2010 8:42 AM

OTL's comments illustrate what is essentially the progressive view of humanity - that people are nothing more than mindless, passive, homogeneous groups to be molded by a strong central government like clay. That Finn's might have a more intellectual culture totally aside from their government was not even a thought that crossed his mind.

Posted by: Dan at March 13, 2010 11:02 AM

Finland (and a few other European countries I believe) utilize a concept of "upper secondary" education that doesn't exactly map to the U.S. educational structure. It is roughly a mix of the later years of high school with community-college, if community-college were part of the pathway through the system for most students who get a post-secondary education. The WSJ article referred to by Russ largely skips over this part of the Finnish system.

Two important characteristics of Finnish upper-secondary education worth noting are...

  1. Admissions to upper secondary school are based on what, here in the US, we would call "open-districting", where students choose the school they wish to attend. Upper-secondary schools in Finland weight grades heavily in their admissions decisions -- meaning top-performing students get to go to the school of their choice, and the schools have to work at attracting students.
  2. Upper secondary school ends with the "national matriculation examination", described on the National Board of Education Website from Finland in the following way...
    Virtually all students who complete the upper secondary school syllabus will also take the national matriculation examination, The purpose of the matriculation examination held at the end of the general upper secondary education is to determine whether students have acquired the knowledge and skills required by the curriculum for the upper secondary school, and whether they have reached an adequate level of maturity in line with the goals of the upper secondary school.

    Passing the Matriculation Examination entitles the candidate to continue his or her studies at university. Upon successful completion of the matriculation examination and the entire upper secondary school syllabus, students are awarded a separate certificate that shows details of the tests passed and the levels and grades achieved.
    If that is not the description of a high-stakes final test, then there are no such things as high-stakes tests to be concerned about.
One other excerpt from the Finnish National Education Board website that might be of interest...
General upper secondary education is mainly organised without division into grades and teaching is not tied to year classes. The scope of the syllabus is three years but the studies may be accomplished in two, three or four years; the students may proceed in their studies either as a group or individually.
...which, if rephrased in a way to tie it directly to the original post, would read...
What Marc just said.

Posted by: Andrew at March 13, 2010 12:53 PM

What do you know about the Finns and what do you know what I know about the Finns?

I have read considerably about Finnish culture, became acquainted with their national legends via reading the Kalavala.

You probably already know that the Finnish national epic, a poem called the Kalavala, is older than Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. I’m sure you know that it contains 23,000 lines and that Sibelius, the great Finnish composer, composed his tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, from the epic.

I’m sure that you already know that Tuonela is a river running through the Finnish equivalent of Hades. The river is the home of a witch, Tuoni, basically the equivalent of Hades, Lord of the Dead – Stop me if you are already acquainted with this and I am boring you with details that you already know.

You probably already know that Finnish is a non-Indo European language, neither sentum or centum based, and that it is related only to Hungarian in Europe. You probably already know that the Finns refer to themselves as Suomi, so you might want to say a bit about the language or culture that I haven’t mentioned. Feel free to expand upon it. It’ll add to your credibility.

You either spoke through knowledge or ignorance. Take a good look.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at March 13, 2010 8:15 PM

A lot of the educational talking points the right uses are actually close to the way the Socialist countries work!

For instance, in many European countries you take a test, and the type of school you are allowed to attend (cheap or free) depends on your skills and aptitude.

The same happens here to some degree among people of means - but we leave a lot of people behind with our system.

Some people I know here (USA) took similar aptitude tests in high school and ended up very happy in their careers,

We have to always remember that for the right wingers, it's all about talking points. They will change their views quickly when it suits their ideology.

After all, you have to remember what modern conservatism is all about:

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. "

With that in mind, some of these crazy world views are easier to understand - that is, they simply are selfish people.

Posted by: Stuart at March 13, 2010 9:09 PM

OTL-Finnish is also related to Estonian.
And,believe it or not,I am familiar with the Kalevala and many other non-Greek or Roman myth cycles.
Don't assume things about conservatives.
Finland also treated their Jewish citizens much better than countreis occupied by Germany during WW2.The Finns were allied by necessity with the Germans due to the conflict with the USSR.But I guess you knew that(No sarcasm).

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 13, 2010 9:40 PM

I understand there are no selfish liberals in places like our East Side,NYC's West Side,Malibu,Marin County,Berkeley,San Fran,etc,etc,etc.

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 13, 2010 9:43 PM

1. You are correct re:Estonian.
2. I never assumed anything about conservatives. Never once even mentioned conservatives.
3. It is you who made the the leap from the specific to the general. Look at the address in the first line. It says, "Dan". It doesn't say "Conservatives".

Read my post again to verify. I expected fairness from you.

There indeed were Nazis among the Finns and all alliances are made out of perceived "necessity". Wouldn't expect them to be made out of un-necessity now would we?

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at March 14, 2010 10:16 AM

I know you addressed Dan.I just decided to address you.There is a lot of generalization on this site recently.
The Finnish nazis were an insignificant group.Marshal Mannerheim,nationl icon and head of state during WW2 was not one.he made a point of visiting the Helsinki synagogue in 1944.There were Jews openly serving in the Finnish army during WW2.
The history of Finnish Jews is very strange and too long to go into here.
They were descendabts of the "military Jews",long term draftees,who settled there after their service ended.
My great grandfather was one,but he served elsewhere and wound up in Warsaw after he was discharged.
Bulgaria was another Axis power where Jews were not turned over.
And did you know Lithuanian is related to Sanskrit?I was surprised to read that.

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 14, 2010 12:37 PM

Conservatives are selfish because they don't want Stuart to give their children a test that tells them what they can or cannot become? I don't think that position holds together very well.

But don't worry, it's not like you had any credibility to ruin as being someone who understands conservatism! And your do fit quite well the modern definition of a progressive -- someone who wants as much rigid, regimented management of people's lives by government as possible.

Posted by: Andrew at March 14, 2010 12:38 PM

Say what you like. The Finns clearly see reading as important and use their government (and their tax dollars) to promote that in the next generation, starting from birth. Here, the fringe-right would have a conniption. I could just as easily discussed their school funding model. Shock! Income redistribution!

The more important point though is that the so-called "performance" model is demonstrably failing when compared with what's actually working elsewhere.

Fanny earns straight A's, and with no gifted classes she sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up. She often helps lagging classmates. "It's fun to have time to relax a little in the middle of class," Fanny says. Finnish educators believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress.

One would think that would give conservatives pause, especially considering that what works is simply getting the government out of teachers way (hardly contrary to the conservative ideology when thought of this way, no?)

"Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.
Posted by: Russ at March 15, 2010 10:12 AM

Russ-I don't think this much of a right/left issue at all.
If the results prove the method,so be it.
What is left out of the conversation is the fact that Finland lacks what people like you worship-DIVERSITY.
Now,I am real comfortable with diversity that occurs naturally and we're going there in this country one way or another.
Finland has a very homogeneous population and doesn't have to contend with literally dozens of different language/cultural backgrounds in their urban shools.
They don't have a large population of transient families,as we do.
They aren't dealing with perhaps 8% of the population being illegal aliens.
I just don't see this as a re-distribution of wealth issue.
Finland and the US have different basic cultural compositions.
It's like saying that Dutch nationalhealthcare works,why can't we have it?The Dutch system is actually public/private.
You drive across the Netherlands in a workday.It's SMALL,hence amenable to solutions that wouldn't be workable here.
The Netherlands is however,diverse due to many refugees and to the legacy of their colonial empire.
hink about it.

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 15, 2010 11:42 AM

"You drive across the Netherlands in a workday.It's SMALL,hence amenable to solutions that wouldn't be workable here."

Um, Rhode Island is too big relative to the Netherlands?

I'd add that the differences in language weren't exactly left out (the WSJ mentions it). No doubt, there are some additional costs here in the U.S. related to ESL. But note that the Finns manage to teach English to virtually all their students. How many of ours are graduating fluent in a second language? I'm not, and I attended supposedly good public schools in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S.

You also neglect to mention the other differences, "fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns," an effect of their social democratic (read partially socialistic) system. Sing it with me!

Posted by: Russ at March 15, 2010 2:18 PM

Russ-education has declined-I went to lowly NYC public schools and to graduate HS with an academic diploma I had to pass a Regents exam in a second language.It was not easy.Fortunately I took Spanish and it paid off when I attended the Border Patrol Academy.Many otherwise good agents washed out on language.
The social democracy in Finland again is somewhat successful because of a homogeneous society.Personally,I think such societies are boring.A melange of all kinds of people makes a society vital.Assuming everyone assimilates.The "mosaic" concept is evil,leading to many mutually distrustful enclaves.
I cannot imagine social democracy working here,ever.Our history doesn't support the concept.
You might be interested to know that unlike many socialist or semi-socialist states,Finland doesn't ban firearms.
That ban worked out REAL well in the UK,didn't it?

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 15, 2010 2:46 PM

Russ-I forgot to address your first point.RI is a perfect place to put a unified education system in place.
If you think,however,that the prevailing provincialism of this state will go for it,you are probably on medical marijuana.

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 15, 2010 3:18 PM

Oh,and Russ-NEVER invite me to sing anything.I have perhaps the worst singing voice in the known world.They even passed me in music in high school as long as I agreed not to sing with the rest of class.

Posted by: joe bernstein at March 17, 2010 5:01 PM
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