The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Inconceivable or interesting?
In the movie “The Princess Bride,” a villain exclaims, “Inconceivable,” each time reality contradicts his assumptions. “I do not think,” the hero eventually replies, “that word means what you think it means.”
Poor Elijah’s inbox periodically alerts him to articles and “training” he might find “interesting.” Poor Elijah has concluded that “interesting” doesn’t mean what his administrators think it means.
Recent topics have included stand-up desks and a proposal that schools start preparing for the 2024 solar eclipse. Since most teachers would be grateful to know their district’s plans for next September, and many aren’t sure what’s happening tomorrow, the alignment of the planets in the next decade seems less than pressing. Similarly, rearranging furniture won’t remedy American students’ contagious inability to sit still and otherwise exercise what once qualified as normal self-control.
Here are some developments that lately crossed Poor Elijah’s desk. Consider what you’d think if they landed in your inbox.
Having heaped a mountain of standardized tests on American students, and used the results to identify which schools are “failing,” experts have discovered that tests measure more than students’ knowledge and “cognitive ability.” Employing “clever methodologies,” researchers have concluded that standardized test scores also depend on “students’ efforts on the tests,” and that “student effort is not equal in all contexts.” Yes, effort on the test is “an important factor” that “contributes to differences in test scores.”
Maybe you’d better sit down.
On the international stage, this means American students’ lackluster performance may reflect their lack of effort more than their lack of knowledge. Various experts estimate that effort accounts for between 19 and 41 percent of the difference in international scores.
One study pitted American students against Chinese students, with half of each national cohort paid for strong performance. The “cash-motivated” American students scored higher than the Americans who weren’t incentivized with money. Chinese students scored the same, regardless of whether they were paid. If Americans made the same effort Chinese students do, researchers estimate the United States’ international ranking would improve from 36th to 19th place.
Naturally, this finding has prompted officials across the country to offer increasingly lavish cash awards and prizes for high performance on tests. Many propose similarly paying students and otherwise rewarding them materially for their everyday effort and achievement in school.
It might be wiser, however, to consider what flaw in our national character has left American children so disdaining of education, so oblivious to the benefits of learning and self-improvement, and so irresponsible that they expect to be paid to prepare themselves for work, citizenship and life.
On the technology front, many schools encourage, and even require, teachers integrate smartphones into classroom instruction. Unfortunately, little is known about how these devices “influence our ability to learn and focus.” A recent Texas study examined how “smartphones affect cognition,” even when students aren’t using them.
Students involved in the study were randomly selected to keep their phones face down on their desks, in their pockets or bags, or in another room. Students whose phones were out of the room performed best on memory tests. Students whose phones were unused but available on their desks “performed significantly worse” in “reasoning and problem-solving.” In short, the closer the device, the less they were able to learn.
This finding of distraction posed by smartphones’ mere proximity doesn’t begin to measure the effect of the pervasive, obsessive, actual use of smartphones by children beginning in elementary school.
Despite these results, three-quarters of the students reported that “the location of their phone didn’t influence their performance.” Students consistently “failed to anticipate the influence of their phones” on their academic learning. Apparently, many tech-enthusiastic school officials suffer from the same failure in perception and judgment.
Finally, here’s some insight into the legal confusion and jeopardy confronting teachers. It used to be that if I had “reasonable cause to believe” that a child in my class had been “abused or neglected” at home, I was required to “cause a report to be made” to our state’s Department for Children and Families. I could either make the report myself or refer my concern to more expert school employees, like the guidance counselor or principal, who would then make the referral if they concluded it was warranted.
Now, instead of “reasonable cause to believe,” the law mandates a report within 24 hours if I “reasonably suspect” abuse or neglect. In addition, I’m required to file the report myself. If I don’t report “as required by law,” I face “criminal prosecution.”
I’m not unconcerned about child abuse. But I can’t parse the difference between reasonably suspecting and having reasonable cause to believe, and I doubt many legislators and education officials can.
As for making the report myself instead of first consulting colleagues with greater expertise and confidential knowledge about families that I don’t and am not permitted to have, I’m an English teacher, not an abuse specialist. I don’t know if a child with a dirty face is being neglected, or if he’s just being obstinate about soap and water. Unleashing the power of the state based on my limited hunch, on pain of my prosecution, hardly seems likely to promote the best outcome for children or families.
I’m not sure how interesting all this is. Like much that passes for wisdom in the education world, inconceivable might be a better word.