Neuroscience Nonsense

Yes, that’s an in-your-face title, but having written previously about how education isn’t particularly good at using research, but is good at jumping at fads, here are two links that illustrate the misuse of research in education.

Sarah Sparks writes a blog for Ed Week which I don’t regularly read, but after running into this entry I think I’m going to subscribe.  On August 11, she wrote “Making a Mountain of an Educational Neuroscience Molehill,” in which she links to a Nature journal article that takes a critical look at the hype surrounding several educational applications of neuroscience clamining to improve student performance.  The article, “Power failure: why small sample size undermines the the reliability of neuroscience,” offers a somewhat statistically dense explanation of why many of the reported positive effects of various neuroscience educational applications are of questionable value: They come from studies with too few students/cases to be reliable.  This means they can’t be replicated with any regularity, and the likelihood that the results are actually true is not very high.  

Over the years, education has been peppered with a wide range of proposals to improve student performance based on weak research followed by someone’s feel-good suggestions about how our brains work.  Sparks notes the left-brain/right-brain research in her article.  This is among the most popular fallacious notions about learning approaches, very popular among educators, the subject of many books, and unsupported by well-designed neurological research.  Another notion that feels good and sounds good to teachers is learning style research, which suggests that we have to identify a preferred learning style for children in order to design instruction that will be effective for them.  This too, is unsupported by carefully designed research, and might have even more books written about how to implement learning styles than the right-brain/left-brain theories.

That learning styles is unsupported is a shocker to me: It just feels like it makes sense to me.  My doctoral dissertation research was heavily invested in Myers-Briggs type, and my early research looked into several variations of learning styles and communication styles and how they might influence administrative behaviors.  It seems to me that I can identify students from my 20+ years in the classroom that responded differently to changes in my teaching style.  That children can learn in many ways is clear.  That they respond differently to different teachers is also clear.  That this has to do with learning styles is not, in hard-core research terms, demonstrable.

Another ‘movement’ that was going to help our low achievers blossom was the effort to reinforce positive self-esteem among all students, including the low achievers.  Praise, praise, praise.  Always find something to praise even when results were dreadful.  Praise effort over results.  Most good teachers, fortunately, had a hard time doing that, because they knew that low-performing kids understood clearly that they didn’t get it and the praise was artificial.  Fortunately, enough good research evolved over time that I think this sugar-coating of low performance is no longer in vogue.  Kids benefit from successful learning experiences for which they deserve praise, not praise for performance they know is mediocre.

What does this mean in practice?  Many things, I think.  First, while we would like to see education as a science that can be nailed down with research-based explanations for everything so we can teach everyone how to do it, unfortunately it’s not all that easy.  I believe in research to attempt to understand want works, but I also believe that we have to pay attention to research that debunks the ‘innovations’ we emotionally adore.

Many educators want to say that teaching is an art, not a science.  I’m not one of them–there is a lot of science to teaching well.  We know a lot about what works.  Most teachers should be able to use that science to improve their teaching.  That some teachers can take the science of what works and do considerably better than average is where the artistry comes in.  I think it’s an interpersonal talent–an ability for a teacher to connect to students more completely or more consistently than other teachers.  Every teacher can connect with a few students every year: Some teachers connect with more than others.  A few teachers are magicians with kids.  We haven’t figured out the magic yet.  If we ever do, it will transform education.


Why the Opposition to Testing and the Common Core?

I spent the last 20 years of my career dealing with data as a means to improve instruction, and I coached lots of people about how to make sense of data, standardized and local, as a useful component of daily instruction.  As teachers or administrators, we can’t know what our students have mastered without good tests, whether they are formative tests that are not graded, unit tests, interim benchmark tests, or standardized accountability tests.  In my own state of New York, there is a rising movement among some parents, some of whom are teachers, to opt-out of state NCLB tests.  Opposition to ‘national’ testing and the Common Core is growing in other states, supported by various groups who are concerned about increasing federal influence on local educational policies, costs, the misuse of tests for purposes other that what they were designed to do.

The two national testing consortia are talking about designing the tests to improve their utility as vehicles for instructional improvement, but whether these goals will be a part of the basic package of new tests or available at additional cost to local districts remains a bit fuzzy.  States are beginning to question the cost benefit analytics of the programs–both consortia are designing online testing while many school districts, including the low income districts that have always been the targets of the accountability movement, are going to struggle with paying for the Internet infrastructure and hardware required to support online testing.

So in broad terms, the growing opposition to the Common Core and the national testing programs represent multiple issues of concern to a growing variety of stakeholders, and they overlap significantly, making this a very complex situation.  Let’s review some of them here.

1.  Use of data for instructional improvement.  In New York, where at one time all state sponsored tests were released publicly after testing was complete, we could use the results for instructional improvement planning.  We had specific information about how the questions aligned to standards, we could see the question, and we had a p-value which told us how difficult the item was state-wide.  This was very useful for teachers, but that’s gone now that NCLB tests are secure.  Without seeing the questions, the rest of the information (how I did compared to anyone/everyone else) provides very poor instructional information.  I can still see whether I did well or poorly on a particular performance indicator, but I don’t have decent details about exactly what my kids have missed and I have to guess about why.  If I am in a district that has purchased commercial assessments that give me access to the questions, I have this capability during the school year, but many publishers tests are also secure and I have to rely on a generic description of academic trends that isn’t particularly useful.  I get far more information on what a student’s weaknesses are when I can review the test question and analyze the wrong answer responses as I want to plan interventions.

2.  Purpose of the tests.  Critics of NCLB testing write about this regularly.  The tests were not designed for either instructional improvement or teacher evaluation.  They have been co-opted by politicians and businessmen as a means to promote agendas other than school improvement.  Psychometricians who are not involved in developing or marketing these tests have written extensively about their concerns when they are used for high stakes teacher evaluation, or for determining student placement.  We don’t do the latter in NY, as far as I know, though there have been some examples of placement consequences for kids–it’s a local issue.  But in other states, testing occasionally has greater impact–promotion or retention, acceptance in accelerated programs or placement in remediation–based on results.  Often the uses of results doesn’t match the psychometric properties of the tests, which is problematic.  And in New York, where the state says it’s own tests count only for 20 of 100 points in a teacher evaluation, the rubric for the 100 points actually creates situations in which the 20 points on the state test can actually override the other 80 points.  This means everything about New York’s intricate evaluation systems can be blown away by a weak performance on the state 20% measure, meaning this 20% can, for some teachers, amount to the only measure of teacher quality that counts.

3.  Lack of transparency.  I hope this issue will go away with time.  It’s rather difficult to get information about the actual behavior of state tests–how did the results break out by student sub group?  By district demographics?  By years of teacher experience?  By class size?  By SES factors?  How did low income kids do in a district where they are 6% of the population compared to a big city, where they are a majority?

Moreover, everyone involved in rolling out new teacher assessments and new academic goals of the Common Core has been overworked and hard pressed to clarify what is coming.  As we heard repeatedly from the highest levels of New York State Education officials early on, these changes are like an airplane which is being constructed during flight.  Sadly, this is about the closest thing to  transparency I can think of early in the process–there wasn’t much more to be said.  They didn’t know how to get from where they started to the intended goal.

The proper answer to such comments from school boards and the public was often something like this:  “Where is the FAA?  Who approved the takeoff of this untested aircraft in the first place?  There’s too much being done here with no piloting, no research, no shakedown flights. But this concern was shoved under the rug.  New York adopted these changes to get $700 million of federal funds over 4 years, which was less than a half a percent of the per pupil spending on public education in the state.

And this is not just a New York issue, it’s national.  We don’t usually do this kind of take-off in other arenas, but it happens too often in education.  Let’s try the next new idea that some expert says is the solution to our problems, while we ignore the fact that it’s an untested and unproven program or methodology.  Did we know the Common Core was a singular organizational initiative from an educational think tank hired by the Council of Chief State School Officers which has, in effect unilaterally influenced the direction of public education?  Would truly empowered state education officials around the nation have adopted something this massive and unproven if they were not required to do so by other political forces, or if substantial federal funding during an economic downturn didn’t bribe them into agreement with Race to the Top conditions?  Would the public have found this a good use of funds if it were clear that there’s no evidence it would work?

4.  New teacher and principal evaluation systems.  A few districts in my region of New York who closely monitor new evaluation regulations are concerned about how honors class teachers did–they have all the high performing kids, and they think their special ed teachers got higher evaluation growth scores in their state testing measures because a point or two of improvement at the lowest level of performance is easier to get than increases among students already at the top.  This is one of the general criticisms of accountability programs that use any version of growth or value-added scoring.  From state to state, have the data been made available to independent researchers for an objective review? Do we have multivariate analyses available to look deeply at the results?  If not, why not, or when will this happen?  And if we do, so what?  Most states are about to change their tests again, from what they have been using to the new PARCC or Smarter Balanced consortia tests under development.  So the nature of available data is changing from last year, before the Common Core curriculum implementation, to Common Core based testing, and then in two years, to tests from one of the two consortia.  This fundamentally means three versions of accountability tests in as few as 4 years in many states, making comparisons of student achievement a statistical challenge for accountability purposes, to say the least.

5.  Narrowing of the curriculum.  How many fewer art, music, drama, etc. classes are gone, and replaced by supports for ELA and math?  Why does the edu/politico establishment ignore the evidence about the utility of arts and music education and their connection to math and science success?   How many kids have no more recess because they are scheduled for support time?  How many schools have dropped career education options in high schools?  How have the fiscal pressures of the past few years forced districts to make narrowing curricular decisions because of the fear of poor test results?  Is the focus on ELA and math appropriate for all students?

6.  What is college and career ready, anyway?  In the Atlantic Monthly of October 2012, Dana Goldstein wrote an important feature called “The Schoolmaster” about David Coleman, credited by many as the leading creator of the Common Core State Standards.  A nonprofit Coleman founded, Student Achievement Partners, provided the intellectual basis to the Council of Chief State School Officers. If Goldstein’s work is as accurate as it feels, he is far more important than our Secretary of Eduction.  He clearly has had more influence on the direction of US education than any other single individual, likely in our history.  And he’s now the head of the College Board, where his concepts of college and career readiness could transform the nature of SAT tests in the near future.

I happen to agree with the concept of Common Core State Standards, and I think their emphasis on critical thinking skills are long overdue, but defining success with a narrowly defined concept of college and career reading misses some important options for a substantial population of students.  Many educators think this focus rather significantly neglects the notion of career ready–we have been eliminating career and tech education all over, or transforming it into expensive tech honors programs at regional BOCES or Intermediate School or Educational Service Agency  locations as career education begins to emphasize forensics and high tech.  So where will we get our plumbers and carpenters and cabinet makers and auto mechanics and house painters and landscape gardeners?

7.  Local control of education.  Here’s the philosophical issue of the day: Should states/local school districts have virtually given up their role in determining the direction of their children’s education?  Constitutionally, this is a state role (which all but one state, Hawaii, turn over largely to local school boards) and not a federal one.  Though the Common Core is an initiative of states working together, it was not an initiative that involved local professional educators from the beginning.  It was an initiative farmed out to Coleman’s nonprofit business, pushed by the business/political wing of K-12 reformers, gained support from those concerned about the generic failures in urban centers across the country, and then offered as fundamentally a take it or leave federal money on the table proposition to the educational establishment throughout the nation.  The claim that all the states were directly involved in these plans is technically correct, but practically speaking the results were top down impositions, not bottom up reforms.

8.  Lack of funds for professional development.  In New York, teacher and principal evaluation rules mandate districts to provide professional development for teachers in order to be able to terminate them.  Given that schools have to upgrade/update technology infrastructure and hardware to prepare for online testing, and given a new state property tax cap, and given that increasing numbers of districts around New York are facing real economic stress and even bankruptcy, there won’t be any money to provide PD for low performing teachers.  Even a mediocre lawyer can prevent the termination of a teacher because the district’s responsibility for support to a weak teacher will be missing.  So who thought this was a good idea?

Many states claim their test results will be used to guide professional development programs to improve the work of teachers.  However, it’s typical to observe the decline in funding for educational professional development nationwide.  Schools are spending the money on assessments, not on professional development, and the tests themselves, as noted earlier, are both secured and not designed for teacher use to promote instructional objectives.  So two forces disconnect assessments from teacher improvement–funding and inappropriate test design.

Nationally, the movement to tie teacher evaluations to test scores was fueled significantly by Federal Race to the Top eligibility requirements.  This is another ‘reform’ initiative fueled without a quality research base of support.  Proponents of testing, and those wanting to pry public money out of the hands of school boards so that it’s available to alternate commercial programs have jumped on the novel idea that one can appropriately predict a student’s future success based on the scores of a teacher’s students.  The model is appealing, as it suggests an easy metric on which to judge the performance of schools and individual teachers.  But having followed the arguments closely for 10 years, it isn’t working particularly well anywhere.

Today, many groups are finally responding to some or all of these concerns by pushing back.  Some of the parent arguments arise out of fear for the well-being of their children, some out of frustration at loss of local control, some out of growing awareness of rising assessment costs and little demonstrable efficacy in using tests for instructional improvement.  Some opponents are teachers who are fearful of adverse consequences to themselves.  Academics, politicians and the occasional state education official are more openly questioning the speed of implementation, the lack of piloting, the unintended consequences, the public relations disasters in states where Common Core based testing produces a drop in test scores (teachers are not yet trained in the new curriculum objectives), and the mismatch between test design and the use of test scores.

Does the push-back accomplish much?  To date, not really.  Does it make a statement that might force politicians to take a second look at the unintended consequences of parental opposition?  The consequences of testing?  A real cost-benefit analysis of CCSS and national testing?  I personally hope it does, but I don’t think it will amount to much unless it continues to grow.  Get up to speed, and get involved!

Creativity, the Arts, and the Common Core

Years ago as I was enrolled in a multi-session new administrators professional development workshop series, one of the presenters was Terrence Deal, who with Leo Bolman, had written one of my organizational leadership texts.  For many years, Deal has been writing with Bolman and others about educational leadership and school culture.  Among the most important insights I recall from that meeting was Deal’s commentary on school culture compared to corporate culture.  He remarked that schools were headed in the wrong direction when they attempted to become more like businesses, and he noted that he had a growing business as a consultant to corporations that were attempting to become more like schools.  Why? Because schools represented, among other things, a culture that valued creativity and collaboration, that recognized differences among individuals, and that nurtured individuals toward self-improvement.

In the February issue of Educational Leadership, the theme is creativity.  It’s a good issue with many good articles, and you can read some of them without a subscription if you click on the titles without locks.  Of course you can find a colleague with the magazine and read them all!  Some of the authors express their concerns about how the Common Core could pose a challenge to teacher and student creativity.  Nowhere in the Common Core is creativity explicitly valued, nor do we see any clear places where creativity will be tested.  And we know too often that what is tested is taught.

If one considers the increase in cognitive complexity that the Core implies, it might be easy to suggest that the increased requirement to problem solve, whether in more complex math problems or more textual analysis of reading passages, is the same as creativity.  It isn’t, and I’ve been guilty of making this generalization myself.  Cognitive complexity and creativity are not the same–demonstrating multiple pathways to the solution of a math problem might show a ‘creative’ approach, but it often actually means the math teacher has done a good job of helping students find multiple pathways to understand math concepts.

One particularly interesting article in Educational Leadership is “The Art & Craft of Science,” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  You can read this article for free, by the way.  The authors have an impressive collection of research showing how the arts support science and mathematics.  They mention their own work, showing that four years of arts or music in high school would “confer a 100-point advantage over the average SAT score, whereas four years of science confer only a 69-point advantage.”  Their entire article is filled with examples from the writings of noted scientists and researchers that suggest the arts is somehow related to good results in science and math occupations.  Their work with graduates from Michigan State University, where the authors are employed, shows that “MSU Honors College STEM grads are 3 to 10 times more likely to be engaged in arts and crafts than the average American.”

I don’t read them as claiming that arts education creates better scientists, but the general evidence of creativity as an element that rounds out the education of successful STEM graduates is quite interesting.  The notion that keeping explicitly creative programs as a part of our general educational priorities runs through this Educational Leadership issue.

A major fear among critics of our testing accountability mania and of the Common Core’s emphasis on textual analysis (to the feared reduction in more creative ELA elements), coupled with national economic woes that have cut funding for public education, is the narrowing of the curriculum.  Schools for many years have been cutting teachers and programs that are not core academic topics in the arts, cutting vocational programs, cutting foreign language options, and cutting electives from science and social studies programs to focus on passing tests.  Many writers at all levels lament the decline of STEM programs–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–and suggest our international standing is suffering because of a decline among American students in STEM high school and college programs.  Schools and teachers are caught in the maelstrom of preparing kids for state accountability tests, the results of which are being touted as appropriate measures of whether schools and teachers are effective.  Too often, I think we’re throwing out the child-centered, healthy adult opportunities that a broad curriculum has traditional offered.  We need to foster creativity and individuality, not neglect them in pursuit of a narrowly aimed test score to define success.

If we look at the educational systems of several nations that outperform us on numbers, we will find many in which an end of school year test is critical.  China and Japan come to mind here, where high student suicide rates speak poorly about pressures on kids.  We should also take note of how much effort these two countries are making in attempting to put creativity into their schools–they have a clear understanding that the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit that characterized American education and makes America, still, the best source of new inventions and new discoveries, is related to our historically creative and ‘liberal arts’ k-12 educational programs.  And an examination of test scores compared to worker productivity demonstrates that high test scores don’t relate to economic productivity.

As we move to the Common Core, which I like, we must not negate the broad and humanistic elements of our traditional educational system.  Our students’ measures of ability should be more than a number.  We won’t success by matching the Chinese model of superior test takers — they have created an economic power based on the imitation and reproduction of intellectual discoveries from elsewhere, and they regularly visit our schools trying to find the secret to our own entrepreneurial success.  Our future lies in how well we continue to have a broadly educated, well-rounded population with the ability to think out of the box and discover new solutions to the challenges around us.