Sunday, May 19, 2013

Honey, I shrunk the promise of education! (Or, “How is public education like a box of cereal?”)

First of all, let me get this out of the way: I know the difference between a simple preterit and a past participle. No comments, therefore, about why the verb in the title should be “shrank” and not “shrunk.”  If you missed the pop culture reference, I forgive you.

That bit of housekeeping aside, I want to discuss something that I have noticed lately while grocery shopping, let’s say over the last 5 years or so.  As is increasingly the pattern in my posts, I will use that to segue, rather hamfistedly perhaps, to an actual point about education or pedagogy.  It might take a thousand words, but I’ll get there.  It will be worth it, though, I promise.

I love grocery shopping.  It is almost a zen-like experience for me.  There is something calming about walking down lengthy supermarket aisles stacked 2+ meters high in colorfully packaged merchandise that just makes me smile.  I have always been this way – as a child, I used to help my mother clip coupons, and my special joy was finding great deals, even as a child, at stores that offered double, and even sometimes triple, coupons.  As such, I have always been aware of what groceries cost. Also, because I have always been a bit of a math geek, I have always comparison-shopped by “unit price.” In other words, I don’t look at the price tag on the package, I figure out the price per ounce, or liter, or serving.  This is, of course, the smart way to shop, usually.

When I see people at the grocery store filling their shopping carts full of boxes of cereal – “They’re on sale 4 for $8, that’s only two dollars a box!” – they often do not notice, and I do not tell them, because nobody appreciates a smartass, that the cereal boxes they are buying are in the 8.9 to 11.5 ounce range, much lower than the 12 to 18 ounce range they would normally purchase, so they’re actually getting significantly less food for their “great price,” making the unit cost (cost per ounce, in this case) just about the same, or in many cases, even a little worse.  Cereal companies design their boxes in such a way as the area of the front-facing panel of the box looks large, suggesting a box of cereal that contains much more product than it actually does, but the box’s front-to-back depth is reduced, or the inner bag full of cereal is not sufficiently large to use up the box’s inner volume.  In many cases, they’d be better off buying the larger box, even at the higher price. 

In fact, this is a trend on grocery store shelves.  Perhaps you have noticed it in the States as I have?
Do you remember about five or six years ago when a carton of ice cream was one half-gallon (two quarts)?  Try finding a half-gallon carton of ice cream nowadays. The major brands all started using 1.75-quart cartons, and now they are mostly using 1.5-quart cartons.  The prices have stayed relatively the same over the years, however; people just don’t notice often that for the same output, they’re getting less.

My favorite pasta sauce just switched from a 28-ounce package to a 24-ounce package, but the price at most stores stayed the exact same 99 cents.  For the same output, I’m getting less.

And has anyone noticed that Coca-Cola and Pepsi have started selling 1.5-liter and 1.25-liter bottles? How long do you think it will be before the 2-liter bottle is a thing of the past?

I think candy bars have gotten incrementally smaller as well – I’m pretty sure that most major American candy bar brands were around or just slightly over 2 ounces in weight; now they hover around 1.5 to 1.8 ounces.  For the same output, my sweet tooth is less satisfied, an observation only perhaps Michael Bloomberg could celebrate.

Nickels and dimes?  Hell, no.  These are very real percentages being shaved off here:
•    2 quarts ice cream to 1.75 quarts (- 12.5%)
•    2 quarts ice cream to 1.5 quarts (- 25%)
•    28 oz. pasta sauce to 24 oz. (- 14.3%)
•    2 liters soda to 1.5 liters (- 25%)
•    2.2 oz. candy bar to 1.8 oz. (- 18.2%)
•    12 oz. Cheerios to 8.9 oz. (- 25.8%)
By comparison, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food has gone up only 9.6% in the last 5 years.  The rate of clandestine product-shaving greatly exceeds what the rise in CPI would call for.  Consumers think they’re getting the same product for the same amount of capital outlay, but in fact, for their money, they’re getting less, even after taking into consideration the steadily rising CPI.  This deception is achieved by a process that alarmist political pundits refer to as “creeping gradualism,” the inexorable crawl towards an undesirable end, achieved in such barely detectable incremental stages as to go wholly unnoticed, even by the victims.

Okay, we have reached the segue. See, it only took 800 words! Not even a thousand.

I believe the same thing is happening in public education, courtesy of two cardinal sins educators routinely commit.

The first cardinal sin is the lowering of overall standards, resulting in the same “grade” for less effort, less work, less quality, less objective mastery of content. This is well documented, but a couple of ways this has manifested itself in my personal observation is in the substitution of so-called “alternative assessments,” typically high on creativity, but low on content and rigor.  They “look” impressive, but that parts that look impressive are often the parts that have less to do with the actual purpose of the assignment, and are more typically the “window dressing” aspects of the completed work.

Todd Oppenheimer wrote about this in his book The Flickering Mind, in a stand-alone excerpt published online that he aptly titled “Point, Click, Duh.” (I also blogged about it here.)  In it, he describes the scene in a New England classroom a decade or so ago when students in a history class were given the option to create a Power Point presentation in lieu of writing a standard research essay.  The predictable result is a perfect example of the phenomenon illustrated by my earlier cereal box comment – our willingness, eagerness, even, to be duped by appearances:
“The reports were nearly finished, and the teacher was feeling pleased with the results. When I asked to see one, she steered me to a young man whose report she felt was in particularly good shape. Sure enough, as the student clicked through the presentation, I was immediately struck by the clean graphics, the strong colors, and the digestible writing. Then, suddenly, he was done. This was the extent of his report. But its content was no deeper or more complex than what one commonly sees in civics papers done elsewhere, with pencil and paper, by seventh and eighth graders. Mystified, I asked the student how he'd used his time. He estimated having spent approximately 17 hours on the project, only seven of which had been devoted to research and writing. The rest went to refining the presentation's graphics.”
If this first sin of pedagogical “clandestine product-shaving” is the diminishing of required rigor and lowering of acceptable standards to promote the awarding of higher grades, then the second cardinal sin is its inverse. (Converse?  Contrapositive?  Crap, I should have paid more attention in Mr. Zalewski’s Geometry class back in 9th grade.  Little help?)  Namely, if a student doesn’t get the grade the teacher would like to have given him or her, since the teacher cannot go back in time to modify the standards upon which a student was graded, the teacher will simply contrive a means to modify the grade itself, to achieve the superficial illusion of having, retroactively, earned a passing grade. 

This focus on a single, final, summative datum alone is devastating to public education.  I have blogged about this before as well, here (I know, here I go again, quoting myself):
“We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story.  Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed.”
 This second cardinal sin manifests itself in many ugly ways.
One is very simple: The teacher just gives a student an unearned passing grade in the class by fiat.  This happens all the time.  In New York, a 65 is considered passing. But if you look at the transcripts of high school students, you will see a curious and highly disproportionate number of students who managed to score exactly a 65 as their final grade in their courses.  In my experience, fully 50% or more of all grades of exactly 65 are round-ups, i.e. the student actually failed, but it was close enough to a 65 where the teacher vetoed the student's actual performance and progress and awarded a passing grade anyway. One student I had my first year teaching in New York State had seven such 65s in three years. What are the odds?
A second is more insidious – teachers teach to the borderline kids only, trusting the “smart kids” to pull through on their own grit, to boost their personal “passing rates.” As a teacher, I had many administrators and even some fellow teachers tell me that they were “not worried" about the smarter, more hardworking students in their classes – "they'll be fine” – so they spent all their time trying to get the kids with 40s and 50s (many, though not all, of whom have those grades by choice because they just don't give a hoot, or try, or care) up to a "passing" 65 so their (the teachers') pass rates could look better, because there were consequences for teachers whose pass rates seemed out of whack.
The end result of this can be seen in a single snapshot. At one high school in which I taught, in a single administration of the Algebra Regents Examination (the State Standardized Algebra final exam), NOT A SINGLE STUDENT in the whole school scored in the 90s. Contrast that with the year that I took algebra as a student: In three classes in our district that took the exam that year, perhaps total 75 students or so, not a single student scored BELOW the 90s. When the focus is “doing what you have to do to get students to pass,” the focus is not on learning, building understanding, or scaffolding for continued study. The focus is instead on a short-term, quick-fix, half-assed solution that benefits NO ONE, and the illusion of the higher pass rate, suggesting a much higher quality of education that what is actually transpiring, is convincing enough for education stakeholders to look the other way, ignorantly happy with their smaller box of cereal.
And by the way, with regard to the New York State Algebra Regents, WYS is not WYG.  This leads me to a third example of our data-cravenness and how we use it to dupe ourselves into thinking we’re getting more than we actually are: the phenomenon of the “raw” score and the “scaled” score, which exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to create a curve to mask actual performance data. 
For example, on the New York State Algebra Regents exam again, students are given a score out of 100, a "scaled score," and it is very easy (and most people, even many teachers and guidance counselors make this mistake) to think of this as a percentage – an 83 on the Regents means you got an 83% on the test, a low B, right?
That is SOOOOOO not the case.

View this chart – this is a conversion chart for the June 2011 administration of the NYS Algebra Regents.  A total of 87 points were available to be earned by students on the exam.  65% of 87 is about 56.5, the number of points out of 87 that would need to be earned by a student for the Regents Exam score to actually reflect the percentage correct that the student achieved.  But oh, no.  A passing grade of 65 is granted by a student’s successfully earning a whopping 31 points (the "raw score").  That’s a passing grade for UNDER 36% correct.

And what’s worse, standard policy in New York State is that even if a student fails the entire course, all four academic quarters, a passing grade on the Regents Exam is de facto full passing credit earned for the course.

So in other words, a student could do absolutely-feckin’-nothing  from September through May, cram for the Regents exam in June, do a 40% job, and PASS THE WHOLE YEAR based on that 40% on that one end-of-year assessment.  Guess what grade the school must put onto their transcript for the final course grade?  You got it – 65.  And the Algebra teacher gets to brag about how high her passing rate is.  And she will, no doubt.

How’s that cereal tasting, shoppers?
The high-stakes, do-or-die importance we place on that final binary – pass or no pass – sometimes makes us do things we normally might not do.  By this, I refer to my final observation (for this post) on the negative effects of wanton gradelust: outright fraud.

Empirically, grade fraud is no different than the rampant grade inflation that goes on on a regular basis in our schools, it's just more tangible and identifiable, as it is a discrete, single act, as opposed to a modus operandi. Really, how is "Teacher x erased and changed two multiple choice answers so Johnny could get a 65 instead of a 61" any different or worse than "Teacher y gave Jenny a 65 in the course even though she only earned a 61 because s/he felt bad for her?" Doomsday fiction?  Not so much:  Read and weep.
If you have children in public schools (or private schools, or charter schools, it makes no difference), then please, if you value their education, as opposed to their grades, be wary of "creeping gradualism," and don’t walk away smiling with the 8.9 ounce box of Cheerios in your cart, thinking you got a great deal.

It will only leave you, later, when it’s too late, wanting for more. 

Or am I just an alarmist?  I dunno (actually, yes, I do, but this seems to have become my regular sign-off, so I guess I’m stuck with it), I’m just…


  1. Thanks, Mr. Andrew King, for convincing me I'm not entirely crazy (or, at least, not alone in my insanity). I am just completing my first full year of teaching English, working with 7th through 12th graders in an alternative school, and I love the work. I've already experienced many of the frustrations you have described (and have gone on similar yet significantly less eloquent and less experience driven rants). All I can do for now, I suppose, is fight the good fight every day and refuse to lower my own standards.

    1. At some point, you may have to make the tough choice... "fight[ing] the good fight" could cost you an opportunity at tenure. It's a terrible burden to have to bear, but some teachers are more politically savvy than others, and can pull it off. I'd love to believe that the high road always pays some kind of dividends, but I don't think the world works that way. Ultimately, you have to make the choices that you feel most comfortable with. Glad you liked the post, though. Please feel free to check out (and comment on) some others!