Students Are Not Like Beans

Great teaching and learning goes beyond standardized testing. Way beyond.

We are modeling our test-culture after a business theory popular mandated in the States that is based on quarterly earnings. This trains the eye toward the next quarter and the next quarter only. Myopia becomes the norm as participants scrape by on quotas. Similarly, students are put into various demographic groups and given frequent assessments. Their performance on these assessments (every three weeks in my current district) is analyzed to find out if each demographic is meeting the district’s quota. Easily enough, a person can see that this method is deeply flawed, primarily because people aren’t beans. This isn’t the way it has to be.

“Bean counting is the consequence of a view of the world as consisting of “things” to be manipulated, rather than people to be interacted with and conversed with and responded to.” — Steve Denning, Forbes Business, Online.

In fact, a student is very unlike a bean in so many ways. Consider the following ten facts about beans:

1. Beans are not cognitive creatures. 

2. Beans do not experience grief. 

3. Beans do not experience poverty. 

4. Beans do not experience discrimination. 

5. Beans are not affected by their inability to read, problem solve, or learn as well as other beans. 

6. Beans never need foster care, child support, or doctors’ visits. 

7. Beans do not feel the need to pretend everything is ok. 

8. Beans are not afraid to ask for help. 

9. Beans do not pressure other beans into poor decisions. 

10. Beans do not experience puberty.

I could continue to outline the many fascinating ways that students are not like beans, but but imagine if beans were just like students. Would frequent testing make the beans better beans? Or would a farmer be first obligated to address the ten issues (and hundreds more) first before considering the validity of any test or the judgment a test pronounces upon the quality of the beans (and their little bean trainers)?

No doubt, this metaphor is extremely exhausted by this point, but it certainly reveals the “data-driven” status quo’s absurdity. Great teaching is more than science — it is inarguably an art. A great teacher will be sensitive to a student’s individual needs in a way that no standardized test can be. A great teacher will be encouraging when a student feels defeated in ways that no standardized test could measure. A great teacher will strive to move mountains blocking a student’s achievements in ways VAM can not account. Great teachers are sensitive to a student’s stagnation and growth, pain and delight, poverty and privilege, anxiety and assuredness, turmoil and peace — and the list goes on.

I’ve compared our educational model to that of Germany’s in an earlier article. We can make a similar comparison here in the financial world. Germans rely upon great detail regarding complex businesses (like engineering fields) and take exacting measurements — however they consider the long term. If a product or service is currently unprofitable, they will likely continue to keep it if it shows future promise. They have more data and it is vastly more accurate. They have a much stronger information system than companies in the US as well. If you’re interested in reading more about this system, Management Accounting Quarterly has a wonderful abstract from 2007.

While it may sound at first like I’m arguing in favor of more data, I’m not. But I am. I don’t think the kind of data that comes from standardized tests could be construed by ANYONE as high quality or accurate. I do however think that the kind of “data” a master teacher utilizes day to day IS of this high quality and accuracy. Teachers use this data all day long — they confer and collaborate with colleagues about assignment ideas and lesson planning, they reflect with each other on the outcome of a lesson or event, they adapt their own lessons class after class throughout the day based on data that is collected in real-time through dozens of formative assessments while teaching. A really great teacher knows that their students succeed when they work well with teachers who teach the same students — regardless of department, when they listen to kids who look like they need an ear, and when they voice their concerns to the appropriate parties responsible for making in-the-now changes.

We horizontially align and vertically align — mostly through email and conversations in the hallway or during conferences. We pore over data we collect on our individual students when we ask a collegue, “Did Danny seem upset today? I wonder what was wrong?” and our reply is, “I called his grandmother. They were evicted since she lost her job and in two weeks they’re worried they will be living in a car.” We find solutions to challenges that no CCSS could ever address to help a student become successful.

The problem isn’t that students are not beans. The problem is the status quo is treating them like beans.



Changing the Game in Education

The Loquacionist posted an inspired essay about changing the fundamental way we “do school.” The suggestion is that we model our system after the German system, where in middle school at some point, the kids could be funneled into vocational (skilled labor) tracks or college prep tracks. The vocational track means apprenticeships and the college track means more classroom schooling (though with PBL instead of what we are doing now). I am WHOLE-HEARTEDLY for this. I’ve been saying it for years. Only, I want to point out some changes in philosophy I’d make to what is proposed in this essay.


The first thing I notice is that it’s not the schools that have it wrong. It’s the legislators and politicians who have it wrong. Were we freed from ignorant standards like common core and the like, we could have more leverage to
engage in apprenticeship programs, perhaps first within the context of a status quo high school and transition toward the German system. Schools get it. Teachers get it a hundred times over. Convincing politicians (all lobbied and “controlled” by Pearson and their ilk — I KNOW Pearson is not alone) who desperately crave data to prove their state’s “progress” and get federal monies will take serious effort by The People.


Finally, our worship of sports would HAVE to be completely revised. We worship sports and athleticism (in the south, particularly football) and high school is for sports. Taking sports out of high school and making them something kids pursue on their own time (weekends and afternoons) could help shorten the hours we are in school making the transition to this system easier. But as long as we crave “tradition” in schools; coddle those mad, egotistical parents who vicariously live through their

children’s athletic experiences; as long as we romanticize this culture,  thinking that cheerleaders, quarterbacks, pep rallies, drill teams, and school spirit are more important than academic achievement, we will never part from the high school system. And let’s stop pretending that sports build character — it merely reveals it.


High school culture of this type is non-existent in other countries. Foreign exchange students marvel at this culture

and are shocked that it is “just like in the movies.” Because no other countries use precious public education funding to fund sports. It’s absurd. (But then again the NFL is non-profit — seems we are easily duped by displays of athleticism.)


I know this means a HUGE reduction in high school teaching jobs. But that can be handled largely through attrition and reassignment. We would continue secondary education with programs like IB and early college. Really great coaches could own and operate their own freelance businesses and private teams (like dance studios do) because I doubt seriously that sports would ever cease to be important to Americans.


Until we begin valuing education over Friday night lights, until we start wanting to invest in our future work force instead of new astro-turf, when we wake up from this stupor and start giving kids a chance at their future (instead of reliving our past), we can begin to make change. We have to stop blaming teachers and schools and start telling the politicians what we want them to do. Until then expect a whole lot more of the same.


Teaching Argumentative (Persuasive) Writing

This year, I’ve really struggled with bringing my students’ writing up to the level required to pass the EOC exam for our state. The gaps in their ability to write academically partially stem from the fact that the previous state exam required a personal narrative. Thus teachers focused diligently on developing their ability to write a personal narrative, littered with the word “I.” The trouble is tri-fold. 1) Personal Narratives are not used often in college classes. 2) The word “I” is rarely used in academic papers (though it is currently becoming more common). 3) Academic writing has taken a back-seat in their education thus far and their ability to coherently write about an academic topic — either in an expository or argumentative capacity — has suffered.        

Therefore, I’ve had to laboriously facilitate them in developing their organization, paragraph structures, word choice, logic, syntax and topicality. “Revise and Resubmit” has been this year’s mantra. Only through writing and re-writing a paper have they been able to weed out their individual issues and understand what an academic tone requires. I paired this with one-on-one counseling with my students every time they turned in an essay.This approach has helped me to address both my advanced writers and my remedial writers and see substantial progress.

This week, I introduced them to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This concept was easily understood by most of my students. It paired well with discussing our dystopian novel study underway and we were able to use it to analyze our character’s actions. I then explained how it can be used in every argumentative paper they write, helping them create ethos. For my more advanced students, learning other philosophies like Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative will give them an edge in writing argumentative papers. As a former competitive LD debater and Parli debater in college, using a criterion against which to weigh our values and decisions forms a stronger argument rooted in centuries of philosophy.

I strongly believe in the value debate offers our students. Debate and theatre are the original PBL classrooms. It’s a cryin’ shame debate no longer suffices in Texas for students’ required speech credit. (Seriously Texas, WTF?) Next year, I plan on incorporating more debate in my curriculum and teaching these strategies earlier in the year. I will require them to use these strategies in their argumentative papers.

As long as the state puts such a strong emphasis on argumentative writing — and I agree that it’s important — students must be exposed to philosophy, not just rhetoric, to be truly educated in persuasion. 

Parenting, Teaching

Fostering a Climate of Education At Home

[RMX] Studious cat

In public education, we are in the midst of a nationwide standardized testing frenzyAll over the country, states are carrying out aggressively daft measures to demonstrate “progress” in public school test scores. 

Teacher Monitors Standardized TestThese measures, brought on by a combination of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pursue scores often at students’ expense.

Teachers are prodded to be “data-driven,” studying locally administered tests meant to both measure a student’s progress throughout the year and predict their success on the state’s standardized test.  Students often face these assessments 2 to 6 times in a grading period. Teachers are asked pointed questions about the performance of different demographical sub-populations and about what actions they intend to take to assure that X number of students in that demographical sub-population will pass. Students also experience levels of stress similar to the pressures placed on educators by this technocratic approach.

test 2

Students feel punished as they are pulled from electives to be placed in remedial classes geared toward passing the state assessments. Sometimes they are pulled out of half an elective class so they can be tutored during their teacher’s conference period. In Texas, students could be required to come to school for tutoring on “Flex days,” days set aside to address ONLY those who are not making enough progress while all others are allowed to be home.  The system implies that if the student doesn’t make enough progress, their work is worthless.

This entire approach seems to be a good example of the law of diminishing returns. At some point, the sheer amount of stress/labor/work/fatigue begins to have a negative effect on progress.  This is when the question of “what are we still doing wrong?” becomes best answered by, “We are doing too much.”

Parent helping child study

Reflecting on which students seem to best able to adapt and progress with minimal intervention and which constantly struggle, I’m convinced that the main difference lies in parents.

Parents have the ability to begin their children’s education as early as they wish and ensure they are learning the concepts, skills, and attitudes they need to be successful at an early age. Parents have the ability to have one-on-one “lessons” (read: conversations) with their children. These sessions can be free of the usual classroom distractions, free of discipline issues that detract from instruction, and free of peer pressure to underperform. Parents alone may enjoy concentrated conversations that not only clarify, but reward natural curiosity and inquiry. Parents can do, one-on-one with their children, what a teacher cannot do in several tutorial sessions.

I realize that not all parents feel confident in their essay writing skills or their algebra knowledge. Many probably couldn’t say with certainty what binomial nomenclature is, much less explain how to identify a prepositional phrase.

I realize that many parents, overwhelmed by poverty, work several jobs to make ends meet. Time for these conversations is scarce if existent at all.

I realize that some parents don’t find education as important as football, cheer leading, or soccer practice.

Do It

To many, having an educated child isn’t as glorious as having a child who is makes a game-saving Friday night touchdown (in the short run).

I realize that this idea causes parents to invest in their kids in a way that exposes their own doubts, fears, and lack of confidence in education. It asks parents to take time out to re-learn material that might have been the cause for grief and frustration during their school days.

What if, though, parents agreed to find ways around some of these barriers? What if they used technology to assist in teaching the lessons instead of relying solely on their own knowledge? What if parents asked neighbors, grandparents, and after-school programs to help push a culture of education? What if parents took pride in their child’s ability to find the hypotenuse of a triangle and make head cheerleader? What if parents decided they didn’t want anything to stop their kids from succeeding, even if it meant confronting their own self-doubts?

I’m beginning a series of articles meant to help parents of all back grounds, cultures, and educational levels to begin fostering a climate of education in their homes on a daily basis. I’ll talk about what I find most secondary students lacking in their academic backgrounds as well as what has worked with my own students and even my own children. My goal is to empower parents to make a difference in their children’s lives, making school a much less stressful place to be. (No helicoptering needed!) 

Hopefully, this testing fad will fade and usher in a new educational era of freedom for students and trust in teachers. Until then, it takes a village.