Education Reform – Fighting the Conspiracy for Mediocrity

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment on Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s “What Should Pres. Obama Do About Educational Reform?” by John Adsit on 2 August 2010. -js]

The “Framework” document rightly calls for using proven effective methods of instruction. In recent columns and comments, I have written about this very topic. There have been enough examples of schools that have turned around and made great strides in achievement for us to know what those proven methods are. The mystery is this: Why aren’t those methods used in more than occasional instances?

The reason is that there is a conspiracy toward mediocrity, and using proven methods of excellence shatters that conspiracy, and anyone with the audacity to use these methods faces the wrath of all other members of that conspiracy.

Let’s look, for example, at what happened in Garfield High School in Los Angeles decades ago. That school-wide effort, celebrated in a movie (Stand and Deliver) about one of its teachers, dared to raise academic standards for all students. When it did, the principal had to hold the first parent complaint meetings in the gym, the only room with enough space for the number complaining. It takes a lot of courage and support to take that path. When a school with a high minority enrollment and low achievement in my local school district tried a similar, but still relatively weak, approach to improve achievement, the school board and administration caved in at the first glimmer of opposition from the mediocrity conspiracy.

How does the mediocrity conspiracy work?

It begins with an assumption that the students do not have the ability to perform at a high level. Once you hold that false assumption, then it is natural to go to the next step – asking people to do what they cannot do is cruel and unfair. If you love these students, as the parents and teachers and administrators do, then you will not do anything that is cruel and unfair to them.

For their part, the students have been told over and over again that they cannot do high level work, so why should they attempt it? Given the choice between working hard to achieve a passing grade and graduation and doing little or no work to achieve a passing grade and graduation, is it any wonder why so many choose the latter approach?

I do not think it is a racial problem – it is just that the problem is more noticeable in populations with high minority enrollments. I have had brief involvement with two different “alternative” schools in districts with very low minority populations, and I saw exactly the same thing. In a faculty meeting in one school, I tried to talk about taking steps to improve student achievement, and I was struck by the total disconnect between what I was saying and what they were hearing. “I don’t see how we can possibly do any more to improve student achievement,” said one faculty member. “We have already cut academic standards to the absolute minimum.” To this faculty, raising student performance to meet a standard was inconceivable; to them, raising student achievement meant lowering standards enough to get more students to pass.

State legislators contribute to the conspiracy by passing contradictory laws. They write laws that require schools to have students achieve high standards, penalizing them if they don’t. They pass laws requiring them to to graduate a high percentage of students in exactly four years – even senior year summer school is too late. In some states, testing to see if students meet a high standard ends in the 10th grade. Schools work to meet both goals by doing everything they can to get students through the 10th grade tests and then granting academic credit for anything the student does while noticeably awake before the four year deadline is reached.

Shattering the mediocrity conspiracy begins with the assumption that all students can perform at a high level if given the right combination of standards, instruction, and support. Once this belief takes hold, it becomes cruel and unfair to adopt instructional practices that hold students back from being all that they can be. This requires a conspiracy of the same magnitude as the mediocrity conspiracy, and it especially requires a shattering of deep seated myths about student ability.

2 Responses

  1. I ran into this conspiracy many times but none more forcefully than in my business. In business, you must accede to your client’s wishes or go out of business.

    I had been creating lots of science lab units with mentally challenging questions. I began getting negative feedback from teachers and administrators. “Our students are getting low grades.” Of course they did because they were being asked to THINK. The low grades would eventually spur thinking (in theory anyway) and would rise as they became used to this novel experience.

    I even had one student complain that she has read all of the material in the unit and couldn’t find the answer to one of the questions. She simply had to combine two pieces of information available in the unit.

    I removed all but one or two challenging questions from all of the units and have had very few complaints. It’s all right to miss a question or two. Some students will get some thinking practice from these few questions. Many will simply accept that they cannot achieve at a higher standard. But they can.

    I hated making this compromise. On the bright side, it’s much easier to write memory or plug-in formula questions than to write ones that provide a reachable challenge.

    However, these stories and complaints don’t initiate change. I’d love to think that John’s new conspiracy will come to fruition, but I don’t see it happening now. Programs such as “Race to the Top” and “Investing in Innovation Fund” are primarily political ploys not real reform.

    If you had ten minutes to talk to President Obama about education reform, what exactly would you say? It’s a short time, and you must use it well. Assuming that he’d listen, how could you even begin to give advice that will result in change and that will be possible to follow?

    Once you know what you’d say, how will you get your message to those who can implement it? For those of us with small voices, I say go out into the schools and make change. Then, let everyone know about what you did. Eventually, someone with some power will notice and either invite you into the halls of power or squash you. Campaigning for change is risky, and actually causing it is even riskier. Oh, well; no risk, no reward. Go for it!

  2. I saw the same problem when I worked for an online education company and had to develop courses for create courses for credit recovery. We discovered (as I predicted) that there were two entirely different and distinct markets for such courses.

    One market wanted courses that brought students up to high standards. Such courses had to be tightly aligned with state standards. Getting the students to those standards required a high degree of involvement with a skilled online instructor. Since the primary cost of an online program is the teacher pay, such classes are relatively expensive to operate.

    The other market just wanted students to get credit for a course and graduate. Learning something was nice, but not a requirement. Schools in that market found that our courses were much too hard, and they complained. They were also much too expensive to teach.

    The companies competing with us were going full bore for the second market. All course exams were multiple choice and machine graded. No teacher was actually necessary for the course, just someone to make sure the student logged in and did the work. Thus, the courses were extremely cheap to use.

    The courses claimed that they met all standards, but that claim was an unbelievable farce. Can any reader here tell me that they would accept the claim that a 100% multiple choice course in English met the state writing standards? Yet school district officials actually kept straight faces when they awarded those contracts.

    Cheap courses. No need for a teacher. Guaranteed passing. What more could a school district want?

    Yet one more example of the conspiracy for mediocrity.

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