The Two Most Important Variables in Education

The entire movement toward teaching-to-the-test can be boiled down to two achievement variables:  comprehension and time – how much is learned and how long it took.

In almost every achievement metric, one of these variables is held constant – and the other is the variable of measure.  So, the prevailing paradigm in almost all formal education is to hold time constant and have comprehension be the variable.

An important corollary to the achievement axiom often goes unnoticed; namely, if the established education has opted for lock-step instruction, then it has already opted for the paradigm of holding time constant and letting comprehension vary.  Again, this is the prevailing paradigm in almost all formal education – teach a given unit to the entire class for a specified length of time.

Now, if the authorities infuse this system with a policy that ALL students must reach full comprehension by the end of the teaching schedule – all students must comprehend the unit by the end of the scheduled time – then there will be a conceptual shift throughout the institution:  comprehension will morph into passing-the-test; and practice will morph into teaching-to-the-test.

This is not good education.  The practitioners are not to blame – they are only trying to fulfill the requirement of the system.  The authorities had good intentions – they were trying to improve the educational standards.

The problem, as with most systems, is that genuine improvement only comes by making a paradigm shift.  The automobile industry tried to improve with “Quality Control” – their intentions were good, but the Japanese auto makers practically ran them out of business with completely new assembly line practices.  The Japanese had an advantage; they had never made cars before, so they could look for the best paradigm available, without having to make any shift.  It is always more difficult to make a paradigm shift than to start from a tradition of doing things in a certain way.

If we want genuine education, here is the paradigm shift we need to make:  Make comprehension constant and let time be the variable.  It is that simple.  But not that easy.  Because that shift entails giving up lock-step instruction and having continuous progress instead – the comprehension standards are the same for all students, the variability is how rapidly they learn.

Adopt this simple change, and the effects will permeate the system.

Student evaluation will then be measured by how quickly they mastered the curriculum – not how much of the curriculum do they know by a cutoff date.  Of course some students will be slower than others, but they will be held to the same standards of comprehension.

Teacher evaluation now shifts to the core of learning; how well does she or he help those who are having the most difficulty? In a continuous-progress system that is measurable, how quickly do they attend to problems, how well do they follow remedial practices, etc. In a continuous-progress system the practice of teaching to the test is dysfunctional because everyone realizes that the curricular achievement is cumulative in nature, so artificially helping a student pass a mastery test will only perpetuate the problems, not solve them.

Significant changes are simple.  Simple changes, in the face of tradition, are difficult.  And, the final frustration to change is the fact that the educational hierarchy that has evolved over the past 60 years, has taken any significant change out of the hands of the local districts.

This article, written by Dr. Robert Meeker, was originally published in our January 2010 newsletter.

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