It occurred to me tonight to wonder…

We don’t pay doctors to rate their patients on how healthy they are, praising the healthiest, and kicking out the sickest patients, in order to motivate patients to be healthy.

We don’t pay salespeople to rate their customers on how good they are at getting deals on services and merchandise, in order to motivate them to get good deals.

We don’t pay programmers or engineers to rate their clients on how well their requirements were fulfilled by the work of the programmers and engineers, and kick out the clients who did not successfully get their requirements fulfilled.

We don’t pay lawyers to rate their customers as to how well their lawsuits went, awarding distinctions to the winners and heaping ignominy on the losers.

We don’t pay *any professional* to rate their customers on how successfully the customers achieved the aims they are paying the professional to help them achieve, praising the customers who successfully achieved their aims, and shaming or rejecting the customers who do not achieve those aims.

Except teachers.

It’s a downright medieval* system, isn’t it? Just ludicrous! “I’m going to pay you to praise or blame me according to how well I achieve the aims I am paying you to help me achieve.” But we take it for granted in education, and if a teacher objects to it, doesn’t want to make it all about the grades, he’s considered some new age hippie freak who wants to dumb down the system for everyone.

Of course, for children in the K-12 system, they’re paying the teachers only very indirectly (via their parents and/or taxes) and have little say in anything that happens to them, so it’s a little less surprising in those cases; but it’s true even in colleges and universities.

I was talking tonight with my wife about how our twins’ kindergarten teacher, who’s one of the few teachers they will ever have who will not be required to grade them, doesn’t perceive the big differences we see in our kids’ abilities in different areas. To us one is really good at reading, the other’s really good at art, that kind of thing — but the teacher, in conferences, revealed that the kids don’t actually display those differences so much in class. In kindergarten, everyone is assumed to be capable of everything, and everyone does everything, in their own way, with or without some help here and there. Everybody learns everything.

We were regretful that it is not going to stay that way for much longer. The focus will turn from helping kids learn to sorting out the successes from the failures. If they’re lucky, they’ll happen to be good at being “successes” and manage to learn things anyway, for all the wrong reasons.

Still, I hope our society grows out of this someday.

* and not in a good way

4 thoughts on “Education”

  1. True. There are some hints that a change is coming, but I think it will be a long time in coming. The ed system is a huge ship and steering it means working against an enormous amount of momentum.

    There some research on formative assessment (a.k.a. “Assessment for Learning”) that’s pretty compelling. Amongst other things, AfL research shows that students learn better when teachers use feedback only grading (as opposed to giving a numerical score). The mechanism is that students are more reflective on their thinking when focused on the “content” feedback and not the score. See Phi Delta Kappan vol. 86 p. 8-21 (2004).

    There will remain the reasons to give a summative assessment (a.k.a. transcript) for the purposes of documentation of learning — but it’s not much good for actually helping learning happen.

  2. Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    Until we can revise or outright get rid of this “No Child Left Behind” crap, all our children will be learning in US public schools is how to take assessment tests. They won’t ever really learn anything, and they aren’t really learning that much now.

    I’ve been working in public schools for five years now (two different schools), and every teacher and administrative staffmember has told me the same thing (even the staunch Republicans): NCLB is crap. Plain and simple.

    Unfortunately, it looks good on a political resume, so presidents, senators and congressmen (and women) will continue to force it down the throat of the public school system.

    My advice: find a private school or one of those “blended” schools. If you can’t do either, check and see if there’s a virtual charter school in your state, such as the ones listed at

  3. I’m in full support of continuously evaluating what we’re right and wrong in education and of pushing teachers to evaluate how they may better serve their students.

    But…with the vast majority of my students, I can take little credit for their hard work and intelligence when they thrive (as you seem to suggest I should do).

  4. Perhaps their part in learning is much greater than yours, but your part in the event is what I’m concerned about here, since I’m talking about education with teachers and not self-education.

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