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Substituting Pay for Passion

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Dear Deb,

Apparently your trip to China has in no way dimmed your energy or your imagination. Imagine filing two pieces almost instantly!

What knowledge is of most worth? I don't think we would answer the question very differently. Despite some argumentativeness around the margins, we agree on "habits of mind," and we also (I think) agree that math, literacy, history, the sciences, the arts, and physical education are essential elements in education. You prefer to have the teachers in each school decide what the content of each year's curriculum is; I believe that it is valuable and indeed necessary to have curricular guidelines for the district, the state, even the nation. I think—and I may be wrong—that when it is left to individual schools to write their own curriculum, there is enormous variation. Some schools do it well, others do it poorly or not at all; most will tend to rely on the textbooks and the tests to determine their curriculum. Those who do it well tend to be located in the most affluent districts, which reinforces the inequities from district to district.

And there is another reason why it would be valuable to have a good state or national curriculum: Student mobility. Families move from state to state, and from district to district. Many years ago, I heard from a student who told me that her family had moved twice in three years, all in the state of New Jersey. Consequently, she had been assigned to study New Jersey state history three years in a row, in fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade. That is wacky.

As to your point about hard work, I don't know the data any more than you, but I have read that Americans work harder and more productively than people in most other nations. A couple of years ago, Michael Barone wrote a book about the difference between life in school and life in the workplace, which he described as "Hard America, Soft America." Barone argued that the competition and accountability that typified the workplace made it very different from the schools. Maybe what we are seeing in schools today is a push to make the schools more like the workplace, in the sense of injecting competition and accountability.

I must say, before I get a barrage of comments from readers, that I am conflicted about all the stuff that is happening in schools today. I believe in the value of a national or at least a state curriculum, but I am very uneasy about the degeneration of the "standards movement" into the testing movement and the proliferation of test-prep activities. As someone who cares passionately about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I deplore the narrowing of the curriculum that has been caused by NCLB.

You may have noticed in Tuesday's New York Times that Mayor Bloomberg intends to launch a program to pay kids to get higher test scores. This is, it seems to me, the quintessence of absurdity. You and I agree that kids should become passionate about something; dinosaurs or space travel or archaeology or sports or music. But that assumes that they are willing to do something or pursue something or investigate something or practice something for the joy of it, for the sheer pleasure of doing it, not because somebody is going to pay them $5 or $50 to do it.

So here we are, having forgotten about curriculum, forgotten about "what knowledge is of most worth," forgotten about the goals of education, forgotten about the superiority of awakening intrinsic motivation...just figuring out what to pay kids to get higher scores. And if it "works," is there enough money in the world to pay everyone to do what they should do as a matter of commonsense, self-preservation, and civic duty?

Diane

7 Comments

How has NCLB been narrowing the curriculum?

"I deplore the narrowing of the curriculum that has been caused by NCLB.

I keep hearing that like it is some sort of rhetoric. What does it mean? What is wrong with a set of facts that should be known by all?

Bloomberg is trying to use a method of motivation by paying kids. It may work with some, maybe not all. Money can be very, very motivating - especially if kids are lacking that item. It can, if done correctly, lead to more natural reinforcements like congratulations or simply saying "Good job." These are basic behavioral principles, but of course, your mileage may vary if you don't know what you are doing.

Not to nit pick as I'm on your side....

Let me be clear: I think that it is immoral and unethical for schools to pay kids to get higher test scores. If parents want to do that, that is their private affair. But for the government or the school to do it, is repulsive, to me at least.

Schools should encourage children to learn because it is the right thing, because they want to please themselves, their teachers, their parents. If we can't teach kids to appreciate the value of good education, then we have failed as educators.

And it goes beyond schools. A society that must pay its citizens to behave with responsibility is in deep trouble. Shall we pay people to stop at red lights? Shall we pay them for not jaywalking? A civilized society relies on a certain degree of mutuality, of acceptance of the rules of behavior that allow us to live together in peace, rather than live in chaos.

Diane Ravitch

Let me be clear: I think that it is immoral and unethical for schools to pay kids to get higher test scores. If parents want to do that, that is their private affair. But for the government or the school to do it, is repulsive, to me at least.

Schools should encourage children to learn because it is the right thing, because they want to please themselves, their teachers, their parents. If we can't teach kids to appreciate the value of good education, then we have failed as educators.

And it goes beyond schools. A society that must pay its citizens to behave with responsibility is in deep trouble. Shall we pay people to stop at red lights? Shall we pay them for not jaywalking? A civilized society relies on a certain degree of mutuality, of acceptance of the rules of behavior that allow us to live together in peace, rather than live in chaos.

Diane Ravitch

Let me be clear: I think that it is immoral and unethical for schools to pay kids to get higher test scores. If parents want to do that, that is their private affair. But for the government or the school to do it, is repulsive, to me at least.

Schools should encourage children to learn because it is the right thing, because they want to please themselves, their teachers, their parents. If we can't teach kids to appreciate the value of good education, then we have failed as educators.

And it goes beyond schools. A society that must pay its citizens to behave with responsibility is in deep trouble. Shall we pay people to stop at red lights? Shall we pay them for not jaywalking? A civilized society relies on a certain degree of mutuality, of acceptance of the rules of behavior that allow us to live together in peace, rather than live in chaos.

Diane Ravitch

Someone in another online discussion pointed me at your post, so I don't know most of the background. But I was struck by the tension between two different things you said, one of which I disagree with, one of which I agree with. You write:

"and we also (I think) agree that math, literacy, history, the sciences, the arts, and physical education are essential elements in education."

That's a wish list, not a collection of essentials. Do you really want to argue that someone who knows lots about history and literature and nothing about mathematics is uneducated? Someone who knows lots about everything on your list but phys ed, which he has never experienced? Stephen Hawking, say?

It's also worth noting that the present system doesn't actually teach all of those things, it only pretends to. What fraction of high school graduates do you think could pass an exam in algebra or geometry five years later? The main thing many, perhaps most, of them have learned about mathematics is that it's boring stuff that they will never understand and don't want to.

You later write:

"You and I agree that kids should become passionate about something; dinosaurs or space travel or archaeology or sports or music. But that assumes that they are willing to do something or pursue something or investigate something or practice something for the joy of it, for the sheer pleasure of doing it,"

Here I agree with you. But I don't think you can have it both ways. Enthusiasm isn't produced on command. You can base education on getting kids interested in and enthusiastic about things, or you can base it on forcing kids to at least pretend to learn a laundry list of things that someone else has decided they need to learn, but you can't do both.

For a longer exposition of my views on the subject see:

http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2006/02/case-for-unschooling.html

Diane says:

"You prefer to have the teachers in each school decide what the content of each year's curriculum is; I believe that it is valuable and indeed necessary to have curricular guidelines for the district, the state, even the nation."

Of course there is nothing wrong with externally published curricular guidelines. In fact, the more the merrier...break out the wikis, CC licenses, and go wild! The wrong is when those guidelines are tied to particular support mechanisms like the ever-popular testing/funding. I fully support any organization producing curricular documents a school, exercising their rightful autonomy, can choose to use or ignore. Poor judgement is suggesting that "guidelines" be used to measure and compare schools thus determining how those schools will operate and be rewarded/punished. Poor judgement is suggesting that an externally enforced curriculum upon a school "not [doing it] at all" or "poorly" is a way to solve that problem. Poor judgement is suggesting that "enormous variation" in curriculum between schools is to be frowned upon.

Using the word "guidelines" in this way is euphemistic. "Guidelines" implies a take-it-or-leave-it offering. So Diane, what exactly do you mean by "curricular guidelines"?

Instead of paying students cash as incentive, let's offer them scholarships and vouchers to attend the school of their choice. That will certainly motivate students as they will clearly see vouchers as a way out of their failing schools.

Vouchers make more sense than bribes. Visit www.paths2choice.com for more information on school choice.

Comments are now closed for this post.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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