Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Poor Kids Have To Memorize

I want to clarify something from my last post: when we talk about rigid, test-driven instruction that leaves students without the tools or confidence to think critically or solve unfamiliar problems, we’re talking about a phenomenon occurring primarily and maybe exclusively in poor neighborhoods. There are two main reasons for this, in my view. (Note well this “in my view.” I normally try to ground these posts in established fact and concrete data, but in this case that is impossible. As noted in my last post, this entire discussion is a foray into the realm of the unquantified, because it deals with precisely those qualities of mind and education not measured on the exams. The evidence behind this post is anecdotal—largely my own experience.) The first reason has to do with differences in academic achievement, the second with differences in behavior and school funding.

As I mentioned in my last post, poor inner-city kids are already well behind their middle-class peers by the time they enter preschool—if they enter preschool. By the time they reach elementary school and approach their first standardized exam, they have fallen further behind. To prepare them for the exams, teachers are forced to pave over the missing knowledge. You cannot teach higher-order thinking in the absence of underlying concepts, but you can teach memorized skills, and that’s what we do.

Many of my readers will probably be familiar with this short-cut from their own experience in grade-school math class, a subject where rote memorization often replaces comprehension even at the best schools—but the disconnect between skills and understanding is far more extreme in contemporary inner-city education. Sure, most well-educated people never understood what the heck the quadratic formula was about (it’s just completing the square in the general case, duh); maybe you never really understood solving equations in general—but you had a clear idea of what it means to divide and multiply; you could count down from 1000 to 0, if you had to; and you could draw a picture of 1.5 cookies.

Memorized skills are more quickly forgotten than comprehended knowledge (why do you think you can’t remember the quadratic formula?), and thus inner-city students come into each grade remembering less of the preceding one, further behind their middle-class peers, and more in need of short-cuts and drills if they are to pass the state-exam in May. The widening gap between the concepts a student comprehends and the procedures she is required to perform is exacerbated by loss of instructional time to behavioral disruptions in her classes, union rules that allow more experienced teachers to place themselves in better (i.e. wealthier) schools, and myriad other impediments to her education.

The large class-sizes and behavioral challenges of inner-city classrooms also help encourage rote instructional methods. Lessons that encourage creative problem solving and critical thinking naturally require more independent thought from students; they therefore depend upon a looser management style and a more child-centered classroom. When a teacher gives students a step-by-step procedure and merely asks them to apply it, students will need little individual attention to complete their work. When she presents them with an unfamiliar problem and asks them to work out a solution on their own, they will move at different paces, encounter different difficulties, and indeed, find different solutions; they will have more questions, and the questions will be more various, requiring more of the teacher’s attention to answer.

I have a post in the works that explains in detail why such teaching methods are at odds with the conditions of inner-city classrooms—for now, I hope that my readers see the intuitive logic in this: the tough lives of the students and the large class-sizes in inner-city schools create an environment in which tight management and teacher-centered instruction are, for all but the finest teachers, the only way to maintain any semblance of order; and in which the teacher has little time to spend on detailed conversations with individual students.

Thus, the academic backgrounds of the students, their habits of behavior, their psychological conditions, the size of their classes, and the nature and frequency of the exams they must take all conspire to reduce the emphasis on comprehension and critical thinking, in inner city education, and to increase the focus on memorization. Let’s be honest, though: it’s really no surprise that these problems should be isolated in schools serving poor and inner-city kids—after all, if upper- and middle-class kids were being educated in the most paired down, rote-based terms, we would have done something about it already.

All of the above considerations show just how difficult the transition to deeper, more rigorous assessments would be. I don’t want to depress my readers—better education is possible in America’s inner cities; but it will take effort and resources on a scale that previous reform efforts have never attempted.

The assumption behind No Child Left Behind and many of its predecessors seems to be that the problem in American education is essentially one of incentives—i.e., we have ineffective schools because educators are insufficiently motivated to create better ones. By testing regularly, rewarding and punishing teachers and administrators based on their students’ scores, and fomenting market-like competition among schools—by allowing parents more choice in where to send their kids—NCLB was supposed to light a fire under the butts of America’s educators and get this public school system back on track. That hasn’t happened, even according to the reductive tests by which we measure these things.

Recent efforts concentrate instead on active and radical school restructuring. That’s a more promising strategy, and as I’ve discussed in this blog, some educators, operating on the same budgets as regular public schools, have begun to develop school designs that are much more effective than traditional models, at least as measured by the current exams. To prepare kids for the type of exam that Mr. Polakow-Suransky wants to implement, however, we’ll need to do much more.

The innovations in pedagogy and school-design made in select schools during the last fifteen years have begun the project, but to continue it, we will need new ingenuity and new resources. We’ll need to find a way to synthesize No-Excuses education with more child-centered pedagogy, so that we can teach critical thinking and creative problem solving within the context of focus and discipline established by the rigors of No-Excusesism. We’ll also need more and better free preschools, effective prenatal and infant-care programs, community-based parenting classes, efforts to reduce teen-pregnancy (which, under Bush’s abstinence-only sex-ed, went up for the first time in the preceding 15 years), and programs to improve nutrition for children of low-income families.

All this will require time and money. It will span mayoralties and presidential administrations, and it will use tax dollars. The question is whether we, as a city or as a country, have the patience and determination to see it through.

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