Setting Hard Targets for Kids. . .

My brilliant friend Renee Moore—who writes for the Teacher Leaders Network at a blog known as TeachMoore–recently asked a pretty interesting question in a conversation that we were having about No Child Left Behind. 

She wrote:

NCLB requires that all children be at grade level in reading and math by 2014.  What is "grade level" and why do we use that as a measure of student learning ( I know the textbook history here, but would love to hear any other takes on it)?  Are there reliable, widely agreed upon standards for what the "average" child at each grade level should know?  Should we even be using grade levels as markers of progress for student achievement?

This is a question that has been rambling through my head over the past two weeks too.  You see, I’ve been doing a bunch of research on middle grades students—the level that I teach—-in preparation for a presentation that I’m doing at the end of the summer.

One of the things that I learned—-14 years into my career, but that’s a different strand—-is that early adolescents are anything but predictable!  Cognitively, their brains develop at significantly different rates.  Specifically, their prefrontal cortexes—-the part of the brain that controls organization, attention and planning—-is still developing.

That explains the organizational challenges that plague middle schoolers and drive their teachers/parents over the edge!  Missing assignments and last minute completion of tasks is a result of this continued development—-not intentional acts of laziness. 

It also explains why some of my students master content immediately while others need repeated exposures to content presented in different formats.  Quite simply, at no time outside of infancy are humans so physically and cognitively diverse as they are during early adolescence.

So if early adolescents physically develop at different rates, how can we clearly define standards for "where they should be?"  Are the hard targets expected of students and schools by many avocates for "reform in education" plausible?  Or do they ignore what we know about human development?

While I understand the need for standards and benchmarks, I’m starting to wonder if they’re even possible.

Any thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Setting Hard Targets for Kids. . .

  1. Scott

    It occurs to me that anything involving human skills of any kind can always be plotted on a bell curve.
    If one is responsible for planning public education for a nation of people and attempting to set standards per grade, there should be ample comparative data to show where the 70 percentiles should be per grade and set that as the standard for “where they should be” at that age.
    Granted, because of the variability of skills from person to person, you are going to have a group just above and below the target standard, as well as radical outliers at the low and high ends.
    Those outliers are where the extra attention and resources need to go. When faced with sisiphean task of 30 kids per hour, you have to teach the material and help where you can, but some will excell and some won’t.
    Private facilities may well have the extra resources to address individual shortcomings, but they also get paid to do so. With finite public resources, and the fact that teachers are, in fact, human themselves (and also subject to the bell curve), there has to be a set of standards based primarily on the statistical data and let the cards fall where they may. I realize that may seem callous, but I grow weary of schools complaining about shrinking resources and time when short-shrift is being given to the basics and equal time given to somewhat fluffy and far more difficult-to-quantify subjects like diversity training. There is a time and place for such things, definitely, but equal time with math, science, reading, writing, speaking, etc, just doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful future citizenry.

  2. Adam

    I think we need to have a conversation about mastery of content. The problem is that NCLB is focused on mastery of a multiple choice test based on information from a knowledge age. As we move into the conceptual age we are going to have to redefine how we show mastery.

  3. Karen

    I enjoyed the original post and the comment. Both got me thinking.
    I appreciate the problem vs. a difference query and wonder if the intent of NCLB is to do BOTH! Find the differences and solve the problems. NCLB is a bit of a conundrum to many educators. I believe the conversations it has opened will be inspiration needed to change our educational system in order to meet the needs of ALL children and nurture the skills they will need for the 21st century.

  4. David Cohen

    Here are some thoughts, Bill. Your post reveals, as if we needed more evidence, why NCLB is such a sham. I’m not against standardized testing, but it should be one of many measures, and used to help gather comparative data. To look at any single student or group and give one test that purports to show they are “behind grade level” is not educationally valid or significant. But, if we find trends, or major discrepancies, we might then see if we can account for them. And if we can account for them, have we discovered a problem, or merely a difference?

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