I must admit that when I first heard the phrases “21st-Century Skills”, “Standards-Based Grading” and “Professional Learning Communities”, I thought they were nothing more than new buzz-words or catch phrases popular among educators. But they also struck me as great ideas. Of course, our students should be educated to compete in the 21st-century job market. They should be taught by professionals dedicated to insuring that their pupils learn. Everyone should be held to a standard… a high standard… don’t you agree?
Unfortunately, beneath the shiny facade none of these are what they seem.
Our children are our future
It wasn’t until I began to look below the surface I realized these are components of the Progressive Education agenda. They diminish educational content, erode student responsibility, accountability and excellence while promoting creativity, collaboration, innovation and problem solving skills. This agenda is, as a retired public school teacher aptly describes it, a “No Fail Policy”. A key component is the ushering in of standards-based grading because it enables schools to conceal the fact students are failing to learn.
The so-called 21st-century skills movement is an educational fad… a bandwagon. But for the professional development industry, it’s a gravy train. Schools spend billions of dollars a year on professional development, which is, in reality, more about controlling teachers than actually helping students learn.
The main criticism of so-called 21st-century skills is it removes the focus from academics, placing the emphasis on skills, instead. What good are skills without knowledge? There is no independent, scientific research suggesting this educational philosophy is valid and, to the contrary, there is ample evidence the opposite is true.
It was tried in Connecticut, some years ago, and was actually found to decrease student performance. They have since abandoned the fad, in favor of a more traditional model. The list of 21st-century skills are nothing new, but are skills acquired by students who are offered a high-quality academic program – going as far back into history as Aristotle. Yes, these skills are important, but we would be well advised to stick with what works: a high-quality academic curriculum that sets high expectations for all of our students.
“The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards…. But critics, including the nonprofit Pioneer Institute, have made a powerful case that the plan could set back education reform efforts in Massachusetts by advancing a set of soft, vague skills at the expense of academic content… Ten years ago, students in Connecticut outperformed their Massachusetts counterparts on a national reading assessment test. But after education policy makers there shifted focus from an emphasis on content knowledge to the “how to” methods favored by the 21st-century skills movement, test scores plummeted. Acknowledging the error, Connecticut educators are reintroducing methods favored by Massachusetts. In fact, there is strong evidence that emphasis on basic skills leads to success at reasoning and problem-solving. Fourth-graders here ranked second worldwide in science and tied for third in math last year on the sophisticated Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam. Given such success, the burden should be on 21st-century skills proponents to prove their methods offer a better way to prepare students for college, and the workplace. So far, they haven’t done that. And while they say 21st-century skills will only complement the state’s current efforts, it’s not clear that the approach can be implemented without de-emphasizing academic content.” —A 21st-Century Caution Globe Editorial, The Boston Globe (1/24/2009)
Follows, are comments from well-respected educational experts, as reported in Cultural Literacy in Retreat by Mark Bauerlein, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (6/9/2009):
“But while it is exciting to think we live in times so revolutionary that they demand entirely new skills, that assumption and others threaten to establish a false choice between teaching facts and teaching how to approach them – and to make the 21st-century skills movement another fad leading to little change in American education.”–Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit organization, education columnist for TIME.com, co-publisher Education Insider, founder Education Sector, former White House Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy during the Clinton administration
“How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing, and math supposed to learn this stuff?”–Jay Matthews, Harvard University alumni, author and education reporter for the Washington Post
“There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st-century skills movement. The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century.”–Diane Ravitch, educational historian, education policy analysis, former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, now a research Professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
Others weigh in on the issue:
“At its heart, say Hirsch and others, the conflict is about what should happen in a school day: Do kids learn to think by reading great literature, doing difficult math and learning history, philosolhy and science? Or can they tackle those subjects on their own if schools simply teach them to problem-solve, communicate, use technology and think creatively? If you pursue the latter, says University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the rich content you’re after inevitably “falls by the wayside”. While kids may enjoy working together on projects, for instance, the amount of knowledge they get often ends up being shallow. Furthermore, he says, research shows that many teachers find it difficult to actually teach children to think creatively or collaborate. In the end, they rarely get better at the very skills that P21 advocates.”—What to learn: ‘core knowledge’ or ‘21st-century skills’? by Greg Toppo, USA Today
“But Michael Petrilli, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former US Department of Education official, said he disagreed with the new grading policies. “This is clearly about dumbing down expectations for our students,” Petrilli told FOXNews.com. “Some of these children are just a few years away from being in the workforce, in college or even in the military, and in none of those environments will they be coddled like they are in these programs.” Petrilli said the policy also sends the wrong message to students. “If you’re getting a zero, that usually means you didn’t turn the assignment or do the job correctly,” he said. “All this does is create cynicism among educators and send signals to students that the education system is not serious about achievement.” If anything, Petrilli said, overall standards at high schools across the country should be raised, not lowered. “It does not take a lot to pass a high school course,” he said. “If we have kids not meeting the standard, the answer is not to lower the standard.”—Are ‘No-Fail’ Grading Systems Hurting or Helping Students? by Joshua Rhett Miller, FOX NEWS (4/27/2009)
The “No Fail” movement has failed in many other places. In Texas, the situation became so bad their state legislature actually stepped in, passing a law to outlaw “No Fail”:
“But [Texas Senator Jane] Nelson said the grading policies encourage students to game the system, knowing they don’t have to do much to pass. “Kids are smart and can figure it out,” she said. “A student in one of these districts with a minimum grade of 70 can sit and say, ‘I don’t have to do any homework, I don’t have to answer any questions on tests, and they still have to give me a 70 no matter what.’”
“Holly Eaton of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association acknowledged there are studies showing a correlation between poor grades and student dropouts. But she said teachers are still strongly behind Nelson’s efforts. “School districts with policies like this are harming the integrity of our grading system and undermining the professional judgement of teachers across Texas,” she said.”—Texas Senate bill aims to stop no-fail grading in public schools by Terrence Stutz, The Dallas Morning News (4/13/2009)
“No fail” is epidemic in Canada and children are paying the price with their futures:
“Indeed, the institutionalized agenda to protect self-esteem has become in some quarters a massive deception that only the officious refuse to recognize. The unassailable doctrine that everyone’s a winner and everyone is the same is anathema to critical thinking. Ask any eight year-old with a closet full of trophies for showing up. The fact that a late assignment is not penalized does not reward knowledge, it erodes learning and respect for the basic necessity of rules. It invites the wily to opt out. That grammar only counts on assignments when a teacher says it does encourages sloppy work. If students can correct their tests to gain marks (or if they get a redo), study habits suffer. Such practices may explain why half the class is failing math even though a teacher is still reviewing last year’s material four months into the year. Children who are not allowed to fail or to see mistakes can cost them will eventually have a hard landing when work-for-pay involves deadlines, standards and regular swift assessment. The idea that school teaches reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic is long gone. Making it easy, however, for the unmotivated to succeed is as bad as failing a child because a standard is not just too high, but unjustly shortsighted. It lets the entire education system off easy. In a world where there is no failure, there is no learning.”–It’s simple: No failure, no learning, staff writer Winnipeg Free Press (1/18/2010)
Is this what we want to replicate?
I attended a professional development seminar promoting full-blown “No Fail” to an auditorium full of public school teachers. It was quite an eye-opener… revealing just how destructive the Progressive education agenda is to student learning.
No-fail often employs “second chance tests” so students can correct what they got wrong, then resubmit the test days later to have their grade raised. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “test” as “something measuring knowledge”. A “test” is no longer a true test of a student’s knowledge when they’re allowed to correct incorrect answers to raise their grade. This is an invitation for cheating, since students could simply look the answers up in their textbook or online, copy the correct answer and get credit for it. Why study? Where’s the learning?
The speaker emphasized the notion homework is just “practice” and shouldn’t count in the grade. They want schools to only grade on “summative” assignments – the students’ tests. Accordingly, homework, which he calls “formative” assessments, is used to “change student grades”. It’s an effort to move towards a system where, in his words: Effective assessment practices don’t average scores. Grade on end of semester, only.”
One of many problems with this, besides the lack of ethics, is children learn from repetition. We all do. Hence the old adage: Practice makes perfect. If students know homework doesn’t count towards their class grade, or it only counts for a small portion of their overall grade, why should they bother to even do it – especially when there’s so many other fun things they’d rather be doing? And many students won’t. Once again, their work ethic suffers.
Deadlines are bad and late assignments are fine-and-dandy. At least according to this Progressive-minded speaker. He actually told teachers to “do away with deadlines… and don’t lower grades for late work”.
Teachers are also told: “Don’t penalize students with poor attendance.” So when attendance and tardy policies are ignored or tossed out the window, students learn promptness and deadlines are optional.
If they are not expected to be punctual and if class skippers are not held accountable, deadlines are meaningless and cheating is OK, these young people will have a difficult time holding a job in the real world.
“Stop teaching from textbooks, page by page.” he said. “What used to be a 2-week unit can be condensed to 2-3 days covering just what they need to know for the test.” Instead of providing students with a well-rounded education, teach to the standard or target points… teach to the state test. He advocated narrowing the instructional focus by teaching less content. And for those students who struggle the most, their education would be pared down to just what they need to perform on the tests.
Ah… the tests.
As a response to unrealistic provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requiring 100% of our students to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2013-2014, DPI and many Wisconsin schools have lowered the bar. It’s evident in the disturbing trend of “no fail” programs and policies creeping into the public schools, an easier WKCE along with schools openly admitting they are “teaching to the test”. This is directly to blame for a degradation of the quality of education. It also explains why colleges and universities are finding it necessary to assign so many of their freshmen students to remedial courses… even those who graduated high school with “above average” grades.
A recent comparison of NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) shows Florida Hispanic schoolchildren are better educated than those in Wisconsin and 24 other states. We are also falling behind on a global scale due to a lack of discipline and rigor in our schools. We are not only negatively impacting our students, but are also putting our future workforce at risk.
Perhaps the most shocking thing I heard that day, and also the most revealing, was his advice to give a practice test a week before the final, then the practice test becomes their study guide. Yup… if all else fails, give them the answers. This is coddling the students, encouraging them to be unmotivated and irresponsible. It is, in my opinion, Educational Malpractice.
There’s an organized push for public schools to do away with A-B-C grading in favor of “standards-based” or, worse, yet, evolving to “effort-based grading” where they are graded by how hard they try – not whether they actually learn anything.
And the cherry on top of this professional development speaker’s presentation was when he told teachers “We’ve been so focused on grades”… and don’t give students zeros, incomplete or F’s… oh, and don’t retain kids – because of what he called “failure stigma” – which is another way to say if students don’t learn or if they don’t do their school work, just pass them along to the next grade. You now have a recipe for high school graduation diplomas which are entirely meaningless and worthless.
And I have a news flash for these No-Fail Pied Pipers: You don’t want kids to experience failure stigma? Well, that’s exactly what you are setting them up to do as they fail to achieve their full potential.
“…grades measure results, not effort. It sounds charitable to “grade on effort,” rewarding hard work with higher grades even in the absence of measurable results. But this won’t work in practice. We have no way to measure how hard our students work. When you give one failing student a C for effort, are you sure you didn’t have another failing student who worked just as hard but didn’t tell you about it?
Anyhow, we give degrees for mastering course material, not for enduring drudgery, and a grade is part of a degree. Would you rather be operated on by a doctor who had an easy time in medical school, or by one who had a hard time and got his passing grade “on effort”? Grading on effort can conceal incompetence or, at best, send students into advanced courses for which they are not prepared.”—What Should Grades Mean? by Michael A. Covington, Institute for Artificial Intelligence, The University of Georgia
I believe education must raise the bar, challenging children to achieve. I’m not a teacher, but I truly believe No-Fail philosophy is destructive to young people because it coddles students as it rewards the unmotivated and punishes the over-achiever by promoting mediocrity. Students need a solid foundation of core knowledge. They need to be challenged to excel and to learn there are consequences for their actions. Accountability. Responsibility. Discipline. Without these traditional, time-tested, success-proven basics, how will they ever be able to hold a job, let alone succeed at life?
- The Foundation for Educational Choice: Advancing Milton & Rose Friedman’s Vision of School Choice for All — Lessons for Tennessee from Florida’s Education Revolution by Matthew Ladner (2/9/2011)
- 21st-Century Skills Are Not a New Education Trend but Could Be a Fad by Andrew J Rotherham, U.S.News & World Report (12/15/2008)
- How Public School Teachers Can Reverse the Educational Decline by Bruce Deitrick Price, Canada Free Press (6/1/2010)
- The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills, by Jay Matthews, The Washington Post (1/5/2009)