Monday, May 28, 2012

Where should we focus our efforts?

During the Second World War, Allied bombers were sustaining heavy damage from flak and bullets while flying missions over Germany. Many of these bombers failed to return to their bases in Britain. A study was conducted of the damage done to the planes that did make it back which resulted in a proposal to add armor to those areas that had sustained the greatest number of hits. This would have been a costly undertaking as it meant spending valuable resources on refitting the planes. Furthermore, the extra armor would make the bombers heavier and less maneuverable. Had this effort been carried out, it most likely would have failed.
From Digital Roam
Fortunately, a Hungarian mathematician, Abraham Wald, took another perspective. Why not reinforce those parts of the bomber that had not been hit? He had noticed a different pattern in the shot-up planes. Each had avoided damage in similar spots, and Wald reasoned that these were vital areas that needed to be protected. After all, these bombers had successfully returned from their missions in spite of the damage they had received.

The Allied Command followed Wald's suggestions. (A collection of his memos can be found here.) However, I believe some loud and persistent voices in education reform are missing the wisdom of his message. Recent videos developed by Students First exemplify this misunderstanding of what is vital to the success of the U.S. education system. (Students First is the group headed by former Chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system, Michelle Rhee.)

The video shown here suffers from the same problem that distracted the original researchers of the WWII British bombers. Students First is focusing on the testing data (where we were "hit") and ignoring what is really important in education. To continue the Olympic metaphor, it would be like judging our divers against those of other nations simply based on how long it takes to climb the ladder. It does not matter, which makes it a distraction, and a potentially costly one.

Dr. Yong Zhao explains the problem with this focus on using only tests to compare our educational system to other country's in his keynote at the AACTE 2012 Annual Meeting. The keynote starts about 18 minutes into the video.

Education reform groups like Students First say that our current standardized test results show that our education system is full of holes. The truth is that by that reasoning, "American education has always been bad." [32:33] Poor test scores are not a recent phenomenon. "We have had over a half-a-century of bad education according to some measures." [40:49]
Much like Wald did, Zhao interprets these "hits" differently. In the figure below, the countries on the left are the top ten countries in the Programme for International Sudent Assessment (PISA). Those on the right represent the leaders from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). 
"As you can see the two lists don't go together. Countries that have higher PISA scores have lower entrepreneur capabilities." [48:40] In other words, focusing on high test scores means embracing conformity at the expense of what has always been our national strength - creativity.

Unfortunately, the current wave of education reform focuses on the easy to observe gaps rather than our subtle and vital successes. Yes, we have holes but these holes have not kept us from being successful. Still, we seem committed to embracing standards-based test-prep while eliminating the aspects of our educational system that nurture creative thinking. If we do not listen to the wisdom of Wald and Zhao, we will spend a lot of resources to fix what is not really important and make our education system less flexible as a result.


  1. I had almost forgotten about all the reports that we (me as part of "high school" in the 80s) was lagging behind the Soviet Union - which, of course, meant that they were on a course to dominate both America and the world.

    The goal of teaching: to take a student where he/she is at and move him/her as far as you possibly can. The danger in focusing on the gaps is that you don't spend as much time challenging the higher learners as you do those on the lower ends of the gap.

    Lots can be learned from multi-age classrooms around the world. The multi-age classrooms are built to have gaps - far greater gaps than the single-grade-level. Those who do it well differentiate. Everything. Brilliantly.

    Janet |

    1. Thanks for your comment, Janet. I certainly see/hear a lot about schools in the U.S. that focus on the "students on the bubble" - those that are close to passing the test. I agree that this is no way to meet your goal of teaching.

  2. David,
    Thanks for sharing Zhao's vimeo/video. I like his attempt to reframe the US's obsession with test scores as toxic for what has made the US great---it's belief in the inherent value of 'thinking outside the box'.
    Down here in the land of Oz we are facing a similar drive by politicians to frame knowledge as some kind of tangible 'stuff' that can be' measured' and/or 'weighed' and used to gauge the productivity of schools and teachers.
    We need more Zhao's to chanllenge this frame.

    1. Brian,
      I am so grateful that you stopped by and added your thoughts. It is frustrating that more people aren't listening to Zhao and others who challenge the obsession our political leaders have with high-stakes tests. Why don't these leaders at least consider the words of Einstein: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Is it possible they don't comprehend what he was saying?

  3. We desperately have to give teaching and learning back to the schools. Create thinkers not test takers.

  4. Excellent outline of the problem from outside the box. We often get caught up in the short view of things and rarely take time to do the "what ifs?" That typically leads to poor policy decisions and later entanglements with unexpected (but logical) consequences.

    My concern is the policymakers are not listening to Zhao - at all. He mainly speaks to the choir but is marginalized by the reformers. He's treated by conservatives as just another ivory tower academic. He should be having a greater impact on the debate but even while he was at MSU, few in Lansing listened to him. Sad but true.

    1. We certainly need to do more to make our voices heard. It doesn't help that the people making the decisions dismiss the ideas of those who know the most about the situation. Still, I appreciate the efforts you have made to bring to the public the real issues going on in education, especially regarding inequity in supporting public schools.

  5. Yong Zhao for Secretary of Education!

    Wouldn't he be great?

    Yvonne Siu-Runyan, ph.d.
    Professor Emerita, UNC (Colorado)

  6. Great video (the talk, not the commercial), thanks for posting. After watching it, I was thinking not only about producing students who think out of the standardized test box, but also of producing students who care about the people of the whole planet, not just of their own country. Is it so terrible that people in the US should want those in China or Japan or Russia or whoever the current "threat" is to prosper too (and maybe win some medals too)?

  7. Hear hear! While having a good conceptual knowledge of subjects in school, I was always a poor test taker. I saw a documentary on China, they are taught by rote, and when interviewed, a student in China admitted that they are not encouraged to be creative at all. And the student allowed that is why they usually grab up our ideas from here in the states, and copy them over and the only real innovation they have is making what we do smaller. He lamented this practice, but, since he lives there and is staying there, that is the only way to have success.