Saturday, December 10, 2011

Slow and Steady wins the race, thank goodness!

My older son is a swimmer, and as I sit at at a regional swim meet, I'm struck by how important resilience is in sport. My son has been swimming since he was about six, and he's always been quite good (if I do say so myself). We've stuck with swimming because it was a sport that he did well with, for he seems to do better with individual sports than team ones. We've encouraged him to swim through thick and thin because we see that when he's successful, he feels good about himself and learns to set and meet goals. Both of these results are important to us as his parents because we know the effects will stick with him for a lifetime.

Yet, not all of his peers in swimming seem to be in it for the long haul. Many of the boys who have swum with him over the years are beginning to burn out and quit the sport. Some of these kids were amazing swimmers, blowing away the competition (including my son!) in both summer and year-round meets. When people watched them swim, they would be impressed by their swimming talent. But as these kids have aged, they have slowly faded from the scene for a variety of reasons. Some fade because they become involved in other sports (swimming is not the "cool" sport where we live that football is, imagine that). Others, though, have faded because their early talent for the sport is not as impressive as it was. Other kids, who have stuck it out and trained through the years, are catching up, at times matching or beating the young phenoms. Instead of taking that new competition as motivation to get better, these kids are breaking. They avoid big meets and cut back on their training. Whispers among parents at the meets and practices suggest that the kids are either disappointments to their parents or causes of concern as the kids battle depression or act defiantly due to their frustration over not being the best anymore.

These young swimmers are caught up in our culture's worship of talent. While we in the US say we value hard work, what we adore is talent, especially precocious talent. We love the kid who wins the piano competition at age five. We are amazed by the baby who reads or does math before kindergarten. Prodigies get to appear on the Today Show and have one million hits on YouTube. We have built a culture of fame for prodigies, but what happens when their peers catch up with their talent? Has the prodigy, who never had to work hard to be successful, learned the value of hard work? Will they push themselves in order to be better? Or will they give up because they are no longer as good as they were? Unfortunately, I'm seeing too many phenom swimmers giving up, burning out, and fading away.

I hope I'm teaching my son that he needs to be in it for the long haul. He's a pretty good swimmer now, but he's not the best of the bunch. With each year, though, he gets a little better, a little stronger, and a little more savvy in competition. At this rate, he'll hit his peak in late high school or perhaps early in college. He has potential to be a collegiate swimmer, and perhaps qualify to try out for the Olympics if he wants. But that potential does not depend on how talented he is today. It depends on how hard he works between now and then. To me, if he learns that hard work will get him from here to his dreams, then I've done a good job as a parent, whether he actually gets to swim in college or the Olympics or not.

My favorite Aesop's fable is "The Tortoise and the Hare." The talented Rabbit, so sure of his physical superiority in a race, fails to work hard and even slacks off, leaving room for the slower, but persistent Tortoise to beat him. I'm glad that "slow and steady wins the race." That way, more of us have the hope of winning, if we just stick to it. Resilience wins, every time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Do the Numbers Really Mean? Not Much, Really...

Recently, two articles from The Washington Post's blog The Answer Sheet got my attention. One detailed the adventures of a school board member who took a version of the Florida standardized, high-stakes test students must take in order to graduate and help their schools earn a "successful" label. The other outlined the "evidence" that shows how education majors come from the bottom third of college students. Both, I feel, tell an interesting story about what we've come to value in education and how we've let it corrupt our notions of learning.

I was very intrigued by the school board member who took it upon himself to take a version of the Florida high-stakes test. While he was not allowed to take an official version, he took one that was similar to what students must face each year. He took subtests in reading and math, and he failed miserably. This upstanding, community-servant, double-master's-degreed businessman could not complete one math question and only got a D on the reading section. His performance, though, was not what intrigued me. His motivation was. He wanted to take the test because the schools in his district were continually being labeled as failing with students not passing these tests, yet he personally knew teachers who were doing outstanding work and students who could read and do math. His experiences didn't match the reported scores.

The second article also intrigued me because I've heard reformers complain before that teaching would be a better profession if we could attract the "best and brightest" of our college students to pursue teaching. Groups such as Teach for America were founded on this premise. TFA began by recruiting Ivy League all-stars to work in schools for two years with the belief that their brief service would revolutionize schools. Being in the presence of a passionate, brilliant Harvard grad would surely make a sullen, inner-city, disaffected youth love learning again, right? But learning that my colleagues and I are believed to be underachieving, dispassionate, regular-college grads who have ruined kids' love of learning was not what intrigued me. My reality was. My experiences do not match this study's report or TFA's philosophy.

I have personally known thousands of students in my career. The vast majority of students I've worked with could read, do math, write, and speak well enough to be successful in college. Now, I'll admit that I have worked in communities that value education and support their schools. Even so, not all students in those schools came from families that supported the quest for education. I've worked with students who did not pass our state tests, but even those students could read, write, and do math. And most of those still went to college and were successful.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers. The vast majority of teachers I worked with love school and learning so much that they overachieve at schooling. They are bonafide nerds about school. They are conscientious about doing work and want to help students be successful at school. While I never sat around with my colleagues bragging about our high school test scores, I do know that most of my colleagues graduated with honors from high school, college, and graduate school. The teachers I know are not in the bottom third of anything, except maybe in salary.

Ultimately, our notions of learning have been corrupted by a system that values test scores over something more meaningful. The fact that I'm calling it "something more meaningful" and not giving it a more concrete name shows that we really actually don't know what we want students to have when they walk across our commencement stages. We want for our SAT/ACT scores and GPAs to mean something - that we've learned something valuable and important. But the more we assign that value to these scores, the less it seems that they actually signify anything important. The numbers have come to have more value than what they signify. And that has lead us to this ugly place where numbers bestow value onto people instead of people assigning value to the numbers.