Monday, April 23, 2012

When Policy Meets "Art for Art's Sake"

Reading Jonah Lehrer's post about the promise of developing the ability of people (especially children) to focus, I was struck by how much it contrasts the usual rhetoric on matters of focus, especially when it comes to education. There's a lot of conventional wisdom out there about focus issues, and it consists mostly of excessive doubt or excessive sympathy. That is, most people either treat all focus issues as the upshot of bad parenting/bad-kidness or treat every ostensibly focus-based issue as the result of a disorder and beyond the control of the student. But rather than engage in this pretty fruitless back and forth, he instead highlights the evidence for various methods of improving the executive function of those students who lack focus (emphasis mine):
But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills. 
The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain school curricula, such as Montessori and Tools for the Mind, have also been shown to consistently increase executive function. 
Yet, despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function. Even worse, education departments are slashing the very activities, such as physical exercise and the arts, that boost executive function among the broadest range of students.
Lehrer's critique of cuts here is spot on, but its interesting how rhetorically different it is from so much of the criticism you hear of such cuts. Unlike most criticism, Lehrer cites the specific value of the arts and physical education in his defense of keeping them in school curricula. Too often, you hear a defense such programs on a much less clear basis. People tend to argue that cutting such things deprives students of a fuller curriculum and the broad range of subject matter that they deserve. I certainly agree with that, but when policy makers find themselves making cuts, especially in the recent economic environment, they aren't cutting things like art and phys. ed because they are malicious bureaucrats hell-bent on the destruction of the liberal arts. Nor are they even underestimating the value of art and phys. ed. They're simply setting budget priorities and, given the fiscal constraints of the system, are forced to make choices between cutting programs they see as more essential to a child's education. So, rhetorically, if you want to make an argument for saving such programs, it's important not to overlook the utility of such programs. Now, I fully understand that a big part of the value of a liberal arts education is learning to appreciate art for arts sake. But it's important to recognize that just because the arts may have an inherent value doesn't mean they don't also have a utility value. And if you're sitting down for a budget meeting, you're going to get a lot farther with an argument based on utility than you will with one based on the squishy, feel-good value of the arts.

One version of this type of argument appeared in a weekend editorial by Claire Needell Hollander in the Times tellingly titled "Teach the Books, Touch the Heart," except this one was aimed at standardized testing. In the article, Needell Hollander laments the disappearance of high-quality literature in today's classrooms and, especially, on exams. Instead, she says, exams are beginning to feature the boring, lifeless informative texts. She explains,
Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.
Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.
Now, it is certainly a negative thing that students have to spend more time preparing for tests and less time reading great literature. But this is hardly the fault of standardized exams. Instead, doing that seems to me to be a case of blaming the thermometer for the temperature. That is, what stops students from accessing great literature in way that all students deserve to is that far too many students still lack the requisite skills to handle such texts in a robust way. Take for example this chart from the National Center for Education Statistics based on data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy:

Given that even those adults registering as "Intermediate" in their prose literacy can only "perform moderately challenging literacy activities," it certainly seems questionable that anyone other than adults at the proficient level could handle the type of literature Needell Hollander rightly values, and it is certainly doubtful that anyone at the Basic or Below Basic level could. And, if people aren't able to handle it as adults, then they certainly weren't prepared while they were students either.

That this adjustment in the focus of the curriculum was made to compensate lacking literacy skills and not rather the result of a misguided desire to advance a crazy standardized testing regime seems to be betrayed in Needell Hollander's column itself. As she notes, "the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes." This suggests that those students with high literacy skills don't need the strict test prep in order perform well on the tests. Put another way, if you have the skills, test prep isn't going to add a lot of value to you. But, if you lack the skills, intensive test prep can produce an increased focus on gaining those literacy skills necessary to not only handle the tests, but also handle texts such as those that Needell Hollander would like to see stay on syllabi throughout the country. Sure, this may be, when executed poorly, a short-sighted, short-term way of boosting student scores. But it is crucial to see that this is both a failure of pedagogy and a symptom of the tremendous deficits students have. The response, therefore, should not be to roll-back the testing requirements that make such deficits apparent, but rather continue to focus on the methods of both policy and pedagogy that will set students up to develop the literacy skills necessary that they need to read the great books in the first place. 

Also - just as a quick PS to all of this. To my mind, one of the failings of Needell Hollander's article is that it confuses the value of exposing students to interesting and moving stories with the value of developing in students a sharp literary sense. This may seem like splitting hairs, but to me it is the difference between reading the SparkNotes version of Shakespeare and reading the actual text. Great plots are wonderful as far as they go, but the value in literature is not simply in reading an entertaining, emotional story. Instead, great literature helps us examine the created world of fiction or poetry, and instead, using skills that help us dissect more fully the tropes, diction, imagery, etc., we learn to think more clearly and profoundly about our own world. This distinction matters because students with substandard literacy skills might be able to connect with the plot of great stories, but they will struggle much more to connect with its true depth as a piece of literature. 

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