Minute with Mike - Teaching high standards

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/31/99.

Even if I were made the king of education in Minnesota, the future of the Profile of Learning still would be uncertain.

In the past few weeks, I've talked to a number of educators and encountered a variety of opinions on the subject. There was such a massive amount of experiences with it and thoughts about it that I had a difficult time sorting through it and writing. It seemed like everyone with whom I talked would suggest someone else who had an interesting viewpoint.

I hope I've accurately expressed what was told to me, but I realize there were mistakes, omissions, and faults. Maybe the most major was tone. While I hope that both positive and negative aspects of the Profile of Learning were presented, as I reflect on writing it, I can see now that I often acted surprised by the benefits and took an it-could-be-a-whole-lot-worse attitude toward some of its demands.

I'm not immune to all the negative publicity that surrounded the Profile of Learning this winter.

A couple of things are clear to me about the high standards. The first is they sound great in theory. When I read the list of learning areas (in the March 10 issue), I would continuously say to myself: "That's a good idea" or "Students should be able to do that." Virtually all were common sense to me. "Of course our schools should be teaching this," I thought. "What's the big deal?"

In recent years, I've warmed to the concept of performance rather than tests, to demonstration of knowledge rather than recitation. While in high school, I would have definitely preferred, probably like many students today, to have studied a little and taken a test rather than complete some sort of project.

In Papua New Guinea schools, tests carry absurd weight. Because there is not enough space in schools for all the potential students, the schools were highly competitive in nature. One-third of grade six students qualified for grade seven. Two-thirds of grade eight students qualified for grade 9, and maybe one-quarter of grade 10 students qualified for grade 11.

Students were judged by their performance on tests. In an attempt to keep things fair, the exact same test had to be given to the entire grade on the same day. No matter if the classes were taught by different teachers using different styles and highlighting different points of emphasis. Sometimes, I would teach below my ability because I felt my class already had an unfair advantage.

My students in PNG were sharp. They could recite chapter and verse from the Bible. They would meticulously copy diagrams from their text books into their exercise books. They would infuriate me by carefully making straight lines in their exercise books when I wanted them to practice a mathematical concept I had just explained.

It backfired on many of them in the end. You can't become a mathematician by memorization. Their final math test, a standard government test that helps determine their future, covers four years of mathematics. You can't memorize that much.

Another lesson I learned in PNG is the primary, fundamental value of teachers in education. Lumi High School lacked many things, but the most important was enough trained, dedicated teachers.

I support alternative teaching and testing methods, but I doubt the Profile of Learning will have success in requiring them. From what I heard, the high standards have lost respect in the trenches. Several teachers tried to politely bite their tongues while talking about them. Others were apologetic while admitting some merits. In many cases, I sensed hostility.

I don't think the Profile of Learning will come close to reaching their theoretical potential until the teachers wholeheartedly back them. The high standards need enthusiasm and support in the classroom to work.

The Legislature can make it law, the education department can regulate it, the administration can order it, but, unless the teachers believe in it, the implementation will be faulty.

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