Friday, May 10, 2013

The News from Lake Woebegone

Welcome to Maine road sign
I think most Mainers are fairly familiar with Garrison Keeler’s mythical hometown from his weekly Prairie Home Companion radio show on Maine Public Radio. In the closing of each Lake Woebegone story he notes that it is the place where the “...women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”

Many Maine folks, like many rural folks around our country, think that Lake Woebegone could be their town, instantly recognizing people from their own communities who resemble the qualities of the cast of strange characters who inhabiting the small Minnesota town. It is a comforting feeling because the Lake Woebegone folks, despite their eccentricities, always seem to finally find a way to get along.

This pastoral image of Maine was rocked recently when the Governor of the State, Paul LePage and his Commissioner of Education, Steven Bowen published a State Report Card showing that indeed the children in many of Maine’s communities are...well, NOT “above average.”

Much has been written about the Maine School Performance Grading System in the press and elsewhere in recent days. Most of the comments I've read are pretty damming and many people have been rallying to support the teachers and schools in their communities particularly those in the communities that were, well let’s just say more below average than they would like.

Many years ago I used to reach Educational Tests and Measurements to pre-service teachers in several colleges in Maine and Pennsylvania. I also taught Educational Psychology in those same institutions and in all those courses we examined the problem with normative assessments and, in particular,  the use of grades based upon comparisons between or within groups. All of my hundreds of future teachers knew by the end of the semester of the fallacy of that old fashioned grading methodology. Indeed, I suspect just about everyone who has studied to become a teacher in the last 50 years has learned the same lesson which is: attempting to reduce human behavior to a simple five letter grading scale is just... well, plain stupid.

Clearly the governor and his commissioner of education never took my course.

The alternative to a normative, letter-grading system calls for the use of criterion-based assessment and the educational derivative of this is most commonly referred to as Standards-Based or Outcomes-Based Education. The movement to this methodology began in earnest in the US in the early 90s and Maine was one of the national leaders establishing a universal set of standards called The Maine Learning Results. In this method individuals are measures against a set of criterion. Basically you either meet or exceed the criterion or don’t meet the criterion. And if you don’t meet the criterion, you keep working at it until you do. Outcomes-based methods are designed to focus on continually teaching to master the criterion and not dwelling on comparing individuals with other individuals.

But we Americans, with our penchant for competitiveness don’t like to just PASS something, we NEED to be BETTER than everyone else; we NEED to BEAT the opposition. We NEED to all be “above average.” We NEED to be from Lake Woebegone.

But alas, we are only from Maine where, just like everyone else, about half of us are above average and half of us are not.

“And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone….”

Read about the Lake Woebegone Effect...

Photo credit: Image licensed through Creative Commons by Web Fryer.

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