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Lost in Translation

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Many of us have been working for educational reform, arguing forcefully for less focus on facts and more on what students will be able to do when they leave the classroom. Seeing new methods implemented we smile, glad that others are heeding our advice. We might do well to look more closely before rejoicing. Far too many practices are being implemented in ways that defeat their original goals.

This seems especially true in English education, perhaps because widespread concern about high school graduates' reading and writing abilities makes that area ripe for experimentation. In recent months, for example, I've visited a two-hour class designed to accommodate integrated study of "humanities''--and I watched the English teacher assigned to it (with no special preparation) spend the first hour teaching English and the second teaching social studies. I've seen my own children asked to keep journals in their English classes--and to record in those "journals'' traditional book reports. With a colleague, I've examined a statewide "authentic'' assessment method that asks students to produce a writing sample--and also to take a multiple-choice test that is subsequently used to send teachers back to the practice of teaching decontextualized grammar.

While such devices as "humanities blocks'' and journal-keeping may suggest significant change, these examples illustrate how easily new practices can be reduced to camouflage masking essentially traditional methodology and goals.

Neither villains nor dolts lurk behind such inconsistencies. Instead, most often those implementing new practices are well-intentioned professionals acting on others' advice, if often without sufficient understanding of the promoters' philosophy and intentions. Perhaps those of us offering advice are talking too much about what others should do and not nearly enough about why they should do it. If, for example, we did a better job of promoting journal-keeping as a useful way for students to explore their own thinking (as opposed to just suggesting that all students ought to have "a journal''), then journals might reflect thinking more often than plot rehash.

Of course, there may be other reasons that new goals so often seem lost in the translation of theory to practice. Few working policymakers, administrators, or teachers have time to study educational theory and philosophy. Moreover, thanks largely to the common university tradition of divorcing theory from practice by segregating philosophical issues in introductory, and necessarily cursory, foundations courses, few professionals in education see much value in studying theory, even if they had time. As John I. Goodlad notes, professional preparation for educators rarely includes "lively, thoughtful discussions about important educational issues and dilemmas.''

"Alas, technique has come to dominate over all else,'' writes Mr. Goodlad, "and for want of adequate grounding in theory, teaching is too often reduced to mechanical procedures.''

When programs of teacher education commonly involve simply telling tomorrow's teachers what to do, we have no reason to expect that teachers or anyone else implementing new practices will be quick to probe the philosophy and goals which spawned them.

Whatever the reason for the lack of focus on theory, the result is almost predictable. Too often, reform efforts take the form of one state, group, or teacher adopting a practice touted by others, but using it in ways never intended by its promoters. When the theoretical underpinnings of a practice are not clear--when the only rationale for a practice is that others say it "works''--there are no clear guidelines to help implementers adapt a practice soundly to local conditions.

Compounding the problems generated by lack of theoretical understanding is a scarcity of resources to help those who must translate theory to practice. Support for professional development often lags far behind mandated policy changes, and so many responsible individuals and groups are left to do what they can to educate themselves. Usually working with exceedingly modest resources, they run the risk associated with the truism, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'' This is so because "doing what they can'' usually means bringing in some "expert'' to offer advice in an unrealistic time slot of a few hours or less.

Recently, I had an experience that falls into this category and gives rise to this Commentary's argument: If we want changes in practice to produce significantly different learning experiences for students, then we have to lobby tirelessly for thoughtful, well-financed, and well-planned opportunities for professional development, and we must try to insure that those opportunities include exploration of the theory underpinning new practices as well as the mechanics of their implementation. To get where we want to go, we have to do a much better job of clarifying our destination and asking exactly how a given practice might help us get there.

Recently I attended a regional conference of K-12 teachers and college professors focused on improving the teaching of writing. The sponsoring organization includes a handful of professors and many more classroom teachers, all interested in working collaboratively. It is telling that during the business session, much discussion centered on the fact that only some 30 K-12 teachers attended. Teachers spoke of the difficulty of obtaining release time for professional development, and several reported sacrificing a personal day to attend.

At the wish of the membership, the professor serving as keynote speaker addressed the topic of portfolio assessment, one of grave concern because initiatives to reform assessment so often include portfolios. Those attending wanted to know what portfolio assessment was, what it meant in practice, and how to find time in their already overstuffed classes to accommodate it.

Given less than an hour (and no doubt an extraordinarily modest honorarium) to cover this enormous territory, the speaker surely did her conscientious best. Noting that the practice of "portfolios'' might look very different in different places, she offered a few general handouts, which included a list of three "useful sources.'' From one of these sources, she also offered a sample "portfolio assessment'' prompt from Maryland.

According to the speaker, the purpose of sharing this detailed example was to help the teachers imagine the possibilities for "transforming'' both assessment and classroom practices. It involved the following activities, completed over three days:

  • Day 1. Students receive a "reading book,'' containing a map; Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire''; an excerpt from a nonfiction text on hypothermia; and a "response book'' for their answers. Before reading the story, students complete a "prereading'' journal entry describing "their experiences being cold.'' After reading the story, they respond to a series of comprehension questions. They may answer the first question with a drawing; then, they compare the experience described earlier in their journal entries with the experience of the main character who dies in the extreme cold. The final three questions "probe the students' reading abilities by asking them to assess the difficulty of the story and explain why they rated it'' as they did, and then to "describe their reading strategies, that is, what they do to make sense of the story when they come to a word or a reference they don't understand.''
  • Day 2. Students first spend five minuteswriting a letter to the character "giving him some advice that might have saved his life.'' Before reading the nonfiction excerpt on hypothermia, "there is a class discussion about the topic, with the teacher writing on the board a cluster of the students' ideas as they respond to key words (succumb, insidious) that they will find in the excerpt.'' After reading the piece, they answer another series of questions.
  • Day 3. Students "integrate the information from the two pieces into a written response to one of three situations: informing a group of friends of what they will need to do to stay safe on a winter weekend trip; writing a poem, short story, or short play expressing their feelings about extreme states, not only cold, but also heat, hunger, or fatigue; or writing a speech to persuade people to avoid travel in the Yukon. In each case the student is asked to go through a process of brainstorming ideas and either listing them or making a web of words with lines connecting them to major ideas. Students write a rough draft, pause to consider whether it meets the needs of the situation, and then revise the piece.'' Finally, they proofread.

The question is not so much what's "wrong'' with this prompt, but what purposes it serves in the way of reform. If we are to align practice with our goals, we need to look carefully at what ends a specific practice seems to serve. In the case of assessment--so often used as a lever to force change in classroom instruction--that means looking carefully at what a specific test or prompt emphasizes. We need to ask what a specific test can tell us as well as what it cannot tell us, because those are the areas which reveal assumptions about what it is and is not important for students to learn.

So, then: What can this test tell us? It can tell us if students can write about a topic assigned by the teacher; if students can draft a make-believe letter to a make-believe audience; if students have learned to respond to teacher-generated questions; if students have learned to work with words the teacher has identified as "key.'' This list might be extended, but its point is already clear. What this test can tell us, in essence, is how well students can respond to questions and tasks someone else designs in relation to a text someone else selects.

In this exercise, the test-writer decides which text is worth exploring and which other text might relate to it. The test-writer determines what aspects of that text merit students' attention; what questions about it are worth answering; what aspect of the students' lives it can connect to; what kinds of written responses are in order, and so on. The test-writer is active, whereas the test-taker is reactive within prescribed boundaries. For those of us who believe our goal should be to create lifelong readers and writers, the focus here is way off the mark. William Ayers was talking about the practice of labeling students when he made the following observation in his 1993 book, To Teach, but it aptly describes this sort of assessment as well: "All the categories are upside down--they conceal more than they reveal.''

What this test cannot tell us--what it conceals--seems infinitely more important. It cannot, for example, tell us if students have developed personal criteria for selecting short stories or other texts they would enjoy or otherwise benefit from reading; if they are able to ask meaningful questions of texts on their own, or if they can create personal meaning from them; if they can connect one text to another they've encountered elsewhere--in another class, in a magazine or in some other personal reading. It cannot tell us if students can identify a word, phrase, or passage which seems especially key, and say why it resonates for them.

In short, this test cannot tell us much at all about what skills, habits, and inclinations students are likely to exhibit when left to their own resources--as they will be when they leave school. And this, many would argue, is precisely the area of learning and assessment we ought to be most concerned about: How can and will students read and write when there is no teacher or test-writer generating a script for them? Will they leave schools having found ways to incorporate reading and writing meaningfully into their lives--or simply having mastered new test-taking strategies?

What is most worrisome about the above prompt is that it includes several activities which can help empower students: brainstorming; listing; mapping; drafting, revising, and editing; making connections between different types of reading; explicit discussion of reading strategies. Unfortunately, in this exercise these activities seem not tools for students to choose among at will for their own purposes, but instead new kinds of tasks they must demonstrate they can execute. It is almost as though behind this prompt is a checklist of activities which has replaced the checklist of rules and facts students formerly had to regurgitate. But a checklist for its own sake remains only a checklist. If what matters is only that students can execute these activities on command (not that they can use them for their own ends at will), then there is little difference between teaching students to answer a multiple-choice question and teaching them to brainstorm.

Whatever the weaknesses of this example, however, it is now the concrete image of "portfolio assessment'' capable of "transforming classrooms'' which the teachers who attended that particular regional conference are likely to hold. If, in fact, it doesn't serve the ends that many of us have in mind when we promote "portfolio assessment,'' that concrete example is potentially very dangerous because in education, what is is borrowed. Who has the time, energy, or expertise to reinvent the wheel? Any specific practice that is written down and disseminated has potential influence far beyond what it may merit--and even beyond what its composer may have intended originally. Teachers borrow from other teachers, districts from other districts, and states from other states.

We must keep a critical eye on what's "out there'' because practices--particularly in assessment--behave like the fires we start to get rid of our fall leaves or to clear brush from some piece of ground. If we don't watch carefully, the fires of reform we light here and there can soon burn out of our control and spread in ways we never intended. The fate of the progressive movement ought to have taught us that.

Those of us who are clear about what we hope reform will accomplish need to watch carefully and be quick to say, "Wait! That's not what I had in mind at all!'' We need, too, to be more vocal about what we do have in mind as the goals of the practices we promote and about the need for good professional development as a means to reaching those goals. Otherwise, we'll deserve no better than we'll get.

Pat Hinchey is an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University at Worthington.

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