My turn: Missing the achievement gap

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2007

W ith the effort people have put into configuring school facilities, it's unfortunate that none of the arrangements are likely to affect the achievement gap much. The reason is that a "Learn and Lose System" envelops most classrooms in Juneau and elsewhere. Along the entire scale of ability, learning is nebulous because it's set up in a structure over which students have no control:

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1. Courses begin and end by plan. Students know they won't be called on for this information after the course, which tells them to design their depth of study accordingly. Knowing they'll end a course soon encourages them to do the minimum.

2. No intent to learn a body of knowledge. Students aren't asked to master a comprehensive explanation of a subject. Courses mainly help them qualify - to pass, be eligible for sports, satisfy parents, or access further education.

3. An adult wishing to master a subject obtains a hard copy. We buy the book or make detailed notes. Without a hard copy, a student can't update tenuous learning later, review is impossible, and fragmented ideas can't be restored to wholeness. K-12, textbooks are returned and notes are thrown away because there's no reason to keep them.

4. Schools test small pieces that aren't integrated. Exam questions throughout a course are often atomized into pieces and parts that aren't conceived as a system with structural harmony. Most tests address only limited sections.

5. Teachers want to prescribe interest. Students' own interest competes with instead of expanding the curriculum. If it's not in the curriculum, they don't "get credit" for it.

6. In place of student mastery are teacher-led reviews for the test that constrict the content to learn and the amount of time to do it. Many teachers assume that only a little of what they treat in class is worth testing, so they conduct a review close to the exam that years ago would have been regarded as teacher-complicit cheating, providing students an abbreviated summation that the test is taken from. Students know that if they study the review questions, they'll pass respectably, which renders other class hours forgettable.

7. Multiple exams are concentrated into a brief time so that cramming is encouraged. Masses of data run through the mind may be unarticulated and based on memory alone instead of integrated, and installed under pressure - conditions perfect for losing it as rapidly as it was gained. A teacher described to me giving a semester's final exam to the same students a month later without notice. All suffered a drastic decline in scores and many A grades reverted to F.

8. Learning and nonlearning often are equally accepted. A D student may receive no follow-up to bring him to a B or A, so those at the low end continue to drop out. The alternative is a return loop back to more work that assures instead of merely acknowledging results.

9. Courses typically have a final exam. The word "final" tells the student that this is the last time the school will expect him or her to know the material, perhaps the last time in his or her life. Once installed, knowledge is intentionally released to the natural processes of forgetting, and for most students decays quickly into vague familiarity.

10. Much testing relies on recognition. Questions supply the knowledge and the student recognizes "correct" answers within them. Students aren't challenged to integrate the structure of a subject and fill in the details.

Due to these 10 factors, even good students may learn little. That the factors persist is both unfortunate and hard to understand. They're easy to correct and the system ostensibly wants mastery. New classroom arrangements don't make up for instructional methods that fail to generate mastery.

• John Jensen is a Juneau pyschologist and former educational consultant, who has conducted teacher-training workshops in several states.

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