Another Brick In The Wall

In troubled times, Idaho teachers have an ally at Boise State


Nobody ever said being a teacher was easy. But right now in Idaho, home of the Harbor Method (read: 30-plus kindergarteners in a single class), the sixth-lowest starting teachers salaries in the nation and a recent stage for the merit pay debate, it can seem especially hard. But Boise State associate professor of English education Jeffrey Wilhelm specializes in helping Idaho's teachers make the best of some bad situations--like the Idaho State Board of Education's unanimous decision to raise high school graduation requirements, beginning with the class of 2012.

"Research shows that the more kids get, the worse they do--because we teach so poorly. We need better teaching, not more," said Willhelm, author of 12 books and director of the Boise State Writing Project.

The new graduation rules require students to take a college entrance exam during their junior year, complete a senior project and take more math and science classes in high school. Current state requirements only call for students to take two years of math and two years of science to graduate. Under the Board's proposed rules, students graduating in 2012 will be required to complete three years of math and three years of science. Students graduating in 2013 will be required to complete four years of math and three years of science.

The problem, according to Wilhelm, isn't the amount of classes students are forced to take, but the way teachers teach them.

"There are over 7000 studies about this issue; so much data about how the way we now teach causes kids to mislearn. Inquiry-based learning is the only way to deepening understanding. For example, math students aren't taught to think like mathematicians; they're taught to know formulas--facts and figures--with no relation to anything. What we do with math [and other subjects] doesn't fit the correspondence principle."

Look up "correspondence principle" on Wikipedia and you'll find, "...the reduction of a new hypothesized scientific theory to another scientific theory (usually a precursor to the former) which requires that the new theory explain all the phenomena under circumstances for which the preceding theory was known to be valid (the "correspondence limit")." Lots of big words there, but what it all means is that Wilhelm believes students should be taught in a way that their knowledge is flexiblde, dynamic and able to grow with them. It's not just about test numbers, or chanting math problems along with classmates.

"We want kids to know a lot of information," says Wilhelm. "Information is not knowledge."

Wilhelm likens the difference between "information" and "knowledge" to that of a "line" (information) and a "web" (knowledge): "Information exists in one form and is inert [Examples: Pi = 3.14...; Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; Dick Van Patten was born 9 December 1928]. Knowledge is socially constructive in agreement, it's dynamic and revisable, and web-like, in that we don't know something unless we know how it connects to other things." [Example: This reporter couldn't tell you how much a Euro is worth. Hell, I couldn't even tell you what one looks like or whether it fits in my wallet, but you can be darn sure I'd learn those things if I were going to Europe, working as a banker, or trying to prop up a third-world dictatorship through nefarious money-laundering schemes, a Kazakhstanian yoga instructor named "Pepe," and Oliver North's personal rolodex.]

To re-direct how we teach students, one of the first things Wilhelm did upon coming to Boise State from the University of Maine was establish a local affiliation to the National Writing Project in 2005. He had also been the director of the Maine Writing Project, and was recently the keynote speaker at the National Writing Project's 2005 Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.

"Both the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Committee identified the National Writing Project as the most successful professional development program for teachers in the history of North America. Research shows that the only way to improve student performance is to improve professional development for teachers," Wilhelm says.

After a successful 2005 campaign, the Boise State Writing Project is expanding, offering not only its 2006 summer institute, but adding the Open Institute (July 24 to 28) which focuses on integrating writing to promote learning in the classroom, and a series of advanced institutes ("Literacy and Learning Through Inquiry" and "Expeditionary Learning With Lewis and Clark"--both beginning in May), all designed to improve the quality of instruction teachers are providing for students.

And while Wilhelm understands that the re-thinking of any approach to education can be nausea-inducing for instructors in these No Child Left Behind times, he denies that he's calling for a system-wide change. "I'm not proposing to throw out what teachers are doing. No matter what you teach, it is important," he said. "We can do the same darn stuff, but we have to change how to approach it with kids. Right now, we are turning kids off because we seek information for information's sake, instead of making it in service of something."

Currently, the "something" that Idaho education seems to be serving is that of standardized testing. Just look at he importance the State Board of Education puts on ISAT (Idaho Standards Achievement Tests).

"The Board is excited to release ISAT scores based on growth because it gives students, parents, and teachers another piece of information to improve student achievement," said Dwight Johnson, executive director for the State Board of Education. "The results show many of our students are growing academically in school. It's exciting to see the hard work being done in our classrooms evidenced in the ISAT."

"Clearly Idaho students have made significant gains. Even more important, schools and districts are using data to guide hundreds of meaningful changes in how they do their work to improve learning for each and every student," said Allan Olson, executive director of the Northwest Evaluation Association.

"Significant gains?" "Meaningful changes?" Ask any teacher how much they like the ISAT, how much pressure is on them to get students to perform well on this test, and they'll give you "The Look." You know the one. It's the one your mother gave you for shaving the cat or pounding nails into the coffee table.

Wilhelm seems to agree with that look. "High-stakes tests dumb-down curriculum," he said. "The reason we have them is because testing is the simplest, cheapest form of evaluation. The problem with the ISATs is that they aren't normed, and they don't match the State standards of curriculum." According to Wilhelm, another problem with putting so much emphasis on these high-stakes tests "is that we go for what's simplest. For every complex educational problem, there is a simple, elegant solution, and it is wrong. The reality is that testing should only be 5 percnet of a robust assessment program."

Unfortunately for the Idaho students of 2012, the State Board of Education doesn't feel that way.