Earlier today I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition when Rachel Martin was talking to Mike Pesca (slate.com) about the Houston Astros’ decision to favor On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) over the better understood Batting Average. Perhaps OPS is a better indication of a batter’s hitting value, but it’s not the kind of thing that is easy to evaluate. It comes to us via the engine of baseball big-data and the power of analytics to tell us, with accuracy what we might have formerly only argued about in a bar.
Some people are not reacting well to OPS and an entire crop of new baseball stats. “There’s too much to learn.” “You need a computer.” “Kids can’t keep track of these things in the stands on their score cards.”
All true, but those “kids” probably have an app for OPS on their smartphone which actually is a computer. So the problem is that I can’t teach my kid about OPS unless I learn how to use the app.
I was in school during the introduction of New Math, as well as a failed attempt to modernize the study of English grammar in the mid-60s. I loved New Math; different based numbers, set theory and Boolean logic defined my happy place. I was not a fan of structural grammar, Type-1 words and other such nonsense. I didn’t enter my new school district with a strong understanding of grammar. I wasn’t that interested in grammar so I became the unfortunate by-product of a failed experiment in education.
What does New Math have to do with baseball? Nothing, but both serve to illustrate my concerns about the current thinking in education.
The school system in our town, like many across the country, is moving to Competency-Based Education. On the surface, this sounds great. Instead of slogging your way through Algebra, earning a ‘D’ and moving onto Calculus, you actually have to learn Algebra (which I think is a good thing).
In addition to knowing math and science and, oh by the way, grammar, competency-based education requires students to demonstrate an ability to solve problems, collaborate and apply what they’ve learned to different situations. I love that idea! I had one class in high school that was structured this way and it had a profound influence on my life.
I took an English class in 12th grade where we read books like “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” We weren’t given tests and we weren’t asked to write traditional book reports. Instead, we discussed the books and the teacher graded us based on those discussions. Our final project was to read “The Greening of America” and write a paper answering the question “what did this book make you think about?” The class strengthened my appreciation for reading and the teacher encouraged me to consider writing in the future.
However good Competency-Based Education might be, like OPS it will be hard to measure and unlike OPS, computers aren’t going to help. We were told recently that:
“Knowing whether or not a student is mastering a particular competency will rely heavily on student self-assessment.”
This worries me because self-awareness doesn’t seem to be strength among most high school students.
Posting a selfie on Instagram does not make one self-aware.
I think it’s a challenge for a high school student to truly be self-aware. So much of the student experience is new, with good and bad being defined by peers, that the whole concept of ‘self’ is under pressure. How does a teenager know if he or she is really understanding a subject or creatively solving a problem? How do they distinguish between “I’m not contributing” and “they don’t like me?”
I’m equally worried about the teachers’ ability to assess competency. Material prepared by our school says that:
“Competency can be demonstrated on multiple assignments, assessments, projects and presentations, etc.”
That sounds great unless a non-technical teacher mistakes “uses PowerPoint well” for “understands the subject.” I also worry that a teacher in one subject area might not recognize competency in another. The question I posed during a recent meeting was:
“Will a History teacher recognize that a paper describing the fact that a battle was lost due to an army’s inadequate supply line demonstrates competency in math if it includes an analysis of rail capacity?”
Unanswered but acknowledged as being a good question, I was concerned.
I also voiced a concern that stems from my own experience – how are the parents of these children going to help? My parents were absolutely unprepared to help me learn New Math or discuss Type-1 words. How do today’s parents prepare to assess their children’s competency?
One thing that allays some of my fear is the obvious commitment, concern and passion of the education professionals involved in this effort. Our school district hasn’t been among the high-performing districts in the state but it seems to be handling this challenge very well.
I would suggest that parents and citizens get involved. Teachers may not have real experience with collaboration techniques, but businesses are all over that subject. Volunteer some time to present a guest lecture, guide a project team or work with a group as an advisor. If you are a parent, learn as much about the concepts of Competency Based Education as you can. Also, try to screw your head on a little differently than the way it was left when you graduated from high school. If there is a committee working on this issue in your town, offer to join them. If you do join a committee, be careful not to get dragged onto 6 more.