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4 Bad Education Metaphors We Need to Stop Using

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April 29, 2014 03:26 pm


Education is full of metaphors. Some are good: the principal as conductor of an orchestra. Some are overused: Learning as a light bulb, or a book symbolizing knowledge. But some are just wrong, and yet they are repeated again and again. Here are four bad education metaphors that we need to stop using.

1. Thinking you can fix schools with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height

Education metaphor via pbs
Nobody actually thinks that you can “fix schools” with tests.

Is “growing taller” a good analogy?  According to Scientific American, 60 to 80 percent of human height is genetic and 20 to 40 percent is due to environmental effects, mostly nutrition. No surprises there. And, we know that socioeconomic status and things the number of words a child has by age five have huge impacts on learning.

But this bad metaphor is not about children’s learning. It’s about schools. How do schools get better? In the report Turning Around Low-Performing Schools, the Practice Guide from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research clearly points to four main recommendations:

  • Signal the need for change with strong leadership
  • Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction
  • Provide visible improvements early on – i.e, “quick wins,”
  • Build a committed staff.

When it comes to that instructional focus, the report describes, all the schools in the case studies used to generate the recommendations used data to set instructional goals. That data comes from – you guessed it – tests.

Standardized tests raise a lot of objections, but good tests are a valuable tool for improving teaching and learning. It’s downright dangerous to imply that all tests are bad. It’s even more dangerous to imply that tests are a distraction from the real goal. Assessments are a critical part of school improvement, which is why we should all care about having good ones.

2. We should train our teachers like we train our doctors

Train teachers like doctors metaphor via Ken Whytock on Flickr
Should education learn from medical schools about training? Doctors do their training in the field, working in hospitals, seeing patients. Doctors are expected to stay up to date on the latest research and treatments. Under this analogy, teachers should get training in classrooms and be pushed to stay up to date on the latest innovations and research. And, taking the analogy a bit further, doctors are highly respected; elevate teacher training and teaching will see an increase in stature, as well.

The problem? Medical residents are also expected to make life-or-death decisions after being awake for 36 hours. Until 2003, medical residents could legally work up to 168 hours a week. Studies found that the level of sleep deprivation experienced by many residents was equivalent to drunk driving, with significant impacts on cognitive performance.

And medicine suffers from the same challenges of geography as education. There can be huge variations in the numbers of patients who get the most recommended, up-to-date treatments both within and across regions. So, even with all that training, the result is not necessarily more equitable distribution of skilled practitioners.

There is one area where there has been some parallel success: the board certification process. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a great model that is shown to improve student outcomes; unlike medicine, though, it’s far from being universally required.

3. Raising academic standards is like expecting everyone to make a high jump or run a 4-minute mile

Track meet via Jim the Photographer on Flickr
When the No Child Left Behind Act was created, there was a lot of angst about the goal of 100 percent proficiency. “That’s like expecting every kid to run a 4 minute mile,” I heard people say. But no coach is ever given marching orders to include all students on the varsity track team. Only students who are actually interested tend to try out for things like track and field, or speed skating, or swim team. Schools have the mission of educating all young people.

High standards are absolutely critical to our growth and progress as a nation. We can no longer afford to leave a third of our population behind with a substandard education. The track team, however, doesn’t suffer if half, or even 90 percent of its members, can’t reach some goal.

But we are seeing that it is possible to get all students achieving at high levels. It might not be possible to get all students to a certain level of proficiency in 180 days. But more students who are behind are getting help thanks to better instructional strategies. More at-risk students are making up lost time through credit recovery programs, for example. More disengaged students are re-engaging as a result of project-based learning that is relevant and connected to students’ interests.

And most importantly, the world does not need everyone to be able to run a 4 minute mile. But we do need every young person to have the knowledge and skills to be successful in a rapidly changing world – and we can’t get there without setting that bar.

4. The business analogy

Handshake via Nomadic Lass on Flickr
Schools should be run like a business. Parents as customers. Superintendents as CEOs. Students as raw materials. Vouchers as a way to competition. There’s no shortage of examples of business analogies applied to education. I’m a sucker for economics, so to me it’s obvious that education is a public good with significant externalities. But not everyone thinks that way. But like our bad sports analogy, what makes education unique, and rightfully so, is the “all children” factor.

Factories have control over their inputs. A steel company sets standards for the iron ore it uses. A candy company specifies what kind of cacao beans it will accept. And they have control over outputs – inferior products are sorted and tossed aside. But schools accept every student who walks through the front doors, no matter where they’ve been, and they are held responsible for ensuring that all of those students graduate ready for college and career.

Schools are also accountable to the community in ways that companies are not. Local control of education predates our nation’s very existence. From local school board elections, to public school board meetings, to state legislatures and statewide elected officials, from PTA meetings and local citizens’ groups, there are countless ways that parents and the public can be involved in and hold leaders accountable for schooling. Not that all of these are easy, or fully utilized, but they are built into the very fiber of education policymaking.

Can we learn from practices that have worked in other fields? Certainly. Many schools have benefited from ISO 9001 quality assurance standards. Jim Collins’ book “Good To Great” has inspired many a principal and superintendent. But for any of those lessons to be effective, they must be applied thoughtfully and with an eye to the unique characteristics of education.

What other analogies or metaphors have you grown tired of hearing? Share them with us!

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is the senior digital outreach associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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