Sunday, July 10, 2011

NY Times and a Lively Discussion on Ed Reform

Last month, noted educator, Diane Ravitch, had an op-ed in the NY Times called Waiting for a School Miracle.  In it she reviews how NCLB, adopted 10 years ago by Congress, mandated that all students must be passing math or reading by 2014 or their schools would be deemed failing.   It is now mid-year 2011 and the stats don't look good.

She pointed out several issues:
  • there is no 100% proficiency so how can that be done.  Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers. 
  • that the "miracle" schools are few and far between.  She also says this kind of "hyping" of test score improvements has been going on for years (and cites NYC itself).  Even at Geoffrey Canada's famed Harlem Children's Zone School, he forges a path that is not scalable at a cost of about $23k per child per year.  What district has that kind of money (wait, Connecticut spends $20k but that's an anomoly).   And, we have wide-spread cheating (and exaggeration of results, see Michelle Rhee) now being revealed throughout the country.  
Her bottom line:

If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle. 

So then regular columnist, David Brooks, wrote a rebuttal called "Smells like School Spirit."   What's interesting about his take is that he almost seems to shake his head over how hard she works for education.  He thinks she is too quick to rebut any criticism.    And, he believes all her work is in service to protecting the teachers' unions:

She has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security. 

He does make a lovely point, thought:

Most important, she is right that teaching is a humane art built upon loving relationships between teachers and students. If you orient the system exclusively around a series of multiple choice accountability assessments, you distort it. 

In sum, Ravitch highlights a core tension. Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic. 

He believes in the successful schools of innovation like KIPP or Harlem Success schools that:

In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change. They are one way of measuring change.

He goes on:

The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions. In those places, of course, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails.

But, in the end, as with most education discussion, there's a lot - in both pieces - of accusations of data and research cherry-picking.  And that is a problem because for nearly every part of education, you can find research supporting each side. 

He believe Ravitch wants to end testing and I don't think that's what I'm hearing.  She's saying that the focus has got to be on the child, not the test or the score.   He ends with some provocative statements:

Ravitch’s narrative is that America has humane local schools that are being threatened by testing wonks. The fact is that many schools have become spiritually enervated and even great teachers struggle in an inert culture. It’s the reformers who often bring the passion, using tests as a lever.
If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school. 

That's a pretty big statement and worth considering.   Are our schools in a malaise or morass of sluggish thinking so that all they can do is teach to the test?

Here's what readers had to say to her op-ed:
  • Duke University recently announced findings from a study that showed that regular public school teachers can be retrained to view and teach all students as gifted. In this “slow fix,” teachers learn to design rigorous but creative curriculum, not merely present textbook fare — a dramatic change. This nearly erases the achievement gap by the third grade regardless of family circumstances.  (I'll have to read this study but this was tried at one SPS elementary with great results and promptly shelved.)  
  • Diane Ravitch is right regarding the need for better prenatal care and parental education, but she goes too far in playing down the role of grade schools in determining outcomes for disadvantaged children. The shortcomings of our public school system are a major part of the problem, and Ms. Ravitch commits the same intellectual error that politicians make when they disregard the academic handicap created by an impoverished home life. 
Then what they had to say about Mr. Brooks' column:
  • Diane Ravitch herself (shortened) - I don’t want to get rid of testing. But tests should be used for information and diagnostics to improve teaching and learning, not to hand out bonuses, fire teachers and close schools. Poverty has a strong influence on academic achievement, and our society must both improve schools and reduce poverty. 
  • In a “failing” urban school district near me, there are dedicated teachers who make time beyond their school days to give extra help with humor and care and encouragement.  That is the “humane art” that should be our goal. But there’s no test for that.
  • I am the “education blogger” whom David Brooks mentioned in his column. I have been a longtime critic of Diane Ravitch in part because she makes disingenuous arguments by, as Mr. Brooks correctly notes, picking and choosing “what studies to cite,” but even more so because, while it’s very clear what Ms. Ravitch is against (she’s a vocal, clever and, sadly, effective critic of what we reformers are doing), I can’t for the life of me figure out she’s for.
  • We hear from David Brooks that charter schools are an overall success and from Diane Ravitch that “high quality” studies are equivocal about charter school success. Which is it? Without a definitive distillation of results that can be agreed upon, there can be no informed decision about where to go from here. 
  • Educators from John Dewey through James Comer and Diane Ravitch have repeatedly argued for a “community schools” model, offering extended day schedules, extracurricular activities, and perhaps basic clinical health care and counseling to help the families of impoverished children overcome some of the chronic deficits in their lives that hinder their achievement.  This would constitute real educational reform: school vouchers, charter schools, obsessive testing and the like are nothing more than placebos put forward by misguided reformers who shy away from the real work in front of us. 
Then the Times allows Ravitch to respond (a new feature they are trying out):

Good schools are no mystery. They have a dedicated principal, a stable staff with a mix of veterans and young teachers, and a strong curriculum that includes not only basic skills but the arts, history, civics, science, world languages, literature and physical education. And they engage parents and community leaders to support their goals. 

Most low-performing public schools enroll disproportionate numbers of children who don’t speak English, live in poverty or have disabilities. Low-income children start kindergarten a year or two behind more affluent peers. Many low-income children live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, are in ill health and are not well nourished. 

Certainly, poor children can learn and excel, but the odds are stacked against them. Every testing program — be it the SAT, the ACT, state scores or federal tests — shows a tight correlation between test scores and family income. 

This is a REALLY important discussion to have.   Where do we want education to go and how do we get there?  Is there one way?  If not, how many ways do we try based on outcomes?  Do we have money for 3 methods, 5 methods, and what will it do to schools that exist today? 

I have my own take that I've been slowly noodling in my head now for several months.  More to come.


David said...

Melissa quoted, "Most low-performing public schools enroll disproportionate numbers of children who don’t speak English, live in poverty or have disabilities. Low-income children start kindergarten a year or two behind more affluent peers. Many low-income children live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, are in ill health and are not well nourished."

The lack of a social safety net in the US is a big part of the reason US schools pay so much and get such poor outcomes compared to other developed countries. The schools have to cover social services, which is a huge burden and cost, draining resources away from education.

Seems to me that has two possible solutions: (1) Create a social safety net in the US comparable to other developed countries or (2) expect the schools to provide social services for children and increase hours and funding to compensate for that. Personally, I'd like to see the first solution, but I think Harlem Children's Zone is a good example of the second.

CT said...

Agreed. A friend who moved here from Norway has recently returned there to teach after 7 years teaching here. She could no longer stand to watch what was happening to education and did not want her daughter to go through what she was having to put her first graders through with DIBELS and other assessment crap when they needed social skills, healthy food, books, medical care, structure, and a caring adult in their lives. But here, offering that social safety net is decried by conservatives as socialism or those who need help are scorned as "welfare moms" or lambasted for draining the system. I'd be fine with offering social programs at lower income schools - i.e. eye exams and hearing exams, healthy meals, early childhood education, etc. - as long as there is significant financial support that is not dependent on local funding and also included some required education for parents along the lines of parenting classes, learning to cook healthy meals, healthy grocery shopping on a limited budget, etc. Other social issues would also need to be addressed, but probably not at the school level. Poverty is a multifaceted issue; by only addressing one part of the problem, the likelihood of any success is minimal. (Hence the reason NCLB is such a failure: besides being misguided and completely unsupported by research, it only tried to change one part of the equation - school.)

There is also an interesting article in the NY Times on the cherry-picking of students by charters.


Anonymous said...
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Cap'n Billy Keg said...

If you have access to Netflix online (or via snail mail), the documentary "The Cartel" is worth a watch - it task everyone to task when it comes to education in this country...

Cap'n Billy Keg said...

...oops...! that should read: "...it takes everyone to task..."

Anonymous said...

Do you think SPS has gone the way of ed reform because Dr. Enfield, her predecessor, the Board, and all her lieutenants truly believe in it? Or is SPS adopting the language and some of the policies (MAP, TFA, college ready graduates, school report card, etc.), but really it is just going through the motion to satisfy the fashion and the feds?

I ask because at the individual school level, while I see the emphasis on test scores, pacing, and centralized decision making re: budget, staff, programs, only the very few really believe this is helping kids learn. I think most principals and teachers know this, but have to move in the same direction as their bosses if they want to continue with their career.

10 years from now, when the pendulum swings back, there will be handwringing over "mistakes made, money wasted, and generation lost" and you'll have new faces and voices at the "leadership level". In the trenches, career administrators and teachers will just sway along to the new beat.

And you'll have new educational entrepreneurs (as long as there is still money to be made) coming in with the latest well re$earched gimmicks to teach kids.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to nuts and bolts of basic management such as capacity planning, performan review of ALL staff, filling out paperwork timely, implementing basic accounting and budgetary safeguard of public monies, the district fails. With a culture where there is attention deficit, no follow through, and little responsibility, but excess of excuses, egos, and amibitions, Melissa and Charlie will still be blogging about SPS in their sunset years (hopefully from a lovely beach somewhere).

- lost generation

Anonymous said...
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dan dempsey said...

Reposted for Anon as subject to deletion

"The wind blows from the Doctoral mill and the need for dissertation candidates to create "new ideas." Like the old Taoist metaphor says: the reed survives by bending in the wind, the sturdy tree breaks..."


Unfortunately in Education the statistical controls on the Doctoral mill research is so incredibly poor .. the output from the mill is simply Crap. -- yes definitely true for UW CoE.

Megan Mc said...

I've been thinking lately that a good way to bring middle and upper class families back to lower performing elementary and middle schools with high rates of FRL/ELL and address the issue of diverse abilities in classrooms at all schools. I am thinking of a 9-2 core day and a 2-4:30 extended day.

- have the core school day focused on an enriched curriculum with art, music, physical education, science, social studies, and field trips. The purpose of this part of the day would be content knowledge, performance, and social development.

- have an extended day program for all students but required for struggling students that is focused on academic skill development and mastery (reading, writing, math) and behavioral interventions (counseling, group social skills). Teachers could then focus on two career paths - content specialists or skill specialist.

- The district would hire reading, writing, and math specialists to do direct, individually focused work with students who desperately need intense time and attention in order to master the necessary academic skills.

- hire counselors and mental health professionals to work with kids and families who need that support.
- Transportation would be tied to the extended day program. this would help working families reduce child care expenses and families who have the means and desire to pick their child up at the end of the regular day are free to do so.

- any homework assigned could be done during the extended day portion when the kids who need help structuring their time can get it and those who need help to do it would have access to it. Parents who would rather work with their kids at home would have the option of doing that.

- content teachers would have an easier time differentiating because they could adjust the level of difficulty of the content delivery to match the students (ie read this passage on Columbus written at a 3rd grade level vs listen to the passage on tape or read this passage written at an 8th grade level). They could also differentiate at the performance level (how the kid demonstrates understanding and applies the concept learned) - ie find a picture that represents the concept vs create an experiment that demonstrates the concept or write a paper explaining it. In this model, kids would expect to be doing things differently from each other from day one so there would be less stigma about having different materials or assignment. Sure, kids will be able to identify who is doing the more complex work and who isn't but that is the reality of life - some people are neurosurgeons and others work at a counter. The goal should be to have every kid working at their highest potential so a potential neurosurgeon isn't stuck filling out worksheets and a potential retail salesman isn't failing at quantum mechanics. The wealth and education of ones family should not be a barrier to future success.

High schools should be non-grade leveled and focused on career exploration and advanced content application. Students should have individualized schedules based on interests, needs, skills, and talents. Each student should have advisor that helps the students and their families develop a learning and career path. Classes could have pre-requisite skills and because they are offered to students of any age, a student could develop the skill and then take the course the next year or semester.

Again, teachers would be split into content and skill specialists so the kids are getting the support they need and teachers are able to limit the scope of differentiation.

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