Monday, March 15, 2010

A Simplistic View Of Education

To be fair: he did promise us "change we could believe in." True, some of us had no idea what that meant, but Barack Obama did promise us "change." In late February, the Providence (R.I.- but is there any other Providence?) Journal reported

the Central Falls school Board of Trustees, in a brief but intense meeting, voted 5-2 to fire every teacher at the school. In all, 93 names were read aloud in the high school auditorium — 74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals.

This began when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided to require

states, for the first time, to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools — those that have chronically poor performance and low graduation rates — and fix them using one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and “turnaround” which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.
Negotiations between the teachers' union and the Superintendent of Education eventually broke down, apparently because of a demand that teachers assume more duties- with some additional pay, but not commensurate with the increased responsibilities.

In separate statements, both Duncan and President Obama supported the radical response of the school board in what the newspaper called "Rhode Island's tiniest, poorest city."

And that is the problem which seems to have escaped the attention of Messrs. Duncan and Obama. Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has written Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. In it, he explains

The achievement gap between poor and middle-class black and white children is widely recognized as our most important educational challenge. But we prevent ourselves from solving it because of a commonplace belief that poverty and race can't "cause" low achievement and that therefore schools must be failing to teach disadvantaged children adequately. After all, we see many highly successful students from lower-class backgrounds. Their success seems to prove that social class cannot be what impedes most disadvantaged students.

Yet the success of some lower-class students proves nothing about the power of schools to close the achievement gap. In every social group, there are low achievers and high achievers alike. On average, the achievement of low-income students is below the average achievement of middle-class students, but there are always some middle-class students who achieve below typical low-income levels. Similarly, some low-income students achieve above typical middle-class levels. Demography is not destiny, but students' family characteristics are a powerful influence on their relative average achievement.

Widely repeated accounts of schools that somehow elicit consistently high achievement from lower-class children almost always turn out, upon examination, to be flawed. In some cases, these "schools that beat the odds" are highly selective, enrolling only the most able or most motivated lower-class children. In other cases, they are not truly lower-class schools—for example, a school enrolling children who qualify for subsidized lunches because their parents are graduate students living on low stipends. In other cases, such schools define high achievement at such a low level that all students can reach it, despite big gaps that remain at more meaningful levels.
According to Sara Mosle, who has reviewed Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of The Great American School System for Slate, President Obama's Race to the Top fund rests on the assumption that data, gleaned from testing, can pinpoint schools that are failing and prescribe a remedy. He

wants to tie individual students' scores to individual teachers, so achievement can be monitored not only school by school but also classroom by classroom, and then teachers can be fired or given raises accordingly.

The fallacy behind standardized testing of students- including, but not limited to the practice of "teaching to the test"- has been well described and documented. Beyond that, however, Ravitch (a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution before she saw the light), notes

No school or school district or state anywhere in the nation had ever proved the theory correct. Nowhere was there a real-life demonstration in which a district had identified a top quintile of teachers, assigned low-performing students to their classes, and improved the test-scores of low-performing students so dramatically in three, four or five years that the black-white test score gap closed.
The idea that schools can be improved by simply identifying bad teachers and replacing them has been one of the underling rationales for the charter school movement. However, Mosle reports that Ravitch found a

study by two Stanford economists, financed by the Walton Family and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations (staunch charter supporters), involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors concluded that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.

Ravitch concluded that no one has found the "silver bullet" which would significantly improve student performance across the nation. She argues, rightly, for "humility" in determining causes and solutions and concludes

The only guaranteed strategy [for improving schools] is to change the student population, replacing low-performing students with higher-performing students.

Notwithstanding the wealth of factors imperiling the American school system, Ravitch here appears to have fingered one routinely overlooked: the students. It's understandable that few on the left or the right (and President Obama routinely is on both simultaneously) even consider the individual when assessing the woes of public education. The right, as expected, wants to run down teachers (government employees) and their union and much of the left is wary that acknowledging that students in disadvantaged districts (such as Central Falls, R.I.) are underperforming compared to students elsewhere invites (unjustified) racial explanations.

While blaming teachers and basing evaluation of their performance on test scores is easy and comforting, President Obama could invoke one of his famous "teaching moments" and explain the cold, hard facts to the country. Unfortunately, he lacks either the understanding or the fortitude to do so.

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