Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reign of Error

For two-thirds of her book Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch lays out what's wrong with constant student testing, evaluating teachers based on those tests, and privatization of and profit-making from schools. Great stuff, of course, but the part I like the best is the last third, which tells us what we should be doing in schools.

The gist of the solutions is this:
Poor and immigrant children need the same sorts of schools that wealthy children have, only more so. Those who start life with the fewest advantages need even smaller classes, even more art, science, and music to engage them, to spark their creativity and to fulfill their potential. (page 8)
More on the solutions later. First, some great nuggets from "the problem" chapters:
[On the NAEP tests] black student achievement was higher in 2009 than white student achievement in 1990. In addition, over this past generation there has been a remarkable decline in the proportion of African American and Hispanic students who register as "below basic," the lowest possible academic rating on the NAEP tests. If white achievement had stood still, the achievement gap would be closed by now... (page 56)
[Education department analyst Keith] Baker looked at per capita gross domestic product of the nation's whose students competed [on international achievement tests] in 1964. He found that "the higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth--the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen." The rate of economic growth improved, he held as test scores dropped. There was no relationship between a nation's productivity and its test scores. Nor did high test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or livability, and the lower-scoring nations in the assessment were more successful at achieving democracy than those with higher scores. (page 71)
High school dropout rates have declined strongly, though you wouldn't know it from any of the regular media. For people between school age and 24, the percent without a diploma in 1972 vs 2009 were:

Whites — 12 percent, decreasing to 5 percent
Blacks — 21 percent, decreasing to 9 percent
Latinos — 34 percent, decreasing to 18 percent*

From the chapter on teachers and test scores:
Certainly, there are many people whose lives were changed by one teacher, but their stories typically describe teachers who were unusually inspiring,  not "the teacher who raised my test scores to the top." Teachers do have the power to change lives. But after more than a decade of No Child Left Behind, researchers are still searching for a nonselective school or a district where every student, regardless of his or her starting point, has achieved proficiency on state tests because that school or district has only effective teachers. (page 103)
On the results of Teach for America:
Careful reviews of research have concluded that TFA corps members get about the same test score results as other new and uncertified teachers. Some studies show that TFA teachers get small but significant gains in math but not in reading. One of the most positive studies found that the students taught by TFA teachers increased their math scores from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile, which was significant but very far from closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their high-income peers.

...When compared to beginning teachers who were credentialed... "the students of novice TFA teachers performed signficantly less well in reading and mathematics." (pages 137-138)
If they continue as teachers, TFAers can close their own achievement gap, but 50 percent leave after two years, and 80 percent after three years, and that turnover, of course, has its own cost to the schools.
The claims made by Teach for America distract the nation from the hard work of truly reforming the education profession. Instead of building a profession that attracts well-qualified candidates to make a career of working in the nation's classrooms, our leaders are pouring large sums of money into a richly endowed organization that supplies temporary teachers. (page 143)
Anyone who thinks charter schools, and particularly for-profit charters, are a good idea should read Reign of Error's chapter 16. It's a nightmare of facts about corporate influence, pushing costs down by limiting instruction, and weaseling around regulation. Not to mention political influence peddling.

That's enough of the problem. Ravitch provides a detailed outline of the solution, summarized and somewhat oversimplified as follows:
  1. Prenatal care and high-quality early childhood education that is child-centered and not test driven.
  2. Balanced curricula with arts, physical education, science, and history—not just math and reading.
  3. Class sizes comparable to those in elite private schools.
  4. Charter schools on a completely even playing field— not allowed to cherry-pick their students. No for-profit charters. And locally controlled only.
  5. Wraparound services to compensate as much as possible for the effects of poverty. (Since that is the real problem, as shown by U.S. students' international test scores when schools are matched by the percent of students living in poverty.)
  6. Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and use tests as they should be used: to assess individual students' weaknesses in order to provide appropriate instruction.
  7. Strengthen the professionalism of teachers, as in the Finnish example.
  8. Protect local control of schools through local school boards, including fighting the influence of external money in these elections.
  9. Implement national, regional, and local policies to end housing segregation and eliminate poverty.
As she says, "Are all of these changes expensive? Yes, but not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent" (page 299).

Education is a public good. It’s part of the commons that make for a civil society. We need to start acting like that’s what we believe.

* These stats mirror a story from today's Star Tribune about Minnesota's graduation rates: Dramatic gains push grad rate to 10-year high. In the last 10 years, the overall percentage of students graduating on time has increased from 72.5 to 79.5, with the largest gains among students of color (from 33.4 to 58.3 for Latinos, from 36.4 to 57 for African and African-Americans, from 37.9 to 48.7 for American Indians, and from 63.6 to 77.7 for Asian-Americans).

Note that those are students graduating on time -- not at age 20, or getting a GED. Ravitch's numbers include everyone who has a high school diploma by age 24, no matter which path they followed to get it. Since Minnesota's on-time graduation rate is several points higher than the national average, it may be that our 24-year-old diploma rate is also better than the numbers Ravitch cites for the country as a whole.

No comments: