Improving Education: Getting to the Real Problems

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Today the Seattle Times ran a big editorial sharply criticizing State legislators who failed to support charter schools and teacher assessment efforts.   The Times is mistaken and in this blog I will tell you why.

The Seattle Times, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and their allies, including the Alliance for Education and the League of Education Voters, have an agenda to "reform" education through a misguided approach based on unproven fads, trendy ideas, and free market concepts.  An agenda that will undermine meaningful improvements in K-12 education by preventing us from dealing with the real problems.  The sad thing is that these folks mean well, but are harming the very educational progress they long for.

The essential idea of the "education reform" movement is a free-market, competitive model of education, and one with a deep distrust of teachers and unions.  Teachers need to be continuously assessed, so that bad teachers are removed, middling teachers are improved, and good teachers are rewarded.  Independent charter schools are the darlings of this movement, since they are allowed to escape normal "bureaucratic" rules, can try experimental approaches, and often do not have to deal with a unionized teacher corps.  Ed reformers also push the "Teach for America" program where university graduates, often from elite schools, are thrown into the classroom after five weeks of training.  The trouble with all of these approaches is that there is absolutely no proof that they work or are applicable to the huge problems before us.

Take charter schools.  Objective evidence shows that charters are NOT superior to public schools.  For example, the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) completed a study that showed that 17% of charter schools outperformed the traditional public schools. But 46% performed about the same as the traditional public schools, and 37% performed worse.  And charter schools are generally far more costly than public schools and often select the most motivated students, while rejecting the most difficult youth.  Bottom line:  charters offer little for solving the State's or national educational problems.

Teacher assessment is also problematic.  The "education reform" movement believes that more teacher assessment is critically needed to improve the teacher corps.  That is, advancement or even keeping their jobs will be dependent on their students showing significant improvement on assessment exams. The underlying assumption is that there are a number of bad teachers that need to be pushed out of the field, and a lot of underperforming teachers that need some carrots and sticks to insure better performance. As in any field, there are certain to be a few problem performers, but I can find no evidence that this is a major problem.  I am acquainted with quite a few teachers and they are some of the most altruistic, hardworking people I know.  Individuals that work very long hours, often use their own money for supplies, and do their best with the students and resources they are given.

If there is one fact that it is clear, from a number of studies, it is that the background of  students (family education,  family income, cultural/ethnic group, etc) is that most significant indicator of student success.  Students from advantaged backgrounds have high scores on assessments and show rapid improvement in skills, while students with challenging backgrounds often have problems.  I know this is not politically correct, but folks it is the truth, and it bears heavily on the viability of assessment (e.g.., teachers assigned to students from a problematic demographic may be penalized if their students don't improve sufficiently).
But problems with assessment don't end there.  Many assessment measures are flawed (remember the WASL?), poorly written, and don't properly measure key skills.  Furthermore, most assessments (MAP, NAEP, etc.)  are narrow (e.g., reading skills, math) and don't examine other important topic areas (e.g., history).   Thus, a fixation on assessment leads to narrow curricula and teaching since teachers will obviously teach to the test if their livelihoods depend upon.  A viral video is going around now showing poor geography, politics, and history knowledge in one of the State's strongest high schools-- shows you what happens as we stress fewer topics in our schools:

Teach for America is another hot approach of education reform advocates.  The whole premise of this program is flawed--that there is a need for scantily trained (five weeks!) college graduates from elite colleges to be thrown into our most difficult schools.  The truth is that are plenty of education-school graduates and other with extensive educational backgrounds clambering for teaching positions in our urban schools. Professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig (Univ. of Texas, Austin) and Su Jin Jez (Cal State, Sacramento), in a comprehensive research study, found that TFA teachers perform significantly less well than those of credentialed beginning teachers. TFA doesn't work, nearly all of the temporary teachers leave after two years, and our kids are guinea pigs for enthusiastic, but untrained instructors.  Really bad idea, with folks like Susan Enfield and her predecessor being enthusiastic supporters.

All of the above half-baked reform ed ideas are based on a flawed premise.  That the current education system is basically ok, and that the lack of inspired or skilled teachers is preventing adequate student performance.  Often "teacher's unions" are singled out as major villains. The truth is otherwise:  there are major and systematic deficits in the organization of the educational enterprise that must be fixed (more on that later).

The Seattle Times editorial page and Crosscut opinion pieces frequently repeat education reform ideas and attack those with different viewpoints. And when the public or our elected representatives don't follow the ed reform party line, the response is often vicious.  For example, today, the ST came out swinging at our representatives who dared to stop charter schools and mindless assessment.   When Seattle voters threw out two school board members on the "reform ed" bandwagon, the ST, Crosscut, as well as "ed reform" sponsored groups went wild, criticizing voters and blaming the new school board members for the loss of their beloved School Superintendent Susan Enfield  (an individual who not only supports "reform ed" but tried to remove an independent principal at Ingraham HS, and has maintained a terrible math curriculum in city schools.).  The ST began running several editorials about school board "micromanagement" as soon as the new school board members were elected and strongly supports an effort by long-time school board member Michael DeBell to greatly lessen the powers of the Seattle School Board.   And take a look at who provided a large proportion of the support for incumbent, "ed reform" school board candidates in Seattle:  rich folks from the eastside.  It's kind of scary.

Ed reform folks spend most of their time worrying about issues that are side shows.  Even if they got everything they wanted, we would still be in trouble. So what is really wrong with education and how do we fix it?  I will spend an entire blog on this, but some elements are:

1.  We need clear curricula that describe what students need to know when they graduate high school.  And such curricula should not be the product of ed school Ph.Ds, but disciplinary college/university experts and future employers, among others, with strong involvement by parents and other critically interested parties.  Discovery math curricula is an example of ed-school driven material that is undermining our kids education.

2.  We must insure teachers know the material they are fact, they need to know it at a far deeper level than they are teaching.

3.   Ed Schools spend too much time talking about social change and too little on disciplinary knowledge and instruction on best teaching methods.  This has to change.

4.   Education research is a national embarrassment, with most "research" not meeting minimal standards for scientific research (the National Research Council said this, not me).  Randomized research should guide the development and selection of the best curriculum and teaching does not now.  Education has to move away from unproven fads and use robust, rigorous research to guide teaching approaching and curriculum choices.

5.  The implications of student demographics needs to be accepted and dealt with.  One approach is to give high priority to early education (2-5 years).  You can't wait until kindergarten to deal with impoverished learning is to late for many students.

6.  Students should not move to the next grade unless they prove they have the requisite skills.  And grade inflation has made report cards nearly meaningless measures of performance.  

An Example of Anti-Voter Comments by People Who Think They Know Better

From the League of Education Voters Online Newsletter Right After the Election

"We are but a weekend away from the silly season – Seattle voters got a jump start on silly, ... Seattle voters may have turned the school board inside out last week. ...While some think this is just great news, many of us believe otherwise. Two other incumbents were retained, which is good news, but with significant decisions on the horizon – like hiring a permanent Superintendent ... – losing these two couldn’t be more ill-timed"

Seattle Times Editorial

"Now we enter 2012 and Enfield has her feet pointed toward an exit. Knowledgeable speculation is that her departure was spurred by division on the board about her leadership goals and plans. If true, it is no small thing. Students of district history know how quickly school boards in Seattle can go from smart oversight to unhelpful meddling."
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