Thoughts on education reform | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thoughts on education reform

Posted By on Thu, Sep 30, 2010 at 8:46 AM

A couple of good articles on education "reform":

* Diane Ravitch, herself a former reformer, has nothing but contempt for those who think you can take student standardized test scores as a precise measure of teacher achievement. Moved by news of the suicide of a highly respected Los Angeles school teacher who was upset over the Los Angeles Times' teacher rating project that showed him deficient in serving disadvantaged students, she wrote for the Daily Beast:

Tests that assess what students have learned are not intended to be, nor are they, measures of teacher quality. It is easier for teachers to get higher test scores if they teach advantaged students. If they teach children who are poor or children who are English language learners, or homeless children, or children with disabilities, they will not get big score gains. So, the result of this approach—judging teachers by the score gains of their students—will incentivize teachers to avoid students with the greatest needs. This is just plain stupid as a matter of policy.

... People who know nothing about education and whose ideas have no basis in research or practice are calling the shots. Left to their own devices, they will destroy public education. They have already demoralized our nation's teachers. Eventually, their bad ideas will fail, because they are wrong.

* Nicholas Lemann makes a similar point, though more broadly and quietly, in an opinion essay in The New Yorker. Education, both in grade schools and college, have come a long way, though you wouldn't think it from the overblown hand-wringing, he says. Universal public education, he writes, "embodies a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people that the Founders simply didn’t have."

It is also, like democracy itself, loose, shaggy, and inefficient, full of redundancies and conflicting goals. It serves many constituencies and interest groups, each of which, in the manner of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, sees its purpose differently. But, by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families, the system—which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and decentralized—is, as a whole, succeeding. Enrollment in charter schools is growing rapidly, but so is enrollment in old-fashioned public schools, and enrollments are rising at all levels. Those who complete a higher education still do better economically. Measures of how much American students are learning—compared to the past, and compared to students in other countries—are holding steady, for the most part, even as more people are going to school.

So it’s odd that a narrative of crisis, of a systemic failure, in American education is currently so persuasive. ...

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption.

In Arkansas, the discount store fortune heir, the newspaper fortune heir, the brokerage house heir and the petrochemical fortune heir who are driving the message that public schools have failed, unions are to blame (though they have organized less than a single handful of school districts in Arkansas) and charter schools are the answer know that Lemann is wrong to be slightly skeptical of their simple hypothesis. How do they know? They just know. Money confers that kind of insight and certainty.

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