Showing posts with label No Child Left Behind. Show all posts
Showing posts with label No Child Left Behind. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Libya is to Iraq as Firing Teachers is to Tutoring

Recently, Arne Duncan went public with the administration’s intentions regarding No Child Left Behind. He evidently wants to fix that law in the worst way, and that might turn out to be exactly how he does it.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama expressed concerns that the law had too many sticks and not enough carrots. The Bush law punished schools for not meeting goals, but Obama wondered why there weren’t rewards for those who did succeed (NEA members booed the idea since it linked teacher pay to student test scores — which didn’t discourage the NEA from generously bankrolling his campaign).

It is fascinating how upset the educational left was about the onerous “punishments” required by NCLB. For example, if a school failed to meet standards for any of its subgroups, it would have to use some Title I money to pay for afterschool tutoring. Think of it: having to provide additional teaching to kids who aren’t learning enough -- not exactly matchsticks under the fingernails.

The Obama administration claimed it would be less punitive (none of this forced tutoring for them). So what would Obama/Duncan replace tutoring with? Well, they want to turn failing schools over to charter operators (though research shows charters are doing no better than the public schools), they want to close those schools (a reform that was not particularly successful in Chicago), they want to fire half the teachers from the school, and, (thank goodness, something that actually could work) they would require schools to adopt a new instructional program, extend learning time (that nasty tutoring again?), and more professional development for the teachers.

Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I never saw tutoring as being a punishment (extra teaching is positive as far as I’m concerned; I never could understand why it was punishing to require schools to provide extra teaching for needy kids). And, I feel the same way about enhancing the curriculum, updating teacher knowledge and skills, and increasing teaching time (nothing negative about any of those reforms, they are all potentially good for kids). But if tutoring was cruel and unusual punishment, firing teachers, closing schools, and turning public schools over to charter operators seem like the nuclear option.

I’ve written before in this space that motivation, negative or positive, can be very effective in changing people’s behavior when they know how to change that behavior. Most teachers and principals still aren’t that sure what to do to improve children’s literacy, so punishing or rewarding teachers is not likely to change anything that matters. Which is why analyses of high stakes testing find either very tiny positive effects or no effects at all… why invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a motivational effort that has never worked?

By all means, require schools to use their federal money to invest in professional development for teachers, to purchase research-proven and research-based programs, to upgrade their curriculum, to provide extra teaching time for students, and in any other variables that have been shown to have positive, and often large, impacts on students’ learning. Maybe someday we’ll be in a position where firing teachers and closing schools really would be an effective motivator, but until then, let’s bet on enhanced teaching as the only sure way to increase learning.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Politics and the Improvement of Reading Education

I hate it when someone who doesn’t know much about research says, “You can prove anything with statistics.” I hate it because it’s true, you really can lie with statistics. If you want to. Research is not replete with examples of intentionally misleading statistics, however. Researchers sometimes “fool themselves” by not looking hard enough at their data to uncover inconsistencies and mistakes (a problem at least partially addressed by peer review).

However, pundits are under no such obligation. When they use statistics it can be pretty biased (maybe intentionally so). I just came across a fascinating example. Richard Rothstein (formerly a NY Times columnist, now a Research Associate with the Economic Policy Institute) published a piece that I’ll link at the end of this blog). In it, he challenges Bill Gates’s contention that NAEP scores have been relatively flat for 40 years. Rothstein claims that, in fact, kids are doing much better according to NAEP, when you break out the scores by race.

It is an interesting disagreement because if you look at the overall NAEP scores they are flat, and if you look at the scores by race there are gains in reading and math. I went back and examined the data he used for these claims and found they clearly supported his current position… but not his past positions.

For example, previously he had savaged President George W. Bush’s education policies, calling them “incoherent, unworkable, and doomed.” He went on to write, “Even with inordinate attention to math and reading, it is practically and conceptually ludicrous to expect all students to be proficient at challenging levels.” I took a look at the gains that Rothstein touted for African-American’s and found big boosts in reading performance during the years of the “unworkable” and “doomed” policy that Rothstein reviled. So is Rothstein some kind of a racist? Why else would he oppose policies that he now claims helped African-Americans do so much better? Rothstein is clearly NOT a racist as demonstrated by his long history of sensitive and thoughtful writing on racial issues.

Of course, Rothstein has written in the past about the dangers of making decisions on the basis of racial or ethnic slices of data due to their inherent, relative unreliability (the total sample will always provide a more stable accounting than will portions of the total sample). And, yet, here is Rothstein, on the basis of such slices of data, now claiming kids made great learning gains under NCLB.

To me, this has the appearance of someone espousing a policy while grasping to find supportive data, even if those data happen to be out of sync with his past arguments. His latest statistical display fails to account for the demographic shifts in the American populace; the small but steady rise in African-Americans as a percentage of the total, and the much larger decline in the white population percentage during the same period (this decline largely due to the Latino and Asian immigrations). What this means is, that while various subgroups may be improving due to the diligence of our schools (and apparently to the no-good policies that support them), the numbers are such that our schools still need to do better.

I’ve written here many times that the schools are not doing a bad job (in fact, U.S. schools are performing as well as they have at any time in our long history — that’s what flat achievement means). But having 1970 literacy levels in 2011 is still a bad deal for the kids because of the shifting economy (something else that Rothstein disagrees with). He and I are sympatico with the idea that we shouldn’t be kicking teachers in the pants (the statistics don't support that), but we do have to find ways to get them to do an even better job than in the past.

Mr. Rothstein should decide whether improvements in educational outcomes for racial groups are a sufficient national goal, in which case NCLB looks like a winner (and Rothstein ought to admit it), or whether we actually seek better educational outcomes for a larger proportion of our total population (in which case, Bill Gates and Secretary Duncan are onto something). What we shouldn’t do is use the total NAEP scores to attack Bush, and the subgroup scores to attack Gates—that looks like bias, rather than a real attempt to solve a very real problem.

Rothstein is correct that accountability approaches won’t improve achievement, and he has been right to criticize the Bushies and Obamaites for too much reliance on such testing (both ways of looking at NAEP gains would lead you to that conclusion). However, he has not been discerning enough to support the wisdom of the big investments in professional development and curriculum support under NCLB (portions of the law that have now lapsed), nor the current efforts to build a common core curriculum or to make teacher education more data-based (both of which can bear fruit).