Imagine 2013

I am no John Lennon, but I think it is appropriate to imagine an education system and an education reform movement that create teaching and learning experiences for all students based on evidence and the experiences and expertise of educators, scholars, and researchers.

So let’s imagine that system, and consider just a few possibilities.

First, what about gathering student feedback on teachers or attempting to evaluate teachers based on pre- and post- test data within a high-stakes accountability environment? Kornell explains about some recent research:

The authors speculate that the more experienced professors tend to “broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material.” (p. 430) That is, because they don’t teach directly to the test, they do worse in the short run but better in the long run.

To summarize the findings: because they didn’t teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance. To me, these results were staggering, and I don’t say that lightly.

Next, let’s imagine a reform movement not built on false claims of standards-driven reform for international competitiveness. As Mathis explains:

Standards advocates argue that common standards are necessary for keeping the nation competitive in a global economy. But this brief points out that research does not support this oft-expressed rationale. No studies support a true causal relationship between national standards and economic competitiveness, and at the most superficial level we know that nations with centralized standards generally tend to perform no better (or worse) on international tests than those without. Further, research shows that national economic competitiveness is influenced far more by economic decisions than by test scores.

Let’s imagine reform that seeks to address equity in the lives and schooling of all children, as Holzman clarifies:

Most people, particularly most African-Americans, are familiar with this situation. The question is, then, what is to be done to end disproportionate black poverty?

The common response to the question is a resort to the American doctrine of individual responsibility. Issues of culture, community and psychology are, no doubt, important contributors to differing levels of achievement in education as well as to the disparities in incarceration rates. We are told that young black men should pull up their socks (and their trousers) and simply do better in school and act better in the community. Examples of “beating the odds” and “resiliency” are featured by the media, foundations, community groups and inspirational speakers. These responses are ways of blaming the victims of racism and each in their own manner is a way of maintaining the system of racism. On the other hand, institutional policy decisions are clearly causal, definable and quantifiable and, possibly, given the public will, amenable to change.

The goal, after all, is not for individuals to beat the odds. The goal is to change the odds, or, rather, to change the game.

And let’s imagine a culture of compassion and opportunity, not a “no excuses” mantra that calls for more and tougher, recognizing the harsh realities discovered by Aguero and Beleche:

Estimating the impact of changing school inputs on student performance is often difficult because these inputs are endogenously determined. We investigate a quasi-experiment that altered the number of instructional days prior to a nationwide test in Mexico. Our exogenous source of variation comes from across states and over time changes in the date when the school year started and the date when the test was administered. We find that having more days of instruction prior to examination slightly improves student performance but exhibits diminishing marginal returns. The effects vary along the distribution of resources as determined by a poverty index, with lower improvements in poorer schools. These findings imply a weaker net benefit of policies expanding the length of the school year as they could widen the achievement gap by socioeconomic status.

Is it too much to imagine a reform strategy that doesn’t trap us in a false dichotomy of doing nothing versus doing the wrong thing—such as the false choice of punitive retention of 3rd graders versus just passing them along?:

SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading policy or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the “Florida Miracle” has been thoroughly discredited, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention has no positive outcomes but many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.

And finally let’s imagine a public that comes to respect the experience and expertise of educators, life-long public servants, and recognizes the dishonesty and self-serving motives of Rhee, Kopp, Gates, Duncan, et al., who collectively have neither expertise or experience—but most stunning of all, their claims and reform agendas lack evidence, as Camins carefully details:

There are two pillars of Department of Education policy:  increased numbers of charter schools and consequential use of standards-based assessment for promotion and employment decisions. Rather than citing evidence of causal connections to substantive changes in educational inequity, supporters claim state and local adoption of these reforms as progress and accuse critics of defending the status quo.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has declared many times that he believes in using data. I do too. Several features of that status quo are unarguable. Evidence suggests two conditions that contribute to lower average levels of achievement of poor and lower-middle class students.  First, on average the conditions of their lives mean that compared to their more well off peers, they enter and continue through school with fewer supports for learning and greater stress that impedes learning.  Parents’ socioeconomic status and educational attainment level — in other words poverty — explain a very substantial portion of the variation in students’ level of achievement and predicts future employment and income. Second, teacher experience and expertise are not equally distributed across schools.

I will argue that the pillars of current education reform are more likely to preserve rather than change the status quo. Further, there are alternative policies that are more likely to mediate educational inequity, creating real rather than illusory movement. None of the pillars of reform will address either of these conditions at scale.  Instead, they merely give some students a competitive advantage.   Even if reforms redistribute these benefits or slightly alter the size of the advantaged group, they are still essentially maintaining the status quo, creating the illusion of movement, without fundamental change.

“You, you may say/ I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”


2 thoughts on “Imagine 2013

  1. Paul,

    This is terrific – thank you for writing it! I don’t know if you’re familiar with this video, but Uri Treisman gave a magnificent speech at April’s NCTM meeting on equity, standards, and mathematics education. Readers of this blog might find it very interesting, especially in light of many of the points brought up in this post:


  2. Pingback: Saving DC Schools with Catastrophe Innovation! – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

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