Today in “Don’t Believe It”

More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.

Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.

Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.

First, NCTQ—a think tank entirely lacking in credibilityissued a report claiming that teacher education is lousy, basing their claims on a fumbled review of textbooks assigned and course syllabi.

Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.

See the full review here.

Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”

Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.

See this analysis of Read to Succeed, the research base on grade retention, and the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution on grade retention and high-stakes testing.

When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.

Dear Florida: Mean People Suck

Dear Florida:

I know it is impolite to use harsh language and teachers often discourage students from resorting to cliches, but I am hard-pressed to find anything better suited to my concern about education policy in Florida (and Mississippi, and South Carolina, along with another 10+ states) than reminding political leaders and the public in your state: Mean people suck.

And as disturbing as it is when adults are mean to adults, there simply is no way to justify adults being mean to children—or in the case of misguided and uninformed education policy in Florida (and Mississippi, and South Carolina), adults being mean to some children (mostly black, brown, and poor).

I take this opportunity to reach out to you, Florida, because there is a way out of this mean streak: Fewer 3rd-graders could be held back this year.

First, let me note that the avenue to a kind and equitable education system is not examining whether or not your (yet again) new high-stakes tests are valid, but recognizing that grade retention is discredited by a large body of research and grade retention is not a credible form of literacy policy.

Notably, the National Council of Teachers of English, the largest organization of English teachers in the U.S., has a clear position statement against grade retention based on high-stakes testing:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English strongly oppose legislation mandating that children, in any grade level, who do not meet criteria in reading be retained.

And be it further resolved that NCTE strongly oppose the use of high-stakes test performance in reading as the criterion for student retention.

As well, education policies such as grade retention linked to high-stakes testing disproportionately and negatively impact black, brown, and poor children.

Simply put, grade retention as a policy must be acknowledged as punishing children for the sake of punishing children.

None the less, Florida has become a flawed model for educational accountability across the U.S.

So, as a life-long educator in SC, where that model is now turning my home state into yet another place where mean people suck, I ask that Florida end grade retention and use your ill-got influence to start a new trend in education reform—one that rejects punitive education policy and chooses instead to treat all children with dignity, to provide all children an equitable opportunity to learn.

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

Hartsville, South Carolina sits just north of I-20 and north-west of I-95 about a 30-minute drive from Florence.

Geography matters in SC when discussing education because the state has a long and tarnished history of pockets of poverty and educational inequity now commonly known as the Corridor of Shame [1], a name coined in a documentary addressing that inequity as it correlates with the I-95 corridor running mostly north and south paralleling the SC coast.

The town’s schools are part of Darlington County School District that serves approximately equal numbers of white and black students, although significantly skewed by poverty as reflected in the district’s 2014 report card detailing tested students:

Darlington 2014

Hartsville is the focus of an upcoming PBS documentary co-produced by Sam Chaltain, who writes about the community:

Take Hartsville. Until recently, no one there had ever asked Thompson or her colleagues what they noticed about their child passengers on the bus, or thought to connect their observations to the behavior teachers might witness in the classroom. Moreover, while Hartsville’s teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their students’ academic standing, they were not expected to be attuned to their psychological states.

That began to change in 2011, when the community announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.

This focus on Hartsville specifically and SC more broadly is important for understanding the entire education reform movement in the U.S. for several reasons.

The standards/testing issues in SC are complex (the anti-Common Core movement in SC is mostly ill-informed and falls along libertarian lines, for example) and represent well patterns found across the country during the mostly state-based accountability era (see below).

SC was one of the first accountability states, and we have had about 5-6 sets of standards and new tests over 30-plus years (see below). Throughout those years, almost no one in political leadership has acknowledged SC being in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S.—huge pockets of poverty and affluence—is the real educational crisis.

Like New Orleans, I think, SC is a perfect model of all that is wrong with the education reform debate.

I recommend viewing the 180 Days focus on Hartsville through the complicated and often jumbled politics and education reform over the past three decades in SC, much of which I have addressed in the reader offered below, organized by major accountability issues and policies:

Value-Added Methods of Teacher Evaluation:

South Carolina Officially Vamboozled

Review [UPDATED]: “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (League of Women Voters of SC)

SC and Common Core:

South Carolina and Common Core: A Next Step?

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

Should SC Ditch Common Core?

SC, Reading Policy, and Grade Retention:

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

SC and Opt-Out:

SC Parents Warned: “no state provision…to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing”

SC, Oklahoma, and Florida:

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

SC’s Former Superintendent Zais:

SC’s Zais Mistake

SC and Accountability:

Welcome to SC: A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude

SC and Charter Schools:

Should SC Increase Charter School Investment?

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

SC and Exit Exams:

Ending Exit Exams a Start, But Not Enough

SC’s Conservative Leadership:

Conservative Leadership Poor Stewardship of Public Funds

[1] This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary support examining the film in my educational documentary May experience course.

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Public education in the U.S. suffers under a powerful intersection of politics, the media, and the public. As I have too often documented, misinformation tends to be reinforced among all three of these forces.

The role of media, as Alfie Kohn has examined, is central to perpetuating not only misleading beliefs about school quality and education reform but also bad policy.

For example, in South Carolina, The Greenville News has posted an editorial position on reading legislation that misreads what is the best path forward for addressing literacy in this high-poverty and deeply segregated state, notably:

The core part of the legislation makes common sense and is widely supported. It would make it mandatory to retain any third-grader who is not proficient in reading by the end of the school year. It is an idea that has been implemented in Florida to promising results, and it simply makes sense. Promoting a child to fourth-grade if he or she lacks the needed reading skills dooms that child to failure. Although holding back a student can have negative effects on him or her, that student certainly will do better if educators ensure he or she first knows how to read before advancing past third grade.

While we may need some proof that retention of third graders based on high-stakes test scores is in fact “common sense,” it seems true that retention is “widely supported.” The problem with those justifications is that four decades of research strongly rejects retention and close analysis of Florida’s Just Read, Florida, policies discredits claims of its “promising results” (see a full analysis with extensive evidence of the research base on both here).

A point of flawed logic also drives this editorial position: Retention and promotion are not the only options available, and are thus a false dichotomy that likely sits beneath the reality that retention is “widely supported” by the public and then political leaders (see how narrow choices create a false narrative that an issue is supported in the fourth paragraph from the end here).

Further, embedded in this misunderstanding of the research base on retention are careless claims about Florida’s education reform success as well as the current understanding of reading/ literacy instruction and development.

Florida, in fact, is a lesson in what not to do in terms of education policy (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Reading/ literacy instruction has been eroded by the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing. Literacy is misrepresented by multiple-choice testing, and teaching to those tests greatly warps good literacy instruction.

Test-reading is almost nothing like reading in the real world.

Instead of misguided reading policies reinforced by uninformed media endorsements, a few important and grounding commitments should be guiding reading policy:

  • First, do no harm. Allowing reading policy to be linked to harmful retention policies is inexcusable.
  • Relieve literacy policy from the accountability machine. Authentic, rich, and holistic literacy is eroded by focusing on isolated and skills-based instruction and testing.
  • Recognize that literacy is deeply linked to social class. Unless some powerful efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, students from poverty will remain mislabeled as “bad students” in school and then mis-served in those schools by being funneled into skill-and-drill classes serving the mandates to raise test scores.
  • Set aside the crisis discourse and policies related to literacy. Treating third grade like an Emergency Room ensures that students in most need of patient and rich learning environments will continue to be offered emergency care, and thus once again will be cheated.
  • Embrace low-cost and evidence-based practices that will guarantee literacy growth by increasing student access to books in their lives and their schools: “Perhaps the most serious problem with current literacy campaigns is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: Lack of access to books for children of poverty,” explains Stephen Krashen.

Literacy growth is a natural part of being human. Children in middle-class and affluent homes (and thus likely to be enrolled in schools and classes that reinforce rich and authentic literacy) enjoy the sort of experiences with literacy all children deserve.

Retaining third graders based on high-stakes testing will further perpetuate inequity and erode opportunities for children living in poverty to experience rich and authentic learning environments with texts that would result in the type of literacy growth associated with privileged children.

A final problem with the media’s endorsement of “common sense” and “widely supported” education policy is the recurring call for compromise (see Cindy Scoppe at The State), also expressed in The Greenville News editorial:

The important work this fall and heading into the next legislative session is for education leaders and lawmakers to get on the same page about how such an effort would be implemented. There is plenty of room for common ground on this issue….

When policy is evidence-based (as it should be), a compromise between positions that are not evidence based and positions that are evidence based results in flawed policy. In other words, compromise between wrong and right can only result in wrong.

Yes, I recognize that politics is the realm of compromise, but I also believe therein lies the great failure of politics for setting education policy.

In the end, then, much could be solved if we kept our focus on first, do no harm instead of seeking always compromise as the basis for decisions on education policy.

The Unintended Lessons from Florida: Class Grades, pt. 2

After recognizing the excellent analysis by Michael Vasquez and David Smiley of Florida’s school grades being strongly correlated with out-of-school factors associated with the students*, I have received several important related points from Vasquez about the unintended lessons coming from one of the most often cited reform states in the U.S.

First, Vasquez pointed me to Matthew DiCarlo’s What Florida’s School Grades Measure, And What They Don’t, in which DiCarlo explains:

A while back, I argued that Florida’s school grading system, due mostly to its choice of measures, does a poor job of gauging school performance per se. The short version is that the ratings are, to a degree unsurpassed by most other states’ systems, driven by absolute performance measures (how highly students score), rather than growth (whether students make progress). Since more advantaged students tend to score more highly on tests when they enter the school system, schools are largely being judged not on the quality of instruction they provide, but rather on the characteristics of the students they serve.

New results were released a couple of weeks ago. This was highly anticipated, as the state had made controversial changes to the system, most notably the inclusion of non-native English speakers and special education students, which officials claimed they did to increase standards and expectations. In a limited sense, that’s true – grades were, on average, lower this year. The problem is that the system uses the same measures as before (including a growth component that is largely redundant with proficiency). All that has changed is the students that are included in them. Thus, to whatever degree the system now reflects higher expectations, it is still for outcomes that schools mostly cannot control.

The really important aspect of DiCarlo’s analysis is that Florida’s accountability system has likely caused harmed instead of attaining the lofty goals often associated with accountability policies, as DiCarlo concludes:

In other words, there are many Florida schools with lower-performing students that are actually very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it). This particular ratings system, however, is so heavily driven by absolute performance – how highly students score, rather than how much progress they have made – that it really cannot detect much of this variation.

Closing or reconstituting these schools is misguided policy; their replacements are unlikely to do better and are very likely to do worse. Yet this is what will happen if such decisions are made based on the state’s ratings.

Florida will have to do a lot more than make tweaks to truly improve the high-stakes utility of this system. In the meantime, one can only hope that state and district officials exercise discretion in how it is applied.

Both Vasquez and Smiley’s 2013 analysis and DiCarlo’s 2012 analysis, however, are even more troubling in light of a St. Petersburg Times (Florida) March 21, 1999, article, “A lesson in grading schools,” by Kent Fischer and Geoff Dougherty:

Bush believes the grades, A through F, will make it easier for parents to compare schools and assess how they are doing. A noble goal.

But a St. Petersburg Times analysis indicates his school-grading system may be fundamentally flawed.

It takes no account of the impact poverty has on student achievement, though many studies have proven that children from wealthy families generally outscore children whose parents are poor. So Bush’s grades are more apt to reflect the relative wealth of a school’s student body rather than the competency of its teachers, the newspaper’s analysis shows.

Fourteen years ago, then, Fischer and Dougherty accurately identified the flawed Florida school grading plan, but also acknowledged the key ignored hurdle facing education, poverty:

If there’s one thing that has been firmly established by research, it is the impact social factors have on student achievement. This does not mean poor kids can’t achieve. Many do. But poor children often lead transient lives, may suffer from malnutrition and endure higher rates of abuse and neglect than other children. They also tend not to be exposed to books, music and other cultural influences that help ready young minds for school.

Research – and the Times’ analysis – shows that when large numbers of students are considered, poverty reliably predicts test scores. The Times’ analysis found that depending on which test is given, from 69 to 79 percent of the difference in test scores among schools is explained by poverty.

That seems to ignore several significant demographic factors, like single-parent homes and student mobility. But many of those factors have an extremely high correlation to poverty and thus are effectively included in the analysis.

The bottom line, according to many experts: Any grading system that fails to take poverty into account is flawed.

Ultimately, Fischer and Dougherty offered Florida parents a message still relevant today: “There’s more to a school than good test scores. When trying to gauge school quality, educators suggest parents do some investigating.”

* See below a graphic (click to open and then click again to enlarge) related to Vasquez and Smiley’s article they were unable to include in the online article:

gradeschart copy