Saturday, May 8, 2010

Steve Poizner Learns from Teaching in a San Jose High School

In the May 9 San Jose Mercury News, I review Steve Poizner's new book "Mount Pleasant: My Journey From Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School."

Some critics have slammed Poizner for not portraying every student as eager and academically prepared. On the contrary, I find that this candidness is a strength of the book:

One personal insight that Poizner comes to is how difficult it can be to boost student achievement. He arrives at Mount Pleasant High School somewhat romantic about what one teacher can accomplish for children who have been in weak schools for years.

He never lets go of the goal of bringing out his students' full potential, but comes to recognize that many of them are missing the academic "background knowledge" and scholastic aspirations that many students have in upper-middle-class schools. He courageously faces these politically incorrect facts and the extra work they necessitate, without ever giving up in the least on his students.

Some of the critics have focussed on whether San Jose's Mount Pleasant High School was rough or whether the surrounding neighborhood was rough:

Even though this school and surrounding neighborhood seemed rather rough and dangerous to Poizner, fact, the neighborhood is average for San Jose and that, while there are third-generation gangs in the neighborhood and "gang-intervention specialists" at Mount Pleasant High School, the number of fights among students is not dramatically high.

While making points such as these, radio journalist Ira Glass, a major critic of Poizner's book, acknowledges that "some things about the school could clearly be better," when it comes to academics. Glass notes: "The school doesn't hit its goals in statewide testing." It is in the bottom 40 percent of California schools.

The book is primarily about Poizner's personal experience as a teacher, but it contains policy suggestions as well:

Poizner finds the public schools a bureaucratic morass, with too many details dictated from the state Capitol. This red tape constrains principals and teachers, the educators who could be making teaching and learning happen.

Poizner's solution is to empower educators by cutting Education Code red tape and reforming school finance so that decisions about money are made close to the classroom. At the same time, he wants incentives that will encourage educators to put student learning first....

He likes charter schools because they ­ by definition ­ aren't tied down by red tape and can provide competitive pressure and examples to learn from for regular schools. He wants to have teachers treated "like professionals." He wants to give "great teachers great pay" and hold all teachers "accountable for their work." Poizner is not afraid to say that ineffective teachers "should be dismissed."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Union Attacks Bill Evers for Encouraging "Best-in-the-World" Math

The teachers' union in Capistrano Unified attacks me for encouraging the district to consider Singapore Math instead of a business-as-usual math textbook series.

The attack appears in the union's Jan. 8 Board Watch newsletter.

At the time I made the suggestion, I was an official member of the district's textbook review committee. I stressed that successful implementation of Singapore math in America has needed extra training for teachers, and that such training would be needed if Capistrano were to adopt Singapore Math (which is officially approved in California).

I cited Singapore's comparative success on international math tests. I also pointed to the U.S. Department of Education-sponsored study entitled "What the United States Can Learn from Singapore's World Class Mathematics System."

The union calls for automatic rubber-stamping of teachers' recommendations. It attacks me for favoring parental input on textbook adoptions.

I agree that teachers' recommendations should weigh heavily, especially if the textbook has been tried. (The Capistrano teacher committee had declined even to try out Singapore Math.) But I contend that objective, scientific studies of content-coverage and effectiveness as well as international comparative testing should be given their due weight.

Singapore students in 4th and 8th grade were best in the world in Mathematics in 1995, 1999 and 2003.

I pointed out that a school nearby in Los Angeles has had great success with Singapore Math.

I'm sure that the Capistrano teachers want textbooks that they believe will work for them and that have a familiar feel. But parents, taxpayers, and community members have a right to ask: Why not the best for our children?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Problems with the Common Core National Standards

Ze'ev Wurman and I wrote an op-ed that we published Dec. 11 as a guest column on Jay P. Greene's Blog. The post was entitled: "Alternative Needed to Common Core: An Additional Consortium for ‎Common Standards."

We noted that some critics have pointed to the federalism problem. For example, the Texas chief state school officer describes the Common Core national standards as

an effort “by the U. S. Department of Education” to impose “a national curriculum and testing system” and “a step toward a federal takeover” of public schools across the nation.

But Ze'ev Wurman and I focused on the the problems of process and content.

In terms of process, we pointed to the longtime secrecy about who was doing what and the secrecy about the drafts of the standards themselves. We pointed to the tight timeline and asked whether it allowed enough time for public comment.

We argued that although the process had been flawed, the situation is, unfortunately, even more troubling on the content side.

The proposed English-Language Arts “college and career readiness” standards (which we are told are not high school graduation standards) are largely a list of content-free generic skills. Rather than focusing on what English teachers are trained to teach (quality literature), the drafters seem to expect English teachers to teach reading strategies presumed to help students to cope with biology or economics textbooks.

In mathematics, the standards are perhaps even worse. While essentially all four-year state colleges require at least three years of high school mathematics, including Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry or above, CCSSI’s standards require only Algebra 1 and few bits and pieces from Algebra 2 and Geometry. In other words, students who graduate from high school having taken only math coursework addressing those standards (and presumably having passed a test based on them) will be inadmissible to any four-year college around the country.

The remedy we proposed was an alternative consortium of states.

That consortium would be composed of states whose standards have been highly rated by academic experts– like California or Massachusetts — together with states like Texas and Alaska whose reluctance to jump on the Common Core bandwagon has been clearly vindicated.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bill Evers on TV on Standardized Testing

I joined Sean Reardon, an associate professor at the Stanford School of Education, for a half-hour discussion on statewide testing of K-12 students in California.

Within the over-arching topic of testing, Sean & I discuss:

-- Can you test such matters as civic understanding and ...
-- Can you have effective school reform in the absence of
data from student test scores?
-- Is money per se the key to effective
school reform
-- Is the racial achievement gap narrowing?
-- Is there a "stereotype threat" that leads girls and African-American and Latino
students to underperform on tests? And if so, what should be done about it?
-- Should California renew its accountability system in 2010? Should it retain its statewide grade-by-grade tests? Its high-school exit exam?

The program is entitled "Class Action." The show aired on Sunday, November 8, NBC Bay Area (KNTV, Channel 11), and the video has now been posted online. The host is KNTV news anchor Jessica Aguirre.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New NCTM HS Math Doc Does A Disservice

Guest post by Ze'ev Wurman

Review of "Focus in High School Mathematics," National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2009

This document stands out more for what it omits rather than for what it includes. It is full of paeans to reasoning and sense-making that it--quite properly--hails as the hallmark of mathematics. Yet reasoning and sense-making are not exclusive to mathematics. They are the cornerstones of history, of physical sciences, of economics, and even of political science. The reason mathematics is unique, that it has been called the Queen and Servant of Science, is not because it is focused on reasoning and sense-making, but because it is focused on formal reasoning--on mathematical proofs.

Yet reading the new NCTM document one might well not notice the concept of proof. The word "proof" appears a scant 27 times in the body of this 145 page document, one third of them in the short opening chapter which ties reasoning and sense making to proof. Yet even there, the first appearance of "proof" is immediately followed by "however", as in "However, mathematical reasoning can take many forms, ranging from informal explanation ..." (p.4) Another half of the occurrences of "proof" is found in the single geometrical semi-proof example in the text, with the other five incidences sprinkled elsewhere. Contrast that with almost 500 occurrences of "reasoning" and over 200 occurrences of "sense making" in this document.

In fact, much of the document is spent trying to confound reasoning and sense-making (which are present in every discipline) with formal proofs that are unique to mathematics. This is presumably made in an effort to make mathematics more accessible, yet it amounts to pouring out the baby with the bathwater. Without exception, all of the discussion is centered around so-called "real world" examples, and abstraction is essentially unmentioned. Reasoning and sense making are indeed important, in mathematics as in history, yet they are not the defining characteristics of mathematics, as NCTM pretends they are. The formal aspects of mathematical proof, and its powerful abstractions, are what makes mathematics uniquely effective. Spending almost 150 pages with barely a mention of prerequisite mathematical knowledge and skills, and with nary a paragraph promoting proof or abstraction as the keys to mathematics, and to its enormous utility in all domains of life and science, is NCTM's disservice to all of us.

At this point it is almost pointless to mention the other deficiencies of this document: The exclusive focus on reasoning and sense-making comes with the deprecation of almost anything else in mathematics, and particularly skills and procedural fluency. Readers are warned that students may "capriciously invoke incorrect or baseless rules" without understanding (p.12) yet nowhere is a similar warning of careless or unsubstantiated reasoning given. Little time is spent on mentioning content, with the exception of promoting--without any research support--yet more probability, statistics, and discrete mathematics in the curriculum, topics that NCTM has been promoting for decades as its antidote to the "traditional math." Some things never change.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Double Standard on the Texas Science Standards

GUEST POST by Ze'ev Wurman

In this week's Ed Week, Jonathan Osborne, a Stanford Ed School prof., has an interesting article on teaching science in Texas.

Prof. Osborne seems unhappy with the proposed Texas science standards, which chose to promote scientific inquiry and through inquiry, activities that are probably aimed at chipping away at the theory of evolution.

Now, I agree with Osborne that an effort to promote "scientific" chipping away at evolutionary theory is a fool's errand. However, the Texas School Board's approach to this issue, is -- on the face of it -- quite difficult to attack.

The proposed standards say that students

"In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student."

Based on exactly this statement, it is comparatively easy for a good science teacher to clearly show why from a scientific point of view creationism or intelligent design do not meet the basic criteria of scientific theories.

Sad to say, many teachers, in Texas and elsewhere, are not up to this task, and some may (mis)use the proposed language to attack evolution. But that is probably also true for many other, less controversial, aspects of science--that teachers may mischaracterize or give incorrect explanation of natural facts due to insufficient knowledge.

Be that as it may, Prof. Osborne chose to attack the language in the Texas science standards based on the argument that learning science, and doing science, are quite different things, and that some inquiry, reasoning, and critiquing skills are not really necessary for school children and inappropriate in a K-12 learning environment. This stance is rather peculiar, given that Prof. Osborne clearly likes and approves of inquiry-based education--at least so long as it does it not stray into a critical thinking or scientific reasoning about evolution.

Hence we find Prof. Osborne saying:
"[T]he capability to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations is one of the primary skills required of the scientist, not the high school student of science" (emphasis in original).

He gives as an example:
"[A]s [evolution] lies beyond criticism, it is hard to see what value any attempt to evaluate critically the evidence and the logical reasoning on which it rests would serve."

Yet at the same time, Prof. Osborne says:

"Offering students insights into the evidence for the many strange beliefs we ask them to accept--that we live at the bottom of a sea of air, that there is force of gravity in space [...]--is vital if science is to convince [...]"

Prof. Osborne has a double standard on the standards. His writing puts politics rather than rational thinking first, and thereby muddles things. He essentially says that empirical evidence and its critical evaluation is important in science -- except when it comes to theories that are more difficult to defend or are politically uncomfortable. It would be better to treat those theories as dogma.

Somewhat peculiar, coming from a science educator.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Influence of Economists in Education?

The September/October 2009 issue of the Harvard Education Letter has an article by David McKay Wilson entitled "The Invisible Hand in Education Policy" on the role of economists in analyzing and proposing education policy.

Wilson maintains that until 30 years ago, psychologists and ed school professors exercised most of the academic influence in developing policy. In contrast, today, Wilson says, all over the education world you see economists studying the effects of government policies and "helping to design programs that provide incentives—-and disincentives—-for students and school districts." Concerning this picture drawn by Wilson, I would say that the academic economists I know are, yes, busy studying policy, but not that busy setting, devising, or designing policy.

Wilson points to a number of areas where economists have made contributions, including class size, school finance, and teacher training.

Class Size. Wilson quotes economist Richard J. Murnane, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who says: "The cost of reducing class size is great....[Although] there are modest benefits, it’s not clear that doing so is the best use of scarce resources.”

I would say that class size is a perfect example of an issue where politicians and bureaucrats are ignoring the findings of social scientists.

School Finance. Wilson notes that economist Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said in a 1981 paper that money alone wasn’t the answer for improving America’s schools.

“At the time, everybody thought that we should treat schools like going to the moon, that if we just put in enough resources, we could solve everything,” Hanushek said. “We found that money wasn’t the only solution. And that led to lots of questions. One of the aspects of doing better was to have better accountability.”

Teacher Training. Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee had as her thesis adviser at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government economist Thomas J. Kane. Kane has studied alternative preparatory routes for teachers in the New York City public schools. He found that students performed similarly, whether their teacher had a New York state certification or had passed through the alternative New York City Teaching Fellows program. When Rhee came to the District of Columbia schools, she asked Kane to work on measuring teacher effectiveness via a value-added analysis.

Economists have been studying education since Adam Smith. Since I am a political scientist, not an economist, I have no personal interest in how much attention is paid to the findings of economics. But I have on my bookshelves rows of books by economists filled with valuable insights on education -- almost all those insights have in fact been ignored, dismissed, or rejected by politicians and policymakers.

Addendum: As part of a cliched journalistic put-down of the merits of economics, Wilson reminds his readers that economics was called "the dismal science” by 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle. What Wilson neglects to tell his readers is that Carlyle was an admirer of feudalism. He was a proponent of returning recently emancipated black Africans to servitude and supported brutal suppression of an uprising in Jamaica. Carlyle disliked the fact that economists often opposed slavery on moral principle and as economists they pointed to the lessened productivity of slave labor. Hence it was that in his essay entitled "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question," Carlyle termed economics "the dismal science" -- indeed he also calls it a "rueful" science and a "dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing" one, by which he means that economics is not supportive of feudalism and slavery. If one means by "dismal," "not upholding slavery" -- then the designation is a badge of honor for economics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stanley H. Kaplan: Pioneer Educational Entrepreneur

Goldie Blumenstyk published on Aug. 25 an obituary in the Chronicle of Higher Education for Stanley H. Kaplan, who founded a pioneering SAT tutoring enterprise. Kaplan had an impact on preparation for the SAT college admissions test, but the beliefs of test-takers on the gains from such preparation are, in my view, all too often exaggerated.

Kaplan's more important impact -- outlined in Blumenstyk's piece -- was on the growth of commerce in the field of delivering education:
Today, the higher-education industry includes not only giant for-profit institutions like DeVry University, the University of Phoenix, and the degree-granting colleges of Kaplan itself, but also course-management companies like Blackboard Inc. and eCollege, distance-learning outsourcers like Higher Ed Holdings, and student-coaching and tutoring companies like Inside Track and Smartthinking.

Before Kaplan, non-profit institutions monopolized higher education. But, Kaplan, Blumenstyk quotes former Columbia Teachers College President Arthur Levine as saying, "proved that there was space for profit-making companies in higher education."

Blumenstyk goes on to comment on current conditions in the higher education industry:
Meanwhile, the cost pressure on colleges is driving some of them to the realization that their economic model is fast becoming unsustainable and that their instructional model is perhaps less than suitable for the needs of the coming populations of adult and other nontraditional students.

So now, as traditional colleges seek new strategies for delivering education in less costly and more appealing ways, perhaps through prepackaged, hybrid courses that mix online and in-class instruction, it's those sorts of educational companies that are likely to play a bigger and bigger role.

These are comments that K-12 watchers should also bear in mind.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Explaining in terms of External Causes? Thomas Sowell on the Blame Game

In his column today (Aug. 25), Thomas Sowell says that people see the world through a mind-set and that part of that mind-set is that when looking for an explanation of problems, we should look for external forces.
Many of the issues of our times are hard to understand without understanding the vision of the world that they are part of. Whether the particular issue is education, economics or medical care, the preferred explanation tends to be an external explanation-- that is, something outside the control of the individuals directly involved.

Sowell points out that education is usually talked about in terms of:

--money spent,
--teaching methods,
--class size or
--the structure of the school system.

Students, Sowell says, are talked about "largely as passive recipients of good or bad education."

But Sowell contends -- correctly -- that education is not something that can be "given" to anyone. Each student has to obtain it, aquire it, learn the material and the skills. This is, Sowell points out, a matter of the student's personal responsibility.

Sowell points out that many students waste the time (12 to 13 years) they spend in school and the money that taxpayers spend on them ("a total cost of $100,000 or more per student") -- only to "emerge semi-literate and with little understanding of the society in which they live, much less the larger world and its history."

Sowell argues that such young people should alter their own behavior -- or, Sowell says, "visibly suffer the consequences, so that their fate can be a warning to others."

Sowell concludes that politicians have a self-interest in playing down personal responsibility in favor of external explanations. The widespread belief among the public that problems have external causes leads to the belief that external programs can solve the problems. And these programs (which Sowell thinks will likely be ineffectual) may well solve the politician's personal problem: getting the votes of the electorate.

While there is considerable truth in Sowell's argument about the need for students to take responsibility for their education, I have all too often heard administrators and teachers cast the entire blame on students (and their parents) in cases where an ineffective education is on offer.

In those cases when education providers are not doing their job, they should not be able to get off the hook by citing Sowell on the need for students to assume responsibility.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pseudoscientific Research -- In Nutrition & Education

The May-June issue of the Skeptical Inquirer prints an important article on the science of nutrition by Dr. Reynold Spector, who is currently a clinical professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersy. (He formerly taught at Iowa , Stanford, and Harvard-MIT and was formerly executive VP at Merck in charge of drug development.)

Spector begins by pointing out that “in recent years” progress in research on nutrition has “lagged behind” many other medical fields.

Some of this lag is the result of pseudoscientific beliefs and practices that funders and some researchers, but certainly many science journalists and much of the public erroneously believe is based on scientific methods.

This, my readers from the world of educational policy research will recognize, is all too reminiscent of the mantra in our field: “Studies show….” A phrase that -- in the field of education -- should always cause the waving of a warning flag.

Spector notes that critics of the scientific field of nutrition quite understandably say that “much nutritional research and practice” is, to paraphrase Thomas Hardy, “science’s laughingstock.”

Spector contends that the field of nutrition and the people who rely on its findings are harmed by the absence of “rigorous scientific principles and methods.” He uses data to show that much conventional wisdom about dietary pyramids, food supplements, megavitamins, and weight-loss diets is “unproven, erroneous, or even harmful and is often based on pseudoscience” resting on shoddy research methods.

In nutrition research, there is too much reliance on epidemiology/observation studies for causal conclusions about nutritional facts and practices. Instead, Spector says, such conclusions should be based on sound, rigorous scientific studies (randomized, single variable, hypothesis-driven, with validated instruments and proper statistical analyses) .

[Reading this in Spector’s article immediately reminded me of the fact that when we were both in the U.S. Department of Education, IES Director Russ Whitehurst and I were delighted by Gary Taubes's pro-rigorous-research article on health (“Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?”) in the Sept. 16, 2007 New York Times Sunday Magazine. Taubes had earlier authored the path-breaking 2002 article “ What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie? ]

Here (from Spector’s article) is a chart showing how the public has been led astray by reliance on false-positive results from epidemiology/observation studies:

Spector points out that the appropriate methodology for finding the truth in nutrition research “has been known for decades.” Nonetheless, Spector says, it is often “either not followed or scientific data are resisted.”

Spector suggests that to understand why this happens, we take a sociological approach. He says, “A useful part of such an analysis is the question: who benefits from a particular event or behavior?” He proposes that the following groups benefit from shoddy nutrition research:

• Journals and their editors (a constant flow of content);
• Academics (“It’s easy to publish almost anything; certain types of studies (e.g., case…studies) require much less effort and resources than controlled trials to yield a publication.”);
• Business interests (who market products and services based on the shoddy research); and
• The news media (controversy and novelty sell newspapers and bring in TV viewers).

Many might say that like beneficiaries are present in the education industry as well. Some might add as potential beneficiaries in the education industry: the education Establishment and the politicians allied with them. Spector also notes that “the unwillingness of investigators who perform pseudoscientific studies” to acknowledge error “cannot be underestimated.”

Spector insists that “unless proper studies are done,” the research literature is “doomed to potential, often-unknown bias and confounding.” He adds that although “it is difficult and expensive” to do “long-term adequate…studies,” they can be done and have been done.

Who, Spector asks, is harmed by shoddy nutritional research? Spector provides a list of those harmed. If we modified his list to apply instead to the education industry, it would read as follows:

• Students and their parents;
• Effective teachers and other efficacy-minded instructional specialists (textbook writers, in-service trainers of teachers, etc.);
• Scientifically-minded education researchers and ed-school professors;
• Resources (which are wasted);
• The news media (“Reporting advice that ultimately requires revision or repudiation makes them look foolish."); and
• Professional standards (undermined by lack of rigor in pursuit of the truth).

Spector concludes by making recommendations for readers of future research in the field of nutrition:

1. "Readers of medical reports and journals should focus on studies that employ methods that test a hypothesis definitively.
2. "Readers should be skeptical of the results of [epidemiology/observation studies] that test a contributory causal hypothesis and draw causal conclusions…. Such studies must be considered at best hypothesis-generating. Moreover, unless such studies have a clear “upfront” hypothesis and prespecified data analysis plan and are not the result of “data-dredging,” they merit even less credence....
3. "Readers should encourage journal editors, academicians, and funding agencies to support quality studies (e.g., randomized controlled studies) rather than those unlikely to answer questions definitively (e.g., [epidemiology/observation studies ], case-control studies, or cohort studies)."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stanford Review Interview with Bill Evers

The Stanford Review (a newspaper at Stanford University put out by conservative & libertarian students) published in its current issue an interview with me done by the paper's editor-in-chief Brian O'Connell. Most of the interview is about K-12 education in America; a small portion at the end is about education in Iraq. To improve clarity, I have slightly edited the Review's transcript in a few places.

Here is the text of the interview:

The Stanford Review
Volume XLII, Issue 8 (May 29, 2009) Williamson Evers served as U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development from 2007 to 2009. The Review caught up with him this past month to discuss education policy in America, teacher pay, No Child Left Behind, and also his time served in Iraq in 2003 as a senior adviser for education to Administrator L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

SR: Why are there relatively few conservatives involved in education?

WE: I think it has to do with the historic interests of conservatives. They’re interested in criminal justice, they’re interested in national security, and economic policy. Not enough of them are interested policy… I think it is a shame, because I think there is a lot of room for improvement… I would also say that in terms of bringing more people to conservative and libertarian values out there in society, it is a very fruitful ground for recruiting people. Because a lot of people are disappointed in the public schools as they are.

SR: Do you think the achievement gap between races and genders can be closed?

WE: We saw some of the achievement gap closing in the 1980s, but it’s been tough to make improvements lately. There are lot of pieces there in the “Standards and Accountability” movement, mainly setting academic goals and topics to be learned and testing children to see whether they’re learning and trying to hold schools, administrators and teachers responsible. [These things] will help with [closing the gap], but still I think probably more radical steps, more incentives are needed—more things that will encourage teachers and administrators to be more productive. There are some things that are laid down that are helpful, but more things like charter schools and performance pay are needed.

… Eventually, a series of presidents: Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43, and the Congress, implemented Standards and Accountability. In its final form that we’re living under now, which is from 2001, they said that there’s going to be a test every year, in English and in Math, and that the kids have to take the test, and that states have to participate in a national benchmarking test called the National Assessment of Education Progress. Kids that are in failing schools have to be able to transfer out of them, if possible. If schools persist in having serious problems, there has to be some kind of restructuring that has to take place. This is all dependent on the fact that these schools are getting all this federal aid. The law says that, if the state does not want to take this money, they do not have to report results, or test. All states have taken the money.

SR: Do you support voucher programs?

WE: I would certainly say that President Bush tried to get in 2001 a change called “exit vouchers.” That is, if it’s a failing school, you should be able to get out. Now he was not able to get all-school vouchers or all[-school] opportunity scholarships [not able to get vouchers usable for private or Catholic schools]. He was only able to get through Congress that you could go to another public school. Even that has not worked very well. Partly it is the logistics of getting a kid to a different school. The school districts themselves have kind of discouraged it. They get paid based on the attendance of students. They don’t always notify the parents clearly or properly about what their rights are.

SR: Why has America lagged behind in international testing?

WE:... American students are having problems in math and science, which are fields that we can tell pretty well how students are doing across different countries… [In math] we’re not doing too bad in some of the early grades, but as children go through in higher grades, the children in other countries seem to be pulling farther and farther ahead. It’s for a variety of reasons. Our textbooks are not as good at going as far in depth into the problems. Our teachers are not as prepared as teachers in other countries. It’s very complicated because in some of these countries, such as in China, many of the teachers of elementary math did not even go to college. They went to a special high school for teachers, but no college. Still, they get more out of their students than American teachers do for American kids. [A contributing factor] could be that in China, teachers specialize in elementary grades, but we’re not sure. We are making progress though, in setting forth what teachers need to do, and in getting better textbooks and better curricula for America.

We like to think that in America that education is highly valued, but we also have, “anti-egghead,” anti-intellectual attitudes in America, we admire Huck Finn, Davy Crockett for not liking school learning. [In] some of these countries [that] are very high achieving, like the East Asian countries, Hungary, and Israel there’s a lot of respect and high value on book learning.

SR: What are your thoughts on teacher pay?

WE: Teacher pay is a uniform step-by-step thing mostly governed by seniority, and somewhat by credentials. There are several things that are neglected by this rigid pay scale. One thing is, [the absence of higher pay for teaching in] tough schools that are low performing makes the challenge greater. So you want to pay more to attract people to take on that challenge… [In this system] you are paying a math teacher similar to a physical education teacher—you might lose a math teacher to an accounting job, or lose a potential science teacher. There is a demand that is not really being met for certain fields because of the pay. The same is true for teachers of students with learning disabilities.

Another question is that in most jobs in life, if you are adding to the company’s success, if you are adding to the productivity of the company, you are paid accordingly. Teaching is not like that; if you’re effective, it does not affect your pay. You are paid fundamentally according to your years on the job. It discourages high performing teachers from staying on the job.

SR: Newark Mayor Cory Booker came to Stanford earlier this year and mentioned that Newark spends close to $20,000 per pupil on education annually, but students are still underachieving. Why are the most expensive per-pupil schools often so low performing?

WE: What you have are districts that have become dysfunctional. Despite huge amounts of money—we had one in Sausalito, CA—they usually have a combination of things, they usually have corruption, they usually have an unwillingness to hire teachers based on [merit]. There is cronyism involved in hiring and promotion. There is an unwillingness to fire teachers that are low performing. They usually have a lot of programs to try to fix things, but none of them are coordinated, or are matched by the standards of the state… Another problem that could be the case is that a lot of these students come from low education backgrounds and need a lot of time and concentration in a lot of academically focused things. Sometimes a lot of these [intervention] programs are “learn through play”—these programs aren’t sufficiently academic-focused. Since [the students] come from families that are not particularly highly educated, they need more background knowledge to succeed. It’s understandable that the [educators] would be seeking motivation, and trying to interest people, but they’re focusing so much on motivation, that they neglect the need for knowledge gain—that is so important for students if they are going to catch up. These districts have this problem.

SR: Why is this true in Sausalito, CA as well?

WE: The district of Sausalito includes Marin City as well [in addition to wealthier Sausalito], so there are a lot of less educated families in it. The combination of the two cities is actually kind of strange, because often the parents in Marin City want a concentration on solid academics, and the Sausalito people are more interested in self-esteem. Self-esteem was actually a program that was very heavy there, but it did not seem to improve the academics. I am for self-esteem that is earned by achievement. We know that heavy, knowledge-oriented, rigorous academic programs build self-esteem [for students] because they realize they are mastering all this material. You can have self-esteem, though, and not be doing that well in life. Gang members often have extremely high self-esteem. If you compare Chinese students, in China, or Japanese students in Japan, they think “I’m not doing really well in math, I don’t know enough math.” Americans think “I know a lot of math.” Well, American students are wrong. They’re not achieving in math as well as the East Asian Tigers are.

SR: Is No Child Left Behind under threat with the new Administration and what are Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s prospects?

WE: There’s $100 billion in the stimulus fund that is being used to perpetuate the existing system as it is: not very productive and disappointing... That dwarfs all these other little funds. I don’t see a big reason to blame Secretary Duncan for this. He’s only to blame if he misspends his discretionary fund. Congress and President Obama are to blame for the [$100 billion] in the stimulus bill. Duncan has talked about “21st century skills,” which is to make kids work well in groups, or to make kids media savvy. Kids who don’t know what the American Civil War is need to know what the American Civil War is. I don’t see why they need to be spending time becoming media savvy. They are naturally going to become media savvy living in the world they live in. It’s a diversion; there’s only so much time in the day, and they should be concentrating on the most important things.

I’m also worried about the research [sponsored by the] Institute for Education Sciences. I am worried that it will not live up to the level of quality and rigor that the institute had under Bush 43. In terms of different people that President Obama could have looked at to be Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan showed that he made a lot of effort to do a lot of positive things in Chicago…We don’t know enough to see how he will do.

SR: How would you describe your time in Iraq as a senior adviser for education to Coalition Provisional Authority?

WE: I was there from July to December in 2003… Our basic goal was to get the schools re-started and get the teachers back in the classroom. We were trying to help the Iraqis, they had been isolated for 20 to 30 years. We were trying to facilitate [them getting] their feet back on the ground. We were not trying to impose some ready-made Americanization on them. Our view was that they needed to find their own way to improve their schools, but if we could answer questions, that would be fine. But we weren’t trying to impose some big program on them. That worked very well. They developed interest in things from Jordan and other countries from around the world. They wanted teachers trained in ways that were successful in other places. I thoroughly enjoyed being there, it was exciting hearing rockets and explosives going off all the time. I felt that I was able to be helpful to the Iraqi people so I’m glad I did it.

These schools are not like schools under the Taliban in Afghanistan or radical Islamist madrassas in rural Pakistan. The schools in Iraq are state schools. Saddam had pretty much abolished private schools. You have to think of Saddam Hussein as a fascist like Mussolini in Italy. He wanted both boys and girls learning in schools how great he was and how great the Ba’ath party was.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sandy Kress Raises Questions about National Standards

Austin attorney Sandy Kress was President George W. Bush's principal adviser on drafting the No Child Left Behind law and, earlier, was the chief architect of Texas's school accountability system. (Prior to that he had a long history at the highest levels of the Texas Democratic Party.)

Kress recently (June 5) commented on eduwonk on the current fascination with national academic-content standards.

He speculates that governors, chief state school officers, and others are under the spell of utopian "good feelings" about national standards that do not yet exist.

But once the good feelings "wear off," Kress says, they will start asking questions. Writing national standards will stir up perennial controversies: whole language vs. phonics, computation vs. concepts. Then, Kress points out, come all the questions of detail "that arise once you get below the level of 30,000 feet."

At this point, Kress says, policymakers may get to the place where they find out the new national standards under consideration are not ideal, not perfect, indeed no better than (or even possibly worse than) the standards that the states already have.

Kress asks reasonable questions about the horse-trading and interest-group jockeying that will inevitably arise:
Could it be that the tradeoffs that happen nationally will be the same as those that occur in the states? Could the same interest groups intervene? Could this nice dream [of national standards] be interrupted by the demons that bedevil state standard-setting? Could these interests be the problem as much as variation [among state standards documents]?
Then Kress brings up the centrally important issue of a nationally uniform grading policy (technically known as "performance standards"):
If we ever get to detailed, precise [national academic-content] standards in each grade for reading and math, do the participants agree to common performance standards? If they don’t, who’s kidding whom? The real problem today is not so much that some states have vastly higher [content] standards than other states; it’s more that their performance standards are greatly different.... [W]ill the states, commit to making those the same? If not, [the national standard-setting process] will be utterly fruitless.
Although Kress did not make this point in this eduwonk comment, he and those he works with have often pointed out that revising academic-content standards can be a time-consuming excuse for not doing the hard work of fixing failing schools and closing the achievement gap.

For example, the Washington Post reported on June 1 that immediate-past U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has voiced a cautionary note on this matter. Spellings said in a recent interview that she supports a process of states working together from the bottom-up to raise academic standards. But she is concerned that the strenuous effort required to create new national standards could divert attention from students who are failing right now:

We have a speedometer, and it says we're going too slow. Should we get a more precise speedometer? Sure. But the most important thing is speeding up.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

California's Conditions on National Standards

Patrick Riccards, blogging at eduflack, reports that California has signed onto the national-standards effort, but (wisely in my opinion) has placed conditions on its commitment to adhering to the outcome of the process. A decade ago I was a participant in the drafting of California's academic-content standards. These standards have been judged (by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and by the American Federation of Teachers) as among the clearest and most rigorous in America , and it would be a shame to water them down in the name of national commonality. Congratulations to Governor Schwarzenegger and California ed officials for their sensible letter setting forth the conditions on the state's involvement.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Complaining About Testing -- Can You Guess in What Year This Complaint Was Made?

"[T]oday's schools are driven by assessment to a degree that surprised us....[T]ests [are being] used as ends in themselves, rather than as one means to assist in intellectual development of the individual student, or even as a reasonable method of public accountability.

"Tests -- usually standardized tests, but even including tests that teachers devise to monitor and judge week-to-week progress -- are omnipresent and constantly on everyone's minds. Teachers, administrators and students are preoccupied with scores and grades -- often against their better judgment, and often against the values that parents, students and they themselves say that the schools should reflect....

"More than one researcher returned from the school sites with stories about how schools elsewhere had boosted their scores by encouraging low-performing students not to attend school on the day of the [state-developed] examinations.

"In another unnamed school, according to another rumor, twelfth-graders took revenge on the school's administrators, who had cancelled the traditional Senior Skip Day, by deliberately scoring poorly on the tests....

"[T]hese [standardized] tests have encroached powerfully on the schools and on teaching....

"Many teachers and school administrators agree that the emphasis on and uses of testing reflect an educational practice out of control. Points, credits and scores are pursued and accumulated as if they represented the core values of the high school....

"[T]eachers have articulate, idealistic educational goals for their students, but amidst the pressures they face, they proceed to test in predictable ways, often modeling their approaches on the externally developed examinations they see most often, the standardized achievement test....

"In many cases, review for a test meant the teacher coaching the youngsters about the specific pieces of information to be included on the exam, along with the appropriate answer."

[Source: Inside Schools: A Collaborative Approach, by J. Myron Atkin, Donald Kennedy, and Cynthia L. Patrick (Falmer Press) -- published 20 years ago, in 1989.]