Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Head Start, 21st-C Skills, Multiple Choice, Productivity -- Is Pres. Obama Missing What's Important?

Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution responded briefly to President Obama' speech on education policy. But he also pointed back to his (Whitehurst's) Feb. 4 analysis of the President's stimulus plan. In this earlier analysis, Whitehurst made several important points on preschool education, 21st-century skills, testing formats, and school productivity:

Early Childhood

On early childhood, we should not be satisfied with more programs, “like Head Start.” A rigorous national study of Head Start found positive effects in some performance domains at the end of a year in the program, e.g., naming letters of the alphabet, but not in others, e.g., vocabulary. Most children in the study were still far below average in school preparation skills on exit from Head Start. We can do better, and there is a lot of evidence on effective preschool programs to lead the way.

21st-Century Skills

The president’s call for assessments that measure 21st century skills such as creativity and entrepreneurship is fraught with danger and difficulty. There are serious questions about whether it is possible to teach someone to be creative in a general sense, disconnected from expert knowledge in particular domains. In any case, the definitional and measurement challenges are huge.

Instead of chasing abstractions, it would be more productive to construct standards that reflect what the best experts in particular fields agree that students need to know and be able to do to be competent in those fields. That will surely involve problem solving, creativity, and the like, but anchored in content rather than floating free.

Pres. Obama's Opposition to Multiple-Choice Tests

[P]lease, Mr. President, no more talk about needing to teach students more than how to bubble in answers on tests. Any assessment expert will tell you that very complex skills can be measured with multiple choice test questions. The issue is what we are expecting students to learn, not the structure of the test item that is used to determine whether they’ve learned it.

Efficiency & Productivity

What about efficiency and productivity? We spend more on education per student than any other nation. Shouldn’t we be pursuing ways to get more out of our current investments before we double down?

Whitehurst is asking the questions that the education-beat journalists should be asking.

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