"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blinded by Reform

by Mike Rose

Posted on Oct 21, 2009

It’s gotten lost in the splashier news, but big things are going on at the U.S. Department of Education.

Following on the unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is extending further and putting serious money behind its education initiatives, inviting states and districts to compete for federal dollars. The department wants to increase the community college graduation rate. For K-12, it wants to stimulate the production of better state standards and tests, measure teacher effectiveness, turn around failing schools and increase the number of charter schools. Through a third initiative it wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.

This is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. It has even created the season’s oddest political couple: With the Department of Education’s blessing, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton are about to tour the country for educational reform.

Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.

For example, the Education Department is putting a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation”—in fact, it will not consider a state’s proposal if the state has a cap on charters. Yet a number of research studies—the most recent from Stanford—demonstrate that charter schools on average are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. Some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and career academies, and—we seem to have forgotten this—regular old schools with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. But the reformers’ overvaluation of charter schools seems to dim their view of these varied manifestations of excellence.

Another example is the department’s attempt to link evaluation of teacher quality to student performance. (Merit pay could also follow.) And, again, the department will not consider a state’s proposal if the state outlaws such linkage of evaluation and student performance.

This linkage has a common-sense quality to it, especially what is called “value-added” analysis: that is, the degree to which a class’ test scores improve from the beginning of the school year to the end. Yet among experts in educational testing and measurement, there is a good deal of disagreement over the legitimacy of using these techniques to judge teacher quality. There are a host of factors that can affect scores: the non-random mix of students in a class, the students’ previous teachers, the lobbying of senior teachers for higher-scoring classes or the assignment of such classes to a principal’s favored teachers. There are also technical issues with the analysis of the test data. And there are significant conceptual concerns about exactly what the tests are measuring. In fact, the National Research Council, the prestigious, nonpartisan government agency, has just issued a statement reinforcing all of these concerns.

The Department of Education champions “evidence-based” and “data-driven” practice. Why, then, does the department espouse approaches that warrant scrutiny?

I think there are three interrelated reasons.

Given the immense pressure in politics for a quick result, there is a tendency in social policy toward single-shot, magic-bullet solutions, solutions that are marketable and have rhetorical panache but are simplified responses to complex problems. Charter schools will transform American education, or the linking of student test scores to teacher effectiveness will pressure teachers to change the way they teach and their expectations for what students can achieve.

This magic-bullet thinking is enabled by the paucity of schoolhouse-level knowledge of teaching and learning in the formation of educational policy. Not many policy analysts have taught school and, with few exceptions, those who have taught spent only a youthful year or two in the ranks. More troubling is something I have witnessed over the years: On-the-ground, intimate knowledge of teaching and learning is not valued, and is seen as an imprecise distraction from the consideration of broader economic and management principles that lead to systemic change. It’s like setting up a cardiology clinic without the advice of cardiologists.

The third element involves the rhetoric of reform. The advocates of the current model of test-based accountability have been very successful in depicting their critics as “anti-reform traditionalists,” as “special interests” or, the kiss of death, as members of the “education establishment.”

There is a lot to say about the accuracy of this depiction, for many who are tarred as establishment traditionalists have a long history of challenging traditional school practice and working to change it. But for now I want to focus on the way this demonizing rhetoric can jeopardize the work of the reformers themselves.

Take, for example, the concern expressed by teachers’ unions about linking student test scores to teacher evaluation. It is easy to characterize these concerns as special-interest pleading, but some of the evidence cited by the unions comes from researchers with no vested interest in teachers’ bread-and-butter issues. (One such researcher is a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.) When legitimate concerns about reform techniques are easily dismissed as “anti-reform,” then you have a closed policy system, one shielded from self-correction.

It is good news indeed that school reform has become a top national priority, that the ways schools are structured, children are taught and teachers evaluated have become issues worthy of federal attention. But for reforms to be effective and sustained, they need to be grounded on the best we know and examined carefully and from multiple perspectives.

Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”


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Kindergarten has changed radically in the past two decades. New research in Los Angeles and New York shows what is happening in today’s full-day kindergartens:
• 2–3 hours per day of literacy and math instruction and testing

• Of that, 20–30 minutes per day of standardized testing and test preparation

• Less than 30 minutes per day—and often no time at all—for play or choice time
These practices may produce higher scores in first and second grade, but at what cost? Long-term studies suggest that the early gains fade away by fourth grade and that by age 10 children in play-based kindergartens excel over others in reading, math, social and emotional learning, creativity, oral expression, industriousness, and imagination.

Developmentally inappropriate practices are putting young children’s health and academic progress at risk. It is time for a change.

Contact: The Alliance for Childhood

Monday, October 19, 2009

Testing program takes fun out of reading

Published online on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009 in the Fresno Bee

By Derek Boucher

Last week, a friend of our family came to us distraught after her child, a student in the Clovis Unified School District, read the adolescent favorite "The Name of This Book is Secret." Despite having a very positive experience with the book, she failed her school's Accelerated Reader comprehension test.

This resulted in a lowering of her English grade. Accelerated Reader is a popular, expensive commercial program used in many of our schools today. Last year, we learned of another child who was discouraged by a librarian from reading Hemingway's classic "The Old Man and the Sea" because it was considered too low for that child's reading level.

As we transition into another school year, parents throughout Clovis Unified and other Valley schools have been notified that a portion of their child's English grade will be determined by completing novels, and answering narrow comprehension questions online about the story.

The concept is simple: Pass the online test and the student gets points that go toward their grade. No points are awarded if the student fails the test. Fail the test, and no retakes are allowed. This program is very convenient for teachers who simply upload the AR points from the computer and translate them into a grade. No fuss, no mess!

But this is so typical in today's schools, where lust for high standardized test scores and short-term gains often overshadow the more important and difficult work of creating curious learners and life-long readers.

One might assume that adults with long résumés might ask the question: What is the long-term impact of this program on our children?

Different studies suggest that incentive programs (reading to get prizes or a grade) tend to have a deleterious effect on young readers. When the incentives (or punishments) to read stop, the children stop reading as well. This shouldn't be surprising, since performance and learning tend to decline when extrinsic motivators are present (Kohn, 1999).

In most schools today, reading has not been presented to children as an inherently pleasurable experience, but as a vehicle to get a prize or a grade.

Voracious readers understand that literature allows us to lose ourselves in the world of a story. Avid readers engage in intensely enjoyable experiences with plot and characters.

In contrast, programs like Accelerated Reader teach students to read literature in a superficial manner. Students read with a mind to skim for the facts they will need for the quiz, which is very different from the thoughtful engagement we want to see when our children open a book. One parent shared with me he is going to buy Cliff's Notes so his child will be sure to pass his next AR test.

A study by Carter (1996) suggests that incentive programs create a system where "the rich get richer." Children who are already strong readers will usually do quite well on comprehension tests. In contrast, resistant readers become demoralized when, after struggling through a book, they are left with zero points because they failed their AR test. This reinforces their perception that reading is not for them.

Here's a challenge to educators who favor Accelerated Reader. Choose any piece of literature you like. Ask a friend to read the same book. After reading, create 15 comprehension questions. Quiz one another. Don't cheat! You can't refer back to the book, and you can't discuss what you enjoyed about the story. (Too subjective!) And, you only get one try. Now repeat the process 10-15 times in nine months. See how you like it.

Derek Boucher of Clovis teaches science at Roosevelt High School.

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Kindergarten has changed radically in the past two decades. New research in Los Angeles and New York shows what is happening in today’s full-day kindergartens:
• 2–3 hours per day of literacy and math instruction and testing

• Of that, 20–30 minutes per day of standardized testing and test preparation

• Less than 30 minutes per day—and often no time at all—for play or choice time
These practices may produce higher scores in first and second grade, but at what cost? Long-term studies suggest that the early gains fade away by fourth grade and that by age 10 children in play-based kindergartens excel over others in reading, math, social and emotional learning, creativity, oral expression, industriousness, and imagination.

Developmentally inappropriate practices are putting young children’s health and academic progress at risk. It is time for a change.

Contact: The Alliance for Childhood