"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 31, 2011

Bill Gates Still Thinks Students are Widgets

Bill Gates, sharing the byline with his wife, Melinda, is still talking about students as if they were widgets and schools as if they were for profit companies (and we know they all would be if it were up to him).
In most workplaces, there is an implicit bargain: Employees get the support they need to excel at their jobs, and employers build a system to evaluate their performance. The evaluations yield information that employees use to improve—and that employers use to hold employees accountable for results.
It's all teacher evaluations and "employee accountability" for them. And what better way to hold teachers accountable than by using scores on student tests. Reduce each student to a number and hold the teacher accountable for that number.

Anthony Cody responded with an excellent post on Living in Dialogue.
...The answer, according to Mr. Gates, is that we must get rid of bad teachers. He said, during his appearance on Oprah last year, that if we got rid of all the bad teachers, "our schools would shoot from the bottom of these rankings to the top."

In order to be able to fire all these bad teachers, we need to be able to measure their performance. The measurements he wants to use are the data from our students' test scores, which tell us how much "value" we have added to them. These students are our raw material, and just like any manufacturing process, we ought to be paid and evaluated according to how much value we have added to the product as it passed through our hands. His foundation created the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which has come up with something they call "multiple measures" of good teaching, but unfortunately it appears all these measures lead back to test score data.
There's more data that the billionaires need to look at however.
...the United States...ranks next to Greece, Turkey, Mexico and Chile in terms of the percentage of children in poverty...Many teachers see poverty up close, although our students do their best to hide it. Like wounded birds, they do not want others to see their weakness. They tease one another about buying clothes at Salvation Army, or living in a cardboard box. Those of us who have worked in schools with children in poverty are very familiar with this data.

Are our billionaire education reformers interested in any of this information?

We can choose tax structures that underfund our schools, we can believe that we are collectively "broke" while some people stack up the billions, and still need tax breaks. But the data is in. We have become a banana republic, with a widening gulf between rich and poor. And the schools alone will not fix this. Sending more children to college will not fix this. Only social policies that aim to reverse the concentration of wealth will make a real difference.
Gates, while encouraging us to rely on test scores to evaluate teachers, seems to ignore the test results that don't fit his biases. An analysis of the PISA tests results provides data which makes it less comfortable to be incredibly wealthy. From the 2009 PISA test results:
  • In schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China which topped the ranking with a score of 556.
  • Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours.
  • U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world.
  • U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland.
  • U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.
U.S. schools with low poverty are among the best in the world as rated by the PISA tests. It's not bad teachers, unless, by some coincidence all the nation's bad teachers are concentrated in schools with high poverty.

Perhaps it's poverty itself that's the problem. Maybe David Berliner was right when, in Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, he wrote,
...six OSFs [out of school factors] common among the poor that significantly affect the health and learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics. These OSFs are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.

Also discussed is a seventh OSF, extended learning opportunities, such as pre- school, after school, and summer school programs that can help to mitigate some of the harm caused by the first six factors.

Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed. Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.
Poverty is the data that billionaires and politicians won't see. To them it's just a distraction from the "it's bad teachers" mantra that they have been chanting since No Child Left Behind was passed. They claim it's "an excuse" and that teachers are not willing to be accountable.

Teachers are willing to be accountable, but other stakeholders need to be accountable, too -- politicians and the state and federal legislatures they populate, parents, school boards, businesses, and students themselves.

Stephen Krashen put it well...
Research tells that there is no correlation between improved test scores and subsequent economic progress, that high unemployment in an area results in decreased school performance of children, even those whose parents are still employed, and it also tells us what we already should know: High poverty means poor diets, inadequate health care, and little access to books and all of these conditions are related to school performance.

The best teaching in the world will have little impact when there is high poverty, when children are under-nourished, in poor health, and have little or nothing to read.

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