Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bad Assumptions; Bad Policy

The Obama administration took action last week to allow waivers to states of some provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. These waivers would allow states to avoid some of the severe sanctions that the law required for schools that did not meet the annual requirements for progress to proficiency for all students in reading and math. Read a good analysis of the waiver plan at this link. The requirement that all students become proficient in reading and math by the year 2014 was ridiculous to begin with and could not be achieved by any school system that served a cross section of regular students.

So what will be required of those states that ask for waivers of the NCLB? Those states will be required by Arne Duncan to remove limitations on the creation of new charter schools, require the adoption of college and career standards for graduation, and require teachers to be evaluated partially based on student scores, and basically do whatever Arne Duncan says. This new waiver policy just puts more power over local school systems in the hands of the U.S. Education Secretary. In exchange for the waiver, we can expect more unreasonable untested mandates to be imposed. And yes, the testing mania will only get worse!

The idealistic goal that all students become proficient in certain subjects was an unrealistic criteria that was sure to create failures out of most of the schools in the country. That's because no government can successfully mandate a Lake Wobegon Effect. (Lake Wobegon is the mythical town invented by radio host Garrison Kheillor where supposedly "All women are strong, all men are good looking, and all children are above average.") It is statistically impossible for all children to be above average, but that's basically what the federal government attempted to require with NCLB.

Another example of a bad or unrealistic assumption is the statement by some politicians that "If our schools are doing their jobs, all children should be on grade level in reading and math". Grade level is really just an average performance determined by testing a cross section of students nation-wide to determine the typical reading level or math performance for a particular age group. Statistics show that a certain percentage of students perform above grade level and a similar percentage perform below grade level. If we could successfully mandate that no student will perform below grade level, the next time the national testing in that subject is done, the measurement of grade level would be re-calibrated upwards, again resulting in some students being below grade level. Children are all different. They are not like widgets built on an assembly line. Bad assumption; bad policy!

Another bad assumption is that if the test performance of students in a particular school is below the government approved standard, then the teachers and the school administration must not be doing their job. Under NCLB, the remedies imposed would have the school authorities close such a school or convert it into a charter school or fire at least half of the faculty and administration. When those remedies were imposed in some schools across the country, no noticeable change occurred. When Arne Duncan closed schools in Chicago and sent the students to more successful schools the transferred students performed no better, but the parents were upset because the transfers resulted in cross community fights and the death of at least one transferred student. When some schools in Baton Rouge were converted into charter schools, the performance of students declined. Under the waiver requirements we will shift mostly to embarrassing or firing teachers based on student scores. But that won't work either because soon the schools serving high poverty students will run out of teachers! Converting schools to charters just allows non-educators to experiment on kids and encourages cheating, and attempts to use public relations in the place of basic schooling. (Just consider the Abramson Charter schools)  Bad assumptions cause bad policy! 

There are no miracle solutions to education. We know that the only real crisis in our schools is the under performance of students from high poverty backgrounds. Why not just take the millions that would be wasted on more testing, and more complex value added teacher evaluations and spend it on beefing up the programs in our poverty schools. Implement effective parent involvement programs. Add more days to the school year, provide reading specialists, provide incentives rather than disincentives for teachers who are trained to address the needs of disadvantaged students. Schools should be judged based on the learning environment, the culture of positive discipline and time on task in practical learning activities, not on the results of a one-size-fits-all high stakes test. It should not shock us to find that when we compare two excellent schools that have good learning environments, we may find that student scores can still vary greatly!

That's why we need to elect reasonable public education supporters rather than school privatizers and misguided "reformers" to BESE.

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