Saturday, November 29, 2014

Myths, Lies, and the Endless Cycle of Education Reform

An unrelenting attack on the status quo is the major characteristic of current education reform. Reformers know that as one ill conceived radical reform after another fails, the best way to remain in control is to institute successive reforms, often as radical as the ones before. They always insist on: “Anything but the status quo”. Unfortunately the latest iterations of education reform of our public elementary and secondary schools are based mostly on non-scientific myths and wishful thinking. The recurring problem for reformers is that any reform initiative built upon myths rather than on solid scientific theory is bound to collapse eventually. We have seen an example of this with the 10-year No Child Left Behind experiment. This reform became unsustainable when thousands of schools nationwide failed to achieve the goal of 100% proficiency for all children. But unfortunately the myths and lies upon which it was based still persist.

Myth #1: Every Child Can and Should Perform at an Above Average level
During the George W. Bush administration, No Child Left Behind promoters in the Congress and in our US Department of Education believed that if the Federal government threatened all school systems with various remedial and punitive measures, all schools could be forced to produce grade level proficiency by all students within a ten year period. 

It was assumed that relatively low academic performance by some children was due primarily to lazy, inadequate or incompetent instruction by teachers and administrators. All that was needed therefore was to threaten severe punishment of schools that failed to produce above average results in all students, and to mandate remedial after school programs often provided by outside contractors. If those measures did not work, the federal and state governments would mandate school reorganizations, closures or conversion to charter schools. 

The theory was that such no-nonsense measures would within the ten-year time limit produce grade level or better performance by all students even including students with disabilities and students with little or no school support system in their homes and communities. Many skeptical educators sometimes referred to this as the Lake Wobegon Effect. This analogy was based on a fictional Minnesota town named Lake Wobegon, "Where all women are strong, all men are good looking, and all children are above average." The No Child Left Behind law assumed that all children could perform at average or above levels, and if that did not happen within the ten year time limit, the educators would have hell to pay and may even have to forfeit their schools and allow someone else to take over! 

It turned out that either the theory was wrong or maybe the punishment of educators was just not severe enough to produce the mandated results. Almost none of the thousands of schools nationwide were able to reach the student proficiency levels mandated within the ten year period ending in 2014. Unable or unwilling to repeal the law,  the Obama administration decided to replace No Child Left Behind with their own punitive system called Race to the Top. This plan featured more testing and the added component that teachers would be evaluated based on the results of student testing. The Obama administration also allowed a waiver of No Child Left Behind in exchange for a whole new regime of reforms. 

This time, in addition to closing or taking over schools, the reforms would focus on implementing teacher and administrator evaluation systems based on student test scores. These new measures would result in the retraining or firing of teachers and administrators who failed or at least ranked lowest on an arbitrary performance ranking system. The way this theory was applied in Louisiana is that the state education bureaucracy would each year designate the bottom 10% of teachers as "ineffective" based on student value added (VAM) scores and immediately begin efforts to retrain or remove any such teachers. Administrators in low performing schools would also be punished or removed. 

The theory was that at some point such a system would purge enough of the bad teachers and administrators that student performance would magically rise to the Lake Wobegon standards. So the Obama solution was based on the same myth as the George W. Bush solution! As soon as it began, this new reform started to fail, because it became apparent immediately that the system often identified the wrong teachers as “ineffective” and many of the most respected teachers and administrators chose to retire early to avoid the humiliation of the VAM (Value Added Model) and the COMPASS evaluation system. Fortunately for the reformers, they had already put into motion a whole new miracle plan for finally producing above average achievement by all students.

Myth #2: The Quality of the Teacher is the Primary Determinant of a Child's Academic Success
The American Statistical Association has determined that the typical teacher has an influence of between 1 and 14% of a student's academic success. Innate abilities, parental support, health, nutrition, and many other factors are much more influential on a child's success in school than the quality of the teacher. Certainly we want all children to have the benefit of the best, most dedicated teachers possible, but it is foolish to expect teachers to overcome all of the handicaps of children in our neglectful society today.

Myth #3: The Common Core Will Prepare All Children for College
The standards myth developed by elitists David Coleman, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and most of the Governors was that the main thing wrong with our schools was that our standards are not high enough. Peter Greene describes the big picture of Common Core and education reform here. Greene believes that the Common Core and the related reforms create an unholy marriage between the worst aspects of Socialism and Capitalism. The Common Core myth suggests that if we simply mandate college prep standards for all, and insist that student performance in the basic skills are taught earlier and better, soon all students should graduate ready for college. This myth was predicated on a combination of the “all children can be above average” and now the “Raising the Bar Myth”.

Myth #4: The Common Core Standards Are Separate From the Curriculum
Common Core advocates tell us that the Common Core State Standards are not the same as a curriculum and do not dictate what curriculum teachers should use in their day-to-day teaching.  Many legal experts believe that this claim was made mainly to avoid the charge that the federal government is dictating curriculum. Louisiana teachers teaching the basic skills subjects of English-language arts or math, have no doubt however, that the Common Core aligned tests are the curriculum!

Myth #5: All Students Can Be Induced to Perform to Higher Standards by Simply Raising the Standards Bar.
The analogy here is a comparison to high jumping. The theory is that just as student athletes train for the high jump, a steady raising of the bar along with intensive guided practice results in athletes jumping higher. Likewise students can be expected to reach higher levels academically, primarily because of the higher expectations.  The ultimate goal for all students in this analogy is to reach the level that equates to college prep. Again it is assumed that if the teachers do their jobs in the classroom and insist on high expectations, all students will eventually meet those higher expectations. This just in: Readers you have got to read this article in the Huffington Post about how Arne Duncan believes higher expectations cures disabilities.     

Apparently this myth developed as some of the education reformers observed that in most cases our schools were able to produce improved scores on state approved standardized tests over a period of several years. Apparently when state officials raised their expectations for student performance and demanded more focused instruction on the basic skills as measured by annual standardized tests, student achievement on state tests improved. So all that was necessary was for state officials to raise the expected level of achievement and fix that level with a cut score on the state tests. Teachers and students would then produce the desired results. Such commanding from on high brings to mind the Mel Brooks quote, "It’s great to be the king!" This blog has demonstrated that these “gains” were mostly illusionary and were based on teaching to the test.

Other sources of this raising the bar myth were the “no excuses charter schools that have sprung up as replacements for so called failed public schools. Such charter schools are usually staffed with high percentages of Teach For America corps members, whose mantra always includes high expectations for kids that supposedly in the past have been victims of low expectations. Superintendent John White, a TFA corps member himself, loves to say, “Our children deserve higher expectations”. Some of the new charter schools proudly point to high or even 100% college acceptance rates for their graduates. After a few years however, it is becoming apparent that few actually attend and almost none of these students actually graduate from college.

In accordance with the Raising the Bar myth, the new Common Core State Standards are based on raising the bar for high school graduation to insure that all graduates are prepared for entering college without the need to take remedial courses. Students that are rated proficient on the new CCSS aligned tests are predicted to be ready for both college and careers, even though no one has ever defined what was meant by the career prep half of the myth. I believe the only prep ever really considered was college prep.

There is one major problem with the college prep for all Common Core Standards. They are really based on the same myth that No Child Left Behind was based upon. That’s the myth that all children can somehow be educated to perform at above average levels. That’s statistically impossible. It is just as impossible to get all or even most students to score proficient on the Common Core tests as it would be to get all students to jump the high bar at a level equal to well conditioned athletes.  We don’t expect all students taking physical education courses in high school to perform at elite athletic levels in the high jump, so why would we expect all students to perform at elite academic levels on their other course work? It is easy to see visually that many students do not have the body type, are not equally physically fit, many are greatly overweight, and cannot be expected to jump the same level of the high bar, yet this myth expects students with just as much variation academically as students exhibit physically to meet the same academic standard. 

The Texas state education department has been “raising the bar” for a little longer than Louisiana, and recent results seem to indicate that their students are “hitting the wall” on academic performance. More and more leaders in Texas are beginning to call for a pull back of the test based standards. Students in New York State have started their Common Core testing two years ahead of Louisiana and have experienced a 70% failure rate. Education officials there are still predicting that soon many more students will start clearing the higher bar. 

There is a huge variation in the natural physical ability of students and this variation is greatly exaggerated by the neglect our society allows in the physical development of our children.
This problem is mirrored academically by the neglect that many of our high poverty students experience in their environment. The neglect for academics includes not only poor nutrition, but also poor health care and a shockingly low vocabulary for many of these children at the time they enter school. It is further aggravated by the distractions of violence, homelessness, and often-chaotic home life that distracts greatly from their school work. But in addition, many children from all socio-economic backgrounds are born with physical and cognitive handicaps that make it impossible for them to achieve college prep level academic performance even with special education or remedial services.

To put it in the blunt terms expressed by Mark Twain: “Tis sad but true that half the American people are below average”. Four year colleges are not inclined to accept and cope with students who perform below the academic average. We may not like it, but that’s a fact of human nature. Fortunately, our students are blessed with many other natural skills, interests, and talents that could allow them to succeed and be fulfilled by many careers that do not require 4 year degrees. Unfortunately, our insane quest to standardize children into academic elites has resulted in neglect in preparing students for the arts, the skilled trades and high level service occupations that benefit greatly from these other less appreciated talents and interests of our children.

And to make matters worse, Louisiana educators are forced to contend with the demagoguery and patronizing rhetoric coming from our so-called education leaders. I cringe every time I read the statement often repeated by our State Superintendent that: “Our students in Louisiana are just as smart as as any kids in this country”.  Where does this guy freshly arrived from New York get off telling us how smart our kids are? How does he know? What authority is he citing to tell us how smart our kids are? Educators are not impressed or charmed by this tactic because they know the real reason for that statement is to set us up for the next phase of reform by placing the blame again squarely on the shoulders of the teachers and administrators of Louisiana schools when students don’t perform at the arbitrary levels set by elitists far from Louisiana who know and care little about our people.    


Kimberly Kunst Domangue said...

As an Early Childhood-certified educator, I understand learning is developmental. It progresses in predictable stages, with advancement predicated upon opportunities to engage the environment combined with scaffolded, systematic support. As a teacher, I can model a skill; ultimately, however, it is the student's individual learning processes (ahem, "student-centered" vs. "teacher-directed") that will dictate when the skill becomes internalized and thus part of the learner's personal skill set. This is regardless of how "high a bar" is set. An unnaturally high-set bar is just a quick-ticket to the emergency room, not a one-way to the Olympics.

It is past time that teachers reclaim their profession: We DO NOT need to wait for someone to "respect" our judgement or educational preparation. It is commonly repeated that to be loved one must be lovable. It is also said that to be respected, one must be respectable. We WILL NOT receive respect from others until we FIRST RESPECT OURSELVES.

We can begin to respect ourselves by: 1) Teaching in the manner in which we were trained to teach.
2) Remaining professional in light of the misguided COMPASS evaluation system. To foster development of our craft, we need to seek the guidance of other experienced educators. They have indeed witnessed the pendulum pass and yet managed to avoid a concussion.
3) Attending school board meetings and voicing our concerns.
4) Contacting our legislators and voicing concerns.
5) Actively volunteering in political campaigns of those who are advocates for our students, their families, and our education system. Let's ignore political party and flashy advertisements (Yes, you CAN trust yourself: Start now!).
6) STICK TOGETHER REGARDLESS OF UNION/NON-UNION STATUS. Bullies target the weak and isolated. Bullies are not just found among the ranks of our students (where do we think the modeling is witnessed?).
7) Considering joining a teacher's union such as LAE, which has lobbied our legislature and provides representation at local school board meetings.

Thanks for the recap on the attempts to devolve public education. With knowledge, there is power (We need to take back our vernacular, too!).

Michael Deshotels said...

Thanks Kimberly. I agree that teachers cowering under their desks and hoping the reform mania will pass is cowardly and just encourages more bullying of teachers. That's why I have encouraged teachers to participate in my Defenders of Public Education. Thanks for being part of this effort.

brerrabbit said...

Another myth or hoax is that all this so-called progress is somehow scientific or even based on legitimately analyzed data that has been or even can be replicated: