Thursday, November 11, 2010

Myths Driving Education Reform

There are so many myths and misconceptions driving education reform in the US today, it makes my head spin. My training in science with emphasis on use of the scientific method for solving problems leaves me perplexed and frustrated by education reform based on false assumptions. Our state and nation seem to be on a wild goose chase of education reform schemes that are not supported by legitimate education research. This is happening at the same time that a newly elected, fiscally conservative Congress wants to cut spending. It looks like public schools will be asked to produce higher student achievement in narrow tested areas with less money at the same time that privatization of schools is being pushed by powerful business interests. Here are some of the crazy reform mandates educators in Louisiana will be dealing with in the near future:

Under the latest wave of education reform, the perceived under performance of our public schools is to be solved by closing schools, firing principals and a certain percentage of teachers, and allowing untested, mostly unsupervised private groups to take over public schools. The idea that public schools funded by tax dollars should be managed by democratically elected school boards seems no longer important to the reformers.

Recent studies have revealed that when under-performing schools in Chicago were closed by Arne Duncan, the students continued to perform just as poorly in their newly assigned schools. But never mind that fact, he now intends to apply the same false solution to many other schools throughout the nation. The proposed re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by the Obama administration calls for a complete restructuring of the lowest performing public schools using either charter schools, school closings, or mass administrator and teacher firings.

In another reform effort, big chunks of federal grants are going to school systems that will implement teacher merit pay systems. This comes just after a major study was released by Vanderbilt University which shows that a teacher merit pay system made little or no difference in student achievement. According to the article in Education Week, this was the most rigorous study of performance based teacher compensation in the US. How can our government continue to defy logic and science and expect education to improve?

Lets look at the predicament educators face here in Louisiana. Several years ago, BESE and the Board of Regents decided that public elementary and secondary schools should prepare students better for college. It was determined (without consultation with the educators in the field) that the best approach would be to require a strong college prep curriculum of all students as a requirement for high school graduation. The business community loved the idea. It would mean that all students would leave high school proficient in English, math and science and could therefore be prepared for the high tech jobs of the future whether they attended college or not.

Its a little early to tell for sure, but my assessment is that this scheme will be a total failure. Here's why: Public schools in Louisiana regularly lose most of the top 20% of its academically inclined students to one of the strongest private school system in the nation. Statistics tell us that only the top 30% of academic performers will succeed in four year colleges. So even if we wanted to be ambitious in preparing more of our public school students for 4 year colleges, we can expect no more than 30 to 40 percent of our public school students to make it to a 4 year degree. These students need the best college prep curriculum we can provide them in middle through high school. But the system we have in place in most public schools provides our true college prep students with much less of a rigorous education than they need. Why? Because in attempting to provide a college prep curriculum to all students we force our teachers to water down the critical courses in math, English and science to accommodate the large number of students who are not college material. In designing our education system as one size fits all, we end up shortchanging most of our students. We have weakened our college prep curriculum and at the same time, set up many of our other students for failure and denial of a high school diploma. This plan while well intentioned was stupid, and ignored the facts on the ground in our pubic school system. It guarantees that a huge percentage of our students will not get the education they really need in preparing for critically needed skills and service jobs which are the only ones growing in Louisiana's economy. It guarantees that a large percentage of our unemployable young people will be added to the welfare roles or to our huge prison population. It also guarantees that many of our schools will continue to look like failures because they are not producing larger numbers of college prepared students.

What are the college performance results of the new policy? ACT scores which are the best predictor of college performance are the same as they were 4 years ago, and I read recently that Louisiana now has the second lowest college graduation rate in the nation. The present structure of our public high schools as mandated by BESE and the Board of Regents insures that we will stay at that level.

Late addition: Click on this link to read the story in The Advocate about the low ranking of Louisiana in offering advanced placement courses. Why don't we use more of our scarce resourses to offer more advanced placement courses to the students who really need them? The Zachary school system is somehow getting this done. Thanks on behalf of my grandchildren!