Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What International Student Assessments Really Tell Us.

The recent interview with Bill Gates and Randi Wiengarten in Newsweek seemed to assume that public schools in the U.S. are greatly inferior to other industrialized nations and that the main problem in our schools is under-performing teachers. It was also assumed in this interview that the curriculum in our schools is somehow weaker than that in other countries. The Newsweek story would lead us to believe that if we would just beef up and standardize the elementary/high school curriculum in all states and then find ways to retrain or replace teachers with better ones that all of our student performance problems would be solved. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here's why:
Various studies demonstrate that teacher quality is far from being the most important factor in student success. A much more important factor turns out to be the level of academic motivation of the student as influenced by his/her parents, his/her peers, and the community environment.  Now there is a recent analysis of international rankings of our students that point to factors other than poor teacher quality and a weak curriculum as the major challenges.

A more intensive look at statistics from the recent PISA assessment comparing student achievement of 65 industrialized countries gives us a good indication of where the problem is. This analysis of the PISA assessment was done for the combined reading skills portion of the test by the National Center for Education statistics (NCES). NCES found that while the U.S. Students as a whole rank about 17th compared to students from the 65 other countries tested, there are big differences in the performance of different ethnic groups within the U.S.. For example, Shanghai China whose students are obviously all Asian, scored 1st among all nations. When you break out the Asian origin students in the sample of American students tested, NCES found that their average score ranked 2nd in the world, right behind Shanghai. That's pretty good. Also when you break out the Caucasian students in the U.S. sample, their results were 6th in the world. That's not tops but its still pretty good. Its ahead of all other predominately Caucasian nations except Finland. So apparently the quality of U.S. teachers and the school curriculum are working just fine for ethnic Asian and Caucasian students in this country.

In addition, it was found by analyzing the results on the PISA assessment for free and reduced lunch students in the U.S. that the level of poverty in a school has the strongest correlation with that school's average scores on overall Language arts achievement. For example, a school with a free or reduced price lunch student population (an accepted measure of poverty) of between 50 and 75% ranks 39th compared to average scores of other industrialized nations. In contrast, a school with less than 10% free or reduced price lunch students would rank second among all tested nations.

After reviewing this data, if we still believe that the quality of teachers is the main cause of student performance we would arrive at the ridiculous conclusion that our teachers are good at teaching Asian and Caucasian students but terrible at teaching high poverty minority students!

Consider a specific example of student performance observed within the East Baton Rouge school system. Following the end of the Vietnam war, a large number of Vietnamese refuges were admitted into this country. Some settled in the Baton Rouge area. They were known as the Boat people and were escaping repression by the Communist government. Most of these immigrants were impoverished and they spoke little English. The Vietnamese who settled in Baton Rouge sent their children to public schools. There was no second language program at that time in Baton Rouge for Vietnamese, so the children had to learn English from scratch. These immigrants though poor had a strong work ethic and tight knit family units which insisted on high academic achievement. Within a few years the Vietnamese children in the public school system were excelling in all subjects. When awards were given for the very top students in the school system among 60,000 students, a disproportionate number of Vietnamese students were recognized as winners in English, Math and Science. These students excelled using the same teachers and curriculum that was available to all other students.

The differences in the performance of different ethnic groups and poverty levels in the U.S. has been well known for some time. One of the major failures of the No Child Left Behind federal law was the failure to close the achievement gap between high poverty and more privileged students.

So why does the Newsweek article dwell almost completely on teacher quality and curriculum enhancement as the favored approachs to improving our schools? This is the second major story Newsweek has produced in the past few months which assumes that most of the problems of American education are caused by incompetent teachers.  It is clear that Newsweek is pursuing an agenda on education that is not based on fact. What do we gain by making teachers the scapegoats for some of the deep seated problems in our society over which they have no control? Apparently some non-educators would rather pretend that the problems in American education have simple solutions. Unfortunately, both Bill Gates and AFT president Randi Weingarten seemed to buy into this bogus premise.

As I have pointed out in earlier posts on this blog, I believe you could switch the teachers from our highest performing schools with those in our lowest performing schools and you would notice little effect on the performance of the students in either school. The same is true of the expectation that introduction of a tougher curriculum would produce better achievement.

Some of our philanthropist reformers who have never once worked as teachers in high poverty schools have proposed that teachers of high poverty students simply have low expectations of these students. They suggest that if teachers would instead hold these students to higher expectations and higher standards, the students would perform up to the increased expectations. This assumption has no basis in fact. Instead many of our young teachers in high poverty schools have repeatedly had their hopes and expectations for their students crushed by continuing poor performance. Approximately 50% of new teachers leave the profession by the end of their 5th year teaching. The fact that many students fail to meet reasonable expectations of achievement and classroom behavior is a major reason for the high attrition rate of new teachers.

I believe that this obsession today's education reformers have with toughening the curriculum for all students and purging the teaching profession of thousands of imaginary bad teachers will divert attention, and funding from the real problems of public education in the U.S. Rather than spend millions on new punitive evaluation systems for teachers, we should be using that money to make sure that all students are in school every day ready to learn. Extra effort must be made to involve parents in the educational process. In addition we need to provide struggling students with more intensive learning activities focused on their specific needs. That may mean a longer school day and a longer school year with special concentration on Reading and Math skills. And finally, we in Louisiana especially need to change from a system that fails and pushes out students who do not meet our system of college prep standards for all. Instead we should provide education suitable to the needs and career aspirations of each student.

In Finland, one of the top performing countries in elementary/secondary education, students are not considered failures if they do not pass a college prep curriculum. The school system instead is flexible and provides a good education to all students whether college bound or bound for skilled and technical careers. Our present system in Louisiana stigmatizes and flunks out many non-college bound students while unnecessarily watering down classroom instruction in academic courses to accommodate non-academic students. Why not instead have a first rate college prep program in every school system with strong emphasis on modern STEM courses while at the same time provide a first rate Career Prep program in cooperation with our Community and Technical college systems?

The true experts in education who are working hard every day in our public schools must take it upon themselves to speak out against education reforms based on faulty assumptions. Otherwise the silence of educators will be seen as support for these misguided schemes. As we have learned in the years of No Child Left Behind, only educators will be blamed for the failure of poorly designed education reforms forced upon them by ill informed reformers and politicians.
Happy New Year!