Wednesday, July 24, 2013

School Reform Based on Bad Comparisons

Last Sunday CNN aired a one hour show featuring reporter Morgan Spurlock as part of  the Inside Man series where he attempted to compare the U S public education system to the public system in Finland. Spurlock in this report also attempted to investigate why Finnish students have been judged to be the top academic performers in the western world as measured by the PISA assessment. His report also attempted to get some ideas that the U S could borrow to improve American student performance in the basic skills.

In Spurock's  initial discussions with education leaders in Finland, the show described the huge difference in the emphasis on standardized testing in Finland compared to our country. The Finns have been able to produce superior academic performance of their K-12 students while using almost no standardized testing. Instead they insist emphatically that they trust their school principals to run the schools and the principals trust the teachers to properly instruct the students without the use of State testing to verify the results. Americans on the other hand have been led to believe that unless we test the students every year with standard instruments, we cannot trust that the teachers have done their jobs. We apparently believe that if we constantly test students and rate teachers using student test results, students and teachers will perform better. This concept has been carried to the extreme in Louisiana and a few other states where everything about a teacher's employment depends on those state tests. In fact in Louisiana, VAM scores overrule all other measures of teacher performance.

The Inside Man episode on education also took viewers to a highly regarded charter school in New York, Williamsburg Collegiate, where viewers see a highly regimented education system that is closely tied to standardized testing results. Spurlock commented about how the hallways at Williamsburg Collegiate are so quiet and that the students are incredibly respectful of the teaching staff. He went on to comment that "This is something that most American public schools are failing to do." I believe this particular indictment of American schools is false and that Spurlock was not knowledgeable enough about American schools to draw this conclusion. In fact it turns out that most American schools are quite effective and competitive with Finnish schools and students in most schools are quite respectful of teachers without the need for the regimentation found at Williamson Collegiate.

If he had dug deeper into the research, Spurlock would have found that the Uncommon Schools charter management organization which manages Williamsburg Collegiate may owe much of its success to a strict culling process used by many charter schools to remove undesirable students to make sure that they retain mostly students who will produce higher scores on the state tests. One of their schools in Massachusetts for example was found to have the highest student suspension rate in the entire state. This is just one of the methods that elite charter schools use to "improve" their student population.

To more fairly compare American schools to Finland and to other leading countries, lets take a look at a recent analysis by Christine McCartney. Ms McCartney points out that since American schools have by far the highest rate of student poverty of any industrialized country, we should instead compare American schools with similar rates of poverty as the schools in Finland and others. Here is a chart she created making those apple-to-apple comparisons:

 The chart compares the average student PISA scores of US students with other countries taking into account the poverty levels of students: (If you have trouble viewing this reduced size chart, just go to McCartney's original post at the link above)
So in most states and certainly in Louisiana, unlike Finland, our so called education leaders have determined that teachers and principals cannot be trusted based on a very flawed comparison of student performance with other countries.  The chart above shows that for schools in America having close to the same poverty level as Finland, our students actually perform better than the schools in Finland.

Now teachers in Louisiana are having their tenure and seniority destroyed based on an incorrect comparison of our students with other countries. I believe our schools to be at least as good as the other industrialized nations. We certainly have serious problems overcoming the effects of poverty in our schools and discipline is a major problem, but why not attack the poverty problem directly instead of condemning all our public schools? We have trashed our public schools and we have slandered and demoralized our teachers based on an improper and unfair comparison. To add insult to injury, I just read a recent quote from John White where he said that our new teacher evaluation system should be based on trust!