Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Myth of the Broken U.S. School System

This article by a distinguished professor of Education exposes the use of false negative propaganda about the U.S. public K-12 school system. Apparently school reformers decided over a decade ago that it would be much easier to sell their pet projects for school reform if the American public could just be convinced that our public schools were failing and beyond repair. Then we would have nothing to lose by scrapping the whole "broken" system and trying any reform scheme the reformers could dream up. This would allow reformers to implement revolutionary changes without the need to provide credible evidence that such changes would actually improve student performance.

Here is another article in the Huffington Post that shows how one of the buzzwords of education is used to "deform" our education system.

It is worrisome that the major proponents of revolutionary changes in education are people who have no education credentials and minimal background in actual teaching. This would be like allowing people with no medical training to change the structure of the medical profession. For example, in Louisiana, major education reform designers included an attorney, Paul Pastorek, lobbyists from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, legislators, and a governor with no education credentials. The major elements of school reform nationwide fall more into the category of ideology than of legitimate education strategies. Here are the questionable assumptions of American education reform:
  1. Standardized testing of students in math and English language arts is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a school.
  2. Any school where students perform significantly below average on standardized tests in math and English language arts should be considered a failing school.
  3. Firing and replacing the principal and at least half the teachers in a failing school will ultimately produce better student performance.
  4. State takeover of so called failing schools and conversion to privately managed charter schools will result in significantly better student performance on standardized tests.
  5. The use of taxes dedicated to public schools to provide parents a "choice" of sending their children to charter schools and private voucher schools at public expense will result in better student performance.
  6. The main thing preventing at-risk or high poverty students from performing is the low expectations of their teachers.
  7. The best measure of teacher performance is performance of students on standardized tests.
  8. Any low performing student who is taught by highly effective teachers over a three year period will improve up to grade level without any other assistance.
None of the above strategies are supported by research or experience.

In Louisiana, the Recovery District is a state run bureaucracy designed to take over and turn over so called "failing schools" to education entrepreneurs who establish charter schools to replace the traditional schools. State Superintendent Paul Pastorek who led the takeover effort had a background as a lawyer and no training in education. He brought in Paul Vallas from Chicago whose training was in accounting and finance to run the Recovery District. In a few short years the RSD was declared a big success that should be used as a model for other states. The only problem is that the measure of success was a bunch of carefully selected statistics that seemed to show amazing growth in student test scores and graduation rates. Later it was learned that the growth in test scores was simply a part of teaching to tests and lowered standards which did not show significant improvements relative to other school systems in the state with similar demographics. The "improved" graduation rate was found to have been inflated by listing dropouts as transfers to other states. The graduation rate of the RSD is now listed as the lowest in all school systems in the state and student performance in math and English is in the bottom 20% just as it was at the time of takeover. Some RSD schools have been simply shut down because of lack of support from parents and others have been returned back to the original school systems because of dismal results.

But to make matters worse, other states are still trying to imitate the Louisiana Recovery District by creating Achievement Districts. All have failed or shown little progress in student achievement. This idea for reform was totally bogus, but did help to promote independent charter schools which are now referred to as choice schools.

The concept of school choice which includes the funding of charter schools and private voucher schools with public money has become extremely popular with politicians. That's because of the completely unsupported claim that parents are best qualified to decide which school is best for their child. Corporate reformers have greased the wheels of the choice movement by making generous contributions to politicians.

Now it apparently does not matter whether a school produces academic results as long as parents choose it for their child. For example, a recent study found that the for-profit, online virtual charter schools are the lowest performing schools in the nation, yet there is no move to close or restructure these very profitable schools. Instead, many reformers claim that individualized education plans that can be accessed by a student anywhere with a computer are the true waive of the future. There is not one shred of evidence that this works better than students attending public schools with real live teachers, yet the online schools are lavishly funded compared to the real public schools because their platform for delivery of services is so much cheaper than brick and mortar schools. The only problem is that on average, students show minus one year of progress for every year enrolled in virtual schools. It is true however that some highly motivated, high performing students, do quite well in virtual schools. But that success is due more to the quality of the student than to the school type.

Many of the principles of school reform we see today in America should be classified more as wishful thinking rather than as legitimate alternatives. Reformers have an almost religious belief in certain methods of reform without evidence that they work. For example, it is an absolute article of faith of most reformers that: if we insist on higher standards, our students will increase their performance to meet those standards. There is no evidence for the article of faith of reformers. In Louisiana, and in many other states, the performance of students on the new Common Cores tests has been nothing short of disastrous. In Louisiana, the average passing score on the latest standardized tests has been reduced to an average cut score of only 30%. Students could come close to achieving this passing score by just guessing. Is this raising the bar?

Use of student test scores to rate, pay, and even dismiss teachers has also been an absolute disaster. Many otherwise highly respected teachers have been declared "ineffective" because of flaws in the Value Added Model of teacher evaluation. The widespread use of VAM has already resulted in a growing teacher shortage and a drastic decline in enrollments in colleges of education.

No one has ever been able to verify the theory that three highly effective teachers in a row will raise student performance to grade level particularly when the student must deal with handicapping factors outside the school.

The idea that any parent should have the right to take the state and local school tax allotment for their child and enroll them in any private school or charter school they choose violates the very principles upon which our successful education system was built. That is public schools are funded by all taxpayers and run by school boards elected by all the voters. On average, over two thirds of the Minimum Foundation Funding for each child to attend school is paid by persons who do not have a child enrolled in a K-12 school. The funding of public education for all children no matter the income of their parents is considered as part of our public responsibility. But when we turn the entire school funding for a child over to the parent we are violating the rights of all taxpayers to demand that their tax money be used wisely. Some voucher schools are still allowed to keep public funding for students that would be considered to be attending a failing school. So school reform has produced a double standard that encourages the misuse of our school taxes.

The Atlantic article should be a wake-up call for all Americans. It time to start demanding accountability of the education reformers.