Every now and then it is useful to step back from the hype and the spin and see what people on the ground have to say about important issues. In the case of education policy, we should not forget that George Bush gave us Rod Paige and the so-called Texas Miracle (which never was) as the argument for passing into law No Child Left Behind.
Obama has chosen his basketball buddy Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan is an exemplar of several things (1) mayoral control of the school system; (2) a non-educator put in charge of education. The track record of both is not particularly sanguine.
But rather than merely my saying so, perhaps you will take the words of someone on the ground in Chicago. Wade Tillett is a Chicago public school parent and teacher who also blogs about Chicago schools. The piece below appeared on his Bubble Over Network, the name of which comes from the ubiquitous use of bubble-in mass produced tests. I have Wade's permission to reproduce the entire piece, and I will add a few comments of my own at the end.
Flunk, retain, drop out
Written by Wade on May 27th, 2009
Soon scores from a small portion of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) will come back.
The booklet sent out with ISAT says “No person or organization shall make a decision about a student or educator on the basis of a single test.” (1)
Despite this, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) trusts this test to override our own teachers in deciding the future of our children.
For third, sixth and eighth graders, our promotion policy automatically flunks at least one in four children based on a thirty or forty question test. (2)
At the end of summer school, CPS is five times more likely to retain a child for the next year if they are African-American than if they are white. (3)
By retaining a student, CPS increases that child’s chance of dropping out by 29%. (4)
Chicago Public Schools spends $100 million dollars every year on this policy. (5)
Extensive research shows that it DOES NOT WORK. Repeating a grade does not help children succeed. (4)
Why do we continue to threaten eight-year-olds and tell third-graders they are failures? Why do we make students cry, throw-up, and finally quit?
Chicago Public Schools should use the $100 million it spends every year on holding back kids to instead provide what students really need: caring professionals with the time and resources to find out what works for each of them. Our children need advocates, not inflexible policies spit out of a machine.
CPS should stop using standardized test scores to override all other considerations in making student grade promotion decisions. I encourage anyone who agrees to sign the petition. And I encourage other parents to contact Parents United for Responsible Education if your child is forced to go to summer school.
1. 2009 ISBE ISAT Professional Testing Practices for Educators booklet
2. CPS policy sends any student below the 24th percentile to summer school.
5. $10,000 per student per year times approximately 10,000 students retained
Here's what is scary. Chicago is the model for what Duncan wants to do to American education. What has been done in Chicago since Richie Daley got mayoral control of the schools, first under Paul Vallas (who also imposed his "magic" on Philadelphia and New Orleans, but who is really interested in elective public office) and then under his one-time assistant Arne Duncan, has NOT addressed issues like the achievement gap that plagues poor, minority students. There is extensive evidence in the peer-reviewed literature of the negative consequences of retention, and that is without even considering the scope of retention system-wide in Chicago. The use of one-shot high-stakes multiple choice tests - which may or may not truly be standardized - to make the determination of who is retained is contrary to what the psychometricians responsible for the creation of the tests say is appropriate use of their tests.
The idea that anyone at below the 24th percentile is automatically required to attend summer school is also troublesome, unless there is an independent determination that at such a level the student is unable to function at the appropriate level for the next grade. It seems like an arbitrary cutoff without sufficient justification. Even if one presumes that the test is an accurate measurement of meaningful skills and knowledge, by that rationale we are assuming that just under 1/4 of all of our students are not succeeding sufficiently in regular school settings. If that is true, perhaps the answer is to address the deficiencies in the schooling received during the school year. Of course, the track record in Chicago has been instead to reconstitute troublesome schools, then not include their performance in the evaluation of the system on grounds that it is a "new school" so comparison with previous years' test scores is meaningless. Thus the Chicago Public Schools mask the lack of progress under many years of mayoral control.
That we are doing this to relatively young children, marking a significant portion as failures early in the school career is an abomination - the failure is not theirs, it is ours, all of us, for allowing this to occur.
I will not attempt to rationalize the disparate impact of these policies by race. Wade points that out clearly.
Testing, then analyzing test results and applying punitive sanctions has not yet proven successful within cities and state nor across the nation. While some advocates of the NCLB approach brag on "improved" scores at the elementary level in NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), such improvement is tenuous at best. The amount of improvement at the elementary level is less than in the previous cycle, that previous cycle having covered a period most of which occurred before NCLB. There is no improvement demonstrated at the upper grades. And even in the lower grades, the so-called achievement gap has not closed - minority children still lag behind as they did before - for this it is worth remembering that the ostensible purpose of NCLB was to close those gaps, to ensure that poor and minority children were not shortchanged on their education.
People in Chicago have been trying to warn the rest of us since before Obama became a candidate for president. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) has done yeoman's work in documenting the real story behind the supposed success of the various initiatives in Chicago.
Wade Tillett's piece is but one of a series of alarums to which we should pay heed. As Arne Duncan continues on his listening tour around the nation, people should be prepared to challenge him on the real record in Chicago.
In the last presidency we learned how badly our nation's educational system could be damaged by propagating a failed model. I fear we confront a similar challenge right now.
Learn, and then speak out, for the future of our public schools.