Friday, January 26, 2007

What We Talk About When We Talk About School Privatization

A variation of the post appears at Schools Matter.

Before Bush II came to Washington with his Texas Mirage (TAAS) that would become the Nation’s Nightmare (NCLB), the Dems owned the education issue. In large part it was due to the work of another Texan, LBJ, whose policies eventually brought us face to face with the liberal (as in Enlightenment) delusion that for every social or economic problem, there is a schooling solution. That we continue to embrace the delusion is clearly evident in the continuing acceptance of a Bush education policy purportedly aimed at helping a minority population whose support for him has never climbed into double digits.

Notwithstanding a continuing widespread blindness among white voters to the real Bush agenda, it is with a heightened sense of incredulity that we are subjected to another round of threadbare platitudes about not leaving minority children behind, platitudes that are cynically used as they have been from the start to disguise the conservatives' real agenda of crushing public schools while continuing to subjugate the poor. In this new push for the conservatives' privatization scheme, the focus has subtly shifted from saving poor children by closing the achievement gap in the public schools to now saving poor children by giving them $4,000 to escape into either Christian fundamentalist madrasahs or the Big Lots version of secular private schools. Oh yes, one other Spellings option: Chain-gang charters (the Tucker Solution) that have been demonstrated by her own "scientifically-based" research to be no better, or even worse, than the public schools she would replace. No matter--the charter solution is at least cheaper to run with no messy collective bargaining units to deal with and no prying eyes from publicly-elected school boards.

From the Tribunein Chicago, where Spellings was yesterday trying to remedy that elusive 1% of non-perfection that continues to plague her almost pure plan:
"For the promise of No Child Left Behind to be real, we must provide more vigorous and robust tools to address the chronic underperformers," Spellings said. "We cannot have kids trapped in these schools year after year after year."
What do African-Americans think of Bush's new plan to free their children by giving them a handout big enough for them to choose their own correctional testing facilities?
Is this a window of opportunity to reclaim the education agenda for the purpose of advancing democracy? Here is must-read commentary from New America Media:

EDITOR'S NOTE: President George W. Bush is asking Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, but the act has failed to deliver on its promise, writes Donal Brown, a New America Media reporter who taught for 35 years in California's public schools.

President George W. Bush is asking Congress to re-enact the No Child Left Behind Act even though the act has failed to significantly boost the performance of under-achieving students.

Calling the NCLB a "good law" during the State of the Union address, the president ignored the criticisms of those in the educational trenches.

NCLB began auspiciously with the right emphasis on enabling urban students to improve their school performance. It provided a frame for establishing high standards for all students and making schools responsible for student progress.

But for all its good intentions, the law has created huge problems for educators, students and parents, and has failed to deliver in crucial areas.

At the onset, NCLB was never funded properly. There was no money provided to transfer students out of under-performing schools. In Chicago, 2,000 students needed to transfer, but had no place to go.

In a feeble attempt at a remedy, once again the Bush administration is playing the voucher card. In his speech, Bush said he wants to enable "children stuck in failing schools the right to choose some place better."

The Department of Education reauthorization plan allocates $4,000 scholarships for students to attend private, other public or out-of-district public schools. This does not address the problem that in many cities, there are simply no schools in which to use the scholarships. Private schools are exclusive and are not likely to accept large numbers of under-performing students from public schools. The tuition of the best private schools can range from four to seven times that of the scholarship money. And there is no sign that suburban schools with high performing students are lining up to accept these students, either.

So far, the transfer aspect of NCLB is a failure. In 2005, nationwide, only 1 percent of eligible students chose to transfer. Critics also question spending money on busing students when funds are needed to hire better teachers, improve instruction and provide books and computers.

Notwithstanding the need to establish stronger benchmarks for success, the testing regime established by NCLB has delivered no more than minimal results.

In his speech, Bush cited the progress minority children had made in closing the testing score gap between them and other students. Fact-checkers working after the speech and others say that Bush's claim that NCLB is closing the gap is exaggerated.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2005 indicated that the reading scores for fourth grade Asian, Hispanic and black students went up modestly. Native American scores went down. For the eighth grade, scores for all groups except Asians went down. The achievement gap between black and white students from 2002 to 2005 widened a bit.

Professor W. Norton Grubb of the University of California at Berkeley, who has extensive experience in urban schools, thinks it is too early to make any claims for NCLB. He says that any rise in scores can be characterized as one-time improvements from students getting used to testing and teachers teaching to the test.

For sure, teachers around the country are reeling under the weight of a testing regime. Some out of desperation are resorting to deadly drills that sap the spirit of students and deaden the joy of learning.

The Bush plan to reauthorize NCLB calls for more funding for tutoring that was not funded under the original act. The reauthorization funds tutoring for disabled and limited English proficiency students. Unfortunately, there are legions of other students who need tutoring.

Urban districts strapped for funds have found it impossible to provide qualified tutors. Grubb said districts that do provide tutoring often hire untrained college students unfamiliar with students' needs or how to help them. He said that a program called Reading Recovery was effective using one-to-one or small group tutoring by highly trained tutors.

The list goes on. The reauthorization plan is woefully inadequate in addressing the need for more and better-trained teachers. The plan wants to improve teaching by rewarding effective teachers, but only offers "resources" to interested states and districts rather than funding.

That will do little to provide excellent teachers for the most difficult students to teach. Harnessed with poor teaching conditions, unruly students and inadequate training, teachers do not last. There should be more federal money going directly for salaries and training for those teachers willing to take jobs in schools with vast numbers of under-performing students.

It is unlikely that the Bush administration will make significant outlays for education. The war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich have depleted the treasury, and now that the Democrats rule Congress, Bush has forsaken the route of deficit spending and is trumpeting the virtues of a balanced budget.

Yet there is no more important challenge facing the nation than turning out, in Bush's words, "a public with knowledge and character." It will take more than a warmed-over NCLB to meet that challenge.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cicero in the 21st Century

In lieu of a profound post this morning, a bit of a lyric by Steve Savitzky:
Times were bad two thousand years ago
Said Cicero, just take a look:
Children don't obey their parents
And everyone is writing a book....

Yes, these are terrible times that we live in
Society is going to the dogs
Children don't obey their parents
And everyone is writing blogs.

Steve's voice is just fine, but something about the chorus makes me think that Bob Dylan's voice fits the last three lines.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“Doing better”in grammar school or middle school?

For the better part of a decade, urban districts (Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York – and my own Lancaster, Pa.) have been pondering, planning and, in some cases, implementing a shift back to the grammar school (K-8) model and away from the middle school that has become the educational home of choice for 6th, 7th and 8th graders since the early 80s. Into this policy playground comes a new study by respected Johns Hopkins middle school researchers Douglas and Martha MacIver that claims “No benefit to eliminating middle school,” according to the headline in my morning paper.

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the MacIver study; my comment here should not be read as a critique of their research. The study seems to be well-conceived to determine whether students experience learning growth – as measured by test scores -- over the three years of a middle school stay. The data support the view that children in middle schools score as well as students in K-8 schools, at least when other variables like teaching quality, curriculum, etc. remain constant.

I don’t doubt the MacIvers research findings but I do question what it means to “do better.” And I do want to question the assumption that we should put students of a certain age either into a middle school or a grammar school. Why not both/and? Before explaining what I mean, a bit of school history:

The middle school was, as those over 40 know, the successor to the junior high school. In 1989, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, a report that took the developmental profile of young adolescents seriously and designed a school around them. The middle school, already in place in some districts (more because of demographic demand than developmental focus), found its philosophical underpinnings: to strengthen academic demands and to create a caring environmental in which those academic demands could be prosecuted.

And the middle school made sense, at least more sense than its predecessor, the junior high school. In the junior high school, a universe of growing hormone levels, independence needs, and shaky identities came together in a blend that was toxic for many. Shifting the age range and locating learners in teams where a finite number of teachers and students could establish on-going relationships made lots of sense. It still does.

But we forgot something. In the grammar school, big kids could be big kids to little kids. They were in a position to be someone’s role model and to live up to that task. They could reach down and help a smaller child tie a shoe or hang a sign or find the right room. And this aspect of doing better is not as easily addressed in a middle school. Sources as various as philosopher Nel Noddings and recent research on recidivist adolescent offenders tells us that one learns to care by take the role of the carer as well as by being cared for. Middle school children need to experience caring for another regularly, even systematically. I am not talking about the emotions that go with the act of caring for; I mean the habitual mode of attending to and providing for the needs of another. Now, one can care for one’s books and one’s pets and one’s other possessions, of course. But not even pets will respond as the “cared for” (to use Noddings’ phrasing) in the same way that a younger child will. Adolescents need younger children in their lives to play the role of the “cared for” to their “carer.” The grammar school can provide that. Whether or not test scores go up, a grammar school arrangement offers opportunities that middle school structures cannot.

But what of the problems? Don’t young adolescents need something more challenging and more independent than the self-contained classroom? Might big kids not bully little kids? Might little kids not annoy big kids to distraction? Sure. And that’s why we should be thinking both/and, not either/or, when it comes to middle school and grammar school. Why can’t 6th, 7th and 8th graders live in their own section or wing of a grammar school, remaining segregated for many functions but emerging to act as reading buddies, tutors, mentors, guides for younger children and ushers for adult visitors in planned ways? And while we’re at it, why can’t we blur grade and curricular lines to allow those children to move at their own academic pace within the “middle school” that is within the “grammar school”?

The MacIver study is a careful and well-designed study that provides interesting data about a real policy question. Should children of a certain age be in this kind of school structure or that one? Are grammar schools “better” for kids than middle schools? Well, it depends on how you define “better,” what it means to “do better” educationally. If “doing better” is a matter of test scores, as the MacIvers apparently maintain, then teaching quality and curriculum are the critical variables and school structure may be aperipheral concern. But if “doing better” is also a moral matter, if we are concerned with what adolescents do as well as what they know, then we would do well to consider placing middle schools within a grammar school structure. There younger adolescents can learn first-hand what it means to be “older and wiser.” They can practice their wisdom and their caring on the young children in their midst. Then we will all do better.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Education and democracy (an historical perspective)

Today is the fifth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act. One of the rhetorical arguments in favor of it is the claim that it serves civil-rights purposes. That implies that education is a right attached to citizenship, a powerful concept, and the anniversary provides a reason to explore that a little, especially the way that the civil-rights arguments for accountability miss half of the political equation connecting democracy to education. Historically, we have connected education to democracy in two ways: Education is for democracy and education comes with democracy. The two ideas were originally separate: Americans started to argue that education was a right in the first part of the 19th century, after some of them had argued that the new nation needed education to help make the nation.

In the late stages of and after the Revolutionary War, Americans started to argue about all sorts of things regarding the new nation: what should be the political structure, how should we govern ourselves, what the role of women should be, etc. One of those topics was education: Was there a role for education in making the new nation? Plenty of people said yes. Many readers may be familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s ideas in Notes on the State of Virginia, where he proposed that Virginia have a system of free primary education for all white males, to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people (we know what he thought "the people" meant, but I'm not going to get into his weird racial politics too deeply here other than being conscious of it). The best white boy from each district school would go on to the grammar school: By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammer schools go. (So Jefferson’s notion of meritocracy didn’t assume that the population as a whole would be fit for higher education.) And the best poor boy from each grammar school would attend William and Mary College without tuition. He acknowledged a number of purposes, but one remained supreme, and I’ll preserve his 18th century style:
But of all the views of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.
Others in the late 18th century had their own arguments about what national purpose education should serve: Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Samuel Harrison Smith, and Samuel Knox are among those better known to historians of education, and the latter two won an essay contest on the topic conducted by the American Philosophical Society. The larger point here is that before there were systems of education or a notion of education as a right of citizenship, people made arguments that we needed education for democracy.

The argument that education is a right that comes with democracy evolved later, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Common school reformers argued that schooling should be tuition-free, but that wasn’t necessarily tied to education as a right (more as something that would make a better society). It took arguments about the expanded franchise (for white males only) and local workingmen’s parties to make the link between citizenship rights to vote and citizenship rights to schooling: "Give us our rights, and we shall not need your charity" (Mechanics’ Free Press, 1828, quoted in Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, 1983, p. 138). The workingmen’s parties formed in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1820s were part of what labor historian Sean Wilentz called the history of civic republicanism, with skilled workers concerned about wages and the perceived decline in their social status and respect.

By the late 19th century, domestic politics had confirmed education as tied to the franchise. In European countries, that didn’t happen in the 19th century. The United States developed with one model of social citizenship rooted in public education, and European welfare states developed with another model rooted in a wide range of public institutions.

Today, we've lost this understanding, and most public debate on schooling refers to the second link between education and democracy (the right to an education), rather than the first (education that serves democratic purposes). As a result, we can talk about equal education for economic purposes, but that dominates any discussion of what democratic participation requires (except for these small matters of adequate-education lawsuits such as the one in New York). And people can talk about "my right" to an education and to a diploma, implying that the main purpose of education is private, to secure a good job.

One of the losses of the reform debates in the last quarter-century has been the denigration of public education in multiple senses. Privatization is an attack on the idea of public control of schools and an attack on the public sphere in general. But the other losses may be just as damaging. If we lose the sense of public education as having a public purpose beyond individual advancement, we are losing a significant purpose of schooling. And if we lose the sense of public education in terms of advancing the idea of a public—a group of people who decide their future together—we may be losing the whole ball of wax.

(Adapted from another writing I've done online. Most links are to Worldcat entries for books, so you can find the nearest library copy.)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Professor Schrag, Cong. Miller, NCLB, and the Nurturing of Despair

Posted at Schools Matter January 6, 2007:
Peter Schrag recently did an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee calling for repairs, or a new "surge," for the failed war on the public schools known as NCLB. Below are Professor Schrag's remarks and my own interspersed as commentary on the commentary:

Like many federal laws, the No Child Left Behind Act operates mostly on states and local agencies. Few ordinary citizens notice it in their private lives.

But NCLB, the centerpiece of President Bush's compassionate conservatism, has had a deeper impact on the nation's schools and thus on students than any other piece of federal legislation.

"It's changed the conversation in the schools," as Alan Bersin, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's outgoing secretary of education, said the other day, by forcing serious attention on school accountability and achievement, particularly the lagging achievement of poor and minority kids.

Serious attention, or disingenous political rhetoric? Check out (click to enlarge) the chart at left by Jerry Bracey.

But it's also generated fundamental controversies and thorny problems that go to the heart of the nation's ambivalence about educational policy and the treatment of kids. One of its two core provisions requires all schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in major academic fields by 2014. Schools receiving federal funds for disadvantaged students that don't make progress toward that goal face an increasingly tough set of sanctions.

Some critics have called the very notion of 100 percent proficiency an oxymoron -- something that, if proficiency is to have any meaning, can't be achieved. And since the states themselves define proficiency and set their own standards, some, such as Wisconsin, have lowered their standards to make the targets. California, which has among the highest standards in the nation, is not one of them, despite some legislative efforts to water them down.

Professor Schrag does not go so far here as to agree with the critics, even though he doubtless knows they are correct. Studies in MA, WI, MI, IL, for instance, show a 60-90% failure rate by 2014, even with the state standards that Schrag claims have been watered down. If we abandoned state standards for, let’s say, NAEP standards, there would truly be no public school left standing even before 2014 (see Bob Linn’s projections based on NAEP scores (pdf). Of course, no public school left standing (NPSLS) is exactly the result that the education privatizers have been working toward even before the NCLB was craftily crafted, a fact that has been shrouded beneath the threadbare mantle and the cynical mantra of "closing the achievement gap" between rich and poor.

But as seemed evident from the start, the federal mandate on schools to get students in all ethnic, economic and educational subgroups to full proficiency is a near impossibility, especially for learning disabled students and immigrants who have been in U.S. schools for three years -- or perhaps five years -- or less.

Rep. George Miller of Martinez, a Democrat who's the incoming chairman of the House Education Committee, and, with Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the co-authors of NCLB, agrees that the law needs fixes especially in weighing the achievement of English learners and handicapped students.

He's also willing to consider proposals from California and other states that school progress be measured by year-to-year growth rather than movement toward that 100 percent proficiency goal. But he's leery about abandoning a drop-dead date. "We can't give away the integrity of the act," he said. If the schools think that mere "growth," no matter how little, is enough for students to be competitive in the global economy, the country is likely to be back on the slippery path to mediocrity.

So it is no longer the job of the American free market to make us competitive in the global economy—it has come down to making children in school accountable for whether or not American capitalism maintains its world dominance. And the slippery path to mediocrity? If we were not being constantly reminded by ED, we could certainly wonder where the mediocrity left off or where it became most pronounced.

In terms of the "integrity of the Act," consider the reasoning that anchors the current stupidity:
  • The integrity of NCLB is built upon meeting the 100% proficiency target for all children by 2014.
  • The disadvantages of English language learners and handicapped students make it impossible for these children to achieve the 100% proficiency target by 2014.
  • Therefore, the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 must be kept in place to preserve “the integrity of the Act.”
There are even deeper problems with this kind of thought-disordered reasoning. While Rep. Miller (and Prof. Schrag, too, perhaps) admit that it is impossible to expect students who are disadvantaged by disability or by language status to reach full proficiency, they are quiet when it comes to addressing the greatest disabler in America—poverty. Scores on standardized tests, whether the SAT, TIMSS, or the New Jersey HSPA (or pick another), show the same pattern: as poverty decreases, test scores go up, and vice versa. Here is an example of SAT scores for 2002:

SAT Scores 2002 from the College Board

Family Income Verbal/Math Scores

Less than $10,000/year-----417/442
$10,000 - $20,000/year-----435/453
$20,000 - $30,000/year-----461/470
$30,000 - $40,000/year-----480/485
$40,000 - $50,000/year-----496/501
$50,000 - $60,000/year-----505/509
$60,000 - $70,000/year-----511/516
$70,000 - $80,000/year-----517/524
$80,000 - $100,000/year----530/538
More than $100,000/year---555/568

So if we know, without a doubt, that most poor children, immigrant children, and disabled children are going to score, let’s say, 18-20% lower than middle class native-speaking ableist children, why should we treat their disadvantage of income differently than, let’s say, autism, especially when the same disparities in performance result? Why do we acknowledge a psychological disability, a biological disability, or a language disability at the same time we ignore the socioeconomic disability? Does the refusal to acknowledge poverty as a disability allow us to continue our unethical and inhumane testing practices that we could not allow ourselves otherwise?

The bipartisan deal that led to the passage of NCLB in 2001 was based on a combination of rigorous school accountability measures and increased federal funding that would supposedly pay for the increased demands on schools.

Inevitably there's been erosion at both ends of the bargain. States have continually fudged on the law's demand that there be a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom -- a laudable target but a near impossibility -- and on the proficiency standards. The Bush administration, while increasing funding, has fallen many billions short of its fiscal commitments when the law was passed.

Not surprisingly, there's been push-back from a variety of sources -- from bipartisan legislative committees, from the National Education Association, from some civil rights groups and from educators who believe that the law's pressure on states has led schools to overemphasize drill for tests and the subjects, particularly math and English, that are tested, and to neglect other subjects.

There's also debate about the extent to which federal accountability programs have raised achievement and closed the gaps between different groups of students. And as low-standards states continue to report high levels of success, the gaps between state and national test scores have increased pressure for a system of national standards, even among educational conservatives who generally oppose meddling with what used to be a strict state-local prerogative.

What's certain is that until the federal and state accountability are "harmonized" -- Bersin's term -- there'll be continuing public confusion about what different scores and proficiency reports mean. In California, as elsewhere, hundreds of schools that are doing well according to the state's "growth" model are underperforming in moving toward the federal proficiency target.

Although NCLB is up for renewal this coming year, and while it's already the subject of hearings, the chances of major revisions before the 2008 presidential election -- or even on anything more than a temporary extension -- are low. Given the controversies, neither the administration nor Congress is eager to touch the subject any sooner than necessary.

And yet it's also true that, as Miller says, "When you have poor kids, poor schools and poor teachers, how can you expect a good result?" To change that requires a major -- and well targeted -- investment, including serious reforms in the nation's tired schools of education, another item on Miller's agenda. And it will require a continuing national push.

So will changing the schools of education bring an end to the family income chasm, which is the source of the achievement gap? Who will be blamed after it is demonstrated that schools of education are not creating the gap?

"If NCLB is gone," as he says, "America's poor kids will again be forgotten."

Does Rep. Miller really believe that poor kids have been helped by dumping them into the cruel testing crucible of assured failure? Does he not see that these children are being dumped on the streets the same way they have been dumped ever since slavery—but this time with a new realization that the mantra of “work hard, be nice” means even less than it meant when Booker T. Washington learned it from the white philanthropic liberals of his generation? Will this current generation of assured losers be as acquiescent when they find out they have once again been told a lie that is intended to assure their own complicity in their own subjugation as second-class citizens in a global economic order that doesn’t give a damn about their loss beyond what it might mean to the grand revenue stream that, by the way, continues to carve the canyon between the haves and the have nots.

If Representative Miller’s and Senator Kennedy’s efforts to continue the educational genocide of constant and unrelenting testing in chain-gang schools can be construed as "not forgetting" poor children, then let us assuredly end our memory of them in hopes that our neglect may offer at least an outside chance that these children might survive without the benefit of our obliterating mindfulness.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VI: Education is a Tough Nut to Crack

[To read the entire series, go here.]

"Although public education activism is hardly new in this country . . . , community organizing as a strategy for school improvement is barely a decade old."
--Kavitha Mediratta, NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy

“Organizing groups argue that education is more difficult to navigate than any other neighborhood issue because school systems are harder to penetrate and school leadership often is more insulated and unresponsive than the leadership of other public institutions.”
--Mediratta, et. al.

Since so much of the social action in the 1960s involved education, especially protests against segregation after Brown, it may seem like education is a common arena for social action. However, the fact is that community organizing groups around the United States in the last few decades have mostly stayed out of educational reform until quite recently. Why?

Organizing works best when groups’ demands are simple and clear. This is relatively easy to accomplish in areas like housing, or jobs, or health care, or wages, because one can define in fairly basic terms what it would mean to “win.” X number of houses, or X amount of loan $$ for a particular area, or a specific wage increase, or a new health center for a defined area. In education, the issues are often more complex.

Often in education, the problem is one of quality of instruction. But it is very difficult to define exactly what a “good” education looks like, and difficult (for specialists or everyday citizens) to monitor instruction from the outside. For example, even if you win something as seemingly simple as a “small schools” effort, how small is small enough? What counts as adequate support for these schools? Whose fault is it when some of them fail?

Monitoring is key for any organizing effort. Just because someone *says* they will do something doesn’t mean anything. Unless you can keep track of what they are doing over time, chances are they will find a way to weasel out of what they agreed to.

Questions about educational policy can get complicated and political very quickly. Think of the conflict around educational choice, for example. And, as noted in the quotes, above, public schools are especially difficult institutions to get access to.

Nonetheless, a range of organizing groups are increasingly engaging with the public schools. Often in collaboration with educational scholars (see Oakes & Rogers for an interesting example), they are developing tools like school “report cards” to help them keep schools accountable. They are developing strategies for collaborating with school staff, as in the Alliance Schools effort described by Dennis Shirley. And some groups, like ACORN, are even opening and/or supporting their own schools.

Other groups, like the one I work with in Milwaukee, are developing avenues for supporting school change that can be framed in relatively simple terms, as they always have, like class size, increasing the availability of school nurses, or guaranteeing nutritious school breakfasts.

I have only scraped the suface of the challenges specific to school reform organizing, here, and will return to these issues in later posts. A good source for information about these challenges is the Mediratta et. al. paper I quoted from above.

Danziger, Constructing the Subject, and accountability

Thanks to a trail of other readings, two of the last books I read in revising Accountability Frankenstein were Theodore Potter's Trust in Numbers (1995) and Kurt Danziger's Constructing the Subject (1990), both relatively dense books discussing topics on the edges of my concerns with testing and professional expertise. While reading the page proofs of a book that will be coming out in just a few months, I've already had one basic assumption rattled. Then I picked up Stephen Turner's Liberal Democracy 3.0 (2003), about whose provocative arguments about expertise and democratic political theory I've written before.

So in this trail of expertise, professional history, and our social trust in test scores, I've come to two very different chunks of the literature. Theodore Potter has written two books on the social history of statistics, one on The Rise in Statistical Thinking (1988) in the 19th century and a second one (Trust in Numbers), which is a little more broad and ambitious in its argument. I left that fairly early to tackle the Danziger book, which is a brilliant little book that rocks you with a gem of insight every chapter. Danziger argues that Wundt's laboratory circle in Leipzig both established the concept of subject and also became an alternative view of subject (where the experimenter and observer frequently exchanged roles) to the later, more common notion of subject as of a different social status and knowledge position than the experimenter (and report author).

One point that is both suggestive and devastating is Danziger's suggestion that schools may have influenced the path of psychology as much as the other way around, for three reasons: first, schools created a huge resource of subjects once those became defined as a separate social group from experimenters; second, schools became a target of marketing of applied research; and third, in their dramatic expansion in the late 19th century and the organization around bureaucratic forms (graded multi-classroom schools, for example), the new bureaucratic school systems both produced and consumed huge numbers of the type of population statistics that are akin to censuses, creating the idea that one could capture the sense of schools and children with a sort of social census. That statistical consumption may have shaped psychology's turn from reporting the introspective observations of individuals to the reporting of aggregate statistics, what Danziger calls a "psychological census."

In turn, this broad (and ironic) argument brings me to two other authors: John Dewey and Daniel Calhoun. Most people in education describe Dewey as a sort of demi-god, creating a humane vision of education. What my colleague Erwin Johanningmeier argues is that Dewey used schools as a way to inform his writings on pragmatism more than attempting to define what schools should do. I suspect this may be a matter of different perspectives on the same writings, but Johanningmeier's argument parallels Danziger's.

The second is that Danziger cites Calhoun's The Intelligence of a People (1973), of which Dorothy Ross aptly said, "Any reader who spends a few minutes with Calhoun's ... book will learn that it is infuriatingly difficult of access." She also noted, again accurately, "But it will repay the reader's persistence." Ross should know, having written G. Stanley Hall's biography and must have had plenty of "infuriatingly difficult" times with the material.

But back to Calhoun: one of his points early in the book is much like the point that Robert Dreeben made in On What Is Learned in School (1968), that testing and assessment in general displaces responsibility onto students. And, in what perhaps should be no surprise, Dreeben's book is not only as impenetrable as Calhoun's, but it is so difficult to read that we talk about his broader argument by using the words of another 1968 book, Philip Jackson's Life in Classrooms, where he coined the phrase "hidden curriculum."

But if the hidden curriculum of assessment has historically been to shift responsibility, then that continues with the modern version of accountability, which usually displaces responsibility away from the center, even as education policy becomes more centralized.

(Another version of this appeared on my professional blog, and A. G. Rud asked me to write about it here, so I have.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Top 10 education stories in 2007

My idiosyncratic list, previously posted on my professional blog.

USA Today and Eduwonk Andy Rotherham have done year-end reviewlets, it's my turn...

  1. The dog that hasn't barked: Has anyone tracked what happened to the Katrina victims who are minors? Yes, it's a serious problem that this isn't an active news story, except for the reopening of colleges in New Orleans. One might even say it's highly disturbing that no one has focused much either on the breaking up of the New Orleans public schools (to be replaced by... I'm not sure what) or on the children who are part of the Katrina Diaspora. (The Census Bureau special split of the 2005 American Community Survey is probably the best place for researchers to start, if you're quantitatively minded.)
  2. NCLB breaking up? The loss of the Republican majority in the November elections threatens to further fragment the coalition that led to the passage of NCLB in late 2001. As Paul Manna's astute book School's In (2006) points out, AYP was known to be a mess during the legislative process, and the sausage still has visible carcass bits. (What is it about the Bush White House that they can't admit when they were completely wrong on factual matters?) I stand by my earlier prediction that the law is most likely to be extended through appropriations and that the insider game will be over the 20% set-aside provision. Flexibility in return for accountability, right ...
  3. Qualified qualifications: Right on schedule, all of the nation's teachers are now 100% highly qualified. ;-) The biggest empirical squabble on that front right now is over the role of collective bargaining agreements in the distribution of qualified teachers (F. Howard Nelson's study is but the latest salvo, and you can expect the ordnance to continue to fly from various camps), but that begs the question of why worry about that instead of making sure that all teachers have skills.
  4. Kids walk: The spring walkouts of students across the country to join immigration rallies is not really related to education policy (except in a minor way: efforts to dissuade the students often failed), but it is amazing and historic. There have been K-12 student walkouts before—Chicano students who boycotted schools in the late 60s, as my colleague Barbara Cruz reminded me—but not on a national scale before or as part of a national political event, as far as I'm aware. That's an amazing bit of social history, even if transient.
  5. Stupid phoenixes: Risky schemes such as the 65% "Solution" and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights went down to flaming defeat in 2006, though they may continue to rise from the ashes. If my memory is correct, only Georgia and Texas are under 65% strictures as a goal, the first by law and the second by executive order. I suspect they'll eventually be repealed.
  6. No obvious compromise on charter schools: There are several substantive problems with charter-school policies in many states:
    • The funding structure is generally not rational by any stretch of the imagination.
    • There remain serious questions about the accountability for charter schools.
    • There are still massive fraud scandals on occasion (this year, in Ohio).
    • There are all-too-evident problems with anti-union suppression when charter-school teachers try to organize.

    It seems to me to be obvious how to solve all of these problems at one swoop: weighted student funding for local public and charter schools; card-check union recognition; charter schools and local public school authorities work for general increases in student funding; a limit of 5 charter schools that an EMO can manage in any state; the accountability provisions of local public schools apply to charter schools (with some adjustments for school size). One wee problem: weighted student funding would prompt resistance from states such as Illinois that have horrific inequities.
  7. A small voucher program dies: The Florida Supreme Court struck down the failing-schools voucher program that was Governor Jeb Bush's pride. The vast majority of students in voucher programs were and remain in the program for students with disabilities and the corporate tax-credit voucher program. The fate of those programs is still unknown, and no lawsuit has been filed (as of yet).
  8. Commissions fizzle, don't sizzle: The final report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education had recommendations that are largely doomed, which is still better than the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce debacle, which wasn't helped by their trying to sell it instead of distribute it online.
  9. Pick your cause: Locally, Florida's test-score statistics on its own state exams rose this year, which wouldn't be news except that they rose in middle school for the first time this year. Governor Bush of course said that it was his accountability reform. Others said it might have had something to do with the reading coaches that were finally provided as instructional supports in middle schools. Skeptics such as Walt Haney might suggest that this is the first cohort that experienced dramatic retention in third grade, artificially boosting test scores as the proportion of overage students bumps up and the bulge ages into middle schools and soon high schools. Friends of the late Governor Lawton Chiles might instead point to Chiles's Healthy Start program, which kicked in starting in 1992 and 1993 (so the first babies served would have been in 7th and 8th grade last year). I would point out that my daughter was in 8th grade last year, but no one credits my wife and me for boosting Florida's test scores.
  10. Memory of a non-veto: The death of former President Ford is education news. While recollections of the man focus on his demeanor in office after Nixon's resignation and his pardoning of Nixon, few are remembering his 66 vetoes, a rate of 26.4 vetoes per year. That's right behind Truman's 31.3 vetoes per year, but Truman still had a lower veto rate than FDR at a little under 53 vetoes per year, and that rate is still less than the all-time veto champ, Grover Cleveland (first term), whose 304 vetoes averaged out to one veto every 4.8 days in his first term. A quarter of Ford's regular vetoes were overridden (second in the 20th century behind Nixon), which may have been a factor in why he signed Public Law 94-142 despite his misgivings about federal mandates. We now know P.L. 94-142 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the basic special-education law in the country. IDEA will be 31 on November 29, and everyone currently receiving services under it was born after the Board v. Rowley decision in 1982 that gave the central interpretation of what a free, appropriate public education is.

I'm sure that there are other highlights you could have, either nationally or locally, but those are my picks.