Friday, November 21, 2008

On schools, there are no quick fixes

crossposted from Daily Kos

Whether a school is small or large, the essential questions in education cannot be ignored: What should students learn? How should they be taught? Are classes too large, especially for struggling students? Are teachers well-prepared in the subjects they teach? Do teachers have the resources they need? Do students arrive in school ready to learn? Until we answer these questions, the size of schools is not a relevant issue.

Forbes Magazine may not be on the regular reading list of most people here. It is certainly not on mine. And it is not where I would expect to find an insightful piece on education. And yet, the quote I have just offered, which contains the essential questions we should be asking about education, appeared there, in a piece entitled Bill Gates and His Silver Bullet. In it, Diane Ravitch explores the results of the Gates-funded initiative on small schools and finds it wanting. Because, as the piece is subtitled, On schools, there are no quick fixes.

Ravitch begins by reminding us that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started its endeavor back in 2000. It wanted to take our large high schools and break them up into small learning communities of 400 or fewer, in the belief that
its new small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because of the close relationships between students and teachers.
Gates argued to the National Governors Association that our high schools were obsolete and at the World Economic Forum in Davos that
the key to the success of the small schools created by his foundation was that they made everything "relevant," through hands-on activities and familiar topics.
The foundation poured several billion into the effort, and superintendents jumped on the bandwagon for the money, with new small schools being formed in cities across the country.

But the results have not been as Gates predicted. There are several thousand Gates-sponsored small high schools, more than 200 in New York City alone, many focused on particular themes: "leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice. " And yet,
On Nov. 11, the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of leading figures in American education to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise. The foundation acknowledged that "we have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential."

Ravitch describes research funded by the Gates foundation which in 2005 reported that students in traditional schools were better learning mathematics than in the Gates small schools, and additional research the following year that showed students in the Gates funded small learning communities
had "higher attendance rates but lower test scores" than other high schools within the same school districts in both reading and mathematics.
She credits the foundation for its honest self-scrutiny, noting that many advocates of educational reform unfortunately
defend their ideas against all critics, regardless of what evaluations show.

And yet Gates is still making claims for his efforts that are not supported by the data. He claims that in New York, at least his schools have improved graduation rates to 70% as compared to the city wide average of 50%. Before going on, I would note that even 70%, were it a true improvement, is still nothing about which to brag. Unfortunately that figures is deceptive, because as Ravitch notes
hat the small schools in New York City were permitted to restrict the admission of English-language learners and disabled students, meaning that the large schools got a disproportionate share of students with high needs.
Further, some of the small schools funded by Gates were playing games through "credit recovery" which allowed students to get full credit for classes they may not have fully attended and/or by doing projects out of school. And even Bill Gates had to acknowledge that less than 40% of the graduates of his small schools were ready for classes at the City University of New York.

Perhaps it is unfair to heavily criticize the Gates-funded effort. Except some schools and districts are so desperate for additional funds that they will willingly jump on board any educational bandwagon for the additional funds, even for endeavors such as those supported by Gates that lack any demonstrable evidence that they will achieve their purported goals. I will return to some thought on this in a bit.

Ravitch is not opposed to small schools in every case, and offers examples of where they might be useful, especially for students who need intense remediation and lots of extra attention, although the smallness can come at a cost of the variety of electives and course offerings that many students associate with high school. And historically, one of the disadvantages of small schools was seen in rural areas which could not offer the same educational opportunities as big-city high schools. And, as Ravitch notes,
The press for small schools, now taken up by almost every big-city district, has diverted our attention from the need to strengthen curriculum and instruction, beginning in elementary schools.

There are many problems in how we have attempted to do educational reform in this country. We seem to want to find universal solutions. By now, we should be able to realize that our children are not all the same, which means we cannot attempt to educate them in one, standardized fashion, even within a single community. And certainly the needs of our communities can vary: our ethnic makeups, the socioeconomic status of the families, the relationships between school and community (which can be very different between rural and urban schools for example), the supportive structures in the community outside of the school, the percentage of English Language Learners, and so on.

On schools, there are no qick fixes. There is no one size fits all, in school models, in methods of instruction, in selection of curricular materils, in courses that should be required. Somehow many people in their eagerness to address the failings of our public schools - and I will acknowledge that there are many such failings - seem to be willing to totally ignore anything that might raise cautions about the approaches they wish to impose upon those of us attempting to make a difference in our public schools.

I applaud the willingness of people like Bill and Melinda Gates to put money into finding alternatives that can make difference. Here I largely agree with Ravitch, who concludes her piece as follows:
The good news is that the Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, has pledged to devote its attention to what happens in the classroom. The first thing it will learn is that there are no quick fixes. If it targets its dollars wisely, exercises a measure of humility, and continues to evaluate its efforts rigorously, it can make a positive difference.
There is an additional caution I would offer, both to those who would offer their funds and their support, and those inclined to accept such offerings. Be careful that you do not so narrow your focus to that which you passionately support and blind yourself to the realities of our schools and our students. For far too long our schools and students have suffered because of our insistence in imposing yet another vision of a magical solution. Even when we see something that is successful in one context does not mean it is replicable in another - too often we look only at part of the broad picture in which that success occurs, that is, if we are not so narrowly focused on what we consider success that we ignore the weaknesses of the model we wish to replicate.

Ultimately teaching is about relationships - between faculty and students, among the students (whose cooperation with one another should be encouraged since ultimately our learning should be applicable to the broader social context in which they should be applying what we teach them), and all with the curricular material. We may well need to try multiple approaches, and then be brutally honest in examining the results, which will not all be as salutary as we might hope for those approaches about which we feel positively passionate.

Our schools ARE in crisis in many ways. And here we might remember that the last time our nation faced a truly monumental economic crisis, in the 1930s, the administration of FDR tried many things in the hope that some would work. Perhaps we should acknowledge a similar need for addressing our current series of crises in our public schools - we will need to try many things to see what works, where, how, and why, and not be in too much of a hurry to declare that we have found the one magic solution that will solve all our problems.

So let me end as I began. Ravitch, who is an acquaintance and whom I consider a thoughtful critic and observer of education even when we disagree, has in the paragraph with which I began offered many critical questions we need to consider in any attempts we make at educational reform.

But in all we do, we need to remember what was the subtitle of her piece, and which I chose for the title of this:

On schools, there are no quick fixes.



Aaron Schutz said...

I would agree that there are no quick fixes for pedagogy. But there may be quick fixes that have been shown to help kids learn significantly better:

-breakfast in classrooms
-nutritional lunches
-vision care
-dental care

And then more broadly

-increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (lower poverty)
-increase food stamps
-improve health care
-treatment instead of prisons
-cut back on the drug war
-lead abatement

I could go on.

There ARE quick fixes. They just aren't the quick fixes that educators think about.

teacherken said...

Aaron - all are useful and positive things. But none of them FIXES the underlying problems with public schools. I would consider all worthy, but perhaps describe them as something else - part of the context that needs to be included in our overall discussion of meeting the needs of our students.

And to me that is the key. Our focus should be the individual students, not some theoretical construct or imposed vision.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

This is an extremely interesting and important thread. Thank you to teacherken and Aaron for your thoughts. And thank you to Diane Ravitch for raising some critical issues.

In response to Aaron: Let's take what you say here seriously. I think we need to distinguish "quick" and "inexpensive," and also notice that what might be a quick fix for a particular student on a particular day or in a particular year (breakfast end to tooth pain this month) may be a "quick" fix for that student, but it doesn't help the system as a whole unless it is systematic. And while such systematic changes might be "quick" if funding were's currently not.

Anyone who wants to improve educational outcomes for ONE student for a given period of time can do so "quickly" and fairly cheaply. This much is clear.

But your "more broadly" list of "quick" fixes are, well, not quick at all because they require rather dramatic shifts in ECONOMIC policy on a federal level which, we know, are rarely quick...and to do them "broadly" would be fairly expensive, or at least not trivial in cost.

The fact that both lists of fixes DO seem (to me and you anyway) to be likely to make a big difference (if enacted on a big scale, and funded), combined with your observation that educators rarely think about these things is, well, tragic.

The fact that some thinkers about education are drawing attention to these issues, and their resolution, is encouraging. What do we do to get political leaders to recognize that these aren't "just" economic policies (or criminal justice policies, or environmental policies), but potentially impact child development, education, and (inevitably) the quality of our democracy as well?

(Quick response to teacherken's latest comment: I disagree that "our focus" should be on individual students. TEACHERS' focus should be on that. But at the moment, we're talking policy here, not pedagogy.)

teacherken said...

In response to Craig

the policy cannot interfere with the ability of the teacher to focus on individual students, and unfortunately, too much of what we impose through education policy directives has precisely that result. So while I would agree that policy must look more broadly, it still needs to be mindful of the importance of that individual relationship

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Ken: Agreed.

Policy (not only educational policy) must always be considerate of the critical importance of the individual teacher-student relationship and any pedagogical impacts such policies may have.

This is why teachers should participate in policy discussions, and why policy makers must listen to teachers. Of course!

Ideally, we'd have two federal departments:

The Department of Education would focus on teachers, pedagogy, and schools.

The Educational Policy Environment Department would focus on the societal conditions that make excellent schooling possible.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Okay, wait, I take that back. It sounds Orwellian.

How about local, state, and federal governments that take as their primary goal the formation and preservation of democracy?

Nancy Flanagan said...

Ravitch herself says "it's all about what happens in the classroom." Some would-be reformers interpret classroom happenings as a particular curriculum, standardized instructional strategies (read: scripts), a miracle toolkit of some kind. And some of those packaged instructional models (which are policies) work for a time, yielding incremental increases in testing results (also policies--both the tests and the use of the data). But in the end, students stay in school, succeed in school, and go on to live productive lives because someone cares about their learning.

Separating "policy" (which is the only topic of interest for those with/seeking influence, like Gates) from "pedagogy"-- merely enacting policy ideas-- is what we've done forever. That separation is why so many silver bullet ideas don't work: they are conceived, launched and evaluated above the actual work level.

As Aaron notes, everything is connected--economic well-being, health, law enforcement, community. When these factors are satisfactory or optimum, public education generally thrives.

Still. We can't wait for social policies to fix the larger world before accepting accountability for doing a better job of educating kids. There are always success stories from the most unlikely places-- good schools and especially good teachers do have enormous impact on student growth and learning, often because they've devised work-arounds for bad policy.

And actually--I kind of like the idea of an Educational Policy Environment Department. Perhaps with a Minister of Educational Justice. Or an Opportunity Czar.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Thanks, Nancy, I find your comment helpful. I especially like the suggest that "we can't wait for social policies to fix the larger world before accepting accountability for doing a better job of educating kids." Absolutely!!

But I'm a little confused at your implication that we should never separate "policy" from "pedagogy," as if one involves only "conception" and the other only "enactment." Of COURSE "conception" and "enactment" should be combined.

But Aaron (and I) aren't advocating the separation of policy from pedagogy. (Sorry if I implied that. Rather, we're suggesting, I think, that thinking about education requires attention NOT ONLY to policies/pedagogies related to teachers and students in the classroom BUT ALSO attention to policies/practices that provide the social conditions in which schools can thrive. I don't think either of us are asking teachers to take their focus off the kids. I think we're saying, if we (Americans) want to improve educational outcomes, while there are "no quick fixes" in terms of pedagogical policy, there ARE relatively easy solutions to some of those societal conditions.

And I'm saying, policy makers (beyond the education department) need to include the potential effects on schooling of policies and practices that aren't SPECIFICALLY related to schooling. And because the "education department" tends to focus narrowly on "pedagogical policy," sometimes these environmental conditions aren't given needed attention.

(Glad you like my new departmental suggestion. The point--from my standpoint--is that SOMEONE needs to pay attention to the policies that affect the practices that affect the kids' lives, since those lives are brought into the classroom every day.)

Nancy Flanagan said...

We're talking about the same thing here, Craig--a kind of pragmatic, tinker-and-evaluate approach to steadily improving public education, involving not only policy experts but those who will enact (and further tinker with) policy at the ground level: teachers, mostly.

And, of course, all social policy is connected. You can't have a thriving national education system when public schools--even schools in the same town--are wildly disparate in resources (including excellent teaching) and achievement levels. So you have to address underlying causes--and some of those equity issues are fixable. I get that.

Complaining about the gap between policy and practice is hardly original thinking, but as a formal student of Education Policy, I see little emphasis on pragmatism in the ed policy discourse at the moment. Maybe I'm reading the wrong things. But the media and big thinkers are now paying considerable attention to Bill Gates' musings on teacher effectiveness, hanging on his every thought about teacher recruitment and instruction. I don't see people reaching out to practitioners for their thoughts. In fact, teachers are frequently seen as the barrier to progress, in Policy World.

In his remarks at the initiative launch, Gates said (and I'm paraphrasing) "we don't know much about teacher effectiveness." Contrast that with Ravitch's note that math achievement in Gates' small schools was lower than that in public schools. Gates and many policy actors and funders are still looking for ways to raise achievement--but teachers in those "terrible" schools have been looking a lot longer, and have adapted practices. Someone has been paying attention to policies and how they impact practice--the people who have to live with those policies, practitioners. The key may be tapping into what they know as starting point for policy creation.

The recent PPT and remarks by Daniel Yankelovich seem relevant to this discussion:

Aaron Schutz said...

Craig you've got my perspective nailed as well.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to know what the definition is of a school that works. What exactly are they supposed to be doing for the students…what is the goal? The article mentions that less than 40% of the graduates from Gate’s small schools were ready for classes at City University of New York... is that the final end game...University ready? Isn’t that a bit narrowed minded? Do we really believe that University is for everyone? What about Plumber, electrician, diesel mechanic, rodeo bull rider? The belief that all students should and want to attend university I think is part of the problem... the goal of 100% university ready students is flawed and unattainable

philip said...

Actually, according to the Gates-funded Education Sector:

“Today even blue collar jobs call for more than basic computational skills.”

And if we are to believe the now defunct ED in 08:

“Occupations that pay enough to raise a family—jobs like electrical work, construction, upholstering, and plumbing—now demand the same math and reading skills it takes to be successful in college.”

Do I believe university is for everyone? I'm not sure...It depends on what you mean by University.

Do the think tanks that Gates supports and whose members speak before the House and Senate believe University is for everyone? Based on what they write, some of them certainly do.

I'm not really sure what Gates himself believes. At my most optimistic moments I like to think of him as naked emperor, a victim of faulty advising. When my tinfoil hat is really tight, I'm inclined to believe he doesn't think much about a critical, engaged, active populace.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anonymous said...

But we must flesh out the answer to: What are high schools supposed to be doing? Before we even attempt to say they are failing or succeeding at doing that?

Seems to me there is a lot of putting the horse before the cart going on.

Shouldn't the school's overall goal be something along these expose the student to the greater world, help the student determine what their dreams are, and provide the student with the skills to achieve their personal dreams...

I wonder how many schools come close to these criteria?

philip said...

I have never agreed with you more anonymous...i think. if her personal dream is world domination, i think we'd want to do something about it no?

So there are community goals (say peace, happiness, and prosperity) that have to be balanced with individual desire (say bullriding).

As I've only recently discovered that I'm going to be a father, this conversation has taken on an entirely new meaning for me.

Who is my child? Where is she going? How will he get there? How can we help?

I'd like these questions answered before we start pumping truths into his/her head...

Anonymous said...

wait .. world domination is not a viable possibility for a career choice? When did that get taken off the table? :)

Yes of course there are always things to be balanced...

Congrats on the future fatherhood.

Anonymous said...

35-45% of the population does not graduate high school in this country (in the traditional manner). These numbers have remained unchanged for decades through one education reform after another. This ‘failure’ is not a failure of those students. It is a failure of the system. The damage reeked on society and these individual’s capacity to experience ‘success’ is enormous when at 16 or whatever age they give up, they have suffered their first slap in the face by society and know in their hearts that many more are likely to come, despite their best efforts. I will begin by expressing something as unpolitically unadmittable as it gets: perhaps those 35 to 45% of the population cannot graduate high school as it is presently set up right now, and yet we continue to force the square peg of their inability through the round hole of our expectations.

As iconoclast as it may be to write this, perhaps there are individuals in our society who simply are not going to succeed. By succeed, I mean the definition that all the professors, teachers and thinkers out there define it by: going to college and pursuing some career that could possibly (though by no means necessarily) require the high level algebra or language skills required of high school graduates.(Note to Phil: I know many blue collar jobs require college level math skills - but that just means they require those skills and maybe aren't meant for the same 'groups' who entered those fields before - also not ALL construction workers or plumbers per se at a site need this skill level.) We keep trying to find ways to push a definition of success on individuals who probably beginning somewhere in middle school or even earlier are ‘tapped out’ and spend whatever remaining years in school in an ever increasingly frustrating cycle of attempt, failure, pressure, and more frustration and failure. If, as a society, we could get over the status symbol of college and instead take what we’re seeing with this 35-45% of struggling and unhappy frustrated individuals as feedback, and start from where they’re starting, maybe we could come up with an education system that met their needs instead of ours, because quite frankly, who are we kidding? It has been shown that the lower 35% of graduates who attempt college but really aren’t capable of it waste thousands of dollars, spend an average of 8 years struggling to complete a degree and in the end don’t, leaving them even more demoralized and poorer than ever before.

So what would such an education system look like? Sounds a lot like leveling and putting lower IQ students into trade (now magnet) programs like schools which operated 50 years ago. ( I will use ‘lower IQ’ instead of ‘lower achieving’ because these individuals are only lower achieving because we’re giving them the wrong things to try and achieve. I also believe there are problems with the IQ measure which does not value all types of mental processes equally but that’s for another blog. In essence, take the term ‘IQ’ from here on out with a grain of salt. Lower IQ in my book does not mean ‘stupid’. It means that according to those who value 2-3 specific mental processes, these individuals don’t measure up.) What’s preventing leveling – which is now a somewhat derogatory term for what is basically customizing education - from happening?: status, stigma, and awareness of and valuation for the wide range of careers out there. Attending college, a hugely inappropriate choice for many people, holds enormous status. Not attending college holds enormous stigma. Finally, students are crippled by a lack of education about and nuanced understanding of what kind of careers are out there which don’t require college, never mind where and how to train for them. An example would be, if you asked an average 8th grader what he/she wants to be, the student is typically going to choose highly visible and frequently named and encountered positions like doctor, lawyer, vet, nurse. However, a low IQ student would truly struggle at achieving any of those positions. They might not know that other related roles requiring much less training and more hands on learning could be well within their reach: a vet assistant, a legal secretary, a medical receptionist or any number of jobs in hospitals or government offices say. And why not let students begin training for these things earlier such as in grades 9 or 10? Imagine the economic advantage of having the ability to begin earning at the age of 17 or 18 rather than 23 and without college loan debt. Imagine how motivating it would be to train on the job where the outcome of one’s efforts really counts rather than our present model of 20 plus years of general practice for some ill defined far off goal in the sky. Hmmm, sounds like apprenticing – maybe we need to go back to the days of Chaucer for answers!

In America, the possibility of attending college is closely wrapped up with our ideas of the American dream and ‘equality’ for all. Why is attending college the only officially sanctioned ticket in though? We have stigmatized ourselves into pin holing everyone into one standard. Surely we’ve moved beyond the simplistic notion that we are all equal. We’re not. What needs to be equal is our access to opportunity, but the way equality is being interpreted by the school system is that ‘equality’ means we’re all the same and should have all the same goals and instruction. Considering how consistently we’ve failed such a large percentage of the population, perhaps we need to reconsider the needs and abilities of our students, coach their aspirations, and help them achieve those instead.

So when I read about well meaning extremely smart individuals like Bill Gates attempting a reform at education, mostly I just think that everyone thinks they know how education should be done. More so than any other field, people feel they have a right to comment on, reform, throw money at, or propose whatever, when it comes to education, for the simple fact that they think they know something about it – which they do – we’ve all been inside a school room. Yet I wouldn’t dream of telling Bill Gates how to run Microsoft or program a cell phone or build an operating system. At best, I can offer a few user generated complaints or compliments. Even though I know he did some research and thankfully was humble enough to measure his own success, I’m surprised he has the audacity to think he knows anything at all about education.
It’s the experience of being on the other side of the school desk and thoughtfully thinking through the needs of the students brought together there that people like Bill Gates or your neighbor or your school board member (if not teachers) fail to appreciate. Students, the future of our society, should be the starting point for reform with a reevaluation of their needs, not a focus just on ours.