Thursday, November 29, 2012

A New Shot at Testing and Accountability

Well, this is my first blog post ever.  I am used to just mulling things over in my head, grumbling to my pals, or telling students what to read.  Today, though, my topic is a few overlooked gems I would like to assign as reading to aides to members of Congress regarding decisions they will soon have to make about our nation’s testing policies.

My expectation is that Congress will, at least some time in 2013, resume debating whether to keep mandated state testing in grades 3 through 8 under No Child Left Behind, and what kind of stakes to require states to attach.  So once again, staffers have to figure out how to design a policy that works for all students.  Collectively, the readings below point to some clear flaws with current policy, and suggest possible alternatives. 
One is from five years back, a 2007 Education Week Commentary entitled “No Child Gets Ahead,” by Anthony P. Carnevale.  Colleen Donovan, David Figlio, and Mark Rush of the National Bureau of Economic Research used data from the federal early Childhood Longitudinal Study to analyze low to middle income, high-achieving students’ educational attainment. Specifically, there were "more than a million grade school students from families making less than $85,000 a year who start out in the top half of their class but fall off the college track on the way to high school." Part of the story was that these achievers were being harmed by NCLB’s focus on the lowest-performing students in the schools they attended.  They found that teaching to the test “dulls creativity and generally ignores the students who can meet the standards.”
As Carnevale writes: "With lower standards on offer, many high-performing students from working families rush down to meet them.  They give in to lower standards because their college and career expectations are fragile and they get less support at home and at school than students born into affluent families." The way forward, he says, "is to move beyond uniform standards altogether, toward individualized standards."  Hmm, how does that fit with the onslaught of Common Core assessments?

The second is the 2011 report of the National Research Council, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, which interrogates what the behavioral and social sciences (in particular, economics and experimental psychology) tell us about the use testing and incentives to improve performance.  Based on 10 years of empirical work, this group of psychologists, economists, and testing experts concluded that "the available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education and provides only minimal guidance about which incentive designs may be effective"(p. 91) The report explains the trade-offs in different kinds of accountability systems, and reviews the various considerations about incentives: target, performance measures, consequences, and support (p. 33).   NCLB, obviously, has provided "many ways for schools to fail" (p. 49); wouldn't it be better to have test scores instead serve as a trigger for a deeper examination of instructional and organizational norms inside the schools? 

Last but not least is a new piece by Andrew McEachin and Morgan Polikoff in the October 2012 Educational Researcher, "We are the 5%: Which schools would be held accountable under a proposed revision of the ESEA?" The authors model the bill’s proposed accountability criteria, which seek to identify lowest performing, largest within-school achievement gaps, and lowest performing subgroups, to schools in California, attempting to answer questions about the stability of the various classifications, as well as whether they identify the schools they were designed to identify. Based on their findings, they have numerous important policy recommendations, including “considering alternatives to the proposed Lowest Subgroup Achieving Schools [LSAS] criteria, which, as written, target schools serving significant numbers of students with disabilities,” such as stratifying the LSAS by subgroups, such as Hispanic, special education, etc. (p. 250).  They also note the importance of administering accountability separately by school level (elementary, middle, and high) – say, 15% of each type if the policy goal is to hold 15% of all schools accountable per year.   McEachin and Polikoff highlight the importance of state policymakers using 3-year averages of combined proficiency level and growth measures to give the most optimal picture of persistently low-achieving and low-growing schools.  The authors recommend that Congress should commission similar analyses from all states to look at possible implications.  

Now some may argue that the Common Core assessments will, in time, solve some of the problems with low-level state standardized tests driving instruction down.  But does that tell aides to members of Congress what kind of testing and accountability system to enact next year, 2013?  What are the likeliest measures to build state capacity for intervention while not harming instruction?  The 1994 Improving America's Schools Act, with its mandate of testing just once in three grade intervals between the early grades and high school was too loose for many in the civil rights community, who pushed for the sub-group tight enforcement model.  How do you tend to the lowest-performing students without dragging down Carnevale's "low-hanging fruit" of high-performing, middle-income students (many of whom he points out are likely to become teachers and public servants themselves)?

If the answer is obvious, it has eluded me.  One thing I do know is that there is no substitute for good congressional deliberation, and that just might involve bringing some of these researchers to testify, run more models, answer questions, and even be permitted to debate each other as well as interact with state officials who have to run these programs. Aides, happy mid-air reading after you go flying over the cliff. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Students with Disabilities and Charter Schools – Legal Watch

Three weeks ago, I attended the Education Law Association Annual Conference.  Over the course of the three-day conference there were many discussions regarding whether charter schools are appropriately serving student with disabilities.  These conversations were quite intriguing considering that I handled special education legal matters for almost ten years.  Over the last decade, the number of students enrolling in charter schools has increased.  Many education professionals see charter schools  as a way to fix some of America’s failing schools.  To date, much research has shown that charter schools have not achieved the significant improvements in American education that were expected.  

Charters are not exempt from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  They are still responsible for providing students with disabilities with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  In the recent years, there have many complaints regarding charter schools and their ability to serve students with disabilities, and advocacy groups have began disseminating publications and information regarding parent’s rights. (See here, here, here, here , and here.)  Many charter schools are trying to find ways to appropriately serve students with disabilities, including joining together to collaborate special education services and attending trainings specific to servicing students with disabilities.  

As the number of students enrolling into charter schools increases, it is vital that education professionals and policy makers have appropriate data regarding the impact that these schools have on students with disabilities.  Currently there is a lack of research available pertaining to charter schools and their ability to serve students with disabilities.  In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that analyzed data from 2008-2010 and found that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools.  However, the GAO was unable to outline the factors that contributed to the difference.  The GAO also found that charter schools faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities.   After the GAO’s report, the findings became highly publicized. (See here, here, here, here, here.) This month, a study by Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) also suggested that additional research is needed to understand why charter schools appear to have an lower enrollment of students with disabilities than traditional schools.  I am interested in seeing the data from the U.S. Department of Education 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Unlike the 2009-2010 CRDC, the 2011-2012 CRDC will include enrollment data from all public schools and school districts, including charter schools, therefore giving a nationwide picture of enrollment.  

There are lessons we should learn from the GAO and CRPE reports.  First, that there is insufficient data to effectively analyze or criticize charter schools’ overall ability to comply with special education law.  Second, in order to get appropriate data, it is imperative that charter school operators provides an open and untouched picture of what is actually going on in regards to students with disabilities.  Any research should take a very close look at the quality of service being provided to students with disabilities that are already enrolled in charter schools.

Based on the recent reports, I anticipate an increase in special education litigation as it pertains to charter schools.  There are already cases popping up that I will be watching.  The Louisiana case, Berry, et al. v. Pastorek, et al, is one of those cases.  In this class action lawsuit, the parents are suing the State Education Agency for the alleged violations of the charter schools.  I am waiting to hear the court’s ruling on this case because it might cause other State Education Agencies to start taking a closer look at their students with disabilities that are enrolled in charter schools.   
Many traditional charter schools have difficulty implementing services for students with disabilities, therefore it would not be a surprise to anticipate potential noncompliance issues with virtual charter schools.  In July, the National Education Policy Center released a study on virtual schools.  That study made recommendations for additional research questions pertaining to how virtual charters are providing services to students with disabilities and how the funding is being used? One can envision the potential complications of a virtual charter school implementing IEPs and 504 plans for some students with disabilities.  With the national campaign for digital learning, and as more school districts embrace digital charter schools, districts/charters will continue to try to determine how digital learning can work for students with disabilities.   
The bottom line is that we must invest in additional research in this area to ensure that student with disabilities are not discriminated against and are receiving appropriate services.  On another note, I wonder if voucher programs will receive the same scrutiny, considering some of the same arguments are being made regarding discrimination of students with disabilities.  Civil rights groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  alleging that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program discriminates against children with disabilities. (See here, here, here.) As policies change and school reform continues, new legal issues will arise, therefore we should be prepared to handle them.  

By:  Tiffany Puckett

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Freedom to be College Ready? Reforming Community College Developmental Education

I am fresh off the fall conference season having most recently attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), the leading scholarly organization on all things postsecondary education. The conference theme was “Freedom to Learn,” which ASHE President Anna Neumann eloquently defended in her keynote and further challenged the association membership to consider how teaching and learning touches their work, including work in the policy domain. This challenge could not be more central to the predominant policy conversations and research related to college readiness and developmental education. Inspired by several sessions at the ASHE conference and my own work on college and career readiness and developmental education, here I focus on developmental education (also known as ‘remediation’) reform and the role of teaching and learning.

Developmental reading, writing, and math courses, offered at both community colleges and universities in some states (but more often at community colleges), have garnered a significant degree of policy attention. This is, in part, because accumulating evidence suggests that many students participate in developmental education but do not progress into college-level credit course or complete college; this is especially the case at community colleges. For example, data from Complete College America show that approximately 51% of all students at public 2-year colleges in 33 states need developmental education. Of those students who need developmental education, 62% complete developmental education but only 22% complete a college-level course (in the associated academic discipline) within 2 years and even fewer graduate. Other data from community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative show similar disappointing results.

The point I want to emphasize here, and what the evidence suggests, is that existing developmental education programs and policies are not working and students are not succeeding. Though existing K12 reforms may reduce the need for developmental education courses at colleges, as many as 40% to 60% of incoming community college students are enrolled in developmental coursework and colleges must act now to ensure these students are college ready. More troubling is that we know students of color and low-income students are overrepresented in the total population of developmental education students, so these students are disproportionately affected by existing policies. The question left unanswered by this body of research and other quasi-experimental research focused on testing and placement policies (see here, here, and here), however, is why? Why is developmental education not working and what is needed to improve student success?

As I was reminded by the ASHE conference theme, we need to better understand how and why developmental education students are or are not learning in the classroom to better inform practice and policy. Let me offer a few theories or explanations and related solutions from the literature—explanations that are relevant to the teaching and learning process. One theory is that traditional developmental education instruction is decontextualized from the students’ lives and experiences, and proposes the use of contextualized or integrated forms of instruction can improve student learning through both cognitive and effective mechanisms. Another explanation is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of expectations that faculty and students have of one another, and proposes to create stronger faculty learning environments to support community college faculty. A third theory suggests the sequential and multi-semester structure of developmental education sequences is too lengthy and takes students too long to complete, and proposes accelerating the pace of instruction as a solution. And a fourth explanation suggests that traditional face-to-face instruction is disengaging, and proposes the use of technology be integrated into the classroom, where students use self-directed technologies or receive supplementary technological instruction.  

This is not an exhaustive list by any measure, particularly relative to the sweeping state and national strategies penetrating community college developmental education. The similarity among these four ideas, however, is a set of pedagogical issues about the relationship between content and student experiences; the assumptions and expectations of faculty and students in the classroom; the pace at which students learn and faculty teach; and the instructional environment and platform of developmental education courses. Returning to Anna Neumann’s point in her ASHE Presidential address, state and national policy conversations often ignore these pedagogical issues, especially in the policy context of college completion and college readiness. If we believe teaching and learning are important as researchers, and more importantly, as educators, we need to look for intersections between teaching and learning and our policy work. I would argue we need to elevate the relevance of teaching and learning in our research, and the models and policy solutions we research or evaluate need to make pedagogical assumptions explicit.

I do not pretend these are easily achievable goals for researchers, but I extend Anna Neumann’s invitation to those studying developmental education. I particularly extend it because those students who matriculate to college in developmental education are often those that have already been failed by educational systems and by society, and we need to know why these students have been failed and then work toward not reproducing that failure in developmental education. These students deserve the freedom to learn and to be college ready. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Last week, I wrote a post for the Office of Community College Research and Leadership. This post focuses on the need for state education agencies to collaborate around establishing research agendas. As states begin developing state longitudinal data systems for collecting student information, it is important that a coherent and developed research agenda exists as a framework for conducting educational research.

You can read the entire post here:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Earlier this year, Zócalo Public Square asked several higher education policy experts: Will America’s public universities remain competitive with elite private universities in their teaching and research? Several researchers and experts responded (you can view the full discussion here). Among them was Forum Fellow and University of Illinois Assistant Professor, Dr. Jennifer Delaney.

Dr. Delaney’s response:

Only if funding is properly restored–which is unlikely. Both public and private institutions suffered in the last recession, but there is increasingly cause to be concerned about a growing stratification between elite public and private universities.
State support for public higher education tends to be cyclical. However, the length of time to recovery following a cut in state general appropriations has been increasing. Whereas recoveries were swift in the 1980s, they slowed in the 1990s and stagnated in the 2000s. Past public campus leaders could be reasonably assured that state appropriations would eventually be restored; however, today, cuts may be permanent. Going forward, the problem is likely to get worse, since most states face structural budget deficits, and public higher education is one of the largest discretionary–and therefore cuttable–spending areas in most state budgets.
Elite public institutions can generate funds from non-state sources (such as tuition, federal grants, private giving, etc.), and political leaders can make different choices about state investments in public higher education. However, privates are likely to recover fully as endowments rebound, while publics will continue to face challenging futures with regard to state support. As such, there is likely to be increased stratification in wealth between elite publics and privates, which portends disparities in teaching and research quality.

This article was originally published at Zócalo Public Square

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Turnaround, Transformation, and now Trigger: Repositioning parents in reform recipes

It is worthwhile to think about the ways parents are positioned in school reform models, old and new ones. Until 2010, parents were engaged in education policy primarily, if at all, through School Site Councils, in Chicago known as Local School Councils, which are local decision-making bodies of parents, teachers, and community members that make school policy such as but not limited to curriculum, principal hiring and termination, and budget. This has changed in some ways with the US Department of Education School Improvement Grants Program endorsed school reform models: turnaround, transformation, restarts, and school closure. Of the 4,941 eligible Struggling Schools: 71% of schools have chosen turnarounds, 21% transformation, 5% restart, and just 3% of schools have chosen closure. In turnarounds and transformation models, parents’ roles are not explicitly outlined, whereas charter and voucher models position parents as consumers and choosers.

Seeking to reposition parents higher on the decision-maker ladder, Parent Trigger allows parents to choose their own reform recipe. Working closely with Parent Revolution, California Democrats passed the first Parent Trigger law in January 2010. Their bill held that parents who lived within the boundaries of, or whose children attended, an eligible failing school could sign a petition that would, with 51% parent body endorsement, trigger the school district to turnaround, transform, restart, or close the school. California remains the only state to allow all four reform recipes. With the exception of Louisiana, six other states have moved in a restart-to-charter-only direction. Here’s a state-by-state synopsis:

Revolutionary? Yes. Progressive? Sure. Policymakers are demonstrating efforts to move beyond involvement and toward engagement. Effective? We don’t know yet, but probably not. For now, here is a working hypothesis of why: The causal relationship between “pick a reform” and “watch your school transform” is weak, at best. Rather than jumpstarts, a more likely improvement scenario would include building authentic relationships around the co-construction of a school that includes community, parents, teachers, and students. Let’s look at this a bit further:

Parent Trigger supporters contend that the law will affect change, reform, and school improvement. The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, thinks this is pretty easy: “A. Organize with fellow parents; B. Pick your reform option; C. Get signatures on your petition; and D. Watch your school transform!” Yet, we can see that parents are empowered to neither change, reform, nor improve schools. In California, they are simply empowered to choose a preferred reform recipe. Elsewhere, they are simply empowered to ask for a restart. Instead, several data reveal that what parents want is to see change happen within their own schools, in their own communities, and in their own unique contexts. Parents’ comments from McKinley Elementary School, the site of America’s first Parent Trigger, reveal that they wanted to see change happen within the walls of their own school. Perhaps this is why only approximately one-third of parents who signed the pro-charter petition actually moved their children to the new nearby charter school. Desert Trails Elementary parents, reveal similar discontent: after a year-long, highly public fight to pass their pro-charter petition in Adelanto, CA, less than one-third of parents who signed the petition voted the new charter authorizer for their school. Their choice of charter authorizer came down to the charter that demonstrated experience with students and families of color, despite its “traditional” approach to education. And in March of 2012, in a last minute flood of letters to Florida Republican Senator Rory, parents demanded a recall against Trigger on the grounds of false empowerment.

These parents’ perspectives do not stand alone. Data on parent engagement in school improvement reveal true value in cooperation, inclusivity, and validation of parents’ roles as partners in school decision-making. Findings from a few recent studies are particularly provocative:
- The Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) found that community organizing over time led to mutual support between under-served communities and school districts that yielded several stronger metrics of school improvement;
- In her study on Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Soo Hong finds that trusting relationships and equalized distribution of power are “core strategies” for school improvement;
- In their study of community organizing efforts in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, San Jose, and the Mississippi Delta, Warren et al. found that collaborations between educators, parents, and communities led to “deep, and sustainable school reform”;
- and in his participatory study with Latino/a high school students, Irizarry et al. uncover improved educational experiences for Latino/a youth through connections to Latino cultural and linguistic communities (Irizarry, 2012).

We need to do a lot more to better understand parents’ roles in school improvement. Empirical evidence is indeed hard to come by, as experimental models have to draw a strong, statistically significant causal relationship between parent engagement and school improvement. That aside, the rigor and richness of the qualitative data above and of other high quality studies remind us why Parent Trigger is unlikely: it’s nothing new. It’s the same four reform recipes, at best. The “easy as A-B-C-D” Trigger process jumpstarts reform but does not necessarily extend toward improvement. Reversing the effects of a historically tenuous relationship between parents and schools, particularly for low-income communities of color, is a complex process. Perhaps new Reform Recipes should consider repairing the parent-school relationships as a vehicle by which to move from reform and toward improvement.

Irizarry, J. G. (2011). The Latinization of U.S. schools: Successful teaching and learning in shifting cultural contexts. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

By: Priya Goel

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Myopic Perspectives/Reforms Are No Match for Systemic Inequalities

Love it or hate it, Teach For America (TFA), continues to grow as an alternative route to teaching.  Marketed as an organization committed to closing the achievement gap, TFA recruits high performing college students (who often also hold campus leadership positions) to teach, often outside of a content area not supported by an undergraduate degree, in low-income urban and rural schools plagued by underperformance on standardized tests, graduation rates, and college acceptance (Urban Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago for example).  The idea is that if you take smart, more than often White, graduates from Harvard (and the likes), give them a crash course in teaching (which breaks down into 5 weeks of courses and 18 hours of student teaching in an unrealistic setting), get them excited about “other people’s kids” and the “civil rights movement of our time,” teach them to employ strict behaviorism and a “no excuses” attitude towards student outcomes…then poverty will be eradicated.   Nevertheless, a primal aspect of the reproduction of poverty via schools is not only overlooked; it is actively subverted as a paradigm.  How honest can an organization that markets “equity” actively ignore the root causes of economic and educational disparities.

TFA’s Academic Impact Model (at right) holds that teachers, and teachers alone, are the fundamental determinant of student outcomes (not parents, principals, the students themselves, access to healthcare, food, housing, parental jobs, cultural/social capital, parental educational attainment, safety, etc. – think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 1966 Coleman Report).  I've written about this topic previously; but, as studies continue to confirm decades old understandings of the realities of poverty, this framework must continue to be scrutinized.

The naivety about and complete disregard for individual student backgrounds, aspirations, volition, etc., is indicative of the neoliberal “no excuses” paradigm sweeping across education reform.  To be sure, if a teacher enters a classroom and fundamentally believes that students cannot learn the educational environment can be ruined.  But, what of the opposite mindset?  If teachers, TFA corps members or others who subscribe to the no excuses paradigm, are taught to believe that socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, student volition, parental educational attainment, for example, are a zero sum component of student outcomes then are those corps members operating under a paradigm that is destined for failure?  As an educator, I believe in having high expectations for students.  But, I also understand that there are limits to what I can accomplish.  Many education reformers call this an excuse.  However, studies and science continue to confirm that students living in poverty begin school with more disadvantages than their affluent peers, seen here, here, and here.  Should we then relegate poor students to a life without education?…of course not.  But, the naivety in believing that we can eradicate systemic inequality by “fixing teachers” (especially by putting inexperienced corps members with only 18 hours of training in the classroom) is not only ludicrous, it shows a willingness to ignore larger systemic issues – like poverty and racism. 

If schools mirror society, we cannot progress towards more equality by trying to fix the reflection we see in the mirror.  We must dramatically increase our investments in anti-poverty programs and continuing education for parents.  We must commit to ensuring that every adult has access to a job that pays a livable wage.  We must protect and further attempts to provide access to affordable healthcare.  And, we must eradicate racist and classist policies that subvert equality and only promulgate a stratified economy.  All of these efforts need to take place and there is little - dare I say no - room for inexperienced do-gooders who ignore student cultural backgrounds (namely because they typically do not share the same backgrounds – ethnically and economically) who believe that teaching students to do well on standardized tests will give them the chutzpah to overcome poverty.

By: T. Jameson Brewer
An article-length examination of TFA's Academic Impact Model is available here.
Excellent blog post by Larry Cuban, "Online Instruction Outsources Jobs."

Monday, November 05, 2012

Presidential Politics and Education Policy: Pell Grants with Consequences

I should preface this whole blog by saying that I am not a scholar of education finance. But since one can hardly talk about education in this election season without talking about the federal budget and the economy, it’s pretty hard to write something about the future of public education following the upcoming election without talking about money. 

When Education Week and Teacher’s College at Columbia University teamed up to host an education debate on October 15th titled “Taking the Election to School: Making Education a Focus of the 2012 Election”, the budget, economy and the role of federal government in education were front and center. The debate featured education advisor to the Romney campaign, Phil Handy, against Obama education advisor, John Schnur; the president of Teachers’ College, Susan Furhman, served as moderator. This debate was a welcome respite from the high profile and very tense presidential and vice-presidential debates, characterized by two collegial men sitting next to each other, clearly at ease with the topics of debate, and respectful of their opponent’s time to talk, never interrupting or talking over the other.

In what followed (you can read the full transcript here), these surrogates provided details about each candidate’s plans for education, which reflected starkly different positions on the role of the federal government in all levels and arenas of education. Teacher’s College provides a bi-partisan summary of the debate that touches on the major issues including Common Core standards, NCLB Waivers, Pell Grants, early childhood education, teaching force.

But, it was the discussion of the Pell grant program was particularly compelling to me because of a point that Handy made at the end. He said, “the one thing we do with Pell grants, for example, is to have a completion requirement.” Using an analogy, he described how a Florida virtual school that offers a course does not get paid until the end of the course when the student is proficient in that course.  “That should be the same with federal programs which allows kids to go to school, not complete school, but still get the money…there’s a much more rigorous criteria that should be, I think, administered as it relates to give out federal money for going to school and not completing a course or completing a program.”

While his words are open to interpretation, this statement seems to support requiring students to complete college in order to keep their Pell grant monies. It implies that if students do not complete, there would be consequences as well (such as having to pay it back). It proposes holding individual students accountable for the spending of federal dollars on education! Indeed, Handy earlier referred to the Pell grant program as accruing “tens of billions” of dollars of “unpaid liability” (because helping low-income students go to college isn't worth it if they don’t become stock brokers and pay 15% tax rates…).  

Let’s backtrack a moment. If you remember, in the first debate, Romney indicated that he does not want to cut spending on education but also indicated that he does not plan to spend more money on education either. During the second town hall style debate, Romney was a little more promising in trying to sway undecided voters by saying “I want to make sure we keep our Pell grant program growing.” And during this particular debate between education advisors, Handy agreed that the Pell grant program is a good thing but given the budget deficit and uncertainty of how Pell will be funded, the program needs to be “radically fixed.”

By putting a system of consequences in place, the amount of money currently invested in the Pell grant program does not have to change. In fact, I’d bet my student loans that if Romney was elected, the federal government will spend less money on Pell. To gain access to higher education through a Pell grant would be a risk for low income students who are already four times less likely to finish college than students who are not low income.

This sort of system reminds me of the welfare drug testing law that was instituted in Florida last year. Attorney to Florida governor Rick Scott said that requiring welfare recipients to take a drug test in order to receive benefits was a “common-sense measure to make sure the purposes of the program are advanced.” The law was proposed to save the state money by eliminating persons from the program who were using benefits for drug use and scaring those who use drugs from applying. A Pell program of consequences would serve to do the same – scare students out of taking Pell money for fear that if they could not finish, they would not be able to pay back the federal government.  While we know now that the Florida law did not work, I still find this strategy of ‘scaring people straight’ quite alarming and contradictory to the goals of the Pell Grant program.

None of the articles I read addressed Handy’s comment (see here, here, here, and here). Perhaps the comment appeared to be given off-handedly in a broader discussion of student debt and college affordability. Or perhaps, and I suspect this is more likely, that no one picked up on this is actually indicative of two campaigns so focused on the middle class that comments like this don’t quite make the radar. Pell Grants are need-based program for poor Americans; in 2010-2011, 58% of Pell Grant recipients dependent on parents for support came from families with incomes of $30,000 or less (College Board, 2012). Yet, both Romney and Obama defined the ‘middle-income’ as households who make less than $250,000, despite the reality that the median income for American households is just over $50,000 and that only 9% of households make over $150,000. Like I said, you just can’t talk about this election without talking about money.

By: Nora Gannon-Slater, a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Psychology (QUERIES division), studies educational evaluation, assessment, and accountability.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Won't Step Up: Idealism, Evidence, and Entertainment

The most interesting thing about the recent box-office bomb of Won’t Back Down wasn't just how big-money ideologues backed such a dog of a movie, but that audiences handed a resounding “two thumbs down” to this attempt to alter the time-tested teacher-as-hero formula that has been so profitable to Hollywood over the years.

In the 1980s and 90s, movies about troubled schools had a common theme:  get tough on students.  Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds, for instance, reflected the common wisdom that charismatic educators could force those unruly urban (and usually minority) kids to shape up, allowing the US to compete with Japan in the global economy.

But the heroic teacher myth has recently been flipped to the teacher-as-villain, as indicated by a new crop of films that pounce on teachers for not improving the inner cities.  Recent Hollywood movies such as Won’t Back Down and Bad Teacher are buttressed by documentaries like Waiting for Superman, The Lottery and The Cartel in promoting the notion that education failure is due primarily to bad schools and, more specifically, to those who teach in them.  In this narrative, without finding ways of identifying, sanctioning, and firing ineffective teachers (who all happen to work at schools with lots of disadvantaged kids), the US will be unable to compete with India and China in the new global economy.  

This embrace of teacher effectiveness and rejection of student disadvantage as the primary factor influencing student outcomes has become something of a theme with the self-described “reform” crowd, as when Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels made the amazing claim that “Teacher quality has been found to be twenty times more important than any other factor, including poverty, in determining which kids succeed.”  The “Rhee-formers” believe that good teaching trumps the “demographic determinism” of bad background factors.

Improving teacher quality is, of course, a laudable goal.  But what does the evidence actually tell us? 

Going back at least to the Coleman Report of the mid-1960s, researchers have consistently found that non-school factors are the primary — if not overwhelming — consideration in predicting student outcomes (see, e.g. here, here, here, here, here).  Decades of research suggest that school-factors may explain perhaps one-third of the variance in student achievement, while teaching itself may influence one-fifth, at best.  And it’s not at all clear that exceptional teaching has the sustained impact over time that we might wish.  Great teaching can make a difference, and it does for many students.  But for many more, the environment soon re-asserts itself.

Certainly, it’s much easier for policymakers to mandate better teaching than it is to mandate better parenting.  We can’t legislate that all parents care about their child’s education, take prenatal vitamins, or limit exposure to lead… and that wouldn’t make for a very good movie.

But what we see in Won’t Back Down is a willful disregard of evidence in favor of Rhee-formist idealism — the appeal of simplistic solutions to complex problems.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to improve the educational experiences of poor kids.  But idealism and ideological desire cannot counter data.  Without a foundation in facts, any reforms are likely to go the way of the many other efforts that are based on good intentions and ideological assumptions, but which ignore evidence.  (Recall the Gates Foundation’s expensive and ineffective foray into smaller schools.)  There will be little overall impact on academic outcomes from reforms that neglect the primary problems… outside of schools.

Divorced from evidence, idealism may make for a good movie, but it is not the best strategy for improving educational outcomes.