Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Lesson or More Here and There

Diane Ravitch. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (revised). New York: Basic Books, 2011.
The author questions recent school reforms.  They were not succeeding. In past critiques, the author found irony in school reformers in the 1890s fighting for centralized school authority with professional administration to improve low performing schools versus school reformers in the 1960s fighting for a return to decentralization of school administration arguing that community leaders and parents better know how to improve under-performing schools.  
The author argued schools are not capable of solving soclal problems although they are necessary for individual advancement and societal good.  She criticized the loss of cultural memory from what schools were failing to teach.  She served as Assistant U.S. Education Secretary where she helped create “voluntary national standards” for every school subject.  There was a belief that better managed schools would perform better and that poorly scoring schools should be closed.  Ravitch, though, believes that “curriculum and accountability” are more important than school choice.  Further, she realized that too much emphasis was being placed on testing as “an end itself” rather than an evaluative tool.
The movement for standards became improperly fixated on standard test scores of students.  This was a system easy to administer and required little background knowledge of education.  There was a focus on punishing schools that perform poorly but few proposals on improving scores.  Things that could not be measured were not considered.  It was ironic seeing conservations who believe in less government supporting strong government control of schools and seeing liberals favoring free market principles, allowing people to choose better functional schools, in school choice.
Assessing education is a complex process. Standardized testing was an easier but less useful alternative.  Despite an emphasis on improving standardize test scores, SAT scores decreased at steady rates for a decade.  Students were testing better yet learning less.  Further, SAT scores have been declining since 1963.  Further research found students did less homework and were studying less math and science.
San Diego moved to centralized education policymaking.  It was theory that central planners knew what best to do. The system was run on command and control.  Teacher input was not considered.  90% of principals left and teacher resignations doubled such that one third of teachers left from 1998 to 2005.  
The teachers union tried to oust School Board members favoring this system but did not elect a majority.  IT is noted that school reform should have trust between teachers, principals, and administrators.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to control his New York City School Board.  In 2002, the state legislature gave Bloomberg that managerial control. Numerous expert consultants were hired.  Many non-educators were administrators.  Curriculum changes were made only in Math.  Strict standards on how to teach were implemented.  Test preparation companies received contracts for test practicing among students.  Still, two thirds of New York public schools were found to be “below basic” skills (the lowest skill level).  Only 4% of New York schools met minimum requirements.  Teachers emphasized Reading and Math, which were tested, but neglected Science, History, Civics, Arts, and Physical Education.  The author had supported Bloomberg taking charge for it is easier to implement reforms when decisions are made by one person.  The numbers of students that passed from level to level increased only by lowering the requirements to pass levels.  As of 2007, there were little practical changes in New York’s test scores.  The author concludes that Mayoral control is not a sure means of improving education.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was implemented during the George W. Bush Administration with few previous trials in states except in Texas. Testing of students was paramount. Critics argued that test scores’ averages increased in Texas because drop-out rates increased, such that their lack of participation in taking the tests caused the rise in average test scores. By 2006, the author realized NCLB was not working. In many failing schools, 98% to 99.5% of student preferred to remain at those schools.  Few wanted the school choice option. The author realized that it was not working to either sanction bad schools or to give incentives to schools that were successful.  NCLB also de-emphasized courses other than Reading and Math, which she argues is a serious mistake.
Vouchers use public funds to help low income families pay tuition to private schools, which could be religious schools.  Vouchers exist in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the District of Columbia.  Charter schools are charted by the state and need not meet state regulations in achieving performance goals.  These two types of schools gained popularity in the 1990s.  Minnesota created the first charter school in 1991.  Baltimore in 1992 hired a non-profit enterprise to manage its schools.  
Charter management in some schools were reported to be poorly managed with hires and contracts involving conflicts of interest.  Some charter schools showed higher test scores, yet they also had accepted fewer low achieving students, thus negating the seeming improvement.  Charter schools have been found to be good, medium, bad, and some failed.  A 2009 national study conducted by Stanford University researchers with data from 2,403 charter schools covering 70% of charter school students concluded there was little difference in performance between charter schools and public schools.
Ravitch argued the charter schools that did have higher test scores had more hours of school per day, more weeks of school per year, more class offerings, as well as enthusiastic administrators, teachers, and students.
Ravitch argued that accountability based on test scores is wrong,  She argues for using judgments form professional evaluators on how education programs work.  Tests are prone to error and even manipulation and they do not provide a complete sense of what occurs.
American schools are falling behind compared to the rest of the world in understanding Science, Politics, History, and Literature.  Education requires support from teachers, communities, and society. Yet we are a society that seeks quick and easy solutions to complex problems.  Relying on test scores to evaluate schools will not work.  The scores are useful, yet only as part of a greater analyst that should be required.
Ravitch recommends setting goals for what we wish to achieve.  We need to look at curriculum is required for meeting these goals.  It should be a broad based curriculum that includes Liberal Arts, Science, History, Literature, Geography, Civil, Math, Art, foreign languages, Health, and Physical Education.  Textbooks full of facts but lacking readability should be improved upon.  Science should be taught at every grade level.  Massachusetts has one of the strongest curriculum and its students test about the best in the world in Science.
NCLB and Race to the Top follow the scientific management philosophy begun by Frederick Winslow Taylor that employers can measure employee’s work.  Rewards and punishments will improve employee output.  Education is difficult to measure.  Ravitch believes incompetent educations should be removed, but they need to be identified by supervisors and peer reviewed before dismissal.  Tenure means a right to due process, not a right to permanent employment.
One reality is social conditions need to improve for schools to improve.  Poor schools will continue to exist where social conditions are poor.


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