This weekend the NYTimes Great Divide series featured an article by college professors Keith Robinson and Angel Harris provocatively titled “Parent Involvement is Overrated”. As one who share the conventional wisdom that parent engagement is an important factor in student success I was initially skeptical of the findings reported in the article… but upon reflection I think the article missed an opportunity to make a distinction between parent involvement and parent engagement, which are two different issues.
The studies Robinson and Harris cite in the article deal with parent involvement, which appears to have no correlation with student performance as measured by standardized achievement test but can arguably be measured. Indeed, the studies they cited used easily measured “involvement” metrics (e.g. observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, etc) and did not get at the issue that they ultimately determined really does matter most: “… find(ing) specific, creative ways to communicate the value of schooling, tailored to a child’s age.” This would be a good baseline definition of “engagement”… and the measurable behavior to determine if parents are communicating “…the value of schooling” might be their signing and commenting on reports sent home from school.
There is an overarching distinction between “involvement” and “engagement” that is important in my mind. “Involvement” implies that the school is a separate enterprise that is educating the child separate and apart from the child’s daily life… that learning happens in a singular location during a particular time frame. “Engagement” implies a partnership between the parent and the school and that it reinforces what the parent values and believes is important. The reality is that children are learning all the time and by working in partnership with the parents schools can accelerate academic learning by gaining a deeper understanding of the child.
Yesterday’s NYTmes featured an article by Alan Schwarz on an emerging new form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) called “sluggish cognitive tempo” (SCT) which is “…characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing.” Schwarz writes:
Experts pushing for more research into sluggish cognitive tempo say it is gaining momentum toward recognition as a legitimate disorder — and, as such, a candidate for pharmacological treatment. Some of the condition’s researchers have helped Eli Lilly investigate how its flagship A.D.H.D. drug might treat it.
It isn’t hard to imagine that Big Pharma and Big Data might be joined at the hip: Big Data tests kids based on their “academic growth” as compared to students in the same age cohort and Big Pharma comes up with a “flagship drug” to treat students whose growth fails to match that of their peers.
Fortunately, at this juncture, the existence of SCT is still in dispute. The article quotes some academics and medical practitioners who are cautious about defining SCT as a medical condition:
“We’re seeing a fad in evolution: Just as A.D.H.D. has been the diagnosis du jour for 15 years or so, this is the beginning of another,” said Dr. Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “This is a public health experiment on millions of kids.”
A public health experiment whose patients are too often identified because of our obsession with test scores. Later another skeptical academic was quoted:
Steve S. Lee, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who serves on the editorial board of The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, said in an interview that he was conflicted over the journal’s emphasis on sluggish cognitive tempo. He expressed concern that A.D.H.D. had already grown to encompass too many children with common youthful behavior, or whose problems are derived not from a neurological disorder but from inadequate sleep, a different learning disability or other sources.
The article eventually links the pharmaceutical industry with the medical practitioners who are advocating the identification of SCT as a medical condition, reporting that Eli Lilly underwrote the study that determined that Strattera, their leading ADHD drug, benefited children with this diagnosis. Later in the article, it noted that the physician who identified SCT as a medical condition “…received $118,000 from 2009 to 2012 for consulting and speaking engagements” underwritten by Eli Lilly. The same physician declined to comment on “…his financial interests in the condition’s acceptance.“
Having recently watched The Dallas Buyers Club and had too many instances of cancer diagnoses among family members and friends, I can appreciate where someone suffering from a disease might be annoyed that a drug that might help them is unavailable… But my experience tells me that in too many cases parents, doctors, and teachers often look for a quick and simple way to solve a complicated problem… and Big Pharma is only too happy to provide what the “patient” needs. Before we go any further with this “public health experiment” we might want to take a look at what is leading to the diagnosis of this disorder: our unrealistic expectation that all children will develop at the same rate intellectually and that all children must conform to an education system that defines “daydreaming” as a condition requiring medication.
Jessica Lahey’s post in today’s Motherlode section of the NYTimes purports to provide an overview of standardized testing for parents. From my perspective it implicitly supported the mandates incorporated in Race To The Top, the way NYS implemented it’s testing program, and the value of standardized testing in general. It concluded with this platitudinous paragraph:
As states struggle to align curriculum and No Child Left Behind Act testing to the Common Core State Standards, and decide what role, if any, testing will play in teacher and school evaluation, parents are left to define their role in state and federal government’s efforts to shape the future of education for our children. While parents may choose to opt out of their state’s standardized tests, we can’t choose to opt out of the debate over education and our nation’s effort to assure rigor and higher standards for all children.
Anyone who reads this blog realizes that STATES had no opportunity to “decide what role, if any, testing will play in teacher and school evaluation”. As Superintendent in New Hampshire in 2010 and 2011 I urged my colleagues and the Commissioner to say no to the Race To The Top because it required the use of Value Added Measures (see my white papers elsewhere on this blog for details on this). Furthermore, parent have NEVER been encouraged to enter into the debate over education…. indeed there has been NO debate at the national level over education since 2001 when NCLB was adopted. All of this led me to enter the following comment:
Here are some points readers should also know. First, the Common Core State Standards (CSSS) was a de facto mandate included in Race To The Top (RTTT), the Obama administration’s workaround to the fact that NCLB was not re-authorized. In order to get RTTT funding states HAD to agree that test results would play a role in teacher and school evaluation. There was no public debate on the national level about CCSS, RTTT, the new tests, or the way tests would be used to measure teacher, student and teacher performance. For better or worse our legislators have opted out over the debate over education, ceding the direction we are headed in public education to the US Department of Education. At this juncture, for-profit charter operators, testing companies, and technology magnates are engaged in the “debate over education” while parents, teachers, school boards, and the public are on the sidelines. This marginalization is fueling the opt out movement.
As a reader of Orwell, I know that one way to control the future is to control history… and unless parents are clear about how the CCSS, RTTT, and the testing regimen we have now was put in place they will have no way to fix the problems that are in place.
Today’s Washington Post includes a re-publication of a blog post written Stanford professor emeritus (and technology skeptic) Larry Cuban titled “The Problem with Evidence Based Education Policy: the Evidence”
In his post, Cuban asserts that despite the exhortations of policy makers to base their decisions on evidence, in the final analysis politics, not science, determines the course education takes. One of the reasons, he suggests, might be that in medicine, where evidence-based research has been in place, studies yield conflicting conclusions often leaving patients confused about what course of action to take to remain healthy.
In education, which has many examples where scientific evidence for policy changes based on political decisions is lacking, Cuban goes after the hype about the transformative change the would occur when there were more computers in the classroom. He concludes his post by reviewing a meta-analysis by John Hattie, a professor at the University of Auckland (NZ), and writes:
According to Hattie’s meta-analyses, then, introducing computers to students will fall well below other instructional strategies that teachers can and do use. Will Hattie’s findings convince educational policymakers to focus more on teaching? Not as long as political choices trump research findings.
That last sentence brought to mind a Vox post I read yesterday by Ezra Klein titled “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”. The post detailed research done by Yale law professor Dan Kahan based on The Science Comprehension Thesis “…which says the problem is that the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate. It’s a version of the More Information Hypothesis: a smarter, better educated citizenry wouldn’t have all these problems reading the science and accepting its clear conclusion(s)…”
Kahan wanted to test his belief that the More Information Hypothesis was wrong: that people actually want to get more information in order for them to support their hypotheses, not to test their hypothesis.
…Kahan and his team had an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps people aren’t held back by a lack of knowledge. After all, they don’t typically doubt the findings of oceanographers or the existence of other galaxies. Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.
Klein’s post then details Kahan’s research on this issue, which provided evidence that supported his premise that in general people screen out information that is contrary to their convictions and grab onto any information that supports their theory.
Applications of Kahan’s research abound in education. Valerie Strauss’s blog post in the Washington Post, for example, is titled “Another Study Shows Charters Do No Better Than Public Schools”…. and the title tells the the conclusion of the research…. and Strauss’ concluding paragraph echoes Kahan’s conclusion:
Will these results (showing charters make no difference) give pause to efforts to promote charter schools in Chicago? Don’t hold your breath. The charter movement has big money behind it among hedge fund managers on Wall Street (who recently bankrolled to the tune of millions of dollars an ad campaign to attack New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) for a stand he took on charter schools that supporters didn’t like). And it’s folks with the big money who are helping to drive education policy these days.
So… can big money be defeated? And how do we make the changes we need if people’s minds are resistant to reason and logic? Klein’s post ends on a somewhat optimistic note:
The silver lining is that politics doesn’t just take place in Washington. The point of politics is policy. And most people don’t experience policy as a political argument. They experience it as a tax bill, or a health insurance card, or a deployment. And, ultimately, there’s no spin effective enough to persuade Americans to ignore a cratering economy, or skyrocketing health-care costs, or a failing war. A political movement that fools itself into crafting national policy based on bad evidence is a political movement that will, sooner or later, face a reckoning at the polls.
At least, that’s the hope. But that’s not true on issues, like climate change, where action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly. There, the reckoning will be for future generations to face. And it’s not true when American politics becomes so warped by gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction that voters can’t figure out who to blame for the state of the country. If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.
So here’s two questions for public education advocates:
- When will those making “national policy based on bad evidence… face a reckoning at the polls”?
- What are the “better structures” we need to put in place that can help us “win the day”?