Today’s NYtimes seemed to focus on college education! David Brooks’ column, “Becoming a Real Person”, described three competing visions of college:
What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).
Unfortunately, both the commercial purpose and cognitive purpose can be easily measured using earnings and test scores… which led me to leave this comment:
Brooks writes: “Universities… have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement.” Alas, the Obama administrations’s notion of using earnings after graduation as the primary means of measuring the worth of a college degree will reinforce the this notion and, in the end, will make this “moral decay” worse! Pinker’s notion that college should only teach what can be measured by standardized tests is equally decadent: it will only exacerbate the trend that colleges become test-preparation factories for the LSAT, GRE, and Med School tests. Intellectual rigor can be recognized and encouraged by a good teacher but can’t be measured by earnings or test scores.
Our measurement compulsion is driving the direction we are heading in college and in our culture. If we REALLY want to build integrated selves in our society we need to provide time for reflection and more personal contact with good teachers.
One of Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday incorporated a lengthy commentary from Laura Chapman titled “Laura Chapman on Churning the Workforce, VAM, and Magical Thinking“. The post describes the latest work of a team of economists from the Brookings Institute on a means of stack-ranking teachers based on an algorithm that includes test scores, evaluations, and other factors that can be assigned a mathematical value. After reading the post and the comments, I offered the following reaction:
The premise for all of this quantification and standardization is that “bad teachers” are the problem and the causes and conditions that students bring to school are immaterial. Economists are notorious for creating mathematical models are precise and exacting but do not measure what is important.
All of this mathematical manipulation of data brought to mind Dr. Gomberg, a professor I had at Penn who worked as a labor mediator before becoming a teacher. Whenever someone in class would offer a lengthy theoretical discourse he would cut them short by characterizing their comments as “mental masturbation”. I’m sure if he were alive to witness “school reform” he would be offering the same feedback to the economists who dream up these VAM models!
Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Monday posing a set of questions raised in a Washington Post op ed essay on benchmarking by Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves. In the essay Hargreaves describes his perspective on the rationale behind benchmarking, which came to the public’s attention in the 1990s as part of the response to the fallout from A Nation at Risk. Hargreaves rightfully points out that benchmarking– especially international benchmarking— has been used by “reformers” as a means of “proving” that US schools are deficient and, therefore, should be overhauled. But, as I noted in a comment to both posts, benchmarking is nothing new in public education.
For decades individual student performance has been based on benchmarks. Teacher-made tests served as the de facto benchmark for determining whether a student passed or failed. The aggregated set of grades a student earned (i.e. their transcript) served as a benchmark for determining whether a student gained entry to particular colleges or not. Students were disciplined based on standards set forth in student handbooks and or standards set by a classroom teacher.
In most cases these standards were normative and not formative: a student was not compared to a set standard but rather compared to his or her cohorts. One of the reasons for setting benchmarks was to devise standardized tests like the SAT that provided a means for colleges to determine if a student with all A’s at East Podunk HS was as prepared as a student from an elite private school. Another reason to move away from this normative comparison of cohort groups was to avoid using it as a basis for homogeneous grouping that identified some students as “high perfuming” and others as “slow”. An important reason was to establish a means of implementing a mastery learning model whereby students progressed individually instead of as a cohort.
Before decrying benchmarking I think it is important to realize it’s been in place— and not necessarily to good effect.
An anecdote from my experience as a HS Principal in rural ME illustrates two approaches to the “benchmarking” teachers used to grade students.
In November of the first year I was Principal I reviewed the computer print-out listing the grades each teacher assigned to students and discovered that every student in one of the science teachers’ classes received an “A”. I asked my secretary (this was 1977— we didn’t have “administrative assistants” at that time) to schedule an appointment with this teacher after school. My intention was to make certain he understood that we wanted to have higher standards in the school and that “giving all A’s” was unacceptable. When I asked the teacher to explain why he had “given” all of his students an A, he replied that he hadn’t “given” them anything, they earned it. He believed it was imperative that all his students master the information presented in order for them to understand the information he would be presenting in the coming units and so he insisted that they re-take tests until they earned an “A”. That meeting in my office stayed with me for years to come…. and was on my mind later that year.
At the end of every school year, there is invariably a student who falls short of a passing grade… and invariably a case where a teacher can decide whether a 64.5 is an “F” or a “D”. One young woman had started the year off badly because of issues she was dealing with at home and done very poorly academically as a result. As the year progressed, a combination of her emerging maturity and the amelioration of her problems at home resulted in an upward trajectory in her grades. Several of her teachers were sympathetic to her problems and recognized that the improvement was genuine. Her social studies teacher, however, who was skeptical of my “higher standards” mantra, threw it back in my face when the student fell .75 short of his “high standard”.
Both teachers had benchmarks, but each was using them for different ends. As readers of this blog realize, I’ve come to realize that the science teacher’s benchmarks are the ones we SHOULD be using when we grade schools and students. Unfortunately, it’s the social studies standard that is in place thanks to NCLB, RTTT, and “education reform”.
When NCLB passed, I remember reading what I thought at the time was an especially cynical column suggesting that the intent of the bill from the conservative perspective was to undermine the public’s support for public education by devising a rating system that would demonstrate how poorly American schools were doing. I thought that was cynical until I saw the rating system itself, which WAS clearly designed to make virtually all schools by defining a school as “failing” if it failed to meet unrealistically high growth goals for any sub-group of students. Thus, a high performing school that had a single grade level cohort of, say, 10 special education students who failed to “grow” as measured by standardized test results was deemed to be a “failing” school. It was no surprise, then, that as time went on more and more schools were defined as “failing”, and it was even less of a surprise that public education critics used these results to repeatedly bludgeon public schools… and not at all surprising to see that while NCLB has not resulted in ANY substantial improvement in NAEP scores it has succeeded in one are: the erosion of public support for schools.
Diane Ravitch’s post on the Phi Delta Kappa annual poll on public education included these tidbits:
Local public schools get high marks from public school parents at the same time that American public education gets low marks. This seeming paradox shows the success of the privatizers’ relentless attacks on public education over the past decade. For years, the public has heard Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and other supporters of privatization decry American public education as “broken,” “obsolete,” “failing.” Their message has gotten through. Only 17% of the public gives American education an A or a B.
At the same time, however, 67% of public school parents give an A or B to the public school their oldest child attends.
The parents have always given higher grades to their schools than the general public, but the erosion of support from the general public was made clear after I googled PDK surveys and found an article from the North Carolina DOE providing an overview of the results of the 2000 survey, the las survey before the advent of NCLB. Here are it’s findings on public support for schools:
Public support for public schools is at an all-time high. For the first time in the 33-year history of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, a majority of respondents gave their schools either an A or B. Fifty-one percent of all those surveyed rated their schools an A or B with the figure climbing to 62 percent for public school parents and to 68 percent when these same parents were asked to grade the school their oldest child attends. On the 2000 Carolina Poll, 52 percent of North Carolinians said they would give the public schools in their communities a grade of A or B.
To drive the point home: there has been NO change whatsoever in terms of parent’s assessments of their child’s school but a precipitous decline in terms of the public’s assessment of public education. The cynics were right: Edward Kennedy and the Democrats who signed on to NCLB were duped and the public’s support for “government schools” is at an all time low 13 years after it was at an all time high…. and nothing’s changed in terms of the results. Mission accomplished.
David Kirp’s op ed essay, “Teaching is Not a Business“, echoes many posts on this blog. In addition to the pithy aphorism that serves as the title, Kirp’s essay touches on a host of topics that I’ve blogged on in detail, including:
- the need for teachers to be champions for their students
- the failed idea of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education, teacher performance, and school performance
- the demonstrable failure of the “turnaround” idea
- the shortcomings and pitfalls of merit pay plans
- the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools
- the reality that organizational change is superior to the quick fix inherent in “disruption” and the application of traditional business practices
- the reality that organizational change takes time
- the inherent messiness of any enterprise that provides human services
- the failed promise of technology
A look back at blog posts will show that the number of Times articles championing market-based solutions to education, the use of business practices in public education, charters, vouchers, disruptive technology, and “turnaround schools” FAR outnumber the articles like Kirp’s that are based on practical, realistic solutions. I’m glad the Times is giving its readers “the rest of the story”…. but expect to see several counter arguments in letters to the editor characterizing Kirp as a defender of the status quo, a union apologist, and an academic promoting failed ideas. I hope I’m wrong.