University of Chicago Report Hails RTTT’s Results: “Reform” Policies Adopted With No Proof of Efficacy
A recent report written by the University of Chicago was hailed in a recent web site post with this headline: “Race to the Top Initiative Spurs US Education Policy Reform, Report Finds“. The University of Chicago’s late economist Milton Friedman is the father of the voucher movement, and the fact that his former home base is writing favorable reports about RTTT is not surprising, especially given the definition of the RTTT’s goals as they report them:
Race to the Top was designed to encourage higher state standards, create new data systems, improve teacher effectiveness, increase college readiness, stimulate charter-school expansion and strengthen low-performing schools.
According to the press release/web page, a study conducted at the University of Chicago by William Howell shows that one of the primary means of accomplishing this goal, policy changes at the State level, was a success:
In order to see whether Race to the Top stimulated the adoption of education reforms, Howell and a team of researchers examined whether a statewide governing body had actually enacted (not just proposed) upwards of 33 qualifying policies each year between 2001 and 2014. They found that states enacted reform policies at a much higher rate in the aftermath of Race to the Top.
A “team of researchers” was not needed to make this determination: the USDOE would not grant waivers unless such policies were adopted by State Boards and, given the desperate need for additional funds for schools in the aftermath of the crash in 2008 it did not take a herd of Ph.D. s to “research” this finding. A group of undergraduates could do it by spending an hour with Google. The next sentence in the web posting shows where the researchers should have spent some time:
Howell clarifies that the study “does not assess the efficacy of the particular policies promoted by the initiative, nor does it investigate how Race to the Top altered practices within schools or districts. Rather, the focus is the education policymaking process itself; the adoption of education policies is the outcome of interest.”
It is what Howell DIDN’T research that is the most germane question to answer as Congress considers the reauthorization of ESEA because the reauthorization is based on the same premises as NCLB and RTTT: the way to prepare more students for the workplace or college and to improve “low performing schools” is to set higher standards, collect more data on students (especially data from standardized tests), improve teaching in schools, and open more charter schools. Is there proof to support this? If there IS, the University of Chicago is not looking for it…. and if there IS no one running for office is championing it. On the contrary, both the University of Chicago research team and a herd of President candidates, and the US Congress assume that despite evidence to the contrary, the continuation of the “solutions” based on testing students and punishing and/or replacing “failing schools” is imperative. If we keep wishing for this to work it will…. just like if we keep wishing the global temperatures would decline they will.
David Bornstein’s Fixes column yesterday, “Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives“, describes several studies that demonstrate a positive relationships between positive social skills and a host of positive outcomes from school. After describing the studies and their findings, Bornstein writes:
These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness — strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.
The conclusion of the article described the efforts of the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as Casel, which has been working for three to four years to help school districts embed social and emotional learning throughout their systems and described ongoing studies in this arena. The description of one of the studies caught my eye:
This year, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University did some number crunching to estimate the economic value of six different social and emotional learning programs that had strong track records. They looked at the programs’ impact on things like future wages and social costs (pdf), and found that the programs yielded an average return of $11 for each dollar invested.
It’s a shame that our obsession with measurement and economic value are the means of “proving” the worth of civility and self-awareness…. and a shame that these same obsessions are compelling us to measure the effectiveness of Kindergarten teachers by the amount of reading and math students are learning and to measure the effectiveness of college by the post-graduate job placements. Civility and self-awareness are skills that schools should be inculcating explicitly, but they are often viewed as by-products instead of ends in themselves. Schools only have a limited time with children, and using that time to teach skills that could be learned through programmed instruction (e.g. basic math and reading skills) seems like a waste of teacher talent. We’re so obsessed with “getting ready for college and careers” by the end of 12 years that we overlook the most important elements of life: getting along with others and understanding ourselves.
The more I read about and think about the effort to repeal NCLB, the more I hope that no compromise will be reached. The latest brouhaha over the bill involves the Booker-Murphy Amendment, which is supported by the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) a think tank that supports the neo-liberal test-and-punish reforms advocated by the likes of Cuomo, Christie and Walker. Charles Barone, DFER’s policy director, summarizes the amendment’s elements as follows:
The amendment simply sets forth what we see as two non-negotiable principles that, in exchange for billions of dollars in federal aid:
1. States will assess school performance based on real and measurable results – not just for all students on average but for historically-disadvantaged groups of students including black students, Hispanic students, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
2. States or districts will intervene in schools where historically-disadvantaged groups of students consistently fail to meet state academic benchmarks.
“It’s on the second point that the underlying bill reauthorizing ESEA is most in need of improvement. Unlike the underlying bill, the Murphy amendment would not allow states and school districts to neglect schools that are chronically under-performing. It would not dictate hopelessness to parents whose children are trapped in those schools. It would not accept dropout factories that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.
What’s not to like about these premises? Well, in an open letter to Bernie Sanders who signed on to this amendment, a group of disaffected teachers and unions leaders argue against any quantitative measures:
Quantitative measures are invalid. They are masks for social inequalities. They merely highlight and then reflect economic and racial inequalities. Mel Riddile, “PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid'” at the blog, “The Principal’s Corner”, found that numerical performance of districts mirrors the scale of economic inequalities of those districts. Statisticians have proven over and over again that the use of value added modeling is logically flawed. NCLB drove the use of value-added modeling (VAM) which negatively transformed the teaching and learning processes in the nation’s schools.
It’s unclear to me that the amendment itself would require or even lead to the use of VAM. As I understand it, this rider requires that any test scores be disaggregated by race and socio-economic demographics and require that states do something about “chronically underperforming” districts.
I think that Bernie Sanders is placed in an awkward situation with this bill. He is clearly opposed to privatization of public services, clearly supportive of unions, and clearly supportive of social justice. I do not believe that his support of this amendment is a signal that he supports VAM or that he favors testing as the sole means of accountability. Moreover, the presumptive nominee for the democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, is not subjected to a litmus test based on her support for or rejection of this amendment. My belief: if Hillary Clinton was still a Senator this would be the Booker-Murphy-Clinton amendment.
As I’ve written frequently in this blog, the whole idea of giving STATES the responsibility for determining how to measure school performance is troubling, especially given the direction most States are heading when it comes to issues like VAM, funding equity, and racial discrimination. Here’s hoping the bill dies before the President gets a chance to sign it into law. If it DOES pass, we’ll have at least another six years of testing… and we won’t be testing climate change and evolution in at least nine states in the union.
Today’s NYTimes column by Paul Krugman describes the flawed thinking by political leaders in Europe that led to their embrace of an idea that was deeply flawed according to a host of economists. Because of my personal background and biases, I immediately saw a connection between the flawed thinking regarding the Euro and the flawed thinking that led to VAM sweeping the country. VAM, like the Euro, seems like a logical and efficient solution to a complicated problem. But, as H.L. Mencken wrote, every complicated problem has a solution that is simple, clean, and wrong… and VAM is as simplistic and intuitively appealing as the Euro. After reading Krugman’s essay I left this comment:
This same kind of magical thinking by “…self-indulgent politicians” who “…ignore arithmetic and the lessons of history” is happening right now in public education. There is no mathematical or statistical basis for rating schools or teachers based on the standardized test scores of children yet governors, state legislators, and “reformers” all champion the idea. Why? To paraphrase Mr. Krugman: To people who didn’t know much about statistics, or chose to ignore awkward questions regarding the repeatedly demonstrable evidence that test scores correlate with income, using tests to measure performance sounded like a great idea…. and it is an idea that appears to be persisting in the bills before Congress today.
To paraphrase Mr. Krugman once more: The only big mistake of the “school reformers” was underestimating just how much damage the emphasis on standardized test scores would do to public education… or MAYBE that’s not a bug of the legislation— it’s a feature.
One of the main reasons I hope the ECAA bill in Congress never passes is that it insisted States use standardized tests as the primary metric for performance and allows States to continue using VAM if they choose to do so. We’ve had six years of VAM: another six years will make it even harder to rid the schools of this flawed idea and all of the schools serving children raised in poverty will be treated like Greece is being treated today.
Bill Gates Acknowledges His Education Initiatives Fell Short… And Now He Wants to Take on Pre-School?
Nick Kristof’s column today profiles Bill and Melinda Gates, offering an overview of the work of their foundation on it’s 15th anniversary. In general, the foundation’s initiatives in medicine are wholly positive and, like Gates’ corporation, borderless. Absent a well funded international organization with a narrow focus on specific diseases philanthropy can eliminate diseases like polio, Guinea worm disease and, perhaps, elephantiasis and blinding trachoma. These diseases cause suffering to large swaths of the populations of third world countries and can be eliminated through comprehensive immunization and/or infrastructure changes and/or the introduction of specific proven hygiene practices.
Where Gates’ initiatives fall short is in areas like education, an area that has no clear solution and an area that defies the technological/engineering template that succeeds in fighting diseases. In looking back at the successes and failures of his Foundation, Gates acknowledges that “…the foundation’s investments in education here in the United States haven’t paid off as well” and “…started out too tech-focused”. What Gates DOESN’T acknowledge is the need for him to spend as much time and energy retracting his “tech-focused” solutions to education as he spent promoting them. As written repeatedly in this blog and most other progressive education blogs, the use of standardized test scores as the “hard metric” for teacher and school performance has resulted in drastic and seemingly irreversible changes in public education in this country. Standardized tests require a standardized curriculum the same way that software development requires standardization, and whether the curriculum is standardized at the national or state level doesn’t matter in the end… if the quality of teachers and schools are determined by performance on a standardized test of ANY kind the children in the classes and schools will receive instruction designed to have them succeed on that test. As Gates has learned, though, the narrow bore focus that cures diseases cannot improve public schools. Eradicating the causes and effects of poverty, which is inextricably linked to test results, requires a comprehensive approach and the use of the “squishy” metrics Mr. Gates admittedly disdains. Here’s hoping Mr. Gates has learned those lessons before investing in pre-school education.
Fairborn, OH, Loses a Committed and Dedicated Teacher. Somewhere in Ohio An Affluent District Would Welcome Him
Valerie Strauss’ turned over her Washington Post Answer Sheet blog to Scott Ervin, a Fairborn OH third grade teacher who outlined his reasons for quitting as a third grade teacher after 15 years. From his description of his work ethic and dedication to working with the most challenging students in a school that serves children raised in poverty I am confident that there is an affluent school district within driving distance that will be happy to hire him… and in that district Mr. Ervin won’t have to put up with Ohio’s laws that pertain to “failing schools”. As I wrote in an essay published in Education Week several years ago, this is the form of “merit pay” that is already in place in public education.
I base my assertion that Mr. Ervin could land a job in an affluent district on my experience as the former Superintendent of an affluent district in NH surrounded by several districts that had “failing schools” full of dedicated teachers, some of whom would jump into our applicant pools whenever we had an opening. Why? Because they knew that teachers in our district did not have to worry about test results because our students scored at the high end of the bell curve and their year-to-year performances never put the school in jeopardy of failing. Mr. Ervin’s experience brought to mind a teacher we recruited from a nearby district to work with students who were not eligible for special education services but did require one-on-one attention because of their inability to “fit” in the classrooms. Through behavioral interventions we were able to provide these students with the support they needed to do the kind of independent work teachers assigned and parents expected. Such a position was affordable in our district in two respects. First, we had the resources to pay for the position (though it was questioned whenever we needed to consider budget cuts) and second, we did not have to devote any resources to “test preparation”.
I consulted in financially strapped areas of the state after I retired in 2011 and worked in many under-resourced school districts in the pre-NCLB era. In less affluent districts after NCLB the focus was on avoiding designation as a School In Need of Improvement (a “SINI” status) or, as happened over time, working to get out of a SINI designation. The SINI focus meant that every class was dedicated to preparing for the NECAP, the standardized test used to determine whether a school was “failing” or “succeeding”. Many of the administrators and teachers I worked with thought the use of tests to measure their schools was preposterous but they all accepted it as a “given” and worked tirelessly to get enough of their students over the NECAP “cut score” so that their school could get out of the SINI status…. but the practical reality was that even when the school was out of the SINI status it was still obsessed with maintaining that status by, you guessed it, doing well on the next round of NECAPS. I found this vicious cycle astonishing and completely wrongheaded since I had spent seven years in a district that effectively paid no attention to NECAP scores. I also saw that the focus on NECAP scores took time away from the focus on what was most important: the cultivation of the love of learning and the ability of students to work independently on projects that interested them. The obsession with testing was taking the joy out of school for students as well as teachers.
I hope Mr. Ervin continues to teach and has applied to districts in his region that are not “failing” and that a Superintendent in Ohio reads Mr. Ervin’s post, looks through their applicant pool, and invites Mr. Ervin in for an interview. He may be good enough to merit a job in that district… THAT’s the kind of “merit pay” we have in America today.