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Posts Tagged ‘Testing’

Let’s Be Like China!

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes features an interview with Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon who immigrated from China and has written extensively contrasting the Chinese education system to ours. The article should be read in its entirety, for it reinforces many of the assertions set forth in this blog and the blogs of progressive educators. Namely:

  • The focus on test scores results in a narrowing of the curriculum
  • The focus on test scores damages the self-confidence of many students
  • Test scores measure “…something very different from the quality of education… parents, educators and children desire.”
  • The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been pushed to many states, creating de facto national standards in math and English language arts. So American education today has become more centralized, standardized and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterizes Chinese education.”
  • “We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.”

Zhao describes the difficulty China is encountering in transforming its authoritarian system. He states that in order to make the kinds of changes he advocates will require “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.”

We do not have a culture of authoritarianism in our country, but we do have a culture of competition, a “winner-take-all” culture that, taken to its ultimate conclusion, can result in de facto authoritarianism. Corporations do not operate on democratic principles and are frustrated when democratically elected officials enact regulations that limit profits and/or expect the kind of public disclosures that are necessary in a democracy. All of this led me to leave this comment;

The convergence of US and Chinese education systems mirrors the convergence of US and Chinese economic systems. Opportunities for economic advancement are diminishing in our country because opportunities for educational advancement are diminishing. We cannot claim that every child has an equal opportunity to learn until every child in our country experiences the kind of education program offered in our most affluent public school systems. Setting high standards and administering rigorous tests will only move us further down the path of authoritarianism China is striving to escape.

As noted frequently in this blog, the public sees our schools as factories and, consequently, strives to have them operate “efficiently”. We use standardized tests to sort and measure the progress of students who are “efficiently” batched in age cohorts, ignoring the reality that not all children mature at the same rate and not all children enter the “factory” with the same backgrounds. Because of this our definitions of “failing schools” are flawed given the practical reality that children raised in poverty often begin school with a weaker “academic” background than children raised in affluent homes. We’ve administered standardized achievement tests for decades and we know that schools serving children raised in poverty have lower get scores than schools serving children raised in affluence. When will we acknowledge that POVERTY is the underlying cause of this “failure” on the part of schools and NOT the teachers or the “government monopoly”?  When? When “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.” You see, we ARE already like China!

VERY Early Intervention Needed

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent post by Marty Solomon in Kentucky.com, the Lexington Herald-Leader online publication provides a concise overview of the points Diane Ravitch makes in her book Reign of Error, concluding that poverty, not ineffective teaching is the problem with US test scores:

The U.S. public school system is among the best in the world for middle class children; but for kids from poverty, there is a problem. The problem is that most children from poverty suffer almost insurmountable hurdles.

While middle-class children generally start school knowing letters and numbers, even words and some arithmetic, far too many from poverty have none of these skills. They are often from single-parent families and have inadequate vision, hearing and medical care. Words spoken in the house are only a fraction of the vocabulary in middle-class families. They start school so far behind that most can never catch up. And while both middle-class and poor children progress in school, the gap persists.

Solomon then offers his prescription for the problem: the creation of “power schools” that offer extended learning for children whose parents want to see their children thrive in school and changes in the funding formula to provide more resources for schools.
James Heckman has a different research based solution: invest in early intervention. In a 20 minute interview posted on the New Economic Thinking blog, Heckman makes a cogent and persuasive case for intervening BEFORE prekindergarten. In the interview, titled “Early Interventions Lead to Higher IQs”, Heckman contends that the Coleman and Moynihan reports of the 60s identified the importance of family structures on academic performance in schools but that the accountability movement hijacked the policy directions because the accountability provisions (e.g. widespread standardized testing) were cheaper and politically easier to implement than the provisions recommended by Coleman and Moynihan (e.g. day-care; parenting supports; and schooling for children under five). Later in the interview he skewers the notion that achievement tests can be used to measure school and teacher performance and reiterates that the only reason they have gained traction is that they are cheap, easy, and politically viable. If you have 20 minutes and want to gain insights into the importance of early childhood education and the unreliability of standardized tests watch this video!

Privatization of Instructional Services: OOPS!

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s a report from the EParisExtra.com, an on line newsletter from Teas, reporting the latest results from Texas: the public schools outperformed charter schools academically AND financially. I am not expecting a press release on these findings from Governor Perry or Arne Duncan any time soon.

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Do we REALLY Want To Emulate China?

September 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent NYTimes articles led to me posing this question: a September 4 op-ed by Helen Gao describing “China’s Education Gap” and a Sinosphere blogpost from September 10 by Didi Kirsten Tatlow describing what it’s like to go “Back to School, To New Marching Orders”. Both articles reinforced my theory that the US and China are regressing toward a mean whereby both governments are plutocracies and both economies are command capitalism.

Gao’s article includes these descriptions of schools in China:

While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people, quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well-connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve read many of my posts that are tagged “vicious cycle of poverty” posts that  contain links to articles that describe how zip codes determine destiny in our country and how a college education is increasingly unattainable because of the costs associated. Unlike our country where affluent districts often border districts that serve children in poverty, in China the divide is rural/urban:

A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas and those from cities is one of the main culprits (contributing to inequality). Some 60 million students in rural schools are “left-behind” children, cared for by their grandparents as their parents seek work in faraway cities. While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to grasp advanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.

Again, this has a familiar ring except that in our country the divide is based on the income of the parents and not their locale. China IS behind us in one respect: they still have jobs for those students who don’t go onto higher education.. and in some cases those jobs look more enticing than pursuing a costly degree:

“Rural students stand virtually no chance when competing academically with their urban counterparts,” Jiang Nengjie, a friend and independent filmmaker who made a documentary on the left-behind children, told me. As a result, he said, most young people from his hometown village in central China head directly to factories in Guangdong Province, on the southern coast, after finishing middle school, because “the return is larger than going to a third-rate college.”

This sounds like something I heard in Bethel ME in the late 1970s when disaffected students told me they had a job waiting for them in a paper mill or working in the woods with their family business. Unfortunately for those students, the paper mills have moved north of the border to Canada and their back-breaking but relatively lucrative work in the woods has been taken over by machines. At some juncture, the race-to-the-bottom mentality will move those relatively high paying jobs from the rural countryside of China to a rural or urban landscape somewhere else in the world. At that juncture, China will become even more like our country.

The balance of the article describes the consequences of the “meritocratic” system, which involve parents making every effort to establish residency in those communities with good schools— including bribery, enrollment in study centers, and living in small, inhospitable spaces.

The Tatlow article describes the ultimate example of extreme measures parents are willing to take relative to school enrollment: parents getting Cesarian sections to enable their child to enter school a year earlier.

‘‘Every year at the end of August this happens,’’ Wang Yanli, the head of obstetrics at the Shijiazhuang No. 3 Hospital in Hebei Province, said in the report. The hospital sees two to three times the average number of births in the weeks before Sept. 1, she said.

‘‘This year it’s even clearer,’’ Dr. Wang said of the trend. China has the highest rate of C-sections in the world, the newspaper China Daily reported, at 47 percent of births.

The article also described the steps parents need to take to demonstrate residency to government officials and the marching drills that occur on the first day of school, drills design to quickly separate children who didn’t know their right from their left but also to develop the “…social and personal discipline” their President deems to be vitally important. All of this marching and sorting and development of personal responsibility sounds a lot like the “no excuses” approach advocated by many for-profit charter schools.

So… what’s the answer to the question about our desire to emulate China? I hope the answer is no… but fear the seeds for that emulation are being sown and taking root.

The Testing and Privatization Cults

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

In “The Inflation Cult” Paul Krugman’s NYTimes column today, he expresses bewilderment at the fact that most of his economist colleagues keep insisting that hyper-inflation is right around the corner even though thesis predictions are not based on evidence or reality. Indeed, what is especially baffling to him is that they persist in making these predictions despite their failure to come true in the past. His lead paragraph says it all:

Wish I’d said that! Earlier this week, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica,writing on The Times’s DealBook blog, compared people who keep predicting runaway inflation to “true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize.”

After presenting evidence of “the persistence and power of the inflation cult“, he offers this reason for its persistence and power:

Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed’s policies to complaints about government spending.

And anger against “takers” (e.g. those who benefit from government spending)— anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; (CNBC Tea Party ranter) Rick Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.

After reading the column I saw and shared two other cult-like beliefs affecting public education, beliefs driven by the “giving money to losers” and “makers/takers” crowd referenced in Krugman’s column:

  1. test students annually and schools will improve, and
  2. privatize public schools and you’ll save money and improve schools.

We’ve been testing students for 20 years and the only thing we’ve proved is that schools serving  children raised in affluence and spend more money per pupil outperform schools that serve children raised in poverty who spend less per pupil. Needless to say this inconvenient finding has been ignored by those who want to diminish public spending on schools.

We’ve been “reforming” schools by turning them over to private enterprise for a decade and there is no evidence that the privatized schools are doing any better, though some people are making a bundle of money as a result of this change in governance. There is one difference between education and economics: when the evidence contradicts the faith of privatization’s true believers, the true believers can manipulate the evidence by skimming only best students and by pushing out the ones who fail. Evidence of that behavior can be found in previous blog posts and in many news articles, but that evidence, like the evidence found from tests, is conveniently dismissed by the “reform” cult.

And finally, there is the persistent, powerful, and cult-like belief that schools are factories that “manufacture” educated students… factories that can be improved by introducing efficiency. Overcoming that belief is the over-arching theme of this blog: schools are not hierarchies functioning in a silo: they are part of a network that should be systematically designed to meet the unique needs of each child.

Krugman concludes his column with this:

The persistence of the inflation cult is, therefore, an indicator of just how polarized our society has become, of how everything is political, even among those who are supposed to rise above such things. And that reality, unlike the supposed risk of runaway inflation, is something that should scare you.

Like the “inflation cult”, the “testing cult” and “reform cult” are indications of polarization and politicization. Anything that divides us or sorts us has an insidious effect on our country. If we want to remain the UNITED States of America we need to remain united in our goal of providing a means for each student to climb the education and economic ladder.

Time Spent vs. Dollars Spent

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday on the real cost of the common core tests… which included the computers, the additional bandwidth, and the new texts.

But her cost analysis, like that of many education writers, overlooked a cost that cannot be compensated for… the cost of lost time. This led me to offer the following comment:

One cost that many analysts overlook is time: the “staff development” time teachers are spending learning how to use the computerized tests results; the time students are spending learning how to take computerized tests; the time teachers and/or administrators are taking to explain the tests to parents; and the time teachers and/or curriculum coordinators are taking to revamp their curricula so that students can attain ever-increasing test scores. Tabulate those lost hours and imagine what that time COULD have been used for if it wasn’t diverted to preparing for standardized tests.

The time could have been used to help train teachers on how to construct and interpret their own classroom tests and quizzes, as this is often NOT included as part of the teacher preparation curriculum. Imagine if every teacher in every subject spent all of those lost hours learning how to prepare and analyze student assessments in the content area(s) they teach? President Obama and Arne Duncan missed a golden opportunity to transform schooling.

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Fun With Mathematics

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment

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!