Vox recently posted an article titled by Libby Nelson titled “Ranking High Schools Tells You Which are Rich or Selective“, a title that reveals the content of the article and reveals what any educator in America can tell you even though no politician or major media outlet will never admit as much. As the article demonstrates, the great majority of the highest ranking high schools in America based on metrics devised by the Daily Beast, have two commonalities: they have selective enrollments or they are located in affluent communities with few students on free and reduced lunch. Vox ultimately poses and answers the question at the end of the next paragraph:
Publications know they’re mostly ranking on wealth and selectivity. It’s why there are separate lists for schools that actually enroll low-income students in both the Daily Beastand Newsweek rankings. So why do it?
Because everybody loves rankings. And because nearly everybody went to public high school. And because most people are friends with high school classmates on Facebook, where they will eagerly share lists of where their alma mater is ranked. For all of their complex statistical methodology, high school rankings are really just sheer entertainment.
In other words, nobody should take these rankings seriously — and nobody should expect them to go away any time soon.
I think Vox missed one important point in their response to this question, a point they made in justifying college rankings: when something is ranked one assumes it can be acquired on the open market. Nelson writes:
College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all.
Later in the same section of the article she notes that this isn’t applicable to high schools because:
…knowing what the best high school is doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to live in its attendance area or if you don’t have the test scores to get in.
From my perspective, the idea of ranking public schools is a way to subtly reinforce the notion that if parents had a choice they could get their child placed in one of these schools… and the whole issue of providing an equal opportunity for learning is solved.
In a perfect world, politicians, businessmen, and voters would look at the rankings, look at the correlation between poverty rates and rankings, and conclude that schools serving children raised in poverty need more funds. But, to paraphrase the concluding sentence of the blog post, nobody should expect this to happen any time soon!
Today’s Columbus Dispatch featured an education article by Jim Siegal titled “Data Link Poverty, School Performance in Ohio” that stated what educators have known for decades:
No matter what measure is used — performance index, proficiency scores, ACT scores — the latest results are clear: Poverty rates continue to have a direct, negative link to Ohio student achievement.
To illustrate this reality in graphic form, the paper printed these three charts:
Here’s a question for the politicians in Ohio and every state in the union who claim that we need to use data to inform our decisions: what does this data tell you? Does it suggest that “bad teachers” are the problem? Does it suggest that if teachers were paid for performance of children in poverty would improve? Does it suggest that Teacher tenure is the problem? Does it suggest that teachers unions are the problem? Fortunately some legislators in Ohio are starting to see the light:
“If we are going to address poverty in the state of Ohio, the first thing we need to do is figure out how to start educating these kids,” said Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
“There is just no way around it that we’re going to need to invest money in different ways than what we’ve been doing, because what we’ve been doing isn’t working.”
So… how has Ohio been “investing money?” They are one of a handful of states that have supported on-line for-profit charter schools, advocated the removal of tenure for teachers, tried to link teacher pay to test scores, and issued report cards that provide parents with information about the performance of their child’s school. Has any of this worked? And since it hasn’t worked, what might work better?
“It’s going to take a significant investment, but I can’t think of a better way to jump-start the economy,” she said. “If we have this many kids coming out of our schools incapable of doing jobs in the 21st century, you need to start there rather than jobs programs. Many of the interventions we look at to start the economy are coming too late.”
The data make an “extremely strong case” for more early-childhood education, Lehner said. Last year, she pushed for $100 million for early education and eventually got $48 million.
ASSUMING Ms. Lehner is serious about making a “significant investment”, early interventions are a far more productive avenue for spending than merit pay based on test scores and a far more productive use of political capital than arguing with unions and teachers about tenure.
For one Ohioan, this was not news at all:
Howard Fleeter, who analyzed the data on behalf of Ohio’s major public-education organizations, knows the correlation between poverty and performance isn’t exactly a breakthrough. The issue has been discussed nationally since at least the 1960s, and his Ohio report-card data back to 2007 show similar correlations each year.
“The fact that we’re still looking at a graph in 2014 that shows this pattern is disturbing,” Fleeter said.
Actually, the “fact that we’re still looking at this graph” is evidence that the likelihood of political action is unlikely. It’s too easy to blame teachers for the failure that results from the effects of poverty… and it’s too hard to advocate for higher taxes, especially if those taxes go to the “takers” who are finding it hard to find work and whose children are suffering as a result. Here’s hoping this set of charts, probably the 50th set of such charts, will make a difference.
“Why Federal Ratings Wont Rein in College Cost”, the Upshot column by Susan Dynarski in today’s NYTimes, asserts that the proposed USDOE college rankings won’t have an appreciable impact on the spiraling costs of college. Why? Because the costs of public colleges that enroll “the vast majority” of the students enrolled in post-secondary schools are controlled by State legislatures and they are increasingly shifting the burden of those costs to students. Dynarski summarizes this phenomenon in these paragraphs:
First, consider public colleges (attended by about 80 percent of undergraduates), where tuition has grown faster than inflation for decades. From 1988 to 2013, average tuition at four-year public colleges more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation.
Yet here is a surprising fact: Public colleges are collecting about the same revenue per student today as they were 25 years ago. In 1988,educational revenue per full-time-equivalent student at public colleges was $11,300; in 2013, it was $11,500. (These amounts are adjusted for inflation and are expressed in 2013 dollars.)
That’s just a 3 percent increase. How can this be? If tuition has doubled, shouldn’t public colleges be getting double the revenue?
This reader was not at all surprised that public college operating costs are flat over the past 25 years. The same is probably true for public education costs. As I noted in the comment I wrote, this same shift is subtly taking place in K-12 schools where fees are increasingly levied for athletics, registration in AP courses, textbooks and materials of instruction, busing, etc. This is happening because politicians do not want to raise taxes for any reason. As a result, the costs of educating the next generation are being borne by local property taxes that only affluent communities can afford leaving economically disadvantaged and minority students in the lurch. Instead of asking taxpayers to cover the costs, the political “leaders” are developing ranking systems for schools that provide parents and students with “consumer information” so they can make “an informed choice”.
After explaining the reality of cost-shifting, Dynarski spends the balance of the article explaining the need for a well-conceived measures based on solid data. This call for ratings accepts the view that schooling is not the responsibility of the community but rather a commodity that K-12 parents and post-secondary students can intelligently “buy” if they have enough money or are willing to take out a loan. This kind of thinking contributes to the inequality of our country and erodes our sense of community. EVERY child is entitled to have access to a high quality education and EVERY citizen should share in that cost.
Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes op ed piece poses the question “Does Moving Poor People Work?”, and the bottom line answer is “Yes BUT…”
In the article Edsall reviews several longitudinal studies involving the effects of relocating poverty stricken families from public housing. In a study done by University of Chicago researcher Jens Ludwig that triggered the essay on housing vouchers, the researchers found “mixed results”. While some measures of well being improved,
“…a housing voucher that allowed recipients to move into a “low poverty” area – had “no consistent detectable impacts on adult economic self-sufficiency or children’s educational achievement outcomes, even for children who were too young to have enrolled in school at baseline.”
Ludwig’s findings were challenged by “some of the nation’s most prominent social science researchers”, notably William Julius Wilson who contended the study was flawed because those
“…who left public housing moved into segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities and with equally bad schools – often the same schools.”
Robert Sampson, a colleague of Wilson’s in the sociology department at Harvard, expressed additional concerns with the study, noting (with my emphasis added) that:
“…many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity. “The result,” he wrote, “is that developmental effects are difficult if not impossible to study in the research design,” which does not reveal the “lagged effects of severe disadvantage.”
Moreover, James Heckman, who has studied cognition in depth, concludes that by age 11 the opportunity for cognitive growth is limited. This makes any conclusions about the effects of this voucher program on academic performance questionable.
While the results of the Ludwig study were mixed, a study by the Rand Foundation done I’m Montgomery County demonstrated that moving poverty stricken families into decidedly middle class neighborhoods and schools DID make a difference:
The low-income minority children from public housing all started with similar math scores. But after seven years, those who went to schools where fewer than 20 percent of their classmates were poor shot ahead of those who went to schools where 20 to 80 percent of their classmates were poor. This difference in trajectories is shown in Figure 1 (below), in which the green line tracks math scores for poor children (defined as those receiving “free and reduced-priced meals” – a.k.a. FARM recipients) in relatively affluent schools, and the red line tracks math scores for poor children attending schools with much higher percentages of fellow students receiving FARM assistance.Edsall concludes his article with this paragraph:
We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both. Otherwise how can we interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage we are only beginning to understand?
Edsall didn’t note in the article that any decision to locate public housing in relatively affluent neighborhoods is likely to be contentious… nor did he note that “education-based” interventions will require additional revenues. My take on this: we already understand what we need to do to “… interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage”… we just don’t have the political will to do it.
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!
Nick Kristoff’s Sunday op ed column witten with Sheryl WuDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty“, reinforces the ideas put forth in earlier posts on this blog. Kristoff cites anecdotal evidence and research evidence supporting the notion of providing support to parents who face adversity in child rearing as a result of their own suffering in childhood and the suffering brought about due to poverty. He also cites evidence on how diet, alcohol consumption smoking, and exposure to lead paint during pregnancy and a child’s first years of life adversely affect children.
He then describes how a visiting nurse program can reduce the effects of poverty at a relatively low cost. This program, which has been researched a replicated, consists of nurse visits from the time an at-risk child is born until the child turns 2, “…with the nurse encouraging the mom to speak to the child constantly, to read to the child, to show affection. Later there are discussions of birth control.” In a later paragraph he writes:
The visits have been studied extensively through randomized controlled trials — the gold standard of evidence — and are stunningly effective. Children randomly assigned to nurse visits suffer 79 percent fewer cases of state-verified abuse or neglect than similar children randomly assigned to other programs. Even though the program ends at age 2, the children at age 15 have fewer than half as many arrests on average. At the 15-year follow-up, the mothers themselves have one-third fewer subsequent births and have spent 30 fewer months on welfare than the controls. A RAND Corporation study found that each dollar invested in nurse visits to low-income unmarried mothers produced $5.70 in benefits.
So here we have an anti-poverty program that is cheap, is backed by rigorous evidence and pays for itself several times over in reduced costs later on. Yet it has funds to serve only 2 percent to 3 percent of needy families. That’s infuriating.
Any reader of progressive blogs will likely point fingers at conservatives who don’t want to have birth control the part of any poverty program and/or who don’t want the government intervening in the lives of parents. There are, however, other culprits. School districts are often in complete support of these programs as long as they don’t take money from them… and universities and colleges who rely on government spending are also leery of supporting a program that might reduce their spending levels. Kristoff acknowledges this reality, and comes down on investing where the dollars will make the greatest difference, and offers a better place for the Federal government to find money:
We certainly would prefer not to cut education budgets of any kind, but if pressed, we would have to agree that $1 billion spent on home visitation for at-risk young mothers would achieve much more in breaking the poverty cycle than the same sum spent on indirect subsidies collected by for-profit universities.
He concludes his article with this challenge:
We wish more donors would endow not just professorships but also the jobs of nurses who visit at-risk parents; we wish tycoons would seek naming opportunities not only at concert halls and museum wings but also in nursery schools. We need advocates to push federal, state and local governments to invest in the first couple of years of life, to support parents during pregnancy and a child’s earliest years.
Here’s what’s really infuriating: this isn’t going to happen unless the advocates get behind a candidate outside the existing sphere of the two political parties… because while both political parties claim they support early intervention, NEITHER party will seek additional taxes to fund it, and NEITHER party will recommend the diversion of the indirect subsidies for-profit colleges receive, and last but not nearly least, NEITHER party is willing to state the obvious: one billion dollars is chump change compared to the trillion dollars we’ve spent thus far on the misbegotten wars in the East.
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.
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