Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who to blame for poor schools

Congress is now going through the ritual of tweaking the No Child Left Behind law for the nation’s schools. The law is vigorously opposed by both teacher unions and the TEA party. That should tell you all you need to know about this bad legislation. Of course the reasons for opposition are quite different, but all have a large degree of validity. Teachers don’t like bureaucrats judging them and their schools, and the TEA party thinks we have too much federal government intrusion in general.

The law, however tweaked by revision, is fatally flawed by its basic assumptions about what is to blame for poor educational achievement in this country. Foremost is the fantasy that government should provide not only equal opportunity but equal outcome. The only way you can get all students to have equal learning is to dumb down the curricula, which is what is done. Schools cater to the lower performing students at the expense of good students. For example, over the last two decades an analysis by the Wall Street Journal revealed that the lowest-performing students have shown clear gains in test scores but little improvement for other students.

A second flaw is that the law ignores the extraordinary range of mental development in children. Some students cannot be salvaged at a given grade level. Moreover, student motivation for learning is a highly mutable, often changing from year to year. Some students cannot be salvaged at any stage, either for reasons of neglect, abuse, bad parenting, or the students’ own negative attitudes. “Do-gooder” focus on these students drags down the whole educational enterprise.

Then there is the problem of misplaced incentives. Where are the incentives for students to do better? In fact, the students are being asked to help make their school and teachers look good.

Finally, this era of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing fails to help us understand how to accomplish the basic purpose of assessment: figuring out what students know and need to learn. Multiple-choice tests are certainly not reliable. In fact, these tests mostly measure recognition memory, the least reliable indicator of what has been remembered.

One teacher, Ryan Kinser, endorses the idea of “teaching to the test,” but we need better tests: ones based on “curriculum-embedded performance assessments that are valid, reliable, and accurate measures of what and how students learned.” I would add that testing per se is not the problem. Indeed, research shows that tests reinforce retention of what has been learned. At a local school level, low-stakes benchmark tests should be routine and frequent.

Teachers do need to be held accountable and must share some of the blame. But not for the weaknesses of the culture of their community, or for bad school administrators and policies, or for the poor educations they get in Colleges of Education, or for the flawed requirements of No Child Left Behind.  Teachers have no control over many of the bad things schools do. The school year is too short, summer vacation is too long, more short holidays are needed, the school day needs to be restructured, most textbooks are just terrible, subjects are taught along academic themes rather than the integrated real world students live in, and the school environment in general just kills the joy of learning.

What should the role of the federal government be in education? It should be in administering meaningful educational research, providing guidance (not mandates) on academic standards, and disseminating “best practices.” No more, no less.

If all parties (government, principals, teachers, parents, and students) would accept their share of the blame, maybe we could make big improvements in education. As it is, everybody points the finger at somebody else.

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