A critique of modern public school reform

I watched an interview with Diane Ravitch on her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, on C-SPAN’s “Book TV.” She was originally a supporter of No Child Left Behind and charter schools. She has since changed her mind, based on the evidence. I wasn’t particularly inspired by this interview, but I thought what she had to say was insightful.

My own view of school reform has changed over time. I was under the impression that past efforts had failed, but that NCLB and charter schools would be different, more successful. With some caveats it looks like I was wrong.

The one positive aspect I’ve heard about NCLB from educators is that for the first time people can see how well or badly different ethnic groups are doing in the public school system, and the contrasts are stark. Other than that, I have heard very little that’s good about it. Ravitch says that charter schools on average do about as well as the public schools. This assertion is echoed by comments (below) from Lt. Governor of Colorado Barbara O’Brien, who’s former post was Education Secretary for Colorado. What’s important is her explanation as to why this is so.

No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill was signed into law in 2002. At the time I was rather enthusiastic about it. I had my own conception of how it would work. I assumed it would bring something resembling “market discipline” to public schools. My idea for it was that schools would try various approaches for teaching subjects, and the tests would provide feedback and pressure to improve their teaching methods, given they have autonomy to figure that out. I figured that those who were “teaching to the test” were school environments which had previously been below standard. So “teaching to the test” would be an improvement. I assumed that the best schools would have no problems. The idea I’m getting lately is what happened was very different from what I expected.

I was particularly motivated to support the idea by a small documentary I saw on PBS showing how some schools were utterly failing kids with learning disabilities. It profiled a special Ed. teacher who fielded a bunch of young kids from different schools. Each was not able to read at grade level. It seemed like he had his own private teaching environment. He had found various ways of helping them compensate so that they could learn. His techniques were not being used in the schools where these kids came from. Rather than deal with them, the schools just shoved them aside, because they didn’t understand the students’ disabilities. The documentary showed the consequences of this failure. Some learning disabled students fell through the cracks into young adulthood. They had dropped out of school and were struggling. Statistically, many of them turned to crime. The most heartbreaking thing it revealed is that state governments literally plan future prison expansion years in advance based on current dropout statistics. The pattern had been there for years. States are just dealing with the reality and coping with it. The image it portrayed was clear: Those of you who make it and manage to become functional citizens have a chance. For those who don’t, we’re building a dreary prison cell for you. It’s ready and waiting. Granted, not all dropouts end up in prison, but according to the doc., significant numbers of them do. I definitely got a sense that this was an alarming situation and it needed to be addressed pronto. It was a crying shame this was happening.

I saw a PBS special a couple years ago on “how it’s been going so far” with NCLB. It seemed to be a balanced presentation of the reform, showing positive and negative aspects of it. What stood out to me is it showed that NCLB was having a negative impact even on the best schools in the country, and it got into some of the details on why. They profiled one such school. They interviewed a former science teacher there who basically said that the standardized science test misconstrues science, treating it as a static body of facts, when in fact scientific knowledge is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made. Sometimes old, well-established models are brought into doubt by new evidence. The teacher said that if her students followed what was currently being discovered they would actually score lower on the test, because it assumes that the established knowledge is the only correct answer.

As I learned more about the scientific outlook myself, I realized that the basis for the standardized science test was largely wrong. Part of science is a body of knowledge about models that scientists have constructed in an attempt to understand what they’re studying. These are commonly called “discoveries.” I imagine a standardized test could be devised for testing knowledge about these models, except to get it right, they would need to be talked about in terms of ideas that have been tested, reviewed, and criticized to varying degrees, and which can be tested, thought about, and criticized further, rather than “facts” which are merely to be accepted. Some models are extremely reliable, as close to “facts” as science can get. The crucial thing that kids should be learning in school about science is it’s a way of thinking about what we see. It would be very difficult to test for this aspect in a standardized testing format, perhaps impossible, but it would be teaching what science really is.

Much the same could be said about how mathematics is tested (and taught). To the best of my knowledge at this point, mathematics is about testing the validity of assertions made about abstractions, and seeing patterns of relationships between abstractions, using logic. With some exceptions, this is hardly taught in secondary schools (In primary schools it’s harder to get the logic aspect across, perhaps until the later grades, due to the fact that the minds of young children are not developmentally prepared for symbolic, logical thinking. So it should probably be de-emphasized until they are older). Instead what’s typically taught in the best of environments in the current system is a lot of rules, techniques for problem solving, and pattern matching.

I heard a discussion recently where typical math and science education was called “literacy” training, and I think that pretty well sums up what the focus has been, going back to when I was in school. The problem is, as I’ve discussed previously, this doesn’t teach the whole of what math and science are. Instead it teaches aspects, just enough it’s thought to “get people going”, because the assumption is that knowing what these subjects really are should be reserved for the people who want to become mathematicians and scientists, the people who are interested and have a knack for it. What’s taught is background knowledge so that it can be applied to practical problems in the future. It’s thought that the only side benefits are that they’ll teach problem solving, and perhaps critical thinking skills. The assumption is for those purposes, that’s all that’s needed. The devotees can get into the more esoteric aspects (real math, real science) if they want. The goal is to get some of that knowledge, and some of those lessons that produce the desired side-effects into as many people as possible. In my view, the focus of NCLB, and prior standardized testing efforts, fit right in with these goals. It further reinforces the idea of teaching literacy in these subjects, not in how to think in “the way of the mathematician”, and “the way of the scientist”. From what I understand, most math and science teachers don’t get these subjects for what they truly are, either. I don’t mean to apply this criticism just to the modern era. This goes back to the beginning of public schooling in this country.

The second thing the PBS special showed (getting back to that) was how the testing rules did not take into account the issues that the school had to deal with. It cited cases where foreign students were admitted who didn’t speak English. They are required to do this by law. One case was of a foreign student who was required to take the standardized test two days after being admitted. Obviously the student did poorly, because he/she couldn’t read it (though the student was not illiterate in his/her native language). This lowered the school’s overall proficiency score. They had gotten several of these cases. This got the government’s attention. As a result (as per the rules) they came in and started firing administrators and staff. These were the accountability measures put into action.

One teacher who used to be with this school, and who had won the Teacher of the Year award, was heartbroken, because he felt he had to quit teaching. He couldn’t stand what the rules were doing to the school environment. The science teacher who was interviewed also left teaching, and instead stayed with the school in a support role. This got across the idea that rather than improving education, NCLB is watering it down.

As I thought about what NCLB might be doing, just on the academic level, I got the idea that maybe it’s forcing the schools toward a median, bringing poor bad schools up, and dragging good schools down. I’ve heard a few educators talk about it in these terms. This is not what I thought would be happening.

Charter schools

Another reform I thought had promise was the movement for charter schools. The idea was these were fairly close to public schools, but they were allowed more autonomy. They had more degrees of freedom so they could experiment.

Well, in August 2007 I got a bit of a reality check when I listened to Barbara O’Brien, Colorado’s Lt. Governor, in a radio interview on “Caplis & Silverman” at KHOW 630 AM. When asked why Colorado’s schools were not performing as well as expected, she said,

We were complacent. I think we just assumed everything was great, but the world is passing us by, and we’re now competing against countries that are really working hard on science and technology, and literacy. I mean, they have higher literacy rates in a lot of Third World countries than we do in the U.S.

On charter schools she said,

I have been a long-time charter supporter, as you know, and in fact helped write the legislation … I had higher hopes than it’s turned out. So I’m less committed to thinking that will solve our problems, and I’ll tell you why. Basically we’ve lost the knowledge of how to educate kids in tough subjects, you know, science, math, technology-based curriculum. We don’t teach hard literature. You know, we teach easier to read books these days. And so just because kids go to different schools, frankly, from the charter school experience, we’re not seeing that that makes much difference in test scores.

O’Brien went on to say that the intent of the charter school program in Colorado was that they would act as laboratories, and successful strategies would be brought over to public schools. There had been some successes. Efforts have been made to bring those strategies into the public school system, and results have improved.

She said, though, that most of the charter schools are really bad, and contrary to expectations it’s been nearly impossible to shut them down. The reason is charters are governed by local school boards, and like public schools they had succumbed to school system politics. O’Brien said,

We have created an education system, I think, that is easy on adults, and in doing that we’ve lost sight of what it means to run a system that’s really based on what the kids need to perform at a really high level. And where they go to school isn’t going to matter as much as figuring out what the right standards [need to be] to compete with China.

So, what to do? Reform after reform after reform doesn’t seem to do much of anything to improve the lot of public school students. The impression I’ve been getting after doing some research on this is that since the 1990s corporate/economic management outlooks have been imposed on the educational system in an effort to make it more efficient and effective, or in some cases serve certain corporate interests, and this turns out to be a big part of the problem. Basically school reform has been driven by people who either don’t understand education in a holistic way, or don’t understand it at all.

Ravitch goes into some detail on how NCLB and charter schools came about. She broadly answers the question, “What needs to be done?” Her answers are sobering. She says that fixing bad schools in the public system is not an easy problem. It can take many years to see improvement after sustained reform efforts are instituted, if one goes about it realistically. She said one of the things that’s damaged NCLB as a reform effort are the accountability measures: forcing staff to be fired after a few years of bad results. That just means you have to start all over again when you bring new staff in. Reformers live under the illusion (perhaps “delusion” would be a more appropriate term) that there are good, well-tested education models that will convey the important aspects of the subjects that schools want to teach in reliable ways to students. She says in reality no such models exist. Education is more of an art at this point than a science. There are a lot of factors that go into a successful school, and to just look at teaching methods as the answer is a vast oversimplification of the solution.

She said the pressure to conform to standard teaching methods is destroying real education, because you can’t treat teachers like robots. They need to understand the changes they’re expected to make from an educational perspective. I’ve been saying for a while that what would be preferable is if the teacher is interested in learning themselves, so they can teach what learning is about through their own pedagogy to their students, in addition to different ways of thinking.

Another big idea she wanted to get across is that “we need to develop a real curriculum, which we don’t really have right now.” I’m not sure what she means by that. She didn’t explain it. People think of teaching things like English, math, science, history, art, etc. as a curriculum. One aspect she might be referring to is something I’ve heard about in a nearby school district, and which has been standard in Montessori education for decades, which is creating a program that coordinates the teaching of related subjects at different grade levels. This is so that when a student advances, the school has tried to make sure that the student has developed the competencies they need to go on to the next subject without having to make up for a gap between the two, created either by the education program of the school district itself, or teachers who are not acting in concert with each other. What’s surprising to me is most schools, public, or perhaps even private, don’t think of this.

She said improvement involves a number of factors, including things that affect the students, like getting adequate sleep, getting good nutrition, motivation to learn, etc. Assuming that you can improve schools just by looking at the teachers and how their students score on standardized tests is too simplistic. I’ve been guilty of that POV. A non-obvious answer she gave is that the root of poor bad learning environments is poverty, and that a major part of the answer to improving education is addressing poverty. Maybe she was talking more about city support services. To me, she was talking about an issue that the school system has no control over. It has more to do with the local economy and the opportunities it makes possible. Maybe my view of poverty is too simplistic, but I’ve heard of many instances where the financial wealth of a family was not the controlling factor in whether the children were well educated. It was more a factor of whether the family valued education. Though I can see where if the whole family is focused on just surviving, learning school subjects goes out the window.

I don’t have any clear cut answers on how to make education better. I leave that to people who have looked into this more than I have. Apparently Ravitch’s book has become unusually popular in its genre. It sounds like it might be worth a look.

Edit 9-19-2010: Robert J. Samuelson wrote an article on “School Reform’s Meager Results”, and he said something I thought would be of interest:

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards.