Testing resistance in Colorado takes to the road

January 20, 2014

From Susan O'Hanian's NCLB Cartoons:   Every year, the Coalitition for Better Education raises grassroots funds to put up these billboards.  You can contribute.  You can go forth and do likewise in your state.

From Susan Ohanian’s NCLB Cartoons: “Every year, the Coalitition for Better Education raises grassroots funds to put up these billboards. You can contribute. You can go forth and do likewise in your state.”

Dr. Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Research, said at her blog:

The corporate types who hate teachers’ unions and public schools have been running a billboard and mass media campaign in New York and New Jersey.

But they are not the only ones who know how to frame a message.

Here is a fabulous billboard posted on a major highway in Colorado by critics of the nutty testing regime imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.


A Seussian fable, about how tests ruin school reform

April 7, 2011

Look, you really need to go to TeacherSabrina’s blog, Failing Schools, where she first posted this, and take a look at many of her posts.

But I can’t resist putting the video here, because I know a few old-timers would be confused by the link, and some people will think they don’t have the time to make two clicks instead of one.

So, here, in its Seussian glory and demand for Flash Animation, is TeacherSabrina’s story of D.C.’s late Queen of the Schools, Michelle Rhee, and her desire to get D.C.’s kids to score well on an increasing battery of tests  [Got a good joke about assault and battery we can insert here?]:  “Rhee the Reformer:  A Cautionary Tale.”

Tip of the old scrub brush to Accountable Talk.


No, race isn’t the cause of our economic and education woes

March 11, 2011

Just when you think the conservatives can’t possibly sound any more like fascists of the 1930s . . . I mean, can we just repeal Godwin’s law and call a racist fascist argument, a racist fascist argument?

Paul Krugman, whose Nobel Memorial Prize for economics galls conservatives more than left turns bothered J. Edgar Hoover, noted the other day that Texas is in a series of fixes.  This is important because Texas is what Wisconsin’s governor claims Wisconsin should be:  Shorn of union interference in almost all things, especially in public service sectors including education.  Krugman wrote in his column, “Leaving Children Behind”:

Texas likes to portray itself as a model of small government, and indeed it is. Taxes are low, at least if you’re in the upper part of the income distribution (taxes on the bottom 40 percent of the population are actually above the national average). Government spending is also low. And to be fair, low taxes may be one reason for the state’s rapid population growth, although low housing prices are surely much more important.

But here’s the thing: While low spending may sound good in the abstract, what it amounts to in practice is low spending on children, who account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level.

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It’s not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.

But things are about to get much worse.

A few months ago another Texas miracle went the way of that education miracle of the 1990s. For months, Gov. Rick Perry had boasted that his “tough conservative decisions” had kept the budget in surplus while allowing the state to weather the recession unscathed. But after Mr. Perry’s re-election, reality intruded — funny how that happens — and the state is now scrambling to close a huge budget gap. (By the way, given the current efforts to blame public-sector unions for state fiscal problems, it’s worth noting that the mess in Texas was achieved with an overwhelmingly nonunion work force.)

Krugman was too easy on Perry.  In his campaign last year, Perry claimed that Texas had plenty of money, a surplus, even.  In debates with Democratic candidate Bill White, Perry pooh-poohed the notion that Texas had a sizable deficit, certainly not the $18 billion deficit White named.

No, the Texas deficit actually is north of $25 billion.  (Linda Chavez-Thompson, the defeated Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, addressed Perry’s denial in a line that very few reporters bothered to report (or report accurately):  “Do you know how many zeroes there are in 18 billion?” Chavez-Thompson said. “11, when you count Perry and Dewhurst.”)

But blogger Iowahawk would hear none of that — no, the issue isn’t bad government and poor fiscal management.  Texas loses out in education because its got more racial minorities, he wrote at some length.

Other bloggers who should know better, or at least should be struck by the repugnance of the claim that race is the problem, spread the claim, including Paul E. Peterson at EducationNext and Mark at Pseudo-Polymath.

Krugman’s original point was untouched by any of these guys.  Texas is in deep trouble, on many, many fronts.  One of the more common comments on Texas education is, “Thank God for Mississippi!”  Mississippi’s having closed down its education system rather than integrate, and continued underfunding and mismanagement since the federal government forced the reopening, keeps Mississippi at the bottom of almost all state rankings regarding children.  That means Texas isn’t dead last.  Texas’s very real problems will affect racial disparities in achievement, but they are in no way caused by racial disparity, or race of the students.

Notice, too, how Iowahawk changed the comparison.  Krugman noted dropout rates.  Unable to muster a direct rebuttal to Krugman’s point, Iowahawk switched to comparing scores in NAEP.  It’s not the same thing by any stretch.

No Texas teacher would say Texas performs better than any other state in stopping dropouts.  While we might brag a bit on how we’ve increased scores on the ACT and SAT, it’s not across the board, and it’s not enough.  (It’s a miracle with the stingy funding, and it will likely stop with the proposed budget cuts — but we’re proud of our ability to make improvement despite obstacles carefully placed by state policy makers.)

Notice, too, that dropouts tend to perform more poorly on standardized tests.  If one wishes to screw around with the statistics for spin, one might note that by forcing students to drop out, Texas raises its scores on NAEP.  I seriously doubt any Texas educator conducts a campaign to get dropouts to boost NAEP scores, but let’s be realistic.  (Which is not to say that there is not a lot of action to mask the dropout problem; a Texas high school is responsible for the academic achievement of kids who drop out, or more accurately, the lack of academic achievement.  Dropouts count against a school’s performance rating, and count hard.  Every school on the cusp of “Exemplary,” or “Recognized,” or “Unacceptable,” has a campaign to track down dropouts to find that they have enrolled in another school to whom blame can be passed, or that they have left the state or the nation, and so don’t count in Texas at all.  One wishes one could school administrators and legislators in Deming’s Red Bead Experiment.)

It’s impossible to claim Wisconsin union teachers are to blame for any Wisconsin woe, when Texas, with it’s strong anti-union stands and ban on unionizing among teachers, performs worse, on average.

Will busting the unions put Wisconsin in the black?  It didn’t work for Texas.

Will busting the unions help Wisconsin schools?  You can’t make that case based on the information from Texas.  In fact, Angus Johnson conducted a more serious analysis of statistics that may provide a better view into the issue, and they tend to show that unionized teachers improve education performance.

Surely these guys understand where their argument ends up.  It is absolutely untrue that Texas’s minorities dragged the state into deficits.

We know where Texas deficits came from.  Several years ago Texas cut property taxes, a key source of education and other funding for the state, promising to make up the difference with corporate tax reforms.  But the corporations blocked significant reform.  Texas has been running on empty for six years, and now the deficits are simply too big to hide.

Unwise tax cuts, made for political gains, that put Texas in the dumper.

It wasn’t unions, and it sure wasn’t the large population of hard-working, tax-paying, union-needing Hispanics and blacks and Native Americans who got Texas in trouble.  They didn’t get the tax cut benefits, for the most part.

Race is not the cause of our education and budget woes, except in this way:  Racists, especially the latent, passive-aggressive sort, will not hesitate to cut programs that they see benefiting minorities.  Those education programs that have done the most to reduce the achievement gaps between the races, boosting minority achievement, are the first to go under the Republican budget meat cleavers.  The proposed cuts are not surgical in any way, to preserve education gains.


Can’t fire the bums to make a quality school: Principals division

February 8, 2011

Be sure to see the story in the New York Times today. Obama administration “Race to the Top” money went to states who proposed to replace principals in failing schools. A problem in the strategy threatens the program:  Not enough qualified people exist to replace all the “bad” ones.

Wrong-headed education “reformers” keep talking about “firing the bad ones,” teachers, administrators, or janitors.  Without significantly raising the pay for teachers, without greatly increasing the number of teachers and administrators in the pipeline from teaching colleges or any other source, reformers can’t attract anyone better qualified than the people they wish to replace.

Pres. Obama and Sec. Duncan and the 6th grade at Graham Road Elementary, Falls Church, Virginia

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took questions from a 6th grade class at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, January 18, 2010 – photo credit unknown

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time these reformers took a step back and did some study, perhaps from the quality gurus, Deming and Juran and Crosby, or from the heights of championship performance, in basketball, football, soccer, sailing (try the America Cup), horse racing or politics:  No one can use firing as a chief tool to turn an organization around, nor to lead any organization to a championship.  Threatening people’s jobs does not motivate them, nor make the jobs attractive to others.

How can we tell the fire-the-teachers-and-principals group is on the wrong track?  See the article:

“To think that the same leader with a bit more money is going to accomplish tremendous change is misguided,” said Tim Cawley, a managing director at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that began leading turnaround efforts in Chicago when Mr. Duncan was the superintendent there.

“This idea of a light-touch turnaround is going to sully the whole effort,” Mr. Cawley added.

Tell that to Steve Jobs, who turned Apple around.  Tell it to Jack Welch, the tough-guy boss from GE (who had his own peccadilloes about firing, but who emphasized hiring and pay, at least, as the way to create a succession plan for the vacancies).  Tell it to any CEO who turned around his organization without falling on his own sword.

Any competent quality consultant would have foreseen this problem:  Nobody wants to train for a job with little future, less money to do the job right, little authority to get the job done, and the sole promise that the exit door is always open.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should know better, intuitively.  He used to play basketball, professionally.  Surely he knows something about team building and team turnarounds.  What caused his astounding, expensive amnesia?

Part of the issue identified in the article is training:

Because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school — often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills — the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.

Most of the nation’s 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education do offer school leadership training. “But only a tiny percentage really prepare leaders for school turnaround,” said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College who wrote a 2005 study of principal training.

That only contributes to the larger problem, that people in the positions are, often, the best ones for the job already; firing them damages turnaround efforts.

In Chicago, federal money is financing an overhaul of Phillips Academy High School. Mr. Cawley’s nonprofit trained Phillips’s new principal, Terrance Little, by having him work alongside mentor principals experienced at school makeovers.

“If we’re talking about turning around 700 schools, I don’t think you can find 700 principals who are capable of taking on the challenge of this work,” Mr. Little said. “If you could, why would we have this many failing schools?”

Education’s problems are many.  Few of the problems are the result of the person at the chalkboard in the classroom.  Firing teachers won’t help.  W. Edwards Deming claimed that 85% of the problems that plague front-line employees, like teachers, are management-caused.  Firing their bosses won’t solve those problems, either, but will just push the problems around.   (What?  “Deck chairs?”  “Titanic?”  What are you talking about?)

Did you hear?  Texas plans to cut state funding to all education by at least 25% for next year, due to Gov. Rick Perry’s $25 billion deficit, which he worked so hard to conceal during last year’s election campaign.

Santayana’s Ghost just dropped by to remind us, suitably the day after Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday anniversary, of the Report of the Commission on Excellence in Education, the report that saved Reagan’s presidency and got him a second term:

Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers.

When do we get political leaders who will swim against that tide instead of trying to surf it?

 

Dan Wasserman cartoon, Boston.com

Dan Wasserman, Boston Globe

See a small collection of  Dan Wasserman’s cartoons on Race to the Top, here.


Where does your state, or nation rank? Advanced level of math proficiency

December 27, 2010

I had to turn the graphic on its side to fit it in here big enough that you can read it. Where does your state, or nation, rank in percentage of students achieving an advanced level of math proficiency? For U.S. citizens, this is not a pretty chart.

Source: The Atlantic, “Your Child Left Behind” and acccompanying charts, “Miseducation Nation,” November 2010.

Math proficiency, country and state comparisons, The Atlantic, 2010

Where does your state, or nation, rank?

Hey, at least we’re ahead of Tunisia and Kyrgyzstan.  Can your students find those nations on a map?  Do they know what continents to look in?

Tip of the old scrub brush to McLeod’s Cartoons.


Diane Ravitch in Dallas: NCLB isn’t working

April 28, 2010

Dr. Diane Ravitch, one of the principal education theorists behind the No Child Left Behind Act, will speak twice in Dallas over the next two days — telling how NCLB is not working

Both public events, tonight at 7:00 p.m., and Thursday at the Dallas Institute of Culture and Humanities, are sponsored by the Dallas Institute.

Note that registration is required for tonight’s session:

To All Staff RE: The Dallas Institute of Culture and Humanities presents: Education Forum: What Makes a Good Education?

Two Public Events: Wednesday, April 28, at 7 p.m., and Thursday, April 29, at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010, 7 p.m. Evening Forum and Book Signing at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Montgomery Arts Theater, 2501 Flora Street, Dallas, 75201

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Diane Ravitch, Education Historian

In this age of productivity models and minimum standards, the topic of a good education often
gets lost, but it evokes the century-long quarrel between the practical and the academic
curricula in our public discourse. Today, if we want to build a school system that will serve our
youth not only in their schooling but throughout life, we need to place what makes a good education
at the center of our discussion.

Beginning this conversation during our inaugural Education Forum are two noted authorities in the teaching profession: Dr. Diane Ravitch and Dr. Louise Cowan

Dr. Diane Ravitch, one of the nations leading education historians and author of the
#1 bestselling book on education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

In it, Dr. Ravitch explains why she is recanting many of the views she held as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. Based on the data, she claimed in a recent interview on The Diane Rehm show, the remedies are not working and will not give us the educated citizens that we all want. Dr. Ravitch will explore what makes a good education and how to fulfill our commitment to a democratic future.

Dr. Louise Cowan, a Founding Fellow of the Dallas Institute and former dean at the University of Dallas, created the Institutes nationally recognized Teachers Academy programs from her vision of what makes a good education. For 27 years, these programs have challenged area school teachers to assume their full authority and responsibility as teaching professionals.

SEATING FOR THE EVENING FORUM IS LIMITED – ADMISSION BY RESERVATION ONLY

Teachers Admission – $15 / General Admission – $25

Deadline to register is noon, Wednesday, April 28.

For more information or to register, call 214-871-2440, or go to http://www.dallasinstitute.org/programs_events_eduforum.html

Thursday, April 29, 2010, 7 p.m. Evening Book Discussion at the Dallas Institute of Culture and Humanities, 2719 Routh Street, Dallas, Texas 75201

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Discussion of Dr. Ravitchs new book will be led by Institute Fellows and Teachers Academy alumni.

General Admission – $10

For more information or to register, call 214-871-2440, or go to http://www.dallasinstitute.org/programs_events_eduforum.html

The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
2719 Routh Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
www.dallasinstitute.org


Tom Chapin, “It’s Not on the Test”

October 18, 2008

A couple of recent studies show the moral, intellectual and educational bankruptcy of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.  The groundswell necessary to scrap the thing has not caught up to the urgency of doing so, alas.

Tom Chapin, the youngest of the musical Chapin Brothers who once included Harry Chapin, worked in advanced childhood education before we knew what it was.  As host of ABC Television’s “Make A Wish,” Chapin significantly contributed to one of the finest education programs ever broadcast.  It’s a sin that it’s not on DVD for kids now.  “Make A Wish” demonstrated what television could do, in that era before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) turned its back on the public interest requirements of the Communications Act of 1934, and before commercial television pulled the plug on dreams that commercial television might be a great engine of education and cultural enrichment.

Chapin is back, with a modest poke at the NCLB balloon, and a more powerful vote for arts education in public schools:  “It’s Not on the Test”:

I ponder the research I’ve seen over the years, both inside the Department of Education and out, and the statistical and anecdotal stories that show art training and education (not the same thing) improve academic performance, and I wonder what squirrels have eaten the brains of “reformers” who kill arts programs for the stated purposes of “improving test performance.”  Einstein played the violin.  Feynman drummed.  Churchill painted, as did Eisenhower.  Edison and his team had a band, and jammed when they were stuck on particular problems, or just for fun.  When will education decision makers see the light?

May this little spark ignite a prairie fire of protest.

Where are you protesting this week?


Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?


Graduation 2008, part 1

May 24, 2008

Today is graduation day for some of my seniors, at the school where I teach. It’s a wonderful affair, and it will be good to see them off on the next step, ceremonial though it is.

The chaos caused by graduation in this district cannot be minimized, for an odd scheduling reason. Today the seniors graduate. Tuesday, we’re back in class with everyone else, with a couple of days of instruction and finals yet to go. It’s nice to have the seniors gone — the halls are much easier to navigate, the juniors are already stepping up, the sophomores and freshmen suddenly realize the work they do leads to something — but the schedule seems out of whack.

I’m trying to adapt.

This year our family has multiple graduations — well, two. Younger son James graduates in a bit over a week, assuming he gets in a mass of work in classes that appeared after the state tests (for which he was exempt because he passed them all the previous year), and after more AP tests than I thought humanly possible.

James’ school held a ceremony and reception for the top 11% of the graduates, 75 kids who may be in the top 10% (a magic number in Texas because it guarantees admission to Texas colleges). Texas colleges won a majority of the plans of the graduates, but there was an impressive number of students off to out-of-state schools of high repute. (James is off to Lawrence, in Wisconsin.)

I wake up in a cold sweat. Clearly we must have done something right, as parents of graduating kids, as teachers of graduating kids. What was it?


Carnival of Education #150

December 19, 2007

Working to be a better reminder: The 150th Carnival of Education comes to you from the Education Wonks, the organizers of the entire enterprise. 150 editions? We can call it an internet institution now, can’t we?

Self interest forces me to be more timely with this notice — a post from this blog is featured, a post on the astounding proposal to award degrees in creationism to educators in Texas.

But that’s one of the lesser reasons you should check it out. Education bloggers give insights on how to improve your classroom that you cannot get anywhere else in such timely fashion, nor so ready to cut and paste into your lesson plans.

Why read it?

That’s a small sampling. The Education Carnival is, week in and week out, one of the more valuable digests of blogs on the web. Teachers — and students and parents — are lucky to have it.

(By the way, is the Carnival of Education blocked from your school’s access? What’s up with that?)

Samangan School, Afghanistan, 6-8-2007 - USAID photo

Students in Samangan School, Afghanistan, June 8, 2007; USAID photo.


Test pressures hammer social studies instruction

December 19, 2007

He’s obviously a bright kid. He’s got good grades. It’s honors U.S. history, which is supposed to be rigorous, to prepare the kid for college studies.

But we’re drawing blanks from the kid on basic stuff: What’s the significance of 1776? Jamestown is in what state? Who was the commanding general of the American Revolution, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? During the Civil War, on which side did Robert E. Lee fight? Or was he that dude from the Revolutionary War? Was the 1849 Gold Rush in Texas or California?

During the practice tests, he’s got all the skills: Two-colored markers to analyze the reading passages, circles and arrows to show which parts are important to consider. He can break the test question and reading down into all the “proper” parts, it’s a testing procedure he’s been practicing since third grade. After 8 years, he knows it well.

But he’s not sure whether the British fought in the American Civil War.

It’s a composite picture, but not composite enough for any of us to breathe the relief sigh. Too many students I get in class do not have the basic facts down that they need to make sense of anything else in the history course — or economics or geography course — that they struggle in now.

Many of these students have good test scores, too. The test doesn’t phase them, but their performance is not what it ought to be. Instead of acing the annual state exam, they take a couple of hours and complain that it’s a stupid exam with stupid questions.

We’ve taught them “tricks” to analyze the test questions, but they don’t have the background in the subject that they should have in order to quickly answer basic questions. The tricks get them through an exam, but it’s a poor substitute for knowing the material.

How does this happen?

Many schools across the nation have shorted social studies. Confronting pressure to raise average school test scores, basic social studies has been cut back in elementary and middle grades (kids know that stuff anyway, right?). Social studies is crowded out of the curriculum in favor of testing skills, or instruction in science and math.

I suspect much of the instruction in science and math is similarly shallow. Students learn how to analyze the test question, but they don’t know how to do the math required.

We know that students learn more when they spend more time on the learning tasks. Learning time is reduced for testing skills instruction.

Social studies take the hit particularly hard. According to a commentary by Judith Pace of the University of San Francisco, in Education Week this week (subscription may be required):

Surveys have reported reduced instructional time in various states, and organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies have responded with letters and statements to Congress. Social studies educators have begun to lobby their lawmakers. But the apparent mainstream acceptance of drastic reductions in the amount of time and attention given to one of elementary education’s core academic subjects is shocking. We are in danger of losing a generation of citizens schooled in the foundations of democracy—and of producing high school graduates who are not broadly educated human beings.

In my own state of California, where history/social studies is not tested until 8th grade, this trend began with the state’s Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, and has accelerated with the No Child Left Behind law. The social studies squeeze occurs disproportionately in low-performing schools with large minority and low-income populations that are under intense pressure to raise scores. And this, too, has alarming implications for educational opportunity and civic participation.

(More of Light’s commentary below the fold.)

One of the old saws of the quality movement in industry (now sadly abandoned in too many places) is “You get what you measure.” We measure average achievement. Consequently, we stifle outstanding achievement, and we don’t give most of the children the background they need to be good citizens.

I see it in students who just don’t know the basics. We should not need to spend time teaching that Abraham Lincoln was not at the Constitutional Convention, but was president during the Civil War.

Improving test scores may be hurting students’ core knowledge in essential areas.

What do we do about it? Comments are open, of course.

Read the rest of this entry »


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