Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Don't Education Policy Makers Learn from History?

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about a David Gelernter article, commenting favorably about his assertion:  "There are brilliant, admirable people at Internet institutes. But if these institutes have the same effect on the Internet that education schools have had on education, they will be a disaster."

Education schools have done little to help education, but education leaders who lie have done far more harm. Two recent Diane Ravitch articles forcefully remind us of that fact.

First, in a Newsweek piece entitled "Obama's War on Schools," Ravitch reminds readers
The theory behind NCLB was that schools would improve dramatically if every child in grades 3 to 8 were tested every year and the results made public. Texas did exactly this, and advocates claimed it had seen remarkable results: test scores went up, the achievement gap between students of different races was closing, and graduation rates rose. At the time, a few scholars questioned the claims of a “Texas miracle,” but Congress didn’t listen.
In fact, the “Texas miracle” never happened. On federal tests, the state’s reading scores for eighth-grade students were flat from 1998 to 2009. And just weeks ago, former first lady Barbara Bush wrote an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle opposing education budget cuts on the grounds that Texas students ranked in the bottom 10 percent in math and literacy nationally. After two decades of testing and accountability, Texas students have certainly not experienced a miracle when judged by the very measures that were foisted on students across the nation. [emphasis mine]
This week USA Today reported that the remarkable gains in test scores that former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee pointed to in an effort to vindicate her controversial reforms are, at best, controversial.  At worst, they are fraudulent. 

The article points out that "Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers."  Rhee created what was called an "education Ponzi scam" that paid on improved test scores but cost people their jobs if scores did not improve.  Hence, some administrators may have cheated to increase their test scores.

According to Dana Goldstein, the cheating was predicable:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
Commenting on the Rhee situation for The Daily Beast, Ravitch concludes that Rhee's apparent success "now appears to be a chimera."  Rhee's very real monster has made her "the national spokesman for the effort to subject public education to free-market forces, including competition, decision by data, and consumer choice."  Like the alleged Texas miracle, Rhee and her supporters have made popular a formula that will produce terrible results including "cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum."  Ravitch points out,

This formula, which will be a tragedy for our nation and for an entire generation of children, is now immensely popular in the states and the Congress. Most governors embrace it. The big foundations endorse it. The think tanks of D.C., right-wing and left-wing, support it. Rhee helped to make it fashionable. If she doesn't pause to consider the damage she is doing, shame on her. If our policymakers don't stop to reflect on the damage they are doing to public education and to any concept of a good education, then our nation is in deep trouble.
Given the effect of Governor Daugaard's budget on South Dakota schools, I'm not sure the state's schools can withstand much more damage.  We may indeed be "in deep trouble" if schools are forced to try to follow reforms like those Rhee championed.

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