December 7, 2010

working-class people versus elites on education

(Dayton, OH) I have been listening to preliminary qualitative research: focus groups of working class adults from several communities (almost all people of color). Asked to discuss "youth," they identify behavioral problems: violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves. Asked to propose solutions, they cite family and community, not schools or government. When one of the researchers explicitly asked them about the government, the respondents (in this case, African Americans between 18 and 25) uniformly said that the government was irrelevant. Finally, despite some economic anxiety, many said they were optimistic that young people would have good economic futures because they are savvy about technology.

Meanwhile, there is a whole official debate about youth that focuses on schools (which are government-run or government-funded institutions) and their graduates' inadequate preparation for economic competition. This is the expert or elite discourse of tests, standards, teacher quality, "the achievement gap," charters, vouchers, and unions.

A hypothesis: It is bad for progressive politics that core Democratic constituencies do not see the government as the solution to the problems that matter most to them. And the reason they don't see the government as a solution is that the government has defined a different set of problems from the ones that concern them. That doesn't mean that working people are right and elites are wrong; but the gap creates a serious problem for both.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

September 20, 2010

the meaning of Michelle Rhee's defeat

Last week, Democratic primary voters dismissed the incumbent mayor of Washington, DC, Adrian Fenty. It looks virtually certain that DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will also be on her way out. She was the most prominent school district leader in the US, featured on the cover of TIME magazine with a broom as the symbol of her housecleaning efforts.

I have a somewhat unusual take on what happened. Most opinion seems to be divided among these reactions:

1. Rhee was a great reformer. She took over a school system that spends nearly $13,000 per student but only $5,355 on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction." She raised test scores, narrowed achievement gaps, and stopped the flow of students to charter schools, but was defeated by special interests--notably the teachers' union that spent $1 million on the election. The problem, in a sense, was "civic engagement"--the active engagement of people whose interests were threatened by her reforms. No wonder Rhee said (well before the election), "collaboration is overrated."

2. Rhee was misguided or actively malevolent, and DC voters exercised their democratic responsibilities when they stopped her. One commenter on Sam Chaltain's blog decries "her arbitrary mass firings of hundreds of D.C. teachers, including some of their finest, without any reliance on data or due process. ... This isn’t simply the case of another of those misguided, slightly inept reformers who needs another 4 years to carry out her unfinished business before taking a cushy job with the foundations. Rather, Michelle Rhee is a dishonest, megalomaniacal teacher basher--possibly the worst in the country, being egged on by her patrons who see her as the spearhead in their struggle against teacher unions."

3. Rhee and Fenty had basically the right policies, but their job was to persuade DC voters to support them, and they failed to do so. That is Rhee's own reaction. According to Education Week, "The chancellor said one of her mistakes early on was in how she communicated with the public. 'I sort of thought, "Well, OK, if we put our heads down and do the work, after two years we’ll have great results, and everybody would be happy." That was very naive of me,' Ms. Rhee said. 'We weren’t proactive and strategic enough about communication and thinking about how do we get out there and talk about the great things that are happening.'” According to this view, civic engagement is neither good nor bad; it is just a fact of life, and skillful leaders deal with it by effectively communicating.

4. The election had little to do with Michelle Rhee or the schools. It was between Adrian Fenty and Councilman Vincent Gray. Voters did not deliver a verdict on Rhee.

In my view, there was a need for housecleaning in the DC school system. News reports have revealed startling examples of bureaucratic failure: warehouses full of new textbooks that are never distributed to students, payroll systems that cannot keep track of employees.

Rhee presumed that the teacher matters most to a student’s success. Every classroom should be led by a competent and motivated teacher who is supported by efficient systems for distributing textbooks, cutting paychecks, and so on. The most skillful teachers should be deployed in schools where they are needed most, those where test scores are lowest. DC employs excellent teachers--far more skillful and dedicated than I would be--but also many poor ones. Consequently, the Chancellor’s priorities were to remove poor teachers, assign strong ones to troubled schools, and reduce bureaucratic waste.

Research lends her strategy some support: William Sanders and June Rivers deeply influenced national education policy by showing that more effective teachers could move student 50 percentile points higher on standardized tests.

And yet it is far from clear that one can cause better teachers to appear in the classrooms where they are needed most--and persuade them to remain there, year after year--simply through better management. Urban teaching will remain a frustrating job if the social context is difficult (for instance, the crime rate for adolescents in DC is three times the national average), the motivations and expectations of students and parents are misaligned with the goals of the schools, and even high school graduates face poor job prospects. Students will not comply with demanding curricula if they doubt there is a route from the schools to satisfactory employment. Teachers will burn out if the schools prove unable to remedy deep social problems. I have personally known teachers who were reassigned to more difficult DC schools and who immediately left for the suburbs instead.

In any case, imagine that the Chancellor's strategy worked, and she improved the impact of her teachers on students' test scores and graduation rates. If the teachers' impact is limited to the classroom and the school day, it cannot be profound enough to overcome crises in the broader society, from obesity and violence to a lack of jobs. Even if the teachers are able to change parenting styles and other aspects of their students' home environments, we should ask whether this change is desirable. Who are they to change a working-class culture to match the norms and expectations of Georgetown and Cleveland Park? As always, our social problems are entangled with culture and connected to our deep moral commitments, about which we have no consensus.

So I think the people of the District must be civically engaged to make their schools better in ways that they can endorse. More democracy is the cure, and collaboration is essential, not "overrated." But the form that civic engagement takes is crucial. Low-turnout primary elections are poor tools for the people of a large city to shape policy. Teachers unions have a right to participate, but political influence should not be a function of money, and no interest group should have predominant power.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams, with whom I have the honor to serve on the AmericaSpeaks board, introduced innovative ways for citizens of the District to discuss and shape policy. In particular, his Citizens Summits (large, representative, deliberative meetings) generated strategies to "support [the] growth and development of all youth." Summits and other manifestations of deliberative democracy are valuable but not sufficient; there must be daily opportunities for citizens, civic groups, churches, businesses, youth, and others to collaborate with schools on the actual work of education. That is truly an alternative to the strategy pursued by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, and we need to try it next.

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September 1, 2010

the value-added debate in education policy

The debate about assessing teachers' impact has reached full volume. The Los Angeles Times recently released a public database that rates teachers' "value added," the New York Times has a new front page article about that kind of method, the Economic Policy Institute has published an important paper by 10 famous authors against it (pdf), and various prominent bloggers have weighed in.

We must assess the performance of public employees whom we pay for important public tasks--teachers included. Everyone who has ever been inside a school knows that teachers differ in their skills, relevant knowledge, and motivation. Once upon a time, we trusted educators--teachers, administrators, and unions--to assess themselves, but there is pretty broad dissatisfaction with that approach today.

The leading solution--enshrined in federal and state law--is to use standardized test scores to assess teachers. But now we're supposed to use them in a sophisticated way, not just looking at the average score for each class (which is evidently affected by many factors other than the teacher). The leading sophisticated approach is to assess average changes in a teacher's students over time. In essence, that method controls for students' starting position and relies on the Law of Large Numbers to even out random or external factors that might affect any given kid.

It's not a crazy theory--it has some research support, especially from the groundbreaking work of William Sanders--but notice how many premises and causal relationships the full strategy assumes:

This can go wrong in so many ways. Tests can be poor measures of students' competence: they are never perfect measures. The Law of Large Numbers does not apply in this case, because each teacher can have a significant impact on only a modest number of kids. Hence there are large random fluctuations in value-added scores.

I have never seen evidence that parents try to place their kids in schools with the highest "value-added" teaching staffs. It would be odd if they did, because a student benefits more from a privileged peer group or a good school climate for learning than from teachers who add the most to standardized tests. (Larger increases can be achieved in low-income schools that don't face "ceiling effects," but you don't see affluent parents enrolling their kids in those schools to reward the teachers.)

When teachers use standardized test scores to modify their own performance, they often "teach to the test" and narrow the curriculum. When administrators use such data, they do not consistently enhance the strength of their teaching staffs; they certainly don't make the workplace more desirable for talented teachers. Even if a school's faculty does add more average value to test scores, that doesn't mean that graduates will become better citizens--or even that students will stay in school.

Kevin Drum thinks we face a Hobson's Choice: no tests and no accountability, or poor accountability through testing. "The criticisms of value-added seem compelling. At the same time, if a teacher scores poorly (or well) year after year, surely that tells us something? At some point, we either have to use this data or else give up on standardized testing completely."

I'm not saying that the answer is easy, but there are alternatives to this dilemma. We could reorganize schools so that teachers were able to hold one another more accountable: what I have called "internal accountability." (Evidence from other fields shows that when internal accountability system are replaced with external measures, people become less motivated to do good work.) We could also bring parents into schools as partners, not just consumers, and boost what I have called "relational accountability."

Either way, we would shift the metaphor. Teachers wouldn't be service-providers whose service must be measured in a standardized way. They would be members of a community (also comprised of families), who hold one another accountable for contributions to a common task.

These ideas may sound idealistic, but they actually make fewer assumptions and leaps of faith than the supposedly hard-nosed strategy shown in the diagram above--which is embodied in current law.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

July 27, 2010

what parents (and other adults) want from schools

These are some interesting tidbits from a recent (June 2010) Public Agenda survey of 1,400 Americans, including 646 parents of kids currently enrolled in k-12 schools.

First, people are more concerned about behavioral issues than about academic "performance," as that is typically measured:

The most pressing problem in your local schools: parents all respondents
social problems and kids who misbehave 63% 56%
low academic standards & outdated curricula 27% 31%

Second, although people value basic writing and math skills, teamwork ranks higher on their list of priorities than scientific skills and principles.

Which of these are absolutely essential to learn in schools?: parents all respondents
basic scientific ideas and principles 60% 56%
being able to work in a team 80% 74%

Third, when asked what should be taught more or less in their own kids' schools, elementary school parents seem basically satisfied, but the most common request for more time is for computer and technology skills. I wish parents wanted more social studies, but that's second-to-bottom on their priority list, right above art. Middle- and high-school parents rank it a bit higher, above advanced science, advanced math, fine arts, and sports/gym.

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May 3, 2010

Hirsh on how to save the schools

E.D. Hirsh's review of Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education is not very good--as a review. Ravitch's book is important, and Hirsch doesn't really analyze it. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his own view. But his position is worth considering: it is orthogonal to the main debates in education.

The main debates concern incentives or pedagogy. That is, the two main strategies for improving schools are to change the rewards and punishments, or else to convince/educate teachers to act differently.

Strategies that involve incentives appeal to several types of reformers. Some want to test students and allocate resources according to the test scores (the NCLB approach). Some want parents to be able to choose schools for their own children and let the public money follow the kids. Some want to raise teachers' pay in order to motivate qualified people to enter and remain in the profession. All share the assumption that the government can't or shouldn't improve our 120,000 public schools by directly influencing the content of education in each one. We improve other sectors by shaping external incentives for innovation and impact, and the idea is to do the same with schools.

Strategies that involve pedagogy are equally controversial. The two main poles of this controversy are Deweyan progressivism versus traditionalism. Progressives are "child-centered" or "constructivist" (see my summary here). They want kids to shape their own learning according to their diverse interests and motivations--to be active participants in interpreting and creating knowledge and culture. Traditionalists worry that leaving children to make such decisions short-changes them. They think that students benefit from being told and explained things. Both sides want to influence our 120,000 schools by training or persuading our 3.5 million teachers.

Hirsch is a traditionalist on the question of pedagogy, but he has an alternative strategy for reforming schools. He focuses on the curriculum. This is his lever of change. For him, the curriculum is a set of things students should know: facts, concepts, names, dates, and places on the world map. Put another way, it is a set of texts that students should read and understand (texts that competently present the things that students should know). The curriculum as a whole should be:

Unlike proponents of vouchers and charters, Hirsch is perfectly willing to say that all schools should change the content of the education they provide. Unlike the proponents of various pedagogies, he doesn't trust in a strategy of changing what teachers do. He wants to redefine what they teach.

I have not made a study of the independent research on Hirsch's approach. In theory, it could work. The question seems strictly empirical to me. As an advocate for civic or democratic education, I care most about civic outcomes. I want to see students prepared to play active and effective roles in our public life. I do not take it for granted that the path to that outcome must itself be democratic or participatory. Maybe all kids should read The Federalist Papers and Letter from Birmingham Jail (and other texts), and that is all they need. I sort of doubt it, but I respect Hirsh for putting an alternative on the table.

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April 9, 2010

classroom practice from an ethical perspective

(Madison, WI) I am here for one of a series of meetings organized by University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess and funded by the Spencer Foundation. Diana and her colleagues have assembled remarkable empirical data about high school students and their social studies classes. From their longitudinal surveys--which follow the students into their twenties--they can draw inferences about the effects of various school experiences. Their elaborate interviews of students and teachers and their classroom observation notes help to explain the quantitative data and also provide numerous interesting anecdotes. The interviews, in particular, draw attention to dilemmas. Should you deliberate issues in a classroom that may be offensive to some students? Should you allow students to deliberate issues that should be settled? Should a teacher disclose his or her personal views?

The empirical data are relevant to these questions. For instance, it might turn out that teachers' disclosing their opinions affects students' opinions. But the data cannot settle these questions, which also involve value judgments about both means and ends. The appropriate ends, in particular, are by no means clear.

Therefore, Diana and her colleagues have assembled professional philosophers to discuss the empirical data with the researchers. There are actually three kinds of background in the room. Almost all the participants have personal experience as teachers. The quantitative data is more general and systematic but less rich than personal experience. And everyone has some level of philosophical training or interest. This seems to me a model for how to think about thorny issues.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , education policy

February 3, 2010

the budget supports broadening education

The president's budget proposal includes increased support for education outside of reading, math, and science. We and others have documented a narrowing of the US curriculum, especially in elementary schools. We found that the reason for the narrowing trend was not No Child Left Behind. But the decline of civics, history, art, and foreign languages is still a problem that deserves a federal response.

The Administration proposes a new funding area called "Teaching and Learning for a Well Rounded Education," with $265 million in appropriations. They propose moving civic education out of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (whose main focus is safety and good behavior--a deadly heading under which to place active citizenship and democracy). The $265 million appropriation is roughly on par with the administration's request for science, technology, engineering, and math.

(By the way, I support the so-called STEM subjects, and we're not in a competition to get the most money. I only make the comparison to demonstrate that the president wants real money for the topics that make kids "well-rounded.")

If this plan goes forward, there will be struggles over how to allocate the money among fields such as history, art, languages, and civics; whether to fund states, local education agencies, and/or nonprofits (or for-profit firms); and what to do with the various special programs that were historically funded to support specific topics, such as American history and civics. Those are tough calls, but there is significant promise in the president's proposal.

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January 14, 2010

class, culture, and education

I am writing about the tendency of social problems to interlock, so that each problem can be seen as a symptom of the next one. I think I will take the Washington, DC schools as my starting point--mainly because I know them pretty well.

Educational outcomes in DC are very poor: less than half of public school students graduate on time. Spending per student is quite high (approaching $13,000), but the actual services delivered at the school level are worth much less than that. Many of the city's schools are chaotic and sporadically violent. There are excellent teachers--much more skillful and dedicated than I would be--but the system as a whole seems dysfunctional.

Two experiments are underway. First, one third of the city's students are now in charter schools, which are independent of the central bureaucracy. Second, the controversial chancellor, Michelle Rhee (who sweeps her symbolic broom in photographs for national news magazines) aims to clean up the bureaucracy itself. One strategy uses decentralization and choice; the other, efficient central management.

I hope one or the other solution works, but I am concerned about how embedded the schools are in broader problems. Thirteen of every 1,000 babies born in the District die in infancy, twice the rate for the United States as a whole. More than one third of the city's children are obese. The death rate for teenagers is more than twice that of the United States as a whole, and the violent crime rate is more than three times as high. Each of these problems can be seen as a symptom of the other ones.

There is also a question of motivations, which can lead to different diagnoses. The opening point is to ask why as student (under very difficult and often demeaning circumstances) should align his or her efforts with what the schools expect.

There was an answer half a century ago. In 1950, just as today, more than half of 19-year-olds in the District had not graduated from high school. But the city then housed 35,000 industrial workers, including more than one thousand each of machinists, typesetters, and automobile mechanics. Washington was not an industrial city (compared, for example, to nearby Baltimore, where 30,000 men used to work in the Sparrow Point steel mill alone). Because of the federal government, jobs like "stenographer" and "office boy" provided more positions in DC than factories did. Young people could obtain these jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without graduating from high school.

Because most adults held working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for young people to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent. Most adults would end up collaborating in teams of other people of similar background, with distant, middle-class authority figures keeping an eye on them. Work life was thus a continuation of classroom life, with foremen and office managers replacing teachers and principals. Youth culture reinforced a sense of solidarity, compliance, and limited trust for authority. Skills were concrete and could be learned on the job.

Today, only about three percent of the city's jobs are classified as "construction, extraction, maintenance, and repair," whereas more than half are "management or professional." If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities in DC and elsewhere. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it is a long way from a DC school to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it is pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through school. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see. If most other students basically doubt the social contract and do not want to participate, it is difficult for any individual student to do comply.

Culture and class strongly determine educational progress. In her brilliant book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau argues that middle-class parents, without regard to race, use a strategy of "concerted cultivation" to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids' cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children's behavior--a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians. In Washington neighborhoods like Georgetown and Cleveland Park, "concerted cultivation" can be observed on every street.

Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt "the accomplishment of natural growth." They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids' health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.

Lareau evidently likes all the kids in her study; she depicts them all sensitively and sympathetically. Nevertheless, her findings support strong and perhaps unexpected comparative value-judgments. The poor and working-class kids are in many ways more attractive than the middle-class ones. They obey their parents' (relatively infrequent) instructions without whining--which is the bad side of negotiation. They are creative and skillful in organizing their own activities, including complex games. They are almost never bored. They fight with their siblings much less than middle-class children do--in fact, they rely on their relatives for support and entertainment, and enjoy one another's company. They play happily in groups of mixed ages. Their parents like them to have free time because they don't want them exposed (yet) to the daily grind of adult life. An attentive observer can find just such behavior in the working class neighborhoods of Washington.

In contrast, the middle-class kids are immediately bored when not provided with organized activities. They compete for attention with their siblings. (After all, when Mom is at brother's soccer practice, she's not doing anything for sister.) They constantly bargain with adults, including authority figures. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement to expensive goods and individualized services. They lack experience working with others of different ages or solving problems without adult intervention. Again, each subject is a likable human being, but many aspects of middle-class family childhood are unappealing.

Although the middle-class kids are less attractive than the poor and working-class children, their parents' investment will probably pay off for them. The children of Georgetown and Cleveland Park have precocious skills of verbal expression and negotiation, time-management, and public performance that will serve them well in the white-collar world. They consider themselves entitled to excellent services and demand it from adults and institutions. Their expectations and behavior are perfectly in synch with those of middle-class professionals (teachers, coaches, and physicians), who respond to their needs. As kids, they are tired and quarrelsome. As grownups, they will prosper.

In Washington, DC, middle-class families that use a strategy of concerted cultivation almost exclusively send their own children to private schools or move to the suburbs once their kids each the middle grades. The students who are left in the public school are being raised according to "the accomplishment of natural growth," in a setting where the "natural" outcome is poverty.

This is just an example of the complex entanglements of culture, class (and also race) with public problems and institutions. It all makes me believe that only social movements--not the reform and restructuring of institutions--can really make a difference.

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November 24, 2009

accountability: relational and informational

Borrowing an idea from the Kettering Foundation President, David Mathews: Today's policymakers and experts tend to define "accountability" in terms of information. For instance, No Child Left Behind requires schools to collect and disclose reams of data about students' performance, teachers' credentials, etc. The idea is that well-informed parents will be able to apply pressure and make good choices for their kids. Similarly, the Administration has pledged to reveal unprecedented amounts of information about the stimulus spending (and is being beaten up for inaccuracies).

But most people do not think of accountability in informational terms. They think in terms of relationships. For example, in focus groups that Doble Research Associates conducted for the Kettering Foundation (back in 2001), parents were highly resistant to the idea that tests would be useful ways to hold school accountable. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable for education, starting with parents. A Baltimore woman said, "If kids don't pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That's not right. I mean where does the support come from? You're pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them." Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, "When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children's learning and staying in touch with teachers." This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of communication. Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the report doesn't quite say this, I suspect they envision knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

And so on--the conversation continues in this vein. Note that this is supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: "What we've got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community."I suspect that she envisions a situation in which school staff and parents know each other, share fundamental values, and commit to support one another. Information is pretty much irrelevant.

I think David Mathews' theory needs more investigation, including national survey data, because we don't know for how many people accountability is relational rather than informational. But let's assume that he's right about most Americans. In that case ...

First, we might discuss whether ordinary people or experts are wiser. There are pros and cons to both sides. Thinking about accountability in relational terms can be misleading. Just because you have known the new principal since you were kids and she wants her students to succeed doesn't mean she is doing a good job. Besides, once we are dealing with state or national policy, you cannot possibly know leaders personally. Thus you may start trying to assess their "character" based on imperfect and often biased sources instead of measuring their performance.

On the other hand, the focus group participants are right that any informational measure, such as a test score, is narrow and simplistic and even trivial. Many of the most important issues are values; over-reliance on information can sideline those issues and drive a wedge between citizens and institutions.

Regardless of who is right, I think this theory has powerful political implications. Especially on the left, leaders (often highly trained and skillful with information) keep hoping that by providing the public with data, they will make people happier. But parents like charter and voucher-funded private schools even when they perform poorly. I am convinced that that's because they feel they have a genuine relationship with those schools. There is a profound lesson here about how to reform education and other sectors.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy , populism

July 2, 2009

our dog can read (update)

As previously discussed on this blog, our dog Barkley can read. Here he is with my wife Laura, a certified reading specialist. Barkley's fluency and comprehension have improved since my last post about him, although his vocabulary seems to have hit a plateau at 10 months (similar, perhaps, to the fourth-grade slump found in national reading statistics). One possible explanation is the lack of cultural relevance in his home literacy resources. The first frame of the video shows that he has been looking at a stack of books. But many of the volumes in his home environment emphasize the dominant culture of middle-class humans. Barkley is a dog from very low-SES background. (He was a homeless stray in Alabama less than one year ago.) Perhaps his motivation will improve if he can find more culturally appropriate role-models in both the fictional and informational texts available in his home milieu.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

April 1, 2009

controversy in the classroom

University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess has published Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Routledge, 2009). The longitudinal study of high school students that is a major source of data for this book was partly funded by CIRCLE. Hess argues that planned, moderated discussions of controversial issues teach essential democratic skills. She provides research-based advice about how to define "controversial issues" and handle them in classrooms.

According to my blurb on the back cover:

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March 30, 2009

strategic and open-ended politics

The Washington, DC public school where my daughter used to study and my wife used to teach is a little chaotic, inefficient, and inequitable, but it is also very diverse, participatory, and tolerant. It has its successes: academic, ethical, and cultural. In other words, it is a public institution (and a community) that can easily flourish or fail--or do a bit of both at the same time. Many adults devote attention and passion to trying to make it flourish, rarely in unison but with overlapping values and goals.

One of the most obvious problems that this particular school faces is the system's bureaucracy, which is often arbitrary and wasteful. Charter schools are permitted to operate independently of "downtown." They have grown to such an extent that more than half of Washington's public school population now attends charters. So whether to turn our old school into a charter is an obvious issue for discussion. As a matter of fact, I didn't notice much talk about charters--partly because many people were ideologically opposed to them, and partly because a group of parents had actually left the school to launch a charter. But it's easy to imagine a conversation beginning.

With that background, consider two ways that a charter debate might unfold within a school like ours:

1. Strategic politics: Advocates favor charters (in general) for several quite different reasons. Some see them as means to introduce competition into education. Others see them as opportunities for teachers to obtain professional autonomy and dignity. For either group, an individual charter school is an experiment designed to test a general principle. That principle can generalize, not only beyond the individual school, but beyond education altogether. For instance, libertarians have seen charters as a way to demonstrate that competition can improve outcomes even for one of the most traditional and accepted functions of government--the school. If charters work, libertarians feel they gain an argument in favor of a different kind of society, which is also why some of their opponents try to block charters. Again, libertarians provide only one example; there are also leftist charter-advocates who want to test principles of localism and teacher-control.

Unless you are an unethical ideologue, you must care about local issues, such as the impact of any policy on individual kids and the proper timing, risk, cost, and inconvenience of a particular change. You should also be open to the possibility that your experiment will fail. Yet if you are strategic, you believe that society as a whole would be better off if your theory were applied more generally, and you are right to look for opportunities to test it responsibly. From that perspective, a school is a chance to try the theory.

2. Open-ended politics: Members of our old school community might not be interested in charters, pro or con. They might care instead about what's good and bad in their own school and how to improve it. In other words, their unit of analysis might be the building and the people in it, not something as general as charters, let alone competition or professionalism. Each participant in such a debate would have slightly different objectives and different beliefs about what works. But they would share a primary concern for the particular institution.

Most people will bring into such particularistic discussions some prior opinions about general concepts, such as bureaucracies, charters, teachers, competition, liberalism, etc. But if their focus is on the school itself, such concepts will arise as just one type of consideration among others. Instead of debating whether charters advance a general cause, they may be concerned about the school principal (who happens to be good at her job), and ask how she would fare if the school became a charter. Or they might worry about the effects of any controversial change on the cohesion of their community. For them, turning into a charter competes for attention and credibility against modest, everyday changes, such as beefing up the fifth-grade curriculum or raising more money at the annual auction. They look inside the "black box" of the school and are concerned about each teacher, curriculum, test, and rule.

I am not against strategic politics. I have my own general beliefs and I think they matter. But I think that open-ended politics is:

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March 19, 2009

making tests

I'm at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ, helping them to cook up a test. There are many cooks at work on this particular broth. In fact, what strikes me most about the process of designing a national student assessment is the enormous complexity of the process. There are laws, policies, rules, budgets, curricular standards and objectives, "items" (i.e., questions of various types), answer keys, trainings and guides for scorers, data from preliminary laboratory tests of items, pilot tests of whole exams, statistical results from the pilot tests, revised items and instruments, final results, statistical scales, summary measures, and reports. There are content experts, item-writers, statisticians, psychometricians, scorers, trainers, trainers-of-trainers, and various layers of contractors and government agencies and reviews.

If you are prone to distrust or dislike pencil-and-paper exams (and I understand and respect those arguments), all this apparatus may seem like a bureaucratic and technocratic nightmare. Indeed, any test involves countless value-judgments, guesses, and compromises, often buried in technical or administrative jargon. There is something extremely "Weberian" about a government-sponsored exam or assessment. It is a classic example of the effort to standardize and measure in order to control and improve.

On the other hand, if you are not directly acquainted with the process of test-design at the federal level, you might not realize how many different people struggle to develop and implement tests that reflect ethical principles of fairness, reliability, relevance, and social significance. The result is, if nothing else, the product of a lot of hard work.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

March 13, 2009

coming of age in a winner-take-all society

These are some winning words from the National Spelling Bee, by year:

1932: knack
1940: therapy
1973: vouchsafe
1975: incisor
2001: succedaneum
2004: autochthonous

The tremendous increase in difficulty is sometimes taken as evidence of rising achievement (e.g., in Strauss and Howe's book, Millennials Rising.) But compare the national achievement rates in reading, as measured by the Federal Government's National Assessment of Education Progress:

High school reading scores are totally flat, and far from adequate in a competitive, 21st-century economy. (And these results reflect only youth who are still enrolled at age 17; one third drop out before graduating.)

This pattern seems to be a perfect example of what Robert H. Frank calls the "winner-takes-all" society. It only takes a few superb contestants to make an entertaining national Spelling Bee competition that's fit for TV. Given the rewards of winning, hundreds of thousands of American kids will enter, and the very best will rise to the top. The Spelling Bee process doesn't have any relevance to, or direct effect on, the remaining 99.999% of kids.

By itself, that's not a problem--in my opinion, awesome spelling achievement is a parlor trick that any computer can perform to perfection. But the same logic applies to more important competitions as well: admission to an engineering school, becoming a partner in a law firm, being drafted to the NBA, getting a seat in an orchestra, or making tenure at a good university. The few who make it to the top win bigger rewards than ever before, because the process of selection is increasingly efficient and the base of contestants is larger. The excellence of the winners is impressive. But the effects on the rest of the population are problematic, at best.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

January 28, 2009

measuring what matters

(Washington, DC) I am here for a meeting of a federal committee--one of dozens--that helps to decide which statistics to gather from public school students. We are especially focused on socio-economic "background variables" that may influence kids' success in schools. What to measure often boils down to what correlates empirically with test scores or graduation rates. For instance, a combination of parents' income, education, and occupation can explain about 15%-20% of the variance in test scores. And so we measure these variables.

But the mere fact of a correlation between A and B doesn't mean we should measure both. We could look for correlations between the length of students' noses and the weight of their earlobes. Instead, we look for covariance between parental income and the total number of questions a kid can answer correctly on a test that we write and make him take. Why? Because of moral commitments: beliefs about what inputs, outputs, and causal relationships matter ethically in education.

So it's worth getting back to fundamental principles. These would be mine:

First, the quality of schooling (education that the state provides) should be equal, or should actually be better for less advantaged kids. Quality does not mean effectiveness at raising test scores--it means what is actually good. That may include intrinsically valuable experiences, such as making and appreciating art. But quality probably includes effective practices that raise scores on meaningful, well-designed tests.

Second, it's good when outcomes are equal, but equality trades off against other values, such as freedom for children and parents, and cultural diversity. Also, a narrow focus on equality of outcomes almost inevitably leads to narrow definitions of success and can put excessive pressure on teachers and kids.

Third, individuals' aptitude probably varies (and the degree to which it varies is an empirical question), but every kid who is not performing very well could probably perform better if he or she got a better education. Thus differences in aptitude do not excuse failure to educate.

Fourth, out-of-school resources affect educational outcomes. These resources vary, and that is not fair. We should do something to equalize kids' chances. But resources fall into various categories that raise different moral questions:

1. Fungible resources, such as parents' income or wealth. We can compensate for these inequalities by, for instance, spending more on schools in poor communities. (We tend to do the opposite, but I am writing about principles, not reality.) Note, however, that family income alone explains a small amount of variance in test scores.

2. Attributes of parents that cannot be exchanged or bought, such as their knowledge, skills, abilities, social networks, and cultural capital (ability to function well in privileged settings such as universities and white-collar businesses). It is interesting, for example, that the number of books in a student's home is a consistent predictor of educational success. This is related to income, but it's not the same thing. You may be more educationally advantaged if your parents are poor graduate students with lots of books than rich but vapid aristocrats, especially if your parents devote time to you. The challenge is that parental attributes cannot be changed without badly restricting freedom.

3. Prevalent attitudes, such as racial prejudice/white privilege, that may affect students' self-image; or values relevant to education, such as the belief in Amish communities that a basic education is sufficient. These attitudes vary in how morally acceptable they are. But they have in common the fact that the state cannot change them without becoming highly coercive.

In the end, I think we measure parental resources and their relationship to test scores because we think that (a) it's especially important to compensate for inequalities in cash, and (b) we presume that test scores measure educational success. Both presumptions are debatable, but I believe them enough that I'll keep attending meetings on how to measure them better.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy , philosophy

December 15, 2008

unequal starts

Last week, we joined about 250 other parents in the bleachers of the Belmont (MA) High School gym. Spread across the floor were musical bands ranging from elementary school beginners to the high school's wind ensemble. The bands took turns playing for more than two hours. While they waited, the 5th- and 6th-grade musicians near me were all reading books--flopping around in their chairs but quiet and intent on their fiction. A little further away, the 7th- and 8th-graders mostly had big textbooks out and were doing homework. Even though there were about 500 people in the room, the only significant background noise was an occasional infant's cry.

These hundreds of children and parents were all focused all evening on the reading and performance of music and other texts. The whole event was intentionally "developmental"--the 9-year-olds could hear the expertise and success of the high school seniors, who were asked to help the younger kids with their instruments and stands. It was a community-wide function, combining kids from three levels of public school and a significant local nonprofit organization. We were witnessing only about one third of the whole enterprise, because there are equally large events for string ensembles and choruses, not to mention a parent/teacher band.

I suppose one could criticize the program. It takes a lot of parents' time. Scheduling lessons can produce family stress. These kids are not learning how to organize their own activities because so much of what they do is organized for them. (I write this not at all as a personal complaint but because of the work of the sociologist Annette Lareau.) One could also criticize the music, most of which is written by very minor band composers.

But overall, surely, Belmont Bandarama Night is a model of success and achievement. Kids are receiving massive investments--not only from their well-funded schools, but also from their own parents and other volunteer adults. The investments take the form of time, attention, skill, and awareness of prevailing status markers--each as important as cash. The kids respond with intellectual discipline. Even the teenagers are willing to act publicly in ways that please adults. For instance, the high school chorus recently dressed in medieval costumes to sing downtown. In some communities I can think of, you'd be beaten up for wearing doublet and hose and singing "Greensleeves." These youth will win prizes, pass tests, attend colleges, and enter the middle class, replicating their parents' social position. Cultural capital will appreciate and be inherited.

At our child's old school in Washington, DC, there were some highly privileged families. Wealth in DC comes from office work (not, for instance, directly from extractive industries), so the upper-middle-class parents mostly have advanced degrees. As in Belmont, they transmit skills and culture to their children. But their methods are usually private--individual piano lessons, for instance, or family vacations overseas. The parents who can invest lots of cultural capital are a minority. There is a huge class gradient. No one would be able to pull off a 2-hour band concert for 250 kids and expect the ones who were waiting to read quietly. Such an event would be cheerful, enthusiastic, but also noisy and chaotic. Some of the kids who were disengaged would be mocking the ones who were trying hardest to comply. There would be enormous differences in musical proficiency, discipline, engagement, and attentiveness.

Within a city like DC, there are certainly institutions (for instance, churches, mosques, small charter schools, and successful sports teams) where all the kids are on task. But these are not community-wide places. They succeed in part by setting high barriers to entry.

I like Belmont, but I honestly prefer the culture of a big-city school system. I appreciate the diversity--not only of race and ethnicity but also of trajectories through life. I admire the way kids improvise their own activities and status markers. Still, Belmont's children have enormous advantages for the 21st-century work world. They benefit not only from smoothly functioning, well-funded schools but also simply from growing up in a jurisdiction that consists of middle-class, education-obsessed families. I'd love to mix the Belmont families with others, but I think we've learned from 50 years of experience that parents will sort themselves by social class. We can't tell Belmont to stop providing a rich, challenging, developmental structure for all its children--that would be tyrannical and also counterproductive. We can't purchase the Belmont band program for a poorer district, because most of what sustains it is parental involvement.

Finally, we shouldn't simply export Belmont's norms. Some forms of culture are objectively excellent--like Mozart and Ellington. And some general approaches to education are always wise--such as providing a coherent developmental pathway from childhood through adolescence. But there were many aspects of the Belmont Bandarama (not only the music played, but also the way it was advertised, presented, and taught) that are arbitrary. They fit in a certain cultural context--suburban, middle-class, secular, and predominantly European- and Asian-American. They need not fit elsewhere.

The problem of unequal cultural capital strikes me as profound. I don't have a solution, but I would advocate:

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

December 10, 2008

that narrow curriculum: it's not all about NCLB

Some time ago, we received a Ford Foundation grant to document the problem that almost everyone decried: because of the testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (the comprehensive federal law related to pre-college education), schools were focusing on math and reading to the exclusion of social studies, art, music, physical education, and extracurriculars. All the data that supposedly demonstrated this problem came from current surveys of educational administrators or citizens, who were asked to say whether they believed curricula had narrowed since the passage of NCLB. They said yes.

We set out to provide supportive evidence by examining historical data about what teachers actually teach and kids actually study (based on contemporaneous surveys of students and teachers). What we found was much more complex and nuanced than our original hypothesis. Instead of "documenting" a problem, we showed that it didn't exist in the way we had expected.

I personally believe that the narrowing of the curriculum in the early grades is a significant problem. But it cannot be solved by lifting testing provisions in NCLB. It's a much broader and more complex issue.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education , education policy

November 13, 2008

illumination from the charter debate

(On the train to Worcester, MA) I am going to Clark University to join Jeffrey Henig on a panel about his new book, Spin Cycle: How Research is Used in Policy Debates: The Case of Charter Schools. I found this great book in the section of the library devoted to charter schools and vouchers. It does include a helpful and nuanced summary of the current research on charter schools. But it had much broader implications. It's really about the ways that social science, the mass media, advocacy groups, and democratic institutions interrelate in our era.

Charter schools provide a fascinating case, because the debate about them has been passionate and ideologically polarized. It has played out in think tanks, Congress, and the front pages of national newspapers. But it did not have to develop that way. Charter schools could have been seen as a modest way of tweaking management systems in public education. There are many old public schools (Boston Latin, Stuyvesant) that essentially operate with their own charters or special exemptions. There has always been a continuum between centralized control and autonomy within public school systems. Several European social democracies--usually, and rightly, seen as left of the United States--manage schools in ways that resemble our charters more than our unified systems. So chartering could have been introduced without a lot of fanfare, without especially high expectations, and not as a test of larger social theories.

Instead, charters were promoted as experiments with several grand political theories. Conservative foundations and intellectuals favored them as tests of the market-choice hypothesis. If conservatives were right that government monopolies guarantees poor results, then charters (which increased choice) should perform better than regular schools. A successful experiment with charters would open the door to competition and deregulation across education and other sectors, including postal services and national parks.

But conservatives were not the only proponents of charter schools. One of their intellectual parents was the union leader Alebert Shanker, whose vision could be described as professionalism for teachers. His idea was that teachers should form their own charter schools, thus becoming more like white-collar professionals and less like bureaucratic pawns. There were also moderate Democrats who saw charters as a way of fending off vouchers. They hoped that success with charters would blunt demands for real privatization.

Under these circumstances, everybody seemed to want and expect the "killer study" that would vindicate or repudiate the charter model. Certain preliminary studies did get massive attention, especially a study by the American Federation of Teachers that appeared on page 1 of the New York Times. Each significant study was scrutinized for ideological bias and denounced by opponents. The coverage of each study was also subjected to intense scrutiny for bias. Some observers threw up their hands, concluding that education research was just a food fight that offered no illumination.

The model that Jeff Henig offers as an alternative is research as cumulative, incremental, and pragmatic. While unions and conservative think tanks exchanged studies and accusations, a much subtler and more nuanced literature was developing that found--as one might expect--a range of effects by different charters on various outcomes for various student populations. That range was itself a refutation of the very simple libertarian theory that any extra degree of parential choice will cause huge improvements in all outcomes. But no one should have expected a simple and universal causal theory in such a complex area as education. The emerging research is policy-relevant. It doesn't support either a massive expansion or a termination of the charter experiment, but various tweaks and reforms to improve quality.

Henig recommends, among other points, that the federal government should concentrate on collecting excellent public data for scholars to dissect, and that scholars should be rewarded for painstaking, cumulative research and not pressed to be overly "timely" or "relevant." I am a proponent of the Engaged University idea, but I actually admire careful, low-profile engagement in communities much more than participation in the "Spin Cycle." So I can endorse Henig's recommendations. I also support his call to push the charter debate back down to the local level, where it is typically less ideological and more pragmatic.

I will, however, put in a word for ideology. We citizens cannot assess the pros and cons of each policy tweak. Yet we should be involved in setting policy. One powerful shortcut is to think in ideological terms, as long as one is alert to complications and exceptions and open to serious reevaluation. I, for instance, know very little about environmental issues. But I must vote and make consumer choices. I could try to master all the science and social science on the issue, but that's quite unrealistic. Instead, I go through life with some ideological presumptions--generally friendly to science and to regulation when it seems to be informed by science; generally skeptical of big business. But I pride myself on being alert to contradictions.

If that's how most people should think about education, then it seems fairly natural and maybe even desirable for ideological groups to promote their views in public debate. They will and probably should seize on examples like charter schools to make their points. There are definitely costs: simplification and polarization. But there are also advantages. It's possible that when the dust finally settles on the charter-school debate, we will have learned something.

permanent link | comments (3) | category: education policy

September 11, 2008

value-judgments in testing

It would be possible to create a valid and reliable test of the 10 greatest virtues of Saddam Hussein. Those virtues could even be facts about him: for example, that he was unafraid to die. Such a test would be morally worse--really worse, not just worse in my opinion--than a test of students' understanding of the First Amendment.

I write this to try to shake people's confidence in a prevalent theory about research, evaluation, assessment, testing, and accountability. This theory holds that measurement should be scientific. Everyone knows that evaluators always hold opinions and make value-judgments. But their values are often treated as problematic, as evidence of bias or subjectivity or political agendas. Values should be disclosed, investigated, and minimized: the hold of that positivist theory is strong even decades after it was rejected in philosophy.

The alternative, of course, is to say that when we evaluate, we make value judgments. Some judgments are better than others. Our most important responsibility is to hold good values. Since our value-judgments differ, we'd better discuss them--not just to disclose them and acknowledge our differences, but to reason together about what is right.

I currently serve on a federal test committee. We receive "items" (test questions) written by consultants. We reject some proposed questions on scientific grounds. For instance, when tested in a lab, some items prove to be confusing for reasons unexpected by the writers. That is an empirical finding that should matter. We also rely on scientific expertise to tell us how many questions we need to obtain a reliable measure, how many kids need to be tested to make estimates about populations, and so on.

But ultimately the item-writers choose questions because of their beliefs about what kids should know. They are guided by written standards, which are themselves statements of moral value, albeit rather vague ones. When we on the committee reject questions, it is usually because of our values. For instance, we may say that a topic is trivial. We have expertise, but that really means that we have clawed our way into jobs that allow us to express opinions about what is important. We also decide how difficult each question is. That depends somewhat on empirical evidence about what average kids actually know. But it also essentially depends on what we think they should know.

I don't believe that the irreducibly moral nature of testing and evaluation is a problem. It reflects the irreducibly moral nature of everything that matters in life. Nor is it necessarily a mistake to hire experts and consultants to write tests. We need reasonably independent, experienced, committed referees who can focus intensely on the task of evaluating kids. What is a mistake is to interpret the results of a test as "scientific" or to regard the intrusion of values as "bias" or as "politics." The only alternatives to "politics" are boring homogeneity, spurious objectivity, utter thoughtlessness, or a dictatorship.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

September 3, 2008

half the kids are below average

Charles Murray, notorious for The Bell Curve and other provocations, has a new book entitled Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. I haven't read the book, so I shouldn't criticize it. But I have read the promotional materials and the op-ed version of Murray's argument, which I can criticize as independent texts.

Murray emphasizes that "Half of the children are below average. Many children cannot learn more than rudimentary reading and math." It supposedly follows that "too many people are going to college," and our schools are diverting too many resources to the impossible task of preparing everyone for higher education. "America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. ... It is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country. The task is not to give them more advanced technical training, but to give them an education that will make them into wiser adults; not to pamper them, but to hold their feet to the fire."

The op-ed version of this argument makes a very simple error. True, half the kids are below average, and it's impossible to "Leave No Child Behind" if that means leaving no one below the median. But it is very possible to raise the actual skills and knowledge of the whole student population so that the median student in 2010 knows more than the median student knew in 1990. Certainly, the median student of today knows a whole bunch of things that nobody knew a century ago (even as he or she has lost some knowledge that used to be more common, such as some grasp of Latin). If the goal of education reform is to remove variation in student outcomes, it is--as Murray argues--doomed. But if the goal is to teach all students more, that can be achieved.

I do, by the way, agree that education is partly a positional good--there are always people who obtain more of it than others do, and they always have social and economic advantages. Thus raising the quantity and quality of an educational system will not necessarily reduce inequality. I also agree that some kind of elite is inevitable and that it's important to teach them to connect their self-interest to the public interest. But neither of these doses of realism should discourage us from educating all kids better.

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June 30, 2008

the Public Education Network (PEN) and its civic index

I believe that communities educate children, not just schools; and it is a false hope that we can achieve dramatically better results by tinkering with the structure of schools: their governance, funding, incentives, and regulations. Most experiments that focus narrowly on schools, from Reading First to privatization in Philadelphia, seem to fail. PEN, the Public Education Network, is a great leader in promoting this idea:

While there is a broad public understanding about the important role that schools play---teaching, learning, curriculum development, assessment, discipline, student development---few individuals in communities understand their civic role, whether they be parents, or adults without children in school, in contributing to quality public education for all students.

Communities provide the social, financial, and political capital that is crucial to school and student success. Citizens vote for elected leaders, pay taxes that fund schools, and also participate in powerful social networks that shape how schools and communities address the educational and developmental needs of young people. There is an inextricable link between high achieving schools and the community actions that support these schools. Without public action, there can be no quality public schools.

With a small assist from CIRCLE, PEN recently unveiled its "Civic Index for Quality Public Education," which is a survey that any community can conduct, compare its local results to national data, and develop strategies for improving civic engagement.

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June 5, 2008

teach philosophy of science in high school

I think controversies about whether to allow the teaching of "intelligent design" and whether teachers should present global warming as a fact are more complicated than is presumed by most scientific and liberal opinion. To announce that evolution is "science," while intelligent design is "religion," begs a lot of questions about what science is and how it should operate. To say that global warming is a "fact" implies a view about facts and what justifies them. Serious people hold relativist views, arguing that what we call science is a phenomenon of a particular culture. Others favor what used to be called "the strong programme in the sociology of science." That is the view that science is a social institution with its own power structure, and one can understand current scientific opinions by understanding the power behind them. I don't hold that view myself, but it's interesting that it originated on the left, and yet many people who hold it today are religious fundamentalists. And you can understand (without necessarily endorsing) their perspective when you consider that people who are anointed as "scientists" by older scientists get to control public funds, institutions, degrees, jobs, curricula, and policies in areas like health and the environment. These scientists are mostly very secular and declare that only secular beliefs qualify as science. There is a prima facie case here for skepticism, and it deserves a reasoned response.

Even among people who are strongly supportive of science (which includes most contemporary philosophers in the English-speaking world), there are live controversies about what constitutes scientific knowledge, whether and how a theory differs from other falsifiable assertions, how and why scientific theories change, how theories relate to data, etc. To tell students that evolution is a theory and that creationism isn't is dogmatism. It glosses over the debate about what a theory is.

There are also important questions that cross over from philosophy of science to political philosophy. Does a teacher have an individual right to teach creationism if he believes in it? Does he have an individual right to promote Darwinism even if local authorities don't want it taught? Should the Institute for Creation Research in Texas be allowed to issue graduate degrees? Does it have a right of association or expression that should permit this, or does the state have the right--or obligation--to license certain doctrines as scientific. Why?

I am one of the last people (I hope) to pile more tasks on our schools. In fact, I published an article arguing that we shouldn't ask schools to teach information literacy, even though it is important, because they simply have too much else to accomplish. (Instead, I argued, we need to make online information and search functions as reliable as possible). Yet I think philosophy of science is a real candidate for inclusion in the high school curriculum--or at least we ought to experiment to see if it can be taught well. I'd stake my case on two principles:

1. Making critical judgments about science as an institution is an essential task for citizens in a science-dominated society; and
2. Students are being required to study science (as defined by scientists), and taxpayers are being required to fund it. Fundamental liberal principles require that such requirements be openly debated.

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May 5, 2008

what works in education

The federally funded program called "Reading First" recently received a poor evaluation. The American Prospect's Ezra Klein comments, "This fits into the larger pattern in education reform efforts which is that most ideas fall short of expectations. Vouchers have found themselves in a similar decline, and now they're losing support even among conservatives." Kevin Drum from Washington Monthly picks up the theme: "This is one of the reasons I don't blog much about education policy even though it's an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don't know how to teach kids any better than we used to."

There are at least three ironies here:

1. Two major liberal bloggers take the failure of a program that conservatives love as evidence that nothing works in education. (Many comments on their blogs note this irony, as well.)

2. Many progressive educators dislike formal experiments that have control groups and quantitative outcome-measures. They associate those methods with the Bush administration, and they fear that holistic and interactive forms of education will suffer if so evaluated. However, it was because Reading First was subjected to a rigorous quantitative evaluation that we know it doesn't work.

3. Conservatives seem to love the phonics approach embodied in Reading First and distrust "whole language" methods, which involve teaching reading through literature. I can't understand why this has become a left/right issue. Evangelical Protestants should be enthusiastic about reading narratives.

Leaving ironies aside, the big issue is: What do we know about what works in education? If you want to see the results of evaluations that use randomized control groups, you can check out the Feds' What Works Clearinghouse. I think that's a worthwhile offering, but it's far from the whole story. It would not be surprising if few curricular packages--off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped programs--made a big difference to kids. After all, education is mostly about relationships: between teachers and their classes, among students, between teachers and parents, and between teachers and administrators. We know that some teachers consistently produce better results than others, holding other factors constant. That's partly because their relationships are better. (They're not necessarily nicer or friendlier, but they are more effective at working with children and other adults in their contexts.) We also know that the level of community participation in schools makes a difference. These factors matter, but they are hard to influence through national policy.

Certainly, any parent knows that some schools are better than others, and some teachers are better than others; and it's not just because of money or demographics. That means that some things work in education. Yet simple mandates and programs are unlikely to make schools better, because they don't influence relationships. And formal experiments that evaluate programs are most likely to show disappointing results.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

February 18, 2008

expertise in education

(Syracuse, NY) This evening, I will participate in a panel at Syracuse University on the topic: "Who Knows Best How to Educate You for Citizenship?" My co-panelists will be Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy, and George Saunders, essayist and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow. Sam Gorovitz has posed the main question:

As we follow the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, and of other aspects of public affairs, we encounter the many diverse views of experts of all sorts. But do these experts merit our trust? Is expertise real, or an illusion? We should consider what voices to heed, as we think about how to function as citizens in a democratic society.

That's a very general question; but the panel will be focused on education and (specifically) civic education. I will need both of my hands for the discussion, because:

On the one hand, expertise about matters like civic education is problematic. Such matters involve deep moral or ethical questions, and it is unlikely that anyone is an expert about morality (although that question has been debated since Socrates and Protagoras took it up). When we allow experts to manage civic education--or any education--the key issues inevitably become test scores and other statistics. Experts have no special credibility or legitimacy about moral matters, so the whole expert debate narrows to measurement and causation. Relying on statistics conceals the fact that tests--and all other measures, quantitative or qualitative--reflect value-judgments that are not themselves statistical or otherwise "scientific."

Furthermore, when we turn education over to experts, we reduce the scope and impact of participation by other people, especially teachers, parents, and students. Yet we know that schools perform much better when these people are fully engaged.

On the other hand, I am an expert on civic education. I don't say that arrogantly or to claim any particular knowledge. I mean it in a very literal sense: I am paid to provide what is called expertise. For example, next week I will attend a meeting to help design the National Assessment of Education Progress in Civics. Our committee, funded by the Feds and chosen for its ostensible expertise, will make decisions about what questions thousands of kids must answer. In such contexts, I am very aware that it is helpful to know certain things: psychometrics and test design; facts and concepts in political science and history; educational policy and how classrooms work. Knowing these things is better than not knowing them, and such knowledge could be called "expertise."

So there are two sides (at least) in the debate about expertise. Maybe I can help the audience to weigh the question by directing attention to three kinds of expertise in education:

1. Expertise about curriculum and instruction--about how and what to teach. This expertise is widely shared. Teachers certainly have it. Parents may have it, and even students do. Higher up the food chain, professors of education, senior administrators in k-12 school systems, textbook authors, test writers, psychologists, and policymakers claim expertise about curriculum and instruction. The question is what balance of expertise we need. To what extent is the teacher's expertise, based largely on experience, to be honored? To what extent should that expertise be influenced by specialists, such as brain scientists, or by outsiders whose job is "accountability"? The answer depends not only on our assessment of who has the best and most knowledge, but also on political questions. Yielding all judgment to students and teachers reduces accountability. But seizing all judgment from teachers makes their jobs miserable and is unlikely to produce good results.

2. Expertise about management. School systems don't only educate; they also construct and maintain buildings, handle payrolls, and negotiate with unions. In our worst-performing systems these functions are handled very badly. For instance, the Washington, DC School System (which enrolls my child and employs my wife) spends about $13,000 per child, but only $5,355 on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction" Some systems have tried to address these problems by choosing business executives for their superintendents or by hiring management consultants. For example, in Washington, the new Chancellor (who holds a Masters from the Kennedy School) has hired management consultants who have determined--very credibly--that the school system is wasting huge amounts of money by keeping schools open when their enrollments are very low. The Chancellor's plan to close schools has provoked angry resistance. Is this simply a case of valid expertise versus citizens' ignorance or short-sightedness? Maybe, but it is also likely that any real improvements in the efficiency of the DC school system will require changes in attitudes and values among school employees and parents. Many people who work in and around the system do not align their own interests at all with the interests of the kids. To change that, we will need a bottom-up movement (or possibly charismatic leadership)--not analysis by management consultants.

3. Expertise about incentives. Despite the mountains of writing that exists on curriculum, instruction, and management, those are not the main topics debated by high-level policymakers. The national debate is mainly about incentives. Liberals want to spend more money on teachers' salaries. Some liberals and some conservatives want to send money to schools where the kids pass tests and divert it from failing schools. And many conservatives want parents to be able to direct tax dollars to public or private schools that they choose for their own kids. None of these strategies says what should be taught or how. All of these strategies change the incentives or rewards. Given this approach to education, the expertise that is relevant is economic. I think it is foolish to ignore the power of incentives in determining how institutions function. However, it is also foolish to treat a school as a "black box" that takes economic inputs, such as cash, and produces measurable outcomes, such as test scores. Someone has to decide what to teach and how.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

November 12, 2007

revisiting the argument for small schools

In the Washington Post, Lonnae O'Neal Parker has written a fine series about Jonathan Lewis, a young man who graduated last year from Washington's Coolidge High School--barely, years late, after scraping through the required courses. He is smart and he has supportive parents, but he rarely attended class or completed assignments, and he aimed for D's.

Jonathan walks toward the cafeteria doors. A question follows him: If you want to make your mother proud, if you know you can do the work, if you swear to everybody you see that you want to graduate, why don't you go to class?

Jonathan stares silently for a few moments.

"I don't know," he says quietly. "I really don't know."

With due humility about my ignorance of Jonathan's situation, I'd propose an answer. The whole structure of a school like Coolidge is inappropriate for his social and economic context. It's a huge high school, with numerous classes and cliques of students and corridors longer than football fields (as Parker observed). The onus is really on individuals to get to class and to concentrate. That is very difficult if most of the other students are not focused; there are too many distractions and temptations, too little order.

So why do large high schools work in other contexts, such as affluent suburbs? And why did Coolidge itself work better when Jonathan's mother attended it, 30 years ago? Because there used to be a social contract in which working class people had dignified and stable jobs. Their children could also obtain those jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without even graduating from high school. Because most adults had working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for kids to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent.

We have a social contract today, and it is not without merit. If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it's a long way from Coolidge High School to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it's pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through a school like Coolidge. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see.

That's why, despite mixed evaluation studies, I remain interested in the new small high schools that provide one coherent, specialized curriculum for all their students. In a small high school that was focused on media, or engineering, or cooking, Jonathan wouldn't have to choose between the halls and a classroom. There would basically be no halls. The school would be an organized work environment with limited numbers of teachers and students who all knew one another and had tasks to accomplish together. The gap between this place and the professional work world would be much smaller.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

October 30, 2007

markets, schools, and hypocrisy

This afternoon, I'm off to Paris for a few days of meetings, about which I hope to blog (if the rules of the conference permit disclosure). I won't be online again until Monday. Meanwhile, a thought about vouchers:

I found Megan McArdle's argument for school vouchers via what appeared to be a very strong endorsement on Kevin Drum's liberal blog. It turns out that Drum didn't mean to endorse McArdle's essay, but it is still worth attention. She analogizes education to iPods, asserting that if everyone had the ability to choose schools--as the rich do today--then many excellent institutions would spring up to fill the demand. It is hypocritical, she says, to exercise school choice by putting your own kids in a private school or by moving to a suburb, while opposing vouchers that would offer the same opportunity to poor families.

I am open to vouchers, in principle, and I favor more experimentation. As a parent of a DC Public School student and a spouse of a DC Public School teacher, I can vouch for the negative part of the argument: some big urban school systems are dysfunctional, and we ought to consider radical alternatives.

However, the analogy to iPods isn't satisfactory. The market for electronic goods is a classic one. Apple wants to sell as many iPods as it can, and customers want the best devices at the lowest cost. There are powerful incentives for quality and innovation. The situation is different for prestigious private schools. Parents choose to apply to these institutions, but the schools select their students. In other words, "choice" is exercised by the schools, at least as much as by the parents--which is not the case in the market for electronic goods.

The motives are different, too. Fancy schools don't want to maximize the number of customers; if anything, they want to be able to admit the smallest possible percentage of applicants. Selectivity means prestige. Besides, kids actually benefit from being in highly selective company, surrounded by other students who are above grade level, very well behaved, and raised in wealthy, highly-educated homes.

Based on close observation, I do not believe that private schools add more value than public schools do--at least, not on average. The "product" isn't any better. Instead, kids benefit from being enrolled with other privileged kids. If more parents had the opportunity to pay for private schools, new institutions would spring up. But the ones at the top of the pecking order would certainly not admit children who had discipline problems or academic "issues." On the contrary, they would continue to skim the top 5% of applicants.

Thus I don't think it's hypocritical to send your own child to a highly selective private school while opposing vouchers. You're not benefiting from a good that would be available to others if only the government provided vouchers. You're benefiting from a good that exists because private schools are allowed to select their student bodies, and your kid has value in the market. This may be morally problematic, but the problem isn't hypocrisy. Nor can the problem easily be solved by law, because private schools are associations that have (in my opinion) a constitutional right to select their own members.

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September 27, 2007

the drawbacks of thinking about discrete educational programs

I gave a speech this morning (early this morning) to recipients of federal grants for service-learning. People in the audience run programs that meet the criteria of the Learn & Serve America program: they provide a certain amount of community service to each child, connect the service to academic work on the same topic, etc. This is the dominant way that we think about education today: as combinations of programs that can each be defined according to general criteria. Their average impact can then be measured (holding other factors constant), and we can decide to fund, require, reward, or test only the types of programs that we think work. See the What Works Clearinghouse for the quintessence of this approach.

This was also the approach we used in writing The Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), which identified six "promising practices" for civic education: classes on American history and civics; moderated discussion of current issues; extracurricular activities; student voice (i.e., honoring students’ opinions about school policies); simulations of legislation, diplomacy, and courts; and service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study). Since 2003, the evidence of positive effects from service-learning has increased.

However, as I told this morning's audience, there are several pitfalls to basing policy on service-learning, or any such "method," "approach," or "practice":

1. Practices that are institutionalized and defined receive the most support, even if they are not the most important. In our field, two of the "promising practices" in civic education get most of the attention: social studies classes and service-learning programs. I think that’s because they have budget lines (albeit too small) and job titles. In contrast, there's very little organized advocacy in favor of student voice in schools or extracurricular activities, because no one has a powerful self-interest in advocating for them.

2. There may be a risk that schools check off one or two of the promising practices and consider themselves to be meeting their civic missions. There is no research that allows us to say that particular combinations of practices work better than one program or another. But my gut tells me that you need a comprehensive approach. If, for example, you offer a single service-learning project but everything else about the school "teaches" the kids that they are not active and responsible citizens, it's hard to believe the service-learning course will work. Certainly, the effects of social studies classes and service-learning programs, while statistically significant, are not very large.

3. Such practices have to be done well. We should be concerned with quantity, quality, and equality. Quantity means how many kids get the opportunity. Quality means how good it is. And equality means how evenly is it distributed. There is a tendency for service-learning to degenerate into pretty meaningless exercises and for the high-quality opportunities to reach only the students who are bound for college.

4. Service-learning and other discrete educational programs need to be connected to much broader purposes or they will become ends in themselves. Service-learning can be connected to two ambitious movements:

  • The effort to redefine adolescence as a time of positive opportunity and contribution, not as a time of risk.
  • The effort to reform society by getting young people involved in changing institutions for the better.
  • If we merely offer service-learning because research studies find that it has positive effects on test scores or behavior, it will be stripped of its essential purpose and will degenerate. This is what happened, in my opinion, to the curricular innovations of the Progressive Era.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education , education policy

    September 12, 2007

    the Education Trust and the narrowing of the curriculum

    When the Education Trust speaks, newspapers listen. Recently, I wrote to celebrate the new draft of legislation by Rep. George Miller that would broaden the way schools can demonstrate satisfactory progress. Mr. Miller, the leader of the House Democrats on education policy, would allow schools to measure outcomes in subjects like civics, not just reading and math. There are strong opponents of this reform. Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, writes:

    No federal education law has been more misunderstood than No Child Left Behind. But despite all the complaints, no federal law has accomplished more for the poor and minority children historically shortchanged by our education system.

    While we continue to press for closing the achievement gap and preparing all students for the real-world challenges of college and career, the federal law must maintain a laser-like focus on ensuring that all students are proficient in reading and math. Congress should resist calls to add more measures to the current accountability system that would provide "extra credit" for schools failing to meet the needs of their students in these two fundamental subject areas.

    The "adequate yearly progress" standard was designed to be easily understood by parents, educators and policymakers. The clarity of the accountability system shouldn't be muddied by variables that let schools off the hook for poor performance in reading and math, even for just one group of students. Instead, Congress should provide funding for the additional supports and resources that research has identified as critical to academic success -- strong, effective teachers empowered by rich curricula tied to high-quality assessments of student learning -- and target those resources to the schools that need the most help.

    The Washington Post masthead editorial echoes her, whether intentionally or not. So does Fred Hiatt in his Post column, and the New York Times in two masthead editorials. The first:

    The country’s largest teachers’ union, the politically powerful National Education Association, would like to see the law gutted. Fortunately, the chairman of the House education committee, George Miller, Democrat of California, has resisted those pressures. Even so, his proposed changes in the law’s crucial accountability provisions, put forth in a draft version of the House bill, may need to be recast to prevent states from backing away from the central mission of the law.

    Some critics warn that one provision might allow schools to mask failures in bedrock subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on so-called alternate indicators.

    And the Times repeats these points today, citing the President of the Business Roundtable, John Castellani, who testified against "troubling provisions in a draft reauthorization bill that would allow schools to mask failure in teaching crucial subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on alternate measures of performances."

    The position of the The Education Trust and Business Roundtable has a legitimate place in the debate. But there is certainly another side, which the Times and Post ought to consider. Considerable evidence now shows that: (a) schools are cutting important subjects to meet the federal testing requirements in reading and math; and (b) students aren't really reading or understanding math better when they perform better on the required tests. In fact, the more a state improves its scores on the NCLB-required tests, the more its scores fall on other, independent assessments of literacy and math. Students would actually read better if they knew some history and civics and had a sense of why it is important to be able to read the news and write about social issues.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    July 31, 2007

    strategies for broadening the curriculum

    I'm with those (including Senator Harkin--see yesterday--and George Miller, who is a key US Representative) who decry the narrowing of the American school curriculum in recent years. The reason seems to be relentless pressure to raise math and reading test scores. Social studies, science, arts, music, physical education, extracurricular activities, and service-learning appear to have suffered.

    It's not self-evident that this is a problem--maybe we should focus our attention on attaining universal numeracy and literacy. But I believe that the narrowing is harmful because education should have broader and higher goals than basic academic skills. Besides, Senator Harkin is correct that activities like music and service motivate kids and keep them in school.

    But what to do about the narrowing problem? I can think of six policy options, none perfect:

    1. Fund particular programs or types of programs, such as arts or service. Drawbacks: The amounts of money will be small and may not make much difference for most kids. Small programs use up a lot of their funds on administration. We can't trust the worst school systems to spend the money well or devote it to the kids who need it most.

    2. Increase general funding for education, on the theory that dollars are fungible; if we cover fixed costs like facilities or special education, schools will spend more money on arts, service, etc. Drawback: They may not actually spend the money for those purposes, or use it well. Also, money is not the only limited resource; equally important is time.

    3. Hold schools accountable for providing specific educational opportunities, such as school newspapers, music, or service-learning classes. Drawbacks: This means extra layers of accountability for schools that are already buried in rules. Unless these mandates come with cash, the burden is particularly unfair.

    4. Hold schools accountable for student outcomes in areas like civics, arts, and health. Drawbacks: This means an extra layer of tests. Besides, tests don't always measure the impact of programs; they may reflect students' home backgrounds. And it's hard to develop high-stakes tests of attitudes and values.

    5. Relax federal tests and rules that interfere with broad education. Drawbacks: Civil rights organizations will--with some justification--complain that relaxing the rules will allow schools again to tolerate poor outcomes for minority kids, poor kids, and disabled kids.

    6. Avoid federal law altogether and focus on the states or school districts. Drawbacks: It's very hard to organize systematic change in 50 states, let alone tens of thousands of districts.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    July 30, 2007

    Senator Harkin on education

    I'm on Capitol Hill at a meeting of United Voices for Education, a group organized by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to support the aspects of education that are overlooked in current policy: the arts, civic and character education, extracurriculars, service-learning, physical education, and the like. Senator Harkin addressed us. His views matter because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and serves on the Senate authorization committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

    The Senator said that he voted for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but now wants to work with UVE to improve it. He said, "we're all concerned about the imbalances ... that have come about." He cited the recent study by the Center for Education Policy that found cuts in social studies, arts, and other subjects that are not tested under NCLB. "I find this extremely disturbing," he said. "For many children, what motivates them and keeps them in school is things like music, theater, clubs, and field trips."

    This is a view of youth as assets. But Senator Harkin said that he voted for NCLB because it addressed the "savage inequalities" identified by Jonathan Kozol. He cited Kozol as saying that the learning abilities of disadvantaged kids have been "destroyed" by the time they reach secondary school. This is partly because of inadequate funds and partly because schools discriminate against minorities and disabled students. However, if teenagers are already crippled by a lack of early support, then why will they flourish if we give them positive opportunities? If school systems are discriminatory and inequitable, why should we trust them with funds for positive opportunities like arts and service?

    Senator Harkin said that he wanted to amend NCLB to provide "appropriate assessments" that measure social, behavioral, and mental health services in the community and the school as well as (or instead of?) student performance. He also wanted federal funds for elementary school counselors.

    In general, the Senator said that NCLB requires more money. It has been underfunded by a total of $56 billion so far (using the original authorization levels as the benchmark). He is obviously most comfortable with federal funding for school facilities (to fix "our crummy infrastructure") and nutrition programs. These forms of federal support do not require testing, control over curriculum, or accountability; they merely reduce local schools' costs. Senator Harkin claimed that our system is the best in the world for creativity, thanks to local control; our weakness is the inequality of funding. Thus the main federal role should be to support facilities.

    He argued that we can rely less on standardized tests because we can trust teachers to assess the kids in their class, just as we ought to allow judges to set sentences. Assessments, he said, should be holistic and should take into account behavior and values as well as knowledge. "What good is it if someone is intelligent, but they don't respect other people's views? I don't mean to get philosophical, but I think one of the things that's happened in this country is, we've lost respect for other people's views."

    I detect a tension in the Senator's remarks between a redistributive progressivism of the Jonathan Kozol variety and respect for teenagers and teachers. I also detect a tension between trusting schools and teachers and viewing them as discriminatory. Saying that schools need more funds for facilities bypasses those tensions, and it is a valid point. I'm not sure, however, that it is an adequate approach to education policy.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    July 2, 2007

    the Supreme Court and "discrimination"

    I think my friend and sometime colleague Deborah Hellman has the best response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week on school desegregation. The Chief Justice, in his opinion that will block most efforts to integrate public schools, wrote, "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Debbie notes that there are two meanings of the word "discriminate." It can simply mean to make distinctions: "For example, insurers routinely discriminate between potential insurance customers on the basis of the risk each poses of making a claim against the insurer during the policy period." Also, schools "discriminate" among kids by giving free school lunches only to poor children. Many conservatives seem to feel that it would be perfectly appropriate to mix students by economic class, which would require making discriminations by family income. The Census Bureau, as Debbie notes, "discriminates" by recording people's race.

    "Discrimination" can also mean an invidious bias: an expression of disrespect, an attempt to harm, or an unfair treatment. America has always discriminated against Black kids in this bad sense of the word. That was blatant in the days of segregation, but it is also obvious today. For instance, we would not allow large numbers of white children to attend schools like the ones that enroll the African American teenagers I'm working with this summer--huge institutions with rapid turnover of teachers, where frequent fights draw large crowds that the security guards cannot control.

    Justice Roberts says that you cannot cure "discrimination" (which presumably means invidious bias) by "discriminating" as the schools in Seattle and Louisville have done (i.e., by making school assignments to increase integration). He could be making an empirical claim. In other words, he could mean that to pay any attention to race will reinforce racist stereotypes. This empirical theory is likely false; in any case, it doesn't follow from the Constitution. Elected local school boards ought to be able to adopt other views and strategies.

    Alternatively, Justice Roberts could mean that attempting to integrate schools racially is discriminatory in the invidious sense. State discrimination in that sense violates the 14th Amendment. But, as Hellman writes, "racial balancing policies do not express that some students are less morally worthy than others or that their concerns are less important. Rather a policy of racial balancing expresses that a racial mixed environment is educationally useful and an important public good."

    Brown v. Board of Education banned racial discrimination in schools, where "discrimination" meant policies that both expressed contempt for Black children and harmed them. Those policies were rooted in hatred and violated the 14th Amendment. Last week's decision banned well-intentioned and plausible ways to improve the quality of public education by mixing kids of different races. To say that Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District was confused about "discrimination" would be charitable.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    June 11, 2007

    is the problem with Washington's schools that we lack a state?

    I'm fascinated by the Washington, DC public school system, which is educating my younger child, employing my wife, and serving the city in which I live. As reported in yesterday's Washington Post, DC ranks first among the nation's 100 largest school districts in the percentage of its funds devoted to administration (56%), and last in the percentage of funds devoted to instruction (41%). Just short of $13,000 is appropriated per child in the system--an amount that has risen rapidly as enrollments have dropped--but only $5,355 is spent on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction."

    The educational results are equally dismaying. Of 11 major cities that collected comparable data on reading and math in 2005 (from the NAEP), DC ranked last in proficiency. We remained in last place even when comparisons were made only among poor students in those 11 cities. We were thus surpassed by several cities with bad reputations for public education, including Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago.

    I do not understand how to tackle these problems. I think all the major ideas on the table are inadequate. (For instance, our experience with charters shows that we cannot achieve very much by enhancing competition, decentralizing control, or avoiding unions.) For today, I'll just contribute to the debate in a very modest way. Some defenders of our system argue that DC suffers from not having a state. Whatever services are provided by state agencies in other jurisdictions must be covered by the city's budget in Washington. But Maryland spends $112 million of its own funds (not federal aid) on its state education agency (source). There are about 852,920 enrolled students in Maryland schools. That means that the state spends $131 per kid per year on statewide education services. If Washington got that much help from a state education agency, it would be like increasing our schools' funding by 1.011% .

    In other words, the lack of a state education agency is no excuse.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

    April 25, 2007

    charter schools: where we stand

    I live in a city, Washington, that is shifting to charter schools. They will enroll a majority of the public school population by 2014 if current trends continue. According to V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbe in today's Washington Post, "D.C. charter school enrollment rose during the past five years by 9,000, to 19,733 in 55 schools, while the traditional school system closed classrooms as enrollment dropped by almost 13,000, to 55,355."

    Traditional American public schools are centrally governed by local authorities that can be quite large: New York City enrolls more than one million children. Charter schools, a recent innovation, are publicly funded but self-governing (as long as they retain their "charters" from the city or state). In DC, they receive about $11,000 per pupil they enroll plus some money for facilities. I don't think any of our charter schools' teachers are unionized. Currently, seven percent of the charters in my city are meeting the standards for "adequate yearly progress" under federal law, compared to 19 percent of the city's standard public schools. Nevertheless, the charters are growing by 13 percent per year as parents move their kids to them.

    On one hand:

  • Charters test the idea that parental choice will produce better outcomes, as a monopoly is replaced with a market. The DC charter schools may serve a harder population than the regular schools, which could partly explain their very low success rate on standardized tests. But clearly, choice is no panacea--not if only seven percent of the charters can meet standards of adequate yearly progress.
  • Charters test the theory that too much money is wasted in the downtown bureaucracy and fails to reach the buildings where the kids are. Each charter gets a guaranteed amount of cash, yet they perform worse than the schools in the main system, which must share their funds with downtown.
  • Charters test the proposition that teachers' unions are the problem. This may sound like a ridiculous idea to some readers (especially those who read from overseas); but there is a widespread view in the US that teachers' unions are the root cause of our failing schools. The unionized DC schools seem to perform better than the non-unionized charters.
  • On the other hand:

  • I do not object to charter schools on ideological grounds. They are public schools in the same way that schools in Western European social democracies are public--funded and licensed by the state. The fact that governance is decentralized does not make them private. In our own family's school, I think most parents would oppose becoming a charter on the grounds that we would be abandoning the public system in favor of a "market." I'd have no such objection, but would be proud to call our school "public" even if it seceded from the citywide bureaucracy.
  • The citywide bureaucracy frequently treats parents and teachers with disrespect, even open contempt. I strongly suspect this is one reason that people are shifting over to the charters, which are more likely to treat people politely and respectfully.
  • Charters give adults opportunities to work and innovate within the public sector. One would hope the results would be good, and so far they are mixed. But apart from the results, participation is arguably a right of citizenship.
  • Although I would not ignore test results and "adequate yearly progress," these are not the only criteria. Parents may be shifting to charter schools because of other values. I spent part of the morning looking for national survey results about what parents want for their kids. The questions that I found struck me as excessively narrow or beside the point. But everyday experience suggests that in a diverse city like Washington, people want various things for their children--values, cultural references, experiences, and supports. They may be looking for charters that match those preferences more closely than the regular schools do.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    March 9, 2007

    a brief history of community engagement in education

    Arnold F. Fege has contributed an excellent overview article to the current issue of the Harvard Educational Review entitled, "Getting Ruby a Quality Public Education: Forty-Two Years of Building the Demand for Quality Public Schools through Parental and Public Involvement." Fege's narrative introduces seven views about public involvement, which I have numbered sequentially below. All of these views contain at least fragments of truth and should be considered as we begin the debate about revising No Child Left Behind (which is the main federal law governing pre-college education).

    (1) President Johnson believed that poor children received inadequate educations because local authorities either lacked sufficient money or preferred to spend it on other kids. Thus he designed the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965) so that it earmarked funds for poor students. But Senator Robert F. Kennedy believed that money was not the only problem. School systems could be discriminatory or corrupt. His solution (2) was to require school systems to "collect objective measures of educational achievement ... at least annually" so that parents of poor kids could assess how well their schools were performing and organize for reform. This was an explicitly political strategy. It was included in ESEA at his insistence.

    Apparently, good data were rarely collected--partly because schools received no help in measuring outcomes, and partly because there were no penalties for failing to assess. Between 1965 and 1982, Congress tried a new strategy, which was (3) to support parental involvement in schools, especially by requiring parental advisory councils. The most significant version of this reform was the Educational Amendments of 1978.

    However, critics charged that (4) these councils were dominated by small groups of parents with axes to grind--special interests that didn't represent their communities. Activists organized themselves around special programs or needs, not to represent broad concerns. On the other hand, a later analysis by the esteemed scholar Tony Bryk apparently found that (5) the councils actually did build civic and political skills, especially over the long term.

    In any case, Congress increasingly lost faith that school districts would spend public money effectively to benefit disadvantaged kids. Congress also lost confidence in organized parents' groups. Instead, No Child Left Behind (6) required that assessments of outcomes be written by professionals at the state or federal level and allowed parents to remove their own children from schools found to be failing under those assessments. I think Congress sincerely wanted to empower parents--but as individuals, not as members of communities.

    Arnold Fege--like my emeritus colleague Clarence Stone, David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, and a few others--believe that (7) community participation is essential and must be written into the next version of No Child Left Behind. Only community participation can create public support for school funding plus accountability so that the money is well spent. We can build on 40 years of experience to do this right. Above all, we need to require--and enable--school systems to generate valid data, but these data must be understandable, relevant, broad, and responsive to public concerns.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    February 27, 2007

    educational accountability: cost or benefit?

    In Nebraska, since 2000, every school district has been required to devise its own educational standards and tests in all core disciplines other than writing (for which there is a statewide exam). Even though many Nebraska districts enroll fewer than a thousand students, the teachers, administrators, and parents in each community must choose appropriate educational objectives for each grade and subject, design valid multiple-choice exams or other tests, and analyze the resulting data. (My source, an article in EdWeek, is behind that magazine's firewall.)

    Meanwhile, in Washington DC, where my wife teaches and my daughter studies in the public schools, the district has borrowed all of its standards verbatim from Massachusetts. We also buy our high-stakes tests and some of our textbooks from big companies that construct them to match the Massachusetts standards.

    You might think that all the work that goes into writing standards and tests and analyzing the data is a cost. It's the price we have to pay for keeping schools and students on task. If that price can be minimized by borrowing materials from another jurisdiction, that's a smart move. After all, kids should learn the same basic skills and facts everywhere. And designing good materials and tests is a high-skill job that most people cannot perform as well as the experts.

    But there is another way to think about such matters. We might see the creation of standards and tests as an opportunity to make judgments about what is most important. By deciding what to teach, we reproduce, transmit, and adjust our culture. Each community's culture is somewhat different. For example, Washington is entirely urban, it has great historical resources, and it is the only majority-Black jurisdiction permitted to set education standards (the rest are states). Although the Massachusetts standards that we have borrowed in DC are well regarded, we may have made a mistake when we decided not to govern ourselves by writing our own. After all, Elkhorn, NE (pop. 7,635) seems to have done a pretty good job with theirs.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    November 16, 2006

    bridging the gap between what universities can offer and what students can do

    At its best, a college education offers students--regardless of their career plans--opportunities to participate as apprentices in real research that addresses unanswered and pressing questions. That experience is good for the mind and the character. I think people understand the value of such work in a scientific context; they realize that they (or their children) would benefit from a summer's work in a biology lab. The humanities, the arts, and the social sciences offer comparable benefits.

    It is largely in order to create such opportunities that we train college teachers in PhD programs that emphasize research; that we grant them tenure in return for a record of active scholarship; and that we expect them to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

    But the fact is that most students never experience actual research. Most do not come to college with the skills and knowledge necessary to take advantage of such opportunities. Many would not willingly choose to participate in research. A majority of American professors are not actually and currently involved in scholarship. And some of the most prolific and talented scientists and scholars are uninterested in teaching of any kind. The combination of those factors reduces the set of students and faculty who work together on real research problems to a very small number.

    I'd resist any reforms that would reduce the size of that set or that would limit such experiences to elite institutions. Thus I'd resist efforts to move professors away from scholarship. But I also reject the status quo. We can't be satisfied if most students miss the intended benefits of higher education--benefits that are supposed to derive from tenure, peer-review, and graduate education. Nor can we simply wring our hands in despair or blame other institutions, such as high schools, if there is a gap between students' backgrounds and the best opportunities we offer at our institutions. We have to take responsibility for the gap.

    Some of the most promising answers, such as the Gemstone Program at my university, pull together teams of students to conduct ambitious collaborative projects over more than one semester. This is a different model from the individual student in the lab or seminar room. The research is student-led, hence not really at the frontier of an academic discipline. In some cases, students pursue questions that have already been answered; they reinvent the wheel. But their projects are challenging, and the professors who coach them can draw on their expertise.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia , education policy

    October 27, 2006

    on opportunities and outcomes in education

    Today's dominant educational legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requires outcomes--but it does not require opportunities or other "inputs." Presumably, policymakers were skeptical about the quality of mandated opportunities, even if there were adequate funding. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide science classes, or after-school activities, or service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Would they be considered in compliance with the law even if their outcomes were poor? Instead, Congress said that schools must achieve specific outcomes--mainly, reading, math, and science scores--but they could choose their own methods. (This is a simplification, but close enough for argument's sake.)

    The focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons, although I understand and do not dismiss the reasons behind it.

    First, NCLB--unavoidably--selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren't very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

    Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most "at risk" and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, "Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future." Worse, we may overlook young people's potential. They are capable of serving others, creating works of art, and organizing constructive activities. Treating them as bundles of problems instead of assets can help to drive them out of school, or so I strongly suspect. This is an argument for guaranteeing every American child opportunities for positive development.

    Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills.

    A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students' discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students' skills or knowledge.

    These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids' reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students' knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

    The other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest--all of which are consequences of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who "leave them behind."

    Well, maybe. But that strategy is no use if kids hate school and drop out, or if kids pass our reading exams but cannot use written texts for practical purposes, or if kids make it through school but don't know what to do with their lives.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    October 25, 2006

    school choice

    (OHare Airport, Chicago) I just attended a very stimulating large conference on values and evidence in educational reform, organized by Crooked Timbers Harry Brighouse and the Spencer Foundation. There were panels on standards and testing; charters and vouchers; and small schools--major controversies in educational policy today. The panels combined statements by passionate advocates of each reform; careful and dispassionate reviews of the empirical literature; and philosophical analysis of the underlying moral issues.

    Id like to summarize the most challenging of the presentations, but Im not sure whether the ground rules permit such publicity. So instead Ill offer a thought about choice in education. Given the prominence of vouchers in the public debate (although not in our actual school systems), people tend to equate choice with parents options about where to send their kids, using public money. But there are other critical choices that people can be allowed to make; any given policy will combine several of these in varying degrees:

  • Parents choices about where to try to enroll their kids
  • Kids choices about where they want to enroll and whether to attend school at all
  • Kids choices about which particular classes and other activities to participate in
  • Schools choices about which kids to admit (or actively recruit)
  • Teachers and coaches choices about which of their students to involve in various classes and activities
  • Teachers choices about where to work
  • Schools or school systems choices about whom to hire as teachers and administrators
  • Schools choices about what to teach and how to teach it
  • Adult citizens choices about how to assist or influence all kids education
  • I doubt theres a single ideal recipe, but I am at least somewhat enthusiastic about giving families choices among schools and giving adults choices about what and how to teach. (There is, however, a profound question about whether adolescents or their parents should choose schools, under various circumstances.) I dont much like allowing public schools to choose their students, because then they can take the easy road to success: selecting and admitting those who are easiest to teach. Allowing teachers to choose where to work clearly worsens inequality--many of the best qualified instructors place themselves in easier school buildings and systems. However, simply denying choice to teachers is impossible: they can always quit altogether.

    We already have an educational system characterized by choice and constraints. The question is not whether to increase or reduce choice, but who should be allowed to choose what and when. The considerations mentioned above are just the beginning of that discussion.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    August 3, 2006

    back to high school

    Around 1985, Eccles and Barber asked 10th graders in Michigan to identify themselves with one of the characters in the recent Hollywood movie, The Breakfast Club. All but five percent readily placed themselves in precisely one of the following categories: "jock," "princess," "brain," "criminal," or "basket case." Each type of student spent most of his or her time with others of the same self-ascribed category. Students' identities at 10th grade were strongly predictive of outcomes a decade later. The princesses attended college but drank. The criminals did drugs and dropped out. The brains were sober and successful in college. Those who participated in the performing arts did well in school but had higher rates of alcohol abuse and suicide attempts.

    If we allow students to self-associate, given the norm in a modern American high school, they are likely to segregate into groups that reinforce social stratification. Students have too much choice about peer networks, but not enough obligation or opportunity to work with others unlike themselves. In various qualititative studies, including my own last year, students complain about being in a "bubble" (their word), isolated from other types of people.

    If we try to build democratic communities in schools, through such concrete means as student governments, public performances, websites, or scholastic newspapers, these products will be produced by particular peer groups for their own friends. They will not benefit the student body as a whole.

    This study is an argument for more radical school restructuring.

    Sources: Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Bonnie L. Barber, "Student Council, Volunteering, Basketball, or Marching Band: What Kind of Extracurricular Involvement Matters," Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 14, no. 1 (January 1999), p. 31; Bonnie L. Barber, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Margaret R. Stone, "Whatever Happened to the Jock, the Brain, and the Princess? Young Adult Pathways Linked to Adolescent Activity Involvement and Social Identity," Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 16, no 5 (September 2001), pp. 429-455.

    permanent link | comments (5) | category: education policy

    June 7, 2006

    why I'm not a zealot about church and state

    We saw a student production of Godspell last weekend in my little daughter's Washington, DC public school. In a different DC public school years ago, I attended a PTA fundraiser that was pervasively religious, all of its rhetoric drawn explicitly from the evangelical Black church. I've argued here that it should be constitutional to teach intelligent design (even though it's bad science and worse theology). In these three cases--and others like them--I'm not zealous to keep religion out of public schools.

    I'm not saying that authority figures in state schools like the ones we have today should make sectarian, religious pronouncements while they perform their official duties. To mention an easy case, the principal of a neighborhood public school should not get on the P.A. system and tell all the kids that they must embrace Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But in closer cases, I'm inclined to tolerate religion in public schools, for these reasons:

    First, the purpose of public schooling is to reproduce and enhance a culture (not simply to produce economic "returns" for graduates). Because cultural reproduction is a common good, we need to subsidize it with public funds: otherwise, many people will leave the expense to others. Of course, "culture" is heterogeneous and controversial. That is why citizens need to participate in shaping their schools. The debate about what values we should teach is not a cost, but an opportunity to create our common future. By the way, there must be some local control over education, because a national debate about culture will produce the lowest common denominator.

    Education should not be conceived as value-neutral, because that is impossible, and the effort to strip it of overt values has negative consequences--such as those that I mentioned yesterday in reference to civics textbooks. I am not terribly offended if some of the values taught in public schools are religious, in part because I think almost all modern norms have religious roots.

    As Eugene Volokh's recent post and the replies indicate, the founders of the United States favored public schooling largely in order to inculcate values. I would reject their assumption that religion was a necessary foundation of public morality. (The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.") But I would endorse the premise of the Northwest Ordinance that certain virtues are important for good government and public happiness, and that public schooling should promote those virtues. If my fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, so be it.

    Second, I would rather have the freedom to participate in a robust debate about the content of our children's education than to see courts dictate a position, even if I agree with it. For instance, when a judge rules that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional, we cannot seriously discuss the issue. Likewise, if a court were to rule that public schools may not produce Godspell, we would have less scope to debate that play.

    Third, Harry Brighouse argues in On Education that there are some perverse, unintended consequences from the American policy of barring religion from all state-funded education. A substantial group of parents is uncomfortable with secular public schools, because those institutions are materialistic, highly individualistic and competitive, and tolerant of premature sexuality. Brighouse (pp. 87-88) describes the typical high school:

    It is a 2000-plus student institution, in which no individual knows every other individual; in which many children never have any teacher for more than one year of instruction; in which the prevailing values include pep rallies for sports and a slavishly conformist loyalty to school and neighbourhood. These schools maintain a deafening silence about spiritual or anti-materialist values, take sides in the Cola wars, and accept as a given the prevalence of brand names and teen-marketing. Religious parents often, with justification, believe that their own beliefs are at best ignored, at worst actively worked against by the schools. ...

    I suspect that in the US many parents are drawn to private religious schools not by any interest in having their chidren indoctrinated, but by their horror at the experience of the shopping-mall high school, and, in fact, an unarticulated sense that the values of the peer group, tolerated by the school, threaten, rather than serve, their children's prospective autonomy. Religious parents fear that schools that do not incorporate strong moral values, and which treat spirituality as just another lifestyle option ... endanger their and other children's prospects for a balanced and satisfying life.

    In most foreign countries, these parents would opt for state-funded religious schools. Some are not fundamentalists (or even necessarily believers), so they add diversity to religious schools by enrolling their own children. In most countries, state-funded denominational schools are regulated so that, for example, they must teach core democratic principles and tolerate non-believers.

    In the United States, however, we have pervasively secular public schools that aim for value-neutrality (sometimes with bad consequences); and we have religious schools without any access to state money whose curricula are completely unregulated. The religious schools may draw religiously zealous parents who are hostile to the mainstream culture. When this happens, their students become a homogeneous group, deprived of diverse influences.

    American Catholic schools, although not state-subsidized, give a taste of what would happen if public schools could introduce more religion--or if private religious schools could get state money. After Vatican II, Catholic educators chose not to proselytize, but instead to teach a set of values that are highly compatible with secular democracy. They also draw diverse student populations. They appear to do a better job of secular civic education than the public schools--on average. Thoughtful observers like Jim Youniss and David Campbell believe that modern Catholic education succeeds because it is grounded in strong moral commitments.

    permanent link | comments (9) | category: education policy

    May 26, 2006

    Meier and Ravitch show the way

    Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have an article in Education Week entitled "Bridging Differences." Meier is a hero for many progressive educators; her small schools in East Harlem are democratic communities that give significant voice to students and faculty in developing their own curricula. Ravitch, in addition to being an excellent historian of education, is a prominent proponent of a national core curriculum backed with exams.

    The two distinguished women were supposed to debate No Child Left Behind, but instead they had a long and personal conversation that generated a tremendously insightful article, written in the first-person plural. Their human connection--their mutual sense of respect and trust--is tangible. They write movingly near the end of their article:

    As the lunch ended, Diane said to Deborah, 'I would be glad to see my grandchildren attend a school that you led.' Our macro-level differences do not interfere with our mutual respect for each other's work. That itself is something we hope our schools can help teach young people.

    They disagree about much and candidly explore their disagreements, which mostly concern matters of educational policy, such as whether to use NAEP scores for assessment. Their agreements about the political situation are striking. Specifically:

    1. They agree that all well-intentioned reform ideas become bastardized because of the way public institutions are run today. "As we talked, we found ourselves deeply frustrated, even angry, as we realized that the so-called reforms of the day are too often a perverse distortion--one might say an 'evil twin'--of the different ideas that each of us has advocated." Small schools (which Meier advocates) become places "to park some difficult dissidents to quiet them while other schools are brought into compliance." Mandatory curricula (which Ravitch favors) are watered down and filled with foolish content.

    2. They agree that part of the reason for bad governance is a lack of citizen-based, independent institutions in which matters of value can be debated and diverse people can find positive roles and build countervailing power:

    Almost all the usual intervening mediators--parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations--have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style "reform." All the city's major universities, foundations, and business elites are joined together as cheerleaders, if not actual participants, offering no support or encouragement to watchdogs and dissidents. This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, "apolitical" scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

    I read "apolitical" to mean: driven by experts, free of overt debate about values, technical and difficult to grasp, conducted in private, and closed to citizens. Ravitch wants a national debate about what is essential to learn, culminating in the design of public standards. That's a political process at a large scale (although she would leave lots of room for teachers to make other decisions). Meier wants a robust debate within each school about what is most important. That's also politics, but at a decentralized level. Neither one wants consultants, pyschometricians, and managers hired from corporations to make critical decisions without public debate and involvement.

    3. They emphasize the civic mission of schools, partly because they believe we need a robust civil society to prevent the poor governance that we observe in today's large school systems. A precondition for civil society is democratic education:

    During our animated conversation, we agreed that a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education--its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires--must be openly debated and continuously re-examined. Young people need to see themselves as novice members of a serious, intellectually purposeful community. We think that it would be healthy if students listened to and participated in such discussions, and came to understand the purposes for their schooling beyond the need to acquire more certificates.

    4. They share an ideal of the teacher as a professional. She should be trusted to make important judgments about values and techniques based on her experience and her relationships with her own students, while being held accountable. They see all major current educational reforms as hostile to such professionalism.

    5. They believe that a respectful dialogue among people with divergent views is both possible (as they demonstrate in the article) and essential to progress on education.

    By criticizing "apolitical" reform efforts and modeling a mutually respectful dialogue about values, Ravitch and Meier exemplify a form of politics that we desperately need.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    May 15, 2006

    the "silent disease" of technocracy: an illustration

    Last week, Harry Boyte wrote on this blog: "Technocracy, spreading through society like a silent disease, presents itself as an objective set of truths, practices, and procedures. But it turns people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes problems from civic life. It privatizes the world and creates a pervasive sense of scarcity. It profoundly erodes a culture of equal respect."

    These are strong words, but I'd like to support and elucidate his position with an example. Today, powerful institutions and constituencies are concerned about high school dropouts. They address the dropout problem by trying to isolate discrete underlying causes. Consultants tell them that "reading proficiency in third grade [as measured by test scores] is the single strongest predictor of high-school dropout rate." When the Business Roundtable and others notice this correlation, they increase the already intense pressure to improve third-grade reading scores. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to make "adequate yearly progress" toward uniform success on reading exams. At the third grade, reading tests emphasize phonics and decoding skills. Therefore, teachers--encouraged by consultants and companies that sell tools for diagnosis and instruction--spend a great deal of instructional time teaching decoding skills, often using meaningless text for practice.

    This is a perfect example of viewing students as bundles of problems, isolating discrete causes, and applying interventions developed by experts. However, pure phonics instruction probably does not work, even for the advertised purpose of raising reading scores at third grade. Learning to read also requires motivation, cultural knowledge, and comprehension skills. Even if current strategies did produce higher reading scores at age eight, they probably would not mitigate the high-school dropout problem. Although literacy at third grade and completion of high-school are correlated right now, that does not mean that the former causes the latter. Recent evidence finds that many high school students who drop out can manage the academic curriculum but are profoundly bored or alienated in school.

    In a technocratic age, people are prone to identify pathologies and provide expert-driven remediation. However, in dealing with the high school dropout problem, we have a clear alternative. Proponents of "positive youth development" hold that adolescents are not incomplete adults who are prone to various pathologies (such as illiteracy and dropping out). Instead, by virtue of their energy, enthusiasm, and fresh outlook, adolescents have special contributions to make: aesthetic, spiritual, athletic, intellectual, and civic. By giving them opportunities to contribute, we actually reduce their odds of getting into trouble more than we would through prevention, surveillance, and discipline.

    The research on positive youth development is not yet as strong as we might like. However, assume (on the basis of numerous impressive examples) that it would work better than the technocratic approach described above. Positive youth development would need experts: researchers, consultants, and others who would share accumulated knowledge. But it couldn't be dominated by specialists. That's because providing youth with positive opportunities requires local knowledge and voluntary support from across a community, including from youth themselves. No "off-the-shelf" package for community-engagement could possibly be sufficient.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

    April 14, 2006

    more discussion of school policy

    Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber has written a response to my recent post on "major strategies for educational reform." There are a few interesting comments on the Crooked Timber page. I was struck by one person's claim: "The difficulty with looking within schools is that in my experience you need a hell of a lot of experience to understand an industry/system/sector from within. And by that I mean any industry, not just education." I'd respond that education shouldn't be viewed as a "sector," but rather as a highly normative (i.e., value-laden) activity of a whole community, including, but not limited to, what goes on in schools. Education is the process by which we replicate--and possibly enhance--our culture. If we convince ourselves that schools form a complex specialized system that we lack the expertise to understand or reform, then we abandon a crucial opportunity to shape our future.

    Incidentally, I met last week with the social-science education director of a smallish European country. He had just completed an elaborate set of consultations to develop a national curriculum for "civics." The curriculum itself sounded very good to me. The process was deliberative and is overseen (at least in principle) by a democratically elected parliament. Now that decisions have been made, every school and teacher-training program in the country (secular or religious) must implement the curriculum. Inspectors will visit classrooms regularly to check on compliance. Apparently, they inspect Moslem schools monthly because they do not trust them to present the national constitution fairly.

    This is one version of democratic education. The purpose of the civics curriculum is democratic; the methods and topics seem likely to produce democratic skills and attitudes; and the national agency responsible for the whole business is transparent and accountable to the voters. In contrast, democratic education in the US is ad hoc, uneven, and generally in decline. However, the European approach is not "community based," participatory, or pluralist. I was left thinking about the tradeoffs.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

    April 5, 2006

    major strategies for educational reform

    American public education has been subjected to waves of reform, but much remains constant from generation to generation. Perhaps out of frustration with the slow pace of change, today's advocates and policymakers--whether conservative, centrist, or moderately liberal--now use a fundamentally new strategy. Instead of tinkering with what goes on inside schools, they concentrate on changing the incentive structure. In this post, I describe that strategy and then criticize it on democratic grounds. [Please also click on "comments" to see a response from Harry Boyte that pushes my argument in more ambitious directions.]

    The traditional approach assumed that the important questions about education were "what?" and "who?" "What" meant the materials, teaching methods, and curriculum used in actual classrooms. Much of the debate about education from 1900 until ca. 1985 consisted of arguments that the content of instruction should be more rigorous or more relevant, more directive or more experiential, more coherent or more diverse. (See, for example, the Nation at Risk report of 1983). Decisions about content were made--in varying proportions--by state agencies, school districts, principals, and teachers, sometimes with considerable input from citizens, especially those who served on school boards and PTAs. Thus the education debate was mostly about what should be taught, and arguments were directed to state and local school leaders.

    People also debated "Who?", meaning the identity of the teacher--how she was qualified and selected--and the composition of classes. The influential Coleman report of 1966 led people to think that the teacher was relatively unimportant but that the mix of students was crucial. Poor kids needed to be exposed to middle-class students; kids with disabilities needed to be mainstreamed. Thus, for a generation, the main issues in federal education policy were desegregation and integration. There was also much debate about the pros and cons of "tracking" students--separating them by interest or ability level. Again, this was a debate about "who?"

    Despite all this attention to "what?" and "who?", education didn't change fast enough for many reformers, or not in the directions they wanted. Recently, they have given much more attention to "why?"--in other words, to the incentives that are supposed to motivate administrators, teachers, and students to behave in certain ways. There are three major types of proposal for changing the incentive structure in education, thus causing students and educators to answer the "why?" question differently:

    1. Impose regular, standardized tests with carrots and sticks. (Then the answer to "Why study?" is "To pass the test." "Why teach effectively?" -- "To get the kids through.")

    2. Increase the degree of parental choice and allow funding to follow students. ("Why teach effectively?" -- "To attract pupils.")

    3. Increase funding for schools, or equalize funding among districts. ("Why work in a difficult school setting?" -- "To earn a reasonable salary.")

    None of these approaches is completely new. Liberals have been advocating higher teacher salaries for a long time. School choice was first defended (to my knowledge) by Milton Friedman in 1955. There were high-stakes tests before No Child Left Behind.

    Nevertheless, the tenor of the debate has shifted. Politicians and policymakers now show an extraordinary lack of interest in the "what" and "who" questions. They seem to agree with the economist Gary Becker about the futility of looking inside schools: "What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas." Becker is a libertarian, but liberals who want to pay teachers more to teach in inner-city schools are also interested in competition--they just want schools to compete better in the job market.

    It's important to think about incentives; that's one of the main themes of modern social science. Asking schools to educate better (or differently) without changing their incentives won't work. On the other hand, there are democratic reasons not to ignore the internal policies and choices of schools:

    1. If the market or the authorities that create standardized tests control schools by manipulating the incentives, there is little scope for parents and other community-members to deliberate about local education. (It is especially difficult to deliberate about norm-referenced exams.)

    2. If parents create incentives for schools by choosing where to send their kids, I worry that they will seek private goods for their own children (such as marketable skills and membership in exclusive peer groups) rather than public goods (such as civic skills, experience with democracy, and exposure to diversity). I also worry that parents who are not well-educated themselves will choose schools without the demanding extracurricular activities and enrichment programs that generate civic skills. (However, I must admit that school systems without choice also provide lousy extracurriculars for low-income kids.)

    3. If educational authorities create incentives for schools by imposing standardized tests, all the pressure will be in favor of outcomes that can be measured on exams--especially individuals' factual knowledge and cognitive skills. It is much more difficult, or perhaps impossible, to create high-stakes assessments of moral values, habits and dispositions, and collaborations. Yet a democracy needs people who collaborate and who have civic virtues and habits.

    4. All these approaches to reform (including the liberal tactic of increasing funds for teachers' salaries) involve extrinsic motivations. But people can also be intrinsically motivated to teach and to learn. Democracy needs citizens who understand the intrinsic value of working and learning together. Besides, as I argued previously, it is offensive and alienating to treat good teachers and students as if they lacked internal goals and will only respond to carrots and sticks.

    I think there are good arguments for increasing teacher salaries, imposing at least some tests that have high stakes, and providing some degree of school choice. However, if the above arguments are persuasive, we also need vigorous public debates about what goes on inside schools.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: education policy

    March 6, 2006

    further thoughts on intelligent design

    1. I think it is constitutional to teach intelligent design (ID) in a public school. Teaching ID is a very bad idea, in my opinion, but it shouldn't be blocked by a court. I say this partly as a matter of (amateur) constitutional interpretation. It seems overly broad and arbitrary to interpret the Establishment Clause to forbid the teaching of theories favorable to theism (while allowing those theories that undermine traditional faith). The First Amendment bans the "establishment" of religion, and teaching ID is not that.

    When the public rules, not all their decisions will be wise ones. However, if you try to block the majority, they will get back at you--for example, by refusing to fund public schools at all. Besides, as I wrote here, I prize Benjamin Constant's "liberty of the ancients," the freedom to participate in a communitys self-governance. I would much rather lose a political struggle and live under laws framed by the opposite side than not to have that struggle at all. If a school teaches my kids ID, I suppose my children and I will lose a small measure of Constant's "freedom of the moderns" (freedom from state coercion). But when a court bans the teaching of ID, it ends public participation on that issue and so takes away our political freedom.

    2. Notwithstanding this first point, I really think that ID is a bad strategy for religious people. In fact, I think it verges on blasphemy. A person of faith in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition believes in a Creator Who is infinitely powerful, omniscient, and good. Faith is not based on evidence; it may even be demonstrated by its conflict with evidence: credo quia absurdum. It can therefore coexist with any scientific theory.

    Seeking empirical evidence of the Creator creates three spiritual hazards:

    a) You are testing God by asking whether the available evidence supports God's existence; this seems contrary to the notion of faith.

    b) At best, you will find empirical evidence of some intelligence in nature--some intentionality and mental ability greater than bare chance would provide. But that is not the equivalent of omniscience and omnipotence. An intelligent designer who outperforms chance by some modest degree cannot be the God of Nahum I, Who acts directly and without constraints for moral reasons:

    4. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth.
    5: The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.
    6: Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.
    7: The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble.

    The intelligent designer of ID theory doesn't act like this. It must be another non-corporeal being, unmentioned in Scripture, or else a God of considerably less power than in Jewish, Christian, and Moslem orthodoxy.

    c) Empirical investigation requires separating intelligence from goodness, since the two are not logically identical. The intelligent designer might turn out to be smart--but bad. To name just one of many troubling examples: eagles give birth to two chicks at once, and often the stronger chick pecks its sibling slowly to death. "Should one chick decide to kill its sibling, neither parent will make the slightest effort to stop the fratricide" (source).

    It is not hard to see why an intelligent designer might choose this device to select healthy eagle chicks to reproduce. But why would a good and omnipotent designer opt for such cruelty? Why not simply make all the eagles healthy?

    I am by no means denying that there is an omnipotent and perfectly good deity. However, I recommend against trying to derive evidence of this deity directly from the natural record. The more we think that an intelligent architect wants things to be just the way they are in nature, the less likely it seems that this designer is moral. Tennyson asks:

    Are God and Nature then at strife,
    That Nature lends such evil dreams?
    So careful of the type she seems,
    So careless of the single life.

    If God is good, Tennyson says, then one must find Him not directly in nature but "Behind the veil, behind the veil."

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    January 17, 2006

    David Friedman on education

    David Friedman has contributed some thoughtful comments on my post about political socialization and libertarianism. I had written that libertarians need most people to prize freedom; otherwise, liberty itself will weaken. However, parents want their children to gain marketable skills above all else. They therefore do not demand that schools impart public goods, of which the love of liberty is an important example. If parents do not put pressure on schools to teach freedom, then libertarians must consider other ways to educate all children for liberty. The vehicle that comes first to my mind is universal, taxpayer funded k-12 schooling with a "civics" mandate; but there may be alternatives. In arguing for civic education that emphasizes liberty, libertarians should invoke their own philosophical ideals, but they should be willing to swallow the restriction on individual freedom that will come from universal education.

    Friedman replies:

    I think parents are mostly interested in educating their children to have successful lives. One way of doing that is by learning what the world is like. If libertarians are correct in believing that more freedom results in a more attractive society, a more accurate picture of the world will tend to result in more support for liberty. So shifting control over schooling in the direction of parents rather than school officials and politicians is likely to result in some shift in favor of liberty.

    I'm struck by the idealism of this paragraph--or, to put it another way, by the avoidance of a rational-choice framework. If individual parents want their own children to "lead successful lives" in our society, then they should hope that their kids are not too eccentric or unruly. They should try to give their children skills that are valued in the economy, along with a healthy respect for authority. That's what pays. One representative "New Jersey mother" in a focus group told Public Agenda: "There are key points--hard work, discipline, respect. If those are taught in the home, that's more than 50 percent of what you need to succeed. Even a below average kid will do well if his parents teach him that."

    Libertarians believe that a better society would be more free than ours is. Even granting that libertarians are right, parents who want their own kids to be successful in today's society will hope that other parents' children fight for liberty. That fight is likely to be lonely, under-paid, frustrating, and only enjoyable if one truly prizes intellectual debate.

    In an essay that's online, Friedman summarizes the position that I have adopted:

    In a private system [of education], children will be taught what their parents want them to know. In a government system, children will be taught what the state wants them to know. So the government system provides an opportunity for the state to indoctrinate children in beliefs that it is not in their interest, or their parents' interest, for them to hold. Insofar as some virtues require one to act against one's own interest--for instance, by not stealing something even when nobody is watching--that is an opportunity to indoctrinate children in virtue.

    I would also say that schools can "indoctrinate" children in the love for liberty. However, Friedman continues ...

    One good reply to this argument was made by William Godwin, who, in 1796, expressed his hope "that mankind will never have to learn so important a lesson through so corrupt a channel." To put the argument in more modern language, government schooling does indeed provide the state with an opportunity to indoctrinate children--but there is no good reason to believe that it will be in the interest of the state to indoctrinate them in beliefs that it is in the interest of the rest of us for them to hold. Many modern societies have strong legal rules designed to keep the state from controlling what people believe--the first amendment to the U.S. constitution being a notable example. It seems odd to combine them with a set of institutions justified as doing the precise opposite.

    In an interesting recent article, John Lott explores the question of why schooling is controlled by the state in modern societies. His conclusion is that government schooling is a mechanism by which the state lowers the cost of controlling the population.

    Obviously, there is a danger that state schools will indoctrinate in favor of the state, as Friedman fears. However, it is a simplistic theory of "the state" that understands it as a unitary, disciplined, and self-interested agent. On the contrary, public schools in the United States are highly subject to local political pressure, especially from taxpaying parents. I don't know how to prove this, but I strongly suspect that American schools teach a mix of libertarian, authoritarian, and majoritarian principles because those are the values that most parents demand. Libertarians are entitled to argue for a different list of values, one headed by individual liberty. If they can't win that argument, then I don't see how they can prevail at all.

    permanent link | comments (6) | category: education policy

    November 10, 2005

    21st century skills

    I'll be spending today at a meeting of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a broad coalition that includes businesses and the teachers' unions. The meeting began last night with some speeches about the need to increase math and science skills in the face of global economic competition. I'll be sticking up for civic skills, which are already included in the Partnership's list but could be overlooked.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    October 3, 2005

    resume-padding and risk

    My friends Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto have published a new CIRCLE working paper (pdf) that ought to interest a broad audience. Friedland and Morimoto found that anxiety about college admissions is a major aspect of adolescents lives, affecting almost all students, from those on the honor roll to ones who are having trouble staying in high school. This anxiety is so pervasive that it cannot be separated from other motives that are driving youth to volunteer in record numbers. In other words, young people do not simply volunteer in order to get into college, but that goal is so central to their lives, and so fraught with apprehension, that it colors and shapes all their choices. To a disturbing degree, they cannot articulate other values or purposes of the volunteering that they do.

    Because our business is youth civic engagement, we have packaged this working paper as an exploration of service in high schools. But it could be read in a much broader sociological context. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck--whom, unfortunately, I have not yet read--argues that risk has been individualized. People individually bear the long-term consequences of their performance at each stage of their lives, including early adolescence. Families, communities, and associations no longer protect them as much as they used to. For "high-performing" students, including those who are female or members of racial minorities, opportunities have probably improved. But the obverse of opportunity is risk. There are serious disadvantages to raising young people under circumstances of high (perceived) risk, even if they have a chance to obtain excellent outcomes through hard work. One disadvantage of individualized risk is a kind of hollowing-out of adolescence, as activities that should be deeply satisfying become merely instrumental. Volunteering is just an example. Learning, athletics, and religious participation can also lose their intrinsic significance if students feel they must "perform" at optimal levels at all times in order to maximize their economic opportunities.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: education policy

    September 23, 2005

    positive youth development

    I went to Capitol Hill yesterday to hear a panel on America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005. This is a remarkable document, produced jointly by many federal agencies, that gives a detailed (if incomplete) picture of the state of children over the last 25 years.

    In the audience and at a lunch event were several distinguished psychologists who have pioneered the field of positive youth development. They argue that we too often view adolescence as a period of great danger and difficulty. Thus we measure success as the absence of serious problems, such as criminality and violence, pregnancy, accidents, disease, and educational failure. The goal of parents and governments alike is to get our kids safely through to their twenties.

    Adolescence is potentially a great time of life, when people can learn, socialize, expand their horizons, create, and serve others. But we tend not to measure the rate at which teenagers have such positive experiences, and we certainly don't organize public policy to maximize positive opportunities. Of course, advocates of positive youth development want to reduce the incidence of teenage crime, disease, and other bad things. But they argue that we will get better results if we put resources into supporting positive activities, rather than preventing and punishing misbehavior. Clearly, this idea has a political valence. Liberals often want to spend money on arts programs and service-learning, and conservatives want more police. Nevertheless, the evidence for positive youth development is not merely ideological and should stand on its own.

    There is a parallel--often noted by practitioners in the two fields--between positive youth development and asset-based community development, about which I have written before.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    July 7, 2005

    "internal accountability" in education

    When we think of "accountability" in education, we usually envision standards (written by school systems, states, or the federal government), combined with measures to see if schools are meeting those standards--e.g., exam results, graduation rates, per/pupil spending, and teachers' qualifications. This is "external" accountability: it comes from outside of each school. Most people think such pressure is necessary and appropriate. Schools are public institutions, so they should be accountable to the public through its elected representatives. Besides, there must be some device for keeping educators honest and up-to-speed. The main alternative to external accountability is market discipline (i.e., letting parents decide which schools are working best). There may be a place for some market discipline in education, but it has severe limitations. Thus legally-mandated standards and tests seem necessary.

    However, "external" standards demonstrate a lack of trust for teachers. I know from the experience and testimony of friends and close relatives who are classroom teachers that this lack of trust is hard to accept, especially when a person is a good educator and the standards and exams are at least partly foolish (as they tend to be). Moreover, "external" accountability measures are always blunt or crude, whether they are used in business, medicine, education, or any field. Any such measures will apply unjustly or inappropriately in certain particular circumstances. And if people want to resist them, they can--by shifting blame, "working to rule," or even cheating.

    Therefore, we shouldn't forget about "internal" accountability. For example, a good teacher feels that she doesn't want to let her kids down or disappoint their parents, her peers, or her principal. "Internal" accountability is also what drives really successful students. It's not the grade they care about, ultimately, but what their teacher and parents think about their work.

    So the question becomes: How can we increase "internal" accountability in schools? Some promising ideas: --

  • Dramatically shorten the list of "external" standards and yardsticks, but make the ones that remain really count. For example, school systems should be held strictly accountable for their graduation rates and the basic literacy and numeracy of their kids at specific grades. However, state assessments should not measure students' mastery of long and heterogeneous lists of facts. For the most part, teachers and schools should decide how to assess their students' knowledge of "content" areas, with some non-binding guidance from the state about what is important.

  • Make schools smaller, so that faculty can't as easily hide their performance from their colleagues. I know there's a lack of hard data that correlates school size to academic performance. Nevertheless, I think that small schools represent a promising development.

  • Use juries to assess some student work, and put several teachers as well as community members on each of these juries. That way, colleagues will be able to assess the work that's going on in other classrooms.

  • Pay for time during the day when faculty can meet to discuss students. Not only will such planning time allow them to develop appropriate responses to kids' problems; it will also help each teacher to see what the others are doing--or failing to do.

  • Without necessarily reducing class size at the high school level, reduce the number of kids who are in contact with each teacher during their four-year school careers. The goal is to strengthen relationships and prevent students and adults from hiding from one another.
  • permanent link | comments (2) | category: education policy

    July 6, 2005

    "small schools" meeting

    Today is CIRCLE's event at the National Press Club on the civic potential of the "small schools" movement. In all, thousands of new high schools are being created in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other big cities. In addition to being small, they tend to have a strong sense of internal community, connections to outside organizations, and coherent curricular "themes," so that a whole school may be devoted to science and technology, or community service, or Asian studies. (This means that students have more choice among schools but less choice once they enroll in a particular building). We're going to hear from former Gov. Bob Wise, various experts, educators, and students about the potential civic advantages of these schools. C-SPAN is planning to cover the whole day, but I don't know when their tape will air (and they have a tendency to change plans if breaking news develops elsewhere). Click below for more details about the day.

    Alternatives to Large, Traditional High Schools:
    Can They Enhance Students Preparation for Work, College, and Democracy?

    A public event organized by CIRCLE and funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York


    The National Governors Association recently found that Americas high schools are failing to prepare too many of our students for work and higher education. Even though a diploma is seen as a minimum requirement for entry into the workforce, one third of all adolescents (and half of all African American and Latino students) do not complete high school at all. Many who do graduate are not prepared for the 21st-century economy. Various fundamental reforms are being considered to increase students academic success and economic potential.

    The discussion about high school reform often overlooks schools civic mission: to prepare young people to become active citizens in our democracy. However, research tells us a great deal about how schools should be organized to achieve civic outcomes.

    Some people believe that one stream of reform has both economic and democratic promise. They want to transform traditional, large, omni-purpose, relatively anonymous high schools into institutions of smaller size, with more coherent focus, more student participation, and more connections to the surrounding community.

    To what extent would this kind of reform enhance or interfere with students academic success and their education for democracy?

    Panel I: 9:30 am-11:00 am

    Can the small schools movement increase graduation rates and academic preparation for work and college?

  • Michelle Cahill, Senior Counselor to the Chancellor, New York City Department of Education

  • Susan Sclafani, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

  • Thomas Toch, Education Sector

  • Gene Bottoms, Senior Vice President, Southern Regional Education Board
  • Moderator: Peter Levine, Deputy Director, CIRCLE

    Panel II: 11:15-12:30
    What does the research say about effective civic education at the high school level?

  • David Campbell, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University

  • Diana Hess, Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Joseph Kahne, Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for Civic Leadership, Mills College

  • J. Celeste Lay, Professor of Political Science, Tulane University
  • Moderator: Mark Hugo Lopez, Research Director, CIRCLE

    Lunch: 12:30-1:30

    Lunchtime speaker: The Honorable Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education; Former Governor of West Virginia

    Panel III: 1:30-3:00
    Schools that work: perspectives of educators and students in reformed schools that prepare students for work, college, and citizenship

  • Shelley Berman, Superintendent, Hudson Public Schools, Hudson, Massachusetts

  • Sarah Kass, founder, City on a Hill, Boston

  • Luke Kashman, student, Arsenal Technical High School, Indianapolis

  • Toya Cosby, student, Northwest High School, Indianapolis
  • Moderator: Carrie Donovan, Youth Director, CIRCLE

    Moderated Discussion: 3:15-4:15
    The economic and democratic potential of the small school movement

    Moderated by Bill Galston, Director, CIRCLE, with additional thoughts by Daniel Fallon, Chair, Education Division, Carnegie Corporation of New York

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    June 24, 2005

    the high school dropout problem

    I'm at National Airport, on my way to Georgia to speak about the Civic Mission of Schools. I was just on Capitol Hill for an American Youth Policy Forum on high school dropouts. Paul E. Barton of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) gave a very useful presentation. Some highlights:

  • Even as the job market has become more competitive and demanding, the rate of finishing high school has fallen. The percentage of 17-year-olds who graduated rose steadily until 1969 (when it reached 77%), but then fell steadily to about 69%.
  • Although estimates vary, all recent studies find that the real high school graduation rate is between 66% and 71%.
  • Among African American and Latino students, only about half are graduating. For kids who grow up in lower-income families (bottom quartile), only about 33% graduate from high school; so high school graduation is a major symptom of how our society reproduces inequality from generation to generation.
  • It's worse to drop out today than it was a generation ago. Males without high school diplomas earned about one-third less money in the late 1990s than in the 1970s, adjusting for inflation. Females without high school diplomas earn slightly less today than in 1971, again adjusting for inflation.
  • Some programs really work to increase graduation rates among at-risk kids. The most rigorous evaluation concerned the Quantum Opportunities Program, which randomly selected students to participate and compared their progress to a control group. In other words, it was a true experiment. For about $2,500/year over four years, QOP was able to cut the dropout rate to 23%, compared to 50% for the control group. (Thus its real effect was to cut a high dropout rate in half.) QOP's approach included academic programs that were individally paced for each student; mandatory community service; enrichment programs; and pay for each hour of participation.
  • In real terms, the federal government has cut its funding for "second-chance" programs by about four fifths since 1971. "Second chance" programs provide training and education for drop-outs. Some have been rigorously evaluated and show powerful effects for youth who choose to enroll.
  • Growing numbers of 16-year-olds are taking the GED instead of finishing high school. It's unclear why: they may be "pushed out" (encouraged to leave school so that they won't count in dropout statistics or cause disciplinary problems), or they may be "drawn out" by the prospect of a high-school equivalency degree without all those boring and demeaning courses and dangerous school hallways. Obviously, it would be best to make high schools more rewarding for more kids. However, I wonder whether it would help to create a tougher, more highly valued exam as alternative to the GED; this could truly substitute for a high school diploma. Then kids who were ready for work or college at 16 or 17 could finish early and have decent prospects.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    May 30, 2005

    the kids are alright

    The Communitarian Network posed the following question to everyone on its email list:

    Many people complain about the "younger generation," which may be seen as selfish, out of control, not interested in public life, and so on. Of course it is difficult to generalize, especially across socio-economic lines, but how do you find those young people in your social environment? If they are not quite all that they should be, what is the main source of the problem and what might be done about it?

    I'm looking forward to seeing all the responses that people send in. Meanwhile, this is what I wrote:

    I find it amazing that young people are turning out so well, given the often poor values and priorities displayed by the mass media, political leaders, and school systems. According to Child Trends' collection of statistics from federal sources, the following adolescent problems have declined substantially over the last 10-15 years: fighting, carrying weapons, feeling unsafe at school, being victimized by crime, cigarette use (down by 50%), substance abuse, and unsafe sex.

    Our analysis of the General Social Survey finds that today's under-30s are the most tolerant in the history of polling (pdf). Polls also show that today's youth like their parents, and their parents like them. They have the highest rates of volunteering of any age group today. Although some of their volunteering is required by their schools or encouraged by college admissions offices, they do participate regularly and say that it is valuable. Under-30s voted at a higher rate in 2004 than at any time since 1992. In one of our surveys, two-thirds of young people favored mandatory civics classes in high schools and middle schools.

    According to the latest MTV survey of 14-24s, "There appears to be no stigma attached to excelling in school. Nearly all the young people interviewed say they would be proud to tell their friends if they did really well in school." Sixty percent said their friend "wouldn't care" if the chose to study instead of "hang out"; 30 percent said their friends would actually support that decision. Only ten percent think that those who get good grades are "boring," or "weird."

    It is appropriate for each generation of adults to be concerned about the civic and ethical development of youth; and this generation, like all others, can give us reasons to worry. However, complaining about them seems quite unjust. Their behavior exceeds what we have the right to expect, given how our institutions have treated them.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    April 26, 2005

    foundations and k-12 education

    Last fall, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an article in Philanthropy that was largely critical of the "new" education funders: especially the Bill & Melinda T. Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Milken Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. According to his article, the "old" funders used to assume that education needed more money, so they gave cash to schools (or to students). The "new" funders believe, in contrast, that ordinary grants won't make much difference, because total foundation support for education amounts to less than $2 billion, compared to about $427 billion in public funds for k-12 schools. (These figures come from Jay Greene's paper). Thus the "new" funders aim to use their money as leverage to change education policy.

    Their ideologies and strategies are diverse. Some fund charter schools, some give school systems incentives to introduce merit pay, and some subsidize transitions to small schools. In his article, Hess endorsed the idea of trying to change policies, but he argued that the new funders are not particularly effective. Yesterday, AEI held a conference that gave a wide variety of speakers a chance to address Hess' thesis. (Philanthropy also gave Hess' targets a chance to respond.) I was only able to attend the AEI event briefly, but the papers are online.

    People certainly disagree about what changes we should be trying to effect in school systems. But even if we agreed about the desirable changes, there would still be a debate about philanthropy's proper role. Either,

    a) Given the relatively small amount of money available to philanthropy and the deep problems evident in public school systems, funders throw their money away if they merely support schools. They are obligated to use their resources as leverage to achieve fundamental changes in educational policy.

    or ...

    b) Public schools are controlled by the public through elections. It is undemocratic for rich organizations to try to change school policies. This is also a dangerous approach, since foundations have often been deeply misguided. For example, the current effort to create small high schools, which I find attractive, can be seen as a response to the effort to create large schools in the 1950s. Both efforts were heavily funded by precisely the same foundations.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: education policy

    April 13, 2005

    the youth "lifeworld"

    Before we try to engage young people in politics and civic life, it's important to understand their day-to-day concerns, habits, and background assumptions--what Lew Friedland calls their "lifeworld." As a start, consider the following data from the Reboot survey that I mentioned yesterday (pdf; go to p. 19). Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 said that they were "very worried" about the following issues:

    getting a sexually transmitted disease 35%
    your grades at school 26%
    finding a job when you get out of school 23%
    maintaining good relationships with your friends 19%
    getting along with your parents 18%
    your relationship with God 18%
    deciding who to vote for 15%
    making sure you are contributing to your community 11%
    finding a spouse 7%
    finding a girlfriend or boyfriend 4%
    I was not surprised to find voting and contributing to the community pretty far down the list. (By the way, people probably overstated their concern for these matters because they know that they should care about them.) I was somewhat surprised to see the risk of STDs at the very top of the survey, and finding a girlfriend or boyfriend at the very bottom. I think my age cohort would have reversed that ordering, even though we came of age after AIDS.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: education policy

    February 2, 2005

    on "constructivism" in education

    "Constructivism" is one of the most influential words in the whole jargon of education--and a highly divisive one. It is a rallying-cry for many progressive educators and reformers, but an irritant to conservatives. Constructivists oppose the kind of scene in which a teacher stands before a disciplined class of children and endlessly tells them what is true. But they oppose that pegagogy for a variety of overlapping reasons, some of which I find more persuasive than others.

    Creativity: Constructivists often see traditional pedagogy as excessively passive, because children are given everything ready-made in textbooks or by teachers. They want children to be creative, to generate their own works of art, narratives (including factual ones), rules and norms, clubs and other organizations, and social or service projects.

    Child-centeredness: Constructivists often want educators to recognize the interests, goals, and "learning styles" of children at particular ages and in particular communities. Teachers are then supposed to tailor classroom experiences in order to capture kids' imaginations and interests. Education should "start where the kids are."

    Pluralism: Constructivists emphasize that interests, values, and dispositions differ according to the culture, gender, and social class of students. Thus they oppose standardization, as epitomized by textbooks and "standardized" tests.

    Experimentalism: Some constructivists want children to discover facts and methods through experimentation, not wait to be given answers. So, for example, it is better for students to re-discover an algorithm for solving a type of mathematical problem than simply to be taught how to solve it. According to constructivists, kids will remember and be able to apply the method better if they have "made" it themselves.

    Holism: Constructivists oppose the separation of intellectual learning from social and emotional learning and ethical development. They see traditional pedagogy as narrow and dismissive of the "whole child."

    Democracy: Many constructivists argue that democracy should not only be an outcome of education, but also an aspect of it. Students should share authority and responsibility in schools and classrooms (to various degrees) with adults.

    Relativism/Skepticism: It is very common for constructivists to deny explicitly that there is any objective truth. They claim that people or cultures "construct" their own truths. Since many truths have been constructed, none is more objective or valid than the others.

    I'd like to unpack educational "constructivism" into its components, because I admire some and quite strongly dislike others. For example, I'm in favor of creativity; this is a core value for me. However, I think it's an empirical question whether children use and remember knowledge best if they have re-discovered it for themselves. This may only be true of some knowledge and some children. Likewise, I think it's an empirical question whether democratically organized classrooms and schools produce the most competent and committed democratic citizens. They may, or they may not.

    Relativism is my least favorite part of the constructivist package. Constructivists often deploy a relativist "epistemology" in the belief that it supports their practices. They favor creativity, democracy, experimentialism, holism, pluralism, and child-centerdness. They see "positivism" as the enemy of all these good things, and relativism as the one alternative to positivism that can support their pedagogy. The classic positivists believed that there were objective, verifiable, empirical (or "positive") facts, in contrast to theories, values, and metaphysical statements, which were merely subjective. In contrast, "constructivists hypothesize that it is the subject who actually invents reality and that knowledge is tied to an internal-subjective perspective where truth is replaced by ways of knowing."

    But reality is obdurate. We can invent some things, but other things are real whether we like them or not. Although classical positivism is flawed, there are many ways to defend objectivity without being a positivist. No serious thinker has ever believed that the objective world is obvious, directly apprehended by reason, and uncontroversial. But denying it would be equally foolish. Thus I'm very unimpressed by assertions that "subjects invent reality."

    Moreover, I think it's ethically bankrupt to pretend that people or groups can and should make up their own worlds. There are many white communities in which everyone would like to believe that chattel slavery was pleasant--or, at the very least, they would like to ignore it completely. The vicious wickedness of slavery is not part of their lifeworld. But it should be. If everyone "constructs" reality and individuals may decide what knowledge they want to create, then we have no right to challenge people to face uncomfortable realities.

    In fact, relativism is bad for "constructivism," because two of constructivism's best components, experimentalism and democracy, require individuals to deal with a world outside themselves--a world not of their creation and not under their control.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education , education policy

    January 15, 2003

    oral history of desegregation

    I spent most of the morning advising a potential applicant for the Rhodes Scholarship—something that I do on the side because I feel that Maryland students need coaching. (We haven't won since the mid-1970s.)

    In the afternoon, our class at Northwestern High School interviewed two people for our oral history project on the desegregation of Prince George's County schools. One interviewee was the first African American student at the school. (He was still the only one when he graduated three years later). He said: "Initially I was actually hoping that it wouldn't work. My parents had said that if there was a lot of violence, we would back up. … Instead of violence, there were three years of hostility." His main motivation was to be "part of something bigger," the Civil Rights Movement. He later became a successful chemical engineer. I found him enormously appealing—and easily understood what he meant in his understated way, but the kids took his reticence about his own emotions as evasiveness.

    The second interviewee was a current member of the County Council, a white man who was formerly a civil rights lawyer. He had sued to force bussing in the county schools and then arranged the settlement that ended bussing. He moved to the County in 1971, and his family was the only White one in the local community. At a community meeting, "I said I was a civil rights lawyer and I wanted to be active in the community." A community leader said, "Man, you are a phenomenon. Most white people are trying to move out of here." In the 1970s, roughly 100,000 African Americans relocated to Prince George's County (mostly from Washington), and roughly 100,000 White people left—a pattern that continued for the next 20 years. "Those folks who moved in the seventies were running from black folks … In the eighties and nineties, it had more to do with the aging of the population and the changing of circumstance." People left for upper income housing and better schools.

    "My dream in the early eighties was that this is the place where we would make it work. This is the place where we would demonstrate to America that it can work like it says in social studies books. Today I would say that we are still working on that."

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: a high school civics class , education policy

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