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Cross-posted at Education Week
Watching the presidential candidates of both parties debating and campaigning against each other, I find my attention wandering. Neither the questions I hear them being asked nor the answers I hear them giving address what I take to be the central problems this country faces.
Not one questioner in the debates has asked the candidates what they would do about the fact that the United States, not so long ago the home of the best educated workforce in the industrialized world, is now among the least well-educated industrialized nations in the world. This is not a problem. It is a catastrophe. This country charges more for its labor than all but a very few countries in the world. If global employers can get better educated and higher skilled workers in countries that charge less for similarly skilled labor, then they will do exactly that and our citizens will not be able to find work.
You thought I was speculating about the future. Actually, I am talking about the present. We celebrate what is now a very low unemployment rate. But that low unemployment rate does not count those who have given up looking for work. If you want to find that group of people, look at the ratio of people who are working to the group of working-age people. Thirty years or so ago, more and more working-age adults were joining the paid workforce. More precisely, as the real wages of American workers were eroding, women who had been full-time moms joined the ranks of the paid workforce to supplement their family income, to make ends meet. That came to an end about eight years ago as people of working age—mostly white men—began to leave the workforce in very large numbers. These were people with only a high school diploma or no high school diploma. These are the people who have only a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy, the people who are being put out of work by automation or by people in other countries who have the same level of literacy and are willing to work for less.
A new study shows that this group of displaced workers is not only out of work, but lack of jobs and income are leading to their dying at earlier and earlier ages. The direct cause is often drugs and suicide, but the underlying cause is the lack of the education and skills that would make them employable. Only in the United States is there a group of working age people who are dying at earlier and earlier ages.
We talk airily about making sure all high school graduates are college- and work-ready. We talk about great progress on that score. It is, I submit, all a mirage. I see very little evidence of any such achievement in the NAEP scores. The reality is that the average American high school graduate has only a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy and that has not changed at all in decades. Those average high school graduates cannot read the typical first year community college textbook and the majority are not ready to succeed in a first year college course called College Math or College Algebra. This despite the reality that the course is not College Math or College Algebra at all, but is in fact only Algebra I, which our high school graduates should have passed in the 8th grade. We are sending our high school graduates to something we call college, but, in most cases, what we are sending them to is only high school dressed up as college and they still cannot do the work.
If nothing changes, American wages will fall until they are the same as the wages in other countries with the same levels of literacy. That means that average workers’ wages will be a quarter or less than they are now, and that is for those who are employed. The process is underway right now. The ratio of employed workers to working-age people in the United States will continue to fall, people will die at earlier and earlier ages of suicide and drugs and the social compact will fall apart. Employed professionals and managers will have to barricade themselves in their castles and hire armed guards to protect themselves just as they do now in various parts of the world.
If that is not a national emergency, I do not know what is. Questions about what the presidential candidates would do about the situation I just described should be the most often-asked questions in the debates and on the campaign trail. But they are not being asked at all.
I’ve asked myself why that might be. One clue is what we have learned from the countries with very high levels of student performance. In almost every case, at some point in the last three decades or so, a consensus was developed in those countries that they wanted broadly shared prosperity. In all but one case, those countries had little to speak of in terms of natural resources. So the only way to achieve broadly shared prosperity was to develop the skills of their people.
This is a crucial decision for any country. Countries that compete on the price of their labor force and the price of their products and services have strong incentives to keep wages low and very weak incentives to improve the education and training of their labor force. Those that decide to compete on the quality of the products they make and the services they offer cannot succeed without a highly educated and trained labor force. A nation’s economic strategy essentially determines its education and training strategy.
I conclude that the core problem in the United States is that we have not ever come to a consensus on the kind of economy we want. There are whole sections of the country and whole sectors of the economy that are competing on the price of their labor and not on the value they add to the services they offer and the products they make. Those sections and sectors are not advocates of public investment in education and training, nor are they champions of the kinds of changes in education and training policy that would be needed to greatly improve the education and skills of our workforce. And there are other sections of our country in which the economy is driven by highly paid, very creative professionals whose education is among the best the world has to offer, the sorts of places Richard Florida writes about.
It will take political leadership of a high order to help our people understand that successful competition does not depend on keeping wages down but rather on giving our workers the high skills that will require their employers to pay them very well. The United States cannot spend its way out of its economic predicament. It cannot get there by reducing taxes and regulation. The only economic development strategy that will work is one that is based on getting to broadly shared prosperity by making the right investments in the knowledge and skills of our people.
So I am waiting for the journalists to ask the candidates how long they think the United States will continue to be wealthy now that it is has one of the least well educated workforces in the industrialized world. I can’t wait for them to ask what they are going to do about the large and growing fraction of the workforce who wants work and can’t find it because they don’t have the skills employers are looking for. I am sitting on the edge of my chair waiting for someone to ask what the candidate would do about a country in which the majority of high school graduates going to college can’t do high school-level work and have a hard time doing middle school-level work. Everyone is asking what the candidates would do about the high cost of college, but no one is asking why we are charging college-going rates for an education experience that should have been supplied to the student free of charge in high school.
These are not questions just about education. They are questions about the future of this country, whether we will be able to support our families and ourselves in the future, whether we will have a citizenry that knows what they need to know to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth, whether we can afford to defend our country. These are questions that get to the future of everything we care about. But they are not being asked.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Congress has contracted a rare case of bipartisanship in recent weeks and it now appears that the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is imminent. In last week’s blog, I argued that states should take advantage of the new flexibility that the compromise legislation promises and give real power to their academic standards and create performance-based high school diplomas that certify that the holder of that diploma is truly college and career ready.
In this week’s blog, I’ll take a look at how the accountability system would work if we had a standards system of the sort I described last week in place. First, the examination score profile of every school would be made public and would be broken out for minority, low-income, ELL and disabled students, although the scores of individual students would not be published, nor would the performance of teachers be publicly rated based on the scores of their students.
In addition to the specific requirements outlined in the final version of the compromise legislation, schools would be rated in this system based on exams measuring the degree to which students were making progress toward explicit measures of college and work readiness. How well are elementary school students doing on the curriculum frameworks for the early grades? Are those students on a trajectory that will make them ready for the middle school curriculum when they leave elementary school? What about the end of middle school? In high school, what proportion of the student body is reaching the new performance-based diploma standards by the end of the sophomore year, by the end of their junior year, by the end of their senior year? What proportion is going on to success in AP courses, the IB program, the Cambridge A-levels and so on?
The state would be responsible for maintaining a database that answers questions like this for every school. It would be looking at absolute performance as well as improvement or lack of improvement over time. It would use the data to identify schools that might be in trouble. Those schools would be scheduled for a visit by a highly trained group of teachers, principals, consultants and university professors all selected by the state to conduct such visits. These teams would take into account many sources of information about the school and make recommendations to the school staff, the community and the district for changes they think are needed. No school would be automatically sanctioned based on examination data alone. Indeed, no school would be sanctioned at all unless it had failed to respond to the recommendations.
The most important resource available to the visiting teams would be a system in which first-class principals would have strong incentives to take responsibility for schools in addition to their own, so that principals of low-performing schools would, in effect, find themselves apprenticing to master principals. The visiting teams could recommend that teams of teachers in low-performing schools apprentice to master teachers in high-performing schools. The teachers in the low-performing school would have strong incentives to apprentice themselves to master teachers and the master teachers would have strong incentives to take them on. In these ways, a whole system would be set up in which the performance of weak principals, teachers and schools would be strengthened by strong principals, teachers and schools. This is very strong evidence that this system for school improvement is very powerful.
One of the most important features of the whole accountability system described in this and my previous blog post is that it holds the students accountable for their performance and therefore provides strong incentives for students to take tough courses and work hard in school, a feature generally lacking in American accountability systems. Though it provides incentives for schools to get better, it is not a punitive system. Rather than assuming that school faculties know how to do a better job but are holding back because they will make the effort only if they are punished for poor performance, this system assumes that they would like to do better but lack the leadership and support they need to do so.
It should not surprise us that systems of standards and accountability of the kind I have described are prevalent in the countries that, year in and year out, are outperforming the United States. Now that our states will have the freedom to use such systems, I earnestly hope they choose to do just that. It looks as though the reauthorized ESEA would fit such a system like a glove. It would both require the states to identify their worst performing schools and to do something to help them. The measures I have suggested would respond to that requirement. It also seems likely that Title I funds could be used to fund the system of advice and support that I have described. Systems of the sort recommended here are used by many of the countries that are performing far above the performance levels of American states. They have been used by those countries to close the gaps between their low-performing schools and those that perform far better than our average performers. That is a target well worth shooting at.
Cross-posted at Education Week
It looks now as though the Congress will reauthorize its latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. If it passes in the form that has been approved by the Congressional conference committee, it will provide a lot of latitude to the states to come up with their own standards and accountability systems. This creates a much-needed opportunity for the states to reset their standards and accountability systems.
In this blog, I will make some suggestions for ways in which the states can build not just world-class standards, but world-class systems of standards. In my next blog, I will show how standards of the sort described in this blog can be married to other elements, especially first-class assessment systems, to create a very different kind of accountability system, one that is expressly designed to improve, not just measure, student performance.
First, the matter of standards. That word, in this context, has at least two very important and very different meanings. One has to do with what students are supposed to know and be able to do —what I call narrative standards. The other has to do with how well they are supposed to know and be able to do it—which you may think of as cut points on the tests students take to show that they’ve mastered the narrative standards. I would like here to give you a somewhat more complex definition of both kinds of standards.
Narrative standards usually consist of statements saying students should know this and be able to do that. The people who write them usually think the standards clearly convey their intended meaning, but the people who read them often come away with a very different view about what they mean. This is because statements of this sort are necessarily abstract. Years ago, some of us were standing at a table looking at the new mathematics standards issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. At the same moment, a teacher of middle school mathematics and a professor of advanced mathematics pointed to the same passage and said, “That is what I teach in my classes.” Both statements could not be true, but each of these people had invested the statement with their own idea of what it meant.
We tend to think of standards describing what students should know and be able to do as one thing, and assessments of those standards as something quite different, but, in my mind, each is necessary to complete the other. In the top-performing countries, it is almost always the case that the examinations are based on course syllabi that define the curriculum that is derived from the standards. In secondary school, the examinations require the students to write short essays in response to the examination questions. All of the examinations questions are released after the examination is given and a library of them is available to everyone. Examples of student responses earning high grades are released as well as commentaries on the grades given.
In these countries, the narrative standards are only part of the standards. The real standards consist of the narrative standards, examples of student responses that got high grades and the examiners’ explanation of the high scores. With a system like this, it is simply impossible for a middle school teacher and a professor of advanced mathematics to say that they are both teaching to the same standard. The standard is much clearer with this enriched meaning of the term “standard.” Indeed in this world, the narrative standard and the standard used to determine how well the student has done combine seamlessly to produce one, not two standards.
Why is this so important? Because, as I see it, the single biggest source of the very wide disparity of performance among American students is the difference in expectations that teachers have for different students and different groups of students. It is almost impossible to address this crucial problem without a system of the sort I have just described. Such a system not only makes what is expected of every student far clearer than it has ever been in the United States, but it also provides a crucial part of the resources students will need to achieve the kinds of performance expected by providing the curriculum frameworks and syllabi that define the courses students will take. It will end the era in which some courses labeled “algebra” have algebra topics in them (for the students of whom much is expected) and other courses labeled “algebra” have no algebra topics in the them (for the students of whom little is expected).
But this begs the question as to what standards of performance should be set by the states. Since the typical community college first-year course uses textbooks set to a 12th grade level of literacy, we would suggest that there is a gap of—to be generous—four years between the literacy level of the typical high school graduate and readiness for the least demanding of our colleges. How good is good enough? Should a high school diploma certify that a student is ready to succeed at least in the typical community college? The typical high school graduate in the top performing countries is two to three years ahead of the typical American high school graduate. Should we settle for less than that? Why? Should we settle for high school graduates who are not going to succeed in a typical community college?
My proposal is that the states create a new, performance-based diploma, one that is set to one or both of the standards I just suggested, because almost everyone now says they believe that all high school graduates should be ready for college or career. If they are not ready to succeed in a typical community college, it is hard to argue that they are ready for either a college or a career. But, bear in mind, as I just pointed out, a very large fraction of current high school graduates leave high school nowhere near the standard of performance I just described.
So I would do two things. First, I would set up the curriculum framework for high school so that it is possible for students to complete the courses needed to get to the new performance-based diploma by the end of their sophomore year. If they are not able to reach the standard by then, they would have at least another two years to reach the standard. Even students who did not get there until the end of their senior year would be far better off than they are now. Students who reached the standard by the end of their sophomore year would be able to take Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate Program or the Cambridge A-levels and succeed in far greater numbers than they do now.
One of the pernicious effects of the No Child Left Behind was the incentives it created for states to tie accountability only to English literacy, mathematics and science. There is no doubt that basic literacy is essential, but few educators would argue that a person who is literate in only these arenas is a well-educated person. I would argue that, if the states do take advantage of this moment to create the kind of performance-based diploma I have just described, they should ask themselves what it means to be a well-educated person in their state and include standards for the necessary additional subjects in their standards and examination regimes. Among my candidates would be American history, world history, literature, (foreign) area studies, technology, economics, music and art.
The other thing I would do to effect a smooth transition to the new system would be to keep the old time-in-the-seat-Carnegie-unit diploma in place, at least for a while. That way, no student who would have gotten a diploma under the old system will be denied one, but the new diploma will be much more valuable and most students will want to get one.
In my next blog, I will address the question as to how well conceived standards can be used to drive a very different, and much more effective, accountability system.
Cross-posted at Education Week
On October 21, Education Week published a response from James Harvey and Charles Fowler to a blog I wrote about their report, The Iceberg Effect, in which I held up that report as an example of many reports that attempt to discredit international comparisons of student achievement that show the United States performing poorly relative to other nations. Failing that, these reports then attempt to show that if our students do perform poorly, our schools are not responsible. It’s the fault, they say, of factors that have nothing to do with the actions of American educators or our schools. If that is true, of course, one can only conclude that there are no changes our schools and educators could make that would improve outcomes for our students and so they don’t have to change what they are doing or how they do it. It is that formulation of the problem and that conclusion to which I object.
It stretches credulity to say that our schools have no responsibility for the poor performance of our students. If our schools have no responsibility for the academic performance of our students, what, exactly, are they responsible for? To get to that conclusion, the authors have to destroy the credibility of the measures on which U.S. performance looks bad. Then, just to be sure, the critic must show that, if the reader still harbors some doubt about the superlative performance of our students, the blame for low performance should not fall on the schools.
So Harvey and Fowler supply a list of American scholars who have attacked the international comparative assessments of student performance on methodological grounds. Harvey and Fowler know, of course, that I can easily come up with a list of other equally reputable scholars who are strong supporters of those comparative assessments. It would be astonishing if there were no controversy about this research, given the consequential nature of the findings for the countries that participate. It is important to point out, in this context, that all the periodic international comparative studies of student achievement that have been done have largely confirmed each other’s findings. There are none that would place the United States among the top countries in student achievement and equity.
The most devastating of these studies was the most recent PIAAC study from the OECD, which found that the millennials in the American workforce placed nearly last when compared to the millennials in the workforces of all the other countries studied in reading, mathematics and problem solving. Harvey and Fowler dismiss this study as so methodologically flawed that it was not even worth mentioning in their report. Their critique rests on alleged low response rates and the fact that the responses they got included immigrant workers in the United States but excluded immigrants in most of the countries being compared to the U.S. But, if you look a little closer you will see that the OECD had set a rather unrealistic response rate target of 70 percent. When they predictably did not get it in most of the countries they surveyed, they subjected the data they got to a battery of statistical tests to show that the samples were not biased. The authors of this critique simply ignored that fact. Given the data sets available, it is not surprising that the immigrants were not fully accounted for, but, if they had been, the results would have been changed for other countries by no more than 2.8 percent, which would not have changed the U.S.’s ranking. So, yes, there were methodological problems, but they were corrected where that was possible and where they were not, the remaining difference was so small as not to matter. This is not a trivial point, because the argument that Harvey and Fowler make falls apart when you realize that, over the last 40 years, the United States has gone from having the best educated workforce in the industrialized world to having one of the worst.
Basically, though, Harvey and Fowler, argue that our schools are not responsible for whatever deficiencies their graduates exhibit because of our high rates of child poverty, the levels of violence we see in this country and the lack of support for families with young children. These are serious issues, and they are issues we have to address, but we cannot use them as excuses for failing to change our schools in the ways that the countries outperforming us have changed theirs.
Here’s why. Several of the countries now greatly outperforming us were economic basket cases 40 or 50 years ago, with levels of poverty vastly exceeding anything this country has ever seen. Some of them had levels of violence that we have never seen. They went to work on them and they overcame them. But they also greatly changed their schools. They thought that school performance had to change greatly while at the same time understanding that they also had to change non-school policies and practices if the schools were ever to live up to their expectations. That is just what we have to do, too.
I can understand why our schools and many policy analysts and academics feel besieged these days. I, too, think it is unfair for so many outside the schools to lay all the problems of the schools at the feet of professional educators. And I, too, am outraged at those who think that tough-minded test-based accountability is the route to redemption for our schools.
Many of the people associated with The Iceberg Effect are friends, people whose values and work I admire. Harvey and Fowler say they are very comfortable with our organization’s education reform proposals. So why go out of my way to take issue with their report when there are so many truly wrongheaded reports and proposals abroad in the land?
I decided to write about The Iceberg Effect because our education debate seems to be polarized between those who would hold our teachers, school administrators and unions responsible for the poor performance of our students and the teachers, school administrators and unions who would hold everyone but themselves responsible.
If it is the professional educators—former Secretary of Education William Bennet used the derisive term “the Blob”—then the thing to do is to circumvent them with market mechanisms, blow them up with “disruptive change” and get rid of the worst of them with tough-minded accountability systems. If it is the parents and the society at large who are to blame, then the schools do not have to change. Everyone but the schools needs to change.
What the experience of the countries with the most successful education systems shows is that the problem is not the professional educators or their opponents. It is the design of our education system, invented a century ago for a society and industrial economy that has long since died away. Our professional educators will have to redesign it. It is they who have the professional knowledge needed to redesign it and it is they who will need to make the new design work. But they will be in no mood to do that as long as they are told by people who think of themselves as defending them that our education system does not need to be redesigned.
Date: December 14, 2015
Date: December 4, 2015
Date: December 3, 2015
Date: November 20, 2015
Date: November 13, 2015