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Cross-posted at Education Week
So we now have the civil rights community accusing those who oppose annual accountability testing of deliberately undermining the civil rights of minority children. The No Child Left Behind Act required not only that students be tested each year in grades three through eight and one additional year in high school, but it also required that the scores for students in each minority group be published separately. Take this requirement away, the civil rights groups say, and we will go back to the era in which schools were able to conceal the poor performance of poor and minority children behind high average scores for the schools. Once that happens, the schools will have no incentive to work hard to improve those scores and the performance of poor and minority kids will languish once again.
None of this is true, though I am quite sure the civil rights community believes it is true. First of all, the data show that, although the performance of poor and minority students improved after passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, it was actually improving at a faster rate before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the 15-year history of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no data to show that it contributed to improved student performance for poor and minority students at the high school level, which is where it counts.
Those who argue that annual accountability testing of every child is essential for the advancement of poor and minority children ought to be able to show that poor and minority children perform better in education systems that have such requirements and worse in systems that don’t have them. But that is simply not the case. Many nations that have no annual accountability testing requirements have higher average performance for poor and minority students and smaller gaps between their performance and the performance of majority students than we do here in the United States. How can annual testing be a civil right if that is so?
Nonetheless, on the face of it, I agree that it is better to have data on the performance of poor children and the children in other particularly vulnerable groups than not to have that data. But annual accountability testing of every child is not the only way to get that data. We could have tests that are given not to every student but only to a sample of students in each school every couple of years and find out everything we need to know about how our poor and minority students are doing, school by school.
But the situation is worse than I have thus far portrayed it. It is not just that annual accountability testing with separate scores for poor and minority students does not help those students. The reality is that it actually hurts them.
All that testing forces schools to buy cheap tests, because they have to administer so many of them. Cheap tests measure low-level basic skills, not the kind of high-level, complex skills most employers are looking for these days. Though students in wealthy communities are forced to take these tests, no one in those communities pays much attention to them. They expect much more from their students. It is the schools serving poor and minority students that feed the students an endless diet of drill and practice keyed to these low-level tests. The teachers are feeding these kids a dumbed down curriculum to match the dumbed down tests, a dumbed down curriculum the kids in the wealthier communities do not get.
Second, the teachers in the schools serving mainly poor and minority kids have figured out that, from an accountability standpoint, it does them no good to focus on the kids who are likely to pass the tests, because the school will get no credit for it. At the same time, it does them no good to focus on the kids who are not likely to pass no matter what the teacher does, because the school will get no credit for that either. As a result, the faculty has a big incentive to focus mainly on the kids who are just below the pass point, leaving the others to twist in the wind. This is not because they are bad people. They are simply doing what the accountability testing system forces them to do. But this means that the kids who need their teachers the most and the kids who with a little more attention could do much better don’t get the attention they need.
So, how did we get here? Why are the civil rights groups fighting so hard for annual accountability testing when there is no evidence that it helps poor and minority kids, there is evidence that it hurts them and there are other, far less obtrusive ways to make sure that we know how poor and minority students are doing in school?
It turns out that there is one big interest that is well served by annual accountability testing. It is the interest of those who hold that the way to improve our schools is to fire the teachers whose students do not perform well on the tests. This is the mantra of the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama Administration. It is not possible to gather the data needed to fire teachers on the basis of their students’ performance unless that data is gathered every year.
The Obama Administration has managed to pit the teachers against the civil rights community on this issue and to put the teachers on the defensive. It is now said that the reason the teachers are opposing the civil rights community on annual testing is because they are seeking to evade responsibility for the performance of poor and minority students. The liberal press has bought this argument hook, line and sinker.
This is disingenuous and outrageous. Not only is it true that annual accountability testing does not improve the performance of poor and minority students, as I just explained, but it is also true that annual accountability testing is making a major contribution to the destruction of the quality of our teaching force.
Teachers are not opposed to annual accountability testing because they are enemies of their students’ civil rights. They are opposed to annual accountability testing because it is being used to punish teachers in ways that are grossly unfair and singularly ineffective.
Many of the most highly respected American scholars have repeatedly pointed to serious methodological flaws in the systems being used to tie student performance to the work of individual teachers. These methods do not take into account the differences in the backgrounds of the students a teacher gets, the differences in the preparation of those students, the influence of the work of other teachers of the same students in the same grades and so on. The result is that a given teacher can be shown by the data to be a top performer one year and a lousy one the next. On the basis of such systems, some teachers are fired and others retained. One of the most important features of these accountability systems is that they operate in such a way as to make teachers of poor and minority students most vulnerable. And the result of that is that more and more capable teachers are much less likely to teach in schools serving poor and minority students. How, I want to know, is this helping the students the civil rights community is trying to help?
Applications to our schools of education are plummeting and deans of education are reporting that one of the reasons is that high school graduates who have alternatives are not selecting teaching because it looks like a battleground, a battleground created by the heavy-handed accountability systems promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and sustained by annual accountability testing.
It is, in my view, time for the civil rights community to rethink its position.
Cross-posted at Education Week
The nations with the best-performing education systems have two things in common that have nothing to do with the specific education policies and practices they have embraced. The first has to do with the goals they have chosen to embrace. The second has to do with the conditions that are needed for paradigmatic change in education systems. The two are intimately related.
To illustrate my point, I will choose a few of the countries that are now or have recently been among the top ten performers on the PISA surveys of student achievement. Each of these countries experienced some cataclysmic economic threat that served to catalyze political developments that made it possible for the political leaders of all parties to create a broad national consensus around the need for a new education paradigm.
Take Australia. In the late 1980s, Britain joined the European Union. To do that, it was required by the EU to terminate the web of special mercantile economic relationships that tied it to the former Commonwealth countries. Australia’s economy was highly dependent on those relationships. Its leaders woke up one day to the prospect of economic disaster when the special economic relationship came to an end. A far-sighted Australian labor leader organized a delegation of business, labor and union leaders to benchmark the world’s leading economies to seek a solution. They came back to Australia convinced that the Australian economy would tank unless two things happened: Australia diversified its products and its customers and, at the same time, made the right strategic investments in the skills of its workforce to become a world leader in high value-added products and services. The benchmarkers succeeded in producing a consensus that bridged the two major parties on these points that lasted for years.
Finland went through a similar experience. It, too, had a special economic relationship that held the key to its economy, in that case its relationship with the Soviet Union, on which its economy was highly dependent. When the Soviet Union suddenly fell apart, the economic relationship dissolved and the Finnish economy went into a tailspin far worse than the one it experienced in the 1930s. The Finnish elders of all parties came together to rally the country around two key ideas. The first was the need to make Finland a high-tech economy, built around telecommunications, and the other was to call on the best of its young people to become school teachers as an act of patriotism, to make sure that Finland would have the world class technical workforce needed to realize the dream of technological leadership. Finland had a lot going for it in education before this happened, but this crisis and the Finnish leadership’s response to it contributed in a very important way to Finland’s rise to world leadership in education.
Much the same thing happened in Japan during the Meiji revolution in the late 1800s. Humiliated by the unequal treaties Japan’s government had negotiated with the West after Admiral Perry’s “black ships” had “opened” Japan, a group of young bureaucrats overthrew the government and headed to Europe to renegotiate the treaties. When they got there, they were stunned at how far ahead of the Japanese the Europeans were in science, technology and industry. They understood that Japan could only catch up if it completely modernized its highly elitist education system. It threw out that system lock, stock and barrel and installed another. The new one was built on the principle that all young Japanese had to have access to an education the equal of the one that Japan had up until that time provided only to its elite Samurai class. What they kept from the old system was a crucial feature: the employment of teachers from that very same Samurai class. In this way, Japan anticipated the modern Western education reforms by close to a century.
Or take China. Mao, in an effort to cleanse China of those features of Confucian culture that he thought had contributed to China’s humiliation and also to stifle what he thought was the corruption of his own revolution from within, instituted the Cultural Revolution. Seeing teachers and professors as instruments of the old order, he closed down China’s education institutions. After ten years of this, when Deng Xiao Ping took over, China had to develop an education system from scratch. Like the Japanese bureaucrats who made the Meiji revolution a century earlier, Deng was among the few Chinese leaders who had been in the West and understood how far behind the West the Chinese were in science, technology and industrial development. He, too, realized that China could not catch up unless it made a heroic effort to build a modern education system at every level, from the ground up, using Western models adapted for his country’s needs.
Almost every country that leads the list of top performers in education has a story like this to tell, a story in which the leaders of the country were able to remodel the national education system on new principles as a matter of urgent national necessity, an urgency perceived by almost everyone, an urgency that made it possible not just to install new policies and practices, but whole new paradigms, often as a matter of national survival.
It is also true, and very important, that in most—but not all—of these cases, that sense of urgency to build a new education system on a new paradigm was linked to a new vision of the society these countries wanted to build. For different reasons, at different times, these top-performing countries came to a consensus on the kind of economy they wanted. What distinguished Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Finland, Canada, Switzerland and others from many of their competitors is that they decided at a certain point that they were not going to compete internally or in international trade on the price of their labor, but rather on the quality of the goods and services they offered to each other and to the world. They wanted broadly shared prosperity. They understood that no nation can get rich as its citizens get or remain poor. They understood that the only way a country can provide broadly shared prosperity is to create an economy in which the whole workforce is adding a great deal of value to the things it makes and the services it provides, and the only way that will happen is if everyone, at every level of the workforce, is deeply educated and highly trained. So they decided, in effect, to compete on the quality, not the price, of their labor. The commitment to education and training is an ineluctable consequence of the commitment to broadly shared prosperity.
The United States sits on the fence. As a nation, we are home to many enterprises run by people who believe they will go out of business if the price of labor rises. Those enterprises compete on the price of labor, not on the quality of labor. The people who run such businesses are not likely to make the kind of commitment to improving the quality of our education system that is needed to make the fundamental changes necessary to greatly improve the quality of our labor force. It is also true, of course, that there are many other enterprises run by people deeply committed to adding as much value as possible to the things they make and the services they render. But, taken as a whole, the United States is deeply divided on this issue, and does not even know it
The question as to what kind of economy we want is not a technical matter. It is a political matter. It is not, however, a partisan matter. There is, as I see it, no more consequential matter for the United States. The destiny of this country will rise or fall on the way we answer this question. If we choose to compete on the price of our labor, we condemn ourselves to increasing poverty and political instability. If we choose to compete on quality and the value we add to things we make and services we offer, we have a good chance of experiencing broadly shared prosperity and the political stability that comes with it.
The difference will be made by one thing and one thing only: political leadership. I, for one, will be very interested in whether these issues, framed this way, will rise to the surface in the coming presidential election. I know where I stand. Where do you stand?
Cross-posted at Education Week
David Brooks wrote a column that ran in the New York Times on May 1 that got me thinking. In it, he points out that the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood that Freddie Gray lived in was not exactly neglected. Yes, Gray was poor. But when Kurt Schmoke was mayor, he got the famous Baltimore developer James Rouse and Habitat for Humanity to pour more than $130 million into new homes and new school curriculum, new job training programs and so on for Gray’s neighborhood. Townhouses were built for $87,000 and sold to residents for $37,000. Today, the schools in the city spend more than $15,000 per pupil. Nationwide, Brooks points out, the federal government spends more than $14,000 per person on antipoverty programs. Nonetheless, Freddie Gray left school four grade levels behind. By the time he died, he had been arrested more than a dozen times.
Brooks does not offer a solution for Baltimore or the Freddie Grays who grow up there, but he does not think it is money. He thinks the social fabric in Baltimore and all the places like it around the country is breaking down, that the informal web of rules that make life predictable and possible to negotiate are fraying at the edges for the Freddie Grays of the world.
I am constantly told by my critics that it is unfair and unreasonable for me to compare student performance in the United States to the performance of students in the top performing countries because there is so much more poverty among children in the United States than in those countries. The implication is that, if the rate of poverty among students in the United States was as low as it is in the top performing countries, then the achievement of our students would match that in the top performing countries.
And I respond by pointing out that factory wages in the wealthiest Chinese provinces are now about one quarter of average factory wages in the United States. By that calculus, most of the Chinese in the wealthiest provinces are poor by American standards, and more to the point, wages in the coastal provinces in China were one one-hundredth of U.S. wages well after Deng Xiao Ping took over and opened the Chinese economy to foreign investment. The vast majority of Shanghainese lived then in a kind of abject poverty rarely seen anywhere now in the United States. Yet Shanghai students now outperform U.S. students by a country mile. Much the same thing is true of Singapore.
If you think about it that way, it becomes clear that very poor countries, countries much poorer than the poorest of American states, poorer than the poorest of American cities, have been able to outperform American schools. Poverty, looked at that way, is no excuse for poor school performance.
But what if, as Brooks points out, money is not per se the problem? What if anger, despair, lack of hope, a deep distrust of authority and a conviction that it is hardly worth trying because the cards are completely stacked against you—suppose that is the problem. Suppose that you are surrounded by people you identify with who think that getting an education won’t make any difference because no one will offer them or you a job anyway. Suppose you live in a place that has no economic future no matter how well educated you are and, for a host of reasons, leaving is not an option. Suppose you live in a place that does have an economic future, but that future belongs to people whose economic strategy is using your labor at the lowest possible cost and you have no prospect at all of moving to their side of the fence. Suppose the adults you identify with in the community have lost their good jobs and are now greeters at Walmart or have no jobs at all or even the prospect of a job. Suppose the only way that anyone will think you are worth anything is if you join a gang and do what the members tell you to do and do it well. Suppose no one you know believes in you and you don’t believe in yourself.
Go back fifty years and we can see that there used to be a whole raft of institutions on which most of us could rely for support in situations of the kind I just described, ranging from the Elks and bowling clubs to your church and your extended family. But bowling clubs and fraternal organizations like the Elks are in decline, as is church attendance. Marriage is in decline, too, and so therefore is the nuclear family, to say nothing of strong extended families. Individuals are now, more than ever, on their own, so that the growing number of people who I have just described have less and less emotional support at a time when they need more support.
Now consider the teacher in this environment. Imagine an environment in which parents’ expectations—if there are parents—are very low for both themselves and their children. Whoever is taking care of the kids is depressed and angry and losing hope. School seems irrelevant to the students because it does not look like a way out. Teachers who started out full of ambition for themselves and their students find themselves coming to school every day facing students who are listless or angry or withdrawn or looking for trouble—anything but eager to learn—and whoever is responsible for them at home has either given up or is basically hostile to any authority including or sometimes especially school authorities.
I have no idea what proportion of American parents, teachers, schools and communities I am describing, but I have no doubt but that it is large and growing. You will find communities like this in our cities and in deeply isolated rural communities. They are White, African American, Latino, and American Indian. They are never very far away.
As Brooks points out, the steady increase in government aid to the poor since the 1960s has changed the face of poverty in the United States, putting a financial floor under many people and communities that was not there before. It is not the money. It is the anger, frustration and despair. It is the sense of a broken compact, of having done what was expected and being abandoned and forgotten and not valued anyway. The big difference between China and Singapore, on the one hand, and the United States on the other, is not the money. It the presence or absence of hope, of belief that hard work will pay off, of a future that is there to be had for those who buckle down, take tough courses and study hard in school. The eastern European immigrants of the turn of the last century did all that because they saw their new home as a land of promise for those willing to work hard. Those European immigrants were just like the Shanghainese and the Singaporeans. School was for all of them the key to a brilliant future. My guess is that, for those who teach in the American communities I have just described, the choices feel very limited. One way to cope is to blend in by accepting the local outlook and seeing one’s job as doing one’s best in a situation in which no reasonable person would expect very much of the students or oneself. Another is to get out of teaching. The third choice, to set and hold, year after year, high expectations for the students and oneself, when everyone around you has rejected that option, must seem out of reach for many teachers who are good people but not saints.
If that is an accurate portrayal of what is happening in many schools and communities in the United States, then it is not the poverty per se that is the problem. It is the sign over the door that says “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” And that is exactly what we cannot—must not—do. The schools that are working in places like those I just described—and there are such schools—are schools in which the faculty commit themselves to an ethic of hope and culture of high expectations for every student in their care. It is essential in such situations that the faculty view the children in their care not just as students but as human beings who more than anything else have a need for someone who cares about them and who believes in them. It is only when they believe that they could have a future that they will invest in doing what is necessary to have one.
It is not possible for single teachers to create such schools. It really takes a community, or at least a whole faculty, and it takes the kind of leadership that is capable of creating such a community inside the school. It is a tall order, but there are enough such schools all around us to give us the confidence that it can be done. Once again, we find that the moral driver of our work is not the techniques of teaching reading. It is our belief in our students and their belief in themselves.
Cross-posted at Education Week
One of many features of high performing education systems is a qualifications system. A qualifications system defines key gateways, the same for all students, as they progress from the first grade through the end of high school. There are only a few such gateways, typically just two, one at the end of lower secondary school and another at the end of upper secondary school. Sometimes there is another, at the end of what we call middle school. At the end of each gateway, exams are given. The exams are based on course syllabi, which are also constructed by the state. The pathways available to the student in the next stage of that student’s education or entry into the workforce are determined by which exams the student takes and how well the student does on them. These are, obviously, high-stakes exams, but the stakes are for the students, not their teachers.
Americans, generally, have a profound distaste for such systems. We pride ourselves on giving “late bloomers” a “second chance” or a third chance or a fourth chance. We see our approach as democratic and we see qualifications systems as inherently antidemocratic, an all-too-obvious way to sort students out by social class. We see them as a legacy of the kind of aristocratic systems the United States was established to repudiate.
If all these things were actually true of qualifications systems, we would expect to see the countries that used such systems as providing much less social mobility through their education systems than we do here in the United States, but the opposite is true. OECD data show that social class is a better predictor of educational achievement in the United States than in all but a handful of countries surveyed by the OECD. If there is an aristocracy, it is here in the United States, where well-to-do, well-educated parents predict well-educated children far more accurately than in olde Europe or in Asia or Oceana.
How could that be? How could a country that gives a student one chance after another to meet high standards do so much worse by its poor and minority students than countries that set up firm gateways that students have to get through to go on to the most rewarding pathways on the way to their first job?
The answers are not hard to come by. In countries like ours that have no common curriculum, less is typically expected of poor and minority students than of wealthier, majority students. A common curriculum produces common expectations. Second, common exams set to a common curriculum reinforce those high expectations. Third, countries that use such systems publish the questions on the exams as well as examples of the student responses that get good grades. These examples of student work that meets the standards are especially helpful to low-income and minority students and their teachers who then know just what the students have to do to get good grades. That is very different from knowing that you got a 67 on the test, which tells you exactly nothing about what you have to work on to get better grades the next time.
It is also true that, in the top-performing countries, it is less and less true that your grades at a particular gateway determine the course of the rest of your life. Nowadays, people who failed to get a qualification early in life can get it later, often at any point through their whole adult life. They can start out on one pathway and change course to another without having to start again. Starting in the vocational pathway no longer consigns a student to second-class citizenship. In the top-performing countries, it is possible to start out in the vocational program and go all the way to graduate work in a research university. But, at every step of the way, one has to take the necessary courses and get the necessary grades. That is the essence of a qualifications system. The reason the top performers get higher average performance and better equity is that they have higher expectations for all their students and they do what is necessary to get their students to those standards. In practice, our system of low expectations and second chances means setting lower expectations and tolerating lower performance. It is little wonder that our performance is so far behind theirs. But the U.S. could adapt the qualifications approach used successfully in top-performing systems and make it our own.
Let’s imagine how that might work. The state would offer three diplomas, a regular diploma, a College-and-Work Ready Diploma and a Globally Ready Diploma.
The regular diploma would be offered to any student who had completed the required number of Carnegie units in the required subjects over the course of a regular four-year high school program. As a practical matter, this is what is required to get a high school diploma in most states today. Most students who get it have little more than an eighth grade level of literacy and are very poorly prepared for the kind of economy that is now shaping up. It is little more than an attendance certificate. I would abolish this kind of diploma as soon as 85 or 90 percent of the student body was routinely getting the College-and-Work Diploma.
The College-and-Work Ready diploma would be set not to a time-in-the-seat standard, like the regular diploma, but to a performance standard. That standard would be set to the level of literacy needed to get good grades in that student’s first year of studies at a two-year community college or most state four-year colleges. Since most vocational and technical education takes place in our nation’s community colleges, and those same colleges provide the first two years of a four year college program to a growing number of our students, this diploma would in fact certify that the student was ready for success in programs leading to college degrees and rewarding careers. The exams would be set to a program of high school studies defined by syllabi set by the state. The student could take the exams as early as the end of that student’s sophomore year in high school. If the student succeeded on the exams, that student could choose to get the college-and-work ready diploma and go to the nearest community college or stay in high school.
If he or she stayed in high school, that student would be offered one or more programs leading to another diploma recognized all over the world as good preparation for a very demanding selective college (e.g., the College Board Advanced Placement Diploma, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, or the University of Cambridge “A Level” diploma) or a very high quality career and technical education program or career cluster program. The state could require that, to be eligible for this diploma, the student would have to demonstrate that he or she possesses the kind of “soft” or “21st century” skills that employers are increasingly looking for and has the kind of awareness of and sensitivity to the values and cultures of people around the world that will be needed to be successful in an increasingly global economy. Students getting this Globally-Ready Diploma will have demonstrated that they have academic knowledge on a par with students from the highest performing countries in the world, as well as the soft skills and awareness of the needs and outlook of people in other countries that are increasingly required in the global economy.
If I were designing a state accountability system, I would design it to track and reveal how successful schools were at getting all their students to the standard for the College-and-Work Ready Diploma first and the Globally Ready Diploma second. And I would hold the state accountable for getting rid of the current time-in-the-seat diploma as quickly as possible.
Giving students a second, third and fourth chance has proven to be a formula for lowering expectations and standards all along the chain of responsibility. It is time to hold both students and their teachers responsible for getting students to high performance standards as quickly as possible, with the greatest equity we can manage. We know it works. We know that because it is what the nations that have been surpassing us have been doing for years.
Date: May 29, 2015
Date: May 22, 2015
Date: May 15, 2015
Date: May 11, 2015
Date: May 1, 2015