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In the Middle of School Reform

On March 12, 2015, Diane Ravitch published a response to Arne Duncan’s commentary for EdSource

called “How Not to Fix No Child Left Behind,”. She titled her response “How to Fix No Child Left Behind”. In her response, Ravitch lists five “fixes” she believes will improve the path of Education Reform. Below are her proposals and my responses to them.

  • Restore the original purpose of the ESEA: equity for poor children and the schools they attend. These schools need more money for smaller classes, social workers, nurses, and librarians, not more testing.

  • Designate federal aid for reducing class size, for intensive tutoring by certified teachers and for other interventions that are known to be effective.

Having spent half of my 17 year career in schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students, I firmly stand behind Ravitch on these first two. I have sepnt the other half in well resourced charter and private schools. I am familiar first hand with the vast differences in the education students receive in these two settings. Schools with high populations of children living and learning in poor neighborhoods have very different needs and deserve to be governed and funded accordingly. It’s explained simply by Maslow’s hierarchy. There are several basic needs that must be met first before a child is going to be able to optimally engage in learning. If said child is living in poverty, it is a good chance several of those needs will not be met upon their arrival to school. If breaking the cycle of poverty is truly a social issue in the US, a big part of that equation is our public schools. Schools need to be ready to meet those needs to help students reach a space where they can achieve their true potential.

  • Raise standards for those entering teaching.

I always feel the need to take issue when I hear this statement because if you are going to raise standards, raising teacher pay needs to be part of the conversation. There has been a shortage of people entering teacher preparation programs all over the nation. Present statistics claim 50% of teachers leave the profession before their fifth year. If we make teacher preparation programs “more rigorous” but the notoriously low pay continues, what is the incentive to become a teacher?

  • Eliminate the testing and accountability portions of the law and leave decisions about when and how often to test to states and districts.

This one is tricky. I too don’t agree with the present policies regarding accountability. I have a mathematical problem with Value Added Measures (VAM). There are far too may variables that help determine the academic success or failure of a student that has nothing to do with their teacher. In April 2014, the American Statistical Association released a statement regarding the use of VAM’s in education. In their report the ASA stated, “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model,” yet recent laws have been passed requiring 50% of teachers’ evaluation scores to be determined by standardized test scores.

However, I am not opposed to accountability, but all stakeholders should be held accountable; educators, parents and students. Additionally, we need to be thoughtful about the data we use to hold stakeholders accountable. Our approach must be rooted in logic and research, not romanticized mythologies about how we think education should be.

I do disagree with her call to leave decisions about when and how often to test to districts. I think standardized testing should be nationally standardized and should be aligned to a national set of education standards. However, I agree with her that summative, high-stakes, standardized assessment does not need to happen every year.

  • Rely on the federal testing program – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – to provide an audit of every state’s progress. NAEP data are disaggregated by race, gender, ethnicity, language and disability status. NAEP tracks achievement gaps between blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites. Anyone who wishes to compare Missouri and California can easily do so with NAEP data that measures performance in reading and math in 4th and 8th grade every two years.

Sifting through all the Common Core information and misinformation raises a lot of questions. I am in support of national education standards and am by no means anti-Common Core. Neither do I stand against standardized assessments to gather data on student achievement. I do think that turning our public education system into a culture of testing is a problem. Assessment and data are important, but they are not the end-all-be-all. It is difficult to determine if the yearly high stakes testing culture is rooted in legitimized concern for “closing the achievement gap” or in free market economics. If we already have a federal education assessment that gathers and aggregates data, why do we need to assess every year? Most other developing countries that have been through successful school reform don’t assess every year. I agree with Ravitch’s suggestion to rely on an existing federal testing program that would not make testing the epicenter of public education.

Education reform is a mixed bag. There are a lot of necessary changes that are being made, but there are also many changes that deserve close scrutiny and further adjusting. There are also many different voices coming from both sides of the debate. Many of these voices are articulate and convincing. I like to listen to them all. To better understand my own stance on school reform, I find myself sifting through research, politics, economics, die-hard traditions and anecdotal experiences harvested over 17 years and many different school sites. At this point in time, I stand in the middle of the debate. Not fully for and not fully against.


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