Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pt 4- Ravitch Book Review (Ch 6 and 7)


I'm going to keep the same format as the last entry- chapter summaries and gut reactions.

Chapter 6- NCLB: Measure and Punish

Chapter Review:

This is the money chapter. The one that made me buy this book in the first place. If you're going to pick one chapter out of this book to read, this is the one (unless one of the later chapters measure up).

Here we get to see how and why Ravitch changed her mind about NCLB. She started out as a strong advocate and by the end of this chapter pretty much completely disowns it. She tells of the four main tenets of the law: 1) every child should be tested every year in grades 3-8, using state tests, not a national test, 2) decisions about how to reform schools would be made by the states, not by Washington, 3) low-performing schools would get help to improve, 4) students stuck in persistently dangerous or failing schools would be able to transfer to other schools. Sounds pretty damn good, eh? But as always with federal legislation, the politics often sound great and the devil is in the details...

This was an issue that both Democrats and Republicans rallied around. Republicans liked the increased accountability and market reforms/choice, Democrats liked that the government was getting more involved and lower income and racially diverse groups were a main focus. It passed with rare bipartisan, broad support.

Now on to the details that doomed NCLB from the start. The first and most glaring is the impossible goal it set of having 100% of students proficient by 2014. No one in education believes this goal is attainable. The law provided tougher and tougher sanctions each year a school did not make all AYP goals- from labeled as failing to requiring extra tutoring, to closing the school or turning it over to the government. Every year the number of failing schools grows as we get closer to 2014, the year where all students are supposed to be proficient.

The next large issue in the details was letting each state determine their own tests as well as define what is "proficient". This of course led to states creating tests and sliding scales that would allow nearly every student to pass the test.....eventually. This led to fudging numbers, shifting results, changing definitions, etc.

Each subgroup of students was separated out so the numbers for each subgroup could be used for sanctions. As those of us in schools know quite well, if even one subgroup does not make AYP, the school as a whole is labeled as failing. Often, this happens with the ELL or special needs students- a group that it is nearly impossible to bring to 100% proficient, no matter how you slice it.

So Ravitch pinpointed a date when her mind changed- November 30th, 2006. On this day, she went to a conference in Washinton D.C. to hear a dozen or so scholars report on the effectiveness of NCLB and it's accompanying remedies. Here is what she found out- even though NCLB provides parents a free opportunity to transfer their students away from a failing school and towards a non-failing school, hardly anyone was taking advantage of this. The numbers were amazing- less than 1 percent in CA, less than 2% in CO, less than 1% in Michigan. The scholars argued that parents didn't want their kids taking too-long bus rides, that parents generally felt their school was good despite it's "failing" label, ELL parents prized the neighborhood school.

The numbers were similar for the free tutoring that was offered with federal monies to students in failing schools. In short, it was rarely used and even more rarely effective. NCLB created a multi-billion dollar industry of testing and tutors, but was doing virtually no good for students. Scores remained the same, classrooms were too narrowly focused on reading and math, and all other subjects faltered.

A couple quotes from Ravitch:

"Under NCLB, the federal government was dictating ineffectual remedies, which had no track record of success. Neither the Congress nor the U.S. Department of Education knows how to fix low-performing schools."

"Every state was able to define proficiency as it saw fit, which allowed states to claim gains even when there were none."

"I realized that incentives and sanctions were not the right levers to improve education; incentives and sanctions may be right for business organizations, where the bottom line- profits- is the highest priority, but they are not right for schools."

"If all students are not on track to be proficient by 2014, then schools will be closed, teachers will be fired, principals will lose their jobs, and some- perhaps many- public schools will be privatized. All because they were not able to achieve the impossible."

"Perhaps most naively, NCLB assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education. Its assumptions were wrong. Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools."

My Reactions:

I thought this was the strongest chapter yet. It was nice to see Ravitch laying out how she changed her mind and why. Basically, the facts slapped her in the face and made her wake up. My main question is- why is she seemingly the only sane / logical one? Where are the others that supported this piece of crap legislation? The facts are the facts- it's not working, plain and simple.

I can admit that the bullet points of NCLB sure sounded good. Politically, it was a slam dunk- we want all students to improve, we don't want to let all these subgroup kids fall through the cracks, we're going to require schools to be accountable, and we're going to give parents choices about their school. These are all good tenets. The problem is that the policymakers did not think this thing through to the end- they didn't think about the realistic consequences of making tests the primary determinant of a successful school. They didn't think about schools meaning more to parents than test scores and labels. They didn't think about how states would bend the model to make themselves look as good as possible. They didn't think about how narrow the classroom would be- on reading and math. It just is so typical of policymakers and how much they are disconnected from classroom and school realities.

Chapter 7- Choice: The Story of an Idea

Chapter Review:

Going to keep this one short. It was kind've dry and more of the same. She tells the history of the idea of school choice and how it manifested itself in urban areas. It morphed to vouchers and eventually to charter schools. The bottom line is we now have some decent data about charter schools and how they compare to public schools. Many folks have researched and pored over the data and the results are, in a nutshell- no real differences. There are good charter schools and bad charter schools, just like there are good public schools and bad public schools.

The main thrust of this chapter for me was the idea that so many reformers want to hinge their hopes on- that you can take a school's model and spread it to other schools and get the same good results- is flawed. You can't carbon copy schools and what they are doing. It takes time and hard work to achieve improvement, and it's as much about the staff and students as much as the model they are following. If you take a great model and combine it with different staff, the results invariably are not the same. It's not easy to create a successful school. There is no magic bullet.

My reactions:

It's harsh, but I'm glad she acknowledges the reality- there is no easy way to create a school model and then spread it. Schools must pave their own way. It's up to the government to provide SUPPORT, not dictate circumstances. I've never been in a school where the staff did NOT want the students to succeed. The teachers and admin are in the best possible position to know what their students need to be successful.

One other thing that I don't like about this book is that it has thus far completely ignored schools outside of urban areas. I'm not sure if she'll touch on this or not, but it's a huge mistake to take urban reforms and spread them to rural areas. Especially in the focus of this chapter- school choice. In rural areas, school choice simply is a geographical impossibility. It's just not going to work. I hope she touches on this aspect in future chapters. I'm getting a little tired of reading about all of these urban driven reforms, thought I must say I'm not surprised.

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