Monday, July 23, 2012

What have we gained from nearly 50 years of federal intervention in public education?

This just came across my Twitter feed: U.S. Schools Showing Little Improvement via @ChoiceMediaTV. UPI writer Marcella S. Kreiter notes that:

The state of U.S. public education has been a whipping boy for decades with various schemes -- charter schools, vouchers, incentives for both students and teachers -- having little effect on overall performance.

It's interesting that a number of U.S. presidents have attempted to claim the mantle of the "education president" ever since the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act promised to level the playing field. Much to our collective dismay, none of the "huff and puff" has appeared to make any earth-shaking difference.

Kreiter goes on to quote one of the author's of the study as claiming, "Part of the problem...are unrealistic, ill-defined goals with no clear path to getting there. He cited, as an example, a 1990 pronouncement by President George H.W. Bush and the nation's governors setting a goal of making U.S. students 'first in the world in math and science by 2000.' Clearly, that didn't happen."

One of these days, we're going to finally admit that the federal government can do little to force change in thousands of schools across fifty different states. The evidence is nearly fifty years of federal intervention, yet little has improved. So why do we keep funding a federal program that has proven beyond a doubt across nine different presidential administrations that is does not work.

Is it really just bravado from the top and the quest to be the number one "education president?" Perhaps so. To satisfy my curiosity, I did a quick search of the internet to see what others have to say about our so-called "education presidents." Larry Cuban was quoted last fall in a Washington Post blog about who has been the best "education president." What he had to say makes perfect sense:
"FACT 1: Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly Title I. No Child Left Behind (2002) is the latest of the federal reauthorizations of ESEA.

"FACT 2: ESEA focused national attention and took action for the first time on the connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Education was a key component of LBJ's "War on Poverty." His administration initiated Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and dozens of other efforts in the late-1960s.

"FACT 3: Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal "entitlement"program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools.

"FACT 4: As a federal regulatory machine to raise academic achievement and end the gap in test scores between poor and non-poor children, it has failed. That failure is because the expanded federal role had to rely on a state and local infrastructure that was unable to reverse the persistent failure of schools to reduce either poverty or inequality in distribution of wealth. State and local districts lacked a coherent curriculum, a technical capability for assessment, and well-trained teachers. Moreover, the federal government contributed less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools and states perpetuated a funding scheme that gave fewer resources to the most needy students.
Notice that the primary premise as to why the federal government ramped up its involvement in public education -- to level the playing field and provide equity for kids and schools in impoverished communities. Ever since, all of the research continues to point to poverty as the number one obstacle to substantially raising student achievement across the entire economic spectrum, yet neither the federal government nor the states, which have the primary responsibility for public education in the first place, has advanced this cause to any level of significance.

If the federal government insists on playing a leadership role, then so be it although I do not believe it will ever be successful. In the meantime, we're still waiting for the "education president."

Friday, July 20, 2012

A conservative think-tank finally gets it!

The Mackinac Center, a self-professed non-partisan conservative think tank based out of Midland, Michigan, released an atypical report today that ranked all Michigan high schools based on four years of recent state test scores (ACT included), while controlling for socio-economic factors. 

Assessing a high school's effectiveness is not straightforward. Comparing a school's standardized test scores to those of other schools is one approach to measuring effectiveness, but a major objection to this method is that students' test scores tend to be related to students' "socioeconomic" status — family household income, for example, or parents' educational background. These factors, however, are outside a school's control.
The Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card is an attempt to provide a better "apples-to-apples" comparison of public high schools by adjusting their students' average standardized test scores to account for disparities in the socioeconomic status of their student populations. 

This is a landmark report in Michigan and it comes at a time when Governor Rick Snyder plans to overhaul the entire public school funding system. This report also coincides with approval of Michigan's waiver request from the inherent stupidity of 100% proficiency for all students set by the failed No Child Left Behind program brought to us by the Bush Administration.

Combined, these events lend increasing credibility to several basic facts that make "one-size-fits-all" education policies and funding mechanisms the real failures in public education:

1. All kids are different and despite having only age in common with their classmates, come to school with varying levels of background knowledge, academic skills, parental support, and the resources needed to keep up with their more affluent peers.

2. To be fair, our public education system, which is deeply rooted in our American traditions and law, requires that funding be based on student needs so that, for example, a 5th grader who for economic, demographic, or experiential reasons is behind other 5th graders in her class will receive the added supports and resources necessary to have an equitable chance of achieving the same level of college and caree readiness despite the obstacles she faces.

3. Besides inequitable funding for public school kids, state and federal policies along with local traditions continue to perpetuate an archaic education model based on the industrial, scientific-management era. These rigid structures only serve to hold students back who need more time, more options for relevant learning, and greater flexibility to develop the level of knowledge and skills needed for their futures. States need to remove these shackles and give local districts the freedom and flexibility to break from tradition and meet the needs of every student.

Some will bury this report simply because of who conducted the study and published the report. They'd prefer to let bitter politics and policy disputes get in the way of real education reform. I've had plenty of disagreements with the Mackinac Center over its past criticisms of public education and the tendency to blame all that is wrong with schools on teacher unions. But, regardless of their motive for this report, it still serves to shine a bright light on the correlation between poverty and academic achievement, and the potential all kids have and how far schools can go if we only recognize the obstacles they have to overcome and properly resource them to do so.

Is this finally a step forward in the right direction?

Related posts:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Random thoughts about REAL school reform

The last week of June, I spent a few days along Baltimore's Inner Harbor attending the AASA Summer Leadership Institute where I, along with several hundred others, were feted to the likes of Charlotte Danielson, Diane Ravitch, Doug Reeves and a variety of district administrators. Coming at the end of a difficult and exhausting school year, I used the time and some of the ideas presented by this esteemed cadre to reflect on where public education is at and where we should be headed.


Here are some random thoughts from my "retreat" in historic Baltimore:

1.     Teachers really do care and want to get better at their craft contrary to the way they are portrayed in the media. 

2.     Our traditional industrial school model is not designed to ensure all kids achieve to the same levels. It was designed to sort and select while providing each with a minimal education necessary to be compliant and productive members of the community.

3.     The traditional school design worked for what it was originally intended when requirements were simpler and parent and community support were stronger.

4.     Because of the traditional industrial design of our K-12 system, we expend an enormous amount of resources focused on learning gaps with very limited results. These gaps are mainly created or at least exacerbated by hanging onto a system that no longer serves the needs of kids. We fail to recognize this and instead simply throw more resources at the problem with at best mixed results.

5.     For all kids to have a chance to achieve at high levels, our school model has to change. This must include:

a.     Eliminating the graded structure by at least starting at the lowest grades and working up.

b.     Unchaining the learning cycles from the traditional school calendar and daily bell schedule, in essence moving from a compliance-based to a competency-based system for progression.

c.     Valuing and providing daily time for teachers to collaborate with their peers planning quality learning experiences and analyzing results.

d.     Infusing more technology including sophisticated learning management systems that will differentiate learning for each student on a daily basis.

e.     Providing students with flexible learning options and relevant, collaborative learning experiences.

f.      Structuring learning experiences in ways that students take ownership with high expectations for contributing to the learning, not just passively taking it all in and regurgitating it later.

g.     Opening traditional school district borders in ways that provide students with "mix-and-match" choice opportunities to pursue courses and programs in different schools that interest them, not just settle for what their home district provides.

h.     Valuing and providing rigorous learning experiences that include communication, collaboration, creativity and contribution skills as much as reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and the arts.

School reform is not about working around the edges, tinkering with the numbers, talking about the details; it is about reimagining and reinventing the entire structure, so ALL children get a chance at an excellent education. ~ Patricia Kokinos


Friday, July 6, 2012

Michigan's Public School Roots: "Let free schools be established and maintained in perpetuity..."

John D. Pierce was appointed Michigan's Superintendent of Public Instruction on July 26, 1836. He was instructed to report to the State Legislature in January 1837 regarding a plan for "a system of common schools and a plan for a university and its branches." In his report, 


"'In an educated and virtuous community there is safety; the rights of individuals are regarded and property is respected and secure. It may safely be assumed as a fundamental principle in our form of government, that knowledge is an element so essential to its existence and vigorous action that we can have no rational hope of its perpetuation unless it is generally diffused.
'Universities may be highly important and academies of great utility, but primary schools are the main dependence.' Such schools, he affirmed, should be regarded as the foundation of our whole system of public instruction and the chief support of all our free institutions. 'National liberty, sound morals, and education must stand or fall together. Common schools are democratic in their nature and influence; they tend to unify society; in them the rich and the poor come together on terms of perfect equality. Let free schools be established and maintained in perpetuity, and there can be no such thing as a permanent aristocracy in our land; for the monopoly of wealth is powerless, where mind is allowed freely to come in contact with mind (emphasis added). We need wisdom, and prudence, and foresight in our councils; fixedness of purpose, integrity and uprightness of heart in our rulers; unwavering attachment to the rights of man among all our people; but these high attributes of a noble patriotism, these essential elements of civilization and improvement, will disappear when schools shall cease to exert an all-pervading influence through the length and breadth of our land.'"

"Having thus stated the absolute necessity of education and intelligence and morality among the people as a whole, he goes on to inquire how schools, as a means of securing these ends, can be sustained. His conclusion is that they 'ought emphatically to be the property and care of the state. To neglect them, would be to neglect the vital energies of the body politic. (emphasis added) Hence the government ought so far to assume the direction, as to see to it that the benefit of the school system is extended to all parts of the community.'"
"We have here the doctrine of free schools with the correlative doctrine of compulsory attendance. In advocating this doctrine Superintendent Pierce was in advance of the public sentiment of his time. He insisted, nevertheless, that it was a logical conclusion from the premises which had been laid down. He said: 'In all this there is nothing inconsistent with rational liberty. It is merely providing for the safety of the State, for its health, happiness, and vigorous growth. This duty stands on precisely the same ground as the law which obliges all the citizens to be enrolled and occasionally do military duty. It is a wise precautionary measure for the public security. * * * Most certainly nothing can be more desirable, and nothing more reasonable. The object to be attained is the welfare of the individual instructed and the security of the State. To secure this object, the instruction must be given; and hence the state has a right to require the education of all children and youth, and impose upon all to whom their management and care is committed, the duty of educating them; and if they can not do it themselves, to send them to the public schools. (emphasis added)'"

In his second report, Pierce continued to solidify his vision of a public education system:

"In laying the foundations of a new state, it is all important to provide, not only for the education of every individual of the present, but of each one of all succeeding generations. Unless ample provision is made for each individual of all classes, we can have no security that the great mass will ever be educated; for the great whole is made up of individuals. * * * Laws should be so framed in all cases, as to leave unimpaired, and in all its force, individual responsibility. It is the duty of parents to educate their children; and no legislative enactment should interfere with this obligation. But it is well known that this duty is neglected in innumerable instances. It is hence the right of the state so far to interpose its paternal authority, as to give additional might to this obligation, and make such provisions as will secure the desired result (emphasis added). And it is exceedingly desirable that such a system be ultimately adopted as will make it the interest as well as the duty of each individual to unite and cooperate with all others in accomplishing an object worthy the highest consideration. * * * The truth is the only rational security the great body of the people can have, is to be found in the general diffusion of knowledge among themselves (emphasis added). But so generally do parents, unaided by sanction and encouragement of law, neglect the education of their children, that the great mass will remain uneducated, and the multitude of the rising generation grow up in ignorance of their duties as citizens of one vast commonwealth, unless the state effectually interpose its rightful authority, and make adequate provision for the instruction of all classes. * * * There is and can be no security of individual rights, persons, or property, except in an educated and virtuous community. In no other will liberty or life be regarded. But though an educated community may not necessarily be a virtuous, and hence a safe community, yet it is true in fact that an ignorant people are generally a vicious people. In the midst of such a people, free institutions never did and never can long subsist and flourish. Nothing but the strong arm of power can impose upon them such restraints as will keep them in subjugation to law and the rights of government."

Putnam, Daniel (1904). The Development of Primary and Secondary Public Education in Michigan: A Historical Sketch. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Retrieved from Google Books

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My (affluent) school is doing well, it's your (poor) school that's the problem

Jay Matthews included the following on-target observation in his Washington Post Class Struggle blog titled Is our neighborhood school really bad?:

It is wrongheaded and unproductive to judge schools by the family backgrounds of the students, but we all do it.
Whenever I interview people around the country about their local schools, they tend to praise those where most of the students are affluent and criticize those where most are poor. Having a large number of black or Hispanic students will also hurt a school's reputation, but in most cases, such schools also have a majority of children whose parents never went to college and don't make much money. It is class, not race, that makes the big difference.
Children from low-income families have a disadvantage. On average, they don't get the same opportunities to learn in their early years that affluent children do. It is difficult to catch up when you start far behind. That reduces the average test scores of the schools they attend. 

Wouldn't it be wonderful if our state legislature and governor would have some kind of epiphany similar to Matthews' comments that would lead them to solve Michigan's school funding inequities?

Just dreaming.

Related posts:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jefferson on Public Education

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." ~ Thomas Jefferson

This being the 236 anniversary of the founding of our democratic republic, I thought it fitting to revisit the views of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third president regarding public education, in his own words.

“The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” 1786 letter to George Wythe, A Crusade Against Ignorance

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. . . An amendment to our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all people." 1806 State of the Union

"I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." 1810 letter to John Tyler, Schools and “Little Republics”

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.” 1816 letter to P.S. DuPont de Nemours, Constitutionally and Conscientiously Democrats

“If the children are untaught their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.” 1818 letter to Joseph C Cabell

“The truth is that the want of common education with us is not from our poverty but from the want of an orderly system. More money is now paid for the education of a part than would be paid for that of the whole if systematically arranged.” Thomas Jefferson, 1820 letter to Joseph C Cabell