Do you regard the following statement as bigoted or as pragmatic?
The education system should expect students with higher socio-economic status (SES) to outperform students with lower SES, and should not hold schools or teachers responsible for these differences.
How about this one?
Of the 1 million very poor students who will be entering Kindergarten this year, schools should strive that 25% of them reach reading proficiency, 15% reach math proficiency, and 60% graduate high school.
These are complex questions.
If we hold students from poorer environments to a lower standard than students from richer ones, aren't we dooming them? Wouldn't this mean they ended up with poorer skills, did not reach their full potential, and tended to end up having fewer career and life options?
If we hold schools accountable for high performance education for all, but ignore the fact that SES is the strongest influence on academic performance, aren't we trying to build castles in the sky?
Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr
This isn't just an academic question. This dilemma is going to be the core of the debate in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), recently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Looking at the second statement, current figures are that, for those 1 million students, 17% reach reading proficiency, 8% reach math proficiency, and 50% graduate. Do we accept a goal of marked improvement (and large numbers of failed students) or do we demand total achievement?
Before the accountability for results that was engineered into NCLB by the Bush administration, the education establishment proved to be immovable. Large numbers of children didn't learn even the basics. But, because there was no measurement, there were no data, there were no standards, and there were no consequences for failure, administrators, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians were able to ignore the issues.
Image by Wesley Fryer via Flickr
NCLB made a quantum change. Achievement levels were established by the states. Student knowledge was tested. Teachers and schools were held accountable.
Yet, large numbers of children still aren't learning the basics. Large numbers of schools (some would say over 70%) are in danger of being labeled as failing. Administrators, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians have learned to game the system, becoming adept at demonstrating increasing student achievement levels based on test scores even when actual student skills and knowledge are not improving.
The data indicates that there is a high correlation between schools with lower achievement and schools whose students exhibit slower growth. Thus, the schools that are doing the most poorly tend also to be the schools that have been least able to improve. Some schools improve, like Bruce Randolph School in Colorado, which was singled out by President Obama. But even model schools like Bruce Randolph aren't improving their students fast enough. Take a child that is three years behind in grade 8. In order to catch up by grade 12, four years later, that child would have to progress at a rate of practically two grade levels each year. Bruce Randolph isn't improving at that rapid a rate, and so is likely to appear on the list of failing schools even with their promise and progress.
Current policy dictates that schools fail if they do not catch students up to grade level within three years. If a student is already two years behind at the end of third grade (the first year of mandated testing), is it reasonable to fail the school if the child cannot all of a sudden start progressing at a rate of 1.7 years per school year? But otherwise, are we just giving up on the student?
Are we even testing the right things? Do the tests really reflect student achievement levels?
There is no shortage of solutions being proposed:
- Fire teachers when student test scores do not reach adequate levels
- Reduce the cost of education materials by using more free public materials to free up money for better uses
- Reduce teacher pay or benefits to free money for better uses
- Increase class sizes to free money for better uses
- Give parents more choice on where to send their children, while reducing the actual amount spent on education per child
- Spend more time assessing higher level skills
- Establish national standards and national testing that cannot be gamed
- Ease standards over a longer time
- Use technology to develop individual learning plans for students, and then somehow let students learn at their own optimal pace with teachers tailoring materials to each student's needs
- Extend the school year and/or school day, and somehow do this without increasing costs
- Find better teachers, and rid the system of the bad ones
- Only use techniques, software, tools, and content whose efficacy has been proven in scientific studies
- Ensure that all teachers follow exactly the same curriculum and schedules, while at the same time encouraging teachers to be more creative and innovative
- Test more, or test less
I wonder if the situation in education today is at all similar to women's workplace rights twenty years ago. Women were, as they often still are, discriminated against in the workplace. They didn't earn as much as men. They were often passed over for promotions. They often were not given the best assignments.
At that time Felice Schwartz promoted a radical idea which became known as the mommy track. Some women were willing to step out of the corporate rat race in order to have and raise a family, but those women could still be major contributors and could decide to fully re-engage when their children passed certain thresholds. Other women were dedicated to their career, just as men were regarded as dedicated to their careers.
At the time, Felice was lambasted as pushing women's rights back 50 years. Yet, she proved remarkably prescient. Today, many men and women consciously make quality of life decisions about their jobs and careers without stigma.
Do we need to make a similarly unpopular statement about education? Should we acknowledge that, no matter what we do, there will be some inequalities in educational opportunities, even in public education within the same state? Or, as a society, do we want to insist that educational opportunities should be equal for all children?
By accepting separate and not equal, are we inflicting bad schools on children in certain locations? Or are we just accommodating reality and providing some baseline to everyone that is within our means?
If we resolutely say that all public education has to be equal, will this drive large numbers of parents to remove their children from the public education system? How would that affect their willingness to pay for public education?
Would it be political suicide for a politician or bureaucrat to admit that they are not committed to providing the same level of education for all public school students?
Here is my fear. We adopt policies that hold teachers and schools solely responsible for all students passing through graduation. This gives us the temporary satisfaction of being able to say we are doing something concrete, and by the time we find out that the results don't change, we'll be at least two election cycles further along, and the next group of politicians can deal with the issues.
Or, maybe we can have a more honest and open debate about what we can and should expect of the education system.