January 29, 2008

Dan Brown has been socially promoted

Dan Brown, author of “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle,” is guest blogging at eduwonkette today on mayor Bloomberg's new policy aimed at ending social promotion.

Let's see what a year in the trenches has taught Dan.

Bloomberg is proposing retaining eighth graders who fail one of the state tests or a core class. Brown thinks he knows the reason why these kids are failing:

Students come to school with low academic skills for a variety of reasons. In New York, many are faultless victims of the ever-present crush of poverty and its far-reaching tentacles. The school system’s obsession with high-stakes testing— a game struggling students are poorly equipped to play— exacerbates their frustration. Their self-esteem levels are rock bottom and oppositional behavior often takes root. Can you blame them?

Underlying this argument, which is masterfully hidden by Brown's use of the passive voice, is the premise: New York City schools don't know how to educate kids who come to school with low academic skills. Ultimately that is the root problem. Fixing poverty or eliminating NCLB, as Brown implies, won't fix that condition.

Poverty correlates with low academic skills, but no one has been able to prove that poverty causes low academic skills. And, No one has been able to show, outside of Kozol's and Rothstein's overactive imaginations, that eliminating poverty will improve these low academic skills.

Students who aren't learning in school receive a constant stream of negative feedback on a daily basis telling them that they are failures. Failing a NCLB test is just one drop in this tidal wave of negative feedback. Blaming NCLB for this condition is a large, disingenuous stretch.

Blindly pushing struggling students forward (social promotion) is not the answer, but neither is holding them back for another lap around a failed track. Retaining low-achieving students does not improve their academic future; in fact it often does quite the opposite.

The struggling student conundrum can’t be solved with false choices like the ones offered in the social promotion political debate, but with serious assessments of the short-term and long-term needs of students.

Oddly enough, Brown is complaining about false choices while giving us his own false choices. Why does moving a student to the next grade have to be done "blindly" and why does retaining a student have to be for "another lap around a failed track." These are false choice too.

Brown correctly identifies that these kids need remediation, but the underlying question is how best to deliver that needed remediation (short term solution) and how to prevent it from happening in the future (long term solution). Unfortunately, Brown flubs both answers, as you'll soon see.

The short-term answer for failing students is a major investment in remediation and individualized support. Clearly, the traditional classroom set-up isn’t working for these students.

Brown's short term solution relies on magic, specifically the magic of the "major investment" platitude. According to School Matters, New York City was spending $15,455 per student back in 2005. Dan, that is a major investment already. Spending even more, didn't help Kansas City, and it isn't going to help NYC either.

Disappointingly, Brown's long term solution also relies on the same magic.
Many of Bloomberg and Klein’s school reforms are dynamic and exciting, but the ones that they have not yet made are essential. A more substantial up-front investment in supporting all students will pay manifold dividends.

No doubt because it's worked so well in the past.

At least Brown gives us an idea how he'd spend the money this time: on hackneyed bromides naturally.

  • preschool -- Brought to you by the same clowns running every other grade.
  • reduced class size -- Another expensive bromide with dubious results.
  • more skills tutoring -- Brought to you by the same people who didn't know how to do correctly it the first time around.
  • more counseling -- In what? Coping with failure?
  • supervisors more concerned with the student's real needs, not test scores -- Except that the the student's real needs are learning all the fundamental skills being measured by the test scores.

Brown, naturally, blames NCLB for denying these things to students. That's like blaming the thermometer for cold weather and thinking that breaking the thermometer will bring warmer weather.

Brown channels Marx for his big conclusion:

Bloomberg is an expert of the business sphere, but bottom-line-driven business models are an ill fit for the education of young human beings. Focusing on holding struggling students back rather than intensively attending to their academic needs is tantamount to blaming the victims. Many socially promoted students have unwittingly suffered the collateral damage of suffocating poverty at home and a depersonalized, test-obsessed regime at school. It’s time they had some doors opened for them, not slammed in their faces.

Too bad half-baked Marxism and circular reason haven't quite had the successful track record that Brown is hoping for.

If these arguments are any indication of the writing in his Brown's book, my advice to you is not to waste your money.


Downes said...

I find it interesting that you choose to trash Brown's recommendations after he has spent a year, as you say, "in the trenches". One wonders what in that experience would make him so wrong about everything he says?

Or maybe... based on his on the ground observations... what he says is in fact right.

And maybe the bias is in the criticism. Brown's 'big conclusion', far from being a restatement of Marx, could have been cribbed almost word for word from John Stuart Mill as he calls for the alleviation of poverty and universal education.

Moreover, you write, "Poverty correlates with low academic skills, but no one has been able to prove that poverty causes low academic skills."

It's not simply that it correlates, it persistently correlates, and all manner of bandaid fixes - up to and including NCLB - haven't made the slighest dent on that correlation. Moreover, many explanations have been advanced linking poverty and low attainment: poor nutrition, the lack of resources, the lower expectations, the different socialization.

One wonders: given all of this, what would for you constitute proof? Is there anything that would climb your mountain of doubt and allow you to agree that, yes, reforms that directly address basic social inequalities will be necessary to improve learning outcomes?

After all - it has worked for places like Canada, Finland, and all those other nations with significant government interventions in both the economy and the education system. Why would Americans somehow be immune from poverty - or unable to benefit from its alleviation.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, you are appealing to authority. Plus, being in the trenches doesn't necessarily confer any authority. Was Brown successful in raising student achievement? I don't know, do you?

With respect to poverty and education, I posted about it here.

Correlation, persistent correlation, what's the difference? Can you discount the possibility that some third factor causes both poverty and low student achievement. Here's one possible third factor -- low IQ. Loe IQ correlates with both poverty and low student performance.

What we lack is causation. What we lack is something showing that raising people out of poverty increases student achievement. What do you have? I've found nothing.

There are many poor and illiterate people in both Canada and Finland according to the UN. What are you referring to?

KDeRosa said...

and all manner of bandaid fixes - up to and including NCLB - haven't made the slighest dent on that correlation.

There is one large counterexample, project follow through in which one educational intervention raised student performance of the poor students by about standard deviation without having to raise them out of poverty.

Cal said...

Leaving aside the cause, the grade/promotion system is just absurd these days. Why not have a high school readiness test? If you pass the test, you go to high school. You don't pass the test, you go to a special school where you focus solely on passing that test.

None of this nonsense about making kids repeat 8th grade, which won't do a thing.

Linda Seebach said...

KDR says, "Underlying this argument, which is masterfully hidden by Brown's use of the passive voice, is the premise . . ."

Sorry, no sentences in the passive voice in that paragraph.

KDeRosa said...

You are right, Linda, I was a bit overzealous in my description. Brown's hiding of the premise is more sophisticated than a voice change.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the reason that correlation between poverty and academic skills is so difficult to establish is because there are so many additional inequalities. Poverty also correlates with less experienced teachers on average, a higher percentage of teachers teaching out of field, larger class sizes, teachers with lower SATs prior to college, fewer computers, etc. etc. etc.

Level the playing field and it's easier to establish causation. On the other hand, when you measure the achievement of low income kids and correlate to the percentage of of low income kids in their school, I believe the findings are that scores go up as percentages go down.

KDeRosa said...


You are confusing correlation with causation.

It's easy to show the correlation, but tye causation has not yet been shown. Given the correlation between poverty and academic achievemment, there are four possible interpretations: 1. poverty causes academic failure, 2. academic failure causes poverty, some third factor causes both academic failure and poverty, or 4. it's a coincidence.

Pointing to other "leveling the playingfield" correlations don't remedy the causal deficiency. In fact one way to show that your "levling the playing field" hypothesis is inaccurate, is examine student performance of the poor under level conditions. One way to do this is ti examine the performance of the poor at wealthy suburban school districts. What you find is that the achievement gap remians at these level playing field schools too, especially considering that the poor in these schools are less poor than the students in urban school districts. Here's a good example.

Maybe Stephen Downes can explain this phenomenon for us.

Anonymous said...

"Poverty also correlates with less experienced teachers on average, a higher percentage of teachers teaching out of field, larger class sizes, teachers with lower SATs prior to college, fewer computers, etc. etc. etc."

This is such an urban/suburban perspective. Having lived, taught and had my own children in schools in small towns, I found the more affluent kids generally did better than less affluent, in spite of attending the same schools and even preschools. The poor kids are adequately fed lunch and breakfast by the school, so hunger isn't likely the issue (based on the obesity rate they don't likely miss dinner either). Dumping in more money to "level the playing field" seems a dubious answer."

JS, Juneau, Alaska