January 3, 2007

Today's Edu-Twit

As usual, today's edu-twit is an education professor, Bruce Fuller, writing in the SF Chronicle about how Democrats should fix education:

Overall, the newly empowered Democrats are faced with a nettlesome dilemma when it comes to education reform: offer light dollops of economic relief to swing voters who have drifted from the GOP, or act to dramatically improve high schools, making college a real option for millions of working-class youths. The latter priority holds less appeal for many suburban moderates who already benefit from fine public schools.

High Schools aren't the problem so much as kids getting to high school without the skills necessary to succeed in high school. You can't succeed in high school if you get there reading at a fifth grade level and unable to manipulate fractions.

And, it isn't the "suburban moderates who already benefit from fine public schools" it's the fine public schools benefiting from the suburban moderates who on average tend to have kids who are smarter and better prepared than the average bear, and, therefore, easier to educate. The one great thing about NCLB is that we have all this disaggregated data on the performance of poor and minority kids showing that they're not performing any better in the "fine public schools" than they are in the decrepit inner city ones. It is the less visible rot that is the most harmful--the rot at the instructional level.

The equally prickly dilemma is that any serious attack on achievement gaps means a stronger federal role in raising the quality of high schools, widening the student pipeline into public universities.

Yeah, the Feds have done such a swell job so far improving the education outcomes of the poor. The ESEA did nothing to improve education and inserted a bunch of perverse incentives to boot. NCLB put some teeth into the ESEA, but improvement remains elusive so far.

But upcoming hearings over the federal school reforms are likely to get down and dirty, a dusty wrangling with the nation's governors who complain of Washington's micro-management of local schools.

Micr0-management? I don't think that word means what you think it means. NCLB permits states to define their own standards, define what it means to be proficient in those standards, and define the testing instruments to measure proficiency. Furthermore, schools are permitted to do whatever they want to achieve proficiency. This is micro-management? It's closer to the wild west if you ask me.

Three recent studies have detailed how "No Child" -- as implemented by the Bush administration -- has done little to narrow disparities in learning, despite bipartisan promises made five years ago. In California, achievement gaps between students from poor and better-off families have actually widened in middle schools since 2003, presaging an escalating count of high-school drop outs.

Is this a problem of NCLB or a problem of schools' response to NCLB, which has been tepid. NCLB basically gives schools enough freedom to do what they want to improve. In this sense schools have been given enough rope to lasso the calf or hang themselves. Most schools seem to be choosing the latter course.

Democrats must demonstrate to swing voters how a sustained attack on achievement gaps -- from spawning smaller, more engaging high schools to expanding preschools -- will yield a more productive workforce, fueling growth in middle-class jobs.

A trifecta of idiocy. Ask the Gates foundation how that small schools initiative worked out. Not so good. How do you make high schools more "engaging" to improve performance. That's what we need more of--vague bromides with no proven track record. And, speaking of a lack of a proven track record, how exactly is "expanding preschools" going to help, especially if we let those who are presently running the failed schools run the pre-schools?

The nation's literacy rate is now in decline, dragged down by youths who acquire few skills in mediocre high schools, who come to feel little stake in civil society.

Actually, the NAEP shows that the literacy rate has been flat, not declining. The problem is that it remains flat at a low level of literacy. Literacy depends on a combination of decoding skills and the acquisition of background knowledge and vocabulary. Both are the province of elementary and middle schools -- not high schools.

Middle-class Americans, worried about economic security and fairness, will applaud the Democratic pitch to restore six years of Republican cuts in student aid. But costly policy options that assist children of well-off parents to enter Ivy League universities will test the populist rhetoric of the Democrats. It will also reveal how the new Congress weighs expedient fixes against serious efforts to address inequality.

A cut to the growth rate is not the same as an actual cut. The Feds haven't made any cuts to anything substantial in a long time. It's not the lack of aid that's hindering college graduation, it's the lack of skills being acquired in K-12 that's doing the damage.

I'm still waiting to hear some "serious efforts to address inequality." None were set forth in this article.


Anonymous said...

It's sad because it sounds like we actually know how to help low achievers: Introduce a small amount of new material at a time, provide explicit, direct instruction, provide plenty of practice, and then reinforce with distributed practice. Then provide feedback to parents, students and teachers with frequent assessments.

Applying these ideas could make an enormous difference in so many lives.

Catherine Johnson said...

Again I ask, Who are these suburban moderates who already benefit from fine public schools?

Down with the Washington consensus!

Kill the meme!

Catherine Johnson said...

it isn't the "suburban moderates who already benefit from fine public schools" it's the fine public schools benefiting from the suburban moderates

Hear! Hear!

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed had said, just the other day, that the statistic we need to be looking at for affluent schools is: percent of students who graduate from college in 4 - 6 years.

About five seconds after he said that a friend came over and said, "I'm hearing about kids dropping out of college."

Which is interesting, because I'm hearing the same thing. I know personally 4 kids who graduated from Irvington High School, went to college, and dropped out by the end of their first year.

The goal is to go back to college after taking some time off to decompress, and I think 2 of them may be re-enrolled at this point (though I'm not sure).

Still, I don't remember my high school friends and acquaintances dropping out of college. Even kids who would today be diagnosed with LD went to college and graduated 4 years later.

My friend knew two more kids who'd dropped out, one of them apparently for good.

This is a very small district, with only 120 - 150 kids per graduating class. The kids we know who've dropped out are, with the exception of one, the obviously intelligent children of college-educated parents.

Catherine Johnson said...

Another parent here told me that his child, who is now in college, is having a hard time of it because he lacks background knowledge.

Both the child and the parent perceive lack of background knowledge to be the problem, and I'm sure it is the problem.

This student will make it; the issue isn't dropping out. But the student says that the students at his school who attended private school are far better prepared.

KDeRosa said...

I think there are two stats affluent parents want to know -- percent of students graduating college in a reasonable amount of time and the percent of students requiring remediation in college.

Anonymous said...

Fuller resorts to the politics of class to push his opinion of education and his opinion of a democratic platform. Can he possibly understand that others don't think like he does? Can he ever separate his opinion from right versus wrong, or party politics? Can he see that it's nothing more than his own opinion. Just because you (think you) are operating with no self-interest, it doesn't mean that you are correct.

I have a hard time explaining how I feel when I read an article like his. Ken says it all, but still, this guy's brain is on another planet. It's kind of like how I feel about our state newspaper's coverage of education topics. Everything is about unions, contracts, minimal NCLB standards, and I'm over here waving my arms talking about assumptions, curricula, teaching methods, and high expectations. Those questions are not on the table, and there is no way to get them on the table. It's difficult when many filter everything through suspicious political sunglasses. I want these people to get off the party bus and think and talk for themselves.

Can Fuller EVER consider that what he proposes is wrong for those he presumes to help?

Anonymous said...

When I arrived at my college in the 60's, we were told that about 1/3 the class will drop out. e are forgetting that it isn't only background knowledge the kids lack it is self dicipline. That was a major cause of drops outs and I'm sure still is.

Anonymous said...

From the first comment (from robynw):

It's sad because it sounds like we actually know how to help low achievers: Introduce a small amount of new material at a time, provide explicit, direct instruction, provide plenty of practice, and then reinforce with distributed practice.

You forgot to mention that they must be in a homogeneous class. None of this mixed-ability classroom, differentiation garbage.

Anonymous said...

We've debated ability grouping on this site and on Kitchen Table Math. The devil is in the details. And at the elementary level, the research is dated and inconclusive.

Where do you put the kid who is very strong in math, but average in reading? Or the average reader who is weak in math? At the elementary level, a student's placement may be optimal for one subject, but not for another.

Also, the old-style tracking system was found unconstitutional by at least one court because minority students were segregated in the bottom tracks.

Then there's flexible-ability grouping, where kids are grouped by ability for each subject based on skill level and achievement. This is a good idea, but the question is how early do you want to implement it? As early as first grade? Should we have kids going to different classes that early?

What about competing interests? Although others disagree, I think in early elementary school, socializing kids is an important goal. Having kids change classes for each subject does not necessarily further that goal.

Having said that, I WOULD separate by ability in math even in early elementary school. That's because of the cumulative nature of math. Our school does differentiated instruction in reading, and it seems to work okay. Then as the kids get older, I would introduce more ability grouping.

Others would design different programs, and some would group by ability from the begining. So perhaps the remedy for the schools is not as obvious as I implied in my initial comment. The devil is in the details.

Alex Gutman said...

A company based out of Bangalore, India, TutorVista - www.tutorvista.com - is making waves across oceans, and cites one of their inspirations to offer their services in the US are the failures of NCLB; specifically with regard to after school tutoring programs. It is discussed in this TIME article:


I'm sure they will receive market traction in the near future. Here are some FAQ's from their website that you will find quite informative:

How hard is it to use?

TutorVista is as easy to use as Skype, Yahoo Messenger with Voice or Google Talk. The student logs in, initiates a tutoring session and talks naturally with the tutor using a headphone with an attached microphone. Both student and tutor communicate using a whiteboard that is easy and intuitive to use - they can write or draw on it, with both seeing what is being written or drawn.

How good are the tutors?

TutorVista only hires experienced tutors - all have graduate degrees and teaching credentials. The tutors undergo weeks of intensive training and pass stringent certification exams. Our tutors adhere to national and state academic standards and curricula. Our competitive exam tutors for SAT, GRE, GMAT and other exams are all top scorers in that exam.

Is the instruction personalized for every student?

Absolutely! TutorVista's tutoring process begins with the student taking an assessment test that calibrates the student's proficiency in various topics. We then develop a comprehensive learning plan for the student focusing on the topics that need more attention, to help the student achieve his or her academic goals. One student per tutor ensures that every student receives 100% attention of the tutor. The student typically uses the same tutor every time thus ensuring continuity.

In yet another shifting paradigm, I feel that teachers must keep abreast of the latest technologies that will assist their students throughout their schooling years.