September 8, 2009

Obama Harangues Students, Still Clueless on Ed Policy

Update: After surveying the edusphere, the consensus seems to be that the President's speech was mostly innocuous, perhaps a little uplifting, and by golly them youngsters needed to be reminded about the value of hard work. Nuts to that. At best it was a waste of our time. I believe that schol-age children are mostly rational actors. They know the value of hard work. And, they know the value of acquiring a good education. What they do not see is how working hard for thirteen long years is going to end with their acquiring that education since, try as they might, they always end up at the bottom of the class. What's more foolish to give up or to work hard in light of the daily stream of data telling you that you're a failure? So, the President's oratorical skills might lead to a temporarily up-lifting of spirits, but don't expect it to last afetr the results of the next test. What Obama missed was an opportunity to address the real problems in education: why aren't some students doing well in school and how should we go about changing that. (And I edited the post for readability which was awful in version one and is slightly less awful now.)

The Obama Administration continued its muddled approach to education today in the President's speech to American school children. The administration's policy on education is based on the politician's fallacy.

  • We must do something
  • This is something
  • Therefore, we must do this.
Previously, the Administration's "this" was to spend lots of money (how many more times do you think we'll be able to double the deficit before we can't do "this" anymore) and give the unsustainable spending binge a fancy slogan ("race to the top").

In today's speech, the other shoe dropped for America's students. The Race to the Top money came with some strings attached. (Though kudos, mr. President, for keeping the "dear leader" aspects to a minimum.)

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Actually, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the "best" schools (whatever that means), AND students taking responsibility for their education and still not wind up with academic success at the end of the day.

By stressing the student responsibility part of the equation in today's speech, Obama is implying that all the other preconditions for school success are already in place for students who take responsibility for their education to succeed -- which is patent nonsense.

I could point to plenty of well-funded schools with dedicated teachers and supportive parents with plenty of student failure disproportionately affecting the black, Hispanic, and poor students. Take for example the Radnor Middle School and The Napa High School that I blogged about back in 2007. Or Philly's Science Leadership Academy or the School of the Future.

In fact, I could also point to many schools that aren't so well-funded, with apathetic parents, and middling teachers in which plenty of students still succeed. Of course, you'll have to go back to the dark days of the 70s to find less than well-funded schools, where you'll also find a population that was far less wealthy and less educated, and where many parents believed their responsibility for education ended with paying school taxes and making sure the their kids went to school on a somewhat regular basis.

Obama's list of pre-conditions of academic success is both under and over inclusive. And, that's being generous. A less generous interpretation is that the Obama administration is just as clueless as their predecessors when it comes to education policy. They don't know what's wrong with education policy, nor do they know how to fix it. But, they know something needs to be done and by god they mean to do something about it. Or at least look like their care and are doing something about it. Because that's how you get re-elected without having to show actual results. That's also why the public sector underperforms the private sector.

No doubt that's why Obama's team chose Arlington's Wakefield High to deliver his speech. Symbolism. Wakefield High has all the right symbolism.

  • Wonderfully diverse student body for celebration purposes;
  • Fashionable diverse leadership, also for celebration purposes;
  • Has own Twitter account;
  • Believes in the magic of smartboards;
  • Making adequate yearly progress across the board under NCLB (thanks to VA's pitifully low standards) (p. 9);
  • Voluntaryily under School Improvement Plan demonstrating the helping (though not heavy-handed) hand of government;
  • Involved parents;
  • Technology, technology, technology;
  • Passes the ten minutes with Google "Nothing-Blatantly-Controversial"Test.

What's there not to like?

At least that's what the underling who vetted Wakefield high was probably thinking.

But I'm guessing he or she didn't have the math skills to understand (or at least didn't dig deep enough into) the Virginia Department of Education's very own report card on Wakefield High. Symbolism isn't very effective when the hard date shows chronic failure. And make no mistake about it, Wakefield High is a typical failing high school in which many students would rationally have no interest in working hard. This directly undermines the message in Obama's speech and whatever symbolic value Wakefield high was choosen for. So, let's take a look at wakefield high's data.

I suppose our unknown vetter stopped at page 4 of the report which shows black and Hispanic students performing within about three percentage point of whites based on pass rates. That's close enough for government work. It's also a statistical artifact of having a very high pass rate, such as Virginia's. When the pass rates are very high (or very low for that matter) the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students appears to be small. But, it isn't.

Trust me, the achievement gap is alive and well at Wakefield High as you can see with your own lying eyes on pages 10 to 18 in which subgroup performance data is laid bare (thank you NCLB). In particular, you want to look at the scores for the Advanced category which is a) a tougher standard, b) with a lower pass rate, and c) required but not used for anything under NCLB.

2008 English (Reading) - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 25% (1% above state average)
Hispanic: 23% (8% below state average)
White: 75% (18% above state average)
Achievement gap: 50% (holy cow)

2008 English (Reading) - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 18% (2% above state average)
Hispanic: 13% (6% below state average)
White: 62% (22% above state average)
Achievement gap: 44% (yikes)

2008 Geometry - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 5% (2% below state average)
Hispanic: 8% (7% below state average)
White: 34% (5% above state average)
Achievement gap: 29% (ouch)

2008 Algebra II - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 9% (2% below state average)
Hispanic: 14% (3% below state average)
White: 30% (2% above state average)
Achievement gap: 21% (ouch again)

On and on it goes for nine depressing pages. (The only subject without an achievement gap is Algebra I, but that's what you'd expect with a pass rate below 10% in a "restricted range" course.)

Wakefield High needs to celebrate its diversity because that's about all it has to celebrate.

Wakefield High is the poster child for the Obama Administration. Since the administration doesn't know how to reduce the achievement gap (and lacks the power to in any event), it'll be sure to befuddle you with tables and graphs to disguise the gap. And, it'll celebrate diversity to assure you don't look behind the numbers and to insulate itself from criticism.

Not caring about school isn't a cause of student failure; it's an effect acquired through years of trying and not being able to succeed in school. It's the result of a system that provides an education that many students are unable to access. And, as Wakefield High shows, celebrating diversity doesn't make academics any more accessible. Nor does having a black principle lacking a Y chromosome. Nor does living in the mecca of government sinecures and diversity make-work jobs. And, so much for twitter and smartboard being an educational panacea.

So, yes, by all means, blame the students for failing to take responsibility. That's an excuse as convenient as any for a politician.


Unknown said...

Good post, but I just have to point out that today's speech was to students, not teachers, not tax-payers, not lawmakers or administrators.

You are right that student responsibility is only one small piece of the puzzle, but when talking to students, that is the piece that makes sense to talk about. If he had spent his classroom speech talking about how bad our teachers are, or how hopelessly underfunded our schools are, it wouldn't make for a very helpful message to students.

Now let's just see if he finds other venues to deliver those very important messages...

Anonymous said...

Ken, you should have stayed away from your blog. Your post today is six kinds of idiocy wrapped in a blanket of hubris.


KDeRosa said...

Sam, I agree, If you are going to give one speech on education this year wouldn't you focus on the best bang for your buck.

Michael, providing a coherent rationale for your opinion would improve your advocacy.

Ari-free said...

Kids: work hard on your failed curriculum. Keep pushing to discover 50 methods for adding 2 numbers together. Impress me by writing a 5 page essay on what your favorite number is and why.


TurbineGuy said...

Well crap... if Obama giving weak policy speeches to get you pissed off enough to post, then someone get cue up the teleprompter.

My comment: The kids who actually paid attention to the speech are not the ones who it was addressed to.

Wow... I didn't realize Virgina had such a low bar set for NCLB.

Anonymous said...

no, *this* is what pissed us enough to post:


Freeven said...

I assume regular readers know what you are alluding to, but perhaps you could spell it out for a newcomer: what's the missing ingredient that is preventing well-funding schools with dedicated teachers, supportive parents, and responsible students from succeeding?

KDeRosa said...

At the margin, the missing ingedient is better instruction which includes everything that takes place in the classroom between the teacher and the learner.

Further out, for some students, however, we don't have instruction that is good enough. But, that means that we need to try harder to improve, not them.

Even further out from the margin, there are some students that may never be able to access the curriculum regardless of the quality of the instruction. I don't know if there will ever be a solution for this group, but I know their trying harder isn't giving to be more fruitful.

Anonymous said...

Obama never stated his position on education during the election and he's still not clear about what he believes. The importance of this speech means he knows less than all of us imagined, nor does he understand the struggles most children go through at school.

My education 40 years ago was far more productive and resilient than what my own children are going through - I've given up on public education. I hired private teachers to prepare my kids for their futures and moved one out of state. School reform futueo et caballum tuum.