Monday, March 23, 2009

What's Wrong with Obama's Approach to Education

In President Obama’s recent education speech, he proposed the creation of national standards, more accountability and merit-based pay for teachers, a longer school day, increased funding for special programs, and expansion of charter schools. He showed that he recognizes the vital role that education plays in a vibrant society and that he is serious about funding our schools. However, his ideas don’t reflect an understanding of the teaching and learning process at its best, or of how to build public institutions that would offer high-quality education.

Merit-based pay as well as the method for designating schools as failing or passing would most likely be based, as it has been since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (N.C.L.B.), on standardized tests. Obama’s policies as stated in his recent speech would continue the misuse of standardized tests that is already under way and reinforced by education “reformers” like Arne Duncan, our current Secretary of Education, and high-profile school chancellors (And, what, by the way, is up with this change in title? What happened to good old “superintendent”? Are we trying to emulate the British university system and its reinforcement of classism?) such as Joel Klein of the New York City Public Schools and Michelle Rhee of the D.C. Public Schools. Jeremy Miller’s account in the September 2008 edition of
Harper’s Magazine of his year as a Kaplan coach in New York Public Schools paints a depressing picture of how, under Klein's watch, millions of dollars each year are taken away from New York City Public School classrooms to line the pockets of test-prep companies like Kaplan (not to mention the time taken away from teachers to teach content) while students’ education suffers. Miller's story also caused me to wonder if there might be a connection between Joel Klein’s cultivation and close mentorship of Rhee and The Washington Post’s (which owns Kaplan) incessantly glowing reports of Rhee and decision to remove from their beat Metro desk education reporters too critical of her tenure. Might there be a lucrative contract in the future for Kaplan at D.C.P.S.? Perhaps not, but at the very best, the Post is guilty of lazy and sycophantic journalism, and of the same short-sighted thinking Obama is.

Standardized tests do serve some purposes: with other tools, they should be used to help diagnose a student’s current academic abilities, strengths, and weaknesses; to help inform teachers’ teaching of their students; and, yes, to help measure student progress. Standardized tests are a fact of life—for better or worse, they are not going away any time soon. Normally, those who score well on them are those who come from backgrounds of education, power, and affluence. To fail to prepare the children who do not come from similar backgrounds to take and score well on such tests would be doing them a disservice. That being said, the test itself should be one of many measures of a student’s progress, of a school’s quality, and of a teacher’s impact and effectiveness; the tests and their results should be a means to a quality education, and not the end. I do not want a doctor who was trained to score high on his medical board exams but who lacks hands-on medical experience or knowledge of how to work with patients; likewise, I do not want our nation’s children to finish school knowing how to take and score well on a test but without being practiced and versed in critical reading, thinking, and analysis; scientific research; creative composition and interpretation of art, music, and writing; mathematical problem solving; knowledge of geography and history and their patterns; active civic engagement, and making healthy choices. Very few standardized tests currently measure the type of knowledge I just described.

If Obama wants to treat teachers as the professionals they are, he should start with not simply dividing them into “good” and “bad.” Surely, an intellectual like President Obama can be more thoughtful. Teachers have areas of expertise and interests; they have strengths and weaknesses. Why not talk about a system that builds on teachers’ strengths and strives to resolve their weaknesses and that finds the best ways to put their interests and areas of expertise to use? Sure, there are some teachers we could call “good” and some we could call “bad” but such descriptors are not productive, nor do they do justice to the complexity of what leads a teacher to be successful or not. Moreover, most teachers didn’t start out being effective or ineffective; they started out being passionate but inexperienced. I wish Obama and his reformers would first conduct an examination of how public education systems work effectively and how they work deficiently and dysfunctionally, how they turn inspired teachers into “bad” and ineffective ones. How do under-performing systems make those teachers that way and how do more successful systems work to produce more effective teachers? Until we can answer those questions, we'll just fire “bad” teachers and replace them with those doomed to become the same.

Obama called for nationalizing standards and benchmarks. With input from educators across the country, this could be a good idea. Currently, standards across the country differ such that some states’ school systems make the grade where others don’t. Common standards might also keep each state from having to reinvent that wheel every few years, and increase mobility between states for teachers and students, including into out-of-state colleges and universities. Some decisions, though, about funding priorities or curricular content, for example, should be made locally; each state, county, and municipality comprises different cultures and serves different populations.

A longer school day could have a positive effect, but only if it includes enriching academic activities, outdoor education, the arts, sports, and some choice for students, and a isn’t longer simply to accommodate more dreary test-based math and reading drills, short-changing other forms of knowledge. According to University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, time for reading skills is already taking over time for content-area studies and as he puts it in this short video, teaching content is teaching reading. Also, a longer day may be difficult for the youngest students for whom even six or seven hours of structured activities is already too long.

Talk of more funding for programs such as Head Start is encouraging; however, the spending need not stop with primary schools. Programs like Title I Reading, for example, are phased out by high school. Even students who score well on reading tests need help with how to read a biology textbook. Speaking of secondary schools, the high drop-out rate, which Obama is concerned about, increased when N.C.L.B. and its emphasis on high-stakes testing came to town, particularly among Latinos (whom he singled out by the venue of this speech) and English Language Learners, who struggle to pass the English-language-centered standardized tests needed to qualify for a high school diploma. A return to using those tests to diagnose and inform teaching, rather than to inform the curriculum and unfairly stigmatize, might encourage those in danger of dropping out to stay in.

Charter schools are desirable on a limited scale, but we need to strengthen and re-invest in our neighborhood schools first. As the number of charter schools increases, they begin to displace neighborhood schools, undermining the communities those schools help to facilitate. Obama commends charter schools for being labs of experimentation and progressive thinking. Why can’t we experiment and be progressive in neighborhood schools? In the Oakland Unified School District, where my two sons attend school, neighborhood schools must use the Open Court Reading Program even if educators at those schools haven’t found the program to be successful or effective. High-scoring schools, such as that of my sons, are allowed some space to be creative with such programs; they can use programs like Open Court as they should be used: as a tool to see where their readers are and to teach reading skills. When it comes to having a rich experience with literature, they are free to use more complex and complete reading materials, which Open Court does not offer. Schools with lower test scores, however, are forced to use Open Court in a rigidly scripted way and are not allowed to supplement with other more interesting books and authors. Charter schools, on the other hand, don’t have to use Open Court at all--they can choose the materials, pedagogical approaches, and curricula that they feel most suit the students they serve and most fit the mission of the school. Why not give neighborhood schools this same latitude?

Tying teacher pay to students’ performance, especially to standardized test scores, only sets up perverse incentives that don’t encourage teaching or learning. A study highlighted in the book Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt showed that bonuses tied to test scores resulted in high rates of cheating. How does Obama define “progress” and “failure” anyway? What is due to teacher’s failure and what is due to the circumstances of students’ lives and communities? Didn’t a focus on short-term incentives recently lead an entire sector of our economy to ignore long-term realities? Current standardized tests scores tell us mostly about the educational background and socio-economic status of students who are taking the tests; they tell us very little about how they’re being taught. Looking at the scores of students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. (where I taught), one would conclude that it was full of “bad” and lazy teachers. Not true. Never have I worked with such talented and hard-working teachers and we saw some amazing progress. For example, it wasn’t uncommon a ninth grader to arrive reading on a first-grade level and then finish the school year on a third-or fourth-grade level, but to be seen as making progress, the student had to score as proficient for an average ninth-grader. Merit-based pay will reward teachers whose students would score proficiently on the tests regardless of their teaching, and force those who don’t teach such students who focus relentlessly on test-prep at the expense of richer content. In 2008, the chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, in a desperate attempt to raise test scores, called for the elimination of foreign language instruction for all ninth graders due to low language arts test scores. Why should under-performing students sacrifice foreign language education, the enrichment it brings, and skills they’ll need to survive in our global economy for further test prep? If their test scores did go up slightly at the expense of the quality of their education, who does that serve? Chancellors and politicians; certainly, not the students.

There are ways beyond merit-based pay to both support and reward quality teaching. Many education programs include only a few months of student teaching and pay next to nothing to cooperating teachers. Why not require a full year or two of student teaching, paying those student teachers a modest salary, like medical residencies do, while compensating their master teachers adequately? Next, why not improve working conditions? I heard once that teachers have one of the highest incidences of bladder infections because of insufficient bathroom breaks. This NEA article describes the particular health hazards teachers face. Reducing class sizes and teaching loads and increasing planning time would also make all teachers more effective and students more successful without needlessly resorting to a competition. Increasing staffing at schools of arts and physical education educators, reading and content-area specialists, school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nutritionists would provide support for teachers and essential services for students. Finally, let’s simply raise salaries for ALL educators.

Obama seems to be listening to only one recent brand of education reformer. What happened to Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford professor who was the architect of Obama's education platform during the campaign, and her ideas? Education academic and former teacher Mike Rose describes in his blog how and why Darling-Hammond was passed over. Why doesn’t Obama examine the work of innovators John Dewey, the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where his daughters attended, or examine the practices of the illustrious Sidwell Friends School, where his daughter are currently enrolled? Surely, the educational philosophy at those schools is not based around the contents and results of high-stakes tests. Why, then, should the education of nation’s public school children be so based?

The problems of our educations system are not as simple as parents, teachers, or schools failing their children and students. Of course, everyone who is a part of our education system should be held accountable, and of course, standardized tests play a role in that process, but we need policies that acknowledge the complexity of the teaching and learning process and that bring out the best in our teachers, students, and learning communities. Abandoning the neighborhood school, sacrificing rich and challenging curricula and education for higher test scores, and throwing merit-based pay at uninspired teachers will not achieve this; and, neither will reducing our teachers to “good” and “bad.”

(photo by flickr user edlabdesigner)