Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Are children still being "left behind"?

Accountability does work -- but gaps are still large

Did the federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), close the education gap? Now that Congress is talking about reauthorizing NCLB, it struck me that it would be worthwhile to see what the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tell us about the direction the nation has moved in the years since the law was passed–as compared to the trend line in the decade prior to its passage.

At the bottom of this post are the results I reported to a packed house at the Association of Public Policy and Management in Washington, D. C. last Saturday. They show that, for fourth graders, the black-white test score gap had, in the 12 years prior to the passage of NCLB, opened up by 7 points. The Hispanic-white gap had opened by 5 points. No wonder there was a demand for an accountability system that required a special look at the learning experiences of minority students.

After the law was enacted, the black-white test-score gap closed by 2 points and the Hispanic-white gap closed by 1 point. That is a switch in the trend line of 9 points and 6 points, respectively. Not as much as we would like, but better than what might have been.

At the 8th grade level, the black-white gap had remained unchanged prior to NCLB, but closed 4 points after its enactment. For Hispanics, the negative trend was 4 points prior to NCLB, and the positive trend 3 points after the law came into being. That constitutes a direction switch of 7 points.

Notably, none of the reversal in the trend was due to a decline in average white test scores. As can be seen below, average white scores since 2002 are up–quite a bit in math, less so–but still positive–in reading.

I have not presented here a sophisticated study of NCLB’s impact on student performance. But others have, and they, too, report that NCLB’s impact has been, on the whole, modestly positive.

Of course, NCLB can be faulted for the exaggerated rhetoric contained in its title, but that should not prevent us from taking a thoughtful look at the actual NAEP record that has now become available.

When that is done, one must concede that NCLB is not the greatest thing since sliced bread. But after its passage into law, white, black and Hispanic students all made gains and the widening of the white-minority test score gap was reversed.


The Secret to Good Parenting? Good Schools

I’m not so sure Mike is right that “we have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem,” and I’m even less sure that he is right that educators should “start talking about the problem.”

I know this may sound heretical, since anyone who has spent more than a minute in an inner city school or neighborhood (see my Ed Next story on two Chicago charters) knows the intensity of the social dysfunction – and no school is immune to its effects. But parenting is not a problem that educators are equipped to handle – they have a hard enough time agreeing on curriculum.

I think of a sixth-grade teacher in our small district who, on meet-the teacher-night, passed out no “parent contracts” and no “student contracts” – both were then the rage — and gave no lectures about student behavior and the role of the parent. He described what he was going to teach that year, what books the kids would be reading and then said to the assembled parents, “You don’t have to worry about a thing; I’ll take care of your kids.” And he did. He had the same kids from the same bad families that every other teacher had, but he didn’t complain about them – and his classroom was quiet and orderly. And because of that, his students will be better parents.

None of this is to say that parents don’t make a difference in a student’s life. Or that schools should pretend that it doesn’t make a difference. It is to say that schools and parents have different responsibilities – and we need to appreciate the differences.

My own rule of thumb, as a member of a school board, is a variation on the Kati Haycock “no excuses” motto: “We can talk about parents after we get the buses to run on time.” We can tell parents what to do after the school’s drinking fountains are fixed and the potholes in the school driveway are plugged. We can teach parenting classes after we get our teachers to show up on time and our aides to stop yelling at children. We should instruct parents about being better parents after we start returning their phone calls – and after school board members stop bullying one another. We can tell parents what to read to their kids after we get a written, taught, and tested curriculum.

In other words, once schools are doing what they should be doing, then they can start telling parents what they should do. This sounds harsh and it doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t encourage parent participation, but when you’ve seen school dysfunction up close and personal, you know you can’t afford to allow the “bad parent” problem into your school! It will be used as a crutch or an excuse — or worse.

Sure, parents have problems; one of them is bad schools.

The irony here, with all due respect to the fine work of our sociologists who tell us how doomed kids from bad backgrounds and uneducated parents are, is that we have somehow turned public schools inside out. What used to be considered “the engine of social mobility” (see Fareed Zakaria in the new Time magazine), the incubator of productive and successful citizens (and parents), the school is now treated as some kind of barometer of caste and class. Instead of a place to liberate one from ones background, to become better (at parenting and citizenship), school has become a mirror for reflecting that background back on students. We slice and dice kids to know their every “learning style” proclivity, dooming them to a suffocating stasis.

As Joseph Campbell has said, “the first purpose of mythology is to pitch you outside of yourself.” The history is obviously more nuanced than this, but as I read it, we created public schools in large part to get kids away from bad homes and bad parents and onerous social and economic circumstance and stigma. It seemed to work pretty well until about 50 years ago. Now, we seem unable to teach kids unless their parents are educated saints and poverty is solved.

Mike isn’t arguing for any particular approach to the parent problem, but it is a slippery slope, especially for school reformers, to turn the discussion to one of parenting (or poverty) precisely because, as Kati Haycock would suggest, it lets schools off the hook.


British Prime Minister's cry about 'coasting’ schools will confuse parents

The PM seems to feel that if the white middle class loses its way, Britain is doomed. He is probably right. And making sure that their kids get the best education possible should help avoid that fate. Given the fixity of IQ, the present focus on stretching the least talented is unlikely to achieve much for the society as a whole

The Prime Minister’s remarks on complacent schools are puzzling parents who thought inner cities had all the problems.

Parents have long had sleepless nights about their children ending up in one of the “failing schools” that our politicians talk about so often – those troubled comprehensives, usually in the inner cities, where many pupils don’t even meet the Government’s basic “floor target” of 5 GCSE passes at grade A* to C.

But now the Prime Minister has given us a new nightmare to keep us tossing and turning – “coasting schools”. These “secret failures”, he warned in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, are to be found where parents least expect them, in “prosperous shires and market towns”.

It is not so much, David Cameron wrote, that children at coasting schools are doing so badly in exams that inspectors’ alarm bells start ringing, simply that they could be doing better if teachers were stretching them instead of allowing pupils “to sit at the back of the class, swapping Facebook updates”.

He painted a picture of “pupils and staff [who] count down the hours to the end of term without ever asking why B grades can’t be turned into As”. What future is there for our offspring in the ultra-competitive global jobs market if their teachers don’t even encourage them to realise their full potential in the classroom?

The Prime Minister’s remarks will make particularly unpleasant reading for those parents who, despairing of finding a halfway decent local comprehensive for their 11-year-olds in urban areas, sell up, take on a new job or a long commute to their existing one, and relocate to the countryside, assuming that the local school in such leafy places will not face the particular challenges of the socially and ethnically diverse inner city. After all that cost, effort and disruption to family life, Mr Cameron is now effectively telling them that the schools they moved out to access are not the havens they were cracked up to be.

Worse, in a speech in Norwich at the opening of a new free school there in September, Mr Cameron rubbed salt into the wound when he suggested that the new breed of inner-London academies – such as Walworth, Burlington Danes (where rumour has it he plans to send his children) and Mossbourne in Hackney, regularly quoted approvingly by ministers – are actually better than four fifths of state schools in Oxfordshire and Surrey. So those parents who squash into commuter trains into London in order to give their children a better start in the Home Counties are actually selling them short.

The phrase “coasting schools”, though it has acquired a new buzz in the education debate, has a longer history than this government. It was used, for example, by New Labour (once Alastair Campbell had tried and rejected “bog-standard comprehensives” in 2001) in the “Gaining Ground” initiative in 2008. Ed Balls, then education secretary, named and shamed more than 600 examples of “coasting schools” and set them a “national challenge” to improve their standards. The Prime Minister has been more circumspect, but there is no doubting his commitment.

So why this rare unanimity between Conservatives and Labour? Because there is data to show that children at secondary schools in shire counties and market towns do not always make as much progress in the five years to GCSEs as assessments of their ability at 11 suggest they should. They may end up with better grades than their inner-city counterparts, but they are still falling short of the progress that might reasonably be expected of them given their ability.

“It is certainly true,” concedes Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, “that there are examples of schools where the catchment is less challenging than the inner city, and where the pupils have fewer disadvantages, that have shown a disappointingly slow rate of improvement.

“Their results may look satisfactory, and therefore they are not under any pressure, but when they are examined closely, there is plenty of room for improvement. However, I would seriously challenge the assertion that there are lots of these schools, and the accompanying implication that some teachers accept mediocrity.”

Until he took up his union post, Mr Lightman was head of St Cyres School, on the outskirts of Cardiff. “It roughly fits the description of an out-of-town school,” he says, “and I can assure you that I never came across a single teacher willing to allow pupils to use Facebook during lessons, as the Prime Minister suggests. Unfairly accusing teachers like this is not helpful.”

All sides, then, appear to accept that there is a problem with coasting schools. The difference between them is over scale. To identify a solution, it helps to work out why such under-achievement happened in the first place. While few would decry the roughly 50 per cent increase achieved in the past decade in the number of pupils gaining 5 A*-C passes at GCSE, there is a growing chorus of voices among educationalists warning that putting so many resources into closing the gap in attainment levels between the least and the most able pupils risks overlooking the needs of those pupils in what might be called “the squeezed middle”.

“The effect of this focus [on closing the gap between high and low achievers] in recent years is now clearly visible in GCSE results for English and Maths,” according to Neil O’Brien, director of the Policy Exchange think tank. “Almost all the improvement has been to move pupils scoring a D, E or F grade up to a C. While this is valuable, the proportion gaining an A*, A or B grade is essentially unchanged. The floor target appears to have led to the neglect of potential high performers.”

In concentrating on making the difference between a D and a C, and hence meeting their government target, coasting schools stand accused of failing to give an extra push to those on course for a C so that they achieve a B, because it will make no difference to how they appear against the all-important “floor target” measurement.

Anecdotal stories include tales of bright pupils being put in for their GCSEs a year early because a school judged they would deliver a “safe” B/C grade, and free up teaching time to concentrate on lower achievers.

Goffs School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, was one of those highlighted by the Prime Minister in his article as having successfully cast off coasting in favour of seeking the highest levels of achievement for all. “Goffs was not delivering for each student as it should have been, based on their ability, in terms of number and level of qualifications,” agrees head teacher Alison Garner, appointed in 2009. She attributes the turnaround to “employing staff committed to bringing out the best in every child”, to instilling an expectation of excellence in all, for example by adopting as the school motto “every lesson counts”, and “relentless hard work”.

The Department for Education likes to link the zero tolerance strategy on coasting schools with its drive to add to the thousand academies already created under the Coalition government. Goffs is an academy, but that change came very recently, Mrs Garner says, and postdates the radical improvement in the school’s fortunes. Instead she is anxious to praise the local education authority for its commitment to ending the school’s coasting days.

“I do get sick and tired of hearing about the fairy dust of academy status,” says another head teacher, who doesn’t want to be named. “Simply changing your status does nothing in itself to raise standards. It is down to leadership, investment, individual tracking of each pupil’s attainment, and effective interventions. Yes, all of these happen in academies, and enable them to raise standards, but they are happening in plenty of other schools, too.”

However, if the academy question is put to one side, many of those other key tools for success are about to be introduced more widely. Revised league tables in the New Year will measure progress made by pupils according to whether they are judged low, medium or high-achieving, and will take into account “value added” – ie, how far the school stretches its intake. And the new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, late of Mossbourne, has coasting schools firmly “in his sights”, the Prime Minister has promised.

Time for parents to sleep soundly again? Or on their commuter trains back to the “prosperous shires”? Perhaps – but only until the next educational nightmare comes along.


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