Friday, February 10, 2012

How much do YOU know about schools and education?

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, Assistant Secretary of Education during the first Bush administration, and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, recently wrote an amazingly succinct summary of the state of the national debate about education, entitled "Do Politicians Know Anything About Schools and Education? Anything?" The ironic tone was fully intended. Because it is so inclusive of the actual, research-supported facts relevant to the debate, it deserves to be spread far and wide. She asks pertinent, if leading, questions to make us all think and rethink our positions. Because she summarizes, and her brief answers may not be believed, I will expand upon them.

Charter Schools. Ravitch asks, “Are you aware that studies consistently show that charter schools don’t get better results than regular public schools? ... That some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools?”

She is absolutely correct about the research. Pro- and anti-charter school folks will each cite their favored results, often from research sponsored or funded by one side, but the studies with the best research designs, which are most supportive of broader conclusions, show exactly the proportion of “results achievement” Ravitch summarizes. It is vitally important, in drawing conclusions about relative performance, to control for differences in student populations.

Charter schools do not serve the same population as traditional public schools; a larger proportion of high-needs students is left behind. Demographic data released a few days ago on the Fall 2011 MEAP tests lets me demonstrate that. Of students in grades 3–8 in Van Buren Public Schools, 54% are white, 54% are economically disadvantaged, and 9.4% have disabilities. Of students in grades 3–8 at Keystone Academy (within the borders of VBPS), 75% are white, 27.5% are economically disadvantaged, and 1.6% have disabilities. This academy serves only half as many poor children and very few children with disabilities. The charter movement is re-segregating our public schools. Remember this the next time a politician with an agenda tells you that charter schools do better with less money.

Merit Pay for Teachers Based on Test Scores. “Are you aware that merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and it has never worked? Are you aware of the exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, which found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference?”

Again, Ravitch is precisely correct. And the Vanderbilt study was carefully designed to test exactly the question of whether, with important variables controlled for, student achievement would rise with significant pay-for-performance teacher incentives. It did not. Human motivation is just not that simple. Daniel Pink elaborates on why this is so in his book, Drive. As he noted in a Washington Post interview last week, merit pay for teachers just doesn't work.

“Are you aware that there is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores? Are you aware that these measures are considered inaccurate and unstable, that a teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next one? Are you aware that these measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher's classroom, over which she or he has no control? Do you think there is a long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired?”

She's got the evidence on every count above. Follow her links and see for yourself. The demoralization of current teachers is obvious; the effect on the prospective teacher pool is even more worrying. Top-quality potential teachers have many more attractive fields to go into, in terms of prestige, remuneration, working conditions, security, and control over the factors upon which their performance will be judged. The sharp increase in debt for new graduates exacerbates the discouraging effect of poor job security.

Vouchers. “Are you aware that Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools? Are you aware that the federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that — after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee — black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana?”

This is the first time the voucher schools have been required to use the same state test as public schools. The voucher students performed worse in both reading and math; controlling for economic disadvantage, low-income voucher students performed about the same as those in public schools. Gov. Scott Walker's response is to propose that voucher kids not have to take that test anymore.

Internet Schools. “Does it concern you that cyber charters and virtual academies make millions for their sponsors yet get terrible results for their students?”

The internet schools do, indeed, have miserable track records. Perhaps the best evidence (in terms of numbers and number of years to show trends) comes from Colorado. An analysis shows that half the thousands of on-line students there leave the virtual schools within a year, often further behind academically than when they started. Colorado’s annual report found that “achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics,” including poverty, English language ability, and special education status. The limited evidence in Michigan is also not encouraging. Students at the Westwood Cyber High School in Wayne County achieved an ACT composite score of 15.6 (of a possible 36) in 2010 and 16.1 in 2011.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by major corporations and conservative foundations, drafts model bills for state legislatures. The “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force is Mickey Revenaugh; he is co-founder and Senior Vice President of Connections Academy — “a leading national provider of virtual public school curriculum, technology and school management services,” which stands to make millions from virtual schools. I wonder where Senator Colbeck got the wording for his bill to allow a huge expansion in virtual schools?

Poverty and How We Rank Internationally. “Did you know that American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment? Did you know that American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea? Did you know that the U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty? ... Did you know that family income is the single most reliable predictor of student test scores? ... Affluence helps — children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security — as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives. Do you think these things matter?”

The disparity in incomes in the U.S. has been growing exponentially. A full third of all income growth over the past 20 years has gone to the top tenth of one percent. Meanwhile, middle-class wages have stagnated or fallen. Sharply rising child poverty is a frightening correlate to that inequality. All you need do is note the startling change in VBPS demographics in recent years to see the trend. And of course that matters when it comes to academic achievement.

The results are documented in our national results on the international PISA achievement tests. National Association for Secondary School Principals researchers disaggregated the 2010 results by income and issued a report entitled “PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid.” When comparing apples to apples — other nations and American schools with equally low poverty rates — our students were first in the world.

Solutions that Aren't. “Do you know of any high-performing nation in the world that got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers? The answer: none.” Nations with the best achievement records have well-trained teachers who enjoy high pay, respect, and prestige. The teachers in the best-performing nations mostly have strong unions, as well. Yet self-styled “reformer” governors all over the country seem determined to destroy unions, especially the teachers unions that did not support their election. One might be justified in questioning their motives, as well as their willingness and ability to base important decisions on real evidence.


  1. What a breath of fresh air your facts are, in contrast to the bloviating of charter and other for-profit schools. Can you please show Mr. Santorum your column?

  2. Fantastic . Thank you for your continuing support of public schools.