Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama repeating NCLB mistakes?

One of the risks education faces is the same old, same old. Obama is so busy, what with a two front war, a great recession, and cleaning up the justice department that he does not have time to spec himself up on education. So, he appoints advisors whom he trusts and hears their point of view. 

Unfortunately, he is listening to Arne Duncan, a born again charter school believer. Some charter schools have done some real good, but we would do well to remember a few things: most do not conform to IDEA and the ADA with the same vigor that regular public schools do. No matter what they claim, they often tell parents that the regular public schools can do better job. (A polite and almost legal way of saying we don't take your kind here.)

But the real problem about listening to Arne is that he is just wrong about some things, and bending the truth about others to persuade us to his way of thinking. Ideas like merit pay for teachers, privatizing schools and tougher standards are straight out of the last administration. It is time for a new approach-- how about putting all that money into teacher professional learning instead of bribery, I mean merit pay? How about reducing the number of student contacts from 200 a day for high school teachers to maybe 65?

Personally, I'd be glad if we just started a conversation around the question: What is quality education for all? Instead of: How do we raise test scores? How refreshing would that be?

A friend forwarded this critique of Obama's education speech from Gerry Bracy. I hope it starts a conversation about truth in advertising, Mr. Duncan. And makes Obama think again about what he knows about education and what he needs to learn. 

Obama "talks about American kids being behind and his reference is obviously test scores. But then he talks about creativity in charters. But the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) studies indicate charters are behind public schools in test scores. You can't evaluate one set of schools by test scores and then another set of schools with another criterion. Public schools are just as creative (Eric Robelen, "NAEP gap continuing for charters," Education Week 21 May 2008). Duncan turned a lot of schools into charter schools in Chicago, but I don't think he ever came back to see if they were working any better.

By the way, being behind doesn't seem to matter--test scores don't related to global competitiveness. The U. S. is #1 as ranked by both the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum.

"In 8th grade math we've fallen to 9th place." That's out of 45 nations. In TIMSS of 1996 (tests administered in 1995) 8th graders were in 23rd place out of 41. We've come a long way, baby. How come no one ever mentions that American kids do better in science than in math and no one EVER talks about how well they do in reading which is very well indeed? Various citations, too many to list and the one with the above stat is not online anyway, "Mathematics Achievement in the Middle School Years." It's only mentioned at the US HQ for TIMSS and PIRLS studies, The reading studies, PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), CAN be found there.

"Just a third of our 13- and 14- year olds can read as well as they should." This is garbage in light of the international comparisons mentioned above. It is also garbage because the reference is obviously NAEP, and as I've shown over and over the NAEP proficiency standards are outrageously unrealistic. In fact, by the criterion Obama is using, no nation has more than a third of its students reading "as well as they should." Sweden, the top scoring nation also has about one third at NAEP's "proficient" level (Richard Rothstein et alia, "Proficiency for all: An Oxymoron"). "A Test Everyone Will Fail" shows this in an international context. I wrote that for the Post a couple of years ago. Just put title into Google. "Oh, those NAEP achievement levels." I wrote that for a publication of the National Association of Secondary School Principals for whom I write a monthly column. You can find it a bunch of places on line like

The Koreans might be in school a full month longer, but in PISA (Program of International Student Assessment), America has a higher proportion of top scorers than Korea. More to the point, given the size of America, America has more top scorers than any other nation. No one even comes close. We have about 67,000, Japan about 3,4000. Top scoring Finland's proportion gives them about 2,000 actual warm bodies. (Lindsay Lowell (Georgetown) and Hal Salzman (Urban Institute and Rutgers). "Making the Grade." Nature, May 1, 2008

There were some good things in the talk, but our president has bought too much of the same old crap about the state of our education, crap that has been spewed since 1957 (Sputnik), 1967 (urban riots--schools took the hit), 1977 (the SAT decline), 1983 (A Nation At Risk--followed by the longest economic expansion in history), 1998 (International test scores again), 2002 (No Child Left Behind) and 2008 (Edin08). In his inaugural address he said two thirds of the fastest growing jobs require extra education. What he didn't say was that those jobs account for very few jobs. For every computer engineer we need, Wal Mart needs 15 or so salespeople. Today he said "By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training." That's not what the BLS says. And what does "advanced education or training mean, anyway? It's a weasel phrase. By the way, we have about 3 newly minted, home-grown scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields and 65% of them leave those fields within 2 years of graduating (Lowell & Salzman, "Into the eye of the storm: assessing the evidence on science and engineering, quality, and workforce demand."

I present a complete history of the continual and unfair criticism of schools in Education Hell--the Betrayal of American Schools which should be published next month.

Alas, the fear mongers--Bob Wise, Roy Romer, Bill Gates (who has said some REALLY dumb things), Craig Barrett, Lou Gerstner, etc., get the media attention. Guess it's cause they got the money. They certainly don't have the chops.

There's more, but I've probably overloaded you already. I'd be happy to chat about it. It's only 11:30 a.m. here.

Gerald W. Bracey