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Will Current School Reforms Improve Education?

Posted: 2012-05-06

This speech was given at the opening session of the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in Philaelphia, April 25, 2012.

Since NCTM has wholeheartedly embraced the Common Core, even raising a question, as Diane Ravitch does, is a good thing. Yes, some of us want much more, but this is something. And she asks a good question: Would the FDA release a new drug without field trials?

I am very happy to speak to you today. I have been an admirer of NCTM for twenty years, ever since you took the lead in shaping professional standards for the teaching of mathematics. What was notable about your efforts then and since is that you recognize the importance of putting practitioners in charge. You recognize that those who teach the subject are the greatest experts in determining what is needed to teach it better and what is needed to kindle studentsâ motivation.

Today, students in fourth and eighth grades are learning more mathematics than they were twenty years ago, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NCTM can take pride in that accomplishment.

As a member of the NAEP governing board for seven years, I was always astonished by how demanding the math tests are. Whenever I hear politicians or pundits criticizing American students and teachers, I would like to invite them to take the tests themselves. And be sure to publish the results.

I am not a mathematician -- I am a historian. One thing our fields have in common is that we believe in evidence. We may speculate, we may theorize, we may even make predictions, but ultimately we must present the evidence. We believe that facts matter. As my math teachers always said, "Getting the right answer is important, but not nearly as important as showing how you got there. Show me your work."

American education is now at a critical juncture. We have a full-blown and powerful reform movement that offers solutions without any evidence. Schools across the nation are adopting remedies that are not only unproven but in some cases have been tried and failed.

As a historian of American education, my specialty is writing about the rise and fall of education reforms and fads. Over the twentieth century, reform movements came and went with frequency. By contrast to the many reforms of the past century, the current reform movement is unusual because it did not start with educators. Its leaders are entrepreneurs, economists, foundation leaders, think tank commentators, journalists, and people from the high-tech sector, the big corporations, and Wall Street.

I prefer to call it the corporate reform movement because it uses the language of corporate America. It relies on a strategy of competition, choice, testing, and accountability. It believes that teachers must be incentivized with rewards and punishments tied to test scores. It views test scores as profits and losses. It seeks a return on investment in the form of higher test scores. It believes that schools with low scores should be closed in the same way that a chain store would be closed and reopened with a new name. It likes the idea of firing staff that donât get higher scores. And, of course, it assumes unquestioningly that standardized tests are reliable, valid, infallible measures of not only student performance, but teacher quality and school quality.

The corporate reform movement has developed a narrative that is compelling. The media repeats it again and again. They say that American public education is failing.

They say that dropout rates are at a crisis point. They say that our international test scores are a national embarrassment. They blame this dire situation on bad teachers and on public education itself. They propose to replace the current system with consumer choice, including privately managed charter schools, whether managed by non-profits or for-profits. Some corporate reformers advocate vouchers, so that students can leave public schools and enroll in private and religious schools with public dollars. They promote for-profit virtual charter schools, which allow students to take their lessons at home on a computer. Providing choice and competition, they argue, will spur innovation. They endorse the idea that teachers should be evaluated by test scores of their students. They recommend incentives and sanctions. They favor merit pay based on test scores. When schools have low test scores they advocate firing the staff and closing the school.

Their ideas are now the basis of federal education policy. Their ideas are moving forward like a juggernaut, pushed by bipartisan support and billions of public and private dollars. Many public schools in low-income, high-minority districts like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Indianapolis, the District of Columbia, and others are being handed over to private control, in keeping with the ideology of corporate reform. Free of government regulation, free of democratic governance, the reformers claim, the free market will accomplish miracles.

In assessing the corporate reform movement, what matters most is evidence, and up to this point, evidence is sorely missing for the reforms it advocates.

The two mainstays of the corporate reform movement are the federal law No Child Left Behind and the federal program Race to the Top. When introduced, both were presented as the great levers of school reform. NCLB has been federal policy for a full decade. I think of Race to the Top as NCLB 2.0, because it too relies on test-based accountability and on carrots and sticks to get ever-higher test scores.

Consider the origin of NCLB. When Governor George W. Bush ran for president, he said that there had been a "Texas miracle." He said that the strategy for improving schools was straightforward. Test every child every year; publish the results; reward those that improved; embarrass those that did not improve. Over time, he said, test scores would go up, the dropout rate would go down, and the graduation rate would improve. It was a good story, and Congress bought it. Overwhelming majorities passed NCLB in 2001, and it was signed into law in January 2002.

But now we know. The law refers to âevidence-basedâ strategies, but the law itself was not evidence-based. There was no Texas miracle. On NAEP assessments, Texasâlike other states--has shown improvement, but it is not a national leader. It is not a model for the nation. In fact, Texas State Commissioner of Education Robert Scott recently complained that standardized testing had spun out of control; he said it had gotten to be the âbe-all and end-allâ of education. He said it had become what he called âthe heart of the vampire,â and that it was growing because of a âmilitary-industrial complexâ that was all about making money, not doing what was right for students or education. In the past few weeks, about 400 of the 1,000 school boards in Texas have passed resolutions against high-stakes testing, and the number is growing.

But now the whole nation is stuck with NCLB, and the children who were left behind in 2002 are still left behind.

NCLB set an impossible target. It requires that all students must reach proficiency on state tests by the year 2014. No state will meet that goal. No nation in the world has ever achieved 100% proficiency.

In trying to reach the target, states and districts are spending billions of dollars on tests and interim assessments and test prep materials; schools have narrowed their curriculum; some have reduced or eliminated the arts or physical education, history and foreign languages; teachers are teaching to standardized tests; college professors complain that their students donât know how to read or think critically, they want to know what will be on the test.

As we get closer to 2014, the consequences of setting an unrealistic goal have been harsh indeed. More than half the public schools in the nation have been labeled failing schools because they havenât made adequate yearly progress. Schools that repeatedly slip off track are subject to an escalating series of sanctions, ending in firing the staff and closing the school or handing it over to a charter operator. In Massachusetts, the highest performing state in the nation, 80% of the schools are failing schools. In Illinois, New Trier High School failed to make adequate yearly progress this year, because special education students didnât improve enough. New Trier, the highest performing high school in the state of Illinois, is a failing school. If nothing changes, by 2014 nearly every school in the United States will be a failing school.

As the number of failing schools continues to grow every year, so too has the public perception that American education is a failed enterprise. Now we are seeing something that has never happened before in American history. Schools are being closed because of their test scores. Most of the schools that close enroll disproportionate numbers of children who are poor, who have disabilities, and who donât speak English.

No Child Left Behind is the death star of American education, set to label almost every school a failure; Race to the Top is NCLB 2.0.

Race to the Top dangled $5 billion before cash-starved states to persuade them to expand the number of privately managed charter schools, to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students, and to agree to fire principals and staff in the lowest performing schools. NCLB was all sticks and no carrots. Race to the Top is a combination of sticks and carrots. Carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.

But letâs look at what we know so far.

The record on charter schools is mixed. According to the pro-charter advocacy group, Center for Education Reform, there are nearly 6,000 charter schools enrolling close to two million students; the number is rising fast because of Race to the Top. There have been many studies of charter schools. By their nature, charters vary widely. Some get high scores, some get low scores. On average, however, charters do not get different results than regular public schools. The most widely cited national study was conducted by economists at Stanford University in 2009 and funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. It found that students in 17% of charters got higher test scores than those in a matched traditional public school; 37% got worse scores; and in 46%, the scores were no different. In most studies, the typical finding is âno difference.â

Some charters get higher test scores by excluding students with special needs or limiting the enrollment of English language learners. Some have very strict discipline policies and suspend or expel students who are troublemakers. Some of the most highly praised charters are known as âno-excusesâ schools because of their tough discipline policies. Their ability to remove difficult students maintains order, safety, high scores, and also peer effectsâthe good result of being surrounded by other well-behaved students. Meanwhile, the public schools cannot refuse those who are rejected or expelled by the charters.

New Orleans is often held up by charter advocates as definitive proof that a charter district will get great results. Hurricane Katrina wiped out the public schools of New Orleans. The public schools were replaced by a system in which 70% of the students are enrolled in charters. It is impossible to compare pre-Katrinaâs public schools to post-Katrinaâs charter schools because a large number of students left New Orleans and never returned. But even without undisputed longitudinal data, this much is clear: New Orleans ranks 71st out of 72 districts on Louisiana state tests. It is a very low-performing district in a very low-performing state. And the New Orleans charter district has the benefit of many millions of dollars poured into the charters of New Orleans by foundations and charters that want to prove the superiority of charters.

Aside from New Orleans, the funding for charters inevitably comes right out of the budget for public school districts. The public schools have fixed costs that donât go down when students leave. Consequently, public schools in some districts are in deep financial distress. A decade ago the public schools of Inglewood, California, were hailed, in the national media and by President George W. Bush, as a great success story, a high-performing district of low-income students. Now the Inglewood district is on the verge of a state takeover and close to bankruptcy; it lost 1/3 of its students to charter schools. Teaching staff has shrunk. In the regular public schools, class sizes are between 40 and 50. The future of public education in the district is in doubt. No wonder parents are bailing out.

The public school district of Chester-Upland, here in Pennsylvania, is out of money. The district collects $13,500 for each special education student but must pay the local charter school nearly $24,000 for each special education student it enrolls. The survival of the district is up in the air, especially since the Governor is hostile to public schools and has thus far refused to save the district. In Upper Darby in Pennsylvania, the superintendent has proposed cuts to the arts, physical education, and library services to make up for the state funds diverted to nearby charter schools.

Typically, charter schools enroll a very small proportion of students. In New York City, they enroll 3%. In California, they enroll 5%. What sense does it make to jeopardize the education of 95% of public school students so that charters can open for the other 5%? What exactly is the federal government trying to prove? In New York City, many charters have wealthy hedge fund managers on their board who supplement public spending with extra funding so that they have smaller classes, the latest technology, and small classes. Even when charters are sponsored by a billionaire hedge-fund manager, they insist on getting free public space or sharing a building with a public school with less resources.

How does this competition improve public schools? To the extent that charters exclude the students who are likely to get low scores, the public schools will enroll disproportionate numbers of those students, making comparisons unfair.

The worst of the current corporate reforms are the online charter schools, also known as virtual academies. The largest of them are for-profit corporations. They hire lobbyists to get favorable state legislation, and then locate their headquarters in the poorest district in the state so as to get the maximum state payment for each student. They spend millions to recruit students. The students sit at home in front of a computer with their parent as their learning coach. Their virtual teachers are mostly recent college graduates who monitor 100 or more computer screens. According to investigations by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the online academies get abysmal results. They have a high attrition rate: Typically 50% of the students drop out in their first year, returning to the district public school but leaving the stateâs tuition with the corporation. Studies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado have reported that students in the virtual academies have low test scores and low graduation rates. The Colorado Virtual Academy has a graduation rate of 12%, compared to a statewide graduation rate of 78%. But the schools are very profitable. The CEO of K12, the largest of them, was paid $5 million last year. CEO was founded by former junk bond king Michael Milken and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. It trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

An organization of conservative state legislators called the American Legislative Exchange Council -- or ALEC -- has drafted and circulated model laws to promote virtual academies. Nearly 2,000 state legislators belong to ALEC. The co-chair of its Education Task Force is an executive of Connections Academy, another large for-profit virtual charter chains. ALEC promotes legislation to advance privatization in all its forms, not only online virtual academies, but charter schools and vouchers. And of course, ALEC has drafted model laws to roll back collective bargaining, teacher tenure, and test-based evaluation of teachers.

Then comes the issue of vouchers. Two states--Indiana and Louisiana--have recently adopted sweeping voucher legislation, and Wisconsin expanded its voucher program. The best evidence we have for the efficacy of vouchers comes from Milwaukee, which has had a voucher program for low-income students since 1990. Twenty-one years is a good long demonstration of vouchers. Advocates say that vouchers enable poor students to escape failing schools. But studies have found little difference between the academic results of voucher schools and public schools. On the last round of state tests, the scores of low-income students in vouchers schools were no different from the scores of low-income students in Milwaukeeâs public schools. On the 2011 NAEP for urban districts, Milwaukee was one of the lowest scoring districts in the nation. The other two districts that have vouchersâCleveland and the District of Columbiaâare also at the bottom nationally on NAEP tests of reading and math. And, despite much boasting about test score gains in the District of Columbia, DC has the largest black-white achievement gap in the nation. The gap between black and white students in DC is more than double the gap found in other urban districts by NAEP.

On merit pay, the evidence is not mixed, it is clear. Merit pay has been tried again and again since the 1920s. It has never been successful. Economists at the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University determined to conduct a rigorous study of merit pay, starting in 2007. They wondered if the reason merit pay had always failed in the past was that the bonus wasnât big enough. So they offered a bonus of $15,000 to an experimental group of teachers and compared them to a control group. At the end of three years, the economists could find no difference between the two groups. But later that same week, the U.S. Department of Education released $500 million for experiments in performance pay, with another $500 million to be added later. Evidence doesnât matter.

As it happened, in 2007, Mayor Bloomberg in New York City launched a merit pay plan. After a negotiation with the teachersâ union, he established a school-wide plan, so the entire school would share a bonus if scores went up. A committee at each school would decide how to divvy up the money. The program was ended in 2010 after the RAND Corporation concluded it made no difference. So just a few months ago, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would create a new merit pay program, and this one would be based on the same one that failed in Nashville.

Only six weeks ago, Mathematica Policy Research released a four-year study of merit pay in Chicago. It found that merit pay may have increased teacher retention rates, but made no difference in student achievement. Merit pay has an unbroken string of failures, but no one seems to care.

The Common Core State Standards are a centerpiece of the current push for school reform. There is no evidence about their efficacy, because they have never been implemented anywhere. They may be good, they may be bad, who knows? They may make a difference, they may make no difference. How can one judge an initiative without field trials? Would the FDA release a new drug without field trials? When I worked on history standards in California many years ago, we had an iterative process. Teachers implemented the standards and told us what was working and what wasnât working. We learned from teachers that some material was placed in the wrong grades; some grades had too much coverage; some was too hard, and some was too easy. We made changes. Standards must evolve to remain relevant and valuable. The Common Core State Standards will be tried out simultaneously in 45 states. Someday we will have evidence to know whether they made a difference, but no such evidence exists today.

The corporate reform movement has strongly advocated the idea that teachers should be evaluated by the test scores of their students. Race to the Top pushed this idea, and many states have written new laws to impose it. Typically, 40-50% of a teacherâs evaluation will depend on whether their students get higher or lower test scores. Where did that number -- 40-50%-- come from? No one knows. Certainly the legislators in Florida and Tennessee and other states had no evidence for choosing this number. It must have come out of someoneâs hat. The now conventional claim that students will learn more if their test scores are used to determine whether their teacher gets fired or promoted has very little -- if any -- evidence to support it.

I know of no district or state that can show that its schools improved because it uses value-added assessment to measure teacher quality. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has studied and written about this process extensively, and she says that the teacher ratings tied to value-added assessments are inaccurate, unreliable and unstable. A teacher who is rated ineffective one year is likely to be effective the next year, and vice versa. She reports that Houston fired its Teacher of the Year. She says that those who teach special education students and English language learners are likely to get lower ratings.

In January, the New York City Department of Education took the bold step of releasing the ratings of thousands of teachers to the media, in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit. Teachers in grades 4-8 were given a single number from 1-100. The Department warned that the margin of error was huge: 35 points in math, and 53 points in English Language Arts. A teacher of math rated at the 50th percentile might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 85th percentile, while a teacher of reading might be at the -3rd percentile or the +103rd percentile.

Rupert Murdochâs New York Post published a story and a picture of a teacher identified as âthe worst teacher in New York City.â Reporters camped outside her door, and she had to call the police to get them away. They went to her fatherâs home and said, âDo you know your daughter is the worst teacher in the city?â It turned out that the woman teaches English to new immigrant students who cycle in and out of her class all year. The scores were meaningless.

Gary Rubinstein, who teaches math at Stuyvesant High School, dug down into the ratings and determined that there was no correlation in the same teacherâs rating from year to year; that there was no correlation if the teacher taught the same subject in different grades; and that there was no correlation between a teacher who taught both reading and math. That raises the interesting question of whether the same teacher might get a bonus in one subject and fired in the other.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times blazed a new trail in creating value-added ratings and publishing them for all to see. At the time, many researchers -- including prominent economists who support value-added assessment -- criticized the public release of the ratings. They asked how a teacher could be expected to improve if there was no confidentiality in their conversation with their supervisor. But the Los Angeles Times was proud of what it had done.

The best commentary about the misuse of value-added assessment -- and the public release of these ratings -- came from mathematician John Ewing, who is now president of Math for America. Ewing described value-added modeling as âmathematical intimidation,â where data are employed to create an appearance of objectivity where none exists. He wrote, âMost of those promoting value-added modeling are ill-equipped to judge either its effectiveness or its limitations. Some of those who are equipped make extravagant claims without much detail, reassuring us that someone has checked into our concerns and we shouldnât worry. Value-added modeling is promoted because it has the right pedigree -- because it is based on âsophisticated mathematics.â As a consequence, mathematics that ought to be used to illuminate ends up being used to intimidate. When that happens, mathematicians have a responsibility to speak out.â

The newspaper, said Ewing, gave the customary caution that teachers should be judged by multiple measures, but its own ratings relied only on standardized test scores. The reporters concluded that experience, education and training had nothing to do with a teacherâs ability to raise test scores. The Times identified an elementary school teacher who was National Board Certified, had written a textbook and had glowing reviews from her principal. Based on the Times methodology, she was identified in print as a bad teacher. When the reporters confronted her, she asked them what she could do to improve. Ewing described this shameful encounter between the journalists and a teacher as reminiscent of the browbeating that occurred during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Certainly teachers should be evaluated, but there is no evidence that changes in student test scores are an appropriate measure of teacher quality, and there is quite a growing body of evidence saying that value-added modeling is fraught with complications and problems. How a teacher performs in the classroom is best determined by other professionals and not by test scores and not by legislators and politicians. The best evaluation systems involve an experienced principal and experienced peer reviewers, like the one now in use in Montgomery County, Maryland. Non-educators look for a simple metric, but there is no simple metric to gauge teacher quality. As any test expert will tell you, tests should be used only for the purpose for which they were designed. A test of fifth grade reading measures whether students are reading at a fifth grade reading level, not teacher quality.

The main result of the corporate reform movement, of No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top seems to be the massive demoralization of teachers. The Metlife Survey of the American Teachers, released a few weeks ago, found a dramatic decline in teachersâ job satisfaction since 2009, from 59% to 44%. It also reported that nearly a third of teachers say they are thinking of quitting. This would be a disaster.

It is not just the particulars of the corporate reform movement that are shaky. The basic premise of the corporate reform movement -- the claim that American education is declining and in crisis -- is factually wrong.

Do schools need to improve? Of course they do, but the crisis narrative is exaggerated.

The latest federal data for dropouts -- fall 2011 -- show that graduation rates for people between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the highest point since they were first recorded in 1972, for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, for low-income, middle-income and high-income groups. Surely they should be higher than they are now, but they are not declining and they are not at a crisis point. We wonât raise them by adding more tests and making school less engaging but by giving students the experiences and tools that encourage them to stay in school and receive a diploma.

What about those terrible international test scores? We are only in the middle; shouldnât we be number one? We have not declined from first place; we were never in first place.

When the first tests were administered in the mid-1960s, twelve nations participated; we came in twelfth out of twelve, dead last. Over the past 50 years, we have typically scored in the bottom quartile or no better than average. Yet, somehow our nation grew and prospered and became the largest economy on the earth. Maybe those scores are not predictors of our economic future.

But thereâs another point to consider. The latest international assessment, the Program on International Student Assessment or PISA was released in December 2010. It showed that American schools where less than 10% of the students are poor were first in the world, with scores higher than those of Finland, South Korea, and Japan. In American schools where 25% of the students are poor, scores were equal to those of the highest performing nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the test scores fall. If we reduced poverty, we would see scores rise across the board.

Last year, I wrote an article in the New York Times about politicians who made claims about "miracle schools." They pointed to schools that had seen truly incredible gains in test scores in only a year or two and to schools where, they said, despite abject poverty, nearly 100% of the students graduated and went to college. One school in an impoverished neighborhood in New York City saw its proficiency rate jump from 34% in one year to 83% the next year. In other schools, the transformation occurred by firing the principal, replacing the staff, and starting over. When you do this, said the politicians, scores go through the roof, and nearly every single graduate is accepted into college.

The subtext of these claims was that it wasnât necessary to do anything about poverty because the right kind of school could overcome poverty.

I enlisted two allies -- Gary Rubinstein, the brilliant high school math teacher I cited earlier and Noel Hammatt, a researcher in Louisiana, to analyze the miracle schools. We learned that the remarkably high graduation rates were the result of high attrition rates, and that students were graduating from miracle schools with remarkably low scores on state tests. In one miracle school in Chicago, the studentsâ test scores were lower than those of the average Chicago public school. The school whose scores had jumped by 49 points in one year saw an equally steep decline in their test scores in the next few years. A Miami high school hailed as a successful turnaround in 2010 was targeted for closure in 2011 because it had consistently failed to make AYP.

Why do politicians play these games? In part, they do it to prove that there are simple answers to hard questions. They do it to prove that whatever their policy is, it's working, even if they don't know why and even if it is not true. I guess they think no one will notice and the press wonât ask probing questions.

A 49-point jump in test scores should be grounds for skepticism, not celebration. And no one has yet explained the magic that happens simply by firing everyone in a school and starting over. And no one, to my knowledge, has yet found a school where 95% of the students are poor, yet 95% graduate and 90% who graduate go to college. To think that schools can cure all the ills of society defies not only evidence but the experience of other nations that have gone to great lengths to make sure that all children are healthy and well-nourished.

Of course, schools provide a route out of poverty, but they are not all by themselves an anti-poverty program. The great sociologist W.E.B. DuBois said in 1935 that schools can teach necessary academic skills but they cannot create jobs or furnish homes or cure the ills of society.

There is something to be said for evidence. One piece of missing evidence in current school reform efforts is the major study produced a year ago by a 17-member panel of social scientists assembled by the National Research Council. The study was called Incentives and Test-Based Accountability. It concluded that tying bonuses and punishments to test scores is a failed strategy. It said that this approach leads to score inflation, gaming the system and teaching to the test. Our policymakers have chosen to ignore the findings of this distinguished panel of social scientists.

So, I conclude with a simple plea: We need evidence-based decision-making and evidence-based policy. We must be guided by knowledge, not by ideology. We must recognize what schools can do and must do, and what social policy must accomplish. We must seek to improve our schools in ways that support the work of educators and avoid policies intended to frighten them into compliance.

I see four straightforward lessons as I review the research about educational change:

First, the most successful nations in the world, such as Finland, South Korea, and Japan, have built strong public school systems, not systems with large degrees of private management.

Second, the most successful nations in the world have diligently improved the education profession, by requiring that recruitment into teaching is rigorous, that preparation to teach is intensive, and that support is available for those who are in the classroom. They have principals who are master teachers, and superintendents who are experienced educators.

Third, the most successful nations in the world take care to ensure that all students have a balanced and rich curriculum that include not only reading and mathematics, but the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, science, and physical education.

Fourth, the most successful nations in the world pay attention to the health and welfare of children, families and communities.

And so I call upon you as mathematicians to help your students think clearly. Help our politicians and policymakers analyze what works and what doesnât work. Use your skills of analysis and logical thinking to change the narrative that is tearing down public education.

Write, blog, speak up, join with others to stop the assault on the public sector, on which 90% of our nationâs students depend. Stand up for professionalism, stand up for your students, and stand up for the future of public education.

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