Three US stories with resonance for Australians

On education policy

In Education: wrong path, Ms Gillard? (November 2008) which I reposted here recently I questioned our government’s admiration for the New York model.

The US education site Education Week hosts a blog by Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. Here are a couple of recent entries.

January 21, 2010: What Kind of Achievement Should Count Most?

…So we’ve replaced human beings with scores on tests never designed for the multiple, and often contradictory, purposes they are now serving.

But the crux of the issue is defining achievement. What kind of achievement should count most in the institutions that democracy builds to ensure its future well-being?

Claiming that higher test scores and more diplomas will lead to prosperity is a sleight of hand for which well-educated reporters should not fall. The assumption that if twice as many people get a B.A. an M.A. or a Ph.D., twice as many higher-paying jobs will appear is a colossal fraud. But even more shameful is the assumption that knowing "right answers" on a standardized test is a way to judge even future employees, much less future citizens…

But, even the best reporting can’t do a lot if we avoid the real question: what do we want from schools—other than "higher test scores"? If that’s all we want, we’ll get it, and we will continue having a test prep system. The rich as well as the poor will pay a price for such a shabby goal—and guess who will continue to be better at it? (Meanwhile, more colleges have made the SAT voluntary since FairTest began to push that idea, but more high schools are prepping teenagers for SATs at a younger and younger age!)

Let’s place the definition of being well-educated—"higher test scores"—against a few other old and new alternatives. Then we can begin to ponder how we could reasonably make any judgments about which purposes we want to design schools—and assessment—around. We might even agree to disagree.

A reader of these columns, Ogden Hamilton, wrote me, in response to a quote from Alice in Wonderland in last week’s blog, with the following:

"I’ve heard the folk wisdom put that if you don’t care where you’re going, you cannot get lost. It’s always used like the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Seems to me that in education, not knowing where we are going may keep us from admitting that we’re lost, but it cannot ameliorate the terrible consequences of not knowing where we are going and acting as if we do. Our situation just screams for pluralism now, not national standards."…

I’d like to pass a second Meier’s Law, and a third. (The first: Those who require students to take a standardized test must be required to take it, too, and make their scores public.)

Law Two: Before anyone writes a new law or creates a new commission, we all agree to read at least some of what’s already been written. Even if we don’t agree on "standards," maybe we can agree on a lean list of our favorites. Then after we’ve read them, let the conversation begin.

Law Three: Meanwhile, whenever we see the word "achievement," replace it with "test scores"—unless other evidence is cited.

February 2, 2010 Closing Schools Solves Nothing

Last week, the New York City Department of Education pushed through a decision to close 19 high schools. With the encouragement of the "Race to the Top," we will surely see similar closings across the nation, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them. Entrepreneurs cheer when public schools close, as new space opens up for their ventures in philanthropy and profits.

It is odd that school leaders feel triumphant when they close schools, as though they were not responsible for them. They enjoy the role of executioner, shirking any responsibility for the schools in their care. Every time a school is closed, those at the top should hang their heads in shame for their inability or refusal to offer timely assistance. Instead they exult in the failure of schools that are entrusted to their stewardship…

Jamaica High School, once the jewel of its community, was labeled "persistently dangerous" after a cautious principal reported every disciplinary incident. Many students fled once the label was posted. As enrollment dropped, the DOE installed a spiffy small school inside Jamaica High, whose students had smaller classes, more technology, freshly painted classrooms, and the resources denied to the larger enrollment. Jamaica High was not too dangerous for them! Marc Epstein, a teacher at Jamaica for many years, refers to the situation as "academic apartheid": excellent facilities for the few, disdain and decay for the many.

Christine Rowland, a teacher at Columbus High School, described how the school received disproportionate numbers of poorly prepared students and how it struggled to educate them. Last year, only about 5 percent of the students who entered Columbus in 9th grade were on grade level in reading, and less than 15 percent in math, a dramatic decrease over the past decade. Similarly, the proportion of special education students grew from 7 percent in 2001 to nearly 25 percent. As it was overburdened with the high-needs students from other large schools that closed, Columbus was set up for failure, as Jamaica was.

This is a great and terrible charade. It is not about improving education or helping kids. It is about producing data to demonstrate that small schools are better than large ones and that charters are better than regular public schools. The destruction of neighborhood public schools is merely collateral damage, though it may also be a goal of free-market zealots. The neediest kids will continue to be pushed out and bounced around until they give up. And the data will get better and better until the day comes when the DOE runs out of large high schools to close…

Over the course of the mayor’s third term, we can expect to see more privatization, continued closings of schools (including his own small schools, six of which were closed last week), and continued disruption of the lives of students, teachers, and communities. Schools will be treated like chain stores, opened and closed in response to market forces. New York City is repeating the pattern established in Chicago, where many schools were closed, but displaced students, on average, did no better or worse, and nearly half the displaced students ended up in other low-performing schools.

Race to the Top encourages the shell games that are being played to the applause of politicians and foundations, but to the detriment of students and communities. What matters most are the data. How anyone can confuse the data with better education is beyond my understanding.

On climate change policy

Sidelining Cap and Trade’s Green Critics by Neil deMause.

…Perhaps most striking, coverage entirely avoided any talk about the problem that necessitated these bills: the threat of increasing global climate change, and the immense human and economic costs that would come with it. For example, a report by the Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group, a research group sponsored largely by the reinsurance firm Swiss Re, estimated that the costs of unchecked global warming–including everything from increased severe weather disasters to the need to adapt farmland management to shifts in climate–would amount to 19 percent of global GDP by 2030. That’s significantly worse than the earlier projections of British economist Nicholas Stern that climate change would reduce GDP by 20 percent by 2100–and yet, like Stern’s predictions (Extra!, 7-8/07), the new report received virtually no U.S. media notice.

By contrast, in October, CBO director Douglas Elmendorf testified before Congress that Waxman-Markey would reduce GDP in 2020 by one-quarter to three-quarters of a percentage point–an annual rate of well under 0.1 percent. Elmendorf noted that his figures "do not include any benefits from averting climate change."

The headline that the Washington Post (10/15/09) gave to their story on Elmendorf’s testimony: "Cap and Trade Would Slow Economy, CBO Chief Says." As in most cases of media coverage of climate legislation, readers would be advised to ask: Compared to what?

There are some very useful items to be downloaded from Swiss Re.

All societies need to understand how and where they must adapt to climate change. Swiss Re is a lead contributor to Shaping Climate Resilient Development, a report introducing an approach and methodology to make this happen.

Uploaded the very interesting ECA: Shaping Climate Resilent Development from Swiss Re as a contribution to informed discussion. (In case you’ve wondered, there are 3 gigs of free space here for uploads. I have used less than 1%.)

Update on education policy 5 February

I had an email from Neil deMause thanking me for using his article on cap and trade. 🙂 He included another article: Are High-Stakes Tests Harming NYC Schools?

Are No Child Left Behind and Bloomberg’s report cards pushing schools to go grade-grubbing?

In New York City, the looming NCLB crisis has drawn little notice. In part, that’s because schools’ concerns about landing on the Needs Improvement list have been superseded by fear of running afoul of Bloomberg’s own "accountability" initiative: the school Progress Reports that assign a letter grade of A through F to every public school—based mostly on state test scores—with principals who earn insufficient marks facing dismissal or even having their schools closed…

…Campbell’s Law. This principle, first described in 1976 by sociologist Donald Campbell, is probably best summed up this way: The more a test affects decision making, the more likely it will lead to corruption. In particular, wrote Campbell, "when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways."…

…"They’re such in a panic mode that they’re going to get a D or an F that they’ll do anything."

One such "anything" is test prep. Numerous city schools—the city says it doesn’t keep specific records—have hired Kaplan and other private firms to coach their students. Another tactic, allegedly, is avoiding low test scores by keeping out low-scoring students: Foote says school staffers have told her of high school students whose transfer requests were denied because they hadn’t passed the Regents English test. (Asked about this, city schools spokesperson Danny Kanner said that it would be a violation of department policy.)…

Aussies: watch this space!