OP-ED | It’s Time to Reframe the Education Reform Debate
Last week, after an initial embargo, the state Department of Education released the latest round of CMT and CAPT scores. And guess what? The disparities in test scores between lower- and higher-income students persist.
Here’s the state Education Department spin:
“Different metrics paint a complex picture of how the gap in achievement has changed over time. Examining changes in the percentage of students who perform at or above Proficient and Goal shows that in virtually every grade level and content area, economically disadvantaged students have made more significant gains between 2006 and 2012 compared to their peers, which has narrowed the achievement gap for this subgroup of students. However, vertical scale score data, which measures cohort growth over time, shows that the gap between students in Grade 3 and Grade 8 persists, and in some cases, widens from year to year.”
Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit — is anyone actually surprised by this? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. Let’s review a major problem facing most of those economically disadvantages students, one that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s much ballyhooed education reform bill hasn’t adequately addressed — school funding.
Dianne Kaplan DeVries, project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) reminded members of the Education Cost-Sharing (ECS) Task force at a July 13 hearing that Connecticut “faces a serious school funding lawsuit, CCJEF v. Rell, a constitutional challenge brought because of the state’s systemic and long-term failure to adequately and equitably fund the public schools . . . The state may well argue that it has no more money to invest in Bridgeport or the schools, but that argument doesn’t cut the mustard. In state after state, judges are deaf to such arguments and are adamant that it’s the constitutional rights of school children that must trump all. Either the state will have to find new revenues or seriously rethink its prioritization of how it spends taxpayers’ money.”
Instead of seriously addressing funding, our governor chose to focus on teacher bashing and test scores, as if that’s worked well for the last 10 years. Additional funding for Connecticut’s 30 most needy districts (the “Alliance Districts”) is “conditional upon clear plans for reform.”
Anyone seriously interested in addressing the disparities in educational opportunity should read Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. As someone who volunteers at my local high school to record stories and texts for kids with reading difficulties, it would be my pleasure to take the time to do it for the governor in the hope it might cure him of his “I’ll settle for teaching to the test if it means raising test scores” mentality.
Gallagher makes an extremely convincing case for what he calls the Paige Paradox, named after Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. Paige was the superintendent of schools in Houston and architect of the so-called “Texas Miracle,” (which, like the turnaround claims of Paul Vallas, turned out to be less miraculous than was initially claimed). NCLB was modeled upon the mirage of Paige’s success. The paradox goes like this:
1. Develop policy to help struggling readers by measuring progress level every year with high-stakes multiple-choice tests. Convince everyone that this will ensure struggling readers will rise to proficiency.
2. Put into place state and national tests that value narrow, shallow thinking rather than deeper analysis and critical thinking.
3. Grade teachers and schools on how well students score on these tests, so educators narrow curriculum in order to raise scores.
4. Workbooks replace novels and other reading material of interest to students. Students get message that reason to read is to pass the test.
5. Instead of being matched with books that might kindle their interest, reluctant readers are bombarded with boring test preparation, ensuring they end up hating reading and removing any likelihood at all of making them lifelong readers.
6. Students take high-stakes tests. Those who already read well do fine. Those who don’t read well either: come from test-preparation factories that might raise their scores, but don’t equip them with the deeper critical thinking and analysis skills they need to succeed in life, or; still read poorly and have given up.
7. Schools receive test scores and, inevitably, the schools with highest percentages of low-income and students of color have the lowest scores.
8. Schools that continue to struggle, which surprise, surprise, are often the worst-funded schools, are then threatened with economic sanctions (makes so much sense, doesn’t it?) or closure. If they are given money, it is earmarked for, guess what, more test preparation!
9. Low-performing schools get more tests, more test preparation, more shallow, brain-deadening curriculum, less that is likely to inspire a child to actually want to read.
10. Rinse and Repeat.
For the past five weeks, I’ve been teaching a series of creative writing workshops for rising 6-7 and rising 8-9 graders. I love teaching these workshops because I end up learning from my kids. Sometimes, though what I learn upsets me – like when we were talking about what books they’d read and digressed onto the topic of the Accelerated Reader program. For those who haven’t met AR, it’s a program created by Renaissance Learning, whose tagline is “advanced technology for data driven schools.” Despite Renaissance Learning’s claims that the program helps to raise test scores and develops a lifelong love of reading, it does the opposite. The program is expensive and the research inconclusive.
By limiting kids choices and teaching them reading is for competition and prizes rather than pleasure, Accelerated Reader sucks the joy out of reading and prevents children from stretching their reading wings. I learned my most advanced vocabulary from reading books well above my grade level and learning to decode words in context. Instead of helping children grow, we’re using technology to dumb them down.
It’s yet another example of expensive corporate “reform,” testing for recall rather than comprehension and deeper meaning, which doesn’t accomplish to anything except making money for the vendor and turning kids off to learning.
I wish I could say that President Obama ushered in a more common sense approach to education, but instead we got Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the similarly misguided Reach To The Top. As Robert Cotto Jr. of CT Voices for Children points out in his analysis of Connecticut’s NCLB waiver application, RTTT still contains all the worst Paige Paradox provisions of NCLB.
From Obama, to Duncan to our governor on down, politicians want to keep the focus on the same failed policies of high-stakes testing and “teacher accountability” instead of real issues like inequitable funding and lack of access to early childhood education. We know that the seeds for the achievement gap are sown before kids even get to kindergarten. Children from professional families enter school with a vocabulary more than double that of children from low socio-economic families. We also know that having a library of books in the home increases literacy, and yet as a country our priorities are tax cuts during war time, choosing instead to cut funding for libraries and literacy programs.
Einstein’s definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We know that early childhood education and equitable funding are the key factors that will impact student learning. It’s time to stop repeating the “fixes” that don’t work.
Parents Across America is one organization that is working to fight the high-stakes testing insanity and fight for the reforms that will bring deeper learning and skills that our children and employers need. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.
A group of dedicated parents and educators have started a Parents Across America chapter in our state. To find out more, check them out on Facebook as well.
Another group fighting for sane policies in education is Save our Schools, whose members will be holding a People’s Education Convention of parents, educators, students and activists in D.C from Aug. 3 to Aug. 5. Find them here on Facebook and here on Twitter.
It’s time for parents to educate ourselves and speak out to save our kids.