Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Faulty Assumptions and the Persistent Income-Achievement Gap

The economist has an interview up with Diane Ravitch in which she continues to promote her critiques of NCLB and the so-called education reform now popular.  Some good commentary follows the piece.  However I have a problem with a few of the premises being assumed (as well the larger educational ideologies they belong to).

The first is that schools are getting considerably worse across the board.  When we talk about "failing schools" in the US, we are really talking about schools in demographic areas of low socio-economic status.  There's an excellent site called School Performance Maps that uses Google maps to show relative test scores in cities across America.  Unsurprisingly, educational quality fits poverty rates like a glove.

The second assumption I have a problem with is the emphasis on teacher quality.  While some teachers are indeed good and others bad, it is a complex issue.  For starters, judging performance is not cut and dry.  Test scores, while useful on a large scale, are notoriously unreliable as small-scale performance indicators, owing to such things as student motivation on test-day, classroom population variance, and a particular subject's testability (can you compare a science teacher's results to an English teacher's?).  To get a better view of the value of a test, you have to look at multiple schools, which for demographic and other reasons only complicate the variables.

Performance is also often evaluated by an administrator who has no experience in that subject area, or teaching in general, and often bases his or her evaluation on mere minutes spent in a single classroom.  As Ravitch notes, the subjective nature of teaching is one of the reasons teachers unions are very protective of tenure (and it should more accurately be described as a system of comprehensive due process, as I've never heard of a school where tenure over-rides a due process model for termination).  This is not even getting into issues of pedagogical disagreement or possible capricious firings. 

Another premise, albeit an unspoken one, is the lack of accounting for school location.  This is what parents talk about when they say "good schools", and it generally refers to the student population demographic.  Two schools, often in the same district, can have very different test scores.  The number one predictor of success is parent education, followed by income.  But other issues play a role as well, mainly having to do with a family's ability to promote their child's academic success.  Even with low socio-economic groups, this varies considerably, owing to such things as work schedule, substance abuse or criminality (fathers are often incarcerated), English language skills and simple efficacy in parenting or dealing with school personnel.  Charter schools have frequently been able to capitalize on limiting one or more of these factors, as Ravitch mentioned.  Even something as simple as not being equipped to handle students with special needs can free up resources that provide an advantage in other areas.

All of this goes to the question of teacher quality.  Even if we were able to develop a reliable and scalable measure of teacher performance, we would still face the problem that teaching is a very different job in different communities.  In disadvantaged populations, getting students from point A to point B is just inherently more difficult than in populations where students are much more prepared.  Therefore we cannot expect the same level of results.  In most poor schools, majorities of students are grade levels behind in reading ability.  How much more difficult does this make the teacher's job in every subject? 

These are not excuses for failure.  They are reasons.  It is simply foolish to base models for efficacy upon faulty frameworks.  If we want poor children to succeed at the level of their advantaged peers, we as a society need to understand that we need a different model for how to get there.  We need to start by targeting each area of disadvantage and developing reasonable policy that takes difference into account what might be required to achieve success.  The model for schools in poor neighborhoods should be very different than that of middle class schools. 

Different populations have different needs.  I think the main take-away from NCLB, aside from the obvious need for reform, is that a one-size fits all approach doesn't work.  We don't approach other areas of the public sector this way (foreign policy, transportation, health care), so why should education be any different?  Title I funding was a step in the right direction, but it needs to go much further if we are to ever properly address the income-achievement gap in America.

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