An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

During three decades of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing at the state level and another decade-plus of federal oversight of that accountability, the overwhelming evidence has exposed accountability as a failed network of policies in education reform.

Education reform in the U.S. now faces a potential watershed moment in which setting aside accountability and embracing a school reform agenda that acknowledges social and educational inequity offer a promise of success that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing have failed to achieve.

First, education does not exist in a vacuum. Teaching and learning are impacted by out-of-school factors and impact the world beyond the walls of schools; thus, the primary foundation upon which education reform must be built is acknowledging that the U.S. currently has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among nations against which U.S. schools are commonly compared:

Relative child poverty rates

Next, another powerful example of inequity in the U.S. is that upward mobility has stagnated—notably in the top and bottom fifths—and, as Matt Bruenig has explained “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree”:

The third and final context for understanding an alternative to accountability-based education reform is the rise in the working poor in the U.S. and the increase in part-time work that leaves many working-poor families with adults holding multiple jobs but not having access to health care or retirement benefits.

Education reform must be built on policies that directly address the rising social inequity in the U.S. The essential shift away from accountability, then, must begin with social reform that addresses inequity. Social reform is necessarily the responsibility of state and federal legislation; thus, some of the policy targets addressing social inequity that are likely to impact positively a new vision of school-based reform include the following:

  • Food security: Children in poverty face food insecurity, but also suffer from access to low-quality foods (for example, fast food). Nutrition during pregnancy for women in poverty, early childhood nutrition, and nutrition during school ages are all essential elements for providing children the equity of opportunities that schools could provide.
  • Health care: Children and families in poverty tend to avoid needed preventative health care, and then are forced to seek out the least economically efficient avenues for receiving basic and urgent care, emergency rooms. If public education is to transform society and the lives of children, all children must be guaranteed the health (and nutrition) that children in affluence experience.
  • Stable work with rewarding salaries: Children and families in poverty often experience instability in the work of the parents and their homes since impoverished workers are competing with each other for entry-level and transient jobs. A stable workforce and increasing full-time jobs with benefits provide the basis upon which education can succeed where it has traditionally failed.

Certainly, many other social policies need to be addressed, but the foundational point here is that social inequity currently overwhelms public education in the U.S. A first step to education reform is social reform. As well, the public in the U.S. currently supports seeking greater equity: “The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity” (NYT February 16, 2013). What is lacking is the political will to make commitments to social equity of opportunity for all in the U.S.

Within the larger commitment to social reform, a new vision of education reform must include a broad commitment to providing an equity of opportunity for all children, and some of the policy changes must include the following:

  • End accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing: A growing body of research has shown that the accountability era has failed: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself” (Mathis, 2012). A first and essential step to a new vision of education reform is to end the accountability era by shifting away from focusing on outcomes and toward attending to the conditions of teaching and learning—with an emphasis on equity of opportunity.
  • Implement a small and robust measurement system: As Stephen Krashen and others have argued, the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment system in the U.S. provides a more than adequate foundation upon which the U.S. can develop a systematic and limited process for administering tests to random samples of students in all states and gathering descriptive data on the effectiveness of schools. This new system must be low-stakes and should dramatically reduce the funding committed to testing in the U.S.
  • Scale back and eventually end tracking: The most accurate criticism of U.S. education is that it has historically perpetuated and currently perpetuates social inequity. Tracking remains grounded in data that reflect out-of-school influences and tends to funnel impoverished students into narrow academic settings and affluent children into rich educational experiences.
  • Focus on equitable teacher assignments: The focus on teacher quality within the accountability movement has tended to mislead the public about the importance of teacher quality connected to measurable outcomes while ignoring that impoverished, minority, and special needs students along with English language learners disproportionately are assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. Education reform committed to equity must monitor teacher assignments so that no students experience inequitable access to high-quality, experienced teachers.
  • Decrease bureaucracy of teacher licensing and increase academic quality of education degrees: Another legitimate criticism of traditional education is that teacher licensing has many flaws built into the bureaucracy of attaining a teaching certificate. Certification and accreditation mandates and systems tend to fail educators, and thus students. However, as in other fields, the quality of education degree programs still offer a tremendous promise for preparing teachers well for the teaching profession.
  • Honor school and teacher autonomy: Individual schools and classrooms vary dramatically across the U.S. School autonomy and teacher professionalism are the greatest sources of understanding what populations of students need. The current move toward national standards and tests is inherently a flawed concept since student needs in Orangeburg, SC, are dramatically different than student needs in Seattle, WA.
  • Replace accountability with transparency: High-stakes accountability has not only failed to produce outcomes promised by its advocates, but also has created negative unintended consequences (cheating scandals, for example). A more promising approach to insuring that a public institution provides that public with needed services is to require schools to be transparent: identifying educational needs and providing evidence for practices being implemented to meet those needs.
  • Address wide range of issues impacting equity—funding, class size, technology, facilities: Moving away from accountability and toward equity is a shift in the goals and then standards against which education policy is evaluated. Issues of funding, class size, technology, and facilities must be addressed to assure all children experience an equity of opportunities in every school.
  • Abandon ranking: Education in the U.S. has suffered the negative consequences of ranking for over a century. Ranking nearly always distorts data and typically fails goals of equity. Instead of ranking, education should honor how conditions of learning match clearly identified learning goals.
  • Rethink testing and grades: Tests and grades have been the foundation upon which education in the U.S. rests, but both tend to distort education seeking equity, autonomy, and democracy. Rich feedback that challenges learners and contributes to learning, however, is the lifeblood of learning.
  • Practice patience: Crisis and urgency have characterized the accountability era, and both states have contributed to the failure of accountability. Teaching and learning are complex and unpredictable, requiring political and public patience for reaching the goals that everyone seeks.

The points identified above are not intended to be exhaustive, but the evidence is clear that education reform has been on the wrong path for three decades. Accountability has failed, but that experiment has exposed a wealth of data that should inform a new vision of the need to address social and educational inequity through policies that fulfill the promises driving our democracy and our commitment to universal public education.

For Further Reading

Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Carter and Welner, eds.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Ravitch (September 17, 2013)

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and OpportunityThomas, Porfilio, Gorlewski, and Carr, eds. (under contract, Routledge)

James Baldwin on PBS

From James Baldwin: Film Excerpt: Writer, Teacher, Preacher

An encore of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (original broadcast August 14, 1989) is scheduled for Friday, August 23 at 9pm on PBS in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (8/28/1963). This broadcast also coincides with the 25th anniversary of James Baldwin’s death (12/1/1987) and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (1/1/1863).

Also, James Baldwin: Film: James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

—–

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely Among Racism

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

The Unintended Lessons from Florida: Class Grades, pt. 2

After recognizing the excellent analysis by Michael Vasquez and David Smiley of Florida’s school grades being strongly correlated with out-of-school factors associated with the students*, I have received several important related points from Vasquez about the unintended lessons coming from one of the most often cited reform states in the U.S.

First, Vasquez pointed me to Matthew DiCarlo’s What Florida’s School Grades Measure, And What They Don’t, in which DiCarlo explains:

A while back, I argued that Florida’s school grading system, due mostly to its choice of measures, does a poor job of gauging school performance per se. The short version is that the ratings are, to a degree unsurpassed by most other states’ systems, driven by absolute performance measures (how highly students score), rather than growth (whether students make progress). Since more advantaged students tend to score more highly on tests when they enter the school system, schools are largely being judged not on the quality of instruction they provide, but rather on the characteristics of the students they serve.

New results were released a couple of weeks ago. This was highly anticipated, as the state had made controversial changes to the system, most notably the inclusion of non-native English speakers and special education students, which officials claimed they did to increase standards and expectations. In a limited sense, that’s true – grades were, on average, lower this year. The problem is that the system uses the same measures as before (including a growth component that is largely redundant with proficiency). All that has changed is the students that are included in them. Thus, to whatever degree the system now reflects higher expectations, it is still for outcomes that schools mostly cannot control.

The really important aspect of DiCarlo’s analysis is that Florida’s accountability system has likely caused harmed instead of attaining the lofty goals often associated with accountability policies, as DiCarlo concludes:

In other words, there are many Florida schools with lower-performing students that are actually very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it). This particular ratings system, however, is so heavily driven by absolute performance – how highly students score, rather than how much progress they have made – that it really cannot detect much of this variation.

Closing or reconstituting these schools is misguided policy; their replacements are unlikely to do better and are very likely to do worse. Yet this is what will happen if such decisions are made based on the state’s ratings.

Florida will have to do a lot more than make tweaks to truly improve the high-stakes utility of this system. In the meantime, one can only hope that state and district officials exercise discretion in how it is applied.

Both Vasquez and Smiley’s 2013 analysis and DiCarlo’s 2012 analysis, however, are even more troubling in light of a St. Petersburg Times (Florida) March 21, 1999, article, “A lesson in grading schools,” by Kent Fischer and Geoff Dougherty:

Bush believes the grades, A through F, will make it easier for parents to compare schools and assess how they are doing. A noble goal.

But a St. Petersburg Times analysis indicates his school-grading system may be fundamentally flawed.

It takes no account of the impact poverty has on student achievement, though many studies have proven that children from wealthy families generally outscore children whose parents are poor. So Bush’s grades are more apt to reflect the relative wealth of a school’s student body rather than the competency of its teachers, the newspaper’s analysis shows.

Fourteen years ago, then, Fischer and Dougherty accurately identified the flawed Florida school grading plan, but also acknowledged the key ignored hurdle facing education, poverty:

If there’s one thing that has been firmly established by research, it is the impact social factors have on student achievement. This does not mean poor kids can’t achieve. Many do. But poor children often lead transient lives, may suffer from malnutrition and endure higher rates of abuse and neglect than other children. They also tend not to be exposed to books, music and other cultural influences that help ready young minds for school.

Research – and the Times’ analysis – shows that when large numbers of students are considered, poverty reliably predicts test scores. The Times’ analysis found that depending on which test is given, from 69 to 79 percent of the difference in test scores among schools is explained by poverty.

That seems to ignore several significant demographic factors, like single-parent homes and student mobility. But many of those factors have an extremely high correlation to poverty and thus are effectively included in the analysis.

The bottom line, according to many experts: Any grading system that fails to take poverty into account is flawed.

Ultimately, Fischer and Dougherty offered Florida parents a message still relevant today: “There’s more to a school than good test scores. When trying to gauge school quality, educators suggest parents do some investigating.”

* See below a graphic (click to open and then click again to enlarge) related to Vasquez and Smiley’s article they were unable to include in the online article:

gradeschart copy

Class Grades

Since I am quick to criticize the media for its role in the failures of the current education reform movement—such as PBS, The Charleston Post and Courier, and Education Week—I must also recognize when a media outlet provides much needed insight into education policy that has clearly run off the tracks, such as the so-called Florida miracle and the enduring practice of assigning letter grades to schools.

In “Low-income schools struggle under state’s grading system” (Miami Herald, August 10, 2013), Michael Vasquez and David Smiley offer a clear but disturbing picture of accountability in Florida:

With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.

The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.

Vasquez and Smiley, along with the Miami Herald, represent a needed aspect of journalism addressing education reform: Recognizing large and compelling patterns, and thus the consequences of education policy.

The analysis of assigning letter grades to schools in Florida exposes some important conclusions:

•  Although high poverty rates don’t necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).

•  Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.

•  Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.

Despite efforts to identify educational quality among schools by focusing on growth models, data used in accountability policies remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors. Further, the schools that sit outside the typical patterns are rightfully identified by Vasquez and Smiley as “outliers.”

This analytical report on letter grades for schools in Florida is a strong example of quality journalism that seeks out and presents complex and detailed evidence, placing that data in the broader context of the many factors that impact not only the evidence we gather on our schools but also what conclusions we draw as well as how we draw those conclusions.

In the article, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explains, “‘Just as much as poverty can’t be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral.'”

Rare is the news article that allows a perspective this complex.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in several grand promises in 2001, such as closing the achievement gap, but one of the central requirements of the legislation—the use of scientifically based research—is now poised to dismantle the entire accountability movement, including policies such as labeling schools with letter grades based primarily on test scores.

The evidence is clear that thirty years of accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing has failed. The next step is composing and sharing a unified message of that fact, while also building a coalition to reset the reform agenda so that we address poverty, equity, and opportunity in the lives of children and their families as well as in the schools those children attend.

SPECIAL CALL: Speaking Truth to Power (English Journal)

SPECIAL CALL

For my January 15, 2014, CALL for my English Journal column, Speaking Truth to Power, I am seeking a column that combines the column focus with the special issue, with guest editors Alan Brown and Chris Crowe and focusing on the theme “A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom.”

Please contact me with a query or draft that combines these elements as detailed below.

Speaking Truth to Power

Editor: P. L. Thomas

“If education cannot do everything, there is something fundamental that it can do. In other words, if education is not the key to social transformation, neither is it simply meant to reproduce the dominant ideology. . . . The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated. . . . We are speaking of that invisible power of alienating domestication, which attains a degree of extraordinary efficiency in what I have been calling the bureaucratizing of the mind” (110–11). (Freire, 1998, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage)
This column seeks to explore the experiences and possibilities that arise when educators speak Truth to power. It is also intended to be an avenue for teachers to speak Truth to power through teacher narratives about the “the bureaucratizing of the mind,” about best practice in critical literacy against scripted and tested literacy, and about creating classrooms that invite students to discover, embrace, and develop their own voices and empowerment.
Submit an electronic Word file attached to your email to the column editor, P. L. Thomas, atpaul.thomas@furman.edu.

A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom

Deadline: January 15, 2014

Publication Date: September 2014

Guest Editors: Alan Brown and Chris Crowe

Love sports or hate them, it’s hard to deny their prominence in American society and their popularity with 21st-century adolescents. Interscholastic athletics in particular can play a significant role in the overall culture of a school and have a substantial impact on students’ daily lives. Despite this influence, the topic of sports in society is often absent from the professional conversations of English teachers, an exclusion that could prove to be a missed opportunity. This issue will examine the possibilities for both utilizing and critiquing the culture of sports as a means of increasing student engagement and promoting student learning in the English classroom. Within this context, we seek manuscripts that explore the intersection of literacy, sport, culture, and society, and we encourage column submissions devoted to this same theme.

A number of important questions guide this issue: What connections or disconnections exist between the perceived physical nature of athletics and the mental nature of academics? What real-world associations have you made between sports and the English curriculum? How can sports-related texts (e.g., young adult literature, canonical literature, graphic novels, poetry, nonfiction, magazines, newspapers) be integrated into the academic culture of an English class? How have you promoted the teaching of 21st-century skills through the use of sports-related media, film, and technology? What possibilities exist for interdisciplinary (e.g., historical, political, scientific, social) connections to sports across content areas? How have you engaged students in critical dialogue about our societal emphasis on sports? How can we extend the definition of sport to be more inclusive for students of diverse cultures, races, genders, ethnicities, and abilities? How can an examination of sports culture open the door to discussions of other cultures that exist in school and society?