Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Superman" and Rhee blew it!

My last two posts (There's only one problem with this narrative and Public schools in Crisis? Check the facts) began looking at education expert Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error. Ravitch maintains that there is no "crisis in American education" and backs up her assertion with hard facts.

One of the claims of the "reformers" is that today's students don't know as much as their counterparts from 25 or 50 years ago. In this post we will examine this claim.

According to Ravitch, the U.S. has only one way to measure student performance over time. It is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is run by an independent, bipartisan board consisting of "teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, businesspeople and members of the general public." Ravitch was appointed to this board by Pres. Clinton and served on the board for 7 years.

According to Ravitch: "NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly. It has measured reading and math and other subjects over time. It is administered to sample of students; no one knows who will take it, no one can prepare to take it, no one takes the whole test."

NAEP reports scores in two ways. The first is a "scale" score which is simply a number on a scale with a maximum of 500. This scores reflects "what students know and can do." Its purpose is to establish a trendline over time.

The second is "achievement levels." Ranging from "advanced" on the high end to "proficient," "basic," and "below basic." Misunderstanding of what each of these achievement levels represents can lead, and has lead, to misrepresentation of the state of our public schools.

The following definitions are all direct quotes from Ravitch: "Advanced" represents a superior level of academic performance. In most subjects and grades, only 3-8 percent of students reach that level. I think of it as A+. Very few students in any grade or subject score "advanced."

"Proficient" represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) defines it as "solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic achievement. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter." From what I observed as a member of the NAGB who reviewed questions and results over a seven-year period, a student who is "proficient" earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+.

"Basic," as defined by the NAGB, is "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." In my view, the student who scores "basic" is probably a B or C student.

"Below basic" connotes students who have a weak grasp of the knowledge or skills that are being assessed. This student, in my understanding, would be a D or below.

With this background, you will be able to see how "reformers" fudge the numbers to create a "crisis." Again, I quote Ravitch directly.

"The film Waiting for Superman misinterpreted the NAEP achievement levels. Davis Guggenheim, the film's director and narrator, used the NAEP achievement levels to argue that American students are woefully undereducated. The film claimed that 70 percent of eighth-grade students could not read at grade level. That would be dreadful if it were true, but it is not. NAEP does not report grade levels (grade level describes a midpoint on a grading scale where half are above and half are below). Guggenheim assumed that students who were not "proficient" on the NAEP were "below grade level." That is wrong. Actually 76 percent on NAEP are basic or above, and 24 percent are below basic. It would be good to reduce the proportion who are "below basic," but it is 24 percent, not the 70 percent Guggenheim claimed."

Ravitch points out that "reformer" Michelle Rhee, makes the same mistake--equating NAEP "proficiency" with "at grade level"--in her writings.

The full details can be found in chapter 5 of Ravitch's book, but here is the simple truth. "NAEP data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the last two decades: slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics. Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago."

"Why the difference between the two subjects? Reading is influenced to a larger extent by differences in home conditions than mathematics. Put another way, students learn language and vocabulary at home and in school; they learn mathematics in school....their starting point in reading is influenced more by home and family than in mathematics."

"So the next time you hear someone say that the system is "broken," that American students aren't as well educated as they used to be, that our schools are failing, tell that person the facts. Test scores are rising."

Well, that may be so, some will say, but the real problem is that our students stink when compared with those in other countries. We'll deal with that in the next post.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Public schools in crisis? Check the facts.

In our last post --There's only one problem with this narrative.--we began to look at Reign of Error, a new book from education scholar/historian and former Asst. Sec. of Education Diane Ravitch.

Dr. Ravitch maintains that the current "sky is falling" narrative claiming a "crisis" in our public schools is simply not true. All one needs to do, according to Ravitch, is look at the facts. Ravitch handles this in a straightforward manner by devoting a chapter to each of the claims of crisis made by "reformers."

Chapter 8, for example, examines the claim that "the nation has a dropout crisis and high school graduation rates are falling." Ravitch counters with the "reality" that "High school dropouts are at an all-time low, and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high."

According to Ravitch: "Not until 1940 did the high school graduation rate reach 50 percent. The graduation rate dropped during World War II, as young men went into the armed forces, but rose to 70 percent by 1970. By 1990, the four-year graduation rate reached 74 percent and remained virtually flat until 2010. In 2012, the Department of Education announced that the four-year graduation rate had reached to 78.2 percent in 2010, the first significant increase in three decades."

Ravitch continues: "The U.S. Department of education uses the four-year completion rate as the gold standard; this method produces the lowest possible graduation rate. It does not account for students who take more time to graduate or who earn a GED....When their numbers are added to the four-year graduates, the high school graduation rate is 90 percent."

What about the dropout rate? "The dropout rate is trending downward....The dropout rate has actually been cut by 40 percent overall between 1972 and 2009 and reduced even more for blacks and Hispanics, the groups that are most at risk for dropping out."

"Well, so what," I heard someone mutter in the back of the room. Everybody knows that kids today don't learn as much as kids did 50 years ago. We may be graduating a higher percentage but they aren't as well prepared as graduates when we went to school. Ravitch devotes chapter 5 to this subject.

According to Ravitch: "Critics have complained for many years that American students are not learning as much as they used to or that academic performance is flat. But neither of these complaints is accurate."

According to Ravitch: "We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time and that it the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAPE (pronounced "nape")."

"Critics may find this hard to believe, but students in American public schools today are studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers forty or fifty years ago. People who doubt this should review the textbooks in common use then and now or look at the tests then and now. If they are still in doubt, I invite them to go to the NAEP website and review the questions in math and science for eighth-grade students."

We will talk a little more about NAPE in the next post, and we will address the question of how American students rank with respect to other nations.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

There's only one problem with this narrative.

"In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about educational policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media elite seemed to agree: Public education is broken. Our students are not learning enough. Public schools are bad and getting worse. We are being beaten by other nations with higher test scores. Our abysmal public schools threaten not only the performance of our economy but our national security, our very survival as a nation. This crisis is so profound that half measures and tweaks will not suffice. Schools must be closed and large numbers of teachers fired. Anyone who doubts this is unaware of the dimensions of the crisis or has a vested interest in defending the status quo."

"Furthermore, according to this logic, now widely shared among policy makers and opinion shapers, blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals. When test scores are low, it is their fault. They should be held accountable for this educational catastrophe. They are responsible because they have become comfortable with the status quo of low expectations and low achievement, more interested in their pensions than in the children they teach."

"In response to this crisis, the reformers have a ready path for solving it. Since teachers are the problem, their job protections must be eliminated and teachers must be fired. Teachers' unions must be opposed at every turn. The "hoops and hurdles" that limit entry into teaching must be eliminated. Teachers must be evaluated on the basis of their students' test scores. Public schools must be evaluated on an "objective" basis, and when they are failing, they must be closed. Students must be given choices other than traditional public schools, such as charter schools, vouchers and online schools."

"In Hollywood films and television documentaries, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Traditional public schools are bad; their supporters are apologists for the unions. Those who advocate for charter schools, virtual schooling and "school choice" are reformers; their supporters insist they are championing the rights of minorities. They say they are leaders of the civil rights movement of our day."

"It is a compelling narrative, one that gives us easy villains and ready-made solutions. It appeals to values Americans have traditionally cherished--choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government."

These are the first 5 paragraphs from a new book, Reign of Error, by education scholar/historian and former Asst. Sec. of Education Diane Ravitch.

Pick your source: NBC's "Education Nation", local or national newspapers, local or national TV/radio, they're all saying essentially the same things found in those 5 paragraphs. How often to do you recall pundits on Fox News and MSNBC agreeing on anything? Those who have spent their careers in public education are--to say the least--dispirited.

But let's continue just a bit farther, to paragraphs 6 and 7.

"There is only one problem with this narrative."

"It is wrong."

"Well, Dr. Ravitch, that's your opinion," one might say. But then Ravitch does the most frustrating thing: She looks at the "everybody knows" claims made by "reformers" and shows that they simply are not true. How does she do this? With FACTS.

Now we will examine some of these claim-crushing facts in the next post or two, but don't wait for me. If you're tired of being told that public education is ruining the country and that retired teachers should be ashamed of taking their pensions, buy the book right now. Click on the link above, it will take you to Amazon where you can be reading the book in less than a minute if you have a Kindle. If you don't, they will be happy to send a real book to your home.

Read the book and be ready to jam some facts down the throat of the next irritating bozo who tries to pull one of those "everybody knows" arguments out of his clown car full of claims.