No End In Sight

Eduwonkette continues the curriculum narrowing debate. You can read the whole backstory below but here’s the punchline: Her argument basically seems to be that No Child Left Behind focuses on math and reading so schools are being forced to, or incentivized to, cut other subjects. This argument would have more merit if (a) plenty of schools were not managing to get over the relatively modest bars* without doing this (b) research was not pretty clear that the best way to improve test scores over time is to actually, you know, teach rather than take shortcuts (c) the best way to teach subjects like reading was not to teach them across the curriculum via things like history and social studies rather than as discrete subjects and (d) more schools and school districts were seriously examining how they spend their time on these subjects rather than just how much time gets spent. Otherwise, spot on!

Some schools are responding badly to a law that — all the rhetoric aside — basically says that you need to teach kids to read and do math at the state defined “grade level” in grades 3-8. So, because it turns out that some schools can’t do that (Surprise! We have a 50 percent dropout rate for minorities and big achievement gaps, who knew there were some crummy schools?), do we jettison the requirements or get serious about ensuring that more schools can get over the bar? She doesn’t really say.

I suspect that Eduwonkette and I agree that we need to do more to help low-performing schools deliver better instructional programs. So that’s not at issue. And, notwithstanding my concerns about the smoke and confusion being thrown up around curriculum narrowing, I actually would like to see some broadening of the No Child law’s requirements beyond math and reading but not at the expense of proficiency in those areas (nor do I want to see a lot more testing than we do today).

But, considering that there are few parents out there who don’t want their kids passing these tests (and fewer people still in the education community who would be so blasé if it were their child’s school struggling to do it with their child) my challenge for Eduwonkette is to offer up what sort of requirements for school accountability she’d support. How many kids, or what percent, should a school have to teach reading and math to, well, in order to make “adequate yearly progress?” What’s the bar below which no school should be allowed to fall? Should less be expected in terms of performance from schools serving a lot of poor or minority kids because they are more challenging populations based on the data? How many other subjects should we test students in if we don’t want to just focus on reading and math? These are not abstract questions. And unless we completely walk away from a focus on literacy and numeracy under the guise of adding additional subjects to No Child Left Behind’s requirements, they are exactly the ones policymakers will be wrestling with when the law comes up for reauthorization. (And, of course, I’d really like to know at what pass rate requirement does it become excusable to start cutting other subjects because you’re “responding” to NCLB’s “powerful incentive” to teach reading and math!?)

*This is a point worth mentioning in more depth. The table at the top of page 8 of this report (pdf) and reproduced above (though probably hard to read on small screens) shows the high, low, and median pass rates required to make “adequate yearly progress” in 2006-07 and the appendix starting on page 13 breaks the states out. You decide if getting that percentage of kids over the cut score (pdf) on the state test is really so demanding that it’s necessary to cut these other subjects to do it. I can’t get too worked up about requiring schools to get 2/3rds, or less, of kids over the bar in elementary school…Related, see also this.

15 thoughts on “No End In Sight

  1. Big KIPPster

    Thank you.

    I feel the desire to give our kids a full, interesting education, I really do, but if they can’t read and do math, they’re still basically screwed.

    And when people say we’re overfocusing on the reading and the math, it’s hard for me not to suspect that on some level they do not believe my kids can ever be proficient.

  2. Anonymous

    I agree with bigg kippster and would add that it’s absurd to think that students can obtain a rich and effective education in content areas such as science and social studies if, in fact, they can’t read or do math.

  3. dt

    At least we’re finally APPROACHING the key issue. We know how to create individual classrooms and schools that teach our poorest kids how to read. But in 21st century, post-family, America, we don’t know how to create systems of NEIGHBORHOOD schools that teach our poorest kids reading comprehension and numeracy.

    If we don’t solve that problem, the soul of our nation is at risk. But the first step is to be honest with ourselves.

    Inner city teachers face this tragedy every day. How could America, even in our digital age and even with Supply Side Economics and globalism and rampant materialism, allow this to happen? The most tempting approach is denial. In my experience, teachers need to look in the mirror and then mourn and then get back to work.

    But I submit that supporters of NCLB need to do the same. Jettison the accountability system that is just making the system worse.

    But if we back away from the shame and blame game, and look at the problem, then the problem can be addressed. Teaching reading IS ROCKET SCIENCE, but of course we can figure out a way to get it done nationally.

    John Thompson

  4. Anonymous

    This is such a red herring. I am surprised Eduwonkette fell for it.

    The premise that is bad to spend a lot of time making sure kids in 3rd, 4th, 5th grade learn to read–at the expense of other subjects–is crazy. Kids in K-3 should learn to read, because once they hit 4th grade kids start reading to learn. If they cannot read and comprehend, they cannot learn in middle and high school. Period. You can cram all the social studies you want into middle school, but if a kid can’t read, it’s a waste all around.

    Same with math. Learning science becomes quite difficult without being able to perform mathematical calculations. IN fact, calculating is just the beginning. To learn science, or economics for that matter, a student needs to understand mathematics deeply. If you skimp in math instruction at 4th grade in order to make time for planting bean seeds, you might lose both math and science learning later.

    Also, no one is preventing a state from instituting social studies and science as part of its mandated tests. It is being done in some places. If Eduwonkette and school principals and others are upset that these subjects are being cut, they should write to state legislators demanding action. It’s easy to change.

    Finally, I would like some evidence of the strength and depth of the science and social studies curricula in disadvantaged elementary schools. I want to see that cutting back on these amazing programs is really shortchanging kids. These must have been some pretty awesome, knowledge producing programs for people to be so inflamed about them. Show me how great they were so I can be upset too.

  5. Northerner

    That last comment is right on. Imagine that schools were responsible for teaching kids how to walk, and from that point, how to play sports. According to Eduwonkette, it’s a bad idea to require bad schools to prove that (say) 60% of their kids are actually learning how to walk (rather than lying about on the floor), because when put under that pressure, bad schools will put too much emphasis on teaching kids how to walk and will start cutting the advanced rugby course.

  6. Suburban White Guy

    Reading Eduwonk and some of his fans reminds me of Tinkerbell. If you believe Tinkerbell can fly, she will fly. As the old saying goes, wishing will not make it so.

    Really guys it is very hard to teach someone who is partially crippled to walk. In fact, in such a situation one might find that rehabilitation is prescribed, and if you have the right insurance company, paid for.

    But to pretend that one can get a cripple to throw away his crutches by waving hands and praying to God is nuts. To blame the person trying to help the cripple to walk because he does not make adequate yearly progress is obviously crazy. To blame the cripple (read children from poor families) for not being able to walk normally is cruel.

    In the present political context, the Iraq war and No Child Left Behind have many similarities. We were going to bring democracy to Iraq, and bring all children up to the same level by 2013-14. No serious person believes this is possible. Just as with Iraq, we are redirecting vast resources to the wrong objectives.

    NCLB seems like Project Phoenix for education. Project Phoenix, for those too young or who have forgotten, was our attempt in Vietnam to save the village by destroying it.

    NCLB claims to be saving US education, but the public and many careful researchers agree, it may be bringing it down.

  7. big kippster

    At least I can’t be accused of arguing against a straw man — Suburban White Guy having presented himself in person.

    SWG, my kids are one of the lowest-scoring groups on record when they enter my school, and I am 100% certain that we can teach them to read, because we’re doing it, every day. They’re not crippled. They’ve just been left lying in bed for the first five years of what should have been their elementary education.

    They were perfectly bright and normal toddlers — if you don’t believe me, check out the results of the new KIPP elementary schools, whose first and second graders are testing light years ahead of grade level — and the people who let them lie around on the assumption that they were likely incapable of walking deserve to be held accountable.

    Never thought I’d be comparing my kids to Colin in The Secret Garden, but there you have it.

  8. Research Shows

    This blog really gets more ridiculous by the day. If this “argument” was made in any sort of academic setting, I think Eduwonk would be quickly and quietly shown the door.

    Allow me to briefly summarize points (a)-(d):

    (a) NCLB is not creating perverse incentives because “plenty of schools” are *not* responding in this way. So policies don’t have effects unless they are generating the effect 100% of the time?

    A tax loophole is really not a loophole at all because “plenty of taxpayers” do not take advantage of them? This simply makes no sense.

    (b) “Research shows” the best way to raise test scores is to “teach,” not to take shortcuts. Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of this before? This statement is so completely vacuous I’m not even sure how to respond. Is there anything disputable or falsifiable here?

    (c) “The best way to teach reading is…” Do we actually know this definitively? If so, can Eduwonk provide some more specific research evidence on this?

    (d) Schools are now also examining how they spend their time. That’s a good thing, but there is absolutely no reason why the perverse incentives Eduwonkette describes are at all mutually exclusive activities. Schools can do both, and if the most at-risk schools are the ones disproportionately re-allocating time instead of examining time, then there is still reason for concern.

    Eduwonk and readers are free to disagree, but “research shows” that I am correct! See also reports by Me (2007), Me (2006) and Me (2004) that also prove that I am correct.

  9. Anonymous

    Big Kipster, My knowledge of Kipp schools is limited, but don’t families of Kipp students make an enormous commitment in order for their students to attend?
    In Freakonomics, the author makes the point that in the Chicago lottery for magnet schools, students who chose to opt out of neighborhood schools were were successful whether or not they won the lottery or were left behind. It was the desire to opt out that made the difference, not the school.
    Isn’t this a also strong factor in the success of Kipp students?

  10. Yesresearchdoeshow!

    Core Knowledge Foundation, E.D. Hirsh, Education Trust, Chicago Consortium for School Research. Not just Eduwonk spinning.

  11. big kippster

    Anonymous, the KIPP network is very conscious of the claim that we “skim” the best students or most committed families from the public system. In fact, we make a huge effort to recruit the kids who need us most — often even going door-to-door, emphasizing that we “take” kids from seven to five — with the goal of reaching the kids who have the fewest resources available to them.

    It’s true that we ask parents to sign a contract indicating that they will check their child’s homework and come up to school for meetings when asked, but I can guarantee from personal experience that we do NOT turn children away when their parents fail to meet those expectations.

    My school’s incoming test scores are similar to or lower than those in the surrounding neighborhood, which are in turn the lowest in the city. We do serve a handful of kids who would have been successful anywhere and whose parents chose us carefully and wisely, but we also serve a whole lot of kids — the vast majority, as far as I can tell — who were getting few services and little education where they were before.

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