Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Method challenges some education myths [Commentary]


Go to Table of Contents

This  blog entry is a commentary on the article Method Challenges Some Education Myths By Jason Song and Jason Felch, published October 18, 2009 in LA Times.

I suggest you read the article (click on the link) before reading this essay.

This article purports to summarize research that debunks as myth commonly held beliefs having to do with education. Notice especially that if the assertions of the article are accepted at face value, then we are forced to draw the following conclusion:

"The teachers that command the highest salaries in public schools (due to credentials and years of experience) "add" less value than less-qualified and less-experienced teachers. The less-experienced, less-well credentialed teachers are just as successful, and often more successful, at closing the achievement gap. This is true regardless of class size (smaller class size does not lead to higher achievement)."

Under the following circumstances, the assertions in the news article are very likely to be true:

1. One only looks at schools that have implemented and exhibit high fidelity to a reformist core curriculum and reformist teaching methods.
2. Teachers at the schools constrain the content of their lessons to the core-curriculum, which is to say, all of the teaching is geared to the test.
3. The only measure of individual achievement considered is individual scores on the district- or state-mandated standardized exam.
4. The only measure of teacher success considered is year-over-year aggregate change in achievement of the students in his/her classes for that school year.
5. The only measure of school success considered is the year-over-year aggregate change in achievement of the students enrolled in the school.

Research studies that only look at schools that conform to some or all of these five criteria will likely produce results that support the assertions of the newspaper article. Such research cannot, however be considered as constituting fair and valid tests of the stated hypothesis.

Now lets add another criterion to the five listed above. Let us limit our analysis to inner-city urban high schools, and test whether disadvantaged students at charter schools outperform their peers in public schools. We will mostly find that on narrow measures of achievement, charter schools outperform the public schools. We will also notice, if we are looking, that in violence-ridden neighborhoods, the charter schools are either sponsored by a branch of the U.S. Military, or are highly regimented and punitive.

Consider now asking the same research question, but this time of student performance at schools that have NOT been reformed. Suppose the researchers limited their study to schools that meet these criteria:

1. School located in large urban area, and having very high proportion of low-income and minority students.
2. Teachers do not "teach to the test." Instead, a small proportion of cumulative annual lesson time is devoted to test preparation. This lesson time focuses on test-taking skills, not on test content.
3. The school curriculum and educational philosophy is progressive; that is to say, it is rich and broad in scope, has a strong hands-on/active learning/project-based emphasis, is intellectually-engaging and challenging for students, and students are invited to help determine study themes.
4. The only measure of individual achievement considered is individual scores on the district- or state-mandated standardized exam.

I predict that a high proportion of students at these schools will pass the state standard exams. If the measures of achievement are broadened to include student return rate, first choice rate, drop out rate, college-application rate, college entrance rate, advanced-degree achievement rate, etc., then students at these schools will strongly outperform students at the military and militaristic charter schools, and at non-charter public schools that follow the regressive Reform prescription.

I have found analyses that supports this prediction. In other words, there does exist data that shows that progressive education is more successful at closing the achievement gap than is reform education. The contrast in outcomes is especially stark when achievement is defined by authentic measures.

This blog essay is long enough. I will defer discussion of relevant research for a separate blog essay, to be written on another day.

I am interested to hear what others think of this LA Times article.

No comments: