"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Arne Duncan Has His Sputnik and Rosa Parks Moments Mixed Up

Historians now tell us that Sputnik was much more a propaganda and public relations gimmick than it was an indication of Soviet technological and educational superiority.  The American Vanguard 1, in fact, could have launched first, and our former Nazi rocket brain trust in Huntsville was furious that Eisenhower didn't launch first. 

But if you don't believe the historians, look at what happened 13 years after Sputnik: I believe that was the Stars and Stripes planted in the Sea of Tranquility, rather than the Hammer & Sickle.  The facts, however, didn't stop conservatives like Arthur Bestor and Admiral Hyman Rickover and Milton Friedman from using the incident to bludgeon schools into another of the recurring back to basics movements that keep American kids through the generations needlessly stupider than they should have been or should be. 

Most of what we know that could produce learning that might save us from the gathering certainty of extinction due to environmental degradation remains gathering dust in the libraries, while we are held hostage by econocrats and social engineers who are intent on creating a caste system of robots and robot makers.

So when Arne Duncan glances at PISA's test score tournament standings and has a Sputnik moment, he needs to look a little deeper.  His Sputnik moment, in fact, would have been entirely appropriate for when he put on his tux to see Waiting for Superman with the Billionaire Boys' Club (plus Oprah) at the exclusive screening in DC a couple of months ago.  Now that was a real Sputnik moment, for it offered the finely-honed Hollywood illusion that the corporate socialist charter schools with their steroidal, Stalinistic apartheid version of back-to-basic-in-uniform have rocketed past the lazy, uncaring public schools with their cushie teacher salaries and brick building with libraries.  Great propaganda entirely worthy of a Sputnik moment.

Bill Mathis has looked deeper, and as he notes here in a post from Valerie Strauss's blog, Arne could have and should have had his Rosa Parks moment, not from absorbing the "militant ignorance" of Michelle Rhee in WfS but, rather, if he were to look below the surface of the PISA report, to see and understand the real human rights and civil rights issues staring at him from the back of the bus--if he were to look that way:

This was written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.. and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

By William J. Mathis
For the 27th [time], government officials have yet again been surprised, shocked and dismayed over the latest international test score rankings. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We have to see this as a very serious wake-up call.” Former Reagan education official Chester E. Finn Jr. reported that he was “kind of stunned” by the results of the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) results. In hyperbolic overdrive, he compared the results to Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

The PISA tests were given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 nations and educational systems. Nine had higher average scores in reading, 17 in math, and 12 in science.

While ranking nations on test scores is a pretty sorry way to evaluate education systems, there is simply no reason to expect the results to have been any better than they were the last time we heard from this same chorus of surprised, shocked and dismayed pundits and politicians.

The reason is simple. Federal and state policymakers continue to embrace reforms that have little positive effect (if not downright negative effects) while ignoring reforms that make a difference. Buried within the PISA report is an analysis of educational systems that registered high test scores. Here are some of the less-reported findings:·
*The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all children.

· *Students from low socio-economic backgrounds score a year behind their more affluent classmates. However, poorer students who are integrated with their more affluent classmates score strikingly higher. The difference is worth more than a year’s education.

· *In schools where students are required to repeat grades (such as with promotion requirements), the test scores are lower and the achievement gap is larger.

· *Tracking students (“ability grouping”) results in the gap becoming wider. The earlier the practice begins, the greater the gap. Poor children are more frequently shunted into the lower tracks.

· *Systems that transfer weak or disruptive students score lower on tests and on equity. One-third of the differences in national performance can be ascribed to this one factor.

· *Schools that have autonomy over curriculum, finances and assessment score higher.

· *Schools that compete for students (vouchers, charters, etc.) show no achievement score advantage.

· *Private schools do no better once family wealth factors are considered.

· *Students that attended pre-school score higher, even after more than 10 years.

As OECD Paris-based official Michael Davidson said in National Public Radio comments, “One of the striking things is the impact of social background on (U.S.) success.”

Twenty percent of U.S. performance was attributed to social background, which is far higher than in other nations. Davidson went on to point out that the United States just does not distribute financial resources or quality teachers equally. In a related finding, students from single-parent homes score much lower in the United States than they do in other countries. The 23-point difference is almost a year’s lack of growth.

Our Educational Policies
Unfortunately, federal and state policies do little to adopt these factors that other nations have found so successful. Countless finance studies show that funding across our schools is inequitable and inadequate. Federal and state governments vaguely note this concern but actions do not match the rhetoric. Our treatment of economically deprived students is to house them in segregated schools and shunt them into tracked programs.

A number of “get tough” social promotion policies have been adopted in states even though we know they are harmful. Despite a clear research consensus, early education is still politically disputed. Tracking students still remains the national norm even as we know it increases the achievement gap.

As the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has become even more top-down and prescriptive, local schools become less autonomous and less like our successful international counterparts.

Finally, the push for privatizing public education through charters, tuition tax credits, vouchers and the like does not result in better test scores and has the effect of increasing segregation, and the inequalities that lead to low test scores.

The American Dream
The American dream is that all children have an opportunity to be successful no matter how humble their roots. Thus, the most troubling finding in the PISA results is the lack of “resilience” among our children.

OECD measured resilience by looking at the scores of the least wealthy 25% of students and seeing what proportion of these students have academic scores in the top 25% of countries with similar socio-economic levels. In the highest scoring nations, 70 percent of the students are rated resilient.

The U. S. figure is less than 30%. In a nation which sees the top 1% controlling more than 50% of the nation’s wealth and the collapse of middle class jobs, we face the specter of building a country of social, economic and educational apartheid.

Secretary Duncan calls the PISA scores a serious wake-up call for our economy and “international competitiveness.” But that is merely to misunderstand economics and global competitiveness. Due to our pursuit of ineffective and ill-focused educational and economic reforms , the rude disturbance of our slumbers is the slamming of the door on the American dream. . . .

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