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

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Michelle Newsum: Reclaiming Reform

Reclaiming Reform
By Michelle Newsum

Published in the Advocate, December, 2011, p. 13

Our schools have been labeled as failing by people who have never stepped foot in them.The favorite weapon of these 'reformers' is test scores.So let's take a closer look at the data:

Based on the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study)

* American kids in schools with less than 10% poverty far outscore all
other nations
* Kids in schools with up to 50% of students living in poverty score
well in comparison to the international average
* Only American students in schools with more than 75% poverty score
below the international average

This trend holds true for virtually all major standardized tests.On the TIMSS, PISA, SAT and NAEP low poverty schools do well and high poverty schools do not.

Occasionally, a few high poverty schools do beat the odds. Gerald Bracey, prominent author and education researcher, speaks about examples in California schools:

"Take the 'high-flying schools' of the Education Trust. As the percent of kids in poverty rises, the number of high flyers plummets. California has 639 schools where more than 90% of the kids live in poverty (a disgrace in itself.) One of them was a high flyer for a year, defined as scoring in the upper quartile of the state for one subject, for one grade for one year---pretty lenient criteria. It could not sustain that performance a second year. California has 1556 schools with more than 75% poverty. Six of 1556 were high flyers and one of those sustained that level for two more years before dropping off the chart." Dr. Bracey continues, "Poverty is not an excuse, it's a condition, like gravity.Gravity affects everything you do on this planet, and so does poverty."

Nearly 25% of American children are living in poverty.This is highest child poverty rate of any industrialized nation. In high-scoring Finland, less than 4% of children live in poverty.

Under NCLB we have spent billions of dollars on testing. Under Race to the Top we will spend billions more for what Dr. Stephen Krashen, USC educational researcher, calls, "More testing than ever before seen on the face of this planet."

The National Academy of Sciences states, "There is no research base to support high stakes testing."Yet 'reformers' continue to push excessive and expensive testing to (line publishers pockets and) discover which schools are 'failing' and punish them. (This, by the way, hasn't worked. Reconstituted and charter schools are not benefitting our kids.Indeed, according to a recent Stanford study, only 17% of charter schools performed better than public schools. 83% did not.)

The problem is well documented.It's poverty. Of course we still need some tests. The most useful and accurate are those assessments and portfolios created and kept by teachers to inform instruction and track growth over time. Dr. Krashen suggests we also improve and keep the NAEP.

The billions of dollars saved from unbounded testing and carrot-and-stick reforms could then be used for real solutions such as:

* Reducing class size

(This is one of four K-12 reforms backed by rigorous evidence according to the Institute of Educational Sciences [Research arm of the Department of Education]

* Providing prenatal care for low income women

(Low income women are currently unlikely to receive adequate prenatal care.They have a high incidence of low birth weight babies. Low birth weight babies have a much higher incidence of learning disabilities)

* Funding public, school and classroom libraries

(Most children in high poverty areas have limited access to books)

* Providing quality professional development for teachers
* Including teachers, parents and students in legislative decision making

As educational historian Diane Ravitch says, "Claiming that 'poverty is not an excuse' IS an excuse...

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