Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't Let Journalists Convince You That Education Can Close the Achievement Gap

Standard (read liberal) journalists, for example, Jonathan Alter, will uncritically publish statistics trumpeted by heads of programs designed to close the achievement gap.

But when you peek even slightly beneath those statistics, you'll see that--like investments promised to yield amazing returns--those statistics are misleading or bogus. Examples:

Today's program du jour is the Knowledge is Power Program. (KIPP.) But see this as reported in the Washington Post.

The principal of Central Park East , the Harlem public school whose reported amazing successes resulted in two gushing features on 60 Minutes, admitted to Dr. Barbara Nemko and me on a site visit that the reality was far worse than the publicity indicates. Central Park East had had a one-of-a-kind extraordinary principal, Debbie Meier. When she left, the school's test scores reverted to that of other Harlem high schools.

Another program I'm very familiar with is EdTrust. It touts that by putting all kids, no matter how low achieving, into a rigorous college prep curriculum and providing lots of support, kids will learn much more, graduate at a higher rate, and succeed in college. But a wide range of experts have called Ed Trust data misleading, even dishonest. I would have thought that such criticism would most likely come from right-wing groups but most of the outcry has been from Democrats. For example, respected liberal U.S.C education professor Stephen Krashen wrote an article entitled, "Don't Trust Ed Trust." Gerald Bracey, who for two decades in the prestigious Phi Delta Kappan has authored reports on the state of education, wrote an article in the Huffington Post called "The Education Trust's Disinformation Campaign." A Democratic member of the California State Board of Education, Jim Aschwinden said "Everyone knows Ed Trust is a sham. Go talk to Carol Liu, a Democratic senator who wanted to investigate Ed Trust and was stonewalled but eventually found out that the statistics EdTrust reports about its poster-boy program--San Jose Unified School District--were bogus."

Even the vaunted Head Start, so popular with politicians because it intuitively sounds so good, does not, after 50 years, have good data to support the massive amounts we spend on it. In fact, the just released major study found that Head Start produces "no lasting benefit."

In the 30 years since I finished my Ph.D. at Berkeley specializing in education program evaluation, I've examined dozens of so-called model programs, starting way back with Marva Collins Prep, also the subject of a glowing 60 Minutes profile, and now closed because "lack of enrollment and lack of funds."

I've come to conclude that a model program is one you haven't visited.

The U.S is #1 in the world in per-student spending and the U.S. school districts that spend the most money (like DC--$30,000 a year per child--even with super-superintendent Michelle Rhee) have scores at the bottom. Yet for the first time, China just participated in the worldwide comparison of student achievement. It ranked first despite far smaller expenditure on education.

In these tough times, before asking the taxpayer to dig yet deeper into their already depleted pockets, after already having spent more than a trillion(!) dollars to try to close the achievement gap, we must face the unfortunate truth that education can only do so much.

UPDATE: I've just perused a book called Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, written by a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, who makes the same case as made in this blog post but with tremendous rigor. I commend it to you. I've invited him to debate the question of the closeability of the achievement gap with outgoing California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell. Both of them have accepted. The debate will occur on my KALW-FM radio show on Jan 23 at 11 am Pacific time. It can be heard live, worldwide, on and archived permanently soon after on my website,


ST said...

I like this article that was one of the links in your comment about China ranking first:

Making it tougher to be a teacher is a good idea, it kind of goes along with your idea of an online college program with excellent teachers.

INeverStopWorking said...

Thanks for the reality check (report of your site visit). Per your solicitation for guests, I still think you could have a great debate with Uri Treisman. You're looking for smart people. He won the "genius" award. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

I bet that if you could somehow suddenly switch the student populations of China and America by putting all of our students in their schools and theirs in ours, the Chinese students would still perform better (I'm simplifying here. Of course the Chinese students would need to understand English and vice versa, but just to make a point).

I'm just tired of the mindset that only if we could develop the right program, if we could just make the right technology, if only we could just get a little more funding, if only teachers got paid better, and on and on. The root of how we perform academically is more a function of our culture. Trying endlessly to fix this and that in the school system isn't going to change much. And maybe the United States ranks 7th or 8th by certain academic measures. So what?

ST said...

Well, it's more like 23rd or 32nd in science and math, not 7th or 8th. Here's a chart:

I mentioned this topic to a Chinese coworker and she said well, the USA's people have other attributes that are better than other countries. She really didn't articulate exactly what she meant, though. She is an immigrant who became an American citizen. I also work with other Chinese-Americans, and also many H1-Bs. The coworker did mention that there's no need to be the best in math/science, we can always convince geniuses from around the world to come here and work.

One thing I've noticed from all the Chinese I've worked with in the last 10 years or so, they aren't necessarily very good at creativity and problem solving. I'm not talking about solving a math problem, but a problem that requires a little creativity. They are more straight and narrow and go directly towards some sort of solution in their mind.

turbine said...

"Education" is one of those words like "Safety" or "Inflation" - that conjures up all kinds of emotional reactions and has all kinds of undefined and fuzzy meanings. To me it's very important to define "education" from the get-go. To me, as a taxpayer "education" is simply - GRADUATION. And that means graduation from every grade level from K on through high school. Period. It's the school's job to come up with a curriculum that will provide a foundation for children to continue on in our society - and take any path from there whether it's astronaut or deadbeat. All the other aspects of education from soccer teams to prom nights I don't care about - that will come anyway. "Knowledge is Power" programs (KIPP) - bunk - senseless and meaningless. There is and should only be ONE program: graduation.

Parents do have a HUGE influence on children during these ages and in the Nurture Assumption, chapters 11, 12, 13 & 14 say so. In fact, in this brilliant and enlightening book parents' influence on children is even more than I thought! Parents serve as mentor numero uno (mentors - which you have written about), and "managers" in a sense. For example, a parent can start off as the direct mentor, while learning to read and doing math, then can manage peer group or near peer group mentors later on if needed.

My original motivation for writing to you was because of the current headlines about my State's budget and the fact that over 42% of the entire budget goes to "education". Then I happened to read your post about how to fix schools with hardly a mention of parents.

I just think the 42% we are spending that includes K-12 "education" is a massive rip-off at this point, graduation levels are dismal. And these modern behemoth schools I see all over the region are part of the rip-off too, as are the huge school administrations and all these "programs".

I think as a taxpayer/citizen that children can be "educated" that is graduated from every grade level and from high school in a much less costly and much more effective way - and getting parents intelligently involved (using the theory and principles outlined by Judith Harris) is a great way to leverage this rather then pumping even more billions into the current system. Plus, I think that mega-smart people like you should be examining these methods and coming up with solutions that actually work. Unfortunately, I'm afraid, the true solutions will likely illustrate that most our our "education" infra-structure and super-structure is actually quite useless. And that will be a very hard pill to swallow.

Marty Nemko said...

Turbine, the evidence suggests that parenting has less impact than is assumed by the general public.