Monday, February 26, 2007

Shock and Remonstrance

Forget the Oscars. (They were goring.) The buzz among the lower education crowd is about the nominees for best horror story, documentary category. The first two stories were shocking. Two reports issued last week by the US Department of Education assessed the performance of 12th-grade students and raised sobering questions about two decades of educational reform.

The first report on standardized test results showed that 12th-grade reading scores have been dropping since 1992. On the math test fewer than a quarter of the 12th graders scored proficient.

The percentage of students scoring at the Basic level on the reading test was 73 percent, below the 80 percent in 1992. The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient reading level decreased from 40 to 35 percent. In math 61 percent of high school seniors performed at or above the Basic level, and 23 percent performed at or above Proficient.

David Driscoll, the Mass. commissioner of education, called the study results “stunning,” adding “I think we're sleeping through a crisis.”

David Gordon, Sacramento County school superintendent, spoke out about the achievement gap between whites and blacks that has barely diminished in the last 15 years. “It's clear to me from these data that for all of our talk of the achievement gap among subgroups of students, a larger problem may be an instructional gap or a rigor gap, which affects not just some but most of our students,” Gordon said.

The second report on the classroom grades of graduating seniors showed that, compared to students in 1990, the 2005 high school graduates had much higher grade point averages. The average GPA rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005. Higher grades yet lower standardized test scores. What’s up?

“What we see out of these results is a very disturbing picture of the knowledge and skills of the young people about to go into college and the workforce,” said Daria Hall, of the Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to improving education for poor and minority students. Hall said the studies provided clear evidence of grade inflation. “What it suggests is that we are telling students that they're being successful in these courses when, in fact, we're not teaching them any more than they were learning in the past,” she said. “So we are, in effect, lying to these students.”

The third report in the horror trilogy offers the hope, however tenuous, of salvation. “Tough Choices or Tough Times” is a sobering report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. “Anyone who hopes to hold a job in the next several decades should read, if not memorize, this extraordinary report” wrote Norman R. Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation.

This is a significant report containing many revolutionary ideas. William Brock, Secretary of Labor in the Reagan Administration, described the New Commission’s recommendations: “This proposal is radical? Yes. Hard to achieve? Of course. Essential? Absolutely. Our nation's schools are failing to educate our children, and that has to stop, else we condemn our own kids to ever lower incomes. We must act, now!”

The report is so full of tantalizing ideas that it deserves another blog post, tomorrow. Here I’ll only list my reservations, consisting of a number of false premises and dubious conclusions.

The report features a pyramid diagram of the US workforce in ten years time. “Prototypical US Industry” shows the preponderance of US workers (~85%) in 10 years at the top of the pyramid employed in Creative work, if only the policies recommended in the report are adopted. But the premise ignores another “pyramid,” the bell-shaped one peaked at 98, which shows that only a minority is intellectually capable of Creative work. No educational system, even one designed in heaven, is going to change that fact.

Step one of the recommendations rests on the assumption that “we want to send everyone, or almost everyone, to college. Now set up a system to do it.” This viewpoint is consistent with the Prototypical US Industry vision, but is out of touch with reality and with US needs. As Charles Murray noted in his Wall Street Journal articles (Jan. 16-18), there is an “explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, mason --- is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India.” (See my post “No Child Left behind,” 2/3/07).

Step 2 involves “building a high-quality full-service early childhood education system for every 3- and 4-year-old student in the United States.” The assumption is that children need to be in a formal school setting from age 3 onward. Yet the top achievers in the world from Finland start formal schooling at age 7 when kids are just about mature enough to begin learning in an organized setting. (See “Finland the Model, 2/6/07).

Here in Palos Verdes the cry for reducing kindergarten class size has reached a crescendo. A parent explained why. “Today’s kindergartners are learning how to use calcalulators. They’re not just learning their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s said Terri Mitani. “How damaging do you think it is to a child’s self-esteem when they feel rushed?” Next year they will want universal pre-school with laptops for the 3-year-olds, better to protect their self-esteem.

Step 3 aims to recruit future teachers from the top third of college students whereas now they largely come from the bottom third. I approve of this goal but reject the underlying assumption. Throughout the report the focus of learning is on the teacher – just give us better teachers and we will conquer the world. Any parent knows that the burden of learning is on the student who needs to work very hard to achieve anything substantial.

The report contains many politically correct assumptions that detract from its seriousness. These objections aside, I do think it has some great ideas about how to really reform the K-12 education system. I’ll take them up tomorrow.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anywhere in the discussion of declining competencies was the issue of the effect of an ever increasing percentage of non-English speaking, possibly illegal, student population even mentioned? The research is very clear. The more students who don’t speak English in the system, the less well everyone does. In case you weren’t looking, there are millions of those kinds of students over-running many state systems. I’d be willing to bet that if they ran a regression on academic performance as measured by these tests against the increasing percentage over time of non- or limited-English proficient students, it would be a purely linear regression. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the measured aggregated performance scores are going down.

As for grade inflation, we can thank the “self-esteem” crowd.

Keep up the good work.

Dr. Dave

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We certainly need something done Bill. I shudder to think who will be running this country in 20 years, and Oprah builds a first class school with everything you need in Africa and our teachers have to buy some materials out of their pocket!! Enough from the peanut gallery.


9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, good one. I only have one disagreement, noted below--and it'/s a perceptual thing that I admit neither of us really is sure about.

Step 1. Set up a system to ensure everyone goes to college. Murray's right, but at this point in time-- pre-dirty bombs or some other calamity-- I have no idea how his concept can be instituted.

Step 2. Early childhood ed for every 3 & 4 yr. old !! In terms of improving achievement scores, forget it.

Step 3. Bring in teachers from the top 1/3rd. Great goal, but how?

Here's where we disagree: You said "Any parent knows that the burden of learning is on the student...."

Typed by a well-off large-company exec who very likely breathed high expectations into his kids.
Compare with the kids of poor ethnic minorities where often the parent (as you said is too often single) doesn't give a damn about school or does give a damn but is too enveloped in scraping along. In that case I believe that it is the culture of the parent and neighborhood that is more significant than the kid's drive......and that's America's big challenge--how to change the parents' expectations whether from PV/Beverly Hills on the one hand or LAUSD on the other hand.

Can't wait to read your next blog,

9:17 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

The report actually proposes a system that parallels the Finn's except they are too PC to say that one path is trade school. I'll describe it tomorrow. Getting teachers from the top third is only a matter of economics. Trim the fat from the bureaucracy and use it to attract new teachers -- details tomorrow. As for the responsibility for learning, when a kid does not show up at school, disturbs the class, pays no attention, does no homework and refuses to study... well Aristotle could be the teacher and it won't make a bit of difference. I think that teachers are an important part of education, but simple hard work is indispensible. Which brings us back to the parents, where the fault generally lies. You hit the nail on the head. It is one criticism of the report that it says nothing at all about the biggest obstacle.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You quoted my neighbor Terri Mitani and I agree. Our "educational system" is frightening. Keep blogging!


9:18 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

And another thought... perhaps if teachers want to be thought of as a "profession," they should stop acting like teamsters.

12:21 PM  

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