Friday, November 21, 2008

On schools, there are no quick fixes

crossposted from Daily Kos

Whether a school is small or large, the essential questions in education cannot be ignored: What should students learn? How should they be taught? Are classes too large, especially for struggling students? Are teachers well-prepared in the subjects they teach? Do teachers have the resources they need? Do students arrive in school ready to learn? Until we answer these questions, the size of schools is not a relevant issue.

Forbes Magazine may not be on the regular reading list of most people here. It is certainly not on mine. And it is not where I would expect to find an insightful piece on education. And yet, the quote I have just offered, which contains the essential questions we should be asking about education, appeared there, in a piece entitled Bill Gates and His Silver Bullet. In it, Diane Ravitch explores the results of the Gates-funded initiative on small schools and finds it wanting. Because, as the piece is subtitled, On schools, there are no quick fixes.

Ravitch begins by reminding us that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started its endeavor back in 2000. It wanted to take our large high schools and break them up into small learning communities of 400 or fewer, in the belief that
its new small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because of the close relationships between students and teachers.
Gates argued to the National Governors Association that our high schools were obsolete and at the World Economic Forum in Davos that
the key to the success of the small schools created by his foundation was that they made everything "relevant," through hands-on activities and familiar topics.
The foundation poured several billion into the effort, and superintendents jumped on the bandwagon for the money, with new small schools being formed in cities across the country.

But the results have not been as Gates predicted. There are several thousand Gates-sponsored small high schools, more than 200 in New York City alone, many focused on particular themes: "leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice. " And yet,
On Nov. 11, the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of leading figures in American education to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise. The foundation acknowledged that "we have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential."

Ravitch describes research funded by the Gates foundation which in 2005 reported that students in traditional schools were better learning mathematics than in the Gates small schools, and additional research the following year that showed students in the Gates funded small learning communities
had "higher attendance rates but lower test scores" than other high schools within the same school districts in both reading and mathematics.
She credits the foundation for its honest self-scrutiny, noting that many advocates of educational reform unfortunately
defend their ideas against all critics, regardless of what evaluations show.

And yet Gates is still making claims for his efforts that are not supported by the data. He claims that in New York, at least his schools have improved graduation rates to 70% as compared to the city wide average of 50%. Before going on, I would note that even 70%, were it a true improvement, is still nothing about which to brag. Unfortunately that figures is deceptive, because as Ravitch notes
hat the small schools in New York City were permitted to restrict the admission of English-language learners and disabled students, meaning that the large schools got a disproportionate share of students with high needs.
Further, some of the small schools funded by Gates were playing games through "credit recovery" which allowed students to get full credit for classes they may not have fully attended and/or by doing projects out of school. And even Bill Gates had to acknowledge that less than 40% of the graduates of his small schools were ready for classes at the City University of New York.

Perhaps it is unfair to heavily criticize the Gates-funded effort. Except some schools and districts are so desperate for additional funds that they will willingly jump on board any educational bandwagon for the additional funds, even for endeavors such as those supported by Gates that lack any demonstrable evidence that they will achieve their purported goals. I will return to some thought on this in a bit.

Ravitch is not opposed to small schools in every case, and offers examples of where they might be useful, especially for students who need intense remediation and lots of extra attention, although the smallness can come at a cost of the variety of electives and course offerings that many students associate with high school. And historically, one of the disadvantages of small schools was seen in rural areas which could not offer the same educational opportunities as big-city high schools. And, as Ravitch notes,
The press for small schools, now taken up by almost every big-city district, has diverted our attention from the need to strengthen curriculum and instruction, beginning in elementary schools.

There are many problems in how we have attempted to do educational reform in this country. We seem to want to find universal solutions. By now, we should be able to realize that our children are not all the same, which means we cannot attempt to educate them in one, standardized fashion, even within a single community. And certainly the needs of our communities can vary: our ethnic makeups, the socioeconomic status of the families, the relationships between school and community (which can be very different between rural and urban schools for example), the supportive structures in the community outside of the school, the percentage of English Language Learners, and so on.

On schools, there are no qick fixes. There is no one size fits all, in school models, in methods of instruction, in selection of curricular materils, in courses that should be required. Somehow many people in their eagerness to address the failings of our public schools - and I will acknowledge that there are many such failings - seem to be willing to totally ignore anything that might raise cautions about the approaches they wish to impose upon those of us attempting to make a difference in our public schools.

I applaud the willingness of people like Bill and Melinda Gates to put money into finding alternatives that can make difference. Here I largely agree with Ravitch, who concludes her piece as follows:
The good news is that the Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, has pledged to devote its attention to what happens in the classroom. The first thing it will learn is that there are no quick fixes. If it targets its dollars wisely, exercises a measure of humility, and continues to evaluate its efforts rigorously, it can make a positive difference.
There is an additional caution I would offer, both to those who would offer their funds and their support, and those inclined to accept such offerings. Be careful that you do not so narrow your focus to that which you passionately support and blind yourself to the realities of our schools and our students. For far too long our schools and students have suffered because of our insistence in imposing yet another vision of a magical solution. Even when we see something that is successful in one context does not mean it is replicable in another - too often we look only at part of the broad picture in which that success occurs, that is, if we are not so narrowly focused on what we consider success that we ignore the weaknesses of the model we wish to replicate.

Ultimately teaching is about relationships - between faculty and students, among the students (whose cooperation with one another should be encouraged since ultimately our learning should be applicable to the broader social context in which they should be applying what we teach them), and all with the curricular material. We may well need to try multiple approaches, and then be brutally honest in examining the results, which will not all be as salutary as we might hope for those approaches about which we feel positively passionate.

Our schools ARE in crisis in many ways. And here we might remember that the last time our nation faced a truly monumental economic crisis, in the 1930s, the administration of FDR tried many things in the hope that some would work. Perhaps we should acknowledge a similar need for addressing our current series of crises in our public schools - we will need to try many things to see what works, where, how, and why, and not be in too much of a hurry to declare that we have found the one magic solution that will solve all our problems.

So let me end as I began. Ravitch, who is an acquaintance and whom I consider a thoughtful critic and observer of education even when we disagree, has in the paragraph with which I began offered many critical questions we need to consider in any attempts we make at educational reform.

But in all we do, we need to remember what was the subtitle of her piece, and which I chose for the title of this:

On schools, there are no quick fixes.


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