Monday, March 15, 2010

Newsweek's Education Red Herring

Newsweek recently parroted a thought that politicians love to hear: The reason America's schools do poorly is because we have bad teachers. This makes politicians happy because it means they can continue to do nothing about education; all they have to do is say a lot of negative things about teacher's unions. Once accomplished, their work on the issue is done.

Newsweek makes a bold statement in saying that the number one factor in the educational success of a child is the teacher. There are myriads of studies that refute that, but to be honest, we can find a study to back up almost any proposition we like. So let me bring this down to a personal level.

I have been teaching for over 19 years. My first two teaching jobs were at highly advantaged schools. My previous 6 years have been at an inner-city, Title One (poverty) school.

Let's assume the Newsweek proposition is correct: I am the single largest factor in the success or failure of my students. If I am a good teacher, wherever I go my students should be successful. If I am a poor teacher, wherever I go my students should do poorly.

When I taught at advantaged schools, my students regularly scored amongst some of the highest in the nation. Year after year they performed excellently on state standardized tests.

Now that I teach at a disadvantaged school, my students usually score below the minimum requirement on state testing.

Now remember, I am the lynch pin factor. If I am a good teacher, regardless of environment, my kids should do well. If I am a poor teacher, regardless of environment, my students will do poorly.

But am I the causal factor?

If I were conducting this scenario as a science experiment with my students, the first thing I would ask them is: Did we control the variables? Are there other variables that could be affecting the outcome?

Since I have taught in both environments, I can speak to those variables. In advantaged schools, most parents are highly educated; in disadvantaged they are not. Advantaged schools have scores of volunteers; disadvantaged schools do not. The students of advantaged schools start kindergarten 10 times richer in vocabulary than their disadvantaged counterparts – that gap widens exponentially with every year that passes. The children of advantaged families have more opportunities for learning outside the home due to larger disposable funds and higher parent interest. In advantaged homes there is money for tutors and specialists. In advantaged homes, parents are more equipped to help with homework. In advantaged homes there is better nutrition and they are more likely to have set bedtimes and routines. The list can go on and on.

Let me give one example from the article where Newsweek did not control for their variables. In the article they state:

"Generally operating outside of school bureaucracies as charter schools, programs like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) have produced inner-city schools with high graduation rates (85 percent). KIPP schools don't cherry-pick—they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement. And they are not one-shot wonders. There are now 82 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and, routinely, they far outperform the local public schools. KIPP schools are mercifully free of red tape and bureaucratic rules (their motto is "Work hard. Be nice," which about sums up the classroom requirements). KIPP schools require longer school days and a longer school year, but their greatest advantage is better teaching."

But their greatest advantage is better teaching?!

Did anyone spot a rather large variable in the middle of the paragraph? Though Newsweek states that KIPP schools do not cherry-pick amongst applicants, students and parents must sign contracts stating that student will follow the rules and that parents must be involved. Those simple requirements completely change the dynamic of who will attend that school. It only takes a handful of students who do not want to be educated to anchor a classroom. Also, Newsweek makes no mention of what happens to those students and parents who fail to follow through on their commitments. KIPP seems to have options that the public schools do not have - students may be shown the door.

I would say that Newsweek did a poor job on their Science Report. Stay after school and redo it.


curmudgeon said...

Well done Andrew, My question is how do we get Washington, The Utah Legislature, or our other representatives in the government to hear the message? It is a message they need to hear!

Bob said...

Great insight from someone in the trenches and you are so right. Students who have little or no support from home come into it with a distinct disadvantage. Newsweek glossed over that fairly obvious fact.

Would appreciate your comments on my most recent post regarding an educational matter I'm facing with my teenage son. Would really value the opinion of someone in education.

Don said...

Agreed! The only ones who can assess this situation are ones like you (and in my past life,me). Thanks for reminding your readers.

Anonymous said...

Having taught in a Christian school and having home schooled my children...........I think a good education begins with the parents.

Granted there are bad teachers and they SHOULD be fired but most of the teachers I have met are good at what they do.


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