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A Worthy Proposal for State Inspection Teams

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Dear Deborah,

The current effort to develop national standards in English and math is something to which we will surely pay close attention. I understand that you reject consequential curricular decisions made outside the school, but my view is that “it depends.” That's my view of lots of things. Ideas that sound good in theory may turn out to be even better or worse in practice. If you live long enough, you become a devotee of “it depends.”

National standards, in my view, are a good idea, but it all depends on whether they are done well, whether they leave room for teachers to teach without dictating how to teach, whether they truly raise standards of practice across the nation, and whether they avoid narrowing the curriculum. In this country, with our strong tradition of federalism and localism, there are more ways to do national standards badly than to do them well.

The promise of national standards is equity and excellence. Equity because national standards should assure that students across the country, no matter where they live, will encounter the same expectations. Excellence because national standards should (hopefully) identify the learning goals that are common in high-performing nations.

I grant you that this is a tough order to fill. To make equity real, the resources available in poor communities must be sufficient (what used to be called “opportunity-to-learn" standards). One can’t expect kids in poor areas to learn more just because a document got published, nor can one expect kids to do better because officials set the bar higher. Indeed, if performance is already low, setting the bar higher will cause more students to fail.

And it seems paradoxical, if not impossible, to fulfill a mandate that serves both equity and excellence. Maybe this is a circle that can be squared by wordsmiths, but not by most teachers and schools.

So, I grant the good intentions of the groups that hope to create national standards. I know why they want to do it, and I wish them well. At the same time, I am cautious, perhaps even wary, because I see how many terrible state standards already exist and fear that the same dumbed-down, vague blather might be foisted upon the nation and called “standards.”

We will watch as this project develops. But in the meanwhile there was good news this past week. The group that we both support—the Broader, Bolder coalition—released its plan for accountability, after briefing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This is indeed a valuable set of ideas that could easily be folded into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as NCLB rides off into the sunset.

I especially like the proposal for state-directed school inspection teams. People ask, “What could we rely on if we didn’t do all this testing?” Here is a good answer. Establish state inspection teams that regularly visit schools to survey the quality of teaching and learning. Use these inspections to identify schools in need of extra help, and then send in the extra help. A number of other nations use inspection teams, because seasoned educators can diagnose problems and come up with valuable assistance far better than a test alone.

What do you think?

Diane

14 Comments

Diane,

Whether our standards are vague or specific, we need to understand their role better. I believe a misunderstanding is at the heart of many of our problems.

Standards are given too much power. Standards should not lay out everything a school does, nor should they define the language. A school should have room to enhance and supplement any curriculum. Moreover, any general language of the standards should not prevent the schools from teaching subjects in specificity.

This seems obvious, but it doesn't work out that way. Schools must show that all their instruction is "standards-based." To show this, they "align" the very wording of their units and lessons with the standards. This is deadly. Instruction should address but go beyond the standards. Yet tor some reason schools let the very language of standards define what they do.

Here's an example. A typical lesson objective might read: "Students will identify important and unimportant details in a text." That is directly from the NYS standards. It doesn't mention any specific books. Because it doesn't mention any specific books, the teacher or school might be loath to "impose" any specific books. Rather, the lesson will focus on the general skill, and the students will apply it to their own books. This misunderstanding of the purpose of standards is at the center of Balanced Literacy. It is a serious error.

Or take a specific standard. If it says that students should learn the myth of Sisyphus, then the teacher should not hesitate to add another myth for comparison(such as the myth of Demeter and Persephone), or anything else that will enhance the lesson. The specificity should not restrict the teaching; it should simply ground it.

Thus, whether our standards are specific or vague (and I prefer a curriculum that teaches specific knowledge combined with ideas), we should come to a better understanding of their role, purpose, and limitations. If we had such understanding, then even the vaguest standards would not condemn us to vagueness, nor specific standards to a checklist of things to learn.

That said, specific standards make it more likely that students will learn something. Vague standards are like a fog machine. But even they should not keep us from teaching literature and other good things.

Diana Senechal

Hi All... hope this finds you well.

Diane thanks for the post... your discussion with Deb has been a way to get important conversations to happen!

A few reactions:

"National standards, in my view, are a good idea, but it all depends on whether they are done well, whether they leave room for teachers to teach without dictating how to teach, whether they truly raise standards of practice across the nation, and whether they avoid narrowing the curriculum." Diane

In my experience, the key term...if done well... has not been demonstrated in any state that i am familiar with. I have no faith in this being done well nationally by groups like Achieve Inc. What i have seen.. even here in NJ.. which has done the core curriculum content standards
as well as anyone... it has narrowed the curriculum, left very little room for teachers to be creative in their art of teaching and has had a disparate impact on our poorest...most segragated.... most in need schools. It has moved all our schools toward teaching to the tests.

Diane again:
"To make equity real, the resources available in poor communities must be sufficient (what used to be called “opportunity-to-learn" standards). One can’t expect kids in poor areas to learn more just because a document got published, nor can one expect kids to do better because officials set the bar higher. Indeed, if performance is already low, setting the bar higher will cause more students to fail."

New Jersey has been in court with equity of resources for our Abbott districts for over 2 decades. As far as i am concerned:
Seperate but Equal resources does not achieve equity. In our neediest, poorest districts, this has not worked.

I again would highlight the ideas presented in
Gerald Grants new book:
Hope and despair in the American city

In it he describes Wake County North Carolinas plan to balance school poverty rates and in effect move all Wake County Schools toward becoming middle class schools.
Grant contrasts what has happened in Wake County over the years with what has happened in Syracuse New York.

Equity is not simply a matter of money and resources. Class and income matter.

Studies have indicated that poor students in schools balanced by income learned, on average, twice as much as those in high-poverty schools. It has not had a negative effect on the students that come from higher SES families.

The issue for me... is educational effectiveness.

I believe if we are truely interested in "equity and excellence" we really need to look at the research on balancing our public schools.

In many of our poorer areas... which continue to have the largest number of students in need... there remains an imvisible wall and we clearly have 2 seperate education systems operating in plain view.

We have attempted equity of resources
(a return to Plessy v. Ferguson ).

Is it time to step back and look at a much larger picture?

I agree with Diana that specific standards are better than vague standards. In NY the standards for Middle school ELA set forth the idea that students should be able to read and write for expression, read and write for understanding, etc. What does that even mean? Should students be able to write a five paragraph essay? Should they understand the importance of foreshadowing? Outlining that a student should be able to write a "response to literature" does not guide a teacher very much. Of course a school with a good literacy coach, and collaborative team periods, should be able to decide together what their students will produce. But that does not occur at every school.

I too am apprehensive and wary about national standards. I actually met individuals who work at Achieve, and while they all seem hard-working and dedicated, they have a background in policy more than pedagogy. They talked about the need for high standards in such a cookie cutter way. More and more, I am seeing that policy is guided by the wrong individuals, and the wrong mindsets. And yet, I can't help but think: can't people come together and agree upon what every high school graduate should know/be able to do? Can't we then figure out how each grade will build on the one before? It seems easiest to develop high school standards and then to give middle school and elementary school teachers a clear idea of where there students need to be before they reach high school.

When thinking about standards, I can't help but think about regions exams. I wouldn't say these are the best exams. But, they do provide a clear framework for what needs to be taught. Having grown up in NY, I can remember spending time in honors classes preparing for the regions, and yet our classes went well above and beyond the material on those tests. Teachers still had total freedom, they just had to consider whether their students were prepared for the test. In my AP history class, we had to be prepared for the regions exam and the AP, but the teacher still had room to figure out how to best instruct the class. So I guess it will be possible for some teachers to have room for pedagogical decisions. But it seems most likely that it will be the low income schools where the curriculum will be the most narrowed...

Diane,

This is a terrific post. However, I have one minor disagreement with one thing you said.

When you state, "Equity because national standards should assure that students across the country, no matter where they live, will encounter the same expectations," isn't totally accurate. Students should encounter the same EXPOSURE to national standards, no matter where they live, but I believe the expectations will vary from community to community and even from teacher to teacher. I'd like to think expectations would be similar but in reality that probably will not be the case.

The “Bolder, Broader Approach!” list of signatories reads like a Who’s Who in the statist education establishment. These folks, in spite of their diversity (Deb Meier, Arne Duncan and Diane Ravitch are co-signers), seem to have two things in common: A. government solutions for everything; and B. wrong-headed ideas about economics.

For illustration one need look no further than at the top of the BBA. Take, for instance, Lawrence Mishel, BBA founder and economist at the anti-market Economic Policy Institute. Mishel, in his research, has always insisted that unions and minimum wage laws raise pay and compensation for all workers. This would be true if (big if) he added the caveat: if you have a job after union/minimum wage implementation. But he does not. For example, in his 18 page, 8000 word brief “How Unions Help All Workers” (http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/briefingpapers_bp143/
), Mishel omits any reference of the effect that unions have on employment rates.

Economics 101 says that minimum wage laws put out of work those with marginal output- that means teenagers, the elderly, disabled and anyone caught in the artificially shrinking market. The data on minimum wage often point to young urban minorities as hardest hit by minimum wage laws (http://mises.org/story/2596). With unions, the situation becomes even more heinous. Of course, if you are in a union you get higher pay and compensation (unless your union boss sold you out). But what this does is force the employer to either hire less, raise prices, move to cheaper climes, seek government handouts and/or protection from competition, or close their doors (sometimes all the above over time). The newly unemployed due to unionization, oft a skilled laborer, is forced into the unskilled labor pool and suppresses wages there. Mishel’s policies have Darwinistic results.

Of course, public unions can just work with government to extract more money from the captive tax payer.

Mishel, not completely ignorant of economic law, tries to remedy the detrimental effects of his original policies with yet more government intervention: trade restrictions.

(http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/webfeatures_viewpoints_globalization_works_4all/)

He covers himself by calling it improving worker conditions overseas (granted, there are many situations where corporations get in bed with thug governments). But what he really wants is protection for unions at home. Mishel reasons: if the cost of business elsewhere is artificially driven up and the home government makes it near illegal to move or legal to discriminate against foreign competition, business will be forced to hire local workers and the employment problem will be solved. However, Mishel’s autarkic policies have been tried before and have led to such things as deepening and prolonging the Great Depression, edging countries towards war, and allowing governments to repress their own people (google Corn Laws of England). Indeed, autarky is the way back to the Dark Ages.

If Mishel employed correct economic principles he would admit that protectionism, unionism and minimum wage policies lead to less production overall- less diversity, lower quality and higher prices to boot. In other words, Mishel is advocating a higher standard of living for his narrow set of interests while ignoring that the overall standard of living must decline under his policies. Eventually, Mishel would come to understand that the downward spiral would affect even the unions themselves. The erosion of the manufacturing base and the fall of GM had a lot to do with union demands.

Mishel is now exposed for the sophist political operative he is. What does this say about the BBA?

Diane, Assessment teams are, of course, a great idea.

State inspection teams are...so 1984.

Assessment teams are an idea which would naturally flow from a modern knowledge-worker labor and delivery model. Study those organizations which are able to consistently bring a quality service to each borough across the country, and I'm sure you'll find some sort of visiting quality team.

Broader's proposal, however, should be seen as nothing more than another grab for power by the elite who want to run our lives.

"Federal guidelines should require states to use highly trained inspectors to validate a school’s quality performance and to require improvement in areas where a school is falling short."

Would these be, perhaps the type of highly trained state educrats who wrote the pathetic Ohio standards that got us into this mess 20 years ago? The writers who couldn't assemble a coherent, readable sentence, let alone a deep idea?

"Federal regulation should encourage states to develop higher quality assessments when used for accountability purposes. Tests should assess critical thinking, reasoning, and advanced content"

Great. Specially trained educrats to inspect that our children are thinking correctly. Can't beat that for a fine idea.


The current tests were designed to show that Black, urban students were being cheated. Cheated out of an equal education, sometimes by the same people who brought us social promotion and Ebonics, sometimes by big city bureaucracies, sometimes by labor unions, and sometimes, alas, by community mores and standards.

Test after test today shows they still are not getting the education they need to get those good paying science, management, marketing, technical, design jobs--as of course the job reports themselves prove.

Show me how more bureaucrats marching into schools will give us an honest accounting of what those kids are learning, will ensure they learn enough to keep going past graduation day and on to the good learning and good jobs beyond.

I'll join Ed Jones and Daniel Fallon in their negativity toward the idea of schools being inspected. I don't have much knowledge of economics or political science to base my negativity on. However I do have some personal experiences, and a few years to think about them, that give me reason to be very wary of government action designed to do good, about groups seeking governmental action to promote their ideas of doing good, indeed about good intentions. I'm all for good intentions, of course, considering the alternative, but undisciplined good intentions can do a lot of harm, and often have.

Whenever government changes anything there are inevitably winners and losers. Hopefully the winners will greatly outnumber the losers. I'm sure that happens. But that's not all there is to it. Sometimes it is very difficult, even impossible, to identify who the winners and the losers are. Sometimes the winners are very visible, but the losers are unidentifiable. Other times (I suppose anyway) the losers are very visible while the winners are very hard to identify. When Daniel Fallon says ". . .if you have a job . . ." he strikes a powerful chord in me. One of my frustrations not too many years ago was trying to get a job, just any job, after being out of the labor force for a number of years.. It seemed I could not even get interview for jobs that I obviously could do. Was I victim of age discrimination? Well, we have laws against age discrimination. Does that answer my question? For shallow thinkers, sure. But after months and years to think about it I concluded it was not so simple. I concluded only one thing for sure. I knew with rock solid certainty that I could not know. There were times I ached to know if it was me or my age, but I could not know.

I cannot know if age discrimination laws do more harm than good, but many experiences, as well as many lines of thought, lead me to think it is up to the opposition to prove that they do not.

When Ed Jones mentions the idea of " . . . highly trained inspectors . . . " that also strikes a strong chord in me. Highly trained by whom? Ed school? What else? I know nothing about the Ohio standards, pathetic or otherwise, that Ed mentions. But I do know a little about the math standards put out by the NCTM. We have math wars, and for very good reason. The reason is that the ideas about teaching math promoted by the NCTM cause a lot of frustration to students, parents, and teachers. The losers are not quite so invisible this time. But in spite of all the harm done by the NCTM to math education, who would be put in charge of inspecting the math program of a school if we did have school inspections?

Would school inspections do good? Maybe, perhaps in ways that I cannot forsee. Would school inspections do harm? Probably, very likely in ways I cannot foresee.

Where should we look for educational improvement? I'm not sure, but I expect educational improvement will come slowly, behind the scenes, and probably not as a result of anything political. I feel fully justified in being very wary of things like school inspections.

We know much about educating a child. In fact, a large part of the public probably knows how to educate a child. Watch a fairly well educated couple with a new baby and you will see that they are well aware of those conditions and characteristics that are so critical to their child's intellectual well-being: health, language, cognition etc. The new parents will watch carefully for developmental milestones, have the baby's eyes and ears checked, read lots of books and give the child small challenges each day. When it's time for preschool and school, the parents will select carefully. The dutiful parents will be fully engaged in their child's schooling and will likely expose the child to many enriching activities outside of the school day. Read any book on "how to raise a bright child" and that's the advice that will be given.

So will standards, tests, and school inspectors make a difference? Perhaps, but not as much as parent education, visiting nurses, health care, high-quality preschool and well-educated parents and teachers. Inspectors might satisfy the public's demand for accountability but I don't really see how it would help the children that much. Until we can provide each child with the essential prerequisites to a good education, we'll never see the improvement that we seek.

The only school factors that will affect the quality of a child's education are the ability of the classroom teacher and the achievement and attitudes of the other children. If we could find a way to attract highly educated teachers to low-performing schools and to place low-achieving children in high-performing schools, then we will see some positive changes. Even these two factors won't have the desired effect if children come to kindergarten with the cognitive and linguistic development of three-year-old babies. The classic work "The Meaning Makers" by Gordon Wells tells us all we need to know but we are not willing to do for other people's children what we do for our own.

Diane,
We already have an accreditation process which verifies effective teaching, student learning, governance, etc. How would the state inspection teams be different?

Hi All.... another great conversation.

Many states already do this!

I am most familiar with Kentucy and New Jersey's system.

In New Jersey, schools that are "in need of improvement" get visited by a CAPA ( Collaborative Assessment and Planning for Achievement )

The Collaborative Assessment and Planning for Achievement (CAPA) initiative is a partnership among the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), school and districts, as well as local educators, designed to empower schools and districts to go beyond current efforts to improve student achievement.

The program strives to pinpoint obstacles to student achievement, identify needs and develop solutions to improve school performance.

CAPA is a four-day process that targets Title I schools in improvement status as defined under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

During a CAPA visit, a team of six to seven experienced educators, district and school staff, representatives from higher education and Department of Education staff conduct a review of the school using CAPA Indicators and essential questions.

During the visit, the team analyzes data, reviews the school’s NCLB Unified Plan, conducts interviews, makes classroom visitations, and gathers and analyzes data. A draft of the school report of findings and recommendations is discussed with district and school leadership staff. Based on this collaborative effort, an action plan is developed.

This is not a horrible process... in fact, done well it is positve!

Yet...this is far from an answer. My exoerience with these teams...it does give people..unfamiliar with our most needy schools...a taste of the complexity of the problems!

Until we recognize and begin to speak of the need to do something radically different with schools that have extremely high levels of students in poverty we will continue to be "perplexed"....

Equity is not simply a matter of money and resources. Class and income matter.

Studies have indicated that poor students in schools balanced by income learned, on average, twice as much as those in high-poverty schools. It has not had a negative effect on the students that come from higher SES families.

The issue for me... is educational effectiveness.

I believe if we are truely interested in "equity and excellence" we really need to look at the research on balancing our public schools.

In many of our poorer areas... which continue to have the largest number of students in need... there remains an imvisible wall and we clearly have 2 seperate education systems operating in plain view.

For more info on CAPA teams:
http://www.nj.gov/education/capa/

be well... mike

Linda/Retired Teacher, who is this Gordon Wells? It's a new name to me. I looked in Amazon and find a new book coming out in August, and apparently a book from 1985. Is he available somewhere on the internet?

Diane,

firstly, your Ed Week commentary was excellent.

Secondly, a system of school inspections by experts would often turn into the tedious, compliance-driven process that they see in the E.U. regulations. (Did you hear the NPR report on the Europeans' old regulations on ugly vegetables?)

But often, inspections would bring out the best in educators. They would prompt real discussions, and provide learning opportunities for us all.

There would be no guarentees. But it would be up to us educators and parents to determine whether we used inspections to improve schools.

I believe we would be surprised by the excellence that would be produced by the conversations.

Brian:

Gordon Wells is a British researcher who based his book "The Meaning Makers" on a study of language development in the homes of children in Bristol, England. The book clearly explains the reasons for the achievement gap and suggests ways for parents and teachers to help all children "achieve their full potential as makers of meaning and creators of knowledge." To me "The Meaning Makers" gives us an easy-to-understand explanation for the achievement gap and suggests solutions, but of course they are neither simplistic nor inexpensive.

I was surprised to find that Professor Wells is now on the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz. You can email him if you wish. Just google his name.

Diane,

I'm worried that these inspections might end up being like the school survey movement you describe in your book Left Back. "Experts" like Ellwood Cubberly and John Franklin Bobbitt inspected perfectly good school systems and persuaded them to make radical, deleterious changes because these schools' methods did not conform to the experts' dubious vision. It seems to me that inspectors will not help unless they hold a truly wise vision of the ideal school. I infer from your support of this idea that you have some hope that the inspectors may be wiser than Cubberly and Bobbitt. I wonder what gives you this hope.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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