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The Data Game


Dear Deborah,

Ah, data. A new study from the Center on Education Policy finds that state tests scores have been rising steadily since the passage of NCLB. But the report is based only on state tests, which are notoriously unreliable and even invalid because of the test-prepping that every district is doing. We should have learned by now that when state scores soar, but NAEP scores don’t, trust NAEP. It is the audit test. No one can practice for NAEP.

I am sure that you, like me, have been inundated with reports about how charter schools will save American education, especially because of their ability to impose military-style discipline and to accept “no excuses” (e.g., poverty, poor health, other disadvantages). How many times have we heard that the “no excuses” schools have proved that they can close the achievement gap because they are so much better than regular public schools?

Last week, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a major national study of charter schools that examined the performance of more than half the nation’s charter schools. It found that only 17 percent of charters recorded improvement that was better than the local public schools. Another 37 percent showed gains that were significantly below those of their local public schools. In the remaining 46 percent, student performance was indistinguishable from that of local schools. Overall, the performance of 83 percent of charters was either the same or worse than the local public schools.

The lead researcher, economist Margaret Raymond, said that “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters. That’s a red flag.” The study was funded by foundations known for their support for charters, among them the Walton Family Foundation. I give Raymond a blue ribbon for intellectual honesty; it is not often that we see a report or study that conflicts with the political agenda of its funders.

Charter boosters Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector and Richard Whitmire, former editor of USA Today, wrote in response to Raymond’s report that it is time to close down low-performing charters. They noted that there are about 4,600 charters operating currently, but only 300 of them are part of a high-performing charter network. Undoubtedly there are some others, beyond the 300, that are successful, but by Raymond’s analysis, more than a third of current charters are worse than their neighboring public school and most are no better.

Yet because of the constant hype in the media by charter promoters, most of us have been sold a bill of goods. That includes President Obama. He has called for states to lift their caps on charters so that we can have thousands more of them. This would allow poor kids to escape their “bad” public school to attend an even worse charter school.

If the charter sector doesn’t clean up its act, and if the federal government doesn’t take a strong stand on behalf of quality, we will be inundated with even worse schools than we have now. The only difference is that they will be managed by private entrepreneurs collecting public dollars.



The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools is meeting in Washington DC this week and will hear proposals for holding charters "more" accountable. The recommendations, like the one proposed by the California Charter Schools Association, will inevitably be based on standardized test scores. But as you suggest, the relationship between accountability... effective instruction... teaching and learning... organizational excellence... and state-designed standardized tests is strained- at best.

As the executive director of a charter school in California, I am constantly reminded of school models that are achieving extraordinary results on the California Standards Test and how their Academic Performance Index (API) is so much higher than my school's API. I love the competition... but we have long since decided that we will not compromise our students' well being for the sake of high test scores.

I wrote about this exact topic in a post on LeaderTalk over the weekend: http://tinyurl.com/ns3f6f

In that post, I referenced an LA Times article about California's highest performing school and how it "achieved" an API of 967: http://tinyurl.com/mvhskk

If this is the price we have to pay to be hailed as a "model"... we respectfully decline. We are committed to the mission of authentically raising our children, not artificially raising our test scores.

Thanks for keeping this topic at the forefront of your work.

The problem is that charter schools are not an educational reform, but most people believe that they are. There is nothing about charterness that makes them inherently superior than non-charter public schools -- so long as you control for demographics, parental involvement and peer effects. But they are being treated as thought they are The Big Reform of the 21st century, taking attention away from real reforms that might actually do something for children.

As Debbie Meier has demonstrated for so long, education happens in classrooms, in the interaction between children, between children and adults, between children and educational materials. Unless a reform addresses those interactions, or better enables educators to address those interactions, it won't do anything to improve education.

We've see over and over again that governance structure is the easiest thing for politicians and public leaders to focus on, and the quickest change that they can make to our educational system. But such things do not improve education.

In my view, it is easy to understand why charter schools in this study did worse than traditional public schools. Each school should *not* be its own corporation, having to figure everything for itself. They should be branch offices, with logistical support from central offices which also provide/enable high quality human resource development for its professionals. (There are other good theories out there, too. But that's mine.)

I hope that the education wing of the public policy forum can shift to idea that might actually impact children for the better. And I hope that it can do so soon.


Charters have a couple of advantages over traditional public schools in my mind. First, if they're not getting the job done they can be closed, and it's a lot easier to terminate a non-functioning charter than a terrible regular public school. Second they afford choice to poor/minority students previously afforded only to families of wealth.

Disappointing for me regarding charters was the purported innovations that were supposed to serve as models for regular public schools to copy. Ya! So where are all these innovations that were supposed to change the face of public education? Two decades in and I know of nothing that has materialized from this great experiment.

Hi All...hope this finds you well.

Ceolaf.... thanks... i believe your slice concerning charters vs non-charters needs to be highlighted!

"The problem is that charter schools are not an educational reform, but most people believe that they are. There is nothing about charterness that makes them inherently superior than non-charter public schools -- so long as you control for demographics, parental involvement and peer effects. But they are being treated as thought they are The Big Reform of the 21st century...
( You )

There are some things that can be done and are being done that can expand choice and provide a way to lift up more and more schools.

Again... a repost of what is going on in North Carolina right now.

Whose schools work better?

Wake disperses low-income students with busing; Charlotte gives high-poverty schools extra money

By T. Keung Hui -
Published: Sun, Feb. 08, 2009

North Carolina's two largest school systems have taken vastly different approaches to two thorny issues -- student reassignment and educating low-income students with hefty academic deficiencies.

Wake County, the state's largest district, has used buses instead of greenbacks to address the academic needs of low-income students.

To meet the demands of growth and support a diversity policy aimed at reducing the number of high-poverty schools, Wake's system moves thousands of students each year to different schools, sometimes sending kids on bus rides of more than 20 miles.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest district in North Carolina, has shifted to a system of largely neighborhood schools, resulting in a stratified mix of affluent schools in the suburbs and high-poverty schools near downtown Charlotte.

Instead of busing kids to balance out the level of low-income students at each school, the district pours millions of dollars into these high-poverty schools each year to boost the performance of academically disadvantaged students.

"Charlotte is not proving to be a good system," said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the Wake school board. "They're still having problems. They're going back to a segregated school system. The citizens of Wake County aren't looking for that."

Despite the different approaches, the academic results among minority and at-risk students are very similar in both districts, with only a narrow gap in test scores. But Charlotte also has many more low-performing schools than Wake and has a harder time recruiting teachers to work in these tough schools.

Through the 1990s, both Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg based students' assignments on race to try to keep schools integrated. Wake did it by choice; Charlotte was following a federal court order.

But as federal courts raised more and more questions in the 1990s about race-based school assignments, Wake switched in 1999 to student assignments based on family income. The policy was based on research showing that academic performance drops when a school has too many low-income students.

I am not saying this is the magic answer to failing schools, however, it is something that today is hardly mentioned in the debates.

We may even think about financial incentives for school districts willing to explore this concept.

Wondering are we ready to deal with districts with extreme levels of poverty sitting right next to other well off districts and not even discuss the possibility?

be well... mike

No Child Left Behind has finally been gamed to death. This will be the last cheat. Fordham revealed that proficiency was just an illusion with cut scores so low and so different from state to state that no one could regard "proficient" as a reasonable goal. We knew from the Associated Press's study of cell sizes that states had gamed the NCLB requirements by implementing cell sizes so large that millions of children would never be counted in the accountability system. States also found ways to game the system so that students with special needs, limited English skills, and even high school dropouts could be rolled off the books, placed in special programs and special schools with special tests.

We know from careful studies of AYP and growth models that states have conned the Education Department into allowing additional statistical modifications that will count non-proficient students as proficient based on promises that they will be proficient at some point in the future, maybe. Now, we understand that many or most states actually publish old tests and those tests are a very, very, very good study guide for the next text as unique questions are cloned and content becomes more limited over time. Teaching to the test is not a rumor or a theoretical possibility; it is a way of life under No Child Left Behind.

And still we have people claiming that schools with high levels of state test proficiency or high state test growth are models for success. But no one can ever identify one research-based, common characteristic or scalable practice that would explain why they perform so well on state tests. The only finding from eight years of state-test-based accountability is that a student who scores well will probably continue to score well and if you can create a school that admits only those students, you will have a great school (regardless of their race or income). Did we pay a billion dollars over 8 years to learn that?

If you really want to understand the damage done by this accountability system, look at every study done that measured success based on state test results alone, analyzed using proficiency ratings or scale score changes. Realize that all of that work was worthless, meaningless, because the tests and data were so easy to manipulate if you were willing to try. It is exactly like the situation where someone at an FBI crime lab was forging DNA test results. No one could say whether those suspects were guilty or innocent. A judge had to call for a second investigation and trial, from the start, for every case using those data.

Diane describes failed charter schools, but we don't right now have any idea whether those charter schools have succeeded or failed if state test data were used. The problems with state tests allow us to draw only one conclusion: unknown. Imagine two schools with equally smart hardworking students and teachers. The traditional school has nothing to prove so it goes on in the usual manner spending a full month on test prep with students reviewing old tests and learning how to decode a poorly written multiple-choice test item. The charter school, with something to prove, sticks to its curriculum, which could even be a Core Knowledge curriculum, but spends very little time preparing for the state test. Who will score higher?

Imagine a group of teachers, all of whom have been teaching for 5 or more years. All of the teachers know where to find the old tests and use them to prep students. Half of the group decides to pursue some kind of advanced certification. But, during the certification year, the teachers who must document their teaching are too embarrassed to describe their month-long drill sessions, so they don't do them. Whose students will score higher?

Do the new TFA teachers know where to find the old tests? Do charter schools run by civic groups with no education experience know where to find the old tests and how to prep? What if all of that money Gates spent on small schools was really working, but his schools were teaching while the comparison group was drilling with old test forms? Is a small class with 17 students taught without test prep going to perform better than a large class of 50 drilled endlessly on old test items?

The sad fact is that we have spent almost a decade now collecting data whose value lies somewhere between useless and dangerous. How many misleading studies were conducted? Think of the endless statistical contortions enacted to try to squeeze facts from fudge. Think of all of the people wasting all of that time reviewing the data in meetings, at conferences, at AERA conventions. Wasted. Wasted lives.

People speak of Japan's lost decade of economic growth. Soon, people will begin to speak of our wasted decade of education reform. So many people were interested in improving public education, but led stray by bad data, we spun our wheels for ten long years. State test scores went up while real achievement remained flat. Or did it? Who knows? NAEP says flat. Probably flat.

There is no question that standardized tests can be designed, administered, and analyzed in a manner that truly assesses student achievement. But states have been allowed to undermine that process. Give them credit; they did a great job in corrupting the data beyond repair. But until they can restore credibility to their assessments, states should be cut off from federal funds. States can try to prove the validity of their tests with long descriptions of teacher meetings and item reviews and processes and procedures, but if their released forms would be enough for a decent 3rd grade student with a week's drilling to pass the 4th grade test, the test can't be a valid measure.

Now Arne Duncan is saying we need to spend $350,000,000 more to make these tests better? Duncan is keen on telling states that they must lift their charter caps if they want federal funds. Tennessee has shown how quickly it is willing to bow down to Uncle Sam. Perhaps Duncan should require that states that want any part of the $350 million must prove that released or sample test forms have not invalidated their assessments by allowing a federal review of older and more recent forms. Require the state to submit its older, released, sample, and most recent tests to the Department of Education for review. Better yet, let them submit the tests to the GAO for an audit and publish the reports online for all to see. So that the $350 million can be distributed now, require each state's governor to sign approving the review and explain that any funds awarded would have to be repaid if they did not provide the tests in 30 days to begin the review.

Trust, but verify. That could be the motto of the New Democrats in charge of education reform. I can almost hear Duncan saying those words right now. "Trust, but verify." "Don't send us data we can't trust," said the Education Secretary to the states on Thursday. "Parents want data, but they want data they can trust," Duncan said to a group of testing experts gathered to review the NCLB scandal. "What good are test scores if you can't trust the test," Duncan told a parents' group assembled at the elementary school. "Without verification, we can't have validity, and without valid measures, I would not be here asking you for more money for Title I funding," Duncan said to the House Education Committee Tuesday.

An accountability system that is not honest is worse than no system at all.


I left a comment for you on Diane's "Lies, Damn Lies" post. Hoped you would have seen it and responded.

Charters, like regular public schools have found they can't have it both ways--innovation and test scores. They are quite naturally opting for the latter for as Hoss points out, they can be more easily closed is their test scores don't measure up. So charters, like most public schools, have lost their sense of purpose.

As long as standardized test scores are the only measuring stick, you will have the same triage--1/3 bad, 1/3 mediocre, 1/3 good--as you find in all public schools. Those are standard deviations in the testing world.

As for all this new talk in the charter association about quality control and the CREDO study, how can we be sure that this is not simply laying the basis for another shakeout of the small, teacher-run charters in favor of the big chain operators?

Yet because of the constant hype in the media by charter promoters, most of us have been sold a bill of goods.

Come on, I thought we'd moved beyond the silly belief that there's nothing of value outside of test scores. Even if they don't raise test scores all the time, charter schools are still beneficial in that they give parents a different option. There are charter schools devoted to the arts, for example . . . guess what, maybe they aren't obsessed with raising reading and math scores at all costs (something that you condemn NCLB for encouraging schools to do). There are also hundreds of charter schools nationwide specifically aimed at kids at risk of dropping out. The fact that charter schools get those kids to stay in school at all is an achievement, whatever their test scores might be.

You need to make up your mind: is it a good thing for schools to do nothing except focus on math/reading tests (your assumption in this post), or should schools ever be able to think about any other values (your assumption everywhere else)?

Hi All... hope this finds everyone well.

Paul, sorry about not responding back a ffew threads.... got lost in thread land :)

Paul, i find myself more in line with Margo's thinking concerning your points back there.... and i can see why looking back you can draw some of those conclusions.... i am a product of an Italian and Irish partnership....that at that time... was thought to be crazy.

My question remains... in America..in our public schools... is seperate yet equal ( which is a huge strech ) that way we want to reform our school district most in need?

Why not attempt...with a varity of methods...charters, magnets, small schools with themes.... to make ALL our schools..middle class schools?

What might that take in your part of the world?

be well... mike

Sonu Vanon (and Diane, as well) make a lot of charges about the reliability and validity of state testing--with the assumption that this has in fact been established. Of particular interest is the suggestion that no one can study for NAEP. I am not at all certain that this is the case. I can look up released questions from NAEP as easily as I can from most states that I have looked into. It may be true that no one (or few) actually ARE studying for NAEP--as the data comes from sampling within states, therefore no one at a classroom, building, or generally even a district level can be identified with any of the results.

But--before anyone runs too far with the assumption that Jennifer Jennings peep into the NY test questions has established that state tests are neither valid nor reliable, perhaps they should read the following: http://www.unl.edu/buros/biaco/pdf/pres07davis01.pdf It is not as exciting. It is a scholarly review of the process by which USED ensures reliability and validity of state tests. I found in in a google search--no magic or secrets there. It would seem as though the process by which test reliability and validity is ensured meets with standard procedures of the scholarly community.

Like I said--nowhere near as exciting as the drama of passing the word around that wholesale cheating fostered at the state level is going on. But then--I'm not all that certain that that is what Jennings said either. A careful researcher simply doesn't let fly with things like that. I believe that her findings accurate reflect the amount of curriculum that was tested in the 3 years that she examined; and the percentage of questions that were similar from year to year. To read into that any statement about either reliability or validity is an enormous stretch--possibly unethical, depending on your field (a journalist for instance might not be expected to be a source on those matters).

When I went through ed school--back in the loosy-goosy seventies, I didn't learn much about testing, or the implications of scoring, or reliability, or validity. I expect that this is far more important to educators today. I wonder if they are better trained to be conversant in these matters than I was?

Hi All... hope this finds you well.

Interesting what high stakes do to distort everything from testing to instruction.... seems all tests can be gamed.... the ammount and cost of SAT prep classes has really gone up as we seem intent on getting children to score higher and higher.

What are we doing???

The Next Kind of Integration

Some highlights:

Researchers have been demonstrating this result since 1966, when Congress asked James S. Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to deliver a report on why the achievement of black students lagged far behind that of white ones.

How much less was later quantified. The Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks reanalyzed Coleman’s data in the 1970s and concluded that poor black sixth-graders in majority middle-class schools were 20 months ahead of poor black sixth-graders in majority low-income schools. The statistics for poor white students were similar. In the last 40 years, Coleman’s findings, known informally as the Coleman Report, have been confirmed again and again.

Most recently, in a 2006 study, Douglas Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, found that when more than half the students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of schools consistently performed at a “high” level (defined as two years of scores in the top third of the U.S. Department of Education’s national achievement database in two grades and in two subjects: English and math). By contrast, 24.2 percent of schools that are majority middle-class met Harris’s standard.

There are, of course, determined urban educators who have proved that select schools filled with poor and minority students can thrive — in the right circumstances, with the right teachers and programs. But consistently good education at schools with such student bodies remains the rare exception. The powerful effect of the socioeconomic makeup of a student body on academic achievement has become “one of the most consistent findings in research on education,” Gary Orfield, a U.C.L.A. education professor, and Susan Eaton, a research director at Harvard Law, wrote in their 1996 book, “Dismantling Desegregation.”

Wake County(NC) adopted class-based integration with the hard-nosed goal of raising test scores. The strategy was simple: no poor schools, no bad schools. And indeed, the district has posted striking improvements in the test scores of black and low-income students: in 1995, only 40 percent of the black students in Wake County in the third through eighth grades scored at grade level in state reading tests; by last year, the rate had almost doubled, to 82.5 percent. Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much. Wake County’s numbers improve as students get older: 92 percent of all eighth graders read at or above grade level, including about 85 percent of black students and about 80 percent of low-income students. (Math scores are lower, following a statewide trend that reflects a change in the grading scale.) The district has achieved these results even as the share of low-income students over all has increased from about 30 percent a decade ago to about 40 percent today.

The idea of balancing our schools around social capitol certainly goes well beyond the raise on any test score.

I certainly think this is worth the time and effort to look into....
after all.... school district boundaries are man made....

Seems we can debate tests, types of schools, more choice, what ever.....

we still have seperate and unequal schools all over America.

May be time to re-visit this seeming truth hidden in plain sight.

be well... mike

"We still have separate and unequal schools," is a given. Is this the fault of the schools/district that serve the failing schools or are these schools doomed to failure because of the clientele they inherit? And if the latter is the case what do we as a society do to rectify this problem?

Wonder what would happen to kids going to school in the Bronx if all of a sudden the teachers from Scarsdale, Riverdale, and Beverly Hills were transferred into these poor urban districts? This is a rhetorical question of course. My guess is there would little to no difference in student performance.

Hi... some late night thoughts.

LANI GUINIER...... writing on testing in higher education.....

Both the testocracy and affirmative action were designed to promote a more democratic distribution of opportunity—continuing the democratic impulse behind adopting aptitude tests inthe 1960s and 1970s that especially benefited Jews and recent immigrants previously excluded by the old boys network.

But it turns out that, over time, the testocracy has repeated a chief characteristic of the old system: it rewards those already privileged.

In the old boys network, access to higher education and good jobs was passed from one generation to another through exposure to boarding schools and other institutions in which one’s merits (that is, proof of belonging) were observed and finely honed.

In the testocracy, or what some call “the new meritocracy,” privilege is passed on through a new kind of club: a testing system that allows those with resources to show that they too belong.

They belong because they are able to learn the rules of the test through explicit coaching, private school, or an upper class, resource-rich suburban education.

They then successfully play the testing game to their own advantage. Studies show that within each race and ethnic group, aptitude test scores rise with parental income.

The correlation between aptitude test scores and parental income should not surprise us, given the role that high-priced coaching techniques play in raising test scores.

But what may surprise some is just how weak the relationship is between high test scores and what the tests claim to predict (i.e., first year college or law school grades).

Studies suggest that nationwide the aptitude test for law schools (LSAT) is between 9% and 14% better than random in predicting first year grades.21

In other words, what the testocracy promotes in the name of “merit” turns out to be based on privilege.

What these studies find is that the testocracy tells us more about a student’s past than his or her future.

It soon became apparent that the test-centered approach to distributing opportunity was not meeting its democratic responsibilities.

The expansion of opportunity to African Americans and Latino Americans was substantially incomplete.22

Thus, techniques based on affirmative action were adopted to compensate for the deficiencies in the testocracy. Indeed, affirmative action became necessary to balance the serious flaws in the testocracy’s claims of democratic opportunity.

These flaws extended beyond people of color but remained mostly invisible because of the politics of race in the U.S.23

In other words, a temporary peaceful coexistence between those included in the new meritocracy and those excluded by it was crafted when the rich testocracy was joined at the hip to its poor cousin, affirmative action. Rather than threatening the testocracy or exposing its failure to meet its democratic promise, affirmative action camouflaged deficiencies in its test-centered assumptions. As long as it was supplemented by policies of affirmative action, the testocracy remained temporarily ensconced in its claims of equal opportunity.

It is not fair to rely on test scores to fulfill equal opportunity goals when some people are better prepared to do what is expected because of resources they have inherited from their parents and in most cases their grandparents.

Given the intergenerational nature of this wealth transfer, and its relationship to performance on standardized tests, those who are born to middle or upper middle class white parents are more likely to be included and those with black or poor white parents to be excluded for several generations.

That we have only noticed this relationship now reveals how profoundly we have permitted congealed privilege to continue to exclude many, even in the name of objective deserts.

Thus, the testocracy is doing two things inconsistent with an equal opportunity mandate.

It is “credentializing” those who are already quite privileged; and it is (mis)leading us into accepting the educational inequality in the K-12 system as “normal.”

Confusing inherited privilege with inherited aptitude, it makes an inherited resource a pre-condition for opportunity—leaving out many people of color and poor and working class whites as well—based on the unfair accumulation of resources that some others bring to the test.

Find entire article here:

Again we see an interesting link... are we not in danger of seeing merit in this manner in our K-12 systems?

be well... mike

There is this strain of thinking that is filtering through a lot of posts that generally accepts (if not supports) the idea that closing schools is any sort of acceptable answer to a school's problems.

Having worked in a closing school, all I can think of is that anybody who advocates that must never have worked in such a school.

Of all the possible educational practices that school systems can choose from, I can't think of a worse atrocity to commit upon our students than closing their school. It is destructive beyond belief and serves only to destroy the lives of everybody involved, including those who are doing well.

It seems people love to talk about schools being "failing" or "beyond repair" or whatever terminology we use to paint all students in such situations with the broad brush of failure. The fact of the matter is that even in the worst of situations, there are many students and teachers who are doing well. But throwing away their lives to achieve a larger goal, usually a pretty dubious goal considering their advocacy for this obviously destructive behavior, is the most despicable kind of act. And despite the propoganda to the contrary, what invariably happens is that the students from a closed school get stigmatized in the worst way and are treated by lepers by administrations that consider them failures and not worthy of attention that the new and supposedly improved schools get. They then get shuffled off to another school against their will which is usually unsuitable to their situation. Or they stay in a school being phased out and watch as everybody they know leaves them for greener pastures or for reasons of self-preservation - and become afterthoughts as the new import students around them receive all the attention. Or they just close and re-open the schools and most everybody they had built a relationship with is gone, whether they were good teachers and/or students or not. They are left feeling isolated and betrayed - and are expected to start all over, if they're bothered with at all.

A reform that can't keep what works and builds upon that without hurting those who are doing well is not a worthy reform. The reformers constantly talk about "transition costs" as if the children unfairly caught in that transition are expendable. Tell that to their parents' face!

It really shows the utter lack of imagination in the reformer camp that the best they can think of is to just blow it up and start all over. It's the educational reform movement's version of "shock and awe" and really it seems their consideration of those caught up in their transitions are about the same as those of innocent Iraqis bombed to smithereens, acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of very dubious goals.

Mike, I would think Guinier had been sufficiently discredited that you would not quote her here. That you do seems evidence enough I should let your arguments fall on their own; and yet...

This type of class-baiting is practiced mainly by those who see the world through highly polarized spectacles; glasses melded of socialist writings, and much-overused to filter out an honest view of the real fundamentals and workings of our all-to-human world. It gets us nowhere, save padding the bank accounts of the writers who proffer it.

I do thank you for bringing the Raleigh example--it should certainly be studied. Yet its not clear that the model can be widely replicated. Cities with much different demographics would likely find that approach impossible.

What might be helpful is to look at Dayton, a city which raised its graduation rate 30 points in 5 years.


Your logic is faulty. It's ridiculous to accuse schools of "teaching to the test." If state assessments accurately reflect state learning standards, than all classroom teaching is "test prep." If you can't "prep" for the NAEP, then that test doesn't accurately reflect any learning standards. No wonder the scores are lower!

Wonderful article, extraordinary comments. Here is a less academic perspective.

Just as a most surgeons prove unable to remove their own inflamed appendix (with or without anesthetic), our federal government and our state governments are unable to fix the blight that is our "unequal" schools.

Worse, the "testing craze" under NCLB hastened the "dumbing down" of learning as the "test-prep mentality" shifted into high gear.

Throwing $350 million (wasting most of it) cannot solve the problem when the folks shoveling money down the rat hole don't know what the problem is. This is like the surgeon that doesn't remember which side of the body the appendix resides on. Urgent, quick fixes without knowledge or the underlying issues create more problems than solutions.

And, the track record of our states and of our Federal Government indicates that they only know how to operate on the good knee, only know how to extract the good tooth next to the decayed one, etc.

By the way, $350 million is a "drop in the bathtub." The eRate program for wiring our schools provided $2.5 billion a year (also a "drop in the budget-tank." Our society is "no way, no how" ready to spend the kind of money that converting our schools to "world class" learning environments requires. Instead, we remain content to push an "education jalopy" around a Formula One track and think that our children are riding a "souped up educational system" into the future.

Joseph, not sure its fair to say "Our society is 'no way, no how' ready to spend the kind of money that converting our schools to 'world class' learning environments requires."

Studies show people are generally willing to spend money on education---IF they feel they will be getting more education for the extra money.

And, in fact, we have spent more money. Public school spending has doubled ( in real dollars) in the past 15 years.

Look at our university systems! Huge amounts have been spent on our campuses in recent years.

What the people are looking for is wise leadership which shows their will be a return for the money, and also doesn't hit them all at once with the bill.

Pricing is sometimes a subtle art. Look at how Verizon turns a $20 plan and a free phone into a $100 monthly bill for most folks!

Alas, government is rarely good at subtlety.

David Britten,
I disagree with you (obviously).
Good instruction should prepare students to master the skills and knowledge that are taught. These skills and knowledge should be available for use in a variety of contexts and on any test of the skills and knowledge.
The kind of test prep that is now widely in use is so specific to the state tests (i.e., practicing the questions given on the previous exams in the same state) that students are prepared only for the state test.
If two states were to switch tests, it is likely that the scores would drop precipitously because the students do not have command of the ability to read, comprehend, and do math. All they have are the skills for their own state test.
That is a fraud against the students.
Why don't you read Daniel Koretz's book, Measuring Up?, which explains the issue of test score inflation in detail?

Jason Norman,
I agree completely with you about the negative consequences of closing schools. This is a harsh action that should occur only in the most desperate cases, and it should be seen as a failure by top-level administrators. In other words, when the school superintendent closes a school, it is his failure even more than that of the principal and teachers.
What we have today is a ridiculous situation in which school superintendents (and those who are grandiosely called "chancellor") boast about how many schools they closed.
To me, that is akin to a heart surgeon boasting of how many of his patients died on the operating table.

This is a fascinating thread but THOROUGHLY DEPRESSING. I recently saw the documentary about our poisoned food supply, Food Inc.(www.foodincmovie.com), in which we learn about the horrific unintended consequences of feeding cows corn and making chickens grow big breasts faster. All the way through as my appetite suffered permanent damage, I thought, I could make a parallel documentary called School Inc. Just as cows were not made to eat corn, children were not made to learn by sitting still at a desk with pencil in hand listening to an adult talk all day long. Just watch what happens when they are left to their own devices - they take off running across the grass, climbing, literally shrieking with delight at the prospect of a few moments of freedom. I think as a nation we all need to examine what we value for our children's lives in childhood, and then we have to figure out how to foster and instill those values in our schools, homes, and communities. Maybe what we need is a spend-a-day-playing-with-children program for adults. There is much to be learned by observing, conversing, laughing, and sharing. Can't we all agree that we want our schools to be centers of joyful learning? Don't all parents long to hear about all the fantastic things that happened at school that day? And shouldn't children be excited to leave home for school each morning, in anticipation of all that is to come? How have we lost sight of these fundamentals?

Interesting comments by Joseph. With Ed, I question the necessity of spending a great deal more--primarily because our per/pupil spending is one of the few indicators by which we lead the world. Even taking into account the increased cost of every product we produce due to our reluctance to embrace nationalized health care, I think that we are most likely spending enough--overall. This does not negate enormous disparities, or a profound inability to triage dollars to those in danger of bleeding out while they wait in line for the treatment of hangnails (to pick up on the medical metaphor).

But the basic structure of improvement efforts required by NCLB was a sound one. Having five to seven years in which to approach measureable improvement through strategic planning efforts, inclusive of parent input, doesn't strike me as the wrong path. What I see, however, is scant attention paid to such sensible provisions, enormous scrambling and panic, cheating, and following delusions (such as improvement through "test prep," or waiting out the change of administrations and counting on a reprieve) and hands thrown up in dismay at the unfairness of expecting to teach all students to measureable levels of "proficiency" across the board.

Certainly the "planning and improvement" efforts as I have experienced them in my district have been cosmetic attempts to fit everything already undertaken into a "planning" document. Despite legal requirements to do so, these documents are never presented to parents, parent input is never received and schools do not receive (or perceive the possibility of) the benefit of being held accountable by parents. There is not way to track the impact of any "improvement" in any systematic way. There is an assumption that the state tests provide the only data that is needed to evaluate--and they are not sufficiently sensitive to individual changes to provide needed evaluative information. So, there are a lot of rabbits chased, and abandoned, without ever having any idea of whether they helped or hurt.

It's true, a doctor ought not remove their own appendix. A good doc should however be able to recognize symptoms consistent with an inflamed appendix, and have the good sense to seek help, rather than just take to aspirin and wait until morning.

Margo, did u really just embrace nationalized health care whilst condemning the public schools for inefficient/ineffective management?!! You'll take waiting three years for a half hour incontinence repair procedure? Or being turned away completely because you are mostly healthy but still over 75?

And you've figured out who will do the drug research when the funds to pay for them dry up--as our current system is one of the few actually paying the R&D tab?

Eek! Indeed, I was offended for you when Jason attacked your "veiled, cheap and mostly inaccurate shots at educators". His words pointed at you really made me mad.

...And yet, if you think the system is OK, that medicine would do well to embrace a similar system, then maybe he's right. You are attacking the people themselves, the teachers; and not looking to improve the broken systems which allow the ineffectiveness.

Yes, Ed, I have been a supporter of nationalized health care nearly as long as I have believed in public education. Yes, we do the R&D in medicine--but we also put an enormous percentage of those dollars into researching minimal changes to existing drugs in order to introduce new product that is protected from generic equivalents. By contrast, we put very little into education R&D. Finland is one of the world leaders in that area. 50% tax rates. And, as I pointed out, people don't seem to mind. They seem to be satisfied with a guaranteed minimum level standard of living in exchange for giving up the belief that any kid can become a millionaire and should be guaranteed that right. Just sayin'

But, our health care stats ain't that great and we've got people organizing bus tours to Canada for senior to get their prescriptions filled. The wealthy are better off getting sick in the US--the rest of us, not so much. You know, sort of like education.

Margo, LOL, since we can't seem to produce any solutions here for education, maybe we could move to Health Care. (But you might want to look at how many Canadians are lining up to ask permission to come here for serious operations).

As to spending and Public R&D, especially for education: Don't forget the fact which is left out of most of our educations: defending civilized society, ...and defending it with minimal loss of life, requires a substantial investment in ideas, hardware, supplies, manpower, support, training and foreign aid.

Our European friends have managed somehow to leave that burden as well on the shoulders of the American taxpayer (and the American soldier). It wasn't France or Finland that saved Europe and the Jews in the 40's; it wasn't France or Finland who stopped Saddam's invasions of Kuwait, its not Finnish soldiers who stare at the North Koreans, and its not the German Air Force who deliver relief supplies to typhoon and earthquake and flood and hurricane and famine victims in country after country after country after country.

To continue Mike's earlier idea - testocracy 'merit' is indeed correlated to privilege. But tests are simply the canary in the coal mine here. Why punish the messenger? Historically, US school performance has always been correlated to privilege, before the standardization and testing movement took hold. The root cause is to be found somewhere else.

The Federal Government provides some 7 odd percent of school funding. States provide half of the funding, and the rest comes from local property taxes. Check this out:


"...Average expenditure in New York in 1988 was $5,500 per child. In the suburbs, spending levels were $11,000 and higher in some areas."

I don't think that trend changed since then. Children of wealthy families, living in well to do towns, get more education dollar. So let me ask again: who benefits most from a decentralized school system?

This pushes the issue back to Ms. Deborah Meier's post. Education kept under local control offers the benefits of direct democracy, and also the drawbacks. Uneven funding is one drawback; here is another:

If curriculum is not controlled at the state or federal level, there are not be enough people qualified at the school district level to make curricular decisions. For one thing - mathematicians, physicists, other research scientists are completely shunted out of curricular decisions because they cannot distribute themselves across the tens of thousands of school districts.

The free market is a genial system for the economy and the industry. This is the point usually made by the Ayn Rand crowd. The nuance is that the market system works well in risk-tolerant wakes of life. In the market economy, if an enterprise takes risks and goes bankrupt - there's no trouble, there are other to take its place. If on the other hand a school district is left to its own devices and fails to perform - then an entire generation of students is affected.

Per Andrei: If curriculum is not controlled at the state or federal level, there are not be enough people qualified at the school district level to make curricular decisions.

This is a good point. However, is it likely that every local district would be making curricular decisions in a vacuum? Why couldn't local districts be reaching out to the scientists, mathematicians, etc. and borrowing from other districts who are successful in various subjects?

Also per Andrei: If on the other hand a school district is left to its own devices and fails to perform - then an entire generation of students is affected.

If a school district fails, the failure is limited to its own student population. If the federal government gets its mandates, rules, incentives, curricula, etc. wrong then failure is spread across the entire nation's public schools. Every student matters and we wouldn't want to lose anyone to a local district's experiments or mistakes. But is the federal government really too big to fail at education?


"Charter boosters Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector and Richard Whitmire, former editor of USA Today, wrote in response to Raymond’s report that it is time to close down low-performing charters. They noted that there are about 4,600 charters operating currently, but only 300 of them are part of a high-performing charter network. Undoubtedly there are some others, beyond the 300, that are successful, but by Raymond’s analysis, more than a third of current charters are worse than their neighboring public school and most are no better."
MUNRO: AMAZING but then there are Chicano Ed Charter Schools in LA etc which are all political indoctrination and have little to do with education. There are others too.
"Yet because of the constant hype in the media by charter promoters, most of us have been sold a bill of goods. That includes President Obama. He has called for states to lift their caps on charters so that we can have thousands more of them. This would allow poor kids to escape their “bad” public school to attend an even worse charter school."
MUNRO: Mr. Obama what does he know ABOUT PUBLIC EDUCATION? His own kids go to elite private schools (as he did and as Biden did) and Chicago Public schools are dreadful. But Obama doesn’t dare oppose the teacher’s unions, in my humble opinion.

"If the charter sector doesn’t clean up its act, and if the federal government doesn’t take a strong stand on behalf of quality, we will be inundated with even worse schools than we have now. The only difference is that they will be managed by private entrepreneurs collecting public dollars."

ABSOLUTELY, right my dear.

Richard ("Ricardo") MUNRO

Teacher of English, history and Spanish

Bilingual Certificate of Competence (BCLAD)

Adjunct Faculty (AP Reader) ETS (Spanish)

West High School (Kern HS District)

Home of the Vikings

1200 New Stine Rd

Bakersfield, CA 93309

(661) 832-2822

fax (661) 831-5606

Jennifer, take the example of the math curriculum in high school. There are maybe 12 commercial publishers of normal-track algebra and geometry. Washington state has recently reviewed these curricula, so it can recommend the three best ones to state school districts. The review can be found here:


It is the kind of exhaustive review that a school district does not have the resources to do by itself. This review cannot be readily used, however, by other school districts in the country - because the review is premised on the WA high school math standards.

Other states and the federal government should follow WA state's lead and pool together to do similar reviews. The WA state review was not perfect as a process, but it had the merit of having gotten together a group of educators and professional mathematicians to do an exhaustive curriculum review.

Now, two of the mathematicians involved in the review were Guershon Harel of University of California, San Diego, and W. Stephen Wilson of Johns Hopkins. They wrote separate reviews of mathematical soundness of the high school curricula 'winners'. And all these winning high school curricula fell short.



What is going on here? Why are none of the commercially available high school curricula good enough? I repeat, these are curricula for non-AP track classes.

Well, here is what the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP) of 2008 had to say about it:

"U.S. mathematics textbooks are extremely long often 700-1,000 pages. Excessive length makes books more expensive and can contribute to a lack of coherence. Mathematics textbooks are much smaller in many nations with higher mathematics achievement than the U.S., thus demonstrating that the great length of our textbooks is not necessary for high achievement. Representatives of several publishing companies who testified before the Panel indicated that one substantial contributor to the length of the books was the demand of meeting varying state standards for what should be taught in each grade. Other major causes of the extreme length of U.S. mathematics textbooks include the many photographs, motivational stories, and other nonmathematical content that the books include. Publishers should make every effort to produce much shorter and more focused mathematics textbooks."

Publishers of textbooks are driven by profit, and they need to satisfy the plethora of state and local school district standards - therefore they organize their text books as an unwieldy, unstructured mix of topics.

They have to cover every angle, as state boards and school districts will go line by line in their standard, and - just like WA state did - will score textbooks for the presence of every pedagogical and content requirement. If publishers don't write textbooks with this reality in mind, they are driven out of business by the market.

Now compare this to the situation of textbooks for advanced-placement (AP) classes. The difference here is that the AP curriculum is driven by the requirements of the AP tests. The AP tests act as a de facto national standard. Publishers for AP textbooks know exactly what's expected, and the texts tent to be coherent and well written. For a recent survey on AP classes and why they work better than the non-AP track, please see


Jennifer, I wrote you a longer response a few days ago, but it got lost in blog filter land. That's too bad;) If the blog admins could unblock that message, that would be greatly appreciated.

In summary, local school districts demonstrably reach out to education specialists - following NCTM recommendations for math, for example. But they do not reach to research mathematicians, physicists etc.

On their side, few active research scientists care to get involved in school education issues. Colleges don't offer them incentives to do so. The government does not offer a good organization structure for them to get involved. Their professional organizations don't have any influence in school education. And moreover, after the heavy hitting math and science wars of the 1990's they've come to view school education problems as a can of worms.

This pattern would be reversed if the federal government - or the states pooled together in some form to define a national curriculum. In the 1990's, in the midst of the math wars the Clinton education secretary moved to endorse a number of the 'reform' curricula sponsored by the National Science Foundation education directorate. 200 university mathematicians signed an open letter to the education secretary pointing out the flaws in the endorsed curricula. Among them were 7 Nobel laureates and Fields medalists. The education secretary backed out of the endorsement.

Too bad this episode did not turn into a constructive consensus. But the point is that at the federal level you'd get the sort of discussion and interaction between educators and research scientists which you can't get at the school board level, and you rarely get even at the state level.

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