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Richard Rothstein and the Cream Puff Caper

In a talk last Thursday at Teachers College, Richard Rothstein proposed a "Report Card on Comprehensive Equity" that would broaden the set of measures we use to assess the achievement gap. Rothstein argued that accountability systems that focus only on basic academic skills distort the educational process as schools focus more on skills for which they’re held accountable. Because we want more out of schools that math and reading scores, Rothstein proposed extending the data we collect to include domains such as critical thinking and problem solving, social skills and work ethic, readiness for citizenship and community responsibility, foundation for lifelong physical health, foundation for lifelong emotional health, appreciation of the arts and literature, and preparation for skilled work.

How could we collect these data on a nationwide scale? Rothstein explained that NAEP was originally designed to collect data on a wider range of skills, including civic engagement and students' ability to work in a group. Rothstein and his co-authors, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder, plan to propose an expansion of NAEP's data collection activities to the National Assessment Governing Board. Rothstein provides a clear picture of what these measures could look like here.

What of the cream puff caper, you ask? After some discussion of public education's goal of promoting physical health, attendees were greeted with plates full of cookies and cream puffs. Cream puffs that, while delicious, had the unfortunate side effect of food poisoning. Hopefully only a handful of people learned of the perils of eating dessert the hard way.

What do you think about Rothstein's proposal? I think it's an important first step in accounting for the many goals of public education that we care about. It was a formidable task to pull these data together - kudos to Rothstein, Jacobsen, and Wilder.

I'm not opposed to measuring this per se, but I'd rather spend my tax money on better assessments of math and literacy. Once we are sure we know that our measures of these are accurate and reliable, we'll be sure kids have the basics. Once we are sure of that, then we can measure other things. It's not that citizenship isn't important, it's vital. But the best indicator of readiness for citizenship is facility with the three R's.

I've never had food poisoning, and I'm aching from sympathy. I think there's a difference between the utility of "dashboard indicators" and a strict formula for accountability. For example, we know that states jiggered graduation rates (they always have), but I'm very skeptical of the Miller/McKeon draft not only to define a cohort graduation rate but also set arbitrary trend lines to add to AYP. Expanding federal data collection makes sense, as long as we understand it's tentative and exploratory.

I was there and asked Rothstein about a happiness/satisfaction of children and teachers index – which in NYC right now must hover somewhere near the Kelvin absolute zero point – as a counterpoint to measuring mania. Is there any joy for teachers and students at all in the current educational climate and isn't that in itself an indicator of motivation to teach and learn aside from punishment or reward? I was a bit disappointed when instead of saying there are things that do not need to be measured he said even this could/should be measured (he suggested using suicide rates which is a bit far-fetched) – well, maybe it would serve some value if a survey of some kind were done.

Later, a student in an ed program at TC came by to say she was pleased I asked that question. She had been a teacher on an Indian reservation in New Mexico and there were so many mandates and restrictions on teachers and students, there was not much joy in the process.

The idea of accountability for everything needs to be challenged (I know, we teachers just want to avoid responsibility). The climate of over accountability can poison the atmosphere between teachers and students. When you teach kids who are struggling academically and have become used to feeling like failures there's a need to build a lot of trust and teachers walk a delicate balance of encouragement and building self-esteem - I know how some disparage this - see the attitudes of Al Shanker -- as somehow being destructive.

I had an MA in reading and went through all the rigamarole of diagnosis and correction of reading problems. The biggest leap is made when you convince a child to want to read. Then the skills problems (other than dysleksia) fall by the wayside. It them may take years to catch up but it is possible. Can you measure me as a teacher in my ability to "sell" reading? Maybe give me merit pay? Give people reasonable class sizes, resources and support and then think about measuring results.

I'd like us to measure time on task. The best approach, which probably wouldn't work for a federal accountability system, would be to train students to fill out diaries, and when they recieve irregular buzzes on their cell phones, they describe what is happening around them. Accumulating thousands of snapshots FROM THE STUDENTS PERSPECTIVES would allow us to compare time on task, time lost to disciplinary disruptions, time lost to teacher incompetence, and relative time invested in lower order, higher order, and test prep instruction. It would be cost effective. And above all, it would be practical, giving us the insights needed to collaboratively devise reforms.

In the longer run, of course, Rothstein is right on target.

Are you familiar with the Experience Sampling Method pioneered by Mihaly Cszikzentmihalyi and colleagues such as Barbara Schneider? You might be interested in a paper by Gad Yair entitled "Educational battlefields in America: The tug-of-war over students' engagement with instruction," published in 2000 in Sociology of Education 73:247-269. He reports on a study in which students were given digital wristwatches that beeped randomly eight times a day for a week, and students filled out a brief questionnaire about what they were doing and thinking about at the time of the beep.

Rothstein is on target, for the most part. I'm simply not sure this proposal is necessary for all districts. I'm also not sure any teacher needs to be saddled with more work.

What's interesting about this concept is it's another, in a long line of practices/trends, that seem to repeat themselves in education. When I started teaching 35 years ago, fifty percent of our report card was devoted to progress in the cognitive domain (academic) while the other fifty percent was devoted to chronicling student progress in the affective domain (social/emotional etc.). These documents were very cumbersome and time consuming and I would encourage any system considering this additional workload to think seriously before committing to it. One also needs to consider how any of this can be objectively measured or will it all simply come from the teacher's subjective opinion.

I'm extremely skeptical of the whole notion of trying to measuring all these somewhat amorphous qualities like "social skills and work ethic, readiness for citizenship and community responsibility, foundation for lifelong physical health, foundation for lifelong emotional health, appreciation of the arts and literature" etc. etc. All this measuring takes even more time and money out of the already underresourced classroom -- and as in Campbell's law tends to distort whatever processes are being measured.

I can see in NYC the monstrous accountability initiative being expanded to hundreds of millions more dollars and more assessments and more staff -- with even less money going to the classroom and less time spent on learning.

Why not instead spend our precious time and funds creating better inputs -- smaller classes, smaller teaching loads, more arts, more experienced teachers -- all the factors we really know contribute to good schools? Private schools don't spend all that time devoted to measuring the supposed outcomes of their students; why are we tying ourselves in knots doing it for public schools?

We know what a good education looks like; why not create some standards for what this encompasses and try to achieve them?

We should not under-emphasize the point Leonie makes about how private schools do things and why none of this creeps into the debate. After all, these are the most privileged kids in society and they are the ones getting low class sizes. If the answer is that such a system for the most needy is not affordable, then the supporters of elaborate accountability systems should say that they want to close the achievement gap on the cheap by focusing on things like teacher quality and accountability (I know a few NYC private school teachers who either couldn't make it in the NYC system, tried it and were horrified at the high class sizes and other issues, or blanch at the thought. By the way, do private school teachers get merit pay for high scores?)

We should notice how quickly a trillion dollars appeared for a war without much of a peep from the accountability crowd who shout that throwing money at reducing class size is a waste.


Thanks. My field was History, and since I didn't go to Ed School there are still gaps. I didn't know the people who did the study I tried to describe.

This year, we hired a superintendent from the Broad School and he did something similar. But he paid veteran administrators at the top of our poor district's pay scale to visit classes and type descriptions of what they saw into a laptop. We were told to expect six to ten of those visits, but I never understood how we could afford such a program. Neither did I understand the wisdom of spending so much money collecting such valuable information if it was kept secret. Anyway, the superintendent was forced to resign after seven months, so nobody will ever know what we could have learned had we used the evidence in a collaborative way.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • John Thompson: Schoolboy, Thanks. My field was History, and since I didn't read more
  • Norm: We should not under-emphasize the point Leonie makes about how read more
  • leonie haimson: I'm extremely skeptical of the whole notion of trying to read more
  • Paul Hoss: Rothstein is on target, for the most part. I'm simply read more
  • skoolboy: John, Are you familiar with the Experience Sampling Method pioneered read more




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