Thursday, November 22, 2007

Education reform: Old Visions in a new (expensive) format

I really shouldn't do this without all the sources at hand, but Vision 2015 has reared its head again in the blogosphere over on First State Politics and Kilroy's Delaware in the wake of Education Secretary Valerie Woodruff's recent decision not to provide significant state funding to the enterprise for the second year running.

If you have been living in a box somewhere, check out the Vision 2015 website, wherein you will discover that a coalition of concerned Delaware leaders is determined to

Imagine... each and every Delaware student fully prepared for success in life . . .no exceptions, no excuses. That's Vision 2015. And it's the moral and economic imperative of our time. Our children deserve it. Our future demands it. Please join us in making it a reality.

As Dave Burris says, there are many excellent individuals--especially among the 28 key leaders of the movement--advocating Vision 2015; I have worked with many of them and respect all of them. Which makes it even more difficult for me to say that I think they are wrong.

If you read the six primary objectives for Vision 2015 and the goals underneath them, you will discover first that while the movement intends to give principals more latitude in their buildings, and teachers more support in terms of resources and training, the unspoken hallmark of the plan is centralization and more bureaucracy.

Consider the following goals, selected from the summary page

"A statewide research-based curriculum so that all Delaware students are learning at the same high standards" [This is not revolutionary; there are already state-mandated curriculum states--think Texas--and the decision to move to a centrally disseminated curriculum is not necessarily a no-brainer. What works for math doesn't necessarily work for social studies. What works in large-population states doesn't always work in places like Delaware. What a state-mandated curriculum DOES necessarily cause is greater centralized control of education. We'll come back to this later.]

"Annual license renewals for all early child care and education providers to ensure consistent high quality" [This plank not only assumes that such license renewal "ensures" quality--the research on that is very questionable--but extends the bureaucratic reach of DOE much farther than our public schools, with costs and consequences that have not be adequately explored.]

"Increased coordination across service agencies for children from birth to age 3" [A platitude without true meaning, but an invasive as well as expensive one, and predicated on the unfounded idea that these "service agencies" are actually performing their tasks well enough that interagency coordination will make a difference.]

"Advancement [for teachers] based on skills and performance, not seniority, with student achievement as one measure of performance" [Sounds great, doesn't it? Kick those nasty old unions back where they belong. But it also assumes incredible amounts of facts not in evidence, like the ability to build a system that can account for differences in classroom numbers, inter and intra district student mobility, the development of reliable and valid measures of both teacher and student performance, ad infinitum ad nauseum. What we are really doing here is guaranteeing that few people will want to make long-term careers in the classroom, and that nobody will want to work with truly challenging students, because there will be--competitively speaking--no reward for it.]

"Bonuses for schools that meet or exceed agreed-upon goals for improvements in student achievement" [Merely a rehash of NCLB in positive terms; the effect is to give more to those who are doing well, rather than to focus resources where students are not performing. And who makes these "agreed-upon goals," anyway--the teachers, the principals, the parents, the State? Just how does this performance element fit in with teacher pay as above?]

"New professional development centers to encourage the sharing of information and best practices." [Sounds great until you start thinking about infrastructure costs; see the next item]

"More supports to help new teachers succeed, such as realistic course loads, assignments and class sizes" [This is pure pandering to both the teachers and the parents. Class size research shows something far different than most people think it does--it ain't a miraculous solution. Moreover, reduced class sizes mean (A) more teachers, which means also (B) more classrooms, which means (C) significantly higher cost per pupil in a state that already has one of the highest costs per pupil in the nation.]

"On-site school reviews and school improvement teams that can rapidly improve underperforming schools" [Another wonderful sounding initiative that is both (A) costly and (B) not proven to be effective. Stop and ask yourself where the individuals conducting these reviews or moving in to improve schools will come from. The answer is either by taking excellent teachers out of the classroom or by hiring recently retired educators and for-profit consultants. Large parts of this suggested "reform" exist today in Delaware and are not working.]

"State funding high enough so districts and schools do not need to rely on local referenda to meet Vision 2015 standards" [I am not sure I even have to unpack this one, but I will. This calls again for massive infusions of new money into the system from state taxes, because individual voters in districts cannot be trusted to react rationally to district performance. It removes the basic level of accountability from the public--which is not too high to start with--and essentially turns Delaware into a single school district. This may or may not be a good idea, but this provision is just frightening in Democratic terms. Because voters haven't always given us the money we think we should have, we intend to remove that level of control from them, thereby making taxation more indirect and less visible.]

Vision 2015 is NOT revolutionary or even groundbreaking. It is a package of proposals--many unproven by research--that have been circulating for years among certain constituencies in professional education. In some ways it is analagous to asking senior oil industry officials to create a multi-year program for improving the environment. It calls for all the usual heavy-handed moves: increased centralization, increased funding, and decreased local/parental control of public education.

Worse, it is based on some very slippery assumptions. Prominently displayed on the summary page is a chart noting the US slippage in Math performance against other countries. Implied is that this slippage is hard evidence of the inadequacy of our public education system. Really? Take a look at the 25 countries rating ahead of us:

Korea [South, I am presuming]
Liechtenstein [For all nine students!]
New Zealand
Czech Republic
United Kingdom

There are several things you should consider about this list. (A) None of these countries, in population size, is anywhere near the scale of the United States; (B) most of these countries are quite ethnically and culturally homogenous as compared to our extremely diverse society; (C) many of these countries do not attempt to provide a world-class public education for all their students, but actually "track" them quite early (and involuntarily) and limit the educational options of students within those systems.

Intriguingly, the country that finishes next--directly after the US--is Russia: a sprawling, heavily populated, multi-ethnic nation with a commitment to wide-ranging public education.

The fact is, no other country attempts to do what we do: provide a public education for every single student in a widely diverse society, taking into account both socioeconomic and cultural factors. The comparison is not just apples to oranges, its apples to goose liver pate.

Want to deal with some real educational issues in Delaware and the US? Start looking at the research on how the ubiquitous nature of computers and the internet impedes the development of text-based literacy. True literacy is a labor-intensive skill under the best of conditions requiring several years to acquire (to say nothing of acquiring the habit of literacy--liking to read). But the internet is icon-driven, not text-driven, and even students reading on less than a fifth grade reading level can use it to access and regurgitate information for homework and classwork without actually learning to read or even learning the information. (I know; I watched my teenage daughter, whose learning disability left her with a 2nd grade reading level at age 15 put together papers she didn't didn't even understand by cutting and pasting internet sources. She usually received at least a B on them.)

If you've got a strong enough stomach, start looking at the cutting-edge research that is challenging the whole "high-stakes testing," "assessment drives instruction," "understanding by design," and "statewide curriculum" mantra that underlies Vision 2015. An example of unanticipated consequences: In Virginia the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment has very high-stakes consequences for schools, in terms of funding, staff reorganization, etc. etc. Mixed with the cell structure from NCLB, this means that even a few poorly performing students can drop a school's average sufficiently to produce negative consequences. So what's happened? The drop-out rate in the Old Dominion is going up, because poorly performing students are no longer subjects for more highly focused interventions, they're liabilities who serve their schools best by leaving. In some districts, teachers and principals have actually encouraged students to drop out in order to keep their test scores high.

Valerie Woodruff is right to support the idea of school reform. Her record as Education Secretary has been marked by consistent gains in student performance. But she is equally right not to turn over hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to a "kitchen sink" reform effort that will actually endanger many of the quiet, foundational successes she has achieved over the past decade.

FIGHT, says First State Politics? How about let's see DuPont, Astra Zeneca, Rodel, and all the DE banks and corporations put up the initial $35 million themselves if they're so sure Vision 2015 will change the state, rather than ask the citizens and taxpayers of Delaware to foot the bill for the latest trendy educational whizbang?


Duffy said...

I find it curious that a libertarian would favor a statist solution to a free market one. Why not fund students instead of schools? Let the money follow the student.

Brian Shields said...

That's hardly a free market solution. Did you read the post? Riddled with government management and broad based solutions. Students in Georgetown have different education issues than children in Dover or Wilmington. One size does not fit all in this case.

It fits the libertarian principle that local politics is better suited than federal politics in most matters.

Duffy said...

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I was referring more to the end of the post that asked DuPont et al. to pony up the $$. I wholeheartedly agree that localized decisions are best and even in a small state such as ours a state sized solution is still too big.

Steve Newton said...

My point at the end was to say, "If you think it's such a good idea, fund it yourself rather than asking us to." It was meant to be sarcastics--guess it didn't come across the way I intended. Oh well, some things work better than others.

Duffy said...

Yeah, tone is always hard to read on blogs esp. when you're not familiar w/ the writer's style. No worries. I'm sure after I've been here a while I'll pick it up.

Nancy Willing said...

I got it.
I just linked to your post, Steve. Good job.

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