Thursday, January 31, 2013

US test scores are very good, when social class is taken into account (or, EPI continues to play the role of a graduate school of educational public health)

Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy of the Economic Policy Institute have a new report out that digs into the data from the 2009 PISA tests and says more authoritatively what already seemed clear to many of us from a cursory look at the data: in American schools that aren't plagued by poverty, students do very well on international tests.

Why this is not the standard line about education in the US
The truth is that it is inequality and poverty that drive educational issues, not the other way around.  You can't fix society by fixing education, and the only way to fix education is by fixing society.  Unfortunately, too many people have too much at stake in the way things are done now for anything to change.  In particular, no one wants to admit that we should directly tackle poverty, because that would probably entail, for the powerful, higher taxes and less power.  This may seem obvious, but when it plays out in real life the denial and dissonance it produces can be frustrating and confusing.

Forthright denial (a personal anecdote)
A couple of years ago, before I had thought much about this stuff, I went to a talk by Harvard's Tony Wagner at the MIT alumni club.  Wagner screened a film he had made about Finland; his argument seemed basically to be that American schools were terrible because we didn't focus on creativity and critical thinking, while Finnish schools led the world because they did focus on those things.  In the Q&A after the screening, I asked him about the role of poverty, and I specifically asked whether rich schools in the US scored as well as Finland.  To my very clear and specific question he answered a forthright and definite "No."

When I followed up by email, citing the same 2009 PISA scores that the new EPI report analyzes, Wagner backtracked, claiming that he had misunderstood my question--but then he asserted that tests didn't tell the whole story, and that Finnish schools, like certain progressive schools in the US (he loves the Parker school, for instance) are "worlds apart from even our best suburban high schools."  (Oh snap!  Take that, Leafstrewn!)  Still, I couldn't help but wonder why he had denied what was after all a pretty basic fact (in correspondence he said he was familiar with the data I'd cited).

Maybe frozen circumstances won't dance to any melody?
Wagner and I had an interesting correspondence for a while, and he was always polite and generous with his time, but I came to think that the way he answered, wrongly, my specific and clear question at the screening of his movie was a symptom of a deeper problem.  Basically, I found that while he was eventually able to acknowledge, in private correspondence, what was after all indisputable (poverty and social class are overwhelmingly important in academic performance), and while he was subtle enough to quote Karl Marx to support his rhetorical strategies, he simply could not have the kind of successful career he has enjoyed (appointment at Harvard, best-selling author, educational "leadership" guru, etc.) without downplaying the role of social factors like poverty and highlighting, instead, things like "creativity", "leadership," and "innovation."

Wagner himself more or less acknowledged this dynamic in the line he quoted from Marx. I had told him I liked a lot of what his book said about how to make schools better, but that insofar as the book imitated Thomas Friedman, I didn't like it (after a nod to Friedman's influence in the Acknowledgments page, Wagner started off the book, believe it or not, with an anecdote about a conversation with a CEO he happened to sit next to on a plane, and went on to couch its argument in Friedmanesque blither-blather about changing America's education system in order to compete in the 21st century global economy, etc.).  In response, Wagner wrote the following:

My favorite quote from Marx is: “To make the frozen circumstances dance, you have to sing to them in their own melody.”

... Unless and until we have an alliance of business and education leaders advocating for the kinds of profound changes that are necessary, I don’t think we have a prayer of a chance.

This is depressing, and not just because the Marx line is quoted out of context (the whole passage is about publicly shaming the powers that be, not letting them have even "a minute for self-deception and resignation," and making them "terrified"--all of which is very far from the aims of people like Tony Wagner and Thomas Friedman (1)). Wagner was basically saying that he can't acknowledge the truth about education, because that won't move the people who are really in power--"business and education leaders."  So in effect his position at Harvard, and his speaking at places like MIT, means that he cannot speak the truth--probably can't even remember the truth until some persistent naif like me sticks it indecorously in his face like a piece of soiled paper. The event I attended was held, appropriately enough, at the Broad Institute--funded by the same Eli Broad who has spent some of his billions on educational "leaders" (like Joel Klein) who are trying to institute a corporate, test-driven take-over that couldn't be further from the Parker school.

Where are our schools of educational public health?
All this is why we need graduate schools of educational public health--and why we probably won't get them.  But I'm happy to see the Economic Policy Institute, like many others (the BBA, David Berliner, Stephen Krashen, Diane Ravitch, and thousands of lesser known teachers and parents) stepping in to fill the void.

(1) Here's the Marx passage that Wagner quoted: "Criticism dealing with this content is criticism in a hand-to-hand fight, and in such a fight the point is not whether the opponent is a noble, equal, interesting opponent, the point is to strike him. The point is not to let the Germans have a minute for self-deception and resignation. The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it. Every sphere of German society must be shown as the partie honteuse of German society: these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them! The people must be taught to be terrified at itself ..."
(from "Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law")

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guys Read--but may not like the books they're assigned in high school!

A "Read In"
Today our school had a "Read In"--a whole day, in between midyear exams and the second semester, in which we shared books, read, and talked about reading. During one of my free blocks I was on a panel of four male teachers; we talked to an audience of about a hundred and fifty students about our own reading, we read to them from a book we liked, and we took their questions.

Even future teachers don't like assigned reading
In the course of the discussion, every single one of us let it slip that he had not liked much of the assigned reading in high school--that we liked reading, but not the books we were given in our English classes.  I remembered that the same thing happened on the panel I was on last year, and I asked a friend who was on another panel today, and he said he and the guys he was up on stage with had said the same thing.

Does high school discourage reading?
At a certain point in the discussion, when we were asked when we had really been turned on to reading, I turned the question back around to the audience and asked them to raise their hands if they read more now than they did in elementary school.  A few brave souls raised their hands.  Then I asked them to raise their hands if they read more in elementary school than they do now.  eighty percent of the audience raised a hand.

We need to change this
One day is a nice start, but we high school teachers really need to think about how we can change the way we encourage-- or discourage--student reading.  What we are doing now is not working very well.  I think the way to go is toward more independent reading and group discussion and analysis focused on shorter passages (and of course a lot of writing); in any case, what we are doing now, and what has been done at most high schools over the past fifty years or more, is not very inspiring.

Friday, January 18, 2013

One issue that might be studied by a professor of Educational Public Health

High school graduation rates have been going up steadily over the past fifteen years or so--why?

The obvious way to start thinking about that question would be to consider what's happened in schools.  That's one thing done by the Ed. School professor who's been studying the issue, Richard Murnane:

"The economist, a professor at Harvard’s education school, speculates that some high school students dropped out when high schools raised standards for graduation because they realized they wouldn’t get over the bar.

"The recent improvement, he speculates, may be the welcome byproduct of a upturn in math and reading skills, as measured by test scores, among minorities in the years before the students reach ninth grade."
Nevertheless, schools are probably the wrong place to look to explain changes in the graduation rate, since schools are not the main driver of their own success.  As Professor Murnane knows (he has himself done good work on the educational effects of changes in economic inequality), you'd be more likely to figure out why graduation rates are rising if you considered social factors, like a changing job market, changing family composition, or environmental clean-up or degradation.

As it happens, one out-of-school factor I saw mentioned was in a blog post that wondered whether the phase-out of leaded gasoline and the steep drop of atmospheric lead, which several scholars have credited with the steep drop in crime over the past twenty years, could also have contributed to the increase in graduation rates.

Why we need Graduate Schools of Educational Public Health

The leaded gasoline link is debatable and will no doubt be picked up by scholarly researchers who have more time and resources than bloggers do; perhaps Professor Murnane himself will look into it.  Unfortunately, Professor Murnane is an anomaly. Almost all of the research being done at the GSE seems to be focused on in-school factors. There are research projects on "leadership", on educational policy, on data, on "educational accountability", on child development, on teacher training, on teaching math, and so on.  Looking at the GSE's list of research projects is somewhat depressing, because none of the projects are focused on what would really make a difference in educational outcomes--that is, out of school factors like poverty, libraries, health, nutrition, and equality.

That's why I think we need a new graduate school focused on educational public health.  If only Bill Gates would do what the Rockefeller foundation did a hundred years ago, and put his money into something that would make a positive difference in educational outcomes, instead of funding largely irrelevant projects that will serve mainly to disempower teachers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Educational Public Health and the "Broader, Bolder Approach"

A hundred years ago this year, in 1913, Harvard and MIT, in a joint venture, founded the first American school of public health.  That same year, the Rockefeller foundation sponsored a conference that led to the expansion of Harvard’s school of public heath and the founding of another school at Johns Hopkins.  Over the past century, the field of public health has made amazing progress—arguably, far more than medicine—in improving and expanding American lives.  Now, a hundred years later, it’s time for a similar effort in education.  Along with graduate schools of education, which focus mainly on in-school factors of our educational life, we also need graduate schools that would study the many significant out-of-school, society-wide factors in education. 

I wrote a post a few months ago outlining this idea of educational public health.  That original post is here.  I also got in touch with some of the very few Americans who work on these issues full-time.  Elaine Weiss, who runs an effort called the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," liked my post well enough to put an edited version of it up on her Huffington Post blog, under her and my byline.  You can find it here. 

The Broader, Bolder Approach, affiliated with the worthy Economic Policy Institute, is one attempt to do some of what I have suggested a graduate school of public education might do.  You can support them by visiting their website and reading about their work, and by joining luminaries like Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch, and teachers like me, and signing on to the BBA's mission statement.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Today's YA books have easier vocabulary than those of the past

Books kids want to read
One of my daughter's friends gave her a Nancy Drew book for her eighth birthday, and I read it to her last month. My daughter enjoyed it and asked me to get her another one. So I stopped at a bookstore yesterday and bought my daughter The Secret of Red Gate Farm.  I got a book for my son at the same time: Jay Asher's popular YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why.

After a few weeks of not much reading, both kids are racing through the new books. My daughter and I are on chapter seven of the Nancy Drew, and my son has already finished Thirteen Reasons Why. This reminds me, again, of how important it is for kids to get their hands, not just on books (both kids have dozens of unread books in their rooms), but on books they want to read (there's a reason the unread books are still unread). I've also, however, been interested by the contrast between the two books.

Hard Words; Easy Words
I read lots and lots of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books when I was a kid. Edward O. Stratemeyer knew what he was doing. I vividly remember the nonstop excitement, the melodramatic adverbs, the cliffhanger endings, replete with exclamation marks, at the end of every single chapter. What I didn't remember, until I started rereading the books with my own children, was how extraordinarily sophisticated so much of the vocabulary is. The books produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate (not only for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, but also Tom Swift, The Rover Boys, and many others), had simplistic plots, cardboard characters (every villain speaks in a "guttural" or a "harsh" voice, every villain gives himself away by "something shifty in his eyes", etc.)--but there is nothing simplistic about the level of diction in these books.

The ten pages my daughter and I read last night contained the following words: racketeers, chided, sleuth, torrent, blockade, treacherous, mishap, endeavor, traction, deluge, assuage, haggard, resume, adjoining, dismay, gingham, heave, defer, bustle, meringue, uppermost, dissuade, wince, incensed, radiant.

Twenty-five words that difficult in ten pages is quite a lot, and not just for an eight year old. My ninth grade students would have known few of those words. Curious, I went downstairs and picked up the Jay Asher novel that my twelve year old son is reading, a book I bought because it was a favorite of one of the seventeen year olds that my wife has been tutoring. I looked at the first ten pages of the book. Here are the only hard words I found: throbbing, sequence, serrated, meanders, encore. Five words, and significantly easier, on average, than the ones in the Nancy Drew.

Why do today's YA novels have such low-level diction?
I don't think Thirteen Reasons Why is unusual. Most of today's YA novels, though they are written in many other ways with a literary sophistication and subtlety that completely outclasses Nancy Drew, have very, very few words that would be unknown to even the most illiterate ninth grader. This is a pretty important problem for those of us who care about our students' learning words in the way that everyone agrees is the best: by reading.

Reading should be the best way to learn vocabulary, but it won't work if the books you're reading don't contain any words you don't already know.  It also won't work well if the rest of the book is too hard for you.  That's why more skillful readers have an advantage in learning vocabulary from reading: because more skillful readers can understand text in which more of the words are unknown to them, they are more likely to encounter more unknown words, and more likely to understand them when they encounter them.  As usual, the rich get richer.  This is why books like Nancy Drew are so wonderful--the books are really easy to understand, so weaker readers (or younger kids) can read them, but they have lots of sophisticated words in them, used in contexts that are often quite easy to figure out.

Besides John Green, what other YA authors use big words?
His sophisticated vocab is another reason to love John Green; the first ten pages of The Fault in Our Stars contains: abundant, redeeming, facet, preternaturally, recurrence, peril, disinterest, exotically, cannula, contraption, myriad, cankle, serenity, veritably, Episcopal, eking, meager, satellite, monotone, appendiceal, proffer, denounce, proverbial, oblivion, encompassingly. Twenty-five words, just as many as the Nancy Drew book, but used in a prose that's a million times more limber and elegant.  In fact, the romance in The Fault in Our Stars begins partly because the two protagonists impress each other with their fancy vocabulary.

So how do we get our students to read books that with more difficult words in them? How can we get more people to write like John Green?  And what other YA novels contain difficult words? (1)

1. Lexile scores are helpful first takes, but aren't reliable.  Sarah Dessen's Someone Like You, for instance, has a lexile score that's higher than the early Nancy Drew books, but doesn't use nearly as many difficult words of the "good SAT word" variety: I count fewer than ten in the first ten pages.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Leafstrewn's technology deficit and the inadequacy of philanthropy

Leafstrewn is a great school in almost every way, and I wouldn't want to be teaching anywhere else.  Our technology deficit is real, however, and I've been wondering why.  Here's a quick post telling a story about one small piece of the issue.

Our technology is an embarrassment, but maybe that's okay? 
We don't have projectors in our classrooms.  There aren't many computers in the building for kids to use.  Our new platform for online assignments and grading was rolled out in September with pretty much no heads up to the faculty, and very patchy training.  For a district of our wealth and prominence, our technology systems are somewhat lame.  Maybe this is okay?  I can easily imagine that all the fancy technology in the world wouldn't improve reading scores.  (That's what John Hattie claims the data says.)

Our piecemeal attempts to reduce our technology deficit
Nevertheless, the way Leafstrewn manages things is pretty absurd.  Not long ago, I was asked by some colleagues to join them on a grant application to the Leafstrewn Education Foundation, one of a few private  organizations that support public education in Leafstrewn, to buy tablets and styluses on which we could grade electronically submitted essays.  Each tablet costs $85, and there are nine of us, so the grant is for $765.  I really like the people who were writing the grant, and I figured it would be interesting to try out a tablet, so I said I'd be happy to be on the grant.

For our application, we had to write up a proposal and then make a pitch before a six-person panel.  So I traveled to one of the elementary schools and waited around with five of the other people in our group for half an hour or so before we made our 15 minute pitch.

At the end of the pitch, one of the thoughtful and judicious members of the thoughtful and judicious panel said, "So, what if we couldn't give you the money to buy everyone a tablet.  Would it still be worth doing if you had to share them--if you only got five tablets, say?"  And of course our team said, "Oh, yes."

Even as we said this, we were thinking--or at least I was thinking: WHAT?!  We did all this for a shot at less than five hundred dollars?  I should have just fronted the money myself!

Maybe it was just the indignity of having to come cap in hand before a panel of (what I imagined were) one-percenters to beg them to buy me a little electronic toy that costs less than a hundred bucks, but I couldn't believe the inefficiency of the whole process.  So many people spending so much time for so little money--less than a hundred dollars per person-hour, just counting the hours put in by our team.  If you include the hours spent by the panel themselves (they seemed to take it pretty seriously), the whole exercise looks even more ridiculous.  The panel could have taken our grant applications, read them over, and decided, and nobody would have had to spend an hour of his Tuesday afternoon.

The inadequacy of philanthropy
I ended up wondering if this is what always happens when private money gets involved in public goods: inefficiency. If you want to help the schools, maybe you should just give the money to the central administration.  The Superintendent is hired to make the schools as good as they can be within a certain budget.  If you don't think the Superintendent is doing a good job, wouldn't it be better to try to lobby the Superintendent, rather than trying to do his job yourself in your spare time?  I can't help thinking the point is less to use the money to make the schools better (the funding from this organization and from the other philanthropic organization that funds special programs at Leafstrewn High adds up to about half a million dollars, which is a rounding error in the School Department's overall budget of about 90 million dollars) than something else, I'm not sure what.  To make rich people feel good about themselves?  To give people an excuse not to push for higher taxes?  I don't know, and I don't really get it.  But I do think that philanthropic giving in Leafstrewn, like philanthropic giving nationwide, is fairly inefficient, mostly self-serving and should probably not be tax deductible.
Post Script
In the end, we got the grant for the whole $765.  Maybe the tablets will be useful; I still suspect that private foundations for public schools are inefficient and undemocratic. Am I wrong?