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Topic: "Arne sees progress. How about you?"

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Topic started by: Brian Drayton on 4/2/18

The former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has published a column in the Washington Post (dated April 1) in which he argues that the past 30 years of education reform have been a success, or at least have produced some successes. I am curious how STEM educators react to it. I have to admit some trouble with his claims, and his framing of the topic. In what follows, I write as a science educator - and I hope that math, technology, engineering, and computer science educators will weigh in with their own views.

Duncan’s article, like many articles about educational interventions, is a little fuzzy on the actual time period in which “education reform” has been going on. He mentions “the past 30 years,” so that means his start date is 1987. What was the ground-breaking innovation that year? A Nation at Risk (ANAR) came out in 1983. What happened 4 years later that (perhaps in retrospect) signals the onset of modern reform? But then elsewhere in his article, Duncan reaches further back:

Since 1971, fourth-grade reading and math scores are up 13 points and 25 points, respectively. Eighth-grade reading and math scores are up eight points and 19 points, respectively. Every 10 points equates to about a year of learning, and much of the gains have been driven by students of color.

It should be noted that the student population is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse than in 1971. So, while today's kids bring more learning challenges, they perform as much as 2 grades higher than their counterparts from half a century ago.

The references are to NAEP scores, whose use can be debated, but at the least it is worth noting that the largest proportion of positive change, where it occurs, happened before 2004, and much of it before 2000. This again begs the question, what “reform” are we evaluating that produced this improvement since 1987, or 1971? Why can’t we attribute the improvements to the large investments made in curriculum materials and in teacher PD during the previous 15 years? (Also, “10 points equates to about a year of learning”? )

Duncan heralds the establishment of high standards as one success,

A decade ago, learning standards were all over the place. Today, almost every state has raised standards.

but here again methodology for his comparisons is not clear. The AAAS Benchmarks, which sort of mark the onset of the era of modern standards, were published in 1993, and the NRC Science Standards in 1996. So when are we starting the clock for this comparison, actually, and of which reforms are we considering the impact? By 2012, the widely-quoted Fordham evaluation of state science standards gave D or F ratings to the majority of states. Even if standards have improved in the past 5 years (on average, if you can “average” things like standards), how does that relate to his other metrics of success?

The dots are connected, for Duncan, by “accountability” and “courage.”

None of our progress happened because we stood still. It happened because we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things. Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn't always have the courage or capacity to address them.

Now our timeline begins in 2002. The reforms that made the difference (whatever that difference may actually be) were “annual assessments’ tied to “transparency, ” which seems to mean “acknowledging achievement gaps.” I have heard this from other defenders of the NCLB strategy, and it’s never made sense to me. Before 2002, no one knew where the issues were? No one knew that some kids were getting short-changed, and in what ways?

A quick glance at the literature from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (not to mention earlier) makes clear that many were aware of the “achievement gap,” though at the time “achievement” was not so narrowly construed as has now become the fashion. School performance metrics were considered, for sure, but a lot else was included, also. Jonathan Kozol put it pretty well in 1985:

“Someday, maybe," Erik Erikson has written, "there will exist a well-informed, well-considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit." If that day ever comes, American educators may be able to reflect with some horror upon the attitudes and procedures that have been allowed to flourish within a great many urban public schools.

Duncan has a list of reforms that he feels have shown success: standards and accountability; charters and school choice; small schools; “teacher evaluation” (whatever he means by that). In all cases, there is equivocal evidence for success at best - and in any case, Duncan’s assessment is that where there is success (measured mostly by test scores, but also in some cases by high school graduation rates or college enrollment rates), it is because of “the reforms,” while where success is not evident, it’s because of poor implementation or insufficient courage.

I am not the only connoisseur who finds the reasoning and the data in this piece unsatisfying and ahistorical, and “school reform” as Duncan praises it to be incoherent, and as much a hindrance to teachers and students as a help - especially when dissatisfaction with “reform” is used to intensify “disruption” of the sort beloved by free- market idolaters.

But maybe I am being too grouchy or too skeptical? If you see things getting better, what are they, and what has made the improvements happen, in your view?


NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

Originally posted Apr 2, 2018

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