Update on Education in America

Stephen DeAngelis

October 6, 2010

In a post entitled Is America Undergoing a Creativity Crisis? Part 1, it was pointed out that “in China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.” Until recently, teaching critical thinking has been one of the hallmarks of American schools. The fact that the U.S. has had a workforce equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills is probably the most important reason that the last century was often dubbed the “American Century.” Ironically, just as the world is converting to a more Americanized school system, American education is focusing “on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing.” A lot of people are not happy with what is occurring in U.S. education including billionaire Bill Gates [“Bill Gates’ School Crusade,” by Daniel Golden, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 15 July 2010]. Golden reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “is betting billions that a business approach can work wonders in the classroom.” He continues:

“The foundation plans to spend $3 billion in the next five to seven years on education. If there’s such a thing as a charity behemoth, the Gates Foundation is it. While its efforts in global health are widely applauded, its record in America’s schools has been more controversial. Starting in 2000, the Gates Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its first big project, trying to revitalize U.S. high schools by making them smaller, only to discover that student body size has little effect on achievement. It has since shifted its considerable weight behind an emerging consensus—shared by U.S. Education Secretary and Gates ally Arne Duncan—that quality of teaching affects student performance and that increasing achievement is as simple as removing bad teachers, identifying good ones, and rewarding them with more money. On this theory, Gates is investing $290 million over seven years in the Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh school districts as well as a charter school consortium in Los Angeles. The largest chunk of money, $100 million, will go to Tampa’s Hillsborough County school district, the eighth-largest in the U.S., with 192,000 students and 15,000 teachers. These carefully selected programs, which will favor or penalize teachers depending on whether students make larger or smaller gains than their test scores in prior years would have predicted, are intended as models that, if proven successful, can be rolled out nationwide.”

The big concern with this approach is that it is “an intellectual cousin of the Bush Administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which required all public schools—though not individual teachers—to make ‘adequate yearly progress’ on student test scores.” Golden continues:

“Some opponents of No Child Left Behind questioned its faith in data; are scores too narrow a gauge of how well kids are learning? Gates sees nothing wrong in relying on quantitative metrics. ‘Every profession has to have some form of measurement,’ he said in a late June interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. ‘Tuning that, making sure it’s fair, getting the teachers so they’re enthused about it” are the keys. Still, the prospect of such measurement makes some educators and academic researchers uneasy. They contend that factors such as school leadership and culture exert a powerful influence on student achievement. Moreover, rating individual teachers based on their classroom’s test results may be better suited to little red schoolhouses than today’s large urban schools, where teachers team up, aides and tutors pitch in, and students come and go frequently.”

Although one can appreciate why some quantitative data is necessary to judge achievement, if reliance on tests turns the American educational system into a “drill and kill” system, we will have lost rather than gained ground.

“[Wharton School statistician Howard Wainer], who spotted the mathematical fallacy behind the small schools movement, is also skeptical. ‘It’s conceivable you could get a value-added score to work at an elementary level, but how can you do it at a high school?’ he asks. ‘How should my physics gain score match against your French score? Was Mozart a better musician than Babe Ruth was a hitter?’ Judging teachers on student performance creates a litany of such practical problems, from how to assess progress in subjects such as art, shop, or phys ed to accounting for the mobility of inner-city families. In Memphis, where Gates has invested $90 million, schools superintendent Kriner Cash says one-third of students move during the year, which means their gains can’t necessarily be credited to one school, much less one teacher. Giving several tests a year can sort out each teacher’s contribution, he says. Still, ratings may be tainted if frequent transience requires teachers to integrate newcomers and adjust to departures.”

We certainly don’t want to lose essential critical thinking skills and replace them by improved rote memory skills. I hope that Gates and company figure out how to increase the creative thinking of students as well as their ability to read, write, and do arithmetic. Paul Tough believes that the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, that was modeled on the Harlem’s Children Zone, should be given a chance to work [“Don’t Drop Out of School Innovation,” New York Times, 19 August 2010]. He writes:

“How much evidence does the government need before trying something new in the troubled realm of public education? Should there be airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it — or is it sometimes worth investing in promising but unproven innovations? [In July,] the Senate subcommittee that allocates federal education money weighed in on one such promising innovation, slicing, by more than 90 percent, the $210 million that President Obama requested for next year for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative. Mr. Obama first proposed Promise Neighborhoods in the summer of 2007, pledging that, as president, he would help create in 20 cities across the country a new kind of support system for disadvantaged children, paid for with a mix of private and public money. In a single distressed neighborhood in each city, Mr. Obama explained, high-quality schools would be integrated into a network of early-childhood programs, parenting classes, health clinics and other social services, all focused on improving educational outcomes for poor children. … Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which over the last decade has compiled a solid, though still incomplete, record of success in the 97 blocks of central Harlem where it operates. Students at the group’s two charter elementary schools, mostly low-income and almost all black or Hispanic, have achieved strong results on statewide tests, often exceeding average proficiency scores for white students. Last year, 437 parents completed Baby College, the Zone’s nine-week parenting class, and 99 percent of the children graduating from the prekindergarten entered kindergarten on grade level. This fall, more than 200 students from the Zone’s afterschool programs will enroll as freshmen in college.”

If you want tangible results, the Harlem’s Children Zone is an excellent place to look. Even though I haven’t heard anyone deny the good work being done in Harlem, Tough reports that “various policy groups, journalists and bloggers” insist that “the Zone has not yet proved itself.” He indicates that a report from the Brookings Institution was especially impactful in convincing skeptics to be wary. He explains:

“The report acknowledged that the charter schools at the heart of the Zone have, indeed, substantially raised test scores for the children enrolled in them. But the report also argued that the scores are not as high as those at some other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that don’t include the kind of coordinated system of early-childhood programs, family support and neighborhood improvements offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone. It is no coincidence that charter schools in and near the Harlem Children’s Zone have earned such impressive results. Over the last few years, thanks in part to intensive recruiting by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Harlem and the Bronx have become a mecca for a highly successful class of charter schools, all run, to some degree, on the model of the nationwide, nonprofit Knowledge is Power Program: extended hours, energetic young teachers, an emphasis on discipline and character-building, as well as heavy doses of reading and math. These schools embody the attractive theory that we might be able to erase the achievement gaps between black and white children and between poor and middle-class children with nothing more than new and improved schools. But despite their robust test scores, there continue to be debates over whether these charter schools work for the most disadvantaged children in neighborhoods like Harlem, and no one has yet demonstrated whether the KIPP model could succeed at the scale of an entire school system. Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, premised his organization on the idea that schools like KIPP’s, though needed, are not enough on their own. To solve the problem of academic underperformance by low-income children, he argues, we must surround great schools with an effective system of additional services for poor families. These two strategies — call them the KIPP strategy and the Zone strategy — are not fully in opposition; they borrow ideas and tactics from each other. But they do represent distinct theories, both new, both promising and, at this point, both unproven.”

At a time when hope is desperately needed in the workplace, in government, and in schools, Tough asks, “At this moment of uncertainty and experimentation, should the federal government wait, as critics of Promise Neighborhoods suggest, until ironclad evidence for one big solution exists? Or should it create a competitive research-and-development marketplace to make bets on innovations, the way the government did during the space race and in the early days of the Internet, and allow the most successful strategies to rise to the top?” For Tough, these are rhetorical questions. He obviously believes that we should let a thousand flowers bloom; although he admits that “a certain skepticism with regard to innovation is always wise, especially in public education, where highly touted new programs often turn out to be disappointments.” He continues:

“The problem is that for low-income and minority Americans, the status quo is a deepening calamity. … In May, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the nation’s high-poverty schools, the average graduation rate for 12th-grade students fell from 86 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2008, while the rate in low-poverty schools remained stable at about 91 percent. The declining prospects of the country’s poor and black students can’t be blamed on belt-tightening by Congress. In fact, the budgets for the two main federal programs designed to improve the performance of low-income children, Title I and Head Start, have risen steadily for the last 40 years, through Republican administrations and Democratic ones.”

Unfortunately, Tough reports, recent studies have shown that “by the end of first grade, … Head Start graduates were doing no better than students who didn’t attend Head Start.” Yet that program continues with additional funding while other more promising courses of action are being cut. Tough laments, “Congress spends billions of dollars each year on unproven programs [but] does not itself argue that the government should start spending hundreds of millions of new dollars on new unproven programs. But it does undercut the argument that federal education dollars should be reserved only for conclusively proven initiatives.” He concludes:

“Children who live in the 300-plus low-income neighborhoods that are pursuing Promise Neighborhoods support are, on the whole, stuck. Every year, their schools and Head Start centers receive more federal money, and every year, things in their neighborhoods get worse. Rather than stick with the same strategies and hope things somehow magically change, Congress should find more room in the budget to support the Obama administration’s declared approach: to try new strategies and abandon failed ones; to expand and test programs with strong evidence of success, even if that evidence is inconclusive; and to learn from mistakes and make adjustments as we go.”

On that point, Tough and Gates seem to agree. New York Times‘ columnist Thomas Friedman agrees with Tough that initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone deserve support [“Steal This Movie, Too,” 25 August 2010]. He writes:

“I’d like to talk about some good news. But to see it, you have to stand on your head. You have to look at America from the bottom up, not from the top (Washington) down. And what you’ll see from down there is that there is a movement stirring in this country around education. … Americans are finally taking their education crisis seriously. If you don’t want to stand on your head, then just go to a theater near you after Sept. 24 and watch the new documentary ‘Waiting for Superman.’ You’ll see just what I’m talking about. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ ‘Waiting for Superman’ takes its name from an opening interview with the remarkable Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ has used a comprehensive strategy, including a prenatal Baby College, social service programs and longer days at its charter schools to forge a new highway to the future for one of New York’s bleakest neighborhoods. Canada’s point is that the only way to fix our schools is not with a Superman or a super-theory. No, it’s with supermen and superwomen pushing super-hard to assemble what we know works: better-trained teachers working with the best methods under the best principals supported by more involved parents.”

All the testing and measuring of students that can be done cannot account for parents getting involved in their children’s lives and helping them to succeed in school. That is one of the things I really like about the HCZ approach. Friedman continues:

“It is intolerable that in America today a bouncing bingo ball should determine a kid’s educational future, especially when there are plenty of schools that work and even more that are getting better. … For too long we underpaid and undervalued our teachers and compensated them instead by giving them union perks. Over decades, though, those perks accumulated to prevent reform in too many districts. The best ones are now reforming, and the worst are facing challenges from charters. Although the movie makes the claim that the key to student achievement is putting a great teacher in every classroom, and it is critical of the teachers’ unions and supportive of charters, it challenges all the adults who run our schools — teachers, union leaders, principals, parents, school boards, charter-founders, politicians — with one question: Are you putting kids and their education first? … It is the quiet heroism of millions of public and charter school teachers and parents who do put kids first by implementing the best ideas, and in so doing make their schools just a little bit better and more accountable every day — so no Americans ever again have to play life bingo with their kids, or pray to be rescued by Superman.”

In addition to ensuring that quality education is available to students regardless of race, economic level, geography, etc., individuals and organizations are also concerned about education that favors one gender over another. I have written before about how more women are needed in math and science. The House of Representatives has passed legislation entitled “Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering” to help address this issue [“Daring to Discuss Women in Science,” by John Tierney, New York Times, 7 June 2010]. He writes:

“This proposed law, if passed by the Senate, would require the White House science adviser to oversee regular ‘workshops to enhance gender equity.’ At the workshops, to be attended by researchers who receive federal money and by the heads of science and engineering departments at universities, participants would be given before-and-after ‘attitudinal surveys’ and would take part in ‘interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.'”

Tierney calls this legislation “Larry’s Law” in honor of Dr. Lawrence Summers, who, while President of Harvard, suggested that men and women had different aptitudes for math and science. Tierney continues:

“I’m all in favor of women fulfilling their potential in science, but I feel compelled, at the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops, to ask a couple of questions:

1) Would it be safe during the ‘interactive discussions’ for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

2) How could these workshops reconcile the ‘existence of gender bias’ with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?”

Tierney references a number of studies aimed at proving or disproving gender bias and aptitude. He then concludes:

“Of course, a high score on a test is hardly the only factor important for a successful career in science, and no one claims that the right-tail disparity is the sole reason for the relatively low number of female professors in math-oriented sciences. There are other potentially more important explanations, both biological and cultural, including possible social bias against women. But before we accept Congress’s proclamation of bias, before we start re-educating scientists at workshops, it’s worth taking a hard look at the evidence of bias against female scientists.”

Despite concern about women doing well in math and science, when it comes to higher education, women have reached a turning point. This year more women than men were awarded doctoral degrees [“Report: More women than men in U.S. earned doctorates last year for first time,” by Daniel de Vise, Washington Post, 14 September 2010]. He reports:

“The number of women at every level of academia has been rising for decades. Women now hold a nearly 3-to-2 majority in undergraduate and graduate education. Doctoral study was the last holdout – the only remaining area of higher education that still had an enduring male majority. Of the doctoral degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, 28,962 went to women and 28,469 to men, according to an annual enrollment report from the Council of Graduate Schools, based in Washington. … [However,] men may be staging a modest comeback. First-time enrollment in graduate education grew at a slightly faster rate for them than for women in 2009, reversing a long-term trend that has favored female enrollment. Meanwhile, the broader gender gap in higher education seems to be stabilizing. The split in enrollment and degrees remained constant through much of the past decade at about 57 percent women.”

I’ll end on that positive note. Education is important. Only an educated workforce can carry the weight of a growing economy into the future as it deals with emerging challenges in the age of information. That doesn’t mean that everybody needs to get a doctorate or even attend college. It does mean that people need to receive a good basic education and then additional education and training that provide them with employable abilities and skills. Regardless of one’s level of education, critical thinking is one of those skills that needs to be cultivated so that America remains a country of problem-solvers.