Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rhetoric, not reform in California education

Schools did not create and can not resolve the racial, class and gender divisions in our society. But, what schools can do is to effect individual students lives every day.
The fact is that we know how to educate poor and minority children of all kinds—racial, ethnic, and language—to high levels. Some teachers and entire schools do it every day, year in and year out.
The assertion of a crisis in the “ achievement gap” by Secretary O’Connell serves primarily to shift the attention from the failure of the state to provide adequate facilities ( Williams v. California) to blaming teachers. This has been the function of “achievement gap” analysis in the hands of conservative politicians such as President Bush. This mantra has been the focus of those supporting No Child Left Behind and the processes of blaming teachers, and the processes of stress on testing and accountability have not worked.
The concept of achievement gap became a process of blaming teachers and not looking at the inequities offered to the students. The achievement gap is produced by conditions in the school and conditions in the home and community.
After over ten years of stress on testing and accountability, the achievement gap remains as great as was in the past. ( Kozol, 2005) If we have what Jonathon Kozol calls an “Apartheid” system of schooling, we can expect to have significant differences in achievement.

Teachers and schools cannot change the poverty patterns of the national economy. But schools are at the vortex of the struggle for economic opportunity for young people (Anyon, 2006). Poverty creates impoverished schools. For teachers then, the question is what can we do within an economic system wracked by poverty. There has been only limited improvement in most schools because the interventions used do not deal with basic causes of low achievement: unequal funding of schools, high teacher turnover, family disruption, unsafe schools. If the levels of crime, safety, unemployment have not changed in a neighborhood than the local school is unlikely to change. What we can do is help some students to achieve and to fight their way out of poverty. And we can teach all students to recognize the need for an expansion of democratic educational opportunity.
Rather than facing the inequality issue, major politically imposed school reform efforts stress standardized testing as the driving force behind school reform at the k-12 level, particularly in low-income districts. Testing measures the ability to memorize small bits of information. It cannot measure critical thinking skills, the ability to function in a community or commitment to democratic principles. Testing has not improved schools, improved school funding, nor improved teaching. This low level testing tells us what we already know: students in low-income schools do poorly (Rothstein, 2004). Studies of thirty-year trends in achievement in math and reading by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that over this long timeline, for the last ten years under the testing regime, on average there has been remarkably little change in achievement by students in our nation’s schools. (NAEP, 2004)
By and large we have a well orchestrated process of claims of school improvement but when you look past the press releases and carefully consider the data, we do not have a reformed school system or districts that demonstrates substantive improvement. (Bracey, 2003)
We then need to also ask why, in spite of over thirty years of press and political attention, there has not been a systemic improvement in schools and districts. One reason is that politicians, advocacy groups, commissions, and news reporters do not teach school. They preach, they have ideological solutions they are certain will work, but they do not teach.
Teachers teach students. Unless and until we improve the teaching relationship, improve the skills of teachers, build networks of support for teachers, control the violence in some schools, improve the working conditions of teachers, most schools will not improve. Based upon the history of school reform efforts for the last thirty years, the press, the media, and the politicians are not likely to be of much help in this effort.

Test scores:
Passing rates on some state and local tests show small increases, but there has been little if any improvement on well-established national tests. The small gains we’ve seen may be the result of concentrated instruction on narrowly defined objectives. But we are not promoting intellectual habits of mind. Indeed, we may be reducing intellectual life to mental labor.
( Bracey, 2007)

For example the Reading Report Card for California says,
“In 2005, the average scale score for fourth-grade students in
California was 207. This was not significantly different from1 their
average score in 2003 (206), and was higher than their average
score in 1992 (202). California's average score (207) in 2005 was lower than that of the Nation's public schools (217).
Of the 52 states and other jurisdictions2 that participated in the 2005 fourth-grade assessment, students' average scale scores in California were higher than those in 1 jurisdiction, not significantly different from those in 6 jurisdictions, and lower than those in 44 jurisdictions.
The percentage of students in California who performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level was 21 percent in 2005. This percentage was not significantly different from that in 2003 (21 percent), and was not significantly different from that in 1992 (19 percent).
The percentage of students in California who performed at or above the NAEP Basic level was 50 percent in 2005. This percentage was not significantly different from that in 2003 (50 percent), and was not significantly different from that in 1992 (48 percent).NAEP, 2005.

Duane Campbell
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