Monday, November 29, 2010

What Tom Friedman got wrong about schools

What Tom Friedman got wrong [in the NY Times] about schools and why it matters
By Valerie Strauss
November 29, 2010

The great New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote in a recent piece that if he were a cub reporter today, he’d want to be “covering the epicenter of national security -- but that would be the Education Department.”
Then he goes on to quote liberally from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, taking no account of what veteran teacher Anthony Cody, in a recent piece on his blog, described as a serious mismatch between the secretary's words and actions.
If Friedman the cub reporter had turned this piece in, a veteran education editor would have sent it back, asking him to back up his contentions with research. He’d have a hard time.
Look at just a few things Friedman got wrong. He wrote:
“Duncan, with bipartisan support, has begun several initiatives to energize reform — particularly his Race to the Top competition with federal dollars going to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. Maybe his biggest push, though, is to raise the status of the teaching profession. Why?
“Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.
“If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, 'They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker’s job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.' '' 

First of all, Race to the Top funding didn’t go to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. It went to the states that promised to make the reforms that the Education Department liked most. A comprehensive analysis of who won the money concluded that winners in the first round (and the same process was used in the second) were chosen through “arbitrary criteria” rather than through a scientific process.
Besides, the “reforms” aren’t exactly innovative. Education historian Diane Ravitch has written that merit pay schemes have been tried repeatedly since the 1920sbut never worked very well.
School choice and charter schools are hardly new concepts either. As for being innovative, some charter schools are and some aren't, and the same can be said for traditional public schools. When it comes to doing well on the measure that counts the most in today's education assessment world, standardized test scores, most charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools, according to the largest ever study of these schools, conducted at Stanford University.
As Friedman quotes Duncan as saying, “You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect different results.”
The strongest, most recent research shows it is bad practice to link teacher evaluations to standardized test scores because these schemes are unreliable. The Education Department itself released a study this past summer that revealed high error rates for "value-added" measures that use test scores to evaluate teachers.
There are other, fair ways to assess a teacher’s effectiveness, but they require time and effort.
I believe Duncan when he says he wants to raise the status of the teaching profession. But, willfully or not, he effectively does the opposite by pushing bad evaluation programs, and supporting programs such as Teach for America, which takes newly minted college graduates from elite institutions, gives them five weeks of summer training and puts them in the toughest classrooms in the country to teach.
Seriously, does anybody really think that the teaching profession is elevated by a revolving corps of Ivy League gradutes with five weeks of training? Certainly not Finland and Denmark, the countries Friedman (and other commentators) writes about.
What did Finland actually do to turn its poor education system into a winning one? Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education who served as Barack Obama’s education adviser during the transition between the 2008 election and the start of his administration, wrote:
...Many people have turned to Finland for clues to educational transformation. As one analyst notes:
"Most visitors to Finland discover elegant school buildings filled with calm children and highly educated teachers. They also recognize the large autonomy that schools enjoy; little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives, systematic methods to address problems in the lives of students, and targeted professional help for those in need. (Sahlberg 2009, p. 7)
"However, less visible forces account for the more tangible evidence visitors may see. Leaders in Finland attribute these gains to their intensive investments in teacher education – all teachers receive three years of high quality graduate-level preparation, completely at state expense – plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows (Laukkanen 2008; see also Buchberger & Buchberger 2003):
* Resources for those who need them most
* High standards and supports for special needs
* Qualified teachers
* Evaluation of education
* Balancing decentralization and centralization 

So, yes, Friedman is right; Finland did invest in its teachers. Just not the way we are. And aren’t.
Friedman never mentions the issue of poverty, which today’s education “reformers” see as an excuse for poor teaching even though the research on what living in poverty does to children and their ability to learn is overwhelming.
No, it doesn’t mean that kids living in poverty can't and don't learn. And it doesn’t mean that teachers can't and don’t make a difference.
It does mean that leaders who ignore the effects of poverty fail to see the importance of providing proper supports for these children -- meals for the hungry, glasses for the seeing-impaired, etc. And it means that teachers wind up getting blamed for conditions outside the school that greatly affect a child’s ability to progress in algebra.
Finland, it should be noted, has a poverty rate among children of under 3 percent; the United States, 21 percent.
Anybody who doesn’t think that doesn’t affect student academic performance in a big way is deluding themselves, as is anybody who thinks teachers alone can make up for the effects of hunger and violence and sleep deprivation and little early exposure to literacy.
Friedman listed the three things young people need to be able to do to thrive in a knowledge economy: "the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate."
These are not the skills that are fostered when standardized tests become education's focus, When the scores are used for high-stakes decisions on students, teachers and schools, what becomes paramount is test preparation, and, as a result, curriculum narrows while kids spend time learning how to fill in bubbles on answer sheets. We saw this happen in the No Child Left Behind era, and while Duncan often says this is no way to run a school system, his policies are doing nothing to change it.
It matters when important columnists ignore research about subjects they are writing because they have followings and their readers expect that they have done their homework. It’s too bad Tom Friedman didn’t study a little harder for this.
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