Everything You Need to Know About Education Reform (By Rona Wilensky)

Rona Wilensky was founding principal of New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado and served for 17 years before retiring in 2009. She is now a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. This post appeared in Education News Colorado, December 8, 2009.

According to The New York Times, a new federal study shows that nearly a third of the states lowered their academic proficiency standards in recent years to stay ahead of sanctions under NCLB. And this, in a nutshell, tells you everything you need to know about conventional school reform.

Raise the standards, raise the bar, raise requirements, raise expectations, raise the stakes. This has been the mantra of school reform for the last 26 years since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. And all of it is based on magical thinking that somehow raising any of these will actually change teaching and learning. The fact is that when standards, bars, expectations, requirements and stakes are all that is really changed, there are only two possible outcomes. Either more people will get pushed out of the system for not meeting the new higher standard, or the measure of that standard will get watered down.

Not so long ago the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education was presented with a proposal to increase from two to three the number of years of mathematics required for graduation. The proposal was in response to expected changes in state standards as well to similar changes enacted in peer districts. How could Boulder Valley School District hold its head up if it required less math for graduation than was needed for college entrance? To their credit the Board voted the increase down. Their reason? They knew that changing the way math was taught from kindergarten through high school was the only way to prepare all students to take and pass more demanding high school math requirements. In the absence OF such change, the outcome of an increase in requirements would have been either a higher drop out rate, or watered down math classes that all students could nominally pass. And as hard as it was to admit, they knew they did not yet have the resources needed to make the needed changes in mathematics education. And so they resisted the satisfaction of having done something to raise the bar until they could do something to change learning. Would that other policy makers had the same courage.

The new federal study has revealed the NCLB equivalent of watered down curriculum – lower cut scores for defining proficiency. NCLB has led to a maniacal focus on preparation for the tests, to countless episodes of cheating, and to the marginalization of recess, the arts, science and social studies. But it has not apparently led to any changes in learning. Recent NAEP data shows that there was more growth in student learning before NCLB than afterwards.

Is there any hope that reformers will learn from this experience? I doubt it. There are still groups advocating ever more loudly for more rigorous graduation requirements, higher entrance requirements for post secondary education and new standards for college completion. In the absence of the tremendous resources actually needed to change K-12 and higher education, the predictable result will be either fewer high school graduates, fewer college admissions or fewer college graduates if the standards hold, or we will see that required courses are watered down and cut off scores for alleged proficiency exams will be lowered so that the reforms will look like they have made a difference. And meanwhile, precious resources in the system will have been diverted from teaching and learning to the requirements of playing the newest high expectations game in town. As sociologist Charles Payne has put it, so much reform, so little change.


Filed under Reforming schools

7 responses to “Everything You Need to Know About Education Reform (By Rona Wilensky)

  1. So much talk about reform, so little change. Texts have not changed other than superficially to pledge allegiance to NCLB mandates. Tests have not changed. All that changes are the metaphors that are proffered as “reforms” Large-scale IES randomized -control studies have shown that teachers adopt the new rhetoric but that it has “no impact” on student learning.

    Same texts + Same tests = Same results

  2. Two times in this post Wilensky mentions “resources”. First, in talking about the Boulder Valley school board’s decision not to raise graduation requirement in math from two to three years she says, “they knew they did not yet have the resources needed to make the needed changes in mathematics education”. Then in your last paragraph she says “In the absence of the tremendous resources actually needed to change K-12 and higher education . . . .” I don’t get it. What resources is she talking about? Why are they needed? Indeed, what reform is she talking about? What are the “needed changes” in mathematics education?

    I do see the point that “raising the bar” is not necessarily progress or improvement. When my daughter started high school in 1996 I was aware that her class would need something like 22 credits for graduation. I thought that was a substantial improvement over the 17 required by my high school back in the sixties. But as her high school years went by I seemed to have many reasons to suspect the progress was not so clear cut, that the higher number of credits required was substantially offset by a lowering of standards. And now as a teacher of freshman college math I continue to see plenty of reason to question if there has been any real educational progress in recent decades. Admittedly this is subjective judgment, very hard, probably impossible, to substantiate.

    If the “resources” Wilensky is talking about means money, then I part company with her. If the “needed changes” in mathematics education involved adopting the practices advocated by the NCTM, then I part company with her even more.

    Does Wilensky actually have something definite in mind when she talks about “needed changes”? If so, what? Why doesn’t she spell them out? Can anyone else spell them out?

    • larrycuban

      I received from Rona Wilensky the following response to Brian Rude’s comment:

      Dear Brian,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my guest blog on Larry Cuban’s site. In an 800 word post there isn’t time to develop all the elements of an argument.

      To allow all students to genuinely meet the high mathematical expectations that education reformers are so fond of would, in my opinion, require a dramatic revamping of mathematics education K-8. Regardless of one’s view on the math curriculum wars one thing we know for certain is that most of the math teaching that students encounter in those grades (and even beyond) is poor.

      At the elementary level, in particular, it is generally true that the teachers do not have either command of their material or comfort with it. They do not know enough mathematics to recognize when students’ divergent strategies are actually mathematically sound nor do they know enough to be able to present concepts in multiple ways to meet the needs of different learners. My personal view is that many of these teachers are actually math phobic and they spread that contagion to their students. Other teachers are impatient with students who do not learn at the rate or style that is comfortable for the teacher and they are made to feel inadequate. I cannot tell you the number of students we saw in my high school who truly suffered from math teacher induced trauma. Current research in neuroscience makes clear that when students do not feel safe their cognitive functioning plummets so that remediating these students requires as much emotional healing as it does mathematical content.

      While middle school teachers may be somewhat better on mathematical content, it is not clear that they are any better at creating a safe learning environment for students who come with emotional baggage from either their elementary teachers or their family members.

      A recent study, highlighted in Education Week, reports that the problem is not solved by importing math majors. Their track record as teachers is far from stellar.

      In order to address these issues we face two choices. One option is the wholesale replacement of current teachers with a whole new teaching corps, which raises the question of where they would come from and why. And virtually every proposal suggests that to recruit “higher quality” teachers will require significantly higher salaries aka money. A second option is providing significant levels of professional development around both mathematical content and mathematical teaching strategies for the existing teaching corp. This latter kind of professional development requires summer institutes, school year coaching and opportunities for teacher colleagues to work together to transform their practice. All of this involves time and skilled trainers neither of which is to be had without more money. If you know of other strategies to transform teaching practice I would be interested to know of them. Although I need to say upfront that just exhorting teachers to do better or attempting to either reward them or punish them are off my list of plausible options.

      There remains a final question. How mathematically competent do we need all our students to be? The PISA test is one of the measures used to flog US schools, because of our middle of the pack performance. I recently learned that the mathematical content of the test does not go beyond pre-algebra concepts. The dilemma is that US students don’t actually know how to use all the math they have been “taught”. Which brings us back to the challenge of transforming mathematics teaching.

      Personally I think the vast majority of our students could be socially, politically and economically productive if they could truly master the middle school math that PISA tests and then added a few more algebraic, statistical and geometric concepts. By a few more, I don’t even mean the full content of ayear long algebra or geometry class. Call this new standard “Pisa Plus”.

      I find the idea that Algebra II is the new minimum standard absurd. The most generous estimate by a passionate partisan (Anthony Carnevale) could only suggest that 5% of all jobs require that level of mathematical content and I suspect most of those jobs are held by mathematics teachers. And the notion that the way we currently teach mathematics produces critical thinking is equally wrong headed. The current focus is on algorithmic problem solving which is the antithesis of critical thinking. And changing that teaching approach would require an even larger investment in math teacher professional development because high school math teachers are highly resistant to change.

      If PISA Plus were our new benchmark, college teaching would have to adjust. Instead of pitching introductory classes toward those who might become majors in mathematically based disciplines, professors, (let’s be real, adjuncts or TA’s) would have to develop courses truly oriented toward the general education that most students want and our society genuingly needs. In my view the many should not have to go through the mathematical hoops that only a small proportion need. Other strategies for cultivating the mathematical skill of potential STEM majors can be developed.

      There’s lots more to say on all of these topics, but this should give you an idea of what lies behind the comments in my blog post.

      I hope you have a good winter break and a happy and healthy new year.

  3. “Reform” is a metaphor. “Raising the bar” is a metaphor. “Resources” as used in the blog is a metaphor. Elhi education runs on metaphors. In response to Brian’s question re “needed changes” in math instruction, the National Advisory Panel on Mathematics spelled them out:

    –Curricular Content
    –Learning Processes
    –Teachers and Teacher Education
    –Instructional Practices
    –Instructional Materials
    –Research Policies and Mechanisms

    The Panel Report was issued during the last days of the Bush administration and it gored the oxen of the special interests that control elhi math instruction. There was no follow-up.
    The US is now in a Race to the Top, chasing another metaphor.

  4. I am a little late here – 3 years. However…

    I have long thought a reorganization of current resources may solve many of the problems with math education in the early years. Most of us will probably agree that if children do not learn math early, they are most likely not going to excel at math later; in reality, these kids will often struggle just to meet basic levels for testing these days.

    Here is a possible plan:
    Instead of having 5 teachers on a grade-level be the “know-it-all” for all subjects, which it may be being suggested they are not, perhaps you could have three generalists, one math specialist, and one math/science specialist. In the beginning, these teachers would simply be chosen from those available. As time goes on, however, administrators could hire specifically to fill the math specialist position for each grade level. A massive reorganization would be required, but it makes more sense to me.

    This is just the beginning of the idea, but I thought I would throw it out there. This requires no additional money, training, etc., simply a reallocation of the available resources.

    Feel free to respond.
    Brett Bothwell

    [If you respond to a blog post three years late, would anybody read it?]

    • larrycuban

      Even three years after the post, Brett, your idea sounds more than reasonable, particularly when it does not require new resources (although class size will probably increase with current retrenchment). I do wonder if the idea has been already tried elsewhere.

  5. Pingback: Improving elementary math education | RootingForMathEducation

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