How Refreshing, Honest, and Courageous It Would Be for Policymakers and Funders To Say Oops!

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and top policymakers have promoted and funded small urban high schools for nearly a decade. Then Bill Gates said in his 2009 Annual Letter that while these small urban high schools had accomplished much for students they had largely failed to improve academic achievement. No more big bucks for this initiative. No  other foundation executives or federal/state officials, all of whom had tripped over themselves in hailing small urban high schools, said Oops!

Ditto for charter schools. Policy elites across both political parties for the past decade have promoted charter schools to offer urban parents and their children choices they would not have in district regular schools. A recent 15-state study concluded that, indeed, 17 percent of charters offered “superior educational opportunities for their students.” Nearly half of the charters, however, differed little from regular public school “options,” and here is the kicker: 37 percent of the charters “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

There’s more bad news on charters (I winced because, in general, I support this public option and sit on a charter school board). In a recent report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, a researcher tracked 2,000 low-performing regular and charter schools between 2003-2009 to see if they had turned around, been closed, or remained low-performing. Eighty percent of these low performing regular public schools were still in business–yes, 80 percent. But here’s the surprise: 72 percent of low-performing charters also stayed open and continued to perform poorly. In spite of all that talk from policy elites championing charters that “our bad schools don’t last–either they improve or they close,” there has been persistent failure. I recalled the Tom Toles cartoon:

Sure, turning around failing schools is tough work but only 1 percent of public and charter schools did, indeed, make it into the top half of their state’s proficiency rankings–a very high bar to cross. OK, another Oops but one that few officials pushing charters will voice.

Then there is the three-decade long, unrelenting promotion of computers in classrooms and online instruction. Now, we have a new corporate and civic-driven coalition chaired by two ex-state governors issuing a report (p. 19 of Digital Learning Now Report FINAL lists corporatate, foundation, and top policymakers who participated).

To be charitable, evidence of students’ academic achievement gains attributed to online instruction, laptops, and other hardware and software in schools is scant. Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning is barely visible. And the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs (except in programs where technical certificates can lead to work–e.g., Cisc0–if they are available), well, I won’t even mention the scarcity of evidence to support that dream.

So what do these two-governors plug in their Digital Learning Commission report?

“Providing a customized, personalized education for students was a dream just a decade ago. Technology can turn that dream into reality today. The Digital Learning Council will develop the roadmap to achieve that ultimate goal.”

Sure, this is an advertisement pushing for-profit online outfits such as K12 and non-profit  projects such as the Florida Virtual School and “hybrid” schools. See here and here. These ex-governors want states to alter their policies to accommodate this “Brave New World” where students get individual lessons tailored to what they need to learn. Question: After decades of blue-ribbon commissions issuing Utopian reports promising “revolutionary” and “transformed” schools, where is the evidence that such futures are either possible or worthwhile?

Answer: When it comes to technology policy, evidence doesn’t matter.

The rational part of me still expects top decision-makers, even ex-governors, to use the best evidence available to support proposed directions. The real-world political part of me recognizes that policy elites cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined. I guess I am still innocent enough to expect top decision-makers faced with an accumulation of evidence that runs counter to their small high school, charter, or technology policies, at the very least, would pull up their socks and admit that they either goofed or would reconsider their decision. They won’t because Oops!  is taboo in policymakers’ vocabulary.

I would find the expression of honest doubts about policies derived from facts, not faith, to be both refreshing and courageous.

7 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “How Refreshing, Honest, and Courageous It Would Be for Policymakers and Funders To Say Oops!

  1. Could we sum it up by saying that over the last ten years or so, Education has done what Reform wished, be it focusing on high stakes testing, moving the lowest quartile, charters, early intervention, or what have you?

    During this period, interventions have failed to budge long-term trends and may indeed have done damage in certain quarters. Despite this record of following “commonsense” measures, we are preparing for yet more of the same over the next few years.

    Why? Because it’s an “affirmation”. It’s like joining a multi-level marketing organization where success lies in following the “Plan” and failure only comes from not trying hard enough.

  2. Pingback: Year-end Remainders: Black tries to say hello, Klein goodbye | GothamSchools

  3. CarolineSF

    8 or 9 years ago, my school district, San Francisco Unified (where I am a parent, advocate and wife of a teacher), was beaten bloody by the local, national and even international press for moving to look into closing a problematic charter school run by then high-flying, for-profit Edison Schools Inc.

    The local, national and international press were hailing Edison and the concept of for-profit public schools as the wave of the future, bringing private-sector efficiencies to reform public schools.

    Well, it didn’t work. It turned out that Edison client school districts across the nation had the same problems with Edison Schools Inc. that SFUSD did, and Edison has quietly fizzled.

    Any “oopsies” or “gosh, sorry about thats” from the press voices who were so vigorously beating up on SFUSD back then? Need you ask?

    And, by the way, what they were also doing was attacking the right of a school board to hold a charter school it operates accountable. Now the fad is to call for holding charter schools accountable — even the charter industry and advocates who have vigorously fought accountability are paying lip service.

    No “oopsies” on that issue either. We’re still waiting.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Caroline, for the example of Edison Schools, Inc. What you experienced in SFUSD occurred in other districts as well. No “oopsies” there either.

  4. Diana Senechal

    Thank you for an excellent post.

    Education philosopher Michael John Demiashkevich asked in the 1920s and 1930s why policymakers didn’t engage in mental experimentation before engaging in large-scale classroom experiments. Such mental experimentation–turning an idea around, asking many questions–seems missing from education policy today as well.

    It isn’t only inattention to facts or reliance on faith–it’s a climate of advertising and PR, where even research studies come with a “spin.” For instance, if one compares the recent MET Policy Brief with the longer MET Research Paper, one sees that the former omits some of the more startling conclusions of the latter: namely, that teachers don’t seem to have much of an effect on reading comprehension as measured on state tests. The policy brief avoids discussion of ELA, perhaps because it is problematic. The research paper itself fails to ask certain important questions: for instance, what role curriculum might play in student learning.

    That’s just one example–but it shows how what we take as “facts” may already contain a great deal of interpretation. We need not only facts, but the willingness to ask questions and raise doubts (without being dismissed, shouted down, or written off as a member of the enemy camp). Policymakers should treasure their critics–who else will keep their thinking sharp?

    • larrycuban

      No doubt, Diana, policymakers–I ran with that crowd years ago–would say, hey, you do not understand the world we live in. The fast pace of decision-making, the quick scans of “executive summaries,” the constant shifting from the substance of the proposed policy to how-it-will-play in the media and voters–and on and on. The incentives and values that drive policymakers differ in important respects from those that drive teachers and administrators. Those differences, I believe, make the thought experiments that you mentioned Demiashkevich recommended eight decades ago or a diagram of the assumptions, strategies, and desired outcomes of a policy, its logic that I have suggested very difficult for most policymakers even to consider. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Dee Alpert

    In August ’09 the NYU Grad. School of Ed. did a large-scale study of the NYC Dept. of Ed.’s Title 1 program and found that “Title I spending does not improve the achievement of students and may even reduce school-wide average test scores in elementary and middle schools.” Does Title I Increase Spending and Improve Performance? Evidence from New York City,” M. Weinstein, L. Stiefel, A. Schwartz, L,Chalico, http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/003/949/WP%20%2309-09.pdf.

    Oops! But where was the mea culpa from Chancellor Klein, Mayor Bloomberg, or indeed anyone connected with the NYC Dept. of Ed.? Where was the intensive debriefing and analysis needed to root out the cause(s) of this unmitigated disaster? Entirely absent, of course. Did heads roll? Never! Most folks never learned about the study.

    What did US DOE do about this staggering waste of children’s valuable time and huge amounts of federal money? Nothing that anyone knows about. Indeed, Arne Duncan shoveled even more money into the NYC DOE via the partially culpable NYS Ed. Dept. And now praises Joel Klein’s legacy to the high heavens. What legacy? Where’s the audited, verified data? Where’s the beef?

    Congress should pass a law requiring all state ed. depts. and districts – and other entities which receive federal funds for programs requiring evaluations so that the evaluations must – no ifs or buts – be made public on their public web sites within 30 days of each evaluation’s completion.

    We can’t raise hell with the Gates Foundation for wasting its own money on new, new small high schools (or, as I called the effort, “old wine in new bottles”), although folks should make rude noises whenever ex-Gatesies who were responsible for this fiasco appear in public or print. Egg on face is the only accountability measure these failures can be subjected to by the public. We can, however, raise hell when legitimate evaluations show that state ed. depts. and school districts have run programs that flat out failed, but need the ammunition to know when to do so.

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