Ten years ago, then U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a clarion call to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s most distressed schools, serving nearly three million students. It was an audacious goal set by an audacious leader—the likes of which are in terribly short supply these days. A decade later, states have fallen far short of his challenge, and the sticky problem of failing schools refuses to go away. But experience has provided three lessons to those who would make these efforts.
Ten years ago, then U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a clarion call to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s most distressed schools, serving nearly three million students. It was an audacious goal set by an audacious leader—the likes of which are in terribly short supply these days. Agree or disagree, one of the things I’ve always admired about Duncan was his unapologetic response to the criticism that he tried to do too much, too quickly. Duncan’s response being that he didn’t go fast enough.
Ten years later, states have fallen far short of his challenge, but the sticky problem of failing schools refuses to go away. Look around the country, and there’s no shortage of schools in troubling situations that require attention. The calamity in Providence has been uncomfortably brought to light, as has the ongoing debacle in New York City. Moving west, Tennessee is planning big changes in response to flagging outcomes, while Houston appears to be on the brink. Here in Colorado, the first state-ordered outside interventions are being challenged in court. And the list goes on.
The research on school turnaround is, in a word, complicated. R Street Institute’s Andy Smarick has written extensively on the issue, and makes a compelling argument that the entire endeavor is a fool’s errand. Instead, Smarick believes states should follow a four-step alternative: “Close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.” Few actions are as politically unpalatable as shuttering a school, but the evidence suggests that chronically bad ones are impervious to improvement. And this doesn’t get into the exorbitant costs involved. For example, at one point Colorado was spending an astonishing $132,800 for each student moved into proficiency. Suffice it to say, scalable solutions remain elusive.
It’s not for lack of trying. In 2011, I helped to orchestrate Indiana’s first takeover of low-performing schools. It was a decision that we did not make lightly, and one that we undertook with eyes wide open regarding the fiendish level of difficulty. One of the most challenging aspects of the takeover may have been the complex racial dynamics involved. Author Eve L. Ewing recently wrote a book that explores these issues in the context of the 2013 school closings in Chicago. When the schools identified for intervention primarily serve students of color and the decision-makers involved are mostly white, the racial politics are invariably brutal.
One of the schools we identified for takeover that year was located less than thirty miles southeast of Chicago, in the city of Gary. On the school’s opening day under state authority, Gary’s Democratic state senator stood shoulder to shoulder with then Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in addressing the community and calling for collective action. It was a remarkable image for both the media and city residents—one that hadn’t been previously rehearsed. Their unified front underscored the importance of working collaboratively with affected communities throughout the process.
I would absolutely. We would make the same decision to intervene. Would we take different strategic and tactical steps? Yeah, there's no question. Looking back, I still believe that we have an obligation to children and communities to intervene and improve schools. I think that's a moral and legal obligation the state has. Has anyone gotten the process perfect across the country? No. And we have to learn from each other. We have to talk.
Politics played an unfortunate role in how our efforts shook out. Since that time, Indiana’s appetite for aggressive school intervention has precipitously declined. It’s an understandable if not disquieting sentiment, and one that is shared by many who are currently engaged in this work. Taken in total, I recognize the low probability of success, but I remain a staunch supporter of states’ efforts to lift up their cellar dwellers.
How do I square this circle? Am I refusing to allow the unembellished facts on what works (very little) get in the way of my opinion on the need for muscular—and potentially community disrupting—improvement measures?
Consider that asking “What works?” when it comes to school turnaround is probably the wrong question because, as Dylan Wiliam is wont to say, “Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere.” To wit, there’s a dizzying constellation of school improvement strategies out there. From teacher coaches and turnaround specialists to alternative governance models and student tutoring, everything under the sun has been tried at least once. A better question would be, “Under what conditions does school turnaround work?” Reflecting on my time in Indiana, I can think of at least three.
First, leadership at all levels—federal, state, and local—is essential, but it’s a must from state officials. Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once said that anyone in an elected position, or aspiring to be in one, should be able to name one cause he or she would be willing to lose an election over. For Bennett, the issue was Indiana’s students. One would be hard pressed to find his variety of gutsiness and tenacity among the current occupants of governors’ mansions and leaders of state departments of education.
Second, because there’s no clear evidence on a single strategy that works, school turnaround must be viewed as one piece of a comprehensive policy agenda. There is no single, 100 percent solution to the problems facing failing schools, but rather a hundred individual 1 percent solutions. Among these are boosting the supply of excellent schools via a pluralistic education sector, installing a clear and transparent A–F accountability system, and expanding access to rigorous and engaging coursework. The key is to provide parents and families greater agency, and the means with which they can opt out of circumstances that are detrimental to their children’s well being.
Finally, leaders must be willing to seize upon windows of opportunity when they present themselves. Indeed, there was an alignment of the stars in advance of our decision to enforce Indiana’s school takeover statute. Heading into his reelection campaign in 2008, Daniels had become impatient with the incremental approach of Bennett’s predecessor. In Bennett, Daniels found a likeminded ally who was interested in pushing for big changes. Nationally, the same election marked the first time in forty-four years that a Democrat had carried Indiana in a presidential contest. The rare bipartisan alignment on school turnaround and education reform supplied additional wind at our backs.
Despite today’s remarkably different landscape, states would do well to consider these three conditions alongside whichever strategies they elect to pursue. The urgency of improving our nation’s lowest-performing schools is no less pressing today than it was then. But it’s only when courageous leaders exert their influence and risk their political capital that the herculean task of school turnaround stands a snowball’s chance of succeeding.
For more than half a century now, back-to-school time has brought another Phi Delta Kappan survey of “the public’s attitudes toward the public schools.” They invariably recycle some familiar questions (e.g., the grades you would give your child’s schools and the nation’s schools). Other topics, however, come and go. This year’s survey, for example, pays no attention to school choice but includes a section dealing with teachers’ opinions on their own status, pay, and school conditions. Also to be found here are probes on civic education, school discipline, and workforce preparation. There’s much of value, but there are also problems with this presentation, including some highlighting that seems designed to emphasize issues that evidently matter most to the authors, their advisors, or the PDK organization.
Most evident is their appetite for more funding for public education, which is palpable on many pages of their report, as well as in how the survey questions are phrased and the data analyzed. Consider:
[I]n an open-ended question, 25 percent of all adults say inadequate financial support is the biggest problem facing the public schools today. It’s far and away the top-cited problem, with all other responses in the single digits. Among teachers, even more—36 percent—call lack of funding the schools’ biggest problem. [emphasis theirs]
That teachers want more dollars for their schools is no surprise, but one must wonder how the public’s responses to this open-ended question were aggregated and coded. Suppose one said “inadequate funding” and another said “not enough computers for kids to each have one.” Were those combined under “inadequate financial support”? Then suppose one respondent said “violent classrooms” and another said “too many suspensions.” Would those be aggregated under “discipline problems” or treated as two separate problems, which would inevitably result in a lower score for each.
That this is Kappan practice emerges from a “biggest problem” chart showing “national totals” over the past half century. Here, “lack of discipline,” “use of drugs,” and “fighting/gangs/violence” are treated as three separate categories even though it would be reasonable to view all three as manifestations of a troubled school culture.
To be fair, as a friend commented, “We see the same thing in other political polling. For example: A poll will ask what’s the number one issue, then break up deficit, government spending, taxes, and waste/fraud into four categories while health care gets one category. What's the number one issue? Never anything related to government spending or taxing, notwithstanding that often a strong plurality of people responded with an issue clearly related to government spending and taxing.”
With that off my chest, let’s focus on several items of interest in the 2019 survey.
Discipline. On the touchy topic of school discipline, we see some confusion combined with a kind of common sense that policymakers are rarely able to capture in laws and rules.
Discipline is definitely a concern, with 51 percent of public-school parents saying it’s not strict enough in public schools—up from 45 percent in 1969. More alarming is that 64 percent of public school teachers say this, too. Nor is there great trust in schools to handle this challenge, with barely half of teachers and far fewer parents expressing confidence on that front.
Perhaps that’s why “zero tolerance” has broad support—71 percent of those surveyed—when applied to drugs and weapons. Yet slightly more than half would not employ automatic suspension or expulsion in “common school situations,” such as a kid who inadvertently brings a knife to school in his backpack. (Note, though, that non-white respondents are much more disposed to do so.) And there’s much support for mediation and counseling, with two-thirds of respondents viewing that approach as more effective than suspension or expulsion for addressing student misbehavior.
That many favor both “zero tolerance” and “mediation” shows how fraught this topic is—and why it’s hard to craft workable policies.
Civics and Character. Hoorah! Americans are nearly unanimous that public schools should teach civics—and seven in ten say it should be required, even though many states do not require it. There’s some concern among parents (29 percent)—less among teachers (16 percent)—that such classes may include political content they don’t agree with. Indicative of a possible headwind, however, is that conservatives and Republicans are more troubled on this front than liberals and Democrats.
That schools should “teach values” is, by contrast, more important to conservatives than liberals (and to older respondents than younger), but overall, support for this is strong across the board.
Workforce Preparation. Considering the recent upwelling of interest in career and technical education (CTE), it was a good year to inquire into public support for this. Not many—about 20 percent—think that preparing kids for the workforce should be the main goal of schools, but there’s much support for schools preparing them for both jobs and further study. Blurry and complicated as this is in policy and practice, “college and career” does appear to enjoy broad public backing.
A noteworthy difference between teachers and parents emerges, however, when the survey sample is split and they’re asked what’s the foremost mission of public schools: a plurality of teachers (45 percent) puts preparation for citizenship first while most parents give top billing to academics—as does the wider public.
Yet when asked what kind of additional course they’d have their high schooler take, almost half of parents would opt for a “jobs skills” course versus 37 percent who would choose advanced academics and 18 percent favoring art or music.
Teachers. The big news emerging from this part of the Kappan survey is that teachers are grumpy, frustrated, feel underpaid and underappreciated, often consider quitting—and a wide majority say they’d vote to strike for such goals as higher pay, greater school funding, and more say in what happens in school. (More remarkable: Slightly more than half of public school parents say they’d support teachers in such strikes.)
The survey also supplies some interesting data on teacher demographics. We see, for example, that teachers have higher household incomes than Americans in general, although lower than the college-educated part of the U.S. population. We also see that teachers are more likely to be married, that 37 percent say they’re “evangelical Christians” (nearly identical to “all adults”), and that their ideological and political leanings nearly match the population with college degrees, which is to say they skew liberal and Democrat.
It’s good that other outfits also survey public opinion on education issues. I’m particularly bullish, for example, about the annual Education Next series, now a dozen years running. (I’m also an occasional contributor to that publication.) The teachers unions periodically survey their members on sundry topics and often report the results. So, too, the National School Boards Association. All naturally focus on issues of particular interest to them and do their best to shape the interpretation of their findings. The Kappan’s is no better or worse, but is valuable in its way and not entirely predictable, at least not when new topics are introduced. Even some of its old chestnuts have served their purpose, such as its vivid depiction—for decades running now—of the wide discrepancy between the low marks Americans tend to give the nation’s schools, even as they assign honors grades to their own children’s schools. When one is reminded of that chasm, one better understands the NIMBY challenge that education reformers face.
For me, the 2019 survey is also heartening on several fronts, even while yawn-provoking on others. Pinch me and I’ll settle for its evidence that parents and teachers both seek better school discipline—and want schools to work at civics and character, too.
I have been there; every teacher has. The clock is ticking, you've got just fifteen minutes left to wrap up the lesson, and the time is being chipped away by a student who is disrupting the classroom. How you respond to that situation involves the balance of dozens of different factors. It's complicated, and some of that complexity is captured in a new report out this week.
The Thomas Fordham Institute is a right-tilted think tank that has advocated for many education reform causes, from Common Core to charter schools. Earlier this week they released a new survey, produced in conjunction with RAND, entitled "Discipline Reform Through the Eyes of Teachers."
Cautions and limitations
The survey used the RAND American Teacher Panel a large (over 84,000) collection of teachers intended to be a nationally representative sample. From that larger group, RAND selected 2,077 teachers, and 1,219 actually responded. The sample was constructed to have an emphasis on New York City, so of the respondents, 243 were New York City teachers. Respondents were broken down by black and white, and by over/under 75 percent of students on free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) (a commonly used shorthand for indicating poverty levels in a school). They are also broken down by grade bands (3–5, 6–8, 9–12). By the time you have done all this breakdown, you get some seriously tiny sample sizes. Black teachers of grades 3–5 in NYC at schools with less than 75 percent FRPL? There are only three of them as respondents in this survey.
The report notes that most respondents feel strongly about their answers, but if you don't feel strongly about the subject, that makes you likely to be among the people who don't bother to fill the survey out.
The survey spins off the arguments surrounding the Obama administration guidelines meant to reduce suspensions of students of color—the same guidelines that Betsy DeVos had done away with in 2018. Fordham is not without bias; they believe that DeVos "got this one right." The survey focuses in particular on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) as well as disciplinary alternatives.
The report offers five major findings, each of which raises additional questions. Because this is complicated.
Teachers in high-poverty schools report a more disorderly and unsafe environment.
Asked about physical attacks, student fighting and verbal disrespect, teachers in high-poverty schools (over 75 percent FRPL) reported far more of these behaviors than teachers in low-poverty schools (under 25 percent FRPL). Break the results down by teacher race, and there's no big difference in percentages.
The big question, of course, is why. The worst possible conclusion to reach would be to argue that Those People's Children, children who grow up in poverty, are just naturally more poorly behaved because of their defective culture of origin.
High-poverty schools have a high teacher turnover rate. A younger, newer staff will be likely to have more disciplinary issues, both because of inexperience and because they haven't had the time to build the kinds of relationships that create a more positive environment. Research shows that poverty creates a variety of effects that interfere with education. Students may also have difficulty buying into a system that feels hostile to them.
Most teachers say that discipline is inconsistent or inadequate, and that suspension numbers have dropped at least in part because of bad behavior that is tolerated or underreported.
Two-thirds of the respondents said that school policy was inconsistently enforced. This was ranked a bigger problem than community factors such as poverty; uninvolved parents or troubled families topped the list.
About a third of high-poverty school teachers report that administrators tell students to stay home without recording it as a suspension at least some of the time. The use of suspension numbers as part of school evaluation opened the door to Campbell's Law; school discipline is complicated, but suspension numbers are simple, and simple to game in easy ways. By insisting on such a simple measure, government ensures that the measure will be at best not useful, and at worst will interfere with the disciplinary process, pushing administrators to watch their numbers rather than the context and details of an individual situation.
When it comes to school discipline, inconsistency is the worst. When neither students nor faculty know where the lines are drawn, the lines cease to be effective.
While teachers see value in newer approaches, most also say that suspension can be useful and effective.
As one teacher put it, "NOTHING works for all students." For every method listed, from positive reinforcement systems to restorative justice, at least 80 percent of teachers said the technique was at least somewhat effective.
That same over 80 percent margin said that they at least somewhat agreed that OSS can send a useful message to parents about the seriousness of the student behavior, and that OSS can remove disruptive students so that others can learn. Teachers also felt that OSS was for use only with serious offenses and not, for instance, cutting class or verbal disrespect. Context also matters, especially when the behavior is repeated and other methods have been tried already.
As with many educational issues, policymakers may argue the philosophy, but teachers are more focused on the pragmatic questions. What will help this student? What will keep this classroom a space for learning? What will actually work? When policymakers limit the workable tools that teachers can use, that's frustrating.
Most teachers agree the majority of students suffer because of a few chronic disrupters.
Seventy-seven percent agreed. In what may be an alarming result, 70 percent of general-ed teachers agreed or somewhat agreed that students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) were treated too leniently. Sixty percent of special ed teachers agreed. This hints at one of the eternal issues of education—should students with special needs be placed in "regular" classrooms, or have their own classrooms that more directly focus on their needs. This pendulum has never stopped swinging, and likely never will.
There's an issue that this survey overlooks—class size. In a classroom of ten students, making adjustments for individual issues is easier. Building relationships and respect, addressing individual student concerns—in short, many of the things that keep disciplinary issues from erupting—become nearly impossible in a classroom of thirty or more students.
African American teachers believe that disciplinary results are racially biased. They also believe that suspensions and expulsions should be used more often.
All things being equal, the survey asked, if a black and white student commit the same offense, will the results be harsher for one or the other. Seventy-seven percent of black teachers said results would be harsher for black students; 24 percent of white teachers agreed.
White teachers were slightly more likely to have suspended a student last year. But all teachers in high-poverty schools said that in school and out of school suspensions, alternative schools and expulsions were used too little.
It is no surprise that schools disproportionately discipline black students. In the justice system, when blacks and whites commit the same crime, blacks are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and likely to receive a longer sentence. Adults view black girls as less innocent, and black boys as older and less innocent. We have issues with systemic racism in this country; it cannot be a surprise that those issues extend into schools.
The fact that black teachers see uneven application of discipline, but still call for more disciplinary measures, has been the big takeaway from this report. But this shouldn't be a surprise, either, unless you are someone who assumes that black teachers and parents somehow don't value discipline as much as white folks. That's an assumption that goes hand in hand with the racist notion that black folks have more trouble with the law because they come from a culture that doesn't value law and order and self-discipline, that Those People come from a culture of violence and disrespect and that's why they get in trouble with authorities so often. If you are someone who was surprised by the conclusion that black teachers see a lot of racism in disciplinary practices, but still call for more effective and consistent discipline, you might want to ask yourself why exactly you found that surprising.
The big balancing act
When a student acted out in my classroom, I was aware that the behavior was probably the result of many factors, from family issues to personal struggles to frustration with the material to learning challenges to any number of failures on my part. I was also aware that the business of establishing a respectful, functional learning environment had been going on, or not, weeks and even months before this particular moment of misbehavior. I was aware that this moment was a signal that I needed to work on some things with this student going forward.
But I was also aware that there were twenty-some other students in the room whose education had just come to a grinding halt.
Teachers need a variety of tools at their disposal to deal with student discipline issues, and it is not particularly helpful to have someone sitting in a far-off office limiting the choices available.
But teachers need to be more aware of and sensitive to their own biases, and they need to be part of disciplinary consistency within a building.
Oppressive, punitive, authoritarian discipline can create an atmosphere that blames and shames students, creating a school culture that absolutely destroys trust and respect and stifles any hope of learning.
But a lack of boundaries and rules can create a culture in which learning can never really take root.
Oversight of school discipline needs to be a part of how we address greater equity and justice in our society as a whole. It's destructive and wasteful to criminalize children and teenagers. The goal should be to keep students in school and to get them an education, somehow.
But that oversight needs to be meaningful, and not simple and simply gamed numbers.
This survey is a rare policy paper that actually consults the voices of teachers. The report has some interesting data, but a large number of respondents included long-form responses with their surveys, and those have all been included in the report. They are by far the most interesting reading here, and convey as well as anything could just how complicated the issues are. If you look at the report, take the time to read them all.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Forbes.
The education solar system is endlessly distorted by the extraordinary presence within it of two separate suns with gravitational fields that tug the policy planets in different directions.
Around one sun revolve the satellites of utility, instrumentality, and achievement. On their surfaces, education must be purposeful and structured so that societies can cohere and prosper. Left in a state of nature, children would grow up ignorant and wild. Adults—and schools—exist to form, instruct, discipline, acculturate, and socialize them.
Orbiting the other sun we find the heavenly bodies of romanticism, naturalism, and liberation. There, education frees the individual to become a unique being. Left to explore its own nature and unconstrained by external forces, the child will unfold like a flower. Adults’ job is to keep her from serious harm and provide options for exploration, not to expect, demand, or discipline.
If those were separate solar systems, we might hear only music from the spheres. In reality, however, the education planets are being pulled in both directions.
The American K–12 world spent recent decades with its orbit mostly shaped by the gravity of the utility star. Thus we focused on boosting achievement, prepping more kids for college and career, strengthening school effectiveness—and holding elements of the education system to account for their results, gauged mainly by test scores, graduation and matriculation rates and other formal markers of success.
Today, however, education in the U.S. is swinging rapidly toward the liberation star. Tests are being scrapped or their results diminished. “School climate” is getting weighed more heavily, achievement less. “Social and emotional learning” vies with knowledge, and “21st century skills” loom larger than the three R’s. “Personalization” and “collaboration” are crowding out all forms of standardization.
Enter Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle with a plump, readable, earnest tome from the Oxford University Press that celebrates children’s play. (The book’s subtitle: “How more play will save our schools and help children thrive.”)
It opens with a heartfelt foreword by British arts educator Sir Ken Robinson, perhaps best known for his 2014 TED talk about how modern schools kill children’s creativity. The top jacket blurb comes from Howard Gardner, famously the inventor of “multiple intelligences,” including the “bodily-kinesthetic” and “naturalistic.”
The authors clearly bask in the rays of the naturalism sun—and it’s no secret that most of my own tan comes from the instrumental one. So it will surprise no-one that I find much of their message misguided, even harmful. Perhaps more surprising is that some is spot-on.
Sahlberg, many will remember, is a Finn (no relation) who for years functioned as the foremost booster of Finland’s vaunted approach to education, which was (for a time) validated by robust PISA scores and drew many to Helsinki to see how a gentle, teacher-centric system with little formal accountability could yield such good results.
Co-author Doyle (a sometime TV producer and previous author of worthy books on history and other subjects) spent several years in Finland, put his young son into school there, and was charmed by the experience, during which he came to know Sahlberg and clearly imbibed much Finnish education Kool-aid (or stronger quaff).
Of late, some of the bloom has gone off Finland’s education rose—PISA scores have slid since 2009—and both authors have left town, with Sahlberg now living in Australia and Doyle back in New York. Yet that Nordic land’s laid-back approach to schooling and child development reigns over these pages. “Unlike in many other countries,” they write, “Finnish parents favor a full, enjoyable period of childhood rather than an earlier start of formal learning. Childhood is, they say, the time when children discover the world within them while learning how to be with other children.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau could not have better evoked educational naturalism.
Doyle was particularly taken with his son’s experience in a system where formal schooling does not normally start until age 7 and “play was commonly understood to be both the whole point of childhood and the bedrock foundation of effective childhood education.” Sahlberg was, of course, one of the architects of that system.
But they’ve spotlighted some bona fide issues and they support these observations with research from sources as varied as the National Academies of Science and the Centers for Disease Control. Young children do indeed need to play—perhaps we all do—in order to develop healthfully, socially, even intellectually. Recent decades’ focus on scores and rates has caused many schools to limit recess and extend instructional time. Sometimes gym and extracurriculars also get squeezed. And it’s true that hyper parents often pressure their kids to buckle down and study, cramping their ability to play, dream, make believe, and goof off. The authors are correct to fault this mindset—even as they have fun labeling the policy overkill “GERM” for “Global Education Reform Movement.”
They’re also right—the Academy of Pediatrics concurs—to skewer our obsession with technology for letting kids substitute “screen time” for healthy outdoor activity as well as such old-fashioned indoor pleasures as reading books and playing board games, all of which yield valuable learning experiences of their own.
And they’re on target when they condem today’s helicopter parents and overblown worries about safety and competition for blocking youngsters from experiences that carry the teeniest risk or might yield winners and losers. Thus we crack down on “free-range parenting,” eliminate team competitions and dodgeball, and don’t let our children climb trees, explore a riverbank, or take themselves to the park. Those experiences, too, are part of becoming educated, as important in their different ways as long division or the causes of the Civil War.
Nor is this just “An American Tragedy.” That’s Chapter 7. Chapter 8 is “The Global War on Play.” Kids, say the authors, are increasingly being denied their childhood in much of the world.
So there’s wisdom and documentation to be found in these 440 pages. Find time for recess in school. Tell parents to cool their overprotective jets. Limit screen time. Absolutely. But the authors’ central policy message for primary-secondary education, particularly as it’s certain to be interpreted and implemented in today’s gravitational field, portends damage to children and society at least as severe as the practices the authors rightly deplore.
It’s crystallized in this prediction: “Someday soon, the parents, teachers, and children of the world will rise up and join together to build a new generation of schools for all children, schools built not on stress and fear but on play, joy, learning, and love.” Once that utopian revolution is complete, kids will enjoy a “school experience rich in discovery and experimentation, encouragement, conversation, intellectual challenge, free play and guided play, playful teaching and learning, and respect of children’s voices and individual learning differences.”
Sound familiar? It should, as it’s a formula straight out of Rousseau, Dewey and a million other “progressive” educators. As with all such nostrums, there’s nothing in it that you wouldn’t want for your own child. But wait. We’re living in a time when academic achievement is flat at the end of high school; when scads of young people emerge unready for either college or career success; when American employers must look overseas for skilled personnel; and when results-based accountability for kids, teachers, and schools alike hangs in the balance and “soft skills” are in the ascendancy. We also have ample evidence that while “playful teaching and learning” does little harm to middle-class kids with support and structure in the rest of their lives, for children from troubled circumstances it’s a recipe for failure. Many such youngsters already have plenty of “play” of various sorts in their lives, even a corrupted sort of “natural state,” but precious little formal learning—and few of the other benefits (character formation, self-discipline, citizenship, etc.) that also flow from purposeful adult direction.
Are we—bizarrely and cruelly—to exacerbate the achievement, economic and mobility gaps that already plague us as a nation, while turning a blind eye to the academic mediocrity that already afflicts even those on the up side of those gaps, all in the name of modeling America on a charming small country in northern Europe? The evidence the authors cite is persuasive that kids need to play but not that we should diminish the quest for stronger skills and knowledge or should try to organize U.S. schools the way they do in Vuohtomaki, the rural village where Sahlberg grew up. Appealing as that model is in its way, it doesn’t transplant at scale to the Bronx, nor would it pave a path out of poverty for children who live there (or in Memphis, Houston, etc.)
I think I’ll stick with GERM—and keep doing what I can to infect others. It may be too late to block America’s migration from one education sun to the other, but it’s a dreadful mistake to accelerate it.
SOURCE: Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Education Next.
In the last decade, states have experimented with many new assessment systems in math and reading. A new Bellwether brief by Bonnie O’Keefe and Brandon Lewis examines recent innovations used or proposed by states that could serve educators well. The authors highlight the drawbacks of relying heavily on summative end-of-year exams in math and science for accountability, which test accumulated knowledge. They welcome the shift towards using lower-stakes, shorter interim exams for accountability and the increasing state investments in formative assessments, which are designed to improve student learning rather than to gather school-wide data.
The authors focus on four trends among the states: a push to replace end-of-year exams with interim ones; increased investment in formative assessments; the creation of test item banks shared across states; and the development of science and social studies exams. For each trend, they identify the benefits and risks of states applying them to their testing systems.
There are four main takeaways. First, states are developing adaptive interim exams to replace summative end-of-year exams. Computer-adaptive exams use algorithms to select the next test questions based on students’ previous responses, making them easier or harder to gather data on their skill level. End-of-year tests are usually summative and uniform, making them useful for evaluating school performance. A switch to adaptive interim exams for accountability would reclaim weeks of instructional time that were taken by long testing periods and test prep, and lets parents and principals hold teachers accountable for student performance during the year. Furthermore, interim exams would give teachers timely feedback that they can use to improve instruction. O’Keefe and Lewis cite Nebraska as an example. The state is transitioning from using a summative end-of-year exam in grades three through eight to using adaptive interims combined with an adaptive end-of-year exam for accountability. It will then phase out end-of-year exams and rely solely on interim exams.
Second, the authors suggest that increasing investment in formative assessments could improve teachers’ instruction. Teachers usually make their own formative tests, such as reading quizzes, though they often invest in supplemental materials. State-level and regional consortia now offer coaching and resource materials to teachers who want to design or purchase better formative assessments. One example the brief cites is a consortium in Michigan that helps teachers develop assessments. But the authors warn that states following this trend may be distracted from funding effective accountability systems.
O’Keefe and Lewis overstate the case for why more investment in formative exams is positive. They cite that classroom assessment spending outpaced state-level mandatory test spending nationally by $0.3 billion in 2017 to claim schools are interested in formative tests. But that does not suggest they serve students or teachers well; perhaps the classroom assessments have better marketing. While the authors admit a flooded marketplace makes it hard for school districts to discern quality, they believe state-level recommendations would resolve the issue. However, the increases in funding and infrastructure this would require largely outweigh the benefits.
Third, shared-item test banks now supply states with quality exam questions and designs. These resources are more cost-effective than states individually developing tests from scratch and can supplement individual states’ test designs. The brief cites Michigan, which builds on the Smarter Balanced math and reading content to develop their M-STEP assessment.
Finally, O’Keefe and Lewis acknowledge the lack of valid and reliable statewide assessments in science and social studies. For example, though many states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), few have developed tests aligned to those standards. One exception they cite is the New Hampshire PACE exam. It combines locally-designed, live-performance science tasks with traditional testing but, as with all performance assessments, brings with it the challenge of training teachers to assess tasks consistently across districts.
In social studies, however, there are fewer models to emulate. The brief notes that some legislatures adopted the U.S. citizenship test and faults them for settling for a low bar instead of developing a proper, state-standards-aligned assessment. But O’Keefe and Lewis also laud Louisiana’s evolving assessment system, which will soon incorporate social studies questions into its English exam. They end this section with an invitation to states to design more science and social study assessments.
The brief’s point is clear: We have some reasons to be optimistic about the future of assessments. O’Keefe and Lewis are right to stress how the last decade’s innovations have offered educators and policymakers improved designs and quality data. And this year’s package of federal testing grants could produce long-awaited scalable science assessments and facilitate the incorporation of project-based learning. Shifting from end-of-year exams to interim ones could benefit students the most because they track progress and give teachers the flexibility to use ready-made assessments that are relevant to their curricula. But more state investment in formative tests is a costly distraction from improving accountability systems for most states. We have indeed gained quality data and test designs, but new data and designs risk overwhelming local school districts and confusing parents and students as they struggle to decipher their perennially changing tests.
SOURCE: Bonnie O’Keefe and Brandon Lewis, “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” Bellwether Education Partners (July 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Alice Huguet, an associate policy researcher at RAND, joins David Griffith and Adam Tyner to discuss whether and how K–12 schools should teach students media literacy. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines the effects of flipped classrooms.
Amber’s Research Minute
Elizabeth Setren et al., “Effects of the Flipped Classroom: Evidence from a Randomized Trial,” retrieved from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University (August 2019).