Why Using Achievement Test Results Is Not The Road To Take

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.—Robert Frost

From the White House, to most Governor’s houses around the country, Americans are being led down a pathway that the creative and innovative would not take; and that is the road less traveled. We are following road signs that tell us that in order to compete in the global sphere, and to increase economic growth, we must improve student achievement, especially in math and reading. Neither of these road signs are based on any research evidence. They are based on political dogma that has its roots in fear and authoritarianism.

For example, in their provocative paper, Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand, Lowell and Salzman provide convincing arguments and data that student achievement levels in math and science have no effect on the enrollment of students in science and engineering in college, nor is there a positive relationship between achievement levels and national economic peroformance.

Most in politics would have parents and the general public believe that the sky is falling and we are in dire straights when it come to science and math education in the United States. The fact is that science education is led by the one of the most able bound, professionally prepared, and stable group of educators, as reported by the National Science Foundation, and that American science teachers report very high job satisfaction.

Furthermore the NSF reports that the United States has consistently led the world in inventiveness as measured by the number of patents applied for between the period 1985 – 2005. and this sems to be continuing. The community of scientists in the United States has consistently produced thousands of peer reviewed articles per year, and is only exceeded in this output by the European Union, which is comprised of many nations. The United States also graduates more individuals with doctoral degrees than any other nation in science scince education and engineering. Furthermore, K-12 students fare very well on tests, and consistently show improvement over time, and with its peer group of industrialized nations, does very well. We are not in 21st place of rankings as someone (whom I admire) in the White House recently said.

One of the problems we face, and as pointed out the Lowell and Salzman, is that many of the factors that affect student achievement are nonschool factors. For example it has been shown by PISA researchers that the impact on test scores by factors such as single-parent families (as much as 18 – 30 scale points difference), parental education level, family income, and other socioeconomic factors play a significant role in achievement.77

We need to take another road to improve education in general, and science education specifically. Assuming that teaching to a “common” test will result in some kind of improvement of the American economy, and the general well-being of the nation is narrow, and not based on evidence.

Perhaps the road should be blocked.or work on it slowed to enable an alternative roadbed that will be open to talent development, creative and inventive projects and processes, professional teachers and their leaderhip in charge and leading the way.

We need to take the road less traveled, and that would be the humanistic science education path that we have explored at this weblog.

Using Achievement Scores to Support Myths and Build Fear

There was an interesting discussion in Yong Zhao’s book, Catching Up, or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization about how John F. Kennedy used the launching of Sputnik to suggest that a “Missile Gap” existed between the United States and Soviet Union, that the United States was behind. It turns out that the so called Missile Gap did exist, but it favored the United States. The myth of the gap became a truism in American culture, and it started us on a long path of using myths to feed the fear factor, and use this to satisfy political, economic or educational goals. In Kennedy’s case, it helped him get elected in 1960.

In today’s culture, politicians and especially business leaders, have perpetuated the myth that academic achievement in a few subjects is the most important outcome of schooling, and that indeed, there is a huge gap between the achievement of students in the United States and its counterparts in other industrialized nations. Furthermore, these same politicians and business leaders would have us believe that there is a serious decline in the supply of high-quality students from the beginning (the end of high school) to the end of the Science & Engineering “pipeline.” Both of these cases are myths—that U.S. students do not achieve at high levels, and that there is a serious shortage of high quality persons for science & engineering. They are perpetuated to fulfill the needs and desires of officials whose best interests are served by claiming such weaknesses in the American educational system (see Lowell & Salzman).

The Race to the Top Fund showcases these myths, and uses them to determine the criteria upon which proposals submitted by the states (one per stste) will be judged a winner and therefore eligible for some if the $4.3 billion.

Even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing 20 states a quarter of a million dollars in expertise and funds to prepare Race to the Top proposals due January 19th. It’s also been announced that those states that did not submit a proposal to judged in phase one will receive funds for June 1 submissions.

There is a lot of hysteria around the Race to the Top. For example in Georgia, a writer in the Atlanta Business Chronicle said “Georgia must win ‘Race to the Top”, and indeed again connected the economic well being of the state or nation, you take your pick, with the achievement scores of students in school. The problem is there is no clear evidence that student achievement scores are directly related to the nation’s or state’s economy—as much as the business community would have us believe.

Since 1983, when the Federal report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was published by the U.S Department of Education, these same business and political leaders have used the rationale that there are major economic “threats” to the United States because of the performance of American students compared to students in other countries. Although U.S. students perform at high levels on these international tests, business/political leaders focus in on countries that score higher than the U.S. in math, and then conclude that these countries pose a “threat” to the U.S. economy. These countries include Singapore, Latvia, Belgium. Threats? I don’t think so.

I am not suggesting that financial support in the form of grants from the Federal government should not be enacted. Quite the opposite. I am, however, arguing that the underlying principles upon which States will be funded in the Race to the Top Fund are flawed, and based on myths and feed on fear that America’s educational system is in a race with other nations, and that we should fear a few smaller countries scores on very narrow achievement test scores.

If we look at any indicator used by these same business and political leaders, American students have continued to show improving scores on SAT, ACT, NAEP and on international tests including TIMSS and PISA.

So what is going on? The desire of the power brokers is to control and manage education, and use a simplistic business model to regulate schooling,and assume that the fundamental purpose of schooling is to increase test scores in math and reading, and hold teachers and administrators accountable for these same test scores. This leads America toward a more deeply authoritarian approach to education, the antithesis of what education should be a democratic society. What is needed is a paradigm that would foster critical and creative thinking, innovation, and a focus on helping students learn how to learn. We need a broad curriculum not a narrow one.  We need a curriculum that values the arts just as much as the sciences—we need to go well beyond math and reading and engage our students in real problems that are set in their lived experience.  This is of course the paradigm of learning that I have been advocating on this website—-the humanistic science paradigm of learning.

I’ll explore these ideas in more detail in the days ahead. In the meantime, I invite comments on these ideas. Am I out of sync? What do you think?

Celebrating Individuality?

Yesterday I republished a post I wrote in October about the Race to the Top Fund, which is a $4.3 billion effort by the U.S. Department of Education to grant to winning States millions of dollars to increase student achievement, use student achievement data to evaluate teachers and administrators, emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics), expand testing and evaluation systems, and coordinate (articulate) curriculum. The Race to the Top is a continuation of the No Child Left Behind Act in which the Federal Government “regulates” schooling by linking student achievement to teacher effectiveness, and yes, economic growth.

In his ground breaking book (Catching Up or Leading the Way), Dr. Yong Zhao, Distinguished Professor of Education, Michigan State University, questions and wonders why American education is moving in a direction to implement what China has been working hard to get rid of, and that is a test-driven, standardized educational system.  In fact, in his book, Dr. Zhao describes a movement in China which seeks to transform its education system to match its innovation-driven knowledge society.  He suggests that in China, the government has made a “conscious, global search” for models of education that will produce innovative talents.  And indeed, the Chinese see the American education “model” as a “reasonable candidate” for an innovative educational system.

To give you a flavor of the kind of thinking that Dr. Zhao brings to the issue of educational reform in the U.S.A., here are some comments that he made recently to an ASCD audience.

And what are we doing here in the U.S.?  As Zhao points out, we have been trying hard (for many years, by the way) to implement educational “reforms” that China has been trying to get rid of.  Perhaps the biggest Federal program that has moved American education along this path is the No Child Left Behind Act which mandates achievement testing, high-stakes assessments, state-mandated standards and curriculum.  An now with the Race to the Top fund, it looks inevitable that we will have “common standards” in math and reading, and that teachers and students in every school and district will be held accountable to these same standards.

This system of education is one that is authoritarian in nature, and one that pushes to edges of education the notion that individuality and diversity are important in the education of children and youth.  The celebration of the individual is slowing losing out to the increased demand for a central and standardized educational system.

We should question this.  There are more than 15,000 school districts in the USA, and here we have the U.S. Secretary of Education, Governors, State Education officers, and business leaders leading the charge to move us toward a more authoritarian and centralized educational system when what is needed is an educational environment that fosters innovation and creativity.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the days ahead.  In the meantime, I suggest you take a look at Dr. Zhao’s book.

Race to the Top—Application Due, January 19!

I am republishing a post that I made in October in which I discussed the U.S. Department of Education program, The Race to the Top Fund.  Each state can choose to submit ONE application, and that application is due in Washington on January 19, 2010.  You can go to the previous link and read the current information about the Fund.  You will learn that “winners” will be announced in April, 2010, and that those not winning will receive feedback, presumably so that they can resubmit with other states for Phase II money on June 1, 2010.

HERE IS WHAT I WROTE ABOUT THE RACE TO THE TOP IN OCTOBER.  I’ll be talking more about this later this week and next, why the course being chosen is questionable, and may be moving us in the wrong direction.

The U.S. Department of Education received about $100 billion ($100,000,000,000) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  It’s an enormous amount of money that is going to given to the States.  $4.35 billion of this amount has been earmarked as The Race to the Top fund, and it is that part of Department’s program that I will focus on here.

If the money were distributed equally across the country, it would amount to a little more than $13.33 per citizen.  It would mean that the state of California would get slightly more than 10% of the money, or $489,333,333 (I consulted a website that provided population figures for all the states and multiplied by $13.33).  Wyoming would receive the least coming in at slightly more than $7 million.   But, of course, the money will not be distributed in this way; each state that chooses to go for the money, must submit a proposal (first round this December; second round next Spring), and they must, in the proposal, agree to the critieria that the U.S. Department of Education has established.

Although the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Race is still not available to the States (It’s now available of course, and you can see it on this page), the Department published details of the Race Fund in the Federal Register (Notice of Proposed Priorities).  I read it, and have summarized the priorities that will in effect couch how the various States prepare their proposals. By the way, the proposal must be submitted by the Governer of the State, and signed off by the Governor, the State’s chief school officer, and the president of the State board of education.

Tongue-in-Cheek Suggestions for a Race to the Top Proposal:

Dr. Yong Zhao, University Distinguished Professor of Education at Michigan State University,  published a list of six ideas that States might include in their proposal to ensure funding.  If you read the article, you will see some of the fallacy in the Fund’s purpose of standardizing education, and creating one-size-fits-all approach.  You can see the article “Over the Top” here.

The Race to the Top–The Real Deal

Of the long list of criteria, only two are absolute musts for a state proposal:

  • States must have been approved by the Education Department for stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (most already have been)
  • states must not have any laws in place barring the use of student-achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals.

The fundamental aim of the Race to the Top Fund is to ensure that states that receive funds take a systematic approach to educational reform.  Specifically, as stated in the Federal Register (July 29, 2009), to receive funding, the applicant state must meet this priority:

The State’s application must describe how the State and participating LEAs intend to use Race to the Top and other funds to implement comprehensive and coherent policies and practices in the four education reform areas, and how these are designed to increase student achievement, reduce the achievement gap across student subgroups (Priority 1).

Other priorities will be considered as proposals are evaluated.  But according to the Department’s documents, only the first priority (described above) will be required.  The others which follow will enable the various states to develop proposals unique to their goals for reform.  Here they are:

  • Priority 2: Emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  This should include the offering of rigorous (emphasis mine) course of study in STEM; collaboration among experts in museums, universities, research centers, and other STEM-related partners.
  • Priority 3. Expansion and adaptation of Statewide longitudinal data systems.   The Department asks how the State plans to expand statewide longitudinal data systems to include or integrate data from special education programs, limited English proficiency programs, early childhood programs, human resources, finance, health, postsecondary, and other relevant areas, with the purpose of allowing important questions related to policy or practice to be asked and answered.
  • Priority 4. Coordination and vertical alignment.  In essence, this priority is to ensure that students exiting one level are prepared for success, without remediation, in the next.
  • Priority 5. School-level conditions for reform and innovation.  This priority is designed to encourage flexibility and innovation in selecting staff, implementing new daily schedules, awarding course credit to students on student performance, & providing comprehensive services to high-need students.

You will find a good summary in Education Week of how the Race to the Top will stress the use of test data to determine the effectiveness of any proposal or program at the State and LEA level.   In fact, there is a separate competition for $350 million of the Race Fund money to stimulate a movement to develop “common student assessments.”  As I mentioned in another post, these “common students assessments” will be linked to the development of “common-standards.”  Forty-eight states have signed on to this movement.

Clearly, there is a lot of money available for education.  But as you look closely at the details, it is evident that national tests, based on a set of common academic standards, will be used to establish the bar used to measure any program or project, and will be used to tie student achievement to teacher and school performance.   Trying to link student achievement to teacher effectiveness and salary has always raised a red flag for me.  I wrote about this in an earlier post (Is student achievement the measure of teacher effectiveness) in March, and called into question how student achievement data can be used as the measure of teacher effectiveness. Somehow, is should only be a part of the evaluation process.  Surely, there is more to school learning than achievement test results.

Nevertheless, the Race to the Top is here, and will be implemented.  What are some of your opinions about the Race Fund?  What race are we talking about here?  Is this a reformulation of No Child Left Behind?  Instead of not leaving anyone behind, we’ll all race forward?  What do you think?

Dr. Joe Abruscato: He Delighted in Teaching Because He Knew It Was Beautiful

I want to tell you about one of my closest friends—Dr. Joe Abruscato—and how he influenced me in my journey through life.

Joe and I met in graduate school at The Ohio State University (OSU) in 1967. We were part of a group of high school science teachers who had come from various school districts around the United States to study science & science education under the auspices of a National Science Foundation Academic Year Program directed by Dr John Richardson, professor & head of the Department of Science & Mathematics Education. A number of us were invited to stay on after the academic year program to pursue a Ph.D. in science education.

I came from Massachusetts, and Joe came from New Jersey. We quickly became friends, and indeed we did our doctoral research for our Ph.D. as a team, investigating student and teacher classroom actions and behavior in 9th grade science classes using video tape technology. We actually set up two VCR systems in each classroom, one focused on the teacher, and the other on the students in an attempt to find relationships among their behaviors. we analysed the video tapes using observational instruments we had developed inductively in an earlier pilot study. This work started us on a pathway of collaboration in writing, teaching, seminar and workshop presentations, and research over the next thirty years.

During this early phase in our carees, Joe and I focused our beliefs about teaching and learning on a humanistic framework as articulated by humanistic psychologists including Carl Rogers And Abraham Maslow. I became very involved with two humanistic organizations which profoundly influenced our work.

The first book that Joe and I wrote together was entitled Loving and Beyond: Science Teaching for the Humanistic Classroom, which we published with Goodyear Publishing Company, in 1976. The humanistic philosophy we were studying emerged as the paradigm for this groundbreaking science education book.

There is a quote in the book that describes beautifully the view that Joe had of teaching and learning, and that he carried into all phases of his professional life. It is one of my favorite quotes, and is by H. Poincare.

This is the cover of our first book. This was the first of many future writing projects that engaged us in science teaching.

Here it is:

The Scientist Does Not Study Nature Because It Is Useful;

He Studies It Because He Delights In IT, And He Delights In It

Because It Is Beautiful

Although we were professors at different universities, Joe at The University of Vermont, and me at Georgia State University, we spent a lot of time together writing, teaching, and doing research.

Over the years we created opportunities for us to teach with each other through sabbatical leaves at our respective universities. Joe came to Georgia State University in 1975 and 1982, and I joined him at the University of Vermont in 1984. Here is what we looked like in 1975 which we were together at Florida State University working on science writing projects. We had just finished the first draft of Loving & Beyond, and were sharing a moment when this picture was taken. The picture shown here is found on the last page of Loving and Beyond.

Jack and Joe (on the right) in 1975 at Florida State University.  We were known for our very smart attire!
Jack and Joe (on the right) in 1975 at Florida State University. We were not known for our sharp attire!

In the early days, the telephone was the technology of choice if you wanted to communicate with each other, and we did a very good job in tracking each other down to discuss our work. One day Joe called and said he saw an advertisement in the New York Times from an unnamed publisher seeking writers for a new elementary science program. By that time we published Loving and Beyond, and had just published the Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science Activities. We agreed to submit our names, and we sent copies of our books along to the address on the advertisement. A few weeks later, we received a phone call from Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishers in New York indicating they wanted to meet with us at the upcoming National Science Teachers Association meeting being held in Cincinnati. The meeting apparently was successful as we were invited to New York a month later, and signed a contract to design, and write a K – 6 elementary science program, which became known as Holt Science. Don Peck, a science coordinator from New Jersey and Joan Fossaceca, an elementary teacher from Ohio joined to comprise the writing team.

The Holt Science experience enabled Joe and I to work with teachers from all around the United States, and it afforded the opportunity to have our work reach lots of elementary-age students. We wrote the Holt Science program from scratch, resulting in 7 textbooks, teacher guides, and ancillary materials for Kindergarten through grade 6. Joe was an important force in the development of the texts and teacher guides. We went on to publish several editions of the books over the next 15 years. But more importantly to me, I met my wife, Mary-Alice, through the Holt Science Program and we were married in December 1984.

One of the most important projects for Joe and I was the development and writing of the Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science Activities. It was an over-sized book of science learning that we published in 1977, and went through enumerable printings. We published a second edition in 1992, and as of this day, it is still in print. The Whole Cosmos embodied Joe’s enthusiasm for children and for teaching, as is evident in the cover of the book.

For years Joe and I presented workshops on science teaching at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association. These were annual workshops on some aspect of science teaching that related to our work in humanistic science teaching.

Joe was a leader in the use of computers in science education, and later the technology related to the internet. In fact, in 1986, Joe published his book, Children, Computers, and Science Teaching: Butterflies and Bytes.

One of the most wonderful experiences that Joe and I had was teaching in paradise. Dr. Marlene Hapai invited us to teach in a summer science teacher preparation program for elementary and secondary teachers in Hawaii. For five summers in the 1990s, Joe and I, and Mary-Alice flew to Hawaii, and taught in Hilo at the University of Hawaii in Marlene’s science education program. Although Joe and I taught separately, here we were together in an unbelievable world.

At the core of Joe Abruscato was intelligence and humor brought together delightfully as a teacher in a classroom, or as the presenter to the large group of teachers in the ballroom of a hotel. He was effusive in our conversations, and full of energy and exuberance in all things.

From the Cover of Loving & Beyond

In the words of H. Poincare,

Joe studied science teaching because he delighted in it, and he delighted in it because he knew that science teaching was beautiful.

He was a gentle man, and he did smell the flowers.

Joe, I know you are with us, and I know that we shall meet again–my dear friend.