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Persistent Failure to Address the Roots of the Problem

Persistent Failure to Address the Roots of the Low Performance Problem || John Merrifield || February 16, 2015

A recent journey through my archives produced a 2009 Ronald Wolk (founder of Education Week) article marking the 25th Anniversary of the first ‘Nation at Risk’ report. Wolk discussed the five assumptions he thought caused us to fail to address the Roots of the Low Performance Problem. I will summarize the five assumptions, comment, and add one to the list.

Assumption #1.) The best way to improve student performance is through higher standards. Like some of the other assumptions, it was a perhaps convenient and easy-to-sell idea that poorly performing people, rather than badly evolved governance and funding processes, were the main problem. That premise meant we just needed to get tough. Our schools would produce better results if we expected more and held educators accountable for the results the system produced. It meant putting more pressure on the poorly conceived governance and funding process. It was the wrong prescription, and we didn’t impose much accountability.

Assumption #2.) More standardized testing would be helpful, and we should use the scores to measure student progress and assess educator effectiveness. As an imperfect partial measure, more frequent standardized testing and increased reliance on such tests to inform decision-making predictably led to increased student alienation, teacher burnout, and narrowing of the curriculum to focus limited school time, increasingly, on test-taking skills, and the specific subject content actually tested. It also led to test-taking fraud, with the discovered incidences likely being just a fraction of what actually took place.

Assumption #3.) We need to increase the number of highly qualified teachers. Sure! But is it feasible, at any cost, through training, to significantly improve the effectiveness of teachers in the typical circumstances of traditional public school (TPS) classrooms? Sorting children into TPS classrooms by age and neighborhood, only, (and mainstreaming all students but the most severely disabled) puts a premium on teacher ability to differentiate instruction to address the resulting within-classroom, student diversity. But such differentiation has always seemed insanely difficult, and now we see public pronouncements that, indeed, differentiation doesn’t work nearly often enough. Many teachers refuse, and all that differentiation means to many teachers is dumb down instruction to reach more of the slower students. In fact, the problem may not be ‘slower’ per se, but just students un-engaged in the mainstream pedagogy or bored by the absence of an engaging subject theme; for example, sports is a theme, among many, that would improve engagement and progress for some children.

Assumption #4.) Improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills by forcing all children to take more rigorous classes. But the willingness to engage in difficult, abstract-reasoning-related pursuits, especially for support subjects like algebra must come from a passion for where the acquired capabilities will lead. Forced improvement in STEM-related subjects is a recipe for the opposite; indignation and disengagement.

Assumption #5.) ‘Get-tough’ is also the answer to the drop-out problem; for example, ending social promotion and raising the mandatory attendance age. I am against deception, so I support ending social promotion as part of school system reform. I believe in truth in labelling. Also, we financed drop-out prevention, which sadly didn’t mean provide engaging alternatives. It meant, somehow keep the at-risk in an environment they want to escape; where they are not thriving; an environment that is not a good fit for them.

Assumption #6.) To Ronald Wolk’s five, I will add just a sixth, for now: All of the prominent school reform plans and school system reform proposals I’ve seen, including those supported by Mr. Wolk, assume we can orchestrate a high-performing, relentlessly improving school system through a central planning process. We persist in the so-far heroic assumption that schooling will somehow, eventually do what no other private good industry (yes, schooling is a merit good – a private good – not a ‘public good’) has ever done; perform at a high level without the decentralized planning through market-driven price change and entrepreneurial initiative that is a common denominator of history’s high-performing industries.

Assumptions can be terrible masters and major barriers to progress, especially unrecognized assumptions. We desperately need to successfully identify and challenge them.

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