Monday, February 13, 2012

Vouchers, direct instruction and standardized testing

"Standardized exams serve mostly to make dreadful froms of teaching appear successful."

-Alfie Kohn

Edmonton Journal blogger David Staples wrote a post titled "Redford will be dealing a blow to elementary students if the government axes provincial achievement tests."

Staples laments Alberta's newly elected Premier Alison Redford's campaign promise to do away with grade 3 and 6 provincial achievement tests. He is also critical that Redford's education minister Thomas Lukaszuk is currently reviewing how provincial achievement tests are conducted.

Before any changes are made, David Staples implores Redford to consult with all kinds of experts on testing, including Mark Holmes, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

I had never heard of Mark Holmes so I googled him and found that he is an honorary patron with The Society for Quality Education (SQE). Here's what I learned.

Essentially, SQE believes the root of the problem in public schools is child-centered learning. They believe that progressive education that encourages children to play an active role in constructing an understanding from the inside out while interacting with others is nothing more than a fad.

Holmes and SQE are critical of the idea that learning should be customized to meet the individual needs and interests of each student. They are unimpressed that child-centered learning is designed to be fun, engaging and hands-on.

They go on to make the sweeping generalization that girls tend to respond well to child-centered learning, but low-income students and boys suffer.

It's important to note that the only evidence they use to claim any of this are standardized test scores.

So what is their solution? Holmes and SQE want public education to get back to the basics with more emphasis on reading, writing and numeracy with a strong focus on direct instruction and lecturing, including phonics, drills, and rote learning.

The way forward, they suggest, is by taking money from the provincial public schools' budget and provide parents with school vouchers. The idea being that funding would follow the student to whichever school the families choose, which would force schools to place a portion of their already scarce resources towards competing against each other to attract students.

It's been said before that the real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure ideology and mother nature hasn't misled us into thinking something that you don't actually know. I'm all for changing and improving education, but is there any evidence that endorses a 'back to basics' learning environment with school vouchers?

In the U.S., Milwaukee's voucher program was launched in 1998 and now serves 20,000 low income students and remains the longest-running program in the United States. In Milwaukee, the voucher program claimed to have two goals: the first was to provide a better education for poor children and the second was to create a competitive market among public schools, forcing all schools to improve. The theory being a rising tide would lift all boats.

Milwaukee has had vouchers for years, so it might be interesting to see whether they have fulfilled their mandate. American education historian Diane Ravitch writes, "Milwaukee's 21-year experiment has demonstrated that competition did not cause all boats to rise." Even if standardized test scores told us all we needed to know about these schools (and they don't), students in Milwaukee public schools continue to get higher scores than students in voucher schools. Vouchers fail even when held to their own unimaginative and narrow criteria (standardized test scores).

Pedro Noguera is a Professor of Education at New York University where his research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. Noguera explains that there are problems with using vouchers as a means to improve schools for poor children. He writes:
The problem with using vouchers as a means to expand access to quality schools for poor children is that it is based on the premise that parents are the one's who do the choosing. The truth of the matter is that schools are the ones who choose and not parents. 
When a low-income parent shows up at a private school, especially an elite school with few poor children of color, there is no guarantee that their child will be chosen for admission - even if the parent has a voucher. This is particularly true if the child has learning disabilities, behavior problems or doesn't speak English very well. As we've seen with many charter schools, such children are often under-served because they are harder to serve and possession of a voucher won't change that. Many private schools maintain quality through selective admissions and vouchers won't change that either. 
Moreover, choice assumes that a parent has access to information on the choices available and transportation. Neither of these can be assumed. Many parents choose a school based on how close it is to their home or work, rather than the school's reputation. Many are unwilling to send their children to schools in neighborhoods far from their homes, particularly if transportation is not provided.
The irony here is that organizations like the SQE, political parties like the Wild Rose Alliance and other American Education Deformers, continue to prop up vouchers in the face of mounting evidence against their use.

Vouchers and choice tend to benefit those who have already "won the lottery" and often alienates and marginalizes those who can least afford it. Competition and the free market is for the strong. Public education is for all. See the problem?
So if vouchers haven't proven to help poor children learn better, will a 'back to basics' movement help them?

I've heard a lot of people complain about school. I've worked with unhappy parents and angry students who have shared with me how they have been wounded by school. I've listened to politicians and policy-makers describe why schools need to improve. In fact, I spend a good chunk of my time on my blog writing about how school should look a little less like school.

I even participated in Alberta Education's Inspiring Action that engages Albertans in a dialogue about transforming our education system, but I have never, and I mean never, heard anyone ever suggest that what school needs is more lectures, more direct instruction, more worksheets, more textbook drills and more rote learning.

When I hear someone say that we need to get back to basics, my immediate response is "when did we leave?" In his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn writes:
Proponents of traditional education often complain that the model they favor is on the wane. They're apt to describe themselves as a brave minority under siege, fighting an uphill battle for old-fashioned methods that have been driven out of the schools by an educational establishment united in its desire for radical change.
Such claims are understandable as a political strategy; it's always rhetorically advantageous to position yourself as outside the establishment and to describe whatever you oppose as "fashionable." To those of us who spend time in real schools, though, claims about the dominance of progressive teaching represent an inversion of the truth so audacious as to be downright comical. As we slip into a new century, traditional education is alive and well - as I see it - damaging a whole new generation of students. If this isn't always obvious, it may be because we rarely think about how many aspects of education could be different but aren't. What we take for granted as being necessary features of the school experiences are actually reflections of one kind of schooling - the traditional kind. 
Consider: Just as we did, our kids spend most of their time in school with children their own age. Most of high school instruction is still divided into 45-50 minute periods. Students still have very little to say about what they will do and how they will learn. Good behaviour or meritorious academic performance, as determined unilaterally by adults, is still rewarded; deviations are still punished. Grades are still handed out; awards assemblies are still held. Students are still "tracked," particularly in the older grades, so that some take honors and advanced placement courses while others get "basic" this and "remedial" that. Kids may be permitted to learn in groups periodically, but at the end of the day eyes must still be kept on one's own paper. Even from a purely physical standpoint, schools today look much as they did decades ago.
While it's true that traditional education can be found in rich and poor communities, the truth is that poor children are often subjected to poor teaching more often than their affluent peers.

In his article The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman writes about a typical form of teaching that has become accepted as basic. Children living in poverty are often provided a wealth of ritualistic routines that have teachers lecture, test and punish non-compliance while the students play a passive, seated role of regurgitating factual information. In this environment, Haberman explains, students can 'succeed' without ever becoming engaged or thoughtful.

Like Haberman, author Jonathan Kozol adds: "The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality," while inner-city kids "are trained for non-reflective acquiescence." Paulo Freire's book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed further outlines the oppressive nature of an education that is simply done to us by someone else.

Debra Stipek, dean of School Education at Stanford University puts it this way: "Drill-and-skill is not how middle class children got their edge, so why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn't help middle class kids in the first place?"

In his article Poor Teaching for Poor Children... in the name of Reform, Alfie Kohn outlines a stinging indictment of the sit-and-get, spew-and-forget characteristics of a traditional education. Kohn writes:
The pedagogy of poverty is not what’s best for the poor. There’s plenty of precedent. A three-year study (published by the U.S. Department of Education) of 140 elementary classrooms with high concentrations of poor children found that students whose teachers emphasized “meaning and understanding” were far more successful than those who received basic-skills instruction. The researchers concluded by decisively rejecting “schooling for the children of poverty . . . [that] emphasizes basic skills, sequential curricula, and tight control of instruction by the teacher.
Learning is not like instant mashed potatoes; kids have not been through an industrial process of cooking, mashing and dehydrating to yield packaged convenience learning that can be reconstituted in the classroom in seconds by simply adding direct instruction and testing.
To suggest that school for any student, regardless of their socio-economic status, needs to be less actively child-centered and more passive not only ignores 60 years of research, but it also borders somewhere between ridiculous and asinine.

As for standardized tests, they tell us as much about learning as reality television tells us about reality. Very little of what matters most in schools can be reduced to a number, and as long as we continue to stifle the education debate by limiting ourselves to the narrow measurements of standardized tests, cancerous and destructive forms of education reform will continue to look appealing. As one educational researcher put it, "Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning."

A rule of thumb I use: A person's understanding for standardized testing rapidly diminishes with their demands to test younger and younger children. Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old.

Anyone who suggests that 5 year olds should be tested as soon as they enter school, followed by annual testing clearly hasn't paid attention to the cancerous effects of 10 years of No Child Left Behind's testing policies in the United States. Nor have they been paying attention to China's recent desire to liberate their nation from standardized testing's reign of terror. Like those who favor vouchers and direct instruction, pro-standardized testers are unfazed by research or real life -- for them, ideology trumps reason.

It's interesting that support for standardized testing intensifies the further you get from the students. There's a reason for this -- standardized test scores provide people who have absolutely no desire to spend time with children the opportunity to judge and control what goes on inside of schools without ever stepping foot in schools.

It makes little sense to pursue reform strategies such as vouchers, direct instruction and standardized testing which are absent in countries with the most successful education systems. As an Albertan who is both a parent and an educator, I would rather Premier Redford and Minister Lukaszuk spend their time with more informed and inspring people than those who are willing to advance their ideology and play politics with education at our children's peril.

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