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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 04/26/2010

Willingham: Stanford charter school and 'confirmation bias'

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
Part of what makes the blogosphere so vibrant is that there are so few rules about posting. But that is also what makes it tiresome.

That was especially apparent when the Stanford New Schools, so called because it was created and overseen by Stanford University’s school of education and founded by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, was denied an extension of its charter. This event led to a blog fest, most exhibiting the confirmation bias.

The confirmation bias is a tendency to (1) seek out evidence that confirms your beliefs and (2) interpret ambiguous evidence so that it confirms your beliefs.

For example, suppose an older female supervisor is criticizing a younger male employee in a store. An observer happening on the scene has no idea of its cause, but still might draw an unjustified conclusion about it, based on prior beliefs. Someone who thinks kids today are generally lazy would be sure that the employee deserved a chewing out. A misogynist would conclude that the woman was acting bitchy.

The Stanford New Schools story is a Rorschach ink blot, waiting for the beliefs of the viewer to give it shape and meaning.

Education conservatives can point to the school’s abysmally low scores on California’s standardized tests, and point out (either with glee or with artificial dolor) that this outcome was all too predictable, given the school’s philosophy of child-centered learning.

Education liberals can point to the school’s excellent high school graduation and college matriculation rates and point out (either with self-righteousness or with anger) that the school’s closing is a predictable consequence of the current obsession with standardized test scores.

I’ve even seen the argument that the low test scores are badge of honor, because they show that the school would not stoop to drilling students, or to cheating on standardized tests.

There is probably some truth in both perspectives.The graduation and college matriculation rates make it look like the school was getting students to take school seriously, and to want to continue. It looks like the school got kids from underprivileged backgrounds to believe “school is a place for me, a place that I belong.”

This is no mean feat and should not be dismissed.

At the same time, the low scores on the California Standards Test indicate academic content wasn’t getting through. That can’t be shrugged off either. Although I find it hard to argue that the school was basically succeeding, I sure don’t know why, nor whether or not it should have been closed.

The decision to close the school ought to be based on an evaluation of what the problems are and the plausibility of the plan to fix it. Is the problem poor leadership from the administration? Poor support for teachers? Ineffective lesson plans? A bad curriculum? How long will it take to fix the problems? What reason is there to expect the fixes will succeed?

None of this was reported in the press, so it’s not really possible to analyze what’s going on at the school with any subtlety.

But Stanford and Linda Darling-Hammond are symbols, the former because it has the top-ranked education school in the nation, the latter because she’s a public intellectual and was President Obama’s education advisor during the campaign. They are icons of progressivism in education.

Most of us already have strong beliefs on these topics, and so when new, ambiguous information is presented, it is hard not to interpret it in light of our beliefs.

Sure, it’s noteworthy that a charter school run by Stanford is in trouble, but drawing broader conclusions about what actually happened in the absence of more information seems foolhardy.

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 26, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, Linda Darling-Hammong, Stanford charter school, charter schools, guest bloggers  
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I would place more emphasis on long term results. If the students have higher graduation rates and more are successful in college, doesn't that matter more?

Remember Houston's Thaddeus Lott and his highly touted "success" with Wesley Elementary? He was the darling of the hour on Oprah and 60 Minutes about 15 or so years ago because he got high test scores out of a neighborhood full of "hopeless" cases. But when the district started a followup study of kids who attended his school, they had to quietly drop it because it turned out they had a higher than average dropout rate (even within their SE group) and their test scores and grades plummeted in middle school; they were not prepared for the academic demands. It's a dirty little secret in Houston ISD.

High standardized test scores can serve as a useful indicator of what has been learned, and that's what they were originally designed to do. But it's no big trick for even a very poor teacher to get high scores out of a class, if that's all she focuses on, and an excellent teacher and brilliant kids might not necessarily get the highest scores.

Posted by: aed3 | April 26, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Human development is pretty straight forward. Mothers gestating babies have to eat well and eschew no nos like drugs, salt, sugar, and fats to give birth to a child that lives up to their genetic potential. Next the child's brain, which neuro-biologists and sociologists agree is a ganglia that develops or atrophies depending on whether it is appropriately stimulated by language and other forms of human interaction in a timely manner. The longer students are allowed to move through school without timely foundational educational skills being developed, the more likely irreparable damage is being done. Because this permissive waste of our youths' intellectual potential predominantly effects poor minority inner city youth, one is loathe to state the obvious that at a certain point no model of public education can turn around years of tolerated damage to this country's greatest asset. In the discussion about public education reform, the meaningless debate about whether charters are good or bad avoids the real issue, which is why we treat long failed public school districts as "too big to fail" or be reform while we continue to propose non sequitur reforms that would not be necessary if we addressed the underlying school district problem. At we deal with the reality of what is wrong in public education and how to fix it.

Posted by: lenny25 | April 26, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

You are right that we all bring our own preconceived notions with us when we analyze a situation, even when there are not a lot of facts.

Students will show growth on standardized tests when they are taught the information and the format of the test. All school systems with high test scores do this to some extent.

If many of the kids were going on to college and graduating, that is important. I find it hard to conceive of a child centered program that would be able to teach to the test if they were truly child centered. The standardized tests have to be prepped for all year, if you want the kids to achieve high grades.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 26, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

This story reminds me of something that happened to me at the beginning of my teaching career:

The fifth grade teacher next door to me had students who scored much higher than mine on the standardized tests. I couldn't understand what she was doing that I wasn't so I discussed lessons with her, asked for ideas and even watched her teach. I didn't see her doing anything that I wasn't doing and yet she continued to get much higher scores. MUCH higher.

One day this teacher told me that she had been promoted to principal and was going to give me her box of educational materials. That night I excitedly opened the box and at the bottom was a xeroxed copy of the standardized test!!!

The Washington Post and other newspapers can do schools a big favor by NOT reporting on any state tests unless there is some outside corroboration. Most of these scores are probably invalid. The Stanford school could have been "bad" or it could have refused to teach the specific items on the test. We really don't know.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 26, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

It is so great to have a psychology professor looking at these issues from the standpoint of what science has learned about human behavior. I would add to confirmation bias the concept of belief perseverance, which is out tendency to continue to adhere rigidly to our beliefs despite evidence to the contrary.
That said, a school, progressive or not, had better be able to point to student competency on standardized tests if it wants to get outside funding.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 26, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I have been teaching at East Palo Alto Academy High school for 7 years, and I was a teacher for 7 years before that. Contrary to the inaccurate news reports, EPAA is a highly successful small school in a high-need community. Although our school has one of the highest poverty rates and lowest parent education levels in the state (2/3 of our parents have less than a high school education), we graduated 86% of our students last year -- well above the state average -- and we had 96% of our graduates admitted to college, most of them to 4-year universities. I teach Spanish at the school, and in our AP Spanish class, we have had 85-100% pass rates on the AP exam for the last six years.

This success is possible because of the more personalized attention we can give our students. Each one has an advisor who works with them for 4 years, and the advisor is available to students and parents all the time to support academic and personal needs. In bigger schools, I taught 150 students every day. It was impossible to establish strong relationships with all of them, even with enormous effort. By comparison, at EPAA, I have the opportunity to fully connect to each student and each family, and that relationship allows me to pinpoint the supports that students need. Even after the students graduate, we continue to support them, financially and emotionally. When they run into issues at college, they call their advisors. At EPAA HS, we no only want our students to be accepted and go to college; we want them to graduate from college! We keep the parents strongly involved, we run bilingual monthly parent meetings where we offer a myriad of classes for the parents such as nutrition, ESL, technology, legal rights and immigration to name a few. This involvement is much more difficult in big schools, which is why hundreds of parents and students turned out to support the school at the local board meeting a few weeks ago.

Fortunately, the Ravenswood board recognizes the strong value EPAA high school has brought to the community and voted last week to approve an extension to the charter. Our school is open and will continue to serve the community.

In addition, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond has only worked with my site, the high school. We were all very sad when she left her EPAA HS advisor position in spring of 2008 to work on The Obama campaign and transition team. She just came back to the high school a few months ago. Furthermore, Stanford New Schools began long after she helped co-found the high school. Stanford’s dean, Deborah Stipek, who chairs it, started SNS. Dr Linda Darling-Hammond has not even been on the board the last two years. But why don’t you visit the high school and meet the students and see what is going in the classrooms instead of writing misleading blogs and attacks on Dr. Darling- Hammond? Maybe, then, you can write a factual piece about my school.

Misla Barco
Spanish Teacher
Community Liaison

Posted by: mbarco | April 27, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

Quite aside from debating the merit of standardized tests used to "measure" the success of Stanford New Schools and other schools like it, it's interesting to note that the SNS elementary school is only three years old. Its scores at this stage are the same as those of other schools, now lauded as highly successful charters, at the same "age."

We should be looking at what role the Stanford New Schools play in the community, for the students they serve:

Posted by: agladinkramer | April 27, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

I took a different slant in my blog-

The Stanford New Schools are part of a slew of charters in the Ravenswood District. Each of them takes funds from that district.
Since the Stanford scores were low, the district had the right to not renew their charter and hence recoup some of the funding that went to them. There is a grand jury report on how charters fair in East Palo Alto that I reference in my blog. It was done last summer and actually recommends the continuation of all the charters but mentions the financial drain on the district

Posted by: murshap | April 27, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

One of the essential points missed by those celebrating SNS's challenges is that the school was first founded as a high school - highly successful by any metric, including test scores. The recent lower scores were in the much newer elementary grades, and these were frankly not much different from the startup issues experienced in many other new schools. Barnett Berry's new blog post has more:

Posted by: AD14 | April 27, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

There has been much misinformation circulating in recent weeks about the operation of the Stanford University’s charter schools in East Palo Alto, California. Dan Willingham’s recent blog includes some of this misinformation, mischaracterizing its history and stating, incorrectly, that the school has lost its charter. 

To set the record straight: In 2001, Stanford University was invited by the Ravenswood Elementary School District to develop a charter high school in the East Palo Alto community. The community had been without a high school since 1976, when its community high school was closed due to desegregation. Students from the district (at that time 100 percent African American) were bussed out to surrounding districts from which most of them failed to graduate.

The East Palo Alto Academy High School (EPAAHS) was founded in 2001 and one of the co-founders was Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was joined by other Stanford faculty and by Don Shalvey, then head of Aspire Public Schools in launching the school. By 2008, the high school had a graduation rate of 86 percent—well above the state average of 80 percent overall; a college admission rate of 96 percent of graduates; with 53 percent admitted to 4-year colleges, more than twice the rate for California students as a whole; and achievement scores higher than 70 percent of schools serving similar students.

In 2006, a nonprofit organization called Stanford New Schools was formed to launch an elementary school, which was joined with the high school to form one K-12 charter. (Darling-Hammond did not launch Stanford New Schools and was not involved in the work of the elementary school, although she served as a high school advisor and member of its board until 2008, when she left to work on the Obama campaign and transition.) 

When the charter renewal date came up this spring, EPAA Elementary was three years old and had only two years of test results for a few grades. While growing a program much appreciated by its parents, who turned out by the hundreds to support the school at a Ravenswood board meeting in mid-April, the school’s test scores were lower than those of the high school and of longer-established elementary schools in the district.

The Ravenswood City School Board voted 3-2 on April 14 to deny a five-year renewal of the charter, voicing concern about the achievement in the elementary grades but strong support for the high school and its successes. The board then voted 4-1 to explore a revision of the charter to allow the school to continue with modifications, which it then passed on April 22.  The modified charter will continue the upper elementary and high school grades. The school expects to serve the community for many years to come. 

Barbara McKenna, Stanford University

Posted by: barbaramckenna | April 28, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Misla & Barbara: Many thanks for correcting my errors and providing better information on this issue.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | April 28, 2010 11:48 PM | Report abuse

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