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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/ 8/2010

Obama ed "blueprint" will widen achievement gaps

By Valerie Strauss

My guests are Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the misuse and flaws of standardized testing.

By Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill
At a time when the gaps between educational haves and have-nots are as stark as at any time in our nation’s history, President Obama's and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s blueprint for intervening in our most troubled schools promises to widen these gaps.

The Blueprint fueled hopes for real change by eliminating NCLB’s disastrous adequate yearly progress mechanism. It’s too bad AYP wasn’t killed while the law was being written, when it was first noticed that it would paint nearly all schools as failures. (See FairTest’s 2004 NCLB report on why.) But scrapping it now is better than never.

Duncan aims to correct AYP’s absurdly broad-brush approach by focusing on the 5%-10% of schools doing worst on state tests. This has both common sense and political appeal. Why not get off the backs of schools that are doing pretty well and focus attention on the worst of the worst?

But what are we really talking about when we talk about the worst schools?

With all the hype about schools that “beat the odds,” overcome poverty and close gaps in test scores, it’s easy to forget what research continues to confirm. As James Coleman found in his landmark 1966 education study, what test scores measure better than anything else is socioeconomic status (SES). So the bottom tier are inevitably schools serving largely poor, urban students of color.

Of course, many of those schools do need help. It would be a great thing if federal education law responded to this reality by creating a way to precisely identify the needs of the children, their families and their schools, and make long-term investments to provide them with essential resources, support and guidance. This is an approach advocated by FairTest, the Forum on Educational Accountability and others.

But here’s where common sense takes a holiday. The Blueprint’s response is to tighten the screws on these schools. If they continue to score low, they must choose from a menu of snake oil ’remedies,’ many unproven, and some well-proven failures, such as firing and replacing a school’s staff or closing and reopening a school as a charter school.

Though initially hyped as successful, Secretary Duncan’s use of similar interventions in Chicago now has been revealed as a failure, with little to no progress in achievement and increases in dislocation and youth violence.

Researchers have hunted for evidence that these or similar approaches have succeeded in the past and found none.

So the blueprint’s remedies promise to ensure that the children of the poor are trapped in schools doing all the destructive things we’ve already seen under NCLB. Desperate to avoid this list of devastating interventions, they will keep right on narrowing teaching and learning to what’s on the test, with little time or resources for the richer, more engaging curriculum poor kids deserve as much as anyone.

The good news is that releasing all but the lowest performing schools from AYP will at least partially free many schools that serve the children of middle class and affluent families from the pressure to focus on boosting test scores in math and reading.

What resources exist could be put back into areas deemed luxuries and therefore eliminated under NCLB--things like social studies, art, music, physical education and recess. Writing, reading and math might again be more than endless practice for test questions, which has affected wealthier districts too.

The worst news is that by trapping the poorest children in NCLB’s negative cycle and somewhat freeing the rest, we will only add to what Jonathan Kozol called "The Shame of the Nation," widening gaps in educational opportunity and quality.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 8, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Lisa Guisbond  | Tags:  Duncan and blueprint, Duncan and school reform, FairTest, Fairtest, No Child Left Behind, Obama and blueprint, Obama and school reform, Obama's blueprint, Race to the Top  
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Ok - you've got the research behind you, plus it's common sense - so what are you going to do about it besides write columns?

I don't mean to disparage your efforts; I want you to increase and target them so they can do some good.

Get into the White House.

Posted by: efavorite | April 8, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

This column seems out of touch. The ESEA reauthorization includes encouraging the adoption of the new common standards and new assessments, both of which are far richer and broader in terms of content and assessment than the current standards and tests. Furthermore, the author seems to accept that socioeconomic status is destiny. A number of schools, many of them charter, but not all, have proven that low income students can achieve at high levels. Why shouldn't the government insist that the lowest performing schools be fixed or shut down? Why should "our children" be condemned to spending year after year in those institutions? They won't be trapped there, especially since closing them is one powerful option on the table. Would you prefer they sit there with no tests and no accountability, like "the good old days?" Yes, some approaches taken in Chicago did not work, but we now have models that have worked (Yes Prep, KIPP, Aspire, Noyes Elementary in DC). Let's look at those and try to apply what's worked in those schools to these failing 5-10%.

Posted by: emilymb1 | April 8, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

To efavorite and other readers,

In answer to the question of what else FairTest is doing, we've been working with allies - the Forum on Educational Accountability and Rethink Learning Now, for example - to persuade the Administration and Congress to overhaul NCLB. Writing columns is part but not all of what we do. What we say sounds like common sense to some, but appears "out of touch" to others.

Those who agree on the need for change can help by calling and/or meeting with their members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, or simply talking to friends and neighbors about the need to push hard, now, for NCLB reform.

Posted by: guisbond | April 8, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

The authors appropriately challenge the Blueprint's demands, which, like Race to the Top, require that states and districts implement the very programs that have failed in Chicago.

They are also appropriately skeptical that we will actually end up with "richer assessments." The Blueprint offers no safeguards against an ever increasing focus on tests, and actually ratchets up the testing stakes by connecting testing to teacher evaluation.

Offering a handful of novelty schools' supposed success stories to counterbalance the consistently negative results of national research into charters and turnarounds is a lightweight political response to the serious requirements of our common civic responsibility to educate all children.

Often the "old school" approach is the best one. It's not about "fixing" a school (most of the "miracles" by self-proclaimed fixers like Paul Vallas and Michelle Rhee don't hold up under scrutiny). It's about providing the appropriate resources, supports, and accountability systems and not creating even more obstacles -- which is unfortunately what will happen if this version of ESEA becomes law.

Posted by: JWoestehoff | April 8, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Lisa, for the call to action and good to know that you are out there doing something about the situation.

Posted by: efavorite | April 8, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

To Guisbond:

I agree with eFavorite, what are you doing? As far as asking us to write letters to the editor---it should be perfectly clear from this article and others as well that the Washington Post and its writers and editorial board will NOT address or respond to them. While I agree with your article in many respects I am just as irritated as eFavorite. How can you seriously purport to care and write about issues like the achievement gap in the Washington Post located in Washington DC and fail to mention the fact that DCPS has the largest achievement gaps in the nation based as evidenced by the 2009 4th grade NAEP Math test, the same test that the Washington Post has touted again and again as proof of effective reform.

How can you, in good conscience, write about the achievement gap in the main Washington DC newspaper and NOT MENTION DCPS? eFavorite was absolutely justified to question you. This "answer sheet" column in general is guilty of the same thing. It takes strong stances on issues but then won't mention at all how it relates to DCPS. So, what is the point?

A friend of mine calls me Don Quixote because writing letters, making presentations, writing and talking to reporters goes nowhere and is never in print. However, the same thing is true for this column. It may be against standardized testing, achievement gaps, etc, but it will never ever say it in reference to DCPS which under Michelle Rhee may be the most guilty of any school system in the nation. Continue to strike out against Florida, Rhode Island, Texas, etc.---all windmills in effect and continue to refuse to address what is happening in your own city. I would be willing to bet that eFavorite and myself to a lesser extent has written and tried hard to advocate what we believe with great risk to ourselves and careers.

Posted by: mfalcon | April 8, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Keep telling the truth, Valerie. Hopefully WaPo won't come down on it for it.

Posted by: resc | April 8, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

In Valerie's defense - I suspect WaPo has come down hard on Bill Turque for telling the truth about Michelle Rhee. If you notice he has really softened up in discussing her actions.

They may do the same thing to Valerie if she tells the truth about DCPS.

Posted by: resc | April 8, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

mfalcon & eFavorite:

Don Quixote (from Wikipedia)

"As a founding work of modern Western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published."

Look at it this way... the Chancellor has consistently ignored centuries worth of study and research in Education that is supported by the most respected institutions and schools of education in the world. Her policies favor the simplistic and politically expedient business model that has made the phrase, "She graduated from the Business School", a routine response of The Harvard School of Education students, faculty, and alumnus.

Furthermore, the Chancellor has refused to directly defend her most cherished policies in an academic forum of experienced educators. So... Who is chasing windmills?

(more from Wikipedia)

"Although the two parts are now normally published as a single work, Don Quixote, Part Two was actually a sequel published ten years after the original novel. The Don and Sancho are now assumed to be famous throughout the land because of the adventures recounted in Part One. While Part One was mostly farcical, the second half is more serious and philosophical about the theme of deception. Don Quixote's imaginings are made the butt of outrageously cruel practical jokes carried out by wealthy patrons. Even Sancho is unintentionally forced to deceive him at one point. Trapped into finding Dulcinea, Sancho brings back three dirty and ragged peasant girls, and tells Quixote that they are Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting. When Don Quixote only sees the peasant girls, Sancho pretends that Quixote suffers from a cruel spell which does not permit him to see the truth. Sancho eventually gets his imaginary island governorship and unexpectedly proves to be wise and practical; though this, too, ends in disaster."

We need to avoid the Quixotic fate of our "Woman from Toledo." Ohio that is...

Posted by: AGAAIA | April 9, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

"...they will keep right on narrowing teaching and learning to what’s on the test, with little time or resources for the richer, more engaging curriculum poor kids deserve as much as anyone."

Has it ever occurred to Monty and Lisa that in order for students to be exposed to a richer, more engaging curriculum students must first pass/master the basics? This is the cohort of students, of course, who were the target population of NCLB. Richer, more engaging curriculum? Talk about convoluted reasoning. Yes, that is an oxymoron. Wouldn't it be a good idea to first be exposed to and learn elementary mathematics before you can attempt to tackle algebra, geometry, calculus, trig, etc.? HELLO!!!

How Fair Tests remains up and running would be a mystery if it were not first recognized one of their primary (if not the primary) donors is the NEA. That's right boys and girls. The largest federal teacher union in the country is prominently displayed on their list of donors. This is the same NEA that has fought education reform, student/teacher/administrative accountability, etc., etc., kicking and screaming every step of the way.

The Answer Sheet? OMG!! How about the defunct Progressive Education Sheet? These are the folks who want to convince others that we should treat our nation's public schools as if they were a T-ball team, where no one keeps score, everyone is declared a winner, and in the end, everyone gets a trophy. That may well be fine and dandy for five year olds being exposed to the basics of baseball, but would anyone ever want to send their own children to a school with this as their philosophy?

Antioch University, Summer Hill, etc., are all out of business for a reason. Their philosophies were a joke. Insanely, it took a few years for some people to figure out their nonsense but in the end reality and pragmatism eventually set in.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 9, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

The answer sheet is great. It's one of the main reason I read WaPo.

Keep writing, Valerie Strauss!

Posted by: aby1 | April 9, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

It's incorrect to say that "Secretary Duncan’s use of similar interventions [such as firing and replacing a school’s staff or closing and reopening a school as a charter school] in Chicago now has been revealed as a failure." Some of Chicago's "turnaround" schools are doing very well. Reopening a school as a charter school is not allowed under Illinois law, unless a majority of certified staff and a majority of parents agree -- and it's never been done. The "failure" referred to probably means a recent series of articles in the Chicago Tribune, in which new schools -- turnaround, contract, and charter -- were compared to the district-wide average, not to neighboring schools. Looking at the data fairly, the vast majority of new schools, especially charter schools, are performing significantly better than the schools their students would otherwise have attended.

Posted by: Chicago4 | April 14, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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