Willingham on Obama's vision for education
My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?"
By Daniel Willingham
The reception of President Obama's proposed revision of the major federal education law has generally been positive. It’s hard for me to see why people are optimistic.
There are notable improvements to the No Child Left Behind act. The emphasis in accountability will be broadened beyond reading and math to include other subjects. In addition, schools will not be evaluated in absolute terms, but by their ability to improve outcomes. Thus, a school that is moving kids from the 10th percentile to the 25th percentile—which would be enormous progress—will no longer be dubbed “failing.”
I doubt these changes will end up meaning much because the bedrock of the bill follows the flawed logic of No Child Left Behind.
That law failed to bring change because it mandated improvement without guidance as to how to make things better.
Under some circumstances, this strategy would work. If educators know how to improve student outcomes and just aren’t doing it, then all they need is a kick in the pants to get them going. Alternatively, the kick in the pants might get some feckless educators to buckle down and figure out how to improve outcomes. Neither turned out to be the case in 2001.
Most educators were at least pretty good and most were hard-working. Sure, there were (and are) some goof-offs and knuckleheads amongst the several million U.S. teachers, and it’s in everyone’s interest—even the teacher’s unions--for those teachers to go.
In 2001 educators felt that they were already doing their best, but now were accountable for kids’ poor performance. So they gamed the system to make it appear that kids were learning.
The proposed revision of the law takes the same approach. It includes a lot of “what” schools are to achieve: good student test performance, (along with other measures like attendance, graduation rates, and learning climates). Schools with large achievement gaps are expected to close them.
To the extent that the plan includes any “how,” it’s primarily making someone else take on the job if it’s being done poorly. For failing schools, fire the principal and rehire some teachers, or turn it into a charter school. If schools can’t close the achievement gap, the state is to take over the school’s Title I funding. States have greater flexibility in how to intervene in troubled schools, which many see as positive. Again, this assumes that states know what to do.
These interventions are reserved for the bottom 5 percent of schools, so the lowest performing schools will, as in the days of No Child Left Behind, focus on ways to game the system.
We will not have a race to the top. We will have a scramble from the bottom.
Perhaps the best news is that about 90% of schools won’t be affected—only those at the bottom and those near the bottom will worry about it.
What’s disappointing is that we’re not seeing the bold new approach and fresh ideas we were led to expect. It’s fundamentally the idea we’ve had in place since 2001—accountability without guidance--and I suspect the outcome won’t be much different.
So what should the Federal government do instead? I’ll make a suggestion next week.
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| March 22, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind | Tags: Daniel Willingham, No Child Left Behind, guest bloggers
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