Do schools change? Not much.
Tom Loveless is a former California public school teacher who has become one of the nation's most contrarian education scholars, always looking for something to upset us conventional thinkers. Maybe you, like me and most people, believe that most schools can be significantly improved if done the right way. Guess again, says Loveless.
Each year he produces a Report on American Education on behalf of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, of which he is a senior fellow. He likes to crunch old data in new ways. In the report he goes back decades in California to see how rare turnaround schools---the much improved campuses that are the goal of the Obama administration and most state governments---really are.
"The statistics are eye-popping and, in a way, depressing," he concluded. Nearly two thirds of the California public schools in the bottom quartile based on average test scores in 1989 (182 schools) were still in that bottom group in 2009. Only four out of 290 schools rose from the bottom to the top quartile during that time.
"Even if California lagged behind the rest of the nation," Loveless said, "one would think that the numerous reforms that have been attempted since 1989 would mix up school rankings within the state. Californians tried just about everything: traditional and reform mathematics, whole language and phonics-based reading instruction, acountability systems running from "soft" and "professional' to 'hard' to 'punitive'" plus much else.
"If all California schools had improved academically from 1989 to 2009, the study's findings might be easily dismissed. Percentiles are a relative measure. A school that stays at the 10th percentile for twenty years can be making substantial progress if the state is gaining academically," he said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case. The state scored 6 points below the national NAEP average for eighth grade math in 1990 and 12 points below the national average in 2009."
Could it be that schools full of impoverished students stay that way, which is why their scores don't improve? No, Loveless said. Less than 12 percent of the variance in achievement change can be explained by change in socio-economic status. Loveless found it interesting that professional sports teams, who aggressively try to disconnect themselves from bad years, have only 24 percent of teams in the bottom quartile 20 years later.
So why don't schools change? It appears to be, for want of another word, the persistence of a school culture of low-expectations and low-performance that outlasts all over changes. "Some of it may be due to how school populations change, with teachers and administrators--and kids and their parents--slowly transitioning in and out of schools. The newcomers learn about the culture of the school from those who have been there and are preparing to leave," Loveless said.
Loveless adds that his results do not mean school change is hopeless. Many schools get somewhat better. But jumping from the bottom to the top of the list, like the New Orleans Saints, is not going to happen very often.
His results appear to support the notion that trying to turn around schools may be wasted effort. As I said in a previous posting, starting new schools with new teacher and new approaches, may work better. It seems to be part of the secret of the success of some charter schools. But as Loveless says, much more research needs to be done.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Brookings Institution, Tom Loveless, pro sports teams change more than schools, schools don't change, the power of school culture
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