Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reach for the stars

I think that I may be missing out on some interesting editorials by not having a subscription to The Oregonian. Today I read yet another article provided by my mother, this one entitled "Time for Oregon schools to stretch" by John Tapogna, published August 2, 2009. This article tackled the issue of the Obama Administration's school reform plans. Recently the focus has been on health care, and the idea of education reform has quietly tiptoed toward the back of the stage, perhaps hoping that it can avoid becoming a hotly debated issue.

I must admit, I have not had a chance to look over reform proposals in detail. In fact, I am having a bit of trouble finding concrete evidence and examples of these proposals, but I do know that reform is in the educational air -- and it is about time. What was once effective and beneficial to the majority of students is now not good enough -- especially since we see evidence of American school children falling farther and farther behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations. John Tapogna is a "consultant" on educational issues, and since I don't know what that means nor what his background is, I am just going to take his word for now on some of the things that he says in his article (with the plan of researching things a bit more). It appears that the Obama Administration has a few core beliefs regarding education, at least according to Tapogna:
  • School districts do not engage in enough evaluations
  • School districts change course too frequently
  • Because of the first two points, it's hard to determine what is actually proven to impact achievement. We do know that "high-quality preschools," reading tutors, and small class sizes (at least in younger grades) have some impact.
Honestly, that is not much -- three bullet-points? But the more I engage in educational research, the more I find that our information about what is truly effective in producing results over the long-term is sadly lacking. There are thousands of books and articles and guides for education, but looking for genuine research and replicable results is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. It has been done to some extent by Marzano & the people at McRel, who publish meta-analyses that are extremely useful. But other than that, what research-based evidence do we have on what it takes to close the achievement gap? (And why, might I ask, do districts continue to ignore the few traits that we know for sure make a difference -- like smaller class sizes?)

One of the directions that the Obama Administration wants to take is toward evidence of teacher quality. The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, thinks that mining test data might be a good way to begin the discussion around improving teacher quality. (I, for one, think that if he wants this battle he is going to have to fight uphill the whole way, but that opinion is perhaps best left to another blog.) As I was reading the article it brought to mind several other pieces of information I've gleaned over the years: there are many teachers who fail basic tests over and over and over again and have still been in the classroom instructing students, and the difference between having a good teacher and having a poor teacher can be measured in student achievement results. (One lecture I attended pointed out that most children improve their achievement at least slightly from year to year, just by growing older and being more exposed to life, so if the student's achievement declines in a given year, what should we learn from that information?)

Teacher quality is definitely an area where we should focus, but sadly I see so many areas in need of improvement that it is hard to determine where to go from here. There are reports of the Department of Education offering grants to programs who seek to revolutionize education and find radical new ways to instruct students (of course I did a bit of searching and still haven't found how one applies for said grants). This is, perhaps, a decent way to get people together, brainstorming how to reform our current out-dated and ineffective system. A few questions I have had:
  • Why are we still on an agrarian model for a school year? Most students are not out harvesting wheat and other crops in the summer.
  • How much time is necessary in school each day or week?
  • Have studies been done on schools that are year-round, meet more (or less) frequently, or use credit-by-proficiency models instead of seat-time based models of instruction? If so, where are these studies, and if not, why not?
I think that looking at the education system can be so overwhelming at times. It works well for a good portion of kids. But what about those that fall through the cracks? How can we help them? And how can we close the achievement gap among our own students and the achievement gap between the United States and other countries? I obviously don't have the answers right now, but I am looking.

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