Reviews of two books on education reform

Two Books on Education Reform

This post reviews two books on education reform.  One book, “The Bee Eater” provides a discussion of Michelle Rhee’s effort to turn the DC school system around.  The other book  “The Great American School System,” discusses problems with current reform efforts and the increased reliance on standardized tests to evaluate both teacher and school performance.

“The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worse School System,” by Richard Whitmire

Even those who disagree with Michelle Rhee’s approach to education are likely to admire this woman’s moxie after reading this book.

Ms. Rhee is credited with making some very tough decisions, which resulted in noticeable improvement in DC schools.   Her tenure in DC was short.  The stated goal of the teacher’s union was to “kill the bitch”.  Her efforts to improve the school system in DC were viewed as favoring whites over black.  Her boss lost the mayoral election and Michelle Rhee left, her experiment cut short.

Many of the DC teachers who Rhee attempted to fire were of the view that poor students and parenting prevented their students from learning.  While smart students in good situations will usually out perform poor students in poverty there is wide dispersion in educational outcomes among poor and disadvantaged students.   Rhee’s efforts to fire poorly performing DC teachers appears justifiable since minority students in DC lagged behind similar students in other urban school districts.

Teacher performance was only one part of the problem in DC.  The DC school system inherited by Rhee had high administrative expenses and too much school space.  Discussions of how to deal with problems was often tainted by racial politics with Rhee constantly being accused of favoring white communities over black ones.

School closures in minority neighborhoods became the most controversial issue.  I suspect it is far easier to replace poorly performing departments than close entire schools.

Time stops for no one, except perhaps for some kids caught in the failing DC system.   I  am left with questions about what happens next.

  • During her short stay in Washington, the proportion of students proficient in math and reading rose in several schools and administrative costs fell.  Have these improvement persisted?
  • Near the end of her tenure a substantial number of DC teachers classified as underperforming were to be asked to improve or leave.  Was this policy enacted after her departure.

With Rhee gone and the teacher’s union opposed to reforms the case could be made that charter schools are the only possible alternative to public schools in DC.  Substantial statistical evidence indicates that charter schools often do not out perform public schools.  It would be ironic in a lot of ways if the departure of Rhee accelerated the growth of charter schools in DC.

“The Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” Dianne Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is an education historian and a former Assistant Secretary of Education in the Administration of the first President Bush.   She has been on both sides of the school reform debate.  Her job in the Bush Administration was to advance alternatives to the public school system.  After leaving government she spent some time at the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford.  Her work after Stanford, including this book, is more critical of school reform efforts.

Ravitch offers a lot of evidence indicating that school choice, efforts to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students, and curriculum choices made by school reforms often do not improve educational outcomes.  A reform effort in San Diego did not appear to lead to improved results, imposed substantial pressures on many teachers, and ended after voters ousted the school board.  She cites a flawed study of educational reform efforts in New York, which did not account for simultaneous changes in the socioeconomic characteristics of the school district being studied.

Mayor Bloomberg has been highly praised for improving the school system in New York.  Diane Ravitch believes these improvements have been exaggerated.  Her observations:

  • New York City under Bloomberg moved resources towards the teaching of math and reading and cut resources for art, music, socials studies and science.  Test scores in science and social studies fell in New York relative to other parts of the state.
  • After the enactment of new rules prohibiting social protection the State Legislature in New York made rules governing promotion less strict.
  • City wide scores on state test rose but scores did not rise on federal tests.  Was the city teaching to the test or did state standards change?
  • Test scores, especially those that determined teacher salaries, were volatile.  In 2009 83 percent of schools received a grade of an A compared to 23 percent in 2007.
  • The Bloomberg Administration substantially expanded charter schools in New York.   Entrance to charter schools is determined by lottery and some charter schools in New York have higher test scores than comparable public schools.  Consequently, advocates of charter schools have concluded that charter schools provide superior results than public schools.  Ravitch points out that admission to charter schools requires effort, favors motivated families, and that charter schools enroll few homeless children.
  • New York replaced large high schools with smaller high schools.   The evidence cited by Ravitch indicates the initial better performance of smaller high schools stemmed from the lower percent of disadvantaged  and non-english speaking students in the smaller high schools.  The move to smaller high schools in New York appears to have left many students behind in deteriorating public schools.

Ravitch has an especially negative view of the increase in teacher testing, especially when test results are used to measure teacher performance or for the decision to close a school.  Her concern is that teachers and schools teach to a test, that results vary widely and are unreliable, and that the current system has unfairly stigmatized some highly effective teachers.

But there are differences in teacher and school performance and the first step towards rectifying such problems involves gathering data to document their existence.

All of the problems that Ravitch discusses about excessive testing and the use of tests to evaluate schools and teachers are fixable.   Schools and teachers can be evaluated based on results from bi-weekly computerized quizzes  rather than a single test at the end of the year. (End-of-year results are too late to help anyone.)  Teachers should be compared to other teachers in schools with similar socio-economic characteristics and past performance levels. Teacher evaluations should be based on multiple-year performance in a variety of class room setting.

Ravitch advocates the adoption of a common core curriculum.  I don’t see how a common core curriculum would help given the wide variance in student circumstances and skill levels.

Ravitch does a great job in documenting problems with school reform efforts but her book does not provide solutions for the situation when school systems and teachers fail students.