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Teaching to the Test July 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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A recent study of achievement in college courses by Scott Carrell and James West suggests that teaching to the test does not produce long-term learning. They draw their sample from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Students are randomly assigned to professors in a variety of introductory and upper division courses and all sections of each course have identical syllabi and exams. Here is their conclusion:

Our results indicate that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes. Academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous value added, but positively correlated with follow-on course value-added. Hence, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess a Ph.D. perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course, but perform worse in the follow-on related curriculum.

The authors hypothesize about the mechanisms at work here:

One potential explanation for our results is that the less-experienced professors may teach more strictly to the regimented curriculum being tested, while the more experienced professors broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material….Another potential mechanism is that students may learn (good or bad) study habits depending on the manner in which their introductory course is taught. For example, introductory professors who “teach to the test” may induce students to exert less study effort in follow-on related courses.

Results like this, if confirmed in subsequent studies, may explain why policies like “No Child Left Behind” don’t work. The high-stakes testing regimes that have been implemented in K-12 tend to produce high test scores in the early grades but those gains are lost as students advance to higher grades. The problem is that the early gains are illusory—they are not gains in skill or understanding but simply reflect how well students learned material designed to produce a test score.

This is not education.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


The End of Education February 11, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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I have thought for a long time that the education reforms put in place over the past 10-15 years will ruin education in this country.

Education expert Diane Ravitch provides a clear account of the problem. She contrasts a traditional superintendent of schools with a new breed:

Whether he (or she) was a business executive, an education entrepreneur, or a lawyer, he is steeped in a business mindset. He wants results. He surrounds himself with business school graduates, lawyers, marketing consultants, and public relations staff. He focuses on management, organization, budgeting, and data-driven decision-making. He shows little or no interest in curriculum and instruction, about which he knows very little. He is certain that the way to reform the schools is to “incent” the workforce. He believes that accountability, with rewards and sanctions, makes the world go round. He plans to “drive” change through the system by being a tough manager, awarding merit pay to teachers and principals, closing struggling schools, and opening new schools and charter schools, all the while using data as his guide. He believes that the schools he oversees are like a stock portfolio; it is his job not to fix them but to pick winners and losers. The winners get extra money, and the losers are thrown out of the portfolio. When addressing the business community, he speaks proudly of his plan to give maximum autonomy to school principals, thus absolving himself of any responsibility for the performance of the schools, and then sits back to manage his portfolio. If a school fails, he is fast to close it. The failure is not his fault, but the fault of the principal and the teachers.

She then compares this fascination for quantitative measures with the  recent revelations regarding the NYC police department who were found to be fudging their crime numbers to make their performance look better.

The data mattered more than truth. Some, for example, would scout eBay and other Web sites to find values for stolen items that would reduce the complaint from a grand larceny (over $1,000 in value) to a misdemeanor. There were reports of officers who persuaded crime victims not to file a complaint or to change their accounts so that a crime’s seriousness could be downgraded. […]

For just as the police officers felt compelled to game the system to meet the demands of CompStat, so educators are now gaming the system to meet the demands of NCLB. Some states have dumbed down their tests; some have rigged the scores to produce greater numbers of “proficient” students. Some districts have narrowed their curriculum and have replaced instruction with intensive test-prep. Some schools of choice exclude low-performing students. All in the service of making the numbers, making AYP, looking good rather than doing well.

There is a general principle at work here:

This is not only a major scandal, it is a validation once again of Campbell’s Law, which holds that: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

The summary judgment:

Anyone who thinks that these methods will produce first-class education for our nation’s children is either a fool or is fooling himself.

Thus far this has primarily affected K-12 education. But this fascination with numbers is coming to a campus near you—and both Republicans and Democrats support it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Useless Education Reform May 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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In 1983, educational reformers published research that garnered national attention. Entitled A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, the book reinforced the idea that our schools were utterly failing and it stimulated waves of reform measures. The currently ubiquitous high stakes testing including the federal No Child Left Behind Act and various state testing regimes are the culmination of these reform movements.

But this chart released last week by National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests there never was a crisis and that all the reform adds up to a hill of beans.


Contrary to the claims of A Nation at Risk, our educational system was not an utter failure in the 1970’s and apparently the reforms since then have produced only modest improvements at best. High stakes testing has not made much of a difference. 9-year-olds are doing a bit better in reading and math but not the upper grades—average scores for 17 year olds really haven’t budged.

To be fair, it is a bit too early to judge the effects of NCLB since it has only been operative since 2002. But there is not much evidence here of improvement.

This reinforces the point that critics of school reform have made over the years. The movement toward higher standards and accountability was largely manufactured by conservatives and business interests intent on undermining support for public education by blaming schools (specifically teachers and especially teacher’s unions) for a variety of ills, and denying the influence of poverty and school funding inequities.

Indeed our educational system is failing compared to other developed nations. But it fails because of poverty, children’s lack of access to health care, inequitable school funding, and an anti-intellectual environment that views education as a meal ticket rather than something intrinsically valuable.