Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Is Education Reform Like A Fad Diet?

Americans are getting fatter and our public schools are failing.
It's a toss up as to which will get us first, obesity or stupidity.
To make matters worse, our approach to dealing with both national crises is the same.
Take obesity.
We all know what it takes to lose weight. Eat healthier foods, eat smaller portions, and get more exercise. It is a time-tested program that works. It may be the only program that works.
But every year Americans spend millions of dollars on fad diets, diet books, videos, and programs. We buy the fad diet book, then buy the products pushed by the author of the fad diet book, then buy the sequel written by the author of the fad diet book.
The predictable result: obesity is spreading across America like a plague.
What about the crisis in public education?
Here we're more inventive than with obesity.
We pass a federal law that mandates testing. The idea is, if teachers, principals and students know that they'll be tested, everyone's performance will improve.
(It's like saying, if you have to weigh in every day, you'll feel compelled to lose weight.)
Except those creative educators in Atlanta found a better way. They cheated.
An investigation into Atlanta's remarkable improvement in test scores found that cheating was rampant, involving 44 schools and at least 178 teachers.
And the head cheater was the superintendent, Beverly Hall, who, by the way, was America's 2009 Superintendent of the Year.
Memo to obese people: When you get off the scale, just lie about what it said. You'll still be overweight, just like our school kids will still be unable to read, write, and do math. But the numbers will look better.
Here in my home town of Santa Fe, we know a little something about cheating.
At the last school board election, three new reform-minded candidates were elected, forming a new majority on the 5-person board, as close to a referendum on the public schools as you could get.
To thumb their noses, the outgoing school board members, as their last official act, gave the superintendent a contract extension, basing their action on a report that the administration produced detailing areas of improvement by Santa Fe students.
Turns out, upon closer inspection, that a data analyst in the administration cooked the books. She said she was tired of only hearing bad news, so she came up with some numbers that made the district look better. The truth, however, is that Santa Fe public schools are something like third worst in the state, and the state is about dead last in the nation.
When in doubt, fudge the numbers.
Then there's the strange case of the hard reality of education reform, in general.
In a terrific piece in the NY Times Sunday magazine, Paul Tough, who wrote the book on the Harlem education project, took reformers to task for the same kind of phony baloney with numbers.
He came to the defense of Diane Ravitch, who had criticized reformers for over-promising and under-performing.
One example: the highly touted Bruce Randolph School in Denver. The real numbers for the school show just how hard it is to make real progress in educational reform: Tough points out that the average ACT score at the school last year was 14, the second lowest of any high school in Denver; in tests given middle schoolers, the school place at the first percentile in reading and writing (in other words 99% of Colorado schools did better), and in the fifth percentile in math.
The reformers' response: unfair comparison! Our students are starting way behind and have farther to go.
Memo to obese people: it's unfair to compare you to healthy, fit people! You are starting way behind and have farther to go!
The truth is, when it comes to obesity we know what to do.
When it comes to education we also know what to do.
As Diane Ravitch wrote in a letter to the NY Times on July 10, "Good schools are no mystery. They have a dedicated principal, a stable staff with a mix of veterans and young teachers, and a strong curriculum that includes not only basic skills but the arts, history, civics, science, world languages, literature and physical education. And they engage parents and community leaders to support their goals."
In other words, eat better food, smaller portions, and get more exercise.
We know what we need to do to lose weight and to improve education.
The truth is, both are hard. They take time. They take dedication. They don't admit to fads, silver bullets, or overnight moon-shot programs. Snake oil salesmen have a field day in both categories, making ridiculous promises, muddying the debate, scooping up tons of money, and never delivering results.
In Rules of Thumb I wrote that change is a math formula.
It happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.
Today, in obesity and education, the cost of the status quo is exorbitant.
So far, we've tried to lie, cheat, and fake our way out of it.
Isn't it time to try the hard, honest, patient path, the one we know yields real results?
Otherwise, it says here we'll die fat and stupid. And that's s sad combination.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb