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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Missing The Mark

Rock Hill parent and York School Teacher Kay McSpadden has a great article in Saturday's Charlotte Observer.

Missing the mark on education

By Kay McSpadden
Guest Columnist
Perfect storm. Unholy alliance.
Those are descriptions of what is happening in education these days - as the public education reformers on the left and the public education abolitionists on the right both misuse data to further their own agendas.
Most recently the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment tests are the data being bandied about. Administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA tests 15 year olds in more than 70 countries and economies every three years. The 2009 results were released at the end of December and have been in the news - along with a great deal of hand-wringing about where the U.S. ranks.
If you listen to pundits such as George Will or pay attention to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, you might get the idea that at best, students in American schools are performing in the middle of the pack while kids in Shanghai and Finland are leaving us in the dust.
Not so. When the data are disaggregated - that is, when similar schools are compared - the picture is illuminating.
Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, pulled out schools with fewer than 10 percent of the students living in poverty, measured in the United States by students receiving free or reduced lunch, and compared them to countries with the same poverty rate. Finland, with one of the lowest rates of child poverty in the world at 3.4 percent, posted a PISA score of 536. American children topped that easily, at 551 - the highest score of any country.
In schools with poverty rates between 10 percent and 24.9 percent, the United States again beat out all other countries with similar poverty levels, with a PISA score of 527.
U.S. students in schools with poverty levels between 25 percent and 50 percent - a poverty rate far exceeding any other country tested - still scored tenth overall in the world. Only one country besides the United States - Mexico - has schools with poverty rates over 75 percent, and both performed poorly.
The link between poverty and academic achievement isn't in question. What is in question these days is what to do about it.
Neither the reformers nor the abolitionists have focused their lenses on the real problem. Instead, the reformers are caught up in national curriculum standards and unproven pay-for-performance measures for teachers. The abolitionists are calling for reallocating funds from traditional public schools to charters despite research which shows that they are, as a whole, less effective or no more effective in educating children, and to vouchers which benefit students primarily from middle-class and wealthy families at the expense of poorer children.
The current debate in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools about Bright Beginnings is an example of how misguided the debate can be. According to another recent PISA report, children worldwide benefit from pre-primary education - advantages that translate into academic achievement even when they are 15 year olds taking the PISA test. So what is happening in the U.S. that preschoolers lose that boost before middle school?
Are the pre-primary programs in this country somehow less educational, or the teachers not as effective?
Hardly. Bright Beginnings proves that children do better with augmented help - but that a single dose isn't enough to inoculate most children against the grinding, multi-generational poverty that weighs down their performance. If anything, the tapering off of early achievement proves that Bright Beginnings should have a sustained counterpart in elementary school and beyond.
That's what highly-praised Finland did. According the Stanford University scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, students in Finland in the 1970s posted low achievement scores. The government decided to address the achievement gap by doing almost the exact opposite of what both the left and the right are leading us to do here in the U.S.
First the Finnish government eliminated standardized testing. Incredible as it seems, the Finnish did not buy into the idea that measurement equals improvement.
Then they ramped up the social supports that poor children receive, including the traditional "socialized" services such as free meals and health care.
Finnish teachers are recruited with a free three-year graduate program. Half of their time as teachers is spent collaborating with parents, working with their colleagues, or taking intense professional development courses. Prescriptive curriculum guides were replaced by outlines giving teachers much discretion in what and how to teach.
Consequently, teaching is a respected profession there - and one that can afford to be choosey about who is accepted, with only 15 percent of applicants being admitted.
Not so here. Here we cut programs that support our youngest, most vulnerable learners without realizing that more support, not less, is crucial. We demonize and demoralize our teachers and principals by ignoring the impact of poverty and spinning our wheels devising cumbersome, invalid measurements for both teachers and their students.
In his State of the Union address Barack Obama encouraged students to consider teaching as a profession. But who would want to when it is under attack from all sides? Until we admit that U.S. children with financial resources are doing well and our poor children are not, we are going to continue to shoot at the wrong targets - and continue to miss the mark.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of "Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching." Write her at

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