Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Framing the Question

The inspiration for this post comes from the books Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left and The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. The books both discuss issues within education, and attempt to provide insight into how education can be "fixed".

Is this a false premise?
It is difficult to go a month without hearing about the latest invention or pedagogical style that will help students learn. During the past ~15 years, we have gone from a bipartisan bill to pass No Child Left Behind (with a vote of 91-8 in the US Senate and 381-45 in the House) to a near universal denunciation and condemnation of it, to Common Core and the Next Generation of Science Standards and the controversy these changes are bringing. In addition to managing the changes that are coming with the new legislation, many school districts are implementing major changes themselves by purchasing laptops, ipads, and chromebooks for their students. (For an interesting scandal happening currently, see this article about the Los Angeles USD wasting money on iPads.)

Didn't kids use books to learn about this before? 

But why the constant changing of curriculum and demand that teachers use different pedagogical skills? If you follow education, one of the rationales for this constant shifting is framed as this: When comparing scores on an international standardized test known as the PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment), the United States ranks below average. For this reason, we need to change to become more like higher performing countries. We are told that if we want to compete in the international market, we need to be more like South Korea. Or Finland, or Hong Kong, or somewhere else, where they do things differently.

This is a picture from a hagwon in Korea, where students spend hours after school studying more. 

When considering this rationale, and the desire/demand for the US to become more like higher scoring countries, several questions arise:

What are these countries doing differently within their schools?

Do these differences actually result in different educational outcomes for their students?

There are obviously other topics to discuss. But what if the fundamental reasoning is flawed to begin with? What if the framing of the question inhibits an appropriate understanding of the test scores themselves?  Are students in the US really performing worse than students in other countries?

Consider the following headline from the Wall Street Journal: US High School Students Slip in Global Rankings. Then consider the following headline: Majority of US public school students are in poverty.

Whoa. Could those two headlines be related? Are the educational outcomes of students dependent upon their socioeconomic status? According to the American Psychological Association, lower SES correlates with lower levels of literacy, chronic stress, health issues, increased dropout rates, and more. Notice the use of the word correlation. Students obviously can succeed under many conditions, and there are other factors related to student success beyond their current or previous economic conditions.

With that line of thinking, a further analysis of data is warranted. When comparing different SES groups within the US with countries that are made up of similar SES groups, how does the US stack up? Mel Riddle, of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, provides some analysis here. 
Here is some selected data taken from Mel's page, who is using data from the 2009 administration of the PISA:


Poverty Rate

PISA Score

United States












United States









United States









This data is obviously incomplete, but the trends are obvious. When comparing school districts in the US with countries that have similar SES makeups, the US consistently outperforms these other countries.

So are our schools as a whole really failing? It really depends on how you frame the question. For school districts that have low poverty levels, the answer is clearly no (if the basis for failing is rated by success on an international standardized test). Whatever these school districts are doing (or what is happening outside of the schools in the homes) is working. For districts that have higher rates of poverty, are they failing? Maybe. Will changing what happens within the school by implementing Common Core and other changes improve the outcomes for these students? For all students? That is a more difficult question to answer.

For higher poverty school districts to perform at the same level as other school districts, research suggests that school districts may need to take on non-traditional roles. Changes in pedagogy and resources may help, but as noted earlier, outside factors such as socioeconomic status and level of parent education play large roles in the success of students. Many of the reasons that students struggle are not directly related to what is happening in the classroom, but are related to stress from a variety of sources, poor nutrition/health, family issues, etc). Research suggests that these outside factors may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement than what occurs in the classroom. So what role can school districts play in ameliorating the condition of their students?

Before getting into a list of actions schools can take that are outside of their traditional roles, here are things that they can do now:

1) Keep experienced, talented teachers, and remove ineffective ones. A good teacher can improve a student significantly, providing percentile gains of 29-45 points.

2) Encourage teachers and administrators to continue with professional development.

3) Allow for time for teachers and administrators to collaborate and EVALUATE each other. Teachers need time to learn from each other, and receive feedback to improve.

4) Support teachers with needed supplies.

Related side note: Programs such as TFA are a bandaid, and may contribute to further problems within a school for a variety of reasons: teachers improve as time goes on, TFA teachers leave the profession at a higher rate than traditional teachers, and with them leaving, it creates further instability within the schools and for the students.

And a list of actions that are outside of the traditional role:

1) Identify students who are in need of mental health services. It is estimated that only 20% of students with mental health issues are identified and receive treatment. The numbers are lower at higher needs school districts. The behavior of a few students can impact a whole class and disrupt a learning environment. Identifying and helping these students will improve the classrooms of all the students.

2) Actively promote a consistent, positive, rule enforced environment. Students in these schools may be lacking an environment that supports healthy social development, but can gain it at school.

These lists are obviously incomplete and could go on and on. A safe environment, where students have access to everything they need would be ideal. But notice how none of the suggestions have anything to do with implementing new curriculum, buying ipads, or changing standards and new standardized tests. Some of the changes require increased funding (such as resources for teachers, helping identify students with particular needs and providing those services), and others are within the normal budget of hiring and firing teachers, promoting a positive environment, etc.

I am not saying that improving education is an end game. What I am suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, people need to chill out. Students have been learning, and teachers have been teaching for a long time. Education has improved. But there is no need to hit the panic button.

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