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Lead from the Start: September 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

National Standards: No Thank You Please

Do you know what it is like to work for the federal government? I do, and if it weren't for strong leadership in my local Head Start program for over 45 years, we would not be able to help as many kids as we have.

Education has always been under the jurisdiction of the states for a reason. Historically the reason for this is well documented but it comes down to this -- at the continental congress when the founding fathers where crafting the constitution the founding fathers decided not to address it. They knew, as we know now after trying to reauthorize the closest bill we have ever had to a federal school system, that coming to grips with the multiple reasons for and approaches to education across this nation would be a roadblock to progress. In the 1700s it was the ratification of the Constitution, now it is NCLB. This isn't to say there weren't attempts to create national educational system.
Thomas Jefferson spoke of the importance of public education in a letter to John Tyler in 1810, "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393

In the 1800s that vision may have been viable but now, I can't imagine a federal educational system that would work for every student, every where. As a Head Start employee I have seen what it is like to have Congress as your school board. It is not pretty. Large structural gaps that should be fixed by reform are missed because they are too hard to agree on while small meaningless measures are continually added onto the Head Start regulations. These additional federal regulations don't necessarily impact child outcomes are run rampant through the performance standards. I thoroughly believe in Head Start, at the local level, but systematically I really think it needs a make-over.

Now we are considering National Standards and I am still saying, no, please, no.If our country had a National school system in which states were truly accountable to the federal government, national standards would have been a forgone conclusion a long time ago. But, we are nation based on a balance of federal and states’ rights. States are responsible for the education of its citizens. It seems that NCLB’s over-reaching in terms of accountability has started to make National standards seem like the only way to clean up the mess. This policy would seem reactive instead of proactive.
Besides, in order for national standards to have any meaning the country would need to change its constitution. As it stands the national standards that have been set by various professional organizations have served as a guide to states when they craft their own standards. Scoring well on the NAEP has actually acted as a carrot for states to create high standards because scoring poorly brings public outcry but no real measures of governance reforms by the federal government on states school systems. The NAEP as an accountability tool is a reform without teeth.

As Virginia has learned from its own standards based accountability system, if you test at high standards students will perform at high standards. At the same time, if there isn’t any stakes for the student in the system, then the system may not get a very clear picture of what students know and are able to do in the content areas.

All of this discussion of states rights doesn’t really address the reason that some call for national standards. Some students, when they move from one place to another, experience an expectations culture shock when they go to a school with lower, or higher standards than they have experienced. One of the good aspects of NCLB is that it provided funds for tutoring to those who are not able to meet challenging standards. How about a similar reform for states? Then we can start talking about national standards. Until then it would be another version of the same problem, high standards that are appropriate for some, too high for others, and not enough for a few.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's Not a Race (Thing)

nm"We know that, historically, African American and Hispanic students do not score as well on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) as their white and Asian peers."

What do preschool teachers know about race and poverty that educational researchers don't? How many times have we heard a statement like this as educators? For some reason - even though it may be true statistically - it doesn't seem to make sense because the statement itself obscures the real issues. It doesn't necessarily matter that many African American students score lower on these types of tests because not all of them do.
These types of statements contribute to bias against African American students because they connect the problem -poor achievement- to the descriptor instead of the cause. If a researcher said, "We know that, historically African American and Hispanic students do not score as well on the ______ test as their white and Asian peers because of the inherent racial bias of the _____ test," only then should a child's race be an important part of the discussion.

Often We have these types of discussions in my doctoral classes. This semester, I am taking a measurement in educational research course. It is meant to prepare us, the budding researchers, for our dissertation and future life as an educational "expert" ie Ph.D. This week the issue of race came up. Specifically, the professor mentioned the "achievement gap" in order to push the conversation into uncomfortable territory. I put "achievement gap" in quotes intentionally because it doesn't seem worth talking about outside of the context of test validity and reliability. Usually after a statement about testing and race someone will say, "That is is because tests are biased." Then another researcher might say, "But, there is more of a correlation between socio-economic status and test scores." Even though the statement is true, it doesn't contribute to a deeper understanding of the issue. It uses descriptors in an almost causal relationship to data. The "achievement gap" assumes that the tests are valid and the scores are reliable indicators of student achievement. In actuality, they may only be valid for students from the dominate white culture. By switching the argument to money you just change the context of the discrimination. By saying, "Well actually its about money not race." researchers are able to wash their hands of the issue because there is no way that schools can impact how rich or poor a kid is, when they know there is no reason a child's race should affect a test score either.

Many preschool teachers know that the only thing that matters in a child's educational trajectory is the frequency and types of language interactions and experiences children have in their early years. Hart & Risley pointed this out in Meaningful Differences. They found the strongest influence on a student's vocabulary was the types of talk children engaged in as an infant, toddler, and preschooler. The number of words that children knew at age 3 was found to be predictive of achievement at age 9. However, some children of professional parents, who didn't spend much time talking with their kids had similar average minutes of interaction as some welfare and working class families. Across the board the researchers found race was not found to influence the vocabulary of children at all. Hart & Risley "saw quality added to interactions when we saw parents talking to their children beyond what was necessary to manage or provide care." So yes, poverty is a factor in the development of children's vocabulary because the essence of poverty is a struggle to survive. Poverty requires parents to focus on the day-to-day survival of their family.

If we were to reframe the achievement as a "language development" gap we we might get closer to the "truth" about why some kids score higher and lower on standards based tests. Yesterday I heard a woman in a supermarket tell her 9 month old that her cookie looked "scrumptious". Does it matter what race the woman was? Of course not, I know that her child will likely hear many words like "scrumptious" in her early life. A more correct way of describing the achievement gap might be to discriminate between students with few language experiences (FLE), substantial language experiences (SLE), and many language experiences (MLE). Is this practical? No, but at least it would be true. By continuing to attach race and class to achievement we support the assertion that they are predictive when they aren't, they are just an easy way to sort data.