Education Ills: Connecting the dots

This morning's news is interesting: at the same time they are talking about the Obama's announcement of the big anti-bullying summit in September, hearings are underway that reveal up to 82% of our schools would be considered "Failing" under No Child Left Behind.

I'm sure virtually everyone thinks these things are completely unrelated.

But, the reality is that they are related because both issues stem from a common cause.

This is one of the things I point out in my presentations on education reform that I am frequently called to do.  In "Overcoming Failure to Educate," I show how there is one root cause for nearly every problem in education today.  The types of things we're talking about are classroom size, teacher recruitment and retention, the achievement gap, bullying and other anti-social behavior, and even academic achievement.

You might be thinking that this "common cause" is "money," and you'd be wrong. None of this has to do with money... (more…)

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How to hurdle the Achievement Gap

One of the persistent problems in education over the past 40 years has been the Achievement Gap between low-income, minority, and non-native students as compared to their mainstream counterparts. One of the objectives on NCLB was to narrow this gap, but repeated research shows that we haven't made the strides in this area that we had all hoped.

Image by Brian Carr, courtesy of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) at

A February, 2010 report by Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) entitled Mind the (Other) Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education (Jonathan A. Plucker, PhD; Nathan Burroughs, PhD; Ruiting Song) shares a great deal of information on the student achievement gap, slicing and dicing the data into varying segments and analyzing the results. I won't bore you with all the details, but I found their overall findings as summarized in the conclusion telling, and consistent with the other research and publications frequently cited:

"The economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and historically underprivileged minorities represent a smaller proportion of students scoring at the highest levels of achievement."

With few exceptions, research generally agrees that we haven't made real, significant progress in closing the gap. However, the question remains, why? The typical answer is "funding." While it is true that students in the "gap" populations often attend schools that aren't as well-funded as the mainstream majority, merely assuming funding is the problem is not sufficient to explain why minority/disadvantaged students lag behind.  And, with supplementary funding sources such as Title I, many impoverished schools are actually able to receive more assistance funding than more "well-to-do" peer schools. So, if it's not about funding, then what? (more…)

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NAEP reports little gains in Reading/Math

Last week the NAEP released its latest findings on the academic achievement  of US public school students.  Is anyone else not surprised that we didn't see any major gains in performance?  Yes, there was some improvement, but not the major leaps anyone had expected. Since 2007, there have been slight improvements in 8th grade reading scores, but other areas of measurement aren't so encouraging.

"The reading scores demonstrate that students aren't making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy," said our own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

As can be expected, people are quick to lay blame at the feet of NCLB. In spite of billions of dollars that have been spent on improving academics, our results are not proportionate to the level of investment. But, we can't just say NCLB has failed.  NCLB did set expectations of great and unprecedented growth, but it is plagued by the same thing hurting other education reform:  you can only teach kids if they are ready to learn.

I'm sorry if this sounds repetitive, but we have a real cancer in our classrooms -- that of kids who enter the school system without the skills that allow them to be succesful in the classroom environment.  NCLB even had provisions for this issue in the Act itself:  "Children will be adequately prepared to participate successfully in the classroom environment."

But, devil being in the details, no one planned for -- and nowhere in NCLB did it say --  HOW this was to be accomplished.

We have consistently and continually thrown increasing amounts of money into our education system. Our classroom sizes have consistently and continually decreased in size the last 20-30 years. We have more para-educators and "aides" in the classroom to help with the educational process, yet our children are no better prepared "to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace," as Duncan says.

Very true, Mr. Secretary.  What, exactly do you plan to do about it? Invest more money to evaluate and assess teacher effectiveness?  Put more technology in classrooms?  Revamp testing procedures or education standards that lower what's needed to graduate so that we can increase our graduation rates?

Face it: the problem isn't in WHAT we are teaching, it's in the fact that we can't teach effectively because our students are not ready to learn. If they come into the school system inadequately prepared to pay attention, be respectful, and do their best work, they start off at a disadvantage which they are likely to regain over time. We have to start early to help them with the social-emotional and character traits that support good learning environments. We have to continually reinforce this so that our children are safe in schools, not threatened by bullying and other school violence. We need to invest in the culture and climate of our schools so good teachers don't bail out in the first five years, instead of allowing them to become great teachers. And we need to assist our families who are doing the best they can, but are hampered by the negative influences of an indifferent society that cares more about the latest reality TV show than they do about helping develop the next generation to be decent, productive citizens and leaders.

By definition, if we "invest" in schools we expect a positive return on that investment.  Our track record shows that our efforts in this area haven't yielded the results we've expected. It's not just NCLB, although I could see where that would be the latest initiative to be under fire.  But you can't show me that any of the "investments" we've made in the last 40 years have made an appreciable difference in our children's education.

Before we "invest" another dollar in reform, let's ask ourselves if we have any better expectation of success this time. Otherwise, we're just throwing good money after bad, and our kids will be the ones to suffer -- and pay.  That is, if they're able to do the math.

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