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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Education reforms are rarely data driven

From the Art of Teaching Science

by Jack Hassard

The No Child Left Behind Act + the Race to the Top Fund = More of the Same

In an newsletter there was a No Child Left Behind Alert that I found interesting, and provided the starting point for this post. The forum discussion (a question is posed, and you can submit a response joining you to the discussion) for the day was: What’s the most important thing President Obama could do improve standardized testing? Many assumptions form the basis for this question, but my immediate response is that the President should suspend any further use of standardized tests until there is evidence that high-stakes testing provides a real measure of student learning and school accountability. Of course, the suspension of high-stakes testing did not happen.

I read many of the replies to the question, and there were thoughtful comments about the misuse of testing, and the call for alternatives. One responder did agree with me, and recommended that the President put an end of these high stakes testing.

You might ask, isn’t this a little far fetched. Schooling as we know would collapse. How would we know if students really did learn the fundamental concepts of science or mathematics, or any other subject in the curriculum? Most teachers know the answer to this question. But I won’t deal with that here.

What did happen was that the Department of Education earmarked nearly $4 billion dollars for a program, The Race to the Top Fund. Eleven States and the District of Columbia were funded after submitting competitive proposals in rounds 1 and 2 last year. The funds will be used to:

Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
Turning around our lowest-achieving schools. So, in this initiative a little more than a 1/5 of the United States will be involved in the Race to the Top. That said, there is an overlap of goals between the NCLB Act and the RTTP Fund, and that means “more of the same.”

Two Federal Mandates

You might ask, wasn’t there evidence from research to make policy decisions such as the wide-spread use of high stakes testing, the implementation of charter schools, the use of vouchers, and other key educational decisions. Did the NCLB Act and TRTT Fund go forward with clear evidence that their initiatives would be effective.

According to an article by Eric Schaps, (Missing in Action: The Non-Role of Research in Policy and Practice) published in Education Week Research Center, research has not been used to make important policy decisions. In each of these cases, policy makers did not use research to support their decisions.

For example, most schools use high-stakes, test-based accountability systems. According to Schaps, high stakes testing began in Texas and Kentucky and “morphed into” the No Child Left Behind Act after George Bush became President. NCLB now dominates the educational landscape of every state, yet, it was largely a politically driven (supported by both sides of the isle, however) policy decision without evidence on which to base this crucial decision which now is the law of the land. NCLB is up for reauthorization in the Congress. Most likely it will be reauthorized with some tweaks put forth by the new Congress. And this is unfortunate. What is needed a paradigm shift.

In the case of the Race to the Top, the Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) of the National Research Council, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education in which it was stated:

The report strongly supports rigorous evaluations of programs funded by the Race to the Top initiative. The initiative should support research based on data that links student test scores with their teachers, but should not prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches, which evaluate teachers based on gains in their students’ performance, to reward or punish teachers. The report also cautions against using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal assessment that helps measure overall U.S. progress in education, to evaluate programs funded by the Race to the Top initiative. (Emphasis mine)

The letter did not effect the RTTP program, and indeed, the criteria used to evaluate state proposals made it clear that student test scores should be used as a means to evaluate teachers and schools.

The Race to the Top Fund reinforces the NCLB Act, which also insists on high-stakes tests. It is true, that the Department of Education is issuing “waivers” to states to modify the rules of NCLB. But there is little change to the unfortunate continuation of the NCLB Act.

Paradigms For Change?

Will we see a change in educational reform? Will the momentum of the high-stakes, common core standards dominate education for the foreseeable future? Could a paradigm shift emerge from the discontent that is beginning to make itself known?

The kind of change that many argue is needed is one that is grounded in local initiatives, and educational research. This would result in the experimentation of many approaches to school improvement, especially if relationships between universities and schools are encouraged, and the means for future sustainability achieved. Oddly, in our democratic society, just the opposite is happening in the sense that there is this drive for a single set of standards in each subject area, and for national assessments of student achievement.

Could a paradigm shift happen?

It is possible, but leaders would have to emerge to lead the way with examples that work in practice.

One example in science teaching is to move from a teacher centered approach to teaching to a student-centered approach. This paradigm has been with us for many years, first put forth by John Dewey, and later supported by the Progressive Education Movement. Glen Aikenhead describes this paradigm when he calls for a science education that is evidence-based, and is a science education for everyday life. In his book, Science Education for Everyday Life, Aikenhead gives a clear overview of the humanistic science paradigm that differs from the paradigm that characterizes school science today.

The humanistic science paradigm gives priority to student-oriented point of view aimed at citizens who can employ science and technology in their everyday lives. What is powerful about Aikenhead’s proposal is that it is evidence-based. That is, the various components of this paradigm, the nature of the curriculum, the content of science, teacher pedagogy are based on research studies conducted by researchers around the world. This clear connection of research to policy change has been missing, not only at the state level, but especially at the federal level, and in particular the NCLB Act and the RTTP Fund.

What are your thoughts on trying to instill new thinking, a paradigm shift in science teaching?

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