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February 9, 2017

Alternative facts and America’s so-called failing public schools

Hello, Joe and Mika. My name is Patte and I am a compulsive Morning Joe watcher. I enjoy the background chatter, banter and congenial badgering while I’m getting ready for work. And often a segment makes me stop and pay attention.

Which happened during Wednesday’s show. The topic was the to-the-wire confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  But the substance had more to do with our so-called failing public schools. Political strategist and frequent Morning Joe table talker Steve Schmidt kicked it off by calling our public education system “fundamentally broken” and a “total profound failure.” As evidence, he pointed to Los Angeles where, he claimed, “50 percent of Black and Latino students don’t make it to a diploma.” Joe, you piled on, saying that “public education is broken” and “everyone knows that’s the case.”  The generally affable Willie Geist weighed in: “We can’t keep dumping millions into a broken system.”

Admittedly, I’m a little sensitive. After all, being for public education is embedded in our name, the Center for Public Education. But fundamental to our mission is also being data-driven. And the ubiquitous assertion that public schools are failing sets our collective teeth on edge.

Two things:

  • By many measures, public schools are performing better than they ever have.
  • Public schools still need – and want — to do better.

Since Steve Schmidt brought it up, let’s talk about high school graduation. The rate of high school students graduating is at historically high levels. In 2014, public schools posted their highest ever graduation rate — 82 percent — largely driven by gains for Black and Latino students. To be sure, gaps are still present, but they have narrowed significantly.

So what about Los Angeles? The overall grad rate for LA Unified Schools was 72 percent in 2015, up from 62 percent five years earlier. The rates for Black and Latino students were, respectively, 67 and 71 percent, lagging their peers nationally, but clearly better than the 50 percent Schmidt reported.

Other measures may be surprising. Our younger public school students are rocking it in math. According to results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, today’s fourth-graders score 27 points higher on the NAEP scale than their peers did in 1990. Eighth-graders have higher scores by 19 points. To put it in layman’s terms, that’s about two years more of math learning. Although reading gains aren’t quite as dramatic as math, reading scores have likewise improved over the last two decades. And here’s a shocker: in math and reading, fourth-graders perform significantly above the international average.

I could go on. College-going rates are up. High schoolers are taking higher level math and science. More of our youngest students are enrolled in high-quality pre-k programs.

This is not to say we are where we need to be. High school students aren’t improving as fast as our elementary and middle-schoolers. Despite the progress made with low-income and minority students, schools have yet to close the achievement gap. And an 82 percent grad rate is not 100 percent. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do. But the perpetuation of the notion that our public schools are failing masks the real gains public schools have made. Worse, it sends a discouraging message to the hard-working educators who are making children’s lives better every day.

Joe, Mika – I love what you do every morning. But on this topic, you are flirting with joining the culture of alternative fact. It’s not too late to pull back and we can help. We even have charts. Have Steve Rattner give us a call.

Your fan,

Patte Barth






September 4, 2015

Parsing religion’s place in schools

Religion and schools Few issues can spark more emotion and confusion than the role of religion in public schools. As Charles C. Haynes recently noted, “schools still struggle to get it right.” Here at CPE, we see evidence in the fact that, nine years after it was first published, our paper on the topic is still consistently among our top downloaded reports.

Edwin C. Darden, a lawyer and the author of the CPE paper, attributes the confusion to “the clashing and equally forceful commands contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” There is the right of students and staff to “freely exercise” their faith – a guarantee that does not go away when individuals enter the school door. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government and its institutions – including public schools – from “establishing” religion.  Simply, schools must respect the religious rights of individual students and staff but do so while not appearing to endorse or favor any particular religion or even religion itself.

Sometimes the push and pull between these clauses leads to conflicts that eventually require the courts’ judgment to resolve. Haynes argues that many of these cases did not need to get that far. He writes, “What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.” I think there is a lot of truth in what Haynes says. But there are also some situations where the lines are not all that clear between what is and is not allowed in schools, leaving even the most conscientious school leaders somewhat baffled.

Under the Establishment Clause, schools may teach about religion, which has an academic, secular purpose, but they must not cross the line to proselytizing or promoting religion. Darden gives the example of a school choir that sings songs of praise as part of its repertoire. He explains, “While the music originates from church, the choir is learning principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts by participating. The words of faith are viewed as secondary.” This, he argues, is an allowable school practice. But the distinction can get complicated.

A recent case in Laurens County, Georgia, also involves a song of faith, but some are questioning whether its purpose is truly secular. According to a news report, the West Laurens High School band has a decades-long tradition of playing “Amazing Grace” before football games followed by a moment of silence. Many in the crowd use the moment to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a formal request to the school to stop the prayer and song, and at this writing, the school board’s decision is pending. The case is far from clear-cut. The song “Amazing Grace” itself has a long history in the U.S. and could, therefore, fit comfortably in the educational, secular bucket. The individuals in the crowd also have a right to pray. But by following a school band’s performance of a song of faith with a moment of silence whose purpose is reflection or prayer, the school may be crossing the line from the secular to non-secular, and this could be a case of what the courts call “entanglement.” As Darden puts the question, “Does the government involvement with a religious activity stretch so deep that it is indistinguishable from the religious nature itself?” If so, then the practice would be judged unconstitutional.

These questions are confounded when community opinion and local tradition enter the fray. Little wonder, then, that many schools take the easy way out and essentially declare the school building a no-religion zone. But this is not a solution and can lead to other problems. Haynes cites the case of a Nevada school that refused to allow a sixth-grade girl to use a Bible verse as part of an assignment called “All About Me,” no doubt out of the teacher’s concern about allowing religion in the classroom but in clear violation of the child’s right to free expression. Religion avoidance also leaves gaps in children’s academic preparation. How can they understand history without understanding the role religions played in the political and social development of movements and nations? As an English major, I can’t imagine how to even read a large body of the world’s literature without some basic understanding of its religious context and metaphors.

The fear of religious controversy also affects the teaching of secular content that some faiths take exception to. This is especially true in science. The Fordham Institute found that most state science standards gave short shrift to the study of evolution, and that even in states that address this central biological concept, the mention of human evolution is “conspicuously missing.”

Haynes calls for in-service workshops for educators and administrators on “how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.” I would go further. I suggest that pre-service teacher and principal preparation require First Amendment training. And that all school leaders, including school boards, be given opportunities to better understand how to allow religion in the school that respects individuals’ rights while remaining neutral, as a public institution must.






July 17, 2014

School choice in Sweden isn’t working

Earlier this week, Slate ran this analysis of school choice in Sweden that should be required reading for everyone who makes public school policy in the U.S. as well as those who write about it. I encourage everyone to read it for themselves. But briefly, the author describes how Sweden came to adopt Milton Friedman’s free market ideas for school reform in the mid- to late-1900s and since then, the nation, once a leader among OECD countries on PISA, has witnessed its international standing plummet.

According to the article, the main reason for this decline is the failure of free market principles to translate to school improvement. In Sweden, competition led to artificial test score inflation among charter and traditional schools alike.  But even if policies could be put in place to better control for that, there remains the futility of applying for-profit practices to meet what is essentially — and vitally — a not-for-profit public mission.

The author is not a complete charter school opponent. Like CPE, he recognizes the value of innovative, successful charter schools as laboratories that can provide lessons traditional public schools can learn from.  At the same time, we do not see any evidence to argue for expanding charter school — or school choice in general — as a way to improve public education. Indeed, an absolute free market system for public schools poses greater risks to the effort to raise student performance across the board, as Sweden is apparently learning the hard way. — Patte Barth

 






March 7, 2013

John Stossel, funky charts and Simpson’s paradox

John Stossel was on Fox and Friends this morning to promote an upcoming show about public schools. Remember, this is the guy who gave us Stupid in America — his ABC documentary from a few years back about our allegedly failing schools. During his segment, he claimed that “America has tripled spending, but test scores haven’t improved.”  The culprits? Teachers unions, school boards and other unnamed bureaucrats. Viewers were then shown a graph that indeed featured a flat line representing test scores over 40 years (improvement 1 point) with a second line escalating to $149,000 over the same period. The source was given as NCES. This got my fact-checking synapses sparking.

While I could not find the exact graph they showed on TV, Stossel did post this rather snazzy display on his blog with the same data:

Go ahead and take a moment to admire the work of the Fox News graphics department. Ok, now let’s talk data. This chart shows scores for three subjects (math, reading and science) and dollar figures (the “cost of education”) from 1970 to 2010. While not noted, I’m assuming the data source is still NCES.

This may get a little wonky, but stay with me.  NCES reports trend data over four decades for only two tests:  the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trends (LTT) and the SAT. NCES also has international test scores, but that data only goes back to the 1990s so that couldn’t be what Stossel used.  The SAT does not assess science, which leaves NAEP LTT as the only possibility. It’s not a perfect match. The last NAEP LTT administration was in 2008 although Stossel’s chart shows data to 2010. But I’m going to assume that he fudged a little on the timeframe because nothing else qualifies.

NAEP LTT is given to a representative sample of students age nine, 13 and 17. I’m also going to assume that his analysis is based on 17-year-olds because the data matches his in reading and comes closest in math (more on this later).  Between 1971 and 2008, LTT reading scores for 17-year-olds have been relatively flat, posting an increase of just 1 point (not 1% as shown on Stossel’s chart, but we’ll blame the designer for that common mistake).  Here’s what it looks like:

Now let’s have some fun. Let’s look at the same test scores disaggregated by race and ethnicity:

Note that every group improved more than the overall score did: White 17-year-olds by 2 points with their Black and Hispanic classmates gaining a whopping 25 and 17 points respectively. This gives me a chance to talk about Simpson’s paradox.  The paradox occurs when “a trend that appears in different groups of data disappears when these groups are combined, and the reverse trend appears for the aggregate data.”  In this case, the overall trend for 17-year-olds is flat while each group gained, some groups by a lot. The reason is that the distribution of racial/ethnic groups has changed significantly between 1975 and 2008. Here is the distribution of the NAEP samples for the two years:

The proportion of Black and Hispanic 17-year-olds is larger while the proportion of White students in 2008 is 25 percentage points lower than it was in 1975. Even though Black and Hispanic performance also increased by a lot, they were still lower-performing than their White peers in 2008. Thus, all groups gain, but when their performance is combined the overall trend is flat.

Clearly, no one would argue that an achievement gap, though improving, is acceptable and we can move on to other things. But it’s just as absurd to look at these gains and find evidence of failing schools, as Stossel does.  And the absurdity doesn’t end there. Stossel, in turns out, is a master cherry picker of data. Let’s look at the rest of NAEP Long Term Trends:

  • Reading, 13-year-olds, 1971-2008: Overall scores +12; Black students +23; Hispanic +24.
  • Reading, 9-year-olds, 1971-2008: Overall +5; Black +21, Hispanic +10.
  • Mathematics, 17-year-olds, 1978 (first year tested)-2008: Overall +6, Black +19, Hispanic +17.
  • Mathematics, 13-year-olds, 1978-2008: Overall +17, Black +32, Hispanic +17.
  • Mathematics, 9-year-olds,  1978-2008: Overall +24, Black +32, Hispanic +30.

Notice a pattern?  If one were to apply Stossel’s grossly oversimplified analysis of education cost to scores — and I’m not saying you should — but if you did, you would have to say our public schools are producing a return on our investment.   Then again, how he got those cost figures is another topic for another day.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Data,Demographics,Public education — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 2:46 pm






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