“Myths About Education Reform”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2009

Even with the billions of dollars in economic stimulus aid headed their way, public schools stand no chance of getting better “until we dispel some empty theories about how to help them,” writes Kalman R. Hettleman, a former commissioner on the Baltimore City school board.

His list of 5 myths about education reform in the Washington Post has something guaranteed to irritate virtually everyone.  He rejects the idea that teachers know best and should be left alone by policymakers, noting the profession is resistant to using research to improve instruction.  On the other hand Hettleman has no patience for the “blame the unions” line.  He also doesn’t buy the idea that the federal government meddles too much in the affairs of local schools.

“Actually, the feds don’t go far enough. Even NCLB, attacked as an effort to wrest power from local government, allows all 50 states to set their own standards. But really, why should a passing math score vary from one school district to another?  The United States is one of only a few developed nations clinging to the idea of local control over education. Most European countries, as well as Japan, have national standards and curriculums. Their schools also rely mainly on national funding, while ours receive less than 10 percent of their revenue from the federal government….U.S. education officials need to use federal funding to reward districts that raise standards and help put American schools on a par with their international competitors.

Most tellingly – and dispiritingly –Hettleman rejects the idea that we know how to fix public schools but lack the political will to finish the job.  “Conservatives generally advocate breaking up teacher unions and privatization, while liberals call for more money, less testing and greater teacher autonomy.” But nothing has succeeded in creating even a single high-functioning urban district, Hettleman notes.

No Grades, Just Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2009

A Minneapolis middle school has done away with traditional grades in favor of “standards-based grading.”  Rather than hand out traditional letter grades based on homework, tests, extra-credit and participation, the school grades students “solely on how well they understand the material.”

The system at Hazel Park Middle School tells students at the beginning of a unit what they will have to prove they know by the end.  The proof can come in the form of tests, or other projects “such as writing newspaper articles or making posters.”  A “4″ means they exceed proficiency; zero means they can’t demonstrate any understanding of the skills.  If a student gets a 2 or less on a test or project, notes the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, they can work with the teacher to see where they went wrong, and take the test again until it’s clear they understand the material.

Under the new system, fewer students are earning top grades–or the worst, the paper reports. Students who know how to “game the system” by faithfully turning in homework and extra credit, even though they don’t understand the material, are having a harder time, says Kelly Detzler, a geography teacher who helped set up the program.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t know how to play the game of school, but they’re proficient. We were seeing a high rate of kids failing because they didn’t do their homework, even though they understood the material.”

The paper notes Hazel Park “hasn’t done well on Minnesota’s tests in recent years: In 2008, less than half the students in seventh and eighth grade were proficient on the state math and reading tests.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using demonstration of mastery as the basis for grading.  As a teacher I experimented with a system that allowed some of my students to work independently on math skills, but they demonstrated proficiency through tests and quizzes on individual state standards.  I’ll confess to a bias against relying to heavily on independent projects, which are harder to gauge objectively. There’s nothing wrong with a test, if it’s well-designed.