Whistleblowers Delight

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2010

Did anyone else get that remarkable email from the organizers of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education yesterday?  The subject line read “BBA Needs Your Help.”  If you just hit delete, you missed a fascinating email.  BBA, which argues that test-driven accountability narrows the curriculum and creates test obsession in schools is asking teachers to submit examples of schools (presumably their own) that have suffered under strict accountability measures:

In a recent meeting, we advised Department of Education staff that their policy of identifying the lowest-performing 5% of schools in each state, in order to target these schools for massive intervention and “turnaround,” was bound to have adverse consequences if these schools were identified primarily by such test scores. We said that many schools that should be considered among the lowest performing schools would be missed if they artificially boosted their test scores at the expense of a balanced curriculum, by excessive test preparation activities and other gaming. And other schools that pursued a more balanced curriculum and attended to children’s long run achievement might falsely be identified as among the lowest-performing schools because they refused to engage in activities that artificially boosted test scores.

The letter, which doesn’t seem to appear on BBA’s website, notes DOE staff ”were not persuaded,” and asked the group to provide “examples of low-performing schools whose test scores have been artificially inflated by excessive test preparation and gaming, and better schools with very low scores but that were delivering a higher quality of instruction.”  The email, which carries the signatures of BBA organizers Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant, then asks recipients to identify such schools by name. 

Please include the name of the school, the name(s) of your source(s) of information, and other identifying information in your description. We will not initially provide all of this identifying information in the material we supply to the Department, but we have to be prepared to back up our claims by naming names if necessary.

It’s a bold move by BBA, although they might also consider sending along a copy of Linda Perlstein’s Tested.  I suspect they will find no shortage of schools that have muscled up on test prep and played games to boost test scores.  Whether teachers at those schools are willing to publicly say so is another matter. 

BBA is on shakier ground, I believe, in looking for good schools whose efforts don’t show up on test scores.  If a school is delivering a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum and “attending to children’s long run achievement” that should show up on test scores, assuming the effort is long-running, ongoing and well-implemented.

A City of Readers

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2010

Seattle takes top honors in an annual Central Connecticut State University ranking of America’s most literate cities, followed by Washington, DC; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and Atlanta. This study measures six indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.  Newspaper circulation?  Did CCSU overlook the fact that the venerable Seattle Post-Intelligencer shuttered its print edition in 2009?  Washington, one of the few remaining cities (for now, at least) with more than one major daily, should demand a recount.

Movies in School: Seeing Is Believing (Unfortunately)

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2010

Good news and bad news about showing movies concerning historical events to students.  The good news is that a film based on a historical event seems to increase student engagement and retention of information.  The bad news is that the information they retain quite likely wrong. 

That’s the upshot of an interesting study highlighted by Dan Willingham on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  Researchers at Washington University gave undergraduates nine texts, all accurate.   “For six of the texts, there was an accompanying film clip; three were fully accurate, but three had an inaccuracy and thus contradicted the text,” Willingham writes.

Some of the subjects got a general warning about potential inaccuracies in Hollywood movies. Some got the same warning but the inaccuracy in a particular film clip was specified, and the correct information was provided. Some of the subjects were not given any warning at all.” 

So what happened?

Watching the film plus reading a text led to better memory than the text alone, and students expressed greater interest in texts when there was a movie to go along with it.  However, watching the movies “led people to remember the incorrect information at fairly high levels,” says Willingham. “Between a third and half of the time, people answered a question by using the inaccurate information from the movie, rather than accurate information from the text.”

But what about that warning to beware of inaccuracies?  It was only effective if it pinpointed the exact inaccuracy.  A general warning had no effect. 

“Teachers may dislike the idea of using movies in their classrooms that contain inaccuracies, but if they decide to show them to students, they can negate the danger that students will misremember the incorrect information by providing specific information about what is inaccurate,” Willingham concludes.