Cheaters

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen” –Woody Guthrie.

In the least surprising education story of the year, the New York Times reports that cheating is increasing as the stakes grow higher on standardized tests.  Cue sounds of earnest clucking and charges of sloppy journalism.   There’s a bigger and better cheating story to be told and it goes far beyond tales of individual or even school-wide mendacity.  Lower cut scores, scoring rubrics that award generous and undeserved partial credit, and dumbed down tests are cheating too.  So is using these debased metrics to create an illusion of proficiency or progress where none exists.  One doesn’t need to be cyncial to wonder if the real story isn’t who is cheating, but rather who isn’t?

Every year — EVERY year — that I taught fifth grade, I had students in my classroom who had tested on grade level the previous year who added and subtracted on their fingers and struggled to retell details from even simple stories.  Was someone cheating?  Maybe.  Was someone cheated?  Definitely.

Whitehurst: Fund Curriculum Research

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

A new report by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst offers four ideas which “offer substantial promise for improving American education, are achievable and have low costs.”  The first one is to ”choose K–12 curriculum based on evidence of effectiveness.” 

Little attention has been paid to choice of curriculum as a driver of student achievement. Yet the evidence for large curriculum effects is persuasive. Consider a recent study of first-grade math curricula, reported by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in February 2009. The researchers randomly matched schools with one of four widely used curricula. Two curricula were clear winners, generating three months’ more learning over a nine-month school year than the other two. This is a big effect on achievement, and it is essentially free because the more effective curricula cost no more than the others.

There are myriad moving parts in a good educational outcome, especially for low-SES and minority children.  Curriculum is the least appreciated moving part and isn’t nearly as fun to fight about as structural reforms like charter schools, merit pay, tenure and accountabilty. Among the ed reformers who drive the policy agenda (and have never written a lesson plan), there is a strong tendency to see curriculum, as the National Review’s Jim Manzi put it, as “motherhood and apple pie” or simply see it subsumed within the teacher quality debate, i.e., good teachers make good curricular decisions.  Less appreciated is how a sequenced, structured curriculum can improve teacher quality by allowing teachers to hone their craft, focusing on delivering instruction and differentiation, rather than the enormously difficult and time consuming work of deciding what to teach, and aligning curricular decisions with state and local standards. Curriculum, as Whitehurst has consistently argued, is critical.

“The federal government should fund many more comparative effectiveness trials of curricula, and schools using federal funds to support the education of disadvantaged students should be required to use evidence of effectiveness in the choice of curriculum materials. The Obama administration supports comparative effectiveness research in health care,” Whitehurst notes.  “It is no less important in education.”

Hear, hear.   Whitehurst’s paper also calls for evaluating teachers “in ways that meaningfully differentiate levels of performance”;  accrediting online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines; and providing the public with information that will allow comparison of the labor-market outcomes and price of individual post-secondary degree and certificate programs.

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

Is it worth battling your child over bedtimes?  A new study shows that children who go to bed early and who have consistent bed times perform better on tasks predicting future reading and mathematics performance.  (H/T: Dan Willingham)