Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Schools: What Are They Good For?

Two weeks ago, Ravenswood City School Board voted to deny a charter school run by Stanford's School of Education a five-year extension.  One week ago, the school board voted to close the elementary school for good, but to allow the high school to continue to operate for at least two more years.

The school board cited poor test scores as the primary reason for closing the school.  According to the New York Times, the Stanford New School focused not only on academic success, but also on students' social and emotional lives, thereby possibly explaining why Aspire, a charter school across town that only drilled students in academics, reported higher test scores.  The Times also reported that the Stanford New School managed to raise graduation rates and gain college acceptance for 96% of its high school seniors.  (Please read the NY Times article before moving onto the rest of this post.)

I think this story is incredibly important.  It gets at the heart of the debate over education reform in this country.  My bias would lead me to conclude that the lesson to be learned here is that our outrageous overemphasis on standardized test scores as a means of judging the quality of a school is driving us to close schools that may be doing great things (and one would think that a school run by one of the country's leading universities is probably doing great things).  On the other hand, Rick Hess would say that this is an example of why we shouldn't trust "best practices" and "knowledgeable professionals" to be the saviors of American education.  Hess would argue that rather than assume that people with advanced degrees in education can produce best practices that will work at scale, we should trust the collective innovative spirit of America's educational entrepreneurs to find and adapt successful strategies to meet the needs of unique communities.

Again, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  There's certainly a lot of potential in educational entrepreneurs, but I'm highly wary of many of their motivations.  So many of these people seek to develop educational models that maximize output (standardized test scores) while minimizing input (time and money).  What gets lost in between is that excellent education and standardized test scores are not only different things, but that, in many cases, they actually work against each other.

Ultimately, I think Anne Geiger hit the nail on the head in her blog yesterday when she suggested we need to have a much more in-depth conversation in this country about what schools are for.  If they're for raising standardized test scores, then, by all means, let's shred the public school system and open the endeavor up to anybody who has a new idea.  If they're only about improving academics, then I think allowing charters into every state and providing school choice makes a lot of sense.  But if they're about educating the whole child and serving the public as fundamental pillars of the community, then I think we need to be a lot more careful about educational entrepreneurs and school choice.  I don't mean to suggest they can't play a role, but I think it should be a well-regulated role that seeks to mitigate the harm that can be done to any institution/market by a laser focus on standardized test scores, profit, or prestige.  Unfortunately, the leaders of our national system don't seem to see it that way.


  1. I found myself going back and forth when reading the article. On the one hand, I think the teachers have some valid points - specifically that you cannot measure student success only with a test. But on the other hand, I do not think that spending more money per student will necessarily result in a higher success rate either, as Stanford seems to think.

    Interesting article, thanks for the link.

  2. I believe that schools should do both (be held accountable for achievement AND educate the whole child). They are not antithesis to one another. After all, for schools that are truly educating their students along all dimensions and using rich assessments to track student progress, the state assessments should be a piece of cake.

    However, while raising student test scores alone does not necessarily mean a quality education, it is definitely clear that poor test scores are an indication of poor education. Stanford New School was not performing on state tests, a denial of its charter extension was the right call.

  3. I'm struck by the differences in how this plays out at different grade levels.

    If you're running an urban high school, taking over whatever kids walk in the door from whereever, in 9th grade or later, I think there is a strong empirical case -- for those who wish to gather evidence from direct experience -- that test scores don't tell the whole story. And that there isn't time to waste. Do state test prep or SAT test prep or prepare kids for what they'll actually *do* in college and work. They don't necessarily overlap much and you might not be able to do all of them. Also, don't forget everything else they ought to know before they walk out the door with their diploma.

    Charters seem to be great at getting directly into the mind-set that test-prep and academics begins in kindergarten and start from day one with that approach. I tend to think thats monstrous, but it's apparently good for your second grade test scores. How that plays out in the long run is anyone's guess.

    It also seems to work pretty well for charters to pick kids up in fifth grade and cram elementary school math and reading into a year, but the dramatic gains you can achieve in math from K - 8 go away in high school...

  4. "But if they're about educating the whole child and serving the public as fundamental pillars of the community, then I think we need to be a lot more careful about educational entrepreneurs and school choice."

    RE, you sound like you want to be a Montessori teacher :)