Saturday, September 12, 2009

No News is Good News

If your local newspaper is anything like mine, there are two types of news stories that are invariably negative in tone and content: any story about Africa and any story about education.
Regarding the former, I've just about given up hope. I have lived in both East and West Africa and can tell you that 90% of what happens in Africa on a daily basis is good. Unfortunately, our press focuses exclusively on the other ten percent.
The same is true of education. Although most of what happens in any classroom or any district office can be characterized as good, or at the very least not bad, what gets reported in the local press are the one or two things that went awry last week. And if your local paper is suffering from the inevitable slow news cycle that occurs each year during summer vacation, look for an increase in educational muckraking just to sell papers.
It didn't take long for our local paper to dig some dirt, and when they did, they splashed it on the front and editorial pages: "Poorest Schools Get Lowest-Paid Teachers" and "Investment in Teacher Career Ladder Hasn't Paid Off." What these two articles very strongly implied, with little or no proof, was the following:
  • The three tier teacher salary scale ($30,000, $40,000 and $50,000 base salaries for Tiers I, II and III respectively) was set up to raise student test scores.
  • Tier III teachers leave schools because they don't want to teach low income, minority children who produce low standardized test scores.
  • Tier III teachers are more capable of raising test scores than teachers at Tiers I and II.
  • Standardized test scores are an accurate measure of a teacher's talents and expertise or of his or her students' levels of academic achievement.
  • Grade level or more than grade level gains by students, as measured by classroom based assessments, are irrelevant as long as the student does not also achieve the level of "proficient" on standardized tests.
  • Middle and upper income students with high test scores have their teachers to thank for their "achievement" whereas lower income students with low test scores have their teachers to blame for their "failure."

In response to these unsubstantiated assertions, here are some questions I would like the authors of these articles to answer:

Where is the proof that one of the rationales for establishing the three tier licensure system was to raise students’ test scores? The Public Education Department states that the system was instead established in order to recruit and retain good teachers.

Where are the statistics that prove that teachers leave schools because of their students’ low test scores, ethnicity or income? More than often it is because of the boxed, “drill and kill,” highly scripted and therefore woefully uninspiring curricula the schools are forced to adopt in order to comply with the punishments meted out to “low performing” schools by No Child Left Behind. Because teachers are forced to implement these curricula to the letter, schools become oppressive, unprofessional and disrespectful environments for many teachers. It’s no wonder they leave.

Where is the data that demonstrates that Tier III teachers are more capable of raising scores than teachers at Tiers I and II? In fact, the opposite may be true, since, unlike veteran teachers, new teachers (post NCLB) have been assaulted from day one by test improvement rhetoric and training.

Where is the high quality, investigative journalism that calls into question the validity of the tests themselves? In other words, why are the tests always unassailable while our schools and their hard working teachers and students are consistently the targets of negative reports in the local and national press?

Where is the recognition of the incredible academic gains of many students who begin the school year two years behind and finish the year almost on grade level, but because they are not on or above grade level according to standardized assessments, their achievements go unrecognized and are even labeled as failure?

Finally, where is the evidence that the higher test scores enjoyed by students in mid and upper income schools are due to their teachers’ tier level or teaching expertise instead of their parents’ income and level of advanced education, or their fluency in English? These three factors will remain major players in low test scores unless and until poverty is addressed thoroughly and comprehensively by the public and private sectors of our society.

The questions above remain to be investigated by members of the press who are both conscientious and responsible, qualities that of late are sorely lacking in our local paper. Nonetheless I, for one, would welcome broader and more comprehensive scrutiny of our public schools, instead of the usual scrutiny that prefers to lay the blame of all that is wrong with education at the feet of the students and their teachers.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to critically examine the "news" articles about education in the Journal. Frankly, when I see the headlines I have no interest in digging in. I particularly appreciate how you examined the assumptions that are embedded in these articles. Well done.

David A. Wilson said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your comments. It is the assumptions that no one questions that often underlie the problems and amplify the differences between parties. Thanks for reading!