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June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

Chipping Away: Reforms That Don't Make a Difference

To create a great education system, begin by chipping away at the myths, lies, and nonsense.

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A sculptor was once asked how he could start with a big block of marble and create a beautiful statue of a horse. The answer: "I just take my hammer and chisel, and I knock off everything that doesn't look like a horse."
Teachers, administrators, and school boards in the United States today are buried under a heavy stone block of mandates and laws. Politicians, hedge fund managers, and heirs to big-box retailing fortunes are telling educators how to create "world class" schools—but their vision of "world class" appears to mean chiefly high test scores and questionable notions of economic competitiveness. These same influential people are silent about creating schools designed to give children the values, knowledge, and motivation that will enable them to form positive relationships, maintain a healthy lifestyle, participate actively in our democracy, and pursue occupations that reward them not just financially, but also spiritually and intellectually.
One way to promote those goals is to take up a hammer and a chisel and knock off any proposed education reforms that don't look like a great school. Among a plethora of bad ideas being shoved at educators today, here are five myths that we should knock off:
Myth 1. Cyberteaching is an efficient, cost-saving, and highly effective means of delivering education.
Myth 2. School choice and competition work to improve all schools.
Myth 3. Merit pay is a good way to increase the performance of teachers. Teachers should be evaluated on the basis of their students' performance.
Myth 4. Retaining children in grade helps struggling students catch up and promotes better classroom instruction for all.
Myth 5. Homework, and lots of it, boosts achievement.
In many cases, the special interests pushing these myths stand to make a good deal of money if educators and policymakers buy into them. Testing companies, charter school corporations, and online teaching companies are a few of the vested interests currently pocketing billions of taxpayer dollars because they have convinced politicians and some educators that assumptions like these are actually true. But the assumptions are false, and belief in them threatens the very foundations of our democratic education system.
Let's look at each of these five myths and see why all educators should chip them away from their school improvement plans.

Myth 1. Cyberteaching is an efficient, cost-saving, and highly effective means of delivering education.

A 10-year-old child gets up in the morning, dresses in his best school outfit, has breakfast, and goes off to school … but "school" is a laptop in the corner of the kitchen, where the student performs hours of exercises in spelling, grammar, and math, all alone or with an occasional check-in by his parent.
Sound outrageous? Well, it's happening to tens of thousands of children every day. And for this mockery of a well-rounded education, a corporation thousands of miles away is collecting as much as $10,000 of taxpayers' money for each child. These cyberschools (or "virtual academies," as they are known in most states) take advantage of loosely written charter school legislation at the state level—legislation which, incidentally, the cyberschool industry helped write and which rarely includes any effective accountability mechanisms (Glass, 2009). Virtual academies experience churning that would be the envy of any day trader; their revolving doors sometimes show 100 percent turnover in the student population of a grade in one year (Glass & Welner, 2011). And when state laws require test data to see how students are doing, the performance of the virtual academies is so pathetic that the charter school movement is trying to dissociate itself from its online cousins (Molnar et al., 2014).
Cyberteaching? Get rid of it.

Myth 2. School choice and competition work to improve all schools.

Many policymakers love competition—for other people. Competition raises all boats, educators are told. Create charter schools, and traditional public schools will have to compete for students and will be shaken out of their lazy complacency. Give families vouchers to send their children to private schools, and public schools will have to get off their behinds and work harder to stay in business.
This myth rests on a number of fallacies. First, the very idea that public schools even need to worry about competing with private and charter schools is contradicted by a long list of studies that have found public schools outperform private and charter schools (Lubienski & Lubienski, 2013). And in local contexts where voucher programs have enabled some students to transfer from neighborhood public schools to private or charter schools, the only things competition has raised are the marketing budgets of the public schools as they struggle to retain students (Heilig, 2012). Brochures, TV spots, and marketing events do nothing to help children grow well.
In manufacturing, competition can work; it stimulates invention and the search for efficiencies. Engineers are good at coming up with more sophisticated robots and computer-controlled assembly lines. But the service sector—which includes our doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and yes, teachers—is not so easily engineered. Some politicians find this difficult to understand and continue to think of schools as factories.
If competition is such a panacea, then why don't politicians run a little experiment? Let them divide the state legislature in two. Legislature A will take one half of the state and Legislature B the other half. We'll wait nine months and then measure the growth in the two halves' economies, employment rates, and student test scores. The legislature that wins will take over the entire state, and the other legislature can go home. An absurd way to run a state, right? And an equally absurd way to run a school system.
Competition is for widget makers, not for educators. Get rid of it.

Myth 3. Merit pay is a good way to increase the performance of teachers. Teachers should be evaluated on the basis of their students' performance.

Scarcely any reform proposal gets as much attention these days as the recommendation to reward or punish teachers on the basis of their students' progress on standardized tests. Value-added measurement (VAM) is an idea whose time has come, say the testing companies. It is an idea with no valid basis in research, say scholars who have studied the approach. The blog VAMboozled is devoted to debunking the outrageous claims and bad advice of the VAM proponents.
The rationale for VAM is so enticingly simple that it appeals to countless average citizens whose only experience with education is that they once went through it. Give an achievement test to a teacher's students in September, and then give the test to the same students in May and calculate the gain. The teachers with big gains will receive bonuses or blue ribbons or a round of applause at the end-of-year assembly. The teachers with small gains or with no gains at all could be fired or transferred—or have their teaching certificates revoked.
This is hardly a way to treat a professional. And therein hangs the tale. VAM is one of many moves to deprofessionalize teaching. It joins Teach for America, online teacher certification, and attacks on teacher tenure as an attempt to demote teaching from a profession to a semiskilled trade. Value-added measures are unfair, untested, and unacceptable.
VAM violates equal protection. The majority of K–12 teachers teach subjects that are not covered by the tests used to determine value-added ratings—social studies, history, music, physical education, art, biology, chemistry, and so on. (Of course, testing companies would be more than happy to create tests for all these subjects and administer and score them—for a price.)
VAM also violates common sense in two ways. First, because students move, drop courses, or switch courses, some teachers lose 2 students out of 30 during a school year, and other teachers lose more than half their class. Statisticians use complicated formulas to try to take variations like this movement into proper account, but they fail (American Statistical Association, 2014).
Second, VAM holds teachers accountable for student learning—yet we don't hold anyone else accountable for another person's behavior. Physicians, parents, and university professors are held responsible for acting ethically; doing their jobs to the best of their ability; and responding sensibly to the needs of their patients, children, or students. But they are not ultimately responsible for the poor health of their patients who make unhealthy lifestyle choices, for the crimes of their children, or for the Fs earned by their university students. Why are public school teachers being singled out as the responsible parties for student learning? Morally and legally, this makes no sense.
Get rid of value-added measurement. Chip it away. If you do that, you will be getting closer to a fine-looking school.

Myth 4. Retaining children in grade helps struggling students catch up and promotes better classroom instruction for all.

Caring teachers, principals, and guidance counselors sometimes find themselves in the position of delivering some difficult-to-digest news to parents: Their child is a slow learner or lacks maturity. To give "the gift of time," these educators recommend keeping the child back so that he or she will have more opportunity to master reading or mathematics or to mature as a student. But school personnel who do this make a horrible blunder.
Research shows quite convincingly that retaining a student in grade is almost always ineffective, is often biased, hurts family relationships, and increases dropout rates (Shepard & Smith, 1989, 1990). Some high-performing countries, such as Finland, Sweden, and Japan, ban retention in grade altogether. But in the United States, we retain about 450,000 students annually in grades 1–8, and tens of thousands more at the end of kindergarten and in grades 9–12. Cumulatively, more than 5 million public school children have been "flunked" at least once (Warren & Saliba, 2012).
In three major reviews over the decades, comparisons of retained and promoted students overwhelmingly favored the promoted students on measures of academic achievement, observations of classroom behavior, and surveys of self-esteem and adjustment to school. But in one area the retained students always have the edge: dropping out of school. Students who have repeated a grade once are 20–30 percent more likely to drop out before completing high school, and students who have been retained twice are almost certain to drop out (Shepard & Smith, 1990).
Further, decisions to retain are biased. Retained students are more likely to have changed schools frequently; they are more likely to be male, English language learners, black or Hispanic, from a poor household, from a single-parent household, or from a household with low parental education attainment. Children of middle-class parents are rarely left back in school (Shepard & Smith, 1989).
Retention simply doesn't solve the problems created by children's immaturity or learning difficulties. Other approaches appear to do better. These include targeted summer programs and tutoring, high-quality preschool, and small class size in the first few grades (Glass, Cahen, Smith, & Filby, 1982; Levin & Glass, 1987).
Moreover, few children regard repeating a grade as any kind of "gift." Children consider being held back the emotional equivalent of wetting their pants in school or being caught stealing. They think of only two events as more distressing: the death of a parent and going blind (Yamamoto & Byrnes, 1987). The gift of time indeed!
Given the extra costs of a year of schooling, the United States may be spending about $55 billion annually on a policy that doesn't work well for the vast majority of the students retained. So it's probably fair to ask whether retention in grade is simply a mean-spirited way to penalize those students who don't "measure up." It sure seems that way to us.
Schools really don't reduce heterogeneity in student ability and behavior much by their retention policies. Cut them out! You'll have a better school, and you'll remove another barrier that less-advantaged students must clear to obtain the benefits our society offers to its more-advantaged citizens.

Myth 5. Homework, and lots of it, boosts achievement.

Homework time, which long ago typically consisted of a relatively calm 30 minutes after the dinner dishes were cleared, has now become for many families a battleground. Children wrench and wail as parents stare dumbfounded at math problems like nothing they ever experienced in their school days.
Research shows that the average amount of time spent on homework has doubled in the last 50 years (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Those who extol the benefits of homework while bewailing the current state of U.S. public education have a contradiction to explain away. How could we have doubled homework time and still left education in the doldrums?
Harris Cooper, the leading scholar in this area, found almost 70 correlations between time spent on homework and achievement, a third of which were negative (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Although the average correlation across these studies was positive, it was tiny; and it was higher for older students than for younger ones. At the elementary grade levels, homework appears to have no significant effect on achievement. In fact, if Johnny's ferret ate his homework, the ferret probably got more benefit from it than Johnny did.
Homework? If you don't get rid of it altogether, at least give families a break. Stop piling it on.

Sculpt Your Own Great School

Today's professional educators are buried under a huge slab of rock that weighs them down with half-baked mandates and reform ideas hatched in the minds of amateurs. Our only salvation is to take up hammer and chisel and chip away the myths, lies, and nonsense to reveal what truly works: teachers with security and support; a curriculum focused on the mental, emotional, and physical health of students—and schools dedicated to providing all students with a safe, orderly environment in which professionals who care about them help them realize their unique potential.
Authors' note: For an expanded discussion of the five harmful myths explored here and 45 more, see 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools by David C. Berliner, Gene V Glass, and Associates (Teachers College Press, 2014).
References

American Statistical Association. (2014, April 8). ASA statement on using value-added models for educational assessment. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from www.amstat.org/policy/pdfs/ASA_VAM_Statement.pdf

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.

Glass, G. V (2009). The realities of K–12 virtual education. Boulder & Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center, University of Colorado & Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/PB-Glass-VIRTUAL.pdf

Glass, G. V, Cahen, L. S., Smith, M. L., & Filby, N. N. (1982). School class size: Research and policy. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Glass, G. V, & Welner, K. G. (2011). Online K–12 schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain private ventures in need of public regulation. Boulder: National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/NEPC-VirtSchool-1-PB-Glass-Welner.pdf

Heilig, J. V. (2012, November 8). Supporting public schools: Are vouchers a panacea or problematic? Pt. IV [blog post]. Retrieved from Cloaking Inequity at http://cloakinginequity.com/2012/11/08/supporting-public-schools-are-vouchers-a-panacea-or-problematic-pt-iv

Levin, H. M., & Glass, G. V (1987). Cost-effectiveness of computer assisted instruction. Evaluation Review, 11, 50–72.

Lubienski, C. A., & Lubienski, S. T. (2013). The public school advantage: Why public schools outperform private schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Molnar, A., Rice, J. K., Huerta, L., Shafer, S. R., Barbour, M. K., Miron, G., et al. (2014). Virtual schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, performance, policy, and research evidence. Boulder: National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/virtual-2014-all-final.pdf

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1989). Flunking grades: Research and policies on grade retention. New York: Falmer.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1990). Synthesis of research on grade retention. Educational Leadership, 47, 84–88.

Warren, J. R., & Saliba, J. (2012). First- through eighth-grade retention rates for all 50 states: A new method and initial results. Educational Researcher, 41(8), 320–329.

Yamamoto, K., & Byrnes, D. (1987). Primary children's ratings of the stressfulness of experiences. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 2, 117–121.

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