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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

Perspectives / Sifting the Sources

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As I sit down to write this column, I start by scanning a variety of articles and research reports on the topic. How Schools Improve might be a tough topic, I think, looking at the accumulated pile of reports with conflicting conclusions about (1) whether schools are improving, and (2) how to make them do so on a large scale.
This month's theme is a highly politicized one, as many are these days. “Going where the evidence points,” as one conservative journal claims it does in its editorial mission statement, requires more sifting for bias than ever. The reader's job isn't made easier by the breaking news that a noted broadcast commentator was paid by the Department of Education to promote NCLB (Kurtz, 2005). Covert propaganda mingles with the obvious kind.
Getting down to the first question, are schools improving? The answer depends on how you measure improvement. Do you look at test scores (If so, which ones? The NAEP, state assessments?); dropout rates (But are some schools under-reporting them?); the recent improved TIMSS scores in math and science (Do they reflect NCLB pressures or adherence to NCTM's math standards?); reports from educators about the morale at their schools (If not good, why so?); or the percentage of schools making adequate yearly progress (Is AYP adequately defined?).
One possible reason for optimism: Only 22 percent of schools this year are on the federal watch list, down from 35 percent last year (Paulson, 2004). However, some would say this shorter list of failing schools merely reflects schools' greater familiarity with the law and the government's tweaking of rules.
To glean more information about whether schools are improving, you might also look at the grades that Education Week, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, hands out this year. In No Small Change: Targeting Money Toward Student Performance, researchers analyze more than 100 variables before they grade states from A to F on four major categories: the rigor and clarity of the state's standards in core subjects; its efforts to improve teacher quality; its school climate as measured by absenteeism, school safety, parental involvement, character education, and other variables; and the extent to which it provides resources equitably. Only 2 of 51 graded get as many as two As out of four, and 1 of those 2 states receives a D+ for school climate. States averaged a C+ across the categories, the same as last year. No great cause for optimism, even if one recognizes that all grading systems reflect the values of those who create them.
To look at more evidence of improvement, see the PDK/Gallup Poll (2004) to find out how the public perceives its schools. This year, 26 percent of respondents give U.S. public schools an A or a B, the same percentage as last year. As usual, many more respondents—47 percent this year—give the schools in their community an A or a B, and 61 percent of respondents who have children in the schools believe their schools deserve As or Bs.
So the answer to whether schools are improving is still up for grabs, but at least we know some of the variables that constitute improvement in the eyes of policymakers, journalists, and the public. Now to look at what educators say about how to improve schools. Once again, we do not find agreement, conclusive answers, or straightforward recipes.
A must-read, though, is David J. Ferrero's thoughtful examination of the underlying philosophies of different “good schools” (p. 8). Whether or not you agree with his conclusion that authentic school reform requires choice among a variety of approaches, readers are likely to agree that they would like to work in a school that grapples honestly with the essential questions he raises. As many other articles in this issue describe, change for the better rarely begins as a result of bureaucratic mandate but often takes off when educators find like-minded colleagues with whom to plan and implement a vision.
This magazine's vision is to continue to provide multiple, reasonable viewpoints on how to improve schools and to provide an independent venue for educators to voice their ideas and listen to those of other educators. Let us know your views.
References

Kurtz, H. (2005, Jan. 8). Administration paid commentator. The Washington Post.

Paulson, A. (2004, Nov. 29). A shortening list of failing schools. The Christian Science Monitor.

Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (2004). The 36th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 41–53.

Skinner, R. A. (2005, Jan. 6). State of the states. Quality counts 2005: No small change (Education Week Special Report), 24(17), 77.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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