kitchen table math, the sequel: it goes up and it goes down

Sunday, September 9, 2007

it goes up and it goes down

from Education Gadfly:

The coin of the education realm is, of course, student performance--test scores, graduation rates, and such. Most of the indicators are flat at best; rather than prolonged "prosperity," k-12 education has been in a long-term recession from which it seems unable to emerge. Like Wall Street, we obsess over every wee bump and dip in the measures we typically follow: SAT scores down a bit, NAEP fourth-grade scores up a bit, AYP schools more or less numerous, graduation-test passing rates a hair better (or worse) than last year's, and on and on. Most of these little wrinkles mean nothing, any more than a hundred-point dip or uptick in the Dow. (My grandfather used to say of the stock market: "It goes up and it goes down.") But they rivet our attention and lead to all manner of writings, symposia, hand-wringings, speechifying, sometimes even election outcomes.

a long-term recession

I like that way of putting it.


Yet the big education picture is precisely the opposite of the big picture presented by the U.S. economy. In the economy, despite bumps, prosperity improves over time. During boom times, it can seem as if everything works. (Never mind the business failures that still occur.) So try some heretofore unknown credit or debt instrument. Make those loans to sub-par home-buyers. Take that chance. Just about everything appears to have a strong chance of succeeding.

In education, by contrast, the results don't change and nothing much seems to work. In part because of our frustration with that flat terrain and our determination to scale some hillsides, educators and policy folks take a number of risks, too. "If nothing has worked so far, let's try something different." So we launch program after program, intervention after intervention, law after law, expenditure after expenditure, innovation after innovation, generally with little or no evidence that it will change the angle of the performance trend line. But we try them anyway. That's risky behavior, indeed, behavior that likely serves to flatten the line.

That's my district, the only difference being that there is no risk involved. No matter what the district does, the scores will always be high and, thus, the school will always be "high-performing."

The district can do as it pleases, and it does.

Strange how the powerful parents of suburbia, with our ability to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, or sock our kids into private schools at 30K a year, don't seem able to influence the people we hire to run our schools.

Speaking of which, I received an email from our principal this week thanking me for my "interest" in the middle school.

He's been on the job for one year.

I've lived here, now, for 11 9 years.

But the school belongs to him.


I can't figure out whether an email thanking me for my interest is better or worse than a welcome back to school letter thanking us for our ongoing support and cooperation.


le radical galoisien said...

I've always favoured a participatory democracy over a representative one, but would it be too far-fetched to suggest some sort of association to form a sort of concerned parents' voter bloc?

Catherine Johnson said...

I've always favoured a participatory democracy over a representative one, but would it be too far-fetched to suggest some sort of association to form a sort of concerned parents' voter bloc?

The short answer is yes.

It would be too far-fetched.

Catherine Johnson said...

Actually, this is one of the interesting things about school politics....parents aren't particularly effective advocates, politically speaking. (An individual parent can be effective advocating for his or her individual child, though with gen-ed it's a battle.)

Part of the problem, I gather, is high turn-over. (Not an original observation.)

By the time parents figure out a school has a significant problem, he or she has moved on, because his children have aged out of the school.

My sister tells me this is a big problem with national youth sports organizations, too.

Joe Williams' book, btw, has a very interesting chapter about teachers' unions having tremendous power because they possess "institutional memory" that no one else possesses.

(That's not the issue in affluent suburbs, I don't think, but it's an interesting idea.)

btw, I've mentioned before: I find public policy fascinating, but I don't understand the political realm well at all.

The question of why parents are so weak as a group is intriguing.

Catherine Johnson said...

lrg - you might enjoy this post about Robert Moses:

This was Ed's take, after reading the Caro biography of Robert Moses, on how local politics work.

I find it extremely helpful.

Catherine Johnson said...

how to change the system

This link works.

concernedCTparent said...

High turnover is definitely a roadblock but so is practicality. At some point you realize that effective change may come (at expense to you and your own child) without your own child ever seeing the benefit. A turtle's pace is much to generous in describing the process of changing school administration and procedures. At any rate, it's much too slow for most parents.

concernedCTparent said...

I remember reading an interview with Angelina Jolie about how she was working to better the education system in New Orleans. I really believe she thought it was possible and imagined sending her oldest to school there. I thought, well, at least she has clout... maybe she can move mountains.

This week I heard that she's sending him to school in NYC instead. So much for saving the New Orlean's schools. I don't really blame her. In fact, I totally relate. At some point you make decisions based on what's best for your very own child no matter how altruistic and heartfelt your original intentions may have been.

concernedCTparent said...

Oh, and it's not any old school...
it's Lycée Francais de New York on the Upper East Side of Manahattan.

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh, and it's not any old school...
it's Lycée Francais de New York on the Upper East Side of Manahattan.

Ed has talked to a couple of people educated there this week.

Fantastic schools.

Catherine Johnson said...

He was part of an oral defense of a dissertation this week. The candidate is French and had been educated in French schools (I'm thinking the equivalent of the Lycee??)

He said she was superbly educated.

She knew the Bible; she knew Aristotle. She knew everything.

France is a country in which only 20% (figure is not fact-checked) now characterize themselves as religious, and yet high-end French students know the Bible.

concernedCTparent said...

Religious considerations aside, the Bible is an essential component of a classical education.

The abandonment of of the "classics" as a foundation and the minimal role the liberal arts now play in education, represent the polar opposite of being "superbly educated" and "knowing everything".

concernedCTparent said...

This decline has been going on for quite sometime. I am certain my own education is lacking in this regard. I still work very hard to make up that deficit.

I was fortunate to have the life-altering experience of studying at the college and graduate level in other countries. That changes you forever. It is humbling beyond words to be faced with the enormity of what you do not know. Having studied in both Latin America and Europe, I had to scramble to learn what these students had as background knowledge. Lucky for me I don't scare off easily.