Monday, January 12, 2009

"Teachers, teachers, teachers" (and national standards)

"Teachers, teachers, teachers" -- that's NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein and Rev. Al Sharpton's three word solution to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

These odd bedfellows have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today that's given the misleading title of "Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap." Charter schools are one solution they propose, but the more important ones are the creation of a set of national standards for schools to test against, and re-allocating current federal education spending toward recruiting and retaining the best teachers to troubled schools (and rewarding them on merit). As they point out "there is no reward for excellence in inner-city schools when an outstanding science teacher earns the same salary as a mediocre phys-ed instructor."

(Interestingly, in some schools in NYC, this is not the case. A private program called "Math for America" pays math majors a bonus above their scale salary for teaching in needy schools. But it is mostly true).

Klein and Sharpton point to the growing body of evidence that teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement, and that the current things we reward -- tenure beyond a few years and advanced degrees -- have nothing to do with anything.

It's a fascinating piece. We've talked about teacher quality before on this blog, so I'd like to talk about their other federal idea: the national set of standards. In the era of No Child Left Behind, states are required to test children regularly, but they have been responsible for creating their own tests. Net result: most states create extremely easy tests, in order to show most of their kids passing. This solves the immediate problem of nixing embarrassing headlines but, of course, does nothing to create citizens prepared for productive employment.

I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think of the idea of national standards. I think there's a lot to like about it -- as long as the standards are rigorous -- for a couple reasons. A key one is that it could, in theory, make acceleration easier.

Here's why. National standards would require a national test. There's no reason -- in this green era -- that this would have to be a paper and pencil sort of thing. Economies of scale would almost demand that it not be. If the test was developed as a computer process, that would allow all the grade levels to be in there, and the test to move along with the child, moving forward until the kid is stumped. This would provide an accurate picture of where individual children stand. There would, of course, be a set level for what constitutes proficient in, say, a fourth grader. But if a nine-year-old scored far beyond that, up to what a 12-year-old should know, then this information could be put to productive use.

There is, of course, the question of who would set the standards, but there could certainly be a panel of educators, parents, scientists, mathematicians, literature experts and so forth who could come up with this, with input from colleges and employers. What do you think? This is a topic I'd like to write about more, so please let me know if you see problems with it.

On another note, we're going to be starting a Q&A series on Gifted Exchange with people representing all facets of gifted education. If you know a teacher, principal, school board member, etc. who would make a good subject and who'd be willing to talk with me, please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. We could also throw in a parent or two if you think you have an interesting angle. And let me know if there are any "big names" you'd like to hear from, and I'll try to track them down!

6 comments:

Stephanie said...

My kids take a test like that already. It is computer based and gets harder as the students answer the questions correctly, and easier when they miss them. It figures out the students reading, math and science levels. It shows growth if the school is doing a good job. It is called the MAP (measures of academic progress) and put out by NWEA.org

Robert Pondiscio said...

I agree with you, Laura. National standards and assessments will create transparency. It’s not a panacea to raising student achievement at large, and standards are not the same thing as a national curriculum (it's important to distinguish between content standards, the stuff kids are expected to know, and much more ephemeral "process" standards, the skills and abilities kids are expected to demonstrate). But national assessments would make it harder if not impossible to lower the proficiency bar. That’s reason enough to back the idea.

Michelle said...

If the test was administered as you describe it - allowing the test to move forward with the child - I am all for it. At the very least, a test that would allow parents and teachers to follow each child's growth over time would be a huge improvement (at least in our state - RI). However, what you are describing is a change in the purpose of the test. And while it is logical to me that you would want to meet a child where they are, and test them at that level, currently, the country is geared for testing groups for minimum requirements only. I would be thrilled if there was a national test given as you describe it.

frizzlefry said...

We also take the MAPS tests every fall and every spring. Sadly, when our PG kids test the maximum, they got nothing but the same test again several months later.

We chose to homeschool and it's working much much better.

Pablo A. Perez-Fernandez said...

Whether or not one agrees with the concept of national testing and the potential benefits for the gifted, the real question is how such a system would be implemented and whether or not it could be leveraged to provide an effective teaching platform.

Putting aside important issues of logistics and computer availability, I believe adaptive, educational computer systems are well suited for K - 6. These can be used for simultaneous teaching and testing. They can teach while providing educators and administrators with real-time, reliable evaluations of student proficiency. This has the added benefit of eliminating the stress typically associated with tests because students never have to be tested in the traditional sense.

We recently learned that our daughter is highly gifted and have explored many avenues to help her blossom. We read about Stanford's EPGY program in your book Genius Denied, and we enrolled her after some research. Leaving aside the tremendous progress my daughter has made since she started, I have realized the following things:

1. EPGY-like computer-assisted instruction could greatly enhance the learning experience of most students, regardless of IQ or aptitude. The point here is that the system is ideal for most skills levels since it is adaptive.

2. EPGY feels almost like playing to young children. My daughter loves "playing" with computers, and I have observed that many young children do too.

3. The EPGY systems adapts to individual skill level and pace of learning. Grade placement is continuously calculated for he overall course and by topic and subject matter.

4. The adaptive nature of EPGY ensures that gifted students are not held back by the rest of the class. Likewise, the rest of the students advance at their own pace, helping, in a way, to deal with the psychological damage that comes from feeling inadequate.

The point here is that a system like Stanford's EPGY would benefit a large swath of the young student population by teaching effectively and evaluating in real time while adapting to individual skill level and pace of learning.

Pablo Perez-Fernandez
Los Angeles, CA

Anonymous said...

I have very mixed thoughts on this. My sister taught 2nd grade for 30 years in a rural county. Her frustration: standardized tests weren't really. Her students had never seen an escalator, for example, and few had seen someone from a foreign country.

And is homogenization really in our country's best interests? Or the world's? Do we have enough dynamite teachers to make a difference at the 1,000s of schools we have?

Is it wrong for groups of people to have higher standards than others in moral and academic ways?

The upside is that anti-academic states & counties may become less so, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. There are still far too many 'football first' schools.