Thursday, December 17, 2009

Testing, Testing

In the Dec. 14 issue of The New Yorker, physician Atul Gawande takes on one of the persistent critiques of the current health care debate:

“We crave sweeping transformation, however all the current bill offers is … pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of this magnitude. And yet—here’s the interesting thing—history suggests otherwise.”

The history that Gawande is referring to is that of the federal agricultural extension agency, where multiple small scale ‘experiments’ helped transform the productivity of farming. It’s a history that could inform federal policy in education as well.

Gawande grew up in my backyard. His parents are well-respected doctors (now retired) and all of us have a certain pride that our county produced such a literate physician (he is the author of several books and is regularly featured in The New Yorker). And it is a testament to his broad thinking that he finds in the history of agriculture policy seeds of a lesson for health care.

I don’t want to recapitulate all of what Gawande has said in this piece, it’s a quick read and I recommend it. But I guide you to it because what he has to say about health care reform is worth considering when we think about how to support our public schools. Simply put, his point is that while we may want a quick fix for health care, one probably does not exist. And, if the history of federal intervention into local practices teaches us anything, the best thing we could do is seed promising practices and do our best to disseminate what works. Here is an extended quote from the piece, insert ‘education’ for ‘medicine’ and you get the point:

Much like farming, medicine involves hundreds of local entities across the country—hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, home-health agencies, drug and device suppliers. They provide complex services for the thousands of diseases, conditions, and injuries that afflict us…Our fee-for-service system, doling out separate payments for everything and everyone involved in a patient’s care, has all the wrong incentives: it rewards doing more over doing right, it increases paperwork and the duplication of efforts, and it discourages clinicians from working together for the best possible results. Knowledge diffuses too slowly…And the best way to fix all this is—well, plenty of people have plenty of ideas. Its’ just that nobody knows for sure.

The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front…

We have our models, to be sure. There are places like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; Intermountain Healthcare in Utah…that reliably deliver higher quality for lower costs that elsewhere. Yet they have had years to develop their organizations and institutional cultures..Even they have difficulties...Each area has its own history and traditions, its own gaps in infrastructure, and its own distinctive patient population. To figure out how to transform medical communities, with all their diversity and complexity, is going to involve trial and error. And this will require pilot programs—a lot of them.

When I read this I think of what would have been helpful nine years ago when NCLB was passed. If the feds first would have realized that our schools are profoundly local entities with a national mission. When I open the doors every morning 450 some kids come in with 450 different learning styles, injuries, strengths, and dreams. Some general strategies reach all of them, but no one of them is a carbon copy of another. We work daily to rewrite the book on how to meet our kids’ needs; rethinking the organization of the day our advisory program or our curriculum. Honestly, really, nobody knows for sure what will work from one day to the next. We rely upon our shared wisdom, research, experience, and, yes, just plain gut-instinct (so, by the way, do good doctors and farmers).

And we rely upon models. We have visited other schools, gone to meetings, invited friends to visit and critique. They all have their own limitations; no one thing fits us exactly. But we bend and shape them into our own pilot program, the one that seems to fit us the best…today, that is—it may be different tomorrow.

While we do this we work in a system that rewards all the wrong things. The matrices we use, standardized test scores, are one dimensional and easily manipulated by tutoring, pushing kids out of school, and doing more around lower level memorization skills that teaching for higher level thinking. The pile of paperwork and reports seem designed more to keep bureaucrats in business than to help kids learn. And the rewards/punishment system is set up as a ratings game with losers and winners rather than all boats rising together.

I think the bottom line here is that we trusted, some 70 years ago, local farmers to take on productive practices and produce the food we needed. And for the most part we trust our doctors to have our best interests in mind and believe they are willing to do what is right if they are given the opportunity. The same can be said of teachers, still one of the most trusted professions in America.

So, when it finally comes time for the reauthorization of ESEA those that represent us in Washington might do well to keep in mind what we learned in providing for our stomachs when they think about how to provide for our minds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Approach on Education Needs an Overhaul

(Previous published in the Columbus Dispatch)

The recent release of the Department of Education's Race to the Top application has me anxious and hopeful. On the one hand, we've been through a trying eight years of the failed No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have dumbed-down and narrowed curricula, cutting the arts, physical education and more in the name of prepping for tests. Some kindergartners have forsaken rest time and recess for test prep; field trips have been replaced by worksheets; and some students likely to fail the tests have been pushed out of schools.

On the other hand, the promise of what targeted, serious federal funds can do is tantalizing to those of us faced with daily decisions of which services we may have to cut and which we are mandated to carry out.

With this in mind, the following is one school principal's proposal to policymakers as they prepare to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, which largely determines how we create and fund the education our children need and deserve.

To begin with, the federal government should get out of the business of mandating teaching practices and curricula. For example, the "Reading First" program that mandated particular reading approaches, and the focus on machine-scored standardized tests, as opposed to the performance assessments that were used in many states prior to NCLB. Dictating to communities how to run classrooms is something that the feds are unsuited to do.

Alternatively, the federal government should concentrate its efforts in places that have the greatest needs. ESEA was first passed as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The goal was to provide schools that served the neediest of our children with extra resources to help level the playing field. The focus was on reading and math, fundamental skills that opened up a life of learning. We would do well to get back to that agenda, with a particular focus on the early years of schooling.

Proven tools should be adopted and brought to scale by federal policy. Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer's work demonstrates that when schools provide a program focused on early childhood development, children flourish and succeed in school. The Reading Recovery program documented success in Ohio and other states in helping children who had fallen behind in reading make amazing gains and catch up with their peers. And many Ohio public schools, ranging from alternative to charter to traditional, have launched innovative programs that help every child learn.

What we need is federal policy that takes those lessons learned and offers schools support to put them into practice. It could be done tomorrow.

One of the things the federal government does well is large-scale research and development. Think of the space program, highway safety, the Internet. The revised ESEA must find assessments of student learning that are more than bubble sheets and memorization tricks. Let's catch up with the rest of the world that uses performance assessments, portfolios and other demonstrations of student ability that actually reveal what our children are learning.

The federal government should invest in the preparation and support of a first-class teaching force. Every parent knows the most important question their child asks before the new school year is, "Who will my teacher be?" Yet there is no federal policy agenda to ensure an adequate supply of good teachers, let alone ensuring that every child gets a good teacher no matter where that child goes to school.

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues have a plan to improve teacher education, provide support for teachers willing to work in our hardest-to-staff schools and build career ladders for teachers who are willing to improve their practice and take on more responsibility. The cost for this five-year program is less than the price of one month of the war in Iraq.

Finally, we must tackle educational equity in America. Our schools are some of the most inequitably funded in the industrialized world. Some kids go to schools with plenty of teachers, swimming pools and tennis courts, up-to-date texts and computers, while others share books in overcrowded classrooms. ESEA should link federal funding to each state's record on equity in educational resources. The Fattah-Dodd Student Bill of Rights would make this the law of the land and has been introduced annually in Congress. It is time to pass it as part of ESEA.

Fund what works, develop good assessments, support good teachers, work for equity in educational opportunity. It is the least we should expect from a federal government that has failed on its promise to leave no child behind.

George Wood is in his 18th year as principal of Federal Hocking High and Middle School in Stewart, Ohio, and is also the executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy.