Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A repackaged education proposal

This piece critical of Dr. Linda Darling Hammond pays no attention to the opportunity to learn standards that she and others call for. Since the achievement gap correlates so highly with other gaps, real reform needs to incorporate these, and yes, hold the state accountable for the inputs.


A repackaged education proposal
by Kathleen A. Madigan | February 14, 2009

A DEBATE is raging about the future of academic standards in American
public education. On one side, University of Virginia Professor E.D.
Hirsch and organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are
working to extend standards-based reforms. On the other side is
Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, once
considered a top candidate to be President Obama's education
secretary. She blames detailed standards testing and their focus on
discrete facts for wide achievement gaps and the nation's failure to
perform better on international assessments. Instead, she proposes
allowing teachers to interpret broad curriculum guidelines and develop
their own student assessments.

Darling-Hammond's approach largely reflects where Massachusetts was
prior to the enactment of education reform in 1993. The only statewide
high school graduation requirements were a year of American history
and four years of physical education. State SAT scores were barely at
the national average.

Today, the picture is much brighter. Bay State students were the
country's best on "the nation's report card" - the National Assessment
of Educational Progress - the last two times the tests were given.
They shook up the education world when results released in December
showed the Commonwealth outperforming most of the international
competition on the Trends in International Math and Science Study
(TIMSS) tests.

Massachusetts achieved success by following the rich academic content
and objective testing espoused by E.D. Hirsch and Democrats for
Education Reform.

Research on reading comprehension test results shows that knowledge of
the subject referenced in a passage is the key to students'
understanding. Similarly, the most effective way to get students to
master important "real-world" skills is to teach them the knowledge
that is prerequisite to those skills.

Just a decade ago, Massachusetts had lower reading scores than
Connecticut. But while the Commonwealth's reading scores improved more
than any state's between 1998 and 2005, Connecticut experienced some
of the nation's most significant declines.

Leaders in Hartford chose to focus on "how to" skills like critical
thinking and problem-solving over academic content; Massachusetts
chose rich content and objective assessments. Connecticut has recently
seen the error of its ways. It has discarded the focus on how-to
skills and joined the growing number of cities and states adopting
Massachusetts' academic standards as their model.

Importantly, research also shows a strong correlation between raising
verbal scores and narrowing achievement gaps. The states that saw the
most significant gains in reading scores during the 1998-2005 period -
Massachusetts, Delaware, and Wyoming - also made the most progress at
narrowing achievement gaps. Conversely, achievement gaps widened in
states like Connecticut and West Virginia that saw the largest reading
score declines.

According to Hirsch, that's because the achievement gap is really a
knowledge gap. Advantaged students have access to far more of it
outside school than do less-fortunate ones. Massachusetts' focus on
exposing all students to the same rich liberal-arts content is the
surest way to narrow the knowledge gap.

We still need to do better. That means introducing more specificity to
the grade-by-grade academic content students learn in core subjects,
particularly in the early grades.

Further narrowing achievement gaps will also require urban districts
to align their curricula with state frameworks. A sobering 2006 study
from the Pioneer Institute found that more than a decade after
education reform, curriculum in a majority of the Commonwealth's urban
districts still wasn't aligned with the frameworks, which means urban
students are being tested on content they haven't been taught.

At a recent event that featured Professor Hirsch, former Senate
president and co-author of education reform Thomas Birmingham sounded
the alarm, saying he is worried that Patrick administration proposals
to shift the focus from clear standards and objective assessments to
how-to skills threaten to "drive us back in the direction of vague
expectations and fuzzy standards." He added that he fears "a watering
down of clear expectations with vague aspirations."

Darling-Hammond's proposals repackage the skills-over-content approach
Massachusetts employed for decades prior to 1993. Fifteen years of
moving in a different direction have yielded historic academic gains.
By passing over Darling-Hammond as education secretary, Obama has
correctly decided not to turn his back on standards-based reform. In
Massachusetts, Governor Patrick would be wise to follow that lead.

Kathleen A. Madigan, founder and former president of the American
Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, is a member of the
Pioneer Institute's Center for School Reform Advisory Board.

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