Don't Drop Out of School Innovation
By Paul Tough
HOW much evidence does the government need before trying something new in the troubled realm of public education? Should there be airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it — or is it sometimes worth investing in promising but unproven innovations?
Last month, the Senate subcommittee that allocates federal education money weighed in on one such promising innovation, slicing, by more than 90 percent, the $210 million that President Obama requested for next year for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
Mr. Obama first proposed Promise Neighborhoods in the summer of 2007, pledging that, as president, he would help create in 20 cities across the country a new kind of support system for disadvantaged children, paid for with a mix of private and public money. In a single distressed neighborhood in each city, Mr. Obama explained, high-quality schools would be integrated into a network of early-childhood programs, parenting classes, health clinics and other social services, all focused on improving educational outcomes for poor children.
Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which over the last decade has compiled a solid, though still incomplete, record of success in the 97 blocks of central Harlem where it operates. Students at the group’s two charter elementary schools, mostly low-income and almost all black or Hispanic, have achieved strong results on statewide tests, often exceeding average proficiency scores for white students.
On tests that progressively got easier, the rigging of which which helped get Mayor Bloomberg re-elected as a successful gap-narrower. Sharon Otterman and Robert Gebeloff reported in the NYT on August 1 that when the test was made harder this year:
At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in third-grade math dropped from 100 percent to 56 percent.
Back to today's NYT op-ed:
... The central argument against fully financing the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, given voice in recent weeks by various policy groups, journalists and bloggers, is that despite such promising data, the Zone has not yet proved itself.
This case was made most forcefully in a report from the Brookings Institution that came out a week before the Senate committee’s vote. The report acknowledged that the charter schools at the heart of the Zone have, indeed, substantially raised test scores for the children enrolled in them.
But the report also argued that the scores are not as high as those at some other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that don’t include the kind of coordinated system of early-childhood programs, family support and neighborhood improvements offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone. ...
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, premised his organization on the idea that schools like KIPP’s, though needed, are not enough on their own. To solve the problem of academic underperformance by low-income children, he argues, we must surround great schools with an effective system of additional services for poor families.
These two strategies — call them the KIPP strategy and the Zone strategy — are not fully in opposition; they borrow ideas and tactics from each other. But they do represent distinct theories, both new, both promising and, at this point, both unproven.
So, at this moment of uncertainty and experimentation, should the federal government wait, as critics of Promise Neighborhoods suggest, until ironclad evidence for one big solution exists? ...
A certain skepticism with regard to innovation is always wise, especially in public education, where highly touted new programs often turn out to be disappointments. The problem is that for low-income and minority Americans, the status quo is a deepening calamity. The New York state test results released last month showed that the gap in reading scores between black and white elementary- and middle-school students grew from 22 percentage points in 2009 to 30 points in 2010, while the math gap grew from 17 points to 30 points.
No, they just finally made the test harder (which automatically widened the percentile gap between the races) after years of it getting easier (which automatically made it narrower). Read your La Griffe du Lion, please. It's Normal Probability Distribution 101.
Pass-rate gaps, when measured by percentage point differences, can appear to change dramatically without any real change occurring in the difference between mean scores.
It's 2010. It's not really asking too much to hope that testing gaps be reported in standard deviations rather than in percentages. We've got computers to do the calculations for us. Just ask La Griffe du Lion to explain it to you.
Oh, wait, nobody knows whom La Griffe du Lion is. You see, he writes under a pseudonym to protect himself from all the people who would be angry at him for his knowing what he's talking about. In contrast, people who don't know what they are talking about when it comes to education, like Mayor Bloomberg and his schools supremo Joel Klein, are highly popular with the New York press, even though they are fools and/or frauds when it comes to the racial gap, which the New York press considers a huge issue.
This represents a general problem with thinking about education in 21st Century America: the best minds are driven underground or away from the topic entirely.
Back to the NYT op-ed:
... The declining prospects of the country’s poor and black students can’t be blamed on belt-tightening by Congress. In fact, the budgets for the two main federal programs designed to improve the performance of low-income children, Title I and Head Start, have risen steadily for the last 40 years, through Republican administrations and Democratic ones. According to a new report by Educational Testing Service, the combined Title I and Head Start budgets grew in inflation-adjusted dollars from $1.7 billion in 1970 to $13.8 billion in 2000. This year’s budget was $21.7 billion.
Head Start, which provides preschool programs to poor families, is a prime example of the Senate committee’s true attitude toward evidence-based decision-making. In January, the Health and Human Services Department released a study of Head Start’s overall impact. The conclusions were disturbing. By the end of first grade, the study found, Head Start graduates were doing no better than students who didn’t attend Head Start. “No significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year,” the report concluded.
And how did the Senate panel react to this dismal evidence? They set aside $8.2 billion for Head Start in 2011, almost a billion dollars more than in 2010. Of course, the fact that Congress spends billions of dollars each year on unproven programs does not itself argue that the government should start spending hundreds of millions of new dollars on new unproven programs. But it does undercut the argument that federal education dollars should be reserved only for conclusively proven initiatives.
That's pretty funny when you stop and think about it.