Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Diane Ravitch on Mayoral Control

If Diane Ravitch insists that there's no evidence on a particular point, you can be almost certain that there is. Here's her piece on mayoral control, from a recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan:
Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress . . . argued that local control and local school boards are the basic cause of poor student performance. . . . In an ideal world, he wrote, we would scrap local boards and replace them with mayoral control, especially in urban districts. This one act of removing all democratic governance, he claimed, would lead to better education. . . . There is not a shred of evidence in Miller’s article or in the research literature that schools improve when democratic governance ends.
Once again, Ravitch misrepresents the literature. For example, there's Kenneth Wong's study of mayoral control, which found that "mayoral control has a statistically significant, positive effect on student achievement." Granted, Wong's study may be imperfect and it may be difficult to properly measure something as nebulous and potentially endogenous as mayoral control. But trying to refute Wong would be more defensible than claiming definitively that studies like his don't even exist.

P.S. If you're going to discuss scholarly literature with which you're not familiar, the wiser approach is to say, "I've never seen convincing evidence that such-and-such," which leaves you two easy outs: if anyone points out a study, all you have to do is note that you hadn't personally seen it, and/or that you don't find it convincing.

P.P.S. The Wong article above appeared in a book to which Ravitch herself contributed an article. So Ravitch had to know that her "not a shred of evidence" comment was false.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Testing is Bad Because People Cheat?


There's an . . . interesting argument being circulated in the education world, to the effect that because a handful of schools or teachers are motivated to cheat on standardized tests, the real blame should be laid on the fact that we have tests in the first place.

Here's Diane Ravitch (formerly a staunch defender of testing), speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on March 10:
There's a front page story in the Chicago Sun-Times Today about thousands of test scores being erased and altered to raise them. This is what the pressure for proficiency has created: institutionalized fraud.
Similarly, there's this from a March 5 article on possible cheating in Houston:
“Cheating on tests has been rampant,” said Tom Haladyna, professor emeritus in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at Arizona State University. “Many of us think the culprit is tying accountability to a single test score. It is a bad policy. It motivates a few to cheat so they can look good.”
By this logic, such as it is, we should abolish medical boards for potential doctors, tests for commercial pilots to get licensed, bar exams for attorneys, and tests to be licensed as a nuclear engineer, if it turns out that cheating ever occurs. After all, if any of these poor souls are so stressed out that they cheat on an important test, it's really our fault for asking them to meet performance standards in the first place.

Needless to say, this is one of the weaker arguments against testing.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Some Teachers Like Testing

On the heels of the much-publicized change of heart by Diane Ravitch and the accompanying joyful outbursts by anti-testing and anti-accountability people everywhere, we can provide a bit of a reality check from right here in Arkansas.  Hot off the presses of the popular teacher magazine Phi Delta Kappan is an article by a few University of Arkansas colleagues and me. The article is available here.

We visited several schools last year to talk with teachers about standardized testing and the "teaching to the test" concept. The surprising results can be seen on page 51:
In the end, teachers said many good things about various aspects of the testing process and, overall, gave a very positive impression of the effects of the annual assessments on classroom teaching. After we sifted through all of the comments from all of the teachers at all of the school sites, five positive themes emerged. The consensus of teachers with whom we spoke was that the tests provide useful data, that the testing regime helps create a road map for the year’s instruction, that the standards and tests don’t sap creativity or hinder collaboration, and, perhaps most surprising, that the accountability imposed by the testing regime is useful.
Here's just one example of the pro-testing sentiments we uncovered:
Many teachers noted that before testing, it was easy to teach idiosyncratically — perhaps spending “six weeks on the dinosaur unit and just totally ignor[ing]” other topics. With increased focus on testing, however, teachers have focused on matching their instruction to a coherent set of standards. Thus, one math teacher said that while she had initially “hated” the Arkansas benchmark tests, she has since changed her mind: “I’m OK with it now, to be honest; I see where knowing the standards and knowing what’s going to be tested can help me plan the whole year and make sure I’ve covered everything.”


Monday, March 08, 2010

Lars Katz

Lars Katz's album is the best thing I've gotten since Deas Vail's new album came out. Absolute Punk perfectly describes why:
A prime example of why some producer/engineers absolutely SHOULD step out from behind the soundboard, Katz’ atmospheric vocals alone are enough of a reason to stand up and take notice. Add to that his ability to write massive songs decked in strings, cymbals, and beautiful harmonies, and you’ve got an album that makes skin shiver and heads nod.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Stewart Brand quotes

Some interesting quotes from Steward Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto Brand has obviously shifted his beliefs since the 1960s; in fact, I was strongly reminded of Peter Huber's Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, A Conservative Manifesto. From Brand:
Unfortunately for the atmosphere, environmentalists helped stop carbon-free nuclear power cold in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Europe. (Except for France, which fortunately responded to the '73 oil crisis by building a power grid that was quickly 80 percent nuclear.) Greens caused gigatons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere from the coal and gas burning that went ahead instead of nuclear. I was part of that too, and I apologize.
An enlightened environmental program on population should now focus, I suggest, on softening the impact of the depopulation implosion. . . . The most effective environmental population program in this century is gently pronatal.
I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. . . . It's worth knowing and remembering who was leading Greenpeace International . . .and Friends of the Earth International . . . when those two organizations went to great lengths to persuade Africans that, in the service of ideology, starvation was good for them.

Taleb quote

A quote from Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan":
But I find the emphasis on economic inequality, at the expense of other types of inequality, extremely bothersome. Fairness is not exclusively an economic matter; it becomes less and less so when we are satisfying our basic material needs. It is pecking order that matters! . . . The disproportionate share of the very few in intellectual influence is even more unsettling than the unequal distribution of wealth -- unsettling because, unlike the income gap, no social policy can eliminate it.

. . . Is insurance against your peers' demoralizing success possible? Should the Nobel Prize be banned?