Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Easy Metrics are Failing Us

When schools began implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, the genuine concern was whether or not schools would be able to show adequate yearly progress in core subjects particularly reading and math skills. The response was knee-jerk and almost immediate, we need to spend more time teaching reading and math. In an article in the Washington Post comes this quote:

Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the nonprofit group Education Sector and a member of the Virginia state school board, said: "When faced with disappointing achievement in math and reading, the first reaction of too many schools is to just teach those subjects more and consequently squeeze out other subjects. This 'solution,' however, ignores one common culprit for low achievement -- teaching. Instead of using data to determine if teachers are teaching the material, are able to teach it and what exactly students are struggling with, too often schools decide to just extend the time on these subjects. The problem is, if your instruction is weak for 60 minutes a day, it's going to be for 90 minutes, too."

The three easiest metrics in schools are standardized test scores, teaching time, and average time spent on homework. Of these, the school can only control the latter two. Thus, if the school is looking show that it is improving "quality" the easiest measures to show the state and parents are the amount of teaching time spent on a given subject and how much homework is being given. But as Rotherham pointed out, the measure is one of quantity not quality.

Speaking of metrics, this from today's Sacremento Bee:

Last year the law required that about 12 percent of students score proficient or better on math and language arts tests for a school to avoid program improvement. This year, the law requires about 23 percent hit that mark on the tests students took last spring...

O'Connell said he expects the portion of Title I schools facing the law's consequences to rise each year as the federal performance target goes up. In 2007-2008, No Child Left Behind will require that about 34 percent of students test proficient. The increase continues until 2014, when 100 percent of students are supposed to be proficient in math and English.

I am not sure why this is so surprising. Any new program is likely to see a quick spike in success when the program first starts. This is the "low-hanging fruit" bounce. But as the program wears on it becomes more and more difficult to meet performance targets without significant changes. The fact remains that for most school districts, at least to my understanding, have not made significant changes in the manner in which they teach or manage their efforts. Most school systems figured, wrongly as it is turning out, that if they just put more effort into to teaching then test scores will improve.

This is another example how the long-term culture of public schools is coming back to haunt us. For decades our response to educational problems was to throw money at the problem. This lead to a mentality among educrats that if there is a problem doing more of "something" is the solution, rather determining if that "something" is the right thing. So now, instead of simply throwing more money at the situation (which is also being done), school systems are now requiring more teaching time--never questioning whether the teaching being done will address the root cause of the problem.

Stuck in the OTB Traffic Jam.

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