Top 10 education news and trends of 2009

Greta’s Note: Thank you for your interest and support for law and education, and I hope to talk to you in the new year!

Goodbye, 2009!

10. New technological innovations such as e-textbooks, tutoring software, virtual schools and distance learning, and student performance-tracking programs are helping students learn better and changing the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship.  Their widespread use, however, still lie in the future.

9. “Merit pay” and “accountability” are the buzzwords once again as state legislatures rush to eliminate barriers to link student performance and teacher evaluation in order to comply with requirements for the Race to the Top funding.

8. Chicago and other school districts around the country begin to use socio-economic data instead of race in an effort to integrate their public schools after a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited schools from using race as a factor in school assignment.

7. Education schools came under criticism, including from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for lack of standards and rigorous methodology.

6. In a year where the courts showed much judicial restraint and deferred to the school board on education issues, the Supreme Court decided in Safford v. Redding that the strip search of a 13-year-old girl on suspicion that she had prescription-strength ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendment.

5. Hard-hit by the economy, states across the nation cut educational funding.  Universities respond by freezing salaries, implementing hiring caps, halting construction projects, cutting services, laying off staff, and raising tuition.

4. Congress considered reform to student loans but wavers on more decisive and drastic changes to the existing structure.

3. The economic downturn drive students away from 4-year private colleges in 2009 while community colleges experienced the highest enrollment in years.  Some become so crowded that administrators devise creative ways to accommodate students, such as 2 a.m. classes.

2. NAEP scores stagnate and disappoint educators, raising fears that the U.S. will not meet achievement goals set by President Bush and No Child Left Behind.  Racial achievement gap also appears to be firmly in place.

1. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top program that will distribute a total of $4.35 billion to states with the best school reform proposals.  Educators hope that the program would help states shape and implement wide-ranging reform measures in their public schools.

Not quite post-racial at the Chicago public schools

Has Chicago, the city that gave us Obama, arrived at a post-racial era in its public school system?  Last week, the New York Times reported that the city’s public schools have decided to use student socio-economic profiles rather than race to assign students to schools.

Those who believe that race is merely a clumsy and inaccurate proxy for socio-economic status will surely welcome the change as long overdue.  For them, removing race as a factor would allow Chicago schools to deal directly with the true underlying concerns of school integration — combating the devastating effect poverty has on the education of our children.  It would be a welcomed first step toward moving beyond our fixation on race.  The result would be more equitable and accurate, as well.

The reality in Chicago, however, is far more complicated.  For one thing, the Times article makes it clear that the Chicago officials are implementing the reform reluctantly.  They are doing so only in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that prohibited Seattle and Kentucky school districts from using race as a factor in school assignments.

More importantly, the objective of using these types of criteria to sort and assign students remain peculiarly fixated on race.  The goal that the school officials say they hope to achieve, and the standard by which they evaluate their success, is racial integration, not socio-economic parity.  As a result, socio-economic profiling is perceived and spoken of as a second-best solution, a crude proxy for race.

Unfortunately, if racial integration is the objective, then the Chicago policy is likely to fail.  San Francisco, which has been using socio-economic factors instead of race in school assignment for the past few years, has seen less racial integration in its schools since adopting the new policy.  Denver and Charlotte had reported similar trends.

Part of the problem may be technical.  Defining and measuring socio-economic status turns out to be a bit more elusive than defining race.  According to the New York Times, Chicago will be using a variety of factors that evaluates the student’s neighborhood — “income, education levels, single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and the use of language other than English as the primary tongue” — in placing students in selective-enrollment schools.

Using neighborhood characteristics as a proxy for socio-economic status may be just as inaccurate as using race as a proxy.  The system is also more easily gamed, since the calculus depends on assumptions about people’s living preferences and the fact that they are reporting their actual addresses.  San Francisco, which uses a similar system, is reevaluating the effectiveness of using those factors and considering using additional factors such as whether the student has attended pre-school.

In short, if Chicago’s true objective is more racial integration, it is likely to be sorely disappointed.  None of these criticisms, however, address the largest problems that both of these methods for school integration fails to address: a paucity of middle- or upper-middle class white students.  Students who attend urban, inner-city schools are overwhelmingly minorities and poor.  In Chicago, only 9% of students are white, while 45% are African-American and 41% Latino.  According to the school district website, 85% of the public school students are from a “low-income family.”

And Chicago is not unique.  70% of Denver’s students are Latino or African-American, and roughly the same percentage are low-income students eligible for the federal free lunch program.  In San Francisco’s school district, nearly 1/3 of the students are immigrant “English language learners”, and white students only make up 10% of the student population.  More than half of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.

Integration is only meaningful and sensible when there are diverse groups to integrate.  The Chicago officials themselves acknowledge the absurdities of trying to “integrate” a district where the vast majority of students are quite uniformly low-income and non-white.  Short of busing these students to wealthy suburbs, who are Chicago integrating these children with?

Rather than achieving the ideal of running schools where race does not matter, Chicago’s new policy shows us that race is still an issue that is very much front and center in people’s minds — and at the same time, it is an issue that is beside the point.

Idea of the day: ditch standardized tests

examsWhy do colleges and universities require millions of students each year to take standardized tests as part of their college applications?  The conventional rationale goes something like this: there is a vast quality difference in the nation’s high schools, so GPA alone may not accurately reflect the true ability of the students.  After all, an A in English at Phillips Exeter is not the same as an A at East Memphis Public High, but a 2400 on the SATs is the same everywhere.  Standardized tests therefore put students on the same evaluative plane.  The test scores are more useful for gauging the student’s academic aptitude than GPAs.

Sounds good, except that it’s not really true.  Critics have long charged that flaws and biases in these tests make them bad predictors of college success.  The latest and important evidence comes from the new book Crossing the Finishing Line. In a brief review of the book, Chad Alderman notes that the data in the book shows that standardized test scores have little predictive power of student graduation rates in college.  High school GPAs are “three to five times more important” in predicting whether a student will graduate from college than SAT or ACT scores.  Moreover, when high school quality is accounted for, the predictive power of SAT and ACT entirely disappears and even becomes negative.

What should we make of this data?  If the data shows what it purports to show, then a major — perhaps the only — rationale for requiring and using standardized test scores in college admissions has just been dealt a fatal blow.

And on the other side, there is a host of possible negative effects of using standardized tests.  The critics of standardized tests have accused it of being biased against low-income students in favor of more affluent students, of spawning a 310-million-dollar-per-year test-prep industry, of encouraging rote preparations in schools, of harboring racial and gender biases.  The sad truth is that even the supporters of standardized tests may only favor the tests in spite of all their flaws because “this is the only thing we have.

Is it really the only thing we have?  If we want to predict student performance and admit only those who are likely to succeed in college, colleges could simply look at objective measures of high school quality and use that in conjunction with student grades to determine how much that GPA should be weighted compared to other factors and candidates.

And if we wish to reward the students who succeeded in spite of adversity, we should use the same objective measure of high school quality and give students who did well in the worst schools extra points in their applications.

This brings me to another concern I have with standardized test scores.  The scores, as meaningless and unpredictive as they might be, give ammunition to those who accuse affirmative action programs of being unfair to meritorious applicants who lose out to “less qualified” minorities.  The scores are often presented as a neutral and quantifiable indicator of how much less qualified the minority candidates are.

The plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger, for example, attacked the University of Michigan for giving race 20 points on a 100-point scale while giving only 12 points for having a perfect SAT score.  And as I have written here previously, a Princeton researcher found that being African-American is equivalent to having 230 extra points in a 1600-point SAT exam, and being Hispanic is equivalent to 185 points.

How closely a school tracks admission to standardized testing scores has become a proxy for whether the school is “meritocratic.”  Disparities in testing scores among different ethnic groups is a favorite examples that opponents of affirmative action use to criticize it.  But their criticism has a lot less force if the testing scores themselves are poor proxies for student ability.

A perfect score on the SAT is indeed the same everywhere.  But it turns out that the perfect score doesn’t tell us very much at all about what we want to know.