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.

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Too focused on the racial achievement gap?

thegapIt seems that our society has an obsession for anything related to race. Last Wednesday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released disappointing results for math exams that the nation’s fourth and eighth graders took earlier this year. The results were worrisome, to say the least: only 39% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders performed above the proficiency level. In addition to the predictable stories about low scores and the lack of improvements, many media outlets also reported on the achievement gaps among the nation’s various ethnic and racial groups.

The gaps are huge, and they have widened slightly from two years ago. The New York Times reports that on the 500-points exam where the average score for eighth graders was 282, the average white students scored 293 points, black students averaged only 261 points while hispanics scored 266 points. The 32-point gap between white and black students represents about 3 years worth of learning.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, while 82% of white students have “basic” math skills and 43% have “proficient” skills, only 49% of black students have basic skills, and a dismal 12% are proficient. Hispanic students once again fare slightly better than black students (56%, 17%) but are still leagues behind white students.

These numbers are certainly cause for concern, and there is no doubt that our schools are failing a large portion of our nation’s children, but why do we focus on race? A short foray into the nifty and slightly addictive NAEP website (where you can build your own charts and compare the performance of different groups based on hundreds of different criteria) reveal a host of even more dramatic achievement gaps.

One such gap is the rich-poor gap.  While direct economic data for the students are not available from the NAEP exams, a useful proxy is whether the student is eligible for the federal free lunch program. Here, the gap is 27 points, almost as much as the black-white achievement gap and exactly the same as the white-hispanic achievement gap. Only 17% of those eligible for free school lunches have reached a proficient level, compared to 45% of those not eligible.

And what about the rich-school-district-poor-school-district gap? Here, the difference is even more dramatic.  The nation’s richest districts — those with 0% of their students eligible for free lunches — have an average score of 302 — 20 points above the national average. The poorest districts — those with 100% of eligible students, averaged a score of 258. The 44 points gap represents about four years of education.

And what about the state achievement gaps? Massachusetts eighth graders had the highest average scores in the nation with 299 points. Minnesota came in second at 294, and a slew of other states, all of them northern, follow them at 293. At the bottom, DC schools are the worst in the nation, clocking in at 254 points, 45 points behind Massachusetts. Mississippi and Alabama are at 265 and 269 points each.

I can come up with a host of other interesting achievement gaps: students whose parents graduated from college vs. students whose parents did not finish high school (30 points), students with fewer than 10 books in the home and students with 100 books or more (41 points), and a public-private school gap (14 points).

All of these achievement gaps have something to do with the socio-economic status of the students. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that students from more affluent backgrounds, whose parents are better educated and whose neighborhoods are safer, learn more in school and perform better at standardized exams. It also won’t surprise anyone that the schools in richer neighborhoods have more resources and are better run, thereby making teaching and learning more effective. The differences that these scores have shown are dramatic and infuriating.

Which is why I find it even harder to understand our fixation on race. Is it really so surprising, given that a larger percentage of this nation’s black and hispanic citizens live in poverty and have a lower average income, that their children would perform worse in school? It seems that our concern with the racial achievement gap is, in large part, a concern with the underlying socioeconomic ills that plague a disproportionate percentage of minorities in our nation. Rather than clarifying the problems that these youngsters and our schools face, our fixation on race obfuscates it.

Idea of the day: longer and more school days

school-bus-topThe AP reports that the Obama administration is proposing a longer school year and longer school days.  Children in other nations, says Obama and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spend up to 30% more time in school.  America needs to align itself with the international norm.

As someone who spent all of her elementary school days and part of the middle school in China, I can attest to the astonishment that my 12-year-old self felt when I first came to the States and discovered that a normal school day was over by 2:30 pm.  In China, I have often stayed in class until 7:00 or even 8:00 p.m.  My memory of 5th and 6th grade involved going to school in the dark and coming home long after dark.  By comparison, the American school schedule, as well as the content of its classes, seemed like child’s play.

The long 2.5 or even 3 month summers were also a novelty to me.  In Beijing, the school year was out in mid-July, and resumed in early September.  We had at most a month and a half of summer vacation.

Personally, I think the change is long overdue.  President Obama hit the nail on the head when he called the current American school calendar an outdated one based on the “agrarian calendar.”  The only surprise, for me, is how long it took for people to catch on to this fact.

Obama justified his proposal in terms of catching up with international standards and making American students competitive against students in other (Asian?) countries.  But his proposal has an additional benefit: narrowing the achievement gap between students of different socio-economic classes.

Just yesterday, my friend and I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (which I still have to read), a book that, as I have since learned, is really about education.  My friend mentioned the well-known study that Gladwell cites in his book by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander about “summer learning loss.”  Put briefly, the Alexander study shows that in Baltimore Public Schools, low-income students actually learn more during the school year than their middle- and upper-middle-class classmates, but they fall behind during the summer while their richer peers gained more ground.  Gladwell concluded in his book that although the conventional wisdom is that we must “improve” the inner-city schools, school itself is likely not the problem.  Too little school is.

If Gladwell and Alexander’s points are correct, increasing the length of the school year and the school days will not only make American students more competitive on the global market, it will help eliminate the advantage that richer students have over their poorer counterparts and make our education system more equitable.  Seems like a worthy goal to me.