Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The "It's Being Done/No Excuses" Argument

Today I want to lay out the "It's being done/no excuses" argument that is so in vogue. On Thursday, I will pick apart each of these assumptions.

This argument has roughly five tenets:

1) Some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting exceptional results.

The Education Trust and Heritage Foundation have both published reports on schools that are high poverty/high minority, but are "beating the odds."

2) If some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting good results, poverty must not affect academic achievement - at least not in ways that can't be overcome by good schools.

As the Ed Trust's Russlyn Ali argued in last week's LA Times debate with Richard Rothstein:
No one would deny that there are too few of these [successful] schools, but I think you may be confused about exactly which "odds" they are beating. The biggest challenge these educators face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed and therefore gives them less of the stuff that academic success is made of.
3) If some schools can get exceptional results in spite of the challenges their students face, all schools should be able to.

As the Heritage Foundation's "No Excuses" introduction said: "Help us to shine a spotlight on their success and join us in demanding that failing schools meet their standard."

4) These high-achieving schools employ shared "best practices." These "best practices" have a positive causal effect on educational success.

For example, in her recent Ed Trust conference presentation, Karin Chenoweth argued that "it's being done" schools share the following characteristics: 1) They have high expectations for all students., 2) Teachers work collaboratively and plan together., 3) They make decisions based on what is best for the students, not what is best for the adults., 4) They teach (well, I never?!), 5) They are stubborn. These "best practices" explain their success.

5) If schools aren't achieving results on par with these "high-flying" schools, it is the fault of the schools and their educators.

Kati Haycock best exemplified this position in her introduction to the 1999 "Dispelling the Myth" report, writing:
Over the past decade, we have watched a kind of creeping malaise infect more and more educators, and indeed, more and more entire school systems. The clearest manifestation of this malaise is found in the conversations we have with teachers and principals in high poverty schools who often tell us that, “these standards you’re talking about may be find for some kids, but certainly not for the kind of kids we have in our school.” ….Somewhere along the line somebody decided that poor kids couldn’t learn, or, at least, not at a very high level. And everyone fell in line. But the truth is actually quite different.
As I will explain on Thursday, the "it's being done" argument - to put it kindly - is logically troubled. Stay tuned.


Sherman Dorn said...

Don't forget that this rhetoric is the shadow of Ronald Edmonds effective-schools argument.

ed notes online said...

Can't wait. A much needed analysis. My instincts as a 35 year teacher had been that the "No excuses" doctrine had lots of problems. I did feel that the problems could be solved but it takes money and resources witch the business model ed reformers want to deny. Let's say we took 10 kids who were really struggling. If we had a one on one full-time person working with them might we solve the problem? Probably in most but not all cases. So if we believe that an enormously expensive program would work, they are saying "sorry" you have to close the achievement gap on teh cheap through a change in attitude. To me that's an excuse on their part that they want to shift the blame from themselves to schools and teachers.

Anonymous said...

Sherman (ever the historian!) is absolutely correct. This argument has its roots in two works from the 1970's: George Weber's "Inner-City Children Can Be Taught to Read: Four Successful Schools" (Council for Basic Education, 1971), and Ron Edmonds' "Some schools work and more can" (Social Policy, 1979) in which he famously wrote, "Whether or not we will ever effectively teach the children of the poor is probably far more a matter of politics than of social science, and that is as it should be. It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements. We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do that. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far." Some readers of Eduwonkette may have known Edmonds, whose memory is honored by two NYC DOE schools, Ronald Edmonds Learning Center I and II, in Brooklyn. Edmonds, who passed away in 1983, was a very charismatic guy, but the effective schools literature of the 1980's pretty much took the logic of his argument apart.

ez said...

love your blog. As former public school teacher and current charter school teacher, I often hear this rhetoric of best practices thrown around. The things that we do at our charter aren't magic -- 1) we hire young impressionable teachers for the short term and work them to the bone 2) save pension costs by giving teachers 403b's rather than defined benefit plans 3) buy off the shelf curricula. These are all things that traditional public schools can do -- but do we really want them to. Do we want a society where teaching is seen as some monumental sacrifice that folks do for 2 or 3 years then move onto something else? Do we want teachers to not see teaching as a viable long term profession? I don't. I don't want any children of mine to have teachers that feel that way either.

NYC Educator said...

It's interesting that right-wing think tanks, the same ones that brought us GW Bush, the disastrous Iraq war, and the rapidly sinking economy feel they deserve our attention. It's remarkable that anyone of any stripe thinks they're worth listening to.

Rural Mississippi teacher said...

I would edit your essay as follows.

< These best practices "explain" their results. >

When you teach in a community in which students understand that school is important, show up everyday because they want to go to college, and will tell you that they go to school for the sole purpose of getting to college (and making money), but also whose members of the community do not MODEL the behaviors that are necessary to success (i.e. timeliness for job, hard work, respect for authority figures including teachers), how will the kids reach that success? Will they ever?

That's why the standards in my school (99% minority, 89% below poverty line) are so low -- because that's all that the community really expects, or because most of the community grew up here, all that they KNOW to expect. And that's not a school issue. That's a community issue.

So, if I use these 5 best practices - which are all best practices for teachers - I don't believe I can attain success on my own. These best practices don't explain anything, unless you give me some causal data that proves that point.

EdWonk said...

Nice redo on your masthead logo. That Grinch really made me do a double-take. ;)

Karin Chenoweth said...

I'm looking forward to your posting tomorrow, when you "pick apart" my arguments and those of my colleagues, Kati Haycock and Russlyn Ali.

A small point, however. It is true that in my presentation to the Education Trust conference I listed a scant five characteristics of successful and rapidly improving high-poverty and high-minority schools, but that's because I can't expect people to sit through all the characteristics I identify in my book, It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, published by Harvard Education Press. I just gave a few in an attempt to whet people's appetite to read the book. Clearly not a successful attempt in your case.

I know that good teachers who work hard bristle when I say that one of the key characteristics of successful schools is "They teach," but good teachers may not realize that their classrooms don't necessarily represent the reality of all classrooms. Serious scholars of classrooms have noted how little instruction typically goes on. See, for example, Richard Elmore's essay in Harvard Education Press's recent publication, Spotlight on Leadership and School Change, in which he says that of all the time he and his colleagues have spent observing classrooms the most striking thing is how little instruction they see. They tend to see somewhere between 0 and 40 percent of scheduled instructional time actually spent teaching new content. See, also, the work of Robert Pianta, who has led a long-term study for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Anyway, I'll be sure and check in to read tomorrow's posting.

Karin Chenoweth

wonkery123 said...

It's about time we had this discussion. Heritage, Education Trust and the rest of these right wingers just make stuff up and pass it off as evidence. It's remarkable what a credulous press picks up and repeats from these people.

Education Trust's list of fabulous "high flyers" -- schools beating the odds and showing that the achievement gap can be closed is a case in point. Of course, it turned out that none of them had actually closed the achievement gap and many of them could demonstrate only an impressive one year gain, in one classroom, in one subject. Now granted the gains may have been impressive, but the hyping of this data in a truly shameless fashion undermined Education Trust's credibility fatally.

A few years ago, Education Trust leaders were fond of writing that if you asked adults about problems with student learning they pointed to poverty, single-family homes, crime-ridden communities and the like, but if you asked students, they talked about teachers who didn't teach, counselors who didn't counsel, and principals who didn't run their schools properly. (For all I know, that's still the line.) The writers and speakers would then blithely accept the students' report of the problem and ignore the adults'. OK. I don't know any other area where the wisdom of children is accepted over the judgment of adults, but obviously the students have a point. Of course, so do the adults. This isn't an "either...or" situation (either you're with us or you don't think poor kids can learn). It's "both...and" (many students bring horrific problems with them into terrible classrooms and neither issue should be ignored). What a convenient cat's paw Education Trust has turned out to be for the anti-government crowd on the right, because what the organization does (wittingly or unwittingly) is encourage public officials to ignore what research has shown for 50 years: poverty stunts learning.

Oh, there's more. There are the predictions that 80% of new jobs will require a college degree that turn out to be based on 1982 data. Hello? That's so 25 years ago. Why not look back and see what actually happened? Well, because what happened bears no relationship to what was predicted to happen, what is happening today, and what is likely to continue to happen for the next generation -- namely the off-shoring of American jobs to illiterate peasants in Asia and Mexico.

Thirty or 40 years ago the possibility of employing data and research to improve education seemed quite high. I'm not nearly as optimistic about that today. Groups such as Heritage, Education Trust, ACHIEVE and all the rest of the ideologues in the US Department of Education have been so busy passing off advocacy and massaged data and focus-group tested messages as "research" that the analyses themselves are suspect.

It's too bad -- and the situation won't be turned around until educators and scholars stand up when they see a falsehood and say: "That's false and it's wrong."