Education Opinion

Assertions Are Not Evidence in School Reform

By Walt Gardner — October 15, 2010 2 min read
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Ever since the accountability movement gained traction, critics have subjected the public to an endless recital of the ills afflicting schools. In response, reformers have offered their solutions with the zeal of missionaries trying to convert the masses.

The latest example was “How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders,”which was published in the Washington Post on Oct. 10. Putting aside the emotions their names conjured up, I tried to find something convincing in their remarks. But what they said about charter schools, high-stakes tests, competition, performance pay etc. were assertions. There was little or no evidence to support their views.

I realize that frustration and anger create pressure for immediate action. Arguing that we have to wait until research justifies new strategies is untenable. We can’t put children’s lives on hold until all the data are in. Desperation demands solutions. But during the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw a series of strategies that were heavily promoted as panaceas fail. As a result, I don’t believe that the latest proposals will make a significant difference.

What further reinforced my skepticism was a story about Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children"s Zone that The New York Times published on Oct. 13 (“Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems”). His charter schools “have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them.” This finding comes in the wake of the portrayal of his charters as unalloyed successes in “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” the Davis Guggenheim documentary.

I have nothing but the highest regard for what Canada is attempting to accomplish. But how likely is it that his model can be applied to the 5,000 schools identified as failing by Education Secretary Arne Duncan? The cost alone of the Harlem Children’s Zone—about $16,000 per student in the classroom plus thousands more in out-of-class spending—is prohibitive. Even if the funding was available, there is the question of outcomes. Despite resources that teachers in public schools can only dream about (see the next paragraph), Canada has so far not posted the results he promised.

Its Promise Academy I, which enrolls 66 sophomores and 65 juniors, is an example. The average class size is under 15, with two licensed teachers in every room. There are also three student advisors, a social worker, a guidance counselor, a college counselor and after-school tutoring. Yet the first group of students who started as sixth graders was dismissed by the board before reaching the ninth grade because the students’ performance was not strong enough.

Even now, most of its seventh graders are still behind. Only 15 percent passed the state’s English test. Their failure to perform resulted in the firing of several teachers and the reassignment of others. Although 38 percent of children in third through sixth grade passed the English test under the state’s new guidelines, their performance placed them in the lower half of charter schools in the city and below the city’s overall passing rate of 42 percent.

Nevertheless, in September the Obama administration provided $10 million in grants to 21 neighborhood groups across the country to help them develop programs along the lines of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and is asking for $210 million for 2011. I wish these innovators well, but I maintain that it’s always easier to criticize schools than to turn them around.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.