Education Funding Opinion

Ken Mortland: Education Reform Facts You Rarely Hear

By Anthony Cody — December 01, 2010 9 min read
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Today I share the views of a lifelong educator from the great state of Washington. He raises some great questions about the narrative we have been fed by our leaders.

by Ken Mortland.

Is the current claim by critics that America’s educational system is in crisis and failing real or a tool to expand critics’ control of the reform agenda? Has three decades of reform by thousands of dedicated educators produced no improvement, as suggested by the likes of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan? Or are Rhee and Duncan choosing to ignore the progress that has been made, lest knowledge of that progress weaken their position and status?

According to Rhee, “kids are stuck in failing schools” and the “glacial process of removing an incompetent teacher”. She maintains that no “business in America ... would survive, if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance.” The former ignores great strides forward in the past three decades and the latter ignores the inability of public schools to control the production process the way American businesses can.

American business models include the ability to specify the quality of products accepted into the production process. If my company is building battery powered, hand held drills, I can demand minimum quality specifications on all parts and materials my company obtains to produce that drill. As a result, I have far more control over the production process than any school system in America could dream of having over its student population. That’s a fundamental difference and the reason many business models will never be applicable to schools.

Why would Rhee and her colleagues maintain such an apparently biased claim?
The first step in product advertising is to create a need for your product. If Rhee and associates can’t convince us that there’s still a “crisis in education”, they will likely lose their paramount position in the “reform movement”.

What are the examples of progress that are being ignored and the bias expressed by reformers?

Graduation Rates?
First of all, it’s important to understand that there is no agreed upon definition of a “drop out”. According to the Sandia Report of the late 80’s, drop out rates “are dropping for all ethnic groups except Hispanics”, and the “Hispanic data includes uneducated immigrants, who never dropped into US schools”.

On time graduation rates in Washington state are at about 69%, state-wide. Critics say that’s outrageously low. But none of those critics are willing to acknowledge that the current graduation rate is at or near its all time high. To acknowledge that fact would dilute their message of crisis.

Test Scores?
Although it remains open to debate as to whether or not measuring effectiveness by test scores is appropriate, Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) passage ratios improved significantly, particularly when passage of the WASL became a graduation requirement. Among the original WASL tests was one for listening. Students performed so well on these listening tests that they were discontinued after 7 years. No one offered any praise to teachers for having done such a good job, training students to be good listeners. The test was just dropped.

In my district, Northshore SD #417, the WASL began in 97-98. I taught junior high, so the tests I saw and administered were for 7th graders. To begin with there were listening, reading, writing, and math tests. In 97-98, 57.04% of our 7th graders in the Northshore District passed the reading WASL, 45.3% passed the writing WASL, and 33.5% passed the math WASL. In 09-10, 75.7% of 7th graders passed the reading WASL, 83.2% passed the writing WASL, and 70.3% passed the math WASL. In 02-03, 8th graders began taking the science WASL and 57.8% of Northshore’s 8th graders passed the science WASL. In 09-10, 69.3% passed the science WASL. Neither 7th nor 8th graders would have felt that passing the WASL would affect their chances of graduation, nor their classroom grades, nor assignments to classes the following year. In other words, there was little for them to be concerned about, beyond their own desire to do well and meet the expectations of their teachers and parents.

For graduation purposes, the WASL would be administered in 10th grade. That started in the Northshore District in 98-99, and 70.0% of the 10th graders passed the reading WASL, 63.6% passed the writing WASL, and 54.9% passed the math WASL. The science WASL began for 10th graders in 02-03, when 52.3% passed the science WASL. In 05-06, the 10th graders who would have to pass the WASL to graduate took it for the first time and the scores jumped up. This was now serious business and could be blown off no more. In 05-06, 93.8% of NSSD’s 10th graders passed the reading WASL, 92% passed the writing WASL, 73.6% passed the math WASL, and 53.7% passed the science WASL. In 09-10, 91.6% of 10th graders passed the reading WASL, 95% passed the writing WASL, 66.4% passed the math WASL, and 66.9% passed the science WASL.

The last year of reading WASL scores (91.6%) represented about a 31% improvement. The writing scores almost 50% improvement, the math scores a 21% improvement and the science scores almost a 28% improvement.

Now you can argue that the math and science scores could have been better. But you can’t ignore the improvements without demonstrating a substantial bias against those who labor daily in classrooms to teach these skills to their students. Yet every day, proponents of new educational reform initiatives continue to describe our education system as a failure.

System-wide Failure?
The claim of system wide failure started in the Reagan administration and continues today, despite decades of hard work and incremental improvements. In the late 80’s, the first Bush administration commissioned a study of the American educational system as part of the America 2000 Initiative. The study was done by the Sandia Laboratories in Texas. Their report concluded that, “Much of the “crisis” commentary today claims total system-wide failure in education. Our research shows that this is simply not true.”

That report went on to say that claims of failure in the educational system were “nonproductive rhetoric” and involved “improper use of simplistic data” in order to “use the educational system as a scapegoat” and that it was “distracting the nation from actual problems in education.”

What data does the Sandia Report use to support their conclusions? Let’s start with SAT scores. Critics point to a decade of decline in SAT scores as proof our educational system is failing. Sandia reported that, “since the 1970’s every ethnic or racial groups has maintained or improved on SAT scores.” Furthermore, Sandia pointed out that, “aggregate decline in SAT scores is largely a product of demographic changes, increasingly higher proportions of students are taking the SAT today.” In other words, students who wouldn’t have dreamed of taking the SAT in the 70’s were lining up to take it in the 80’s, and they were not good candidates to be doing so. When the “test taking populations is adjusted to match the test taking populations of the late 70’s, aggregate scores actually rose.”

Now, you’re probably asking yourself, why haven’t I heard any of this before? That’s a legitimate question. And, it points directly to the bias expressed by those claiming system wide failure. When this report first came out, it so shocked the Bush administration that it sought first to soften the impact by a process called “refereeing”. In effect, changing the report (not the data, because that actually came from government sources and couldn’t be challenged effectively) to make it less damaging to the administration’s agenda. When that didn’t work, the report was buried. Today, it takes some serious research to find any of this data. But you can find it in the Dec. 1993 edition of the Kappan Magazine.

Teacher Certification?
Teacher certification has become an issue and some states are proposing changing the certification process from one quarter of “student teaching” to one year of “internship”. Sounds like an excellent idea, maybe we should look into that. OH, YES, that’s right; we in Washington state already have a one year internship program and have had that program for three decades. This reform was accomplished by a consortium of parties: University of Washington; 5 school districts (including Northshore); and the Washington Education Association. Is anyone interested in acknowledging that? Of course not!

Teachers Unions?
Critics who claim systemic failure of our schools point to teachers’ unions as a primary cause. They claim that unions protect incompetent teachers. While it’s true that unions protect their members, all of their members (good teachers too); that doesn’t address the fact that some schools are doing very well and have unions as part of their structure. Among our foreign competitors, Finland is perceived as being the best. Yet, Finnish teachers are represented by their union. Here in the US,"Green Dot Public Schools” are quite successful and they have unions and a “due process” protection clause and a “four step grievance process” in their union contract. If these schools can succeed with union involvement, then unions are not the primary source of problems in education. But those folks whose political agendas involve trashing unions will refuse to acknowledge this, as it dilutes their arguments and their proposals for radical change.

These are just some of the facts that are pushed under the carpet in discussions about educational reform. Critics would rather you didn’t know about these examples of incremental improvement because these critics must convince Americans their school systems are a failure, despite three decades of hard work by educators. Critics wish to gain support for additional reforms, many of which are experimental in nature and often unproven as answers to the issues at hand. They want us to believe in them and to disregard the voices of doubt that challenge their assertions. Please remember that assertions are not evidence. Demand the evidence! You will learn that the past three decades have brought substantial improvements in schools.

Ken Mortland is a retired teacher from the Northshore School District, Bothell, Washington; having taught there from 1970 to 2007. He has taught junior high special education, language arts/social studies block, reading, and social studies. He was nominated for Civics Educator of the Year in 2007. He is a life long Republican and is a 20 year board member of Mainstream Republicans of Washington. He is the founder of the WEA Republican Educators Caucus (a work in progress), and a charter member of the NEA Republican Leaders Conference. He can be reached at kmort1130@aol.com.

What do you think of the evidence Ken Mortland has shared here? Why don’t we hear this side of the story?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.