Data Opinion

Why the RTT Consensus Has Led Us Nowhere

By Deborah Meier — September 09, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Readers,

I’ve had a lazy summer—while Diane has been busy on behalf of so many of us confronting the “enemy.” But if you click on deborahmeier.com you’ll see some of the results of my one summer task—reading newly found old boxes full of letters, documents, and clippings. I’m three-fourths done.

One folder included my earlier correspondence with Diane—written when we saw each other as enemies! We had pretty harsh things to say about each other—only some of which were misunderstandings (e.g. how we each defined the heart of Progressive education). It leads me to be cautious: maybe some of my current “enemies” will...

I’ve just read Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, based on a study conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research led by Anthony S. Bryk. Bryk starts two steps ahead of most researchers: He acknowledges (1) that test scores do not equal even academic achievement and (2) that lunch forms are an inadequate measure of poverty. He acknowledges complexity—there is deep poverty, and there’s not being well-off. He notes, too, how mobility complicates data collection. And on and on. But he still concludes that there are things that schools can do to help educate more effectively. The data is too short-term (1992-96) to draw long-range conclusions about what happens to the students from the two subsets of schools the Consortium studied—a subset with upwardly trending data, and a subset with downwardly trending data.

The researchers find five features that differentiate the up vs. the down schools. They are largely clichés by now, which is not say that they are not worth repeating many times over. The five conclusions that the study arrives at, however, do not rest on the current Race to the Top consensus.

The Consortium sadly concludes that, despite some promising results in some schools, not much has changed for Chicago’s poor.

I’d suggest that there are three reasons—at least—why the present RTT consensus has led us nowhere:

(1) Since the end of the study in 1996, Chicago has focused not on the reforms Bryk proposes, but on raising test scores by any means. To quote Bryk et al: “interpreting test scores trends under a high stakes, test-driven accountability reform is,” at best, problematic. (In fact, it’s embarrassing that, given the single-minded focus on reading and math test prep, scores have risen so modestly!)

(2) That the shamefully modest quest for more heterogeneous demographics—in and out of school—has been abandoned, and the trend is now to resegregate. High-poverty schools and communities with 100 percent very-poor, minority students are the accepted norm, with disastrous results in and out of schools.

(3) And, under these circumstances we have retreated from the idea that all children can truly use their minds well, and focused instead on training the low scorers by closely aligning teaching and testing—and then more testing. For this purpose, separating children by race and class simplifies rather than complicates reform. “Some” kids need more simple-minded systems of behavioral discipline and instruction, we’re told, more teacher-directed learning, and more rewards and punishments to motivate them. To do otherwise is to undermine the least advantaged.

For centuries, the ruling view has clearly and unambiguously agreed on matters of intelligence. Human beings come sorted along a curve. At one end of that curve are those with lesser intelligence. They just “happen” to be mostly found among the poor and people of color. Plus women. So, when a poor orphan named “Oliver Twist,” who was born in a workhouse, turns out to be upper class by birth...well, how else to explain his standard English, his courtly manners, and keen sense of justice except through his upper-class genes?

We’ve declared such views to be unacceptable, but it takes a long time to wipe out the legends carried into the present by our “heritage"—the books we honor, the narrative histories we have settled on, our use of language, and on and on. (And confirmed by scholars from reputable universities such as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murphy’s 1994 defense of the “achievement gap” in The Bell Curve, and Arthur Jensen’s 1998 The G Factor.) Politically “incorrect,” but not unthinkable nor unthought. Such theories confirm the wishes of some and the fears of others. They linger near the surface.

How else to explain how quickly we abandoned the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order and the War on Poverty and continued to segregate our neighborhoods? Or how unseriously we have taken the data we so assiduously collect? New York City’s one-time schools Chancellor Nathan Quinones was not a racist when he announced, in June 1985, that our high school graduation rates had risen from 90.6 percent to 92.3 percent. Problem almost solved. We’ll do, he promised, even better next year. He forgot to mention that he was referring to the percentage of seniors who had a shot by midyear of a June graduation. The others had been “disappeared.”

Then, a few months later, came the distressing news that 1984-85 test scores had dropped for the first time in five years. The improvement had been an illusion. Not to worry. Quinones’ explanation: the new tests were harder—setting a higher standard for the future. Twenty-five years later, and Joel Klein makes the same claim when the current tests turn out to have deceived us.

Meanwhile Campbell’s Law was no secret. We knew that the higher the stakes, the greater the likelihood that human beings would focus on the rewards (and avoid the punishments). Last Sunday’s New York Times article about the effect such rewards have had on reporters in London reminds us of this, as do repeated studies of ticket quotas for cops. The same human drives that high-stakes systems count on are also what undermine their value. Read Daniel Pink’s new best-selling Drive for more on this!

When will we sit down and talk honestly to each other about what a well-educated member of this society—whose vote might even count—needs to know, understand, and be able to do? “Interestingly, the educational desiderata for a knowledge economy now merge in significant respects with long-standing themes in progressive education: schools should form in every child the capacity to think and act well in an increasingly complex, pluralistic, democratic society,” says Bryk.

Schools should help us exercise good judgment about matters about which we may not yet have the final correct answer. It will not be enough to choose between a, b, c, and d. I know this is naïve, but better foolish dreams than pinning our hopes on nightmares, like the Los Angeles Timespublishing of L.A. teachers’ names, ranked on the basis of their students’ test scores. Yet I remind myself, we once did that regularly to kids. Will we soon be doing this again, too?


P.S. Above, I cite Anthony Bryk as the author of Organizing Schools for Improvement, but he is not alone. His co-authors are: Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, and John Q. Easton.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.