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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Musings on Education: Nit-picking Steven Brill's article on education reform

Here's an interesting exchange that I just caught wind of off of my Twitter feed:

First there's Steven Brill's article, "The School Reform Deniers". In it he argues that the problems with America's public education system are "un-debatable" based on the facts that he has uncovered. His main criticism is with teachers' unions and he claims that they are, primarily, self-serving entities that are disingenuous about improving education. Read the article for yourself and decide the merits of his argument; I'll remain silent on that one.

But as an English teacher, I do have to point out one flaw in his argument. He states, as an example of the "un-debatable" power of fact:
I have now worked my way through a fog of claims that give new meaning to the notion that if you repeat something that is plainly untrue enough times it starts to seem true, or at least becomes part of the debate. For example, there’s the refrain from the deniers, including [Diane] Ravitch, that charter schools skim only the best students in a community. Some may, but not the best ones like those in the KIPP or Success Academies networks, where students are admitted by lottery and which teach the same ratio of learning disabled students as the traditional public schools. Those are facts.
Indeed, this is a fact that I completely accept. But there's a key phrase in his statement that he does not examine closely enough: "students are admitted by lottery." This is a fact. He's doing a good job stating it clearly. But what does that mean, to be admitted by lottery? Well, for starters, it means that the family had to apply for this education lottery. That is obvious. That is a fact.

But here's where a bit of subtlety and insight comes in: do all families in the neighborhood apply for this lottery? Doubtful. I'd be shocked if even half the families applied. Application to the lottery is a self-selecting filter. The significance of this cannot be underestimated.

All parents are not created equal
Let me step aside for a moment to illustrate the point. Think about your parent-teacher conferences. How many parents attend? For the last two years I've taught at a reasonably successful high school that serves a variety of low- to middle-class neighborhoods. I taught about 120 students each year and the school provides something like 30 appointment slots that parents can sign up for ahead of time or the night of. That already cuts 75% of the parents out of the game. Sucks right? Except I averaged a whopping 13 appointments each year.

Even more telling: almost none of the parents from my "must-see" list attended (maybe one from the last two years). These were the parents of students who were in danger of failing. These were the parents I needed to see the most to help them and their child get back on track so that s/he could graduate on time. Nada.

And of those 10% that did come, most of them were the parents of my reasonably successful students.

This is NOT a coincidence.

Parent involvement--parent support at home--is vital to a successful education.  I don't mean to demonize parents here. Many simply don't have the time to come in for parent-teacher conferences or are working a second job in the evenings. Many don't have the savvy or the educational wherewithal to see the value of talking to their child's teachers.

A lot of the parents that I did interact with (generally when calling home because of grades) had a very hands-off approach; I was the expert and they trusted my opinion and handling of the situation. In one sense this shows respect for me and the job I'm doing. But unfortunately it also means there's a level of disengagement, distance, and perhaps even disinterest in their child's education. The school should handle most of that stuff so I don't have to. This attitude was quite prevalent.

And I get it. Parents are busy. Parents are stressed. They pay the bills, they provide shelter, they provide food and clothes, but thank goodness they don't have to worry about their child's education too! Except they do. You've heard it over and over that parental involvement is critical to a child's success.

I see a kid for 50 minutes, 5 days a week. How can I possibly guide a student and influence her more than her parents can every morning and every night and every weekend? Teenagers don't have a natural commitment to education and they certainly don't have a built-in ability to concentrate on a task! That has to come from their parents. It takes more than just a "how's school?" or "did you do your homework?"--parents need to be on their kids, need to know what's going on in their classes, need to be in communication with their teachers. Parents need to say, "Do your work and do it well" over and over and over again, and follow through by constantly checking up on them.

That takes a committed, involved parent. It doesn't guarantee academic success, but it sure does improve the odds.

WHO applies matters
So that brings us back to that lottery. The final demographics of those charter school lottery winners may be the same as the demographics for the struggling neighborhood school. But the parents who had the wherewithal to enter their child in that lottery are not the same as their neighbors who did not apply. By definition the parents who applied are actively involved, aware, and engaged in their child's education.

Unless all families were automatically entered into the lottery (and I've never heard of such a system), the lottery concept itself is inherently self-selecting to include only motivated parents. And if a parent is concerned and motivated enough to go through the process of trying to get their child into a good school, think about how that will translate day-in and day-out as their child does their homework at the kitchen table, receives a report card, or it comes time for parent-conference nights.

A couple of years ago Harvard's graduate Education program had something like a 60% admittance rate. 60%?! At Harvard?! I guess Harvard is really easy to get into after all, right?

Facts are indeed facts. But if you gloss over the deeper subtleties--like the significant impact of self-selection--those facts are ultimately buttressed by nothing but assumption. Brill assumes that all parents are created equal, whether they apply for the lottery or not. Brill is wrong--but only on this minor particular point.

The rest of his argument does bear consideration. However, his sloppy arguing on the point above opened the door to doubts that the world really is as simple and as obvious as he claims.

Up next: a discussion prompted by a response piece by Khan Academy President and COO (and personal friend!) Shantanu Sinha.