Low Performing “High Performing” Schools

by Harry on June 3, 2009

Via Laura, I see this kitchen table math post on Richard Elmore’s paper on “high performing” schools. Elmore observes that so-called high performing schools in affluent communities that he works in often seem very similar to low-performing schools in low-income communities, and very unlike successful schools in low-income communities. Here’s Elmore on successful high-performing schools:

These high performing, high poverty schools were not just different in degree from other schools, they were different in kind. School leaders had clearly articulated expectations for student learning, coupled with a sense of urgency about improvement; they adopted challenging curricula and invested heavily in professional development. Teachers in these schools internalized responsibility for student learning; they examined their practices critically, and if they weren’t working, they abandoned them and tried something else.

Most important, school leaders insisted that classrooms be open to teacher colleagues, administrators, and outsiders for observation and analysis of instructional practice. For instance, teachers might review test scores together to pinpoint content areas and classrooms where children seemed to be struggling and then observe the classroom and discuss what changes in teaching practice might help these children succeed. Even high-poverty schools that were in the initial stages of improvement but still classified as “low-performing” seemed to be working in a different way than schools whose performance did not trigger adverse attention under the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In affluent “high-performing” schools by contrast:

One of the most powerful differences was that teachers and administrators tended to define student learning difficulties as a problem to be solved by students and their families, rather than one to be solved by schools. A common response to student learning problems in these districts is to suggest the parents seek private tutoring. At a recent gathering of about 300 educators from high income schools and districts, I asked how many could tell me the proportion of students in their schools who were enrolled in private tutoring. Only four or five hands went up. But among those respondents, the answers ranged from 20% to 40%……

In more affluent communities, I also found that variations in student performance were frequently taken for granted. Instead of being seen as a challenge to the teachers’ practice, these differences were used to classify students as more or less talented. Access to high-level courses was intentionally limited, reinforcing the view that talent, not instruction, was the basis of student achievement.

Laura thinks, like me, that none of this is very surprising, but unlike me she thinks it is not alarming:

First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids teaching them random things. If Jonah’s doing his homework, I will be there in the room using the homework as a jumping board for my own lesson. If he does sloppy work, I make him redo it. I reteach the math lessons. We’ll go up to the computer to look up a country in Africa. No school does this.

Secondly, the parents in the rich schools aren’t all that upset. They can afford the tutors. The reputation of the school is enough to get their kids into Dartmouth. And that’s all they care about.

Third, the schools, by whatever method, are getting the kids into college. My high school (ranked top five in the state) sent 90% of the student body to a four year college. The top 20% went to an Ivy League school. So, it’s hard to get all that worked up about the average instruction in these districts. If I have to get upset about something, I choose to get upset by the 90% dropout rate in some schools in Philadelphia.

I think it is more worthy of attention than Laura says, for two reasons. First, these schools are typically lavished with public money, relative to other schools which could make much better use of that money. States should be shifting money from such schools to schools with high-need students, and using at least part of that money to fund reform and improvement efforts. Second, these schools typically have some, and sometimes have a good number, of students from low-income families; and these students are typically seen just as problems, and are in the lousy situation of being in a school where their achievement doesn’t matter much. KTM points to this excellent paper by Paul Attewell arguing that in affluent “star” schools attention is lavished on those most likely to attend Ivy League colleges, at the expense of all lower-achieving students. (Attewell’s paper was written prior to implementation of NCLB, and it would be interesting to see whether the dynamics he identifies have changed at all).

{ 62 comments }

1

andthenyoufall 06.03.09 at 2:42 pm

I can’t access the article in eric, so I can’t tell – are we talking about how “low”- and “high”-performing schools respond to the same variance, but around different (to wit, lower and higher) means?

If so, this method of responding sounds reasonable. It makes sense to me that, up to a certain level of effective instruction and order in the classroom, students will be scattered about a low mean of performance in a way that may primarily reflect poor practices and the way that different students adapt to them — but past that level, performance will still vary, although the variance will begin to reflect student and family idiosyncrasies more purely.

I imagine the authors must have an answer to this.

2

salacious 06.03.09 at 3:08 pm

Additionally, if those affluent schools were to use their abundant resources more efficiently, they could also make their high-performing students even more high-performing. It tends to get obscured by the chasm that exists between high-performers and low-performers, but there is a good deal of stratification even within the high-performers. From a societal perspective, I would wager that it would be very cost effective to spend money pushing the gifted to the limits of their potential.

3

bianca steele 06.03.09 at 3:21 pm

I have read about these “high-performing” schools for poor children only in the media and online (including what Harry has posted), but I don’t think it’s surprising that their approach is different from that taken in better neighborhoods. There are a variety of approaches that can be taken with kids from “less privileged” backgrounds, and the popular one today appears to be, “You are all losers, winners work hard and have proper manners, and if you listen to us you can stop being a loser and go to a good college and be respectable.” It has the advantage of teaching that they have to find out what their teachers and employers want. It also has the advantage of keeping them from people who feel like it’s a punishment to be asked to teach minority students.

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watson aname 06.03.09 at 3:26 pm

I would wager that it would be very cost effective to spend money pushing the gifted to the limits of their potential.

This sort of approach would make more sense if the resources went where the actually “gifted” children were, rather than the resources going where the affluent neighborhoods are, and the definition of “gifted” being tweaked to use said resources.

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John 06.03.09 at 4:05 pm

Another important implication is that low-income students whose parents make financial sacrifices in order to live where their students will attend the “best” schools may be no better served by these schools than the middle-of-the-road schools in their area and may, in fact, be worse off.

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Tracy W 06.03.09 at 4:05 pm

First, these schools are typically lavished with public money, relative to other schools which could make much better use of that money.

Of course just because a school could make much better use of that money doesn’t mean that a school actually will make much better use of that money.
There is no evidence that, at OECD levels of existing education spending, spending more money translates faithfully into better outcomes.
See for example http://heartland.temp.siteexecutive.com/pdf/23054.pdf for US-specific advice, and http://www.oecd.org/document/30/0,3343,en_2649_39263238_39251550_1_1_1_1,00.html for a global view.

Judging by Richard Elmore’s paper, the successful schools with low-income students are doing things that aren’t necessarily dependent on money. The one thing that could be is “invested heavily in professional development.” Articulating expectations and examining practices critically aren’t that expensive.

I am inclined to agree with the argument that a lot of schools with lots of high socio-economic kids are just coasting. It matches with my anecdotal experience.

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Harry 06.03.09 at 4:30 pm

Right Tracy, that’s why I added the subsequent sentence.

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Salient 06.03.09 at 4:38 pm

Articulating expectations and examining practices critically aren’t that expensive.

You’d be surprised and dismayed. In one county in this state, nearly half the professional development budget was spent “articulating expectations” (or, to be more clear about it, working with a professional group with a good track record to develop reasonable expectations that could be articulated compellingly together with well-researched policies that reinforce and clarify those expectations). It was an ongoing project when I left, I think with a three-year time horizon before we actually expected any measurable improvement.

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Salient 06.03.09 at 4:45 pm

I meant to say “in 2008″ somewhere in there. Anyway, shorter me: articulating compellingly, and examining productively, are hard, and professional development firms’ services are reasonably expensive.

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Katherine 06.03.09 at 4:49 pm

First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids.

Maybe “you” should not, but what about those kids whose parents do, for whatever reason. Sucks to be them, in her world.

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Righteous Bubba 06.03.09 at 4:56 pm

First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids teaching them random things.

She is a wise and wonderful person with free time. Other parents may be less terrific.

12

Dave 06.03.09 at 5:28 pm

I think you are right to be alarmed. What this evidences to me is the difference in the way ability is judged based on your socio-economic status, i.e. wealthy ergo capable, poor ergo not worth the effort.

Such institutionalized prejudices are probably intractable, but I’m encouraged to learn that some schools with inadequate resources azre developing viable models, despite the rewards lavished on “better” communities.

13

Rich B. 06.03.09 at 6:23 pm

I think the difference between your level of alarm and Laura’s is that she lives in New Jersey, where educational dollars are much more evenly distributed then in many other states — such that rich districts fund 90%+ of their schools through local taxes, while poorer districts get 90%+ from the state.

I am not saying that all is well in New Jersey, but in general richer districts are paying $12K per kid, and poorer districts spend $15K, so there is no the cost/results disconnect you get in some of the other states.

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Tom West 06.03.09 at 6:32 pm

For high performing schools doesn’t this attitude make sense? If the majority of your students are doing well enough on the tests, then it might make sense to spend the time and effort on non-test related activities than on helping the relatively few to catch up.

My first impression is that the low and high performing schools are simply serving their ‘customer base’. (This is seen when parents in high-performing schools rebel at an emphasis on standardized testing.)

On the other hand, if society as a whole believes that our priority is increasing the results of low-performing students, then it certainly makes sense to redistribute resources from higher-performing to lower-performing schools. Just be prepared for a backlash against school funding as a whole when the amount you pay is not related to the amount spent on your kids (as already occurs in areas with few parents of school-age children).

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laura 06.03.09 at 6:38 pm

I guess I’m just triaging my educational worries. For me, the problems in Cleveland and Philadelphia and Baltimore are more worrisome than the problems in wealthier communities. Yes, it is bad that kids are falling through the cracks in wealthy districts. I’ve seen it happen. But I choose to first focus on Cleveland before I think about Scarsdale.

Still, point well taken, Harry. I guess it is possible to worry about both. There are huge repercussions for equity that come out of mediocre schools in wealthy districts. I actually spend a lot of time trying to gently get my school district to do simple things like align their curriculum with state standards.

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American Citizen 06.03.09 at 8:34 pm

My kids are in one of Kentucky’s best public school system. I know only know what goes on in their particular elementary school with its particular demographics. The impression I get is that the school has a fair amount of resources, a good amount of parental support, and the teachers do a lot of things that ‘high-achieving-poor-district’ teachers do. My kids’ school seems to constantly experiment with its methods, and will also let non-tenured teachers for poor performance. It may be that the school system has some variety to its demographics — some elementary schools are better off, and one has most of its kids the free lunch program. The result may be some of the best of both worlds.

Keep in mind there’s a big difference between “affluent in KY” and “affluent in NY/NJ/CT”, so I’m certainly not trying to say the cited paper is wrong.

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Adam Smith 06.03.09 at 8:59 pm

It’s not at all clear to me how we are defining “successful.” My faith that anyone who is a part of the broader educational bureaucracy could do this (i.e. define successful) in a meaningful way is nil.

The more we depend on government to solve problems the less satisfied we will be with the outcome. In this instance, government = schools.. Don’t we have hundreds of years of experience to support this conclusion? That’s not to say that government is unnecessary or that it cannot play a meaningful and important role in our lives (which is how it is usually construed). But it is to say that if we think we can just send our kids off to school and expect everything will work out fine from there then we’ll get, well, kind of what we are getting. And I submit the net result is not good.

Where is the evidence that these schools are “lavished with public money?” If it’s true, fine; I accept your point. But I have doubts that this is really the case, or that the difference is material in the majority of cases/states.

I know it is unpopular to say it aloud, but the wealthy will always have better everything: better schools, better housing, better health care, better diet, etc. We may bemoan this for a million different reasons and wish it were otherwise, but it won’t change a thing. As such, I tend to immediately discount any argument that is implicitly or explicitly predicated on the notion that “the rich are bad.”

“States should be shifting money from such schools to schools with high-need students, and using at least part of that money to fund reform and improvement efforts.” Why? Isn’t this the history of education for the last 40 years? Is there any evidence that it works? Frankly, I think the nation’s school systems were infinitely more successful across the board in the 1950s and 1960s by almost any measure. Perfect? Not at all; there were a million things that could still have been improved upon. But I believe the average student then was much better educated than the average student today. Standardized tests are flawed and their reliability is admittedly subject to much genuine debate, but I believe they support this point rather well.

” Second, these schools typically have some, and sometimes have a good number, of students from low-income families; and these students are typically seen just as problems, and are in the lousy situation of being in a school where their achievement doesn’t matter much.” Doesn’t this sentence implicitly assume that low-income students are poor students? Therein lies the rub. While they are more likely to be poor students (statistically), the issue has less to do with income and more with how we attempt to teach students who are not high achievers.

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Lila 06.03.09 at 9:23 pm

Do you really think things like ‘aligning their curricul[a]…with state standards’ will do anything in schools that aren’t completely falling apart? I went through a pretty good public school system in VA, and I’m just young enough to have gotten the very early end of NCLB at the end of high school. The tests were called the Standards of Learning, or SOLs. (I’m not making that up.) We all thought they were just about the biggest waste of our time we’d ever seen, and so did our teachers. No wonder they aren’t responding to calls for ‘school reform.’ I wouldn’t even push to change the way ‘good’ schools are set up, though. You take away those APs and IBs, and the parents will send their kids to private school and vote down your funding.

19

Alex 06.03.09 at 9:33 pm

Additionally, if those affluent schools were to use their abundant resources more efficiently, they could also make their high-performing students even more high-performing. It tends to get obscured by the chasm that exists between high-performers and low-performers, but there is a good deal of stratification even within the high-performers. From a societal perspective, I would wager that it would be very cost effective to spend money pushing the gifted to the limits of their potential.

Bah. The genuinely gifted seek the limits out themselves. If they don’t, they aren’t. Further, they seek out the limits in the direction that suits them, which is often a problem – but not for them, for other people’s expectations. Once they get out of the sixth form, the academic system tends to be pretty good at spending a lot of money on very bright scientists. I don’t think that is a problem. How many of the potentially “gifted”, however, don’t get to the start line? Because they don’t get earlier levels of education, needed to get onto the launch pad?

“Gifted” tends to be a code word for special treatment for real-estate wankers. Tony Blair was obsessed by “gifted and talented”; it said a lot about him.

Also, are you sure about this? if those affluent schools were to use their abundant resources more efficiently, they could also make their high-performing students even more high-performing Doesn’t diminishing returns apply at all here? Hardly anyone would deny that a big part of those schools’ business is the provision of status, which is a zero sum game. You can’t be posher than posh, no matter how much money you throw at it; you can’t be Aer than A either.

20

roy belmont 06.03.09 at 10:27 pm

Alex#17:
The genuinely gifted seek the limits out themselves. If they don’t, they aren’t.
I think most of the rest of us are using a definition of “gifted” that has less to do with performance than with innate ability.
Which is why things like resource allocation are seen as critical. Because accurate and efficient resource distribution will optimize the performance of the gifted, to the hoped-for benefit of all.
You can’t possibly think that there aren’t gifted kids on dystopic inner-city school campuses, and you can’t possibly think that those kids are “finding their own limits” unimpeded by social context and resource scarcity. Can you?
A gifted kid with no home computer working on a Pentium 3 with an 8 gig hdd and 256K RAM and a 45 minute access window versus…well you get the drift. And that’s just the hardware. Having someone lay the open horizon out before your questing gaze who might otherwise be too overworked burned-out and anxious to even recognize your exceptional potential for what it is…

21

Ian 06.03.09 at 10:54 pm

You need to read Elinor Burkett’s book on Prior Lake, MN high school. Heavily white, affluent and academics took a back seat to self-esteem and athletics.

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watson aname 06.03.09 at 11:04 pm

Further, they seek out the limits in the direction that suits them … from the options at hand, which is the rub.

23

Dave 06.03.09 at 11:18 pm

@ Adam 17 “Doesn’t this sentence implicitly assume that low-income students are poor students?”

That’s what I took away from it too. There’s an endemic bias against allocating resources to poor kids, in favor of such things as stratifying the top tier performers. These same high income high performers whose lower echelons are still out performing the top tier of high performing poor students.

There are also marked and meaningful variations in the way such biases are manifest in the local school districts. Having lived in Oakland and Cleveland and seen what the meaning of under funded schools really means, I think there is every cause for alarm.

24

Marc 06.04.09 at 1:38 am

I think the pretty clear intent is that if you have a poor kid in an affluent school, and they fall behind, the usual solutions in the system really don’t help them at all. Which is a real, if different, problem.

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Near Dropout 06.04.09 at 2:39 am

This reminded me of some amateur sociology floating around the hard sciences here at Fancy University – maybe the professionals on this board can help sort it out.

It seems that many of us (Scott Aaronson at MIT being an outspoken example, though I include myself at a lower stage on the list) dropped out or simply stopped attending any classes. None of us would admit to having had a tutor. In some sense this seems to have worked out for us – becoming a postdoc or grad student here indicates that at some point we picked up what we needed.

The confusing part, for me, is that this phenomenon seems limited to those from wealthy families. I’ve yet to meet a successful student from a poor family who left school to this extent, but many of us growing up with combined family incomes in the $120k+ range did. This seems related to the above article, though I can’t quite put my finger on how. Certainly the anecdotes also suggest wealthier schools are not as effective in giving support to the strongest (science) students, but also suggest that the strategy of getting strong students to leave is a good strategy.

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Dan Simon 06.04.09 at 4:00 am

I think Ian has hit the nail on the head. The ugly truth is that plenty of schools in affluent areas with ostensibly respectable outcomes are actually pretty lousy schools. Their reputations are rescued by the fact that some of their students have families that will do whatever it takes to make them academically successful, and the semi-literate remainder end up graduating and attending worthless fourth-tier college programs rather than dropping out and getting into trouble.

I attended what was at the time one of the best public high schools in Toronto, academically speaking. Back then the city was divided into boroughs, a la New York, and anyone living in that borough could attend any school in the borough simply by registering. Many students from elsewhere in the borough came to our school for the academics; the influx was balanced by an outflow of neighborhood students registering at other, less rigorous schools, the more easily to graduate and enroll in a generic liberal arts program at a mediocre university. A few years after I graduated, I’m told, the principal was replaced with a new one determined to turn the school into a sports powerhouse.

So I agree with you, Harry, that many (though certainly not all) “high-performing” schools leave a lot to be desired. But I disagree with your differentiation between affluent and low-income areas. Schools that fail to promote hard work, high expectations and appreciation of achievement in academic pursuits will produce poorly educated students, regardless of the income level of the neighborhood. The main difference is that affluent kids are more likely to be able to make a tolerably good life for themselves without the benefit of a decent education.

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Cryptic ned 06.04.09 at 4:19 am

Bah. The genuinely gifted seek the limits out themselves. If they don’t, they aren’t.

I think by “gifted” you mean “gifted, motivated and self-confident”.

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Alex 06.04.09 at 6:04 am

You can’t possibly think that there aren’t gifted kids on dystopic inner-city school campuses, and you can’t possibly think that those kids are “finding their own limits” unimpeded by social context and resource scarcity. Can you?

No, which is why I said the exact fucking opposite. It follows that we should concentrate on improving the basic standard of schooling for everyone, and especially on the schools with the worst social inheritance, rather than wasting resources on ministering to pushy parents’ status demands.

@cryptic ned: meh. lone geniuses and child prodigies are generally a myth, and if it is a problem to be unmotivated, unconfident, and bright, what must it be like to be unmotivated, unconfident, and mediocre? a far more common predicament.

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Tracy W 06.04.09 at 8:01 am

Harry B, your next sentence assumes that states will use that shifted money to fund improvements in education. Since every time I know of where spending on education has been raised the relevant government has said that it has spent the money to improve educational outcomes, and education outcomes don’t appear to be well correlated with more spending, I don’t see any reason to believe that this hypothetical redistribution of money would be different.
Salient – good point. Yet many schools do manage to be more effective within current funding levels. See for example page 9 of this pdf http://www.sabine.k12.la.us/online/leadershipacademy/high%20performance%2090%2090%2090%20and%20beyond.pdf. Shall we say that at current levels of funding in the OECD, schools appear not to need additional funding for the activities that Harry talks about.

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harry b 06.04.09 at 12:34 pm

Tracy, I don;’t think we really disagree about this; I have something quite specific in mind, but don’t have time to explain. I’ll post on it subsequently. Meanwhile, if you have a strategy for improving schools without spending more money on the process (as opposed to adding it to the ordinary operating budget) let me know.

Dan, I know we disagree about many things, but I can’t figure out what you disagree with me about in your paragraph stating disagreement. What did I say that you are contradicting?

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robertdfeinman 06.04.09 at 1:30 pm

Education is about getting credentials. A HS diploma is a credential that allows you to get into college. A college diploma is a credential that allows you to work in certain jobs. Then there are profession-based credentials like teaching certificates, or MD licenses.

The old joke: what do you call the student who graduates at the bottom of his class from medical school? Doctor.

NCLB is all about credentials as well. A certain level of test taking achievement and the school gets a credential.

All of this is because measuring knowledge and the ability for people to engage in further learning as needed on their own is difficult.

This was parodied a long time ago in the Wizard of Oz:

Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th. D…that’s Doctor of Thinkology.

The trend with NCLB and similar efforts is not only to substitute certificates for knowledge, but to specify exactly what people need to learn and inhibit their ability to think for themselves. This is the foundation of all authoritarian systems of governance. People who can discover information on their own and make their own judgments are a threat to the status quo. Contrast this with John Dewey, who said that training independent thinkers was the only way to ensure that democracy would function.

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Tracy W 06.04.09 at 1:35 pm

I don’t actually have an idea of how to make schools improve. I think the evidence is reasonable that they can improve without spending more money (see that 90-90-90 research programme), but I don’t know how to reliably produce school principals and other school administrators who are really passionate about the performance of every individual student, which appears to be what makes the difference. The British are showing the problems with goal-setting for government-funded agencies, and the uninspiriring relative performance of most private schools relative to state schools, plus the modest gains from charter schools, makes me skeptical school choice as a guide to academic excellence (admittedly charter schools are still in their early years, and I can see a lot of merit to school choice in the ability to get your kid away from somewhere they are being bullied).

I do think that the evidence for Direct Instruction as a curriculum is quite strong, but I don’t know how to make schools implement it, or any other curriculum with similar performance data, faithfully.

But for all this, it seems silly to me to keep spending more money just because I don’t have any better ideas about how to fix things. I’m sure we can find something else to spend that money on, mitigating the effects of global warming perhaps, or, in the spirit of this blog, buying everyone a pony.

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harry b 06.04.09 at 1:41 pm

Tracy — I glanced at the paper you linked to. It is true that some schools do better than others with similar populations, but most of the 90/90/90 hype is just that, hype. When you dig deeper there are often real demographic differences between these schools and others; most of them do not sustain high performance over time. A good number of them, contrary to your assertion, have been the recipients of costly interventions of various kinds (so have other schools, in which the interventions don’t work, of course, so there’s no guarantee that an intervention results in higher performance, far from it — read Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change, but also various papers by Elmore). The best thing on this is the relevant chapter of Rothstein’s Class and Schools. But, getting back to your link, the discussion pp9-12 is elaborates the consensus among school improvers. So, how to get schools which have none of those features to adopt them? In schools where, in many cases, there isn’t a single administrator who even knows how to chair a meeting? I agree that adding to the operating budget of such a school is unlikely to improve anything, but improving it without interventions that cost money seems like a fantasy to me.

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Tracy W 06.04.09 at 2:16 pm

robertdfeinman The trend with NCLB and similar efforts is not only to substitute certificates for knowledge, but to specify exactly what people need to learn and inhibit their ability to think for themselves. This is the foundation of all authoritarian systems of governance. People who can discover information on their own and make their own judgments are a threat to the status quo.

Umm, you are aware that NCLB specifies teaching students how to read? To quote Frederick Douglas, an escaped slave and abolitionist, who was a threat to the status quo of the slave-holding states in the USA, and who in turn in this passage was quoting his “owner”:

Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would ~spoil~ the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/

Judging by Frederick Douglas’s subsequent career, I’d say that despicable as Mr Auld was as a slaveowner, he was right that reading would render Mr Douglas unfit to be a slave.

I also don’t think that teaching people to read is the foundation of all authoritarian systems of governance. The medieval states in Northern Europe were not exactly a liberal utopias, yet most of their populace appear to have been illiterate.

Of course some authoritarian systems of governance have managed to function while teaching most of their populace to read. For example education occurred in the Communist states. However those countries engaged in mass censorship and in the military and secret police systems, plus not holding elections, to maintain their authority. Even so, movements within their populace defied them, eg solidarity in Poland, and when the Eastern European Communist governments lost their will to maintain the system of state control, the governments collapsed.

And, robertdfeinman, do you have any evidence that teaching people what they need to know inhibits them from thinking for themselves? Do you even have a causal mechanism in mind (never mind one that has been tested)? Why do you think we would have evolved with a brain that can think if that bit just gets inhibited whenever someone teaches us something that they think we need to know? This hypothesis of yours just doesn’t make sense.

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harry b 06.04.09 at 2:20 pm

In most of the slavery states it was a serious crime to teach a slave to read.

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robertdfeinman 06.04.09 at 2:35 pm

Tracy W:
Do you have any actual experience with how NCLB is affecting classroom instruction?

I’m not a school teacher, but I do get daily reports from the frontlines. Days and days are now taken from classroom instruction for test prep, going over sample questions and similar activities. If schools don’t perform according to standards, even if they miss by a little bit, the results are dire, staffs get shaken up, funding is impacted and the pressure is even greater for the next year.

Here’s a quote from the aidwatch web site by Bill Easterly, the owner:

The US already has RBM in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, which rewards public schoolteachers when their students score high on standardized tests. Some of the pitfalls were revealed when I interviewed one of the customers –a 12 year old rising 8th grader in an average public school — about how this was working out. She said “Teachers remind us everyday about the test, and they spend more time teaching us how to phrase answers to test questions than actually teaching us facts.” Finally, the nightmare was over: “And then after the tests were over and taken, they stopped teaching, and the rest of the year we watched stupid movies.” (Less anecdotally, academic evaluations find this Act to have had some payoffs for the worst schools, but note the idiocy of applying it universally to previously well-performing or even average schools.)

From the mouths of babes…

Teaching reading should have taken place by third grade, how is the relevant to performance in 5 through 8?

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Dan Simon 06.04.09 at 2:44 pm

Sorry, Harry–my comment wasn’t intended to come off as arguing with you, so much as agreeing but proposing a shift in emphasis of your point.

But since we’re on the topic of our disagreements, I’ll join other commenters in questioning whether these lousy schools in affluent neighborhoods actually consume excess resources. Where I live, schools are explicitly forbidden by law to spend more (or less) per pupil than the mandated amount assigned to all schools. The ones in rich neighborhoods–the good ones, at least–get around this, to the extent that they can, by spending every last official penny on core costs, and charging for “extras” such as music, art, sports, and so on. But differences in financial resources are clearly not the critical factor in distinguishing the good schools from the bad ones.

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Wax Banks 06.04.09 at 2:48 pm

From the aforelinked 2007 NAEP report card (executive summary):

The information, analysis, and measurements in this report confirm there is no evident correlation between pupil-to-teacher ratios, spending per pupil, and teacher salaries on the one hand, and educational achievement as measured by various standardized test scores, on the other. In other words, lawmakers need to consider the fact that they cannot spend their way to improved student achievement and must look beyond these conventional measures of educational investment to find the keys to educational excellence. [my emphasis –wb]

And this is why large school-administration bureaucracies are incapable of producing systemwide quality education: they can’t know what it consists of, because they can’t employ nonstandard evaluative measures. A report that stated the obvious – ‘twelve students in a beige box taught by a babysitter with neither area- nor pedagogical expertise can learn useful skills only if a fucking miracle occurs’ – would get someone fired. Ho hum.

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Harry 06.04.09 at 3:23 pm

Dan — I haven’t followed up Elmore to figure out exactly where the schools he’s referring to are. I assume, from his characterisation of them, that he is not talking about the ordinary well-funded schools which the 20% or so of wealthiest kids attend (which are funded on a per-pupil basis only slightly more than the average funding in their states) but the schools which the top 5% or so attend, which tend to consume 25-50% more resources than average in most states. (Schools with very large low-income populations in big cities also tend to be above average because of Title One money and, in many states, equalisation formulae, but are usually not as well funded as the top 5%). I assumed that because he talks about Ivy League bound kids, etc. So, it all depends.

Your final sentence is right, and nicely put.

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Tracy W 06.04.09 at 3:45 pm

robertdfeinman, you are going off on a tangent. Just because many American schools suck at teaching reading doesn’t mean that specifying that kids should learn to read results in inhibiting independent thought. Nor does it mean that teaching kids how to read is the foundation of all authoritarian governance.
I am still very curious as to what causal mechanism you imagine results in your hypothesis that teaching people what they need to know inhibits them from thinking for themselves. Please do me the kindness of explaining how you think this mechanism works, and why you think the human brain would build such a facility if it could be turned off so easily.
If schools don’t perform according to standards, even if they miss by a little bit, the results are dire, staffs get shaken up, funding is impacted and the pressure is even greater for the next year.
Interesting how you mention the consequences for the school, but not the consequences for the unfortunate students who failed to learn to read. Who do you think schools should exist for? The staff, or the students? (Please not the use of the word “should”, I am quite prepared to believe that in fact many schools exist for the sake of the staff, not the students).

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engels 06.04.09 at 3:55 pm

#32 I do think that the evidence for Direct Instruction…

Bingo!

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Catherine Johnson 06.04.09 at 4:39 pm

low-income students whose parents make financial sacrifices in order to live where their students will attend the “best” schools may be no better served by these schools than the middle-of-the-road schools in their area and may, in fact, be worse off

Absolutely.

These children are worse off if they leave an “improving” urban school for an affluent suburban school.

Exposing low performance in nominally high performing schools was one of the goals of NCLB, which requires suburban schools to disaggregate their data.

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Catherine Johnson 06.04.09 at 4:55 pm

My first impression is that the low and high performing schools are simply serving their ‘customer base’. (This is seen when parents in high-performing schools rebel at an emphasis on standardized testing.)

Public schools don’t have customers!

Not even close.

My own district, with a budget of $50,000,000 for 1900 students, requires parents whose children are having a problem at school to “work up the chain of command.” This requirement has been formally adopted by our school board in its Code of Conduct. (fyi: school boards cannot write legally enforceable codes of conduct for parents. I checked.)

A friend of mine recently worked all the way up the chain of command to the top. Elapsed time: 3 months.

Google parent involvement if you want to get an idea of how schools view parents.

We aren’t customers. We are unpaid staff. That is why learning problems can be outsourced to us to fix.

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virgil xenophon 06.04.09 at 8:02 pm

We seem to have these discussions every few months, but one thing that is never zeroed in on is how the overall attitudes toward education have changed for the worse for society as a whole. Ian @21 cites Burkett’s book which should be required reading for everyone who thinks about these problems. (One fact she cites which I shall forever remember is that on one a test she administered to graduating seniors on geography, 50% placed the State of NY west of the Mississippi R., and every single such state was identified as being NY state at least once.) My HS experience took place 58-62 in a white-bread, middle-middle class, midwestern school much as the one she analyzes, yet almost NONE of the dysfunctional social pathologies and sociocultural academic maladies she describes existed. Rather it was quite common to see the school football star as head of the honor society, the school win numerous sports championships even as 90% of the student body went on to college and my class Valedictorian (4.0) go on to Oberlin on a math scholarship.

The question I would pose therefore is by what social mechanism did this seemingly wide-spread societal attitudinal sea-change ( for the worse) about the value of education among the majority of the populace (i.e., the white middle-class ala Burkett) which is so dangerous to the tone of current thinking about education among the populace come about? Or would most of you tell me I naively grew up in an anomalous bubble hardly representational even for MY time?

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bianca steele 06.04.09 at 8:50 pm

Or would most of you tell me I naively grew up in an anomalous bubble hardly representational even for MY time?

No, Virgil, you are entirely representative of your own time, and better than every American younger than you (except those with Ph.D.’s or who went to Harvard and Yale–and the anomalies without those credentials–of course). Does that make you feel better?

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harry b 06.04.09 at 8:55 pm

Worth reading Richard Rothstein’s The Way We Were? for a sense of how normal or otherwise your experience was. But, although your experience was pretty anomalous, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a valuable point to be made about social attitudes to education, and background support for it (eg, I think you are right to think that the fragmentation of the family imposes all sorts of costs on schools, via the costs they impose on children, that schools are not well equipped to deal with).

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virgil xenophon 06.05.09 at 1:16 am

bianca steele/

I really didn’t mean to come across that way–all I’m saying is that it’s pretty hard to deny that there has been a decided change in the social ethos the average student exhibits in terms of attitudes about sound learning (“schooling,” if you will) that evinces an obvious lack of collective seriousness by the average student toward the whole educational experience (think Ferris Bueller, which would not have been so well received were it not so close to the mark–or Burkett’s book whose ENTIRE POINT was that just such a wide-spread diminished ethos and lack of seriousness exists in even the most “normal” of “heart-land” school systems–let alone inner-city “basket-cases.”) that did not exist in years past. At least that is my opinion, and I am simply wondering if my views are misplaced or, if they are not, what explains the change? Because I would contend this changed attitude among the general public I describe is a gloss which covers almost everything attempted in all manner of attempted educational improvements–and therefore no matter how logical or seemingly appropriate any given “solution” or “improvement” is, the implementation of same is all to often hampered by this un-serious mind-set–a mind-set that must somehow be changed if real progress is to be made.

So let me ask you, Bianca, do you deny that, for example, avg. SAT scores have been in a virtual free-fall since their peak in 1963? And if so, what explains THAT? Because it certainly isn’t totally the numbers of immigrants now sucked in at the bottom and tested who have English as a second language, else why would the absolute numerical numbers of those getting perfect scores also be in free-fall? Because if it wasn’t the educational system that was broken, but only an enlarged population of disadvantaged immigrants taking the tests (thereby causing averages to be lowered) one would still expect to see the numerical absolute numbers of high achievers to continue their upward climb on the graph apace with population growth. Or do you contend that all is in my fevered imagination?

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Tracy W 06.05.09 at 7:54 am

Engels – nice to know that my repetition has had an effect on at least your memory. :)

Virgil – I don’t know why the change, but one theory is implied by Siegfried Engelmann in pages 7 and 8 of this http://www.zigsite.com/PDFs/CurriculumCauseFailure.pdf. Basically he argues that badly thought out curriculae without a logical sequence of learning risks teaching students that schoolwork is arbitrary, because topics are introduced and then never referred to again.
Also, plausibly, if a kid never learns to read very well, all the rest of academic work at school is going to be very discouraging. (Says me who learnt to read fine, but loathed PE because I sucked at it, so can sympathise with those who struggled with reading.)

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Catherine Johnson 06.05.09 at 12:46 pm

So let me ask you, Bianca, do you deny that, for example, avg. SAT scores have been in a virtual free-fall since their peak in 1963?

SAT scores began to decline in 1964 and hit bottom in 1980. After that math scores recovered to some degree but verbal scores did not. In 1995, SAT scores were “recentered,” making a score of 500 on either the math or verbal sections once again the mean. College Board SAT score equivalents are here.

DEFINING LITERACY DOWNWARD by Diane Ravitch

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bianca steele 06.05.09 at 1:34 pm

Virgil,
I kind of was joking, sorry if it didn’t come across.

Yes, as everyone knows, the number of people taking the SAT’s and attending college has increased enormously. But it is totally incorrect to attribute the decline in SAT scores to “immigrants.”

Attitudes towards education were never very serious.

A woman about the same age as you would have had very little non-social reason to attend college unless she intended to teach, and therefore would have taken no algebra or higher math, no science, likely no foreign language or history. All she needed to do was take dictation, type, and subtract. There was no GI Bill or officer training likely in her future either.

And your argument about when the decline occurred would be immensely more persuasive if you yourself didn’t end up on the “better” side of the divide.

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Catherine Johnson 06.05.09 at 3:19 pm

academics took a back seat to self-esteem and athletics

Unfortunately, self-esteem is no longer prized by public school personnel.

For some time now, we have been in the era of character education.

A couple of years ago our middle school was so plastered over with character words that a friend of mine said he felt like he had taken a trip to North Korea every time he set foot inside the place.

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Catherine Johnson 06.05.09 at 3:24 pm

Attitudes towards education were never very serious.

The Race Between Education and Technology offers a great deal of evidence arguing otherwise.

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Tracy W 06.05.09 at 3:42 pm

Harry B
Sorry, I missed your reply to the 90-90-90. I will have a look at Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change and Rothstein’s Class and Schools. Unfortunately these books are not available at my local libraries, so this may take some time (and sadly it’s quite possible that I may forget to request them). Are they the ones who have the data to support your claim that the 90-90-90 schools had extra financial resources? I did a quick google and couldn’t find such a claim online, apart from here, but of course that could easily be a reflection on my poor Google skills.

I am not arguing that schools can improve without spending any money at all, I am arguing that many schools in the OECD can improve with the existing money they are already getting. Take this data from the OECD on school effectiveness: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/28/34/39254975.xls. The USA and Italy are spending about twice as much per student in PPP terms as Korea and Ireland, for worse results at least by the measures used. Another example can be seen by rising education spending within a country, and whether that has any effect on education outcomes. For the USA, http://www.heritage.org/research/Education/bg2179.cfm, for the UK http://www.bowgroup.org/harriercollectionitems/Ed%20Spend%20Final.pdf
In other words, it looks to me like there is ample scope for improving education by rearranging existing funding.
Now I could be wrong, but I recently re-read John Stuart Mill “On Liberty” and he’s convinced me about the benefit of determined skepticism even of a theory that is true, as it encourages the people on the side of truth to fully understand their own arguments, in the effort to refute pig-headed skeptics like me, and hopefully shore up any weak points. To some extent I am consciously playing Devil’s Advocate here (although when it comes to my replies to RobertdFeniman, that’s entirely what I believe).

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harry b 06.05.09 at 4:34 pm

Rothstien’s chapter is the key thing to read; his critique of the 90-90-90 claims and the other schools that beat the odds stories is devastating. Embarrassing, even. My colleague Doug Harris has shown that many schools that beat the odds at one time, don’t do so 5 years later (I don’t have the reference to hand). Payne is very convincing that it takes temporary extra resources to improve a school, and also convincing that even when skilled improvers move in they often fail. Norton Grubb’s book The Money Myth gives an pretty well-thought out account of why extra resources so often do not result in improvement.

I don’t know if we are talking at cross purposes. Here are three things I believe:

1. Many schools make (educationally) inefficient use of the resources they have.

2. Getting those schools to make more efficient use of resources they have can only rarely be done without additional expenditures.

3. Additional expenditures going to the standard operating budgets of those schools are unlikely to cause significant improvements.

I think you agree with 1 and 3; but you seem to disagree with 2. That’s fine, but you’re not going to convince me, and the links you’ve provided, while they support 1, don’t seem to me to contradict 2.

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virgil xenophon 06.05.09 at 5:38 pm

bianca@51

Well, the data is what it is, and if I end up on the “better side of the divide” it’s only because I had the good judgement to pick the parents I did and the time in history I was born into. To have the good fortune to have grown up on a college campus as the son of two educators and have gone to the on-campus Lab School in a day and time when even my 3rd grade teachers had their MA from Columbia Teacher’s College, it would have taken a lot for me to turn out otherwise. But believe me, I am not a “credentialist” for it’s own sake, even though my wife and I are both multi-degree professionals. There is a lot of truth to Mark Twain’s old aphorism that “one should never let ‘schooling’ get in the way of a good education.” And while it certainly seems that there is plenty of room for “doable” educational improvement within our existing sociopolitical framework as Tracy W suggests, above, I nonetheless continue to hew to the view that changes in our culture that hugely affect education in a highly dysfunctional way which began, like so many other cultural changes, in the late sixties, early seventies and continue unto this day, are the root cause of our educational decline, hence much school-based improvement is seen by me as doing little more than re-arranging the deck chairs. And since most of these cultural changes are one’s the left actually lionizes and propagates, it is no wonder that that a) many here would refuse to admit even of the existence of such a miasma or the validity of my characterizations and b) why you and I might be at loggerheads over this issue.

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LogicGuru 06.06.09 at 9:41 pm

Middle class kids will do reasonably well anywhere. They’ll do reasonably ok even if they go to schools where teachers just ass around. At the elementary level they would probably do ok, absorbing literacy, some level of numeracy and general information even if they didn’t go to school at all.

Lower class kids need real education and even more than that, a simulacrum of the home environment that middle class kids get. There’s a public school boarding school in DC I think that provides that with good results.

I sent my kids to an elementary school in the worst neighborhood in town, which was a French immersion magnet school. 85% of the kids were from from welfare families and they were the only kids in the school that didn’t qualify for free lunches. I had to make special arrangements at the school office to pay at the beginning of every term.

Now they’re doing just fine in college and grad school, and are fluent in French.

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Alan 06.07.09 at 10:27 am

Are the schools really failing, or are they doing exactly as they are intended to do: to preserve the status quo?

http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/

John Taylor Gatto won awards for New York City teacher of the year and New York State teacher of the year, and has researched the history of government schools in the United States. Surprise! many of those who founded the system were quite explicit that it was not their intention to actually educate children, but rather to train them to be useful for industry.

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virgil xenophon 06.08.09 at 12:33 am

Yes Alan @57, that is a dirty little open secret that is referred to as little as possible–strangely by all sides for reasons I don’t quite comprehend. Of course that was in the days when we had an industrial base capable of absorbing the nation’s HS graduates and HS drop-out alike in providing meaningful jobs, allowing these individuals to simultaneously marry and start a family (a social no no for today’s “urbane,” “cosmopolitan” “progressives” and much frowned upon as a double crime [“breeding” and the poisoning of the planet via the industrial process] against Mother Goddess Gaia) as well as contribute meaningfully to society as a whole.

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Tracy W 06.08.09 at 9:06 am

Harry B: did you really mean to say that I can’t convince you of 2? Is your mind really completely closed on this issue? I can believe that I haven’t convinced you of course.

I am sorry that you don’t have the reference to hand from Harris. I am hoping to get my hands on the Rothstein chapter eventually. I agree with you that skilled improvers often fail, which is why I didn’t offer any solutions when you asked me directly.

Virgil xenephon: Why do you “hew to the view” that the changes in the value placed on education are caused by changes in society outside schools? Do you have any rational reasons for your belief, and if so, would you like to share them with us?

Alan, if schools were intended to preserve the status quo then they’ve massively sucked. Since the start of the 1950s for example, we’ve seen the Civil Rights movement, leading to the USA electing a black president, the second wave of feminism, a rise in the divorce rate, a rise in the rate of children born out of wedlock, a decline in trade unions, a rise in the crime rate, the invention of the Internet, a continually-increasing rate of funding going to healthcare, a far stronger environmental movement, the spread of denim jeans and the decline in hat-wearing, etc. I approve of some of those changes and disapprove of others, but it hardly strikes me that the status quo has been preserved.
Of course this is not to say that schools caused the status quo to change. All my brief history says is that schools haven’t managed to preserve the status quo.

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Harry 06.08.09 at 1:43 pm

Tracy — I realised that sounded unduly closed minded the moment I posted it, but figured you wouldn’t take offense. I guess I meant it not as a put down but as a prediction of which I’m pretty confident! I’ll see if I can find the Harris online and, at the right time, post about it if so. (I’m planning a post on the remarkable Fryer study of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but just don’t have time at the moment).

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virgil xenophon 06.09.09 at 8:18 am

Tracy W./

My ans. to your question is that I am a sentient being who has lived and breathed for 65 yrs on the planet. One doesn’t have to fly to the surface of the sun to know that it is hot. You sound like an early sixties behaviorist who thinks that unless one can quantify something it doesn’t exist. This is a blog, not a foot-noted research paper.

But exactly how does one really know anyway unless by observation through life experience? And where else BUT “society” DO attitudes about education and schools come from? That part of society involved in formal “education” hardly exists in suspended animation; it is inextricably intertwined with the warp and woof of society as a whole. Your question seems nonsensical to me. It would only make sense if you challenged the nature of the changes I described–except for the fact I didn’t outline them in any detail. Is it to THIS omission (for brevity’s sake) of mine that you now complain? (Now the question of to what extent any such changed attitudes as I might outline are widely held, etc., and just exactly what the nature of these changed views actually consist of is an area capable of being empirically examined and measured in some detail and being constructively argued about) But let me ask you: From what source do YOU think any changes in the public’s attitude towards the nature of schools and the value of education are derived, the planet Mongo? Does Ming the Merciless beam his “attitude ray” our way to bathe Earth in all ideas educational? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Tracy W 06.09.09 at 10:44 am

virgil xenophon:
My ans. to your question is that I am a sentient being who has lived and breathed for 65 yrs on the planet. One doesn’t have to fly to the surface of the sun to know that it is hot.

In other words you have no rational reason to “hew to your view”. That’s a shame, I would have liked to have heard a good argument, I might have learnt something. C’est la vie, especially on the Internet.

I will also note that observation is not enough to tell us about life. Observations can be wrong, for example stage magicians manage to fool my eyes regularly. On a more scientific scale – sex does not cause pregnancy. Successful implantation of a fertilised egg into the uterus’s wall causes pregnancy – so an egg can be fertilised outside the womb and implanted at the right time and the mother’s body takes it from there, explaining test tube babies. This is the value in discussing our observations, so that others can point out alternative explanations, even of things that seem entirely certain to us.

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