Faddish interventions v. preschool for all!


Kevin Drum’s reactions: After reading our post about those (forbidden) rising NAEP scores, Kevin Drum says he had a similar reaction when, if we might borrow from Keats, first he star’d at NAEP scores.

As Drum described his reaction, he made a distinction which rang a few more bells for us:
DRUM (2/21/13): Like Bob, I was also surprised the first time I really started to dig into test score data: it showed pretty clearly that we've made consistent progress over the past three decades, especially at the elementary school level. It turns out that American schools aren't in terminal decline. At the same time, years of dipping into the ed reform literature has made me very cynical about faddish interventions. Virtually none of them really seem to hold up when you test them with bigger sample sizes, longer time series, or better studies.

I feel differently about pre-K interventions for a couple of reasons...
Kevin goes on to say that (high quality) preschool is different from all those faddish interventions. We are inclined to assume the same. (You can check Drum’s couple of reasons yourself.)

That said, the reference to “faddish interventions” brought this thought to mind:

As we mentioned this morning, we were never inclined to think that the “standards and testing” regime would do all that much to help struggling low-income kids. We were surprised when we saw that NAEP scores had been rising strongly, especially in math, during the years when this regime was being widely adopted. (The widespread adoption of “standards and testing” predated No Child Left Behind, which largely codified and mandated a pre-existing consensus.)

We never thought that “standards and testing” would do all that much to help low-income kids. Thanks to Kevin’s fantastic work on the topic, we now wonder if the rise in test scores might not be connected to lead abatement. That said, we also believe that a lot of people have tried very hard to improve public schools in the past forty years. We assume their efforts have helped.

Urban school systems were a total mess, in every way, when we taught in Baltimore, from 1969 through 1982. We get the impression that a lot of people have tried to change that in the years since then. We’re inclined to honor all their efforts until we’re shown they were crazy or nuts.

That said, “faddish interventions” still seem to be fairly common in public education. “Standards and testing” strikes us as one example; we’ve never seen a coherent explanation of how grade-by-grade “standards” are supposed to be applied, since there will always be a wide array of achievement levels within any school system’s third- or fourth-grade population. If the state of Maryland devises statewide “standards” (objectives) for fifth grade math, what do you do with the kids who may be way behind standard fifth grade level in math? What do you do with the kids who may be ready for more advanced work—the kids who will be bored by those statewide standards?

We’ve never seen that question addressed, even as the public discussion oohs and aahs about statewide (or even national) standards. In that sense, “standards and testing” has always struck us as a “faddish intervention.” Meanwhile, we have literally never seen a public discussion of the most obvious problem we encountered in seven years of teaching fifth graders in Baltimore (we also taught eighth-grade math):

What do you do for beautiful, deserving kids who may be years behind traditional “grade level” in reading and math? How do you get them textbooks they can actually read with understanding? Textbooks they can read with understanding which discuss material appropriate to their age and grade? Where do you get them age-appropriate library books? Where do you go for math textbooks/instructional programs which are designed for kids like them—for fifth-graders who may be sixth- or seventh-grade by age but who may be doing math “on the third-grade level.”

How do you immerse these kids in the experience of reading and writing? If the books you hand them are too hard, they can’t be expected to read them, and they certainly won’t enjoy them. “Standards and testing” doesn’t begin to address this problem. But this was the big, gigantic, overwhelming problem we encountered in the elementary classroom. We’ve never seen a discussion of this in the public square.

We’re not saying that no such discussion has ever occurred. We’re saying that the standard discussions in the national press seem completely disconnected from these basic realities. (Granted, if the NAEP scores are basically accurate, it means that the disconnects are not as large as they were in the 1970s.)

Does lead abatement help explain the rise in NAEP scores—the rise in scores the American public has never been told about? We’ll assume that it does, although we’ll also assume that major efforts by many people also explain the rise. That said, when we read the national press, we often wonder if anyone else has ever set foot in an urban classroom.

It’s a beautiful thing when kids who have always struggled in school finally get a chance to succeed—when they get handed books they can actually read, books which treat subjects they care about. When they get to sit in circles and read those books to each other. When they get to lay on the floor and put their reactions on paper.

As a general rule, “faddish interventions” don’t do that. Middle-class kids have those experiences from very early ages, as of course they should.

High-quality preschool might help a lot of children get there. What a shame that, Drum excepted, the career liberal world manifestly doesn’t care—hasn’t shown the slightest sign of caring for the past several decades.

If Obama actually tries to pass preschool, he’ll be facing an uphill climb.

The least helpful approach: We don’t want to single out Rachel Maddow for an impulse which is very common. But in our own view, this is the least helpful reaction to topics like this:
MADDOW (2/14/13): Oklahoma loves [its widely-available early education] because kids in Oklahoma just a few years into this started making truly long leaps in their letters and their spelling and their problem solving. Oklahoma kids made truly long leaps. Black kids, white kids, Native American kids, Hispanic kids. Everybody. It really worked.
We’re sorry, but that isn’t accurate. Oklahoma kids have not “made truly long leaps” as a result of the state’s efforts with preschool. But there’s always a detached millionaire who’s eager to feed you this shit.

(Michelle Rhee takes the same approach. She pretends it’s easy to get great results, then lets regular teachers get trashed when her happy-talk dreams don’t pan out.)

Here’s what those people are telling you: I will never have to work inside an actual low-income classroom. Instead, I will sit here and happily peddle this feel-good, happy-talk shit.

You pitiful rubes—you average people—are the ones who will have to make it work. When it doesn’t work in the way I’ve described, you’ll be the ones who get trashed.

Variants of this happy-talk have been common since the 1960s. It isn’t a smart way to deal.


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  2. I'm struck by the phrase "(high quality) preschool". What is the adjective "high quality" supposed to mean? After all, no program sets out to be anything but "high quality." Head Start doesn't advertise itself as providing low quality education. ObamaCare doesn't promise low quality health care. Of course, calling a program "high quality" doesn't make it so.

    Is "high quality" supposed to distinguish the proposed program from Head Start? Or is it just a wishful thinking adjective thrown out to make the new program more palatable?

    1. "high quality early childhood education" would be a better phrase. As opposed to "day care" or if you will, "babysitting."

      You know, actually teach the kids some things, including socialization skills.

    2. I wonder if David in Cal thinks that the millions of parents who put their kids in private preschool are wasting their money?

      Never mind. . . we all know he just doesn't want low income parents to have the same opportunity.

    3. Low income parents already do have the same opportunity. It's called "Head Start".

      Within my experience, most parents who put their kids in day school do so primarily for the day care. After all, most mothers have jobs.

    4. Your experience is extremely limited, David.

    5. BTW, AnonymousFebruary 22, 2013 at 2:45 PM, since you want low income parents to have the same opportunity as wealthier ones, you should be a big fan of school vouchers.

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  4. I spoke with an educator whose high school with a high percentage of Hispanic, non-English-fluent students showed a dramatic rise in test scores when he took over as principal. What brilliant educational tool had this innovative principal implemented?

    He taught the students that couldn't read English to fill in "C" rather than leaving the standardized tests form blank.

    Seems as though the students that couldn't read English were turning in blank test forms - and the tests don't penalize students for guessing. By teaching the students to fill in an answer for every question, they got some correct answers through sheer chance. This raised the school's overall test scores.

    And so, one wonders whether the rise in standardized test score grades are accurately measuring the student's command of the subject matter. They may simply be measuring a shift in how well students are being taught to pass standardized tests.

    1. Hey, at least they've leaned which letter in the alphabet is "C." That's progress right there.

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