Testing = Vaccination? You Don't Want to Go There Checker...

I generally don’t feel a need to save Checker Finn and Fordham from their own arguments, but in the midst of this spring’s burgeoning opt-out movement, there has been a growing tendency to equate the need for standardized testing to the need for vaccination – and to regard those who opt to opt-out as the moral equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd.  Checker's rant yesterday is a case in point.  But the argument just doesn't stand.  In fact, Finn and others might find that following this line of argument will – much like a good gamma globulin shot – hurt them in the rear end. 

Checker contends that tests are necessary to “immunize” the community from the dangers of low standards, bad teaching and other ills of poorly run schools: As he puts it:  "Test results advance the public interest much as vaccinations do. (Maybe your kid is healthy today but the classroom needs everybody’s kid to be inoculated lest an epidemic start.)"

The logic is that without testing we won’t know which schools or teachers are bad.  But Checker expressly grants permission to private schools and homeschooled children to remain out of the testing pool – despite the fact that they account for roughly 12 percent of the U.S. school-age population. 

Either Checker thinks that the 1.8 million homeschooled children (roughly 3.4 percent of the school age population) and 4.5 million private school students (8.6 percent of the school-age population) are all unquestionably receiving an exemplary education or that they don’t matter to the economy the way public school students do.  But if one is planning on using the vaccination metaphor such a huge loophole defeats the argument.  Why should this group of private school and homeschooled opt-outers matter less than a few thousand public school opt-outers? This group enrolls more students than the entire state of California. Would he think it's alright to allow California to opt-out?  I doubt it.

Checker says the difference between private and public opt-outers lies in the fact that public school parents are “asking” the state to pay for their children’s education.  Despite the fact that this is untrue (states are required to provide children an education), it is also irrelevant to the vaccination metaphor.  If this were like vaccination, it wouldn’t matter which group were omitted from the testing pool:  a source of contagion is a source of contagion.

So if Checker is to persist with the vaccination metaphor he either has to require testing for private school students and homeschoolers or consider them already somehow “inoculated,” clearly a fallacy given the huge range of private school instruction and the widely unevenly regulated homeschool environment.  In fact, recent work shows public schools do better than private schools, when working with the similar children.

Second, the nature of the injury stemming from vaccination and testing are quite different.  There is  a known percentage of children who will be harmed by vaccines due to their allergic reaction.  (This percentage is eligible for compensation under a fund administered by the U.S. government).  At the same time there is a known (and provable) benefit from receiving the vaccine – both for the individual and for the collectivity.  We can estimate quite clearly the number of lives saved by administration of the vaccine.

For testing, none of that is true.  In fact, if we were to treat this truly like a vaccination, we would insist on seeing demonstrable proof that widespread application of standardized tests in conjunction with a high-stakes accountability regime has improved education (not just test scores; they are differerent, after all). 

So, let’s go ahead and treat testing as the equivalent of vaccination:  show us the proof that this is improving educational outcomes, just as vaccines improve quality of life.   This would include a full accounting of the benefits and harms:  count the increased drop-outs, force-outs, the narrowing of the curriculum, widespread test cheating scandals, unrelenting test preparation, growing teacher dissatisfaction with the profession, and – particularly within early childhood education – the effects on children’s attachment to school and their desire to attend school and to learn.  If this really were like a vaccine, without such a tallying of benefits and harms, policymakers could not adopt an untested idea.

So go ahead with the vaccination metaphor, if you will:  Then voters and parents should simply expect you produce the evidence and to apply testing and accountability regimes to private and homeschooled students.


Bowser's Win -- What Does It Mean for Education in DC? Potentially a lot

After vote counting delays, the results are (finally) in and Muriel Bowser has defeated scandal-tainted Vincent Gray in DC's Democratic mayoral primary.  Although the election turned, in major part, on Gray's shady 2010 campaign dealings, another key issue spelled trouble for Gray:  The absence of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  

Gray's base failed to appear at the polls yesterday in an election that saw the lowest turnout in 40 years of DC mayoral elections.  Why did they stay home?  Scandal fatigue may have depressed turnout among Gray supporters, but they also didn't have the fire in the belly because they didn't have Michelle Rhee to hate.  

Chancellor Kaya Henderson -- while also closing schools and enduring a continuing test cheating scandal -- has been far more tactful, even respectful, of community pressures and interests while managing DC's schools.  Gray could not rely on the anti-Rhee fervor to lock in big turnout (and margins) in Wards 7 and 8.  

Assuming Bowser gets past Independent David Catania in the fall, the big question is will Bowser keep Henderson?  She declined to state outright her support for Henderson in the primary race, suggesting she might be willing to use the powers of mayoral control to replace her, but Bowser has strong reasons to keep her.  For one, Bowser is going to need Henderson's touch to push through a redrawing of school zone boundaries that is on the agenda in the coming year.  

As Washington Post columnist (and Georgetown grad) Mike Debonis stated in a pre-election panel hosted last month by GU's Center for Social Justice,  The appointment of Kaya Henderson "solves a lot of political problems" faced by any DC Mayor.  She has shown an ability to balance the push for more transformative reforms against the needs of constituents, particularly in areas of the city facing big demographic shifts.  

Bowser's natural inclination -- like her mentor former mayor Adrian Fenty -- is to support charters, or even to make DC a "portfolio district" in order to break up the existing educational regime in the city.  But the dynamic pull of college-aspirant students into charters has already created enormous disruption of neighborhood schools and neighborhood affinities and ties in DC.  Combine the challenge of managing those changes with the task of redrawing school boundaries and you have a full educational agenda already.  

So Henderson, in my bet, stays.  But there's potentially a bigger payoff here if Bowser and Henderson can work together.

The current patterns of demographic flux in the city offer what DC-based writer and activist Sam Chaltain described on the Kojo Nambe show as a "once-in-a-generation chance" to promote racially and economically integrated schools in the District of Columbia.  

Populations are shifting and gentrification means that new areas of affluence are emerging in the District.  School boundaries in every city organize racial and class divisions of communities; the goal is to minimize those divisions by drawing lines that do not produce schools that are homogenous, racially or economically.

The upcoming challenge in DC is to create school zone boundaries that do not create high concentrations of poverty or affluence among students, as well as figure out how charters can promote racial and economic integration, rather than segregation.

If they can do that, Bowser and Henderson have a real chance to do something transformative (and rare) in urban education in the U.S.:  create a racially and economically diverse school system that is alive to educational innovation, but anchored in the strengths of communities.  

The historic tensions of race and class in DC will be exceptionally difficult to navigate, but by building trust and promoting school boundaries that integrate rather than divide changing neighborhoods, the results of this election could be momentous.


Update to Petrilli's Folly

Today I ran across this report about Early College High Schools, which partner with universities to enroll high school students in college courses. Two findings jumped out at me:  Early College students are 1) more likely to graduate high school and 2) more likely to go on to college.  Even if they don't go on to college, the partial fusion of college and high school leads to higher high school graduation rates.  Petrill's recommendation -- tell them to not go to college -- would probably not increase high school graduation rates.   The changing nature of college (hybrid, fused, on-line, hands-on, community-based -- all of it) means we need to demand all students be prepared to continue learning past high school. That learning can take all kinds of forms, but it will require college-level skills.  Petrilli's approach ignores the changing landscape of higher education and simply entrenches dead-end tracking.

Petrilli's Folly

Who Needs College, Anyway...

Michael Petrilli's latest salvo against the education establishment is to shout down the "College for All" mantra that many reformers who have worked with Petrilli have taken to chanting.  In his piece in Slate magazine earlier this month, Petrilli begins with Georgetown's Anthony Carnevale's finding that "less than 10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree."

The class-based inequality of higher education outcomes is indeed staggering, but Petrilli claims we are making matters worse when we tell children they can, should and must go to college, even if the facts show our admonitions to be, essentially, falsehoods.

He argues that a kid in 9th grade who can barely pass 6th grade math, is reading at 5th grade level and finds little joy and less stimulation in school should be told "you're just not college material, kid."  By forcing him or her to struggle through three more years of increasingly rigorous coursework we are, in fact, preventing that youth from learning skills necessary for  "high-quality career and technical education," skills with a "real payoff."  

Kevin Welner and Carol Burris fired back a response in the Washington Post, arguing that if college is good enough for middle-class and upper-middle class folks, it's good for the poor too.  The only route to a high-paying job in this economy is through college gates and to track students into non-college training is, in effect, to give up on American democracy.

I wholeheartedly agree with Welner and Burris, but there's another problem:  Petrilli's argument takes "college" to be a static entity -- students and professors laboring behind ivy-covered walls, as they have for hundreds of years. reading books, writing papers and doing chem labs.  But higher education is in the midst of an enormous transformation, one that has college presidents running scared that technology will upset their business model and students will learn on their own.  

The fears are overblown (largely because it turns out no one really learns very much via on-line courses, unless they have a college degree), but there will be major transformations of higher education over the next few years.  These changes gives us an occasion to rethink what college is, hopefully in creative and adaptive ways.

Many states have already done that indirectly and destructively, with states disinvesting in higher education, shrinking areas of study, and through a scarcity of resources forcing a re-definition of what colleges can and might do.  

But we need to also re-invent college in positive ways -- maybe even creating new forms of higher education, ones that innovate and develop new techniques of delivering technical training that really is tied to high-paying jobs, or creating new K-16 partnerships in which college and high school is fused, so that kids can see the kind of independence and creativity that comes when you engage in deep learning.  

Telling a kid, "you're not college material," fundamentally misses the point:  Colleges themselves in a few short years will no longer be college material -- but, hopefully, in a good way.  They still will demand the skills that are the prerequisites of learning, but they will have students exercise those skills in new ways and in new contexts.  High schoolers in lower-level tracks without sufficient content and that do not build essential skills will lose out in the New College, just as those institutions will become the real sources of high quality career and technical training. 

The objective for high schoolers -- and for the teachers, counselors, and parents who advise them -- should be to learn how to learn, because every high school graduate needs to leave high school prepared to adapt, think creatively, understand novel situations and solve problems.  New college contexts and systems will demand it, and they will require students to be college material.  I'm just glad Michael Petrilli is not a high school counselor.