Mike the Mad Biologist

Good Schools and ‘Bad’ Students

When I was a post-doc, I once advised a student who definitely needed some remedial language skills help (since then, said student has gone on to be a very successful doctor–I take no credit for the student’s success, but I just want to note that this student was very bright). What I learned is that, while additional resources are necessary for remedial education, they are not sufficient. That funding needs to be placed in the hands of competent teachers. Which leads me to this excellent point about remedial education by Bob Somerby (italics mine; bold original):

Throughout this report, [NY Times reporter] Dillon promotes a simple notion: A school which produces higher test scores is automatically better. But depending on the children involved, that ain’t necessarily so. Let’s leave [parent of students] Kendra Williams in charge of her kids, and assume that we have two of our own. Let’s say we’re guardians for two seventh-graders–one white, one black–who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. Let’s say that our kids are eighth-graders by age, but are in the seventh grade because they repeated a grade in the past. And let’s say they’re reading on third-grade level. The nation’s struggling low-income schools are full of deserving kids like this–kids who are struggling with a very difficult academic profile. And no, it isn’t necessarily the case that they will be better off in a “higher-performing” school–in a school which has better test scores.

Guess what, everybody? It’s hard to know how to help kids who are struggling with that profile. Seventh-grade textbooks are too hard for them; a great deal of normal seventh-grade instructional programming will be too hard for them too. It takes special kinds of skill and savvy to help kids with this profile; success for these kids is the exception, not the rule. And there’s no reason on earth–no reason at all–to assume that a “high-performing” school will know how to help our two kids achieve. There’s no reason to think that our kids will achieve well just because they’re now in a school which has higher test scores.

Why do some schools have good test scores? Usually, for an obvious reason–because good students attend them! These schools don’t score well because the teachers are smart–they score well because the kids are! The teachers who work in those high-scoring schools may be good, hard-working professionals. But that doesn’t mean that they will know how to help two children like ours. Most likely, they haven’t been teaching kids with our kids’ profiles. Most likely, they will have no more ideas how to help our kids than the teachers may have at a school with low test scores–at the school our two kids may have left.

That said, it’s galling to read reports like Dillon’s–reports which seem to derive their world-view from the 1960s, when concern about urban schooling was new. If only we get them in “better schools”–or as long as we give them “better teachers”– the kids will flourish, we all thought back then. But over the years, it just hasn’t been that easy. It’s hard to help kids from low-literacy backgrounds. Our kids–reading on third-grade level–have a very hard row to hoe. It isn’t clear that anyone knows how to help them prosper.

….In which of Tuscaloosa’s schools would our seventh-grade students do well? The answer is obvious: Perhaps in none! But rather than confront this problem, the Times would get them into a high-scoring school, a school which might have no solutions for them. Then, the Times would boast and brag about the good thing it had done.

Quite probably, low-scoring kids in Tuscaloosa will flounder and fail in those high-scoring schools. We didn’t know that in the 1960s. The Times doesn’t know it today.

A while ago, I asked how merit pay, of all things, would help science teachers do a better job of teaching science. In the same vein, our current obsession with academic testing obscures the obvious: testing isn’t teaching. Even without the tests, I don’t think it’s too hard to recognize failing schools and students. Too bad we didn’t put those resources into training teachers and developing curricula for these students.

Comments

  1. #1 Heather
    September 27, 2007

    High scoring schools are not always the best for your child…
    As the mother of two students that were doing poorly in a “high scoring good school” I have experienced first-hand what you discuss here. We moved to a new town when my sons where in 7th and 9th grade. We carefully selected the town based on the school system’s history of high test scores (we now know better). However, the schools, while excellent with “normal” students that had grade-level skills, had absolutely no idea how to help my sons succeed once they arrived – despite having met with school officials prior to the school year starting. Both of my sons are bright, so that wasn’t the problem. Both needed remedial help with language arts, as well as help in the classroom from the teachers. The school’s response was to push them out. My older son became so frustrated and discouraged with failure that he ended up dropping out of school; he has since obtained his GED and now attends the local community college – where he gets free remedial help when he needs it and is maintaining a 3.0 GPA! My younger son is now at an alternative private school (which the school system now pays for after a protracted battle) and is thriving. He makes the honor roll every term and is doing college prep-level courses. This school, while not achieving the highest level of test scores, focuses on helping students learn.

    Test scores are misleading. Worse, when you tie them to a system of bonuses, they can actually incent teachers and school officials to push low-scoring students out of the mainstream to keep their overall scores up. When this happens the officials often don’t care where the low-scoring student ends up or how they ultimately do. Without the strong advocacy of caring parents/guardians, most “at risk” students fade into the miasma of the overwhelmed special education department (which is usually grossly under-funded in high-scoring schools because they focus on the achieving students). Yes, the schools are federally-mandated to provide an equivalent education in the least restrictive environment, but enforcing that mandate is up to the parents/guardians.

  2. #2 Tracy W
    September 27, 2007

    The US government did put resources into developing a curriculum designed to prevent schools turning out kids like the NY Times. This was called Project Followthrough. It tried a variety of curriculum aimed at improving the performance of children in schools with a high proportion of poor students.

    The curriculum that came out ahead was Direct Instruction – a programme based on explicit teaching, continual drill in skills, careful sequencing of topics, scripted lessons, placement by ability, etc. DI beat the other curriculum not only on basic skills, which it was designed to teach, but cognitive skills (higher-order thinking skills) and kids’ selfesteem. See http://www.projectpro.com/ICR/Research/DI/Summary.htm

    The education sector ignored this research.

    That’s why testing was introduced. To try to get schools to pay attention to teaching kids.

  3. #3 outlier
    September 28, 2007

    Good points, but Somerby assumes without evidence that the students in Tuscaloosa who are being transferred to low-performing schools are themselves low-performing. It would make more sense to assume just the opposite, since they’ve been attending high-performing schools all along.

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  5. #5 e okul
    March 16, 2009

    Good points, but Somerby assumes without evidence that the students in Tuscaloosa who are being transferred to low-performing schools are themselves low-performing. It would make more sense to assume just the opposite, since they’ve been attending high-performing schools all along….

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