Where Have All The Productive Classrooms Gone?

by Martin Harris

Martin Harris

If the TV warning is right: “For Professionals on Closed Course Only. Don’t Try This At Home”, maybe it’s best for us civilians not even to try to reconcile educators’ repeated professions of excellence with the actual test scores of their students in such basics as reading and math; when I try, I swiftly experience intense need for mood-change medication in adult beverage form. Consider, for example, this latest nugget:

Montpelier, VT.. -Gov. Peter Shumlin says the No Child Left Behind Act is leaving too many Vermont children behind. “The law is taking too many Vermont schools that are successful and labeling them as failing”, Shumlin told the Times-Argus newspaper in Barre. (Source: Boston.com, 27 Feb 11)

This entertaining piece of Guv-speak goes onto my growing list of educator/politician declarations which illustrate some sort of alternate fantasy universe they seem to occupy. Vermont NAEP test scores in reading and math show “proficiency” (ability to function at grade level) achievement by only about a third of all students in all schools. That’s supposed to be the schools’ purpose. Now, when schools don’t make the NCLB-required Annual Yearly Progress toward 100% proficiency (not a particularly high standard, as you can see for yourself if you look at “NAEP sample test questions” and “NECAP grade-level expectations” on the Web) by 2014, it’s NCLB’s fault, saith the Guv, who, I’d guess, is a very bright and well-informed guy who knows better. Actually, labeling such moonbeam quotes and behaviors isn’t unique; consider the following. It comes from Kevin Phillips “Wealth and Democracy”.

“In 1996, the CPI was adjusted to correct a supposed price over-statement of inflation. Barron’s, the US financial weekly, later mocked both the quality adjustments and the political opportunism,…saying they had helped create a palpable gap between the cost of living in the real world that we poor souls inhabit and the cost of living in the Land of Oz fashioned by statistical fancy”.

In public education, the longest-running (and most expensive) Oz fantasy has been the class-size-reduction campaign, since the end of WWII, to reduce class size with the promise that it would improve student achievement. Not withstanding all the evidence to the contrary, the educator/politician Oz-speak continues to this day. In Nashville, Vanderbilt University lauded the Tennessee Star Study some years back, and it took almost a decade for more objective researchers to define and publish the covered-over defects in the TSS, which claimed that smaller classes produce better student achievement. They didn’t and don’t, as more serious researchers like Eric Hanushek and Richard Vedder subsequently proved using objective statistical methods, including the depressing NAEP data (which is a large part of the reason educators despise NCLB) showing flat test scores since 1970, 4 decades in which class size at national and State levels has been steadily reduced. The promised achievement improvement has been just about zero, with test scores today still in the low 200’s out of 500, just as they were then. Increasingly, I find myself thinking back to my own graded school days, when all 25-to-30 of us in the classroom made “proficient” every year, learning not only how to handle the 36 symbols for reading and counting (the Japanese Kanji system requires a couple thousand for basic literacy) but to master such not-even-taught-any-more subjects as grammar and penmanship. I speculate that there are four underlying causes for what economist Vedder labels the “productivity collapse in public education”, and I include the class-size shrinkage for its downward effect on learning (see below) which he doesn’t mention, more than for its upward effect on per-pupil costs, which he does. In no particular order, they are: social-promotion up, achievement-promotion down; classroom-disruptive student behavior up, teacher-authority down; social-issue instruction up, basic competencies down; and class-size reduction.

Social-promotion. When I was in, say, grade 7, every classmate there had similarly mastered the grade 6 content. Rarely, one or two who hadn’t shown proficiency at an earlier grade had to repeat it. Thus, the proficiency rate was 100%, exactly what NCLB now seeks by 2014. To what extent social-promotion alone is the cause or symptom of the present 60% reading and math non-proficiency rate as revealed by the NAEP test scores, the available literature doesn’t say.

Disruptive or disengaged “students”. When I was in public grade school, teacher authority was unquestioned (it still is, in non-public schools) and therefore almost never challenged. Classroom time was almost never devoted to maintenance-of-order, almost always devoted to teaching and learning, and adverse peer-pressure was non-existent. Presently, a handful of States is adopting new statutes to restore that authority.

Social-issue instruction. Classroom time is a zero-sum equation: time spent on such matters is time not spent on basic competencies. You won’t find evidence of social-issue instruction objectives in the NAEP sample test questions or the NECAP Grade-Level Expectations, but close observers of the public-ed scene say that such instruction takes place anyway, even though it doesn’t show up in the written lesson plans. To what extent it causes student non-proficiency in reading and math, the available literature doesn’t say.

Class size. Several private-school educators have explained to me that larger (traditional) class size enables more student learning, as classmates get more chances to observe each other recite and question. Mathematically, smaller classes equate to more teacher-attention per student, but, apparently, that isn’t the major determinant of achievement and proficiency. Recently, a handful of States has enacted minimum class size rules, but none yet enforces them.

When I was in graded school, 65% was the subject-mastery passing grade. Anything less was a “flunk”. Of the above four subjects, States are now becoming active on two. That’s 50%.