Issues with the “Anti-Reform” agenda

David Bernstein recently wrote an article describing how the progressive education movement might consider revamping its approach. I’ve previously advocated that I believe the “anti-reform movement” is not really the progressive education movement, as those in the anti-reform movement appear to simply be advocating for pre-NCLB education, with no acknowledgement of the need for improvement. Below is my specific response to his article, which I included in the comments section of the orignal article.

I have to say that overall I feel bad critiquing some of the folks in the anti-reform movement, such as Diane Ravitch, because I truly believe her heart is in the right place, and that she is right in many of the issues. However, a sensationalized approach (including personalization and propaganda) coupled with a lack of forward-thinking severely limits the efficacy of their approach.

Here’s my reply:

Thanks for this article David. I can’t overstate how much this needs to be heard right now. Like many folks, I side with many ideas presented by Diane Ravitch and some other anti-reform folks, but I strongly disagree with their presentation style:

1) As you mention, they often express what they against, not for.

2) They do not acknowledge that our educational system has a long way to go. In fact, some argue strongly that teacher/school quality is of little concern, that we should only be focused on poverty.

3) They personalize arguments, which is highly unprofessional. They often post unflattering pictures of folks like Rhee and Duncan, call them names, and use highly inflammatory language. The result is that many rational folks don’t see the point of the story because they are turned off by the unprofessionalism of the presentation style.

4) They refuse to acknowledge any grey area in their arguments. To them, charters are completely bad and evil. Curriculum companies such as Pearson are completely bad and should never be used, despite the fact that a vast majority of useful assessments and intervention packages used by support personnel (social workers, psychologists, counselors) come from Pearson. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be firm with their beliefs, but when they fail to acknowledge what truth may actually lie in the other side of the argument, they appear to lack credibility.

5) They have amassed a following similar to Rush Limbaugh or other propaganda-oriented figures, in large part because they rely as much on propaganda as they do on fact. The sad truth is that there IS fact behind many of their arguments, but rather than taking the calm and analytical approach of using that fact, they sensationalize most stories, perhaps because they don’t think their followings will be able to grasp the truth?

Overall, I don’t think you can call folks like Ravitch or the folks behind “Dump Duncan” part of the “progressive education movement” because they aren’t advocating for progress – they are advocating for regression back to pre-NCLB times, completely ignoring that there was, in fact, a problem to begin with. And, while characterizations of the teaching profession as wholly lazy and unskilled are not true, neither are characterizations that they are all completely competent and doing everything they could be doing.

I hope folks reading this, David, and realize that there is a third option – it’s not either corporate reformers (e.g., Gates Foundation) or anti-reformers (e.g., Ravitch), but progressives who believe that we DO need to make changes in our educational system (and, in fact, already are), but not ones based on privatization and competition advocated by corporate reformers and both sides of current political leadership.

The problem with saying “NCLB didn’t work.”

As we’re now more than a decade past the passage of NCLB, we’re starting to hear comments like, “NCLB didn’t work.” People point to a variety of statistics and argue that – if NCLB did work – those statistics would reflect a vastly different educational landscape now when compared with pre-NCLB times.

Ironically, this proposal often comes from folks fiercely against using state tests to measure teacher accountability, claiming (accurately) that teacher performance is only one variable that contributes to student achievement. Similarly, NCLB was only one variable that may have been impacting student achievement over the past 10 years. Saying “NCLB didn’t work” because achievement data aren’t higher encounters the same problem as saying “Ms. Smith is a bad teacher” because achievement data aren’t higher – neither NCLB nor Ms. Smith were acting alone.

I’ve seen the same argument applied to Reading First, with whole studies concluding that Reading First – a result of the National Reading Panel, also initiated about a decade ago – was a failure because achievement data aren’t higher in reading than they could be. Again, Reading First isn’t the only variable contributing to student achievement in reading – what about Ms. Smith? Doesn’t she contribute also?

So, let’s be fair when we look at data and make causal statements about the relative contributions of both people and programs.

Reframing the conversation about “Reform”

“Reform” seems to have become a four-letter word recently, seemingly splitting folks into two disparate camps utterly unable to find common ground. The problem is, as usual, that the conversation is being constructed by leaders of both poles without an understanding that most folks fall somewhere in the middle, supporting many of the “reform” proposals in some respects, but not necessarily in the way some leaders of the “corporate reform movement” have proposed, and not necessarily in ways that those opposed to reform describe either.

The problem, of course, is that real benefit that might come from reasonable implementation of many of the proposed reforms is lost. Also, sadly, many educators and non-educators alike seem to fall in line with these pre-packaged arguments, rank and file behind those leaders with little consideration of the legitimacy of those arguments.

Take, for example, the discussion the impact of poverty in education. It’s often said that some folks, particularly in the charter school movement, believe that poverty is no excuse for low achievement – that, with the right strategies, poverty can be overcome 100% of the time. On the other side of the fence, it’s often said that others believe that poverty is so insurmountable that no amount of school-based intervention could mitigate any of the effects.

In reality, who really believes in either of these polar opposites? How many folks believe that poverty can never be overcome, or that it can always be overcome? Most folks, educators and non-educators, most likely have a healthier perspective that poverty is challenging, but that there are strategies that may work to help reduce the effects of poverty in the classroom. Not all of the time, but some of the time.

Why we fall victim to all-or-nothing, polarized, extremist thinking is probably beyond the scope of this post, but the point is we need to stop it. We need to stand up for ourselves and insist that the extreme vocal minorities dictating definitions and contexts of debates be more reasonable and representative of truth, rather than advancing their own extreme agenda for whatever purposes they might have in doing so.

“Text complexity” and the Common Core – should we really teach above children’s instructional levels?

You may have recently heard of the push for use of “complex text” in reading comprehension instruction that’s been emphasized in the common core. Some folks have cited evidence supporting that children instructed with higher levels of text complexity achieve more. There isn’t substantial evidence, and what evidence there is I haven’t personally reviewed, so let’s assume for sake of discussion that research supports this.

A fundamental misinterpretation I’ve seen with this assertion (use more complex text) is that children should be instructed with text that is above their instructional level. In fact, one study commonly cited as evidence of this mentions that students experienced equal or higher levels of success when working with material 2 to 4 grades above their instructional level.

Here’s the disconnect: When folks argue for kids to be taught above their “instructional level,” what they’re really saying is one of two things:

1) That passages should be used above the child’s instructional with oral reading fluency, not with reading comprehension, or

2) That the identified instructional level for reading comprehension was inaccurate, and that the child’s instructional level was actually higher than assessed. For example, based on a cut score of 75% for comprehension and 90% accuracy in reading a text, a child with a 70% comprehension score was said to be in the “frustrational range” for a particular text. Thus, an easier text was selected. Proponents of the “more complex text” argument might say that the 75% cut score was set arbitrarily too high – that 70% was high enough for the child to be given a text on that level.

To be sure, there isn’t great research behind these assertions. Rather, there a larger share of research that supports that we really don’t have good science behind assessing for and labeling instructional ranges. Still, let’s assume for sake of discussion that the research is clear, and that teachers are all too often misidentifying instructional ranges based on less-than-precise assessments, less-than-precise readability/complexity indices, and arbitrarily-defined cut score definitions of instructional, frustrational, and mastery levels.

In this case, the primary argument is not that kids should be taught above their instructional levels, but that theright instructional levels should be used (comprehension instructional levels, not oral reading fluency), and that we should reconsider definitions of instructional levels.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is it important that we are so precise with our language? Because a lot of teachers have heard a take home message of…

Use material that is above what kids are really able to comprehend”

….and that’s really bad for students. It’s really bad if teachers start thinking,

“Okay, common core wants me to pick out passages that are several grades above what I know they can comprehend.”

The reason is simple – in 100% of the cases in which a passage is above the instructional level for reading comprehension of a student, that child will fail to comprehend the passage, because the very definition of instructional range is the probability that a child can master the material given appropriate support. In other words, if you select material above a child’s instructional level, the child will always fail – 100% of the time.

This doesn’t mean complex text shouldn’t be used – it means that the most complex text within a child’s instructional level in reading comprehension should be used, and that teachers should reconsider cut scores/assessments related to identification of those instructional ranges.

Pork barrel arguments in the “accountability via test” debate

There is no question that there is valid concern with using standardized tests to measure teacher performance – the correlations are simply too low to use an end-of-year standardized test for high-stakes decision-making regarding teacher personnel. At the same time, the debate over “accountability via test” (as I’ll call it for short reference), likely because of its polarity, often includes a lot of collateral discussion with erroneous (at best) and dangerous (more often than not) implications for the direction of education.

Too often, for example, every modern reform is lumped together in one big group and becomes the subject of attack by those opposing any one of those reforms. Or, the subject line of a protest statement (e.g., “Accountability vs test” is bad) departs significantly from the actual content or rhetoric of the body of the argument. In other words, the main idea is disconnected from the supporting details.

As an example of both, take this recent Q&A article with a superintendent of a small Texas district.

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with most of what Kuhn has to say, at least in some form. However, several details/arguments are slipped in which, if left unchecked, could lead to “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” or – more specifically, abandoning some great innovations education has seen, all at the expense of opposing one specific reform.

Consider this statement, in response to “What’s not happening today because of a focus on standardized testing?”:

“In elementary school, strugglers lose art, recess, music, or PE. We tell at-risk students to stay in school; then we take away classes they most enjoy. When we reduced education to a competition, we condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency.”

While this answer might sound agreeable at first, there are several arguments implicit in this answer which deserve to be addressed:

Implicit Statement 1
Because of standardized testing, kids no longer participate in art, recess, music, or PE.

My response
recent report by the NCES indicated arts instruction has not declined from the year 2000 to the year 2010. While this may not speak to Mr. Kuhn’s personal experience, and while it may be true that some kids may be pulled from arts for supplemental instruction, kids in the US – as a whole – do not seem to be losing arts instruction.

Implicit Statement 2
Presence of art, recess, music, and PE is a primary determinant of school engagement for struggling students.

My response
There is no debate that many struggling students most likely prefer non-academic time in school over academic time because they are struggling with academics. However, the response to that issue is not to preserve non-academic time because students like it, but to address the underlying causes that lead struggling students to prefer non-academic time in the first place. The root, underlying cause with struggling students preferring non-academic time is, simply, that they are struggling – they don’t like academics because they aren’t good enough at it. The answer, then, is not to provide struggling students with less academic time, but to fix the academic issue – namely, to provide more and better instruction. Simply put, if struggling students no longer struggle, then they will find the curriculum more engaging, and will more likely stay in school in coming years.

Implicit Statement 3
Constructivist educational paradigms are better than direct instruction (DI) or behavioral learning models. (“condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency”)

My response
Both constructivism and DI/behavioral learning have their places in the classroom, with “rote proficiency” being no less valuable (and often more valuable) in some academic areas than “exploration and discovery.” Take reading fluency – there’s no evidence that “exploration and discovery” are critical ingredients to developing reading fluency. The goal, rather, is rote proficiency.

Implicit Statement 4
Standardized tests dictate a particular instructional paradigm and specific instructional methods. (“condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency” and earlier in the Q&A, “Principals face the temptation to enforce scripted approaches”)

My response
Assessment measures do not dictate instructional approaches. Perhaps, out of fear, district administrators such as Mr. Kuhn do, but the use of standardized tests do not. Moreover, standardized tests do not simply measure basic skills if designed correctly, but can (and usually do) assess “higher level thinking skills” such as synthesis and transfer of learning. As such, there is still an incentive in place to use instructional practices which promote deeper learning and higher level thinking skills.

Implicit Statement 5
Scripted programs have come about because of accountability.

My response
Scripted programs have come about because they work better for the things they’re used for. Scripted programs usually refer to direct instruction programs in which children are taught skills explicitly and systematically, and are generally used in lower grade levels to build proficiency with basic skills such as decoding and reading fluency. Decades of research has demonstrated the vast superiority of direct instruction programs in building basic reading and math skills, which are foundational to higher level thinking skills and “deeper” learning. As a result of the National Reading Panel, Reading First, Response to Intervention, and an overall movement toward evidence-based practice in reading/math instruction, direct instruction has become increasingly adopted as the instructional mode of choice for basic skill proficiency in many elementary general education and special education classrooms. In short, scripted/direct instruction programs have been implemented because they are best practice. If accountability encouraged or even coerced administrators to use best practices, then the general idea of accountability has proven successful in that area.

Implicit Statement 6
Rote proficiency is bad, and a focus on basic skills is replacing a focus on higher level thinking skills and deeper learning.

My response
HIgher level thinking skills and deeper learning are built on a foundation of basic skill proficiency. While it may be true that lower-income schools focus more on basic skills than higher-income schools, that’s likely because there is typically a lower degree of proficiency with basic skills in lower-income schools. There isn’t a shred of evidence in the research world suggesting that we should avoid teaching basic, foundational skills such as decoding and addition and skip right to higher-level thinking skills which require fluency with basic skills. How, for example, would you suggest a child critically analyze literary function of a text if he can’t read it?


More broadly, my goal with this post is not to win debates in each of the six areas I addressed, but to highlight that often, hidden within the context of the “anti-accountability via test”argument, are many other latent arguments which are not necessarily “givens.” It is not necessarily a given that arts instruction is being lost, that arts instruction is the primary method of school engagement for struggling kids, that constructivism is better than direct instruction, that standardized tests prohibit the use of effective teaching modalities, that scripted programs have come about because of accountability, or that basic skills instruction is bad. Yet, the temptation is for readers – educators and the general public – to read this commentary and, because they side with the overall conclusion that “accountability via test” is bad, believe that everything else in the commentary must be right.

Like pork barrel legislation in Congress, many folks commenting on the “accountability via test” debate attempt to slip in a number of other arguments which may be either unrelated or simply wrong, hoping that the validity of their overall thesis will carry the weight of the lesser arguments, or otherwise have failed to see that being right in one area does not make you right in all other areas – that evidence supporting one claim cannot be used to support all others.



First, if you’ve found this post, thanks for joining this discussion!

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life in various public and nonprofit positions supporting struggling kids. Over the past few years, I’ve really experienced the value of public discussion – through forums and blogs in particular – in my own professional development, and want to create another venue for such discussion surrounding challenges and solutions related to kids who struggle academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally.

More specifically, I’ve grown concerned with the growing divide between research/best practice and actual practice. From federal policies to nuanced classroom practices, it seems that the community serving struggling students consistently struggles itself with understanding and implementing of a variety of youth-related practices. From Response to Intervention (RtI) to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), sometimes confusion and poor implementation are the norm, rather than a quest for further understanding and fidelity of implementation.

My goal with this blog is to highlight best practices – big and small, and across domains (emotional, academic, etc.) – related to supporting struggling kids, and challenges we face in understanding and implementing these best practices. My aim is to also make this blog relevant to those who serve kids outside of school, including community-based providers, mental health professionals, families, and more.

Again, thanks for joining the discussion. More important than voicing my own opinions is a healthy discussion which necessarily involves the contribution of others, from comments on my posts to guest posts – all of which are welcomed.