Hutchison, Schools, and Reforms: A questionable mixture

Hutchison Mark Hutchison, Republican candidate for Lt. Governor has a message for public schools – and it’s not all that supportive. Yes, he wants more funding for schools, BUT there are some ropes attached:

“As for students, they should be able to read at grade level or higher by the time they’re in third grade.

For teachers, he said it should be easier to fire bad ones and hire those just out of college or in the “Teaching for America” program that sends the best and brightest to schools that need help.

And parents should be given a choice between sending their children to public schools of government-subsidized private schools to encourage competition.”  [LVRJ]

Read and Heed: Okay, having kids read at grade level is fine, and a worthy goal. However, perhaps the first thing we ought to note is that third grade isn’t the big hurdle. It’s the 4th one.  In most school curricula reading changes during the 4th grade. 

First grade is about the mechanics if you will, how to decode those printy things on the pages. Second grade is still pretty much reading for the sake of  knowing how to read.  And, two years isn’t all that long to introduce phonology (sound units), morphology (word formation), syntax (sentence structure), sematics (relationship between language and meaning), orthology (fancy name for spelling), and “pragmatics” (choosing the best word.)  [Ed.gov pdf]  We also know from the research that children have different vocabulary levels associated with socioeconomic levels, with youngsters from professional families coming to school with an average 1100 word oral vocabulary, those from working class families average about 700 words, and those coming from disadvantaged households having about 500 words. [Ed.gov pdf]

Third maintains and reinforces the flow.  Nevada tests little readers in the 3rd grade using passages about 300  to 500 words long, and measures things like knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, and reading comprehension items like “themes.” 

Then the scene changes, during the 4th grade it’s not just reading to understand the words being read, and the story being told;  it’s reading to learn.   Here comes the notorious 4th Grade Slump. Along with this, enter the Curriculum Debate, especially with the advocates of phonics and other mechanics of reading. Vocabulary development is crucial. “Understanding key words that support the main idea or theme and details that contribute shades of meaning further enhance comprehension to create a richer experience. This association is reflected in the results that show that on average students who performed well on the vocabulary questions also performed well in reading comprehension.”  [NAEP]

Now, think back to the numbers given above.  Some kids will start school with a vocabulary of 1100 words mastered, some will show up with a vocabulary half that – and then there are all the youngsters in between. So, what are we measuring in the 3rd grade?  This is the point at which we’d be better served by looking  locally rather than globally at the testing results. For example, which is a better question? (A) How well do Nevada children score on reading/vocabulary tests in comparison with children in other states? or (B) How much progress has Student X made in vocabulary development and reading skills from the end of the 1st grade to the end of the 3rd?

The answer to Question A is interesting, and informative for general policy discussions, but ultimately the answer to Question B is a better indicator of instructional success – especially as that 4th Grade Slump looms:

“Suddenly, it’s not good enough to simply sound out words. The child has to make sense of the context in ever more difficult textbooks. Whether or not he (or she) has the motivation, maturity or physical (including brain development) capacity to do that, teachers will now throw more and more sophisticated reading materials at him, along with expectations that he’ll do plenty of reading outside of school hours.” [Keen]

With this  information in mind,  we have to figure out what candidate Hutchison means by “reading at grade level.”  Does he mean that 100% of Nevada’s third graders will score 100% on CRT items covering spelling, common prefixes and suffixes, pragmatics, and vocabulary? Are they to score 100% on basic questions about content and theme?  100% from 100% is indeed laudable, if somewhat unrealistic – and is further from the subject of educational success if we take the view that basing educational policy on the test scores of 8 year olds is taking the easy way out.  The real test is how well the kids can do when faced with the transition from reading to read, and reading to understand short passages and stories, to reading for learning.

Undue Process:  For the 1000th time (or so) Nevada does NOT have teacher tenure.   Not sure about this? Read NRS chapter 391.  Now take a look at the teacher evaluation process; half based on test scores and half based on modeling good instructional practices. [LVSun]   It really isn’t all that hard to fire “bad” teachers.  Every teaching contract is for one year. The only safeguards teachers have is that after completing a probationary period they have access to due process if fired.  Here’s what makes it hard to fire “bad” teachers:

Bad administrators – the ones who don’t adequately document poor instructional techniques, poor classroom management, and inadequate preparation.  These are usually the first to complain that they “can’t” fire Mrs. Sludgepump because of the “union.”  They could, if they’d adequately documented Sludgepump’s slumbers at her desk, but since they didn’t do that the hearing isn’t going to have their desired outcome.   Or, we have the Fill in the Blank Administrator – the one who will hire absolutely anyone to teach almost anything just to get the position filled.  You get what you want, even if it’s not what you want.  Which brings us to Hutchison’s next recommendation.

“It ought to be easier to hire those just out of college or in the Teaching for America program.”

We might assume that Hutchison means anyone, with any degree, just out of college?

The Teach for America program assumes, almost as a point of reference, that currently trained professional teachers are failing, and that highly motivated top tier college students who complete a five week training program will ride in to save the day. Not quite, the internal numbers indicating success are “not up to the standard for research,” and in most cases show TFA personnel are “at least as effective” as non-TFA teachers. That’s a relatively low bar if the initial assumption is that non-TFA teachers are less competent or effective.   [Atlantic] [Rubenstein]

Since a leadership change in 2013 TFA is becoming ever more closely associated with “market based” educational reforms – such as those coming from the often debunked Michelle Rhee et. al.  [Ravitch] [Rubenstein]  Nothing says “Marching with Michelle Rhee” quite so clearly as  catch phrases about making it easier to hire untrained teachers, and ascribing Silver Bullet qualities to TFA, a route to the classroom which seeks to bypass licensing requirements and longer preparation programs.  

This isn’t to argue against those effective, dedicated, and successful TFA teachers out there, many of whom have made teaching a career choice rather than a 2 yr. stint.  However, there is evidence aplenty that teacher retention is more important in low income areas than in upper income level schools in terms of student achievement. [EdUtp] [AEFP pdf] [Harvard 2013 pdf] Interestingly, those TFA teachers who had more Education background or who held Education degrees were the ones most likely to stay in the field – probably a matter of both initial interest and preparation?

Ask one of those non-TFA professionals what improves instruction and most of them will offer answers falling into the categories of (1) lesson plan preparation, (2) classroom management and discipline, (3) continuous student evaluation, and (4) support from parents and administration.  Ask teachers what factors motivate them to stay and most responses will relate to administrative support, collegiality, appropriate in-service professional development, and  school culture. [Harvard 2013 pdf]  Notice that none of these elements  directly relate to norm-referenced or criterion-referenced testing.

And finally, we ought to ask why students at Harvard University have asked its president to cut ties with TFA?  Answer here.

In short, what Mr. Hutchison is proposing is little more than the platitudes of market based educational “reform,” and a preference for the “reforme du jour” Silver Bullet approach to educational improvements.

When Choice isn’t a Choice?  And then there’s the blatant give-away that Mr. Hutchison isn’t talking about supporting public schools at all. Not really.   Awaiting the next round of public school funding are those who would like nothing better than to get their mitts on the money.  Some of these organizations are relatively effective, some are demonstrably close to criminal.  CPD recently blew the lid off in an expose of “Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania Charter Schools.”  No one wants to read something like the following conclusion:

“Charter school officials have defrauded at least $30 million intended for Pennsylvania school children since 1997. Yet every year virtually all of the state’s charter schools are found to be financially sound. While the state has complex, multi-layered systems of oversight of the charter system, this history of financial fraud makes it clear that these systems are not effectively detecting or preventing fraud.”

Then there’s Chicago’s dismal history of top down reform.  This doesn’t diminish the expectations of the budding “Charter Industry” whose formula is to use standardized testing to “prove” public schools are failing, then put these schools under unelected authorities and have the authorities replace the public schools with charters. [Nation]

“Thus, what “slum clearance” did for the real-estate industry in the 1960s and ’70s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.”  [Nation]

The Bottom Line

And there we have it. Mr. Hutchison’s version of Heaven on Earth:  Third graders who all read at grade level – whatever that might be – and however that might not relate to the development of skills necessary to get beyond the 4th grade slump;  Removing the right to due process when one’s livelihood is threatened; Hiring just about anyone to teach just about anything – ready or not, including from a program with controversial ties to the Market Based Reformers and Goldman Sachs; and Offering up more opportunities for educational entrepreneurs to profit at taxpayer’s expense.

Good enough reasons to support the candidacy of Lucy Flores.

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