Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What Does Everyone Need to Learn?

The characteristics of the family in which children are raised have an enormous effect on the kinds of formative experiences they enjoy, which, in turn, direct the trajectory of the remainder of their lives in dramatic ways. Children born into wealthy families have access to rich formative experiences, which lead to a greater variety of opportunities during adult life than children born into poorer families. But this hardly seems fair: Why should opportunity for success in adult life depend so much on the luck of birth, irrespective of natural ability or personal motivation? In recent decades, the international community has pushed for universal schooling as a means of equalizing, in part, the formative experiences of children in richer and poorer families. Unfortunately, many states find themselves in the unhappy position of having too few resources to provide every child with the lavish education they might desire. As a result, it has become increasingly important for states and other educational providers to seek out ways of maximizing educational benefit given limited resources, while still achieving the opportunity-equalizing function we assign to schooling.

This suggests the question: Is there some guideline curriculum planners can use to reduce the cost incurred by a given curriculum without jeopardizing the power of their schools to reduce the opportunity gap between rich and poor? Is there some minimal set of content to which everyone ought to have educational access? The international community has yet to establish a detailed answer to this question. International discussions about education have certainly underscored the great importance of educational and curricular quality, but descriptions of what counts as quality content have remained rather vague. Moreover, the common indicators used in international monitoring reports are unrelated to the quality of curricular content. Since access to schooling is nearly irrelevant if the quality of what students learn in school is insufficient, the international community needs to begin monitoring curricular content, in addition to the current indicators. This can be facilitated by an analytical device---a schema for basic education curricula---used in the evaluation and comparison of curricula in diverse contexts.

Read more in my Ed.M. thesis! I also have audio for a 10 minute overview and a 1 hour presentation with discussion under "Talks and Posters" in the Repository.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Narrowing the Curriculum

From oldandrew at Scenes from the Battleground:

We don’t need to consider whether French is more important than Latin, or whether biology is better for children than history for it to be possible to identify a failure in education where large number of those leaving the system are unable to read, write or behave like civilised human beings.

Recent national education reform efforts here in the United States that require school accountability for student outcomes in reading and mathematics have received a considerable amount of push-back, some of which has taken the form of complaints about a narrowing of the curriculum, saying that students need well-rounded educational experiences and that testing only in reading and math forces schools to myopically hammer these skills to the exclusion of other important lessons. I've never found the complaint convincing: Schools that successfully get students to learn to read and do math should have no problems with their students' passing mandatory external assessments, and can go on their merry way teaching as many other subjects as they like; schools that can't even get their students to read have major problems that need to be addressed before we can even begin to consider what kind of well-rounded curriculum students should learn (since they aren't really learning anything at all at this point, after all).

What's really going on behind the outcry against trying to teach students to read and do math? I have a sinking suspicion that much of it has to do with (a) incompetent administrators who respond to national and state reforms by imposing inane requirements on teachers who are otherwise doing a fairly good job and (b) teachers and administrators in failing schools who don't particularly like the fact that there are now consequences for that failure. As for the latter, we've known for half a century that our schools are failing far too many low-income and minority students, and yet have failed to make much progress in correcting the problem. It's about time to expect that students leave school able to read, write, and behave like civilized human beings---if achieving that means teaching fewer subjects in certain schools for the time being, so be it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Few Notes from the History of the Massachusetts Department of Education

In 1837, the Massachusetts General Court established the nation's first state Board of Education, whose statutory mandate was to

collect information of the actual conditions and efficiency of the common schools and other means of popular education; and diffuse as widely as possible throughout every part of the Commonwealth, information of the most approved and successful methods of arranging the studies and conducting the education of the young, to the end that all children in this Commonwealth, who depend upon common schools for instruction, may have the best education which those schools can be made to impart.[1]
In its first eighty years, the Board established ten teacher-training institutions, improved the leadership and organization of schools, pushed for the first compulsory school attendance law in the nation (1852), pushed for the first free textbook law in the nation (1884), and established schools for children with disabilities.[2] Thus, from its inception, the Massachusetts Board of Education acted in accordance with its mission as an educational development agency.

In the early Twentieth Century, Massachusetts executed a series of administrative reorganizations. These included merging the Board of Education with the Commission on Industrial Education in 1909 and placing them under the direction of a commissioner of education, who replaced the original office of the secretary of the Board of Education.[2] In 1919, the state again enacted a widespread consolidation of boards and commissions, which dissolved the Board of Education and replaced it with an advisory board for the new Department of Education (DOE) with divisions for elementary and secondary education, vocational education, teacher training, immigration, public libraries, and post-secondary colleges.[3] Despite the many administrative changes, the Department of Education has retained its developmental character with the mission to
provide a public education system of sufficient quality to extend to all children including a limited English proficient student ... , and also, including a school age child with a disability ... the opportunity to reach their full potential and to lead lives as participants in the political and social life of the commonwealth and as contributors to its economy.[4]

The DOE's Student Assessment Services (SAS) unit developed in response to the Public School Improvement Act of 1985, the purpose of which was to
ensure educational excellence and equity for all students in elementary and secondary schools of cities and towns, regional school districts and independent vocational schools of the commonwealth [and] increase accountability of teachers and students, provide resources for creative educational improvements at the local level and provide resources to equalize educational opportunity.[5]
SAS therefore continues in the Board of Education's original mission to "collect information of the actual conditions and efficiency of the common schools" and supports the developmental goal of improving equity of educational opportunity through increased accountability. Specifically, the Act of 1985 called for "a statewide testing program to improve curriculum and instruction and to identify those students needing assistance in mastering basic skills."[6] This testing program consisted of two parts. The first, the Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), provided information about the progress of educational achievement in schools and districts by means of reading, math, and science tests administered biennially in grades 3, 7, and 11. After the initial cycle, the assessment added a social studies component and shifted to grades 4, 8, and 12 in alignment with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). MAEP also included test items from NAEP to provide a basis for national comparisons.[7] The second, the Massachusetts Basic Skills Testing Program, provided information about individual students' achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics in grades 3, 6, and 9 to identify students for additional assistance in mastering basic skills.[8]

In the wake of the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act (P.L. 103-227), the Massachusetts General Court passed the Education Reform Act of 1993, which included provisions for the establishment of statewide curricular frameworks and an accompanying Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for
evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools [with respect to] the extent to which schools and districts succeed in improving or fail to improve student performance, as defined by student acquisition of the skills, competencies and knowledge called for by the academic standards ... in the areas of mathematics, science and technology, history and social science, English, foreign languages and arts, as well as by other gauges of student learning judged by the board to be relevant and meaningful to students, parents, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers.[9]
MCAS expanded the state testing program to include standards for academic achievement, a competency determination requirement for graduation, and state-wide comparisons of the performance of schools and districts.[10]

Today, SAS manages the development, administration, and analysis of MCAS tests in English/Language Arts (grades 3-8, 10), math (grades 3-8, 10), science and technology/engineering (grades 5, 8), and history/social science (grades 5, 7) in order to provide the data necessary for tracking the improvement of school performance and student achievement in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA, ``No Child Left Behind,'' P.L. 107-110) and in support of the DOE's primary mission to provide high-quality and equitable educational opportunities to all children.

[1] Chapter 241 of the Acts of 1837, section 2.
[2] Payson Smith, Eighty-third Annual Report of the Department of Education, Boston, 1920, at 15.
[3] Ibid. at 13.
[4] Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 69, section 1.
[5] Chapter 188 of the Acts of 1985, section 1.
[6] Ibid., section 6.
[7] Massachusetts Department of Education, The Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program: 1990 Statewide Summary, 1990, p 1.
[8] \footnote{Massachusetts Department of Education, \emph{Massachusetts Basic Skills Tests: Summary of State Results, 1989 Update.}}
[9] Chapter 71 of the Acts of 1993, section 29; Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 69, section 1I.
[10] Massachusetts Department of Education, "Education Fact Sheet," August 1997, at 20.