Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We Do Not Know How to Improve Student Education Levels And High School Graduation Rates

A comment I posted to the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "A Teacher Quality Manifesto" by Deborah Kenny:
In k-12 education, just about every variable, class size, teacher subject matter education level, dollars spent per pupil, availability of classroom technology, years of teacher experience, etc., unbiased controlled studies find either no effect or a minimal effect on student educational performance in the major subject matters tested, reading and arithmetic and dropout rates.

Even things like parent participation in the schools do not matter. For example, Asians on average outperform in school yet have low levels of parent school participation.

Everybody has a fix for the high US high school dropout rate and the low student performance on standardized math and reading tests. One year it is a nutritional breakfast, another year, it is increased parent involvement in schools. There is always some idea that seems to generate a lot of buzz as the solution to our education problems. Currently, it is charter schools.

Just about everything has been tried and while there are always isolated examples of where 'something' seems to work, that 'something' does not work when applied broadly to a large number of schools with a diverse student population.

There are many things that different parent groups do not like about the education system, such as unions, tenure, teacher pay (too high, too low), too bureaucratic, teacher skill level, length of school day, etc., but in many ways these things are like a surgeon's bedside manner. We may or may not like things about our teachers and our school systems, but like a great surgeon's bad bedside manner, it does not mean anything about results.

The fact of the matter is that despite years of throwing billions of dollars at schools, teachers and studies of student performance, we are clueless as to what will significantly increase the learning and graduation rates of our students. Most studies or education experiments produce small, if any, improvements. The magic cure to fix our educational system is undiscovered.

There are obviously broad differences in test results, high graduation rates and college attendance rates among different school systems in the US. We know from experience that whatever we do at the teacher, school and school system levels will not make poorly performing schools perform substantially better, as measured by graduation rates, or standardized test results.

If any method used in the US were a clear-cut success, a large number of our nation's schools would adopt it with very visible positive student results. It does not exist. Given how much money we spent on schools and education research, the magic fix probably does not exist.

Yes, it would be nice to increase the high school graduation rates and increase the levels of student performance on standardized tests. The problem we face is that we truly do not know how.

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