A Final Thought

Better Educational Outcomes

When my grandaughter, a high school junior, decided to enter a statewide contest, she had to write an essay on an issue affecting education. She and I spoke and we began to list the various subjects she could consider.

Charter schools — their value and impact, was one that I suggested. The poor physical condition of some schools made the list, and lack of access to the Internet was another. Standardized testing, evaluation of teachers, the effect of poverty on individual students, the gap between students who have access to the Internet and those who do not, were some of the possibilities she mentioned.

I left my granddaughter to determine for herself what she would write about, simply suggesting that it might be wise to choose a subject about which she, as a student, had personal experience and direct knowledge. As I write this, she’s at work on her project.

Another person who has been looking at, dealing with and writing about problems facing the public schools is Dr. Arthur Shapiro, who spent many years as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent before taking a position as professor of education at the University of South Florida, from which he has sent forth dozens of students trained in analyzing educational programs and outcomes, and making judgments based on research and observation.

What he has observed over the last eight to 10 years has been an increasing effort on the part of politicians and businessmen to make us believe that public education is failing and that they can make it better by applying business techniques and mentality to the educational process. All one had to do was replace experienced teachers (often unionized) with less expensive labor, establish success on standardized tests as the objective of the educational process, and then let private interests use public money to implement the program.

Seeing what was happening, Art set out to look at the research (as he was trained to do) to see first, if public education in this nation has really been failing, and second, to see whether the various approaches to education being promulgated by non-educators are working as well as, or better than, the public school systems they are trying to replace.

The result is an excellent little book, “Education Under Siege” (published by Rowman & Littlefield Education, Lanham, Md.) that takes a long look at 12 programs currently being promoted, how they operate, how they affect public education and what research shows about their triumphs and failures.

Shapiro makes no secret of his point of view — the book is subtitled “Frauds, Fantasies, and Fictions in Educational Reform,” and in many ways it is an angry book. But its value lies not in the author’s anger with the frauds, but in its presentation and analysis of proper research about the successes and failures of each of these attempts to make education better.

Shapiro is not a defender of the past, and he makes it clear in the book that some of the ideas that are being put forward can be valuable — so valuable that he concludes his book with an important chapter on major reforms that really work.

Among those that he tells us research has shown to be successful are decentralizing schools into smaller, more workable units and establishing quality universal pre-kindergartens Neither of these, he points out, is new and it took time for them to be recognized for the value they bring, but they do result in better educational outcomes.

One of the things I realized as I read through the book is the educational outcomes cannot be measured on a day-to-day basis or even year-to-year. It takes time. One certainly needs to be wary of claims for success based on the percentage of students who passed a standardized test this year as opposed to last. Any teacher can accomplish that kind of success by simply teaching to the test. And there’s the root of a problem.

Political forces insist on the instant gratification of test scores that can be published, compared and claimed as an accomplishment, even if, in terms of education, they have no meaning.

Educators like Dr. Shapiro keep looking at what longitudinal research says, meaning that programs need to be evaluated over a period of time. Longitudinal studies can tell us what works, what doesn’t, and allow for change as time goes by, but they take time and don’t work well with election cycles. The instant gratification is good for headlines, but not for children. That’s why we must test, test, test (and, worse, use the results improperly to dump on schools and teachers, but that’s another story.)

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."