From myths to methods of improving education

February 28, 2000|By Gail L. Sunderman

SCHOOL REFORM is often driven by myths rather than sound research.

Take the issue of ending social promotion, one proposed remedy for Baltimore's ailing public schools that was recently adopted by the Baltimore City School Board of Commissioners. Proponents of this policy argue that raising students' basic skills before they are allowed to move on to the next grade is essential for long-term school success. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests otherwise.

More than 25 years of research about retention's effect on students shows almost uniformly negative results. Retained students are substantially more likely to drop out of school than their non-retained peers. Retained students perform more poorly on average than if they had been promoted. Moreover, minority students are held back disproportionately.

A recent study on ending social promotion in the Chicago public schools, where students have been retained in grades three, six and eight since 1997, confirmed these findings. Researchers there found that retained students did no better than low-performing students who were promoted prior to the retention policy. Retention was particularly detrimental to third-grade students -- they did worse than students with similar test scores who were promoted. Retention also disrupts educational services because it affects the classroom distribution of students and teachers and the delivery of instruction. Unless provisions are made to change the curriculum, retained students receive the same curriculum they had the year before. Simply repeating lessons does not address students' learning problems.

Another proposed remedy for schools is test-driven reforms. Policy-makers believe that by setting standards and measuring attainment through standardized testing, students will learn more and teachers will teach better. Test-leveraged reform has been promoted since the early 1990s as a means to improve student achievement. Yet little evidence indicates that these efforts have had much of an impact on improving student performance.

When high-stakes testing is used to evaluate the quality of educational programs or monitor the progress of individual students, a number of negative consequences result. Not only does high-stakes testing have a differential impact on poor and minority students, it results in a distortion of the curriculum. It promotes teaching to the test. It replaces subject matter mastery with mastery of the skills and knowledge useful for passing a particular test. It limits students' opportunities to develop thinking and problem-solving skills.

Another popular belief is that taking over poorly performing schools will improve them. Lessons from Chicago are again instructive. Research there suggests that placing schools on probation for poor performance or taking them over and replacing the faculty and leadership contributes to a movement of students and teachers away from these low-performing schools. This is likely to increase the concentration of hard-to-educate students and inadequately trained teachers in a few schools.

One high school in Chicago that was taken over in 1997 was recently deemed the "worst school in Illinois" by the Chicago Tribune. Only 6.4 percent of the students are meeting state standards on a new statewide standardized achievement test. When this school was taken over, a well-regarded principal was assigned to the school and many faculty members were replaced. The school was set for a turnaround. Yet three years later, the percent of students scoring at or above the national norms has barely moved.

The Maryland State Department of Education recently assumed control of three poorly performing schools in Baltimore and proposes to turn these schools over to private contractors. Baltimore's success with private contractors has not been stellar -- and few large-scale evaluations attest to these contractors' ability to low-achieving students' performance. This strategy exposes the city's most vulnerable students to an educational experiment based on the belief that private contractors can produce "rapid improvement."

These policies sound good and make political points, but they are very costly. More effort needs to be devoted to policies and educational interventions that actually work, including providing quality early childhood education, special summer school programs, better preparation of reading teachers and added help for low-performing students.

Gail L. Sunderman is an associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. She previously conducted research in Chicago on school governance reform.

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