by Sue Legg
One of the most intriguing articles that I have read lately is Iris Rotberg’s article on The Endless Search for Silver Bullets. Dr. Rotberg, a Research Professor of Education Policy at George Washington University reported the results of the 2012 New York state assessments and the 2013 New York version of the Common Core test. The results were no doubt disappointing to charter school advocates. Charter schools in New York City, the hallmark of high achieving charter schools, continued to outperform comparable traditional public schools. Charters, however, had higher drops in levels of proficiency. See Table 1.
Table 1. Drops in proficiency rates: 2013 Common Core vs. 2012 NY state test results
|NYC Charter Schools||NYC Public Schools|
|Subject area||2012 to 2013 drop||2012 to 2013 drop|
|Math||72% > 34.8% = 37.2%||51.5% >25.0% = 26.5%|
|English Language Arts||60% > 29.6% = 30.4%||46.8% >26.4% = 20.4%|
A dramatic decrease in proficiency was expected for all schools; the standards are different and more difficult. Why these new standards resulted in a greater drop for charters deserves some analysis.
Back in 2009, the New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project reported “for students who attended a charter school for all grades kindergarten through eighth, charters closed about 86% of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap in math and 66% of the gap in English. These gains were associated with a longer school year, a greater number of minutes devoted to English, a small rewards/small punishments discipline policy, teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, and a mission statement emphasizing academic performance. This gain was lost in 2013; over seventy percent of Scarsdale students scored at or above the proficiency level; charters scored 34.8%.
Critics of charters alleged that their high scores in 2009 were due to their admission and dismissal practices. They questioned everything from the comparability of the students to the reputed practices that charters discouraged enrollment of children with disabilities and English language learning issues. Strict disciplinary practices, high suspension rates, and other ‘screening’ practices at charters were commonly cited as evidence that charters and traditional public schools are not comparable. See a current critique in the 2014 NY Times article Charter School Refugees. Even though many of these charges are valid, state assessment scores, particularly in math, remain higher than might be expected for low income children in charter schools. The reasons may reflect what is taught and how it is taught.
Concerns about teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum to allow time to raise scores are not only common, they are acknowledged even by supporters of school reform. In The Guide to Major Policy Studies, the Washington Policy Institute reported that the particular instructional method and the academic focus of charter schools were correlated with student achievement. Two-thirds of the NYC charters used a teaching strategy called Direct Instruction. It required teacher-led introduction of explicit skills, unison responses by students, and testing (e.g. DISTAR). Some researchers call this approach ‘fact accumulation’ at the expense of thinking skill development or ‘focusing on tests’ (Nicholls, 1989). For a startling description of this method by a former charter school teacher see: Annabel Lee’s letter on teaching in a no-excuses charter school published by Diane Ravitch in her blog. In addition to this Direct Instruction strategy, those charter schools that focused on academic achievement rather than on other goals such as Discovery Learning were likely to score higher on tests that emphasized basic skills.
Given that the Common Core Standards are intended to redirect instruction from basic skills to the use of these skills in analyzing and solving problems, it should be no surprise that teaching strategies based on rote learning alone might not stand up. Teachers who combine the study of basic skills with exploratory learning strategies may fare better on critical thinking and problem solving tests. This multi-faceted approach to teaching and learning is not new for high achieving students, but for those children who are ill prepared for school, arguing about which type of test to give misses the point. The focus has to be on what children need in order to learn.
In our next post, we will feature some ‘what works’ strategies and question the disconnect between the relentless attack on teachers and the need for high quality instruction.