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A Story of Dysfunction Points to a Couple of Basic Truths

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A fascinating article by a journalism professor/parent recently illustrated two problems endemic to schools.

Meredith Broussard, a professor at Temple University and the parent of a Philadelphia elementary school student, started by asking whether performance on state tests can be "gamed." That question led her down a rabbit hole of thinking about curriculum, budgets, data, and the inequities that exist for high-poverty schools -- all of which culminated in her article for Atlantic.com titled, "Why Poor Schools Can't Win at Standardized Testing."

Broussard's first discovery was that state reading tests do not assess what she calls "general knowledge," but rather "specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers."

Her conclusion was that the state tests can indeed be "gamed," but not by the kind of test-prep trickery that she had imagined. Kids can do better on tests by learning the material on which the tests are based.

She then tried to determine whether students in Philadelphia have access to textbooks necessary to learn the material tested. The answer was no for the most part, but along the way she learned several things, including:
  • The district-wide data inventory system has fallen into disuse because there's no one to input the data.
  • And teachers are left to scavenge books because the textbook budget for Philadelphia was eliminated in 2012.

Mind you, at this point Philadelphia is an extreme case. Decades of state supervision, budget wars, and leadership turnovers have left the district struggling to even open its schools in the fall.

But Broussard is pointing to two big issues that transcend Philadelphia's specific dysfunctions.

The first is her discovery that standardized reading tests are really tests of specific knowledge, leading to her logical conclusion that we need to teach kids the material that will be tested if we want them to perform well on tests.

This might be a simple insight, but it is hugely important. It is essentially what launched the work of E. D. Hirsch Jr. decades ago. "African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee's surrender to Grant," Dr. Hirsch says in his official bio. "They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students."

Hirsch has spent much of his life since then trying to ensure that children are taught a rich, coherent, systematic curriculum such as the Core Knowledge curriculum he and a team of educators and scholars developed. He also advocates for tests that are tied to specific curricula.

As long as we maintain the pretense that reading tests are not tied to specific domains of knowledge, test results will continue to favor those students whose families are more educated and use larger vocabularies, go to museums, and have dinner table discussions about current events.

Unfortunately, few schools and districts have incorporated the insight developed by Hirsch decades ago and discovered by Broussard recently.

The second issue Broussard is pointing to has to do with managerial incoherence. Philadelphia is, as I say, an extreme case. But it is not unusual to hear tales of schools and districts that have curricula that are not aligned to their state standards or their state assessments; unused books and computers in some schools and too few in others; and budget appropriation systems that don't permit the buying of books in a way that matches school schedules.

Middle-class students often have the organizational wherewithal to withstand the effects of this kind of managerial incoherence. But students who live in poverty and are almost entirely reliant on their schools for their academic development suffer mightily.

We will not close achievement gaps until we ensure that all systems in schools and districts are aligned in a coherent way -- both in terms of their curriculum and in terms of how their systems are managed.