A.O. Hirschman on arguments against fixing failure

According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to "make a dent." Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.
Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991).


Get the lead out

The Wisconsin Read to Lead Task Force has released its recommendations for improving reading, wrapping up its series of meetings from April through September 2011. Its progress and aftermath have been ably covered by the Wisconsin Reading Coalition. (My livetweets from the final Task Force meeting are appended for vestigial posterity at the end of this post, along with links to my previous posts on the Read to Lead Task Force.)

The Task Force's report calls for "improving teacher preparation and professional development; screening, assessment and intervention; early childhood; accountability; and parental involvement." The first three items on this list are no-brainers; of course, it would be good to identify kids who need help earlier rather than later, and to make sure that the teachers that help them are qualified and well-prepared. Wishfully expressed recommendations for "accountability," however, are bound to hit the hard cold wall of reality, if the experiences of some prominent Race to the Top winners who are having trouble overcoming political obstacles to their promises to improve accountability are any indication. As for "parental involvement," I would have liked to have seen parental involvement begin with the Task Force itself, which could have enriched its work by inviting direct testimony from parents who have lived through missed diagnoses and ineffective interventions, or better yet by bringing a parent voice to the table as a constituent member of the Task Force. This was a missed opportunity to recognize parents as a crucial stakeholder in educational decisions and to learn from what their children experience on the frontlines of educational decisions that continue to be made without families at the table.

Even if all the Task Force recommendations are implemented, we still need to ask: "and then what?" Is it enough for teachers to be trained well and for children to be screened early if the way in which children will be taught reading is ineffective? In making "consensus" the paramount priority, the Task Force report turns a blind eye toward the consequences of the choices that have been made in Wisconsin on how reading is taught, notwithstanding vigorous attempts both within the Task Force and outside the Task Force to have the Task Force confront those problems. If it wasn't realistic to expect that incompatible viewpoints on the Task Force could be reconciled, an effort should nonetheless have been made to reach agreement on the criteria and methodology by which schools, districts, CESAs and the state should systematically and rigorously examine, evaluate and discontinue reading programs that are demonstrated not to work. By failing to do so, the Task Force's work has in effect ratified "Balanced Literacy" as the past, present and future of reading instruction in Wisconsin.

So let's take another look at where we are with reading in Wisconsin. The charts below compare the reading assessment results for 4th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress at 2003 and 2011 by the percentages of economically disadvantaged students (i.e. those qualifying for the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program), disaggregated by ethnicity (White, Black and Hispanic here), who score below "Basic" under NAEP. Wisconsin is compared below to Massachusetts (as the best in the country in overall educational achievement), Florida (as the best in the country for raising the achievement of disadvantaged demographic groups), Minnesota (as the peer-next-door that Wisconsin may hope to measure up to, if not surpass), Texas (as the most entertaining recent example of the pitfalls of the compositional fallacy), and Mississippi (as a state all too frequently stereotyped as a backwards backwoods, which, as a one-quarter Mississippian—Friars Point, Coahoma County—I don't much cotton to, but as such may serve as an interesting benchmark for those who are inclined to regard it as the nadir of educational achievement). Examine the magnitude of students in Wisconsin who are failing to clear a very low bar; note which states have been able to reduce those numbers, and which are seeing those numbers increase:

If reading achievement in Wisconsin remains mediocre or deteriorates further, expect the perennial excuses of "poverty" and "parents" to bloom anew to explain away why things are so bad and why nothing can be done. But let's remember: "poverty" and "parents" didn't game NCLB requirements by setting "proficiency" on the Wisconsin standardized assessments below the "Basic" level of performance under NAEP (and so, even with some of the largest percentages of subperformance by disadvantaged demographic groups in the country, Wisconsin has the lowest percentage of schools that missed AYP for the 2010-11 school year). It's not "poverty" or "parents" who are refusing to participate in the National Council on Teacher Quality's research on the quality of the nation's education schools. And it's not "poverty" or "parents" who are fearfully incurious about what's not working with reading curriculum, pedagogy and intervention policies and practices in Wisconsin, why and how other states are doing so much better, and what needs to change to make improvement possible here.

You don't need a new plan for next year. You need a commitment.Seth Godin, December 30, 2011.

Previous posts on the Read to Lead Task Force:

"Need to Read" (April 25, 2011 meeting)
"Reader Leaders" (May 31, 2011 meeting)
"Follow the Leader" (July 29, 2011 meeting)


Louis Moreau Gottschalk on education

Those favored by fortune can educate themselves in all countries: and it is for that reason that the American thinkers did not dedicate their cares to the aristocratic element of society, but rather to the lowest ranks of the great mass of the people, whom they have struggled to enlighten; comprehending that education ought not to be a privilege, but something which belongs to all, as much as the air we breathe; and that every citizen has as imprescriptible a right to the light of the Spirit as he has to the light of the sun which illuminates him.
The popular system of education in the United States, in that austere elaboration, which, of a child, makes successively a man, and later a citizen, has, for its principal object, to prepare him for the use of liberty, — that cuirass of the strong, but which frequently, for the weak, is transformed into the shirt of Nessus.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, 1868 (from Mary Alice Seymour, Life and Letters of Louis Moreau Gottschalk by Octavia Hensel, His Friend and Pupil, 1870).