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Vague Cries for Education Reform Must Face Irrelevance of Test Scores

Joel Rosenthal wakes us up with some vague griping and moaning about the need for education reform. Rosenthal acknowledges South Dakotans' rejection last November of Initiated Measure 15 and Referred Law 16 as signals that we think our K-12 system is fine the way it is. Rosenthal then contends we are wrong. He doesn't call us tired and stupid the way Governor Daugaard did. He just says that we're all too obsessed with sports (true!) and not focused enough on academic excellence:

However there is little effort by School Boards or the State Legislature to push for academic excellence. Parents and Local School boards are more interested in Extra Curriculars than Academics.

Jim Hanson who served as Secretary of Education for Governor Janklow in the 1980s often said, “the most important question in South Dakota education is the relative importance of (and then he motioned the forward pass or the dribble). Recently Representative Jim Bolin expressed to me what Citizens most want from their Schools is to hang the banner in the Gym. Representative Bolin is not just a thoughtful conservative Legislator but a Great Teacher. Both my children had him for multiple classes and he understands excellent education [Joel Rosenthal, "School Daze," South Dakota Straight Talk, 2013.01.06].

This anecdotal observation is perhaps a better place to start the conversation about what we should change in K-12 education than his only shred of empirical evidence, an observation that too many kids have to take remedial classes at university:

Consistently there are reports of the high numbers of students in our Universities that require remedial education. This means they are not ready for College level work. Those requiring remedial courses exceed 25 percent. That is 1 in 4. While parents believe their children are receiving a good education our Schools are practicing Educational Malpractice! [Rosenthal, 2013.01.06]

LK is one of the educators Rosenthal accuses of malpractice. LK responds that the real malpractice may lie at the feet of the Board of Regents:

One reason that South Dakota's colleges and universities have so many students taking remedial classes is that they take more students than they did a couple of decades ago. The need for tuition dollars seems to have trumped entrance standards [LK, comment to Rosenthal, 2013.01.06].

One in four students taking remedial classes at university may signal that one in four students should have considered options other than costly university educations that may not add much value to their skill sets or career inclinations.

Rosenthal doesn't make clear what practical form his "reform" would take. He just harrumphs "Accountability!" as did the backers of the Governor's failed education reform package last year. If Rosenthal wants to take us down the road of more test-based assessment for students and teachers, which was the core of the Governor's bad policy last year, Rosenthal needs to re-read everything I wrote on HB 1234 last year. Folks didn't reject the Governor's education package because they are obsessed with sports. They rejected HB 1234 because it wouldn't work.

As Rosenthal and legislators fumble toward education reform, they should also read these two articles that question the value of high-stakes testing in measuring how well students and teachers are performing:

  1. A new study from Northwestern University finds that teachers' effects on test scores and non-cognitive skills are "largely orthogonal"—in other words, teachers' abilities to boost test scores have hardly any correlation with their ability to boost things like kids' self-control and perseverance. And there's widespread evidence, says teacher Larry Ferlazzo, that those non-cognitive skills have at least as much impact on students' long-term success as the cognitive skills measured by the bubble tests.
  2. Folks fretting over international test-score comparisons should read what the winners on the international tests say. East Asian countries outscore us on math and science tests, but they find their students lack enthusiasm and self-confidence in those subjects.

I don't know what reforms Rosenthal and his Republican friends in Pierre may advocate this year. But if you want cheerless drones on both sides of the desk, go ahead, float more test-based reform packages. But if you want go-getters with perseverance and enthusiasm, maybe just keep your hands off K-12 education and let us teachers do our thing... a thing that can't be measured by Common Core standardized tests.


  1. owen reitzel 2013.01.07

    If reform is needed then you have to included educators. That's something the Governor didn't do when it came to HB1234.
    Who would know better then the people invloved in education.
    What's needed in Pierre is the enthusiasm for education that you see put into business.
    "One reason that South Dakota's colleges and universities have so many students taking remedial classes is that they take more students than they did a couple of decades ago. The need for tuition dollars seems to have trumped entrance standards [LK, comment to Rosenthal, 2013.01.06]."
    I tend to agree with this statement Cory but we have to be careful here. Just because a kid doesn't get great grades doen't mean that student can't be a teacher or whatever a 4 year college can offer. We can't herd students into other options just because we deem them unworthy.

  2. Linda 2013.01.07

    I think the idea of a four-year college education has been touted as the main idea for all students to strive for, ignoring the fact that vocational trades are also an honorable and important way to make a living, and the fact that some people are more interested in and adept at working with their hands as well as their intellect. Most of us would be lost without the competent carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc; and it's past time that these occupations be given the same honor as a four year or more college degree (oftentimes worthless when it comes to getting a job like criminal justice for instance). I don't think any student should be herded into any option based on test scores, but neither should they be made to feel they are going to be unsuccessful if they don't pursue a four year college degree.

    People have varied interests and abilities, and a person who is lucky enough to be doing a job he/she enjoys will never have to "work" a day in their lives.

  3. Donald Pay 2013.01.07

    The point that Rosenthal and Republicans generally don't seem to recognize is that they have pushed an education reform agenda for thirty years. Most of these reform proposals were enacted, and forced on districts. Some of these reforms have misdirected funds away from classroom education into the pockets of outside consultants and technical firms. Where is the accountability for these reforms? Is it time for Republicans to admit that South Dakota education, if it is in such bad shape, got that way because of their mismanagement? If Rosenthal is so negative about the state of South Dakota education, he might want to point out which of the educational reforms proposed by Republican administrations over these past thirty years failed. That's the accountability South Dakotans deserve.

    Until we get that accountability from Republicans, it might be wise to listen not listen to their constant whining about education. It's a bait and switch effort by Republicans to find other means to line the pockets of the industrial educatrats, not a serious effort at school improvement.

  4. Steve O'Brien 2013.01.07

    The issue of not being focused enough on academic excellence is a hefty club to wield at educators. In most any fair comparison of SD student academic success to the academic success in other states, we fare quite well.

    Two issues need to be addressed:

    First, what is the motivation for the students to achieve academic success - what is in it for them that will inspire them to put in the hard work to excel? Does a reasonable student see an assured success in life from hard work in school? Is there a climate of respect for academics that entices goal oriented thinking?

    Second, what reform affects better academics (and who is best to affect that reform)? Fortunately, this weekend in Pierre, SDEA will be hosting a conference to look at that very issue. Teachers, superintendents, and legislators, along with national leaders, will have a chance to see what national trends show and hopefully look at some locally successful efforts.

    The point is well taken that reform needs to be more than just "common sense" rhetoric; it needs to be evidence based.

    Reform also needs to be supported financially. Renovation and improvement cost money; when our state is mired in minimal, bare-bone funding of education, the those who are serious about reform will have to be ready to pick up that bill. Sometimes I think legislative reform from Pierre serves only to distract from acknowledging how undercut the foundations of funding in this state are. SD schools need to be "brought up to code" before we slap on any new paint.

  5. Travis 2013.01.07

    What is interesting is the Joel is actually a huge supporter of debate because of what it does for students academically. In fact, he's judged at quite a few tournaments (much to the chagrin of LK on some topics like taxes v spending).

    As for the extra-curriculars - while I agree that we are at times a little too obsessed with our football team, those students are usually not the ones that I have to push to get their work done and handed in on time - they know that if they get bad grades, they can't play! The students who consistently fail and do poorly in class are the ones who are not engaged in some type of extra-curricular activity - regardless if its football, debate, SALSA, etc - because they are usually apathetic and don't have something besides school to push them to do well. This is why at WHS, we're trying to get ALL freshman involved in some activity, to give them a sense of belonging to something, which in turn, gives them something to strive for and succeed in.

  6. LK 2013.01.07

    I welcome Mr. Rosenthal as a judge. My "chagrin" stems from the fact that I was in the tab room and didn't pay attention to who was judging my students.

    He has judged us on other topics and I thought that his ballots were fine, even when he gave us the down.

  7. Donald Pay 2013.01.07

    The fact is the Education Department has about 20 years of data. With all of the pretended concern about accountability, why hasn't the Republican Department of Education heads bothered to mine the data they already have? Where is the study that analyzes all that data to come up with real, evidence-based reform proposals linked to data they already paid for?

    I looked at data in the Rapid City schools back in 1992 and again in 2000. And Rapid City was always looking at data to see how to improve education. Admittedly I didn't do very thorough studies, but it was pretty evident to me that the following problems needed to be addressed:

    (1) Mobility---In the 1990s some Rapid City elementary schools exhibited lots of students moving in and out of each school. Many of these students came to Rapid City from reservation schools. Some students were periodically homeless or had to move a lot due to family breakups, loss of jobs, moving to lower cost housing, etc. The data indicated one school had 50 percent student body mobility every year. So, let's consider how you evaluate a teacher or school when students move schools and classrooms repeatedly. The middle class bias of some of the education reformers is a pathetic hinderance in addressing the real issues faced by students in poor and Native American families. The Rapid City District and the schools involved have tried to address this issue, but the state funding formula doesn't recognize this as a problem. Instead it funnels more money to sparse districts, and screws Rapid City students.

    (2) Attendence---You can't learn if you're not in school, so enforcement of effective truancy measures is needed. But there are other things that help. Many cost money, and some involve expanded extra-curricular programs. Rapid City schools restructured the day. Open campus is a disaster, so close it. Kids that skipped out during lunch would have all their required classes in the morning, electives in the afternoon. Alternative programs are important for students who "drop in." Again, money is needed.

    (3) Increased academic rigor for students that are bright, but not the academic stars. I've written about this before in this blog. You have to open up more sections of honors and AP courses and get those bright students to take them. That costs money.

  8. jana 2013.01.07

    Michelle Rhee...the high priestess of education reform just released the best states for education...and guess what, we got an F. A big fat Failure. You know who was first? know the state that ranks 49 in basic reading skills.

    Here's her report card (notice how many of the states have high standardized testing scores that are considered failures.) Then look at those at the top and their standardized test scores.

    Here's one commentary on the absurdity of her rankings.

    See, it's not about student achievement. It's about denigrating teachers and privatizing our schools...Right ALEC?

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.08

    Steve! That sounds like a good conference! I hope you get some legislators to stick around and some press to spread the word. I welcome any links to conference materials that you care to submit.

    Donald: there's an interesting point in your comment about mobility and big-town schools: maybe the economy of scale peters out at some point. Maybe the funding formula is fundamentally flawed in failing to recognize that metro areas have per-student costs that come from very different problems than those in sparse districts but which add up to the same amount. Should we go to a flat per-student funding formula to recognize those costs?

    And on attendance and academic rigor, Donald makes the point that we really do need money to solve some problems. You have to have staff, space, and resources. Doing more costs more.

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