Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Fallacy Of Top Down Education Reform (Part One)

The Fallacy Of Top Down Education Reform (Part One)

The Fallacy Of Top Down Education Reform (Part One)

Back in 1995 in my state of Oregon the legislature came up with a new educational program that was going to improve test scores and graduate more students. It was called the Educational Act for the 21st century and was widely applauded by the Federal Government, state bureaucrats, educators and parents. The plan spawned a bewildering number of committees, councils, and school debates and devised Certificates of Initial Mastery (CIM) and Certifications of Advanced Mastery (CAM), with all of the necessary curriculum changes, new standards, and tests. It was a classic committee "top down" approach to solve our education problems.

Four years later Oregon's test scores showed no improvement. 17 years later The Oregonian reported that "Oregon high schools have made zero progress in getting more students to graduate with the skills they need to pass college classes. Today The Oregonian said "act test scores show that half the state's high school graduates aren't fully prepared, and are exhibiting poor skills on core subjects.
Similar "top down" programs have been tried in all of the states with different names but the same poor results. This includes the Federal program "No Child Left Behind"
All of these efforts were sincere efforts to improve education but they all seemed to assume that if you could invent some kind of magical curriculum for high schools that with discipline, accountability, and perhaps brute force you could pull the children up through some kind of magic filter to higher skills, and have more kids graduate from high schools with fewer dropouts. But it is clear that there is something really wrong with the "top down" magical curriculum approaches.
The latest curriculum being supported by both the Federal and State educational programs is called STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.Manufacturing and the high-technology industries desperately need students who have been educated in STEM classes.  Yes, it is another attempt to raise the bar and improve standards
I think the idea of getting kids more proficient in science, technology and math is a splendid idea. Having spent 35 years in manufacturing, I know first-hand why the future workers in manufacturing need to have a better education with more science and math classes to compete in the 21st Century. But I am also a realist, and have a lot of questions and doubts about education reform.
I accept the fact that a tidal wave of educational reform is coming at schools, teachers and students, and it is called STEM. The premise of this article is that before demanding that all 16.3 million high schools students participate in STEM, it might be wise to spend a lot more time identifying the problems and obstacles that the students and their teachers in these 3 groups must over come to handle a new and harder curriculum like STEM.
In 1971, the research of a Yale psychologist, Seymour Sarason, argued that school reform efforts were bound to fail if they ignored cultural problems, and only focused on altering structure and curriculum. I think Sarason has been proven right on this assumption over and over again in the last few decades.
There are 18,435 high schools in the U.S. with approximately 16.3 million students. To see how another new reform like STEM learning would work for all of these students and schools, it would be helpful to examine the problems and needs in terms of student groups. Most of these top-down programs do not do a good job of profiling the students and defining their weaknesses, biases, socio-economic backgrounds, preferences, or goals. But California uses the Star Standardization Tests  to categorize students into three groups based on historical outcomes of high school students. These categories are:
Below Basic or dropouts. These are students who drop out of school, did not get enough credits, or pass enough tests to graduate.

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