Monday, March 5, 2012

Mad scientists

Karen W., who reads lengthy and tedious legislative documents so we don’t have to, has been posting updates about the education bills making their way through the Iowa legislature over at her blog, Education in Iowa. She recently posted about Iowa’s application for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Others have written (for example, here and here) about how these waivers are a cure that’s as bad as the disease, and this waiver application seems to bear that out.

I got a kick out of Karen’s suggestion to the drafters: “Please do not find yourself in the position of claiming to hold high academic standards for all students while failing to competently proofread a document you plan to submit to the US Department of Education.” But the trouble is far worse than typos and misspellings. Karen points out, for example, that the waiver application makes it clear that Iowa intends to focus on statewide implementation of PBIS. Moreover, the entire document seems designed to demonstrate just how lost you can get in a faulty paradigm – in this case, the idea that empirical research in social science can dictate indisputable policy solutions that we just need to impose uniformly on all of our schools.

Here’s just one passage I came across, pretty much at random, on “Universal Supports”:
All schools will engage in school improvement through the Seven Characteristics of Effective and Improving Schools, the C-Plan, and the System for Improving Student Success. All schools will be supported in the following ways.

Response to Intervention (Turnaround Principles: strengthening school’s instructional program and using data to inform instruction): From 2003 to 2011 Iowa implemented a process called Instructional Decision-Making (IDM) which was a prototype of Response to Intervention (RtI). IDM was developed by a team of Iowa general educators, special educators, and administrators and information was disseminated to a contact person in each Area Education Agency (AEA). With this train-the-trainer model (AEA contacts provided training to individual schools), IDM was not implemented consistently across the state. In some schools where IDM was in place, it was not integrated into practice as an on-going approach to improving learning. Because of the lack of success of IDM, it became apparent a more concentrated and prescriptive approach to RtI implementation was necessary.

As presented in Principle 1, RtI is a multi-tiered framework by which schools use data to identify the academic supports each and every student needs to be successful in school and leave school ready for life. In their review of 13 studies investigating the impact of RtI on academic achievement or performance, Hughes and Dexter (2011) found some level of improvement in all studies, primarily on early reading and math skills.
Should I go on? Needless to say, the conclusion is that “it is imperative that RtI be implemented with fidelity in each Iowa school” – even though the one previous attempt to implement the program apparently resulted in a “lack of success,” even under its own almost certainly reductive definition of success. When our “robust universal instruction,” “data-based decision making,” “intensive interventions,” and “progress monitoring” fail, it must mean we need to do even more of them!

Once you hack through the bureaucratese and the management guru jargon (I particularly like that C-minus Plan), this program appears to be designed to catch students who are falling behind academically and give them “intensive” forms of attention. Don’t look for any reflection on the definition of “successful” or its susceptibility to measurement. Don’t look for any concern over the need for buy-in by parents and teachers. Don’t look for any limits to the faith in our state bureaucracy to know what’s best for everyone. Don’t look for any inquiry into just how this intervention and monitoring might affect the kids’ long-term attitudes toward school and toward learning, or any recognition that few of us welcome “intensive interventions” into our own lives. There is a citation to a study, after all, which certainly proves that imposing this program uniformly on teachers in every school in every district is better for children than allowing individual districts to make their own decisions about how to help struggling students, and better than allowing teachers to use their experience, judgment, and wisdom instead of applying a centrally-dictated, “concentrated and prescriptive” (i.e., idiot-proofed) “System” to whatever challenges come their way.

Yet the use of “data” in this way is widely accepted and practiced on all sides of the educational debate.

We have seriously lost our way.


Karen W said...


When program results aren't as good as expected or promised, watch for a quick allegation that it wasn't "implemented with fidelity" rather than thoughtful reflection about whether the fault lies with the program itself. [Either too complicated to implement with fidelity or really just can't or don't work as promised no matter how faithfully implemented.]

Mandy said...

Have you seen the cheat sheet the Department of Ed has posted? Even though thus far they have granted every waiver request, the round two and three applicants can learn exactly how to polish up their request.

Karen W said...

Chris--Have you seen Republic of Noise by Diana Senechal? Just came across this in Chapter 5 The Workshop Model in New York City:

"Why would anyone consider the workshop model efficient? Officials believed that it epitomized cooperative learning, which supposedly had been proved superior to other modes of instruction. In education policy, the lethal phrase "research has shown" tends to put an end to discussion, unless people are wise to it. In this case, the research is incomplete. There have been numerous studies of cooperative learning, beginning in the 1970s, but very little analysis of the premises underlying such studies. Whenever one considers the effect of a particular model on achievement, one should ask, "achievement of what?" Achievement in the abstract means nothing. Unless one considers what education should entail, one cannot assess the virtues of cooperative learning or any other model."

I am enjoying the book so far and meant to think about blogging it, but couldn't resist posting this bit here.

Doris said...

Great post. Last fall, I think it was, I ran across a paper about PBIS (posted online) that had been delivered at an academic confeence by a graduate student in an education program. My memory is a little blurry now, but I recall that a key issue the student was exploring was how supporters of PBIS continually cited the work of an extremely small number of scholars (3 or so) to back up their claims that PBIS is "evidence based." If I can find the link to that paper I'll post it.

Yes, by the way, what is the deal with Blogger? I must be a robot because I can barely decipher the code words I'm supposed to type!

Chris said...

I think this might be the paper you are referring to (see page 7 in particular).

Doris said...

Yes, thanks. That was the paper I had in mind--from a disability studies conference rather than an education conference.

Jen Marshall Duncan said...

Response to Intervention is required by federal law as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. If Iowa hasn't been implementing it properly then they have to figure out how to fix it or risk losing federal dollars for education. Two weeks ago I read that Director Glass and Gov. Branstad were considering opting out of NCLB--which would mean that they give up federal education funds. If that happens, we no longer have to worry about federally mandated testing or using RTI to seearch for kids who might need special education services (though I think we'd still be stuck with some testing; and we most definitely would still need to have a method of identifying kids who would benefit from SpEd services. We'd just need to do it all with Iowa money.)

Doris said...

I ran across the following quotation while googling the word "intervention."

"Mutual repect implies discretion and reserve even in love itself; it means preserving as much liberty as possible to those whose life we share. We must distrust our instinct of intervention, for the desire to make one's own will prevail is often disguised under the mask of solicitude."

-Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Chris said...

Deb -- I'm all in favor of exploring the possibility of opting out of No Child Left Behind, but only if we'd be opting into something much better, and given the governor's education proposals so far, I have no faith that he'd be proposing something better. The best reasons to opt out would be to reject standardized-test-driven education and to give meaningful control of educational policy to local communities -- and this governor (and for that matter, this legislature) has shown no interest in those ideas.

Chris said...

Doris -- "We must distrust our instinct for intervention": I couldn't agree more. In education today, the question is always how to intervene, and never whether to. That applies to the way we treat the kids, and the way we treat the teachers, and the way the state treats the local school boards, and the way the federal government treats the states. The mere fact of having power over other people is apparently always a sufficient reason for using it.

I wish people would at least consider whether allowing people (kids, teachers, communities) some individual autonomy might sometimes lead to a better world than making "one's own will prevail" does.

A few other (somewhat harsher and less nuanced) quotes along those lines:

“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it.” — H.L. Mencken

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” — C.S. Lewis

“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” — Louis D. Brandeis

“Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order. Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.” — Denis Diderot