Monday, September 27, 2010

The Pinnacle of Journalism?

4,100 Massachusetts Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong

I think this title sucks, but what about the message?

Claim: Brockton High School has moved from being unsuccessful to successful in spite of its size, “proving” that size doesn’t matter (tee hee).  This contradicts “certain education circles” that believe small schools are a useful reform tool (to be transparent, I fall into this category…I personally find it much easier to build a positive learning community in a place where people know each other).

After reading, I think the message it also pretty lousy.  In a two page article, the following is the evidence given for how the school was previously unsuccessful: “[a decade ago] only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.”

Pretty damning.  Evidence of improvement? This is it.  All of it. “In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools.”

Don’t get me wrong.  This is an improvement worth commending.  Regardless of where you stand on the importance or measure of state assessments, it’s no small feat to make this kind of improvement. But the skeptic in me didn’t linger long in this success.  What about the dropout rates?   Here’s an interesting article from the local newspaper that appears to contradict the “one in three dropped out” fact and claim that, in fact, the drop out rate was lower in 1997-1998 than last year (about 3.5%).  I guess it is possible that both of these statements are “correct” since drop out rates are notorious for statistical meddling. 

Most of the remainder of the article talked about how these reforms were put in place which, again with the transparency thing, some of which made me cringe.  The sole example of a math lesson: “Bob Perkins, the math department chairman, used a writing lesson last week in his Introduction to Algebra II class. He wrote ‘3 + 72 - 6 x 3 – 11’ on the board, then asked students to solve the problem in their workbooks and to explain their reasoning, step by step, in simple sentences.  ‘I did the exponents first and squared the 7,’ wrote Sharon Peterson, a junior. ‘I multiplied 6 x 3. I added 3 + 49, and combined 18 and 11, because they were both negatives. I ended up with 52-29. The final answer was 23.’  Some students had more trouble, and the lesson seemed to drag a bit.”

Really?  Drag a bit?  Please shoot me now.  Oh, keeping with the theme of transparency, I should say that I think this ‘lesson’ is worse than useless from a mathematical or a writing perspective.  Alas.

“It had become dogma that smaller was better, but there was no evidence,” said Mr. Driscoll, who since 2007 has headed the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing.

Nice logic buddy.  Test scores now > test scores ten years ago imply large school = good.  Ergo, small school ≠ better.

Ack.  Apology for all the snark.


  1. hee hee. don't apologize. sometimes we need snark. like, you know, when we're up against the big media machine version of things.

  2. I think I like this sentence the most: "In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts." Coupled with the sentence "Brockton ... is the largest public school in Massachusetts" things start to sound very iffy.

    If you put the sentences together you get: "At the largest school in Massachusetts, the quantity of students who changed their grade from failing to passing was larger than at any of the other, smaller schools." All things being equal, wouldn't that be the case regardless of any reform movement?

  3. Yes, this could have been a much longer post/rant. I didn't even notice at first that the Times typesetters messed up the exponent in the expression and wrote it as 72 instead of 7 squared. But dag nabbit, test scores are up (or test scores elsewhere are down).

  4. Warning: Rant to follow.

    What stuck out for me was the "reading and writing in all subjects, including gym." This sort of thing bothers me to no end. Were the English teachers asked to incorporate physical education in their class? In math/sci the debate is usually math/sci for its own sake or for future job/economy prospects. PE (and art, music, pretty much any of the non Big 4 subjects) has to suffer through debates about whether there is any value in it at all. Yeah, we'll do PE but we're going to give you something that's actually valuable while you're running around giving the football coach a job. And you can take art, but only if it's integrated in with history. And music, but only because it's been shown to boost reading and math levels. Now I'm not arguing against interdisciplinary learning. The walls we set up to segregate subjects are mainly BS anyway. Remove the walls and the subjects will naturally weave together. Don't force it through this crap and certainly don't create some ELA/Math hegemony with the rest of the subjects tithing to the masters.


  5. Maybe this is what is meant by, "the exception that proves the rule."

  6. I feel like, with high stakes testing, all of these schools are so encouraged to cheat that you can't really trust any scores coming out of them.

    I don't see how small schools really help much unless you have one building to a school, which is certainly not the case in most urban settings, where you are typically allocated a floor of a building. I'm more of a proponent of smaller class sizes, so that the teacher can actually monitor what's going on and provide individual attention. This is not to mention the reduced stress in the teacher's life that comes along with not having to deal with 35 adolescents screaming at you.

  7. @Mike: I wouldn't go as far to say that there was cheating involved. I would go as far to say that good test scores do not necessarily mean a good school and, in my opinion, there was a lot of evidence in this article that they have a long way to go.
    I think you're right that it's more difficult for small schools to be effective when they share a building, but there are still a number of advantages and I've seen schools with completely different cultures than the one on the next floor. The significant advantage I see in the small school model is that you know all the kids. You can build positive relationships with them before you find them in the halls screwing around and have to yell "Hey! Guys! You there! The one in the blue shirt. Stop that." No one wants that to be your first interaction with a kid. That said, there are some clear disadvantages of small schools: cost is the big one and lack of extra-curricular activities is another.
    As for small classes, one difficulty I see is that if you're a teacher going from a class of 35 to a class of 20 you also need to change the way you teach. Otherwise, many of the advantages of a smaller class are lost.

  8. It's always infuriating to read media coverage about education. I think it virtually never doesn't drive me crazy. Be that as it may, one good thing about the article:

    It made explicit mention of the fact that a school made significant changes that have energized the faculty with a sense of common purpose and improved the school's outcomes, without a major change in personnel. Nobody acts like this is even possible anymore.

  9. Check out the letters to the editor responding to the article. I for one am pretty psyched that during the first two weeks of the release of Waiting for Superman, this kind of talk is part of the conversation.

  10. These are good letters that really highlight the positives from this article. Clearly things have changed for the better. I still don't believe, though, that the underlying premise of the school being "much improved" holds water. I remain concerned that none of the letters addressed (or at least none of the published letters addressed) the fact that an exemplar math lesson focused on sixth grade content being done in an Algebra II class. More importantly, though, I believe the subject of mathematics is being misconstrued. The whole point of using abstract symbols to represent an expression is to
    1. avoid the tediousness of writing this all out in words
    2. make it easier to manipulate
    I MIGHT, in some cases, see how the process of writing out your work could be helpful for students to check their work and/or understand these procedures on a deeper level but I'd bet you a quarter that almost every student who was asked to do this would do the problem using symbols and then write out the English version because that's what they're supposed to do, not because it is helpful in any way. Finally, I am very skeptical of the assumption that this "writing" in math class makes students better writers.