The second doable objective to improve the schooling of poor children, in particular, is to get mastery learning implemented in all elementary and middle schools. The idea of mastery learning is simple and proven to work: to learn skills, break them down into steps, and regularly monitor progress to see whether students have mastered the basic skills before going on to more advanced ones. When a student has difficulties, then give him or her added help until mastery level is reached; then the student moves on to the next higher level of the skill.
The late Albert Mamary succeeded in implementing mastery learning in his school district in Johnson City, New York, in a relatively poor district near Bingham. He got the poor students to perform on the level of those in wealthy suburban schools, and his model was validated as effective, twice, by the U.S. Department of Education.
Mastery learning involves a lot of testing to monitor students’ advancement, but the tests are of a radically different kind than those used in the past decade’s school reform. They are formative, or diagnostic tests, relative to specific criteria of mastery, which the student has or hasn’t achieved so far. And they are used to determine what help and instruction the student is given next. The tests used in NCLB and RTTT are normative in that there are levels of achievement, and students and teachers are punished for failing to achieve the prescribed level.
When I visited Dr. Mamary’s school twenty years ago (my report on it is in Education Week, March 24, 1993), he said to me, “You can threaten and punish people into doing a lot of things, but learning is not one of them.” The punitive approach of current school reform is the most misguided and dysfunctional aspect of it. If punitive approaches worked to educate children, I would be all for them. The reality, though, is that they are a double disaster: 1. they suffer from a strategic disconnect, a disconnect between ends and means; and 2. they are very poor motivators compared with to positive goals that students believe are important to their lives.
The strategic design behind NCLB is to fire bad teachers and close bad schools, with the idea that this will magically improve the situation. The obvious question is, what are you going to replace those bad teachers and schools with? Have you changed the pool of those who want to teach for the better? Have you improved teacher training. Do you know what schools will be more effective, and make sure the new schools are that kind of school? In all cases there is not answer, no connection of the action to the underlying problem of poor children not succeeding academically.
The concept was that somehow by replacing “failing schools” with charter schools the magic of the free market would transform education for the better. Well, magic is not a strategy, and with the government paying and choosing whom to grant charters, it’s far from the ideal “competitive market” that is theorized to do the magic. It is open to all the kind of corrupting influence that conservatives have argued hurts government, and without immediate public oversight. In any event, the charter solution is not actually working—the charter schools have not proved, on average to be any better. After ten years, there is no ‘transformation.’ To improve schools, there is no substitute to changing what is actually going within them, and changing it for the better.
In addition to the disconnect between ends (helping poor students) and means (closing failing schools and replacing them with charters), in fact punitive approaches are counterproductive as motivation for either students or teachers. The research of psychologist Edward Deci has shown that by far the most powerful motivation for sustained efforts are goals that people have chosen for themselves, and are meaningful in their lives. For students, these goals are connected to what kind of person the student wants to be when he or she grows up. When a child is threatened with failure, particularly without adding a clear method of meeting the threat, it creates anxiety and even desperation, which are counterproductive for any person trying to carry out a complex task like learning—or teaching.
The negative impact of threats is has recently been made clear especially in the case of principals and teachers. The recent Frontline show “The Education of Michelle Rhee” reports that when Rhee entered the DC schools as superintendent she made a list of the schools are doing better and worse on standardized exams. And she explicitly threatened those principals whose schools had been doing worst with firing unless their school improved by the end of the year. There was no analysis of the challenge faced by those particular schools, and a plan tailored to meet it. The idea seemed to be that being tough and punitive is what will make schools better, and the implication was that this punitive approach should cascade down: principals should threaten fire teachers if they didn’t measure up, and teachers should threaten to fail children if they didn’t pass exams. What happened, among other things, was the false raising of test scores through cheating.