The Challenge, One Last Time

This week Jay Mathews once again unleashed on the world his annual ranking of the “top 9 percent” of American high schools in a list he calls the “challenge” index.

And once again I’ve been thinking of how to write about this far too high profile and extremely trivial approach to discussing school quality without repeating myself.

Looking over my past posts on the subject (really? that many?), I got nothin’ new.

Mathews thinks he has something novel by adding a “sampling of private schools as a way to compare private to public schools”, but, other than complaining about private schools hiding data from him, nothing about this tired exercise has changed.

His index is still based on computing a simplistic ratio of the number of AP and other college level tests taken at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. Just ignore the number of students who actually pass those tests or any other factor of school quality you care to name.

In this week of challenge overload on his blog, Mathews also grumbles about similar competing “best high schools” lists published this month in Newsweek (former home of his index) and US News and World Report (are they still publishing on paper?), while still taking some credit for both.  But it doesn’t sound as either of the alternatives is any more substantive.

Ok, I’ve already given Mathews too many links concerning his overly-hyped ranking, both in this post and all the others.

I’m done.

Making Educational Widgets

In a new piece of crap from the op-ed section of today’s Post, Bill Gates says he is on the case of improving teachers.

Our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement. Research teams are analyzing videos of more than 13,000 lessons – focusing on classes that showed big student gains so it can be understood how the teachers did it.

Ok, so far. Although that phrase “showed big student gains” is suspect since we know those “gains” are on standardized test scores that may or may not equate to actual learning.

But it’s one line early in the piece that bothers me more than any other, one that clearly shows his lack of understanding when it comes to teaching and learning.

We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.

Of course that’s true.

However, Gates can’t just throw in a qualifier excluding all variables not “under a school’s control” near the beginning of his sermon and expect have any credibility left at the end.  Certainly teachers are a very important part of the learning process in school.

But there are few teachers, great or otherwise, who have the skills to overcome the poverty that exists in many inner cities and rural areas of this country by themselves, not to mention ameliorating the many other negative factors that seep into the classroom from the outside world.

No teacher, no matter how documentary-worthy, succeeds without extensive support from parents, their colleagues, and administration, and an appropriate curriculum and materials. Plus a society that provides the necessary basic support for families and children.

Anyone who has worked with kids for even a short period of time will tell you that teaching is a complex process, one that pulls together those factors and many others.

On the other hand, Gates and the many other businessmen and politicians who have been ceded leadership positions in the reform debate, assume that education is no different from creating and marketing widgets. A process that can be broken down into discrete and independent factors based on careful research, each of which can be tightly controlled.

Teaching never worked that way and never will.