June 5, 2006

The politics of incrementalism

In the last few hours, I've been thinking quite a bit about the political viability of incrementalism in school reform. Tyack and Cuban argued for it in Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), and while that's still very popular, their argument didn't win the day in school reform. The AYP requirements of No Child Left Behind look incremental, until you think about the 100%-proficiency deadline of 2014. Proponents of NCLB certainly haven't touted it as incremental, either.

Could incrementalism survive the political cauldron of education politics and the organizational cauldron of school systems?


Let's consider both the incrementalism of summative evaluation, such as what Robert Linn has proposed, and also the incrementalism of formative evaluation, such as progress monitoring (formerly known as curriculum-based measurement). Linn proposed that targets for student achievement have a foundation in what real schools were achieving rather than figures pulled out of a hat (to use the gentler analogy). Those who work on progress monitoring, such as Stan Deno (who wrote the germinal article in the 1980s), argue that long-term outcomes for students with disabilities are dramatically improved if teachers make inductive decisions based on trends from frequent assessment. This is all based in solid research and the observations of many gray eminences.

And yet I worry about the political or organizational viability, for two reasons.

  1. Incrementalism is not part of most adults' mental images of a real school (to borrow from Mary Heywood Metz) or the grammar of schooling (from Tyack and Cuban), all of which are deeply impressed instead with abstract notions of absolute standards (schools give grades, and 90% is an A, even if we don't know what the scale referent is).
  2. School systems are now deeply enmeshed in behavior that is summative and non-incremental in nature and that takes gaming the system (or test-prep) as a legitimate response to virtually any policy.
The mental images of school

I've been struggling with a counter-image or contrary meme to schooling is grading. I am less concerned in this context with the utility of grading than with its suffocating alternative concepts of evaluation. I think I have a tentative idea for Linn's summative incrementalism: what we're really trying to do in education reform is boost the average knowledge of this generation of children above what the average knowledge of their parents are, and this will require a generation to accomplish.

But let's try on a few for size specifically for progress monitoring:

  • The stock market. Daily stock prices allow one to track the market value of a company and respond accordingly—except day trading is a foolish activity, and I'd like to keep the question of incrementalism separate from issues of competition in schooling.
  • Baseball (or other sports) training stats. This morning, my son started a summer baseball camp, and the coaches there used a radar gun to test his bat and throwing speed. By the end of the week, I'm sure he'll have improved, and that's a parallel to progress monitoring... except that the stats in baseball camp are used primarily to confirm the value of the camp and boost confidence. I'm not sure if coaches would use the trends in these stats to change strategy.
  • Weather and other environmental data. We certainly keep track of all sorts of weather data daily (and even hourly) and respond accordingly (changing one's clothing or deciding whether to take an umbrella depending on the forecast). But we don't generally assume we can shape the weather in a short-term way (and the debates about human influence on global warming have no real parallel to education reform).
  • American can-do problem-solving. There is plenty of literature on American positive attitudes, especially problem-solving ones, such as David Potter's People of Plenty (though he thought this had a serious downside). Maybe one can look at progress monitoring, and ideally a teacher's use of the data, as the educational equivalent of problem-solving... except that the techie connotations of that are a one-time problem-solving: someone sees a technical problems and quickly figures out a clever workaround. That doesn't really have a parallel with progress monitoring.
  • A right to know/forewarning. As a parent of an 8th grader, I've had a few moments in the last 2-3 years when I really wanted more information at my fingertips, as my daughter heads into the age where she no longer babbles everything that happened that day. Most of her academic teachers in middle school posted homework assignments online—something for which I was very grateful. And in the last year, most also posted grades online, and I had a similar reaction. Transparency is certainly an American value... but this doesn't quite get at the inductive response to data that's the key to progress monitoring.

As you can tell, I'm still looking for hooks for progress monitoring. More ideas are welcome!

Summative, non-incremental, and gaming behaviors

I deeply fear that test-prep and other behaviors are genies that are out of the bottle. I have heard second- or third-hand that teachers have told the Florida Center for Reading Research staff of their efforts to prep students for DIBELS by teaching lessons geared specifically for the format, that they want to use DIBELS data to retain some kindergarteners, and that some principals want to use DIBELS data to reward or punish teachers, professionally. I understand the staff was (properly) horrified by these ideas. And yet they come directly from current behaviors in schools. Formative, incremental, and inductive behavior is neither rewarded nor experienced very frequently in schools. There needs to be a way to explain the difference. Something Elizabeth said this evening suggested the following: "We're testing the instruction, not the kids." But I just don't know if it would stick.

Ideas welcome here, too!

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 5, 2006 11:51 PM |