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Speaker Series: Professor Rossell

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

 March's Speaker Series brought Professor Christine Rossell to BU Roosevelt's Tuesday event in CAS 323A.  Professor Rossell, aside from being BU Roosevelt's faculty advisor, is a professor of political science in the College of Arts in Sciences.  She specializes in public policy, education policy, bilingual education, and school desegregation.

Professor Rossell's lecture was entitled, "Why Government Cannot Fix Our Schools' Academic Achievement."

Professor Rossell started out by noting that politicians, Arne Duncan and President Obama included, are confused about education.  They claim that schools are failing and are in need of being fixed.  However, this presumption is based on misleading evidence. 

The misleading evidence?  National achievement trends not increasing over time, international comparisons of achievement between the US and other countries, and the inability of educators to improve achievement in poor schools and districts.  The politically correct conclusion, Rossell argues, is that schools are failing.

National achievement shows no long-term improvement.  This evidence is based on confusion about test scores and what they mean.  Test scores are rank-ordered.  Mathematically, only 10% can be placed at the 90th percentile (half of the nation will be at the grade level of 50% and half will be below).  Norm-referenced tests (the SAT) and criterion-referenced tests (state achievement tests) are essentially the same, correlated to .8.  On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the press reports that only 4% score at the advanced level, evidence that schools are failing.  Rossell notes that, the NAEP was designed so that only 4-5% would score at the proficient level.  What happens when achievement on tests increases?  The test makers renorm the tests, as they did for the Massachusetts achievement test (MCAS) when too many high schoolers were passing on the first try.  Rossell concludes, there has been no long-term improvement in test scores because test makers make sure this does not happen!

International comparisons, US does bad.  Rossell argues that you cannot compare international tests.  Difference in countries on who takes the test, curriculum, tests in different languages are psychometrically different, time on task varies, grade structure varies, metric system usage, and rank ordering on tests.  International tests, Rossell notes, has nothing to do with productivity.

Inability of school to convert additional resources to achievement in poor schools.  Schools can only explain 20% of the variation in test scores.  Students spend only 9% of their waking hours in school.  There are strong effects of family, environment, and genes on test scores.  For a policy, a large amount of funds would be needed in order to increase the test scores of the poor.

Rossell concludes, we have the schools we want but we do not know it.  Schools are sorting machines, sorting students for the workplace.  Everyone does not need to be smart in the academic sense; not everyone needs to go to college.  Rossell argues that our society does not need any more intellectuals, but we need people who are willing to work hard, be good citizens, and do essential jobs.

Rossell advocates for educational policies that provide support to poor families and children in order to not increase achievement but to decrease crime, child abuse, and grade retention.  Her policy includes subsidized childcare at birth, universal preschool at age two, extended day in school, and twenty-four hour child care.

Rossell's lecture was certainly provocative and entertaining.  BU Roosevelt will be holding a debrief along with a discussion on new educational policy initiatives (Race to the Top, Obama's reforms to NCLB) next Tuesday at 7pm.

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