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Thompson: To Improve Poor Schools, Ban Disney Movies

The key anecdote in Nick Chiles's Full Court Press for Mississippi Third Graders in Summer School Has Disappointing Results, also provides a great metaphor for why test-driven, accountability-driven reform continues to fail. Chiles, writing for the Hechinger Report, describes the Mississippi 3rd grade retention law, and how one school tried to use a four-week summer school remediation program to get struggling students back on track.

Frankie Blackmon, the director of federal programs, was conducting a site visit on the eve of the High Stakes Test that would determine whether remediated students could be promoted to the 4th grade. While checking whether students were being properly primed for the big test, she saw children watching a Disney movie. Blackmon “stopped cold,” and asked, “what’s going on here?”

The value of an end-of-the-session fun day should have been obvious, but it also turned out that the school had a good explanation. The video was embedded in their lesson plan. More importantly, it makes sense to relieve the anxiety of students as they approached such a test. Even so, “Blackmon [later] explained, her brow furrowed, ‘But this was the last day. We don’t have any time to waste. Every minute should be instructional in some way. There’s not going to be a movie shown on the test.’”

And that illustrates a key problem with test-driven reform. Its advocates were in too much of a hurry to study the complexity of interconnected education problems, to understand why their band aids, such as summer school remediation are inherently inadequate, and to think through comprehensive solutions.

As one teacher added, “Nothing is impossible, but being realistic about it, it’s almost at the point where there’s no help for them in just four weeks.” Improving the reading skills of 3rd graders is extremely important, but the teacher said, “They didn’t get it in kindergarten, in first, second or third grade. You can’t give to them in four weeks what they haven’t gotten in four years.”

Intimidating educators and students with a rushed high-stakes remediation effort may make reformers feel better about their dedication to the cause, but how will it benefit kids? Will it help them enjoy school more? Or, will it reinforce the problems that these poor children face?

The answers to those questions are implied by the way that the program dealt with distracting behavior and in a teacher's reflections on summer school. The program's coach made visits to the homes of disruptive 3rd graders and he warned teachers to tell parents that students who continued to misbehave might be removed from summer school. Such visits are a good start, but we should remember the teacher's take on the issue:

I don’t want to be negative, and I’m trying not to be, but I think most of them here act out because they are frustrated. “This is their way to say, “I’m fed up with this.” They’re being defiant because they’re saying, “I can’t get it; I’m struggling.”

In other words, if we want to get struggling students back on track, we need to tackle the intertwined challenges in a holistic manner - that respects students - and not depend on remediation shortcuts and seeing fun days as the problem, not part of the solution.- JT (@drjohnthompson)


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