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On Small Schools And Teaching Critical Thinking

Critical thinking — “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” — is embraced by education reformers as key to fixing our schools. Having learned that simply graduating from high school does not ensure success, city officials now hope that by implementing the Common Core standards our students will gain this fundamental skill, and their college readiness will soar.

I’m one of those New Yorkers lucky enough to send his kids to solid public schools with involved parents and committed teachers. A recent social studies test given at one of my kid’s schools shows how hard it is to teach critical thinking when we adults struggle to model it ourselves.

Having studied early colonization in America for about two months, my middle school child came home with a “study sheet” for an upcoming test. The questions and the “right” answers, all bullet points, were listed. “All I have to do is memorize this,” my child explained.

Many of the bullet points were simplifications that required little complex thinking. According to the time and place rule, for example, “the closer a source is to the time and location of an event, the more reliable it is.” I asked my child about sources being biased and learned that the students had also been told to memorize the bias rule: “All sources contain bias.”

“Don’t you want to show your understanding by giving a few examples?” I asked. Despite a tepid initial response, we did eventually discover that my kid had learned a little bit of the background behind the bullet points and was prepared to write about it.

That Monday night I asked how the test went: “All we had to do was write in the bullet points. There was no space for examples.”

This admittedly simplified example of the divide between our aspirations and our practices is seen more broadly in Mayor Bloomberg’s recent State of the City address. Among the reforms he highlighted was the opening of hundreds of new schools, and the closing of large “comprehensive” high schools.

But are these new schools an improvement over the ones they replaced? It isn’t clear. How do we know this? By examining the available data and thinking critically about it.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a prime mover behind the small schools movement, putting close to $2 billion into small schools in New York and elsewhere. But as they looked at the data, Gates grew so uncertain of the schools’ impact that it stopped funding the project in 2008. They concluded it was not the school’s size that mattered, but the quality of instruction and other factors.

After the foundation’s decision, New York continued to open small schools. A 2010 study that I wrote about offered scant evidence that their graduates were better prepared for college. The percentage of students earning a Regents Diploma was only marginally improved. English language learners and special education students were not admitted to these schools during their first two years, which likely boosted these results. Despite the anemic results, advocates crowed about the impact of this initiative.

Now a followup analysis with more data showed that nearly 42 percent of small school graduates earn a Regents Diploma, against 35 percent of students who wanted to, but were not able to, attend a small school. Small schools graduates did better on the English Regents exam, but not on the math test.

If small schools can maintain this progress over several years, and include English language learners and other harder-to-serve kids, it suggests they may be part of a solution. But they have hardly “transformed” the future for our neediest children.

Education reform is hard work. Not every good idea works out in practice, as Roland Fryer’s plan to reward kids for good grades showed. Researchers know you can learn as much from failure as success, but you have to be able to think critically about the data, not just regurgitate memorized bullet points.

In “Someone Has to Fail,” Stanford education professor David Labaree points out that from its inception education reform has asked our schools to do for our kids what our politicians (and we as a society) refuse to do. I’d love to think that the Common Core standards will lead to increases in critical thinking, but as the old saying goes, “the fish stinks from the head first.” As long as policy-makers don’t bother to check if the facts support their beliefs, I fear my children will continue bringing home bullet points to memorize in place of real learning.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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