Thursday, July 14, 2016

My disappointment with the amended Democratic platform: "group mentoring" instead of class size reduction?

There has been much discussion of the recent amendments made to the Democratic platform.  See the video below of delegates including Pennsylvania attorney Chuck Pascal , Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, and others proposing and approving changes to the original, highly flawed document

Clearly there have been substantial improvements, pointing out the destructive impact of high-stakes testing, particularly on students of color and the schools they attend, proposing that parents have the right to opt out testing, and describing  the destabilizing influence from the unchecked rapid expansion of charters.  See Valerie Strauss on the amendments, as well as a transcript of the discussion that occurred here.  

Some of the language seems to have been influenced by the petition to the Democratic Party posted by the Network for Public Education Action.  (Full disclosure:  I'm on the board of NPE.)  Corporate reformers including  Peter Cunningham, former press secretary to Arne Duncan,  and Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform expressed predictable outrage.

At the same time, public school teachers and bloggers like Peter Greene pointed out that the platform only opposes for-profit charters, even as the distinction between for-profit and non-profit charters is often hazy, as non-profits can contract with for-profit operations to run their schools.  See also this excellent Pro Publica report for more on this issue.

And although the amended platform specifically calls for charter schools to be obligated to "reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools" this has been the law in New York since 2010 -- without any real attempt to enforce it.

Democrats on Charters and Testing from Schoolhouse Live on Vimeo.

There are other  aspects of the platform that I find disappointing still. It contains a proposal to fund group mentoring, which is described as a "low-cost, high-yield investment that offers the benefit of building a supportive network of peers who push one another towards success….".

I have checked the research on group mentoring, which is thin indeed.   One report looked at the benefits of group or peer mentoring, published in 2002.  The concept is described as following: "volunteers who interact regularly with small groups of youth can fulfill the role of a mentor —to be a trusted counselor or guide—by developing a number of successful and productive relationships simultaneously. In this way, these programs can provide mentors to large numbers of youth without depleting scarce volunteer resources." 

The study looked at three small programs, in LA, Erie County NY and Kansas City, and found that from self-reports, participants spoke of improvements in social skills, relationships with individuals outside of the group and to a lesser extent academic performance and attitudes.  Yet there were no controls or attempt to quantify improvements. The study concluded that "Perhaps the most important issue to explore is whether these youth- and mentor-reported benefits  translate into observable effects. ...outcome studies need to be conducted before we can conclude that group mentoring programs are, in fact, effective."  

A meta-analysis of several group mentoring programs showed mixed results; one large scale controlled study in 2009 found that mentoring did not lead to statistically significant impacts in any way  --so much so that the Department of Education proposed eliminating funding for mentoring from the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2010.

This is not to say that group mentoring is not a model worth pursuing.  But for the platform to focus on this specifically as a "low-cost, high-yield investment" when the evidence base is so weak is unfortunate.  Yes, group mentoring is comparatively cheap, but the "yield" is uncertain at best.

Compare this to how class size reduction was completely omitted in the platform- one of the few proven reforms shown to narrow the achievement/opportunity gap, and to improve student outcomes in a whole host of ways, including boosting achievement, morale, graduation rates, non-cognitive skills, and lowering the number of disciplinary problems.  Moreover, lowering class size has been estimated at producing economic benefits twice the cost, and is strongly supported by parents and working teachers.  See the Class Size Matters research page or this new fact sheet from the National Education Policy Center for evidence.  Why was it neglected in the platform? 

1 comment:

Bronx ATR said...

Leonie, you're correct. The closer you read this, the more oblique it becomes. This document is like a magician's trick - smoke screen and illusion. It's meant to get the disenchanted and disenfranchised parents and teachers on board Hillary's bandwagon. It puts Randi in a positive light and hopefully will get those Bernie holdouts pacified.