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W&L Course Examines Effect of Public Policy in Two Richmond Schools

Proposals for education reform in the United States sometimes work in the real world of classrooms and sometimes don’t, according to Timothy Diette, assistant professor of economics at Washington and Lee University’s Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics.

So for his new spring term course, “Urban Education: Poverty, Ethnicity and Policy,” Diette sent 11 W&L students into two urban schools in Richmond, Va., to evaluate a variety of education policy proposals.

“I want them to get an appreciation for and an understanding of the challenges of taking what academics or think tanks propose as policy and applying that in the real world,” said Diette. “In many cases these proposals are designed by people like myself who have not taught in schools but we think we know the answer.”

The course had combined fieldwork with coursework. The students spent three weeks in Falling Creek Elementary and Middle Schools. “It’s not a lot of time but it’s more time than some of the academics might spend,” said Diette.

Teacher certification and a range of policies aimed at attracting quality teachers, such as paying more for particular fields or merit pay are among those the students were assessing. In addition, policies on school governance such as charter schools and school vouchers, No Child Left Behind and the idea of accountability for teachers were being examined. “Do they think that accountability for students’ progress is helpful and actually improving learning, or is it teaching a type of skill such as the ability to take standardized tests? Is that something students should be focused on?” said Diette, who said that he tried to pick what he considers both effective and ineffective policy proposals.

For example, Hillary Cooper, a sophomore English major, wrote in the course’s blog that she questions a system that emphasizes manipulation of the Standards of Learning English test over true critical thinking. “There are so many possible interpretations with the passages, that students will sometimes choose an answer that is really not wrong; it’s just that their interpretation differs from the interpretation of the test-makers,” she wrote. “In a way, that’s what English is really all about though, because people may have different interpretations of a passage, but both interpretations can be supported by the evidence in the passage. Why are we forcing students to learn what the answer of the test-makers is, rather than asking them to support their own answers?”

Diette said that students have considered whether they think such policies would work in the particular school they are studying. “We recognize that students are just seeing one take of one school, so it’s not necessarily representative of all schools,” said Diette. “But within that constraint, is this policy something that would actually help? What would be the challenges of implementing it and what do they think the buy-in would be from teachers?”

Diette acknowledged that the students came to the course with different perspectives. “I’ve encouraged them to be mindful of what they already think coming in and be open to updating that to the actual things they perceive,” he said. “They also experienced two different schools, different age groups and different individual teachers.”

Majors across the University were represented in the course, and Diette said that the majority of students have volunteered within the Rockbridge County Schools. “So they got a contrast between schools in Rockbridge County and schools in Richmond and had to think about whether the same policy would work for both a rural and urban setting, or whether some policies shouldn’t be set at a national level and should be more customized,” he said.

The students’ final project was a research paper in which they provided a potential solution, drawing on their experience within a particular Richmond school.

According to Diette, economists are the dominant players in education policy today in terms of actually evaluating policies and assessing whether they are working or not. He said that he saw the necessity for the course because of a dramatic increase in the number of students interested in public policy, working in non-profits and Teach for America. “I think this course provides an incredibly useful experience at lots of different levels in preparing them for any of those paths, as well as going into teaching,” Diette said.

The course blog can be seen at this link http://springterm.blogs.wlu.edu/classes/economics-234-urban-education-poverty-ethnicity-and-policy/

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