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The Q&A: Linda McSpadden McNeil

In this week's Q&A, we interview Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University.

Linda McSpadden McNeil, the Director of the Center for Education at Rice University and a professor of education.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject: 

Linda McSpadden McNeil is the director of the Center for Education and a professor of education at Rice University. McNeil is the author of Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing. Her current research continues her focus on educational equity, democratic schooling and the importance of the public’s schools.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What are the major issues in education that the Center for Education is tackling?

Linda McSpadden McNeil: We’ve really spent the past 25 years looking at the big persistent issues that can be a barrier to a child’s education like inequity in schools, the knowledge base of teachers and the impact of the standardized accountability system. More recently, one we hadn’t anticipated is the assault on the public school system and democratic schooling.

This accountability system has drained dollars and all kinds of resources away from schools, and has imposed a very narrow set of measures, which are actually harder to reach if all the resources are drained out of classrooms. When those test scores go down, it is being used as an excuse then to close neighborhood schools, turn them over to charter chains, draining further dollars out of the schools by the voucher system that is before the Legislature right now.

Our work has been aimed at improving the public’s schools to serve all of our children. We’ve observed that recent policies, whether it is unequal funding or standardization, have actually worked against being able to educate all our children well.

Trib+Edu: What are other issues you are watching in the Legislature? What are you expecting from lawmakers?

McNeil: Of course, we wish the Legislature was responding to the federal court ruling that our schools are inadequately and unequally funded. Unfortunately, we do not have visionary leadership in that regard at the state level right now.

Obviously, the pre-K legislation looks promising. The two other things we are watching is the huge push to privatization and shifting dollars away from the public schools off into these private ventures, which is very harmful. On the other hand, there are people putting forward bills to actually set up new models of assessment that would help break the hold of the standardized accountability system.

Some of the very dedicated legislators are actually putting forward legislation that goes in a more positive direction. There are two possibilities in front of the Legislature right now, and we certainly hope that they would adopt those that would begin to foster education, including really good ways for assessing kids in schools.

Trib+Edu: The center does not pursue small studies in its research. How is the research there different?

McNeil: We really see kids as the focus and the bottom line. What are we, the grown ups, doing to provide an equitable education for kids? And keeping the focus on them helps frame the kind of questions you ask.

There are three things that we do that we are doing a little different. One, we are always looking at the big picture, whether that is the state policies or the larger cultural context, and how they shape kids and teachers at the classroom level. Not just the macro level but the micro level as well.

We learned about the dropout problem not by looking at dropout prevention policies but by being inside schools. We see that there might be 1,000 freshmen in a high school and only 400 seniors. We are looking at the local picture to see how the big system policies play out.

To really understand what is happening to our kids, you have to step outside the official reports and measures. When dropouts were being reported at a 2.2 percent rate, that is when we were seeing some of these school losing maybe 30 or 40 percent of a class, between ninth and 12th grade. In the testing system, you see the score officially going up, but then you might find that as many as a fourth of the kids were held out of that testing cohort.

The third thing is our longevity. We have been working with schools for so many years that we have credibility, since 1988. They know from the books we’ve written, the papers we’ve written and talks we’ve given that our goal is to get really good, independent information out there so that people can use it. We are not just writing for a peer review to add to the resume. 

Our research teams have been studying the testing system, really, since it came into practice. I didn’t go into schools to study testing, but I saw teachers having to dump their really good lessons because they were told to do test prep instead.

Trib+Edu: What does long-term change look like from your perspective?

McNeil: We have been looking at these individual problems. More and more, we are looking at the convergence of these problems. If you are dramatically cutting the funding of schooling, which our Legislature did two sessions ago, just putting part of that money back, you’re really not setting up schools to serve children well.

When we think about what a positive vision would look like, first we have to say equity: of resources, quality teachers, of a really robust curriculum. We never had more to teach our kids, and we’ve never understood more about how kids learn. But the official system we have in place right now is going in the opposite direction.

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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