Friday, December 18, 2009

Adults and Kids

In the world of education reform, there's a certain stigma attached to advocating for "adult issues" rather than "children's issues." Usually that's in the context of saying how unions are ruining education. However, I do have to say that there may be a case made for looking at the adult issues from time to time given that they inevitably affect the children.

In Arizona, they just received a score of D+ in the area of teacher retention from the National Council on Teacher Quality. An article in the Arizona Republic goes through a lot of the reasons that teachers leave and you know what? They're all adult issues. Assuming that we think kids should have high-quality teachers who are experienced in the classroom, it seems like we should be looking at some of those adult issues and seeing how we can improve them.

The UFT used to say that teachers want what kids need. Maybe and maybe not. But kids certainly do need good teachers. And if we want good teachers, we need, at least occasionally, to look at the adult issues and take them seriously. It's not an either/or proposition. It's about finding ways to do both.

Speaking of Arizona, I'm heading out there for the next few weeks and will be away from the blog. So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and see you in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lucky Guy

I never thought I would write that I think the press has gone kind of easy on Governor Paterson. Keep in mind that for about the last year there have been a steady stream of stories essentially saying that he's a lame duck and that Andrew Cuomo is so much better than he is and how the White House hates him and New Yorkers hate him and even people who've never heard of him think that someone else would be a better governor. He hasn't helped his own cause very much, but I can see how it would foster a tough environment in which to govern during difficult times.

But he seems to have caught a break. At least for now.

In his continuing efforts to cut back on spending in the state and close an ever-growing budget deficit, Paterson has announced that, among other things, he's withholding payments to school districts across the state. The New York Times headline read: School Districts Scramble After Albay Delays Aid. That's two breaks in one headline. The first is that the delay was attributed to "Albany" instead of "Paterson the terrible governor who's going to get beat by Andrew Cuomo if he insists on staying in the race." Admittedly, Albany is shorter than all that, so maybe that was the deciding factor.

The other break is a little subtler and is, in fact, repeated in the story itself. That's the use of the word "Aid" instead of, say, "funding". Now that's an interesting distinction that makes the withholding more palatable. Keeping school funding out of the hands of schools sure seems like a pretty cold-hearted move. But if it's just aid, well, maybe it's not so bad. It'll just be a little less help.

I suppose I'm not well-versed enough in the subtleties of New York State's various fiscal policies to say for sure what qualifies for aid versus what is considered outright funding, but it seems like Paterson might have caught a symantic break here, even if it is just a little one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Toys

It's the end of the year and that means two things for newspapers and magazines: lots of retrospective looks back at the best and worst of the year and lots of crystal ball gazing as to what the new year will bring. Even though schools operate on an offset schedule, it doesn't stop the educational journalists from indulging. I mean, who wants to feel left out?

Anyway, the experts at THE Journal have put together their predictions for what 2010 will hold in terms of classroom technology. The predictions are: more e-books, more netbooks, more interactive whiteboards, more personal devices (i.e. smart phones) in the classroom, and more individualizd instruction through technology. Presumably there will be less of some things also, but they don't make the article.

It's interesting, because to a large extent it's probably right. As the new technology is released and then becomes mainstream, teachers are looking to find ways to use it. It's seen as a high interest way to hook kids into the curriculum. While teaching about the Greek-Persian wars, I had my students create blogs and write about what was happening. The kids loved it.

The catch, though, is that I don't know that they really learned anything extra about Greece by writing what they knew on a blog rather than a regular old paper. Maybe they learned some technology skills. Maybe they were more motivated and so put in more effort and thus learned a little more. But essentially it was the same content in a new medium.

Whenever I read about a teacher incorporating Twitter into a lesson or something like that, I can't help but wonder if it isn't being used just as a gimmick. Is it boosting learning or just changing the packaging? Right now we seem to be doing a lot of repackaging. But I think that's probably the first step toward changing something more fundamental.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reading Makes You Smarter

Everyone knows that reading makes you smarter, so it would seem to be a waste to devote an entire post (even a short one) to that proposition. But sometimes science comes up with something pretty cool and so we have to risk diverging into the annals of the obvious to make a point.

According to NPR, research just published in the journal Neuron indicates that reading more literally builds up your brain. We're not talking about a metaphorical you're smarter so your brain is stronger, we're talking about actual observable differences in the brains of people who read more. Specifically, reading seems to build up white matter, which (as near as I can tell) are like the highways that connect the different parts of your brain. By making all of those connections stronger, you're allowing your brain to process and synthesize greater amounts of information and build stronger connections.

How cool is this?

The more reading you do, the stronger those white matter connections become. They even took a group of poor readers and put them in an intensive remedial program where they found that white matter built up at the same rates as reading level - those who improved the most in reading also added the most white matter. In addition to all that content that they brought into their brains (which is, of course, another benefit of reading), they also literally made themselves smarter in a general and objective sense.

I don't have any policy recommendation or anything as a result of this other than that we should encourage everyone to read (a novel idea, I know). I just think this stuff is really interesting. And I'm going to go do some reading now.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Predictable Predictions

There's nothing the press loves so much as a dramatic story about a school rising from the ashes of failure and achieving great (or at least less substandard) things for their children. So it's no surprise that the L.A. Times profiles another school in that series. What I like to see, though, is the ways in which the schools are able to turn themselves around. Turns out that it doesn't always require a school being closed, the staff being fired, and a no-excuses charter opening in its place. Sometimes it just takes some extra time.

De Anza Elementary School in Los Angeles has made the turnaround by extending their day. Now, nearly half of their students spend time at school after school to receive extra help and academic enrichment. Families are brought into the school. It's not quite a community school, but it seems like a close cousin of the concept. And it works.

It's always nice when the things that seem like they ought to work actually do. I mean, you extend the time kids are supervised in an academic setting, you give them more one-on-one attention, you draw families into the process and good things happen. Seems pretty predictable, so it's good that the predictions are correct.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Math and Teaching

File this one in the counterintuitive column. According to an article in Education Week, elementary and middle school math performance isn't really benefitted by having a teacher who majored in math. The study being reported on found that prior math experience (undergraduate major, previous career in something like accounting, etc.) didn't have much impact on the younger grades. By the time high school starts, though, the connection grows stronger.

I say that it's counterintuitive, but that's not exactly the case. As anyone who's ever been into a classroom knows, there's a lot more to teaching than knowing the content. Knowing the causes for the Civil War doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to convey them well to a classroom full of hormonal teenagers. You also have to know how to teach.

That's the punch line in the whole push for "highly qualified teachers." In reality, the push is not toward highly qualified teachers, but rather toward people who are highly qualified in their field and who will become teachers. I'm not saying that's a bad thing in any way. However, we shouldn't confuse highly qualified mathematicians for high qualified math teachers. It may or may not help, but it's not enough on its own.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm a Believer

Have I mentioned before how much I love the community school idea? I mean, what a great way to tie together so many of the different threads that need to be in place for children of poverty to succeed. Not least of those being helping to address the problems that the adults may be facing.

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (about a community school in Boston, oddly), included the line, "as a result of helping parents, schools can relieve children of some of the non-academic baggage that's making it hard for them to learn." Spot on. Help the whole child and the whole family and you're going to see results for the kids. It just makes sense.

The article is actually a pretty good one. It does a good job explaining the rationale for community schools, the work that goes into operating one, and the results that can be derived from doing so. It's not that long either, so you can read it even if you're in a rush.

The bottom line is that community schools take a ton of work from creative, driven people in order to function. It takes looking beyond the traditional role of a school and seeking to embody more. But, really, isn't that what we need right now? We know where the traditional model has gotten us, both for better or worse. Especially for schools in poor areas, we need anything that will add more to the better column.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What's the Problem?

Race, class, and school admissions. If that isn't the set-up for a fraught conversation, I don't know what is. I mention it because that's exactly what's going on in Chicago. A 2007 Supreme Court decision prevented the use of race in determining school decisions. That caused problems for the system in trying to comply wth a desegregation order. So, rather than use race as the determining criterion, CPS is looking at census tracts, neighborhood income levels, and other socio-economic indicators as the determinative factors. The goal being that by looking at these issues, the system will be able to reap a "racial dividend" and achieve essentially the same result.

Frankly, all of this makes sense to me. However, some of Chicago's alderman have other ideas and are calling the new system unjust and a way to get white students into selective schools. They may have a point given that the new methods seem to be somewhat less than ideal. For instance, the article reports that "some students will be competing against kids whose families make at least 10 times more than theirs do." So obviously the system needs some tinkering.

Assuming that things were working well, though, I think that this makes a whole lot of sense. I've always been a strong believer in the maxim that your solutions should address your problems. Otherwise, what's the point? So is the problem race or is the problem socio-economic disparities. Obviously, the two are pretty firmly linked in this country so it's a little tough to separate them out. However, since I have a hard time believing that different races automatically have different levels of academic achievement, I'm inclined to favor socio-economic factors. If that's the problem, then that's what our solutions should be targeting. Chicago seems to have started down that road, but they've got a ways to go still.

On an unrelated note, the Los Angeles Times just ran an editorial saying that while charters have a lot of promise, "they're no magic bullet." Couldn't agree more. Could we be seeing the beginning of a shift on popular perception of the schools? Obviously one editorial doesn't make a trend, but it's a start.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Different Track

Louisiana schools have been garnering some controversy for their plan to introduce a "career diploma" for students who aren't likely to be attending college after high school. As I understand it, the first two years of high school would be pretty much the same for everyone. After that, there's a split. Those on the college track would be moving through more advanced courses in the basic core subjects. Those on the career track would be taking more electives that would prepare them for future careers, presumably in manual trades.

I think the controversy is pretty well summed up in these two quotes. An opponent says:

“This policy creates a path to lowered expectations and diminished opportunities for some students, and we know from experience in other states that ‘some’ often means low-income students, and students of color.”

In contrast, a supporter of the new track says:

“How much lower is your standard for that student that you push out and put on the street? You tell me how we’re lowering it any lower than that.”

And that's pretty much the crux of the argument. Are the standards being lowered for kids who could succeed if they were just pushed a supported a little more or is this providing a meaningful alternative for kids who will otherwise get little meaning out of their "education"?

Of course, this all comes down to how well it's executed. That's always the case. Provided that it is done well and used appropriately, I don't see anything wrong with letting kids who want to be electricians or auto mechanics or any of those trades start preparing for their careers rather than force them into classes that don't mean anything to them. This plan is absolutely compatible with a viewe of education that is about preparing kids to succeed in the world. However, if this career track is a mere dumping ground, then it's a big problem.

So much depends on execution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I was going to write a post about the various things (educational and otherwise) that I'm thankful for this year. But rather than indulge my maudlin impulses, let me just wish you a happy Thanksgiving. See you again on Monday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Race to the Bottom Line?

On the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio already (pretty hilariously) portrayed the Race to the Top guidelines as a teacher finding kids ready to line up - “Oh, I like the way California is linking teachers and test scores! You too, Indiana and Wisconsin! What an excellent job you’re doing! Uh-oh, Nevada is definitely not ready!" A recent article on Slate does a comparable (though less entertaining) take on the subject by raising two questions that should be on the minds of every teacher who's ever tried to incentivize/bribe a class to do something. Namely, what happens to the ones who don't win and why will good things continue to happen after the reward has been withdrawn? Excellent questions, both.

The point of the article is not that Race to the Top is totally flawed and not worth doing - at least that's not how I read it. Rather, it's a call for looking at the next steps. If we reward the states that are already doing well, then what do we do for the states that most need the help because they are struggling? And what do we do to continue to incentivize those states that initially win money but are now presumably supposed to continue on with their very expensive reforms.

(Just for the sake of the argument here, let's assume that all of the Race to the Top guidelines are perfect and what every state should be doing. I don't know if I totally agree with that, but let's say so for the argument.)

In other words, the way it is structured now, the Race to the Top will initiate a burst of reform from a section of the country, but will likely not be sustained or imitated by those states that aren't part of the initial burst. At least that's the argument on Slate. As the author writes, "The behavioral economics [of Race to the Top] don’t pan out."

Partly that's correct and partly it's not. Truly, these are expensive reforms that the Obama administration has in mind and given that just about everyone is looking to cut education budgets, it's a bad time to be starting expensive efforts unless you have a ton of federal money helping you out. What I don't quite believe, though, is that the only reason states will continue these reforms - or continue to try to imitate them - is the federal money involved. The problem with economics is that it just looks at the money and thinks that everything is explained. However, this analysis overlooks the fact that states may in fact want to improve the education they are providing to children even independent of the federal money. There's a goal beyond profit here. Forgetting that would be a mistake.

The bottom line (something economists love) here is that there are big questions about Race to the Top that should be thought about and addressed. But they are not fatal flaws and there's still plenty to be hopeful about.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Worse Than We Thought

Every so often a major newspaper discovers (or rediscovers) that there is an educational achievement gap in this country that breaks down along racial and class lines. This week, it was the New York Times making the discovery as they wrote that the high school progress report grades broke down along racial and class lines. To whit, predominantly white middle class schools got higher grades than predominantly poor minority schools. On the one hand, this is hardly shocking. On the other hand, it's worse news than it first appears.

First, a note about the progress reports. They've rightly been much-mocked for their panglossian view of the New York City schools. And I'll admit that I've been known to join in. However, that mocking actually kind of misrepresents what it is that the reports are actually designed to do. There reports are not like a progress report that a child brings home from school, which is really an interim report on how close that child is to meeting an ultimate objective. Rather, the school progress reports are literally reports on progress. Earning an A doesn't mean that the school is an above average school. It could still be a bad school. However, it does mean that the school made an above average amount of progress on the state tests. This is a distinction that gets lost when just about everyone (DOE included) talks about the progress reports. Again, these reports are not supposed to indicate where a school stands against an absolute standard, but rather how much progress the school is making toward bettering itself.

(Just for the sake of time and brevity let's set aside for the moment a discussion about the flaws in the system that relies upon a single year of test scores to come up with a score, though that conversation is definitely valid and worth having.)

Let's get back to the fact that the progress reports are designed to measure school progress and not the absolute quality of a school. When we keep that in mind, the achievement gap the Times discovered is almost more troubling.

It's not news that poor and minority schools face huge challenges and tend to come in behind their whiter and more affluent peers on absolute standards. It would be big news if that weren't the case. However, after years of education reforms on a variety of fronts, we'd at least like to think that we're moving in the right direction on these schools. However, the reports on progress seem to indicate that this is not happening. Instead, the schools that need to be making the most progress are in fact making the least. Think about this for a second. Even when we all but discard absolute measurements and focus on the relative scale of "progress" poor and minority schools lag behind.

I always hesitate to throw around words like disaster and debacle, but every so often I feel them creeping into my vocabulary. This may be one of those times.

In the rush to discredit and defend the progress reports (depending on who's speaking), we've lost sight of the fact that there actually is some news we can glean from these reports. And the news is not good.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ups and Downs

Arizona, when its elected officials aren't saying moronic things, is the undisputed charter school leader of our country. The state boasts 500 charter schools, which account for 25% of the public schools in the state and 10% of the student population (class size comparisons, anyone?). Seems like this should have rocketed Arizona to the top of the state rankings, right? Well, the only problem is that the state's charter schools don't show as much academic progress as the state's traditional public schools. At least, that's what a study out of Stanford University found.

Now, in fairness, apparently the charter supporters are saying that the methodology of the report is flawed. So let's mark the findings with an asterisk for now. But what the sides both seem to agree on is that the quality of charter schools varies widely. No kidding.

For some reason, the real diehard charter supporters seem to think that all charters are always better than all traditional public schools. Even in the face of evidence that it simply isn't true. And it's obviously not true. It doesn't even make sense. Rather, there are some charters that are excellent schools. Just as there are some traditional public schools that are excellent. Likewise, both have their duds. What makes a school good is not that it has a charter label affixed to it. That's ultimately just a label. As I've said before, we should stop focusing on the labels and start focusing on what actually makes schools good and successful and replicate that in as many schools as we can so that all schools can be good schools. Charters can certainly be part of that picture, but they are not a complete answer in themselves.

I also want to draw attention to a line from the Washington Post article linked above that says, "But the state also offers a cautionary lesson as President Obama pushes to dismantle barriers to charter schools elsewhere: It is difficult to promote quantity and quality at the same time." Sounds familiar.

Monday, November 16, 2009

More Teachers Than Classrooms

The common wisdom is that teaching is a recession-proof profession because no matter what kind of economy we're experiencing there are going to be kids and they are going to need to go to school. As common sense goes, it's pretty common. Only problem is that it turns out not to be technically true. With districts across the country cutting positions because of funding issues, there are now too many teachers on the market for the jobs that are available.

Interestingly, the one exception is math teachers for whom there is still an "extreme shortage" according to American Association for Employment in Education. I think that says something interesting about who becomes teachers and the fields from which they are drawn.

The silver lining in this is that with more teachers than positions available, principals should have the luxury of hiring the very best teachers for their classrooms. After all, the more people who apply for a position, the more likely you are to find a really great teacher. So maybe this will end up being a good thing.

The bad news would come when otherwise good and qualified teachers try to seek employment elsewhere if they can't find a job. (This could be the result of structural unemployment, so don't tell me I'm contradicting myself.) In the short term, the increased competition for jobs could be good. In the long term, I hope it doesn't cause damage.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Interesting Case in Chicago

A little bit of education trivia for you: Chicago area schools have one of the largest gaps in teacher salaries in the country. For instance, the teachers in Oak Brook make an average of over $80,000 a year while the teachers in Grayslake make an average of about $38,000 a year. Pretty striking difference. Yet, despite this yawning gap in salaries, the students in these two areas appear to be performing at roughly the same level. That's interesting to me on two levels.

First, isn't it an article of faith among the idealocrats that higher pay for teachers (particularly if it comes in the form of merit pay) is supposed to equal better results for kids? I've never liked that argument terribly. True, you may attract more high fliers to teaching if the pay is better. But the idea that teachers are just not motivated to get kids to learn unless you dangle a carrot in front of them never rang true to me. During my time as a teacher, there was literally no amount of money you could pay me to work harder because I was already going all out. I still wasn't a great teacher and more money wouldn't have made the difference. But I digress. The real lesson here is that more money for teachers doesn't necessarily equate to more achievement for kids.

The second point that comes to me is that more experience doesn't necessarily seem to make a difference either. As the article points out, more time in the classroom (and more advanced degrees) tends to equal higher pay in the teaching profession. That's one reason the Oak Brook teachers get paid more. Yet those extra years of experience and additional diplomas also don't seem to be making a difference. The young turks in Grayslake seem to be doing just fine. Take notice all of you who say that we need to do more to value experienced teachers and ignore those young ones coming up because they aren't going to be as good.

I hate to write a post where I just tear down other people's ideas without offering up something productive of my own. So here it is. If there is a single way to predict and foster better teachers, we haven't found it yet and it may not exist. That doesn't mean we should stop trying to improve our teaching force. It does mean that we should stop looking for a single silver bullet that's going to improve all of our schools. It's just not that simple.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Surprising Surprise

I often find myself surprised by the things that education researchers seem to find surprising. Take a recent analysis by the Brookings Institute on education standards. As the researchers write, "Our analyses suggest that the creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in and of itself." Rather, the researchers conclude, it's measures like "aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, and accountability for educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development, and managerial autonomy for school leaders, and teachers who drawn from the best and brightest, and so on" that actually have a real benefit on student learning.

In other words, just setting standards doesn't cause kids to meet them. You also need to ensure that teaching and all the other aspects of what actually goes on in the classroom are high quality if you want to get great results. The researchers write that these findings "surprised many readers." Really? It's surprising to people that setting a goal isn't enough and that you need to make sure you're actually working toward achieving that goal?

The Brookings people are careful to point out that standards are not useless and I agree with them. It makes sense to have clear benchmarks for what students should be able to do. However, we can't confuse the setting of those benchmarks with steps that will actually help students meet them. Surprisingly, that's surprising to some people.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bloomberg, Part III

Now that Mayor Bloomberg is going to stay mayor for another four years there's all sorts of talk about how he'll avoid the famed "third term curse" that brough down Koch, Cuomo, and more. Bloomberg has pledged to renew his energy and chart a bold new course through the next four years. The course won't be that new (I mean, he is the incumbent), but he seems to be saying that he's open to new ideas.

With that in mind, here are some ideas (not all of which are new, per se) that the mayor could think about integrating into the education agenda for the next four years. As much as possible, I'm trying to make these things I think the mayor might actually do as opposed to just making a list of things I would want to see if I'd been elected. So here's what I've got:

1. Use mayoral control to create more community schools
Mayoral control over the schools gets so much attention that we kind of forget that the mayor has control over all sorts of different things (Health Department, ACS, Sanitation, etc.) that directly impact people's lives. The Harlem Children's Zone has won a fair amount of acclaim by focusing on an entire community approach to educating children. Schools are the centerpiece, but there's also a huge investment in all other parts of the community. This seems like the kind of thing that a mayor, with control over all the city agencies, could really make his own. Bloomberg should pick a few pilot areas and create city-sponsored community school zones. Increase the investment and attention intensively into the entire community and you're just about guaranteed to see students doing better.

2. Use next year's impending test scores drop to realign accountability programs
The consensus seems to be that the state is going to make the tests harder next year and that we should therefore expect to see test scores drop. Since test scores are what the DOE uses for all of its accountability measures, this isn't going to look great for them. Of course, there's a lot of evidence that the measures are a little bit inflated already to make the DOE look as good as possible. With a year to start managing expectations of a downward drop, the Mayor could use this opportunity to realign all the measures and standards to be a little more reality-based and a little less inflated. The immediate drop will be attributed to the tests getting harder and then any improvement from there will be more authentic and believable. More rigorous tests (as they're often described) will provide cover to do what probably needs doing anyway, but won't be done because no one wants to see scores drop.

3. Replace Chancellor Klein
I know I said that I wanted these suggestions to be things that Bloomberg might actually do and I also know that most indications are that Klein isn't going anywhere. But what if he did? Klein has been a complete lightening rod for the last seven years and he's received heaps of scorn and reprobation from many sectors of the community. So replace him. The mayor still has control over the schools and has the power to appoint a Chancellor, so he could still pick someone who would follow largely the same agenda. Plus, it would earn him (Bloomberg) and the replacement pick a period of goodwill. During this honeymoon, he could still follow essentially the same agenda (and let's be clear, he will follow the same agenda), but people wouldn't be as on to it since there was a new face at the top. Plus, if Bloomberg really does want to make his changes to the school system permanent, a replacement Chancellor would have a much better job of being reappointed by the next mayor than Klein has. There's a lot to be gained by doing it and surprisingly little to lose.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Let me know if I missed anything.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Now That It's Over

After a long day and night spent out on the streets campaigning yesterday, I'm not as my most alert for posting this morning. So here's just a few quick thoughts on Mayor Bloomberg's (narrow) re-election. On Friday, I'll come back with education suggestions for the mayor's third term that he might actually follow.

They (whoever they may be) often say that re-election races are referendums on the incumbent. Sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not. This is a case where it was true. After all, the Mayor enjoyed a 14-1 spending advantage and his opponent wasn't actually mounting a visible campaign. The decision people made yesterday was all about the Mayor.

The interesting thing there is that according to Times exit polling, 70% of New Yorkers approved of the job the mayor was doing. You may notice that's about 20% more than actually voted for him. This wasn't even a referendum about the mayor's job performance, it was a referendum on him. That's kind of interesting to me.

Obviously, the campaign style was a mistake. That seems pretty un-controversial to say when your vote total is 20% lower than your approval rating. A voter is quoted in that Times article saying, "I feel he bought himself the election” and “ran a smear campaign against a nonexistent opponent." Rightfully so, that didn't sit well with people.

Let's hope all that talk about a third term curse is bogus. After all, I live here and if the Mayor comes on hard times this go-round, he's not the only one who'll be in trouble.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Someone For Mayor

Tomorrow is election day in New York City and about two weeks ago the idea occurred to me to run a mayoral endorsement on the blog today. The only problem is that now, two weeks later, I don't really know who I would like to be mayor. I honestly haven't made up my mind yet even though I will have voted 24 hours from now. This is a tough one.

My biggest issue, as you might be able to guess, is education. I think that's the biggest challenge facing the city and the one that the mayor has real authority to work on. So that's my litmus test. Even with a pretty narrow scope, I'm still terribly conflicted.

On the one hand, I disagree with a lot of the things that Mayor Bloomberg has done over the last eight years. I also object to his needlessly negative and often dishonest campaign approach. However, he has been focused on education, which is more than can be said about most leaders in this country. He's allocated tons of money to the schools and has tried a series of reforms to correct a system that clearly wasn't working. Whether these new reforms are the answer is, of course, a matter of heated debate, but at least he's trying something.

I often see Thompson as running against the Mayor's education policies. The bulk of Thompson's education platform is pretty much a direct response to things the Mayor has done poorly (not involving parents, too much test prep, etc). What's not clear is what Thompson's affirmative agenda is going to look like. It's one thing to say that you'll involve parents in meaningful ways and that you'll educate the "whole child", but what does that actually mean at the end of the day? And what's the guarantee that it will get done? After all, the Bloomberg/Klein system keeps saying that they're going to do a better job involving parents too.

I've also been remarkably unimpressed with the entire Thompson campaign. I mean, I get that the other guy has $15 billion to potentially spend, but that doesn't mean you should just roll over and die. Let's just say that I'm not impressed with his managerial skills on this front.

So the choice boils down to a guy I know I often disagree with, but that I know is taking big action on the issue I care about and a guy who says he'll do everything differently and better, but that I don't know will actually be able to accomplish anything. Like I said, this is a tough one and time is ticking.

Remember to vote tomorrow.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Everyone Wins?

When charter schools were first getting started, the argument for them was largely theoretical. It went along the lines that competition would urge everyone to do better, therefore we should have competition in our school system. It's a fairly reasonable argument as theoretical arguments go, so states started implementing charter programs, even without evidence that they would be effective. One of the benefits of the last several years is that we're starting to see research from those charter schools that did get started. Frankly, I'm glad for it because major policy decisions on education should be based as much as possible on evidence rather than theory and ideology.

So far, the evidence has been a bit mixed. Not terribly surprising given that in all systems some schools are going to be good and some are going to be less so. In addition to questions about whether charter schools are automatically going to be more effective than traditional public schools, there's a big question about what happens to the kids who stay at the public schools when a charter opens nearby. Now, as an iPhone ad might say, there's a study for that.

Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute (which does tend to lean rightward) looked at the "left behind" kids and actually found that they did better when more kids left for charter schools. For those of you who prefer primary documents, check out the study here. This "small but not insignificant" effect is enough for the editorial writers at the Daily News to declare that the "groundbreaking report demolishes the last argument of the dead-enders who refuse to acknowledge the remarkable promise of city charter schools." I don't know if I'd go that far, but it certainly is something that needs to be reckoned with.

Winters says that the reason for the improvement is that there's competition between schools and now all of the schools need to raise their game in order to stay competitive. That very well could be the case, but I don't know that he proves it with his research. He has certainly demonstrated an effect, but I don't know that he's demonstrated its cause. For instance, Leonie Haimson might argue that more kids moving to charter schools lowers class sizes for those "left behind" which would improve their classrooms performance.

The other question that occurred to me is whether or not the generally rising test scores across the state were taken into consideration and controlled for. It seems like that could skew results in favor of showing progress at certain schools (like the report showing that grades tended to improve at schools with the teacher bonus program in place) when the progress was really universal. I'm not a sophisticated enough reader of research papers to say whether it's accounted for or not or even if it would be relevant to the model. It's just a thought.

The bottom line is that we're now seeing a lot of charter research being released, which is a great thing no matter which side of the charter divide you find yourself on. I still hope that in future research we look at the whys as much as the whats. If we want to expand successes, we need to know what's working and why so we don't copy the wrong things.

P.S. Nicholas Kristof had a pretty good column in the Times yesterday about how we should be putting some of the money we're spending in Afghanistan into schools rather than just soldiers. He points out that schools are a powerful way to help transform a society. He also points out that al Qaeda understands that and is opening madrassas for just that purpose. Kristof writes, "It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists." Ouch.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dumbing in Des Moines

Regular readers may know that I'm not exactly Mr. Get-Tough-Raise-the-Standards-No-Excuses and that I think the phrase "dumbing down" is really just so much unspeak. But every so often, I see something that makes me think that the phrase may have some use after all. Take Des Moines. Please.

Seriously, though, the Des Moines public schools are considering reducing the number of credits needed to graduate in order to try to reduce the high school dropout rate. While reducing the drop-out rate is a laudable goal, I find myself questioning this particular method of doing so. Let's play a little bit of best case/worst case.

Best case, the school board has realized that their requirements are unrealistic/unreasonable and don't actually promote student learning. As such, they are adjusting the criteria for graduation to better reflect the needs of the students. Let's hope that's what is happening.

Worst case, the board has forgotten that a high school diploma does not have any real intrinsic worth and is using it as a replacement for actual learning. If the standards really are being dumbed down in order to ensure that more kids get a slip of paper saying they've graduated high school, it's a huge mistake. The slip of paper doesn't actually prepare you for the job. All the paper does is signify that you've done the work and learning needed to be successful beyond school. Raising graduation rates only means something if being a graduate means something. If everyone gets a diploma regardless of how much they've done or know, then what use is the diploma?

Truly, we are facing a drop out crisis across the country that needs to be addressed. But let's focus on early interventions, academic help, and things like that rather than making graduation easier. Dumbing down graduation standards doesn't actually help anyone. If that's the strategy, Des Moines might not be worth taking at all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Disheartening Finding

Public Agenda has some interesting research out where they surveyed about 900 teachers from across the country on their attitudes about teaching. They then broke the teachers up into three groups: idealists, contented, and disheartened. In what has to be considered troubling news, the largest group is the disheartened teachers (the breakdown is 40% disheartened, 37% contented, and 23% idealist).

I'm not one to go around blaming teachers for everything that's wrong with education. However, this is the kind of thing that has to make you stop and think. Are disheartened teachers really going to be as effective as contented teachers? Is someone who thinks it's a "wonder that more teachers don't burn out" really going to be the best person to have in the classroom?

A couple of points worth considering. First, disheartened teachers are much more likely than contented teachers to be teaching in low income schools. Naturally, this tends to be a more challenging environment, which probably has an effect on how teachers view their profession. Also, disheartened teachers are more likely to be negative about their principals and to say that discipline and behavior issues are problems at their school. Administrator support is also listed as a negative.

I'm a little curious about the chicken the egg relationship between the answers. I wonder if its negative conditions that make the teachers disheartened or if disheartened teachers are more likely to see the negative side of things.

Whichever it is, it's a problem when nearly half of teachers (a great percentage of whom are working with the neediest children) are unhappy with their jobs. Whether that means working to improve conditions in schools (which would be helpful) or whether it means removing teachers who don't belong in classrooms (which may be necessary), the status quo can't be allowed to stand.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arne and the Community

On Thursday morning, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that got to hear a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a Children’s Aid Society conference on community schools. It’s kind of hard to know where to start because he touched on so many different points (though seldom went into any real depth). That said, let me give it a try.

But first, I have to say how much I love the idea of community schools. Check out that CAS link above. The basic idea is that schools should also serve as community centers that are open after school to serve both kids and members of the community. Further, schools should be partnering with all sorts of social service providers to address all the components of being a child in poverty, not just the academic issues. Count me as one who’s 100% with that.

You can count Duncan too, based on his speech. Given that he was speaking to a room full of community schooling advocates, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising, but it was sure nice to hear someone in charge really seem to get the idea that there’s a lot that needs to be done to really help educate kids. As he said, “We’re fighting a tremendous number of battles as a society.” No kidding. As I’ve often written, the host of issues surrounding kids in poor communities goes far beyond what we think of as traditional educational issues. If we want to make a difference, we’ve got to look beyond the traditional classroom roles.

Part of the reason for moving beyond the traditional model is that the role of schooling has fundamentally changed. Namely, the stakes are a lot higher now. As Duncan pointed out, 30 years ago, there was such a thing as an acceptable dropout rate because people could work in factories or other similar jobs. That’s just not the case in today’s economy. As Duncan said, “Now there are no good jobs in the legal economy for high school dropouts.” The stakes are higher because every child needs to succeed in school. That means that schools need to find ways to reach every child, which means that they need to go beyond what they did in the past.

That’s where the community schools model comes in. It focuses on all aspects of a child and involves the community in solving what is essentially a community problem. It even begins to solve some of the problems in the community itself. I’m really excited by the bold idea of re-imagining what a school is in a modern community. I know I’m late to the party (again, check out the CAS link), but I’m happy to be here now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stimulus and Real Learning

Two quick thoughts for your Wednesday morning.

First, the next time someone tries telling me that the stimulus plan didn't work, I'm going to point out that 250,000 people employed in education wouldn't have jobs if it weren't for the stimulus. That's the number of education employees whose jobs were preserved by federal recovery aid, according to the Department of Education. Now, the wording leads me to believe that not all of them are teachers, but I think it would be fair to assume that a good percentage of that number are in the classrooms. The fact that so many districts are still in trouble and saying they may have to lay off teachers shows you how bad things are.

With all the focus on Wall Street and unemployment (both serious issues, to be sure), it's easy to look at the stimulus and say that it didn't work. But at the local level, the stimulus preserved so many jobs and programs that would otherwise have been cut. It's in the absence of massive negative changes that we see the positive effects of the stimulus. Say what you will about the price tag, but the stimulus saved local municipalities from going into a tailspin that would have proven nearly impossible to correct at any time in the near future.

Second, this is the kind of thing that more schools should be doing. I'm sure Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog will be covering this better than I will, so check out his site. The gist, though, is that a Harlem charter school takes their kids on a "field study" to a farm each year to learn about the animals so that they have some background when farm animal questions come up on the state tests each year. Note that rather than just try to teach kids better strategies for faking their way through the test, the school is actually exposing their kids to new knowledge that they likely won't find in Harlem. That's what school is all about. And in the end, I'm sure it will pay off in their test scores. Too bad more people don't see things that way.

I'm going to be at an event where Arne Duncan is speaking tomorrow morning, so check back in on Friday for some original reporting from Teachable Moment.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Few Nobel Thoughts

I know it seems like a long time ago now, but it was one week ago that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe you heard that some people were a little upset by that. It all seems so long ago now that a living, breathing Republican has voted for health care reform, but I've still got a couple of things to say about it.

Let me start off by saying that I don't think I would have given the prize to Obama this year were it up to me. That said, here are three thoughts to help keep things in perspective.

1. Obama did not ask for this.
It's not as if Barack Obama was out campaigning to win this award. In fact, it kind of hurts him domestically now that he did win. It seems like there was a lot of anger directed at the president for winning the award even though he didn't do anything other than be who he is and do what he does. Of course, that's often enough these days.

2. Having a liked a respected president used to be a good thing.
The other thing that's gotten lost in all of the outrage over this prize is that winning international recognition isn't a bad thing. It seems like there was a time when patriotic Americans would have been proud to have a president who is so obviously respected by the world community. That's not to say that the critics are unpatriotic, only to point out how far we've fallen.

3. You don't know who won the last Nobel Peace Prize.
Really, you don't. Think about it for a second. Nope, Al Gore was 2007. (To save you the trouble of Googling it, the 2008 winner was Martti Ahtisaari.) The point is, we tend to think of the Nobel Peace Prize as a kind of secular sainthood because of winners like Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr., but for the most part we don't really care that much who gets it. If we did, you'd know who Shirin Ebadi is. So let's get over all the outrage because it's not something we actually care about. It's not like he got an Oscar or anything.

The bottom line in my thinking is that this is another over-hyped outrage of the week kind of thing. It's sad we have to deal with stuff like this because, you may have heard, there are real issues out there.

P.S. My favorite line to come out of all the Nobel whining is this: Even ASU has higher standards than the Nobel prize committee. What can I say? It's funny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No Surprises

Last night was the first debate between Mike Bloomberg and Bill Thompson as the two campaign for mayor. I watched it (because that's the kind of guy I am) and wasn't terribly surprised by what I saw. Predictably, Thompson came out swinging in his first opportunity to confront the mayor face to face. Predictably, Bloomberg didn't really rise to the bait and tried to paint himself as the pragmatic problem-solver who's above the usual politics. So no surprises there at all.

Also, unsurprising was that education came up fairly often, even though nothing new was said. Bloomberg said that things are better now with him in charge of the schools than they were when Thompson was in charge. Thompson said that he actually did some good things, but that he wasn't ever in charge because, remember, no one was in charge under the old system.

That was one of two highlights of the debate for me because I think it means that Bill Thompson is reading my blog. I wrote a few weeks ago that he should say almost exactly that. I also wrote out an ad script that basically got turned into a question during the "cross examination" portion of the debate. And it actually hit home. When Thompson asked about all of Bloomberg's party switching and whether that represented just more politics, the mayor was noticeable uncomfortable. It was perhaps the only point of the debate in which he didn't seem to have a ready answer. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have thought of that, but I put it in print so I'm claiming full credit.

The bottom line (as both candidates seemed to enjoy saying) is that we didn't get anything last night we weren't expecting. Education is still an issue, but it's still a bludgeon. No new insights. No new programs. No new ideas. We'll see what happens on October 27th when they meet again.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Keep the Cap

I don't know if you've been following this story like I have, but some study just came out showing that Harvard students outperform students from other universities and that Harvard as a whole does a better job educating students. Naturally, this has given rise to calls for action. The one that's seems to be gaining the most steam is the call to open more Harvards. After all, if one Harvard does such a great job, imagine what would happen if we opened three Harvards or even 10 Harvards.

In case you haven't caught on, this is a set-up so I can talk about charter schools and the policy follow ups in light of the Hoxby report, which found that New York City charter schools consistently outperformed the city's traditional public schools. What made the Hoxby report so interesting was that its findings flew in the face of the results of a recent national study that found that most charters were as good or worse than traditional public schools, with a relatively small percentage outperforming their traditional peers. Hoxby's report seemed to buck that trend, at least in New York City. Hearing only what they want to hear and seeing only what they want to see, the charter school backers in New York declared that Hoxby's study proved conclusively that charters are always better schools and therefore we should have lots more of them. Calls began to remove the state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools permitted in New York (which currently stands at 200). I think that's it for exposition.

If all you know is the Hoxby report, it makes sense to want more charter schools. After all, apparently there's proof that they are better. This is problematized somewhat by the CREDO report which found that charter schools tend not to be better. What's missing from the discussion right now is someone pondering what it is about New York charter schools that makes them exceptional (assuming the validity of both the CREDO and Hoxby reports).

That brings us back to Harvard with the disclaimer that I'm working on logic here as opposed to solid research to back up what I'm saying. It's good logic, but it's not definitive nor should it be taken that way.

Part of what makes Harvard successful is that there's only one. Thus, that one Harvard is able to attract the best professors, the best researchers, and the best students (I'm not trying to get into an argument about creaming here, just stay with the analogy). If there were two Harvards, that pool of the very very elite would be diluted by about 50% at each individual Harvard. If you get to 10 Harvards (to say nothing of 200) you get even more dilution. What makes Harvard special is that there's one and they can make it the very best that it can be.

So now let's veer back into charter territory. It seems to me to be logical that when we cap the number of charter schools allowed in the state, we'll then end up with the 200 best charter schools that want to open. Just like Harvard will take the top professors and top students, the state will take the top schools. That makes sense. Doesn't it then also make sense that if we threw open the doors to everyone we wouldn't be getting the same quality? If Harvard let anyone who wanted to teach there actually teach there, do you think instruction would be of the same quality?

I've written before that I find it hard to believe that just having the label charter affixed to a school makes it a better school than one without that label. Maybe we should consider the possibility that the charter cap we have in place is helping New York's charter system by ensuring only the best get through and that lifting the cap could actually be detrimental. That may or may not be the case. But it sure seems logical.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What If They Don't Pick Right?

Policy makers and folks of their general ilk tend to assume that people will choose to do what's best for themselves if they have the opportunity and they have the information to ascertain what's best. Never mind that people smoking cigarettes (to say nothing of using illegal drugs) puts the lie to that assumption, it's still the general operating mentality. It's the same mentality that advocates for school choice, green vendor programs, and other social innovations designed to help people do what we assume they would want to do if they had the choice.

A study released yesterday from NYU and Yale puts the lie to assumption yet again. In July 2008, NYC restaurants had to start posting the calorie counts of their menu items right next to the item on the menu. The idea was that if I walked into a McDonald's I would know exactly how many calories were in a quarter pounder and, presumably, I'd then leave and go eat a salad somewhere. The only problem is that this study indicates that the program didn't work. In fact, it looks like people are ordering more calories in their meals after the counts went up, rather than less. Don't people just do the darndest things?

This is not, itself, an arguments against giving people more information and more choices. Neither of those are bad things. However, the idea that either or both is a panacea for whatever social problem we're trying to fix is simply false. Let's remember that before we put all our eggs in that basket.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Lighted Tunnel

The head of the Chicago teacher's union wants the city to create a new school for chronically disruptive students. As she says, "Teachers can't teach and students can't learn in a constantly disruptive classroom.” Hard to argue with that. However, my initial reaction is completely divided.

On the one hand, from my time in the classroom, I can think of a few kids whose constant misbehavior dragged down the entire class. It was the instigators who would send the whole class off the rails. There were the kids who were throwing books out the window, overturning chairs during group work time, and punching other kids in class. Clearly, the classroom culture would have benefitted from their absence. Their presence made it nearly impossible for those who wanted to do the right thing to actually have that opportunity.

On the other hand, I'm very leery about a program that could essentially consign those kids to the outskirts of the education system with no hope of returning to the fold and bettering their own lives. Removal from a regular classroom may be warranted. Placement in a pre-prison system is not.

The only way that I see this kind of program working is if the kids who are removed from their regular classrooms are given a fundamentally different educational experience. We can't just put all the bad kids together in one room and give them the same experience we would if they were in their old rooms. That obviously wouldn't work. It would probably make things worse. But if we instituted a system of intensive remediation, character building, possibly therapy, and a host of other supports we might actually get somewhere. To her credit, this seems to be what the Chicago union has in mind.

This kind of program can work. But it can only work if there's a light at the end of the tunnel for these kids. Simply banishing them isn't the answer.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Question of Why

Good news, people. A report out of the Center on Education Policy has found that the achievement gap is narrowing. Of course, it's not nearly that simple, but let's take a moment at least to bask in the very positive headline.

The study found that on the whole, the gap between minority and poor children and white and more advantaged children is less than it was. Furthermore, the gap closing seemed to be taking place largely because those at the bottom are gaining more quickly, as opposed to those at the top slowing down.

And now for the bad news. First, there's still an achievement gap and it's huge in some states (as much as 20 percent). Second, this report looks at state test scores and doesn't take into account the lack of progress on achievement gap closing as its shown by NAEP scores. Also, while the gap narrowed 58 percent of the time (across all of the studies trend lines), the gap increased 37 percent of the time.

The picture gets bleaker pretty quickly, doesn't it?

The next step that these researchers never seem to take is to look at why this might be happening. I get that the study I'm asking for would be infinitely more complicated. I really do understand that. But it also seems like it would be worth it. As it stands, we're looking at data and saying, "Wow, that's great that the achievement gap is closing (except where it isn't). Let's make sure all schools are doing that. Oh wait. We don't know what's actually making the difference. Let's open more charter schools." At least, that's what I'm hearing policy makers say. Maybe you're hearing something different.

To sum up, let's celebrate those 58% who are successfully working to close the achievement gap. But let's not celebrate for too long. After all, for another 37%, the problem is getting worse and we don't really know what's making the difference either way.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If I Were Bill Thompson

Now that the Democratic primaries are really, truly, and officially over, I want to take a brief foray back to my blogging roots and post on a purely political issue (though I'll mention education a little later on if that's what you care about).

Michael Bloomberg has been running with the tagline that he represents progress, not politics. If I were William Thompson, I wouldn't let him get away with running that line unchallenged. Here's the script of the ad I would run. For visuals, think of less-than-flattering pictures of the mayor in black and white or something. The voiceover would be done kind of like someone reading a picture book to first graders. Here's how it would go:

This is Michael Bloomberg and he sure loves playing politics. He used to be a Democrat. But then he decided that he wanted to be Mayor of New York City. There were a lot of Democracts who wanted to be mayor, so he became a Republican because it would be easier. Then, after he'd been mayor for a while, he decided he wanted to be president. So he stopped being a Republican and became an independent. But people didn't want him to be president so he decided that he wanted to be mayor again. He thought he was doing such a good job that he changed term limits so he could run for a third term. And he's a Republican again. Michael Bloomberg. He sure loves playing politics.

Never one for false modesty, I have to say that I think this is brilliant. The whole Bloomberg-is-totally-above-politics idea is so obviously false that it's child's play to point it out. If that's going to be the basis of his campaign, I would hit that point hard and repeatedly. It's only fair.

And now for my point about education (I told you I'd get there). Over the last few months, Thompson has criticized Bloomberg's handling of the schools under mayoral control. Regardless of the criticism or how valid it may or may not be, the Bloomberg response is inevitably, "Unh uh. And he wasn't a good president of the board of education when everything was terrible." (I'm paraphrasing here, of course.) Here's my response if I were Thompson the next time a reporter asked me about that:

"You know, it's funny. During the fight to renew mayoral control, Michael Bloomberg kept saying that under the old system no one knew who was in charge and there was no accountability. Now that I'm running for mayor, it turns out that I was in charge all along and that I should be accountable. I guess it took me running for mayor to help him figure that out."

In the interests of disclosure, I should say that I'm actually undecided in the mayor's race and that so far I don't think Thompson has actually done anything to influence me one way or another. In my mind, for now at least, this is entirely a referendum on Bloomberg. That said, the dishonesty and disingenuousness of the Bloomberg campaign offends me and it needs to be called out.

P.S. He may have lost yesterday, but this tongue-in-cheek ad for Mark Green is hysterical.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Newspaper War

One thing I love about New York City is that there are three major newspapers all covering the city. In Arizona, where I grew up, there was one newspaper covering the entire state. Granted, Arizona as a state is not always as interesting as New York City, but it's nice to have some different perspectives at play.

When it starts to get really interesting is when the newspapers start to wildly diverge in the stories that they are telling. Working with the same facts and events, the papers shift very different narratives about what is going on in the world. The latest example I see of that is in their education reporting.

For months now, the New York Post has been touting the Mayor's education record. During the fight over mayoral control in Albany, the Post was running an educational hagiography for the mayor in daily installments. In typical Post fashion, it was anything but subtle, just in case someone might miss the point. Since then, the drumbeat for Mayor Mike's tenure over the school system has been pretty steady.

Recently, though, the Daily News has stepped up their game with a series of articles that are less-than-flattering about the mayor's reign. Even the mayor's education mailing came under some scrutiny. Keep in mind, there's only one New York school system and there's only one mayor who's in charge of it. But depending on which newspaper you read, you'll get a very different perspective on what's going on.

I can't say that I know why the papers are taking such different tacks. Maybe the Daily News is planning to endorse Thompson, while the Post is obviously going to be endorsing Bloomberg. Maybe the reporters just have very different takes on what's happening. Likely, it's something else entirely. But whatever it is, it shows how nice it is to have some different perspectives.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Find What Works

As a long time charter school agnostic (if not outright athiest) I have to admit that my worldview was initially shaken when I read about a new study that seems to show that New York charter schools outperform traditional public schools (old news) even when you try to account for the "creaming" effect (new news). This is pretty big stuff. The study compared the educational outcomes of students who won spots in charter school libraries to students who applied for spots via the lottery, but did not win and get a seat. This is designed to eliminate the selection bias that comes from only studying those kids whose parents are involved enough to apply for a charter seat versus those whose parents may not be involved at all.

Now, as with all things, it's possible to pick the study apart with tweezers. You could say that there are some questions as to whether the study really meets the "gold standard" it claims to (thanks Gotham Schools). You could point out that a nationwide study of charter schools found that only a small percentage of charters outperform their traditional peers. You could say that similar studies on the DC voucher program showed no difference. You could even say that any study measuring student learning based on standardized tests is really measuring test-taking skills more than learning and therefore should be disregarded.

You could say all of those things and some of them may even be valid. But the research is showing here that New York charter schools are doing pretty well. So maybe we got a disproportionate number of that 17% of effective charter schools nationwide. I suppose that's possible. But ultimately, I think it may also be beside the point.

The question I always ask when I see a study like this is: "What makes these schools better?" I still find it hard to believe that their very charter-ness conveys some special educating ability that other schools lack. These schools are doing something in their classrooms that is helping their children learn. If we want to replicate it across a wide range, we need to know what it is.

Unfortunately, study author Caroline Hoxby doesn't know. (Which is fine, since that wasn't really what she was studying.) The point here is that we need to find out what the difference maker really is and then replicate it as far and wide as we possibly can. Let's stop slugging it out over charter schools and look at what works. If that means more charter schools, then fine. If that means taking some charter practices and applying them in traditional schools, let's do it. Either way, now is not the time to sit smugly or petulantly because of the results of some survey. Let's start looking at what we can find that will bring results for the kids. Those are the results that matter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mayoral Unspeak

City Hall News starts a recent profile on Bill Thompson's mayoral campaign as follows:

"Bill Thompson cannot win the competence argument against Michael Bloomberg. He would like to, he is trying to, but the idea that Bloomberg is good at the job of being mayor is so deeply entrenched in the minds of New Yorkers that any time spent trying to convince people that he would actually be better would probably be in vain."

Almost the exact same thing could be said of the mayor's education record. It's taken as self-evident that mayoral control has been a good thing for city schools. That's why when Thompson makes charges about the books being cooked, the Bloomberg campaign's response is, essentially, that Thompson is just jealous of the record. Never mind that the record itself is being called into question. That doesn't matter because everyone knows that mayoral control has been a good thing.

More than the billions of dollars that Bloomberg possesses and more than the tens of millions of dollars he's willing to spend on the campaign, Bloomberg's biggest asset in this campaign may be that his record - on schools and other things - has become a form of unspeak unto itself. Accurate or not, it wins the argument before one even starts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Problem or Solution?

I came across an article this morning and I'm really not quite sure what I think about it. New York is entering a third year of its program to offer cash incentives to poor families who do things like get their kids to school and go to regular medical checkups. At least according to the article, the program seems to be having modest, though not overwhelming, success.

I think that your view on such a program has to depend on what your view on the problem is. Is the breakdown of social services in ghetto communities the result of lack of economic opportunity by the residents or lack of knowledge or lack of incentive or lack of values. That's of course not to say that any of those possibilities are necessarily exclusive of any of the others. Also, by paying people to do what they should probably be doing anyway, are we sending a very wrong message that's going to have longer term repercussions?

The bottom line is that I don't know the answers (and I would be skeptical of anyone who said they did). On the one hand, if it helps people - especially kids - then that's a good thing and is worth supporting. On the other hand, if it sets up a system that undermines the intrinsic value of those behaviors in the long term, is it really helping?

The sad part is, good or bad, we won't really know until it's too late. What's clear now, though, is that this is not a cure for what is fundamentally wrong in poor communities. So even as we hope that this program helps, we need to continue searching for the fundamental bedrock changes that these communities need.

Friday, September 18, 2009

No Surprises Here

Surprising absolutely no one, NYC Mayor and mayoral candidate Mike Bloomberg sent out a mailing (approximately the ten thousandth I've received) hitting newly nominated mayoral candidate Bill Thompson over their compared education records. I got the flyer in my mail on Wednesday, which is pretty impressive when you consider that Thompson didn't win the primary until late Tuesday night. Maybe the mail will run better if Bloomberg is re-re-elected.

The flyer doesn't go in much for subtlety. On the top in huge red letters it says "On Education: The Choice Is Clear." Then there's a T-chart showing Mike Bloomberg's record as mayor compared to Bill Thompson's record as president of the board of education. Unsurprisingly (this is campaign lit after all), Bloomberg looks very good in the comparison. I wish I could show it to you, but I don't have a scanner. I'm sure if you check your mail boxes, you'll be seeing it soon. Even if you don't live in New York.

Not much to say here, but I do have three quick observations.

1. It's nice to see education featured so prominently in a political campaign.
2. It's a shame that the issue is being used as a bludgeon instead of a launch point for real discussion.
3. When one side has billions of dollars to spend on advertising it's not really a surprise that we aren't going to have a nuanced conversation.

Also, in mayor-related news, check out this video. Happy Friday!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Critical Thinking

The always-thoughtful Diane Ravitch has an interesting piece in the Boston Globe where she takes the 21st Century Skills movement to task. Her argument is that while critical thinking is important, you can't think critically unless you have the knowledge upon which to base your thinking. Therefore, rather than try to explicity teach "critical thinking" the same we would, say, teach the parts of a cell, we should focus on the core knowledge that will provide a foundation for such thinking.

I'd say that she's at least 85% right. Assuming (and this seems like a possibility at least) that she doesn't object to focusing on critical thinking after the core knowledge is in place, she may even be 100% right. The fact is, without facts, we don't really have anything to think critically about. We can spin the wheels in the brain, but ultimately we won't come up with anything unless we actually know something to begin with. (The one possible exception might be Descartes' "I think therefore I am.")

That said, I think that there is a value in lessons on thinking critically and the connections and flaws that we can develop through that process.

In high school, I was a member of the debate team, which made me probably the coolest kid in the whole school. The first step to each debate topic was to stock up on facts and figures and the arguments of the past. That was the core knowledge part of the thing. But in the end, that wasn't enough. It wasn't until my senior year when I'd really absorbed the formalized way of thinking and arguing that I was able to start winning debate tournaments. Until that point - until I'd really started to learn what critical thinking meant in that context - I was well-prepared, but ultimately ineffectual.

So the balance must be found. Certainly the base of knowledge is critical, but so too is a systemitized way of thinking. Without both, neither is much good.

P.S. Could Teach for America be reading this blog? Looks like they're working more on professional development for their teachers. Sounds familiar.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Using Great Teachers

The news on this has been out for a while now, but it's worth highlighting, nonetheless. A new study of North Carolina schools found that good teachers not only benefit their own classrooms, but they help improve the performance of other teachers in other classrooms. In other words, having a master teacher in a school can help all of the teachers at the school.

This was immediately spun into the debate over merit pay for teachers and both sides are using it to support their own claims. Follow the link above for all the gory details. That's a good point to consider in light of this and not surprising, since that's one of the hot button topics right now and so all discussions seem to come back to that at some point.

However, I tend to find myself thinking about the need and possibility for more professional development in schools. In all the push to get rid of the bad teachers and reward the exceptional teachers, we tend to forget about the ones in the middle who are just plain average. These are the hard workers who do good things, but are not the kind of people who are going to be in the running for teacher of the year. Frankly, this population makes up the majority of teachers and so we should probably focus some of our attention on them.

Since we know that great teachers can positively impact more average teachers, why don't we focus on mentoring programs and staff-led development on an ongoing basis. In all of our talk about reforming education, too many people are trying to work to totally reinvent the wheel rather than make what we have the best it can possibly be.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Change We Need

I hope that other people were as impressed by I was by President Obama's health care speech on Wednesday night. Here was a complex issue explained in direct terms along with proposed solutions. I thought it was an intelligent speech and a real attempt to have a productive discussion about what we want for our nation's health care system. If only that sort of discussion were the norm rather than the exception.

In education, for instance, the debate is too often between "reformers" - which really just means idealocrats - who care deeply about the issues and want all children to succeed and "defenders of the status quo" who don't care whether or not kids are learning. Obviously, the water is a little muddier than that, but when you read about these things, that's pretty much what you get. Especially if you listen to Michael Bloomberg, the New York Times, or Arne Duncan.

That's not to say that Duncan has engaged in the kind of low-blow tactics of Bloomberg and some of the others, but his approach is so firmly in the idealocrat camp that it starts to appear as if there really aren't any other options. Take the Race to the Top Fund. The plan to turn around the worst-performing schools is a great one and is a goal I completely and wholeheartedly agree with. However, defining students achievement solely by test scores and saying that charter schools/school choice is the necessary step to turning around schools is not something I can get on board with. As Diane Ravitch wrote in an excellent posting this week, this approach is limited and unsupported by research. In fact, as we know, research would seem to indicate that nationwide, charter schools tend to be equal to or worse than traditional public schools.

We know now that we have a president who's willing to talk about the big ideas and challenges in an open, direct manner. So let's do it. That's a change we need.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The New Socialism

One day, I'm sure that future generations are going to look back at this period in our history and say, "What was that all about?"

The latest example of true weirdness that seems to be affecting even mainstream weirdness is the uproar - uproar! - over President Obama's plans to give a speech to school children urging them to work hard and stay in school. Turns out, this was going to be the president's attempt to indoctrinate our school children with his socialist ideology. Seems to me that socialism isn't what it used to be. In the past, you had to say you wanted to do things like spread the wealth around before you got accused of being socialist.

Socialism today is not the same as it once was, though. Now doing things like saying you should work hard in school, that personal difficulties aren't excuses to mistreat teachers, and that you should do homework instead of dreaming of being a rapper apparently qualifies you. If that's true, I guess I should probably change my voter registration.

As expected by the sane part of the world, the speech itself wasn't too controversial. In the aftermath, things seem to have calmed down. At least for now. Here's three more thoughts in closing.

1. This does not bode well for health care reform. Though hardly a direct link here, if certain people and parties are so intent on attacking the president when there is no controversy, you can imagine what they'll do when there actually is something worth fighting about. Prepare for potential ugliness.

2. I wonder if this is what conservatives felt like during the Bush years when everything the president did was subject to total attack. I mean, unlike Obama, Bush deserved it, but I can see how it would get wearing on people who supported him.

3. If you want to talk about indoctrination, check this out. Seriously. You won't believe it even when you see it.

Happy first day of school, folks!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Paging Dr. Pangloss

I don't have a whole lot to say about the self-evidently ridiculous school progress reports that the DOE released this week. Even the rabidly pro-mayoral control New York Post is saying that something is wrong when 97% of city schools receive an A or a B on their "progress report." Most of those were A's even. Oh, and did we mention that the mayor is running for re-election?

I'm also going to skip the Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average jokes. It's been done before and I'm aiming for something a little more literary this morning. I'm thinking of Dr. Pangloss, who at least appears in the musical version of Candide (though I haven't read the book). In the musical, Pangloss is constantly declaring that we live in the best of all possible worlds and therefore whatever's happened, no matter how terrible, it must be for the best.

I couldn't help but think of old Pangloss while reading the New York Times recounting of the progress report release. In the article, Chancellor Klein declares, "I think there’s nothing wrong with anything. I know we need to find something wrong here, but there’s nothing wrong with anything."

I just think it's an exceptionally telling quote from the Chancellor. Certainly, the sentiment would fit the DOE's panglossian view of reality. I just wish it were accurate.

P.S. In the spirit of Dr. Pangloss' optimism, I thought I would point out that David Brooks actually has a decent column today about health care reform. Turns out he can make good points when he knows what he's talking about. Further evidence that he should leave education alone.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beat Goes On

School choice always seems to remain in the forefront of the education reform agenda even though there's limited evidence to support its success and obvious logical flaws with the program.

First, we know that charter schools (the frequent instrument of school choice) are not automatically better than traditional public schools and that their presence does not automatically lead to an improvement in all other schools in the area. This second point is largely due to the fact that parents often prefer not to exercise their choice and instead stay in the schools they know. So the facts don't support the choice as panacea theory that's often put forward.

Furthermore, it just doesn't make logical sense. As I've written before, we just don't have the capacity to offer good school choices to every student (which we would presumably want to do since we want all children to have a good education). If there were enough good school seats for every child, then every child would already be in a good school. That's a logical truism. The problem is that we don't have enough good school seats (hence the good schools and bad schools we see) and saying that parents can choose to try to attend the good schools doesn't help those who get shut out and therefore need to attend the bad ones.

Yet, despite the empircal and logical flaws in the position, the drum beat for "choice" goes on. Most recently, L.A. passed a huge school choice measure that will open up about 250 schools to outside control. So let me throw another argument into the hopper.

Choice arguments are based on the idea that parents will choose the best school for their children. Never mind for a moment that the Education Sector report linked to above found that increased school options "will not, in and of themselves, ensure that all of those options will be high-quality. Nor will they guarantee that consumers will make good choices and utilize the newer, better options that come along." That's assuming that everything is equal and parents have the information and capability to make the best choice. But what if that gets warped?

A report a few days ago in the New York Post found that some city public schools are going to outside agencies for "marketing makeovers." We're talking here about logos, websites, and uniforms designed to draw in parents and students. In case it's not obvious, I'll point out here that none of those things actually make a good school. All the cosmetics in the world won't get a student to excel in reading or math. They may get more parents to enroll their children.

What we're looking at now is going from a system that already doesn't actually work to one that doesn't work and in which the choice system gets perverted by slick advertising and branding. This will not help kids learn. And yet the beat goes on.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Little Late

Sometimes I really despair about the level of education reporting that goes on in this country, especially in the New York Times. It's bad enough that they employ David Brooks, who occasionally insists on writing about education. Then I see an article in the paper like the one yesterday in which the Times discovers the reader's workshop. The Times describes it at one point as a "radical approach" seemingly unaware of the fact that it's been around for over two decades at this point and that it's the official reading policy of choice for the New York City public school system (which, for those of you keeping track, is where the New York Times is based in case that wasn't clear). It's a little sad to consider that the paper of record is about two decades behind the curve in reporting education news.

What makes the article worse is that it's painted as a pitched battle between the workshoppers (who would just let kids read whatever they wanted) and the core knowledge crew (who think that every kid should be reading Moby Dick). As I've said before, isn't there a middle ground here between Crime and Punishment and Captain Underpants? Certainly things can boil down that simply, but it seems like in real life - or even in the version of life depicted in the Times' story - it's possible to seek out a balance between the two extremes.

I just noticed as I was writing this that as of this moment (Monday morning at 7:21 a.m.) the story is the most e-mailed story from the New York Times. So maybe this is news to people after all. If that's the case, it's no wonder people are confused about education. Their news is 20 years old! That's bad news when a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll shows that most Americans get their education news from newspapers or straight from school employees. Turns out, only one of those sources might actually be worth listening to.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Forgetting the First Line

Imagine for a moment that you're the principal of a school and it comes to your attention that a child is failing his social studies class. Obviously, this is not good news. The news gets worse, though, when you're told that if you want to continue to receive resources for your school you have to follow a very strict menu of options in order to improve the performance. Your options are:

- Suspend the student and bring him back in a new class
- Suspend the student and transfer him to a new school
- Fire the social studies teacher and dramatically restructure the classroom's procedures and methods

Seems a bit extreme, doesn't it? Nowhere in there is the option given to work directly with the student and/or teacher to find strategies to improve that student's performance. Everything is about a radical restructuring to shake up the very foundation.

The reason I present this little hypothetical scenario is that Arne Duncan has made it clear to states what steps they need to take with their failing schools in order to receive money from the School Improvement Fund. The name of the fund itself is a bit of a misnomer because the steps have less to do with improving existing schools than opening new and better schools. Here are the options:

- Close and reopen failing schools with new teachers and principals.
- Close and reopen failing schools under management of a charter school company or similar group.
- Close failing schools and send students to high-achieving schools in the same district.
- Replace a failing school's principal and overhaul its operations.

On the one hand, I totally approve of the focus the administration is putting on turning around the lowest performing schools and I think that in many of those cases dramatic action may be required. However, I fail to see how bringing in a new group of teachers and administrators is automatically going to equate to a better school. In some - perhaps even many - cases, it may do just that. But there is nothing intrinsically more effective about a new staff than an old one. In my mind, the first line of defense should always be to work with what's available and make it as good as it can possibly be. If you do that and it's still not good enough, that's when you bring in the new crew. But shouldn't you start with trying to improve what you already have?

In other words, try tutoring the kid after school before you ship him off somewhere else.