Friday, February 27, 2009

Outside the Bubble

I often hear or read that the unintended (but not unexpected) side effect of No Child Left Behind with its focus on standardized testing in the core subjects is that arts education goes by the wayside. In an effort to boost test scores, schools and teachers focus on what's being tested. That makes of sense to me and it probably shouldn't surprise people that it's done. But by focusing so exclusively on these core subjects, the schools are really missing out.

Take the Corbett Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona. They've instituted a hugely intensive interdisciplinary music program in the school. They're writing operas in the fifth grade instead of practicing multiple choice tests all day. And you know what? Their test scores are going up. Even compared to schools in the area with similar demographics, Corbett is making big strides. The variable is the focus on arts in the curriculum.

And that's just in the classroom. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, a study in the Journal of Pediatrics linked good classroom behavior with increased recess time. Kids who got at least 15 minutes of recess were able to focus much better in class the rest of the day. Kind of the stitch in time philosophy.

With all of our focus on making sure that kids know which bubbles to fill in on a scantron sheet, we may be missing out on some very useful learning opportunities that still go back to that bottom line of student achievement. We just need to remember to think outside the bubble.

EXTRA: Starting next week, Teachable Moment will move to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. I have some other writing projects that I'm working on and mornings seem to be the only time I can get them done. So starting next week I'll try to make up with extra quality what is lacking in quanitity. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Remember When?

Remember when education wasn't being talked about during the presidential campaign? Boy does that seem to have changed. Now it's one of the three things that we need to invest in to create a better future for America. Times have changed. Now let's see how we do with massive (about $100 billion) federal investments into education. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Accountability and Shane Battier

When you look at it from the right angle, everything relates to education. Take the article about basketball player Shane Battier from the February 13th issue of New York Times Magazine. On the surface, it seems like it's just about a basketball player. But I read it as an insightful commentary on the weaknesses of our standardized system of accountability and measuring success.

The Battier article is interesting if you're a fan of basketball. If not, I probably wouldn't recommend it. The gist of the article is this: while Shane Battier's statistics (points, rebounds, steals, assists, etc) aren't all that great, he does so many unmeasured things that make him a great team player. While the data on his individual achievement doesn't necessarily show it, he makes the teams he plays on much better and the teams he plays against much worse.

So now you know that you should appreciate Shane Battier much more the next time you watch the Houston Rockets play. But let's pivot and see how this affects education.

If we were to view points, rebounds, and all that as a standardized test score, Battier wouldn't be doing all that well. He probably wouldn't be meeting standards (certainly not for a starter) and it's unlikely he'd be showing much yearly progress. You might even go so far as to label him a failing player.

But we know from this article that Battier is a highly valued player and member of his team. If we based all of our judgements on his scores we would completely miss that.

This isn't to say that if you're looking for a player to draft out of college or trade for that you shouldn't be looking at things like points and rebounds. I am saying that you shouldn't base everything on a statistical line. Similarly, I don't know if we can look at schools, teachers, and students based solely on that line. There's too great a chance of missing something fundamental.

Speaking of things that over-rely on statistical data, Arne Duncan has said that he's open to renaming the No Child Left Behind Act. Almost immediately, Eduwonk opened a contest to re-name the law. It's definitely worth checking out. My favorite has to be: Double Back Around To Pick Up The Children We Left Behind Act.

UPDATE: Turns out this post had pretty much already been written by Matthew Ladner. Great minds ...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Achievement Gap Discovered

Add Florida middle schools to the list of locales that have officially discovered the achievement gap and are sweating over what to do about it. As last week's Orlando Sentinel reported, many middle schools are offering high school level classes to their students, giving them an opportunity to take more challenging course work. It turns out that those classes are made up predominantly of white students. And the achievement gap has been discovered.

Here's the part that makes me shake my head. Now that Florida officials have discovered the achievement gap, they're trying to decide what to do about it. One of the solutions they're apparently considering is doing away with this program. What? Talk about treating the symptom without going to the root of the problem.

The real issue (as I read the article) is not that this advanced classes program is so discriminatory in who it accepts that only white kids get in. Far from it. Rather, the problem is that by the time the kids reach the age of eligibility for the program there's already a gap in academic preparedness that favors white students. Getting rid of the program is not the answer, academic and social interventions that prevent the achievement gap from opening is where the answer lies.

Look at it this way. If I get on the scale and think that I weigh too much, I shouldn't just throw the scale out. I should focus on eating better and exercising more. Getting rid of the scale doesn't solve my problem, it just keeps me from being reminded of it.

Getting rid of these advanced level courses doesn't close the achievement gap, it just hides it. The real problem would still be there.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Failing Kids? Failing System?

The news has already made its way through a good portion of the educational blogosphere, but I wanted to dedicate a post to the Minnesota principals survey that found that 97% of principals don't think all schools will meet the federal NCLB standards by 2012. Even though this is almost certainly correct (the same survey found that less than 50% of the schools in Minnesota made adequate yearly progress last year), it's being seen as something big - we're just not exactly sure what. From my vantage point, there's three possible ways to read these results: a lack of faith in the kids, a lack of faith in the standards, or a lack of faith in the measurement.

The first and probably most serious reading is that principals don't think their children are able to achieve at baseline competency levels. It goes back to the idea that not all kids are able to achieve at a high level. This would be a major problem. If our educators don't think the kids can achieve, what hope do they have? I'm not saying that every kid should be expected to perform advanced calculus. Heck, I can't even do basic calculus (or even algebra after this long since a math class). But we do need to believe and strive so that every child attains a basic competency that will allow them to succeed in life. If this survey reflects an absence of that belief, then I'm very worried for the children of Minnesota. But maybe that's not it at all.

Maybe the results reflect a lack of faith in the standards. In other words, maybe the standards are set too high (or abstractly) so that kids who do have the skills needed to succeed in life still don't meet those standards. We have to be careful here because following that road could lead to infamous "dumbing down" which is the bane of education reformers everywhere. But maybe it's that the standards don't match the necessary life skills. Or maybe it's not that at all.

Maybe it's a lack of faith in the measurments (tests) themselves. That is to say that kids who are meeting the standards and can demonstrate it in their lives and in the course of normal classroom activities can't do so on the test. This would argue for a rethinking of how we measure academic competency in the classroom.

It's probably not as black and white as all that. Each of the 700 principals who answered the survey probably had their own indvidual reasons for doing so. Likely it was some combination of the factors I described above, but maybe they also had something entirely different.

However, from my perspective this is a cry for help. These are principals who honestly don't think that children across the state are going to be performing at the levels society expects of them in the next five years. Regardless of what their motivations for answering that way are, it's clear that something needs to be done. The principals are telling us that things now aren't working.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Big Ifs

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten had an op-ed in Monday's Washington Post making the case for national standards for learning. On the one hand, it was nice to see the union head making a stand for what is unquestionably a major education reform. Hopefully that at least sets back some of the union-as-obstructionist charges that we hear. However, the whole idea of national standards rests on a few very big ifs.

National standards do make a certain amount of sense if we're committed to a national program of testing and accountability. For better or worse, this does seem to be the road we're on in the NCLB era. We've seen what happens when the federal government says to meet standards, but then doesn't define what those standards are - it's the oft-cited race to the bottom. So if we're dedicated to this course, then national standards do make sense.

However, if we're going to set up national standards, we'll probably also have to set up a national standardized test. Weingarten makes the point that it would be unfair in football if teams had to move the ball differing yardage to gain a first down. True. She says that when states have different promotional standards you're getting the same effect. True. But unless we have a national test to measure these standards, then it will be like saying that every team has to go 10 yards but then letting each team measure 10 yards as they see fit. We'd end up with the same race to the bottom that we have now. This time it would be in testing instruments rather than the standards themselves. So if we want meaningful national standards, we'll also need a standardized national test.

And, of course, all of this only makes sense if we can set a good set of standards in the first place, which I'm not 100% convinced of. As we saw in Texas, there's a lot of potential for mischief in the process. Even if we brought in a broad-based group of "educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content" I am not convinced that we would be able to arrive at a single set of clear, measurable standards that would (and should) apply equally to every single student in the 50 states.

I should say here that I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of national standards. In many ways I think they could be an improvement over our current system of testing regime. However, there are some major ifs associated with pursuing this course. Until they are addressed I will continue to have my doubts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Governance is Just Governance

Even as New York is wrestling with what to do about mayoral control of the schools, other cities across the nation are considering adopting mayoral control in some form or another. The latest city to be considering taking the plunge is Milwaukee.

However, Milwaukee - not content to just jump right in and sort out the effects later - wants to see how it worked in other cities first. Thus, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation commissioned a report by the Public Policy Forum on mayoral control of major city school systems. Completely unshockingly, the results are mixed.

Here's a key sentence from the report to roll around in your mind a little bit. The report found that, "In the end, governance reform may result in improvements in a district's fiscal condition, but may not have sustainable impacts on student achievement, especially of low-income and minority students."

In other words, governance affects the administrative side of schools, but less so the pedagogical sides. Seems pretty obvious to me.

When we talk about mayoral control we talk about larger systemic issues that may or may not filter down into the individual classrooms. At the root, the level of success enjoyed by schools and school systems depends on the quality of teachers in the classrooms. Unless the mayor takes over control of each classroom, then we shouldn't expect achievement in those classrooms to magically reform itself on his or her whims.

That said, this is not to say that mayoral control isn't still a worthwhile structure. After all, a district in poor financial shape will have more difficulty providing teachers with the resources they will need to be successful. But Milwaukee (and New York) shouldn't expect some achievement gap closing miracle just because authority for the school system rests in City Hall.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning from Finland

Who would have guessed that Finland would be a world leader in educational achievement? Given that you almost never see the country in the news, apparently their world rankings on all sorts of measurements puts them at the elite level. They're in the metaphorical gifted and talented class for education. And now Texas school reformers want to see how they do it. (By the way, does it seem kind of weird that after years of implementing educational reform policies on the national level that have come out of Texas that they're just now looking to see what works in other countries?)

According to the Dallas News report on this meeting of the minds, Finnish schools hold three traits that the U.S. might do well to adopt.

1) Establish a single curriculum for all schools
2) Setting high expectations for all students and providing extra support for the students who need it to meet those expectations
3) Giving well-trained teachers (they all have masters degrees) the freedom to teach as they see fit

I have a few reservations about the first point and I'm not entirely sure how it would meld together with the third. But outside of that, I'm all on board with the Finns. Help kids meet high expectations. Let the educational experts (teachers) use what's best for their classrooms. These don't seem like revolutionary ideas, but maybe it'll take a bunch of Texans traveling to Finland to help make it happen over here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Experience, Inexperience, and Success

I was just reading yesterday another ringing endorsement for alternative teacher certification routes in a study that found that kids with alternatively certified teachers perform just as well on standardized testing as kids with traditionally certified teachers. As if often the case when we discuss these studies, let's assume that standardized test scores are an appropriate measure for student learning. The bottom line on this, then, would seem to be that being a teacher doesn't necessarily mean having a traditional background in education. Rather, anyone with the right disposition and the appropriate content knowledge can be just as successful as someone who's spent years learning the ins and outs of pedagogy and child development.

But of course, things are never that simple.

I read a study maybe a week ago now (and which after 30 minutes of searching every source I could think of still can't find the link to) that compared the levels of student learning in various traditional public, charter, and for-profit schools. As is often the case in these studies, the traditional public schools came out at the bottom of the totem poll of success. But even among those charter and for-profit schools (the ultimate in market-based educational solutions), there was variation. According to the research, the deciding factor of success is the level of educational experience and expertise of the people running the schools. That is to say, the people who knew about education did a better job running schools than the people who knew about administration.

Take that idealocrats.

So now we're in an interesting situation. On the one hand, research says that knowing about education is helpful for running a school/school system. On the other hand, research says that this background isn't necessarily so important if you're actually in the classroom. Does that seem backwards to anyone else?

I have a few guesses as to why that might be the case and most of them involve which curricula get picked and the mandates for how lessons and days should go. That said, I think that I would always err on the side of going to the educational experts. Why wouldn't you go to the people who know what they're doing?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are We Rome?

I've spent the last week reading a book about Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic. It was a fascinating book and throughout it I kept thinking, "Wow! This is just like what's going on in education right now." Seriously. Well, mostly seriously.

In the second half of the first century BC there was a general sense that Rome wasn't what it once was. Certainly, it was still the dominant force in the region, but it seemed to be on the decline and the problems that had likely existed for decades were starting to intensify and present themselves more urgently. Rome essentially split into three different camps. There was Julius Caesar and his followers who advocated radical reform of all of Rome's institutions. There were the conservatives in the senate who steadfastly opposed any reforms at all. And there were the moderates like Cicero who thought that the institutions of Rome were sound, but that the people running the institutions weren't doing a very good job of it.

Sound familiar?

In today's education debates you have the idealocrats and beyond who advocate all sorts of radical systemic change from abolishing teacher tenure to throwing open all schools to parental choice. I like to think of Michelle Rhee as the modern educational Caesar. Then you have the folks who say that the system is fine and we don't need to make any changes. (I don't actually know of anyone who says this, but if you listen to the rhetoric from the Caesers, you figure they must be out there.) Lastly, you have the Ciceros of the educational world who think that the overall system is sound, but that there are meaningful tweaks that need to be made (smaller class sizes, more professional development for teachers, greater investment in underserved communities). Count me as a Cicero.

Now, obviously the spectrum of radicals on either side with moderates straddling the difference is not unique to educational debates or to late Republican Rome. But I kind of like the light that this casts everything in.

As students of history know, Caesar ended up winning out in the end, but was assasinated for his efforts. Hopefully the parallels end before we reach that point.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Teach the Teachers

In our continuing quest to improve education for all across the country, recent reform efforts have spent a lot of time blaming teachers. Think about how often you hear about unions killing education reform efforts or protecting bad teachers who shouldn't even be in the profession. My personal take is that while there is certainly room for improvement in the teaching corps, the way to reach it is not to conduct some sort of purge. Why don't we focus on making the teachers we have better?

Turns out that the U.S. isn't so good at that. In a report from Stanford University and the National Staff Development Council, effective professional development must be "sustained, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement." When that happens, professional learning can have a powerful effect on student learning. That makes sense to me. Who's really going to argue that better teachers would be, well, better teachers? Unfortunately, professional development in the U.S. is "episodic, often fragmented, and disconnected from real problems of practice."

Think about the rhetoric you're hearing. Everyone agrees that good teachers produce good student learning. That's a given. With that as a given, which makes more sense? Should we fire every teacher who isn't a great teacher and launch a massive recruitment drive to hire an entire cohort of new teachers who will magically be better and more successful (presumably because they're being paid more and don't have tenure)? Or should we focus data-driven professional development that will turn the teachers we have into better teachers? Consider that there are over 3 million teachers in this country.

When we try to improve student outcomes, we work with the students we have, provide them extra support, and push them to achieve their best. We don't just try to expel them from school. All I'm saying is that we should extend teachers the same courtesy.

Friday, February 6, 2009

On Mayoral Control

The debate over mayoral control is in full swing. If I were going to testify at today's Assembly hearing on the topic, here's how my testimony would go:

Let me start off by saying that I reject as false any notion that the choice before us is between our current form of autocratic control by the mayor and a chaotic, bureaucratic mess incapable of effectively running the New York City schools. I agree that, on the whole, mayoral control of the schools is a good thing. However, absolute control is unnecessary and even counterproductive.

The goal of any governance structure must be to ensure that all children have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education that prepares them to be successful in their lives. In order to meet this larger goal a governance structure should meet three criteria:
1) There must be the opportunity for high levels of meaningful parental and community involvement.
2) There must be clear lines of accountability across the system.
3) There must be the authority to implement policies and reforms, even if they are not initially popular.

So then how does mayoral control as we currently know it stack up?

Well, it clearly succeeds on the second and third points. There’s no doubt that the lines of authority in the DOE run directly though the Chancellor to the Mayor. And the Mayor and Chancellor have left no doubt that they have the authority and willingness to implement sweeping changes in the schools as they see fit.

What is missing from this formula is the opportunity for parents and community members to have a real say in how their children are educated. People really do want to be involved. But instead of getting that opportunity, they are shut out behind layers of bureaucracy. Decisions are announced as final without any community input. Parents from across the city have told me how frustrating this is for them. I know. I feel the same frustrations myself whenever I try to work with the DOE.

We know that schools succeed when parents are included. Yet too often under mayoral control, parents have been excluded.

Some will say that we need to separate our views of mayoral control from our views of the mayor himself. They say that we shouldn’t let our judgments on the successes or failures of Michael Bloomberg’s time as mayor affect our judgment on the institution of mayoral control. To an extent, this is even correct. But I’m unwilling to ignore the weaknesses in the governance structure simply because they were exposed by the person doing the governing. We now know that it’s possible under the current structure for one person to have absolute control of the schools and to disregard the community’s attempts to offer constructive feedback. True, the next mayor may correct this error. But it may also get worse. Since we simply don’t know who will be in charge or what policies they will pursue, we need to ensure that our governance system protects the roles of parents and communities in making the decisions that affect our schools.

As I said before, I agree with the general framework of mayoral control and think that it should be preserved. But some changes need to be made to ensure that parents are included in a meaningful way.

First, members of the Panel for Educational Policy should be appointed to fixed terms. I agree with continuing the practice of having the mayor appoint a majority of the board. Anything less would not be mayoral control. However, PEP members have to have some measure of independence and be allowed to vote their conscience without fear of removal. As it currently stands, PEP members serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and can be removed at any time – or prior to any vote on which they disagree with the mayor. Allowing them some measure of independence will force the mayor to make his case for proposed policies rather than simply announcing them as a fait accompli. This will require the opening of a dialogue that has been sorely lacking over the previous seven years.

Second, there needs to be an increase in the mid-level authority of the community superintendents and community education councils. Under the current structure, all real decision-making abilities are centralized in Tweed, far away from community input. If we want to allow parents to have a say in how their schools are governed, we need to bring some of that governance closer to the schools and the parents. I am not advocating for a return to the totally decentralized community school board structure, but there should be Community Superintendents with real power and the ability to manage the day to day operations of their districts within the framework set at the city-wide level by the chancellor and PEP.

Third, we should increase community involvement in electing community education council members. Currently, CEC members are elected by select officers in the PTAs of the schools in the Community District. Voting eligibility could be extended to all parents in the school at a special PTA meeting. Expanding eligibility could give more parents a greater voice in the process. This, combined with an increase in community-level authority, will allow the CECs to provide a meaningful forum for community involvement.

If we know that schools succeed when parents are included, why would we allow a school governance structure that can exclude parents? Mayor control should be renewed, but it must be renewed with changes. Provisions must be added to the law that ensure avenues for meaningful parental involvement.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

Out in L.A. (as reported by Gotham Schools) they've discovered that practice makes perfect. The research out there is showing that the more periodic assessments students take, the better their test scores will be. Let's take a second and really look at this.

First, if we really believe that tests measure student learning and that more tests help kids do better on tests, then shouldn't we stop teaching and just give two or three periodic assessments each day?

Obviously, I'm being facetious here, but isn't that kind of the logical conclusion of the study? Or rather, given that it's being used to justify using increasingly scarce education funding to continue the testing battery, isn't that how it's being used?

I don't think that there's much question that doing test prep helps kids on tests. Just like doing more reading helps kids read and practicing the piano makes them better piano players. The more you practice on a specific skill, the better you get at it. That strikes me as self-evidently true. That's also what makes it kind of frustrating to see all this attention poured into testing and practice testing and practicing for the practice testing. All of this is time that could have been spent actually reading or doing math (not to mention things like art or music).

If practice makes perfect, shouldn't we practice the things that actually matter?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Lead Problem

File this under the "You can't blame everything on bad schools" folder. As I frequently write, putting all of the onus for improving student learning on the schools is not going to be as successful as we'd like. Surely, that's where most of the attention should be placed. It's also the lever by which other factors can be moved. But it is not, in itself, the sole answer.

Consider the findings set to be published this winter in the scientific journal Evironmental Research. According to the study's author, SAT scores over the past 50 years have tracked "incredibly closely" with concentrations of lead in children's blood. When lead levels go down, SAT scores go up and vice versa. According to the report, lead explains 45% of the historic variation in verbal scores and 65% in math scores.

Hard to blame the teachers unions for this one.

What this study points out is not new. It's pretty widely understood that lead is bad for kids and that it is linked to developmental delays of all sorts. However, if this study is to be believed, lead - something completely out of the hands of the schools - can have a huge impact on student performance even through high school.

I'd be interested to see if lead levels would also correlate to the achievement gap. It makes a certain amount of sense that students in poorer, more run-down areas might be exposed to greater levels of lead paint.

So what's the bottom line on this? Obviously, it doesn't mean that if we see an increase in the levels of lead in children's blood that the schools should give up until a new batch comes in with lower levels. But it does return us again to the inescapable point that trying to reform education by only reforming the schools is like trying to purify the air on one side of a screen door. It's going to take more.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

Unfortunately, I don't have any deep insights into politics or education or anything like that today. Instead, my thoughts are focused on the world of football where my hometown team, the Arizona Cardinals, blew it in the Super Bowl last night. That the Cardinals lost is not, in itself, surprising. Over the course of my lifetime, it's been one of the few things they've managed to do well. What makes this loss so different is that they were in the Super Bowl for the first time in history and they pretty much had the game won with less than 3 minutes left. And then they lost. After holding out such hope, it was snatched away at the last moment.

I'd say that it was a pretty good summation of what it's like to cheer for the Cardinals, but it really isn't. Usually it's not even close so there is no hope. It kind of sums up the entire experience of Phoenix sports. You have to look to the curse era Red Sox to find a team that so consistently comes so close without ever winning the big one. The Suns are the best example. The Diamondbacks are starting to establish themselves in that model (after winning the World Series a few years ago.) Add the Cardinals to the list now. It's sad to be a Phoenix sports fan.

So that's it. I'm not going to try to tie this into something deep about the nature of hope or anything like that. I just needed a day to whine. I'll be back in top form tomorrow.