Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be Nice to Your Friends With Green Sheets

Sorry that I haven't been posting much lately, but campaign season in New York City has officially begun so I've taken to the streets to petition for my preferred candidates.

Just a note on that, if you're walking the streets of the city and someone with a clipboard with green sheets of paper clipped to it, be nice to them. No snide remarks. No haranguing them about how it's early or wet or hot or cold or how busy you are and how much you hate them for interrupting your oh-so-important morning commute. Seriously. Just be nice. It would be great if you signed, but if you aren't interested, just say "No thanks" or "Not now." Maybe even a "Good luck" to give your karma a little boost. The people out there aren't trying to annoy you. They're just volunteers trying to help the democratic process. So cut them some slack. Especially if you happen across a tall thin guy with glasses. I know he'd really appreciate it if you signed his petition.

In the meantime, I'll be out there. I should be back by the end of next week and I've got some things to say about charter schools, school governance, and more. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Testing and the Real World

In Florida, they’re starting to question whether a relentless focus on standardized testing actually prepares children for the real world. Now this occurs to people? The testing regime in Florida has been in place for a decade now.

The questions, as presented in this article from the Sun Sentinel, seem to revolve around whether or not the tests actually foster the learning needed to become successful beyond high school. Fair question. After all, if we’re really going to be basing our system of education around test results, shouldn’t we be making sure that our tests actually tell us something?

For me, that’s the bottom line. I don’t mind teachers teaching to a test, as long as success on that test is a worthwhile end. I do have an issue if we’re focusing on preparing kids for the wrong things.

More than that, even, I object to the notion that tests and accountability are answers to educational problems. That’s simply not true. Even the best-designed assessment only assesses, it does not teach. Assessments can inform teaching, but they can’t do the job themselves. The real question is what do we do when we’ve determined which kids are learning and which kids are not. Giving another test and hoping the system corrects itself around the test isn’t much of a solution. Not in the real world, at least.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Premature Celebrations

When I was teaching in a Bronx middle schoo, I was always a little put off by the end of year celebrations that we threw for the eighth graders. There was a prom and a "senior trip" and a big graduation ceremony. I think when I graduated from eighth grade, my family went to celebrate at Applebee's.

I'm not opposed to celebrating the accomplishments of students, but I do think that the celebration should bear some relation in scale to the accomplishment. Frankly, graduating from eighth grade doesn't warrant that big of a celebration.

The Journal-Sentinel out of Milwaukee just ran an opinion piece on this point that got me thinking. The fact is, that for too many kids in Milwaukee and in the Bronx, eighth grade is the last educational milestone that they are actually going to pass. With the graduation rate at about 50%, middle school (at the age of 14) becomes the highest level of education that many students are going to obtain. That's awfully sad.

So does making a big deal out of eighth grade lower the bar? Does it say to kids, "You've really accomplished something here so you can stop now"?

I don't know. I don't think so. It certainly doesn't reflect well on the values and priorities of parents, but I don't think it actually makes the situation worse. In the scope of problems facing urban education, I don't think premature celebrations even cracks the top ten. That said, they aren't exactly among the solutions either.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Newest Dumbest Generation

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of having my generation called dumb. It seems like every few weeks I read some article about how the youth of American are the dumbest ever.

For the latest example, we turn to USA Today (that paragon of intellectual stimulation), which ran an article on a new book called The Dumbest Generation. The gist of the book is that the generation between the ages of 16 and 29 (of which I am a member) has been intellectually ruined by technology. Apparently my long exposure to the internet medium with all of its gizmos and gadgets has made me incapable of clear thinking or decent academic writing.


But don't worry, for balance, the article quotes someone else saying that youth today aren't dumb, we're just smart in different ways. Smart in different ways? With friends like that, who needs condescending academics? I reject this premise outright. I think it's just the latest example of adults complaining about "kids these days."

Whenever I hear a "kids these days" complaint, I always return to this quote:

"The youth of today love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Youth are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up food at the table, and tyrannize their teachers."

That's from Socrates, who lived about two and a half millennia ago. Kind of ironic to hear that criticism from him, given that he ended up being charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. But more than that, let's keep in mind to whom he might have been referring. After all, Socrates was teacher to Plato, the father of modern philosophy. Yet he was a member of the dumbest generation of that generation.

I guess it sells books and gives elders another reason to shake their heads. But for god's sake, quit calling me dumb. It's my little brother and his friends that we really have to worry about.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nationalizing the Standards

Right now, our "standards-based" system of "accountability" isn't particularly standard. Each state sets their own curricula and benchmarks and then tests kids with their own tests. Remembering that there's a financial incentive for states to do well on those tests, it becomes pretty clear where the race to the bottom comes in. If we're truly wedded to the idea of accountability and standards as measured through high stakes testing, the only way to really get it done is through a set of national standards. I'm not saying we should be wedded to that idea, I'm just saying if we are.

So it's with a mixed mind that I read reports earlier this week saying that the huge majority of states are banding together to create a common national set of curriculum standards. It was unveiled with a lot of hoopla, but I'll be curious to see how this goes.

First, as Eduwonk points out, this news may not be as sweeping as it first appears. The states have decided to try to work together to create the standards. So far, no one has opted into actually following the standards once they're created. As the Washington Post phrased it, "Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it." So we're a step along the way, but it's hardly a done deal that we're going to be seeing national standards coming soon to a state near you.

The bigger hurdle, of course, is actually agreeing on these things. They say that they're going to describe what the kids should know, not how they should be taught. That's supposed to sidestep those nasty debates like phonics vs. whole language. Of course, there's still plenty to fight about in terms of what it is that kids should know. The evolution vs. creationism debate springs immediately to mind.

There's also the point to consider that uniform standards don't mean a lot unless we have a uniform way to measure those standards. After all, if each state got to choose its own way to measure the standards we'd have a race to the bottom in test writing. So now we may be talking a national test.

The big question on the horizon, though, is what the next step is. Once you've got your uniform national standards in place and your uniform national test in place to measure the standards, what do you do? Saying that a school is failing and empirical evidence to back it up is all well and good. But isn't it more important to improve the schools rather than just label them? That improvement step is the one that tends to get left out of a lot of these discussions.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Education Marketplace

Education Sector has a new report out comparing DC charter schools to plans to bring more supermarkets and banks to underserved communities. The bottom line is that neither approach was the market-based salvation that they were meant to be.

In the case of the supermarkets and banks, they found that even with the new options available, people continued to go to the same old places, even though they offered little fresh food at higher prices. People had a better option available and for some reason weren't opting into it. The apparent value wasn't apparent for the members of the community.

The report compares what happened in that case to what's happening in the schools where an influx of high-performing KIPP schools has not created better public schools or even better charter schools from other providers. Critics might argue that via creaming, KIPP is taking the best kids and leaving the rest to drag down performance in the surrounding public schools. Setting aside that argument for a moment, there's something real to be said here about the market-based approach to school reform. Namely, that it's not all that successful.

As we've seen with the Milwaukee voucher program and now with the DC charter system, even if the private/charter schools provide good outcomes for those lucky enough to use them, they do not lead to a system-wide improvement in the quality of education being offered in those areas. Maybe it's because people aren't taking advantage (as in the supermarket case) of the better options available. Or maybe there's just something fundamentally different about schooling kids as opposed to selling them something.

I've written before that logically, the idea that markets will improve education makes sense. The evidence, though, seems to offer a different picture.