Friday, July 31, 2009

More Than Parity

One story I've been following with a mild degree of interest is the controversy over PTAs hiring teaching assistants in their schools. Apparently, for the last several years, certain well-to-do schools - mainly on the Upper East and Upper West sides - have been using PTA money to hire extra staff for their schools. The teaching assistants don't engage in instruction, but they are another set of eyes, ears, and hands around the classroom.

Frankly, the idea seems pretty good to me. The only problem is that the teaching assistants were not unionized, which brought about a complaint from the UFT, which brought about a change in policy from the DOE, which set off a lot of upset parents in those neighborhoods.

The disturbing thing to me has been the backlash against these parents who are trying to do the best they can for their children. As one woman wrote to the New York Times, "Thank you to the United Federation of Teachers for trying to level the learning field. "

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all about closing the achievement gap, but this is ridiculous. We should be trying to close the gap by bringing up the poor schools, not by bringing down the good schools. That's a solution out of Stephen Colbert's head. (Seriously, it is. Here's the link.)

We have to keep in mind that our goal is not just educational parity. Our goal is the best possible education for every student. That includes the rich kids. So while we should focus our efforts on raising the level of achievement for those on the bottom end of the spectrum, our efforts should not try to limit the options available to those on the top end.

Also, for what it's worth, it looks like they may have found a solution (to the teaching assistants issue, not the achievement gap. We're still working on that one.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Neighborhood Matters

I've got some food for thought this morning. According to a Pew Center study (as reported in the Washington Post), a hugely determinative factor in individuals' future earnings is the income level of the neighborhood in which they grew up. That is to say that people who grew up in neighborhoods with high poverty levels tended to be poor themselves when they became adults, regardless of their incomes while they were living in the community. Thus, middle class blacks (the focus of the study) who live in high poverty neighborhoods are more likely to have their children lose income as adults than middle class whites who don't live in poor neighborhoods.

That's a really fascinating finding to ponder. It's essentially saying that the neighborhood is more powerful than family influence.

The study doesn't go into what exactly causes the neighborhoods to have such a large (and negative) influence. Some of the immediate culprits that come to mind are schools, crime, peer groups, or just the general culture. It's possible that focusing on any one of those elements would bring about change, but I kind of doubt it. I continue to maintain that if we're serious about fixing urban poverty, we need to address all elements of it. That means more than opening a charter school or flooding an area with cops. If we really want to address urban poverty, we need to change how life fundamentally works in the ghettos. We need better medical care, more child care, job training, improved education, and more. Anything less and we're just sliding backwards.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What Massive Collapse?

On the Economix blog on the New York Times website, they've posted a challenge from Andrew Coulson, the director of education policy at the ultra-conservative (getting into libertarian) Cato Institute. He writes:

I’ve been claiming for some time (most recently in IBD) that K-12 education has suffered a massive and unique productivity collapse over the past 40 years: student achievement has been stagnant at the end of high school (see the NAEP [National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test]) and graduation rates have actually declined slightly (see James Heckman’s work), despite a more than doubling in real expenditures per pupil.

But some have challenged the claim that this economic catastrophe is unique to education, so this morning I decided to challenge readers of the Cato Institute’s blog to present an example of another field that has suffered the same productivity collapse. So far the most promising contender is live theater, but after looking into it, I find it doesn’t hold up.

Since Economix has a great many well-informed readers, and ones who are perhaps less predisposed to think ill of public schooling, I’m writing to enlist your help. Would you be willing to pass along my challenge to your readers? I’ll look into the most promising candidates suggested, and will publicly acknowledge any “winners” (i.e., fields that have seen productivity cut in half, or worse, since 1970).

Sorry to quote so extensively, but I wanted to give you the full picture of what we're discussing here. The thing is, I don't know that this "massive and unique" collapse in productivity is really born out by the facts as we know them. In fact, I think that the very premise is self-contradictory.

Let's assume that Coulson is right and that no major industry has suffered a massive productivity collapse over the last 40 years. (I've actually written before with some evidence that we have one of the most effective, efficient, and innovative economies in the world.) That would seem to indicate that the people working in these industries are (at least) competent at what they are doing or they wouldn't be able to maintain their level of productivity.

Now the question becomes, where do those people come from? Presumably, at least some of them had to have gone to American public school during the last 40 years. I think it's likely that most of them did, in fact. Thus, it would appear that the education system is able to continue to produce a workforce that meets the needs of our society and our economy. If we measure productivity by output, that seems to belie the assumption that education has suffered from a massive collapse.

To be sure, there are certain areas (notably poor urban neighborhoods) where the system is failing spectacularly. However, it's a fallacy to generalize those failures to the entire system.
The bottom line is that the education "industry" feeds into every other industry you can name. If there were truly to be a massive collapse in education, you can be sure that it wouldn't be unique.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Turnaround Artist

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone on record as saying that his goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest achieving shools in the country. Under the "rising tide lifts all boats" thinking, focusing on those bottom tier schools would bring about the greatest and most effective change for the entire system. I'm a huge supporter of this plan. I think that when you're trying to fix something (like an education system) it makes sense to focus on where it's broken.

A recent article in Education Week highlights educators who are asking if such an enormous goal can actually be achieved. To my way of thinking, that means that it's a good goal. If everyone said, "Yeah, we can do that," it probably means that the bar is set to low and you have an order rather than a goal. If everyone freaks out and says that it's impossible, you have to start considering whether you're too pie in the sky. But if people are questioning whether the goal is to big, it means that they think it might be able to be done, but aren't sure if it will actually work. To my way of thinking, that's exactly the range that goals should fall into.

The bigger question even than whether we can do it is how we're going to do it. Duncan's plan calls for turning around the schools through changes in leadership, staffing, and structure (i.e. traditional public vs. charter). That's one way of thinking about it, but I'm not sure if it's really going to get the most bang for the buck.

The fact remains that zip code is the most defining predictor of educational quality in America. Live in a good zip code and you're well-educated. Live in a poor zip code and the education you get reflects that. Obviously there are bad schools in good neighborhoods and excellent schools in bad neighborhoods. But if you were to boil it all down, zip code is what you're left with.

Given that the realities affecting education are bigger than what happens in schools, efforts to afffect a real turn around also need to be bigger than schools. Certainly schools should be part of that picture, but the reform can't stop at the school house gate. When we get serious about improving all the aspects that affect children's lives, we'll start seeing serious improvements in our education system. It's a big goal and I don't know whether we can achieve it, but I do know that we sure have to try.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Playing Politics

Yesterday, Comptroller Bill Thompson (who is running for mayor) released a report essentially saying that the graduation rate in New York isn't as great as the Bloomberg administration is saying. The "blistering audit" (seriously) looked at a sampling of student transcripts and found that 10% of their sample didn't indicate that students had met the graduation requirements. For instance, there was no record of passing the required regeant's exams or students were given multiple credits for passing the same course two or more times.

In other words, the numbers on the graduation rate may be a little bit doctored. That the Bloomberg administration may be cooking the books a little bit on this stuff is not exactly a novel concept. In fact, that's been one of the more frequent complaints about Bloomberg and one of the reasons that the Mayoral control bill that passed the Assembly (but famously not the Senate) gave oversight over educational data to the Independent Budget Office.

In responding to the Comptroller's audit, the Mayor's campaign spokesman said:

“Instead of politicizing the comptroller's office with phony attacks, Mr. Thompson should be explaining his own failed record on education. The facts are clear: When Bill Thompson ran the old dysfunctional Board of Education graduation rates were flat and dropout rates increased. Under Mike Bloomberg's leadership, graduation rates have skyrocketed and dropout rates have fallen. Bill Thompson had a chance to help oversee our schools and he failed. Why would we ever want to go back again?”

What struck me about the response is that there is no attempt to rebut Thompson's findings. The attack here presupposes that he's wrong and that the graduation rate really is better under the current administration. Otherwise, the comparison to Thompson's tenure as BOE chair is meaningless. (Note: Later in the day, there was a rebuttal to the methodology of the audit.)

At this point, the discussion (if it can be called that) has devolved into a round of throwing accusations about who's "playing politics" with education. The answer is obvious - they both are. And that's really part of the problem here.

The good thing about mayoral control is that it is designed to give accountability to the mayor for the school system. Whether this happens in practice or not is less clear, but that's the idea. However, when a politician (or anyone) is going to be judged on something, they're going to want to make sure that they make that look as good as they can. Given the deep problems of education that likely will require long term solutions, a politician caught in a four year election cycle is going to be reduced to spin and cosmetics. Maybe the long term solutions will be put in place too, but the focus is going to have to be on what's going to look good immediately.

As long as we're looking for quick fixes for deep, entrenched problems we aren't going to get where we need to be.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Troubling Standards

The drive to national standards is making some more headway with members being selected to start sussing out what students should know and when they should know it. Of course, you didn't think it would be easy, did you? Because as soon as progress starts getting made, in comes Texas, again, with what is hopefully cause for pause.

Last we saw the Texas standards it was because they were trying to make sure that creationism was being taught alongside evolution in science classrooms. Having worked their magic on the science curriculum, they're now eyeing social studies. Members of the Texas Board of Education are seeking to revise the social studies standards to "emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history." This extra emphasis would apparently come at the expense of such figures as Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall who have apparently not contributed much to American history.

Without getting into a discussion of whether or not emphasizing the Bible and Christian faith actually contributes to a significantly better understanding of American history, you can see how this is the kind of thing that can happen should we really go down the road of national standards. Interest groups are always going to try to press their advantage and national educational standards are going to be a major platform upon which we're going to see a series of bitter fights in the "culture wars." Agree or disagree with this one, who knows what the next major thrust is going to be. Unless we start figuring out now how much ideology we're going to include in the standards (and how realistic it is to try to exclude ideology) we're going to see a string of bitter fights that are always going to undermine the standards on one side or the other.

Of course, Texas hasn't signed on to agreement to push for national standards. So maybe they can keep their cultural battles to themselves.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Unspeak Bonanza

Well, it's Friday and the Daily News has come through with an educational unspeak bonanza. Unspeak, you may recall, is the art of making an argument without actually making an argument. It's about picking language that seeks to preclude any disagreement (think "support the middle class," whatever that means). Education is chock full of unspeak and the Daily News tapped into the motherlode this week.

In the article, "test experts" say that the tests being given to city kids are getting easier, which means more kids are passing and moving on to the next grade. In other words, standards are being dumbed down to undermine accountability and that's leading to social promotion. Holy unspeak!

Frankly, I don't habe the background or the data in front of me to agree or disagree with the claims. DOE says that the tests have gotten harder so they're requiring fewer correct answers to show proficiency. Critics say that it's a game to make the schools look better and reflect more favorably on the Mayor (juking the stats, as they'd say in The Wire).

That said, it sure does look bad. According to the story, on this year's test kids needed to answer 28% of questions correctly to be judged proficient. When you remember that these are multiple choice tests with four possible answers (and thus someone who guesses randomly on every question should figure on answering 25% of the questions correctly) that seems pretty low. A slilghtly lucky kid could simply guess his way to proficiency.

I guess the real question here is whether standardized testing is really the best way to assess standards. Unspeak though they may be, I agree that there needs to be some baseline of what kids should learn in school. I just doubt the bubble filling and all the drama and juking that comes with it is really the best way.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tutor the Obese

The latest from the correlation is not necessarily causation department comes from the New York City DOE, who have released a report saying that physical fitness is associated with higher academic achievement. In short, kids who are obese do less well on tests and in school than kids who are more physically fit. As Deputy Chancellor Taveras said, "The clear associations between fitness and academic achievement highlighted in the report underline the importance of educating the whole child."

Let me start by saying that I am all in favor of educating the whole child. But then let me say that extra P.E. classes are not likely to boost reading levels. The kids may end up being more fit, but does that in itself actually make them smarter or better educated?

It seems much more likely to me that the parents who are ensuring that their kids are eating right and getting proper exercise are the same ones who are checking up on homework and attending parent/teacher conferences. Involved parents are involved in lots of different aspects of their children's lives and that does make a difference.

I think what's missing here is the now what? component. Should we increase physical education time? Do we try to educate kids and parents on nutrition? Do we focus academic remediation on the fat kids in the hopes that it will make them thinner?

Because the link here is only correlative (and can really only be correlative) there's not much offered in the way of next steps. In other words, it's interesting, but not particularly helpful.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Don't Forget the Rest

Sometimes seeing what a report says and seeing what it actually says are two different things. Then, knowing what to do about it is something else altogether.

A few weeks ago, the New School's Center for New York City Affairs released a report that basically says that while New York's small high schools movement has made things better for kids at the small schools, it's made things worse for the kids at the big schools. This feeds right into the idea that small schools, charters, etc. take the top kids for themselves and leave the troubled kids, ELLS, and the rest in the other schools. That seems to be what the report is saying.

But what is it really saying?

If you really look at the results here, the conclusion you almost have to draw is that schools don't matter. The good kids do well and the less good kids do less well. When you take the good kids and put them all together at a small school, they do better. When you take the less-good kids and put them all together at a large school, they do worse. In neither instance does the school and the education being provided there seem to be the deciding factor. Rather, it's the sorting that makes the difference. And that's a really depressing thought.

I'm not one to say that schools and schools alone can reverse the achievement gap and all of society's wrongs. I think you need major investment and changes in communities to really achieve that. But I also think that schools can and should play a big part in that change. I would even go so far as to say that schools play an integral role in that process. So what to do about this report?

As always, the "what next?" is the hardest part. All I can offer for guidance is that you'll know we're serious about fixing education in this country when we stop focusing on efforts that benefit only a few in need while leaving the rest behind and start focusing on efforts that help everyone who needs it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Where to Focus

Even though the New York Times employs David Brooks as a columnist, sometimes they hit the nail right on the head with their education writing. It doesn't happen a lot, but it has been known to happen.

Their editorial from last Monday is a great example. Here's the key passage, at least for me:

"The secretary should focus intently on the dropout factories, the relatively small number of schools that produce so many of the nation’s dropouts. Efforts at especially difficult schools will need to include social service and community outreach programs, modeled on those already in place in the Harlem Children’s Zone in Upper Manhattan."

In other words, let's really make sure that we focus our attention on the schools that need our attention.

In the world of education reform, we spend so much time thinking of ways to reform the entire system when, perhaps, the entire system doesn't need that much reform. After all, as the Times points out, half of the country's drop outs come from 12% of the schools. Rather than focusing on reforming every single school, we could focus on about one in every 10 schools and cut our dropout rate in half. That strikes me, at least, as a pretty good reward for effort ratio.

It's never going to be easy, even if we were to focus exclusively on those schools that most need it. However, addressing the problem directly seems more promising than taking the shotgun approach and hoping we hit something.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Quality, Not Governance

Despite the hype surrounding charter schools and voucher programs (aka the saviors of education) the data just doesn't seem to be there.

Take charter schools. A report out of Stanford University found that over 80% of charter schools did no better or worse than public schools. In fact, while 17% of charter schools did significantly better than traditional public schools, 37% performed significantly worse. In other words, for every charter school success story, there are two charter school failure stories, not that the media ever sees fit to mention them. (Don't worry KIPPsters, I'm sure you're in the good 17%.) The real story, though, is that most charter schools perform at an equivalent level to the traditional public schools from which they draw their students. No better, no worse.

Same story with vouchers. Research out of Florida found that students who entered the Florida voucher program didn't do any better in school than students who were eligible for the vouchers but opted not to participate. It's apparently cheaper to do it via the voucher program, but not more effective.

So what's the bottom line here? What this data boils down to is that good schools are good schools and bad schools are bad schools and it doesn't really seem to matter what system of governance you have in place for the schools. Charter and private schools via vouchers don't lead students to magically outperform public schools. Rather than rant and rave about how we need to create more charter schools or give more private school vouchers because they're the silver educational bullet, let's instead look at what makes good schools good. Whether we find examples of good schooling in private, public, or charter schools let's find the good parts and reproduce it as best we can. It's not charter schools that make the difference or private schools. It's good schools. And those can come from anywhere.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Education of Fear

Well, I'm back and not a moment too soon. Things in New York education have been getting pretty interesting. The country's most dsyfunctional legislature is running up the score and still haven't been able to get their act together for long enough to actually meet as a body. As those of you getting robocalls like I have already know, the Albany debacle meant that mayoral control of the schools sunsetted, reverting the school system back to the old school board-run system.

Now this is where it gets interesting because nothing really changed. The Board of Education convened and was pretty well stacked with mayoral allies (three deputy mayors are board members). In their meeting, they basically said Joel Klein is still Chancellor and everything he said is still the rule. So not that much changed. Regardless of your views on the job that Klein and Bloomberg have done on the schools, you kind of have to admit that it's better to have clear authority on this right now rather than throw the whole system into disarray and uncertainty for however long it takes the state senate to remember how to play well in the sandbox together.

However, the lack of chaos also hurts the Mayor's arguments about how vital it is to renew Mayoral control. You may recall that Bloomberg proclaimed there would be rioting in the streets and (bizarrely) an institution of the Soviet Union in New York if mayoral control lapsed. I haven't seen any riots yet, but is listing a 20% chance of Soviet Union in the afternoon today.

The bottom line, though, is that when you try to scare people into doing something and they don't do it and nothing really scary happens, you're in a worse position. Now, I believe that while things are going smoothly now, such is not always going to be the case under this new (old?) system and there may be real crises ahead of us. But we need to face those as they are, not as some trumped up educational boogie men that we should all be afraid of. In the end, that approach doesn't end up benefitting anyone.