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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where's the Middle Ground and Outrage?

Do you ever get the feeling that we're missing the middle ground when we have educational debates? I do sometimes. It seems like two camps stake out diametrically opposed positions and miss the fact that there's probably a significant amount of common ground in between.

Take promotional requirements for example. In Memphis, the city schools have banned flunking (and then retaining) students in pre-kindergarten through third grade. (If you really read the article it's not quite as touchy feely as it sounds.) Then, in New York City, the Mayor (with his recently renewed control of the schools) is looking to end - unspeak alert! - social promotion in fourth and sixth grade.

It seems like there should be a middle ground here between never retaining a child and always retaining children if they don't meet standardized test score cut offs. What about looking at each child on a case by case basis and determining what's best for that child? Sometimes it may be retention. Other times it may be promotion with heavy interventions and extra help. This all or nothing, black and white stuff just wears a little thin.

Of course, if a child can't pass the standardized tests in New York, maybe they do deserve to be retained. As reported by Gotham Schools last week, the scoring of the ELA test is done in such a way that a student who knew nothing and guessed randomly would likely (57%) pass the test with a level two.

Have I mentioned before that "accountability" definitely falls into that unspeak buzzword bin?

Let's just stop a moment and consider this information, though, because I think it's really stunning. We're basing a whole system - promotional criteria, curriculum, data systems, school report cards, mayoral campaigns, etc - around test scores that are supposed to measure what students know and how much they're learning. But the tests may be beaten by a student who randomly guesses all their answers! I know I've been out of town for the last two weeks, so maybe I missed it, but shouldn't there be outrage about this?

Oy. It's good to be back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Honeymoon Period

I remember very well the so-called "honeymoon period" of my time in the classroom. It lasted about 15 minutes on the first day of the year. I'm hoping, though, that a real honeymoon is far better.

I'm getting married this Saturday and will be on my honeymoon for the two weeks after that, so don't expect any posts during that time. But I'll be back in action on August 26th with all sorts of stored-up insights. Happy times to everyone until then.

Monday, August 3, 2009

More Politics

A few weeks back, I wrote a post on who was playing politics with education in New York. My conclusion was that it was everybody and so it was kind of useless to try blaming one person more than another. Since that time, Mayoral-candidate Thompson wrote a column on Huffington Post provacatively entitled, "Why Joel Klein Should Be Fired." The bottom line, in Thompson's analysis, is that Klein "has consistently embraced measures designed more to sell the idea of a system helping our students to attain critical achievement goals than to target those goals directly."

Pretty serious charges, though hardly unique to the Comptroller. Still, it gets to the heart of what is wrong with a lot of educational policy in the city and in the country.

I've been reading Fist Stick Knife Gun by Geoffrey Canada lately and it's pretty good. In one of the chapters he laments that we have "an American tendency toward quick-fix solutions to complicated problems." In other words, we throw a new system into place and expect it to work miracles on a problem that far exceeds the scope of our problems. Consider the New York school system. The impediments facing kids in trying to seek a good education are huge and far-ranging. They can include poverty, lack of health care, lack of basic social services, a values system that does not always include education, poor school facilities, poor school faculty, and more. It's going to take something more than empowering principals and instituting all sorts of measures of accountability to turn problems like that around.

Even so, the expectation is that we get solutions. So we need to see progress. So, lo and behold, the test scores start showing progress. Maybe the tests are easier. Maybe test prep factories are making the difference. Maybe kids actually are improving.

The problem is that we're more focus on making it look like kids are improving because that's what people are demanding. The kind of systemic reform that will actually bring about lasting and positive change would take years to implement. We'd be turning around decades of a growing problem. That's not going to happen overnight.