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.