Friday, October 30, 2009

Everyone Wins?

When charter schools were first getting started, the argument for them was largely theoretical. It went along the lines that competition would urge everyone to do better, therefore we should have competition in our school system. It's a fairly reasonable argument as theoretical arguments go, so states started implementing charter programs, even without evidence that they would be effective. One of the benefits of the last several years is that we're starting to see research from those charter schools that did get started. Frankly, I'm glad for it because major policy decisions on education should be based as much as possible on evidence rather than theory and ideology.

So far, the evidence has been a bit mixed. Not terribly surprising given that in all systems some schools are going to be good and some are going to be less so. In addition to questions about whether charter schools are automatically going to be more effective than traditional public schools, there's a big question about what happens to the kids who stay at the public schools when a charter opens nearby. Now, as an iPhone ad might say, there's a study for that.

Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute (which does tend to lean rightward) looked at the "left behind" kids and actually found that they did better when more kids left for charter schools. For those of you who prefer primary documents, check out the study here. This "small but not insignificant" effect is enough for the editorial writers at the Daily News to declare that the "groundbreaking report demolishes the last argument of the dead-enders who refuse to acknowledge the remarkable promise of city charter schools." I don't know if I'd go that far, but it certainly is something that needs to be reckoned with.

Winters says that the reason for the improvement is that there's competition between schools and now all of the schools need to raise their game in order to stay competitive. That very well could be the case, but I don't know that he proves it with his research. He has certainly demonstrated an effect, but I don't know that he's demonstrated its cause. For instance, Leonie Haimson might argue that more kids moving to charter schools lowers class sizes for those "left behind" which would improve their classrooms performance.

The other question that occurred to me is whether or not the generally rising test scores across the state were taken into consideration and controlled for. It seems like that could skew results in favor of showing progress at certain schools (like the report showing that grades tended to improve at schools with the teacher bonus program in place) when the progress was really universal. I'm not a sophisticated enough reader of research papers to say whether it's accounted for or not or even if it would be relevant to the model. It's just a thought.

The bottom line is that we're now seeing a lot of charter research being released, which is a great thing no matter which side of the charter divide you find yourself on. I still hope that in future research we look at the whys as much as the whats. If we want to expand successes, we need to know what's working and why so we don't copy the wrong things.

P.S. Nicholas Kristof had a pretty good column in the Times yesterday about how we should be putting some of the money we're spending in Afghanistan into schools rather than just soldiers. He points out that schools are a powerful way to help transform a society. He also points out that al Qaeda understands that and is opening madrassas for just that purpose. Kristof writes, "It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists." Ouch.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dumbing in Des Moines

Regular readers may know that I'm not exactly Mr. Get-Tough-Raise-the-Standards-No-Excuses and that I think the phrase "dumbing down" is really just so much unspeak. But every so often, I see something that makes me think that the phrase may have some use after all. Take Des Moines. Please.

Seriously, though, the Des Moines public schools are considering reducing the number of credits needed to graduate in order to try to reduce the high school dropout rate. While reducing the drop-out rate is a laudable goal, I find myself questioning this particular method of doing so. Let's play a little bit of best case/worst case.

Best case, the school board has realized that their requirements are unrealistic/unreasonable and don't actually promote student learning. As such, they are adjusting the criteria for graduation to better reflect the needs of the students. Let's hope that's what is happening.

Worst case, the board has forgotten that a high school diploma does not have any real intrinsic worth and is using it as a replacement for actual learning. If the standards really are being dumbed down in order to ensure that more kids get a slip of paper saying they've graduated high school, it's a huge mistake. The slip of paper doesn't actually prepare you for the job. All the paper does is signify that you've done the work and learning needed to be successful beyond school. Raising graduation rates only means something if being a graduate means something. If everyone gets a diploma regardless of how much they've done or know, then what use is the diploma?

Truly, we are facing a drop out crisis across the country that needs to be addressed. But let's focus on early interventions, academic help, and things like that rather than making graduation easier. Dumbing down graduation standards doesn't actually help anyone. If that's the strategy, Des Moines might not be worth taking at all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Disheartening Finding

Public Agenda has some interesting research out where they surveyed about 900 teachers from across the country on their attitudes about teaching. They then broke the teachers up into three groups: idealists, contented, and disheartened. In what has to be considered troubling news, the largest group is the disheartened teachers (the breakdown is 40% disheartened, 37% contented, and 23% idealist).

I'm not one to go around blaming teachers for everything that's wrong with education. However, this is the kind of thing that has to make you stop and think. Are disheartened teachers really going to be as effective as contented teachers? Is someone who thinks it's a "wonder that more teachers don't burn out" really going to be the best person to have in the classroom?

A couple of points worth considering. First, disheartened teachers are much more likely than contented teachers to be teaching in low income schools. Naturally, this tends to be a more challenging environment, which probably has an effect on how teachers view their profession. Also, disheartened teachers are more likely to be negative about their principals and to say that discipline and behavior issues are problems at their school. Administrator support is also listed as a negative.

I'm a little curious about the chicken the egg relationship between the answers. I wonder if its negative conditions that make the teachers disheartened or if disheartened teachers are more likely to see the negative side of things.

Whichever it is, it's a problem when nearly half of teachers (a great percentage of whom are working with the neediest children) are unhappy with their jobs. Whether that means working to improve conditions in schools (which would be helpful) or whether it means removing teachers who don't belong in classrooms (which may be necessary), the status quo can't be allowed to stand.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arne and the Community

On Thursday morning, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that got to hear a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a Children’s Aid Society conference on community schools. It’s kind of hard to know where to start because he touched on so many different points (though seldom went into any real depth). That said, let me give it a try.

But first, I have to say how much I love the idea of community schools. Check out that CAS link above. The basic idea is that schools should also serve as community centers that are open after school to serve both kids and members of the community. Further, schools should be partnering with all sorts of social service providers to address all the components of being a child in poverty, not just the academic issues. Count me as one who’s 100% with that.

You can count Duncan too, based on his speech. Given that he was speaking to a room full of community schooling advocates, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising, but it was sure nice to hear someone in charge really seem to get the idea that there’s a lot that needs to be done to really help educate kids. As he said, “We’re fighting a tremendous number of battles as a society.” No kidding. As I’ve often written, the host of issues surrounding kids in poor communities goes far beyond what we think of as traditional educational issues. If we want to make a difference, we’ve got to look beyond the traditional classroom roles.

Part of the reason for moving beyond the traditional model is that the role of schooling has fundamentally changed. Namely, the stakes are a lot higher now. As Duncan pointed out, 30 years ago, there was such a thing as an acceptable dropout rate because people could work in factories or other similar jobs. That’s just not the case in today’s economy. As Duncan said, “Now there are no good jobs in the legal economy for high school dropouts.” The stakes are higher because every child needs to succeed in school. That means that schools need to find ways to reach every child, which means that they need to go beyond what they did in the past.

That’s where the community schools model comes in. It focuses on all aspects of a child and involves the community in solving what is essentially a community problem. It even begins to solve some of the problems in the community itself. I’m really excited by the bold idea of re-imagining what a school is in a modern community. I know I’m late to the party (again, check out the CAS link), but I’m happy to be here now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stimulus and Real Learning

Two quick thoughts for your Wednesday morning.

First, the next time someone tries telling me that the stimulus plan didn't work, I'm going to point out that 250,000 people employed in education wouldn't have jobs if it weren't for the stimulus. That's the number of education employees whose jobs were preserved by federal recovery aid, according to the Department of Education. Now, the wording leads me to believe that not all of them are teachers, but I think it would be fair to assume that a good percentage of that number are in the classrooms. The fact that so many districts are still in trouble and saying they may have to lay off teachers shows you how bad things are.

With all the focus on Wall Street and unemployment (both serious issues, to be sure), it's easy to look at the stimulus and say that it didn't work. But at the local level, the stimulus preserved so many jobs and programs that would otherwise have been cut. It's in the absence of massive negative changes that we see the positive effects of the stimulus. Say what you will about the price tag, but the stimulus saved local municipalities from going into a tailspin that would have proven nearly impossible to correct at any time in the near future.

Second, this is the kind of thing that more schools should be doing. I'm sure Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog will be covering this better than I will, so check out his site. The gist, though, is that a Harlem charter school takes their kids on a "field study" to a farm each year to learn about the animals so that they have some background when farm animal questions come up on the state tests each year. Note that rather than just try to teach kids better strategies for faking their way through the test, the school is actually exposing their kids to new knowledge that they likely won't find in Harlem. That's what school is all about. And in the end, I'm sure it will pay off in their test scores. Too bad more people don't see things that way.

I'm going to be at an event where Arne Duncan is speaking tomorrow morning, so check back in on Friday for some original reporting from Teachable Moment.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Few Nobel Thoughts

I know it seems like a long time ago now, but it was one week ago that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe you heard that some people were a little upset by that. It all seems so long ago now that a living, breathing Republican has voted for health care reform, but I've still got a couple of things to say about it.

Let me start off by saying that I don't think I would have given the prize to Obama this year were it up to me. That said, here are three thoughts to help keep things in perspective.

1. Obama did not ask for this.
It's not as if Barack Obama was out campaigning to win this award. In fact, it kind of hurts him domestically now that he did win. It seems like there was a lot of anger directed at the president for winning the award even though he didn't do anything other than be who he is and do what he does. Of course, that's often enough these days.

2. Having a liked a respected president used to be a good thing.
The other thing that's gotten lost in all of the outrage over this prize is that winning international recognition isn't a bad thing. It seems like there was a time when patriotic Americans would have been proud to have a president who is so obviously respected by the world community. That's not to say that the critics are unpatriotic, only to point out how far we've fallen.

3. You don't know who won the last Nobel Peace Prize.
Really, you don't. Think about it for a second. Nope, Al Gore was 2007. (To save you the trouble of Googling it, the 2008 winner was Martti Ahtisaari.) The point is, we tend to think of the Nobel Peace Prize as a kind of secular sainthood because of winners like Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr., but for the most part we don't really care that much who gets it. If we did, you'd know who Shirin Ebadi is. So let's get over all the outrage because it's not something we actually care about. It's not like he got an Oscar or anything.

The bottom line in my thinking is that this is another over-hyped outrage of the week kind of thing. It's sad we have to deal with stuff like this because, you may have heard, there are real issues out there.

P.S. My favorite line to come out of all the Nobel whining is this: Even ASU has higher standards than the Nobel prize committee. What can I say? It's funny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No Surprises

Last night was the first debate between Mike Bloomberg and Bill Thompson as the two campaign for mayor. I watched it (because that's the kind of guy I am) and wasn't terribly surprised by what I saw. Predictably, Thompson came out swinging in his first opportunity to confront the mayor face to face. Predictably, Bloomberg didn't really rise to the bait and tried to paint himself as the pragmatic problem-solver who's above the usual politics. So no surprises there at all.

Also, unsurprising was that education came up fairly often, even though nothing new was said. Bloomberg said that things are better now with him in charge of the schools than they were when Thompson was in charge. Thompson said that he actually did some good things, but that he wasn't ever in charge because, remember, no one was in charge under the old system.

That was one of two highlights of the debate for me because I think it means that Bill Thompson is reading my blog. I wrote a few weeks ago that he should say almost exactly that. I also wrote out an ad script that basically got turned into a question during the "cross examination" portion of the debate. And it actually hit home. When Thompson asked about all of Bloomberg's party switching and whether that represented just more politics, the mayor was noticeable uncomfortable. It was perhaps the only point of the debate in which he didn't seem to have a ready answer. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have thought of that, but I put it in print so I'm claiming full credit.

The bottom line (as both candidates seemed to enjoy saying) is that we didn't get anything last night we weren't expecting. Education is still an issue, but it's still a bludgeon. No new insights. No new programs. No new ideas. We'll see what happens on October 27th when they meet again.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Keep the Cap

I don't know if you've been following this story like I have, but some study just came out showing that Harvard students outperform students from other universities and that Harvard as a whole does a better job educating students. Naturally, this has given rise to calls for action. The one that's seems to be gaining the most steam is the call to open more Harvards. After all, if one Harvard does such a great job, imagine what would happen if we opened three Harvards or even 10 Harvards.

In case you haven't caught on, this is a set-up so I can talk about charter schools and the policy follow ups in light of the Hoxby report, which found that New York City charter schools consistently outperformed the city's traditional public schools. What made the Hoxby report so interesting was that its findings flew in the face of the results of a recent national study that found that most charters were as good or worse than traditional public schools, with a relatively small percentage outperforming their traditional peers. Hoxby's report seemed to buck that trend, at least in New York City. Hearing only what they want to hear and seeing only what they want to see, the charter school backers in New York declared that Hoxby's study proved conclusively that charters are always better schools and therefore we should have lots more of them. Calls began to remove the state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools permitted in New York (which currently stands at 200). I think that's it for exposition.

If all you know is the Hoxby report, it makes sense to want more charter schools. After all, apparently there's proof that they are better. This is problematized somewhat by the CREDO report which found that charter schools tend not to be better. What's missing from the discussion right now is someone pondering what it is about New York charter schools that makes them exceptional (assuming the validity of both the CREDO and Hoxby reports).

That brings us back to Harvard with the disclaimer that I'm working on logic here as opposed to solid research to back up what I'm saying. It's good logic, but it's not definitive nor should it be taken that way.

Part of what makes Harvard successful is that there's only one. Thus, that one Harvard is able to attract the best professors, the best researchers, and the best students (I'm not trying to get into an argument about creaming here, just stay with the analogy). If there were two Harvards, that pool of the very very elite would be diluted by about 50% at each individual Harvard. If you get to 10 Harvards (to say nothing of 200) you get even more dilution. What makes Harvard special is that there's one and they can make it the very best that it can be.

So now let's veer back into charter territory. It seems to me to be logical that when we cap the number of charter schools allowed in the state, we'll then end up with the 200 best charter schools that want to open. Just like Harvard will take the top professors and top students, the state will take the top schools. That makes sense. Doesn't it then also make sense that if we threw open the doors to everyone we wouldn't be getting the same quality? If Harvard let anyone who wanted to teach there actually teach there, do you think instruction would be of the same quality?

I've written before that I find it hard to believe that just having the label charter affixed to a school makes it a better school than one without that label. Maybe we should consider the possibility that the charter cap we have in place is helping New York's charter system by ensuring only the best get through and that lifting the cap could actually be detrimental. That may or may not be the case. But it sure seems logical.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What If They Don't Pick Right?

Policy makers and folks of their general ilk tend to assume that people will choose to do what's best for themselves if they have the opportunity and they have the information to ascertain what's best. Never mind that people smoking cigarettes (to say nothing of using illegal drugs) puts the lie to that assumption, it's still the general operating mentality. It's the same mentality that advocates for school choice, green vendor programs, and other social innovations designed to help people do what we assume they would want to do if they had the choice.

A study released yesterday from NYU and Yale puts the lie to assumption yet again. In July 2008, NYC restaurants had to start posting the calorie counts of their menu items right next to the item on the menu. The idea was that if I walked into a McDonald's I would know exactly how many calories were in a quarter pounder and, presumably, I'd then leave and go eat a salad somewhere. The only problem is that this study indicates that the program didn't work. In fact, it looks like people are ordering more calories in their meals after the counts went up, rather than less. Don't people just do the darndest things?

This is not, itself, an arguments against giving people more information and more choices. Neither of those are bad things. However, the idea that either or both is a panacea for whatever social problem we're trying to fix is simply false. Let's remember that before we put all our eggs in that basket.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Lighted Tunnel

The head of the Chicago teacher's union wants the city to create a new school for chronically disruptive students. As she says, "Teachers can't teach and students can't learn in a constantly disruptive classroom.” Hard to argue with that. However, my initial reaction is completely divided.

On the one hand, from my time in the classroom, I can think of a few kids whose constant misbehavior dragged down the entire class. It was the instigators who would send the whole class off the rails. There were the kids who were throwing books out the window, overturning chairs during group work time, and punching other kids in class. Clearly, the classroom culture would have benefitted from their absence. Their presence made it nearly impossible for those who wanted to do the right thing to actually have that opportunity.

On the other hand, I'm very leery about a program that could essentially consign those kids to the outskirts of the education system with no hope of returning to the fold and bettering their own lives. Removal from a regular classroom may be warranted. Placement in a pre-prison system is not.

The only way that I see this kind of program working is if the kids who are removed from their regular classrooms are given a fundamentally different educational experience. We can't just put all the bad kids together in one room and give them the same experience we would if they were in their old rooms. That obviously wouldn't work. It would probably make things worse. But if we instituted a system of intensive remediation, character building, possibly therapy, and a host of other supports we might actually get somewhere. To her credit, this seems to be what the Chicago union has in mind.

This kind of program can work. But it can only work if there's a light at the end of the tunnel for these kids. Simply banishing them isn't the answer.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Question of Why

Good news, people. A report out of the Center on Education Policy has found that the achievement gap is narrowing. Of course, it's not nearly that simple, but let's take a moment at least to bask in the very positive headline.

The study found that on the whole, the gap between minority and poor children and white and more advantaged children is less than it was. Furthermore, the gap closing seemed to be taking place largely because those at the bottom are gaining more quickly, as opposed to those at the top slowing down.

And now for the bad news. First, there's still an achievement gap and it's huge in some states (as much as 20 percent). Second, this report looks at state test scores and doesn't take into account the lack of progress on achievement gap closing as its shown by NAEP scores. Also, while the gap narrowed 58 percent of the time (across all of the studies trend lines), the gap increased 37 percent of the time.

The picture gets bleaker pretty quickly, doesn't it?

The next step that these researchers never seem to take is to look at why this might be happening. I get that the study I'm asking for would be infinitely more complicated. I really do understand that. But it also seems like it would be worth it. As it stands, we're looking at data and saying, "Wow, that's great that the achievement gap is closing (except where it isn't). Let's make sure all schools are doing that. Oh wait. We don't know what's actually making the difference. Let's open more charter schools." At least, that's what I'm hearing policy makers say. Maybe you're hearing something different.

To sum up, let's celebrate those 58% who are successfully working to close the achievement gap. But let's not celebrate for too long. After all, for another 37%, the problem is getting worse and we don't really know what's making the difference either way.