Monday, November 30, 2009

A Different Track

Louisiana schools have been garnering some controversy for their plan to introduce a "career diploma" for students who aren't likely to be attending college after high school. As I understand it, the first two years of high school would be pretty much the same for everyone. After that, there's a split. Those on the college track would be moving through more advanced courses in the basic core subjects. Those on the career track would be taking more electives that would prepare them for future careers, presumably in manual trades.

I think the controversy is pretty well summed up in these two quotes. An opponent says:

“This policy creates a path to lowered expectations and diminished opportunities for some students, and we know from experience in other states that ‘some’ often means low-income students, and students of color.”

In contrast, a supporter of the new track says:

“How much lower is your standard for that student that you push out and put on the street? You tell me how we’re lowering it any lower than that.”

And that's pretty much the crux of the argument. Are the standards being lowered for kids who could succeed if they were just pushed a supported a little more or is this providing a meaningful alternative for kids who will otherwise get little meaning out of their "education"?

Of course, this all comes down to how well it's executed. That's always the case. Provided that it is done well and used appropriately, I don't see anything wrong with letting kids who want to be electricians or auto mechanics or any of those trades start preparing for their careers rather than force them into classes that don't mean anything to them. This plan is absolutely compatible with a viewe of education that is about preparing kids to succeed in the world. However, if this career track is a mere dumping ground, then it's a big problem.

So much depends on execution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I was going to write a post about the various things (educational and otherwise) that I'm thankful for this year. But rather than indulge my maudlin impulses, let me just wish you a happy Thanksgiving. See you again on Monday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Race to the Bottom Line?

On the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio already (pretty hilariously) portrayed the Race to the Top guidelines as a teacher finding kids ready to line up - “Oh, I like the way California is linking teachers and test scores! You too, Indiana and Wisconsin! What an excellent job you’re doing! Uh-oh, Nevada is definitely not ready!" A recent article on Slate does a comparable (though less entertaining) take on the subject by raising two questions that should be on the minds of every teacher who's ever tried to incentivize/bribe a class to do something. Namely, what happens to the ones who don't win and why will good things continue to happen after the reward has been withdrawn? Excellent questions, both.

The point of the article is not that Race to the Top is totally flawed and not worth doing - at least that's not how I read it. Rather, it's a call for looking at the next steps. If we reward the states that are already doing well, then what do we do for the states that most need the help because they are struggling? And what do we do to continue to incentivize those states that initially win money but are now presumably supposed to continue on with their very expensive reforms.

(Just for the sake of the argument here, let's assume that all of the Race to the Top guidelines are perfect and what every state should be doing. I don't know if I totally agree with that, but let's say so for the argument.)

In other words, the way it is structured now, the Race to the Top will initiate a burst of reform from a section of the country, but will likely not be sustained or imitated by those states that aren't part of the initial burst. At least that's the argument on Slate. As the author writes, "The behavioral economics [of Race to the Top] don’t pan out."

Partly that's correct and partly it's not. Truly, these are expensive reforms that the Obama administration has in mind and given that just about everyone is looking to cut education budgets, it's a bad time to be starting expensive efforts unless you have a ton of federal money helping you out. What I don't quite believe, though, is that the only reason states will continue these reforms - or continue to try to imitate them - is the federal money involved. The problem with economics is that it just looks at the money and thinks that everything is explained. However, this analysis overlooks the fact that states may in fact want to improve the education they are providing to children even independent of the federal money. There's a goal beyond profit here. Forgetting that would be a mistake.

The bottom line (something economists love) here is that there are big questions about Race to the Top that should be thought about and addressed. But they are not fatal flaws and there's still plenty to be hopeful about.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Worse Than We Thought

Every so often a major newspaper discovers (or rediscovers) that there is an educational achievement gap in this country that breaks down along racial and class lines. This week, it was the New York Times making the discovery as they wrote that the high school progress report grades broke down along racial and class lines. To whit, predominantly white middle class schools got higher grades than predominantly poor minority schools. On the one hand, this is hardly shocking. On the other hand, it's worse news than it first appears.

First, a note about the progress reports. They've rightly been much-mocked for their panglossian view of the New York City schools. And I'll admit that I've been known to join in. However, that mocking actually kind of misrepresents what it is that the reports are actually designed to do. There reports are not like a progress report that a child brings home from school, which is really an interim report on how close that child is to meeting an ultimate objective. Rather, the school progress reports are literally reports on progress. Earning an A doesn't mean that the school is an above average school. It could still be a bad school. However, it does mean that the school made an above average amount of progress on the state tests. This is a distinction that gets lost when just about everyone (DOE included) talks about the progress reports. Again, these reports are not supposed to indicate where a school stands against an absolute standard, but rather how much progress the school is making toward bettering itself.

(Just for the sake of time and brevity let's set aside for the moment a discussion about the flaws in the system that relies upon a single year of test scores to come up with a score, though that conversation is definitely valid and worth having.)

Let's get back to the fact that the progress reports are designed to measure school progress and not the absolute quality of a school. When we keep that in mind, the achievement gap the Times discovered is almost more troubling.

It's not news that poor and minority schools face huge challenges and tend to come in behind their whiter and more affluent peers on absolute standards. It would be big news if that weren't the case. However, after years of education reforms on a variety of fronts, we'd at least like to think that we're moving in the right direction on these schools. However, the reports on progress seem to indicate that this is not happening. Instead, the schools that need to be making the most progress are in fact making the least. Think about this for a second. Even when we all but discard absolute measurements and focus on the relative scale of "progress" poor and minority schools lag behind.

I always hesitate to throw around words like disaster and debacle, but every so often I feel them creeping into my vocabulary. This may be one of those times.

In the rush to discredit and defend the progress reports (depending on who's speaking), we've lost sight of the fact that there actually is some news we can glean from these reports. And the news is not good.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ups and Downs

Arizona, when its elected officials aren't saying moronic things, is the undisputed charter school leader of our country. The state boasts 500 charter schools, which account for 25% of the public schools in the state and 10% of the student population (class size comparisons, anyone?). Seems like this should have rocketed Arizona to the top of the state rankings, right? Well, the only problem is that the state's charter schools don't show as much academic progress as the state's traditional public schools. At least, that's what a study out of Stanford University found.

Now, in fairness, apparently the charter supporters are saying that the methodology of the report is flawed. So let's mark the findings with an asterisk for now. But what the sides both seem to agree on is that the quality of charter schools varies widely. No kidding.

For some reason, the real diehard charter supporters seem to think that all charters are always better than all traditional public schools. Even in the face of evidence that it simply isn't true. And it's obviously not true. It doesn't even make sense. Rather, there are some charters that are excellent schools. Just as there are some traditional public schools that are excellent. Likewise, both have their duds. What makes a school good is not that it has a charter label affixed to it. That's ultimately just a label. As I've said before, we should stop focusing on the labels and start focusing on what actually makes schools good and successful and replicate that in as many schools as we can so that all schools can be good schools. Charters can certainly be part of that picture, but they are not a complete answer in themselves.

I also want to draw attention to a line from the Washington Post article linked above that says, "But the state also offers a cautionary lesson as President Obama pushes to dismantle barriers to charter schools elsewhere: It is difficult to promote quantity and quality at the same time." Sounds familiar.

Monday, November 16, 2009

More Teachers Than Classrooms

The common wisdom is that teaching is a recession-proof profession because no matter what kind of economy we're experiencing there are going to be kids and they are going to need to go to school. As common sense goes, it's pretty common. Only problem is that it turns out not to be technically true. With districts across the country cutting positions because of funding issues, there are now too many teachers on the market for the jobs that are available.

Interestingly, the one exception is math teachers for whom there is still an "extreme shortage" according to American Association for Employment in Education. I think that says something interesting about who becomes teachers and the fields from which they are drawn.

The silver lining in this is that with more teachers than positions available, principals should have the luxury of hiring the very best teachers for their classrooms. After all, the more people who apply for a position, the more likely you are to find a really great teacher. So maybe this will end up being a good thing.

The bad news would come when otherwise good and qualified teachers try to seek employment elsewhere if they can't find a job. (This could be the result of structural unemployment, so don't tell me I'm contradicting myself.) In the short term, the increased competition for jobs could be good. In the long term, I hope it doesn't cause damage.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Interesting Case in Chicago

A little bit of education trivia for you: Chicago area schools have one of the largest gaps in teacher salaries in the country. For instance, the teachers in Oak Brook make an average of over $80,000 a year while the teachers in Grayslake make an average of about $38,000 a year. Pretty striking difference. Yet, despite this yawning gap in salaries, the students in these two areas appear to be performing at roughly the same level. That's interesting to me on two levels.

First, isn't it an article of faith among the idealocrats that higher pay for teachers (particularly if it comes in the form of merit pay) is supposed to equal better results for kids? I've never liked that argument terribly. True, you may attract more high fliers to teaching if the pay is better. But the idea that teachers are just not motivated to get kids to learn unless you dangle a carrot in front of them never rang true to me. During my time as a teacher, there was literally no amount of money you could pay me to work harder because I was already going all out. I still wasn't a great teacher and more money wouldn't have made the difference. But I digress. The real lesson here is that more money for teachers doesn't necessarily equate to more achievement for kids.

The second point that comes to me is that more experience doesn't necessarily seem to make a difference either. As the article points out, more time in the classroom (and more advanced degrees) tends to equal higher pay in the teaching profession. That's one reason the Oak Brook teachers get paid more. Yet those extra years of experience and additional diplomas also don't seem to be making a difference. The young turks in Grayslake seem to be doing just fine. Take notice all of you who say that we need to do more to value experienced teachers and ignore those young ones coming up because they aren't going to be as good.

I hate to write a post where I just tear down other people's ideas without offering up something productive of my own. So here it is. If there is a single way to predict and foster better teachers, we haven't found it yet and it may not exist. That doesn't mean we should stop trying to improve our teaching force. It does mean that we should stop looking for a single silver bullet that's going to improve all of our schools. It's just not that simple.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Surprising Surprise

I often find myself surprised by the things that education researchers seem to find surprising. Take a recent analysis by the Brookings Institute on education standards. As the researchers write, "Our analyses suggest that the creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in and of itself." Rather, the researchers conclude, it's measures like "aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, and accountability for educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development, and managerial autonomy for school leaders, and teachers who drawn from the best and brightest, and so on" that actually have a real benefit on student learning.

In other words, just setting standards doesn't cause kids to meet them. You also need to ensure that teaching and all the other aspects of what actually goes on in the classroom are high quality if you want to get great results. The researchers write that these findings "surprised many readers." Really? It's surprising to people that setting a goal isn't enough and that you need to make sure you're actually working toward achieving that goal?

The Brookings people are careful to point out that standards are not useless and I agree with them. It makes sense to have clear benchmarks for what students should be able to do. However, we can't confuse the setting of those benchmarks with steps that will actually help students meet them. Surprisingly, that's surprising to some people.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bloomberg, Part III

Now that Mayor Bloomberg is going to stay mayor for another four years there's all sorts of talk about how he'll avoid the famed "third term curse" that brough down Koch, Cuomo, and more. Bloomberg has pledged to renew his energy and chart a bold new course through the next four years. The course won't be that new (I mean, he is the incumbent), but he seems to be saying that he's open to new ideas.

With that in mind, here are some ideas (not all of which are new, per se) that the mayor could think about integrating into the education agenda for the next four years. As much as possible, I'm trying to make these things I think the mayor might actually do as opposed to just making a list of things I would want to see if I'd been elected. So here's what I've got:

1. Use mayoral control to create more community schools
Mayoral control over the schools gets so much attention that we kind of forget that the mayor has control over all sorts of different things (Health Department, ACS, Sanitation, etc.) that directly impact people's lives. The Harlem Children's Zone has won a fair amount of acclaim by focusing on an entire community approach to educating children. Schools are the centerpiece, but there's also a huge investment in all other parts of the community. This seems like the kind of thing that a mayor, with control over all the city agencies, could really make his own. Bloomberg should pick a few pilot areas and create city-sponsored community school zones. Increase the investment and attention intensively into the entire community and you're just about guaranteed to see students doing better.

2. Use next year's impending test scores drop to realign accountability programs
The consensus seems to be that the state is going to make the tests harder next year and that we should therefore expect to see test scores drop. Since test scores are what the DOE uses for all of its accountability measures, this isn't going to look great for them. Of course, there's a lot of evidence that the measures are a little bit inflated already to make the DOE look as good as possible. With a year to start managing expectations of a downward drop, the Mayor could use this opportunity to realign all the measures and standards to be a little more reality-based and a little less inflated. The immediate drop will be attributed to the tests getting harder and then any improvement from there will be more authentic and believable. More rigorous tests (as they're often described) will provide cover to do what probably needs doing anyway, but won't be done because no one wants to see scores drop.

3. Replace Chancellor Klein
I know I said that I wanted these suggestions to be things that Bloomberg might actually do and I also know that most indications are that Klein isn't going anywhere. But what if he did? Klein has been a complete lightening rod for the last seven years and he's received heaps of scorn and reprobation from many sectors of the community. So replace him. The mayor still has control over the schools and has the power to appoint a Chancellor, so he could still pick someone who would follow largely the same agenda. Plus, it would earn him (Bloomberg) and the replacement pick a period of goodwill. During this honeymoon, he could still follow essentially the same agenda (and let's be clear, he will follow the same agenda), but people wouldn't be as on to it since there was a new face at the top. Plus, if Bloomberg really does want to make his changes to the school system permanent, a replacement Chancellor would have a much better job of being reappointed by the next mayor than Klein has. There's a lot to be gained by doing it and surprisingly little to lose.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Let me know if I missed anything.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Now That It's Over

After a long day and night spent out on the streets campaigning yesterday, I'm not as my most alert for posting this morning. So here's just a few quick thoughts on Mayor Bloomberg's (narrow) re-election. On Friday, I'll come back with education suggestions for the mayor's third term that he might actually follow.

They (whoever they may be) often say that re-election races are referendums on the incumbent. Sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not. This is a case where it was true. After all, the Mayor enjoyed a 14-1 spending advantage and his opponent wasn't actually mounting a visible campaign. The decision people made yesterday was all about the Mayor.

The interesting thing there is that according to Times exit polling, 70% of New Yorkers approved of the job the mayor was doing. You may notice that's about 20% more than actually voted for him. This wasn't even a referendum about the mayor's job performance, it was a referendum on him. That's kind of interesting to me.

Obviously, the campaign style was a mistake. That seems pretty un-controversial to say when your vote total is 20% lower than your approval rating. A voter is quoted in that Times article saying, "I feel he bought himself the election” and “ran a smear campaign against a nonexistent opponent." Rightfully so, that didn't sit well with people.

Let's hope all that talk about a third term curse is bogus. After all, I live here and if the Mayor comes on hard times this go-round, he's not the only one who'll be in trouble.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Someone For Mayor

Tomorrow is election day in New York City and about two weeks ago the idea occurred to me to run a mayoral endorsement on the blog today. The only problem is that now, two weeks later, I don't really know who I would like to be mayor. I honestly haven't made up my mind yet even though I will have voted 24 hours from now. This is a tough one.

My biggest issue, as you might be able to guess, is education. I think that's the biggest challenge facing the city and the one that the mayor has real authority to work on. So that's my litmus test. Even with a pretty narrow scope, I'm still terribly conflicted.

On the one hand, I disagree with a lot of the things that Mayor Bloomberg has done over the last eight years. I also object to his needlessly negative and often dishonest campaign approach. However, he has been focused on education, which is more than can be said about most leaders in this country. He's allocated tons of money to the schools and has tried a series of reforms to correct a system that clearly wasn't working. Whether these new reforms are the answer is, of course, a matter of heated debate, but at least he's trying something.

I often see Thompson as running against the Mayor's education policies. The bulk of Thompson's education platform is pretty much a direct response to things the Mayor has done poorly (not involving parents, too much test prep, etc). What's not clear is what Thompson's affirmative agenda is going to look like. It's one thing to say that you'll involve parents in meaningful ways and that you'll educate the "whole child", but what does that actually mean at the end of the day? And what's the guarantee that it will get done? After all, the Bloomberg/Klein system keeps saying that they're going to do a better job involving parents too.

I've also been remarkably unimpressed with the entire Thompson campaign. I mean, I get that the other guy has $15 billion to potentially spend, but that doesn't mean you should just roll over and die. Let's just say that I'm not impressed with his managerial skills on this front.

So the choice boils down to a guy I know I often disagree with, but that I know is taking big action on the issue I care about and a guy who says he'll do everything differently and better, but that I don't know will actually be able to accomplish anything. Like I said, this is a tough one and time is ticking.

Remember to vote tomorrow.