Friday, July 2, 2010

The End

After over two and a half years of blogging on this site, I'm hanging up my laptop. This is going to be my last post, at least for the forseeable future.

When I first started blogging, I didn't have any real goal in mind. Mainly, I thought it would be fun and I wanted to get my voice and my ideas out there. After 30 months, I feel like I've done that. And it has been fun. But there comes a point where I don't really think that I have anything new to say. Rather, I'm just finding new ways to say the same old things. Not that that's necessarily bad. But it's just not what I want to be doing.

So what am I trying to say with all this? Well, after giving it some thought, I think I can lay it out as a couple of big ideas.

1. It's never either/or
Despite all the claims that there's one way to do reform or that someone has found the right way to do anything and everyone who does it differently is wrong, it's a big mistake to start looking at the world as either/or. It's not curriculum vs. accountability or small class sizes vs. merit pay. When we start looking at things that way we're really limiting what we can accomplish. Most of the dichotomies are false and we need to keep that in mind. The problems we face in education are too big to be reduced to a single solution.

2. We need to look beyond schools
Ultimately, the problems in education require solutions that are bigger than can be implemented just in schools. To be sure, the schools themselves can use the work, but they're not alone. If we don't ensure that kids have safe neighborhoods, safe homes, good nutrition, proper health care, and more, how are we going to expect them to be able to learn to their full capacity? I'm not saying that kids can't learn unless their home lives are perfect. Obviously, that's not true. I am saying that if we want to make it easier for ourselves and truly invest in allowing all kids to achieve their potential, you aren't going to be able to do that in six hours a day, 180 days a year.

3. Focus on the schools and neighborhoods that need help
For al the talk about how broken the U.S. education system is, we actually do pretty well on the whole. Most kids get a pretty good education and we still lead the world economy in many of the areas that would be impossible if our whole system was a failure. However, there are schools and neighborhoods who are being failed spectacularly by the system. Those are the schools and neighborhoods that need our attention. Rather than spend all of our time trying to find ways to fix a giant system that, honestly, doesn't need fixing, let's look at where the problem is and fix it there. That might require that we change the whole system, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it. We need to target our solutions to where the problems really are.

4. Words matter
One thing that never fails to infuriate me is the incredible amount of hype and spin that takes place in education and the nearly uncritical reporting of that hype and spin. In the end, words matter because they shape perception and perception shapes how we approach issues. Too many of the words about education are sloppy or outright inaccurate. That leads to a skewed perception and all sorts of craziness. If we want to correct the educational problems in our country, we need to have a serious discussion about them and I don't know if that's possible in the current state of things. I don't know, but I haven't given up hoping.

It's with very mixed feelings that I bring this blog to a close. It has always been a lot of fun to write. I hope that you've also enjoyed reading it.

Thanks for reading and maybe we'll meet again somewhere down the trail.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great Day for Education

You have to figure that June 28, 2010 is not going to go down as one of the all time great days in the history of American education. That's the day, after all, that the DOE and UFT celebrated the end of another school year by sniping at each other about whose fault it is that there's going to be a wacky start to the next school year with one day on, four days off, and then back to school.

Let's set aside - at least for the purposes of this post - whose fault it actually is. The DOE says that they want to make the change, but that the UFT won't let them. The UFT says that DOE has the power to do it without UFT approval, so they can't be blamed. So we've got plenty of finger pointing going on. Check that off the old to do list. All you really need to know at this point is that they're blaming each other for not being able to solve a problem.

Actually, all you really need to know is that the problem is not solved. That's right. The combined forces of the DOE and UFT can't even agree on how to solve something that they both say is a problem. That's insane!

I can't help but look at this situation and wonder where the grown ups are. Where's the person who's going to come in, look past the silliness, and get things done.

Let's be clear. In the grand scheme of things, this really isn't that big a deal. It's annoying and weird, but it's manageable. The fact that the DOE and UFT can't even get their act together to solve the little stuff doesn't fill me with confidence that they'll be able to solve the big stuff.

I blame both sides for this. This is just a silly squabble to try to score cheap points and in the end, it doesn't help anyone.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Beyond School

I've been seeing stories about cyberbullying popping up in the media quite a bit lately. I guess it's one of those stories that's pretty easy to cover and is guaranteed to arouse some feeling. I mean, who's in favor of bullying? I imagine editors across the country thinking, "We'll send a reporter to the school, talk to some bullied teens, and the story will just write itself. Piece of cake!" The New York Times is the latest entry with a pretty long story today.

Here's my take. I don't know whether or not schools have the authority to impose restrictions on what happens outside of schools. I also know that when school districts - like in New York - try to ban things like sexting, it raises the obvious question of how it's going to be enforced. Given that there are often issues with addressing misbehavior in school, how are we going to enforce rules on things that happen outside of school?

What comes to my mind, though, is that this latest push is symptomatic of society's larger expectation that schools are going to be able to fix everything that needs fixing in today's kids. Reading behind grade level? We need better teachers and more accountability and that will make all kids learn. Cyberbullying taking place at home? The school system will spring into action.

In either instance, I think the school-only approach is unrealistic. In either case, teachers and school administrators are constrained by time, access, and availability. Certainly schools can be the focal point for addressing issues having to do with kids. In fact, schools should be the focal point. But they cannot be the only point. Kids need more than schools.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seems Like a Good Idea

It's hard to tell whether this is big news or not. On the one hand, the city seems to be moving away (at least slightly) from their position that bad schools must be closed at once. On the other hand, the whole thing seems awfully limited in scope, so we should exercise a little caution before hailing it as the wave of the future.

For those of you who don't like following links, the New York Times is reporting that the city and UFT have come to an agreement on following a transformation model for 11 of the lowest-performing schools in the city. As the name suggests, it's about turning schools around rather than closing them. The schools will hire master teachers who will train other staff at the school to try to develop the teachers there, student data will be used as a factor in rating teacher effectiveness, and ineffective teachers will face an expedited hiring process.

Now, with the caveat that all my information on this comes from a pretty short article in the newspaper, I'm going to go out on a limb to say that this makes sense to me. I've long been a proponent of working to better develop the teachers we have rather than fire everyone and tap into the imaginary pool of master teachers who just can't find a job as replacements. So I'm a big fan of that. I also broadly agree with the idea of stricter methods for evaluating teachers. Using student data as one of several factors for evaluating teachers makes sense to me too.

I'm impressed that the city and the union seem to have found a middle way forward here. Too often both sides dig into their bunkers and lob grenades back and forth. That's unhelpful to everyone. Let's hope the spirit of collaboration continues.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Appearance of Action

Upset with the lack of racial and economic diversity in its gifted and talented programs - and perhaps a little flustered under questioning by City Council members - the DOE is apparently going to be looking at the possibility of changing how they determine G&T eligibility. They'll be looking for a test that's a little harder to prep for so that families from wealthier communities can't "game" the test by hiring tutors, etc.

I have to say, this is not a great moment in critical problem solving by the DOE.

First of all, the idea that they're going to stumble upon some un-gameable test is just ludicrous. Change the test and you'll change how people prepare for it. That's all. Those families that want to prep their kids are going to prep their kids and it's really just a matter of what they're prepping for.

More fundamentally though, the DOE actually seems to be missing what the real issue is. Do they really think that the reason more kids from the Upper East Side are determined G&T eligible than kids from the South Bronx is that the Upper East Siders are "expending thousands" of dollars on test prep? Really? That's the only difference they might be able to think of?

My biggest pet peeve in any sort of policy discussion is when people try to look like they're doing something rather than actually doing something. The DOE is far from alone in this practice. But they are certainly guilty of it. Changing the test from one to another gives the appearance of action and seeking to redress apparent racial and economic inequality, but really it's just changing how that inequality is measured. It doesn't matter what ruler you use, until you actually do change something, the results aren't really going to change.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Need for Fathers

Regular readers of this blog should know by now that I favor a pretty broad approach to tackling educational problems. Rather than just focus on what goes on in the school building, I think you need to look at what happens in the lives of children when they're in school and when they're out of it. That's why my eyes perked up a bit when I read in the New York Times about a program in the Bronx to teach men how to be better fathers.

The article was disappointingly short on details, so I'm afraid that I can't comment much on it other than to say that, in theory, it sounds like a pretty good thing.

I'm not one to say that the only way to raise a child is in a familiy where both parents are married and still together. But it does help. At the very least, children do need multiple people who care about them in their lives - both women and men. The statistics are grim in poor, urban communities about this kind of arrangement. Too many women are raising too many children on their own. That's a problem.

The program highlighted in the Times seemed to have worked with 16 men. That's not a lot, but it is a start. If the program works at getting men involved in the lives of their children, let's hope that it grows.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Do We Still Need TFA?

A sure-fire sign that things are getting tough is when you start seeing people blame groups for something that isn't really their fault. So when you read a story out of Las Vegas about teachers there being wary of Teach for America and thinking that they might not be needed and may even be keeping teacher salaries artificially low, it's a sign that things are not great in Las Vegas. (Full disclosure: I am a TFA alum myself, but not in Las Vegas, though I have been there.)

First, let's rebut the whole TFA is keeping salaries low theme. According to the article, TFA has placed 308 teachers in Las Vegas over the last six years. That's about 51 a year. For 51 teachers - who are part of the union, by the way - to have any impact at all on the average teacher salary would mean that you have the tiniest district in the world or people are talking nonsense. My bet is nonsense given that they employ well over 16,000 teachers.

That's pretty low-hanging fruit, but it's worth pointing out since it shows the realm of ridiculousness that we're talking about.

The other, and more serious, issue raised by the article centers around what the role of TFA should be in during this time of layoffs and cutbacks. As teaching jobs become harder and harder to come by, is there still a role for TFA to play in terms of bringing in new teachers to the system?

I think that the answer is yes, but with changes. TFA needs to take a more focused approach at this point and probably needs to cut back on how many teachers it recruits. But even with layoffs and cutbacks, there are going to be some positions that are harder to fill than others and that's the role that TFA thrives in. Is Teach for America the answer to all of education's problems? Absolutely not. Does it still have a role to play in education today. Absolutely.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Much Ado

The New York Post was shocked - shocked! - on their cover yesterday to discover that New York students were getting credit for putting the wrong answer on their state math tests. Those fiends at the DOE have done it again! Will there be no end to the dumbing down?

Amidst about 500 words of outrage over the policy - which was upgraded today to "controversial", apparently based on the fact that the New York Post wrote about it yesterday - it comes out that the reason kids are getting partial credit for those problems is that they show work demonstrating at least a partial understanding of the math principles involved.

I'm sorry, but that policy actually makes sense.

Look, ultimately it matters whether or not kids can solve math problems correctly. No argument from me on that point. But these tests are supposedly measuring student learning. If a child is able to demonstrate that they are learning - even if it's not as much as they should be - doesn't it make sense to account for that in our measurement?

The Post's "exclusive" yesterday is essentially an expose on giving credit for showing work, something that's been around at least since I was in school and probably before. It's certainly not a new policy on the New York state tests either.

Is the amount of credit being given for showing work too generous? Perhaps. I don't know. I do know that overheated Post rhetoric doesn't help.

That brings me to my last point of the morning. The more I read education reporting in the Post and other New York papers, the more troubled I am by the things I recognize to be misrepresentations or outright falsehoods. It makes me wonder what I would find if I knew more about, say, economics or world affairs. I mean, if we can't trust the papers to report accurately on education, how can we trust them to get right the big stories like this one?

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Reasonable Deal

So, you've probably heard by now that Mayor Bloomberg has unilaterally decided to avert teacher layoffs by not granting raises to teachers for the next two years. Say this about the guy, he's not afraid to pull the trigger.

Now, both the UFT and CSA have come out against this, saying that the Mayor doesn't have that authority. And while they may technically be right, in practical terms it probably won't matter. As long as a contract hasn't been signed, the Mayor does have the practical authority to do this.

But is it the right thing to do?

Well, certainly teachers always deserve more money. You'd be hard pressed to find me ever arguing against that. But let's look at the facts here. Just three days ago we all woke up with the expectation that nearly 4,500 teachers were going to be laid off and booted from the system. You think class sizes are bad now? Is that really the education system we want? Furthermore, (and this isn't entirely clear to most people) most teachers are still going to get raises next year. Step increases, which you earn just for being in the system another year or for increasing your education, are still going to be happening. Teachers are going to get raises, just not as big as they may have thought. Honestly, in this economic climate, that's a deal I would take.

Again, the unions have come out against this, and I guess that's there job. They always need to ask for more. But I hope that this is posturing on their part and not the start of an actual fight. If given the choice between no additional raises for everyone and layoffs plus raises for everyone else, I'm going for the no-layoffs plan. In the end, it's better for everyone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Follow the Money

The other day, my wife got a mailing from Education Reform Now - a group formerly pretty focused on lifting New York's charter cap. Essentially (and unsurprisingly for someone who's seen ERN's previous work), the full color flyer was a hit on the UFT. On the front was a picture of a third grade parent saying something to the effect of, "I used to think that the union was on our side. But now they're working to protect the teachers who have been their longest, not the best teachers." (Unfortunately, my wife threw away the flyer so I don't have the exact wording.) Inside was a little more explanation on why last in/first out is so bad. There was also a little tear out card that you could put your information on and mail in to say that you think teacher quality and not seniority should be the major factor in teacher layoffs.

Two things struck me about this mailing.

First, the heat is definitely on the union, or at least the heat is trying to be on the union. When there are direct mail pieces trying to whip up popular support against you going out, you know that you're in a precarious spot. At the very least, someone is trying to put you in a precarious spot.

That's what bring me to my second point to ponder: how did my wife end up on the mailing list, whereas I did not? (And yes, I am a little jealous.) We are both former UFT members, though she's a little more recent, but I don't know that it makes sense to target union members with something like this. Plus, I doubt the UFT would share their list with ERN. We don't have kids so her name wouldn't appear on any lists of that sort (if such things exist). She'd never heard of the group, so she hadn't signed up directly as a supporter.

What I keep coming back to is that she is a registered Republican, while I'm a Democrat. Where that starts to get interesting is that in the past that's mattered because she received all of the Bloomberg mailings during the last Mayoral election. I had to read them over her shoulder. Given the facts that I have now, the explanation that seems to make the most sense to me is that the Bloomberg campaign has transferred into OFA-mode and is using their resources to try to bolster non-election campaigns - in this case, the repeal of last in/first out.

This is not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. Joe Williams of the group Democrats for Education Reform sits on the board of ERN. He has hired former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk to help in his efforts. So there is a connection there, but it wouldn't totally explain what's going on. After all, Tusk presumably wasn't allowed to keep the various campaign lists after the election for his own personal use.

Now, obviously, that's almost pure speculation at this point and there may be a perfectly good explanation that I just haven't thought of because it's early in the morning. But were I an enterprising reporter, it's a link I just might be trying to look into. After all, if the Mayor or the Republican party in general really is putting resources (monetary and otherwise) behind a group that's explicitly declaring war on the UFT, that would be a story.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Cap is Lifted, Now What?

Well, it looks like they're going to do it. According to the Times, the City and State Assembly have reached a deal to more than double the number of charter schools allowed in New York State. In return for that increase, the bill will forbid charters from being operated for profit, allow the state comptroller to audit the schools, require that in instances of co-location any major improvements made to a charter school must also be made to the public school, and require the establishment of a building council to mediate disputes between the schools.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's (in order) two worthwhile changes, one kind of silly one, and one that's totally meaningless.

After all the time and ink that's been spent on this whole issue, I find that apparent resolution a little bit anti-climactic. Maybe I'll be wrong and this will be the education reform that changes everything and makes it so that all children can obtain an excellent education. But I doubt it. Assuming that New York continues to do a good job at approving charters, this will probably help some kids. But it's not going to help all kids. No matter what you read from the Post or Chancellor Klein or anyone else, this will - at most! - affect 6% of public school kids in New York City. That leaves a lot of kids out there who won't benefit at all from this. Let's take a minute to consider them before we take too many victory laps on this one.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Where's the Books?

I'm a big fan of metaphors and telling details. A telling detail is a small instance that illuminates a larger truth. Honestly, one of the best examples of the use of telling details is the TV show The Wire, where countless small moments demonstrate character and larger social implications. Now, though, I have perhaps a new favorite moment from the real world.

In Douglas County, Nevada the school board is looking to adopt a new English curriculum. They're leaning toward one called Springboard, which is "vertically aligned" and uses "standards-based instruction to reinforce content." It's everything an idealocrat could hope for. There's just one thing missing: novels. That's right, they forgot the books. In this curriculum, students are expected to read only one novel a year.

On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that just makes you want to shake your head and say that it's no wonder that nearly 25 percent of Americans don't read books. On the other hand, this is a telling detail that I think illuminates a larger trend.

With the direction that education reform is moving right now, we like things like vertical alignment and standards-based instruction. Frankly, we should like those things. But they aren't the ends in themselves. And that's easy to lose sight of when you're trying to look at things from an algorithmic, number-crunching sort of way. Maybe this curriculum will help kids do better on state tests. I don't know. But even the state tests aren't the end.

Somewhere along the line, folks seem to have forgotten - at least in Douglas County, and I would argue elsewhere - that there's a lot more to educating kids than will show up on a bubble sheet. That an English curriculum without novels is even being considered just shows how people are forgetting that.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Poverty Matters

Here's one of those things that didn't exactly surprise me when I saw it, but is worth noting anyway. A report out of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that poverty has a negative effect on fourth grade reading levels.

I know. Not really shocking stuff. What makes it worth noting, though, is this finding:
The figures show how poverty and different school contexts can exacerbate the proportion of students having trouble mastering reading. While 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty failed to hit the grade level reading target, for example, the corresponding percentage for low-income African-American students in school with high concentrations of poor students was 90 percent.

Let's think about that for a minute. Not only does a student's own poverty affect his learning, the poverty of those around him affects his learning. That's a big deal. And it should make us think - at least a little bit - about how we approach poor neighborhood schools.

I think it's safe to assume that how much money is in the bank account of a child's parents doesn't actually have a direct impact how well a child reads. It's not the money itself that makes the difference, it's what the money allows for. A child living in poverty without adequate nutrition or medical care is going to have trouble reaching those all-important grade-level targets. A child with an unstable home life or uncertain housing is going to have trouble learning in school. The evidence is clear that those things matter. We need to take those into account when we're trying to teach the kids. More than that, we need to work to make sure that those conditions are improved wherever they can be. If we don't, we're going to be missing a real opportunity to better the lives of kids in need.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Stunted Progress

I kind of feel bad for the city's fourth grade teachers. Over the last 8 years, they've gotten kids to make slow, but steady progress on the NAEP reading tests. We're not talking the kind of progress you see on the state tests, but it's progress all the same. That takes a lot of hard work and dedication and they deserve to be commended for that.

But then those kids get to eighth grade and the wheels seem to fall off. According to the same set of NAEP results, the level of eighth grade success is almost exactly the same as it was in 2003.

The crazy thing about this is that today's eighth graders used to be fourth graders, where presumably they were getting better. Then a few years later, it's gone and there's no improvement. What gives?

I know there's all sorts of research and anecdotal evidence about the drop off in student success that seems to coincide with middle school. A lot of that may have to do with the transformation from sweet little kids to raging hormone monsters. But even if that's the case, it seems like we need to do something to adust for that.

As a former middle school teacher, I know it's hard. But all the fourth grade gains in the world don't matter much if they're gone in four years. Progress really only matters if it can be sustained.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Last Stand

For the most part, I'm not a huge fan of the way any newspaper covers education. The best I usually hope for is a clear statement of facts with a minimum of what it all means, which often tends to be wrong. That's why I was pleasantly surprised to be thoughtfully stimulated by an article set to appear in the New York Times Magazine this weekend called The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand. Now, I don't know that the article necessarily lives up to the hype of that headline, but it is pretty good.

Everyone else probably knows this already, but the point that didn't really fully register with me until I read the article is how radically the Race to the Top guidelines are threatening to change the standards by which unions operate and the concessions they can expect to get from cities and states. I read the New York Post each day, so I've seen the constant barrage of stories about how the unions hate kids and are opposed to any sort of reform. I wrote off a lot of that as just being, well, the New York Post, which tries to make everything about how bad unions are. But it turns out they may be on to something.

The thing that gets lost in New York where it seems like the unions have a lot of power to call shots in the legislature is how much pressure the unions must be under at this point. The "reform" banner has been unfurled across the country and there's a lot of money and attention out there for educational issues. More than that, the money and attention are focused on educational issues that the union and the Obama administration seem to be looking at from different perspectives. There's a definite ideological clash going on without a clear winner in sight. At least, not yet.

Let me issue my disclaimer now that I'm agnostic about a lot of the ideas in RttT and I don't blame the union for everything that's wrong in schools. Not even close. Still, the drama here is compelling. From a political perspective and from the perspective of what's going to be happening in our schools, we're seeing pressure placed on teachers' unions in ways that we haven't seen in a long time if ever. Ultimately, something is going to have to give on one side or the other. It will be interesting to see which side relents first.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Start Young, Go Far

I've pointed this out before, but in case you missed it, I'll say it again. The achievement gap cannot be laid solely at the feet of differing levels of school quality. There are much bigger issues that need to be addressed before we can really and truly close that gap.

Don't believe me? Check out this article from the Daily News. Turns out that six of New York's 32 districts don't have enough incoming kindergarteners qualify for a gifted and talented program to offer even a single section (about 25 kids) in the district. Want to guess where those districts are? I'll give you a hint, it's not the Upper East Side where a single school can have enough kids qualify to open at least two sections. No, we're looking at Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Kind of the usual suspects when we're talking about these issues.

The important thing I want to highlight here is that these tests were given to incoming kindergarteners who have not yet attended even a single day of school. Even before they enter the system, these kids are starting behind. Seems a little unfair to blame the schools for that.

So what do we do?

Looking at information like this just makes me think that we need to start extending our efforts farther and younger. In neighborhoods like Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx we need to make better efforts to boost child health and nutrition. We need to provide more resources to help parents be better parents. We need to invest more in early childhood learning and intervention.

Clearly, the problems start before the kids get to school and extend far beyond what happens in that single building. We need to make sure our solutions do the same.

Friday, May 7, 2010

An Education Election in Harlem

I just want to flag for your attention an interesting political situation developing up in Harlem. Bill Perkins, who will never be accused of being a fan of charter schools, is facing a primary election challenge from a candidate who seems to be running entirely on a pro-charter platform. Now, that's according to the Post, which has a pretty clear position on charters and isn't afraid to let that position creep into its news reporting. They're also not especially known for their nuance. Still, this could be an education-based election. And that's pretty exciting.

If the election really does turn into a referendum of charter schools, it'll be an interesting test. Perkins is counting on big support from the UFT and Smilke (his opponent) is counting on the help of charter school operators and a groundswell of parent support. How much the ground actually swells for him is the big question. Is it going to be enough to knock off an incumbent with strong union backing?

Fast forwarding a few months, I can already see the Post coverage. If Smilke wins, it's going to be a victory for Harlem children who rose up against those who would resist charter schools. If Perkins wins, it's going to be a victory for the corrupt UFT and their status-quo-loving allies, which will be proof of how corrupt and status-quo-loving the UFT really is. For the Post, this is a no-lose situation. In reality, it's going to be pretty interesting to watch.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

AEI and Me

As far as I know, there's not much that the American Enterprise Institute and I agree on. They tend to be on one side of the political spectrum while I tend to be on the other. So as I was reading this morning's New York Times, I found myself a little bit surprised to be agreeing with an op-ed written by Charles Murray of AEI. It's not like he was channeling my innermost thoughts or anything, but I wasn't totally opposed either.

He starts off with the statement that charter schools aren't necessarily going to be better schools than their traditional public school peers and that even if they are, standardized test scores aren't a very good way to measure that anyway. Okay, so far he is just channeling my innermost thoughts.

Then, he gets to the real meat of what he's trying to say, which is that school choice is important just for the sake of having choice. If there are two schools of essentially equal quality, but they take different approaches to learning, there is a value in letting parents select one over another.

I'm not really against that, though his rhapsodizing about the concept is a little annoying. For all his talk about how people just want to be able to choose, a huge number of parents continue to send their kids to their local school even when it's failing and they've been told (because of NCLB) that they have the right to send their children elsewhere. So I don't entirely buy that argument. I also tend to think that schools should be taking a greater role in a community, not less as would happen with a totally decentralized admission system.

But enough quibbling. Where's the agreement? Well, I think that different schools should offer different things and that there's value in letting parents have the option to select what's best for their kids. I don't think that necessarily needs to equate with charter schools or private school vouchers. Nor do I think that we need a completely inflexible approach of sending kids only to the school down the street from where they live. As with everything, there's a balance that needs to be found somewhere in the middle. Finding it is always the challenge.

Monday, May 3, 2010

No Magic

Stop me if you've heard this before, but there's some evidence out there that charters are not all wonderful schools. Some are very good, but more are ... less so. It's just that you wouldn't really know that from reading the New York papers where they take a Wobegon view of charters: the principals are smart, the teachers are dedicated, and all the children score above average on their yearly high-stakes tests.

However, a barrier fell yesterday when the New York Times ran a story headlined: Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed. I had to check a few times to make sure I wasn't hallucinating that one.

The article itself is not especially brilliant, but it's pretty good. The reporter visits different charter schools around the country and writes about what's going on at a successful one and at an less successful one. Because, remember, there are differences.

The moral of the story, at least to those paying attention, is that charter schools are not magic. There's nothing about a charter in itself that makes it a great school. Charters can be great. Just like traditional public schools can be great. Great schools are great schools. The labels matter much less than what's actually going on in the classroom.

The Times yesterday seemed to take a step toward acknowledging that. Now let's see if their editorial writers actually read their own paper.

Friday, April 30, 2010

On Second Thought

A thought occurred to me the other day as I was reading about the Senate Democrats' efforts to pass a bill on financial reform. It suddenly struck me that they might be barking up the entirely wrong tree.

Consider this: the hugely influential report "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. In one of the more memorable phrases to ever come out of a government commissioned report, it said that if our education system had been forced on us by another country it would have been considered an act of war. In other words, things in schools were really bad.

That was 27 years ago. Obviously, the problems in education haven't been fixed yet, so we must still have a really bad education system. No wonder our economy nearly collapsed!

For at least 27 years (and probably at least a few before that), we've been working with such a terrible system that there's no way that we could be producing productive members of society. It's not the financial system or derivatives (which are invariably described in the press as "complex") or anything to do with Wall Street at all. It's probably the fault of teachers unions for making schools bad for the better part of three decades so now we have a dumb workforce that's ruining our economy.

And yet, even as I type this, I can't help but think that it doesn't quite ring true. Do we really believe that we've produced three decades of educational failures? Are we really willing to say that everyone born after 1977 (so they would be 6 in 1983) has gotten a bad education? Forget everyone, are we even willing to say that most people born after 1977 are unable to deal with the real world because they were poorly prepared by their school experiences?

I just don't think we can make that assertion. (And I say that as someone who was born after 1977 and is doing just fine, thank you.) I think, in fact, that anyone trying to make that point would be laughed out of the room.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much where I've been saying all along. The American education system is, for the most part, a success. Failure is not the norm across all schools. There are schools that are spectacularly failing and those schools tend to be concentrated in poor and minority communities. That's a problem that needs addressing. But it means that we need to focus on those schools, not on remaking an entire system. Let's fix the problems. Let's not worry about fixing the things that aren't broken.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rational Layoffs

For the first time in over 30 years, it's a pretty definite thing that New York is going to be laying off teachers. It's not a scare tactic or a negotiating plea. It's really happening. And suddenly, the city is realizing that the method in place for laying off teachers doesn't make any sense.

In New York, layoffs are done on a last in, first out basis. In other words, the newest teachers are the first to be let go. Ultimately, that's not a very good system.

Does it make any sense to not take quality into account at all when making these decisions? Yes, seniority is important because teachers tend to get better with experience. But is anyone really willing to say that every fifth year teacher is better than every fourth year teacher? Or even every first year teacher? That just defies logic and common sense.

The problem is (and this is why I haven't written about this before), I don't really know what's better. Given the way funding works in the city, during budget cuts there's an incentive to fire more experienced teachers because their salaries are higher. Also, leaving things solely in the hands of principals could lead to abuse. I don't buy the DOE's line that no principal would fire an effective teacher because of personal issues. That just seems a bit naive to me.

So what do we do? Well, this makes pretty clear that we need a better way to look at this issue and a better way to evaluate teachers - one that takes into account seniority, but also looks at effectiveness.

As the saying goes, the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. We've missed that opportunity and now these discussions - which would be highly charged during the best of times - are going to be even more fraught. But it's still a discussion worth having.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kangaroo Court

Anyone who was hoping for a calm, reasoned debate on the role and future of charter schools in New York at yesterday's state senate hearing on the topic was pretty disappointed. As the Daily News writes: "Charter school supporters and their critics spent eight hours shouting at one another at a volatile public hearing Thursday - and left the battle more polarized than ever."

Of course, anyone expecting a calm, reasoned debate about charter schools yesterday hasn't been reading the Post lately.

The Post was correct in today's article (it surprised me too) where they describe the hearing as a kangaroo court. That's exactly what it was and both sides of the debate are to blame. Something about charter schools seems to have removed a reasonable middle ground and left only the extremists to pontificate and/or rant (depending on their mood). There's a real debate to be had here and it's a shame that it's being hijacked by shouting and accusations of personal impropriety (Sen. Perkins takes money from the UFT/Sen. Johnson takes money from charter schools).

It's always easier to yell and scream and chant than to make good points and come to a reasonable consensus. It's too bad that so many people are falling into that temptation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Anyone Can Do It

Other than teaching, is there a profession anywhere else in the world where the movement is toward less training and preparation? Are there any programs that will give you a medical license for doing work in a hospital without going to medical school? Is there a movement to make people lawyers who've never been to law school? What about teaching makes it so different?

Here in New York, the Board of Regents has approved a program that will allow programs like Teach for America to create their own masters programs so that participants can get their masters without going to an actual education school.

Not to be flip, but would we allow Doctors for America (if such a program exists) to grant medical degrees based on work done in poor hospitals around the country? Would we allow them to set up non-accredited programs to grant those degrees and then accept them as valid?

A few things seem pretty clear to me when I read a story like this. First, traditional education schools have messed up. Either they've screwed up the way they prepare teachers or they've screwed up their own PR because people seem not to think that they're preparing teachers well. It's a problem no matter which way you cut it.

Second, people think that because they've been in school, they're an expert on school policies and how schools should be run and that everyone can just do it. That's why we have lawyers running school systems and masters degrees being given by non-accredited institutions. We wouldn't put up with this in the medical profession, but teaching is seen as somehow less.

I do have to say that while I have major misgivings about what this actually means and what it indicates, I do strongly believe that an education program should have a strong focus on practical, inside the classroom elements. I don't think that should totally replace theory (which helps inform those inside the classroom elements), but they do need to be a strong component of any program.

What I oppose is the de-professionalization of teaching. I can't help but think that this is a step down that road.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bounce Back

Well, they won't have the rubber room to kick around anymore.

Yesterday, the DOE and the UFT came to an agreement to end the rubber rooms. In their place, reassigned teachers will be posted to administrative duties rather than just sitting around all day. The process for hearing and deciding cases will also be sped up. All in all, this is probably a pretty positive thing.

Or is it? Because I can't help but think about what's actually changing here. The answer that I come to is: not much.

The rubber rooms got so much attention because they seemed like a perfect symbol for how the conflict between a bureaucratic school system and a self-interested union (as all good unions should be) led to nonsensical "solutions" like the rubber room. Now the symbol is gone, but I'm not sure that the underlying issues have been addressed.

I haven't seen the Post yet this morning, but I'm sure that they're shouting the news to the rafters. I'm sure the DOE is going around patting each other pretty heartily on the back. The symbol is gone. But how long until another one takes its place?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

iDon't Buy It

I'm always skeptical about books or studies or anything else that single out today's youth as being somehow dramatically different than the generations that preceded them. I think most of it is bogus to begin with and also it seems like every generation is arguing that the next generation is so completely different that none of the old models still apply.

Still, there seems to be a market for that kind of stuff and so now we have the iGeneration. (For what it's worth, I think it's a pretty good name for the thesis.) The iGeneration, author Larry Rosen writes, is so different from all other generations because they are constantly plugged in to all sorts of personalized media. Think iPods, cell phones, etc. This, apparently, means that they learn in ways that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.

To steal a conceit, iDon't buy it.

Without question kids these days have access to a level of technology that did not exist even in conception when their parents were in school. So in that sense, things have changed. But has that technology actually changed the way kids learn? Frankly, I have a little trouble seeing how an iPod is going to realign my conception of history.

Certainly, teaching methodologies and techniques must change as technology changes. I mean, we don't want to go back to using slates and chalk for every assignment. Technology can be a very good thing. But we also don't want to overstate the case and say that it's changed everything. Kids are still kids. In all likelihood, they aren't that much better or worse than the generation that came before them or the generation that will come after them. The wrapping may be a little different, but it doesn't change the fundamentals.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Can't Buy Me Success

It turns out that not only can you not buy love, but that you can't really buy good behavior from children or adults. At least, that's what research is telling us now.

Last Friday, the word got out in the press that Roland Fryer's much-touted plan to pay kids to get good grades was not particularly successful. To give you a sense of how unsuccessful, the DOE (which can spin just about anything in its favor) was reduced to congratulating itself on having the moxy to have tried the program in the first place.

Friday's news came not too far from the heels of last month's announcement that the city's plan to pay parents for good behavior - like going to the dentist and attending parent-teacher conferences - was ending because of similarly less-than-stellar results.

It turns out that the problems with inner city schools may be a little more complicated than a lack of motivation that can be compensated for by giving away $250. Who would have guessed?

Makes you wonder about the future of teacher incentive pay.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Conventional Wisdom

WARNING: This post may contain observations that run counter to conventional wisdom. Don't say you weren't warned.

The trendy thing among a certain school of school reformers lately has been to point to New Orleans post-Katrina as a model of education reform.

Newsweek writes that "New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out." Arne Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." The conventional wisdom says that with the New Orleans school system (and much of the city) destroyed, reformers were able to start from scratch and put in a system based on what we know works for kids. And just look at the results.

Let's look at those results for a moment. An article in the Houston Chronicle this week highlights a study that finds that Katrina kids are doing better than their Texas counterparts. In Texas. That's right, Texas. Not New Orleans. It seems that the kids who relocated to Texas after the hurricane and stayed there are doing better in the Texas school system than the kids from Texas in the Texas school system.

Here's where your conventional wisdom gets challenged. If the reason kids are doing so much better now in New Orleans is that the school system has been completely reformed, why are kids also excelling in Texas? Let's grant for the sake of argument that the New Orleans schools were terrible before Katrina. So obviously there's a lot of room for improvement with these kids. But if it's the brilliant new system that's doing it, why are the kids in Texas also making such gains? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't often see Houston hailed as the brightest star in the education reform firmament.

Now, I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's a rational explanation that will keep the conventional wisdom intact. I know that reading a summary of research from the Texas Education Agency in the Houston Chronicle is not exactly top notch research. But I do think we need to consider all the data when we're making grand pronouncements. And I just don't quite see how this fits the narrative.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Done Racing?

For Delaware and Tennessee right now, life is pretty good. Of all the states who applied for Race to the Top funding, they're the big - and only - winners. For everyone else, it's time for the blame game. Here in New York we're spending a lot of time blaming the teachers' union because that's just what we do here. In other parts of the country, though, they're doing the more rational thing - blaming the judges.

Let me stipulate here that I have no intention of vouching for the RttT judging. I don't know enough about each state's application to say if the right ones won. That said, I get a little suspicious when I hear the losers of a competition suddenly blaming the judges for their losing.

Apparently, several states are mulling not reapplying because those hundreds of millions of dollars just don't seem worth it anymore. To hear that coming from California, where they're fighting a day to day battle with solency, shows you how deep the feelings run.

This is the big danger of the RttT program. It gave a big incentive for states to reform (according to a specific vision) their education system. However, we always knew that there would be states that didn't win and we knew that there would be limits in terms of how to keep states reforming as they went forward.

Now is the time for the real test (a high stakes test, if you will). Now that we know there are winners and losers, what happens? Do we see a continued focus on schools and improving education or do we revert and call it quits. What happens in the next few weeks and months is going to define the legacy of Race to the Top far more than anything that has come before.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Doesn't Matter After All

Given the state of state budgets across the country, I imagine that we're going to be seeing several more stories like this one over the next few months. For those of you who don't believe in clicking on links, the headline reads, "Larger Class Sizes Ahead as Teachers Collect Pink Slips: Effect on students may be minimal as the acaemic benefits of small class sizes remain unclear."

As you may be able to guess from reading that headline, the point of the article is that class sizes are likely to increase in Chicago, but that parents shouldn't be worried because class sizes don't affect student performance that much.

I'm going to duck the whole question of how much class size affects achievement versus other things like teacher quality. Instead, I want to focus on why this story, why now. The answer, I think, it pretty obvious.

Imagine that you're a cook in a restaurant and everyone wants saffron in their meals. (For the record, I don't really know what saffron is, but it sounds fancier than pepper.) However, you can't really afford saffron because of budget cutbacks. What do you do? Well, you might try persuading people that saffron really doesn't do that much for a meal anyway. In fact, salt is just as good maybe even better. That's kind of what's happening here.

Unable to provide the kinds of class sizes that will keep parents happy, the schools are launching a PR push to say that class sizes aren't that important. What's really important is that you have good teachers. I'm sure we'll be hearing soon about how great the Chicago teaching corps is.

I imagine we'll soon be seeing more stories from education departments around the country downplaying the importance of small class sizes. Whether they believe their own press or not is something I can't say for sure. But, for now at least, what else are they going to do?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Like Al Capone

I don't think I've written before about the DOE's plans to close 19 high schools for next year. The reason I've avoided it is because I'm truly divided on the subject. On the one hand, I'm not a fan of just going around closing schools and hoping what you open in their places turn out to be better. On the other hand, these are not great schools and I wouldn't want my own children to go there. So I stayed out of it.

Last Friday, the State Supreme Court held that the school closings were invalid due to "significant violations" of the mayoral control law. The UFT, NAACP, and others who were fighting the plan celebrated. That strikes me a little like throwing a party for getting Al Capone on tax evasion. Yeah, you've won this round, but you haven't really addressed the real issue.

The basis for the judge's decision was that the DOE issued only boilerplate educational impact statements and that insufficient notice was given for public hearings. (Were I feeling snarky, I might point out that the insufficient notice didn't seem to prevent those hearing from lasting untili 3 in the morning, but I'm not feeling snarky today, so I'll let it pass.)

In other words, the DOE didn't dot a few i's or cross a few t's. The policy of closing schools remains in place and unchallenged. So now the DOE has to give a few more days notice before ignoring hours of public testimony and closing schools. I'm not sure if this is the victory that some seem to be claiming.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Every so often I come across something truly bizarre about how our brains work. Mainly it's when I'm reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, but sometimes even when I'm reading the Core Knowledge Blog. This is one worth sharing.

Researchers have found that simply seeing the letter A or F before taking a test significantly alters individuals' performance on the test. Seeing an A seems to boost the score. Seeing an F seems to make people perform worse.

Seriously. Check out the write-up here.

I literally cannot wrap my mind around this. On the one hand, it's pretty incredible. On the other hand, I'm a little freaked out about how apparently malleable my brain is. Wow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Texas Down, Cities Up

Bad news in Texas. According to the Dallas Morning News, 40% of Texas high school graduates need at least one remedial class when they get to college. And that's just the students who go to college. Imagine what the overall high school population is like. But don't worry. The Texas school board has taken strong, decisive action by eliminating Thomas Jefferson and the world "capitalism" from its standards. So ... yeah. We'll see how that goes.

In much more encouraging news, a report out of the Council of Great City Schools finds that urban school districts are making significant gains in both math and reading. This is according to data from both state tests and the NAEP. That's hugely encouraging news.

That's hugely great news. I've often written that while the nation's education system as a whole is doing pretty well, in poor and urban areas it is often spectacularly failing. If we can turn around that trend, the whole school system will be improving and we won't have to hear any more whining about places like Estonia are doing so much better than us. (Not that there's anything wrong with Estonia, I just like the way it sounded in that sentence.)

When you go a doctor with an earache, a good doctor will focus on your ear instead of trying to go over every inch of your body looking for solutions. Too often, we've gotten caught up in forgetting the ear. Now, it looks like that may be changing. And that is a very good thing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Short Term Solutions

Oh, Arizona. Land of my childhood. Why worry about long term effects when the budget needs cutting now, especially when you won't even consider doing anything to increase revenue? In case you're wondering, the state legislature just voted to eliminate full day kindergarten in the state.

The state was facing a huge budget gap and full day kindergarten seemed like a pretty good target. After all, several state legislators thought it amounted to little more than "taxpayer-funded all-day baby-sitting." That's right. Kindergarten is just babysitting. No educational value at all. That research showing that it helps prepare kids to read and write better? Totally bogus. I guess that's the argument at least.

On the bright side, this will probably provide less opportunity for kindergarteners to exercise their rights to bring guns to school. What a state.

The sad part is that this same calculus is being repeated all across the country (the cutting schools part, not the arming children bit). As states look to trim budgets, they go after schools, colleges, etc. To an extent, that makes sense. As Willie Sutton might say, "it's where the money is." Presto bingo, budget deficit closed.

But then what?

Cutting education funding may help in the short term, but then you have less educated people contributing less to the workforce and bringing down the state for a whole generation.

Of course, that doesn't bother the Arizona legislators. They'll be long out of office by that point. Arizona has term limits, after all.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Texas Is Not Helping

Every so often I write about a story that I come across showing how today's youth are the dumbest, laziest, most disreputable generation ever to blight this earth. You'd be surprised how often it comes up.

Readers of amNew York yesterday were treated to a story about a science poll among children that found that many named Buzz Lightyear as the first man to walk on the moon and who thought Isaac Newton invented fire. Incredible. This truly is the dumbest, laziest, most disreputable generation to ever blight the earth. (Click here for Socrates' thoughts on the matter.)

Before we transfer all this wailing and teeth gnashing into a desire to pick up torches and pitchforks and march against the teachers unions, I should point out that this study was conducted in Britain. Maybe this will be a good opening for us to finally reclaim some of that glory our education system has been lacking lately.

In an effort to ensure that we don't run up the educational score on our peers across the pond, the Texas school board has finally approved their standards and in a perverse way, it's kind of a thing of beauty. Ronald Reagan? He's in. Need to emphasize him in the history curriculum. Thomas Jefferson? Nah. I mean, what's he done for us lately? Did he singlehandedly defeat communism?

Oh yeah. And Joseph McCarthy was right all along.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, in this case what happens in Texas doesn't stay there. Because it represents such a large textbook market, we'll be seeing snippets of Texas standards in textbooks all over the country.

Somehow, I doubt that's going to help us when those dumbest generation researchers comes to this side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another Perspective

I was reading an interesting article yesterday that was essentially about how politics is very different in America and Britain despite the appearance of similarities. It's not my usual cup of tea, but what can I say? I'm eclectic.

One example that the article mentions is that in America we're moving toward a national set of standards (which will probably be followed by national assessments if the trend is going to continue) while in Britain there's a push to move away from their existing system of national standards and tests. I guess that they're seeing a lot of educational inequality there (sound familiar?) and they want to allow schools more room to innovate and personalize for their student populations.

I frequently write that for everyone who says one thing is THE answer for education reform, there's someone else who holds that the exact opposite is true. We seem to be seeing that at a national level here.

So what does it mean?

Probably that no one idea can be implemented that will cure all the educational problems in a country. Education reform needs to advance on a variety of fronts to address a variety of issues if we're going to see real change.

There's an old saying to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I might amend that to say beware of education reformers bearing THE answer.

Monday, March 15, 2010

On to the Next Thing

I take it as a pretty good sign for health care reform that President Obama is starting to move on to other major projects - notably strengthening financial regulations and improving the No Child Left Behind law. Both are in need of a lot of help.

My favorite of the new provisions being considered for NCLB is to focus less on measuring the kids who are proficient at grade level and more on getting kids to make progress from wherever they started. This makes sense to me because that's something over which the school actually has control (at least relatively speaking). The schools take whoever comes to them, regardless of whether or not they're at grade level. It just makes sense to me to measure schools and school quality by how far they advance children, not just who's able to get past the line of proficiency. When we do it the old way, schools doing great work with difficult populations are rewarded less than schools doing mediocre work with easier populations. That doesn't make sense to me and I'm glad to see that I'm not alone.

Also, as a former social studies teacher, I'm glad to see that states may be expanding their testing regime beyond reading and math. Hopefully an expansion there will lead to less narrowing of curriculum in the name of test prep and adequate yearly progress.

As with everything, the devil is always in the details so I'm not going to offer a final assessment just yet. But from what I'm seeing now, they're on the right track with this one.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today's Zeitgeist

I knew the moment that I saw this week's copy of Newsweek arrive in my mailbox that I was going to hate it. It says, "The Key To Saving American Education" in big yellow font with "We must fire bad teachers" written over and over again on a blackboard. I tried to read it with an open mind, but sometimes you can judge a Newsweek by the cover. I hated the article.

In terms of education ideas, it wasn't all that helpful (I'll get to that in a moment). If I was looking for a bright spot, I might say that it provided a helpful glimpse into the education reporting zeitgeist of the moment. Consider, the article slams "obstructionist" unions and "insipid" schools of education. Good things include KIPP and Michelle Rhee. In other words, in 20 years when I'm trying to explain to people what the educational dialogue was like in the year 2010, I can just pull out this article and it's all there. It'll save me the trouble of needing to hunt for multiple sources.

So now back to the actual point of the article - namely, that teacher quality is the key to good education and so we should fire all the bad teachers. First, let me say that I think teacher quality is incredibly important, but I don't know that I'd label anything, no matter how important, as the only and only way to get to the promised land of educational success and parity. Trying to solve complex problems with simple solutions sounds to me like a recipe for constantly lurching from one extreme to another. (Good thing school reform has avoided that, right?)

So we've got bad teachers in the system. Okay. We don't know how many (Randi Weingarten says 2%, but the article seems to think it's probably higher), but if it's the sole reason that we have an educational achievement gap, you can bet that it's a lot. Okay, so let's fire them.

Now what?

Seriously. Think that through for a moment. Now what?

Keep in mind, we've already got our best teachers in the schools. It's not like there's a whole lot of brilliant, wonderful, dedicated, committed teachers floating around out there without jobs because all the teaching positions are being hogged by obstructionist union members with degrees from insipid education programs. Who goes into the classrooms if we fire all of the teachers who aren't up to par? And how do we ensure that those teachers are better than the ones they're replacing?

The article chose to remain silent aside from some general puffery about making teaching a more desireable job. Well, good thinking. Why don't you get right on that?

I don't mean to be doom and gloom here because I don't think educational reform is hopeless and I do think that improving the quality of our teachers is important. I just don't think it's the only important thing and I don't think that massive firings are going to be as productive as Newsweek seems to imagine.

P.S. It didn't make the printed version, but check out this Newsweek blog that maybe undermines all their doomsday talk. My favorite line: "And the fact is that success – not failure – is actually the American educational norm."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Teaching the Wrong Lesson

When I was a teacher, sometimes I could tell that the kids took the wrong lesson away from the class that day. For instance, when trying to explain how being a peace would help the people of ancient Athens focus on things like art and philosophy, I dropped in the old guns versus butter economic model just to illustrate the idea in concrete terms. The result? At the end of the day, kids were trying to convince me that the ancient Greeks traded guns for butter. And nothing could persuade them otherwise. Wrong lesson.

I'm afraid that we're starting to see the wrong lesson take root in the traditional public/charter school competition. The initial idea (as I understand it) is that schools should make themselves as good as possible so they can attract the most students as parents "vote with their feet." The lesson that's apparently being learned? Well, as the New York Times reports today, it's that marketing matters. In retrospect, like the wisdom of using guns versus butter, this result isn't terribly surprising. But it doesn't make it any better.

Check out this quote from the article:
So among their many challenges, some of these principals, who had never given much thought to attracting students, have been spending considerable time toiling over ways to market their schools. They are revamping school logos, encouraging students and teachers to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the new designs. ... A few have worked with professional marketing firms to create sophisticated Web sites and blogs.

Is this really how we want our principals to be spending their time and energy? Revamping logos? Really? No mention of improving the curriculum or recruiting top teachers?

Though I am charter skeptical, I'm not writing this as a knock against charters. I'm not going down the they-started-it road because that really doesn't matter very much at this point. The blame here lies with administrators and pundits who have made the traditional public/charter school issue a manichean black and white struggle in which only one can win. In doing so, they've undermined the very idea that charters were supposed to represent.

The original idea, remember, was that charter schools would be free from some of the usual school expectations and rules to give them freedom to experiment. Then, those ideas that were successful could be replicated in other schools. The idea was supposed to be collaboration, not competition.

But for whatever reasons, we've gone down the road of competition and now we have to deal with the unintended consequence of schools learning the wrong lesson.

P.S. Check back on Friday when I vent my spleen over Newsweek's cover story on firing teachers. Ugh.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Real Race

I can't tell if I should find the coverage of the Race to the Top process encouraging or insulting. It probably depends on my mood, but there's a tone to the coverage that just doesn't quite seem to sit right with me. Namely, the way the judging process is being covered as if it's a horse race or some other kind of sports event.

Take last week's New York Times article on the 16 RttT finalists. If you didn't know that we were talking about the education of millions of children, you might think this was an amusing diversion that we might find playing at the local OTB.

On the one hand, it's nice to see that education is getting some of the breathless coverage that we usually associate with the baseball penant race or Tiger Woods. On the other hand, this is a real issue and it seems like the coverage should reflect that.

The contradiction here is that the Obama Administration's goal in setting this up is exactly to create the kind of buzz and excitement around education nationwide that has so often been lacking. So maybe this is the idea all along.

I'm probably just getting cranky because in the grand scheme of things, who actually cares how the Times covers this particular story? After all, this is the same paper that publishes David Brooks, so it's not like I take their education reporting very seriously to begin with.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Statistic

Deep down, I know that I should be outraged or disappointed or one of those other sorts of negative emotions over the fact that my state government is being described as beyond dysfunctional (because "dysfunction at least includes the word function"). Here in New York we're looking at a massive budget deficit, a broke (as in no money, not in need of repair, though it is) public transportation system, a state senator expelled from the senate for assaulting his girlfriend but now running to reclaim his seat, and a governor under at least three separate investigations and who may yet resign. This is bad stuff.

Yet at some level, I can't help but find it amusing.

There's a line from Stalin to the effect that one death is a tragedy, but one thousand deaths is a statistic. A similar line applies here.

One scandal/controversy/dire situation is cause for real concern. When we get to this many, it's just beyond what I can fathom. At some level, it has to be a joke, doesn't it?

In terms of actual direness of situation, we aren't at the California level yet. But it sure looks like we're trying our hardest to get there.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What's the Goal?

An interesting report in Newsweek finds that while colleges are recruiting more minority students, the graduation rates for minorities is staying relatively low. For instance, at Bowdoin College, they nearly doubled the number of minority students entering the school. However, while neaerly 90% of white students graduate, only 70% of minority students do. At the University of Northern Iowa, 67% of white students graduate while only 39% of black students do.

The article goes into a couple of possible explanations for why these figures are what they are and I'm sure you have a few theories of your own. To my way of thinking, though, the problem is that we've confused our means and ends again.

This seems to happen a lot in schools. We want to make sure all students are learning so we decide we should test kids to find out if they're learning. Then, the tests become the end-all be-all and we lose sight of whether the kids are learning real things or learning how to game/pass tests.

Same thing here, we decided that we wanted more minority students in college. We seem to have forgotten that getting students into college is only a means toward the end of graduating and getting good jobs afterwards. So Bowdoin boosts its minority admission and declares victory and, oops, forgets that there's a little more to the picture than that.

That's not to say that the efforts of Bowdoin and others aren't useful or worthwhile. They are, in fact, necessary steps. But they are not sufficient steps if we want to ensure that we're fully educating our population.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The DOE Wins Again

I want to build a little bit off of my last post about how public perception is clearly not on the side of the UFT or city teachers. To do so, let's take a look at a story that ran in the Times last Tuesday. The lead of the story reads:
"The Bloomberg administration has made getting rid of inadequate teachers a linchpin of its efforts to improve city schools. But in the two years since the Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence."
Notice anything?

What immediately jumps out to me is that the story is premised on the idea that our system is chock full of inadequate teachers, but that the city has "managed to fire only three", presumably because the union protects those bad teachers and keeps our school system so mediocre. Quite a premise.

An alternative premise might be that in a system of 55,000 teachers, only three were officially deemed to be incompetent. Everyone gets an A on their progress report!

My sense is that the truth lies somewhere much closer to the middle. Speaking from my own experiences in the classroom, there were some really great teachers, a lot of decent ones, and a few duds. I imagine that bell curve breakdown wasn't unique to my school.

Ultimately, the reality of the situation is a little beside the point that I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is that the DOE has so completely overwhelmed the UFT's arguments on these issues that the New York Times - the "paper of record" - has totally bought into the DOE's side of the debate. You can imagine how this story played out in the Post. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

One other point worthy of note. By my count, the article says that 431 teachers who the DOE thought were incompetent are now not teaching. The vast majority of them apparently left the system after they learned that they could face charges. Assuming that our goal is to remove bad teachers (and I tend to think that's not such a bad idea), the 431 number is a much higher one to broadcast. But then, if that's your lead, how can you use it to show how obstructionist the UFT is?

The bottom line is that the argument seems to have been won. The DOE staked out the terms of the debate and then stomped the UFT. The sad part is that the teachers have barely fought back.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This the City Believes

Gotham Schools has a list of the city's contract demands in their now-stalled negotiations with the UFT. Scroll down to the comments section and you'll see that the demands are not exactly being well received by the teachers in the crowd (there's a abnormally high proportion of Nazi comparisons in the ranks). I'm not about to pop off with Herr Bloomberg comments, but the demands did strike me as asking for a whole lot without much inclination to give anything back in return. Normally, that's not the kind of position that leads to happy smiles all around and I can see why both sides are saying that they're at an impasse. So what is the city thinking?

Well, if I had to guess, they're thinking that they hold all of the cards. And they may even be right.

Here's how things look to someone not directly involved or with a personal stake in the negotiations:
  • The city's budget is extremely tight and cuts need to be made.
  • Layoffs and budget tightenings are happening in households all across the city and country.
  • Teacher salaries have gone through the roof in recent years and they're still asking for more.
  • There are a whole lot of teachers (ATR pool) who are getting paid for not teaching.
  • There are another group of teachers (the rubber room) who shouldn't be teaching but are still getting paid to not teach.
  • Mayor Bloomberg has done a good job with the schools.
Now, you can argue many of these points, but the fact is that the city has already won most of those fights in the public sphere. The PR battle is over and the union has lost. They're now negotiating for raises when many are looking at layoffs. They're negotiating to protect the salaries of teachers who aren't teaching at a time when the city is looking to impose fiscal discipline. They have been painted for years as a special interest group that will now be opposing the well-regarded school leadership of the Mayor.

No wonder they're going for it all.

The fact is, the city is risking very little by holding firm to their demands because they are confident that the public will back them up. So they win more PR points against the union by sticking to their guns and "standing up for what's right for our city." Then, when through arbitration they don't get everything they want, they win even more PR points by being able to turn the union's victories into examples of them screwing the city at the expense of themselves.

I'm not saying they're right. I am saying, they're sitting in a pretty good spot right now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ask the Experts

For some reason, people don't seem to find it necessary to ask teachers what might help improve education. My guess is that it's because everyone went to school at some point in their lives that everyone thinks they know what actually works for educating kids. So the experts (teachers) get ignored as essentially a special interest group (they do have a union, you know) while the decisions gets made elsewhere using input from other people.

This isn't just my sense. According to a report based on the Met Life Survey of the American Teacher, fully 69% of teachers do not believe their voices have been adequately heard in the current debate on education. That's pretty incredible. You know that if 69% of doctors said their voices weren't being heard on the health care debate there would be an explosion of outrage. But when it's education that's in question, that's just kind of accepted.

Am I the only one who thinks that's nuts? When my seak is leaking, I call the plumber. When my computer goes haywire, I call tech support. When the education system needs reform, I think we should ask the teachers what they think. How am I in the minority on this?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Almost a Great Idea

Out in St. Paul, Minnesota, they've come up with a pretty good plan. Kind of. The plan is to send out a team of experienced teachers - they're calling them coaches in this program - to work with high-needs kids in schools across the city to improve their test scores. I'm 99% on board with this program.

I love the outside the box thinking of taking a team of senior teachers and sending them in to do intensive work with small groups of kids who most need it. This is the kind of targeted intervention that I think we should be doing all the time. I just wish that it was for some end other than a one-time boost in test scores.

If this were a regular program designed to operate continuously forever, I would be singing its praises from rooftops. But the sole focus on testing is an issue. Specifically it's on the goal of boosting test scores by 10 percentage points this year. I have issue with that.

Learning is about more than acing high stakes standardized tests. They have a powerful tool here to really make that clear to students and really make a difference. But they're only using the tool halfway. What a waste.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Either/Or Reforms

I've frequently lamented the fact that education reform so often seems to boil down to either/or propositions. Either you're for smaller class sizes or you're for curriculum changes. Either you're for market-based reforms or you're a status-quo-loving-teacher-union-defending-failure-to-kids. That's the way it's always played out in the media at least, but I never quite bought it. But now I may be changing my mind a little.

What's gotten me to readjust my thinking a little bit is that Florida is going to be spending $200 million to revamp their math curriculum, even as budget cuts hammer education across the state. And that got me thinking. These reforms actually cost money. Want to revamp your curriculum? Pay the curriculum companies. Smaller class sizes? Pay for more schools and more teachers. Better teachers? Pay for more recruitment and professional development. The list goes on and on.

Philosophically, I think that we can't afford to focus on just one effort. Instead we need to focus on an array of reforms that will improve entire schools and communities. Pragmatically, I see that we might not be able to afford more than one thing at a time. Until we can address that, either/or may be here to say.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

DOE Closes More Schools

I have to say that I think there's something vaguely familiar about the DOE's decision to preemptively declare this a snow day before a single flake had fallen. After all, it was based on data (the weather report says that we're going to get walloped) and it led to a bunch of schools getting closed.

Does this just scream DOE or what?

It may turn out to have been the right decision. As I'm looking out my window right now, there is a fair amount of snow falling and it is supposed to get worse as the day goes on. But there just seems to be something kind of odd about calling a snow day before there's any actual snow. Logically it seemed like the right decision, but do we know we're looking at the right data?

I won't draw out the metaphor too far. However, I do see this as telling of the larger trends in the DOE.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Unspeak in the New Yorker

I know that it's about a month old at this point, but I'm finally caught up on my New Yorker reading so I've finally had a chance to read the profile of Arne Duncan. On the whole, I thought it was pretty interesting and encapsulated a lot of my ambivalence about the guy and his agenda. Some things I'm totally on board with. Others, less so.

What I'm totally opposed to, though, is the kind of ridiculous journalism that slips in lines like, "In the fight over education in America today, there, roughly speaking, two major camps: free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers’ unions and education schools." (For the record, that's the author of the article, not Duncan speaking.)

In other words, there are people who want to help kids learn through a competition-based reform model and there are people who are union-loving, education-school-promoting, failing-school-allowing defenders of the status quo. At least with the "roughly speaking" phrase there's the chance that some other camps might exist.

I've written about this before, but it doesn't make me any less angry to see. School reform doesn't necessarily mean charter schools and teacher incentive pay. It just doesn't. It can also mean reducing class sizes, reworking curriculum, promoting the community school model, and a host of other efforts taking place across the country. For whatever reason, our journalists just can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that there could be a whole lot of different reform ideas out there and that people who don't think charter schools are the answer might not be in favor of keeping everything exactly the same.

Unspeak lives, even in the pages of the New Yorker.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dealer's Choice

It's interesting how stories sometimes get shaded in the press. Take this article about AP test passage rates from USA Today. The headline reads: Failure Rate for AP Tests Climbing. If you just read the headline you might think that everything was terrible with education in this country. However, if you read to the eighth paragraph (in a 13 paragraph story) you might also see that the absolute number of kids passing the tests has increased as well. See, there's a lot more kids taking the tests now than used to and that means that two indicators are increasing. On the one hand, we're seeing kids take the test who in the past probably wouldn't have taken the test even though they were ready and would have passed. They're taking and passing the tests now, which is why the number of kids passing has increased. On the other hand, you've got kids being put into the classes and sitting for the tests who aren't ready for that kind of work. That's why the passage rate is declining.

The headline obviously emphasizes the negative, but do the facts support a negative story? Yes and no. The facts can support either a positive or negative spin. The headline could just as easily have read "More Kids Than Ever Passing AP Tests." That would have been equally accurate. But remember, this is in the papers and it is about education. So was there ever really a choice on the angle?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Change We Can Believe In

Not content with just reforming education through the Race to the Top fund, President Obama has come out swinging again on education. This time, he's talking about rewriting the No Child Left Behind law. At the risk of repeating what's already been on about 1,000 edublogs, way to go.

At this point, it's pretty clear that No Child Left Behind, though well intentioned, has some serious flaws. It's over-reliance on standardized tests is a huge example of that. So what does Obama do? He sets out to deemphasize standardized tests in determining which schools are succeeding and which are failing. If this really happens, it could lead to a huge shift away from the skill, drill, and kill methodology that's become pretty much a necessity in the NCLB era. Let's move away from the high stakes tests and toward a more complete measure of student and school performance.

Arne Duncan said, "We want accountability reforms that factor in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates."

Yes we do.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Can't Afford to Wait

It seems like I was just writing about the value of early childhood education and interventions when another bit of research came across my desk that really bolsters the point. A study comparing the relative effects of neighborhood poverty at early childhood and early adolescence found that the neighborhood kids live in when they're in first grade strongly predicts their reading levels in seventh grade regardless of where they live in seventh grade. In other words, a first grader in the South Bronx is likely to have a lower reading level when he hits seventh grade, even if he moves to the Upper East Side.

On the one hand, this seems pretty shocking. I mean, we'd like to think that schooling matters and that if circumstances improve children's learning will likewise improve. If we don't believe that, then a lot of other efforts seem kind of pointless.

On the other hand, it does make a certain amount of sense that the conditions under which kids first learn (or are supposed to learn) to read impact their entire reading career. A child who doesn't start learning the necessary skills early on will be playing catch up from then on. That's kind of bleak to consider.

The bottom line here, though, is that what happens to kids early matters. If we want to improve our schools and our education system, we need to start at the beginning and work our way up. That's going to have the strongest impact and it's going to make the most difference. If we wait, it may be too late.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Now or Later

The old saying goes that it takes money to make money. The new saying, at least in Michigan, is that it takes money to save money. A study there found that the state's preschool programs are saving the state about $1 billion a year. The savings comes from reduced costs in having children repeat grades, the juvenile justice and corrections system, substance abuse programs, and more. That's to say nothing of the fact that children who don't get sidetracked into drugs and crime are also more likely to earn a productive income.

This is actually pretty obvious if you think about it. As my dad always used to say, "you can pay now or you can pay later." He was usually referring to homework time, but it applies. We can pay now and get kids off to a good start or we could pay later when we have to correct the behaviors that have gotten started. As the YMCA used to say, "it's easier to build boys than mend men." That one's pretty catchy.

The irony is that pre-k programs are perpetually on the chopping block. Paul Anton, who oversaw the study under discussion said, "Cutting a dollar in early childhood education is not going to save money, it will cost you in the future."

Let's hope his voice gets heard.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oh, Texas

Thank god for the Texas school board. Here in New York we've all been up in arms about the fact that the state legislature didn't lift the charter cap and what's going to happen to our Race to the Top application. Out in Texas, they opted out of that whole Race to the Top thing a long time ago. Clearly. Instead, they're focusing on the important issues, like making sure that Commies don't appear in the classrooms - not even in book form. And even when they aren't actually pinkos.

In one of those too strange to be believed moments of educational reform greatness, the Texas school board removed Bill Martin Jr. (author of the Brown Bear, Brown Bear books) from the social studies curriculum list of individuals to be studied for their cultural contributions. The reason? He'd apparently written another work called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. Somehow I missed that one in the school library.

Turns out that not only was this a rather sharp turn in Mr. Martin's writerly MO, but he was also dead when he did it. Oops. Turns out Bill Martin isn't such a unique name after all.

And that's who's making educational policy in Texas these days.

I wrote a while back (and again here) about how things like this have to make you wonder about the efforts to install national standards. But I'm actually starting to re-think that position now. Remember, Texas with its huge textbook market in many ways sets the standards that are going to be reflected in textbooks used across the country. And you can see how they're using that clout. At this point, anything to take power away from Texas almost has to be seen as a good thing.

Also, so there's no doubt, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Communist Party.