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.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Second Thought

Out in Chicago they've been taking a look at the educational reform strategies that are now being used to reform schools across the country. The strategy - which focuses heavily on closing failing schools, opening new ones, and charters - has been, well, not as encouraging as one might hope. To get right to the point, scores from the newly opened elementary schools are the same as the city average and the high schools tend to do worse than the city average. In other words, just opening new schools doesn't mean that they're going to automatically be better than what they are replacing. Good schools are good schools. New schools can go either way.

Meanwhile, out in Long Beach - which has just received the Broad Prize - they've achieved success by being the anti-Chicago. They have focused on data, community buy-in, and staff development. Also, instead of "flitting from reform to reform or looking for silver bullets", they have stuck with that approach for nearly 20 years. (Are you listening Joel Klein?) Now data, community buy-in, and staff development aren't exactly the sexy stuff of the Education Reformers, but if it works then why isn't the data set all over this. And if the portfolio method isn't so effective, you'd think they'd be turning against that.

The thing about all this reform is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. People are getting locked into their ideas of what works whether it does or not. I'm not saying that only one approach can be successful. I think the exact opposite is true, in fact. But we need to make sure we're actually looking at what works instead of just saying it works and taking action that doesn't help.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Seven and a Half Hours

A blog seems like an unlikely place to lament the use of technology and media in the world, so I'll try to keep the lamenting to a minimum. Still, it takes a stouter heart than mine not to be a little sad to read that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend about seven and a half hours a day using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. That's pretty incredible when you think about it. What makes it sad, though is that those who spend the most time with the devices get the lowest grades. The heaviest users were also most likely to say that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school. I might argue that the causation on that might be the opposite of what the sentence construction would indicate, but let's not quibble.

Given all this, I couldn't help but think about all the efforts to move the latest technology into the classroom. I mean, is that really what kids need?

The key quote from the article in terms of influencing my thinking on this comes from the report on which the article is based. Basically, it says that it's "time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, 'like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.'"

Does ubiquity (and possibly inevitability) justify something? I don't know. However, this does seem to be part of the new landscape for kids and we ignore that at our own peril. Like all technology, these devices are not good or evil in themselves, but it all depends on how they are used. If a teacher can find a good and meaningful way to use them, go for it. Otherwise, I don't know that we're helping.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Race to the Bank

I took a journalism class in college where we were always taught to look for telling details. A telling detail was the kind of small, observable thing that was supposed to shed light on a larger truth about whatever we were writing about. The idea always sort of captivated me and I find myself spotting telling details from time to time.

A great example occurred to me yesterday when I checked in on the Gotham Schools website (which everyone should read every day) and read the headline, "On RttT Deadline Day, Paterson Proposes $1.1B in School Cuts." Think about that headline for a moment and what it says about the larger state of affairs for education reform and the reform agenda.

Race to the Top was supposed to be about encouraging states to do be innovative and aggressive about improving their educational performances. That's why Paterson spent a good portion of the day trying to get lawmakers to lift the state's charter school cap - an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful. But let's get back to the telling part of the detail. Mainly, that cutting $1.1 billion isn't seen as being as limiting to educational reform as the fact that the state only allows 200 charter schools. That's incredible to me.

I know that things like funding education are the kind of things that defenders of the status quo always do, but seriously people. Cutting per-pupil spending by 5% has to be considered an impediment to serious education work. Can we really race to the top without funding?

To be fair, I have no idea how to fix the state's fiscal fiasco, which seems to get worse each time I read a new report on how bad things are. So I get that cuts to schools were probably inevitable and that even a huge cut like this is only just a small portion of how much money does go to education in the state. I just marvel at the fact that no one saw the irony in cutting so much education funding while we were trying to show how education-focused we are as a state. That is a telling detail.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Who's the Boss?

It turns out that Houston has a bit of a controversy going on in terms of how they evaluate teachers. The school board there was set to vote on a plan to evaluate teachers based on the Texas high stakes testing results. Teachers who aren't doing well may even be fired. Naturally, this has got some people overjoyed and others less so. It does raise - for me anyway - one issue that I think is worth really delving into. (For the sake of argument, let's assume that standardized testing is a valid way to measure student learning. Obviously there are pros and cons to the approach, but let's put those aside for this post.)

The president of the teachers' union there is quoted as saying, "There are so many factors that influence scores — school climate and leadership, not to mention how students woke up feeling on test day." Let's throw into that hopper things like socioeconomic status, nutrition, health and dental care, and more. I think most everyone would agree that kids don't walk into classrooms as blank slates ready to take in whatever the teacher throws at them. Rather, there are all sorts of things both in and out of school that have an impact on student learning. We know that. So let's take it to the next step.

Who has ultimate responsibility for ensuring that kids are learning?

If the school board approves this measure, they are saying it's the teachers. The teachers' union is saying that the principal and outside factors (like parents) also have some responsibility. All of the arguments have some validity. However, if we accept all of them, then who do we blame when things go wrong or praise when they go right? Can we take children away from their parents if their test scores aren't improving?

If we go down that road, we get into accountability nihlism and that's not ultimately going to help us very much. So then where does the responsibility lie?

In the end, I think we have to answer the question by saying that it's the schools. We can and should do everything we can to improve the living conditions for children in underserved communities to help on that front. We can and should provide as much support for parents as possible to help them raise their children so that they'll be able to succeed in school and in life. We can and should do a whole host of things to help the kids who need it most. But in the end, it's the school's job to educate kids and the buck needs to stop there - fairly or unfairly.

Should we fire teachers because of poor student performance? Not as a first line of defense, but it should probably be an option. As long as our goal is to improve schools first, I think we'll see much less need to punish them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's the Value?

A quick lesson in economics:

Marx said that the value of something was equal to the labor put into making it. That's why profit should belong to the workers - they were the ones who instilled it with value. My grandfather always used to say that something is only worth what you can get for it. He wasn't a great economist, but as a banker he did have a certain level of valuable insight. By either measure, the value of a high school diploma is in real trouble if this story from the New York Times is accurate.

For those of you who are linkophobic, the story says that states tend to lower their standards when it becomes apparent that many students aren't going to pass state exit exams. I think I've mentioned before that the Times is sometimes a little slow in getting to these education stories, so you probably aren't shocked to be hearing this. But once it's in the paper of record, it's worth noting.

Let's assume the best case here and ignore the fact that the reason standards are being lowered is that no one wants to be in charge when a bunch of kids are denied diplomas who thought they would be getting them. Let's assume that the standards game is a way to ensure that more kids get diplomas because we know that those are valuable for job seeking and other endeavors.

There's that v-word again. What is the value of a diploma? If standards are being lowered and kids don't need to work as hard for it, then Marx would say that it wasn't as valuable. If employers know that kids with diplomas aren't necessarily ready for meaningful work, then diploma holders aren't going to get as much for having one. Whether you listen to Marx or my grandfather, the value of a diploma is goes down when standards go down.

The bottom line - and I don't think this is controversial - is that we need to make sure more kids are getting diplomas, but we need to do it by raising the kids to the level of the diplomas, not by lowering the diplomas to the level of the kids. In the end, we aren't really helping anyone by doing that.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tenure Issues

Teacher tenure is in the news again, this time in Los Angeles, where the local paper has run a story that essentially finds that everyone is given tenure regardless of their actual teaching ability. Then, once they have tenure, those teachers are pretty much never fired.

This is sure to drive the teacher tenure opponents up the wall and probably with good reason. That said, I don't know that this is really the focus of all that's going wrong in our schools. I think it was Diane Ravitch who made the point that if unions and tenure decisions are really so bad, why aren't they ruining middle class suburban school systems? Fair question and one to which I haven't heard an answer.

However, it seems like tenure advocates have to be slapping themselves on this one too. Best case scenario is that tenure looks bad and hurts the PR for the unions and for teachers in general. (The worst case is that it actually hurts students learning.) So when you see a story like this, you know it's just hurting your own case.

I personally don't think that tenure is what's causing any sort of significant problems in our system. But that's no excuse for not being intelligent about how it's awarded and what it means. The article from the LA Times shows that neither of those things are taking place. It's not the end of the world, but it is a problem.

Friday, January 8, 2010

An Actual Turnaround

I've written before that I'm a pretty big believer in the Obama administration's focus on turning around the lowest performing schools in our country. As I've written, the whole point of the achievement gap is that a lot of schools serving more affluent areas are doing pretty well while a lot of schools serving the less affluent neighborhoods in our country are doing abysmally. That's why there's a gap. What I'm less a fan of is the administration's focus on turning schools around by simply closing them and opening a new school (or new charter school) in their place.

First, this strategy is premised on the idea that any new school will be better than the school it's replacing. Given the status of those schools, this isn't exactly a high bar to reach, but I'm not sure it's an entirely logical conclusion that absolutely anything would be better. I mean, don't districts ever open new underperforming schools?

That's why I like the idea of actually working to turn schools around rather than just close schools and opening a new one that we hope is moving in the opposite direction. You can imagine my happiness to see that a program in Chicago (which as a city has more than a few connections to the current powers-that-be in the White House) has been working with a group called Strategic Learning Initiatives and has been getting results.

SLI works within schools to turn them around rather than focusing on what the next school in that building will be doing. As their CEO says, "it’s less expensive, and often more effective, to invest in the people already working in the schools."

Ultimately, I don't think it's terribly realistic of us to think that we'll be able to abolish the entire system that we have and open something new and better in its place. I just don't think the manpower is there. So let's focus on improving the people we have and getting the best possible results out of them. Chicago is showing that it can be done. Is Arne Duncan listening?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Those Deadbeat TFAs

So, maybe you read in the New York Times that Teach for America alumni are a bunch of burned out deadbeats who have dropped out of civil society in favor of whatever it is that burned out deadbeats do when they stop teaching. I mean, the Times didn't use those exact words, per se, but the attitude was there and that was kind of the slant of the article.

The actual gist was essentially that TFA alumni (those who complete their two year commitments) have lower rates of civic engagement - as measured by voting, charitable giving, etc - than those who leave the program early or are accepted to the program but opt not to join, according to a study out of Stanford. Eduwonk has a pretty good take on the study here that shows the picture may not be quite as bleak as the Times makes it out to be.

What it boils down to really is that TFA does an excellent job identifying and recruiting people who are and are going to be engaged in their communities - voting rates even among the deadbeat crowd are nearly double the national average - but that the TFA experience itself doesn't help get people more involved in a broadly defined way.

I don't want to be an apologist, but I don't see that as a very big deal. The alumni are still more likely to be involved than the average person and they're also much more likely to be involved in educational issues. Given the goal of the organization (to transform and improve education from both within and outside the classroom), the dip in charitable giving is something that I can deal with.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Decade

First of all, happy new year everyone. Indeed, it's a happy new decade and I hope that everyone finds this decade even better than the last, whatever it was called.

On that note, the New Yorker ran a predictably droll piece in their Talk of the Town section about how the lack of consensus about what to call the previous decade might have been a harbinger for the lack of consensus on a variety of other issues that came before us during the previous ten years. While I'm still not entirely sure what we're going to be calling the last decade, in terms of educational epochs, it was pretty clear.

Without question, the aughts (if that's really what we're going to insist on calling them) were the No Child Left Behind decade. That was the defining feature of education policy as first the law was passed and then more and more states started putting greater and greater emphasis on high stakes student testing. Look around New York or pretty much anywhere else and you see that test scores not only reign supreme, but that many aren't even questioning that testing emphasis is the way it should be. It's just part of the landscape.

I know it's early (4 days out of a total 3650), but I've already got a nominee for what the new decade in education will be: the Race to the Top decade. Clearly that's the big focus right now and with all that money on the line, it's no wonder. Whether or not the focus stays on that one initiative for the next ten years is doubtful. I know I'd bet against it. However, the sentiment summed up by the effort is, I think, going to be here to stay.

In short, Race to the Top is about tweaking the effects of NCLB without fundamentally altering the landscape that it created. We're seeing pushes for national standards and for states increasing their standards and creating more school choice. All of this is what NCLB set out to do, but didn't do that well. In other words, we're still tinkering with the same program, but we're trying to correct the mistakes that were made the first time around.

Part of me can't really imagine that the moniker "Race to the Top Decade" is really going to be sticking around 10 years from today. But if it is, remember that you heard it here first.