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.