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.