Friday, June 27, 2008

Does Teacher Opinion Matter?

Sorry for my sudden disappearance -- I've been off trying to deal with more important issues.

The NY Times ran an article this morning about the survey the UFT recently conducted of NYC teachers (UFT press release here, full results here). In short, it seems that teachers don't particularly like Chancellor Klein.

Methodological concerns aside, I wonder if these results matter.

I think a strong argument can be made that teachers' feelings about a particular reform will greatly influence how they implement said reform, but I wonder about their feelings toward things that are more removed from their immediate situation. Does a teacher's love or hatred for Joel Klein affect how they go about their daily business? Does it make them less satisfied with their jobs? Does it make them less likely to implement reforms he pushes? Or is "Chancellor Klein" too much of an abstraction to matter much when teaching a roomful of kids?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Home vs. School Influence

I previously asserted that the largest reason for the failures at my school was not anything in the school but, rather, what took place at home.

Ken DeRosa, over at D-Ed Reckoning, took the time to thoughtfully respond to a lot of what I had to say (he disagrees with me) and I'd like to respond to some of his comments.

*The first point he makes is that my assignment of causality to home factors over school factors is suspect. He has a point. I can't be 100% sure about that. I didn't rigorously evaluate student attitudes toward school, survey parents, observe home environments, run regressions, etc. I did not use rigorous research methodology to determine what caused what and, as such, I won't be publishing it in an academic journal anytime soon. But what I did do is spend all day in the school for two years straight. I taught about 70 different kids in my two classes, and probably at least a thousand others while covering other classes. I held conferences with parents. I got to know students. I talked to teachers. I observed other classrooms. In short, I knew the school inside and out. I can't empirically prove that home factors matter more than school ones, but I have plenty of good reasons to believe it. There's certainly no way to disprove my theory either.

His second point that he makes surrounding validity is that the students' behavior was confounded by previous academic experience. All the kids should have attended school for at least 5 years prior to coming to our school (NYC doesn't mandate kindergarten), and I know very little about those experiences or how they affected learning and behavior. This is true. If I were publishing this in a journal, it would be a major weakness if not a fatal flaw. Again, I can't be 100% sure -- but given my in-depth knowledge of the situation, I'm fairly confident in my position.

*DeRosa says that behavioral problems weren't caused by poor home environments but, rather, by poor management and instructional strategies. Given that DeRosa has never, to my knowledge, stepped foot in my school it's hard for him to know exactly what was happening and why. That said, I agree to some extent. My classroom management skills were lacking, as were most of the other new teachers'. My training was not enough, and I (and other teachers) certainly could have used better techniques. But he'll have to trust me when I say that I've managed plenty of kids in plenty of situations in my lifetime and that the kids in this school were different. They were angrier. They were more defiant. They had less self-control. Of course the adults in the building failed to do enough to create a positive and structured environment, but doing so was much, much harder than it should have been because of the social norms to which the kids were exposed outside of school.

In summary of what went wrong at my school, let me be clear: myself and the other adults in the school failed the kids in many, many ways. The school was poorly run. I lacked adequate training. We could have done any number of things better (especially around discipline) and it would have helped the situation. But I stand by my assertion that the largest cause of problems at the school was the home life of the children. And I apologize for the obscene length of this post, but I'm going to explain why.

1.) When I started teaching I was convinced that the reason why schools such as mine were failing was because they were underfunded and that the teachers didn't work hard enough. I was at least 100% confident that I could turn around the life of every student I encountered. I believed I could overcome every problem they've faced simply by being inspiring, demanding, and generally awesome. But I slowly came to realize that this was not the case.

I saw many problems in my school, including: incompetent administrators (not all of them, mind you), high teacher turnover (and, therefore, inexperienced teachers), few resources and supplies, a dilapidated building, etc. I wanted to believe that with the right policies that we could be as good as any other school, but here's what I realized (and feel free to disagree on this point). If you were to lift a school from, say, Scarsdale and plop it down where our school was and then plop our school down where theirs was, you would have an interesting experiment. Our school, with the lack of resources, inexperienced teachers, etc. would now be populated by wealthy suburban kids. The Scarsdale school, with much higher expenditures, more experienced teachers, nicer facilities, smaller classes, etc. would be populated by our kids. Which school would be better?

Before I started teaching, I would've thought that the former Scarsdale school would be better. No longer. In my mind, our school would instantly become superior once it was populated by kids who were well-fed, well-adjusted, well-behaved, and had involved parents. In other words, all the of the structural factors matter less than the population of the school.

2.) My final summer in the Bronx, I taught at a private school that ran a special summer program for public school kids who had fallen behind. I taught Math, which I'd never taught before. The students came from the same neighborhoods (there was an income cap to get into the program). Despite this, the program was an unmitigated success. Students came to school on-time and ready to learn. Students smiled. Students listened when I talked. Students completed homework. Students learned. I had fun.

What was different? Certainly the program was well-run. Classes were capped at 15. I had two or three high school mentors as assistants in each class. The facilities were shiny (they even washed the board for me at night!). The teachers were good. All these things made a difference, but the largest difference was the home environment from which these kids came. The students had parents who went out of their way to apply to a selective program, come in for face-to-face interviews, make sure their kids attended so that they would be allowed to remain, and attended parent day even though they had to take a day off work.

To be fair, the program was selective and had no qualms about removing students who didn't show up or didn't cooperate. As a result, we were left with kids that came from stable families but that lived in poor neighborhoods.

Again, I have no empirical evidence -- but my experiences have convinced me that the home lives of these students contributed more to the success of the program than did the competency of the adults involved. I'm not arguing that the other stuff didn't matter, just that it mattered less than what happened at home.

3.) DeRosa argues that "The problems Corey sees may start at home, but there is no reason to believe that they cannot be solved and compensated for by schools." I disagree. I see no reason why they can't be assuaged, but schools with current levels of resources will never fully overcome what happens at home.

I'm sure just about everybody reading this could point out a school or ten that have overcome this. First of all, an exception doesn't disprove a rule. Secondly, many of the schools that have overcome home disadvantages go far beyond what we normally expect schools to do. Take KIPP schools for example, students not only self-select but are asked to leave (or simply told they will be held back if they stay) when they don't cooperate. The schools run, I believe, about 9-10 hours per day. Millions of dollars in grants are brought in to provide all sorts of extra opportunities. I think this is great. I would encourage many of the kids that I taught to go to a KIPP school if they could, but it doesn't accurately reflect what we'd normally expect schools to do.

Take, as another example, the SEED school in D.C. By all accounts, it has been tremendously successful. But it's a boarding school. If that's what it takes to overcome disadvantages stemming from students' home lives, then I'm all for it -- but we can't reasonably expect all inner-city schools to become boarding schools.

As a final example, let me provide one more anecdote. The leader of YES! Prep in Houston was on campus to speak in the fall. He opened with a question that read something to the effect of "can a school educate poor students as well as wealthy ones when they have the same resources?" And their answer was "YES!" As far as I could tell, the school did a phenomenal job. They had a dedicated staff that went the extra mile to make sure students succeeded. But they didn't provide the same resources as a suburban school, they provided the same resources as both a suburban school and a suburban family. They had extended school hours and all sorts of social activities. They raised money to provide their kids with college scholarships. They raised money to take their kids on college visits and on weekend trips to museums, plays, etc.

In short, I'm not arguing that it's not possible for a school to overcome a great deal of what happens at home, but rather that it's not possible given our current level of school resources. If somebody can figure out a way to fund a doubling of school hours, cultural trips, college visits, etc. then I'll be more open to considering schools as a full remedy for social ills rather than a partial one. Let's not forget that once a student is old enough to attend school they only spend about 22% of their waking hours inside a school building. The other 78% of the time, not to mention the first 5 or 6 years of their lives, have an awful lot of influence ((180*7/365*16) = .22).

4.) Last point, I promise. Let me get away from personal anecdotes and move on to some research. The Coleman Report was commissioned in the 1960's to prove that poor kids (especially African-Americans in segregated schools) were failing because their schools didn't have enough resources. Instead, it found that home life mattered more than what happened in school. It's now been about 42 years since the study was released, and countless follow-up studies have confirmed this finding. If there's any certainty in education policy research, it's that homes influence academic achievement more than schools.

The only exception of which I'm aware is what's known as the "Heyneman-Loxley Effect" based on a paper written by Stephen Heyneman and William Loxley in 1983. The pair studied 29 countries and examined the influence of home vs. school. They found a strong correlation (-.72) between the GNP of a country and the percentage influence of home vs. that of school. In other words, schools mattered more in poor countries and homes mattered more in rich countries.

In Conclusion: I stand by my assertion that the largest problem affecting my school was the home lives of our students. This does not mean that I made excuses rather than working hard. If anything, this motivated me to work harder. This does not mean that schools can't make a world of difference. I wouldn't be studying education if I didn't think it could make a difference in students' lives. What this means is that problems exist both inside and outside of schools -- and that schools can't fix everything.

Narrowing Gap

A new report out today from the Fordham Institute apparently describes how the bottom 10 percent of students have made more progress this century than the top 10 percent of students.

Given that the low-performing students in the U.S. lag behind low-performers in other countries while high-performing students hold their own against other high-performers (previous post), it's hard for me to see this as anything but a good thing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why TFA?

The Wall St. Journal has an editorial today extolling the virtues of Teach For America. I think TFA does far more good than harm, but I can't help but notice at least two glaring errors.

1.) Near the end they cite the problematic Urban Institute study as iron-clad proof that TFA teachers are better than regular teachers. Citing one study as definitive proof of anything will continue to annoy me, no matter what the circumstances. A handful of studies with larger sample sizes have been conducted, and they should have mentioned them.

2.) They seem to imply that the only reason people apply to TFA is because they can cut through the red tape. Here's the part of the editorial I'm talking about so that you can judge for yourself:

Unions keep saying the best people won't go into teaching unless we pay them what doctors and lawyers and CEOs make. Not only are Teach for America salaries significantly lower than what J.P. Morgan might offer, but these individuals go to some very rough classrooms. What's going on?

It seems that Teach for America offers smart young people something even better than money – the chance to avoid the vast education bureaucracy.

The chance to be put right in a classroom is certainly part of the allure of TFA and similar programs (without that opportunity I never would have applied to any of these programs), but it seems somewhat disingenuous to suggest that it's the only reason. I'm not sure if any studies have been done on the topic (please let me know if you've seen any), but I'm willing to bet that TFA applicants apply for all of the following reasons:

-the chance to "make the world a better place"
-the chance to move directly to the classroom without going through certification
-it looks darn good on a resume
-it's a good transition from college to the working world
-gives people two years to decide what they really want to do
-not a long-term commitment
-it's the cool thing to do

Additionally, TFA puts a lot of effort into recruiting people.

In conclusion: I hardly think that the fact that TFA attracts talented people proves that schools would have no problem attracting talented people if certification didn't exist.

Of What Utility is Parental Satisfaction?

The National Center for Education Evaluation released a report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholars (voucher) program yesterday.

The short version is that it found somewhere between no and few academic gains for those awarded vouchers, no difference in student satisfaction, but an improvement in parental satisfaction. There are, of course, all sorts of caveats (see here for a more complete analysis of the methodology and findings), but that's essentially what the report says.

As Erin Dillon points out, the mixed findings mean that both supporters and opponents of the voucher program can cite the study to support their arguments.

Liam Julian has an interesting reaction over at Flypaper. He essentially argues that the study is irrelevant, and uses the increase in parental satisfaction as evidence of that fact. He also argues that since the voucher program is not doing any harm, that we shouldn't discontinue it.

The report and Julian's reaction both got me thinking. As to the latter point, I'm not sure that a voucher opponent wouldn't have an equally valid point if they said "it's not doing any good, so it should be discontinued," nor am I sure that the report proves that the program's not doing any harm.

But, on to the larger point of whether parental satisfaction, or anything else, proves that the program has been a success or failure:

This is what I'd like to see: before the start of a program such as this one, proponents and opponents of the plan, along with parties with no rooting interest, should define what outcomes would make the program a failure and what outcomes would make the program a success. Then we can compare the findings of the program evaluation to this criteria. The way it's currently being done, one can define success or failure any way they like based on the findings of the evaluation.

More importantly, I wonder what kind of criteria would be placed on these pre-program lists. In other words, how do we really know that schools are succeeding? "Student achievement" (i.e. test scores) is all the rage these days, so I'm sure that would make the list. I'm guessing that people would include other types of learning, such as critical thinking, behavior, safety, parent and student perceptions, attendance, and a host of other things on such a list.

There was, to my knowledge anyway, no such list for this program. So we're stuck with the findings and our post-hoc interpretations of them.

Anyway, the one firm finding in the report seems to be that parents are more satisfied with the new schools in which their children are enrolled than they were with their former schools (even though the kids aren't). That certainly seems to be a good thing but what, exactly, does this mean? Does it mean that parents are simply happier when they get choose their child's school than when they don't, or does it mean that parents are perceiving positive things outside of the scope of the program evaluation?

I could see interpreting this particular finding any number of ways. One could argue that parents care at least as much about other factors as they do about test scores. One could argue that parental satisfaction is ultimately what matters most since parents are ultimately responsible for their children. One could argue that an increase in parental satisfaction is a given in such a program.

In the end, I'm not sure exactly what an increase in parental satisfaction means. If the parent is more satisfied, you'd expect that they might become more involved in the school -- or at least become more cooperative with it. But does an increase in parental satisfaction affect students otherwise? In other words, If I enroll in a school that pleases my mother, does that mean that I'll do any better? Student satisfaction didn't increase, so it would seem that parent and student satisfaction might not go hand-in-hand. If parent satisfaction increases, but student satisfaction doesn't, will the child's behavior change? I'm not sure what the answer is.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I've already posted my thoughts on what's wrong with education policy once, but I feel this is important enough to bring up again. I continue to see no reason why education policy should involve taking sides or demeaning others.

Why do I bring this up now? Two major reasons:

1.) David Brooks' op-ed in the Times on Friday makes what I believe to be a false distinction between what he terms the "status quo" and "reformist" camps. The two big press releases this week signed by large groups of people (here and here) strike him as warring factions. I see no reason why one can't agree with both. They both raise a number of good points. I already signed my name to the EPI report, and if I could figure out how to do the same for the EEP report without simultaneously signing up for e-mails then I would sign my name to that one as well.

2.) Despite the opinion of my new critic, I continue to believe that belittling others is both bad form and consequential. This all started when Chad Lykins took D-Ed Reckoning to task for calling the signers of the EPI report "jackasses" (though in strikethrough font). I simply fail to see how name-calling productively contributes to the conversation about education policy. Though he resorts to name calling (in a post already unproductively titled "A Dopier Approach to Education"), he does make some good points. But why would anybody that he's demeaned want to listen to what he has to say. Though the post is entertaining it, ultimately, seems unproductive to me. In short, I think the tone of the discussion needs to stay respectful -- otherwise we'll accomplish nothing.

In addition to the tenor of some blog posts and David Brooks' attempt to divide ed policy people, I can't help but notice that I see an "us against them" mentality pop up in blog posts all over the place. As just one example, check out this post on the Fordham blog. On the heels of a number of Fordhamites calling Eleanor Holmes Norton some pretty nasty things in light of her opposition to the voucher program in D.C., Liam Julian characterizes those advocating the maintenance of the voucher program as "on the right side of this fight." Before that he argues that Norton and others need to justify any action they take to end the voucher program. He's right, they do. But anybody who wants to keep the voucher program also needs to justify their actions. In fact, I think that anybody who takes any position on any issue needs to justify their actions. Let's have a productive discussion instead of resorting to pettiness or knee-jerk reactions to positions you don't like.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Around The Blogs"

When newspaper columnists want to take a day off they write a "notes column" -- a pseudonym for throwing together a bunch of random thoughts rather than thinking through an entire column. Bloggers tend to put an "around the blogs" or similarly named post up on their site. Granted, bloggers have no expectation of fully hashing out ideas they mention in the first place -- so I'm not sure it's technically cheating -- but I still find it somewhat amusing. Anyway, I have a lot of tabs open to interesting blog posts, and not a lot of time. So . . . around the blogs we go.

-Robert Pondiscio reports on a study that finds increasing "executive function" (which he defines as "the ability to resist distraction and focus") also boosts achievement. It makes sense to me. I've previously mentioned that I think self-control is underrated.

-Chad Lykins likes my Blog Posts In Need of Improvement Segment. He rightfully takes D-Ed Reckoning to task for a lack of modesty in the initial installment of his "The Awful State of Education Blogging" segment. Hey, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

-NPR has an interesting blurb (with a corresponding audio clip) about a peer review system in Toledo that, though not perfect, sounds better than the current way of evaluating teachers (hat tip: Alexander Russo).

-TMAO has a looonnnggg list of thoughts about his recent resignation from teaching and some of what led to his decision.

I'll stop there. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Broader Approach

The blog world seems to be obsessed with the report released yesterday by EPI. I've read too many posts on the topic to cite them all. But I notice one recurring theme among a number of them: complaints that the report is tackling a problem that doesn't exist.

Let's take a step back. The report purports to take both a "bolder" and a "broader" approach to education reform than other solutions that have been floated. It argues, in short, that schools alone cannot close the achievement gap and that while improving schools is a worthy goal that it's not enough.

It seems a number of people have essentially asked "who ever said schools could do it alone?"

Maybe it's just because I'm cranky today, but this seems like a preposterous, if not disingenuous, question to me.

There is an overriding assumption behind a lot of the recent legislation and commentary on education that schools alone are expected to cure all social ills. When people argue that is not possible they're told that they're being defeatist and not to make excuses. It would be quite difficult to not to have noticed this*.

Here's the reality of the situation: schools can help, but they can't change everything. I taught for two years in an atrociously run middle school in the Bronx. Every day was filled with much chaos and little learning. And here's what I learned during my two years: the biggest reason for the failure of the school was what was happening at home. Now, that's not to say that we couldn't have done better. I could name a couple incompetent and mean-spirited administrators that should've been replaced. Us teachers certainly could have done better. The school could've been better organized. Any number of things would have helped the situation.

But that doesn't hide the fact that most of the problems existed before students ever set foot in the building. I had some horribly disruptive students my second year. The only thing that seemed to help one's behavior was calling home. But when I did that he would come back with large welts across his arms. When I would call the home of another one, his mother would tell me that she didn't know what to do. Kids would stroll into the building late with an empty stomach and an angry demeanor. When an argument erupted, it was quite difficult to defuse because kids would tell me that they were under instructions from their parents not to "stay hit." Kids would come in and fall asleep b/c they had been kept up till the wee hours of the morning by any number of activities. A couple kids disappeared for a month to go visit family in the Dominican Republic. And on, and on, and on.

Does that mean that it's impossible for a school (or a teacher) to make a difference? No. None of that stopped me from working till I dropped from exhaustion at night, setting my alarm for 5:15, and working until the bell rang in the morning. I usually stayed at school until I was too hungry to work anymore. Sometimes I'd go get dinner and find a janitor to let me back in. I kept threatening to sleep at school, but never followed through. I set high expectations from my students, and made them sign their work certifying that it was their best possible effort. But I didn't change the world. Some of the students did better, sure, but there were too many things at play for me to unalterably change the course of every life I touched.

Every person involved with a local school should focus their effort on helping children rather than making excuses, but that doesn't change the reality that schools are not only asked, but expected to do the near-impossible on a daily basis.

The report is somewhat weak. None of the policy proposals are particularly specific or ground-breaking. But I'm going to "sign" it, and here's why: the tenor of the discussion needs to be changed. I don't expect this report to do all that much, but at least it's a start. A lot of important people have signed on to the general idea that we need to improve the lives of children both inside and outside of school. I agree.

*Wording has been changed from original version to reflect a more civil tone. Thanks to KDeRosa for pointing this out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blog Post In Need of Improvement

Despite my hesitance, my first edition of Blog Posts In Need of Improvement was a rousing success -- it remains my most-viewed post. I've been keeping an eye out for others that need improvement since then. I have a few marked that I've been thinking about, but I'm not quite ready to roll them out. In the meantime, I noticed this one on Friday and it's so glaringly problematic that I feel I need to address it ASAP. So I'll interrupt my regularly scheduled program to bring you this special edition of Blog Post (singular) In Need of Improvement.

Same rules apply as last time:

BPINI 3: Success: Over the meadow and through the woods, Flypaper (Fordham Institute)

Liam Julian posits on why moving poor kids to wealthier schools doesn't help -- using an offensive and ill-fitting analogy. He cites a recent article in The Atlantic (not online yet) that chronicles the move of many former project residents in Memphis to outlying areas. Apparently the result (or at least one corresponding occurrence) was that crime spread throughout the city. Julian argues that this happened because "Dangerous neighborhoods are dangerous for a variety of reasons, but at the core it’s because they’re inhabited by... criminals, who, when transplanted to better neighborhoods, are simply able to steal better merchandise."

First of all, I find the insinuation that most people who live in the projects are criminals both false and offensive. Let's not forget that these are people that we're talking about. Secondly, the analogy that follows -- that dispersing kids to richer schools also doesn't work -- fails in a number of areas.

1. He argues that the reason dispersing poor people to wealthier neighborhoods doesn't work because they're criminals and they simply drag down the other neighborhoods. Does this mean that dispersing poor schoolchildren to wealthier schools won't work b/c they're bad people and will just drag down the students in their new school? That's the logical direction of the analogy, but it's not where Julian goes.

2. After a number of clicks, I ascertained that he was basing his assertion that spreading kids out to different schools doesn't work on this article. When I read the article, however, I found out that it was further refinement of the findings in this article that found that a group of public housing residents who applied for vouchers to move and received them did not, for the most apart, out-achieve those who applied and didn't receive them. Both articles offer a number of convincing reasons for the result. Among other things, only about half of the people actually moved, only 1/5 of that group moved to areas where the poverty rate was below the state median, and the new schools that children attended were only marginally better than their old ones. The point being that both articles raise serious caution about simply claiming that moving to a different neighborhood doesn't help. I'm not too familiar with the research base on integrating schools, but I asked around a bit and am under the distinct impression that moving low-SES students into higher-SES schools has been found to have positive effects.

3. He eventually concludes that "Bad schools are bad not because of who sits next to whom, but mostly because of the... bad teachers and bad administrators who work in them." While there's merit to this sentiment, this does not support his argument. If schools are bad simply because of the teachers and administrators that work there, and are not influenced by anything else, then moving a kid from a low-performing school to a high-performing school should work wonders. Indeed, that's the premise of the school choice movement.

After reading the post it's hard to conclude anything but that not enough thought was put into it. I don't find the misleading summarizing of previous research and offensive assumptions to be particularly helpful in our quest to improve America's schools.

Better Post, Same Blog: The Remorseful Joel Klein
Why: Mike Petrilli reports back on an interesting presentation and discussion with Joel Klein. His summary is both interesting and insightful, and he offers a pretty balanced view of Klein's tenure in NYC.

In Defense of Research

Kevin Carey weighed in last night with some advice for ed researchers. Liam Julian heartily agreed today in Fordham's blog.

You can read their posts if you want to know everything that was said but, in short, they argued that education research needs to:

-get to the point
-be relevant
-be readable
-conclude with something other than "more research is needed"

Half of me agrees and half of me disagrees with what was said. On the one hand, some researchers do need to work harder to make sure that their work is relevant and research journals are certainly not fun reading. When I first started my PhD, I would've made a lot of these same arguments. Our family Christmas letter that year said that my goal was to write a research article that could be read in one sitting w/o falling asleep.

But, on the other hand, things are the way they are for a reason. A snappy, simple, easy-to-read article has a place in ed policy -- but not usually in a top journal. It's simply not possible to fully explain research without nuance and details -- things that make reading it boring. Both complain about researchers who conclude by saying that more research is necessary. Authors do this for a reason: it's called being a responsible researcher. A responsible researcher acknowledges the shortcomings of their research. A responsible researcher acknowledges that no firm conclusions can be made in most circumstances. It is the rare article that can conclusively prove anything -- it takes a body of literature to do that. Asking authors to make strong conclusions based on weak evidence is the equivalent of asking them to be dishonest.

Before I get carried away, let me point out that the system is fundamentally broken. The average person is not going to sit down, read an education journal, and change they way they run their school(s) or classroom(s). As Mary Brabeck pointed out in EdWeek a couple weeks ago, we need research that will translate into actions on the ground level. Currently, the link between research and practice is tenuous at best. But the answer isn't to dumb down research articles -- the answer is to translate research articles into better resources for policymakers, principals, teachers, etc.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

And How Much Structure is Too Much Structure?

Before I started teaching, every person with whom I spoke during pre-service training said the same two things were most important in a classroom: structure and routines. I didn't believe them, and I learned the hard way. A group of chaotic students isn't conducive to learning, and is pleasant for anybody to be around. But I wonder at what point there's a trade-off between creating an ordered environment and teaching students self-control and independent thinking. If students do nothing but follow routines, what will happen to them when they're out on their own?

What got me thinking about the subject was this post on the Fordham blog. In it, the author, Christina Hentges, describes their experience riding the metro with a group of KIPP students. Here's an excerpt:

They appear as a small army of pre-teens in matching t-shirts, standing single-file on the right side of the escalator. Several adults walk alongside various points in the line while one leader holds court at one entry/exit turnstile (leaving the other three or four clear for commuters). He hands out a farecard to each child, who then goes through the gate and returns the card to an adult waiting on the other side. The children continue to the next escalator, remaining in single file as they ride up to the street or down to the train platform. While waiting for everyone to assemble, they line up in rows of 10; once everyone arrives, each child pulls out a chapter book and begins to read. They stay this way until they’re instructed to move along. The choreography is impeccable every time.

Part of me thinks this is good. It's hard to imagine exactly how it would be helping the students (not to mention the other commuters) if they ran pell-mell around the station. I like that they're being trained to respect others. I like that they're being trained to read during downtime. I like that they are under control.

And yet . . . I can't help but wonder what the students are learning from this. Are they learning that they should control themselves or that they need to follow directions? When they visit the subway station with their friends, do they walk calmly over to a bench and read quietly until the train arrives -- or do they go nuts b/c they don't have to follow directions?

Structure and order are necessary but, at some point, I have to believe that they're detrimental.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

How Much Achievement is Too Much?

This article on South Koreans studying abroad appears in the Sunday NY Times and I'd have to say it's a must-read. Not because it's perfect but b/c it touches on so many fascinating themes and ideas.

In short, a growing number of South Korean families are splitting up so that their children can attend school in an English-speaking country (apparently the U.S. once dominated this market, but now people with less money are moving to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as well). Fathers stay behind in S. Korea while mothers live with the children -- usually starting in elementary school. The latest tally is that over 40,000 children are in such an arrangement.

The article claims that three main factors drive this trend: (1) Parents, especially mothers, are deeply concerned about their children's education; (2) Parents want their kids to learn English; (3) Parents want their kids out of South Korea's pressure-filled schools.

Here are a number of things that I find absolutely fascinating about this article:

1.) South Korea is a superstar in international testing -- if they're not number one on a particular test you can bet they're in the top 5. And yet, parents are so desperate to get their kids out of the educational system that they'll move thousands of miles.

2.) Parents are so concerned with their children's education that they're willing to live thousands of miles apart from their spouse for a decade or two -- with most spouses only seeing each other maybe a couple times per year.

3.) The response of the South Korean government to this phenomenon is not to try and reduce pressure on children but, rather, to hire 10,000 more English teachers (which I think either means that the govt. is out of touch or that the author of the article is mistaken about the motivation of these movers).

In my opinion, I think this is the most interesting paragraph of the article:

South Korean students routinely score at the top in international academic tests. But unhappiness over education’s financial and psychological costs is so widespread that it is often cited as a reason for the country’s low birthrate, which, at 1.26 in 2007, was one of the world’s lowest.

Now, before I get carried away, there's no way that this one article has done all of the legwork necessary to definitively define trends and establish causality. That said, even if we take this is a bit of information rather than gospel it still raises a lot of interesting questions.

The largest is probably the one raised in the above paragraph. South Korea supposedly has a model education system. And yet, people are going to great lengths to avoid it. Which begs the question: what is a perfect education system? Is it necessarily the one with the highest test scores? I think most of us agree that higher test scores are usually better, but there has to be a point at which the opportunity cost of higher test scores is too high. In other words, everybody must have a point at which the additional effort that will boost test scores isn't worth it. Maybe you'd rather your kid played soccer than attended cram classes. Maybe you'd rather your kid attended your neighborhood school rather than the better one across town. I think you get the idea.

I can't imagine living thousands of miles away from my spouse for a decade or more so that my child(ren) could attend a certain school, and I could see inferring from this article that some Korean parents are hyper-concerned about education -- that they've, in essence, gone crazy. But here's the thing: the parents who seem to most merit judgment that they've gone off the deep end are the ones who are apparently claiming that South Korea's system is too pressured.

If the article is correct in describing the level of desperation of parents to avoid the Korean education system (I'm not sure which is more extreme -- moving far away or simply not having kids), then we should all be careful what we wish for when demanding more rigorous schools and higher achievement in our country.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teachers and Student Race

I've been MIA for a few days while I busily jumped through hoops. I just read through all the blogging I missed, and here's the exchange I found most interesting:

Eduwonkette pointed out that a wide body of research has found that teachers are less likely to stay in schools with a large population of racial minority students.

Mike Petrilli responded by asking if that meant that teachers are racist and points out that KIPP schools and some others have had success attracting teachers to teach in schools with overwhelmingly racial minority student bodies.

I have two things to add:

1. No, it doesn't mean teachers are racist. Recent work has found that teachers tend to end up in schools where they feel more comfortable -- where students and teachers are from the same geographic area, social class, race, etc. as themselves. That makes sense. People like be surrounded by familiar things.

2. Pointing out that KIPP attracts teachers to teach racial minorities is a bad example for two reasons. First: I don't have statistics handy, but I don't think KIPP's teacher retention rates are too stellar. KIPP and some other high-flying charter schools rely on young idealistic teachers (including many in TFA) who are willing to devote their lives to the school for a few years before they move on to something else. Secondly, even if KIPP retained the talented teachers it recruits, that wouldn't be proof that there are enough people willing to teach in these schools across the entire country. I'll agree with his point that the working conditions probably matter more than the racial make-up of the student body, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't consider the racial make-up of a school.