Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grade-Changing and Unintended Consequences

GothamSchools had an excellent story yesterday about a Bronx High School Principal who changed students' grades.  Color me not surprised.  This happened at my school too.  I'm unclear as to exactly who was involved -- whether it was the Principal, an Assistant Principal, or all of the administrators -- but it definitely happened.  My second year there a number of 8th graders who scarcely showed up for school and/or raised hell when they did subsequently failed in every subject.  Well, at least their teachers gave them a failing grade.  By the time the report cards reached the Dean's office, they had passing grades on them.  Why?  Two reasons:

1.) When troublesome 8th graders pass, it means the school doesn't have to deal with them next year.

2.) When a lot of students fail a grade, it looks bad for the principal -- especially given the current evaluation system in NYC.

Principals are judged on a bunch of numbers.  It makes sense to reward principals that are able to reduce discipline problems and raise academic performance in a school.  But rewarding these by looking at suspension rates and graduation rates can have unintended consequences.  In the case of my school, that meant that we stopped suspending kids in the spring so as not to make ourselves look bad and passed kids who hadn't done anything all year.  In other schools (heck, maybe my school too for all I know) it means that teachers and/or administrators bubble in answers for kids on tests.

The lesson from all this?  Beware unintended consequences.  Trying to reward certain behaviors may end up encouraging other, undesired, behaviors.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hypocrisy of "Money Doesn't Matter"

Last week, I wrote the following:

"If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?"

I got quite a bit of pushback in the comments, and it wasn't really a very thoughtful comment, so I think it's appropriate to take more than one sentence to explore the issue.

First, a little background: One of the main battles in education is around funding.  All sorts of people have a personal stake in the funding of schools -- from employees who want a salary boost to homeowners who want a tax break.  An awful lot of the reforms that have been pushed for schools (particularly smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay among others) cost an awful lot of money.  As result of both the fact that spending more on schools deprives other people of the pleasure of that money and the fact that we want our schools to be both efficient and effective, people began to ask whether money mattered in education (see here, for example).

Now, I don't think that every person who's against more school funding as a solution actually means that more money will never matter -- regardless of how much or how it's spent.  Indeed, there are any number of qualifications that can be added into the statement (see here, for example).  Eric Hanushek, perhaps the researcher most often associated with the phrase, is on the record as saying agreeing with the statement that "only a fool would say money doesn't matter."  Most people would agree that spending more money won't necessarily improve schools and that, indeed, spending more money often doesn't improve schools.  We can find all sorts of examples of expensive reforms that didn't pan out, and every cliche lover realizes that "throwing money at the problem" won't solve it.  But, at the same time, most are willing to recognize that it's not impossible for money to make a difference if it's well-spent.  The problem is less with the argument once it's fully laid out and more with how people interpret and act on the phrase.  To blindly insist that "money doesn't matter" is not only foolish but often hypocritical.

As I was insinuating in my one-sentence thought, an awful lot of people believe that the wealthiest, most expensive colleges are also the best.  If we look at a list of the colleges and universities with the largest endowments, it's pretty clear that the wealthiest institutions are the ones we consider elite.  And an awful lot of people aspire(d) to attend these colleges, have attended these colleges, or have paid for their children to attend these colleges.

Regardless of whether or not these schools are actually better, the perception that they are -- and the actions resulting from that perception -- say an awful lot about our society and our beliefs.

Views of private K-12 schools are somewhat similar.   Last year the NY Times ran a story on prep schools that included a list of those with the largest endowments.  I'm no expert, but I recognize a number of the schools on the list.  The bottom line is that parents are willing to spend money -- lots of money (over $30,000 per year, not including room and board, in some cases) -- to send their kids to the most prestigious private schools.

Well, actions speak louder than words.  Clearly, our society believes that schools with more resources are better.  Therefore, anybody who argues that money doesn't matter in education and then brags about their degree from Harvard is a hypocrite.  And anybody who argues that boosting spending at their town's schools cannot make a difference and then writes a check for their kid's tuition at Peddie is also a hypocrite.  Anybody who truly believes that money doesn't matter shouldn't participate in their school bake sale or donate money to their alma mater.

Now, I don't think it's that simple.  Like I said before, the intellectual leaders of the "money doesn't matter" school of thought would make more nuanced arguments.  But the general public doesn't often pick up on nuance.  And the result is that a lot of people repeat the talking points without realizing there's more to the argument.  And then those people become hypocrites.

Finally, let me address a few points that others have made or that I anticipate they will make:

1.) One commenter claimed that schools are like cars because spending more money than one would on a Camry cannot result in the procurement of a better car.  Which is demonstrably false.  Spending more money than one would on a Camry means that one can procure a car that can go 0-60 in the blink of an eye (Porsche), get 50 miles per gallon (Prius), or climb a mountain (Hummer), for example.  In this case, the definition of "better" was conflated with the definition of "necessary," and that type of confusion can destroy a debate.  I don't need my car to climb a mountain or go 0-60 in 4 seconds (though I would like to use less gas).  I can afford to buy myself an adequate car, and I don't feel like I need anything else.  My car meets my needs.  But spending more money could buy me a car that's faster, stronger, safer, more efficient, and/or better at hauling things.  So while I don't think that spending more money is necessary, it's not without utility.

We can make a similar argument with schools.  It might not be necessary for a school to hire only teachers with doctorate degrees, cap class sizes at 5, and operate 12 hours per day 300 days per year -- but it would probably make the school better.  In short, the question "is it worth it?" is separate from the question "will it make things better?"

2.) Prestige undoubtedly has a lot to do with why people spend a lot of money on schools, cars, or other goods.  If somebody thought they'd receive equal educations at Harvard and East Cupcake University and money were no object, which one would they choose?  Most would choose the former, if for no other reason than because other people would be more impressed by it.  But therein lies the rub: somebody has to think something is better for it to be more prestigious.  If everybody thought that BMW made horrible cars, who would pay the premium to buy one?

Besides, whether or not more money actually makes a school (or car) better isn't really germane to the argument.  The point is that most people think that more money = better school, and their actions are proof.

3.) Yes, I consider virtually all of the colleges near the top of the largest endowment and highest tuition lists to be elite.  There are about 3,000 or so colleges in our country, so I'd say at least the top 300 or so should be considered elite.  I find the idea that only the top 25 or so are really elite to be . . . well, elitist.

4.) Yes, it's okay for people to argue that public schools are doing fine with their current spending levels but that they should be allowed to spend more on their kid.  If you don't think the city collects recycleables often enough, you're allowed to pay an outside company to come collect them more.  Everybody always wants more for their families.  The distinction that I'm drawing is that one cannot simultaneously want more for their families and argue that getting more doesn't matter.  It just doesn't make sense.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Did you know that "kids love year-round school"?  Of course, the year-round school discussed decided to extend its school year by adding "intersessions" every nine weeks or so.  During these intercessionals, kids take less traditional classes like "math you can eat" or karate.  They then have summer break that's only about half as long as usual.  I disagree with the author that summer breaks are completely outdated, but she does seem awfully enthusiastic about her kids' school.

-The Economist is my favorite news magazine for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that they always take a removed, thoughtful tone.  After reading through the Lexington (the American politics columnist) blog, they might want to re-think their blogging.  In many instances, the blog is neither removed nor thoughtful in tone.  For instance, a knee-jerk reaction to demographic data on New Orleans charter schools here.  I once heard a speech by an advocate for New Orleans charter schools that highlighted how their students were doing better than the students who remained in traditional public schools.  When asked if it was possible if better students were simply choosing to enroll in charter schools, he admitted that was probably what was going on but said he was paid to gloss over that fact.  I was quite disturbed.  And it's quite likely that the report Lexington references was influenced by the speaker I heard and his employer -- who admitted to engaging in dishonesty to sell their favorite reform.

-Here's a pretty fair article on corporal punishment in Mississippi from a few days back.  Like a number of people interviewed, I generally have a visceral -- and negative -- reaction to corporal punishment when the subject is broached.  But my opposition wavered when I saw the other punitive measures repeatedly tried and subsequently fail during my tenure in the Bronx.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I somehow missed Thomas Friedman's op-ed the other day.  Pretty standard boilerplate stuff about how we have to fix our schools to fix our economy in the long run.  Except that there's a bit of a twist with the "fix our schools" part.  He writes, "our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity."  While anybody who argues that test scores aren't, to some degree, indicative of a person (or country's) academic ability, is wrong, we have to keep in mind that they're not necessarily the ultimate goal.  Improving test scores is a worthwhile endeavor, but we also have to ensure that we train our kids to think if we want to remain the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

-David Brooks joined the party today, writing that state legislatures that have recently taken steps to prevent the implementation of merit pay were "moving backwards".  Given that we have virtually no evidence as of yet that merit pay works, I find it . . . let's say, odd . . . when people criticize those who don't implement it.  It's somewhere between speculative and intellectually dishonest to suggest that those who support it are doing the right thing while those who don't are not.

-Bill Ferriter has a distressing piece on the recent school board elections in Wake County, NC.  In case you didn't know, Wake County currently prohibits any school in the county from having a population made up of more than 45% economically disadvantaged students.  The policy seems good on paper -- and there's evidence to support the notion that it's working -- but many people don't like the way it's implemented.  Since neighborhoods are more homogeneous than schools are allowed to be, wide-scale busing is used to integrate schools.  And people don't like their kids getting bused to another neighborhood or other kids getting bused into theirs.  In other words, it looks like NIMBYism might win out yet again.

-Alexander Hoffman shares an interesting quote that I'd never heard before from the recently deceased Ted Sizer: Education is "the worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been forgotten."  That sounds about right.

-One teacher writes about her negative experiences with fill-in teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve in her school over at GothamSchools.  I have little doubt that there are a number of less-than-committed teachers still in the ATR.  But I also can't help but notice that the coverage of the ATR issue has been more than a little slanted in virtually all media outlets.  More on this next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?

-Did you know that even the most pessimistic teachers are significantly more optimistic than the general public about the extent to which teachers can help even poor students who have uninvolved parents?  With all the rhetoric about defeatists and bad teachers flying around, let's not forget that most teachers are neither.

-A number of districts have taken to filling their teaching vacancies with foreign teachers.  While culture shock means it doesn't always work out, done the right way we can learn a lot from foreign teachers.

-I've devoted more than a few posts to asking whether we should educate poor kids differently.  Deborah Meier says that what works for rich students works for all students.

update: and a couple more:

-Here's a good, super-short story about corruption, cops, and truancy (hat tip: GothamSchools)

-I give any new blog a lengthy tryout before I think about adding it to my blogroll or subscribe to the feed in Google Reader, but Linda Perlstein's new blog is off to a good start.  In her second post, she corrects Obama's insinuation that teachers influence achievement more than even home factors.  Though I don't quite understand why she thinks that principals, who many kids barely see, influence kids as much as teachers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Standards: Why Anyone Should Bother

For the last couple weeks, Alexander Hoffman has been writing about why he thinks standards are pointless over at Gotham Schools.  He raises a number of good points, and I generally agree with him that aren't the silver bullet that many seem to think they are.  Anybody sitting in a statehouse who thinks that adding or a deleting a standard is going to magically transform schools is sorely mistaken: most teachers don't even spend that much time thinking about the standards.

But I disagree with the implication that standards are useless and a waste of time.  I think they're both moderately helpful and an appropriate thing for state and federal governments to create.  Here are my top four reasons why we should support the formation of standards:

1.) They give distant governments the right level of control.  Districts, schools, and teachers should all have a fair amount of autonomy when deciding what and how to teach their students.  Hoffman points out that standards don't influence those decisions all that much, which seems appropriate to me.  If I were still teaching, I wouldn't want a state-mandated curriculum that mapped out every second of every day for me.  But it's appropriate that the people of the state, through the state legislature, create a document outlining goals that students at each grade should strive to meet.  It allows the state to gently guide instruction without becoming overly intrusive.

2.) Students should have some common experiences in schools.  Some education scholars argue that the main purpose of schooling, historically speaking, has been social cohesion -- bonding a country together by ensuring that people grow up with similar experiences and knowing similar things.  Even if you don't buy that argument, ensuring that students have somewhat similar experience in school has pragmatic implications as well: I have to believe that the majority of students move to a new school at some point in time, and it helps if that new schools is teaching somewhat similar things in a somewhat similar way.

3.) National standards are the only hope for NCLB-like accountability.  NCLB has pluses and minuses, but most people still support an accountability system in some shape or form.  And even those who back NCLB-like accountability 100% have to admit that NCLB is not working the way it should.  And that's largely due to the way that states have gamed the system when they create their own tests and set their own passing scores on those tests.  I am convinced, as are many others, that the only way an NCLB-like accountability system can work is if there are national tests.  And the only way we can have national tests is if we first create national standards, both politically and practically.   Politically because there's no way that states are going to agree to submit themselves to national tests immediately without some sort of lead up.  And practically because without national standards there's no fair way to determine what should be on national tests.

4.) They're the most practical solution to the problem.  In all three of the situations I describe above, there are other possible solutions.  We could create a comprehensive federal curriculum (like France, for example) in lieu of standards.  But that's not happening anytime soon, and I don't think most people would like to see it happen.  Let's face it, governments at the state and federal level need to have some level of control over schools.  And I can think of no better solution than allowing them to create standards.  Sure, they're not going to magically transform schools -- and many teachers will scoff and mostly ignore them -- but it's the best of both worlds: society at large gets a say in determining what happens in our schools, but teachers and school leaders still get to fill in the details.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Are "Reformers" Really Offering Reform?

Over the past year or more we've heard a lot about the "reformers vs. defenders of the status quo" (or "deformers vs. realists," depending on what you read).  Indeed, support for what started out as a small set of reforms proposed by conservatives has now come to represent, to many, whether somebody actually wants to improve schools or not.

What "reformers" are talking about are really a very narrow set of reforms: more charter schools, merit pay, and generally weaker unions.  Ten years ago these were pushed by conservative think thanks.  But now they've gone mainstream.  The gospel has spread to liberal op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof ("cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools."), and the liberal Washington Post editorial board ("Charter Success: Poor Children Learn. Teachers Unions are not Pleased") and become the backbone of Obama's education policy.  Meanwhile, conservative publications lionize "reformers" by, for example, portraying Michelle Rhee as Joan of Arc (rather ironic that conservatives are lionizing reformers when you think about it, but that's another topic for another time).

I have little doubt that all of these reforms have the support of the majority of Americans right now.  And I have little doubt that all will continue to spread for at least the next few years.  And it's possible that they might even help out our schools and our country.  But I find the rhetoric surrounding these reforms incredibly disturbing -- and, really, non-sensical.

I'm disturbed that many who push these reforms often imply that they've been proven to work and that anybody who stands in their way is standing in the way of progress.  Meanwhile, as former Bush appointee Russ Whitehurst wrote on Friday, evidence to date shows that a number of other reforms are far more effective.

More troubling, however, is the notion that one is only a "reformer" if they support these particular reforms.  It's a somewhat impressive rhetorical sleight of hand, but it makes no sense when critically examined.  There are tons of reforms with a similar amount (i.e. very little) of research (or more) behind them.  And there are a ton of reforms we could advocate that would be far more radical and "reform-y" than the narrow set that is dominating the current conversation on schools.  Here are a few:

-Shrink class sizes.  The Tennessee STAR project showed fairly definitively that children in smaller classes learned more.

-Double pay for starting teachers and see if we can't attract more people away from Wall St. and into the classroom.

-Integrate schools.  Wake County has has some success with this, while many other districts create charters that are often more segregated than non-charter schools.

-End the 9-10 month school year and divide it up into smaller (e.g. six week) units.  Then see if holding kids back that fail a unit doesn't work out a little better and motivate a little more.

-End teacher grading of students.  Instead, create classrooms that work more like sports teams: teachers and kids have the same goal and they all fail or succeed together base on an external event (or impartial evaluator).

-Scrap the 8-3 (or 7:30-2:30) school day and start classes at 9am or later for older students, whose body clocks indicate they work better at later hours.

-"Unschool" children.  Let them choose what they want to learn, rather than forcing things down their throats.

I could list a thousand more, but I think you get the point.  I'm guessing that self-titled "reformers" (and others) would oppose a lot of these reforms.  Does that make them defenders of the status quo?  Does that mean that only people who support some of these reforms are truly "reformers"?

That supporting or opposing a very narrow set of reforms with very little evidence behind them has come to define one's standing as a "reformer" or an evildoer is preposterous.  These particular reforms are far from the most radical out there.  Nor are they necessarily the best ones out there.  While deriding anybody who opposes this particular set of reforms as a "defender of the status quo" may score political points -- and advance this set of reforms -- it hardly lends itself to a productive debate.  Or to bettering our nation's schools.  Which should be the ultimate goal.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-A new RAND report indicates that NYC's retention policy may be helping kids who are retained (GothamSchools, NYTimes).  I haven't read the report yet, but news accounts indicate it finds that kids held back in the past three years have done better than similar kids in the three years prior to the policy.  I'm not sure why they'd pick that comparison group instead of utilizing regression discontinuity to compare retained kids to other, nearly identical, kids who weren't retained.  Meanwhile, Memphis is moving in the opposite direction -- they've decided not to hold back kids in K-3, in part to save money.

-Richard Whitmire says that Michelle Rhee "has no choice" -- she has to "play tough."  I kind of buy that she can't always be a people pleaser in her position, but she'd do well to remember that the people she's dealing with are just that -- people.  And there's seldom any acceptable reason to treat other human beings poorly.  And his argument that charters succeed because they get to "can pick and choose their staff" is asinine.  Traditional public schools choose their staff as well, it just so happens that more of the hiring decisions were made in the past.  And if the district made poor hiring decisions or awarded people tenure when they shouldn't have, the district only has itself to blame.

-Ever notice that the self-titled "reformers" aren't really proposing radical reforms?  Or that there's little evidence that their preferred reforms are even the right ones?  It's really a brilliant sleight of hand, though it does little to help our schools and our children.  More on this on Sunday.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Has Kristof Gone Krazy?

Nicholas Kristof is at it again.  He's written another misinformed op-ed about education in the NY Times.

Yes, I'm annoyed that he seems to imply that in-school factors are more important than non-school factors when we know the opposite is true.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he reverentially references Stephen Brill's hatchet job.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he cites anecdotal evidence to argue that the exception disproves the rule.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he assumes enacting certain reforms is moving in the right direction despite very little evidence that these reforms will improve things.

But what bothers me most is his statement that "A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years."  Please -- everybody -- please stop saying this.  It's, quite simply, not true

First of all, the study being referenced didn't "find" this -- it was speculation (or, in economist-speak, a back of the envelope calculation).  Second of all, the speculation was based on an erroneous assumption -- that teacher effects were additive.  In other words, that if a really good teacher could help kids close 1/4 of the achievement gap in one year, that four really good teachers could help kids completely close the gap in four years.  But life doesn't work that way.  For at least three reasons:

1.) The effect that a teacher has on students wanes over time as those kids go off and play over the summer and move on to different classes with different teachers.

2.) The large gain brought about by one teacher is, in part, due to the inferior teachers those students had in previous years.  Now that they've had a world-beater, it will be harder for their teacher their next year to help them make as much progress.

3.) That large gain might not have even occurred.  Measurement of teacher effects is notoriously imprecise.  In a number of studies, the correlation between a teacher's effect one year and the next have been surprisingly inconsistent and have only low correlations.

note: Somehow an earlier, different, draft of this post ended up here after firefox crashed.  This is the correct version.

update: really, seriously, his claim isn't true

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not An Exceptional Performance

The latest NAEP results are out, and they're not particularly impressive.  4th grade scores were unchanged, but 8th grade scores inched upwards (doesn't it always seem like it's the opposite?).  More importantly, racial and income achievement gaps were unchanged.

Here's something I learned from poking around their data explorer: the black-white achievement gap is larger in large cities (294-256=38 points or 12.9%) than it is in the country as a whole (293-261=32 points or 10.9%).

I also found these charts particularly interesting:

These are all 8th grade math scores, but the 4th grade math scores look similar.  Since NCLB began in the 2002-03 school year, students who were in 8th grade in 2008-09 were in 2nd grade at the time -- meaning that NCLB has been in effect during every tested grade.  As such, we'd expect to see a narrowing of gaps not only between students from of different races and socioeconomic statuses, but also between low and high achievers.  And, except for the leap between 2000 and 2003, we've seen none of these. 
update: It's also worth noting in the second chart that the "proficient" cut-off score is 299 -- something all students are supposed to able to reach by 2014 (yes, I know that NCLB only actually applies to the state tests and not NAEP).  By now, we should be able to see more students that were a little below the proficient cut-off now making it.

One final note: D.C. looked better than perhaps any state in the report's breakdown of which states saw score increases since 2007.  That could be good news for Michelle Rhee.  Of course, it's also worth noting that D.C. still has lower scores than any state -- and by a fairly large margin.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Interesting Factoids Regarding U.S. School Enrollment

NCES today released a report on the number of public elementary and secondary schools that fit into all sorts of categories.  Here are the numbers I found most interesting:

-4.4% of our public schools are charter schools.  They enroll 2.6% of the public school population.

-40.2% of our public schools are Title I schools (which generally means that 75+% of students are eligible for free/reduced price lunch).  40.1% of our public school students attend such a school.

-The average student/teacher ratio is 15.8.  Maine has the lowest (9.0) and Utah (23.5) the highest.

-Average school size by type of school:
Elementary: 445
Middle: 581.8
High: 881.2

-11 states have at least one school with only one student in it

-enrollment by location of school:

% of schools
% of stus

-Overall, 43.2% of students are eligible for free/reduced price lunch.  Mississippi has the highest (66.9%) and New Hampshire has the lowest (18.1%).  Here's the breakdown by school location:

city: 55.7%
suburban: 34.3%
town: 46.5%
rural: 39.1%

Out of all students who are eligible for free/reduced price lunch, the percent who attend schools in each type of location is:

city: 37.8%
suburban: 27.8%
town: 13.6%
rural: 20.9%

-I often speak about "high poverty, urban schools."  There's no chart that would tell us what percentage of schools fit into that category, but we can calculate that 15% of the nation's public schools students attend a city school and are eligible for free/reduced price lunch.  If we include suburban areas (oftentimes, some of the immediate suburbs are poorer and more "urban" than parts of the city), that number rises to 26.1%.  Given that about 40% of students attend a Title I school, and that 40% of free/reduced price eligible students attend a school in a city, I'd estimate that possibly 10-15% of students attend a Title I school in a city.  If we extend the definition of "urban" out to some immediate suburbs, the number who attend a high poverty, urban school is likely in the neighborhood of 20%.  I'll see if I can get a more precise tabulation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Credit Robert Pondiscio with some excellent investigative journalism. At first, we thought that Thomas Sowell was a little harsh when he responded rather brusquely to an 11 year-old's letter.  Thanks to Pondiscio, we now know that Sowell was completely off target.  The 11 year-old that wrote him did so on his own volition b/c he looked up to Sowell and wanted to know what he thought about the economy.  Meanwhile, Sowell's response was that the kid was being manipulated into frittering away his time by a school that was more concerned with feelings than educating their students.  Oops.

-Yesterday's Sunday Commentary is a little different than what you normally see on this blog in that it's more of an emotional response to their experiences than it is a discussion of various policy options and their ramifications.  But I think it's equally important.  The writer, to put it mildly, is exactly the type of person you want teaching your kids.  She is one of the finest individuals I've had the privilege to know and, as such, I listen when she talks about her experiences.  Her experiences in an inner-city school were very different than mine in many ways, but the end result was the same: the school turned a devoted teacher into a dispirited former teacher.  And our worst schools simply cannot afford to do that.

-Interesting piece on "snitching" here (hat tip: Gotham Schools).  When taken to extremes, the whole "stop snitching" thing drives me batty -- and I let the kids know as such when I was teaching.  But while I'm tempted to simply condemn the practice, I notice that few articles on it try and figure out why it started and why it exists.  I don't think everybody has a well thought out rationalization for their refusal to snitch, nor does everybody refuse to share information for the same reason, but it seems overly simplistic to simply say that people don't snitch because they're bad, stupid, or scared.  My best guess is that some segment of the population feels persecuted and/or distrusts authority.  Listen to what students had to say and come up with your own explanation.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Should We Educate Poor Kids Differently?

(answered from a slightly different angle than last week)

by Judi Zachary

After teaching in disadvantaged inner-city Detroit schools, I believe that disadvantaged students would greatly benefit from being taught differently. I taught differently (as best I could) and saw deeply moving and touching examples of students experiencing the joy of learning for the first time. Boys who acted tough and angry, who couldn't read first grade words in fifth grade and had been sent to the office daily by their other teachers had astonishing behavior improvements! I refused to send them to the office, and taught them beginning phonics and word recognition in small groups on mats in the back of the class room. They surprisingly looked forward to it and dropped their tough masks!

Students who had been given new dittos every day by hopeless teachers to keep them busy got excited when I retaught material until they learned it. They were astonished that they weren't dumb!

Students who had been threatened, yelled at, hit, and kicked under their desks by tired, angry teachers to get their attention, responded after a short while to my firm but steady expectation of mutual respect.

Unfortunately, I didn't last long in the Detroit Public School system, because the negative practices of the principal, assistant principal and most of the staff who continued to use corporal punishment wore me down.

The chaos created by the adults screaming at the children and hitting them broke my spirit. My phone calls reporting corporal punishment to the school administration building fell on deaf ears. "Not true."... they claimed.

I think back with fondness and hope though, because I saw children fall in love with learning. They had an oasis of hope with someone who cared deeply and fought against all odds to lead them to feel their brilliance.

So, I strongly feel that children like mine who, for example, witnessed their mom being shot in the stomach, neighbors killed on the street in front of them, and were often ignored and/or beaten at home DO need to be taught differently.

They come to school injured, scared ,numb, hopeless, without pencils or self-esteem, and with no experience of success. It seems, from my experience, that these precious ones...armored with thick defenses after years of fear and failure, need a lot.

They need small classes, two or more teachers per room, teachers with extra skills, compassion and experience, lots of chances for success and to be taught, no matter what their age, at the reading level most appropriate for them.

If they only learn how to read while in grade school. If they only learn how to respect themselves in grade school, just think how this could change their whole future and that of the others they will encounter. If they could just read, WOW, they could continue to learn the rest of their lives!

This would be a truly different way of treating children who require and deserve to be taught differently....if we really care about kids and their futures.
Judi Zachary has spent decades working with children in many different capacities, including a stint as a teacher in Detroit Public Schools.  Despite her experiences there, she remains hopeful about the future.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Did you know that half of pro football players and 21% of pro basketball players have college degrees?  I assume that baseball and hockey are lower due to the high number of people drafted out of high school in the former and the high number of people playing in junior leagues in the latter.  Perhaps more striking is that 60% of pro basketball players are broke within 5 years of retiring -- and the number might be even higher for pro football players.  So if you have any kids in your class who refuse to try in school b/c they're going to be a rich and famous pro athlete, you might want to let them know that that's even less likely than they might think.

-Some completely unsurprising (but still important) statistics regarding education and crime.  16 to 24 year-olds that drop out of high school are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated at any given moment than are those who have completed a 4 year college degree.  Of course, even the most enthusiastic education advocate will understand that this is at least as much due to who drops out and who completes college as it is to how much more education helps.

-I really wish that charter school advocates would stop claiming that the recent report proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that charter schools are the best invention since sliced bread.  The report provides important evidence, but it still leaves a number of unanswered questions (not to mention that it only covers one city).

-Keep your eyes open for a special piece on Sunday that answers the question "should we educate poor kids differently" from another angle.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Principals in Philadelphia will now be judged, in part, on how many students eat breakfast at their school.  While I applaud the effort to both make sure kids don't come to school hungry and make somebody accountable for the program, I can't fathom how this is going to work.  What happens when kids eat at home?  Will principals be punished for that?  How will they avoid incentivizing principals to encourage bad parenting ("don't feed your kids breakfast: we'll take care of it")?

-Alexander Hoffman has kicked off what looks to be an excellent series on the utility of standards (especially national standards) in schools.  I think I know how I'd like to respond, but I'll wait for part 6 to see if he covers my objection to his argument (so far) or not.

-Kevin Carey wonders why researchers refuse to acknowledge which institution or city they studied when it's blatantly obvious to any reader.  Personally, I blame overly sensitive Institutional Review Boards, but there may be a more complex reason.

-Alexander Russo has a somewhat interesting table of past and current educational trends.  Though I'm not sure all of the things he mentions in the "then" column are really in the past.

Aha! I Figured Out the Solution!

As anybody who reads about education policy these days knows, only two things matter: charter schools and teacher quality.

For example:
Q: How do we close the achievement gap?
A: Create more charter schools and recruit better teachers

The only problem is that many of the most successful charter schools rely almost exclusively on a certain kind of teacher.  And given that teacher turnover is higher in charter schools than others, we need to find even more of them than we might otherwise -- especially if we want to create more successful charter schools.  But where will we find talented people to sacrifice their time and earning potential to work 80+ hour weeks helping low-income children at a charter school?

Do not fear: Corey is here.  And I've figured out the solution.  We need to train our kids to become charter school teachers.  As charter schools expand, the students of today will start entering the workforce ready to take their place on the cutting edge of education.  How will we do this?  Simple: use what we know from research about what makes a good teacher and what drives people to teach in a charter school.

What we know: Recent research on how teachers select which school they teach at finds that teachers tend to select schools similar to those where they went to school -- both demographically and geographically.  In other words, White, upper middle-class people (who make up the bulk of the teaching force), usually aim to teach in mostly white, upper middle-class schools.  Who were the exceptions to this rule?  Mostly people who wanted to teach for a few years rather than as a lifetime -- people who viewed teaching as a form of community service rather than as a career.

What we can do: Impart to our kids the importance of community service and helping others.  If more kids grow up wanting to help others, we'll have more people entering TFA after college and postponing their plans to start their own hedge fund or law firm.

What we know: The search to finding a formula to predict who will be a good teacher has not borne much fruit.  But we do know that test scores of potential teachers seem to matter only a little or not at all (depending on which study you read).  On the other hand, an understanding of why kids get certain problems wrong has proven to be an effective indicator of teaching ability.  We also know that people retain more of what they teach than what they hear.

What we can do: Instead of test-prep, we can have students spend time teaching other students.  Whether it's tutoring kids from their own class, teaching lessons to younger kids, or simply presenting what they've learned as part of "jigsaw" lesson, kids will end up knowing more about how students learn.  They'll enter adulthood with slightly lower test scores, but a better understanding of pedagogy.  And probably more knowledge.

So, really, the solution is simple: train more kids to be charter school teachers when they grow up.  We'll solve the labor shortage problem and close the achievement gap.  And, heck, maybe there will even be some positive externalities.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Arne Duncan on the Colbert Report

Three Observations:

1.) I've never seen such softball questions from Colbert.  Alexander Russo reported today that the staff didn't know what to ask him, and it showed.

2.) Duncan said that he wanted schools to serve as "community centers" and that they're often "the centers of a neighborhood and the heart of the community."  I'm not sure how this is compatible with his desire to create more charter schools, most of which are not true neighborhood schools.  Does he want traditional public schools to serve as community centers only for those students not enrolled in charter schools?  Or perhaps he wants charter students to attend school elsewhere but attend events and participate in after-school activities at the nearby traditional public school?

3.) Duncan was also factually incorrect when he said that our school calendar is "based on the agrarian economy".  That's a common myth, but it's wrong -- summer break and agriculture don't go very well together.

Updated: I've added links to Arne Duncan's interview as well as "The W0rd" segment with fifth grader Andy Gelman on whether or not summer break should be shortened (couldn't get the clips to embed for some reason).  I also changed the wording above to reflect direct quotes instead of paraphrasing.

Arne Duncan Interview

The W0rd

Monday, October 5, 2009

Charter Schools: Is More Always Better?

In the wake of the Hoxby et al report on the effectiveness of NYC charter schools, quite a few people seem to be jumping on the charter expansion bandwagon.  Andy Smarick, calls Bloomberg's plan to expand the number of charter schools "fantastic."  The NY Daily News prods the state Education Commissioner to create more of these "roaringly successful" schools.  And the NY Post, in their article praising the report, asks "only one question left: Will Albany let more of these better schools open?"

But I can't help but wonder if this is the appropriate response.  In the words of Lee Corso, I'd like to say "not so fast, my friends."

When you were a kid, did you ever wish you could eat pizza (or ice cream, or whatever your favorite food was?) as every meal?  You really, really loved it when you had pizza instead of broccoli or whatever boring food you had with most meals.  And you were absolutely convinced that the world would be a better place if only you could have pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

But now that you're grown up, you know that that's silly.  For a while, you'd be living the high life.  Maybe you'd love every piece of pizza you had for a week or two, but eventually, you'd get sick of it (and probably literally get sick too).

And I wonder if a similar issue doesn't exist with charter schools.  For a second, let's assume that the report is right: that NYC charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in NYC.  The appropriate reaction to that is not "quick, build more charter schools" it is "I wonder if that will still be true if we build more charter schools."  Maybe it's my research training speaking, but I fail to understand those who cheer on policies before they're proven to work.  If we truly want what's best for our children and our society, we should be agnostic about which policy is best at the beginning of an experiment.

Unproductive cheerleading aside, I really do wonder what the optimum number of charter schools is.  Right now, I think there are around 80 charter schools and 1,000 traditional public schools in NYC.  There's some evidence that the former are doing better than the latter.  But will that be true if we have 400 charter schools and 800 others?  or 2,000 charter schools and 0 others (charter schools tend to be smaller, which is why the total number of schools keeps climbing in these hypotheticals)?  We can make some guesses, but nobody actually knows.  I can be convinced that it's worth exploring, but I cannot be convinced that doing as such will automatically yield spectacular results.  Here's why:

Scaling up is tricky.  Just like it's easier to cook a good meal for two than it is for 200, I wonder whether it's easier to create good charter schools for 5% of the population than it is for 50%.  Since charter schools are, for the most part anyway, highly decentralized this might be less of an issue -- if each one is self-contained, there aren't as many scale-up issues.  But, as I've argued before, one crucial aspect of the charter school model is that low-performing schools are quickly closed in order to make way for better ones.  And I wonder if this will be harder to monitor with 800 charters than 80.

Talent and funds are not unlimited.  Many of the most successful charter schools have received an enormous amount of philanthropical funding.  This may or may not be instrumental to their success, but I think they'd all agree that the talent they're able to attract is.  Charitable donations may or may not expand at the same rate that charter schools do, but I'd think it's extremely unlikely that the number of talented, hard-working people willing to dedicate themselves to working long hours for middling pay at a charter school likely is.  KIPP and other schools run nationwide searchers and rely heavily on Teach for America alums.  Well, TFA only accepts a few thousand people each year and only some fraction of those people will be willing to spend years three through ?? at a charter school.  How many more talented, dedicated, sacrificing people are out there?  I really have no idea.  There certainly aren't enough to staff the million plus schools in the country if we want the same level of talent/qualifications (and have the same level of turnover) that we do at the most famous charter chains, but I suppose it's possible that there are enough to staff more charters in NYC.  How many more?  I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Not all charters are created equal.  The charter report draws a distribution of the effects on test scores of all the charter schools in NYC.  Some do worse than traditional public schools, some do the same, and some do better.  Which type will we create if we expand the number of charter schools?  If funds and talent run out, two things could happen: 1.) we could create middling, or even poor, schools; and/or 2.) we could dilute talent and funds and currently successful schools -- ultimately hurting the children of NYC.  It's certainly possible that distribution of charter success will be the same if we double the number of charter schools -- in other words, the new schools we create might be the same as the ones we have currently -- but I see no reason to be sure of this.  It seems equally plausible that the new schools we create will fail to live up to the hope we have for them.

It seems almost certain that the number of charters in NYC will continue to grow.  And I, for one, am not going to pretend to know how that will pan out.  But I eagerly await the results.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Should We Educate Poor Kids Differently?

Most people agree that the achievement gap is a major -- many would argue the largest -- problem in American education today.  And the question of how to educate disadvantaged students has hovered over American politics for decades.  Much of that time has been spent trying to equalize resources or integrate schools across the country.  But the latest trend seems to take different tack: educating poor kids differently than we do other kids.  While most middle- and upper-class students attend comprehensive neighborhood schools, increasing numbers of children from lower-class urban households are attending charter and specialized schools.  Many charter supporters laud the "no excuses" mentality at these schools (see, for example, David Whitman).  Meanwhile, charter leaders like Geoffrey Canada send their own children to suburban schools to avoid this type of management.

Which leads to an uncomfortable question: should we educate poor kids differently?  Few seem to acknowledge that we are essentially arguing that we should when we support different pedagogy or school structures or various ways of enhancing (e.g. lower class sizes or bonuses for teaching in high-needs schools) schools in low-income neighborhoods.  Most would say that we should treat all kids the same, but most would also acknowledge that kids have disparate experiences at home.  A compelling argument can be made that students who hail from different environments need to learn different things.  And a compelling argument can be made that segregation will never solve the problem.

Here's what a couple people in the field had to say:

by Stephen Lentz

Fundamentally, I do not believe that we should educate poor kids differently.  However, I do so with one giant stipulation: I believe that our entire national obsession with everyone 'going to college' is completely counterproductive to the current and future welfare of our country.

A generation ago, being poor and a minority largely meant that no matter how smart you were, college was supposed to be unattainable.  This was a mirror of the outrageous racism that hung over our country, and it needed to be changed.  However, today's policy makers have gone from one extreme to the other.  Today, poor students of color are expected to go to college regardless of their IQs.

While this is an improvement in one sense because it allows top performers to compete on more equal footing with their suburban peers, it sets others up for a lifetime of feeling stupid because they didn't make it to college in a "no excuses" environment.  Or worse yet, we end up moving towards a society where everyone goes to college, thereby negating the economic advantage of going in the first place.

This is an important failing of reform ideology, because it forgets that while the race-based bell curve was totally inaccurate and offensive, the normal distribution curve for academic achievement is very real within individual subgroups.  Indeed, there can only be so many academically "smart kids."

Traditionally, comprehensive suburban schools have not been as bad about this.  There, students go to schools that focus on both the advancement and well-being of individual students, rather than what's good for their communities as a whole, as students in poor neighborhoods are often expected to do.  Because of this lack of academic missionary zeal in the schools, students' individual talents are better tapped, thus making them happier students with more developed skills for a variety of post-graduation jobs.

Indeed, the adult pursuit of a chosen career or trade is the ultimate barometer of societal health and happiness, and schools that make this more likely to happen simple cannot be considered 'failing.'

I must add, however, that No Child Left Behind negatively changed this climate in suburban schools to focus on academic achievement above all things.  Thriving vocational programs were once at the heart of this focus on producing competent adults who were qualified to do a variety of jobs.  But because the law now mandates that all children succeed academically at high levels, we are forcing a lot of kids to do things they simply cannot master for careers that, for them, do not exist.

I think this is a shame, and rather than increasing student achievement, NCLB is plaguing all public schools nationwide with the same problems that haunt schools in impoverished communities.  That is, forcing kids into a model of "you will succeed academically and go to college, or else."

This is an extremely dangerous way to educate children.  It makes way too many of them feel like dumb and worthless children, which of course makes it exponentially more likely they'll grow up feeling like dumb and worthless adults in a society that purports to, but doesn't actually, recognize the value and dignity of all work.

So if this is the model that "reformers" are actively working to impose upon children merely because they hail from poor communities, then I'd just as soon stick with the pre-NCLB suburban standard and treat all children as unique and talented individuals.  Our country requires citizen workers with a broad array of skills that are not all, or even mostly, academically oriented.  It is simply foolish of us to force children into a false mold for a working world that simply doesn't exist.

by Bronx Teacherlady

When I go to the doctor, I want care tailored to my medical needs, not generic care for people my age.  Education should be every bit as tailored to individual needs as medicine.  Clearly, it’s not realistic to expect every public school student will have an IEP.  But in the absence of truly individualized educational tailoring, we can, and should, craft education to meet as many needs as we can reasonably anticipate.

If my doctor doesn’t have time to assess my personal needs, I’d rather he give me treatment that usually helps people my age who are at least medically somewhat like me, say, new mothers with digestive problems.  We know that poor kids have, in general, different challenges at school than wealthy kids, so we should educate them differently.  It is important to note, however, that much like medicine, the “different” education of poor kids needs to address fundamental differences that bring kids to the schoolhouse door with varied levels of preparation.

Continuing the medical analogy, imagine two 4-year-olds, Rita, a wealthy girl, and Paul, a poor boy, who go to the doctor for an iron check.  Rita’s iron level is fine, so the doctor congratulates her parents, telling them to keep doing whatever they’re doing – it’s working – and to add a multivitamin to make her even healthier.  This is what school does for wealthy kids.

Paul, on the other hand, turns out to be anemic.  The doctor frowns and prescribes an iron supplement.  Paul comes back for a re-check in a few months, but his iron is still low.  The doctor gives Paul’s parents a stern lecture and prescribes more of the same supplement.  Another few months pass, and Paul’s iron still does not go up.  The doctor throws up his hands and says, “it’s clearly in Paul’s genetics or his home environment, I can’t do anything.” Meanwhile, Paul gets weaker and weaker from iron deficiency.  This is the way schools treat poor kids.

Played out as a medical scenario, this seems an absurd, even immoral, way to treat children. It is just as absurd and wrong when our education is delivered this way.  “No-excuses” charter schools, lengthened school days, and high-stakes testing environments are the equivalent of raising the dose of a medication that never worked in the first place.

So when I say we should educate poor kids differently, I mean we should try compensatory education that actually compensates for what is missing.  Rather than giving Paul a pill that Rita’s never taken, in hopes it will make his iron level like hers, the doctor might be wise to find out more about Rita.  Maybe she eats a lot of spinach, and maybe that iron is more absorbable by the body than iron in pill form.  We would expect the doctor to explore why Rita is getting enough iron, and then try to give those things, not something Rita’s never had, to Paul.  Compensatory education should give poor kids the things we know they don’t get at home – one-on-one time with educated adults; enjoyable, no-pressure cognitive stimulation and linguistic practice; time and space to explore and develop interests and skills and become educated and educable people.  Wealthy kids don’t come to school more ready to absorb because they have “no excuses” homes where they study in silence all day and are told that their worth is measured by how well they fill in the bubbles on a piece of paper – how would we think giving this to poor kids could possibly be the answer?

Stephen Lentz graduated from Syracuse Law in 2002 but decided to pursue another calling, immediately joining the NYC Teaching Fellows.  He's since moved to Tennessee and is now in his eighth year in the classroom.  He occasionally posts on his own blog, Notes of a Former Teaching Fellow.

Bronx Teacherlady worked at a South Bronx elementary school and a charter school in another city before throwing her hands up and retreating to academia to try to fix the problem from another angle.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I'd like to once again thank G.R. Kearny for taking my questions about Cristo Rey.

-Maybe it's my research training, but I'm kind of turned off by people who are rooting for/against charter schools.  Shouldn't we trying to figure out if they work (and why?) instead?  Andy Rotherham also doesn't like the discussion about charters, but he seems only half-right to me.  I don't think there's as clear of a line between what he labels tactical and strategic discussions -- though it's possible that he's trying to say exactly what I said in my first sentence of this bullet point.

-Jay Mathews writes in support of an idea Ben Chavis uses at his charter school -- the middle school only uses what, in NYC, we called common branch teachers (teachers teach all the major subjects) because he refuses to "departmentalize" the school.  I'm agnostic on the idea.  What strikes me more, though, is that we tend to heap a lot of praise on people like Chavis who portray themselves as radicals and despite (because of?) their brusqueness, lead successful high-poverty schools.  But I'd like to see a show of hands of middle- and upper-class parents who would like Ben Chavis to be the principal of their local school.  And if this kind of principal/education is ok only for students from lower-class families what, exactly, does that say?  People sure seem to insinuate that we should educate poor kids differently, but I don't hear very many people come out and say it directly.

-Look out for a special edition of Sunday Commentary this weekend, wherein I get by with a little help from my friends.