Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't Start Believin'

If memory serves, when Campbell Brown began her show on CNN, the (unofficial?) slogan was "no bull".  So much for that . . .

Tonight's show included a segment on the Rhode Island school (Central Falls) that recently fired all of its teachers.  While that action carries all sorts of ramifications (that I'm going to momentarily ignore), what caught my attention were education contributor Steve Perry's comments.

Ms. Brown first talked to a guidance counselor from the school, George McLaughlin, who argued that comparing Central Falls to other schools in wealthier neighborhoods was unfair because their school has a more transient population, more ESL students, and more special ed. students among other challenges.

Perry's response?  In the midst of an emotional segment in which he says that Mr. McLaughlin "has some nerve," he declares that Central Falls' teachers are failing solely based on the fact that 93% of its students failed the state math exam last year.  He continues on to say that "it's not a valid argument" and seems to argue that school achievement scores should be evaluated completely absent of any and all context

It's hard to debate Mr. Perry's points, because arguing that context doesn't matter in education is like arguing that height doesn't matter in basketball -- I'm not sure where to begin.

But I will address his other misstep -- using one snapshot figure.  Even if we imagine, for a second, a world where poverty, homelessness, non-native languages, and so forth don't hinder one's academic performance in the least, we still can't evaluate schools in that manner.  In this world, Central Falls teachers have the exact same kids in their classes as do those in Newport.  Except for one thing.  When they start high school, 100% of the kids in Newport are passing and 100% in Central Falls are failing (numbers are made up).  The following year, 10% of the Central Falls kids pass the test, while 50% of the Newport kids pass the test.  Which school has better teachers?  Obviously Newport, because they have more kids passing the test.  That's essentially Perry's argument.

Please don't start believing this kind of baloney . . . even when the host promises that there won't be any.

The clip is embedded below or available here, Mr. Perry's remarks begin at the 6:00 mark.

p.s. if you're thinking Mr. Perry should stick to his day job, please know that this is a different Steve Perry

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Passion Before Program?

Bob Herbert's op-ed on schools today is a mixed bag -- which means it's better than most commentaries that have appeared in the popular press over the past couple years.  In it, he discusses his visits to, and discussions with the founder of, three Harlem charter schools -- the Village Academies.

He again falls into the "teachers are the only thing that matter and good ones work miracles" trap, which seems to be a popular one lately.  But he focuses on more than just teachers.  Most notably, he talks about school climate.  The best and worst part are in the same short paragraph:

Charter schools, of course, can fire teachers for poor performance. “Obviously, none of us should be allowed to be in front of children if we’re not doing a good job,” Ms. Kenny said. “But the threat of being fired if you don’t do a good job is not what makes a teacher great.”

When I have undergrads write papers on education, one mistake many make is thinking that all charter schools are the same (usually that they all work miracles).  Herbert is no better.  The whole point of charter schools is that they're autonomous and free to innovate.  It's hard to make just about any other blanket statement.  Charter schools vary widely in their rules, strategies, designs, success, etc.  So to matter-of-factly state that charter schools can, "of course," fire teachers at will is absurd on face.  Different charter schools have different rules.  Besides, the notion that traditional public schools can't fire teachers for poor performance is absurd.  Yes, in many it's tough to fire a teacher for poor performance after they've earned tenure -- that's a lot different from the implied "can't" in his statement.

But the end of the paragraph transitions back into a discussion of the school climate.  Herbert writes that the main focus of the schools has been on finding "talented and passionate" teachers, but his discussion focuses much more on the culture and climate of the school.  Indeed, the founder of the schools focuses as much on developing and keeping great teachers as she does on finding them.  And her main strategy (at least according to Herbert) seems to be creating a positive environment where people want to work.

To me, the largest difference between unsuccessful high-poverty, urban schools like the one I taught in and the typical school one usually imagines is the climate of the school.  There's undoubtedly a better analogy, but many in our school reported feeling as though they were in a "war zone."  The tension and stress were palpable.  Neither administrators nor teachers nor students were enjoying themselves.

Which brings me back to what I liked about Herbert's piece.  He writes that we focus too much on "program elements" and not enough on other things (like great teachers) when trying to create and replicate successful schools.  I agree, but I'd frame is slightly differently.  Herbert teeters on the edge of suggesting that all we need to do is find great teachers and nothing else will matter.  I'd argue that, to some extent, passion matters more than program; that it's more important that everybody is committed to the same goal than precisely what that goal is (obviously, exceptions abound).  To me, what's notable about his description of these schools isn't that they're charter schools or that they employ great teachers (at least according to Bob Herbert), but that everybody seems to be working toward the same goal.  And when that happens, it means that administrators don't have to battle teachers and teachers don't have to battle students.  Which is a pretty good first step.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Today's Random Thought

I wrote a while back about an ASA presentation I called "perhaps the best paper I've ever seen at a conference."  Apparently I wasn't the only one who liked the research, b/c the NY Times today ran an article discussing Matthew Desmond's research on evictions in Milwaukee.  It's definitely worth a read if you haven't seen it yet.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today's Random Thoughts

Sorry for the long layoff -- it turns out that taking over a class a week into the semester while trying to advance both one's dissertation and other papers can be quite time consuming.  Or I could just say I've been busy.  Either way, until I find time to expound on some of the ideas that have been bouncing around my head recently, here are a few of the things I've found interesting recently:

-Pittsburgh has shut their schools down for the entire week.  Why?  Well, 29 inches of snow spread out over 5 days hasn't helped, but the main problem seems to be an inexplicable delay in the plowing and salting of roads.  4 inches of snow canceled school for 5+ straight calendar days here in Nashville, but that's because we don't have the equipment or know how to deal with snow.  Pittsburgh does.  Or at least it did.  The strangest part of the story: Last Saturday the entire county declared a state of emergency as it tried to shovel and plow itself out from 21.1 inches of snow . . . meanwhile, boy Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was off in the mountains "celebrating his 30th birthday".  Maybe now that he's turned 30 he'll get his act together.  Because a city that's made all sorts of headlines with its plans for an educational turnaround doesn't need mayoral incompetence getting in the way of student learning.

-Meanwhile, the rule in Nashville seems to be one day off per inch of snow.  Guess what was supposed to be happening while school was canceled due to mildly slushy sidewalks most of last week?  State tests.  Which serves as another reminder how fallible one high-stakes test is.

-On the other end of the spectrum, it appears that NYC finally canceled a day of school after getting blitzed with snow yesterday.  During my two years in the city we had exactly zero official snow days.  I say "official" because we had three days where all the suburbs called off and no more than about half the staff or students showed up.  One of those was the day after NYC got 19 inches of snow.  And all three were a waste of a day . . . we simply lined everybody up in the cafeteria at 8am, divvied them up between teachers, and babysat all day.  I guess the moral of the story is that while canceling too much school isn't a good thing, never canceling school doesn't solve the problem.

-It looks like NYC is finally going to start using test score data as part of tenure decisions.  Except that 90% -- yes, 90% -- of teachers up for tenure this year didn't teach the same tested subject for two consecutive years.  Which serves as another reminder that value-added scores won't solve all of our system's problems.