Thursday, October 30, 2014

Are Charter Schools "Motivating Kids," or just finding "Motivated Kids"

When I first saw the edu-documentary "Waiting for Superman," my first reaction to the stories of waiting lists for kids to get into high performing charter schools was simply, "Let them in." Heck, if a student wants to go to the rigorous, high performing school that offers him a better chance of success than his neigborhood school, then school districts should just let him in and build more schools if the current ones are at capacity. Of course, that is a knee-jerk reaction fueled by the pathos of the "for the children" argument of the movie.

The real issue of "charter schools" as the answer to struggling schools is far more complicated ... and potentially nefarious.

The criticism of the charter movement is that the schools simply "siphon off" the most motivated and high achieving kids, leaving behind the struggling and less motivated ones who will only drag the neighborhood school down more. And there is plenty of evidence for such charter school recruitment and enrollment tactics. Even when charter school supporters explain how they don't or can't "cherry pick" their students, the reality is that the students who enroll in charters must be motivated enough to pursue the opportunity, which means a lot more than just showing up at their neighborhood school each day. And the problem with students enrolling in charters is the movement does nothing to strengthen the struggling schools.

I remember visiting a charter, The Denver School of Science & Technology, with a friend from the business world who was promoting the school. DSST is truly one of the gems and success stories of Denver Public Schools. The problem comes when my friend said, "Isn't this impressive? Imagine if they could just run all schools this way." But it doesn't work that way. And the struggling schools that remain just become fodder for perpetuating the myth of "failing public schools."

Charter schools and education reformers are really only helpful and significant if they can succeed at "motivating students" and not just finding "motivated students."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Corporate Education Reformers Should Partner with, not Attack or Align Against, Educators

It's no secret or surprise that the major "education reform" efforts of the past decade or so are driven by the business world, not parents or educators or politicians or school boards. Driven by "stories" and news of the "decline of public education" and the "failing state" of public schools, people in the business world such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have joined with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and think tanks like Achieve, Inc to launch nationwide efforts to change the nature of public education. The charter school movement and the Common Core national standards initiative have been born out of buinsess leaders belief that they can "fix public education." They base their hopes and fears on a view of public education based on the dismal nature of America's worst 30% of schools and the reports in the news that American students trail the world on standardized assessments like the PISA exam.

There are, clearly, numerous problems and shortcomings with this point of view. But it is the current reality, and schools must deal with it as such.

Thus, it's refreshing to hear from experienced educators and school administrators who can take a critical eye to both public education and the corporate-led reform movement. That is the feeling I got from reading the commentary "How Business Leaders Can Help Education" today in the Vail Daily from Eagle County Schools superintendent Jason Glass who offers some valuable recommendations for the education reformers. Glass's piece very astutely identifies the problems and challenges of corporate-led "education reform" while also acknowledging the good intentions and potential benefits of an education-business relationship. Glass offers some important recommendations for business leaders hoping to help, not the least of which is encourage business leaders to team with educators as opposed to painting them as the problem and the enemy. Imagine that.

And, in a particularly insightful observation, consider Glass's opening:

This week, a star-studded list of CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs from across the country gathered in Avon to discuss the important topic of improving the American education system. I felt fortunate to be invited and to be a participant in this event, the discussions and the ideation.

Clearly, the absence of educators and parents and students from the meeting in Avon to discuss how to fix education is the primary problem with corporate-led reform efforts. Not only should a school superintendent not feel "fortunate to be invited," but the "CEOs, investors" and business leaders should be ashamed of themselves for convening any discussion of "improving the education system" without the primary stakeholders as the center of the event. Discussion of improving education should take place in schools and communities with teachers and parents present, not at resort areas away from the crux of the matter.

So, thanks to Superintendent Glass for his commentary and insight. Let's hope some of the businessmen who gracioulsy invited him to discuss his area of expertise actually listened to his input.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fall Break - A Bonus to School Schedules

"Fall Break" is the greatest invention in the history of school schedules. When I first moved to Colorado, I was amazed to discover this little gem in the calendar for the year. After the first ten weeks of school, the Cherry Creek School District takes a week-long break at the end of October. It is the perfect time to re-charge and re-focus, and it operates almost like a "quarter system" in school. And, it meets the needs and expectations of people worried about learning loss from students out of school too long or over-stressed by long stretches of school. While I am firmly against the idea of "ending summer vacation" and adopting "year-round school," I am not opposed to shorter and more frequent breaks in school. The idea of taking a break after about ten weeks is a great idea, especially for high school students who have so many activities going on and seniors who can use the break time to visit schools and finish college applications. So, adding a break into the fall might be just the key to adjusting school schedules to meet more needs. A week or two in the fall, two or three at winter, and a week or two in the spring, with a slightly shorter summer is the perfect antidote to the burden of school schedules.

Monday, October 27, 2014

College Board & Common Core Shift Focus From Calculus to Algebra

Is the College Board conspiring with proponents of Common Core to replace its emphasis on calculus for top students with a focus on basic algebra skills for all? And, is this all the more evidence of a "Race to the Middle" in which the needs of America's best and brightest are ignored in the attempt to bring all students to a basic competency? That seems to be the indication from the announcement that the College Board is "Reconciling AP Exams with Common Core."

The College Board is responding to the brewing changes of today's Common Core era by revising the Advanced Placement program so that the focus is on fewer concepts and more depth. Despite these measures, there are still difficulties in reconciling many AP courses with the Common Core. In particular, AP Calculus is in conflict with the Common Core, Packer said, and it lies outside the sequence of the Common Core because of the fear that it may unnecessarily rush students into advanced math classes for which they are not prepared. The College Board suggests a solution to the problem. of AP Calculus “If you’re worried about AP Calculus and fidelity to the Common Core, we recommend AP Statistics and AP Computer Science,” he told conference attendees.
Moreover, the College Board may offer an AP Algebra course (although no plans are definite), which may supplant AP Calculus, particularly in schools rigidly adhering to the Common Core standards.
This misguided shift by College Board could very well represent another "Sputnik moment" when America again ends up on the wrong side of history. Truly, for many students a basic proficiency in algebra is all they will ever need in terms of numeracy knowledge. But for the top thirty percent who will be accessing the highest levels of math in college, the earlier access to trig and calculus and differential equations is fundamental to success. Let's be clear: Some students should be prepped for the study of calculus and many shouldn't. And there is nothing wrong with that. But emphasizing a deeper knowledge of fewer concepts at the lower grades will prepare fewer for the highest levels at high school and college. And this is a mistake.

The very idea that College Board could be considering an AP-level for algebra is truly absurd. Granted, there is "algebra" at the college level - especially abstract studies of "linear algebra." But the idea of offering AP credit for the basic level of math at high school is disconcerting. The students at my high school can access four levels of math past AP Calculus - Calculus III, Differential Equations, Abstract Math, and Linear Algebra - because our students are simply that advanced. We even have students accessing AP Calc as freshman or middle schoolers. And that is truly exceptional and should be cultivated. It should not be dismissed as a side effect of trying to make sure more students "go deeper" into algebra.

Could this be more evidence that the current education reform is detrimental to the needs of our most most advanced and gifted students? And why is our focus on one-size-for-all?

Thanks to Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Do Standardized Tests Measure?

As the battle for school accountability heats up - and standardized tests like corporate-backed PARCC take center stage in the school year -people are finally beginning to ask what they're getting for all the hassle. Specifically this year, schools will see greater losses of instructional time to state testing. And these tests may not tell us anything valuable at all.

All the tests we administer can’t predict a child’s future. The tests don’t measure real learning. They measure test-taking ability. Research has shown that test scores are most accurate in measuring the socioeconomic level of the student. That’s correct. We use tests that don’t measure teacher competence or student learning to make or break careers, categorize children and place them in certain groups or pathways. We assume poor test scores mean a poor teacher, when often the opposite is true. We are obsessed with our ridiculous tests. The state legislature insists that test scores make up at least 50 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation. The lobbyists for Pearson, McGraw-Hill and others fund the campaign coffers of candidates and court high-level administrators to convince them we need more testing. And more testing is exactly what we get. What if we spent those millions on authentic testing, that actually allows students to demonstrate mastery of content by performing an action, doing a presentation or building something that explains the concept? What if we spent some of those millions on more observation in the classroom, or gathering feedback from parents and students that actually tells us how the teacher works with children, assigns homework, provides extra help or many of the myriad other indicators of professional competence?
Certainly, the public will simply not accept a system devoid of data from standardized tests. But parents and students should have greater "choice" in the demands the state puts on them. For, the fundamental aspect of public education is that the schools serve the students and families and not the other way around. And currently, it doesn't appear this obsessive focus on standardized testing is serving them at all.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ohio Bill to Limit School Standardized Testing to Four Hours per Year

If the ACT and SAT can test college readiness for students on one day in about four hours, and the GRE can test readiness for graduate school on one day in less than four hours, then why do the new Common Core tests like PARCC take several days at different times during the year and require six or more hours? That's the question many teachers, parents, and students are asking themselves. Certainly, the increased emphasis and scope and frequency of standardized tests is becoming a burden for schools and students alike. For, the testing schedule is not just about the actual test times because the administering of the tests, as well the necessary test prep time schools commit because of the high stakes, can take as many as 10 - 15 days out of the the school year's instructional time.

And, one state legislator in Ohio is calling for some common sense reform.

A new bill introduced by Ohio state legislator Andrew Brenner would limit mandated state testing for most students to four hours per student per year. This limit would restrict the PARCC assessment which can take up to ten hours and is given at least two different times during the year. The bill would also limit the state's required science and social studies assessments, which add on even more time to testing schedules. Certainly, assessment has become the norm in public education, and schools are facing constant pressure to judge school quality based on standardized test scores. The problem comes when a seemingly endless string of tests are incorporated to test all kids regularly in all subjects.

Schools need choice and freedom on the use of assessments. While the corporate edu-reformers are heavily invested and committed to companies like Pearson, Inc. administering the PARCC assessment, voices of reason like Andrew Brenner's may be a good place to start the discussion.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is Subtraction Really That Hard?

Edu-blogger Darren Miller over at Right on the Left Coast offers an interesting juxtaposition on the "New Math" and the multi-step approach that is apparently guiding math instruction under the Common Core. By now we've all seen examples of the "Byzantine" way of performing basic addition and subtraction problems that are frustrating both elementary students and their parents. As a math teacher, Darren wonders "is the standard algorithm really that difficult for most kids" and are any of the new ways of math really easier or more effective for kids. He doubts it. But along with the discussion of algorithms, he reminds us of this compelling argument for understanding the algorithm:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

DPE Poll Reveals Wide Support for Public Schools - Criticism of "Reform"

For a while now, discussion of public education has deferred to the DFER's (Democrats for Education Reform) who have aligned themselves with corporate interests and business-model reforms like increased standardized testing and test-based teacher accountability. The DFER's are led by Ed Sec Arne Duncan - a school administrator who has no teaching credentials - and Bill Gates - a billionaire computer programmer who has no teaching credentials. Together, Duncan and Gates have enabled the views of the Chamber of Commerce to drive education reforms like Common Core and PARCC/SmarterBalanced Testing. All of this "reform" has been grounded in the belief that "public schools are failing" and "American students are falling behind the rest of the world."

But there is a new voice from the Democratic Caucus, supporting traditional public education.

The Democrats for Public Education (DPE) just released a poll showing "overwhelming support for public education." America schools are not failing, and the public does not blame union teachers and tenure for the problems that plague our poorest schools. In fact, most parents have very positive views of their schools, with 80% rating their kids' schools "good to excellent." This poll mirrors the standard disgruntled American habit of "hating Congress but loving our congressman." Interestingly, most Americans cite socio-economics as the primary cause of poor schools - either through inadequate funding or low parental involvement. Both ways are about a lack of money.

Other interesting results:

  • Only 3% of Americans blame education's problems on "bad teachers."
  • Nearly 60% believe there is "too much" standardized testing
  • Only 27% have a negative view of "tenure" and most support due process for teachers
  • Many Americans have little to no understanding of charter schools