Sunday, May 31, 2009

Random School Drug Testing in Colorado

It appears that the country's paranoid hysteria over drug use continues to dismiss the "innocent-until-proven-guilty" component in our legal system. From the Denver Post, "Springs school district weighs random drug tests:"

A random drug test program being considered by Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 would be the first such program in the Pikes Peak region and only the fourth in the state. The policy, which had its first reading at a May 20 school board meeting, would allow random drug tests of high school students who are involved in district extracurricular activities, including sports, clubs and musical groups.

Discussions about adopting such a policy grew out of an investigation last fall that revealed what police called a "significant" heroin problem at Cheyenne Mountain High School. Police arrested former students and Mexican nationals in a bust linked to the school, but no students were arrested. District officials met with students and parents to determine how serious the drug problem was at the school, offering counseling and other services to students using drugs. About 25 students were involved in the drug incident involving black tar heroin, a potent form of the drug trafficked through Mexico, district officials said.

The board and administration in January began to consider a random drug testing policy. Such policies are controversial because some people believe they are an invasion of privacy and aren't warranted to ferret out the small number of students who abuse drugs.

The interesting component is the focus on activity-involved kids. It may seem to be the one thing districts hold over the kids' heads. But are they just not concerned with the uninvolved kids who are smoking across the street while the activities kids are at meetings and practice?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

NCEE Thinks They Have the Answer

According to an op-ed in the Washington Post today, William Brock, Secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration, Ray Marshall, Secretary of Labor in the Carter administration, and Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), have the answers for a "world class" education system. However, excuse me if I hold my applause for their basic recitation of the regular mantras of "better teachers" and "accountability" and the ever-present, and slightly clueless obsession with "preparation for college." Their proposals are not so radical as they think, though some of their assumptions are off the mark. For example:

The key to U.S. global stature after World War II was the world's best-educated workforce. But now the United States ranks No. 12, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and today's younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one.

A dubious claim, as I've noted countless times, when the rankings are based on international tests that are voluntary for American students and are often blown off by the test takers. The real test is truly the economy and the state of society. In this regard, the American system is still the place of innovation it has always been, and its college system is still the envy of the world. Ultimately, with 85% of Americans saying they are satisfied with their education, the system is obviously serving its populations to their satisfaction. And isn't that the point? Couldn't we be more like Europe and Asia in test scores if we eliminated sports programs and the arts and theater and student government and recess and physical education and proms and homecomings and fundraisers, etc., etc., etc.? Do the communities want that? I don't think so. But, of course, I could be wrong because I'm just a parent and a teacher in a very successful school district, and not a former Secretary of Labor or head of a "think tank."

Additionally, the authors note a regression from sixty years ago, yet high school graduation is up and more diverse and the top students are breaking down the walls of higher education with AP/IB programs ever expanding with more and more kids doing college-level and even graduate-level work in high school. There is much success in the current system, and the variables for arguing that the population is "less educated" than their parents is dubious at best.

Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses.

Accountability. Of course. But 90% in college. If that means technical schools, maybe. But the country has maxed out at 30% with a four-year degree, and their is no evidence the economy needs or could even accommodate more than that. Remedial courses may say more about the student, than the system.

Make a range of social services available to children from low-income families and coordinate those services with those students' school programs. We have the most unequal distribution of income of any industrialized nation. If the problems posed by students' poverty are not dealt with, it may be nearly impossible for schools to educate the students to world-class standards. The state cannot eliminate students' poverty, but it can take steps to alleviate its effects on students' capacity to learn.

Offer high-quality early-childhood education to, at a minimum, all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds. Students from low-income families entering kindergarten have less than half the vocabulary of the other students. In kindergarten and the early grades, those with the smallest vocabularies cannot follow what is going on and fall further behind. By the end of fourth grade, they are so far behind they can never catch up.

This, I admit, is intriguing. There is certainly evidence for its validity with the Harlem Children's Zone and its Promise Academies. We'll see if taxpayers are willing to pony up for the equality of funding and extra services for struggling populations.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Health Care Choice

According to the Denver Post, Howard Dean was in town on Friday stumping for health care reform:

Howard Dean, calling himself a "counterweight to the insurance industry," rallied a Denver crowd Wednesday to push for a public, government-subsidized insurance option for all ages. The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is traveling the country to talk about health care reform, said Americans also should have the option of keeping their private insurance.

Of course, if Dean really wants to help the Obama administration's efforts, he didn't do them any favors when he says things like, "Republicans try to act like it's some kind of socialist, communist plot. Welcome to socialized medicine. It's called Medicare." People don't want to see socialized medicine - they want to see national health insurance. People want the doctors and the hospitals and the drug companies operating in the free market where the consumer has choices on who he sees and what he's willing to pay for. They perceive "socialized medicine" as single-payer systems in Canada and Britain where the doctors work for the government. That won't fly here. And Obama didn't help himself when he recently said of reform, "If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done." Not a good idea to throw down ultimatums. We don't like being scared or threatened, and we want change, but not hasty change.

Thus, I am still baffled by the Administration's refusal to offer consumers another "choice" with a logical blend of public and private care. This is best exemplified by the Healthy Americans Act - also known as the Wyden-Bennett plan - or the extension of FEHBP - Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan - to all Americans. In these systems, the free market exists and health care providers bid to serve a pool of 300 million Americans. Each person can choose to purchase as much or as little as he needs or wants, but no one is denied access. No one is forced to give up his doctor - as I was in our current private employer-based system - and all medical decisions remain between the doctor and patient.

The problem for critics of Dean and Obama is that the country wants change, and it will come, and if conservatives are not careful, they could end up with single-payer simply because they provided no logical alternative that maintains the free market. HAA and FEHBP do this. Let's get on it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Health Insurance Industry Cuts Costs, Too

WASHINGTON — A major health insurer says the government can save more than $500 billion in Medicare spending by sending patients to less expensive, more efficient doctors; reducing hospital visits by the elderly; and cutting unnecessary care.

Those are among 15 suggestions made Wednesday by UnitedHealth Group Inc., a Minnesota-based health-management company that is the biggest participant in the government's Medicare insurance program for the elderly.

So, when the government talks about cutting health care costs by avoiding wasteful and superfluous spending, it's "rationing," but when private industry does it, it's just efficient and good business?

Support for Community Colleges

According to vice-presidential wife, Jill Biden, "Community colleges are the way of the future." Biden, a former teacher at Delaware Technical and Community College and current teacher at Northern Virginia Community College, was in Denver on a visit with her husband, and she offered this insight during an interview with the Denver Post. It's nice to see someone near the Obama administration talking more specifically about this post-secondary option, especially as more high schools push the four-year college track on everyone. While President Obama has said it is his goal that all students seek some secondary education or training, his Education Secretary has been more assertive in focusing on four year colleges. And anyone with any true knowledge of the education system or our economy knows that is naive and myopic. Biden has the experience to speak credibly on this issue, noting the increased enrollment in tough economic times.

Biden said Delaware Technical & Community College, where she used to teach, logged a 30 percent increase in enrollment this year. Enrollment is up about the same amount at Northern Virginia Community College, where she now teaches English as a second language and developmental English for foreign professionals. After watching EMS faculty and students respond to a simulated heart attack in the school's mock street scene, Biden told the group, "I've taught many EMTs, firemen, police cadets and nurses. You all play such a vital role in our communities.

"In fact, we had a fire in our house four years ago. As we were running around in a panic, one of the firefighters waved and yelled at me, 'Mrs. Biden, I'm Harry, remember me from your class?' "

Biden is on the mark. Perhaps, the administration will start letting her give more interviews.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Principals Make the Difference

According to the Denver Post, Principal's persistence sends Lincoln High grad rate soaring. At Lincoln High School - of the notoriously struggling Denver Public Schools - the turnaround rate in dropouts to college applications has been impressive, and:

Part of the reason for the rebound is the school's principal — Antonio Esquibel, a Lincoln alum who grew up about half-mile from Lincoln. He has made it his mission to change the culture for the Lancers. Esquibel has borrowed techniques from successful charter schools, putting an emphasis on attendance, credit recovery and college readiness.

Esquibel has set clear expectations, from attendance to grades, and his enforcement of this pro-academic culture at his school is fundamental to its success. Granted, there is a long way to go. Though the message is clear. A culture of learning is integral to the success of a school community, and that culture is set by the administration.

Got a problem with the school? Start at the top. It's no different than in sports. Failing teams fire their coaches, and successful teams result from strong leadership.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Education Blogosphere

A fond farewell to a strong voice in the edu-blogosphere - Dennis Fermoyle at Public Education Defender posted his last entry on the blog he has hosted since May of 2006. Dennis' blog was one of the first I discovered when I started blogging about education and life, and he was a source of great insight and inspiration for discussions of public education. One of my earliest postings - which was also featured in the Denver Post - challenged Sean Hannity's rant that "the government ruined public education." Dennis posted part of my piece on his blog, plus a link, and he has continually endorsed the notion that I argued - that public education is not only not "ruined," but by and large successful. Dennis signed off today with this long-running sentiment:

I firmly believe that public schools in America are doing a better job than they're given credit for. Oh, we have our flaws--there's no question about that, and I've written about a number of them. When I say we are doing are doing a good job, however, I base that on two basic points.
First of all, in the great majority of public schools around the nation, any kid who really wants a good education can get one. The kids who don't give a rip don't get very much out of it, but the kids who want to go to a vo-tech are able to do that, and the kids really want to get prepared for college are able to do so.

The biggest problem in American public education today is that so many kids don't put much effort into their own education. Some kids are incredibly lazy and irresponsible, and that problem is combined with the fact that the American public does not want to put too much emphasis on school in general and academics in particular. And that leads to my second point: American public schools are giving American parents what they want.

Bill Gates and other business gurus can complain all they want, and say that American schools should be turning out more academic wizards. I'm not saying they're wrong, but that is not what the American public wants. The American public wants their kids to be "well-rounded." That means they want them get some academics, but they also want schools to enable their kids to be be sports stars, and/or work part-time jobs, and to be able to go on family vacations that last a week or more during the school year, and have homecoming and frosty-fest coronations and pep rallies during the school day, and use class time to vote for kings and queens and other things, and to be able to miss a day or two here and there for various other reasons and still get decent grades. Bill Gates might not like it, and sometimes I might not like it, but we are "public" schools, so it's our job to give the public what it wants. And that's what we do.

Finally, my last post wouldn't be complete if I didn't harp on the subject I've harped on more than any other. As good as public education is, it could be so much better. Public school teachers and principals need more power to demand better effort and behavior from our students. The bottom line on that is that it has to be easier to kick kids out. I know how harsh that sounds, but it really isn't. Believe it or not, I am not an old curmudgeon. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I'm one of the most popular teachers in our school. But 35 years as a teacher and coach has taught me that kids understand limits. Make it clear to them that a certain level of behavior and a certain level of effort is required and there will be very few who will have to be shown the door. And for those who are shown the door, allow them to come back and try again next semester or next year if they finally realize that their education matters. I have seen too many bright kids allowed to get by with performing miserably, and I've even seen some end up dropping out because we were so damned tolerant.

Those are some pretty valid points. Thanks, Dennis.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

American Princesses

"When women shave their heads, cut out the make-up, and stop wearing high-heel shoes, they will take over the world."

That is how many of my students would characterize one of my standard rants in class each year. While it is a bit of my standard hyperbole, the spirit of the argument is sincere. There is much that girls and women do which adheres to historical subjugation of the rights of women, and there is much in those areas that adhere to control by men. The "princess fantasy," or expectation is another symptom of this dichotomy, and it is making the news lately, especially with the onslaught of marketing from Disney over the past decade. Is this "princess syndrome" a hindrance to the growth and independence of identity in young girls? Or is there a positive
side to the "ideal life" image of the myth?

My students would laugh at the possibility that I could see anything positive about representations of girls and women by Disney. I've written before about my opposition to my children seeing Disney movies - actually they've never really seen any movies. However, my daughter just turned four and received several Barbies from her friends. It didn't bother me, and I concede that much of the opposition to popular culture is overblown. Of course, the standard rational response - of which I am always a fan in any discussion - is the use of moderation and common sense.

We'll see what the pundits and sociologists have to say. I'm not worried about my daughter, or my students, precisely because of the openness and discussions we have.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Net Generation

Since finishing up Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap, I have been intrigued by some similar insight in two other books - one is Richard Nesbitt's Intelligence and How to Get it, and the other is Bob Pletka's Educating the Net Generation.  I want to discuss Nesbitt's extensive research at some point, but, in terms of Wagner's insight about transitioning schools to a curriculum and training more relevant to their lives, I am intrigued and seeking ways to improve my approach based on his research.  Pletka's point is a high-tech analysis of the concept that we must teach students where they are, not where we'd like them to be.  This is relevant as I seek to incorporate applicable technologies into the classroom without feeling like I'm losing the important content and rigor of the classical education of our school and community.  One example would be a desire to utilize blogging and other cyberspace formats.  While there won't soon be a Facebook page for "Mazenko's English," (though I would love it), I will try to simulate that as much as possible with applications on Blackboard.

One insightful aspect of Pletka's work is the importance of connecting to students in ways that are not only relevant to the way they currently think and communicate, but also to the ways they will do so in the workplace soon enough.  Pleska states:

46% of the variation in the students sense of involvement and belonging is the result of instruction.  Whereas instruction dominated by lectures and note taking is associated with increased rates of disengaged students, lessons that encourage student discussion contribute to their sense of acceptance and membership in school.

While this could be perceived by some critics as "foo foo education" and a pathetic offshoot of self-esteem movements, it doesn't have to be, and I believe it can be integrally linked to rigor and development of core competencies as well as innovation.  It reminds of the "flow experience" that I've written about concerning adolescent male literacy which was so well explained in Michael Smith's Going with the Flow: How to Engage Boys (and Girls) in Their Literacy Learning.  The whole concept reminds me of the descriptions I used to read of Dean Smith's basketball practices at UNC where everything worked like a well-oiled machine.

Total engagement is my (albeit unrealistic) goal. 

Conservative Decline

The drumbeat continues of the GOP's conservatism marching toward the grave. Of course, that is hyperbole, though they've definitely lost their way when the conservative voices are turning on the GOP. They will still vote that way, as they don't want to be in the Libertarian Party, and the The Libertarian Party doesn't want them. Though some may become Obama Republicans. One notable voice - an older version who echoes some of what Brooks and Parker have been saying - is Richard Posner, whose new book decries the GOP's naive understanding of capitalism. I really enjoyed the insight in his latest blog post:

The following comments, I found particularly insightful:

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of "originalism," the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I hope for some pragmatic discussion by people in the GOP, but first they must turn down Hannity/Limbaugh/O'Reilly, and start reading instead.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Country More Centrist Than Before

Well, so much for "Painting the Country Red," as a moderately-selling conservative tome claimed just a few years ago.  Surprisingly, for all the criticism, the results of a new broad survey from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more centrist and more independent.  And, those independents are, for at least the time being, siding with the Democrats.  So, again I note, so much for the claims that the GOP lost in the state level, in Congress, and the White House because they weren't conservative enough.

According to the Pew analysis:

On issues, independents' viewpoints don't fit neatly into liberal or conservative frameworks.

This group hews more closely to Democrats than Republicans on social values, religion and national security. But it also is more conservative on several key issues including the economy, partly because of steady defections from the GOP, and more skeptical than two years ago of expanding government assistance, a typically Republican position. More in line with Democratic thinking, most independents support expanded government intervention and regulation in the private sector, albeit reluctantly.

In another GOP trouble spot, the economy has overtaken social values among voters' most pressing concerns. The recession has essentially robbed Republicans of a potent political weapon. The survey also found that the percentage of Americans holding conservative views on family, homosexuality and gender roles has steadily declined over the past decade because younger people are less conservative than older people.

As one of those independents - and one who would have voted for John McCain had he been the nominee in 2000 (potentially the worst GOP decision in a century, if not ever) - I can assert that these comments from Pew are precisely the situation in contemporary politics.  And the GOP simply can't figure this out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Myth of the Bachelor Degree

"A degree in economics doesn't really prepare you to understand the economy very well."

These words of wisdom, according to an AP story, come from
Josh Donahue, "23, who went on food stamps two weeks after leaving Oregon State University with an economics degree that he hoped to use for a job as a financial analyst. He's living with his aunt and uncle in Grants Pass, Ore., and looking for even a menial job."

Josh is the new poster boy for the massive inefficiency and inadequacy of America's K-16 education system. Clearly, no one in the two decades of Josh's life had any serious talks with him about who he is, what he wants, what he's good at, what a liberal education means, or how liberal arts degrees translate (or don't) into marketable skills. Josh came of age during an expanding economy based on false expectations of wealth, and he figured he'd study econ and then go make a killing selling stocks to middles class Roth IRA holders on his way to becoming the next Warren Buffett. Time for a reality check.

Josh could have majored in accounting or finance or business or engineering - but it seems that people who major in economics as a bachelor degree (with no intention of a masters or Ph.D to teach) simply couldn't get into business or accounting schools. So, they majored in - and probably forked over or borrowed $20,000 to $40,000 for - what has become a virtually useless college degree. Just what did Josh think a "degree in economics" would prepare him to understand, or, more importantly, do for a living?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Doesn't the GOP Get It?

Will someone please tell my why the Republican Party continues to believe they lost control of Congress and the Presidency because they weren't conservative enough? The Gallup poll shows the party was losing significance in nearly every demographic group. The most significant place were the GOP lost votes - especially here in Colorado - is among moderate independents. And, the moderate independents switched their support because, in the words of Dan Haley of the Denver Post, the GOP has "become the party of crazy." There is no evidence of the GOP losing support because they had turned their back on conservative ideals. Granted, they did expand government under Bush. But they also stuck with all the same mantras of cutting taxes, neo-con pursuit of a hegemonic agenda in response to 9/11, "family values" which translated to anti-gay and rigidly Christian and pro-life and anti-regulation of business. The American voters saw them as corrupt in terms of their conservative values. But they also saw them as clueless on health care and the problems created by the Iraq War. Clearly, all the polls and research shows they GOP lost no significant votes among the conservatives and reactionaries. They lost among the people who thought they were too right-wing "crazy" and insensitive, or clueless, to the concerns of ordinary working Americans.

Changing Education in Colorado

The Denver Post reports on the changing nature of the economy and efforts by Colorado colleges to adapt to the needs of its students and the market. This seems to follow what I was reading in Wagner's Global Achievement Gap in terms of what the education system is doing to provide the guidance and skills needed in the twenty-first century. While I am a little suspicious of the 21st Century Skills movement in education, I don't deny the need to modify some of the approaches to education and credentialing. In fact, my recent posts and article in the Denver Post address that very need. There is much we can do to be more efficient and effective in actually preparing kids for what they want, and need, to do.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Re-inventing education

Having finished Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap, I am intrigued by many of his ideas.  Though I was critical of what I felt were some generalizations and red herrings earlier, there is much to investigate.  Some of the areas in which Wagner asks valid questions are "testing," "reinventing the education profession," and "motivating today's students" (in different ways than motivating student years ago).  While I don't believe there are fundamental flaws with the system as a whole, I believe Wagner is right when he asks, "what does it mean to be an educated adult in the twenty-first century" and "how do we define rigor in the age of the information explosion" and "how do we create better assessments and accountability systems that give us the information we need."

In terms of testing, I have never been a vigorous critic of standardized testing, though I acknowledge its flaws.  There is such an arbitrary nature to the questions on the exams, especially in terms of content and vocabulary.  Without a standard national curriculum or even state curriculum with a set vocabulary list, there is a problematic component to reading assessment.  Even the AP exams - while they definitely identify academically committed and skilled students - don't necessarily identify clearly the "critical thinking skills" that Wagner proposes and communities and employers demand.

However, Wagner offers some intriguing information on the new Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) which is "an open-ended, ninety-minute performance assessment in which students have to demonstrate their reasoning, problem-solving, and writing skills while attempting to solve a real-world problem."  From the description of this test and system, it seems like a great development in assessment, and its components should become more standard even in the classroom.  It's worth more discussion.   What do you think?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Race to Nowhere

A new documentary film on the education system - focusing on its misplaced priorities and goals
- presents the following insight: "When success is defined by high grades, test scores, trophies - we know we end up with unprepared, disengaged, exhausted, and ultimately unhealthy kids."

The movie, by Reel Link Films, is called Race to Nowhere and it lays blame with all of us - parents, teachers, communities, government, and even the kids. It is a mantra that has been echoed in books such as Jean Twenge's Generation Me and Denise Clark Pope's Doing School. At the same time that some kids are incredibly deficient in school-related skills, others are merely exhausted with perfecting them.

Ultimately, the feeling from this film is something has to give.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Feeling Good About Conservatives

With the seemingly lemmings-off-a-cliff mentality driving the agenda-less GOP these days, it's tough to feel good about conservatism. As they seek to "re-brand" the party on the way to "returning to its ideals," it's just been tough to defend, or even look at, conservatives lately. Thankfully, we still have people like Kathleen Parker and David Brooks to remind us that there can be good, logical, practical, rational conservatism at work in the Republican Party. I've praised Brooks for educating people about "Burke-an conservatism," and I can always count on Parker to take the hot air out of conservative hot-button issues and offer a rational critique, as she does today with her piece on the comedienne Wanda Sykes' comments at the Correspondents dinner. Three cheers for common sense and pragmatism.

Too Many Charters in North Denver

In moves toward school reform, I tend to believe choices such as charter schools and open enrollment are the most feasible and effective ways to bring about change. Vouchers are a trickier issue, as evidenced by the spat in Washington, D.C. Critics of vouchers have reasonably argued that districts and communities should focus on fixing the existing schools, rather than transferring motivated students out and, obviously, "leaving some child behind." In North Denver, however, parents and voters are expressing skepticism of the charter movement, and like many public school supporters pushing the district to fix the neighborhood schools. According to the Denver Post:

Parents and community members in northwest Denver implored school district officials Tuesday to fix their neighborhood schools and were skeptical about a plan to add more charter schools. "Thirty-six percent of the schools are not neighborhood schools now," said Loralie Cole, whose daughter will enter Denver Public Schools next fall. "We have a lot of choice already."

It's an interesting discussion, and relevant to the story in the LA Times about the Green Dot charter schools and the organizers urging parents to call for a revolution. Joanne featured this story with a link to the Times piece. One of the more insightful comments on this issue came form a parent in North Denver:

"New schools and charters are a great choice," said Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community advocacy group. "But we want that kind of excellence at all of our schools. "
"Parents are urged to demand more from ... schools," reports the Times. That says a mouthful, doesn't it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Problems with Charter Results

David Brooks recent praise of the "Harlem Miracle" is drawing some criticism. Apparently, some think the success of Geoffery Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Academy is not as impressive as Brooks claims, or at least the scores on standardized tests aren't. Joanne's site has some critical comments like this one from Aaron Pallas on the Gotham School:

There is also some excellent, and extensive analysis and comments from Corey at Thoughts on Education Policy:

My feelings on charters generally fall in the "whatever works" category, though it appears the judgment of that is equally complex. If Brooks' piece manages to generate some discussion, and it can move at the policy level beyond the soundbites accurately criticized by Corey, then we may be getting somewhere.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reforming College Expectations

As I've noted before, I am intrigued by the plans for New Hampshire to move to a curriculum that allows graduation at sixteen for students entering associate degree and trade schools, as well as a more rigorous AP/IB-style schedule for students who stay for junior and senior year before applying to four-year colleges. To that end, I wrote a piece of op-ed commentary which was featured as the cover piece for the Denver Post's Sunday Perspective section yesterday.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Strong Schools equal Success

For a long time, the general consensus has been that the number one predictor of academic success was socio-economic success. There were many reasons this was an accepted standard: all the other factors tended to be stronger up the income ladder - higher earning families could provide more parental support with more assistance from generally two college-educated parents who could afford to live near and send their kids to the best schools. However, the success in certain charter school movements is turning much of that logic on its ear, and this is spotlighted this week by David Brooks of the New York Times.

Brooks praises the rather astounding turnaround for students attending Harlem's Children Zone schools like the Promise Academy. These are the brainchild of Geoffery Canada, a man committed to education reform, and one who refuses to accept the conventional wisdom. I saw him several years ago, and I was amazed by his program. Now that he's getting more press, I hope the reality of his success will spread. As Brooks notes:

The approach works. Ever since welfare reform, we have had success with intrusive government programs that combine paternalistic leadership, sufficient funding and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values. We may have found a remedy for the achievement gap. Which city is going to take up the challenge? Omaha? Chicago? Yours?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

NAEP and Comparing Schools

Now that NAEP and state scores are being released, the inevitable comparisons and ranting about the decline of America has begin. While I am in no way saying we are living in Lake Wobegon, focusing on the scores of American high school seniors in NAEP assessments is problematic at best. These tests, like the international TMSS, are completely voluntary, as students are asked to miss class time to take a test that will have no effect on their grades. Often, as my students have noted, the most motivated American students are unwilling to miss class time to participate, and they won't put the extra effort in to a test that means nothing. When students are asked to voluntarily take a zero-stakes test, there must be a consideration for the dubious quality of the results. In many districts nationwide, state test scores have gone down as ACT/SAT/PSAT/AP/IB exam scores have increased. Slate Magazine has an effective commentary on this:

The comparison to Asian schools is another problem, as it completely discounts cultural differences that lead to a widely different educational environment. The issue of school discipline alone - expectations of students and authority of school personnel to deal effectively with problems - makes a direct comparison nearly impossible and, again, disingenuous. Having lived and taught English in Taiwan for five years, I can assert that the environments simply do not translate. I can picture classrooms of 80-100 students who are sitting still in their chairs and vigorously writing down everything the teacher says, nearly word for word, as the teacher stands with a microphone and reads out of a book. Any disciplinary problem is dealt with immediately and harshly, and disruptive students do not have a “property right” to stay in the classroom. In fact, any non-academically motivated students are eliminated from the school by sixteen at the latest. Thus, their scores do not skew the NAEP and international test results, as they can in the U.S.

Additionally, people who haven't lived in Asia have no understanding of just how vast the cultural differences are and how deeply that can affect school culture and test scores. On the day that junior high school students in South Korea take high school entrance exams, the country shuts down air traffic for a half hour so the testing students can have absolute quiet during the oral part of the English exam. They hold national celebrations in Korea on the day their students take the international tests to promote national pride. Students in Taiwan who don’t test into a college-bound junior high school effectively eliminate their option of college at the age of twelve. Schools in Japan lock their gates at the start of school, and several years ago a high school student who was a few seconds late was crushed to death by the gate that is controlled by a timer. Students in Taiwan leave school at four and go to English and Math/Science cram schools from sometimes six to ten o’clock at night three or four days of week so they get the opportunity to go to an academic high school.

Clearly, there is an ocean (no pun intended) between academic expectations in the different countries. Putting emphasis on an international test that American kids don’t even know what it is and are told makes no difference to their grades or status is not telling the whole story. There is also no causation between high NAEP and international test scores and actual marketplace performance. Great test scores don't necessarily equal great doctors, engineers, teachers, etc. Thus, this data needs to be viewed with a interested, but skeptical eye.