Archives for November 2010

Gates vs. seniority, Ravitch

Improving education is the most important thing we can do for our country’s economy, Bill Gates told Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter after a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

How can we raise student achievement in a time of austerity? Stop paying teachers more for seniority alone, Gates says.

Like master’s degrees for teachers and smaller class sizes, seniority pay, Gates says, has “little correlation to student achievement.”

. . . Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.

Gates’ biggest adversary now is Diane Ravitch, who distrusts rich businessmen trying to shape education policy, writes Alter.

When I asked Gates about Ravitch, you could see the Micro-hard hombre who once steamrolled software competitors: “Does she like the status quo? Is she sticking up for decline? Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts? Does she think all those ‘dropout factories’ are lovely? If there’s some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears.”

Ravitch critiques Gates on Bridging Differences.

On Dropout Nation, Rishawn Biddle asks: When will Diane Ravitch get her brain back?

Jay P. Greene piles on too, accusing Ravitch of selective and misleading use of evidence and intellectual dishonesty.  He links to Rebutting Ravitch by Whitney Tilson.

Steering strong teachers to weak schools

Reformers are trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools, but so far it’s not working, writes Alan Borsuk in part four of the Building a Better Teacher series by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Hechinger Report.

A study released Nov. 18 by The Education Trust, a respected Washington-based education advocacy group, showed that students from low-income homes continue to have teachers who are working outside their field of expertise or who have little experience at rates much higher than higher-income students. The report called progress in changing that “disappointingly slow.”

In the suburbs, hundreds of teachers may apply for every opening. Few teachers want to work at West Side Academy, a K-8 school in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood, says the principal, James Sonnenberg. Three of his most promising teachers were laid off last spring because they lacked seniority, then recalled but assigned to other schools. Sonnenberg was sent “experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.”

It’s hard to change the system without weakening seniority rights, paying some teachers more for taking on harder jobs and figuring out how to identify good teachers.

Denver, which has performance pay, rewards teachers for working in low-performing schools, Borsuk writes, but it’s not clear that it’s helping.

Wisconsin pays a $2,500 bonus to any teacher who earns certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, plus an additional $2,500 to board-certified teachers who work in low-performing schools. But there aren’t enough board-certified teachers to make a difference.

Milwaukee Public Schools hope to develop incentives to improve teaching in low-performing schools, but the focus is on rewarding all teachers in a school instead of singling out exceptional teachers.

The district’s main focus is on improving the teachers it’s already got through “effective on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching,” writes Borsuk.

Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, says Chicago, Boston and New York improved the quality of teachers by looking farther afield for good teachers, avoiding the worst teacher-training programs.

“They recruit top talent,” he said, and put them in high-needs schools.

Odden also said programs such as Teach for America have tapped into a strong desire by top-flight college graduates to spend at least two years helping the country by teaching in demanding situations.

Fire the weakest teachers — the bottom 6 percent — suggests Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist.

Sonnenberg wants to require teachers to go where their skills are most needed, regardless of seniority. “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?” asked Sonnenberg.

But there is almost no talk of forcing teachers with seniority to take such assignments. And, ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want.

Making schools better places to work is the best way to attract good teachers, says The New Teacher Project.

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them. . . . We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

A few teachers are so brilliant they can teach well in any environment; some are so bad they’ll teach poorly anywhere. Most teachers will teach effectively in a well-organized school with an academic focus; they’ll teach poorly in a chaotic school.

Strict rules for behavior, longer school days, greater intensity around academic work — these are parts of the formula that some schools are using with success.

Joshua Beggs, who heads the small high school operation of Eastbrook Academy, a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot — but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.”

There isn’t enough money in the world — certainly not in school district budgets — to get talented people to bang their heads against a brick wall every day.

CCs get less money, more students

Community colleges are “a gateway for millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life,” said President Obama in the fall. But the gateway is narrowing.  Thirty-one states will cut community college funding this year, despite rising enrollments.

Students know there are jobs in health care, but can’t get into classes they need. At College of Southern Nevada, more than 2,450 students applied for a key biology class that has space for 950 students. In Colorado, community college students may wait more than three years to get into a nursing program.

It’s all on Community College Spotlight.

Ravitch: ‘Be good parents’

Instead of adopting Common Core Standards, which haven’t been field tested, states should adopt Massachusetts’ “stellar” standards, said Diane Ravitch in an interview with the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and Gazette.

Once a common core is in place, she recommends no-stakes testing similar to the National Assessment of Education Progress. High-stakes tests, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and other tests used under No Child Left Behind, lead to cheating, gaming the system and inflated scores, she said.

“You’ve got to have some kind of idea of what good education is and act on it without having a whip in your hand,” she said.

People should be outraged by federal interference in state and local school decisions, Ravitch said. What should they do? “Be good parents,” she said.

“Parent engagement is like the cornerstone of academic achievement. When parents rail against the schools, they should look in the mirror,” she said, adding that while she isn’t letting schools off the hook, parents are key.

Ravitch is speaking tomorrow at Clark University in Worcester.

$200K in debt for a BA

With $200,000 in student loans and a job as an office manager, Kelli Space, 23, has put up a web site asking strangers to help pay off her debts.  A 2009 graduate of Northeastern University, Space pays $891 per month on her loans and is supposed to start paying $1,600 a month in November. She lives with her parents, who aren’t able to help her financially.  So far, she’s received more than $6,000 in donations — and a lot of criticism for asking others to pay for her mistakes.

Space, who doesn’t reveal her major, says she didn’t know how much she’d earn with a bachelor’s degree. (Update: Apparently, she majored in sociology, not typically the path to riches.) Her parents, who don’t have a college education, couldn’t advise her.

We applied for scholarships during the summer but they heard — as much as I did — that cost of tuition should never keep you from attending a great school. So… we made the mistake of following such romantic advice. Cue regret.

In an interview, Space blames herself for a series of poor decisions.

The first mistake was not exploring all possible options. The second mistake was not understanding finance (best practices anyway). The third was signing on the dotted line! The next was staying at Northeastern even after I realized the gravity of the situation. Do I regret my education? Absolutely not. Do I think it was worth it? No – not because it was a poor education, but because no education is worth borrowing that amount of money without guaranteeing the salary to pay the loans back afterward.

OOTS News: To do things over again, what would you do differently?

twohundredthou: I would have gone to a community college and then applied to larger universities a year or two later. I would have been secure on a major before I chose to borrow such an exorbitant amount of money. The regrets are plenty, and I’m still working on that time machine.

Space says she’s not a deadbeat: She plans to pay off her loans over the next 20 years. At least she can serve as a warning for other naive students that a bachelor’s degree in a field without engineering in the title doesn’t guarantee a ride on the gravy train.

Currently, Northeastern, a private university, charges $49,452 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. Borrowers, beware!

Adult students seek credit for experience

On Community College Spotlight:  Some colleges give credit for work and life experience, including military training. A new campaign will encourage more adults to earn college credits for what they’ve learned on the job or in the military.

The knowledge grade

Standards-based grading — has Johnny mastered the subject matter — is replacing the behavior-based grading — does Johnny do homework and write legibly? — at some schools, reports the New York Times. Teachers at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota realized their grades didn’t reflect learning for all students.

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.

“Over time, we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance — not for mastering the course material,” (Principal Katie) Berglund said. “A portion of our A and B students were not the ones who were gaining the most knowledge but the ones who had learned to do school the best.”

The middle school now bases grades on subject mastery; no longer will donating a box of Kleenex to the class win extra credit points. The high school has switched for ninth graders.

When parents of students at Ellis Middle School look over their children’s report cards, they will find a so-called “knowledge grade,” which will be calculated by averaging the scores on end-of-unit tests. (Those tests can be retaken any time during the semester so long as a student has completed all homework; remedial classes that re-teach skills will be offered all year.) Homework is now considered practice for tests. Assignments that are half done, handed in late or missing all together will be noted, but will not hurt a student’s grade. Nor will showing up late for class, forgetting to bring your pencil, failing to raise your hand before shouting out an answer or forgetting to bring in a permission slip for the class trip — infractions that had previously caused Ellis students’ grades to suffer.

(In addition to an academic grade, the 950 students at the school will get a separate “life skills” grade for each class that reflects their work habits and other, more subjective, measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. )

Some parents object to grading policies that downplay homework completion, saying students won’t develop strong work habits.

Black (+ educator) will run NYC schools

Cathie Black will get the waiver she needs to take over as chancellor of New York City schools — with a chief academic officer who’s worked as a teacher and principal. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg agreed to the deal demanded by the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, who’d threatened to deny Black a waiver because of the publishing executive’s lack of education experience.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, 38, a former principal of a Bronx high school and a top official at the city’s Department of Education, will be Black’s second in command. He’s known for his focus on improving instruction, reports Gotham Schools.

Story problems of the ancient world

Babylonian story problems on clay tablets are featured in a New York University exhibit, “Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics,” reports the New York Times.

If the cost of digging a trench is 9 gin, and the trench has a length of 5 ninda and is one-half ninda deep, and if a worker’s daily load of earth costs 10 gin to move, and his daily wages are 6 se of silver, then how wide is the canal?

Or, a better question: if you were a tutor of Babylonian scribes some 4,000 years ago, holding a clay tablet on which this problem was incised with cuneiform indentations — the very tablet that can now be seen with 12 others from that Middle Eastern civilization at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World — what could you take for granted, and what would you need to explain to your students? In what way did you think about measures of time and space? How did you calculate? Did you believe numbers had an abstract existence, each with its own properties?

The Babylonians used a base 60 system, which is why there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour.

The width of that canal is one-and-a-half ninda.

Honors for all

Honors and Advanced Placement students at Evanston Township High, a large, very diverse school near Northwestern University, tend to be white and Asian. In hopes of preparing more black and Hispanic students for high-level classes, the school may eliminate honors-only freshman humanities classes for the top 5 percent of students, reports the Chicago Tribune.  Instead, teachers are supposed to teach the honors curriculum to all students; those who do well will get honors credit. If it works well, honors biology also will be eliminated.

The new humanities class would include all students able to read at the ninth-grade level, which the high school defines as scoring at or above the 40th percentile nationally on an achievement test given to eighth-graders.

A small number of students below the 40th percentile will be in a different class, to get more help. This year, 50 students are in that support class — about 8 percent of students enrolled in all freshman humanities courses.

Some parents of high achievers say top students won’t be challenged in classes with a wide range of abilities. Other parents complain their children are excluded from honors classes based on tests taken in eighth grade.

Evanston High spends more than $20,000 per student, one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state, reports the Trib. “But while white students have consistently scored high enough on state tests to meet the standards, black and Latino students lag far behind, according to state data.”

Without No Child Left Behind, which forces schools to break out the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups, Evanston High would look like a high-performing school, notes Alexander Russo.

My daughter was in a mixed English class in ninth grade at Palo Alto High. She did some extra work and got honors credit; a majority of students did not do the honors work.  It worked, mostly because the range of skills wasn’t all that wide.  However, if black and Hispanic students lag far behind in K-8, I doubt they’ll be transformed by sitting in class with honors students. It will take more work in K-8 to prepare students for true honors work.