Promises, ineptitude and overreach

Race to the Top was a loser, writes Rick Hess on the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion education competition. RTTT has become “a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.”

Instead of letting states come up with reform ideas, the administration created a list of 19 “priorities.” States could “ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.”

 Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

. . . States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.”

. . . winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin.

At the height of the Great Recession, dangling billions in federal dollars encouraged state education leaders to dream up new spending programs, Hess writes. Yet the value for grant winners amounted to “about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget.”

The Common Core might have been “a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states,” writes Hess. RTTT transformed it into “a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars.”

Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests.

Now, states are running from their Race to the Top promises, threatening the Common Core enterprise.

Intensive math in a barn

Ben Chavis turned the failing American Indian Charter School in Oakland into three very high-scoring schools — and was forced to step down after charges of financial mismanagement and overly strict discipline.

A Lumbee Indian, Chavis grew up very poor in Robeson County, North Carolina. Now, he owns a farm there. He converted the barn into five air-conditioned classrooms for a very strict, very intensive, three-week summer program, Math Camp in a Barn, writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal.

Most of the 50 or so children in grades 5 through 9 are Lumbees, though a few are black or Hispanic. The county is North Carolina’s poorest. School achievement is low.

From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday the children learn math, interspersed with some reading, physical education and lunch. Each gets 120 hours of instruction during the three weeks, equivalent to what they would get in a year at a typical public school.

. . . On Mr. Chavis’s farm . . . teachers drill math concepts over and over. They use flashcards, ask children to do problems on the dry-erase boards and to compete with one another to get answers right.

The closest thing these classrooms have to technology is an electric pencil sharpener. Students are given about two hours of homework each night. Detention (which can involve anything from washing windows and emptying the garbage to shoveling manure) is given for infractions such as tardiness, talking back to teachers or failing to turn in homework.

Some of the teachers are graduates of Chavis’ charter schools.

Meanwhile, the American Indian Model (AIM) Schools lost their charter last year, but remain open while fighting the decision.

‘Paltry’ pay for mid-career teachers

Experienced teachers earn “paltry” salaries in many state, reports the Center for American Progress.

In Colorado, teachers with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience make less than a trucker in the state. In Oklahoma, teachers with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree make less than sheet metal workers. And teachers in Georgia with 10 years of experience and a graduate degree make less than a flight attendant in the state.

In South Dakota, a teacher with 10 years experience averages $33,100 per year, well below the state’s median income and about what a press operator earns.

In Canada, starting salaries are lower for primary teachers, but rise more quickly, the report notes. By mid-career, Canadian teachers earn about $10,000 more than U.S. teachers.

teachersalaries_fig1

Feds will test aid for competency programs

Hoping to speed older students to a degree, the U.S. Education Department will allow some colleges to award credit — and student aid — for competency and prior learning.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Planning, organizing and choosing curriculum is the theme of this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling, hosted by Embracing Destiny.

Is it wrong to want to know which way is right?

A second-grade math work sheet. Credit: Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Is it wrong to want to know which way is right? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

In a story on parents’ frustrations with Common Core standards, a mother says her four children, ages 7 to 10, must do math work sheets with pictures, dots and multiple steps.

Her husband, who is a pipe designer for petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his division homework.

“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” (Rebekah) Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”

She plans to homeschool her children in the fall.

The Times “proceeds to regurgitate the Common Core’s tired rationale,” writes Beals.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

She’s dubious.

When did math students ever repeat formulas over and over again? And when did students ever not apply concepts to real-life situations? And when did “explain your reasoning,” ubiquitous to American Reform math and rare everywhere else, become the one, one-size-fits all path towards, and the one, one-size-fits measure of, conceptual understanding?

Core math’s call for writing explanations of answers will be hard on students with learning or writing disabilities and those who aren’t fluent in English.

Parents of mathematically gifted students also are complaining, reports the Times. In a New Orleans suburb, Janet Stenstrom says her daughter can’t move forward quickly.

Anna Grace, 9, said she grew frustrated “having to draw all those little tiny dots.”

“Sometimes I had to draw 42 or 32 little dots, sometimes more,” she said, adding that being asked to provide multiple solutions to a problem could be confusing. “I wanted to know which way was right and which way was wrong.”

Some will see Anna Grace “as overly rigid in her mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills,” writes Beals. But “wanting to know which way is right” is a “reasonable desire.”

In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, also in the New York Times, Elizabeth Green blames faulty implementation by untrained teachers.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”

“American institutions charged with training teachers in new approaches to math have proved largely unable to do it,” writes Green. A skilled teacher can use “arrays of dots” to explain multiplication, she writes. Or dots can “become just another meaningless exercise” to bore and confuse students.

Moms vs. puppets — in 1948

If Only We Had Listened . . . to parents about progressive education, writes Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel.

In 1948, the Washington Times-Herald criticized the poor spelling skills of high school juniors in New York. Only about 65 percent could spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

The problem starts in first grade, said three mothers of public school children, who visited the newspaper office. Students aren’t learning anything, said Mrs. A. They make puppets.

The book on making puppets has diagrams with letters A, B and C, said Mrs. B. “But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Teachers don’t believe the progressive methods work, said Mrs. C. But they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.

The editor and the mothers were confident these methods were being imposed on teachers, writes Hansel. “It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.”

When education reforms don’t work well, teachers get the blame, writes E.D. Hirsch. Teacher quality isn’t the issue, he argues. The problem is that most reforms have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Stop blaming teachers, concludes Hansel. Give them a coherent curriculum with more content — and fewer puppets.

Study: Charters do more with less

Public charter schools produce similar or higher test scores with much less money, concludes a productivity analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Overall, charters are 40 to 41 percent more cost effective in reading and math compared to traditional public schools, the study concluded.cover-productivity-of-charters

The return on investment is almost 3 percent higher if a student spends one year in a public charter school and a 19 percent higher if a student spends half of their K-12 education (6.5 years) in a charter school.

Researchers analyzed National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math scores and data from CREDO studies. They controlled for students’ poverty and special education status.

Walton Family Foundation, which supports school choice, funded the study, but did not play any role in designing it, researchers say.

Massachusetts has some of the most effective charter schools in the nation, especially in Boston, yet the state Senate refused to raise the cap on charter seats, writes Jim Stergios in the Boston Herald. It’s like the old segregationists standing in the schoolhouse door, he writes.

This way up

A bachelor’s degree isn’t the only route to the middle class, but the upwardly mobile need “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

Learning from disruption

Rocketship charter schools experimented with 100-student “flexible” classrooms, then returned to its more conventional — and very successful — blended-learning model. Was it just a failure? asks Christina Quattrochi on EdSurge.

In Rocketship schools, students spend 3/4 of their time in teacher-led classes of 27 students and the rest in a learning lab, where they work on adaptive software.

Two years ago, Rocketship put fourth- and fifth-graders in 100-student spaces for the entire school day.

Three teachers and one learning coach decided everything from the class schedule to how the 60 Chromebooks were used.

. . . In a class of 100, one teacher could give a lecture to 20 students, much like a traditional classroom. Meanwhile, another teacher could oversee small group projects for 30 students. 40 students could be working independently online, with the remaining 10 receiving one-on-one tutoring from the third teacher.

Learning gains “depended a lot on the dynamic of the (teaching) team . . . and that dynamic is difficult to control and predict,” says Charlie Bufalino, manager of growth and policy. “So thinking about scaling and building it into a model was difficult.”

Rocketship has “throttled back” its ambitious multi-state expansion plans.

Test scores fell. Rocketship went back to the old model, with some modifications. Teachers in grades 3 to 5 will get 10 Chromebooks in their classrooms and more time for collaboration.  This year, schools will implement a 40-minute “flex block” in which students in the same grade will be “grouped based on their skills and work collaboratively on targeted practice assignments.”

“Disruptive innovation” can disrupt students’ learning write Richard Whitmire and Michael Horn on the Hechinger Report. But, even after the experimental year, Rocketship’s students are doing much better than their neighborhood friends in the nearest San Jose Unified school.

Take Mateo Sheedy, the Rocketship school that suffered the biggest setback. Mateo Sheedy embarrassed itself as its test scores fell. The 2013 student proficiency rates for its students fell to 62 percent in English and 76 percent in math (from 2010 proficiency rates of 83 and 90).

. . . if Rocketship were not around, where would its students go to school? . . . Gardner Elementary, a San Jose Unified school (is) located less than a mile away from Mateo Sheedy. The schools serve a similar demographic of students, both in terms of the percentage of Hispanic students and in terms of the poverty rate. The proficiency rates for Gardner students in English and math for that same year: 19 percent and 32 percent, down from 30 and 45 in 2010.

Rocketship saw a problem and moved quickly to fix it, they write. Mateo Sheedy and the other Rocketship schools “mostly recovered” this year,  according to the network.

Whitmire is the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope.