Windmills in San Diego

Tilting at Windmills is Richard Lee Colvin’s account of Alan Bersin’s struggle to remake San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005.

“San Diego became notorious for the fierce resistance of its teachers union, abetted by school board members, to any and all efforts at change,” writes Nathan Glazer in an Education Next review.

Like Joel Klein in New York City, Bersin left a law career to become a big-city superintendent. He persuaded Tony Alvarado, the former New York City schools chancellor, to become his director of instruction.

Alvarado clashed with the union over literacy coaches. He wanted coaches trained in method he’d found effective. The union wanted peer coaches to help teachers use whatever method they preferred.

Alvarado believed principals should observe classes. The union wanted advanced warning of a principal’s visit.

Teachers denounced Bersin as a “dictator.” While a 3-2 school board majority backed him, one board member called him a “gauleiter” when he proposed letting charter organizers run the worst-performing schools. (Glazer notes, she inaccurately said gauleiters were “Jews who worked for the Nazis [to shepherd] their own people into the trains” to the concentration camps.

Bersin persisted for six years, in time gaining the support of some teachers and principals. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found the improvement in reading “so definitive that San Diego’s efforts are well worth a look by other school districts in California and the nation.” Achievement gaps were narrowed significantly. But this was for elementary schools: similar efforts in high schools did not show the same results.

“If this is what it takes to make modest improvements in achievement levels and reduce achievement gaps, how often can we expect it to happen?” asks Glazer, a professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard.

Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

The Graduates/Los Graduados

The Graduates/Los Graduados on PBS’ Independent Lens looks at six Latino students who overcame challenges –including gang involvement, homelessness, teen pregnancy, undocumented status and homophobia — to succeed in school.

Social, emotional, but where’s the learning?

First graders react to the question, “What face do you make when your mother compliments you?” during a class session called “Feeling Faces” at Public School 24 in New York City. — Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Teachers are using Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to manage classes, reports Education Week.

Already dubious about SEL’s claims to make children nicer and prepare them for the 21st century, Katharine Beals sees SEL for classroom management as intrusive and manipulative.

It starts with an obvious tactic: “Giving students input in classroom rules and making them make amends and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings.” Students also learn simple vocabulary words related to feelings, practice identifying their emotions and act out their feelings.

It all takes more time than a traditional incentives-based classroom management system, a teacher tells Education Week.

The program also invades students’ privacy, writes Beals.

Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.

. . . Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.

Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home.

One activity sounds like “emotional abuse” to Beals.

Maria Diaz’s 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they’d done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a “put-down,” or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.

. . . The “put-downs” activity . . . brought much of the class to tears.

The goal is to make kids “more responsible and empathetic,” writes Beals. These are “two traits which the teachers we’ve read about, as well the architects of these programs, appear to be lacking in spades.”

“SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child,” Ed Week admits. “Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.”

Beals asks: “Why are we forcing students who don’t have behavioral issues to waste so much time on these privacy-invading, time-wasting exercises?”

Is SEL useful, harmless or manipulative?

Schmidt: Poor kids get poorly trained teachers

The U.S. has some of the best — and worst — university-based math teacher training in the world, says William Schmidt, co-director of Michigan State’s Education Policy Center. Sixty percent of math teachers in high-poverty schools come from the worst programs, his research concludes.

Schmidt used data from the 2012 Teacher Education and Development Study-Mathematics, which surveyed, interviewed and tested elementary and middle school math teachers from 900 teacher prep programs in 17 countries, reports HechingerEd. He also analyzed courses taken by top-scoring U.S. math teachers.

He concluded there are nine important courses for math teachers-to-be to take (such as observation, analysis and reflection on mathematical teaching and multivariate calculus, for instance), but only a third of U.S. middle school teachers who participated in the study had enrolled in at least eight of them.

“Our very worst programs produce over half of middle school teachers,” Schmidt said at NBC’s Education Nation. “Where they’re going is where the good teachers are mostly needed.”

Teacher evaluation is a-changin’

Most states are using student achievement to evaluate teachers, according to Connect the Dots from the National Council on Teacher Quality. ”What is occurring more slowly are the policy changes that will connect the rich performance data from these systems to tenure decisions, professional development, compensation, teacher preparation, and consequences for ineffectiveness.”

NCTQ looks at teacher evaluation policies across the 50 states and Washington D.C. Louisiana is “connecting the most dots,” followed closely by Florida and Tennessee, NCTQ concludes. Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island and DCPS are also ahead of the curve.

New teachers are smarter

The academic caliber of new teachers is rising significantly, according to a University of Washington study published in Education NextThe average SAT score of first-year teachers in 2008 was 8 percentile rank points higher than the average score among new teachers in 2001. New teachers in 2008 averaged higher SAT scores than college graduates entering other professions.

“It is unclear whether this improvement reflects a temporary response to the economic downturn or a more permanent shift,” write the study’s authors, Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

Teachers working in 2008 were slightly more likely to hold a master’s degree or higher compared to teachers in 1987.  Sixty-three percent of teachers in 2010 had graduate training compared to 45 percent 20 years earlier.

Some claim that test-based accountability policies have made teaching less attractive to top students. Not so.

. . .  the researchers compare the SAT scores of new teachers entering classrooms that typically face accountability-based test achievement pressures (grade 4–8 reading and math) and classrooms in those grades that do not involve high-stakes testing. They find that new teachers in high-stakes classrooms tend to have higher SAT scores than those in other classrooms, and that the size of this difference increased between 2001 and 2008. This suggests that more academically proficient teachers are not generally shying away from classrooms that face accountability pressures.

High-scoring math and science majors were more likely to become teachers in 2008 than in the past, but teaching still isn’t drawing enough math and science majors, the study found. Only 30 percent of math and science classes in 2008 were led by teachers who majored in math or science in college, the same as in 1993.

Most high school students with aspirations to teach don’t become teachers — or even college graduates, notes an Illinois study. The stronger students are more likely to persist. People who earn teaching credentials have “weaker academic qualifications” than other bachelor’s degree earners, “but those who actually became teachers were quite similar academically to non-teaching college graduates.”

‘An Industry of Mediocrity’

Education schools are “an industry of mediocrity,” opines Bill Keller in the New York Times.

In 2005 Arthur Levine, then the president of Teachers College at Columbia University, shocked colleagues (and himself, he says) with a scathing report concluding that teacher preparation programs “range from inadequate to appalling.”

Last month,  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised admission standards for state education colleges.

Deborah Kenny, who runs Harlem Village Academies charter schools, plans to train her own teachers, creating the equivalent of a residency program for new teachers.

“Where charter schools were 10 years ago, that’s where teacher preparation is right at this moment,” Kenny told me. With start-up money from the media executive Barry Diller (who says he hopes to see the venture amplified via the Internet) and a core of master teachers like (Bill) Jackson, Kenny has begun to build a graduate education school that will be integrated with her K-12 campuses in Harlem.

Ed schools are “cash cows” for universities, Keller writes. There’s “no incentive to change because they have plenty of applicants willing to pay full tuition, the programs are relatively cheap to run, and they are accountable to no one except accrediting agencies run by, you guessed it, education schools. It’s a contented cartel.”

Reformers want to make teacher colleges more selective, writes Keller. Only 23 percent of American teachers — and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools — come from the top third of college graduates, estimates a recent study.

Reformers also advocate “sustained, intense classroom experience while being coached” by master teachers.

Susan Fuhrman, who succeeded Levine as president of Teachers College, support raising admissions standards and holding ed schools accountable, Keller writes.  But Fuhrman is worried about alternative teacher schools that aren’t part of a research university.

“One reason for the widespread mediocrity is that universities have had a cozy, lucrative monopoly,” concludes Keller. “It’s about time the leaders of our education schools did feel threatened.”

Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. ”In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  ”three or four years down the road.”

The softer side of KIPP

KIPP schools aren’t militaristic or joyless — much less “concentration camps — write Alexandra M. Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose in Education Next.

We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured.

KIPPsters live up to the “work hard, be nice” slogan, but they “also play hard when the work is done,” they write after visiting 12 schools in five states. Despite the strong academic focus, the schools “make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.”

At KIPP McDonogh 15, a combined elementary and middle-school building in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the middle-school principal played music, and students and staff danced down the hallways as they moved from one class session to another. In the elementary school a floor below, some teachers took this concept a step further, using a lively musical transition from one lesson to another.

On most Friday afternoons, the New Orleans school schedules “celebration.” Students with no behavior demerits compete in a lottery for the chance to hit any teacher or administrator with a cream pie. A few days after researchers saw a popular third-grade teacher “pied,” a professor at the American Educational Research Association’s conference — a mile away — denounced KIPP as a “concentration camp.”

KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory School (BCPS) in Arkansas celebrated Geek Week in March culminating with Pi Day, on March 14 (3.14). A 6th-grade girl won the Pi Challenge by reciting 158 digits of pi. Then three teachers and three students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces.

It’s a concentration camp with music, dancing, pi and pie.