Alabama: We inflated graduation rates

Alabama’s graduation rate – lauded as third best in the nation a few months ago – is inflated, the Alabama State Department of Education has announced.

Alabama's rise in graduation rates really was too good to be true.

Alabama’s rise in graduation rates was too good to be true.

In October, the White House released graduation rate numbers showing Alabama with the third-highest graduation rates – 89.3 percent – in the country, reports Leada Gore on AL.com. Only Iowa and New Jersey did better.

“The numbers reflected a graduation rate increase of 17 percent from 2011 to 2015, more than quadrupling the national average of 4.2 percent,” writes Gore.

At the time, the state Department of Education said the improvement was due to local schools keeping students engaged “through a large variety of challenging and innovative academic and extracurricular programs. Students who are engaged, feel cared for and connected, will leave our schools successfully prepared for college and career, ready for the real world.”

But the huge increase trigger a review by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.

“The graduation rate was misstated,” Alabama Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance now admits.

Two factors inflated the numbers, writes Gore.

Students with special needs who received the Alabama Occupational Diploma were counted in the state’s graduation rate despite the diploma not meeting academic requirements.

. . . The other problem is more pervasive. Some local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credits “that were not honestly earned,” the ASDE said. The IG’s inspection found several school districts were awarding diplomas despite students not completing the required work.

Credit recovery strikes again.

We’re running low on 18-year-olds

The U.S. is running low on adolescents: The number of young people graduating from high school will plateau or fall in coming years, according to the new Knocking at the College Door report.

The racial/ethnic mix of public high school graduates will shift: The number of Hispanic graduates is expected to increase by 50 percent and and Asian/Pacific Islander grads by 30 percent through 2025, while fewer whites and blacks will be going through school.

More graduates are expected to come from lower-income families.

Colleges and universities, already under pressure to raise graduation rates, will have to compete for fewer students from needier backgrounds, writes Hechinger’s Mikhail Zinshteyn.

According to one respected tally, just under 55 percent of students who entered college in 2010 had earned degrees after six years – an increase of two percentage points since 2009.

For higher education institutions to continue at that pace or boost it, they’ll need to find new ways of educating a student body increasingly composed of people who are the first in their family to enter college.

With fewer 18-year-olds whose parents can pay for a private residential college, I predict many second- and third-tier colleges will fold. They’re very expensive, they don’t graduate a high percentage of their students and young people are becoming wary of college debt.

Grad rates rise, achievement falls


Anthony Sobowale failed high school chemistry, then passed after three days of “online credit recovery.” Now he’s struggling with organic chem at Georgia State. Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Online credit recovery courses are raising graduation rates and failing students, writes Jeremy Noonan, a science teacher who runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools.

In October, President Obama announced that the national high school graduation rate had reached an all-time high in 2015. Yet that same year, the percentage of high school seniors ready for college-level reading and math declined to 37 percent. In other words, as graduation rates rise, other metrics of student achievement are falling, raising questions about how schools are getting more students to graduate.

In most school districts, students who’ve failed courses can make up the credits quickly via online credit-recover (OCR) courses, writes Noonan. “Passage rates don’t match achievement data.”

In Georgia, 90 percent of OCR students earned credit, but only 10 percent tested as proficient on state exams, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Noonan worked for a Douglas County, Georgia school district that raised its graduation rate — but not student achievement. As an OCR classroom manager, he was told to ensure that students earned at least 80 percent on multiple-choice quizzes and tests by giving them as many tries as they needed. The questions and answer choices were repeated, in the same order.

In addition, teachers provided “answer checks,” writes Noonan.

When students finished the first attempt on a quiz or test, they call upon the teacher for a “check.” He or she pulls up the student’s answers, reviews them, and informs the student which questions are incorrect. The student then changes his or her answers before submitting the assessment for a grade.

Most students didn’t pay attention to the lessons, writes Noonan. They knew they could guess their way to a passing score.

As Douglas County’s graduation rate rose, so did the percentage of graduates who required college remediation.

Why teach in Oklahoma?


Shawn Sheehan won “teacher of the year” honors in Oklahoma, but earns less than novice teachers in many other states. Photo: Oklahoma Department of Education

Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, has six years of experience as a high school math teacher and a master’s degree, writes Matt Barnum on The 74. Sheehan earns $35,419 year, or just over $38,000, including benefits.

Teacher pay is very low in the Sooner state, reports Barnum.

The average starting salary in the state is just over $31,000, among the lowest in the country. A Tulsa teacher with a master’s degree and 13 years’ experience still makes under $40,000; a teacher with a doctorate, National Board Certification, and 33 years’ experience makes just less than $60,000.

Teachers can move to any of the states surrounding Oklahoma and expect a significant pay raise — and many do just that.

South Dakota and Mississippi, which pay even less, are raising teacher pay.  Yet, 59 percent of Oklahoma voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have raised the sales tax to boost teacher pay by $5,000 a year.

Oklahoma is turning to uncertified teachers to cope with a teacher shortage.

Teachers are good (or bad) in different ways

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There’s more than one way to teach effectively — or to flop — concludes a new study.

Analyzing test scores doesn’t measure teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, writes Meredith Kolodner on the Hechinger Report.

When children in Classroom A and Classroom B show the same improvement on their math tests, Teachers A and B get the same evaluation score, and the assumption is that both teachers excel at the same things.

But that assumption may be entirely wrong. Teacher A is a rock star when it comes to imparting math content while Teacher B is not, but Teacher B excels at getting students to persevere when they hit obstacles. So the Classroom A students did well on their tests because they knew the content, while the Classroom B kids did well because they didn’t give up easily and reviewed their answers.

Matthew A. Kraft, who works at Brown, and David Blazar, who works at Harvard, “used student surveys and test score results and pored through hours of video of teachers at work in four urban school districts,” writes Kolodner.

They examined four measures of students’ skill that have been demonstrated individually to predict future academic success and job prospects – high math scores, good behavior, happiness in class and perseverance in the face of difficulty. Their research looked at whether “good teachers” were indeed successful at improving all four of these outcomes.

It turns out they’re not.

“What we find is that teachers who are successful at raising test scores are not [not necessarily] the teachers best at improving behaviors,” said Blazar.

Happy students are more likely to have higher test scores. the researchers found. “However, teachers who improve test scores do not always make students happy in class.”

If distinct teaching skills can be analyzed, they can be taught to new teachers, said Blazar. “We have millions and millions of teachers who work in classrooms, and we do a disservice to the profession if we say we’re only going to try to find those teachers who have that natural spark, when we have evidence that these skills are teachable.”

Academics aren’t just a ‘white thing’

Standardized tests are a “racist weapon,” argues Ibram X. Kendi, a history professor at the University of Florida. “What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school?” he asks.

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“Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite,” writes Kendi. He prefers to measure literacy “by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment.”

A Mexican-American and a first-generation college graduate, Liz Reetz teaches sixth-grade social studies. Testing shows  how “our schools are not educating all students,” she writes on A Plus Colorado.

She “built a curriculum based on teaching students to think, read, talk, and write about history as it relates to identity and social justice,” she writes. Her non-elite students can handle abstractions, if they have “the opportunity to engage with ideas that are meaningful to them.”

Kendi’s ideas are dangerous, she believes.

“Equally intelligent in different ways” says to me: value survival skills in poor and brown people but leave the thinking about big ideas, governing, or improving the world to wealthy people and white people.

. . . You give the power to white teachers, white administrators, white legislators to say “you can’t hold me accountable for the fact that he can’t read, his intelligence is different” or “It’s not my fault she isn’t grasping algebra, her culture doesn’t value numbers or abstract thinking.”

The “notion that communities of color have fundamentally different kinds of knowledge” is racist and ahistorical, writes Reetz.

Pre-Columbian societies tracked the movements of stars and planets, understood complex mathematics, used chemistry and biology to create rubber, and engineered roads and buildings. Do not tell me that my culture doesn’t value abstract thinking.

Abstract thinking “is the heritage of humanity,” she writes. It’s not a “white thing.”

How to do vocational ed right

Finland does vocational education right, writes Elizabeth A. Radday in Education Week. Ninth graders choose an academic or vocational high school: Nearly half choose the vocational path. It’s not considered the second-class track, writes Radday, who spent six months in Finland on a Fulbright.

Students at the Lahti circus school.

Students work on a certificate in “circus arts” at a school in Lahti, Finland.

Vocational schools offer certificates in a wide range of fields from plumbing and electricity to “tourism, business and entrepreneurship, health services, natural resources, technology, social services, and catering,” Radday writes. She visited a school where students learn to be circus performers.

Each year, vocational students spend at least six to eight weeks as apprentices. Employers are willing to provide training and evaluation.

After earning a certificate, typically at age 19, young people can find a job, train for a higher-level certificate or pursue a degree at a university of applied sciences. Those who wish can take the admissions exam for entry to a traditional university.

“College for all” has been the U.S. mantra for a long time now. Yet only a minority will complete a college degree. Few high schools offer high-quality vocational education and even fewer link students to apprenticeships.

The Obama administration tried to promote partnerships between employers, high schools and community colleges. I hope Trump’s education people can go farther to strengthen career-tech education and end the college (or nothing)-for-all philosophy.

Apprenticeships are expensive for employers — but worth it, reports New America’s Michael Prebil. A new federal report, The Benefits and Costs of Apprenticeship: A Business Perspective, discusses 13 case studies.

All equity all the time: Something’s missing 

Image result for lopsided appleEducation’s center “is two standard deviations to the left of the American public,” argues Rick Hess in Education Next. Most people in education don’t engage with conservatives or even see them.

“Equity” is “the organizing principle of K-12 school improvement,” he writes. Other virtues, such as “liberty, personal responsibility, and community,” which can conflict with equity, are ignored.

“The fierce conflict between the reform’ camp and the union-establishment” is really “between two wings of the Democratic Party,” he writes.

The “reformers” have mostly been passionate, Great Society liberals who believe in closing “achievement gaps” and pursuing “equity” via charter schooling, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and test-based accountability. And their opponents have been the Democratic Party’s more traditional, New Deal wing. Other than occasional guest appearances by the likes of centrist Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Lamar Alexander, this has mostly been an intramural fight.

The key to making sense of this is that when Republicans have gotten into the ring — by overhauling collective bargaining (in Wisconsin) or passing universal Education Savings Accounts (in Nevada) — it’s generally been met with unified opposition from reform and union Dems.

Those on the left “frame every policy and debate in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender,” writes Hess. They see “talk of colorblindness or religious freedom” as “an excuse for implicit bias and oppression.”

Those on the right “experience calls for diversity and inclusion as efforts to police speech, suppress religious freedom, and condemn dissent,” he warns.

Underestimating the other guys — or not even knowing they’re out there — can have bad consequences.

Who cares about high school achievers?

Only four states — Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas — have accountability systems that encourage high schools to focus on high achievers, concludes Fordham’s High Stakes for High Schoolers

Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana and New York are moving in that direction.

Most states measure proficiency in English and math: Schools get no credit for helping students move from proficiency to excellence.

Twenty-two states give or plan to give accountability points for helping high school students earn college credits via AP, dual enrollment, and the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Enrolling students in challenging courses that they’re not prepared to pass does little good, argues Checker Finn. It may harm well-prepared students.

Twelfth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have flatlined; so have SAT and ACT scores, notes Finn. “As for international metrics such as PISA and TIMSS, we’re being sorely outclassed by far too many other countries, both in the fraction of our young people who reach the upper ranks on those metrics and in the representation of lower-SES and minority youngsters (save for Asian Americans) among those who do make it.”

LA teachers’ union says ‘no’ to Broad bucks

Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), largely funded by billionaire Eli Broad, hopes to create 260 new charters in Los Angeles. Pledging to “do more of what works,” GPSN also plans to “offer up to $3.75 million to help L.A. Unified expand five promising schools” in low-income neighborhoods, reports KPCC.

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That only fueled the teachers’ union’s Broad Rage, writes Larry Sand on Union Watch.

Five district-run schools will be awarded $250,000 a year for three years to expand or replicate successful programs.

United Teachers of Los Angeles members at four schools voted to refuse the money, reports KPCC. However, none of the schools are on the list of possible grant winners.

The money will go through the school district, writes Sand. “UTLA is asking the LA school board to turn down the cash.”

Union president Alex Caputo-Pearl called the donation “a public relations stunt that offers chump change to a couple of LAUSD efforts while they continue to put tens of millions of dollars into unregulated charter growth.”

The union leader wants philanthropists to “give a substantial amount of money, millions of dollars, to the L.A. School Board … to spend in the way they see fit.”

That’s not going to happen.