Music hath charms …

Music hath charms to close the achievement gap, writes Lori Miller Kase in The Atlantic. At least, researchers hope so.

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students.

The Harmony Project students were compared to similar students on wait lists for music classes. In second grade, Harmony participants improved in reading, while controls who had not studied music fell farther behind in reading.

SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) is a five-year San Diego study focusing on how music training influences connections in the brain.

Public schools teach just as much music (and art) as ever, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report. Nearly all elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools offer music classes. Students in low-poverty schools get higher-quality music instruction, writes Kase. I assume that means more opportunities to play an instrument.

Study: TFA teachers raise math scores

Teach for America recruits raised disadvantaged students’ math achievement more than traditionally trained teachers, concludes a Mathematica study for the U.S. Department of Education.

Students of TFA teachers moved from the 27th to the 30th percentile on average. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s the equivalent of two and a half extra months of learning, researchers estimated.

The Mathematica study looked at 45 schools in eight states over two years, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Students were randomly assigned to a TFA-trained math teacher or to a teacher from a different background. (Most of the TFA-trained teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, but about 17 percent were TFA alumni who had three, four or five years of experience.) At the end of each year, students were given standardized math tests and their scores were compared.

Students of inexperienced TFA teachers (with three years or less in the classroom) outperformed students of more experienced comparison teachers, the study found.

Although TFA is often criticized for the fact that its teachers make only a two-year commitment to teaching, the findings suggest that over the long term, continuing to fill a position with TFA teachers who depart after a few years would lead to higher student math achievement than filling the same position with a non-TFA teacher who would remain in the position and accumulate more teaching experience.

Another alternative route to teaching, the Teaching Fellows program, also was analyzed. “Inexperienced Teaching Fellows teachers . . . were more effective than inexperienced comparison teachers; among teachers with more experience, there was no difference in effectiveness between Teaching Fellows and comparison teachers.”

While TFA and Teaching Fellows recruit from elite colleges, “college selectivity is not a magic cure-all,” points out Dana Goldstein.

 Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with  new data from New York City new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

Traditional teachers were more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. However, TFAers and Fellows earned higher standardized test scores in math. Higher teacher test scores correlate with slightly better outcomes at the high school level, but not at the middle school level, researchers found.

Goldstein speculates that TFA teachers perform well because they’re “incredibly mission-driven,” believe they can close the achievement gap, choose to teach in low-income schools and work very hard. In addition, TFA’s training emphasizes tracking student outcomes and raising standardized test scores.

Study: Harlem charter boosts ‘human capital’

The Harlem Children Zone‘s Promise Academy, a charter middle school, raises test scores, concluded Harvard EdLabs researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer. Sixth-grade lottery winners close the black-white achievement gap by the end of eighth grade.

A new study finds that students are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, less likely to experience teen pregnancy or incarceration.

That’s a huge human-capital boost, notes Education Gadfly.

Six years after winning the admissions lottery, Promise Academy students not only score higher on the nationally normed Woodcock-Johnson math achievement tests than lottery losers, but they are more likely to enroll in college, by 24 percentage points. Additionally, female lottery winners are 12 percentage points less likely to become pregnant in their teens, while males are 4 percentage points less likely to be incarcerated. The Harlem Children’s Zone social and community-building services are well documented, but Dobbie and Fryer attribute Promise Academy’s success to the markers that make it a high-performing school (extended school time, high-quality teachers, data-driven decision making, and heightened expectations).

Winning the charter lottery had little effect on students’ health or likelihood of using drugs and alcohol.

Minority gains ended in Obama era

Racial/ethnic achievement gaps were narrowing, till the Obama administration waived and weakened No Child Left Behind, writes Paul Peterson, who directs Harvard’s program on Education Policy and Governance, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

During the Clinton-Bush era (1999 to 2008), white 9-year-olds gained 11 points in math, African-American student performance rose by 13 points and Hispanic student performance leaped by 21 points. In reading, the gains by white 9-year-olds went up seven points, black performance jumped by 18 points and Hispanic student achievement climbed 14 points.

For the first nine years, the average annual gains were six points for African-Americans, five points for Hispanics and three points for whites.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned against No Child Left Behind’s testing and accountability provisions, writes Peterson. Once elected, he “halted enforcement of most of No Child’s key provisions and offered waivers to states that signed up for more lenient rules devised by the Education Department.”

Between 2008-12, gains by African-Americans at age 9 were just two points in each subject, while Hispanics gained one point in reading and nothing in math. Whites gained one point in reading and two points in math.

The racial achievement gap has widened slightly.

Now, “the Obama administration, teachers unions and some Republicans are joining forces to gut core provisions” of No Child Left Behind, which is up for reauthorization, writes Peterson.

The latest bill promoted by the Senate education committee calls for testing but allows states to let students submit “portfolios” or “projects” in lieu of the standardized tests required by the original law.

He has more in Education Next.

The Obama administration isn’t “serious” about passing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act to replace No Child Left Behind, even though Sen. Tom Harkin’s bill is “close to the administration’s vision,” writes Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12. “With waivers in place in 39 states and the District of Columbia, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is instead spending his time and effort on prekindergarten, a policy that probably has even less of a shot in a Congress bent on cracking down on spending.”

Preschool won’t close achievement gap

President Obama’s $75 billion preschool proposal won’t close the achievement gap, predict Brookings scholars. Sound research doesn’t show preschool makes much difference, write Russ Whitehurst and David J. Armor.

The most credible recent study of pre-K outcomes, the federal Head Start Impact Study, found only small differences at the end of the Head Start year between the performance of children randomly assigned to Head Start vs. the control group, e.g., about a month’s superiority in vocabulary for the Head Start group. There were virtually no differences between Head Start and the control group once the children were in elementary school.

Nationwide, the number of children enrolled in state pre-K programs is associated weakly with later academic performance, they write. Fourth-grade reading and math achievement “would increase by no more than about a 10th of a standard deviation if state pre-K enrollments increased dramatically.”

Advocates cite the Perry Preschool experiment “from half century ago” that is  ”so different in many important ways from current state pre-K programs that findings . . .  can’t be confidently generalized to the present day,” write Whitehurst and Armor.

Pre-K advocates also rely heavily on studies that don’t use random assignment of children to pre-K or a control group. “Age-cutoff regression discontinuity” studies, which show large impacts for pre-K, are “problematic,” the Brookings researchers conclude.

“There are reasons to doubt that we yet know how to design and deliver a government funded pre-K program that produces sufficiently large benefits to justify prioritizing pre-K over other investments in education.”

Uncommon Schools wins Broad Prize

Uncommon Schools has won the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. A 32-school charter network in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, Uncommon Schools educates primarily low-income black students. The schools have narrowed achievement gaps, the review board found.

All Uncommon seniors took the SAT in 2012. They averaged a score of 1570, higher than College Board’s readiness mark and higher than the average for white students nationwide.

Different goals for different folks

Achievement should be defined broadly, argues Ted Kolderie, who works on redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: “If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be ‘high-achieving’?”?

He asks, too: Why don’t we define the “gap” as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.

Education reformers — “middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract” — have decided that achievement is “doing well what they do well,” Kolderie writes.  Instead of pushing everyone to do well in school and go to college, we should “recognize that all young people can learn better and need to learn better, but that different students will do well at different things.”

Defining achievement down may sound reasonable, but it’s not, responds RiShawn Biddle. To start with, academic achievement is connected to success in non-academic endeavors.

. . . it is hard to engage in critical thinking without having a strong knowledge base that only comes from being literate, numerate, fluent in science, and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. This is especially important because critical thinking involves dealing with abstractions, the ideas at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule, as well as discourses mundane and critical, are formed from the complex interplay between ideas, facts, and morals. A child with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.

Low-income, minority parents have “learned the hard way about the consequences of not having the high-level reading and math skills needed for the high-paying blue- and white-collar jobs,” he writes. They know their children won’t have a future in the job market if they’re not “literate, numerate, and knowledgeable about the world around them.”

High-quality schools serving disadvantaged students, such as KIPP charters, have shown that “poor and minority children can succeed if they are provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, high-quality instruction, help in the form of intensive reading and math remediation, and the nurturing cultures of genius in which they are more than just future athletes and musicians,” Biddle concludes.

Remember “natural rhythm?”

Selling Obama’s ‘preschool for all’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to persuade Republican governors to persuade Republicans in Congress to back $75 billion in new tobacco taxes to fund President Obama’s “preschool for all” initiative, reports the Washington Post.

“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

The plan doesn’t really offer preschool to “all.”  States would get federal grants to fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The federal share would diminish from 91 percent to 25 percent after 10 years. Obama also is seeking $15 billion for programs for babies and toddlers.

Georgia has funded its own preschool program. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal wants some of the money spent on Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children. “We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” Deal said.

Without new taxes, there isn’t enough money, Duncan responded. “I’m talking about a massive influx of resources . . . Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

If Duncan is serious about high-quality preschool, he’ll offer Republicans more than a new federal tax, writes Mike Petrilli.

Cut the TRIO programs, which (as a recent Brookings paper shows) don’t work at preparing disadvantaged high school students for college. That’s $1 billion a year.

Cut Title II of ESEA, which is a big slush fund for school districts to spend on “teacher stuff” and class-size reduction—with no evidence of results. $3 billion a year.

Cut Pell grants, many of which are flowing to remedial-education courses from which disadvantaged students never escape. Introduce some minimal standards so that only students who are college-ready—a very low bar for community colleges, it turns out—can receive the aid. I bet you could shave $5 billion a year easy—a big chunk of it currently landing in for-profit universities.

Cut $9 billion and then ask Republicans to pitch in $1 billion in new money, Petrilli suggests.

Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits for low-income children. I think Duncan’s first step is explaining why “preschool for some” will be more effective. And why not let states expand their preschools with Head Start funding?

Advocates call for ‘supports-based reform’

Instead of “top-down standards” and “punitive high-stakes testing,” we need “supports-based reform,” according to the Education Declaration to Rebuild America. Public schools are turning into “uncreative, joyless institutions,” the declaration states. “Educators are being stripped of their dignity and autonomy, leading many to leave the profession.”

By focusing solely on the achievement gap, we have neglected the opportunity gap that creates it, and have allowed the resegregation of our schools and communities by class and race.

. .. What’s needed is a supports-based reform agenda that provides every student with the opportunities and resources needed to achieve high standards and succeed . . .

Signers include education historian Diane Ravitch, writer Jonathan Kozol, Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

Ed Week summarizes:   ”They reiterated their call for more funding (and more equitably distributed), more early education, better teacher training, high-quality diagnostic tests, more-effective discipline, and parent engagement.”

The declaration was organized by the Education Opportunity Network, which is affiliated with the Institute for America’s Future, and by the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, funded by the Schott Foundation.

(I’ve learned from the opponents of education reform that philanthropy is “corporate,” sinister and self-interested, so I’m surprised to see the campaign taking foundation money. No, I’m not. That was sarcasm.)

Ed Trust: Low-income kids hit ‘glass ceiling’

While low achievers are catching up, racial achievement gaps are widening at the advanced level, concludes Education Trust in a new report, Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color.

Over time, the percent of students scoring at the “below basic” level of performance has declined markedly. . . . the declines are biggest for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Yet, while the percent of white and higher income students scoring at the “advanced” level has increased significantly in recent years, there has been little progress among students of color and low-income students, so gaps at this level have widened. . . . In 2011, for example, roughly 1 in 10 white fourth-graders reached advanced in math, compared to only 1 in 50 Hispanic fourth-graders and 1 in 100 black fourth-graders.

Poverty is not the only issue, Ed Trust reports. In some grades and subjects, higher-income black students are no more likely than low-income whites to test as advanced. For example, 3 percent of each of these groups reached advanced in fourth-grade math in 2011.