D.C. charters outpace district schools

Washington D.C. schools are improving, but D.C. charters are improving even faster, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay P. Greene’s blog. National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data compares general education (not in special ed) students who are eligible for a free or subsidized lunch and attend either charters or district schools.

Scores are up in both sectors, but D.C. charter students are more likely to score “basic” or above in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. The spread is 19 percent for eighth-grade math.

DC charter 4

PISA denial

U.S. educators are downplaying PISA results that show Asian countries excel, while the U.S. rank is slipping, writes Marc Tucker in PISA Denial. After all, few Asians are winning Nobel prizes or “starting game-changing business like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft,” they argue. Maybe PISA measures things that aren’t very important, while U.S. schools are teaching creativity and innovation.

That’s sophistry, responds Tucker.  Those game-changing entrepreneurs are highly educated and innovative and creative. Their companies don’t hire creative people with mediocre reading, writing and math skills.

 They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other. They demand and can get both. In the same person.

PISA measures “the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems” and increasingly is focusing on applying knowledge to “unanticipated, novel problems,” writes Tucker.

Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum. It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate. When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge. The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

Asian educators are working hard to learn from U.S. schools, writes Tucker. They want to place more stress on individual initiative without accepting the “violence and chaos” they see as the cultural price. Some Americans want Asian achievement levels with less social conformity, but we’re not really trying to get there. Instead, “we are working hard at denial.”

PISA matters, agrees Eric Hanushek, who disposes of several excuses for U.S. mediocrity.

 While our low ranking has been seen on earlier international assessments, there are many reasons to believe that low cognitive skills (as assessed by PISA) will be increasingly important for our economic future.

We don’t have to be Singapore or Korea. If the U.S. could reach Canadian achievement levels, the average worker would earn 20 percent more, Hanushek writes.

BTW, Silicon Valley, where I live, is filled with entrepreneurs educated in India, China and elsewhere.  Forty-four percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2005.

Schools raise scores, but not smarts

Schools can improve students’ achievement test scores, but not their cognitive ability, writes Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. Reseachers analyzed math and English scores and cognitive ability (working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning) among nearly 1,400 eighth graders attending traditional, exam and charter public schools in Boston.

“Good test takers tend to have high levels of working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning skills,” Kaufman writes.

Cognitive ability was associated with growth in achievement test scores from 4th to 8th grade. This is consistent with prior research suggesting that cognitive ability predicts academic achievement, but academic achievement does not predict cognitive ability.

Students in some schools showed growth in achievement scores but school quality “played little role in the growth of cognitive ability.”

Students attending a charter school as a result of winning the admissions lottery had higher standardized test scores compared to students who lost the lottery.

There was no difference between the lottery groups, however, on measures of cognitive ability.

Cognitive skills such as fluid reasoning and executive functioning (working memory and cognitive inhibition) affect many life outcomes, from school performance to drug use, Kaufman writes. The researchers cite “examples of targeted programs that increase cognitive control and reasoning.”

Do vouchers help students succeed?

Vouchers don’t do much for students, argues Stephanie Simon on Politico. Voucher programs now cost $1 billion nationwide.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

Vouchers improve student outcomes, according to high-quality research studies, responds Adam Emerson in Education Gadfly.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New YorkDayton and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results).

But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.

Research supports voucher benefits, agrees Rick Hess. He quotes himself, and eight others, in an Education Week commentary last year:

Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.

That $1 billion for vouchers “amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending,” Hess points out.  “We spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits.”

Vedder: College aid should reward achievement

Federal college aid should reward achievement, argues economist Richard Vedder. The expansion of federal aid has “contributed to high dropout rates, mediocre levels of student work effort and academic performance,” underemployment for college graduates and credential inflation, Vedder believes.

‘A’ is for achievement, not acquiescence

Grades will reflect achievement, not behavior, in Milwaukee’s elementary and middle schools, reports the Journal-Sentinel.

According to MPS, the updated report card identifies the skills students need to master in each grade level, and replaces overall letter grades with an AD for advanced, PR for proficient, BA for basic and MI for minimal. Proficient is the level expected for a student’s grade level.

The report card offers separate feedback about a student’s work habits, behavior and effort — such as following rules or arriving to class prepared — on a scale of 1 to 4.

High schools will use the traditional A-F system to generate grade-point averages necessary for college applications.

This could be an effort to help boys, write Ann Althouse. “I suspect that the credit-giving business had been perverted into an enterprise of teaching compliance and tolerance for boredom and constraint.”

Self-control gone wild?

Has teaching self-control gone wild? Daniel Willingham responds to Elizabeth Weil’s New Republic cover story, American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids: In Defense of the Wild Child.

Weil uses self-regulation, grit and social-emotional skills interchangeably, but “they are not the same thing,” writes Willingham.

Self-regulation (most simply put) is the ability to hold back an impulse when you think that that the impulse will not serve other interests. (The marshmallow study would fit here.) Grit refers to dedication to a long-term goal, one that might take years to achieve, like winning a spelling bee or learning to play the piano proficiently. Hence, you can have lots of self-regulation but not be very gritty. Social emotional skills might have self-regulation as a component, but it refers to a broader complex of skills in interacting with others.

. . . Weil is right that some research indicates a link between socioemotional skills and desirable outcomes, some doesn’t. But there is quite a lot of research showing associations between self-control and positive outcomes for kids including academic outcomes, getting along with peers, parents, and teachers, and the avoidance of bad teen outcomes (early unwanted pregnancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, et al.). I reviewed those studies here. There is another literature showing associations of grit with positive outcomes (e.g.,Duckworth et al, 2007).

It’s possible that better test scores (and fewer drug and alcohol problems) come at a cost, Willingham concedes. Weil suggests a trade-off between self-regulation and the wild child’s creativity and personality.

But self-regulation doesn’t have to crush exuberance, Willingham argues. It tells a child when she’s being adorably exuberant and when she’s being a pain.

If we’re overdoing self-regulation, children will “feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior,” he writes. “When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation,” he writes.

Indeed.

Algebra II isn’t what it used to be

Passing Algebra II no longer shows mastery of algebra or preparation for college math, concludes a new Brown Center report, The Algebra Imperative.

“Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades,” writes researcher Tom Loveless.

In 1986, less than half of white 17 year-olds and less than a third of blacks and Hispanics had completed Algebra II. That’s up to 79 percent for whites and 69 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But “getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory,” Loveless writes.  “As enrollments boomed, test scores went down.”  

Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17 Year-Olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra (1986-2012)

“More and more unprepared students are being pushed into advanced math in middle school,” Loveless writes. In some cases, eighth graders with second- and third-grade math skills are placed in algebra classes.

A study out of California found that marginal math students who spent one more year before tackling Algebra I were 69% more likely to pass the algebra end of course exam in 9th grade than ninth grade peers who were taking the course for the second time after failing the algebra test in 8th grade.

. . . A study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor found that low achievers who took 8th grade algebra experienced negative long term effects, including lower pass rates in Geometry and Algebra II.

It’s not just algebra either. “There is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told Education Week.

ADHD drugs don’t raise kids’ grades

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medications don’t improve academic achievement, according to new studies, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called “cognitive enhancers” because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term.

. . . However, a growing body of research finds that in the long run, achievement scores, grade-point averages or the likelihood of repeating a grade generally aren’t any different in kids with ADHD who take medication compared with those who don’t.

Boys who took ADHD drugs performed worse in school than those with similar symptoms who didn’t, according to the study, which tracked students in Quebec. Girls on ADHD drugs reported more emotional problems.

Rapper: You’ve earned a worthless diploma

Black male graduates of Chicago high school are “four, five steps behind people in other countries,” rapper Lupe Fiasco told young men at a Mass Black Male Graduation and Transition to Manhood ceremony.

The local rapper began by saying, “Congratulations, you have graduated from one of the most terrible, substandard school systems in the entire world. You have just spent the last . . . 12 years receiving one of the worst educations on earth.”

. . .  “Transition to manhood is the most important thing that’s going on right now. The caps and the gowns and your tassels and your honorary blah blah blahs don’t mean nothing. . . . They just represent to someone else that you’ve achieved something. But then when you look back at it, what have you achieved?”

The rapper, a product of Chicago-area schools, told the young men to earn and maintain their manhood, “one of the last things that we can control.”

Philip Jackson, the event’s organizer, called the speech a needed “dose of reality.”