It’s not public if you can’t go

well-to-do Baton Rouge neighborhood wants to secede from the city school district, reports Margaret Newkirk on Bloomberg News. “Local control” would mean more money per student and fewer problem kids.

It’s a myth that public schools are public, writes Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias. It’s not public if you can’t go.

The way the word is used a school is “public” if it is owned by a government entity and thus part of the public sector. But a public school is by no means a school that’s open to the public in the sense that anyone can go there. Here in the District of Columbia anyone who wants to wander into a public park is free to do so (that’s what makes it public) but to send your kid to a good “public” elementary school in Ward 3 you have to live there. And thanks to exclusionary zoning, in practice if you want to live in Ward 3 you have to be rich.

. . . if you proposed randomly assigning students to schools to produce integrated instructional environments, you’d have an epic battle on your hands.

In D.C. at least, charter schools—unlike “public” schools—have to admit (or not admit) students on an equal basis regardless of which neighborhood they live in.

That points to a weird ideological divide, writes Jonathan Chait in New York.

Neighborhood schools are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else. Charter schools are open to all children in the city, and their slots are allocated by lottery.

. . . . Moderate liberals and conservatives want to expand and empower the public schools that admit everybody by random lottery. The lefties want to preserve geographic-based restrictions.

A major reason for this is obviously that charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones.

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch, who’s become an opponent of charter schools, “doesn’t favor all public schools — she likes the ones that exclude kids from outside neighborhood boundaries, because they’re also the ones where it’s hardest to fire teachers,” writes Chait. “She opposes the ones that can’t exclude children whose parents lack the wealth to buy property in-boundary.”

Teacher retention is up in reform era

Teachers are staying in the classroom, despite education reforms some said would create rapid turnover, according to a U.S. Education Department survey.

In the past, half of teachers would leave in their first five years, write Kaitlin Pennington and Robert Hanna of the Center for American Progress. But 70 percent of teachers who started five years ago have stayed in the profession.

The Great Recession started in 2009, which may have discouraged job switching, they observe. With many experienced teachers retiring, new teachers may have expected more opportunities.
Still, the new research should “give pause” to reform critics, write Pennington and Hanna.

Some claimed that teachers would react strongly to teacher evaluations that are based in part on student test-score growth and that the stress would drive many of them out. Bob Sullo, an education consultant and author, called it a “recipe for disaster.” And education historian Diane Ravitch predicted that “many will leave teaching, discouraged by the loss of their professional autonomy.”

Over the course of President Obama’s first term, about two-thirds of teachers said that if they “could go back to college and start over again,” they would “probably” or “definitely” still become teachers.

Who should drive reform?

Americans rank small class size and technology as more effective than vouchers on the pro-choice Friedman Foundation’s new survey.  That must have produced “surprise (and, no doubt, embarrassment)” at the foundation, writes Diane Ravitch on her blog.

The foundation was “quite encouraged,” writes Robert Enlow, the foundation president.
Survey respondents ranked vouchers in the middle among seven offered education reforms. Not bad for a measure that currently affects just 0.9 percent of our country’s total student population.
As for the other reforms that ranked above vouchers, who doesn’t want smaller classrooms for students? And, in the 21st century, we certainly could use more technology in our schools along with accountability.

The critical question is: Who should drive those changes? writes Enlow. Should it be “lawmakers and bureaucrats, or parents free to choose, using vouchers, and educators free to teach, not being dictated by standardized tests?”

It’s not PC or censorship

Common Core State Standards “and standardized testing are trying to make teachers into KAPOs, a Nazi concentration camp prisoner who was given privileges if they would supervise work gangs,” wrote a reader commenting on Diane Ravitch’s blog. She goes on to reference Schindler’s List and her relatives killed in the Holocaust.

When readers objected to the analogy, Ravitch wrote: “I find this argument to be a form of political correctness that is used to censor opinion. If anyone wants to use an analogy to make a point, that is their choice.” She defended the posting on Twitter as a free speech issue.

This isn’t about political correctness or censorship, responds Daniel Willingham.

First, he writes, the analogy trivializes enormous suffering. Test takers are not in any way like Holocaust victims just as students asked to perform public service are not comparable to slaves.

If a reformer said schools are concentration camps where teachers brutalize their students . . . It’s insulting, isn’t it?

Willingham also disagrees that it’s censorship to tell people you think their analogy is “ill-considered and offensive.”

 . . .  if she had asked the author to change the analogy or had refused to post the piece because of the analogy, I would not call that censorship. The author does not have a guaranteed right to post what she likes in Diane’s blog, a right that Diane would have been infringing. Diane was a offering a platform for this author’s voice, and obviously she offers that platform to voices she thinks are worth amplifying.

This situation is not comparable to that documented in The Language Police, in which enormous power was concentrated in the hands of few publishers. If an author wanted to publish a textbook they had to toe the line drawn by the publishers or give up on publishing the book. That power relationship does not exist in this case. This is the internet, for crying out loud.

He asks Ravitch to rethink her position.

I agree with Willingham. I’d add that the analogy is ridiculous and therefore unpersuasive.

Teacher dies protecting students

A Marine veteran, Michael Landsberry survived two tours in Afghanistan with the Nevada Air National Guard. The Sparks (Nevada) middle school math teacher died trying to disarm a student yesterday. The 12-year-old shooter also wounded two boys, who are in stable condition, before killing himself.

“Mr. Landsberry’s heroic actions, by stepping toward the shooter, allowed time for other students in the playground area to flee,” said Washoe County School District Police Chief Mike Mieras.

Before opening fire, the boy said, “Why you people making fun of me, why you laughing at me?,” according to student Michelle Hernandez.

The boy used a Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic handgun that belonged to his parents, police said.

“The relentless, inflexible and unyielding focus on ‘test-taking’ and school rankings and scores” is to blame, writes Debra Feemster, a former Sparks principal, on Diane Ravitch’s blog. “If one teacher, counselor or administrator had had a few extra minutes to look into this student’s eyes and possibly connected with him in a meaningful way, maybe this catastrophe could have been averted.”

“Think of the children whose social and emotional needs are ignored in pursuit of test scores,” Ravitch writes.

Feemster and Ravitch are accusing Sparks Middle School staffers of ignoring students’ “social and emotional needs” and failing to prevent the shooting.

Let’s honor Mr. Landsberry’s courage and decency. Let’s not politicize a tragedy.

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

Core ‘exemplars’ set off controversy

In Alabama and Ohio, there are calls to remove Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from high school reading lists, even though it’s a Common Core “exemplar.” The book depicts a father raping his daughter.
bluesteye

In Arizona, the controversial exemplar is Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, which includes an explicit sex scene.

cubanThe exemplars aren’t a national reading list, writes Fordham’s Checker Finn. Appendix B of the English standards includes “examples of fiction, non-fiction, poems etc. that show the sort of thing students should be able to read with understanding at various points in the K–12 sequence.”

A short excerpt from The Bluest Eye appears along with writing by Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte, Shakespeare, Keats, etc., writes Finn. It’s intended for 11th graders. “I find the excerpt complex, demanding, and a bit obscure, but not offensive.” Others think the book is “pornographic, unsuitable for school kids of any age.”

It’s up to school districts to decide what students should read, concludes Finn. Don’t like the exemplars on Appendix B? Choose other works. But don’t expect to avoid offending everyone.

. . .  as Diane Ravitch showed in The Language Police, when you scrub every library, every reading list, every textbook, and every test item clean of everything that could offend anybody for any reason, you end up with the boring pablum that dominates so much of today’s curriculum. One reason American kids don’t read much is because what remains for them to read is so dull.

Noah Berlatsky has been writing textbooks and exams for two decades, he writes in The Atlantic. He’s forced to cater to a “nebulous, ill-defined fear of offending anyone.”

Obviously, when freelance writing or finding test passages for kids of whatever age, I know my work will be rejected if I mention evolution. But I’m also not allowed to mention snakes, or violent storms, or cancer, or racial discrimination, or magic. Authority figures, including teachers and Woodrow Wilson, can never be questioned. Pop culture can’t be mentioned. Living people can’t be mentioned. Death can’t be mentioned.

The Revisionaries, a 2012 documentary just released on DVD, shows how right-wing ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education pushed through changes in the standards. It’s “riveting and infuriating,” writes Berlatsky. But it ignores the fact that “idiotic, anti-intellectual regulation of content is not restricted to the far right.” The language police — he cites Ravitch too — insist on “bland colorless paste.”

Ravitch vs. reform

Comments were disabled on the previous Ravitch post by evil gremlins who I am unable to thwart.  Please feel free to comment here.

Ravitch’s alternative to reform

An “architect of school reform,” Diane Ravitch turned against it, writes Sara Mosle in The Atlantic.  Instead of leading a “mid-course correction,” she “further polarized an already strident debate” and became a leader of the anti-reformers.

Ravitch presents her new book, Reign of Error, as “an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” writes Mosle.

Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.

In 2010, Ravitch understood that parents choose charters as a “haven.” Now she has dropped the eliminationist rhetoric for non profit charters but not for the forprofit operators.

No credential, no job for Vallas

Once superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, reformer Paul Vallas is unqualified to lead the Bridgeport, Connecticut school district, because he lacks an administrative credential, a Superior Court judge ruled. She said Vallas can’t stay in the job while appealing.

The state board of education created an independent study program for Vallas to meet the credential requirements, which normally require 13 months of study at a Connecticut college or university. The judge rejected the board’s alternative.

Like a number of urban superintendents, Vallas isn’t a professional educator. “A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley’s control,” notes Governing. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002,” he was hired to run Philadelphia schools after Pennsylvania took them over. Then he went to New Orleans to run the Recovery School District.

“I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record,” writes Rick Hess. “Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office.”

Normally hostile to reformers, Diane Ravitch published a defense of Vallas by a commenter who worked for him in Chicago.