Lifting all boats in Louisiana

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has apologized for saying “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina” because it destroyed a disastrous school system and opened the door for change.

Duncan’s statement was “quite accurate,” said Louisiana’s superintendent of education, Paul Pastorek. “It was a pathetic system before the storm.”

Pastorek talked earlier with Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation’s education policy director, about what’s changed since Katrina.

Today in New Orleans, nearly 60 percent of the city’s estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005. The proportion of fourth-graders who meet or exceed grade-level work in English rose from 44 percent in 2005 to 59 percent this year, a gain of one-third. Eighth-graders improved even more, jumping from 26 percent to 42 percent. High school scores have also shown marked gains, particularly in math, with 58 percent meeting or exceeding state standards this year compared with 38 percent in 2005. In January 2009, Education Week gave Louisiana an “A” grade in the category of “standards, assessment, and accountability.”

Pastorek talks about turning around low-performing schools, the role of charter schools, and the challenges and future plans for school improvement in Louisiana.

Update:  In the Wake of the Storm in Ed Next has more on Louisiana’s embrace of school choice.

Ready but not proficient

No Child Left Behind’s call for all students to be proficient by 2014 was “utopian,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said. His revision of NCLB would replace that goal with higher standards “built around the goal of helping all students graduate high school college-and career-ready,” according to an Education Department statement.

“My real desire is to have a high bar for the country, a common definition for success,” Duncan told reporters. “What we’ve had is a race to the bottom, and students are not prepared for college. We want smart new standards to prepare our students and workforce.”

Eduwonk mocks:

Old NCLB meme: This law is forcing schools to dumb everything down and it’s all basic skills. But too many schools can’t clear its unrealistically high bars.

New NCLB meme: The standards in this law were unrealistically high.  So we’re going to replace it with more ambitious ones…

On National Journal’s Education Experts, Sandy Kress, a Bush education advisor, also spots the paradox.

You are said to want to abandon (not fix, change, extend, but rather abandon) the bipartisan goal set 9 years ago in NCLB of having students at the minimum bar of grade level proficiency by 2014. Apparently, this goal is “utopian,” in your mind.

Yet, you have separately said that the standards behind these goals for 2014 are “fraudulently low” and that they should be dramatically raised to “college/career ready.”

. . . This is akin to saying though we can’t high jump at 5 feet, let’s set the bar at 7 feet!

Setting a “much tougher and higher goal with no challenging annual markers and deadlines for its achievement is real fraud,” Kress says. He’s also dubious about promises to evaluate schools in a more “nuanced” way.

I predict that, whatever euphemism you give it and however many carrots you create with increased spending, if you weaken the accountability provisions of NCLB, we will see a serious falloff in achievement for students, particularly disadvantaged students.

Keep striving for universal proficiency, adds a Boston Globe editorial. The Obama administration’s new goal — a mandate for all students to leave high school “college or career ready’’ — is unclear. It could rely on faddish “21st century skills’’  such as “global awareness, media literacy, and critical thinking,” instead of academic criteria, warns the Globe.

The Christian Science Monitor also fears that “college or career ready” will prove to be a “just a sophisticated way of saying lower standards.”

Duncan's first year

Arne “Duncan carves deep mark on policy” in his first year as Education secretary, writes Education Week. A lot of people aren’t happy.

“My report card is that he gets an A for being effective and a D-minus for the bad ideas,” said the education historian Diane Ravitch, who co-writes the Bridging Differences blog on Education Week’s Web site.

She sees the administration’s agenda as too focused on standardized testing of students and joins others in criticizing its priorities as an extension of President George W. Bush’s policies.

Chicago school reforms fail to raise scores

Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, a school reform plan launched by Mayor Richard Daley and then schools chief Arne Duncan, has done little to improve educational performance, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. Secretary of Education Duncan’s Race To The Top is based on Renaissance 2010 strategies, the Tribune points out.

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms.

Renaissance 2010 “dramatically improved the educational options in communities across Chicago,” said Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s spokesman. Advocates say it’s too early to judge the reform plan’s success.

Schools CEO Ron Huberman says “about one-third of the new schools are outperforming their neighborhood counterparts; one-third are identical in performance; the rest do worse.”

However, a not-yet-released study finds “pass rates in (Ren10) schools are now 4 percentage points higher than those in comparable neighborhood schools.”

The reform plan also closed chronically low-performing schools. Most students were transferred to other low-performing schools, where they did just as poorly as before. Violence increased as teenagers crossed “racial, cultural and gang boundaries” to attend school.

In response, Duncan decided in 2006 to replace the principal and teachers at turnaround schools but leave students in place. That’s worked at three of four elementary schools taken over by The Academy for Urban School Leadership, reports The Tribune.

Daley plans to expand Renaissance 2010. Huberman says the district will “put our energy behind the proven factors that work” and close underperforming Ren10 schools.

What is arts education?

Just recently, In August 2009, Secretary Duncan made a rather vague plug for the arts, in which he stated that “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively.”

If that was all the arts could do, I would shrug my shoulders. What about teaching students to sing in three-part harmony, or perform a Shakespeare monologue? What about the student who works for hours on the light and shadows in her painting?

The arts certainly have side benefits. They may draw out the abilities of a student who has not performed well in other subjects. They teach discipline and persistence. Students come to know the joy of taking part in something beautiful, of mastering difficult material and seeing it come together. And through this they may also be reading, building vocabulary, working with abstract concepts, learning about measure, rhythm, proportion, and time, and much more. The arts draw a school community together; there are few events as exciting as the opening night of a play, when the auditorium is packed with proud parents and siblings.

Beyond that, the arts prepare students to participate in cultural life, as performers, audience, or both. Without arts education, many children will know only the culture of the Internet, the iPod, and TV—rich resources in their own right, but limiting if you don’t know what to look for. Without the support of young people, many local cultural institutions will close. We will be left with whatever culture we can find on our individual screens.

So we need arts education, but what is it? What constitutes a strong arts program in schools? We can devote a certain number of hours to the arts, but what should happen during those hours?

Arts education consists of several overlapping categories.

First, there is knowledge of the arts: the study of music theory and art history; the reading and analysis of plays, and so forth. This sort of study can exist on its own, or it can be part of arts, history, and literature classes. Either way, it can enhance students’ understanding not only of the arts, but also of history, literature, and science.

Second, there is experience of the arts: watching a play, listening to music, looking at a painting, watching a photographer in the darkroom, and so on. Experience may also consist of making art: making a clay sculpture, playing a simple instrument, taking part in a class performance, or learning a simple dance.

Third, there is the discipline of the arts: the practice of working on something and seeing it take shape and improve. This could take the form of learning to play an instrument or to sing with phrasing; developing a role in a play; practicing the drawing of specific objects; or perfecting a dance step. Most serious work on plays or music takes place after school and requires substantial independent work as well.

Fourth, there is artistic creation, for instance: composing a piece of music, writing a play, or choreographing a dance. While this is difficult to do well or teach well, children should be given a chance to try.

Which of these categories cannot be left out? Which should take priority? What does a good arts program look like?

Many of us, myself included, look for schools that have excellent plays and concerts—that is, where students are at a high level of proficiency in the arts. But such a school may depend on students’ outside preparation. It may draw students who have had instruction elsewhere—in private lessons, music schools, church choirs, outside theater programs, and summer camps. The students performing in the plays may be a small percentage of the entire student body—a talented and privileged few. That in no way detracts from the school’s accomplishments in the arts, but it is not the same as an arts curriculum.

Readers, what makes an excellent arts curriculum, in your view? If you were looking for a school with a strong arts program–where you might study, teach, or enroll your child–what would you be looking for?

And here’s a harder question: Suppose students had one period of music and one period of art per week (one period=45 minutes). Under those circumstances, what sort of arts instruction would benefit the students the most?

Diana Senechal

Slow down 'race to the top'

Learn from No Child Left Behind’s mistakes, Frederick Hess advises the Obama administration. You can’t force states to “race to the top,” he writes on Education Gadfly.

It appears increasingly likely that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are at risk of doing to charter schooling, merit pay, and school “turnarounds” what the Bush administration did to educational accountability. That’s not meant as a compliment.

The Bush team took the sensible and broadly-supported notion of holding schools accountable for their returns and then pursued a vision that is so prescriptive, so overwrought, and so divorced from a coherent rendering of what the feds can actually do that they managed to largely unravel a solid bipartisan commitment in support of the underlying idea.  As a result, most of the country wants to see NCLB overhauled or dumped outright.

Hess predicts states will make promises to get RTT money and then “go through the motions of reforming.”

First, good ideas will be executed poorly, undermining support and engendering skepticism. Second, such an approach will fuel backlash.

It will take longer than four or even eight years to develop “reform-minded political leaders and educators at the state and local levels, and to foster the efforts of entrepreneurs who are solving problems related to teacher quality, assessment, and charter schooling.”

Race to the Top will have only a few winners, predicts Patrick Riccards of Eduflack.

Those in the know seem certain that only a select group of states are going to be bestowed the title of Race to the Top states.  The betting odds are 10 to 15 states will earn the RttT seal.
It’s not clear whether the winners will be states with the greatest need or “low-hanging fruit states where a couple of billion dollars in education funding can make the difference,” he writes. Everyone’s talking innovation now, but the RTT losers are likely to lose their motivation once the dollars are allocated.