Knowing when to stop

In a paper delivered at the 2010 conference of the European Association of Conservatoires (AEC) in Ghent, Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Music, spoke about the complexities of assessment in higher music education. His speech emphasizes the “centrality of content” in educational policy, particularly assessment policy.

Assessment at the higher levels must involve the language of the field; musicians in an orchestra, for instance, assess themselves continually as they play but have no need to document such assessment. (Samuel Hope is not disparaging documented assessment; he’s saying that in this particular context, at this level, it would burden the work instead of lifting it.)

Which aspects of musical composition and performance require highly advanced knowledge and judgment? Which are particularly resistant to standardized assessment? Hope draws attention to one in particular: knowing when to stop.

This means knowledge of when to stop doing something and begin doing something else and how to work effectively with relationships among stasis and change, and speed and time. Knowing when to stop is an aspect of mastering many relationships and balances in music. Mozart, Beethoven, and other great composers are consummate masters of knowing when to stop, when a chord or key or musical figure has been continued long enough, and when there is time for a variation or a change altogether. The performer of such music has thousands of choices about how to make the structural decisions of the composer come alive in performance. Great performers are also masters in this area. In many artistic dimensions, knowing when to stop is an essential determiner of the line between fine works of art and kitsch.

Knowing when to stop is important in all fields, but it isn’t a transferable skill. You may have a general sense of what is excessive (in art, music, or poetry), but you cannot make  fine decisions about stopping, or asssess the decisions of others, unless you know art, music, or poetry itself.

Hope points out that knowing when to stop is also essential to institutional review. You can establish frameworks for music instruction at the higher levels, but how detailed should they become? When should the frameworks stop and leave the remaining decisions to the individual institutions? It is essential that review and accreditation organizations such as AEC and NASM take on these questions, according to Hope, because they have the requisite knowledge and understanding.

One of the problems I see in K–12 education reform is precisely the lack of a sense of when to stop. Let’s take group work as an example. It’s one thing to say that certain kinds of group work, used in the right contexts, can foster certain kinds of learning. It’s another to require group work in every lesson (or even in most lessons). Similarly, it’s one thing to regard test scores as limited measures of intellectual attainment of a particular kind. It’s another to treat them like numerical oracles.

To know when to stop, one must consider the subject matter itself. For instance, the Common Core State Standards have specified a ratio of informational and literary text for each grade span. But the proper ratio depends on what the students are learning. The ratio should not precede the content; if the content is well planned, then there’s no need to worry about the ratio. It could vary from year to year, for good reasons.

Formulas are important, useful, even beautiful things, but they only do what they say they’ll do. You can somehow calculate a curriculum of 70 percent informational text and 30 percent literature, and that’s all it will be. It will not be, by virtue of this ratio, a good curriculum. It might coincide with some good curricula and conflict with others.

Back to music: in Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, there’s a syncopated passage near the end of the third movement. It is twelve measures long and has an evanescent, ethereal quality. When I was a teenager, I would listen to the sonata every day and wait eagerly for that passage. Once it came, I wanted it to go on longer but knew that it couldn’t.

But its beauty cannot be attributed to its length alone, or to its syncopation, or to its key changes, or to its place in the movement and in the sonata; it is all of these things and many more.

You can listen to this passage as performed by Jacob Lateiner. (It starts at 8:52, but I recommend listening to the full second and third movements, which are included in this clip). This recording and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s were my favorites for many years. Lateiner plays the first movement too fast, I’d say, but his rendition of the third movement has something like a third ear to it, a sense of something beyond the notes. I have started listening to more renditions of the sonata; Claudio Arrau’s has something remarkable as well.

Eli Broad: Kick over the anthills

Eli Broad has a very interesting opinion piece in this week’s EducationWeek.  It’s a little long, and it meanders some, but when it comes to its point it’s very gripping:

I never shy from an unreasonable goal. And as President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once smartly told The New York Times, “Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

That’s a good rule for everyone to keep in mind, no matter the type of crisis you find yourself confronting. When external forces are changing your world, think about what you can do to move with them, rather than reflexively hunkering down and refusing to change. Use crises as chances to rethink everything, question your assumptions, and start afresh. That’s what we’re trying to do in public education.

Entrenched bureaucracies, policies, and practices are no longer set up in a way that helps teachers and students progress. Taxpayer resources often don’t make it to the classroom. Teachers are left to fend for themselves without adequate real-time information about how well their students are learning, access to best practices, or time to collaborate. Because teachers’ pay and expectations are, in most cases, low, many talented Americans are dissuaded from entering the profession at all.

How did public school districts get here? I suspect the reason is because too few dared to ask the right “Why not?” question: Why not redesign these districts? It’s a simple matter of reframing basic assumptions. Data show that the greatest positive outcomes for students happen when entire school systems are either redesigned or started anew.

The problem is immense. The solution must be big enough to match it.

It fades out from there, dissolving into a few heartless platitudes.  But the sentences above are striking, aren’t they?  Put aside for a moment the cavalier and naive pronouncement that “it’s a simple matter of reframing basic assumptions.”   (When is that ever simple?)   Broad is advocating a sort of “Year Zero” approach to education.  As the Shadows said on Babylon 5, sometimes you have to “kick over all the anthills.”  It would be fascinating to see what people could come up with if they approached a ground-up renovation of our education system seriously.   Does anyone know if there are any serious policy conferences about this sort of thing?

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Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

* * * *

The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

Teaching Tiny Tim

Class Matters in education, wrote Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske in a New York Times op-ed that claimed “No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face.”

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities.

The op-ed called for more funding for Promise Neighborhoods, which provides social and health services to low-income families.

Diane Ravitch praised Ladd’s research on education and poverty.

Even Scrooge might agree that our current efforts at school reform are ignoring the needs of the neediest children. Even Scrooge might wake up and realize that schools alone cannot equalize vast income gaps and cannot reinvent our social order.

When George W. Bush decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he was asking too much of schools with low-income students, write Ladd, Fiske and Ravitch.

Nobody denies that class, poverty and parents matter, responds Peter Meyer in A Christmas Carol For Our Schools on Education Next.  No Child Left Behind “forced schools to pay attention to their poor and minority students by demanding disaggregated data.”  Schools were pressured to pay much more attention to struggling students.

As for special help for low-income children, Meyer asks:

What happened to Title I?  What happened to free-and-reduced lunch? What about the dozens of adequacy and equity lawsuits that have redistributed billions of tax dollars to low-wealth schools? . . . Outside of schools we have Medicaid, Section 8 housing, WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program), food stamps and a plethora of anti-poverty programs that should prove, if nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.

An “increasing number of reformers” and Catholic educators “have proven over and over again that poverty is an educational challenge for schools, not a death sentence for their students,” Meyer concludes.

“Saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until you get better before he treats you,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee in  The Poverty Matters Trap.

 

 

Education reform’s future

It’s not quite the lion lying down the lamb, but Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford ed professor who served on Obama’s transition team, have co-written a New York Times op-ed, How to Rescue Education Reform.  They disagree on some key issues, but agree that the federal government should stick to what it alone can do and avoid trying to micromanage schools.

The first federal role is transparency:  No Child Left Behind required states to measure and report achievement, so parents, voters and taxpayers could “hold schools and public officials accountable.” However, states were allowed to set their own, low standards.

Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

The second federal role is “enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly.”

Third is supporting basic research in fields such as “brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring.”

Competitive federal grants can support innovation, they conclude. However, the “Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition . . .  ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.”

The feds should stop trying to improve schools by order from above, write Hess and Darling-Hammond. “The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well.”

Schizophrenic, responds RiShawn Biddle.

The odd couple call adequate yearly progress a “vague mandate,” but elsewhere  complain it’s too prescriptive, writes Andrew Rotherham.  The left and right are uniting to kill education reform, he adds in Time.

 

Bold dissenter — or burnable heretic?

The Dissenter in the New Republic (subscribers’ only) analyzes education historian Diane Ravitch’s turn against education reform ideas she’d once championed.

Author Kevin Carey seems to attribute Ravitch’s change of heart to her long-time partner’s rejection by Joel Klein. As a new chancellor, Klein started a training program for principals, ignoring the work of an existing and well-respected leadership academy run by Mary Butz, Ravitch’s partner.

Ravitch had good reason to distrust Klein and his reforms, writes Mike Petrilli.

. . . Diane had a point about Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein running schools as if they were “selling toothpaste.” The leadership academy was a perfect example. . . . like many reformers who distrust the reformers who came before them, he didn’t consider that Mary’s program might be worth building on, rather than replacing. And instead of recruiting experienced principals to run his new initiative, he went to corporate America for its funding and design.

Keep in mind that this was the same Joel Klein who was trashing the federal Reading First program for being too prescriptive, lavishing money on Lucy Calkins and her hare-brained “writing workshop” ideas, and arguing that the content of a particular curriculum didn’t matter; what was important was picking one and sticking to it. Klein was agnostic about the education side of education. And that (understandably) infuriated Diane.

. . .  she is right to be suspicious of a school reform movement that still, to this day, has little to say about matters of curriculum and pedagogy.

“Successful movements seek converts; unsuccessful movements hunt heretics,” responds Core Knowledge‘s Robert Pondiscio in an e-mail.
. . . Look, I disagree with Diane on choice and charters, among other things (lest I become the next heretic to be burned at the stake). But I remain deeply appreciative of her unchanged and unflinching support of a core curriculum, and enormously influenced by her overall body of work. The speculation that she would gainsay a life of scholarship merely for the cheap thrill of settling a personal grudge is just plain silly.
Indeed.

In a 1983 essay, “Scapegoating the Teachers,” Ravitch wrote:

It is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.

Ravitch was affiliated with the anti-communist left and was a friend of teachers’ union leader Al Shanker, Goldstein adds.

Both Goldstein and Alexander Russo raise the issue of sexism.

Forget Finland: Reform K-12 the U.S. way

Forget Finland, writes Rick Hess. Stop trying to be South Korea. We can “tap into uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity” to reform our schools.

America is a really big country. By population, it’s the third largest in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history. This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity, like Finland. However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass.

“Grandiloquent international best practice reports . . . identify a couple of homogenous nations the size of Minnesota that produce good test scores, cherry-pick a few of their educational practices, and then draw broad prescriptions,” Hess writes. We need to embrace America’s comparative advantages instead of trying to copy the competition.

When it comes to utilizing new tools and technology, the U.S. is “a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving,” he writes.

Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators. For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning.

Leveraging these new problem-solvers is the challenge, Hess writes.

And keep an eye on Qatar and India, which may be the world leaders in the future.

Educational insanity

After 20 years of education reform focused on reading and math — and billions of dollars in spending — NAEP results show little improvement, writes Lynne Munson of Common Core. It’s educational insanity, she writes, using Einstein’s definition: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice.  We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests.  We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale.  We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances):  None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Teaching knowledge “of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more” works for all students, Munson writes, citing International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula and Core Knowledge. Ignoring curricular content is nuts.

Silver bullet goes astray

American Teacher is another silver bullet for education that misses the target, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate. The movie profiles four excellent, hard-working teachers and advocates paying  teachers $125,000 a year to attract talented college graduates to the profession. But it never explains how those big salaries will be paid (larger classes?) or how teachers’ merit will be judged. Teachers’ unions aren’t mentioned. Neither is testing. There are no trade-offs to be made.

The movie is narrated by Matt Damon, an education reform critic, and co-produced by writer Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, a former teacher who works with Eggers on 826 National, a network of urban, nonprofit writing tutoring centers.

Reformers fail the ‘Tiffany Test’

In stressing the achievement gap above all else, education reformers are failing the “Tiffany Test,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. As a fifth-grade teacher in the South Bronx, he met Tiffany Lopez.

Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.

She also gets screwed.

Her teachers are told to focus on the low achievers. Tiffany isn’t a problem, so she gets ignored.

Rick Hess’s essay on “Achievement Gap Mania” is right on target, writes Pondiscio. Achievement gap mania is denying bright, hard-working students the help they need to reach their “full academic and life potential.”

When you have a Tiffany in your class in the age of gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music. You understand that her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves drying on the vine.

Giving every child a mediocre, minimum-competency education is not the route to social justice, writes Pondiscio.

Thanks to her own grit, Tiffany has started her freshman year at a state university.