Fix schools by not fixing schools

Fix Schools by Not Fixing Schools advises Jay P. Greene. Instead of trying to reform traditional public schools, go around them.

We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools.  We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs.  Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools don’t want to be fixed, writes Greene.

The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things.  Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc… on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise.  They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.

“Second, attempting to impose reforms on traditional public schools requires a significant increase in centralized political control,” Greene writes.  When traditionalists subvert “most reforms through poor implementation,” the centralization remains.

 Centralized reforms that can be adopted and implemented have to be watered-down enough to gain broad support for passage and implementation, rendering them mostly impotent.

. . . even if by some miracle an effective and appropriate centralized reform with bite is adopted and properly implemented, there is no natural political constituency to preserve the integrity of that reform over time.

Traditional public schools don’t resist the creation of alternatives “with the same ferocity that they oppose reforms that directly effect their daily working life,” Greene writes. Creating alternatives doesn’t require centralization or pleasing everyone. Successful alternatives build their own constituency.

 

On tougher test, NY scores plunge

Reading and math scores dropped sharply in New York because the new Common Core-aligned tests are much harder.

In New York City, 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the state exams in English, and 30 percent passed in math, reports the New York Times. On last year’s easier test, 47 percent of city students passed in English, and 60 percent in math.

Statewide, 31 percent of students passed the exams in reading and math. Last year, 55 percent passed in reading, and 65 percent in math.

Achievement gaps are large: 16 percent of black students and 18 percent of Hispanic students passed English exams, compared with 40 percent of white students and 50 percent of Asians.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said higher standards will prepare students for college and the work force. “Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities,” Mr. Duncan said. “Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.”

It’s a conspiracy to make teachers look bad and sell more stuff, writes Carol Burris, an award-winning high school principal, on Answer Sheet.

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include “cuneiform,” “sarcophagus,” and “ziggurat.” . . .

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

“There will be tremendous pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cut out all of the enrichment that can make young children smile with anticipation on Monday mornings,” Burris concludes.

New York State Stops Lying to Kids, and That’s a Good Thing, headlines RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Time to end summer vacation?

Summer vacation is bad for kids — especially low-income kids, writesMatthew Yglesias on Slate.  Middle-class kids may go to camp, play sports or travel, while poor kids sit at home with the TV. That creates “massive avoidable inequities,” he argues.

A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students

“While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer,” RAND concluded, “low-income students lose more ground in reading while their higher-income peers may even gain.” . . . Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer . . .

A majority of the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status students in Baltimore can be attributed to differences in summer learning loss, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

“School is important,” concludes Yglesias.   “It should happen all year ’round.”

Some urban districts are “blending academics with recreational activities” to prevent summer learning loss, reports EdSource. Most enrichment programs are run by nonprofits and supported by federal or state funds and foundation grants, not by district funds.

Traditional remedial summer classes can be “pretty grim,” said Katie Brackenridge, senior director for expanded learning initiatives with the Partnership for Children and Youth, whose “Summer Matters” campaign pushes for expanded summer programs. “Part of it is that kids already walk in the door probably not liking learning so much, and that’s how they got stuck in remediation in the first place. We’re looking at how do you make those learning opportunities engaging.”

Seventh graders at Oakland Unified’s Coliseum College Prep Academy visited San Francisco’s Exploratorium, then used baking soda and calcium chloride  to explain chemical reactions to the eighth graders.

Santa Ana-based THINK Together offers summer enrichment programs to nearly 13,000 students in 10 school districts throughout the state.

Enrichment programs typically run about six weeks and are offered for as long as six hours a day. Mornings are traditionally spent on academics, while the afternoons are dedicated to hands-on STEM studies – science, technology, education and mathematics programs – arts and crafts, lab work or sports.

According to a Summer Matters study, How Summer Learning Strengthens Student Success, students raised their vocabulary skills as much as one-third of an instructional grade in six weeks and improved their attitudes about school and reading.

Funding summer enrichment programs for disadvantaged and struggling students is a lot cheaper than extending the school year by one or two months.

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  ”gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

Gifted + talented = separate + unequal

“Gifted and talented” classes are mostly white and Asian, even at predominantly black and Hispanic schools, reports the New York Times. At P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side, black and Hispanic students make up two-thirds of the student body but only one third of gifted students.

Once schools could set their own criteria for admissions to gifted classes, but since 2008 only students who test very well can qualify. In low-income neighborhoods, schools don’t offer gifted classes because not enough kids ace the test.

(Critics) contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise, and that the programs create castes within schools, one offered an education that is enriched and accelerated, the other getting a bare-bones version of the material. Because they are often embedded within larger schools, the programs bolster a false vision of diversity, these critics say, while reinforcing the negative stereotypes of class and race.

Students in gifted classes have a much easier time qualifying for the city’s selective middle and high schools. Only 15 percent of seats at  specialized high schools go to blacks or Hispanic students, who make up 70 percent of enrollment.

Sara K. Bloch’s triplets go to P.S. 163. Leon is in a gifted class, Jason in general education and Felix in “an integrated co-teaching class, which mixes special education students with general education children like Felix.”

“To be completely honest, we feel that this class is probably similar to a regular fifth-grade class,” she said on the day she visited Leon in Ms. Dillon’s class. “Math is the same; all three — they have the same book.”

But Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party. She also said that the relationship between the parents and the teachers was more intense at the gifted level, with an expectation of parent involvement and connectedness.

A fifth-grade teacher at the school tells the Times she’d never let her own kids take general education classes at P.S. 163. There are too many kids from “the projects.”

Schools try longer, smarter school day

If the school day is longer, will students learn more? The TIME Collaborative will experiment with different ways to use a longer school day or year in schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. Schools in low-income communities will add at least 300 hours to the school year.

That won’t mean more time doing the same thing,reports the Christian Science Monitor.  Connecticut, Colorado, and Tennessee are all taking part in a pilot project in which select schools – particularly those that serve low-income communities – add at least 300 hours to the school year, whether through a lengthened school day or a longer school year.

For example, teachers might start staggered schedules. Schools might explore both traditional and computer-mediated learning. Students might get more time for internships or project-based opportunities. Teachers should gain time for collaboration and planning.

Community groups that run after-school programs may offer enrichment activities during the longer school day, such as music, art, robotics, or sports, said Jeannie Oakes, a Ford Foundation official.

To make a longer school day cost effective, teachers would have to allow lower-paid non-teachers to run computer labs, theater programs, karate class, etc.

Community college cronyism

On many community college campuses, “corruption, cronyism, abuse of power, and fiefdom-building constitute business as usual,” writes Rob Jenkins, a Georgia Perimeter College English professor. Feudalism and Soviet-style dictatorship are the most common governance models, he writes.

Facing the loss of accreditation for mismanagement, City College of San Francisco has proposed an improvement plan that includes spending less on enrichment classes and collecting $400,000 a year in unpaid tuition.

Why rich kids do better in school than poor kids

Why do rich kids do better in school than poor kids? Daniel Willingham provides two answers in an American Educator article.

First, wealthier parents can invest more in their children. They can afford “enrichment experiences in the summer, more books in the home, a tutor if one is needed, better access to health care, and so on.”

Wealthier parents are also likely to be higher in human capital–that is, they know more stuff. Wealthier parents speak more often to their children, and with a richer vocabulary, with more complex syntax, and in a way that elicits ideas from the child. Wealthier parents are also more likely to read to their children and to buy toys that teach letters and the names of shapes and colors.

Children who grow up in poverty are prey to “stress caused by crowding, by crime-ridden neighborhoods, by food uncertainty, and other factors.”  Warm, supportive parents can counteract this, but stress may affect parents’ ability to raise their children well, Willingham writes. “Stress also leads directly to brain changes in children. Both of these factors lead to emotional and cognitive disadvantage for kids.”

What can teachers do? Teach academic knowledge and skills that kids won’t get at home, but also teach “how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions and so on,” Willingham writes.

A “calm atmosphere” is important for kids who come from noisy, crowded and thratening neighborhoods and homes, he adds. “Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones.”

‘Exemplary’ school taught only reading, math

A Dallas elementary school with “exemplary” math and reading scores taught no science or social studies to third graders, district officials charge. It was all reading and math all the time.  The music teacher taught math instead. Teachers were told to fabricate grades for students in courses they weren’t taught, reports the Dallas Morning News.

Field Elementary principal Roslyn Carter is on paid administrative leave for falsifying grades.

While the investigation has focused on third grade, other grades also may have been affected.

“I do not know of science being taught in 3rd or 4th grade,” school counselor Laura McMillin said in an e-mail to an investigator. “And I am unaware of social studies being taught at all.”

Third- and fifth-grade students who were failing certain classes were assigned to tutoring instead of enrichment classes such as music, art and P.E., the principal admitted. Ninety percent of third graders missed “specials” to prep for the state exam, a math coach said.

Once students had taken the state exam, teachers were allowed teach science, social studies and enrichment classes for the remaining three weeks of the school year.

Use a cell phone, pay a fine

In some Texas districts, teachers can confiscate cell phones and charge students $15 to get their phones back. Cell phone fines have netted $100,948 for Klein Independent School District, which has been charging the $15 fee for two years. The money has paid for art supplies, free P.E. uniforms, pizza parties to reward students and other enrichment activities.

Cell phones can be a learning tool, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He wants schools and colleges to deliver course content to phones, reports eSchool News.

“Kids are on their cell phones the 14 hours a day they are not in school,” Duncan said in a recent interview with eCampus News . . . With teenagers and young adults using cell phones constantly, Duncan said, technology officials should find ways to send homework, video lectures, and other classroom material so students can study wherever they are.

Of course, students might use phones less if it meant listening to lectures.

At some colleges, students are downloading course material on their cell phones, avoiding the high costs of buying textbooks. Ball State nursing students must buy an AT&T mobile device to “access lab books, medical dictionaries, diagnosis literature, and other resources throughout the school year.”  Undergrads pay about $250 for course materials that can be used throughout their studies. And they’ve got a lot less to carry from class to class.