No miracle at Locke

One year after low-performing Locke High was taken over by Green Dot, the school’s scores remain low. On the plus side, 38 percent more students took the state exam, notes a Los Angeles Times editorial. More kids are in school; truancy and campus crime rates are way down.

. . . by enrolling all the students within its attendance boundaries — including the perpetual truants, gangbangers and likely dropouts along with the honors students — Locke accepted the same challenges faced by L.A.’s more troubled public schools.

Green Dot and other successful charter operators should stick to what they do best — starting new schools —  writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

I think it’s too soon to give up on the Locke turnaround: It will take more than a year to make a difference in achievement for students who fell way, way behind long before Green Dot took over the high school. But if next year’s ninth and 10th graders show no improvement . . .

Testing: Threat or menace?

Student achievement, as measured by test scores, is meaningless, writes Karl Wheatley, a Cleveland State education professor in a Plain Dealer op-ed.

. . . most of what matters in life is simply not on the tests. Many key subjects and skills that form the backbone of people’s careers are not being tested. Also, many of the top goals that parents and employers have for American students are not on the tests, including teamwork, independence, creativity, love of learning, risk-taking, problem-solving, critical thinking, confidence, initiative, persistence, and to be caring, happy and healthy. Even in the subjects tested, researchers repeatedly find that standardized tests overemphasize low-level outcomes and underemphasize higher-level skills.

. . . focusing education on test scores creates collateral damage in every corner of education: dumbed-down curriculum, motivation problems for students and teachers, higher teacher attrition, mind-numbing scripted instruction, increased mental health problems, more kids put on drugs to pay attention and increased alienation, behavioral problems and dropouts.

Testing isn’t the problem, responds Jamie Davies O’Leary on Flypaper. The problem is low achievement in, for example, Cleveland.

The most glaring of Wheatley’s arguments is his contradiction that testing is bad because it doesn’t focus on soft skills like teamwork, personal management, creativity, etc. Even if we shifted toward teaching those “skills” in lieu of core content (reading, math, science and history), how would we know that students are progressing appropriately unless we assess their learning? Regardless of what schools teach, that content has to be tested somehow in order for us to know a) that students are learning it and b) that teachers are doing a decent job of teaching it. Furthermore, no one is arguing that self-sufficiency, creativity, etc. are not important, just that they aren’t going to be that useful if students reach high school reading at a sixth-grade level and still can’t tell time on an analog clock.

Testing enables us to diagnose learning problems — and teaching problems, O’Leary argues. For example, “only 10 percent of Cleveland’s fourth-graders were proficient in mathematics according to the 2007 NAEP, and only 8 percent were proficient readers.”

Bad tests and bad test prep lead to bad results. But no testing lets us pretend that those Cleveland students are doing OK.  Poor readers may have a “love of learning” that will kick in some day.  Kids who can’t add or multiply may be strong in problem-solving, critical thinking, initiative or persistence. Pigs may have wings.

In Why she quit teaching, an ex-teacher talks about trying to teach 10th graders who’ve been passed along without learning to read. These are not happy kids.

No data, no dollars

Despite laws preventing the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, California, New York and Wisconsin are trying to argue that they qualify for Race to the Top funding, reports Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuck. He summarizes:

New York: “OK, our law says you can’t use test data in teacher-tenure decisions, but teachers have to demonstrate how they’ll use data to get tenure. Besides, the law only refers to tenure, not all those other teacher things.”
California: “OK, just because there’s a state prohibition on the use of this data doesn’t mean local districts can’t choose to include it on their own. Like, six whole districts already do!”
Wisconsin: “OK, we can’t use our NCLB tests for these teacher-related purposes, but we have all kinds of other tests we could use!”

California Superintendent Jack O’Connell visited Long Beach Unified, known as a data-driven district.  The LA Times reports:

Seven years ago, the district developed a sophisticated centralized data system that allows it to track individual student achievement, attendance and discipline over time. The system also lets the district see how students are faring collectively in a particular classroom or school, and how subsets such as English learners or special education students are performing. District officials can then use the information for staffing decisions, such as where to send specialists.

Tom Malkus, principal of Lee Elementary School, said he and other school leaders use the data to spot struggling teachers and offer coaching, professional development and other support.

If that fails, (Superintendent Christopher) Steinhauser said, the district has “courageous conversations” with teachers that can result in their leaving the profession.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to terminate the data firewall. The unions should agree to change the law, editorializes the San Jose Mercury News.

Without linking student data to teachers, lawmakers will shoot in the dark when they try, for example, to make sure that effective teachers are working in low-performing schools.

Swift & Change Able looks at New York state’s data firewall, which reads:  “The teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data.”

Here’s how it would have been written if what NY state officials and the unions are saying was their real intent really was their intent (the simple adding of one word):

“the teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based solely on student performance data.”

or, more elegantly and affirmatively:

“teacher tenure shall be granted based on student performance data and other relevant factors”

. . . The one upside of this debate: we now know what is meant by “creative problem solving” when union officials and their flacks talk about “21st Century Skills.”

On Flypaper, Mike Petrilli looks at the politics of the decision to require states to use achievement data to evaluate teachers.  It’s not just a poke in the eye for the teachers’ unions, he writes. It’s a poke at California. And it couldn’t have happened without the OK of Rep. George Miller, a liberal California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor committee. Petrilli thinks it’s Miller’s revenge on the NEA, which made “a stink about merit pay when Miller’s NCLB reauthorization bill was floated back in 2007.”

Racing to the top

The “Race to the Top” — $4.35 billion in federal funding to push education reform — starts today.

States must let student test scores be used to evaluate teachers and principals,  writes Michele McNeil in Education Week. That would force California and New York to change state law to qualify for funds.

This is Education Reform’s Moon Shot, writes Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a Washington Post op-ed. The department’s never had this much money to hand out before. There are 19 points, but four basic ideas are critical:

— To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

— To close the data gap — which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction — states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.

— To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals — and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren’t up to the job.

— Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture.

It’s fair to evaluate teachers based on students’ progress, says President Obama in a Washington Post interview.

So what we can say is that if a kid comes in and they gain two grade levels during the course of that single year, even if they’re still a little behind the national average, that tells us that school is doing a good job.

Linking teacher pay to test scores is a big mistake, argues Robert Pondiscio.  Teachers already focus too much on scores and too little on the big picture.

It’s The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. He likes the reform ideas but dislikes the Washington Knows Best tone. If the states are forced to go along, they’ll implement reforms half-heartedly.

This is a draft, not the final proposal, so it’s possible the administration will bend on some of its 19 points.

Eduwonk hopes the department will hold the line, denying grants to states that aren’t serious about change. He notes NEA president Dennis Van Roekel claims to be “absolutely in sync with where they’re going,” except for performance pay, charter schools and linking student and teacher data.  Eduwonk writes:

It’s akin to saying they’re on board with Duncan’s ”moon shot” except for the parts about rockets, rocket fuel, astronauts, engineers, and mission control.

Michael Umphrey wants students and parents to change — or else.

(Obama) could send the school money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers, threatening to cut it off if the kids grades don’t improve. He could turn off cell phone service for kids whose GPA drops below C. He could give each honor student one of those unsold General Motors cars while revoking drivers licenses for any student who gets an F.

Hmmm. Would a GM car be a sufficient motivator?

It’s difficult to figure out how much a teacher or a principal has contributed to students’ learning.  I think we’re in the early stages of figuring this out, not in the so-obvious-everyone-should-do-it stage.

Duncan backs merit pay at NEA

Teachers booed and hissed when Education Secretary Arne Duncan advocated merit pay at the National Education Association convention in San Diego.  They didn’t like “talk of reform to seniority and tenure systems, either,” reports Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuck. 

I wonder if Duncan had prepared his seemingly ad-libbed line for when the booing started: “You can boo, but don’t throw any shoes, please.” And I’m pretty sure most of the delegates had gotten their vocal chords ready, too.

. .  . Also, large parts of the speech seemed to key directly off of the stimulus legislation. When Duncan talked about seniority putting some teachers in schools and classrooms they’re not prepared for, well, that gets to the equitable-distribution-of-teachers language in the stimulus.When he talked about the poor state of evaluations, well, that lines up to the language that will require states and districts to report the number and percentage of teachers scoring at each performance level on local evaluation instruments.

On Flypaper, Andy Smarick gives the speech a good review, with special praise for this: 

A recent report from the New Teacher Project found that almost all teachers are rated the same. Who in their right mind really believes that?

 Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.

Teachers also booed a mention of Green Dot, says Eduwonk, who compares that to hating Santa Claus.

Education Sector is hosting an online discussion of teachers’ work and teachers’ unions. 

Standards and sausage

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have agreed to work on common K-12 standards. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have taken the lead.

When students get their high school diplomas, the coalition says, they should be ready to tackle college or a job. The benchmarks would be “internationally competitive.”

Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it.

I’m with Flypaper, which compared states’ signing on to standards to people joining a health club in January. We don’t know yet who’s committed and who’s not.

Creating national standards is like making sausage, writes Jay Greene. Only harder to do well.

. . . when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards. What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone. There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.

Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder. That’s what is happening now with the National Governor’s Association effort at “voluntary” national standards. In a process completely lacking in transparency and open-debate, some are rushing to announce a national standards fait accompli.

He quotes Sandra Stotsky, who worries that the standards development process is not transparent, and Sandy Kress, who warns in an Eduwonk comment that states will get a lot less enthusiastic about standards when they realize how incredibly hard it is to agree on something decent.

Beware the Witchery of Words

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli calls on us to treat our education opponents fairly. “Both opponents and proponents of ‘school reform’ tend to vilify the other side with caricatures,” he writes. “Union bosses are power-hungry Machiavellians who want to keep poor children trapped in failing schools. Reformers are greedy capitalists determined to outsource our public education system to the highest bidder.”

Meanwhile, Robert Pondiscio proposes an “Ed Reform Devil’s Dictionary,” which would help us understand what certain commonly employed phrases actually mean. For instance, a “real reformer” is “someone who agrees with me.”

Michael John Demiashkevich referred to this sort of verbal trickery as “the witchery of words.” In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935), he writes:

This sophistic logic is at the basis of wholesale assertions which would omit all gradations, distinctions, and nuances found in the realities of life. The sophistic logic consists in reasoning to the effect that A is either B or non-B. In reality things are not so simple, and A can be both B and non-B at one and the same time; in some of its aspects A can be B and in some other aspects non-B. The ancient sophists (see p. 153) worked out a whole set of samples of tricky sophistic reasoning. With the help of these samples they trained their disciples toward amazing verbal trickery. Many such samples are recorded in Aristotle’s work, De Sophisticis Elenchis (On Sophistic Refutations).

How would the ancient sophistic logic play out here? Someone can tell you that you are either pro-child or pro-adult; take your pick. In reality, there can be considerable overlap and interaction between the two. Or another example: in a professional development meeting, teachers might be told that the “old” ways of teaching are outdated and we must embrace the “new.” Actually the division between “old” and “new” is not so clear, and teachers have been combining older and newer techniques for centuries.

In unveiling trickeries and employing courtesy, let us become even sharper in our arguments. Let’s engage over the ideas, as Petrilli suggests. Treating each other decently is not the same as proclaiming that “I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!”

Diana Senechal

Turning around the bottom 1%

The Obama administration will fund efforts to “turn around” 5,000 failing schools over the next five years, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Duncan said that might mean firing an entire staff and bringing in a new one, replacing a principal or turning a school over to a charter school operator.

. . . “If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children,” Duncan said.

States would decide how to spend the turnaround money, which could be as much as $4.5 billion.

Don’t waste billions of dollars trying to do the impossible, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.  Turnarounds rarely work.  What’s necessary is the ruthlessness to close failing schools and open new schools.

Do you plan to invest billions of dollars to try to invent a reliable, scalable strategy for fixing long-broken schools? Or are we going to humbly accept the clear lesson from 40 years of turnaround efforts in education (and even longer in the private sector), and recognize that closures and new starts are the way to go?

So far, the department’s turnaround ideas include both traditional fix-it activities and closing and reopening schools, Smarick points out.

AP isn’t for all, teachers say

Many more students are taking Advanced Placement courses and exams.  In a Fordham survey, AP teachers expressed mixed feelings about AP’s growth. Teachers say AP is a quality program, but students are signing up to burnish their college applications, rarely because they want academic challenge.  High schools are pushing AP classes “to improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community,” most teachers say.

As a result, some students enroll in AP courses they’re not prepared to handle, a majority of teachers say.

More than half, 56 percent, said they believed that “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.” Even more teachers, 60 percent, said that “parents push their children into A.P. classes when they really don’t belong there.”

Fifty-two percent said such courses should be open only to students who could demonstrate that they could handle the work.

Flypaper has more on the trade-offs in expanding AP to a wider group of students.

Killing D.C. voucher hopes

A week after 200 low-income Washington, D.C. families were offered $7,500 vouchers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan canceled the scholarships. No new children will start at private schools in the fall; those already attending will lose voucher aid in another year, unless Congress reconsiders. As the Washington Post editorializes, this makes it easier for congressional opponents to end the voucher program for good, despite a new study showing reading gains for voucher students.

(The decision) comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it’s clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

. . . By presuming the program dead — and make no mistake, that’s the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment — Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.

The voucher families have missed the deadline to apply to many public charter schools or to apply for transfers.  Their kids will be stuck in their neighborhood district-run public schools.

Duncan has a boss, points out Jennifer Rubin on Contentions. His name is Barack Obama. He doesn’t send his kids to D.C.’s district-run public schools.

Duncan wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t know about the follow-up study’s positive findings, writes Grover Whitehurst, former director of the Institute for Education Sciences.

Update: At Flypaper, Mike Petrilli prints the letter the Education Department sent to parents who were offered vouchers, then told the scholarships were cancelled.  It expresses “regret” for the “confusion” and promises to do “everything possible to help ensure that your child is in a safe school environment that offers strengthened academic programs.”  Since transfer and charter deadlines have passed, “everything possible” isn’t much.

Petrilli suggests more honest wording:

“Because Democrats in Congress have voted to rescind funding for this program after next school year (despite the fact that a recent evaluation shows it to be a success, a rarity for federal initiatives), we have unilaterally decided to rescind your child’s scholarship effective immediately.”

It’s not too late for President Obama to step in. Send the Seals!