Equal access — or punishing achievers?

In pushing for “equal access” to gifted classes, honors tracks and Advanced Placement, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is punishing achievement, charges Checker Finn in Education Next.  Even separating first graders into reading groups may be suspect. What if there are more Asian than Hispanic bluebirds?

 . . . the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention.

“Old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends,” Finn concedes. But not every students has the motivation or preparation to succeed in AP courses. Some would prefer “high-quality career and technical education,” if they had the choice.

. . . we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Integrated schools could lose their middle-class students, warns Finn. If advanced classes are watered down to accommodate less-prepared students, achievers’ parents will look for challenge elsewhere.

Tracking in Middle School can promote equity by better preparing low-income, black and Latino achievers for AP courses, argues Brookings’ researcher Tom Loveless.

At 19 Baltimore high schools, few AP Bio students pass the AP exam (Photo: Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore, thousands of low-income students earn A’s and B’s in AP classes, then fail the AP exams and place into remedial courses in college, notes Loveless, citing a Baltimore Sun story. Students have access to AP, but not the preparation they need to succeed.

Accelerated and enriched classes help high achievers learn even more, his research has shown. Yet high-poverty middle schools typically leave achievers isn the same classes as low-performing students. “It’s an injustice,” said Loveless at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference.

Good principals attract good teachers

Good principals attract, develop and retain good teachers, writes Dana Goldstein in Slate.

In our effort to help teachers close achievement gaps, let’s look beyond tenure panic, incentive pay, and even the Common Core. How about a new education reform push, one that focuses less on the individual teacher in her classroom and more on the principal who supervises teachers’ work?

. . . When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment.

Today’s principals are expected to be managers and instructional leaders, writes Goldstein.  An effective principal articulates the school’s mission and helps teachers improve their teaching skills.

When an excellent principal is hired at a high-poverty school, time for teacher training and collaboration increases, student test scores rise by 5 to 10 points annually, and ineffective teachers begin to leave — yes, even under today’s often overly restrictive tenure policies. When a good principal departs, the progress unwinds and student achievement drops.

Good principals “multiply the effects of good teaching,” she writes.

By contrast, superintendents aren’t all that important, according to a new Brookings analysis of Florida and North Carolina data.

Superintendents come and go without affecting student achievement by more than a small fraction, the report concludes.

Figure. Variance in Fourth and Fifth Grade Student Achievement in Mathematics Associated with Various Influences, North Carolina, 2000-01 to 2009-10

Poor kids’ teachers score low, but why?

New teacher evaluation systems tend to give lower ratings to teachers with disadvantaged students. Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuk asks the critical question: Are the ratings biased? Or do high-need kids get fewer high-quality teachers?

Value-added measures (VAM) are supposed to judge teachers by whether they’ve done better than previous teachers at improving their students’ progress. But many question whether VAM is a reliable measure of teachers’ effectiveness.

Evaluation systems also include classroom observations. And those have problems too, writes Sawchuk. “Observations by principals can reflect bias, rather than actual teaching performance,” writes Sawchuk.

Yet we also know that disadvantaged students are less likely to have teachers capable of boosting their test scores and that black students are about four times more likely than white students to be located in schools with many uncertified teachers.

Teachers in low-poverty Washington, D.C. schools were far more likely to ace the teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, observes Matthew Di Carlo, at the Shanker blog.


The Pittsburgh teacher-evaluation program shows similar results, according to a federal analysis, writes Sawchuk. “Teachers of low-income and minority students tended to receive lower scores from principals conducting observations, and from surveys administered to students. Those teaching gifted students tended to get higher ratings.”

It’s hard to know whether all methods of evaluation are inaccurate or whether a “maldistribution of talent” explains the low scores for teachers of disadvantaged students, concludes Sawchuk.

It will be hard to persuade teachers to work in high-poverty, high-minority schools if they know they’ll risk being rated ineffective.

Test answers are in the (missing) book

Pennsylvania’s state exams can be “gamed” by a “shockingly low-tech strategy,” writes Meredith Broussard, a Temple professor of data journalism. All it takes is reading “the textbooks created by the test makers.”

Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing because they don’t have the right books, she writes in  The Atlantic.

On  the 2009 Pennsylvania exam, third-grade students were asked to write down an even number with three digits and how they know it’s even.

Here’s an example of a correct answer from a testing supplement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

This partially correct answer earned one point instead of two:

Everyday Math’s third-grade study guide tells teachers to drill students on the rules for odd and even factors and be able to explain how they know the rule is true, Broussard writes. “A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.”

I’m not shocked that tests are aligned to textbooks. What’s truly disturbing is Broussard’s research into whether Philadelphia schools have the right books. She found district administrators don’t know what curriculum each school is using, what books they have or what they need.

According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. “If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses,” I told the curriculum officer.

“Really?” she said. “That would be great. I didn’t know you could do that!”

Principals use their own systems for tracking supplies and books. Short of support staff, schools stack books in closets and forget they’re there. Teachers scavenge materials from closed schools and spend their own money to supplement their $100 a year supplies budget.

Broussard built a program, Stacked Up, which found the average Philadelphia school has 27 percent of the books it needs. But that’s just a guess because nobody really knows who’s got what.

High spending, low performing

Camden, New Jersey schools spend $27,500 per student to run some of the worst schools in the state, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Twenty-three of the district’s 26 schools appear on the state’s list of the 70 lowest-performing schools, but the city will spend almost as much per pupil in the current school year as the state’s highest-spending districts, Avalon and Stone Harbor, spent in 2012-13. Camden made headlines earlier this year when the superintendent said only three high school students of the 882 who took the SAT in 2011-12 tested “college ready.”

The district graduates only 49 percent of students.

Camden is a high-poverty city. Special education costs are high.  “There’s no secret to how we got here,” said former school board member Sean Brown, who served from 2010 to 2013. “There definitely was leadership failure going on, high management turnover, and a lot of things we had to spend money on.”

 The district, which has lost 1,000 students over the last five years to charter or out-of-district schools, has gained administrators and staff, increasing spending 10 percent and creating a student-employee ratio of 4-1 and a student-teacher ratio of 9-1.

. . . Of 2,700 district jobs, only 46 percent are held by teachers. School-based non-teachers such as aides and maintenance employees account for 40 percent and the central office for 13 percent, according to district figures.

“In a first-grade general education classroom earlier this month, 11 pupils sat cross-legged on the floor around a teacher who read to them while a second teacher, also assigned to the classroom, sat in one of eight empty desks,” reports the Inquirer. Yet, at one of the high schools, “special-education staffing can be so tight, teachers not certified in special education say they have had to fill in.”

 Classrooms in Camden often come equipped with smartboards, iPads, and laptops. But in the same rooms teachers might lack access to a working printer, the tech support they need to use the smartboard, or a basic set of textbooks requested a year ago.

“We don’t have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources,” the district’s state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

Duncan tells schools how to assign teachers

Uncle Sam shouldn’t try to manage school staffing, writes Rick Hess.

The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking “waivers” from the No Child Left Behind Act’s most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else. In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that “effective” teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.

Arne Duncan, who’s not the school superintendent for the U.S., wants to staff high-poverty schools with more effective teachers, writes Hess. That’s a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t be dictated from Washington.

 Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify “effective” teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.

Some teachers who are effective with easy-to-teach students aren’t effective with hard-to-teach students, Hess points out.

20% of schools serve high-poverty kids

One in five public schools was a high-poverty school in 2011, according to the U.S. Education Department. That means 75 percent or more of students qualify for a subsidized lunch. The number of high-poverty schools increased by 60 percent, according to Hechinger Report‘s Education By The Numbers. In 2000, only one in eight public schools was deemed to be high poverty.

According to this chart, a family of four could earn up to $42,643 to qualify for a reduced-price lunch and up to $29,965 for a free lunch.

It’s way past time to measure poverty directly and throw in other socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education. The school lunch figures are skewed at the high school level: Many kids don’t ask for a free lunch, even if they’re eligible.

School funding: Quietly unequal

The rich districts get richer in Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina, according to a new Center for American Progress report, The Stealth Inequities of School Funding. In these states, schools in higher-poverty districts receive less state and local dollars than low-poverty districts, the report finds.

On the state level, there’s no relationship between education spending and results, according to a State Budget Solutions study, which analyzed state spending from 2009 to 2011. Spending more didn’t raise graduation rates or ACT scores. Spending less didn’t lower performance.

Massachusetts, which has the strongest academic performance in almost every subject area and the highest ACT scores, spend less of its state budget on education than 45 other states, SBS reported.

Poor schools try ‘flipping’ too

“Flipping the classroom” works for low-income students — if their teachers can come up with the technology, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report.

Sacha Luria, a Portland, Oregon elementary teacher, realized her students didn’t have computers at home. She had only one in her classroom. But she was determined to “flip.”

So she used her own money to buy a second computer and begged everyone she knew for donations, finally bringing the total to six for her 23 fourth-graders at Rigler School. In her classroom, students now alternate between working on the computers and working with her.

So far, the strategy is showing signs of success. She uses class time to tailor instruction to students who started the school year behind their classmates in reading and math, and she has seen rapid improvement. By the end of the school year, she said, her students have averaged two years’ worth of progress in math, for example.

Luria’s colleagues are interested — but they don’t have the computers or her begging skills.

At Westside High School in Macon, Georgia, a high-poverty, high-minority school, a federal grant has paid for netbooks for all students. Some teachers are flipping their classes and reporting good results.

Social studies teacher Sydney Elkin said her students’ scores on the Georgia state end-of-course exams increased, particularly for her special-education students. The semester before she flipped her classroom, about 30 percent of all students passed. In her first semester with a flipped class, she said, nearly three-quarters passed, including nine out of 10 special-education students.

Flipping does not solve all problems, though, Elkin said. Some students must still be constantly needled to do their work. And despite second and third chances on tests that act as gateways to the next level, some students still fall behind.

Flipped classrooms are “the low hanging gruit of innovation,” said Michael Horn, executive director of education at the Innosight Institute in Mountain View, Calif., which works to introduce innovation into education.