For $25K per pupil, Camden still fails

Camden, New Jersey is a very poor city with very high school spending and very low-performing schools, reports Reason. Camden raised per-pupil spending to more than $25,000.  The public schools remain “notorious for their abysmal test scores,  the frequent occurrence of in-school violencedilapidated buildings and an on-time graduation rate of just 61 percent.”

Reason also takes a look at LEAP, one of Camden’s best charter schools: Last June, 98 percent earned a high school diploma and all graduates went on to college.

Progressives say ‘grit’ is racist

The Knowledge is Power Program – better known as KIPP – has reason to celebrate. In 20 years KIPP has ...
At KIPP charter schools, students are encouraged to develop “grit.” 

“Grit” is racist, according to some progressive educators, reports Ed WeekEduCon 2.7, a conference for “progressive” educators interested in digital learning, included a discussion titled “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”

“We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle class,” said Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the 13,000-student Albemarle County public schools, in Virginia.

To avoid the “terribly racist” consequences of “the grit narrative,” schools and districts should create abundant supports for disadvantaged students, said Ira Socol, Moran’s assistant director for educational technology and innovation, who co-led the discussion.

For example, Albemarle County schools provide a computer for each student with apps and digital tools such as “text-to-speech and voice-dictation software to help struggling students with reading and writing assignments,” reports Ed Week.

Instead of “no excuses,” students are given “flexibility and forgiveness. . . . when it comes to things like homework and class attendance.”

“The attitude is that if a child feels [he or she] can’t be in class, it’s probably for a reason, and we can help them, rather than say, ‘The kid has to be miserable and get through it,'” Socol said. “Wealthy people take ‘mental-health days’ all the time.”

Enabling disadvantaged students to get through school without learning reading, writing or a work ethic strikes me as pretty darned racist. There’s a phrase for that: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Angela Duckworth’s research shows that certain traits — persistence in pursuit of goals, resilience in the face of obstacles — raise students’ odds of school and college success. Grit may be more important for kids who face more obstacles, but Duckworth never suggested it’s only for the poor– or that it’s the only thing they need.

The idea that “grit” is “racist” is “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” writes Harry Wong in comments. “Hard work” works, he writes. It always has.

Immigrant families who come to America, from Haiti, Bosnia, and Ethiopia . . .  come steeped in the importance of family, respect for others, and the value of hard work. Their accomplishments make our schools look good. They understand that there are no short cuts to success. They come from cultures that stretch back for centuries that value ambition, dedication, diligence, commitment, integrity, determination, fortitude, constancy, responsibility, steadfastness, drive, and perseverance.

I think he’s the Harry Wong.

Most students aren’t ‘in poverty’

Fifty-one percent of public school students were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in 2012-13, according to a Southern Education Foundation report.  That means low-income students are a majority, some have reported. 

Not really.

Qualifying for a subsidized lunch is a very unreliable measure of poverty. It both undercounts and overcounts the poor, explains Kevin Drum on Mother Jones. But, mostly, it overcounts. 

A family of four earning $44,000 a year, less than 185 percent of the poverty line, would qualify for the reduced-price lunch. That’s about 7 percent of the total. Forty-four percent get a free lunch because family income is under $31,000.

. . .  lots of poor kids, especially in the upper grades, don’t participate in school lunch programs even though they qualify. They just don’t want to eat in the cafeteria. So there’s always been a bit of undercounting of those eligible.

On the other hand, a new program called the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted a couple of years ago, allows certain school districts to offer free meals to everyone without any proof of income. Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible, and the number is growing quickly. For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible.

A few school districts — typically those with affluent students — are dropping out of the school lunch program because students don’t want to pay for the new smaller, healthier meals.

Instead of fooling with inaccurate school lunch data, why not ask about family income directly (and parental education while we’re at it)?

Child poverty increased in the recession, but is now trending down, writes Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 21 percent of school-age children were in families living under the poverty line in 2012. Child Trends estimates 20 percent in 2013.

First to college — but not to a degree

More low-income students are enrolling in college, but few go on to earn a degree, reports Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Many are poorly prepared for college work, struggling with financial burdens and working long hours, writes Riggs.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is only 39 percent. By comparison, the state’s flagship university, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduates 71 percent of students and 54 percent of its first-generation students.

A minority of four-year schools provide adequate support to first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, who directs a new nonprofit called I’m First.

Most disadvantaged students choose unselective state universities, community colleges or online programs with low graduation rates and little funding for support services.

If President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition passes — which it won’t — then first-generation, low-income students who could get into a selective university may decide to start at community college instead. (Actually, few low-income students pay any community college tuition, but they might get more Pell dollars to cover their living expenses.) That would be a high-risk decision.

Study links voucher use to college success

A privately funded New York City voucher program improved the lives of the low-income, minority students who attended a private elementary school, according to a new study by Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Voucher users were more likely to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, concluded the study, which is set for publication in the Journal of Public Economics. 

Students who received vouchers in 1997 were compared to a randomly selected group who applied for vouchers but lost the lottery.

Immigrant students did no better with a voucher, compared to the control group. However, U.S.-born students who used a voucher were 18 percent more likely to enroll in college and 61 percent more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Singing their way to academic success

At Voice Charter School in Queens, K-8 students learn to read music, play a little piano, harmonize and “sing, sing, sing,” reports the New York Times. Voice students do significantly better in math and somewhat better in reading than the New York City average.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voices Charter School in Queens.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voice Charter School in Queens.

Seventy percent of Voice students qualified for free lunch last year. All are admitted by lottery. No one auditions.

Teacher Kate Athens said skills learned in music class translate to her fourth-grade classroom. “They learn to stick with something hard and breaking things down into steps,” she said. “And work together as a group at such a young age.”

Younger students at Voice usually have music twice a day, and older students once, on average. To make time, the “school day is unusually long, from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., which can be hard for small children,” reports the Times.

Twenty percent of the city’s public schools have no arts teachers, and low-income students are the least likely to be taught art and music, reports the Times. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has increased funding for arts teachers.

Ohio charters show mixed results

Ohio charter schools work well for low-income blacks, but overall do worse than district schools, concludes a new CREDO study.

CREDO estimates that low-income black students receive 22 additional days of learning in math and 29 days in reading when attending a charter instead of a district school. Cleveland charters also are outperforming the district.

Stand-alone charters do better than those run by non-profit and for-profit charter-management networks.

Charter middle schools perform well, notes Education Gadfly. Charter high schools do not, perhaps because some specialize in “dropout recovery.” Online charters also perform poorly.

Education for upward mobility

I’m in Washington D.C. for Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference, which will look at what schools can do to help children born into poverty move up in the world.

Mike Petrilli, the moderator, hopes to question the idea that college is the only path to the middle class.

What if by spending all of our efforts trying to boost the proportion of low-income students who are making it through college from 10 percent to, say, 20 percent, we’re ignoring the needs of the other 80 percent?

He hopes to “find a middle ground between the utopianism that characterizes so much of the reform movement (‘Let’s get every child college and career ready!’) and the defeatism that emanates from too many corners of the education system (‘There’s nothing we can do until we end poverty!’).” 

I’m on the Multiple Pathways in High School panel, which will look at adding “high-quality career tech ed and youth apprenticeships to the “college prep for all” model.

In Hard Work, High Hopes, I look at district, charter and private high schools with lots of lower-income, Latino or black students and a college-prep mission.

“President Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in college graduates, but college dreams
usually don’t come true for the children of poorly educated, low-income parents,” I write.

Half of people from high-income families earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25. Only 10 percent of those raised in low-income families complete a bachelor’s degree.

The case against universal preschool

Preschool for all is politically popular, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. But it’s not the “panacea” that President Obama and other advocates claim it is, say researchers. It may be counterproductive.

Making it universal is “a very bad idea,” says Ron Haskins, a preschool expert who co-directs the Center on Children and Families at the left-leaning Brookings Institute. “Invest (government dollars) where they’re most needed and that’s with low-income kids. (This) is going to waste a lot of money on families that don’t need it.”

“You have to look at the trade-off,” said Darleen Opfer, the education director at the RAND Corporation. “If you have a state that can’t afford high-quality preschool for everyone, where does the investment really make sense?”

Intensive early-learning programs — done well and at significant cost — can help the children of poorly educated parents develop develop language skills, most agree.

But that won’t “inoculate them” from the effects of mediocre schools, says Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley researcher.

Head Start’s benefits fade in elementary school. “Preschool has been oversold,” says Cato’s Neal McCluskey. “People too often speak as if it’s a certainty that preschool has strong, lasting benefits.”

I’d like to see more investments in helping parents improve their parenting skills.

‘Personalized learning’ helps in math, reading

“Personalized learning” appears to be raising math and reading scores at 23 schools, according to “interim research” by Rand for the Gates Foundation.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

The 23 urban charter schools in the study predominantly enroll low-income students with below-average scores. Yet students ended the school year above or near the national average. The lowest performers improved the most.

Most teachers use technology — adaptive software programs with short lessons and quizzes — to personalize instruction. Students work at their own pace and their own level, moving forward only when they’ve demonstrated mastery. Typically, teachers work with small groups while other students are working independently.

Slightly less than half of teachers said students use technology for educational purposes about a quarter to half of the time, and about 20 percent said students use technology between 50 to 75 percent of the time. Among the remainder, nearly 20 percent reported an even higher level of technology usage, and nearly 20 percent reported a fairly low level of technology usage.

Most schools used common elements, notes Chalkbeat

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”);
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

Denver’s  Grant Beacon Middle School has used blended learning to personalize for three years, reports Chalkbeat. Test scores and student engagement have improved, says Alex Magaña, the principal. Denver may create several new schools modeled on Grant Beacon.

I wrote about experiments with blended learning in Oakland schools — mostly district schools — in Education Next.

For more on using blended learning to personalize, check out: Blended. Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsHow to get blending learning right and Does blended learning work?