Massachusetts’ test for teachers is humbling

After years teaching middle school English, Peter Sipe decided to seek an elementary teaching credential in Massachusetts. Tackling the state teachers’ exam was “humbling — and motivating,” he writes.

He missed half the answers on the practice math test. “Questions 20 and 36, for example, gave me a bit of a workout,” he writes.

Then there was biology: “Why would some cells have more mitochondria than others?” He had to relearn bio.

With the help of knowledgeable friends, hours of study, and a kind and patient man named Sal Khan, I got better at the sample tests. But it was humbling. If you factor in my two graduate degrees, my fifteen-year teaching career, and the fact that I’ve written disparagingly about teacher preparation standards in these very pages, my humbling was squared (or cubed, or something).

That practice math test is not easy.

College prep, job training — or both?

While most high school graduates go on to college, “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree,” comments John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour. Should more teens train for the workforce instead of prepping for college?

Marissa Galloway, Norton learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

Marissa Galloway learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

“It’s the shame of our nation, when you look at, a student comes out of high school, not knowing what they want to do, goes to college, drops out,” says David Wheeler, principal of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, south of Boston. “Now they’re in debt, without a job, and not knowing what they want to do.”

In addition to academic subjects, students at Massachusetts’ regional vo-tech schools learn skilled trades.

They do as well academically as students in traditional high schools. (Wheeler’s students outscored the state average.)

They don’t have to “skip college,” as Tulenko puts it. Statewide, 60 percent of regional vo-tech students enroll in college, while others go directly to the workforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed expanding the state’s vo-tech schools.

Linking school to careers

Career readiness is an afterthought for most U.S. high schools, concludes Jobs for the Future in a new report. However, High Tech High Schools, Cristo Rey schools, Big Picture Schools, P-TECH models, and early college schools provide “applied learning related to the labor market.”

Cristo Rey students share a single full-time job (in a law firm, bank, hospital, or other setting), with each student working one day a week to pay school tuition.

At Worcester Tech, students run a veterinary clinic in partnership with Tufts.

At Worcester Tech in Massachusetts, students work in a veterinary clinic in partnership with Tufts.

Big Picture students make personalized learning plans that take them out to work several days a week with mentors, and a goal of defining their passions and finding work that is satisfying.

Massachusetts vocational schools typically host companies on site and provide the clinical training required for industry certifications. Worcester Tech, for example, hosts Tufts at Tech, a veterinary clinic serving the community.

The Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis, California, provides half-day programs for 11th and 12 graders in four career clusters: professional sciences, engineering, advanced communications, and global economics.

. . . students complete industry-based projects and receive academic credit for advanced English, science, math, and technology. Students do everything from testing water in the High Sierra, to making industry-standard films, to trying out aviation careers by actually flying planes. Teaching teams include business and science partners, and many teachers have extensive professional experience.

Only 24 percent of U.S. teens have jobs, down from 44 percent in 2000. Teens from well-to-do families are the most likely to have jobs, while few lower-income teens are in the workforce.

In Switzerland, students apply for internships at the end of ninth grade.

For the next three or four years, your week consists of three days at work, two days at school, and an occasional stint in an intercompany training organization (like the Centre for Young Professionals, in Zurich, Switzerland). Your company pays you between $600 and $800 a month to start, moving up to $1,000 or $1,200 or more by the end of your third year.

Seventy percent of young people use this system, completing “the equivalent of high school (and a year or so of community college).”  Swiss youth unemployment is 3 percent.

Linked Learning integrates career tech education with academics.

Earning a technical certificate or associate degree at a community college significantly boosts earnings. However, most community college students — including those who place into remedial classes — are trying to earn academic credentials.

Employers are doing more to train workers for skilled blue-collar jobs, reports U.S. News.

Massachusetts abandons Common Core tests

Massachusetts will redesign its state exam instead of using PARCC’s Common Core tests, the state board of education has decided. The new MCAS will be aligned with Common Core standards, say officials.

“Only 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, are currently scheduled to continue with PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests aligned with Common Core standards,” reports Molly Jackson for the Christian Science Monitor.

High-scoring Massachusetts “was considered a crucial supporter for Common Core tests and now, a crucial breakaway,” writes Jackson.

The Common Core was supposed to allow state-to-state comparisons, but states are “tweaking the language used to report results” so that “a score that counted as ‘approaching expectations’ in one part of the country might be labeled ‘proficient‘ somewhere else.”

“It may be a little too premature to declare it a failure,” Massachusetts Secretary of Education James A. Peyser told the New York Times, “but for sure it’s in retreat.”

‘Early college’ boosts persistence

Dual-enrollment programs — college classes for high school students — are helping disadvantaged students get to and through college, reports Emily Deruy in National Journal.

Early-college graduates are less likely to need remedial classes and more likely to make it to their second year of college, according to a Rennie Center report.

Earning college credits and getting a taste of college expectations is especially valuable for students at schools that offer few Advanced Placement courses, the report noted.

“Early-college programs improve students’ overall grit and persistence, but also help them become knowledgeable about the overall [college] system,” Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the center, told Next America.

Early-college classes, often taught by community college professors, include academic and career courses. At Murdock High in Massachusetts, seniors can take technical classes at Mount Wachusett Community College that lead to a credential in information technology.

Defining ‘college readiness’ down


Naesea Price teaches a lesson on sentence and paragraph structure in a remedial English course at Baltimore City Community College.

“College readiness” has been redefined as ready to take middle-school courses in college, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

A movement for “co-requisite remediation” is placing remedial students in college-level courses, he complains.

Massachusetts will stop requiring a placement test for new students with a 2.7  grade point average (in all subjects). Those with a 2.4 grade point average who’ve passed four years of math also will be placed in college-level math.

A kid with a D in math but good grades in photography, gym, and basket weaving could easily end up with a 2.7 GPA, notes Finn. Four years of D’s in math and he needs only a 2.4 (C) average.

Florida’s open-access state colleges (formerly community colleges) now let students skip remediation and start in college-level courses, if they choose, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Alarmed by the high dropout and failure rates for college students who start out in remedial classes, Florida lawmakers voted last year to make such courses, and even the related placement tests, optional for anyone who…earned a [high school] diploma….The optional-remediation law is forcing professors in college-level composition classes to spend time on basic sentence structure, while mathematics teachers who were ready to plunge into algebra are going over fractions.

These students are earning college credit for learning middle-school skills, writes Finn.

There’s an easy way to make the reform look like a success.

Just teach fractions and sentence structure to students in courses that you label “college-level” — even though they’re not. Dumb ‘em down. Cheapen the currency. And again defraud the students (and anyone who might someday contemplate employing them) into believing that they really were prepared for college and are now getting a college education, even though neither of those statements is actually true.

Employers already are concerned that college graduates lack important skills, writes Finn. There’s “mounting evidence” that many graduates haven’t learned very much. Sending more unprepared students to college further cheapens the meaning of “college-educated,” he argues.

Making great teachers in Boston

Great Teachers are Not Born, They are Made, a new Pioneer Institute study, analyzes five high-performing Massachusetts charter schools with effective teaching workforces.

These schools take advantage of their autonomy, concludes Cara Stillings Candal. They are free to hire teachers who aren’t licensed, focusing instead on “a teacher candidate’s academic background, alignment with the school’s mission, and whether and how a candidate will enhance the department or school.”

Teachers receive “frequent evaluations resulting in specific, actionable feedback” and join collegial groups.

The charters “have clear philosophies about teacher retention and how to build talent pipelines that support the rapid induction of new teacher recruits and leverage experienced teachers.”

Voc ed can be a path to college


Minuteman’s biotechnology students, here seen dissecting dogfish, aspire to careers in biomedical engineering and forensic science. Most go to college. Photo: Emily Hanford

Massachusetts’ vocational high schools are preparing students for college, not just for the workforce, writes Emily Hanford on Marketplace.

At Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, students can learn carpentry, plumbing and welding — and “high tech fields such as video game design, engineering, and biotechnology.”

Minuteman students spend half their time in vocational classes – often referred to as “career and technical classes – and half their time in academic courses. About 60 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college. That’s not the way things were when principal Ernest Houle learned welding at a vocational high school back in the 1980s.

“The highest-level math I ever had in high school was an Algebra 1,” says Houle. “And that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule.”

These days, “career tech” students can take a full range of college-prep courses.

In 2013, students at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts did as well on the state English tests (92 percent proficient) as students at traditional high schools (93 percent proficient), notes Hanford. In math, 78 percent of vocational students were proficient compared to 82 percent at traditional high schools.

After years in private school, Sean and Brandon Datar chose Minuteman.

“Being an engineer myself, I like the fact that schools like this cater to making an actual living,” says their father, Nijan Datar. He wasn’t impressed by the top-rated public and private high schools in the Boston suburbs.

. . .  the main goal seemed to be getting students into the best, and most expensive, colleges. But no one seemed to be talking about what kids were going to do with their college degrees once they got them.

His wife, Teresa Datar, says high school students need more direction.

“My feeling is that in many high schools, students don’t know why they’re in the classes that they’re in. They’re just kind of biding time,” she says. “And then they go off to college and they flounder.”

Brandon is now a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, working on a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. Sean is a sophomore at Minuteman, majoring in robotics.

Vo-tech grads head to college

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will be headed for W.P.I. this fall instead of immediately heading into the work force.

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Photo: George Rizer for the Boston Globe)

Massachusetts’ well-regarded vocational schools are sending more graduates to college, not to the workforce, reports the Boston Globe.

Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.

Employers are seeking more formal education for entry-level workers in the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care, said Patrick Collins, superintendent at Assabet Valley Tech.

Vocational schools still are seen as academically inferior, said Daniel O’Connell, superintendent of North Shore Tech. Some 29.7 percent of seniors in the class of 2013 went on to four-year colleges and universities, up from 15.1 percent five years earlier.

“Vocational education has changed so drastically,’’ he said. “If you were a vokie you worked with your hands and were a discipline problem. That’s archaic. But it’s still a process to educate the public. Each year that goes by, people realize more and more what the opportunities are with a technical education.’’

All students take the Massachusetts curriculum and must pass the state exam to graduate.

Only 30 percent of young people will earn a four-year degree, says Bill Symonds. He’s co-author of Harvard’s 2011 Pathways to Prosperity report, which argued that U.S. high schools should provide a variety of paths to adulthood.

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger.  Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger, a Wellesley restaurant. Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

His son attends Minuteman, a 21st century vocational high school in Lexington, Mass., reports American RadioWorks

Chris, was a C- minus student who loved to cook. The local high school had no courses to prepare students for a career in cooking.

In the wealthy, well-educated Boston suburbs, “there is a tremendous bias against” vocational education,  says Symonds. But Chris knew it was the right choice for him.

In middle school, he asked himself, “Why am I learning this?” Always behind, “I just felt so stupid.”

. . .  once he got to Minuteman, he started to see why he needed to learn math and English. Chris is now a senior, about to graduate in the top 10 percent of his class.

“In culinary arts, there’s not just the side of, ‘Make this recipe and put it out,’” he says. “There’s the side of, multiply this recipe. Break it down. Make more, make less. There’s the side of hospitality, and learning how to write out business plans, pay wages, make a profit.”

Students who’ve failed in traditional schools can do well at Minuteman, says Michelle Roche, the director of career and technical education. “They’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, they figure out a problem,” she says. “And success breeds success.”

“Every year, some one million students leave before earning a high school degree,” writes Symonds in Pathways to Prosperity. “Many drop out because they struggle academically. But large numbers say they dropped out because they felt their classes were not interesting, and that high school was unrelentingly boring. In other words, they didn’t believe high school was relevant, or providing a pathway to achieving their dreams.”

Career and technical education can engage students and widen their options — including going to college — says Symonds.

Study: Charters do more with less

Public charter schools produce similar or higher test scores with much less money, concludes a productivity analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Overall, charters are 40 to 41 percent more cost effective in reading and math compared to traditional public schools, the study concluded.cover-productivity-of-charters

The return on investment is almost 3 percent higher if a student spends one year in a public charter school and a 19 percent higher if a student spends half of their K-12 education (6.5 years) in a charter school.

Researchers analyzed National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math scores and data from CREDO studies. They controlled for students’ poverty and special education status.

Walton Family Foundation, which supports school choice, funded the study, but did not play any role in designing it, researchers say.

Massachusetts has some of the most effective charter schools in the nation, especially in Boston, yet the state Senate refused to raise the cap on charter seats, writes Jim Stergios in the Boston Herald. It’s like the old segregationists standing in the schoolhouse door, he writes.

Update: The productivity comparison is unfair because charters educate fewer English Learners and special ed students, who generate more funding, responds the National School Boards Association.  In addition, “traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.”