Windmills in San Diego

Tilting at Windmills is Richard Lee Colvin’s account of Alan Bersin’s struggle to remake San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005.

“San Diego became notorious for the fierce resistance of its teachers union, abetted by school board members, to any and all efforts at change,” writes Nathan Glazer in an Education Next review.

Like Joel Klein in New York City, Bersin left a law career to become a big-city superintendent. He persuaded Tony Alvarado, the former New York City schools chancellor, to become his director of instruction.

Alvarado clashed with the union over literacy coaches. He wanted coaches trained in method he’d found effective. The union wanted peer coaches to help teachers use whatever method they preferred.

Alvarado believed principals should observe classes. The union wanted advanced warning of a principal’s visit.

Teachers denounced Bersin as a “dictator.” While a 3-2 school board majority backed him, one board member called him a “gauleiter” when he proposed letting charter organizers run the worst-performing schools. (Glazer notes, she inaccurately said gauleiters were “Jews who worked for the Nazis [to shepherd] their own people into the trains” to the concentration camps.

Bersin persisted for six years, in time gaining the support of some teachers and principals. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found the improvement in reading “so definitive that San Diego’s efforts are well worth a look by other school districts in California and the nation.” Achievement gaps were narrowed significantly. But this was for elementary schools: similar efforts in high schools did not show the same results.

“If this is what it takes to make modest improvements in achievement levels and reduce achievement gaps, how often can we expect it to happen?” asks Glazer, a professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard.

Does Houston deserve the Broad Prize?

The Houston Independent School District has won the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education. Houston also won in 2002.

Achievement gains included a 12-point increase in graduation rates from 2006 to 2009, double the average increase at the 75 urban districts eligible for the prize, reports U.S. News. “The district also slashed the achievement gap between low-income and Hispanic students and their more affluent, white peers.” And more students — especially Hispanics — are taking AP exams.

End. The Broad Prize. Now., writes Andy Smarick. In Houston and San Diego, one of the finalists for the prize, “only 10 percent of African American eighth graders can read proficiently!”

One of the prize’s four goals explains is: “Restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s public schools by highlighting successful urban districts.”

By praising such low performance, the Broad Prize doesn’t do a favor for public education. Instead, it serves to obscure the truth—that the urban district has been an unmitigated failure for 50 years—and to perpetuate a myth—that if we are to care about public education, we must commit ourselves in perpetuity to the district structure.

The Broad Foundation has been trying to fix urban districts rather than looking for alternative ways to educate disadvantaged city kids, writes Smarick. ”We must build The Urban School System of the Future, not double down on the failed urban district of the past.”

Stop rewarding districts for getting to average, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

College-prep reqs can backfire

Requiring all students to pass college-prep courses risks raising the drop-out rate, concludes a Public Policy Institute of California report.

San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego have raised their graduation requirements:  Unless they sign an opt-out form, all students must pass all the courses required for admission to state universities, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Without strong supports, weaker students may give on earning a diploma, warns the PPIC report, which analyzed San Diego’s transition to the new requirements.

“San Diego students will need to dramatically change the courses they take,” said report co-author Julian Betts, who is also a UC San Diego professor.  ”Clear communication with students, parents, and teachers about the new requirements is critical — and that communication needs to begin in middle school, if not earlier.”

The study recognizes that students may have a harder time graduating with the more rigorous standards, unless schools undertake major interventions to ensure they can succeed.

Requiring college prep may discourage students from taking career tech ed courses, PPIC warned.

In addition, districts “will need to guard against two unwanted side effects: the watering down of a–g course content and possible grade inflation that allows students to graduate even though they are not mastering the content of a–g courses.”

When San Jose Unified required college-prep for all, teachers were under great pressure to give students a D- in chemistry, advanced algebra, etc. so they could earn a diploma.

Parents block career-tech requirement

I’d love to see more and stronger career-tech courses in high schools, but I’m not surprised that San Diego parents rejected a career-tech requirement. From the Hechinger Report:

San Diego Unified School District  proposed new high school graduation requirements mandating two years of career and technical education courses—or two to four courses. . . .  Parents circulated an online protest petition and school officials spent hours in a meeting to assure hundreds of parents that courses like computerized accounting, child development and website design could be in the best interest of all students.

But afterwards, when parent leaders asked the crowd who favored the requirement, every single parent at the meeting voted against it.

Many San Diego parents said their children needed to take AP courses to compete for selective colleges. They had no time for child development or web design.

After meeting with La Jolla parents, the San Diego Board of Education voted to rescind the requirements.

People think career-tech ed is “great but for someone else’s kids,” said Kenneth Gray, an emeritus professor of education at Penn State. Still, the mandate was a bad idea, he said. “To say everyone has to take it is as ridiculous in my view as saying everyone has to take calculus.”

Few high schools offer a variety of well-designed, well-taught CTE courses that meet the needs and interests of all students, from those striving for elite colleges to those just barely passing. Some students will get turned on by a CTE elective. Others will wish they’d had time in their schedule for jazz band or theater or journalism.

Career-tech advocates are trying to push CTE as college prep plus, not as an alternative to college for all, notes the Hechinger Report.

The quality and availability of the programs vary. At the top end, students in medical courses might spend time at a hospital, learning key vocabulary and technical skills like drawing blood. Students can learn engineering design programs on computers or spend time taking apart electronics to learn how they work. Students in cosmetology programs might study the chemistry behind hair dye.

Why do career-minded students have to do college prep? If you want to learn chemistry, take chemistry. If you want to work in a beauty salon, get a part-time job sweeping up and ask the boss how to move up. Do you need a license? If so, would community college courses help?

Taking vocational college classes in high school boosts graduation rates — and college success — for disadvantaged students and underachievers, reports a new study.  Dual enrollment isn’t just for high achievers any more.

Survey: Teachers’ unions lose support

Teachers unions are losing support, according to an annual survey by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next. Only 22 percent of the public has a positive view of unions in 2012, down from 29 percent in 2011.  More striking, only 43 percent of teachers have a positive view, down from 58 percent the year before. Teachers holding a negative view nearly doubled to 32 percent from 17 percent in 2011.

Researchers ask:

“Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on schools, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?”

Respondents have five options: very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, and very negative. Many people choose the neutral option.

When people have just two choices on their assessment of union impact, 71 percent of teachers said unions had a positive impact. However, the public split down the middle on the either/or option: 51 percent said unions had a negative impact, while 49 percent said their effect was positive.

Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election is good news for schooling and a big loss for the state’s teachers’ unions, writes Rick Hess.

Public-sector unions also lost pension reform votes in San Jose and San Diego.

A return to “Death and Life”

I have been enjoying my recent return to Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010). I have read the book many, many times; I edited it and was research assistant during the final stages of revision. After dozens of readings, the book remains absorbing, invigorating, and beautiful.

As I read it this time, it occurs to me that the central error of Balanced Literacy is very similar to the error of implementing Balanced Literacy (or any other model) across a system. Ravitch’s book draws an implicit and compelling parallel between the two errors.

Balanced Literacy makes the mistake of putting the “strategy” at the center of instruction. Ravitch describes the approach in chapter 3:

Teachers are supposed to teach the prescribed strategies and procedures, and the students (alone or in groups) are expected to practice their reading strategies and refer to them by name. A student might say, for example, “I am visualizing,” “I am summarizing,” “I am making a text-to-self connection,” “I am making a prediction,” or “I am making an inference.”

The emphasis on strategies is misguided (in my opinion). Reading strategies, taught and applied generically, can distract from the text and distort its meaning. What’s more, one learns much more about literature from close reading of specific literature than from instruction in the strategies themselves. The strategy approach is supposed to apply to all students and texts, but each text should be approached on its own terms. Of course, patterns and general practices do emerge, but they come out of the careful reading and attentive listening.

So there’s the central error: taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.

A similar error can be found in the very act of mandating Balanced Literacy across a district. Ravitch describes how Balanced Literacy migrated from District 2 in New York City to the entire school system of San Diego and then back to New York City as a whole. [Read more...]

Study: San Diego reading reforms worked

San Diego’s Blueprint for Student Success, a reading program pushed by Superintendent Alan Bersin was unpopular. So was Bersin, who was pushed out in 2005; the program was dropped. But it worked for elementary and middle school students, though not for high school students, concludes a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. From Educated Guess:

The Blueprint consisted of extra classroom time for reading development – through combinations of summer school, an extended day, and longer  English classes  — and teacher training. It was districtwide and comprehensive, with teachers in every school given professional development and peer coaches.

Co-authors Julian Betts, chair of economics at the University of California-San Diego, Andrew Zau, a senior statistician at the university, and Cory Koedell, an assistant economics professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, found particularly big jumps in scores of struggling middle school students who were assigned double-length English classes and ninth graders behind grade level who were given triple-length English classes. They experienced “very big shifts” in scores: 12.6 percentile points higher than expected without intervention at the end of three years.

In elementary schools, an extended year for lowest achieving “focus schools” also brought up scores significantly. Less effective was  an extended day reading program, in which first through ninth grade students lagging behind their peers were assigned three 90-minute periods each week of supervised reading before or after school.

In high school, students assigned to double- and triple-length classes did worse.

The program did not lower math scores or increase absenteeism or the drop-out rate, as some had feared.

Elementary and middle schools should replicate the blueprint, the researchers advise. High school is too late.

Inside School Research has more.

Little improvements add up

A series of small changes turned a low-scoring San Diego elementary with many English Learners into a solid performer, writes Emily Alpert at Voice of San Diego.

Pushed by state monitors, Euclid “set aside common, continuous blocks of time for English and math.”

Bounce from one fourth grade classroom to another at Euclid on the same day and you’ll see both sets of kids penning biographies of Marie Curie and Martin Luther King Jr.

“If one person is off in left field,” asked second grade teacher Starla Ortiz, “how can we discuss what was successful and what wasn’t?”

Conforming allowed teachers to work together: They could talk about their strategies on similar lessons instead of talking past each other. Teachers from each grade gather to look at regular, shared tests throughout the year, meeting for a whole day every six weeks and for shorter sessions more often. They analyze what kids understand and what they don’t. They learn from coworkers whose kids ace the tests.

And they decide together how to re-teach the things students missed, then give students a quick, common quiz to make sure it worked.

Teachers teach sophisticated vocabulary to students whose parents know little English.

“Teachers don’t want to let fellow teachers down,” Alpert writes

Crazy for calculus

In a low-performing, high-aspiring San Diego high school with Mexican, Somali and Asian immigrants, advanced calculus is the hot class everyone wants to take and the biggest club is an honors math fraternity. Jonathan Winn teaches at Crawford Champs High, a Gates-funded school within a school. From Voice of San Diego:

Picture Jim Carrey with a mathematics degree. Winn dons a furry hat and beats a drum to remind students of the steps in a problem. He shouts theatrically and chants questions, then shuts off the audience lights to talk about “finding the inner you.” They talk openly about masculinity and otherness in the dim theater.

“If there’s one thing I want to impart to you this year, it is that there’s an infinite amount of power inside you,” Winn declares. “This has been proven. What happens when you split an atom?”

“Nuclear bombs,” one girl answers.

“So are you saying we’re explosive?” someone jokes.

“Yes!” Winn is thrilled. “You can use this explosiveness for good or evil, for positive or negative.”

The 70-student class is structured like a college lecture class. It is open to all students who want to try.

Showing students how to separate the inner and outer parts of a complex function, Winn tells them not to let people classify them based on what’s outside.

“So in mathematics there’s also outside and inside.” He walks them through a complicated function that has two layers, one acting on the other. The internal part is called the u. “What we’re going to do today is take them apart and decide — who’s on the inside? What’s on the inside?”

. . . “It’s you! It’s u! We found u! You found u!” Winn shouts. The teens giggle. “You can’t solve a problem until you find yourself.”

“It’s hard not to get excited if he’s that excited,” Liban Dini, a Somali immigrant told reporter Emily Alpert. “Other people, they don’t think you can handle it. He says, ‘I know you can pass the test.’” He paused. “I feel like he’s just talking to me sometimes. Sometimes you feel like he’s just looking at you. The inner you.”

A colleague, Carl Munn, started the math trend at Crawford Champs by teaching fewer math topics more intensely and relating math to students’ lives. That created students who had a shot at passing AP calculus.

Winn spends up to six hours with students after school.

He and his students jointly pledge to bring “INTENSITY and DESIRE” to class, starting the year with a calculus banquet and a “circle of blessings” from parents. . . . Every student signs a contract for the class, promising to review for the exam at school on a few Saturdays.

Dini remembers being nudged to take precalculus. “I said, ‘Is it going to be hard?’” Dini recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes, of course it’s hard.’ But he encouraged me to do that. And I took that step.”

This is the first year Crawford has offered AP Calculus. It will be interesting to see how many students pass the exam to earn college credit.

Via Stemology.

San Diego debates small classes for gifted students

San Diego’s small Seminar classes for “severely gifted” students may grow larger to save money, writes Emily Alpert of Voice of San Diego. The program, started in 1951 for very smart kids who didn’t fit in with mainstream students disproportionately serves affluent white and Asian-American students.

“It doesn’t seem very fair” to give gifted students a separate, smaller class, said Richard Barrera, a new school board member who was put in separate, gifted classes in his youth. “It’s like we’re saying, ‘The school system is really screwed up. Most of our kids we’ve already written off. But these few kids have a chance.’

Seminar classes are limited to 23 students, while regular classes may have 32 students. Raising the Seminar limit to 25 would save about a million dollars.

Though the test is supposed to identify students in the 99.9 percentile, 6 percent of students qualify for Seminar.  Overall, San Diego identifies 20 percent of students as gifted, much higher than other districts.