Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

Don’t blame schools for violence

“To end the killing” — 141 murders so far this year — a Baltimore Sun editorial called for  “effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.”

Don’t blame the schools, responded Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher, in a letter to the editor.

I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades. What we need is better students. We have many excellent teachers. I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools. They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork.

Miceli blames the crime rate on “a total disregard for life” in Baltimore and other cities.

Who’s responsible for a culture of violence? I’d look to parents.

No… not the hugs! Anything but the hugs!

I once again find myself torn on an issue of grave national importance: hugs.

The hugs were out of control at West Sylvan Middle School.

* * * *

It was, Couch said, a virus of hugs.

So the principal banned hugs on the school campus in late February.

The campus of nearly 600 seventh- and eighth-graders joined a growing list of schools nationwide that have halted hugs as well as other behaviors deemed detrimental to teaching and learning.

On the one hand, I understand that things can get a little out of control from time to time in junior high.  When the Super Ball factory closed in our city, thousands and thousands of the big rubber balls ended up on every campus in the city.  Walking the blacktop at recess was like trying to cross between trenches on the Western Front.  Eyes were blackened and lips split with frightening regularity.  In response to this very real, acute problem, the school did what it had to do: it banned Super Balls.  Banning Super Balls as a general rule is silly, but it made sense.  So I can understand why you might want to ban hugs if they’d really gotten out of control.

On the other hand, it’s hugs.  Maybe they need to be banned, but the ban should be relaxed after a few weeks, with an admonition to the kids not to let things get out of control again.  That’s what responsible educators do: they teach lessons about what’s appropriate and inappropriate.

Hugging is — at least almost always — appropriate.  The crazy-interferes-with-school-grand-hugging-virus might not be.  So kill the virus, then let life resume as normal.  If it gets out of control again, have another temporary ban.  But just as the Georgia legislature gives me hope (see the post below), so this Principal gives me hope:

Couch, who has been principal at West Sylvan for seven years and a school administer for two decades, can perhaps look forward to the day of hugging normalcy.

But in the meantime, she concluded her memo to school colleagues by saying she’d treated the hugging in schools like a computer with a virus.

“If any of you have any ideas about how to reboot so that we can come back to it appropriately, I would sure love to hear from you.”

Hope.  It’s a rare and delicate thing.

Is the tide turning at last?

There may be hope after all.

An overhaul on Georgia’s zero-tolerance policies, the kind of law that Emanuel Jones said he was elected to the Georgia Senate to write, passed his chamber Thursday and now heads to the House.

SB 299 would give principals and school systems more discretion in how they handle disciplinary cases in their schools. Jones’ bill targets the widespread use of “zero tolerance” in schools, which critics say criminalizes students for minor and sometimes insignificant offenses.

I really really really really really hope that this is the start of the backlash I’ve been waiting for.  Or perhaps it’s already long since started and I’m just finding out.

But really, what’s more likely is that this breath of common sense is an aberration.

Let parents ‘be the change’

Barack Obama’s “be the change” idea “could transform the education policy debate,” writes Flypaper.  It’s assumed many parents won’t raise their children responsibly so schools must step in.

Perhaps we’ll never reach “100 percent parental responsibility,” just like we’ll never reach “100 percent proficiency” in reading and math. But maybe, just maybe, we could do dramatically better than we are today in getting parents to show up for their job as their child’s first and most important teacher.

Obama called for a “new era of mutual responsibility in education” during the campaign.

There is no substitute for a parent who will make sure their children are in school on time and help them with their homework after dinner and attend those parent-teacher conferences. . . . Responsibility for our children’s education has to start at home. We have to set high standards for them and spend time with them and love them. We have to hold ourselves accountable.

What can schools do to encourage parental responsibility?

I think schools should tell parents what they school wants them to do, such as limit TV and video time on school nights, set aside time for homework and reading, enforce a sensible bed time, serve a low-sugar breakfast, get them to school on time, whatever else is doable even by poorly educated parents.  Ask them to sign a contract, even if it will be nearly impossible to enforce it.

I’d send home DVDs (or links to YouTube videos) on how to teach manners and self-control to children. How should kids handle conflict at school? Show examples.  Another DVD could show how to read aloud with a child, perhaps how to discuss a TV show with a child. Or how to help your child get organized to do homework, even if you can’t help with the homework.

In reporting for my book, Our School, I met many Mexican immigrant parents who had very little formal education. They don’t know what the school wants of them unless somebody tells them explicitly. So, tell them.

Edspresso is collecting advice for Obama on education.

Cuts push schools to make hard choices

Budget cuts are good for schools, argue Michael J. Petrilli, Chester E. Finn Jr., & Frederick M. Hess on National Review Online.

In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there’s scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today’s schools delivers an extra dollar in value — and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.

“Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” said Samuel Johnson.

A Detroit elementary schools is asking parents to donate toilet paper, light bulbs, paper towels and trash bags.  Detroit spends more than $11,000 per student.

Update: To save $1.1 billion, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting five days from the school year; currently the state funds a 180-day year.  I think raising class sizes — which means laying off teachers — would be better for students.

Charter schools excel in Boston

Boston’s charter schools outperform district-run public schools, according to a four-year Boston Foundation study.  However, the city’s experimental “pilot schools” produced “ambiguous” results, reports the Boston Globe.

In the most stark example, charters – independent public schools dedicated to innovative teaching – excelled significantly in middle school math. However, pilots, which have similar goals but are run by the School Department, performed at slightly lower rates than traditional schools, according to the study.

Researchers looked at the performance of students who applied to a charter or pilot school and were admitted via lottery versus those who applied but lost the lottery and attended a traditional public school.  Boston Foundation states:

The report directly addresses two of the most frequent criticisms leveled at earlier studied of Pilot and Charter schools: that their students are not representative of traditional Boston schools but rather are more likely to succeed; and that charters and pilots tend to shed students who do not perform up to their standards, again creating an elite student body that will inevitably outperform their BPS peers.

Winning the charter lottery made a significant difference for students. In middle-school math, half the black-white achievement gap was erased in one year.

Update: Eduwonkette notes that the study necessarily included only charter schools with so many applicants that they need to hold lotteries. Presumably, less successful schools aren’t in high demand. True enough, though apparently pilot schools that need to hold lotteries aren’t raising achievement.

Proficiency promotion

Students will progress from one level to the next when they achieve proficiency — not when they get a year older — in a Colorado school district called Adams 50. From the Denver Post:

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Students may move to the next level at any time, not just the end of the year or the end of a semester.

Several schools are piloting the idea.  Kim Carver, a first-grade math teacher, says the new approach is working.

Six-year-old Dominic Herrera showed (a capacity matrix) on the subject of counting pennies. On the chart were four categories: “I need help,” “I think I can,” “I know I can” and, finally, “I can teach it.”

Dominic had reached the “I know I can” level and was onto the next category, telling time in five-minute intervals. He was at the “I think I can” level.

“It’s neat that they have ownership, and they know what proficiency means,” Carver said. “It’s not arbitrary anymore.”

Eventually, the district plans to use 10 levels for students from kindergarten through high school.

The plan requires specific learning goals and close tracking of students’ progress, which I suspect will be very helpful. But kids who progress slowly will need something extra, such as mandatory summer school, to complete school by 18 or 19.

Grade levels are a subtle form of child abuse, writes Paul B on Kitchen Table Math.

Imagine if someone made you wear the wrong size underwear every day for 13 years; not very comfortable and not likely to turn you into a clothes horse.

Grouping students by standards mastery is working in Chugach, Alaska, he adds.