Elite colleges ask more of homeschoolers

Are Elite Colleges and Universities Discriminating Against Homeschoolers? asks Paula Bolyard, a recently “retired” homeschooler, on PJ Lifestyle.
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Homeschooled student “enter college with significantly higher test scores than their public (and even private) school peers,” she writes. “They graduate from college at a higher rate­—66.7 percent compared to 57.5 percent—and earn higher grade point averages while in school, according to one study.”

Princeton seems to get it, she writes. Applicants who can’t supply a traditional transcript can submit an outline of the homeschool curriculum.

Yale wants to make sure homeschooled kids are not socially awkward:

We look for evidence of social maturity from all our applicants and especially from home-schooled students. Your personal statement, interests and activities, and letters of recommendation should speak to your ability to integrate well with other students and tell us about your non-academic interests.

But elsewhere Yale says “academic strength” is the “first consideration” with “motivation, curiosity, energy, leadership ability, and distinctive talents” in second place.

“We’re going to want to know what the reason for homeschooling is,” a Dartmouth admissions official told Lindsay Cross at the Mommyish blog.

“Was the student busy with another demanding pursuit, like playing music? Were they traveling with their family? Was there a lack of resources in their area? Somewhere in the application, they’re going to need to explain.”

Private school students aren’t asked to explain why they didn’t attend public school, Bolyard points out.

Some elite colleges ask homeschooled students to submit additional SAT II test scores. That strikes me as reasonable. A straight-A student who’s been graded by Mom will need objective evidence of achievement.

But what about a teacher’s recommendation when Mom is the teacher?

In addition to a “not-so-subtle interrogation about the family’s choice to opt out of public education,” Brown also asks for “letters of recommendation from instructors who have taught you in a traditional classroom setting and who can speak to your abilities and potential in an objective way.”

Brown “would prefer not to receive letters of recommendation from your parents, immediate relatives, or from academic tutors in the paid employ of your family,” unless the applicant has no classroom instructors to ask.

Testing plus school inspections?

The English use school inspectors as well as centralized testing to provide feedback to principals, inform parents and identify “serious weakness,” writes Iftikhar Hussain in Education Next.

Inspectors visit schools once in three to six years. They observe classes, interview school leaders, examine students’ work and talk to students and parents. In addition, students take a national test at age 7, 11, 14, and 16.

From 2006 to 2009, 13 percent of schools were rated Outstanding, 48 percent Good and 33 percent were Satisfactory. Six percent failed: 4.5 percent were moderate fails and 1.5 percent required “special measures.”

Schools that receive a moderate fail rating are subject to additional inspections, with an implicit threat of a downgrade to the severe fail category if inspectors judge improvements to be inadequate. Schools that receive the severe fail rating may experience more dramatic consequences: these can include changes in the school leadership team and the school’s governing board, increased resources, as well as increased oversight from the inspectors.

Inspector ratings are correlated with student- and parent-reported measures of school quality, even after controlling for test-score results and other school characteristics, writes Hussain.

Fail ratings lead to test score improvements that are especially large for the lowest-scoring students, Hussain finds.  ”These results are consistent with the view that children of low-income parents, arguably the least vocal in holding teachers accountable, benefit the most from inspections.”

Some U.S. education reformers see school inspectors as a way to hold schools accountable without relying exclusively on test scores.

If parents fail, schools will too

In Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools, Ron Berler takes readers inside Brookside Elementary in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is trying to raise chronically low test scores. About half the students come from Hispanic immigrant families; 41 percent qualify for a subsidized lunch.

The book follows two fifth-grade friends: Hydea does her work, but has only second-grade reading skills. Marbella is only a year behind in reading, but would rather obsess about her social life — and Justin Bieber — than do homework.

The literacy teacher works with teachers to improve their skills, but breaks away before the state exams to coach a small group of children who are close to passing. She has no time for those who are way behind or for children in untested grades. Some students have been passed along with subpar skills. Others have received tutoring or summer school help, but remain behind.

Berler, who volunteered as a mentor and teacher’s aide at the school, is sympathetic to teachers and the principal, but frustrated with uninvolved parents. Some don’t know how to help, he writes. Others are too busy working to supervise their children closely.

When fifth-grade teacher Keith Morey asks students about their responsibilities at home, a clear pattern emerges. The responsible students are expected to do chores; the kids who don’t do homework don’t work at home either.

Schools need to engage parents and teach them how to support their children’s learning, writes Berler in the Huffington Post.

Gates: Mix measures to evaluate teachers

Combining growth in students’ test scores, student feedback and classroom observations produces accurate information on teacher effectiveness, according to Gates Foundation research.

A composite measure on teacher effectiveness drawing on all three of those measures, and tested through a random-assignment experiment, predicted fairly accurately how much high-performing teachers would successfully boost their students’ standardized-test scores, concludes the series of new papers, part of the massive Measures of Effective Teaching study launched three years ago.

No more than half of a teacher’s evaluation should be on growth in student achievement, researchers concluded.  In addition, teachers’ classroom performance should be observed by more than one person.

Of course, the controversy on how to evaluate teachers — and what to do with the information — is not over.

The ever-increasing federal role in education makes no sense, writes Marc Tucker, who complains that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is forcing states to evaluate teachers based on student performance in order to get No Child Left Behind waivers.  Most researchers don’t think value-added measures of teacher performance are reliable, writes Tucker.

The study is a “political document and not a research document,” Jay Greene tells the Wall Street Journal.  Classroom observations aren’t a strong predictor of student performance says Greene, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. ”But the Gates Foundation knows that teachers and others are resistant to a system that is based too heavily on student test scores, so they combined them with other measures to find something that was more agreeable to them,” he said.

Ex-superintendent gets 3.5 years for test scheme

Lorenzo Garcia, former superintendent in El Paso, has been sentenced to sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for fraud for manipulating test scores to collect $56,000 in bonuses and misleading the school board to steer a $450,000 no-bid contract to  his mistress.

Garcia, who was hired in 2006, worked with administrators to pre-test 10th graders and assign low scorers to ninth or 11th grade, so their scores wouldn’t be counted in the critical 10th-grade year. After repeating ninth grade, students were moved to 11th grade. Older students were told to drop out and get a GED.

In some cases, when the district needed to improve its graduation rate, it gave students credit for computer-based classes or “turbo-mesters,” which were 90-minute sessions in which students earned a full semester worth of credits.

“One girl got two semesters in three hours, in the last day of school, while her teacher was collecting books,” said former principal Stephen Lane, one of five people allowed to testify before Briones sentenced Garcia.

When Lane protested Garcia’s methods, he was fired and escorted out of the building by police.

High school test scores rose and El Paso’s rating improved from “academically acceptable” in 2005 to “recognized” in 2010. Then someone noticed all those missing 10th graders.

Kohn: Failure’s not all that educational

Do kids really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn, writing on The Answer Sheet, has his doubts.

Kohn, who’s argued that self-discipline is overrated, is reacting to belief that “what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power.” Children experience plenty of frustration and failure, he writes, and there’s no reason to think it leads to learning.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)  In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure.  Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities.  What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.

“Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning,” Kohn concedes. But quitters may be rejecting challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.”

Or it may be that schools have focused students on grades, test scores and being the best rather than learning, Kohn writes.

If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task.  Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion.  “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  said Jerome Bruner, Kohn quotes.

That’s a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences:  My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow.

But schools aren’t structured that way, Kohn writes. Students see grades and test sores as rewards and punishments because that’s what they are.

How can schools teach students to learn from failure?

Chicago teachers go on strike

Chicago teachers are on strike,reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Public Schools administrators are staffing some elementary schools to offer half-day child care; some churches and community centers also are open to children.

The city’s charter schools are open as usual. About one third have room for more students.

Key disputed issues in the talks were teacher cost of living raises, additional pay for experience, job security in the face of annual school closures and staff shakeups, and a new teacher evaluation process that ties teacher ratings in part to student test score growth.

. . . CTU officials contend that CPS’ offer of raises over the next four years does not fairly compensate them for the 4 percent raise they lost this past school year and the longer and “harder” school year they will face this school year, with the introduction of a tougher new curriculum.

The union also wants “smaller class sizes, more libraries, air-conditioned schools, and more social workers and counselors to address the increasing needs of students surrounded by violence,” reports the Sun-Times. Chicago has been hit by a wave of homicides this year. Many of the victims are children, teens and young adults.

CPS officials say teachers average $76,000 a year and would earn 16 percent more over four years in the proposed contract. The district could face a $1 billion deficit by the end of the school year.

Pay isn’t the big issue, argues a Reuters analysis. The teachers’ union is fighting education reforms that make it easier to fire teachers and close schools if test scores don’t improve.

In Chicago, last-minute contract talks broke down not over pay, but over the reform agenda, both sides said Sunday. The union would not agree to (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s proposal that teacher evaluations be based in large measure on student test scores.

Nor would the union accept his push to give principals more autonomy over hiring, weakening the seniority system that has long protected veteran teachers.

“This is fight for the soul of public education,” said Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Did both sides want a strike? asks Alexander Russo.

“It’s a strike of choice,” says Emanuel.

When we talk about test scores …

Talk about test scores is often imprecise, writes Matthew DiCarlo on Shanker Blog. For example, “schools with high average test scores are not necessarily ‘high-performing,’ while schools with lower scores are not necessarily ‘low-performing’,” he writes.

As we all know, tests don’t measure the performance of schools. They measure (however imperfectly) the performance of students.

Instead, to the degree that school (and teacher) effectiveness can be assessed using testing data, doing so requires growth measures, as these gauge (albeit imprecisely) whether students are making progress, independent of where they started out and other confounding factors.

This should be obvious, but doesn’t seem to be.

Study: Great teachers have lifelong impact

Students with an excellent elementary or middle-school teacher don’t just earn higher reading and math scores, concludes a new study that tracked one million students in an urban district over 20 years. A single year with a high value-added teacher leads to higher college attendance, higher adult earnings and even lower teenage-pregnancy rates, according to the authors, economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Columbia Professor Jonah Rockoff.

All else equal, a student with one excellent teacher for one year between fourth and eighth grade would gain $4,600 in lifetime income, compared to a student of similar demographics who has an average teacher. The student with the excellent teacher would also be 0.5 percent more likely to attend college.

It may be difficult to hire more excellent (top five percent) teachers, but it’s not necessary.

. . . the difference in long-term outcome between students who have average teachers and those with poor-performing ones is as significant as the difference between those who have excellent teachers and those with average ones, the study found.

It adds up: Replacing a low-value-added (bottom five percent) teacher with an average teacher would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000, the economists estimate.

“If you leave a low value-added teacher in your school for 10 years, rather than replacing him with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income,” said Professor Friedman, one of the coauthors.

. . . “The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said.

When a high value-added teacher transferred to a new school, student performance went up in the grade or subject area taught by that teacher, matching predicted gains. Scores dropped in the school the high-value teacher had left. Conversely, scores went up significantly when a low-value teacher left and dropped in her new school.

High performing teachers may more than justify much higher pay,” Slate observes.

“Great teachers create great value – perhaps several times their annual salaries,” write the authors. Now a working paper, the study will be submitted to a journal.

Race to the muddle

Hundreds of New York principals are protesting plans to use test scores to evaluate principals and teachers, reports the New York Times. To qualify for Race to the Top funds, the state put together a new evaluation system.

Their complaints are many: the evaluation system was put together in slapdash fashion, with no pilot program; there are test scores to evaluate only fourth-through-eighth-grade English and math teachers; and New York tests are so unreliable that they had to be rescaled radically last year, with proficiency rates in math and English dropping 25 percentage points overnight.

Delaware, one of the first states to get Race to the Top funds, also has rushed through “ludicrous initiatives,” writes Hube at The Colossus of Rhodey.

Administrators, who’ve evaluated countless teachers through the years, are required to attend “training” sessions to … evaluate teachers.

Teachers will support a fair evaluation system, he writes.

. . .  why not take a few master teachers from each subject area and pay them to, say, three times a year visit the classrooms of district teachers for the latter’s evaluations? . . .  not only would these evaluators be experienced teachers, they also know the subject area as well. . . . I bet this idea’d be a heck of a lot cheaper.

Teachers and their unions should rethink their lockstep support of Democrats, Hube writes. “George W. Bush was blasted by these folks for No Child Left Behind, but Obama’s initiative is NCLB on steroids.”