Setting the Standard in Education

Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Locke Steps

In California, Federal, LA, Uncategorized on June 30, 2010 at 4:19 pm

On Thursday, Sam Dillon of the New York Times wrote about Green Dot’s transformation of Locke High School and the high cost in turning it around. I am particularly interested in Locke, having run a leadership program for students there while I was an undergrad at USC. When I visited the school in 2006, it was not uncommon to see graffiti in the building. I remember my first experience there waiting for the teacher to come to the front to tell the security guard that it was OK for me to come in. Parking was also interesting. The teacher parking lot was filled with cars, not just in spots, but double-parked behind other cars and some just stopped on the side. Although that doesn’t sound like a major issue, it was indicative of the climate of the school.

When it comes to organization, I can’t say that it seemed much different than the other LAUSD schools I had visited. I had received a grant from Ralph Lauren and MTVU to run a leadership and technology program for high school freshmen and sophomores. The idea was that I’d teach them skills to help them set up their own organizations at the school. For a couple of months, I went around to schools trying to get appointments with principals to ask if I could run the program for them. They didn’t have to do anything other than sign off on it. I had the transportation, I had the program. I had ways to recruit students. Everything. After almost three months of getting nowhere, I finally talked to woman who recruited me to Teach For America and she gave me the name of one of the teachers at Locke. I called her that night and she told me to come drop off the applications for students the next day. The program was off and running, but it certainly had nothing to do with getting through the bureaucracy of the higher-ups. If you’re interested in reading about the exploits of the TFA teachers at Locke, there’s a book.

Anyway, that was all a very long tangent to explain how Locke was  just your average crime-ridden poorly-organized behemoth of a school. In 2008, Green Dot Public Schools took over aiming to transform the school. One of the most important changes that people point to is the fact that Locke was split into seven different smaller schools, creating a close-knit environment. While it’s a little misleading to say that this is a complete departure from the past – there were already separate teams within the school that essentially created separate schools – the organization is the obvious difference. The school looks nicer, the staff is stronger, and most importantly, it seems as though the students believe in the school and in themselves. It’s clear that it’s basically a different school. This is no surprise, considering Green Dot’s track record.

However, Dillon points to one problem with being able to replicate what Green Dot has done: the cost.

According to Dillon, Locke may have transformed like a butterfly, but the cost stings like a bee.

By some estimates, Green Dot had to raise $15 million in private funds to transition the school, two-and-a-half times the $6 million per school Congress is allowing districts to apply for. These numbers are a bit misleading for a few reasons, though. The $6 million is in addition to the normal operating costs that the school is already receiving. The school also gets per pupil funding. How much? The budget is for close to $30 million per year with the state paying for $25 million of that. While that may sound like a lot, with 3,200 students, that amounts to less than $10,000 per student. In comparison, it was just reported that the state of New York spends over $17,000 per pupil. The national average is higher than California (which seems odd, considering how much higher cost of living is in California). Is it any surprise that the school spent just under average for pupil spending? The problem seems to be California’s budget issues more than anything else. Aside from California’s already low spending on students, Alexander Russo says that he has heard that, charters get less to spend than traditional public schools, which accounts for as much as $4 million by itself. One would expect that a large school with lots of problems in an expensive area would cost above average to turn around, not below. If anything, Green Dot should be commended, rather than questioned for how much they raised to make big strides in such a problem school.

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Creating the Finish Line

In Federal, Uncategorized on June 29, 2010 at 2:02 pm

It seems as though I am not alone in my criticism of Cortines from my last post. The mayor’s not too fond of his mettle, either. He says he’s not supportive enough of charter schools.

As I said on Thursday, one of the big recent developments is Race to the Test, a contest to create assessments that align with the new Common Core standards. Personally, if they can actually make legitimate assessments that aren’t just multiple-choice fill-in-the-bubble exams that force students to regurgitate information for a few hours at a time, not only will I be impressed, but it will be a major step forward from what the current state tests look like.

The odd thing about this particular race, though, is that instead of allowing a number of different groups to compete for the prize, only three organizations were tapped and all three will be getting something. According to EdWeek, there were originally six consortia, but because there was so much overlap, they combined forces. Two of the three consortia, consisting of 26 and 31 states, are competing for $320 million of the total $350 million to create tests for all grades, while a smaller group of 12 states is aiming at making reliable high school exit exams. Even though these are states creating the assessments, it seems as though the federal government’s suggestions may go a long way to shaping what the tests look like. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers initially started out with major differences in their proposals, but after the receiving comments on them, their plans now look very similar to one another. Both are planning on having performance assessments spread throughout the year to track development along with a big exam at the end.

Perhaps smarter tests can be integrated into schools better.

One major difference is that despite the fact that both groups are using technology, SMARTER seems to have latched onto the computer-adaptive model, which can lead to greater accuracy and faster tests. For those unfamiliar, most graduate entrance exams (the LSAT, the GRE, etc) at this point use computer-adaptive tests that change depending on how well the student is doing. They are essentially the exam equivalent of an optometrist trying to figure out your vision. Instead of changing the strength of the prescription depending on how well you can see,  questions get harder or easier depending on how well you perform on each question. That way, they can zero in on where your performance is. Why is this important? In most states, standardized tests take a significant amount of time. I can remember my own high school experience in Indiana when the entire school would essentially shut down for a week for the sophomores and students who hadn’t previously passed to take the ISTEP. As a teacher in Arizona, there were separate days  for reading, writing, math, and science sections of AIMS, as well as an additional day for freshmen to take the TerraNova, and that doesn’t even include the extra days in the fall for students who failed the previous spring to retake the tests. If these tests used adaptive technology, they could be whittled down to a fraction of the length, resulting in more accuracy because of less burn-out from the sheer length of the tests.

While these developments are encouraging, there has been some criticism of the process. EdWeek’s Catherine Gewertz says that the timeline might be too quick. The DOE wants these tests to be in use by 2014-2015. For a strong test to be administered, there needs to be considerable piloting and adjustment and four years may not be enough to reliably do that. Bill Tucker of The Quick and the Ed and EducationNext warns that there are some important steps that may or may not happen that could determine the success of the process. His biggest concern is having open platforms and shared infrastructure. The two consortia seem to be working together so far, so it looks like a positive start. We won’t know how successful this initiative is for a couple of years probably, though.

Back on track

In California, LA on June 24, 2010 at 11:56 pm

If you hadn’t noticed, it’s been a few days since my last post. Aside from applying for jobs in NYC (anyone have any leads?), I’ve been spending the week trying to catch up on all the articles I was behind on. I subscribe to 19 education news sources to get you the best tidbits from around the blogosphere and further, so after being in Israel for 3 1/2 weeks, I was behind by about 700 articles. I’ve managed to finally catch up, so I figured it’s time to get back to my article every day or two that I had going before.

There are a few  topics that I would like to cover. Tomorrow’s post will be about the recent selection of organizations that won grants to develop assessments aligned with the new CORE standards. Very exciting. I’ll also give you my thoughts on the scalability of the Locke High School turnaround, a school to which I have a personal connection.

Tonight, we’ve got  a local LA headline (from yesterday): John Deasy, deputy director of the Gates Foundation’s education division, has been hired as the new deputy superintendent for LAUSD. Not only that, but with a salary of $25,000 more than what Ray Cortines (the current superintendent and his boss) is making, there is speculation that he will take over for Cortines within two years. Before his stint with the Gates Foundation, Deasy was superintendent for Prince George’s County Public Schools from 2006-2008 and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District from 2001-2006.

Deasy has been picked as the new deputy superintendent for LAUSD.

What does this mean for LAUSD? First of all, it could possibly be a strong step in the right direction. Under Cortines, the district has by-and-large bent to the will of UTLA, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. While I am sure Deasy intends to work with the union, rather than against it, his track record shows he is a big proponent of some policies that they have adamantly fought against. Most notably, he arranged a bargain in his Maryland district to incorporate performance pay into the teacher contract. Other policies he has advocated include data-based decision making, staff development, fair evaluations for both teachers and administrators, and revenue sharing by richer sections of the district with poorer ones.

Of note is his performance in his previous districts. While Deasy made large gains with Prince George’s County, he left after less than three years with the district still the second worst in Maryland. I doubt he’d leave so quickly from such a big project as this, but you never know. There is certainly a lot on the line for him if he is to step in after Cortines, who at the age of 77 is expected to retire within the next two years. One thing is for sure, it will be no easy task with so much dysfunction and so many budget problems both at the district and state levels.

Gambling with Students’ Futures Should Be Illegal

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Last night, as a part of InformEdaction’s bi-monthly discussion series, I went to go see The Lottery at the Laemmle Music Hall. The movie is for the most-part what I expected it to be – a heart-wrenching account of an unfair system that keeps some families down alongside a glimmer of hope for a few. The premise of the movie is simple. Each year, thousands of families “apply” to get their student into one of the various charter schools in Harlem. At the time of filming, there were just over 20 charter schools there. The film tracked four families who applied for their children to attend Harlem Success Academy, the most popular lottery in New York.

The night that we attended just happened to include a Q&A by Madeleine Sackler, the director of the film. Ms. Sackler’s film offers a scathing review of union actions and local politics that seem to stand in the way of children’s success. Alongside the stories of the children trying to get into Harlem Success is the battle between the charter organization and advocates for PS129, a failing school that Harlem Success 2 wanted to expand into last year. The movie  claims that the major “shadow” actors behind the resistance movement are members of the teachers’ unions. At the hearing, there are even shots of opposition members wearing hats with the teachers’ union’s initials on them. In the Q&A, Sackler claimed that in making the movie, she had no agenda. She wasn’t trying to paint a certain picture of the unions or even of charter schools. In fact, she said she repeatedly tried to get union participation in the project – especially of AFT President, Randi Weingarten – and was told they were too busy for an entire year.

Overall, I think the film does a good job showing what charter schools can be, highlighting some of the amazing statistics that Harlem Success has been able to achieve. The school is proud of its high test scores, but seems to be even more glowing about its culture. Shots of the school show “Class of 2025” posters and university banners of all sorts. Interviews with teachers and principals there illustrate the drive they have to make sure their children succeed. If the film has a hero, it’s HSA’s CEO, Eva Moskowitz. She explains the high expectations the school has and is shown not only to be relentless, but passionate as well. At one point, Moskowitz is shown crying during her defense of HSA II’s plan to move into PS 129, because she believes that children in Harlem are not given the chances they deserve.

As much as I like the overall message of the film and the positive impact it might have on the general public, I have to say that even as someone who likes charters and is often critical of teachers’ unions getting in the way of education reform, I found the film particularly one-sided. Despite Ms. Sackler’s claims of having no prior intent – or maybe because of them – the film clearly portrays charters as fantastic institutions that are just being held back by those who don’t know or don’t care. It’s true, there are some amazing charter schools, but intentionally or not, the film makes it seem as though Harlem Success represents all charters. The school is popular because it stands out, not because it is similar to many others. It does what few other schools have been able to replicate. The movie also does not really share the legitimate concerns many have with the way that some charters are going about their business (or some may argue how they have to go about their business). It was apparent that one of the big worries of parents and local officials was that Harlem Success is not just for students in the areas that the zoned schools (read: normal public schools) where they were using space. The movie seems to gloss over the fact that not all of the children they followed were even from Harlem. The movie’s synopsis on IMDB says they are from “Harlem and the Bronx.”

The criticisms I have, however, are far outweighed by the positive effect a movie like this can have. If the general population were to see it, I think they would get the right message: there is a big problem with the way education has been going and it needs to change. Obviously, there are some who might not agree. Either way, it is clear that whether a child receives a quality education shouldn’t be a matter of chance.

For real this time…

In California, Federal, LA, Uncategorized on June 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm

OK, so my plan to write entries while in Israel did not quite pan out. It did not help that the adapter for my laptop decided to die. So now that I got that all squared away a few days ago, I’ve been in the process of trying to catch up on a month’s worth of articles. I thought perhaps I’d get through all of them and then start writing… I still have almost 600 articles left in my queue dating back to May 28. So instead of making you all wait another week or two, I’ll just start writing and hope that I can get back on track. Before I do, I thought I might mention that I’ll be relocating. The blog will stay here and I’ll still keep the national/LA stuff going, but since I’ll be heading to the NYC area, I’ll add in some NY/NJ local news once in a while, too. Since there are already lots of updates elsewhere on big to-dos in that part of the country, I don’t feel as obligated to make sure the general public is aware of them.

I am about to work on an entry about The Lottery, an excellent film I saw last night. It will be up later today.