Setting the Standard in Education

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Future of LAUSD

In California, LA on July 31, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Back in June, I reported that LAUSD had hired John Deasy as assistant superintendent under Ray Cortines. It’s important to note taht Deasy is being paid more than Cortines, who also gave Deasy the bigger office. Clearly, the assumption is that Deasy will be superintendent when Cortines finishes his term. A little over a week ago, Cortines announced that will be sooner than what was previously expected. Cortines had a contract that lasted until the end of 2011, but he says he will be done next spring. This comes as a bit of a surprise, but it’s not a huge change from what the original plan was. By retiring next spring, Cortines will have served about 2 1/2 years of his 3-year contract. These past few years and his previous term were both fraught with difficulties. He presided over huge budget cuts and layoffs.

Cortines is retiring early to help transition LAUSD into a new era.

However, that seems like it was the plan all along. Cortines is seen not as a reformer, but as a budget-slasher. While he has done some great things for LAUSD like pressing for allowing wider school takeovers by CMOs and other organizations, his main issue has been navigating a financial crisis. LAUSD has been in dire straits since he came aboard in 2008 and he has worked his way into making things better. While the district is by no means out of the clear, perhaps this is a sign that Cortines thinks things should be better by next year. Or that he’s done dealing with the financial woes. What seems clear is that he’s creating a fast-track for Deasy to takeover next spring and put his own print on LA’s schools.

Advertisements

Backward March!

In Federal on July 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm

The National Urban League, which is having its centennial convention this week, backed off of its criticism of President Obama's education agenda.

Michele McNeil reports that a group of civil rights organizations who released a document criticizing Obama and the Department of Education’s reforms have done an about face. Despite originally calling for Race to the Top and other recent reforms to be dismantled, three of the groups now say the document was released too early and do not support it. Instead, they say that they agree for the most part with what the Administration has done. Hugh Price, former president of the Urban League, one of the original organizations signing the document, called what the White House has done the “most muscular federal education policy I’ve ever seen.” This comes after Duncan said that he thought the criticisms were unwarranted and that the DOE’s policies have been particularly effective for minorities.

President Obama today spoke at the National Urban League’s 100th Anniversary Convention, pressing for support of his actions, saying that the pushback is due to “a general resistance to change, a comfort with the status quo .” He called education the “economic issue of our time” and said that the reforms that have passed are all about accountability. In the end, it seems the critics have backed off, whether from fear or from a feeling that they were being to hasty. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was supposed to be one of the speakers at a press conference for the document on Monday that was eventually cancelled, said he agrees with the president and is “prepared to fight for a lot of what he’s saying.”

The Obligatory Race to the Top Update

In California, Federal on July 27, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Well, there are lots of things going on in education these days, despite school being out for most of the country. The number one story of course, has been federal spending on education and specifically, Race to the Top. Well, specifics on the Race have been quiet for a bit, but the DOE just announced that there are 19 finalists for Round Two. Even though there are more states that are finalists than not (17 losing out), this seems to be about the number expected. Michele McNeil and Lesli Maxwell actually correctly predicted 17 of them. Only Arizona and Hawaii were surprises to them. Arizona made an incredible improvement, considering they were 40th the first time. I suppose requiring teachers not to have accents didn’t hurt their chances. The number of finalists is no surprise, though. In the first round, there were 15 finalists with only two winners. This time, Secretary Duncan said he expects 10-15 winners.

While the announcement is positive, Ed Sector’s Rob Manwaring questions the timing. Because the deadline for adopting the Common Core is August 2nd, states who are not finalists may have less reason to make moves to put them in place. He points out that of the eight states that applied for RttT and haven’t adopted the Common Core yet, only California is a finalist. That means Alabama, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington have all lost the incentive of Race to the Top. As the head of one of the test consortia, I’d expect Washington to go ahead and adopt the standards anyway, but what about the others? Perhaps, they’ll have second thoughts now. Money is a big draw. New York’s Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, said she’d love for New York to be able to do what they’ve proposed in their application, but doesn’t think it can happen without the money from the federal government. Of course, Duncan is playing the line that all the states should do what they propose, whether or not they get the money, but lots of states are having budget problems. New York’s budget is four months late. California has been cutting and cutting and still having incredible problems.

The Hechinger Report’s Justin Snider has a list of who he thinks will win. (Hint: not too many big states). If California, New York, and Florida were all to win, that would take up half of the money left. Don’t think that the DOE isn’t thinking politically in this one. They’ll make sure the states that win are not only the ones with the best shots of enacting their reforms, but the ones that will have the most political impact, too. A win for California or New York would be great for those states, but Florida is much more of a swing state. Will that affect the winners? Hopefully not, but you can’t rule it out.

Updates: Liz Willen from Hechinger has a great analysis of the changes Arizona made to go from 40th to a finalist.

Four Days a Week, Four Days a Week

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm

The AP reported today that Caldwell Parish’s experiment with four-day weeks may not have been successful. The school switched to a four-day week just after 2007 test scores were released. Since then, the number of students scoring basic or above on three out of four state tests have dropped.  However, this doesn’t show the whole picture. Superintendent John Sartin says that their “district peformance scores” have actually gone up from 92.8 in 2007 to 96 in 2009 (2010 numbers aren’t available yet). These scores add up not only the test averages, but attendance, dropout, and graduation rates. I’m not sure what that scale is out of, but it’s not based on 100 (I hope!) based on the Louisiana State DOE’s data. They say the parish had the 8th least growth of any in the state at a measly 1%.

Sartin thinks that the four-day weeks are “absolutely not” affecting performance, but logic dictates otherwise. The district has four-day weeks and as far as I can tell from their calendar, they have the same length of the school year as everyone else. It’s hard to tell the length of schooldays from their website, but Louisiana law requires a certain number of hours for students to be in class (called seat time). That means instead of having 180 days with about 7 hours of school, students go to school for about 144 days for almost 9 hours/day. Now let me give you a second for that to soak in. Do you remember when you were in school and the days felt like they were soooo long? Now imagine adding two hours onto that. In economic terms, we have the law of diminishing returns. The longer you’re in your seat at a time, the less effective each additional hour will be. Brains wear down. Kids get tired. Teachers get tired. As a teacher, I loved having time to nap after school before getting back to work on lesson plans and such. A longer day means a less effective use of your time. In a 9 hour day, you will learn more than in a 7 hour day, but if 35 hours is spread over 5 days, it’s going to be more effective than over 4. You might be saving money, but you’re not helping students.

I would like to see a different 4-day model. I want to see what happens when schools stick to 180 days, buts spread it out over 45 weeks instead of 36. There is lots of evidence that students lose a lot of knowledge over the summer with their brains not being as active. Perhaps if education were more evenly spread out throughout the year, learning would be more effective. I’d love to hear some responses to that idea. Am I a genius? A crackpot? What do you think?

A Litttle Basic Math

In California on July 24, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I saw this article mentioned earlier this week, but didn’t put two and two together initially (ha! math joke!). The title is “Classsroom spending dips as ed funding rises.” That title sounds serious. California is spending more on education overall, but less on the classroom!? Well…no. We’re spending more and spending a lower percentage on the classroom. Spending went from $45.6 billion to $55.6 billion from 2004-2009 and at the same time, the percentage spent on the classroom went down from 59% to 57.8%. I’ll do a little multiplication for you to save you the trouble. That means classroom spending went from $26.90 billion to $32.14 billion. So while the increase in overall education spending grew by $10 billion, classroom spending grew by $5.24 billion. Let me put it in comparative terms. Classroom spending increased by 19.5% while other spending (administrative costs, property costs, buses, all of those things) increased by 25.5%. Thus, because other costs increased by more, the overall percentage of spending in the classroom decreased.

Does this mean we’re neglecting the classroom? Maybe or maybe not. What kinds of spending does a classroom have? Teacher salaries and supplies for the most part. Teacher salaries are usually stable for periods of time this short, since there are union contracts that often don’t change much. As for supplies, the biggest expenses there are on technology. There have been lots of complaints about purchasing of unnecessary technology, so is it a problem that we’re both spending more on technology and less of a percentage on it? In addition, technology prices are decreasing rapidly. In 2005, $1000 would’ve been a reasonable price for a computer. Now, computers are half the cost. We’ve also focused a lot more in the last few years on things like accountability and support. Increasing assessments is costly. Professional development has also become a major focus in the last few years. I’m guessing that’s not counted as a “classroom cost,” but don’t you think it’s worthwhile? The article quotes the study’s author, public policy professor and director of research for the Davenport Institute, Steven Frates as saying, “It’s not teachers’ salaries and benefits that are causing the financial problems in the education system.”

He’s right; it’s budget cuts. School districts are being asked to spend less while at the same time their costs are going up. A report earlier this year pointed out that California spent less than average in 2007-2008 than other states, despite having higher costs of living. It’s not like education is the only area in which the California government is having budget issues. It’s widely known that the state is hemorrhaging everywhere. The article also brings up the fact that the CDE, according to spokeswoman Maria Lopez, has actually spent less money since 2007-2008, because of those very budget issues. Perhaps a bigger focus on classroom spending is necessary, but I’m not going to make judgments unless I see ideas of alternatives that are effective. How do we know administrative costs don’t drive learning as much as classroom costs? We don’t and misleading math isn’t going to solve any problems.

Common Core: Setting the Standard

In Federal on July 21, 2010 at 5:18 pm

It seems like I should slow down and do a little more editing on these posts. Apologies to “the” Heather Zavadsky and Mr. Michael Winerip. I’ll take my time with this one today, even though it’s pretty exciting.

The Education Gadfly reports that the Fordham Institute just released its comparison of the Common Core standards to each state’s standards. The brief description says that the standards are better than 37 states in ELA and 39 in math. I find that a little misleading, though. Those numbers only count those states that scored worse. There are only six states with better ELA scores and five with better math scores. What’s more, the scores are based on two factors: content and rigor (worth 7 points) and clarity and specificity (worth 3). The Common Core standards were designed with flexibility in mind. They receive a 2/3 in both ELA and math, mainly because they are only politically viable that way. For example, the report says the ELA standards “would be more helpful to teachers if they attended as systematically to content as they do to skills.” Clearly, if they were specific in literature content, it would be more of a hurdle to get states to agree to them. The most legitimate problems seem to be in high school math, where “the presentation is disjointed and mathematical coherence suffers.” However, both ELA and math get high marks in content and rigor. ELA is 6/7; only California, Indiana, DC, and Massachusetts are better. In math, they get a perfect 7/7. Hard to beat that. You can see the list of state scores here.

So this begs the question, is it worth it for states to adopt the new standards? For all but those four, I don’t see any reason not to. Aside from being equivalent if not better standards than virtually every state, having unified standards adds strength to comparability. It also reduces costs. Every child in the US could potentially take the same exams, so instead of designing 51 different tests, those states that join could the movement could all have the same one. I don’t know about you, but I find this extremely exciting. Standards and assessment could be revolutionized. Of course, standards are not the end of the story. Strong assessments and curricula designed around the standards are necessary to ensure that they are implemented most effectively. This is why I have said the “Race to the Test” is so important.

As for DC and the three states that had better ELA standards? I suppose it’s hard to recommend telling them to dumb down their standards. There should be a lot of thought that goes into whether it’s worthwhile. If the standards are only marginally different, it may be positive in the long-run, due to the benefits of shared resources. Two of those, DC and Massachusetts, will be voting this week on whether to join, so we’ll see what they think soon. Twenty-seven states already have and another dozen or so are expected in the next two weeks before the August 2 deadline. Perhaps those that adopt and want to improve on the standards could include additional standards and clarification for any vagueness involved in the current ones. If you’re interested, here’s a map of the states that have adopted the Common Core standards that will be updated when new states join. Below is the map of the current ones as of  this posting.

As of today (7/21), 27 states have adopted the Common Core and another dozen or so are expected in the next few weeks.

UPDATE: The Massachusetts Board of Education voted unanimously to  the Common Core movement. DC is up next.

Scary But True: Real Reform is Wholesale

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Thanks go to Forest Hinton at The Quick and the Ed for his Quick Hits today leading me to Heather Zavadsky’s report for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, “Embracing Systemic Reform.” In the last few years, there have been many education advocates pushing for individual policies, such as performance pay and breaking up large schools into smaller ones. However, AEI argues that true reform can only happen when a web of changes is made. They point out a few reasons for this.

Spending green isn't useful unless it's strategic.

Most importantly, students are diverse, so not every student will respond to any one change. Smaller classrooms may be useful for students who need more attention, but it doesn’t help the student who is ready to move beyond the curriculum being taught. Individual policies will almost never affect the entire population. Next, policies affect each other. What is the point of giving teachers bonuses for helping students achieve higher test scores when they are stuck to a misaligned curriculum, or worse when the test scores themselves are meaningless because of poorly-written assessments? The idea of creating systemic change is what has inspired so many CMOs to establish their own schools and districts. It’s also the reason that last week, I said that Bill Gates should invest in an entire charter district. The only way to help all of the students in a district is to alter the way schools operate entirely – and all of the schools a child attends K-12 for that matter. Only an entire district has the ability to control all of the aspects of a student’s learning. The report focuses on five large school district who have managed to improve learning outcomes across the board for their students, in some cases significantly reducing the achievement gap between minority and white or low- and high-income students. Brookings has similar findings in the commonalities of these districts to a report I wrote for The Riordan Foundation. Who would have thought that using data, aligning your curriculum, building a skilled staff, and having strong goals would be the keys to strong schools?

On the flipside, just because you’re spending lots of money on bold reform doesn’t mean all of your changes are doing anything. The Brookings Institute has found that the services that the Harlem Children’s Zone has supported have had no educational effect. That doesn’t mean that the schools themselves have not been effective. It’s just that students receiving the additional social services, such as classes for parents, healthcare, and after-school programs, did not show any improvements over those who didn’t. Not all problems are strong factors in education. Perhaps Obama shouldn’t have been so hasty in endorsing $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods to replicate the HCZ.

The Man Your Grades Could Be Like

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I don’t usually post videos just for amusement, but I couldn’t resist this one. BYU students make a version of the Old Spice adds about studying. Did you know that eight out of five dentists say that studying in the library is six bajillion times more effective than studying in your shower?

NY Times Misconstrues School Turnaround

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Joyce Irvine was removed as principal. Michael Winerip blames the government.

On Sunday, Michael Winerip wrote an article about the travesty that the federal government could cause a good principal to be removed because of the way schools are measured. I read this article and was dismayed by how Winerip could completely get the facts wrong. Now, I’m not talking about little facts here. I’m talking about the very premise of the article. He claims that the principal was taken from her post, because it was the easiest path for the district in its turnaround effort, despite them seeing her as extremely capable. This is completely absurd. Schools fail to make AYP all the time and have to consider one of the five restructuring options. Usually, they pick the fifth:

    (v) Any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school’s staffing and governance, to improve student academic achievement in the school and that has substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress as defined in the State plan under section 1111(b)(2).

As you can tell, the wording of this subsection is extremely vague. The district can do “any other major restructuring…that makes fundamental reforms.” Essentially, as long as they call it major, they can do it. Many schools hire consulting firms or add computer math programs – pretty much anything not to have to fire large numbers of teachers and staff members. I’m not sure how Winerip justifies excluding this possibility in his article, other than trying to sell newspapers.

Alexander Russo suggests a few more things that the article got wrong. First, getting rid of a principal is the exception and not the rule in cases of school turnaround. Second, the principal in question wasn’t even laid off. She was moved to a role overseeing principals in the central office – hardly “removing” her. Finally, the story makes it sound like the school was rated so low because of recent immigrants, but test scores for those who have entered the district within the past year do not count. These are all good points, but they seem to be lightly hitting the problems with the article without delving into the meat. Andrew Rotterham at Eduwonk points out one fact that completely changes the story, though. Not only has the school had poor scores, but it has actually been moving backwards! Rotterham completely dismantles Winerip, questioning his history of leaving out the facts.

It’s easy to try to blame the big bad government for ruining the life of the small guy, but it’s never as clear cut as that.

UPDATE: It looks like I was basing my assessment on the old models of turnaround. See the comments below to find out what I got wrong and why the district still had other options.

Good As Gold?

In Federal on July 19, 2010 at 4:22 pm

We’ve all heard that Massachusetts is head and shoulders above other states when it comes to their standards. It is generally accepted that they have the most rigorous standards in the country. Their state board of education said as much in March when it came to adopting the Common Core standards – they were too weak and would be a downgrade from Massachusetts current standards. Thus, it comes as a surprise to find that Massachusetts’s Commissioner of Secondary and Elementary Education, Mitchell Chester, has endorsed the new standards and recommended that the state adopt them. Initially, Chester was wary of them. He worried that they would be a downgrade. Now, after spending time analyzing them, he says they’re better than even Massachusetts’s high standards. He’s not the only one, either. Today, two former MA Education Commissioners have put their weight behind the switch. Robert Antonucci and David Driscoll called the standards “an advancement over our already strong Massachusetts standards.”

The kicker is the timing. The Board of Elementary Education is meeting tomorrow to discuss whether to adopt the Common Core with a vote due on Wednesday. What seemed like a long-shot after the release of the preliminary draft of the standards seems to have gained traction with the view that the bar was raised with the final version in June. Last year, if you would have asked most experts, they would have thought Massachusetts would’ve stuck with their plan, maintaining the system because of its effectiveness. The state has consistently topped the country in its NAEP scores and even ranks high globally. There are some calling the decision to switch to the new standards foolish, but there is a good chance the first step toward adopting the Common Core standards will be occur this week.

If the state whose standards are considered the gold standard joins the Common Core movement, will it set the bar? (Oh, I kill myself)

If Massachusetts decides to go through with the adoption, there will be little for any state to say in the matter. With the clear leader joining the pack, states like Virginia will have a hard time arguing that their standards are too good to be “downgraded.”