Setting the Standard in Education

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I’m Hitting the Road, Jack

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2010 at 7:50 pm

I start my 2800 mile journey from Los Angeles to New York tonight. As such, I’ll be on hiatus for the week with maybe a surprise post or two. Regular posts will resume the 14th.


The Education Standard Hits the Big Time

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm

OK, OK, so maybe not the big time, but one of my posts has been included in a blog carnival. Bellringers has created carnival called Education Buzz. Issue number 1 is out and one of my posts is in it! Sweet!

The Road More or Less Travelled

In LA, Uncategorized on August 2, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I am happy to report that as expected, I will be moving to New York City. I should be there by the middle of the month. This may or may not mean fewer posts over the next couple of weeks, as you’ve seen this past week. I will do my best to blog as often as I can, but I can’t guarantee anything. Right now, I am waiting to find out what information I am allowed to disclose about my job, as I will be working for an education-related organization. I would love to be able to comment on relevant topics, but I need to make sure I don’t step on any toes or go over any boundaries. As such, I’m going to stick to non-New York-related topics until I find out what I am and am not allowed to say. I have lots of packing, cleaning, and selling of possessions to do in the next few days, so I’m going to go head off and do those things. Tomorrow, I’m going to try to get in a post comparing the education platforms of the two major candidates for California governor, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. Both have some solid ideas and some inconsistencies. It should be a treat.

I will be seeing a lot of this on my drive from LA to NY.

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?

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.

The Lasting Effect of Teach For America

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2010 at 6:45 pm

It seems I should go away more often. I had the two busiest days of traffic this week while I was travelling to New York for some interviews. Hopefully it keeps up. I’m still in New York, but the interviews are over, so I finally have some time to rest.

In the intervening days, there have been a number of articles about Teach For America. While the arguments aren’t new, I don’t believe I’ve covered the topic, so I thought I’d give my two cents. Fair warning: I’m a Teach For America alumnus, so obviously I’m a little biased. I will attempt to be as even-handed as possible. Hopefully I can dispel some common ideas about the program as well.

One articles in particular has garnered a lot of attention, mostly because it’s from a major publication. The article, from The New York Times last Sunday focuses on the difficulty of getting into the program. It seems to be everyone’s favorite line about TFA that it draws so many Ivy League graduates. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen glowing praise over the fact that less than a quarter of those from those schools get in. I also can’t think of how many times I’ve read someone calling Teach For America a bunch of white elitists who think they’re going to have no problems when they get into the classroom. With 12% of students from Ivy League schools applying, many of the proponents and detractors seem to think that those are the overwhelming majority of applicants to the program. Wrong. Corps members (CMs) come from an extremely wide variety of institutions. In the school where I worked, there were TFA corps members and alums from Brigham Young, Miami, USC, Michigan, MIT, Baylor, Western Washington, Randolph-Macon, Denison, Scripps, and yes, there was one from Penn… who was Hispanic. While all of us were intelligent hard-working people (yes, I’m patting myself on the back), we were by no means “elites,” unless that means people who did well in school.

When I hear people calling the organization a bunch of white, female missionaries, I have to laugh. Yes, Teach For America is 70% white and 68% female. However, the teaching profession itself is worse. Women make up 80% of all teachers and 90% of teachers are white. The NEA reported in 2006 that 40% of schools in the US have no minority teachers. In fact, TFA puts a huge focus on diversity. They strive to educate all of their corps members to understand how to navigate with those from different backgrounds from themselves. The biggest expectation CMs are supposed to come out with is that they should not expect any one thing when they enter the classroom. TFA also makes it a mission to recruit a high number of teachers with similar backgrounds to those they will be teaching. They are constantly reevaluating their strategies and practices, adapting their corps to match the populations being served.

Of course, the other big criticism of Teach For America is the short length that teachers stay in the classroom. Most of the data I’ve seen on this is hazy. For example, the New York Times article cites one study that said that half of CMs in New York left their schools after their two year commitment and 85% had left after four years. That doesn’t mean they left teaching. In contrast, TFA claims that 63% of alumni are in education. About half of those are K-12 teachers. Another 19% work in schools or districts and 17% in education non-profits. I’m sure I was probably counted as working in “higher education” this past year, since I worked with college students, although I don’t know if I’d personally count it as working in education. With only about 30% of alumni still teaching in K-12 schools, it would seem that most alumni are “abandoning” teaching. This ignores a few nuances, though. First of all, only half of teachers stay in the profession for five years and the numbers are much worse in low-performing schools, into which TFA teachers are generally placed. For thirty percent of alumni in TFA’s 20 years to still be in the classroom, it sounds as though they last just about as long as other teachers in comparable situations. While the turnover rate is higher than what one might want, it’s not the travesty so many make it out to be.

It's at least better to have the one step, right?

Teach For America also touts a dual purpose. While putting highly qualified teachers into the classroom is part of closing the achievement gap, just as important is creating an alumni base that advocates for changes to the system. With so many working in an education-related field, Teach For America has started to produce a powerful and growing force in education reform. Hundreds of TFA alumni have been put into places of power from Michelle Rhee, DCPS’s superintendent, to Jonathan Fish, who was just elected to be a judge in Orange County’s Superior Court. And unlike what Rachel Tompkins thinks, TFA teachers are not “just passing through” the rural areas they teach in. The most recent issue of One Day highlighted the efforts of TFA alumni in the Mississippi Delta. Alumni are now working as teachers, principals, and education advocates across the Delta. Some are even starting KIPP schools in the area.

Don’t forget as well that Teach For America has proven that its first and second year teachers consistently outperform teachers with more experience than them. The Wall Street Journal ran an article last Saturday that pointed out an Urban Insitute study’s finding that

On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers’ effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.

Another study cited in the article found that middle school math teachers from TFA accounted for an extra half of a year of improvement in their students. One of the reasons is that Teach For America has revolutionized the way their teachers are hired. While traditional methods have two different organizations training and then being responsible for the results of their teachers, TFA does both.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Teach For America is perfect. In their drive to get kids to learn basic skills like reading and math, they often overlook teaching students things like character and critical thinking. These tend to be skills those students aren’t getting in their poorly performing schools and some may argue they are a critical component of giving students 21st century skills (I would). Focusing on basic skills while students at schools in the suburbs and in private schools get projects that work their problem-solving skills marginalizes them. It continues a cycle of separating the classes. The wealthy stay wealthy while the poor aren’t equipped to pull themselves out of poverty. CEOs have skills that are not taught in a math book or a literature textbook. However, when it comes to improving classrooms in the long-run, Teach For America is doing a better job than any other program out there. It has put prestige into teaching that there simply has not been in this country since arguably the formation of the United States. It has pushed more individuals to look at the classroom and how it can be improved than there has ever been. The teaching corps that TFA creates might just be a bandaid, but the coming transformation of education will be a lasting impression made by a program that emphasizes doing something For America, rather than oneself.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm

It’s usually hard to settle on which bit of news to write about. If I were getting paid to do this, I’d spend all day and write about all of them. EdWeek had two really interesting articles this morning, one on work in developing science standards and the other is about a study showing teacher induction programs had positive results in student achievement gains, although not in keeping teachers in the field or making them feel more prepared. I was also intrigued by an article about why “bad” children can come from seemingly “good” parents. While it’s not directly school related, it makes me think of parent conferences I’ve and how many parents asked me, a 22-year-old straight out of college, how I can help them with their child that they can’t manage. How do we expect teachers so control all of the learning outcomes in their classes when we have so little hope with parents? (The answer is that most students aren’t like that and that we have to factor in this possibility when we look at student achievement).

However, the issue that sparked my thought the most today was Eduflack’s article about whether Bill Gates has the power to remake education. It’s the old question: if you had all of the money in the world, what would you do to___________. In this case, it’s what would you do to completely change the face of an education system that perpetuates class separation and causes inefficiency? Over the last few years, Gates has poured billions of dollars into education, funding everything from common standards to  charter schools to performance pay. Of course, even when one is being philanthropic, when dealing with lots of money, there are always critics. Leonnie Haimson calls him “the most dangerous man in America.” She claims his small schools have created less space for classes and have shut down entire programs, such as arts and science labs.

The same situation is now unfolding in NYC as the rapidly proliferating charter schools are wedged into public school buildings. As a result, the existing public school, with much higher concentrations of English language learners, special needs students, and homeless children, is now in many cases forced to provide instruction and mandated services in hallways and closets.

Perhaps Haimson should do her homework before lodging complaints. Charters generally have about the same number of ELL , homeless, and special needs students. In The Lottery, a scene shows Harlem Village Academy CEO, Eva Moskowitz,  being grilled by school board members while trying to get more space for HVA2. One of the questions asked is on that very issue. The board member asks what her special ed population is. Moskowitz points out that HVA’s special ed population was over 20%, much higher than the school she in the same location. Haimson also ignores major facts completely. She points out that Gates has concentrated his funding in cities where there are fewer people in power, saying that it helps him ignore the constituents. He has tended to places where there is mayoral control, rather than school boards with slow and bureaucratic methods. However, that is completely irrelevant to whether parents or students have any say. Large districts with complicated structures generally don’t have any constituent input, either.  What can you expect from the executive director of an organization called “Class Size Matters”, when studies show that for the most part, it doesn’t? (It’s only when classes are reduced to fewer than 20 that any effects are shown). Haimson spends the second half of the article angry about the fact that Gates hasn’t put much money into reducing class sizes. I suppose that shows why she has an axe to grind.

How could this face be the most dangerous in the world?

Regardless of ethical questions some may have about his methods, Eduflack’s question still remains: can Bill Gates change the face of K-12 education? He’s got a $35 billion foundation that says, “Yes.” While that may be a drop in the bucket compared to the close to $600 billion the US spends on education a year, it’s enough to create an entire model. Up until now, Gates has been spending money funding various projects. He’s given money to charter organizations, districts, and even teachers’ unions. Eduflack thinks he should go further. If Patrick Riccards (the writer of Eduflack) had that kind of money, he’d build his own districts. He’d take all of the existing research and create a complete district. Why spend $100 million dollars in Tampa trying to convince people to do things you like when you can spend money to run a whole operation? The Gates Foundation could control everything from the budget to hiring to curriculum and beyond. I wouldn’t stop there, though. I think Riccards is ignoring one key factor in school success – training. For Gates to truly create an entire system and see if it works, he’d have to found a school of education. Perhaps with New York’s new decision to allow alternative certifiers to have their own Master’s programs, there is an opening for such a plan to get off the ground.

Of course, the Gates Foundation would need to have a fundamental change in vision for something like this to happen. The Foundation sets its sights on funding a variety of projects, allowing for as much innovation as possible. Funding an entire district would not allow for the same scope of change, depending on the size of the district. Perhaps if the Gates Foundation were to create a medium-sized district with a budget of only tens of millions, rather than hundreds, it could keep its hand in more projects. Let’s say Gates opts to spend $15,000 per student plus the cost of the teacher training (more than almost every state currently spends). He could have a decent-sized district of 6,500 students (500 per grade, larger than average) for $97.5 million. That means if he were to create five of those (with varying methods for comparison), it would cost $492.5 million each year, not including the teacher training. He’s spending about that much currently, but that figure also doesn’t take into account that much of that funding would come from the state anyway. Let’s say the Foundation gets half of that from the state, so it’d be spending $250 million or about half of its budget on running five districts with over 30,000 students. Add in costs for running teacher training and you’ve still got a hefty but manageable sum. I’m sure they could do the math better and get it to work out in their favor even more than the math that I’m spewing (how else do you become the richest man in the world, afterall). The Gates Foundation could easily run a 10-year pilot for “only” a few billion and still have plenty to work in other areas. In the time that it’s taken Green Dot to become a noticeable presence, Gates Dot could completely change what education in the US looks like. Plausible? Probably not. Worthwhile? absolutely.

The Lighter Side

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I thought today I might just give some links to things that seemed a bit amusing to me this week in education news. No thick reading in this one:

Now this first one may not be funny to some people, but perhaps it’s mostly just strange. A teacher in Australia is suing her school district for $420,009 because she’s claiming she suffered permanent disability by damaging her larynx. Why? She was yelling too much. It’s the districts fault, obiously. Maybe the $9 is for ice cream.

GWU’s president was getting tired of being called “stuffy.” So he decided to relax a bit. He hired a student to tell him which parties to go to and has done everything from drum with the basketball team to judging a pie-eating contest.

So perhaps this one’s not funny, but I just liked the name of the post: Not a Magic President.

Apparently Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute is actually a soccer player.