Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

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.

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.

Americans: Xenophobic Since 1776

In LA on April 30, 2010 at 11:54 am

Old white people are at it again, spreading fear and hatred of other cultures to “protect the children.” OK, I know I shouldn’t say that and it’s a gross over-generalization, but it got you interested, right? Today’s local LA story comes from Hacienda Heights, an “unincorporated census-designated place” about 18 miles east of downtown Los Angeles (it’s also the home of The Dutchess). The area has more than its share of racial angst with drastic demographic changes in the last 30 years. An area that was once very white then became heavily Asian, and now  also very Hispanic. The most recent census data shows that Asians and Latinos each make up a little under 40% of the population with Caucasians being just under 20%.

How has this played out? One example is the protesting of the building of a Buddhist temple in the 1980s because of fears there may be animal sacrifices and that the use of gongs would be disruptive toi the neighborhood. No, really, that was not an exaggeration. More recently, the district voted whether to be come a city on its own in 2003, but that was struck down. Some worried that it would become too easy for the Asians to take control. That being said, the one major council that Hacienda Heights does have, the Board of Education of Hacienda La Puente School District, is a majority Asian.

Now that we have our scene set, we watch as the action unfolds. The Chinese government recently began a program called the Confucius Classroom, an effort to teach children Chinese and about Chinese culture to try to root out misconceptions, or as one editorial called it, “tantamount to asking Hugo Chavez to send his cadres to teach little American kids economics.” I wish I were kidding. Anyway, back in reality, the Chinese government has funded these classrooms all across the US, 60 so far and another 80 planned for the next two years, aside from the 45 to be set up in North Carolina. It is paying the school district $30,000 per year plus providing 1,000 textbooks, CDs, and other educational materials. The Hanban, China’s language teaching agency, was even going to send a teacher, but the school board thought better of it with there already being so much resistance. Without a California teaching certificate, the person would have had to be a teaching assistant with another staff member there anyway.

Confucius - Warping Young Minds Since 551 BCE (man, I'm on a roll with these slogans) Image from

Anyway, you can see where this is going. People (mostly old white people, mind you) are opposing the program, because they think it’s un-American. They think that the program will indoctrinate children into being Pinko Commies. They have even shown up to school board meetings with signs like “America, Not Confucius” and have promised to try to unseat the four members who voted for the program. Did I mention one person opposed to the program said her concern is that if you Google Confucianism, “it says it’s a religion”? Oh the irony. A program meant to keep children from ending up as ignorant and closed-minded as these people may not happen because of their ignorance.