Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

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.


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.

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.

But Why? Teaching Philosophy to Children

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

It looks like 3 days (or is it 4?)  is way too much time between posts. There have been so many education issues that have taken root on blogs and in newspapers over the last few days that I hardly know where to begin. I will say I’m happy to see that there are actually people reading and what’s more, that the issues I’ve covered have later been covered by larger blogs, such as Joanne Jacobs’s blog, which is the number one rated education blog, according to Social Media Explorer. There have been some big things in the intervening time, from Governor Charlie Crist’s vetoing of a bill that would link student test scores to teacher pay to criticism of the core standards initiative  to the competition within Race to the Top that tackles assessments. It’s really hard to choose where to begin, since all of those are topics that interest me.

However, I’ll come back to them and instead focus on an article in the New York Times from a couple of weeks ago that caught my eye while I was setting up my Google Reader to get a flow of education articles from around the net. The article focuses on a program at once innovative and millenia old – teaching philosophy to young children. The article especially intrigued me because of conversations that I had with a good friend and co-teacher about the necessity of formally teaching logic. I remember one time when we were trying to get our seniors to understand some basic principles of logic that he told me if he ever ran a school, he would mandate a logic class for freshmen. The article is about people who take it one step further and ask, “Why not teach them philosophy while they’re young?” The article focuses on Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg who takes his Mount Holyoke students to elementary schools to talk to children about philosophical topics from ethics to aesthetics to political philosophy. Another professor, Gareth Matthews from the University of Massachusetts points out that young children are naturally curious, so it makes sense to teach philosophy to them at that age.

Because the concept seems foreign to Americans, who prefer more directly “academic” models that make skills like reading and solving mathematics problems the basis for learning, it makes sense that the idea of teaching philosophy to children, which Matthew Lipman has been pressing since the 70s, has caught on more in other countries than here. Lipman’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children has created curriculum materials that have been translated into over 40 languages, but there are only a few public schools in the country that have embraced it.

This seems a shame to me. There are few more fundamental skills than logic, which is at the foundation of philosophy. Schools are too scared to “waste their time” on such things, because they are more worried about standardized tests, but in reality, not only will these skills increase a student’s capacity to deal with the real world, it can even help them on multiple-choice tests, too. Logic helps in math, allowing students to see how math problems work, not just what the answers are. It is useful in reading, giving students the ability to make inferences and understand why things happen the way they do. Perhaps most importantly, the most fundamental question in philosophy is one that helps students buy into what they are learning – why. Often the biggest resistance to learning comes from students feeling as though they are wasting their time. If a student can ask and answer why they are learning something, they are far more likely to want to learn it and to put effort into it. The problem with many students is that they don’t even have the skills to ask why. Our insistence that students learn what things are – what is the largest animal, what year did the Battle of Lexington and Concord occur, what is the formula for the circumference of a circle – rather than why they are, leads to both their apathy and an inability to to answer, but more importantly ask why.

You Mean I Need to Be Qualified?

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I’m at work, it’s 9:30, and I want to go home, so I’ll make this one short. The New York Times published an article about a study on teacher preparedness showed that while future elementary school teachers tend to be well-qualified for their jobs, future middle school teachers are not as qualified, when compared to other countries. American college students studying to be teachers were about in the middle of the pack, although admittedly the study did not look at many “advanced” countries. In addition, not surprisingly, teacher preparation quality varied incredibly when comparing school by school. Some schools fared as poorly as students in poorer countries, like Botswana.

I can’t say this information blows me away. There has been widespread scrutiny of education students for some time.  It’s interesting to note that while the author of the study thinks the results show American education “is not up to the task”, Hank Kepner, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics thinks, “we show up pretty well.” Definitely much different standards.