Joanne Yatvin: In Praise of Small Schools

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment


I did some consulting in VT for the past two years where legislation was passed to promote school consolidation and worked with a consortium of small districts in Northern NH on ways to collaborate. The bottom line in New England is that small towns want to retain their local schools even if they are economically inefficient and their local elected school board members are not necessarily interested in regional purchasing if it means that local businesses might suffer. I find the sentiment to retain of local schools parallels the desire to retain local post offices. Schools and post offices define the communities and if either disappear the sense of community disappears. These small towns have seen how Dollar Stores, convenience store chains, and Walmarts have undercut local businesses and they want to hold on to their last community institutions at all costs. It’s clear to me that given the choice between a “large and diverse” set of offerings or “intimacy and close relationships” local boards in NE rural communities will pay a premium to keep local schools no matter their size.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Joanne Yatvin has been a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent in Oregon. She is a reading specialist. Here she defends the small school idea. My own view is that there is a trade-off. A large school offers a large and diverse curriculum. A small school offers intimacy and close relationships. Some students prefer small schools, others do not. I am agnostic.

An editorial published earlier this month in the New York Times heralded the success of three small, specialized high schools created by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. A multiyear study showed that disadvantaged students at those schools did better academically than those in large, traditional high schools and were more likely to enroll in college. Within a few days Diane Ravitch posted a piece on her blog written by an unnamed researcher at the NYC Department of Education who questioned the verity of those results. He claimed that the…

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Child Care, Prekindergarten and Vouchers

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s editorial praising the bi-partisan Child Care bill reinforced my notion that preschool programming is a vehicle for getting vouchers into schools… and that both the neo-liberals and conservatives are on the same page on the privatization movement. Here are some excerpts from the editorial that led to that conclusion:

The new law, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, makes safety and other improvements to the $5.2 billion child care program, which provides grants to states to help low-income parents who work, or are enrolled in job training or school, obtain child care, mostly through federal vouchers.

Existing statutory provisions untouched by the new revisions allow parents to use the vouchers at religious facilities, as long as the child care provided does not involve religious instruction or worship. The wording does leave room for discrimination on the basis of religion in hiring for some positions, although not in admissions. Using public money for hiring that is based on religion raises constitutional concerns. But in 2002, the Supreme Court dismissed constitutional objections to a similar voucher plan in a case involving Cleveland public and parochial schools.

The quid pro quo in the near unanimous support for the voucher model was not explicitly stated, but likely revolves around the need for all members of congress to show they can pass SOMETHING to help working parents and the hope on the part of bona fide liberals and progressives that more money might be forthcoming for programs to help children in need, something the editorial endorses at the end:

What the country needs is high-quality child care that provides an enriching learning environment. And that takes more money.

Here’s the multi-billion dollar question, though: IF a substantial sum of money is available for “… high-quality child care that provides an enriching learning environment” contingent on that funding is contingent on the use of vouchers. It’s no surprise to readers that my answer is: “Do NOT expand the use of vouchers! Allow public schools to oversee the funding an operation of preschool programs.”

Charters, Tracking, Real Estate, and Re-Segregation

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent articles illustrate how charter schools and tracking amplify the trend of re-segregation in public schools, a trend that is tied inextricably to zip codes.

Last week Atlantic blogger Sonali Kohli posted an article titled “Modern Day Segregation in Public Schools” that described how the longstanding practice of tracking exacerbates the emerging trend of resegregation using a recent NJ State Board decision to illustrate her point. The problem local districts face is that their use of standardized test scores, GPAs, and teacher recommendations to determine who qualifies for advanced courses or “gifted and talented” courses results in a disproportionate number of white students being placed in classrooms. The USDOE, which requires States to use standardized testing to identify “failing schools”, is intervening and recommending some sort of de facto quota system whereby the districts who using tracking of any kind must ensure that the student populations in advanced levels and/or gifted and talented programs mirror the racial patterns of the district as a whole.

Today’s NJSpotlight features an insightful blog post by Laura Waters titled “Self Selection of Public Schools, New Jersey’s Double Standard” which uses a recent quote from Newark’s CEO Cami Anderson as the jumping off point:

In response to a question regarding a four-point drop in test scores among Newark students enrolled in traditional elementary schools, Anderson acknowledged that the city’s growing sector of public charter schools serves children who are less poor and less likely to be classified as eligible for special-education services.

“I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming,”said Anderson, “but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools.”

Charter advocates winced and went on the defensive. Charter detractors grinned and high-fived. Both reactions miss the point.

The point Ms. Waters makes is one that I’ve made in this blog on several occasions:  parents in affluent zip codes get a wider range of choices than parents in urban areas serving children raised in poverty:

Given a choice between Newark and Millburn, motivated parents of any means would most likely choose to send their kids to school in the latter, as long as they could afford the freight of the median house cost of $665,000 and an average annual tax bill of $20,439. This sort of self-selection — skimming, if you will — is regarded as a cause for applause, an emblem of good values and good parenting. In New Jersey we embrace school skimming. With our ZIP code-driven district-assignment system, town choice is school choice. If you can afford granite countertops then you can afford great public schools.

Ms. Waters chides those who criticize charters in urban systems for skimming of the best and brightest children of engaged parents without challenging the de facto segregation that results from real estate choices.

But in Newark, a system that allows families to choose more successful, albeit nontraditional, public schools is suddenly suspect. A proud N.J. tradition is transformed into a scourge, simply because we’re talking about poor parents and not rich ones.

Waters describes offers a lukewarm proposal for solving the problem but closes with a statement that poses a conundrum for those of us who do not want to see the expansion of for profit charter schools:

So what’s the answer? Paul Tractenberg half-heartedly suggests county-wide school districts, although he concedes that such a conversion is a “quintessential political third rail” due to New Jersey’s addiction to local control. Whatever that answer is or, indeed, whether it exists, let’s agree that parents should be able to make school choices for their children, and that their right to do so shouldn’t rest on their ability to afford granite countertops.

Here’s the conundrum from my perspective: politics is the art of the determining what is possible as opposed to what is ideal… and what is possible NOW under the system we have in place is offering choices within districts and ensuring that those choices within districts do not result in segregation by race. Charter schools, be they for-profit or not-for-profit, are the most politically viable solution we have NOW. The political reality as I see it is that any solutions that approach the “ideal” (e.g. choice among all schools, equitable funding across the board, early intervention programs for children raised in poverty, county districts that enable the re-drawing of boundaries to achieve racial and socio-economic balance, etc.)  are, to echo Mr. Tractenberg, a “quintessential third rail”.

In earlier posts I’ve proposed a third rail solution with relatively voltage: the redirection of ALL federal funds to less affluent districts in states, like NJ, where civil rights violations are found and/or courts have determined that existing funding mechanisms are unconstitutional. It’s been 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education and in those years the Federal funding for public schooling has increased substantially and enrollment patterns driven by zip codes have increased segregation across the country. One look at the data cited in each of these articles should persuade anyone that segregation continues within school districts and between school districts and the current tools in play, “strongly worded directives” and de facto quota systems are unsatisfactory and simplistic solutions to deep and complicated problems. Redistribution of federal funding to address issues decided in State and/or federal courts would promote local solutions to these problems.

From my perspective, the ideal solution to all equity issues would be the institution of constitutionally equitable per pupil allocations, the abandonment of age-based cohorts, and the implementation of individualized instruction programs. Such a reformatting of school would help schools develop self-actualized learners who have the interpersonal skills to thrive in the multi-cultural world our students are living in. If we want a fully engaged electorate of well-informed voters we cannot continue operating public schools that segregate students based on their learning rates, the knowledge they bring into schools when they enter, and whether their parents can afford granite counter tops. Such a system only reinforces what we have in place today and the direction we are heading.

Promiscuous Promotions Start Early!

November 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes, “Promiscuous College Come-Ons” made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Bruni has consistently trumpeted the market based “reforms” of Bloomberg et al and after reading this column it is evident that he cannot see the ultimate consequences of subjecting all schools to the marketplace…. which led me to make this comment:

How do you reconcile your criticism for colleges shamelessly marketing themselves with your avid support for the “market based” school reform? In the world of school reformers EVERY school will need to spend money on recruitment and there will be little or no regulation on how the schools advertise themselves. The only good result of “market based” charter schools will be that by the time a student graduates from high school they will be inured to the “promiscuous promotions” presented by colleges.

The other ironic criticism was his implication that Swarthmore was lowering the rigor of its application process in order to game the statistics in the US News and World Report that give schools a higher ranking if they are “more selective”. Again, there is much data to support the fact that for-profit charter schools do the same thing to demonstrate the “demand” for their openings…. and there is Campbell’s Law which Wikipedia defines as follows:

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

To paraphrase: institutions— even respected institutions— will do everything possible to game the system in order to improve their standing in the eyes of “consumers”. If we want to measure effectiveness we should make sure the data we use to do so cannot be easily gamed and the algorithms we use emphasize the most important qualities we are seeking.

If we want to institute market based schools, we should be prepared for more “promiscuous promotion” at earlier and earlier ages… and maybe add b.s. detection to the Common Core.

The Scoring of Common Core Tests is Unrealistic

November 23, 2014 Leave a comment


Diane Ravitch writes: “At some point, someone will have to admit that the Common Core and the tests are so “rigorous” that the students who succeed are being prepared for elite universities, not for state universities, and not for career readiness.”…. or MAYBE at some point we will acknowledge that if we truly want all students to meet the standards we should give them enough time to do so. Is there ANY evidence that students mature at the same rate physically? Do we declare a young man to be “failing” if he hasn’t started shaving when he’s 15 because most boys, on average, begin to grow facial hair around the age of 15? If we think such a test of physical growth is preposterous why do we put so much stock in the assumption that tests of intellectual growth are meaningful? If we expect performance to be constant we need to make time variable.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Valerie Strauss has a fascinating column about the scoring of the Smarter Balanced assessment. It appears that the achievement levels mirror the levels on NAEP. Understanding the scoring process is not easy. Apparently only the students in the top two levels will be considered “college-ready,” as befits a very rigorous curriculum. This means that less than half of the 11th grade students will be on track to go to college. In terms of mathematics, only one-third will be college-ready. The scoring ends with the rather ominous statement that Smarter Balance has not yet figured out a scoring guide for “career readiness.” Since there is so little in the Common Core that is related to career readiness, this is understandable. Very likely, the students who are involved in career and technical education will be in the lower bands and won’t be eligible to go to college.

I served on the…

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Every Teacher in the U.S. Should Post This Statement in His or Her Classroom

November 23, 2014 Leave a comment


If VAM is statistically invalid for classroom teachers who provide direct instruction in classes that instruct students in tested material, how could the use of VAM be valid in ANY way for SpED, Music, Art, PE, MS Science, MS Social Studies, the majority of HS content areas, etc. etc.? By my back of the envelope calculation a majority of teachers could not be measured by VAM even it it WAS a statistically valid calculation. My fear: Lamar Alexander and other reformers will solve this problem by giving more tests to more children in more subjects.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

This is the executive summary of the statement of the American Statistical Association on the use of value-added assessment to evaluate teachers. Please share it with other teachers, with principals, and school board members. Please share it with your legislators and other elected officials. Send it to your local news outlets. The words are clear: Teachers account for between 1 and 14% of the variation in test scores. And this is very important to remember: “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”

ASA Statement onUsing Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment

April 8, 2014

Executive Summary

Many states and school districts have adopted Value-Added Models (VAMs) as part of educational accountability systems. The goal of these models, which are also referred to as Value-Added Assessment (VAA) Models, is to estimate effects of individual teachers or schools on student achievement while accounting for differences…

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For Profit Charter’s End Game

November 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, wrote an insightful blog post that Diane Ravitch excerpted on her blog yesterday. Titled “100% Charter Fail” Greene’s post made the point that the for profit charters do NOT want to take over all the schools, they are only after the easiest portion of the market. Greene writes (with my emphasis added):

It’s telling that while chartercrats are cheering on complete charter conversions for cities from York, PA to Memphis, TN, no charter chains have (as far as I know) expressed a desire to have a whole city to themselves. The preferred model is an urban broker like Tennessee’s ASD or the bureaucratic clusterfarfegnugen that is Philadelphia schools– charter operators can jostle for the juiciest slice of the steak and try to leave the gristle for some other poor sucker.

It’s not even that charters are worried about how successful they will look…. the numbers that they are most attentive to are the ones on the bottom line, and that’s why no charter operators in their right minds would want a 100% charter system that they had to be responsible for.

He then offers these insights on why the “free market” will not work in public education:

Here’s one more reason that free market economics do not belong in public education– in the free market, all customers are NOT created equal. All customers are NOT equally desirable to businesses. And the free market deals with these undesirable customers very simply– it doesn’t serve them. (This is why, for instance, when you hire FEDex or UPS to deliver a package to your uncle on some back road in Bumfargel, PA, FEDex and UPS turn around and hire the United States Postal Service to deliver it for them.) In a charter system, those High Cost Students become human hot potatoes.

“Well, we’ll just require charters to serve a certain segment of the population in our 100% charter system,” you say. And I will remind you of one other critical difference between charters and true public schools. True traditional public schools do not say, “It’s too hard to turn a profit in this business environment, so we are just going to close our doors.” Traditional public schools are in it for the long haul. Charter operators are in it as long as it makes business sense to be in it. If they don’t like the deal you’re offering them, they don’t have to stay.

I especially liked his Post Office analogy because it reinforces my notion that small towns think of their public school the same way they think of the Post Office: both serve as community hubs and community identities. It is noteworthy that both the school consolidation efforts and the post office closures hit a stone wall in the small New England communities where I worked as a consultant for the past two years: people in those communities were explicitly willing to pay a premium price to retain the schools that identified their community as distinct from a larger nearby community.

My observation that I shared on both blogs:

For profit charters don’t want to take over the whole market any more than Walmart wants to… Do you see a Walmart in Scarsdale? In New Trier? In Radnor PA? Conversely do you see any Walmarts in poor urban neighborhoods? Walmart is willing to cede the upscale market and abandon the urban poor to make as much profit as possible on the mass market. For profit charter operators think the same way. They’ll go after the market of engaged urban parents and middle class neighborhoods and towns that are seeking relief from high taxes. The for profit charters are not cherry picking to destroy public education, they are cherry picking to make money.

One concluding observation: The charter cheerleaders need to look at who charter schools are leaving behind before they make claims about charter expansion, choice, and vouchers being a “civil rights” issue. The poor children with disengaged parents, the disabled children who will pull down test scores, and the remote rural communities will be left behind and the public schools in affluent communities will continue to thrive and become more exclusive as their housing prices rise correspondingly. Charters, choice, and vouchers are all about rewarding investors and shareholders… not about helping children.