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Sad News from Philadelphia

February 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s post this morning reported on the proposal the Philadelphia School Board proposed to the teacher’s union. I negotiated with teacher’s unions for over 30 years and could not imagine advancing a proposal as draconian and small minded as the one reported in the media and described in Diane Ravitch’s post. What is going on? My comment to this development follows:

I attended college and grad school in Philadelphia in the late 60′s and early 70s and taught in Philadelphia in the early 70s. At that time, the Philadelphia School District’s union was ahead of suburban districts in terms of their contract, their compensation levels were comparable to those of nearby suburbs, and some of the benefits were more generous, particularly those for staff development and graduate study, which was important to a new teacher. The work environment was challenging in the JHS where I worked, but the district was building new schools and had progressive leadership from the School Board through the Superintendent.

I share this memory of four decades ago because I fear that the Philadelphia School District is setting the standard again… in a bad way. If the Board succeeds in eliminating “frills” like librarians and diminishing the pay of teachers this strategy will spread across the State quickly and set the stage for the expansion of for-profit charter schools. Should this gambit by the Philadelphia School Board succeed every union in economically challenged school districts in PA can expect to see similar proposals from their school boards. If schools serving poor children lose libraries and see their teachers’ salaries cut, he divide between affluent districts and economically challenged districts will widen. As parents become disenchanted with their public schools their boards will see for-profit charters as a salvation.

I’ve been away from Philly so long I’m not sure how their board is constituted… but I hope that democracy is still functional in the city and the voters will find a way to express their disapproval with the school board that put this offer on the table.

The School Board I remember working for was the one assembled by Richardson Dilworth, a progressive liberal who hired Mark Shedd from Connecticut to change the system. Mark Shedd didn’t succeed, though he did make a splash by instituting the Parkway School without walls and by trying to decentralize decision making. He and Dilworth alienated the central school administration by wanting these changes and alienated the teachers union despite the fact they increased salaries, decreased class sizes, and enhanced their contract benefits. In 1970, the teachers went on strike to get higher wages and more benefits. After several weeks the union got some concessions… but I believe their intransigence contributed to the election of populist ex-police commissioner Frank Rizzo. Rizzo appealed to blue collar whites with his take-no-prisoners approach and echoes of Spiro Agnew’s antagonism toward pointy headed liberals. In retrospect, 1970 was the last chance Philadelphia had to reform their schools in a progressive fashion.

So here we are today, with the board of the biggest and arguably poorest school district advocating the elimination of librarians in public schools, the increase of class size, and a decrease in pay: the antithesis of the Dilworth-Shedd era. Maybe the voters in Philadelphia CAN raise their voices and get the system back on track. I hope so.

Mastery Learning TECHNOLOGICALLY Possible

February 28, 2013 Leave a comment

THE Journal writer Leila Meyer’s article “Policy Changes Needed for Shift to Competency Based Model” opens with this paragraph:

Schools need to move away from the current factory model based on seat-time credit requirements and toward a new competency-based learning model that supports mastery-based, student-centered, personalized learning environments, according to CompetencyWorks and theInternational Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). A new report, “Necessary for Success: Building Mastery of World-Class Skills – A State Policymakers Guide to Competency Education” from CompetencyWorks and iNACOL, outlines the policy changes required to make this shift to competency-based education.

Among the policies underway as described in the article are:

  • Redefining credits as competencies of what students know and can do;
  • Establishing proficiency-based diplomas and grading systems;
  • Providing credit flexibility to move away from seat-time requirements;
  • Enabling waivers for innovative schools; and
  • Offering support for building systemic approaches to challenge the traditional time-based system of the Carnegie unit.

As I read this list, I immediately saw that each of these is in place in New Hampshire, where I last served as School Superintendent and am currently doing educational consulting work. But so far, no one has moved completely in this direction with the notable exception of some charter schools that deal with disaffected students. I know from experience leading a high performing district that the notion of replacing grade-levels-based-on-age or grading-systems-based-on-ranking (i.e. A,B, C, or a numeric scale) with a competency system (i.e. met standard) would be unacceptable. I know that working with schools who are among the 70% failing based on NCLB standards that moving toward a competency system would run counter to improving their scores on the tests that resulted in their designation as “failing”. So… except for the charter schools who consciously color outside the lines we’re stuck with the factory system. This is the context of the comment I made on this article:

I have long advocated mastery learning over the bell curve… but… as long as the US remains stuck in test-based-accountability we will not be able to move to competency based instruction. Why? Because the standardized accountability tests are based on the assumption that students learn at the same rate as everyone in their age cohort… and if they don’t learn as much because they don’t learn as rapidly the students fall further and further behind because of their learning gaps. Breaking away from age-based grade levels is a difficult challenge. What’s really sad is that technology makes individualized learning possible which also makes it possible to break away from “grade levels”. Instead of using technology to individualize, though, we are suing it to crunch meaningless data about student performance on standardized tests that have nothing to do with mastery.

There are signs that teachers, school boards, and parents are starting to see the inherent flaws with test-based accountability. There are not many signs that USDOE and many politicians are seeing the light on this. If enough competency advocates get support, those who are disenchanted with our current testing regimen may have a better alternative to offer… and our students will learn much more when that happens.

Knowledge Doesn’t Change Behavior; Practice DOES

February 28, 2013 Leave a comment

The NYTimes articles on “Fixes” are almost always provocative, and today’s essay, “When Deviants Do Good” by Tina Rosenberg is a case in point. The “deviants” in question are statistical  deviants: individuals who’s outcomes vary in a positive way from others in a comparable situation. Rosenberg’s article described how Save the Children staffers dealt with malnourishment in Viet Nam. The Save the Children team, instead of imposing some kind of new dietary regimen, identified extremely poor families whose small children were well nourished despite their parents’ low income. The Save The Children team identified these children using a very inexpensive method: they weighed and physically examined them. They then talked to the parents of those children whose weight was acceptable and asked them about their child’s diet… and found that their diets and their practices were different from that of their cohort group: instead of feeding their children only rice, they fed them an adult menu that included small crabs and sweet potato greens… and they fed them even when the children were battling diarrhea. When they arranged forums to share this information with all the very poor parents, they discovered that some members of  this cohort adopted the new practice without coaching while others needed additional support. In the words of one of the team members: “Knowledge doesn’t change behavior, practice changes behavior.” The researchers also realized that practice could not be imposed by outsiders. Instead, it needed to be developed within the cultural norms of the village. So,

They convened meetings of villagers to discuss how best to spread the behaviors. The villagers decided that parents of malnourished children would gather with their children daily at a neighbor’s house for two weeks. Each family had to collect a handful of shrimps, crabs or greens and bring it to the gathering. With a trained health volunteer, the families cooked meals using the nutritious foods and tried out the new practices. If they didn’t become habit and the children were still malnourished, the families could do another two-week cycle the next month. “Trying something new always makes you a little scared. People got confidence through their peers,” said Monique.

The article then described how this process was applied to over 250 villages throughout the countryside, noting that each village had its own unique set of “positive deviances”. After all, a village in the mountains might not have sweet potatoes and small shrimp. Later,  hospitals experiencing difficulties with the transmission of viruses… with the same positive results.

I read this and immediately thought of how public education is coming at “reform” in a completely wrongheaded fashion. Public education is so caught up in “accountability” and attempting to find the “one-best-way” that we are not accepting the reality that what works in one school or one set of districts won’t necessarily work in another. The test-based accountability model focuses on “what’s wrong” instead of what’s right and the “one-best-way” mentality causes us to focus on one practice that can be universally applied instead of accepting small idiosyncratic practices that work in one school, district, or region. The common core state standards, the standardized testing, and the state accountability models are antithetical to meeting the unique needs of each child in their unique environment.

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The Myth of Social Mobility

February 27, 2013 1 comment

Amia Srinivasan’s honest but disheartening analysis in today’s NY Times, Dependents of the State, describes our country’s conflicted thinking regarding government dependency. In the opening paragraphs she describes the two broad perspectives on dependence. The conservatives believe that hard work and self-reliance determine an individuals lot in life and believe that social welfare erodes those virtues. Liberals, on the other hand, “…see the social welfare system a “safety net,” there only to provide a “leg up” to people who have “fallen on hard times.”  

Srinivasan presents some disturbing statistics that show that those in the poverty class do not lack a work ethic, rather their limited means prevent them from advancing in economic standing despite their work ethic and self-reliance.

…most of the people who rely on means-tested social services either cannot work, have been recently laid off thanks to the economic downturn, or are already working in poorly paid, immiserating jobs. Of the 32 million American children currently being raised in low-income families — families who cannot afford to meet their basic needs — nearly half have parents who are in full-time, year-round jobs.

Srinivasan then notes that education, the purported means for social mobility, has been compromised and no longer provides that opportunity.

While middle-class and rich children no doubt have to burn the midnight oil to get into Harvard and Yale, they mostly end up at those places because of the huge advantages that wealth confers in the context of a failing public education system. Liberals and conservatives alike pin their hopes on education as the “great leveler,” but the data tells us that the American education system magnifies the advantages of wealth and the disadvantages of poverty. The unearned advantages enjoyed by the children of rich parents dwarf the sums given to welfare recipients.

If you click on the link in this quote, it takes you to a graphic from a December 22 article describing the difficulties students born into poverty face when they attend post-secondary institutions of any kind. The graphs show that “…Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference in the share of affluent and poor students who earned a college degree. Now the gap is 45 points. The gap has also grown in college entrance rates and spending per child on tutors, sports, music and other enrichment activities.” I highlight the last section because those statistics were the most astonishing: parents in the “richest” 25% who spent FOUR times more on enrichment activities in the 1970s and 1980s now spent roughly EIGHT times more than students… and at the same time many of the schools serving children born into poverty have cut back on art, music, PE and extra-curriculars to meet budget challenges and focus on increasing standardized test scores. Srinivasan concludes her essay with this powerful paragraph:

We are all dependents of the state, not just the poor, and it’s certainly not the poor who benefit most from their dependence. The question isn’t who is dependent on the state, but whether the current political settlement treats everyone with fairness and dignity: whether the odds are stacked in particular people’s favor, whether some are able to prosper only at the expense of others, whether everyone has an equal opportunity to make a decent human life. That we may not like the answers to these questions is the very reason we should ask them.

When you read this and review the facts she presents, you’ll see that the odds ARE stacked in a way that makes social mobility a myth.

 

The Death of the Yuppie Dream: Education Division

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment

A post in Naked Capitalism called “The Death of a Yuppie Dream” caught my eye and led to a review in Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung of John Ehrenreich and Barbara Ehrenreich’s book of the same name. Their thesis is that the Professional Middle Class (PMC), is in decline and being replaced by cold capitalists whose focus is on profit. The PMC is described as:

… a class of college-educated professionals is distinct from— and often at odds with—both the traditional working class and the old middle class of small business owners, not to mention wealthy business owners. Organized into largely autonomous professions defined by specialized knowledge and ethical standards, members of the PMC at times—from the Progressive Era to the New Left—were instrumental in mobilizing for progressive causes.

The Ehrenreich’s PMC included doctors, lawyers, college teachers, journalists and middle managers in social service organizations. While they did not work in a coordinated fashion,

…members of the PMC have designed and managed capital’s systems of social control, oftentimes treating working-class people with a mixture of paternalism and hostility. As advocates for rational management of the workplace and society, however, the PMC has sometimes also acted as a buffer against the profit motive as the sole meaningful force in society.

Unfortunately, the PMC’s treatment of working-class people with a mixture of paternalism and hostility backfired inasmuch as it gave conservative politicians the opportunity to define this class as effete “elitists” effectively undercutting their ability to set the tenor for discussion… and leading to the corporatization of their various professions. In the “Background Notes” to the article, the Ehrenreich’s opening paragraph, titled “The Absorption of the Liberal Professions into Corporation Like Enterprises” describes the world of these professions, and public schools, with uncanny accuracy:

During the last fifty years, rapidly accelerating in the last twenty or so, corporations (or other large institutions, such as “mega” law firms, hospitals, and universities—organized along more-or-less corporate lines and sharing corporation priorities) have come to be the employers of most of those in the “liberal professions.” Increasingly, the work experience of most of those in these professions is coming to look like the work experience in engineering and the business service professions.

The “reformers” are not re-forming education, they are applying engineering principles to the factory school. The “reformers” are not re-forming governance structures, they are replacing them with corporate hierarchies led by self-styled CEOs with little or no experience in teaching or the day-to-day management of schools… and working in schools is looking more and more like working in engineering and business service professions with teachers saying “Welcome to Walmart” and administrators poring over spreadsheets to increase profits. the Ehrenreich’s description of what is happening in to other members of the PMC is happening in schools:

Today, the PMC as a distinct class seems to be endangered. At the top end, exorbitant compensation and bonuses have turned managers into corporate owners. At the bottom, journalists have been laid off, recent PhDs have gone to work as part-time, temporary adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors, and those now iconic recent graduates have taken to the streets. In the middle, lawyers and doctors are more and more likely to work for corporations rather than in private practices. Once independent professionals, they are now employees.

The Ehrenreich’s conclude their article with this admonition:

Today, members of the PMC face a choice. Will they cling to an elitist conception of their own superiority and attempt to defend their own increasingly tenuous privileges, or will they act in solidarity with other working people and help craft a politics capable of creating a better world for all?

Judge Denies Link Between State $$$, Evaluations

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment

I may be practicing law without a license here… but… this story from the Thursday NYTimes could have national implications. It seems to me that if a school district cannot be denied STATE funds because they are contingent to that district implementing a teacher evaluation system STATES can no longer enforce the FEDERAL RTTT mandate that all teachers be evaluated using some sort of value added metric. If my analysis is accurate, I am confident that attorneys in Washington and in State capitols across the country have come to the same conclusion and hope that Bloomberg can reach some kind of settlement before this case goes any further.

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Instant Polling: A Better Way to Measure Schools

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Lisa Nielsen’s Innovative Educator blog this week featured a product called Poll Everywhere that gave teachers, administrators, work teams, and the community instant feedback on a host of questions. The post includes several ideas proposed by fellow bloggers, but as one who realizes that accountability for schools and teachers isn’t going to go away anytime soon, I see the results of these kinds of polls being a means to measure elusive qualities like student and parent engagement, qualities that are far more important than the standardized test scores that RTTT advocates for measuring everything about schools. At some point educators are going to need to find some sort of “dashboard” that can be used in a diagnostic form to help schools improve as well as providing some basis of comparison among schools.

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