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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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