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The AP Paradox

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Jessica Lahey’s recent NYTimes article, “To AP or Not to AP, That is the Question” did a good job of outlining the dimensions of what I call the AP Paradox. For some students and teachers in some districts, teaching to the AP test is a constraint. In other districts where students are not typically college bound and funds are tight, introducing AP courses that enable a student to earn college credits is an incentive.

Having led districts that serve predominantly affluent and well educated parents and less affluent districts that had relatively few college graduates among the parent population, I have lived through both sides of the argument involving AP testing and ended up with the belief that the value of AP is situational.

In the two affluent districts I led, the reputation of their high schools was well established in college admissions offices and most of the students were applying to competitive colleges who generally do not award academic credit for AP classes. Moreover, in those districts the talent level for teachers was high because the upperclassmen required content that was typically college level. Many of these teachers believed that teaching-to-the-AP-test limited their flexibility and academic freedom and argued, as Lahey noted in her article, that students were free to take AP Tests even if they did not take an “AP Course”. In these districts I fully and whole heartedly supported the teachers’ argument even though some in the community expressed concerns about the loss of status because we didn’t offer explicit AP courses.

In the one largely blue collar district I led the AP “credential” was helpful for students. It helped those aspiring to competitive colleges because it provided a standard that admissions officers in those colleges could use to rate applicants even if they never heard of the high school. It helped first generation college students applying to community colleges or State colleges because it gave them an opportunity to earn college credits as an undergraduate. The AP credential was also helpful in our efforts to expand our programs at the high school level because voters understood that by offering AP Courses we were demonstrating a commitment to academic rigor and helping students prepare for college and the careers that required college degrees. In this district I wholeheartedly supported the Principals, central office staff, and Board in advocating for the introduction and subsequent expansion of AP courses.

And therein lies the AP Paradox. I personally believe that criterion referenced tests are superior to standardized achievement tests, which leads me to fully support the opportunity for students to take the AP tests. Yet I also believe that Boards and administrators should honor the professionalism of teachers; and because some districts (and ETS) believe that AP Tests should be linked to AP Courses and those AP Courses have prescribed curricula the teachers’ flexibility and freedom is diminished. Moreover, the notion that passing one standardized test administered in one sitting can replace a college course is unsettling. Criterion referenced tests can measure accumulation of knowledge but some form of observation or skill measurement is also required to provide assurance that a student has mastered the concepts included in a college course.

To AP or Not to AP? Here’s Lahey’s concluding paragraph, which takes the question out of the school or district level to the personal level… which in the end is where it belongs:

A.P. courses are, for the most part, rigorous, challenging and demanding, and can be a real boon to students motivated by intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. For students looking to please their parents or for those in pursuit of transcript padding and other false academic idols, A.P. courses can be an unpleasant and unhealthy slog. Therefore, in deciding whether or not an A.P. class is “worth it,” students and parents must figure their own motivations and values into the equation.  

Brain Scans Show What We Want to See

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

An article by Anna North in today’s NYTimes, “Can Brain Science Be Dangerous”, suggests that some of the widely publicized research on brain science, and particularly the brightly colored brain scans that often accompany the articles on this subject, are drawing people towards conclusions that are not true or accurate. My take on the article was that the brain science findings are akin to Rorschach tests: they invite the viewer to see whatever they want to see and project it as reality. This is most troubling when scientific findings about the brain are applied to broad social issues like poverty. Some research suggests that poverty creates stresses in the lives of children that irreversibly limit brain growth while other research suggests that if interventions are applied early and effectively those same stresses can be overcome. This can enable politicians to use “science” to support whatever their views are. With this as a backdrop, one American sociologist, Susan Sered, offered this observation:

…used incorrectly, neuroscience might spread the view that poor people are lesser than others, that they are irrevocably debilitated by their experiences with poverty — or, conversely, that if they fail to respond to programs that science says will help them, it must be their own fault.

North sums up the concerns of social and neurological scientists in her concluding paragraph:

People… seem to find neuroscience extremely persuasive, even when it’s wrong. And this may be part of what critics fear — that images and facts about the brain are so powerful, they can make us believe things we really shouldn’t.

I would take it a step further and suggest that “images and facts about the brain are so powerful, they can support our wrong beliefs and close our minds to contradictory and new findings.” 


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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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