Do Charter Schools Cherrypick Students?

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment


I trust the Mathbabe’s analytics… and the short answer to her question is: “mostly yes”!

Originally posted on mathbabe:

Yesterday I looked into quantitatively measuring the rumor I’ve been hearing for years, namely that charter schools cherrypick students – get rid of troublesome ones, keep well-behaved ones, and so on.

Here are two pieces of anecdotal evidence. There was a “Got To Go” list of students at one charter school in the Success Academy network. These were troublesome kids that the school was pushing out.

Also, I recently learned that Success Academy doesn’t accept new kids after the fourth grade. Their reasoning is that older kids wouldn’t be able to catch up with the rest of the kids, but on the other hand it also means that kids kicked out of one school will never land there. This is another form of selection.

Now that I’ve said my two examples I realize they both come from Success Academy. There really aren’t that many of them, as you can…

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Ignoring Refugees Contribute to Terrorism Abroad… Ignoring Poverty COULD Lead to Home Grown Terrorism

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading and commenting on lots of articles in the NYTimes about the refugee crisis… and I am distressed about the silence on offering ANY help to the refugees where they are currently re-settled. I’ve heard some conservative chatter about the cost for immigration being 12 times higher than the cost of resettlement in a neighboring country… and lots of talk about how many immigrants we should accept from Syria… and lots of talk about spending money on bombs… but there no talk whatsoever on either side of the aisle about how much we should spend to help our allies in the middle east who are absorbing tens of thousands of refugees. If we don’t want the refugees, and Europe doesn’t want the refugees, we should at the very least spend billions of dollars helping the countries that currently house the refugees. If we turn our backs on Middle Eastern families, orphans, and widows fleeing civil wars how can we be surprised that the young men in the Middle East fall prey to the terrorist recruiters?

As I was reading articles and editorials on the refugee crisis, I also read Eduardo Porter’s latest article, “Electing to Ignore the Poorest of the Poor“. In it Porter offers this synopsis of how we are allocating funds today as compared to the past:

All in all, in the early 1980s more than half of government transfers to low-income families went to the very poorest. Thirty years later these families received less than one-third of the government’s help.

This choice, as a society, to target most of our help only to those who can help themselves exhibits a blinkered understanding of what perpetuates the deep, intractable poverty that affects many communities. But it serves a purpose. By believing the poor are not exerting enough effort, we allow ourselves not to care. This permits politicians — and voters — to go normally about their business while 16 million Americans live on $8.60 or less a day.

Later in the article Porter distinguishes “deep poverty”, a persistent condition that affects the 16 million individuals referenced above, from those who are living in poverty because they are employed in low paying jobs:

Deep poverty, according to the scholars who contributed to the journal, is an ecosystem, where bad individual decisions occur within broken environments, where the social glue has come unstuck. Cognitive abilities and character are important at the individual level, but they can’t be cleanly separated from their environment. Indeed, deep poverty has no single, or most important cause — not family, neighborhood, job or education. Plucking at one or the other, alone, won’t do.

“Deprivations come bundled, packaged, and may reinforce each other over time,” said Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who is the co-author of an essay in the journal with his doctoral student Kristin L. Perkins. “The implication for policy is that one can’t just think of extracting out individual causes for policy action.”

Porter doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: you cannot fix a systemic problem with a series of uncoordinated, silted, and piecemeal efforts. This implication resonates with me because I wholeheartedly believe that schools cannot solve the problems associated with the learning deficits that are a consequence of poverty: a coordinated effort involving ALL agencies serving children is needed… and such an effort will likely require more spending by local, state and federal taxpayers.

We haven’t spent that money for several years… and one of the disturbing consequences is that we now have 40% of the young men between 16 and 24 unemployed. The women’s unemployment rate is slightly worse. And the rate for African Americans is at least 10% higher. And where to terrorist organizations look for recruits? They seek out disenfranchised young males.

Given our country’s decision to ignore the poorest of the poor I am not surprised to read comments on social media supporting candidates who want to slam the door on immigrants. I am not surprised… but I am disappointed. This is not the country I grew up in. It’s not the country that passed civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, accepted boat people from Cuba, or absorbed thousands of immigrants from Viet Nam after our misadventures there left some of those who supported our efforts in the cold. Those actions warmed my heart and made me feel proud of our country: we helped those in need and accepted responsibility for the consequences of our actions. I want our country to be that way again.

In Defense of Reform, Personalized Learning, and Mastery

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Today Diane Ravitch cross posted an excerpt from a blog written by ME 4th grade teacher Emily Talmage, who decries the reforms being introduced into her state, reforms funded by Bill Gates and the Nellie Mae Foundation. In her post, which is a letter to Mark Zuckerberg imploring him to dissociate himself from Bill Gates,  and in the comments that follow, there are several negative comments about “reform”, “personalized learning” and “mastery learning”—all terms that have been expropriated by those billionaires who see education as the next place to make even more money.

The term “reform” and all its variants, which I at one time associated with Ted Sizer and other progressive educators, is now used by profiteers and the neo-liberal politicians who take their money and promote their ideas.

“Personalized learning”, a term embraced by the technology-based crowd who want to disrupt education, has also lost its original intention which was brought to life in Vermont as part of the Education Quality Standards (EQS). In Vermont, the idea was that all seventh grade students would develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) that would be the basis for their course selection in high school as well as learning activities that would take place outside of school. The notion was that this plan would help bring purpose to the coursework in school and tie the students out-of-school learning and activities to those happening in school. While you might use a computer to write this plan down and modify it annually (or as needed), it had nothing to do with the kind of computer-driven instruction described in the Talmage’s post or the comments that followed.

I also find it maddening that “mastery learning” is being conflated with behaviorism, because boiling that concept down to answering a series of multiple choice questions will corrode that phrase as well. In my way of thinking, mastery learning requires benchmark assessments that are administered when the student is ready to demonstrate that they have mastered a skill. As noted in previous blog posts, the driver’s test is the paradigmatic mastery test: If you fail it the first time– or the first five times— once you demonstrate mastery you get the same “certificate” as an individual who passed it the first time. In mastery learning, time is the variable and content is constant.

In looking back on my 40+ year career in public education I can see the source of these ideas in my first assignment. As a rookie 8th grade math teacher in an overcrowded junior high school in Philadelphia in 1970 I was handed a schedule that assigned me to four sections of roughly 35 homogeneously grouped students who I taught in over 20 different “classrooms” that included a small gymnasium, a section of the cafeteria, and a science lab with 24 lab stools. The book I was issued matched the city’s 8th grade pre-algebra curriculum. Most of my students could not perform basic operations… and given that I had 8-24, 8-30, 8-34, and 8-36… all sections in the lowest 1/3 of the age cohort… this was not surprising. The mismatch between my student’s skills and the expectations of the text book was gaping. My solution– which it took me several months to stumble upon– was to borrow a 3rd grade book of mimeo masters from my father’s best friend, who sold textbooks in the suburbs, and integrate them into a mimeograph “textbook” I wrote and issued to one of my classes. The discipline problems in that class diminished markedly from that point forward… and I began using modifications of this in the other three sections to the same effect.

The name for that kind of approach in 1970 (according to the observation report that was written by an observer of that class) was “individualized instruction”. Today, with the data collection and analysis capabilities, “individualized instruction” has been renamed “personalized learning”. The application of this aspect of “personalized learning” is limited to curricula that are hierarchical in nature, requires adept and timely intervention by a teacher, and is not intended to replace school. It could be a means of getting students out of the lockstep age-based groupings that lead to 8th grade teachers being required to offer pre-algebra to students who have not learned the basic skills.

Mastery Learning, a concept that was taking root as I was in graduate school in the  early 1970s, has always seemed unattainable because of the massive amounts of paperwork required to track each student’s progress. By definition it requires a hierarchy of skill levels and focusses on the assessment of those skills… but hierarchical skills exist in virtually every area of learning and performance and assessing learning and performance is a skill that cannot be delegated to a computer… unless, that is, the goal of the school is to measure only easy-to-measure content.

When “reformers” who advocate “personalized learning” claim that computerized assessments measure “mastery” three terms lose their meaning… and the factory school model is reinforced because the effectiveness of all of this “reform” is determined by whether students progress at a uniform rate based on their age… they are widgets moving along an assembly line, not sentient beings who need connection with others.


Billionaires Oppose Democracy in Washington State: Fight to Get Tax $$$ for Private Schools

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

The Seattle Pilot reports that a coalition of astro-turf organizations in Washington State is seeking passage of legislation that would allow nine charter schools governed by private boards to re-open. The legislation is needed because:

The state Supreme Court, in a decision just before Labor Day, ruled that charter schools don’t qualify as “common schools” and can’t receive public funding.  The key issue, the court said, is that charter schools are controlled by their own boards and not by elected school boards.

As noted in earlier blog posts, this decision is based on the fact that the constitution in Washington allows only those schools operated by elected school boards to receive taxpayer-funding. This makes sense in a democracy where local voters elect school board members with the understanding that those elected to the board will do their best to provide children with a cost-effective education and agree to raise the money needed to make that happen. But the billionaires who see those tax funds as a potential revenue source are opposed to business as usual and are looking for the legislature to fix the problem. And to help the legislature open her minds to this legislation, the billionaires are funding organizations with high-minded name to organize rallies in Washington’s state capitol, Olympia:

The state narrowly passed a charter school initiative in 2012 after a campaign fueled by technology billionaires.  Act Now for Washington Students has backing from such groups as the League of Education Voters, the Washington Roundtable, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children.

I’ve read about these alleged grassroots organizations in progressive education blogs and know that if you follow the money— and there’s a LOT of it— it comes from the same group of technology billionaires who want to deregulate an disrupt public education. I’m in complete support of the need to make rapid and substantial changes to schooling through the thoughtful application of technology, but not at the cost of undermining democracy… and if that means it will take more time to bring about the changes in instruction, so be it.

I do have to begrudgingly admire the chutzpah of the billionaires and their artful manipulation of parents whose children attend their schools. Roquesia Williams, a Tacoma parent with children in several of the charter schools, is quoted in the report as follows:

We are asking our leaders to put politics aside and give public charter schools — and our kids — a chance to thrive.  Please don’t slam the door on our dreams.

But politics are NOT being put aside, because incumbent Governor Jay Inslee and his likely opponent, Bill Bryant have polar opposite positions on the issue:

Incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee has lined up with the Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters and El Centro de la Raza — groups which challenged the charter school initiative in court.

“I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability.  That remains my position,” Inslee said in a statement shortly after the Supreme Court ruling…

But the Republicans’ challenger, Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, has become an outspoken defender and advocate for the state’s charter schools.

“Had I been governor, within days of the (Supreme Court) ruling, I would have submitted legislation clarifying the funding source and keeping these kids in school,” Bryant said Tuesday. “I’ve toured five of the nine publicly chartered schools and will tour all nine before the legislature reconvenes.

I’m certain this issue is far from over in Washington… and equally certain that if it comes down to buying advertising the billionaires will win.

AI Helps Achieve “Personalization” in Shoe Purchases… Can AI Do the Same for Schools?

November 17, 2015 Leave a comment

I have been fascinated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) for years. Like nuclear energy, which can be used for good or evil, AI is both promising and scary: a genie we MIGHT want to put back in a bottle.

Today’s NYTimes “Bits” section, which offers insights into the latest developments in technology, describes how a Canadian company is using AI developed in the US to “personalize” shoe purchases by providing customers with an ever narrowing range of options that fulfill their immediate desires. Here’s a description of how it works:

Customers browse pictures of shoes, choosing a favorite type among a dozen images, which leads to a dozen more images, searching for the look someone is after. An initial page of boots might lead to a page with more low-cut items over high, or laces over buckles. The next options could affirm those choices. Or the search could go off in another direction.

From a sales point of view, it could be considered the next step in the A.I. of personalization. Typically, personalization relies on historic associations, or the familiar “customers also bought” suggestion. In this case, the computer is looking at 100 or more factors, and trying to judge how someone feels about them in real time.

“What makes this attractive is that people can get to the shoe they love without knowing what brand it is,” said Roger Hardy, chairman and co-founder of “If I told you there was an Italian company with the perfect heel, toe and lacing for you, but didn’t know the brand, it wouldn’t do you any good.”

In early customer tests, Mr. Hardy said, the A.I. increased sales, though he declined to say by how much.

An earlier paragraph in the article led me to think of ways this kind of AI application might be used in education:

While (this AI application) is — at least for the moment — limited to retail, over the long haul the technology could demonstrate how important it is for companies to be sitting on vast warehouses of information.

Of late several articles have been written about the vast trove of electronic records we are keeping on students and the fact that some school districts have unwittingly allowed this data to be used for commercial purposes. However, as I’ve noted in earlier posts on this issue, public schools have been keeping written records on children for decades, records that could arguably provide teachers with data on a student’s learning patterns in the same way. Using the highlighted sentence above and making a few substitutions, here’s the result:

…personalization in the classroom relies on a student’s optimal learning modality by using an analysis of  100 or more factors that reveal previous classroom successes when a student was struggling to master a concept and linking them to the how student feels about this learning obstacle in real time. As a result, the teacher is able to see what approach they might take to intervene. 

Is the development of such an algorithm for learning possible? If it were, it would clearly benefit schools who, like the shoe companies cited above, sit on “..vast warehouses of information”. And… if the presumed goal of personalization is to customize learning experiences to help each child define their goals and provide teachers with the tools to meet the needs of each child, why wouldn’t we use the “..vast warehouses of information” we’ve been collecting for decades to the best effect possible?

The NEW Dominant Paradigm: Standardized Testing as the Be All and End All of Schooling

November 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday reporting the bad news: according to Education Week the Senate and House are about to pass legislation re-authorizing No Child Left Behind. Though the legislation is called the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act”, the content of the bill sustains the test and punish model that was the basis for both No Child Left Behind and its progeny, Race To The Top. The details are yet to be hammered out, but it appears that the “portability” of Title One funds is dead (for now) and funding for preschool is incorporated but channeled through Health and Human Services— reinforcing the silos as opposed to advocating for some kind of integrated services. The NEA is trying to put a happy spin on this, making a valiant effort to find something to encourage their membership… but the fact is that the worst elements of NCLB are in place. The only difference is that STATES will determine the carrots and sticks instead of the FEDERAL government.

This is sad news… because it likely means another generation of students will be subjected to high stakes testing. It also means another generation of parents will view their child’s schooling through this lens. And even worse, it means those teachers who entered the profession in the last 15 years will never have experienced anything BUT the test-and-punish regimen… and they will soon dominate the profession. The paradigm of teaching that I encountered as a teacher and administrator beginning in 1970 is no longer in existence… except in the most affluent school districts where children on the top end of the standardized testing bell curve scores so high on the tests that teachers are not distracted by them and have the opportunity to teach to the passion of their students and not to the test. Everyone else, and especially the teachers working with children in poverty, is living under the “new” paradigm… which will soon become the dominant one in the minds of students, parents, and teachers who entered the realm of public education since 2002.

Long Beach CA’s Seamless Schooling Model CAN and SHOULD Be Replicated

November 15, 2015 Leave a comment

David Kirp’s op ed article in today’s NYTimes describes the fruitful efforts of Long Beach CA in creating a seamless PreK through College pipeline, a seamless education system that mirrors the kind of approach I believe can and should be replicated across the country. Instead of fretting over scores on standardized tests, Long Beach students focus on ONE test administered in 11th grade:

Every high school junior takes an early assessment exam, which few California districts require. Those who fare poorly get a rigorous dose of English and math, giving them the skills needed to satisfy the state universities’ admissions requirements. Going to college is increasingly on these students’ minds. Last spring they signed up for more than 10,000 advance placement exams, a two-year increase of more than 41 percent. This year’s graduates garnered $96 million in scholarships, $40 million more than in 2012.

The administration of this test is the last step in a process that begins in Pre-Kindergarten where parents learn that if their child meets the admission standards of Long Beach Community College there will be a seat waiting for them. This offer is reinforced in elementary schools:

All fourth and fifth graders, together with their parents, tour the local college campuses. “Most of our parents never thought college was a possibility for their kids,” the Long Beach school superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, points out. “But those visits can change their minds.”

Not every child takes advantage of this opportunity. The engagement of parents with defeatist attitudes remains a challenge even in a community that has united being the need for children to be assured an opportunity to succeed in higher education. And many students who do begin community colleges fail to complete their coursework. But as Kirp’s concluding paragraphs indicate, the seamless team approach to education IS making a positive difference:

While there’s work to be done — too few of Long Beach’s high school graduates have the credentials that state universities demand, and the community college’s completion rate is still slightly below the state average — each institution keeps getting better. “What we do is surprisingly simple but amazingly powerful,” Ms. Conoley told me. “We communicate all the time. No turf. No bureaucracies. Just building and evaluating programs with the goal of removing barriers and supporting student success.”

The Long Beach collaboration offers a textbook illustration of what business gurus call “continuous improvement.” The willingness of educators, from pre-K to Ph.D., to shelve their egos and do right by the community makes all the difference.

The top-down test-and-punish reform has not yielded these kinds of outcomes… and yet we persist in using that approach. It’s time to use community based teamwork to demonstrate to disaffected parents and students that it IS possible to create a better life for themselves.