Archive for February, 2012

Should Schools Teach Social and Emotional Skills?

February 29, 2012 Comments off

Throughout most of my career as an educator, I decried the number of tasks delegated to public schools. Legislatures mandated dental hygiene, animal husbandry, specific history units, and countless “safety” programs while adding tougher graduation requirements. I felt that schools should stick-to-the-knitting and be limited to preparing kids for college or preparing kids for work… period…. end of report. Sometime in the early 2000s, though, I had a change of heart on this whole issue. I felt that schools HAD to assume responsibility for assuring that students entering Kindergarten were ready to learn instead of complaining about that reality. I felt that schools needed to have a way to work with parents who were overwhelmed by the demands of their children or the demands they faced at home instead of complaining about “those parents”. I wrote an article for Education Week entitled “A Homeland Security Bill or Education” that addressed this topic (see Published Articles), suggesting that schools work in a more coordinated fashion with agencies serving children in the same way the various law-enforcement agencies were supposedly going to work collaboratively in Homeland Security.

The ASCD On-Line Jounrnal is linking to a series of articles on Social and Emotional Skills by Randy Tarin in Edutopia. Ms. Tarin is the founder of Project Happiness, “a non-profit that empowers youth to create greater happiness in their lives and in the world”. As a Buddhist practitioner I see several parallels between the skills needed to manage anger recommended by Ms. Tarin and those recommended by Thich Nhat Hahn, but I also see parallels between her teachings and those of theologians who focus on the teachings in the New Testament. I can imagine some politicians (Rick Santorum comes to mind) recommending that schools inculcate students with spiritual values while most advocate staying as far away as possible from teaching ANY values in schools. The conundrum for schools is this: it is impossible to give students social skills without imposing some kind of values. The values schools teach and embrace now are competition, consumerism, and compliance…. and increasingly competition is Darwinian, consumerism is welcomed (see earlier posts on “naming rights”), and compliance is imposed from all levels of government. These implicit values led to the economic and cultural divide, to the degradation of the environment, and the rabid dogmatism that pervades our political discourse today. Ultimately, a conversation about whether schools should take on social and emotional skills will force a conversation about the values we have in place now. I believe it is time to begin that dialogue soon.

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Department of Unintended Consequences Redux: Teacher Postings

February 27, 2012 Comments off

An article from a day earlier could have been titled “Big Oops”… it seems that the methodology for calculating “value added” was  “too sensitive” among teachers whose students did either very well or very poorly. As a result there were “73 cases in which teachers whose students produced consistently outstanding test scores — at or above the 84th percentile citywide — were nonetheless tagged as below average”… as the Naked Capitalism blogger would say “Quelle Surprise!”. Despite the well known fact among education statisticians that scores on either end of the bell curve would be distorted by value added analyses, parents of high performing students were surprised:

For parents, seeing the rankings of the teachers they know well can be shocking. Vicki Kahn, a parent at Public School 333, the Manhattan School for Children on the Upper West Side, was surprised to see that some of the teachers whom she considers outstanding had poor ratings, including one who routinely sends many of her students to a highly selective middle school.

“It seems completely wrong,” Ms. Kahn said, adding that one of the co-teachers in the sixth grade did not even get a rating, in an apparent mistake.

Anna Rachmansky, whose son is a fifth grader at P.S. 89 in TriBeCa, was visibly stunned upon discovering that a teacher she held in high regard scored in the 10th percentile in math.

“I’m very surprised she would get poor in anything,” Ms. Rachmansky said. “She’s a very strong educator.”

At least one parent was not surprised:

Sandra Blackwood, the co-president of the parent teacher association at Public School 41 in Greenwich Village, said she had little confidence that the data would be meaningful, though she felt it was important to look.

“If it is anything like the school grading system,” she said, “it will probably be highly arbitrary.”

Though parents can get a peek inside school buildings for the first time to see differences among teachers, it does not help if the underlying information is incorrect, Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321, said.

“What people don’t understand is that they are just not accurate,” she said. “We are talking about minute differences in test scores that cause a teacher to score in the lowest percentiles,” like a teacher whom she finds great and who scored in the sixth percentile because her students went to a 3.92 average test score from a 3.97, out of a possible 4.

And that is not to mention one teacher who had test scores listed for a year she was out on child care leave, Ms. Phillips said.

“The only way this will have any kind of a positive impact,” she said, “would be if people see how ridiculous this is and it gives New York State pause about how they are going about teacher evaluation.”

I would be VERY surprised if it had any such effect since so many political players from Arne Duncan on down who have so much invested in this method working. Alas, no matter which party takes the White House we are stuck with four years of value-added blather. As one who once believed in the promise of this kind of methodology, I am especially disappointed in how this is all playing out. Data driven decision making CAN make a difference if the data driving the decision making is valid. But when bad data is used to make decisions it can lead to bad results… just ask the people who believed in the data coming from Arthur Anderson on Enron’s financial stability!

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Department of Unintended Consequences: Posting Teacher Ratings

February 27, 2012 Comments off

As noted in earlier posts, at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg the NY BOE posted ratings of teachers based on a complex “value-added” calculation using test data that was discredited several months ago. The direct and indirect results of this decision came through in several articles in today’s NYTimes.

One consequence of the release was to hand the union president a “rallying cry” to dig in his heels in the ongoing negotiations with the mayor over teacher evaluation. Mike Mulgrew, the UFT President, was inundated with emails from teachers. The NYTimes analysis of the court’s decision to release the ratings was summarized in this one paragraph:

But the legal defeat a court dealt the union, by green-lighting the release, may yet be a political victory for the union — by galvanizing members and mobilizing allies on the left, including the Occupy movement, through which scores of people signed petitions and sent letters to news organizations last week protesting the publication of the ratings.

My sense is that people understand that the ultimate purpose of any evaluation is to improve performance and that the data gathered for the purpose of evaluations should be kept confidential.

An article profiling the top performing teachers found some degree of consistency among the group— all were hard working and focussed on improving the scores. But none of the group advocated for the publication of “winners” and “losers”…

A third article in today’s paper profiling Michele Rhee intimated the dark side of motivating by fear: cheating to get higher test scores. It seems that every time an urban district gets a success story, there is a cheating scandal lurking in the wings… especially when the urban superintendent wants to fashion themselves after a private sector CEO. It seems that both Rhee and the Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall hired the same firm Caveon to conduct an internal review of their cheating scandals. In both cases Caveon found the claims to be “unsubstantiated”…. findings that were later undercut by independent investigations done by government officials. Sound familiar? When public officials are asked to make their organizations mirror private sector “success stories” don’t be surprised when they mirror the behavior of Enron…

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The Case Against Test-Based Admissions to Elite High Schools

February 26, 2012 Comments off

The NYTimes today features an article on Stuyvesant High School describing the isolation Rudi Ann Miller feels as one of 40 black students in a school of 3295. Because admission to NY’s most prestigious HS is based solely on tests, 72.5% of the student body is Asian and  24% are white, leaving all other students at 3.5%. The result is summed up in this quote:

Her mother, Annmarie Miller, a nursing assistant at a hospital in the Bronx, recalled a cousin’s reaction when she mentioned Rudi’s pick: “You have to be Chinese or Indian to get in there.” A co-worker, also black, “said the exam is built to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math, and black people can’t do math,” Mrs. Miller said.

One solution to this defeatism was offered by “a core member of the Black Alumni Association”: admit the valedictorians and salutatorians of each NYC middle school to the elite school. This idea was put in place in Texas where is is under fire because  a white student’s claimed she was denied admission of UTexas because of  a similar system. If NYC is serious about improving academics at ALL schools and encouraging ALL students to have an opportunity to attend its most prestigious school, it should save a seat for the best and brightest kids from its middle schools. Then the message would be “you have to work hard in class to get in there” instead of “You have to be Chinese or Indian to get in there”.

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Bill Gates on Teacher Evaluations

February 24, 2012 Comments off

Over the past two days the NY Times has been full of articles about the recent court decision to allow the posting of “teacher ratings”, concocted based on test results from a discredited assessment. Staff writer Winnie Hu offered an overview article in today’s paper, which included quotes from teachers and the union president expressing anger and dismay and a quote from the current superintendent urging teachers to put this all in perspective. The article also included links to their blog page where I found this article entitled: Ravitch Says New Evaluation System is “Madness”. But one of the unlikely opponents of this public posting of test results was Bill Gates, who wrote yesterday’s lead editorial titled “For Teachers, Shame is No Solution”. The article describes the thoughtful and thorough process his organization uses to evaluate personnel. But Gates makes a common error in suggesting that public schools embrace an idea that works in the private sector: operating in the public arena requires operating in the full light of the sun. Closing a school, for example, isn’t nearly as easy as closing a factory: no one asked folks in Canaan VT for their opinion when the Ethan Allen plant closed but the community is going to spend three years trying to forge a consensus (IF one is possible) on school consolidation in the Canaan area. For better or worse, schools operate democratically and part of a democratic operation is making many of our “records” public. Any form of performance pay will necessarily require public disclosure  the names of teachers who warrant bonuses. This is antithetical to what occurs in the private sector where compensation levels are considered proprietary.

Education and Economic Inequality

February 20, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes Campaign Stops features an extended essay by Thomas Edsall entitled “Is This the End of Market Democracy?”… and the answer appears to “Yes… unless we make some changes“. The essay describes in detail how and why the middle income jobs are disappearing in our “advanced economies” How can this be reversed? Jeffrey Sachs, one of the economists quoted at length in the article suggests:

 “A social democracy — capitalism plus a hefty dose of state support for families, education, early childhood development, higher education, and active labor market policies — can still do the job. The performance of northern Europe, around 120 million people including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, provides a good illustration of this success.”

Earlier posts highlighted the success of Finnish schools on international tests and those articles described a school system markedly different from our assessment obsessed environment to one that dealt with the whole child. The Finnish system, in effect, valued development over competition… the development of the skills needed to function in a democracy over the skills needed to succeed in capitalism.

It is evident that neither political party is willing to endorse Finland’s developmental approach to schooling or Sach’s “…hefty dose of state support for families, education, (and) early education”. Instead we will be forced to choose between the Republican party’s social Darwinist education policies that seek to privatize public services and Obama’s Race to the Top both of which neglect the need to coordinate services for underprivileged children and overemphasize the importance of standardized tests.

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Rick Santorum’s 21st Century Schools

February 19, 2012 Comments off

In today’s NYTimes Rick Santorum outlines his views on public education and here’s what’s unsettling: he uses the abandonment of the outmoded factory school model as the rationale for school reform. Unfortunately in Santorum’s world reform means eliminating the federal and state role in education and using home schooling as the basis for educating children. The article quotes Santorum:

For the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House, he said. “Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America? Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.”

“Yes the government can help,” Mr. Santorum added. “But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.”

We all know how those factories in Ohio and Pennsylvania fundamentally changed: they went overseas! So what does this mean for education? It means outsourcing… to computerized charter schools and for-profit on-line learning enterprises whose shareholders will soon shift the work of content writing to free-lancers as the corporation races-to-the-bottom to save money.

There are (at least) two competing visions for technology in education. One vision uses technology to provide schooling as cheaply as possible by replacing public schools with on-line computerized home schooling. Under this model, social skills are learned at home, in “play groups” organized by parents, in community recreation activities, or— in Santorum’s world, in churches. Another vision uses technology to individualize instruction within the current framework of public education. Under this vision, the traditional model of school is changed so that students get just-in-time lessons tailored to their learning styles and spend time in classes engaged in active learning activities instead of listening to lectures. To use a 1990s expression, technology enables the teacher to become the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage”. Technology transforms schools from factories where information is poured into students into high tech think tanks where students work in teams to accomplish tasks that require creative problem solving.


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