Archive for October, 2012

Lovingkindness or High Test Scores?

October 29, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes featured an article in the Opinionator section titled “Teaching Lessons”. The article was written by a classroom teacher who described her experiences with professional development in somewhat cynical and dismissive fashion EXCEPT for a recent experience she had learning about and using the Responsive Classroom. The approaches advocated in the Responsive Classroom are not new and are not unproven. I recall reading about this approach over two decades ago in a Phi Delta Kappa article and seeking it in action in schools where I served in New York State and New Hampshire. Here’s a brief description of the program:

The Responsive Classroom approach centers on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day’s agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin.

If this sounds obvious or intuitive, it is, but so is being loving and kind. That doesn’t make it easier to achieve. Part of what makes the approach effective is that each routine is highly structured, and so replicable, but allows for student input and choice.

My comment on the article expresses my disillusionment with the current state of professional development, which too often focuses on increasing test scores and neglects important but tough-to-measure things like character:

It is unfortunate that worthwhile programs like the responsive classroom need to tie themselves to standardized tests. As long as we hold schools accountable based on test scores, most professional development funds will go toward “improving test scores” and not toward things like the responsive classroom. It is difficult for many politicians, school boards and administrators to buy into the notion that teaching abstract and hard-to-measure skills like “cooperation, assertiveness and empathy” will yield high test scores and, after all, high test scores ARE the ultimate measure of success. I daresay that any “failing school” seeking additional funds for the Responsive Classroom as a means of increasing test scores would have that request denied.

In reading the comment section, it was noteworthy that the schools where this seemed to be embraced were private schools where test results were NOT important. I’d rather see my child in a school where school where lovingkindness was emphasized more than tests…

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Charters: Some Good, Mostly Bad

October 28, 2012 Comments off

Over the past several weeks I’ve collected scores of article on charter schools from Diane Ravitch’s blog, Naked Capitalism blog, and the ASCD blog… and they tend to focus on the bad side of the charter movement.

The bad side of the charter movement is the fact that it is too often linked with privatization and. therefore. too often succumbs to the excesses of corporate America. The Orlando Sentinel reported recently on a golden parachute that paid a failed principal $500,000— chump change compared to what the failed CEOs of banks received, but more than most Superintendents earn in 2-3 years. But State laws in Florida enable this kind of behavior:

The district was unaware of the principal’s pay because the school is not required to report it under Florida’s charter school law. Earlier audits by an outside firm hired by NorthStar had noted the school had contracts that would require payouts to several employees, but no dollar figure was calculated.

The law is very clear that school boards cannot put limits or control how a charter school spends their money, including payouts like this” or salaries, said Sublette. He called the payment “immoral and unethical” and noted that it could have paid the salary of five district principals for a year.

Because charter schools do not have to report their principals’ salaries in Florida, it is unclear how many might have contracts or salaries similar to Young’s.

So PRIVATE schools are under no regulation to report salaries paid using public funds any more than a bank or private enterprise on Main Street is required to disclose salaries. This kind of deregulation leads to findings like those reported in California where the lax oversight of charter school resulted in them being chastised by the USDOE. How much money was streaming through charter schools in three states? Oh, “...nearly $1 billion in federal money awarded to states for charter schools between 2007 and 2011″. Again, $1,000,000,000 is chump change for Jamie Dimon… but unlike the USDOE he didn’t divert federal dollars that could have been used to fully fund special education.

Some charters, though, hew to the ideal of creating viable alternatives. The Hechinger Report published by Columbia University reported on Carpe Diem, an Arizona charter school that uses a blended learning approach to educate students who are a demographic match for the general population but who do as well or better than public schools for a lower cost. The criticisms of the program are hard to refute: the students who remain in the program are described as self-motivated learners; and the school does well because it “teaches to the test”. But here’s the rub: the school IS playing by the rules and is delivering on a promise to lift all willing students to success using the measures the public finds acceptable. The article doesn’t suggest it screens students in advance of acceptance: students self-select and drop-out if they lack the self-discipline to continue in the self-paced environment. The school doesn’t question the validity of standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts; it takes those as a given and acknowledges that it needs to provide some kind of metric that gets at critical thinking skills. Based on the article, which may be engaging in some puffery, Carpe Diem appears to be committed to finding ways to increase the ability of holding on to students (i.e. increase the number of “willing” students) and to expanding the scope of its curriculum beyond the skills and content measured by standardized tests. As close readers of this blog realize, the Carpe Diem model is superior to the factory model… and from my perspective tinkering with the “Carpe Diem” approach is superior to tinkering with our current set up.

But here’s the real dilemma: profiteers have expropriated the term “charter” and linking it with “for-profit” instead of having it be synonymous with “experimental”… and so many progressive educators are rejecting all charters, even those that are trying out new models that might show promise.


Hobson’s Choice in Boston

October 27, 2012 Comments off

The on-line headline article in today’s Boston Globe describes a plan to allow low-income students to have a priority when it comes to choosing schools, a plan that would “…give low-income students a priority to attend better-performing schools in other neighborhoods, a potentially divisive move that could address inequities but also take away seats from more affluent applicants who live nearby.”

This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it reinforces the notion that schools are the primary agency for changing the opportunities for students to learn. Secondly, it prevents neighborhoods from unifying to improve their culture. Thirdly, it pits parents against parents which will ultimately result in even more urban flight by the middle class. Finally, it will require extensive administrative time and political capital dealing with social issues that are not  related to education.

The only way to address the effects of poverty on school children is to address poverty itself. Parents need jobs. They need coordinated financial and psychological support to find those jobs and in raising their children. They need funds to sustain them and their children until they find work that will pay them a decent wage and provide the health care their family needs. We can’t expect schools to educate children who are hungry, without shelter, and without the emotional nurturance that results from having those basic needs met.