Archive for April, 2016

Maryland is About to Make a BIG Mistake

April 29, 2016 Comments off

In the mid-1990s I was Superintendent of Schools in Maryland and served as the Superintendent’s Association representative on the High School Assessment Task Force. During that time period the testing mania that gripped our nation once NCLB was launched was just beginning. Maryland had State Assessments were administered to students in grades 3 through 8 and the results were included on Report Cards for each school. The Report Card data we collected on the tests, graduation rates, attendance, and other information was disaggregated by race, gender, special education, and free and reduced lunch counts. The intention of the Grade 3 to Grade 8 tests was largely diagnostic. It was designed to help schools identify groups of students who were not sufficiently prepared in reading and mathematics and not intended to be used as a means of measuring individual student performance. The idea behind the test was to track the progress of schools as they worked to close performance gaps among various groups of students and to help districts identify which approaches were working best to accomplish that end.

The State Superintendent at the time, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, promised the State Board her staff would work with constituent groups to develop a high school assessment, which led to the creation of the High School Assessment Task Force. We never did finish the task in the three years I served on the group because developing a high school assessment that would measure college or career readiness and did not leave thousands of students in the lurch was a far more complex task than our work team could accomplish, especially if the intention of the test was to determine if a student would graduate or not.  To Dr. Grasmick’s credit– and the State Board’s credit as well– the purchase of an off-the-shelf test was quickly rejected. Why? Because the State Department’s test designers and Task Force members all realized that any norm-refereced assessment would necessarily yield a bell-curve that would result in 50% of the students scoring “below average”. That meant that our committee needed to develop a criterion referenced test to determine if a student was “ready to work or ready to go to college or both”… When we looked at the skills sought by employers, we ultimately concluded we needed to develop a means of measuring soft skills that defied a pencil and paper assessment.

Two decades later this all seems to have been forgotten… and nothing has changed except the State Board’s thinking. According to an article by Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun the Maryland State Board is now planning to use the PARCC assessment as a graduation examination to ensure that its students all get a rigorous and solid background. And what happens to those students who will invariably fall into the bottom half?

Thousands of students, education officials say, will be taking the tests multiple times to try to pass, and many will likely use a loophole that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge by doing a project that is approved by their teacher and other administrators.

With such a large percentage of students failing the exams, teachers will have many more students doing projects who they must work with individually.

This approach is completely wrongheaded. Teachers will spend the freshman and sophomore years preparing students to pass a test knowing full well that 50% or more are likely to “fail” and will then spend the last two years developing individualized projects for students.

If Maryland wanted to get their program right, they should look to the north where Vermont is approaching high school with a polar opposite approach. Students entering 7th grade in Vermont public schools must develop a Personalized Learning Plan that will help them determine what they expect to learn and do while they are in school and after they graduate, a plan that is reviewed annually and used as the basis for course selection and/or external work or projects that can be used to demonstrate they have mastered the skills expected of high school graduates. And based on my experience working with several school districts in the state, teachers are not viewing working individually with students as something they must do: it is something they re eagerly embracing. I’ve led districts in both states and I do not buy the notion that the Vermont approach cannot work in larger states. Vermont’s approach to individualized plans beginning is 7th grade certainly won’t cost mare than repeatedly giving tests to every child and then individualizing the program. Al that’s needed is a change in thinking… but moving away from seat time, the accumulation of credits, and the passing of standardized tests challenges our factory mentality that sorts and selects students into “winners” and “losers”.


The Top Quintile Pulls Away… and Ignores the 80% Left Behind

April 28, 2016 Comments off

Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes editorials are full of statistics and analysis and yesterday’s piece, “How the Other Fifth Lives”describes how the top fifth is markedly different from the bottom four quintiles and, sadly, how their priorities do not include addressing the needs of their fellow citizens who are struggling.

As Edsall notes with charts and quotes from sociologists and political scientists, the top fifth have:

  • More education (56 percent of heads of households in the top quintile have college or advanced degrees, compared with 34 percent in the third and fourth quintiles and 17 percent in the bottom two quintiles)
  • More stable family structures (83 percent of affluent heads of household between the ages of 35 and 40 are married, compared with 65 percent in the third and fourth income quintiles and 33 percent in the bottom two).
  • More political clout (Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels)
  • More investments in their children’s well-being (we have seen a threefold increase between 1972 and 2007 in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees)
  • More money relative to those in the lower quintiles (the gap between the average income of households with children in the top quintile and households with children in the middle quintile has grown, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $68,600 to $169,300 — that’s 147 percent)
  • Less interaction with those outside of their economic strata (the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.)
  • Less concern with the effects of poverty (a recent Pew survey (indicates) dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit).

This increase in the gap between the affluent and the poor and the increase in geographic isolation of the two groups is de-stabilizing for our country and our democracy. Mr. Edsall captures the dilemma in his concluding paragraphs:

It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.

For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.

The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.

I live in one of the top quintile cocoons: a college town surrounded by a ring of communities that become progressively poorer as one moves outward. The professors and doctors from the nearby medical center live in my community and the one across the river and the college’s service staff and hospital orderlies commute in from rural communities. This hasn’t always been the case for me. I’ve lived and worked in urban areas, inner-ring blue collar suburbs, rural outposts, and economically diverse communities. In retrospect, even when I lived in less affluent areas I always shopped in upscale areas for clothing and got my New Yorker and Sunday NYTimes. But I had to pick up the New Yorker at the local post office and buy the NYTimes at the local convenience store where contractors congregated to discuss politics and sports…. and as the leader of the schools in the areas where I lived I got a sense of the community’s values and, especially, the values of the parents. And here’s what I find especially distressing after reading Mr. Edsall’s analysis: the parents who are living in poverty want their children to succeed every bit as much as the parents living in affluence… and because of the cocoons we are living in these two groups of parents have a very limited social interconnection and our divides are widening. if we want to be the United States of America we need to find a way to restore the social interconnections we’ve lost over the past five decades.

If the Return to a Manufacturing Economy is a Mirage, What Kind of Schooling Is Needed to be “Ready to Work”?

April 27, 2016 Comments off

The Mirage of a Return to a Manufacturing Economy“, Eduardo Porter’s column in yesterday’s NYTimes, describes the cold hard facts about the direction our economy is headed. Three paragraphs in the middle of the article outline the problem:

Look at it this way: Over the course of the 20th century, farm employment in the United States dropped to 2 percent of the work force from 41 percent, even as output soared. Since 1950, manufacturing’s share has shrunk to 8.5 percent of nonfarm jobs, from 24 percent. It still has a ways to go.

The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global. In other words, strategies to restore manufacturing jobs in one country will amount to destroying them in another, in a worldwide zero-sum game.

The loss of such jobs has created plenty of problems in the United States. For the countless workers living in less developed reaches of the world, though, it adds up to a potential disaster.

The article offers  liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz’ perspective on the phenomenon of technological advances replacing manufacturing followed by Porter’s reaction to the political response:

“The observation is uncontroversial,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia University. “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.

The consequences of this dynamic are often misunderstood, not least by politicians offering slogans to fix them.

While Porter focuses on the slogans dealing with economic issues like increasing tariffs and/or stepping away from trade agreements, he could just as easily have focussed on the slogans about “preparing our students to compete in a global economy”. After reading Porter’s analysis and the reactions of economists like Stiglitz, it is hard to imagine how public education as it exists today is doing anything to prepare students for a global economy where manufacturing jobs are on the decline across the globe. The notion that offering more STEM courses or teaching coding to students is the answer seems foolish. So if the jobs of the future are not in the manufacturing sector, where will they be and what policies should be put in place to prepare students? Mr. Porter offers his advice to politicians:

Note to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump: A grab at the world’s manufacturing jobs is the wrong answer. Walls will damage prosperity, not enhance it. Promises to recapture industrial-era greatness ring hollow.

The United States, though, does have options: health care, education and clean energy, just to name a few. They present big economic and political challenges, of course — not least the enormous inefficiency of private American medicine and Republicans’ blanket opposition to more public spending.

Yet just as the federal government once provided a critical push to move the economy from its agricultural past into its industrial future, so, too, could it help build a postindustrial tomorrow.

Mr. Porter concludes his column there… without describing what the federal government could do to “…build a postindustrial tomorrow”. From here, I doubt that an education policy that uses standardized test results to measure the quality of education is the direction to head since health care requires the ability to interact effectively in providing face-to-face services, education requires the provision of face-to-face tailored instruction, and clean energy requires the use of creative thinking. Most importantly, someone needs to begin promoting the notion that we might need to scale down our standard of living if we hope to avoid the “…worldwide zero sum game” that Porter envisions if we DON’T find a way to deal with the replacement of middle class wages that a large sector of our economy earned performing tasks that are now done cheaply and effectively by robots.

Bernie Sanders’ issued a message to the 1% that “enough is enough”. What Mr. Sanders DIDN’T note is that his proposal for a $15/hour wage would ensure that every American would earn an amount that would make them the 1% in the global economy… and in a zero sum game that would inevitably lead to some country or culture wanting to destroy ours. Maybe part of our curriculum in public schools should be to challenge students to examine what they have and what they need and determine their own definition of “enough”. That would be a far greater challenge than learning how to code.