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Missouri’s History of Evaluating Schools Illustrates How “Outcome-Based” Metrics Undercut State Departments, Emphasize Demographic Differences

July 29, 2017 Comments off

Saint Louis Post Dispatch writer Kristen Taketa’s column on potential changes to Missouri’s accountability system provides a history of accountability in that state which illustrates how “outcome-based” metrics undercuts the role of state departments, effectively dismisses the effects of poverty on school children, and provides a cheap and seemingly accurate means of differentiating “performance”. This shift away from a comprehensive but expensive means of evaluating schools to the simplistic and inexpensive method of using test results reinforces the notion that “throwing money” at the solution and imposing government oversight at the state level won’t help improve schools. Instead the message is that hard work by teachers and relentless grit by students alone will make a difference.

In her article on Missouri’s ongoing review of how best to assess the effectiveness of schools, Ms. Taketa describes the way schools in her State (and most states) was done in the 1970s and 1980s:

Two decades ago, Missouri rewarded school districts with good marks if they got parents involved, offered a variety of extracurricular activities and had safe schools. Districts were applauded if they had deep financial reserves, a competent staff and a school board that got along well with administrators….

When the state created the Missouri School Improvement Program in 1990, its primary goal was to ensure schools were providing the services and resources needed for a good education. Schools were graded not by calculating scores with complex formulas, but by in-person school visits by state education officials and educators from peer districts.

Ms. Taketa never says so in her article, but this system had at least three major problems:

  1. Those who value mathematical precision that provides the ability to rank schools found metrics like “parent involvement, competent staff, and highly functioning school boards” to be too soft. Moreover the narrative reports issued by visiting teams of colleagues and State Department officials often contained subjective descriptions of the districts that did not provide the capability of comparing one district to another in terms of student performance, which many taxpayers viewed as the ultimate determinant of school quality.
  2. For those who value complete local control, the notion of being judged by “outsiders” from the State Department and from “other districts with nothing in common” with theirs was an anathema. If local taxpayers and voters were happy with their schools they did not feel feedback from “outside experts” was worthwhile, even if those experts were assuring that the funds from the state were being invested wisely by the local school board and administrators.
  3. For those who want to limit spending, the cost for these periodic reviews was perceived s daunting and the fact that these comprehensive reviews required a robust state department (i.e. a fully staffed bureaucracy) was especially maddening.

Her analysis of how Missouri moved to testing is a solution to each of these “problems”:

Then in 1993, the Missouri Legislature passed the Outstanding Schools Act, which instructed state education officials to create a standardized test to measure student performance. Student performance began to count for the majority of a Missouri school rating by 2001, the same year the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed by Congress.

By 2012, Missouri school accountability was entirely based on student results, though not all of it on test scores.

Later in the second paragraph, Ms. Taketa describes how the state finessed the problem of helping low performing districts become accredited without having to spend a dime!

The inclusion of non-test criteria, such as attendance and graduation rates, is what enabled two high-poverty, previously unaccredited districts — St. Louis and Riverview Gardens — to earn accreditation upgrades, despite having a majority of students who are not proficient on state standardized tests.

Ms. Taketa then describes the downside of using standardized tests as the primary metric: the narrowing of the curriculum.

While most anyone will agree schools should have high test scores and attendance rates, relying on such outcomes when judging schools runs the risk of schools fixating on earning points and little else. It runs the risk of investing energies solely on students who are a few points below proficient, rather than all students.

And that “risk” is precisely what led to the State legislature revisiting the formula, a process that has taken five years of debate! Their solution, though, still relies on test scores, using “growth” instead of “proficiency”. While “growth” is better than “proficiency”, it still poses a dilemma:

In a 2008 Association for Education Finance and Policy survey, 68 percent of education researchers said growth is the best way to measure school quality. Only 9 percent said measuring proficiency is.

“It has been highly recognized as a more accurate representation of trying to isolate what schools are actually doing for kids,” said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Districts can already earn points for student growth in Missouri’s accreditation system, but they can’t earn as many points for growth as they can for straight test scores.

Prioritizing growth could give higher ratings to districts such as Riverview Gardens, Jennings and Special School District, all of which received zero points for reaching proficiency targets in 2016 but earned all the points they could for growth.

But Chris Neale, assistant commissioner for quality schools at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, cautions that, in emphasizing student growth, the state shouldn’t lower expectations for students of color or students from low-income backgrounds.

What you have to be careful of is that you don’t even provide by accident an excuse to say children of poverty can’t achieve, people of a particular racial or ethnic background can’t achieve,” Neale said. “We don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing a community.”

The best way to avoid offering an excuse to say that “children of poverty can’t achieve” is to offer those children the same chance to succeed that a student in an affluent school district has. But that would require more funding… and we don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the legislature as being cold-hearted and uncaring toward the children who were born into poverty.

 

Donald Trump’s Address to the Boy Scouts

July 28, 2017 1 comment

I was engaged in scouting from grade three through ten when in lived in PA and OK. I was an indifferent Boy Scout, achieving a Star ranking (the third highest level) and never aspired to become an Eagle scout because I found some of the required merit badges too daunting. I did enjoy the camaraderie of being in a group of peers who enjoyed the outdoors, enjoyed each other’s company, and enjoyed working as a team on various community projects. I also believed in the ideals espoused by scouting: thriftiness, bravery. cleanliness, tolerance, and reverence toward a Deity and the values of our country. I recall our scoutmasters being stern and demanding. But as a “non-swimmer”, I also recall the scoutmasters and camp counselors insisting that we not bully or tease those who could not meet some of the physical demands of scouting. Of all of the lessons I learned, THAT was the most important one: to be kind to those who struggle and not boastful when you are superior.

With this background, I was appalled to read about our President’s address to the Boy Scouts at their annual Jamboree, attended by thousands of young men from across the country. In the speech, he taunted his rivals, encouraged the scouts to join him in his disparagement by booing, and intimated that the accumulation of wealth would result in sensuous rewards that he could not mention because the scouts were too young.

I don’t know the political leanings of my scoutmasters, but given what I know of Boy Scout leaders I met as an adult I would guess they would vote for the most conservative candidate on the ticket. The scouting ideals— particularly thrift and reverence— seem to align with conservative thought. But as leaders who promoted tolerance towards others in the group of young men, who took action to avoid taunting and bullying, I cannot believe they would support a President who used his platform to inspire young men to instead taunt his rivals, who promoted profligacy, and who demonstrated his conviction that raw power was a value. I would hope that the scout leaders who value reverence for the values of our country would choose to not invite this President to speak again at a Jamboree.

A Skeptical Blogger Looks at Horace Mann’s Factory School and Proposed a Heretical Fix

July 28, 2017 Comments off

The Medium feeds me articles of interest in a wide array of topics ranging from sports to public education, and one of their posts introduced me to a skeptical analyst of history named William Treseder. In a July 4 post titled “One Man Created the Education System Holding You Back “, Mr. Treseder provides an overview of the history of public education that rings true, emphasizing that the system created by Horace Mann was designed to help with the transition from an agrarian economy to a industrial one. But, Mr. Treseder asserts that the values Horace Mann’s ideal school system inculcated are no longer relevant:

Education isn’t really about learning! More specifically, it isn’t about learning how to learn. It’s about learning how to conform. Predictability is the ultimate goal.

This idea should scare you. And even if it is only partially true, the idea explains a lot. We are struggling in the 21st century because conformity is no longer that valuable to companies. Software and hardware increasingly shoulder those burdens. Now the economy wants something else. Something unique, and creative. Something our education didn’t cover.

Later in the article Mr. Treseder provides this synopsis of how the Horace Mann’s “job factory” worked:

It’s worth reminding ourselves now about the key characteristics of the industrial era, and how we can see them manifested in the education system that continues to operate across America to this day:

– Schools focus on respecting authority
– Schools focus on punctuality
– Schools focus on measurement
– Schools focus on basic literacy
– Schools focus on basic arithmetic

Notice how these reinforce each other. You enter the system one way, and are crammed through an extended molding process. The result? A “good enough” cog to jam into an industrial machine.

Mr. Treseder believes that the “good enough” attitude was baked into the factory model espoused by Horace Mann in several ways, but that “good enough” attitude contradicts the needs we have today and results in schools inculcating habits that are counterproductive to success in today’s world. He offers five examples of practices that he believes need to be eliminated and five habits that could replace them. Here are the five that need to be eliminated, a list that resonates with me:

  1. Filling up the day with time-bound activities
  2. Accepting whatever you’re assigned
  3. Completing projects at the last minute
  4. Obsessing over quantified ranks and scores
  5. Sitting still for 8+ hours per day

And in their place, Mr. Treseder suggests we emphasize the following principles and practices:

  1. Replace time-bound activities with outcome-based activities. Focus on meetings — the worst culprit — and the decisions you want out of them. If you can’t think of a decision, don’t have the meeting.
  2. Summarize the goals of a new project to the person who asked for it, making sure you know exactly what is supposed to be accomplished, and why.
  3. Plan to complete a v1.0 of each project by the 50% mark. This is a chance to get valuable corrective feedback from other people, despite how uneasy you may feel with your “ugly” project.
  4. Focus on the “Why?” of each project and knocking it out of the park. Take time at the beginning of the project to get inspired by the work of others, then shut out the rest of the world.
  5. Get off your ass.
 As #5 indicates, Mr. Treseder’s essay is written in a smart-aleck tone, but as the list indicates he is definitely insightful as to the deficiencies of public education today…. and the tone may reflect his abiding belief that making the kinds of changes he advocates will be daunting.