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This Just In: ESSA Makes No Difference in Yet Another State

September 23, 2017 Comments off

When ESSA was passed in Congress, it was marketed as an opportunity for states to establish their own accountability standards, thus giving them a chance to break away from the standardized test scores as the primary metric as “imposed on them” by the federal government. In state after state, though, the results have not borne out that promise. Here’s a portion of a report from Megan Raposa of the Argus Leader, a regional newspaper that’s part of the USA Today chain, that was presented in a Q and A format (my emphases added):

What’s different now? Monday’s rule change was only one piece of ESSA’s implementation. It changes the way schools are ranked by the state, and it gives schools a new way to look at how students are performing. 

What criteria will the state use to assess schools? The state will look at test scores, student attendance, graduation rates, college and career readiness, and how well English learners perform on standardized tests. 

How will this affect students? Largely, it won’t. Students will still take the same standardized tests as they did under No Child Left Behind. Also, they may see their teachers putting more emphasis on “college and career readiness,” a key theme in South Dakota’s education goals.

So while ESSA “gives schools a new way to look at how students are performing” the “new” method for measuring student performance will not make any difference to students since they will be taking the same standardized tests as they did under No Child Left Behind!

If South Dakota was an outlier, this would be no big deal… but to date I am unfamiliar with any states who are making a substantial break from their reliance on standardized tests. One the final tally is in on ESSA submissions, I’ll write a post on the “new way” states are assessing student performance… and I will be astonished if ANY of them are diminishing their reliance on tests.

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This Just In: Hungry Students do Worse on Standardized Tests…

September 23, 2017 Comments off

In an unsurprising finding reported on an NPR Morning Edition segment by Mary Louise Kelly, researchers in South Carolina discovered that students who do not have sufficient food at home do worse on standardized tests than students who come from homes were food is more plentiful. Researcher Orgul Ozturk, an economist at the University of South Carolina, along with her colleagues, Chad Cotti, and John Gordanier found that “…children who come from families that are several weeks removed from receiving their food-stamp benefits perform worse on an important math exam.” 

In the segment, Ms. Ozturk explained how the distribution mechanism for food stamps in South Carolina enabled her to create a means of determining a clear link between the impact of food scarcity on mathematics test results. But as host Mary Louise Kelly noted, the stress created by the lack of food might also contribute to the stress a student feels in addition to the empty stomachs, an effect Ms. Ozturk acknowledged:

We know that there’s a relationship between food stamps and math performance. We don’t know specifically if it’s about food or just because the family as a whole is stressed and the kids in some ways are reacting to that stress.

The ultimate take-away from these findings might be to increase the frequency of food stamp distribution since that monthly distributions of food stamps leads to a period at the end of each month where food is scarce and, in turn, student performance is diminished…. or it might be that the amount allocated for food stamps is insufficient. One thing IS clear, though: hungry children do worse on tests than children with full bellies.

Samsara: Baltimore Public Schools, State Department Agree to Plan to Improve 24 Failing Schools

September 22, 2017 Comments off

Merriam Webster dictionary defines “samsara” as “the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma.” A list of “reform initiatives” in Baltimore City schools could appear as one of the pictures representing “samsara” in the dictionary, as their persistent “failure” has plagued State school leaders for decades.

The latest reform initiative in Baltimore was reported in an article by Talia Richman in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun. In response to the fact that 24 of Maryland’s 27 lowest performing schools are located in that city, the State Department of Education and district signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will provide technical assistance to those schools. Ms. Richman writes:

The state has agreed to send leadership coaches to work one-on-one with principals in targeted schools on strategies for improvement. Other school officials, including assistant principals and some teachers, will also participate in programs aimed at stemming high turnover in underperforming schools.

As part of the agreement, the city has committed to reducing the number of school leaders who leave the city.

Based on my experience in Maryland, they might start with a commitment to retaining the Superintendent! During my ten year tenure as a Superintendent in a Western MD district four different Superintendents led the district, and it seems that the turnover rate has not improved since I left that state in 1997. And based on my experience in Maryland, this turnover rate has as much to do with State and local politics as it has to do with the quality of leadership each successive administrator provided. But Baltimore City’s problems are deeper than politics…

My sense of samsara and my analysis of Baltimore City’s leadership woes was reinforced when I read this NYTimes article from 2006 by Diane Jean Schemo describing the State takeover about to take place at that time. One sentence from the then State Deputy Superintendent was especially telling:

Mr. Peiffer, the deputy superintendent, said politics were not a factor. “Some of these schools have been failing for 12 years under three different governors,” he said. “Regardless of when you do this, there’s going to be somebody, there’ll be a governor, there’ll be a mayor and there’ll be a cry of politics. What you have to do is to do the right thing.”

In Baltimore City’s case “the right thing” is more than the failed takeover in 2006 or the leadership coaches of 2017. The problem requires a willingness of the affluent communities in Maryland to channel more funds to safety net programs to support families in poverty who are struggling with physical and mental health issues— including addiction; a willingness of the Federal government to invest in desperately needed infrastructure projects that could generate jobs in the city; and a willingness to worry less about who is to blame and more about what kind of supports are required to help families in need. Finally, as I noted in an article I wrote for Education Week over fifteen years ago, the agencies serving children should stop working in silos and begin working collaboratively, sharing personnel, information, and resources. But I doubt that it will happen any time soon. Instead, the 25 year cycle of birth, misery, and death caused by karma will continue… and the karma in this case is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

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Factory-Model Change Won’t End the Era of Factory-Model Schools

September 21, 2017 Comments off

This article brought to mind a favorite quote from Peter Senge: “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner. Once we can see them and name them, they no longer have the same hold on us.” As a retired public school superintendent who served in that capacity from 1981-2011 was constantly surprised to find that most parents and many teachers did not see the “tremendously powerful magnetic pull” of the factory school model… and it is evident that most “reformers” who want to apply business principles to public education are blind to that same pull.

Mr. Calkins understands how enmeshed the industrial-model-thinking is in our conception of school improvement. We ARE “…deluding ourselves, if we try to end the era of factory-model schools by using factory-model strategies for change.”… I hold out hope that eventually classroom teachers and engaged parents will see that the test-driven model of learning imposed by NCLB (and, alas, ESSA) is shacking the teachers ability to use their creativity to reach each child. If such an awakening occurs we might be able to free public education from the industrial-age mental models that hold us prisoner now. 

In this post, Andy Calkins argues that moving to new school models requires a new theory of change.

Source: Factory-Model Change Won’t End the Era of Factory-Model Schools

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The Foundation Conundrum: Do We Accept Donations That Help Public Schools or Not?

September 21, 2017 Comments off

Earlier this week I wrote a post in response to an article written by Lisa Haver in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The post discussed the possibility that some donations from some billionaires might be worthy of consideration despite the fact that they were offered by “unqualified” individuals. The following is a comment I left on Diane Ravitch’s blog in response to her reaction to the same article:

Until we get a change in thinking in our country about the role of government, we are going to be stuck with plutocrats determining where investments should be made in the public good. As this Slate article from 2006 notes (see link below), we’ve been through this before at the turn of the 20th Century… and the result was the construction of libraries in many small towns across America, the donation of lands for several national parks, and the creation of foundations whose funding sources were the result of exploitative practices by plutocrats who short-changed their employees and the government because they believed they had a clearer understanding of the needs of the country. 

I am no fan of the plutocrats… but I am open to the idea that in some cases their intentions are pure (i.e. see the billions Mr. Gates spent to eliminate polio) and am open to the notion that some of their ideas might have merit (i.e. advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers could be applied to education).

Here’s a conundrum: If billionaires like Ms. Chan and Ms. Jobs are offering additional resources to public education should we reject the money under all circumstances? I don’t have a clear answer… yet… but I do appreciate the libraries Mr. Carnegie provided and the National Parks the Rockefellers gave to our country.

A footnote: to the best of my knowledge no one in the international medical community complained that Bill Gates had no training in medicine and therefore had no business tackling polio… And while it might be possible that his investment portfolio included some stocks in medicine that enriched him, I don’t believe he was driven by the profit motive.

Calculating the savings of consolidation | District Administration Magazine

September 20, 2017 Comments off

This ALWAYS works on a spreadsheet and CAN work RELATIVELY easily in a county district where attendance zones are fluid… but it is a tough cat to skin in New England where each school’s attendance zone matches the town boundaries and each school is governed by an elected Board. 

As a cost-saving measure, consolidation can help save a struggling district.

Source: Calculating the savings of consolidation | District Administration Magazine

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Montgomery County (MD) Decision to Return to Traditional Letter Grades is Evidence of Where Change is Most Resistant

September 19, 2017 Comments off

Conservative columnists complain that teachers unions are the biggest block to making changes in public education. Liberal columnists contend change is thwarted by a lack of funding. Progressives look with dismay at the standardized testing that drives decision making and reinforces the status quo and see that as an impediment to change.

But a recent decision by the Montgomery County (MD) School Board illustrates the biggest obstacle to change: parents who want to retain the system as it is. Five years ago, the Montgomery County School Board made a decision to institute a new system of reporting student progress to students. As reported by Washington Post writer Linh Bui at that time, the system would replace the traditional A-F grades on elementary report cards with ones indicating how each student was progressing.

The Montgomery County public school system is joining other districts across the country in abandoning traditional letter grades for some students and instead matching student evaluations with specific curriculum standards.

Instead of seeing A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s on report cards this November, for the first time, parents of Montgomery students in third grade will see ES, P, I or N. Those new letters will also apply to students in first through second grade, who used to get O’s, S’s or N’s.

Teachers also will mark students separately on learning skills such as “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality” with separate codes of DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident).

This kind of grading system is the natural outgrowth of switching to a standards-based curriculum whereby all students are expected to master a series of standards no matter how much time takes for the each student to do so. It is an important and necessary step for any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward a mastery learning model based on the assumption that time is a variable and learning is constant instead of the other way around.

In well funded and equitable Montgomery County the teachers and the teachers union supported the change. From all appearances, a sea change was underway… but from the outset one set of parents never understood what was going on and another set of parents and the conservative media rejected the move to “standards-based” grades because the new grades were based on (gasp) the Common Core. As Ms. Bai reported five years ago, the A-F paradigm seemed to be unshakeable to parents… as did the inherent competitiveness and false sense of exactness and certitude built into the A-F system. Some parents made fallacious crosswalks between the new grading system and the old one, some saw the system as “squishy” since it didn’t have numbers associated with it, and some never saw the link between the curriculum standards and the progress reports.

The terminology itself is crucial: the quarterly issuance of letter grades is called a “Report Card”. The terminology used when districts move toward a standards-based grading is a “Progress Report”. They convey a different intent and a different purpose.

As one who sees technology as potentially assisting in the shift away from the competitive bell curve mentality inherent in standardized test driven grading, I know is now possible to completely eliminate report cards altogether. With parent portals into the student information systems used in virtually every school in the nation it is no longer necessary to issue periodic “Report Cards” or “Progress Reports”. Instead, parents can periodically check on their child’s progress through the outcomes defined for each course and schools can monitor the parent’s assiduousness in doing to to make certain it is appropriate for the age of the child. Technology makes such a change possible… and, as we witnessed in Montgomery County, it is supported by teachers, affordable, and equitably applied. The problem with instituting this necessary change? Parents who want schools to stay just the way they were when they attended.