Archive for November, 2020

I Don’t Like the “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” Line of Thought… But deBlasio’s Coulda Navigated the Closure Decision FAR Better Than He Did

November 30, 2020 1 comment

Eliza Shapiro’s NYTimes article on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest decision that appeared on November 30 made me want to scream in frustration. I generally support the Mayor’s instincts when it comes to public schools, particularly his desire to move toward community centered schooling and the abandonment of the SHSAT as the sole determinant for enrolling in “competitive” high schools. But I sense that his dithering on school openings has undercut his credibility on managing the school system as a whole… and it didn’t have to be this way. Indeed, had he framed his decision on opening where he has needed up he might have come out of the whole episode stronger than ever. After fits and starts: conditional openings; hybrid offerings in some schools; the requirement that parents make irreversible decisions about remote learning on short notice; and, most recently, complete closures and mandatory remote learning, the mayor has a plan:

The mayor said the city would abandon a 3 percent test positivity threshold that it had adopted for closing the school system, the largest in the country, with 1.1 million children. And he said the system would aim to give many parents the option of sending their children to school five days a week, which would effectively end the so-called hybrid learning system for some city schools.

Students can return only if they have already signed up for in-person learning, meaning just about 190,000 children in the grades and schools the city is reopening next week would be eligible. About 335,000 students in total have chosen in-person classes.

Children in pre-K and elementary school can return starting Dec. 7. Mr. de Blasio also announced that students with the most complex disabilities can return on Dec. 10.

Whatever happens ahead, we want this to be the plan going forward,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference. “We know what we didn’t know over the summer, we know what works from actual experience.”

Here’s the problem I have with the Mayor’s last statement: one thing we DID know in the summer was that we DIDN’T know nearly enough to make a firm decision on any form of re-opening AND we DID know that despite that reality several districts in our country planned to or had reopened anyway. Given that knowledge, the Mayor COULD have and SHOULD have framed the school opening decision in the fashion many pundits (including yours truly) proposed: institute across the board remote learning pending the gathering of information on the experience of school districts across the country and the recommendations of epidemiologists. At the same time, the Mayor COULD have and SHOULD have identified schools that required upgrades to HVAC systems and used CARES funding to accomplish that costly undertaking. These projects are best done when schools are closed, and with a closure in place he COULD have and SHOULD have proceeded with them.

One other area where the Mayor fell down: at the conclusion of the 2019-20 school year, he COULD have and SHOULD have conducted a comprehensive review of the implementation of remote learning, identifying steps that needed to be taken to ensure that IF remote learning was needed in 2020-21 he would have a plan in place to make it more effective, efficient, and equitable. Oh, and we DID know in summer that epidemiologists were forecasting a resurgence of COVID once the cold weather returned.

I underscored, italicized and bold-faced “epidemiologists” because one thing we’ve learned from this experience is that they are the experts in dealing with pandemics. Had the politicians from the top down heeded their advice we might have avoided the marked increase in COVID that we are now encountering.

In conclusion, Mayor de Blasio COULD have and SHOULD have announced in August that all schools in NYC would be closed until a phased re-opening plan is developed in consultation with epidemiologists and medical experts who will help us determine the readiness of our facilities to safely educate our children. If he WOULD have done that, his announcement that elementary schools are opening next week WOULD be welcomed and hailed as measured, reasonable, and appreciated.

Standardized Testing on the Ropes INTERNATIONALLY As Pandemic Opens the Door to Widespread Questioning of their Value

November 30, 2020 Comments off

The November 25 Economist featured an article datelined Seoul and Sao Paulo that described the adverse impact the pandemic is having on the use of standardized tests to sort and select the best and brightest students across the globe. Citing examples from South America, Asia, Australia and Europe, and quoting experts from those continents, the article describes how nations have varied in their decisions about administering standardized tests that determine whether most students around the world will qualify for higher education in their nation and thereby gain access to the highest paying jobs. Ultimately, the international debates mirror those going on in our country with traditionalists seeing no reason to suspend or abandon the standardized testing while progressives see the suspension and abandonment of these tests as the only way to overcome the gross inequities that result from poverty. Here’s the traditionalist view: 

Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the oecd, a club of mostly rich countries, thinks more countries could have held exams safely: “You don’t want people to talk; you don’t need them to move around; their desks are quite far apart.” So far it appears that the grades of most pupils who did sit exams this year have been no worse than usual, according to uk naric, a British government agency that keeps track of qualifications in other countries. Candidates in Germany performed a little better.

Mr. Schleicher’s argument is that the results of the pandemic-administered international tests used to benchmark the performance of various countries around the world were no different that the results of the pre-pandemic tests so, therefore, it would have been reasonable to insist that all countries administer these tests… an argument that assumes the test results reflected an even playing field to begin with, which is clearly NOT the case when 11th grade students in European countries who are only admitted to that level of schooling if they past a competitive test are compared with US students who are afforded a universal education through grade 12. 

The progressive perspective is best summarized in this paragraph:

Some psychologists worry that the pressure of exams is raising the risk that vulnerable youngsters will develop mental-health problems, early signs of which often appear during adolescence and early adulthood. Exams can also label children as failures, when they had no choice but to attend bad schools. And rich parents often pay for tutoring to boost their offspring’s chances.

But the subsequent paragraph describes the challenge progressive face: 

Yet abandoning exams creates new problems. Continuous assessment means pupils may simply “learn stuff, get a grade and then forget it”, says Dylan William, a British expert in educational assessment. Coursework can encourage students to tinker endlessly with just a few pieces of work. Junking exams only introduces new kinds of stress if the alternative is that all schoolwork counts towards final grades. Without objective assessments, learners from poor homes are more likely to be judged on their backgrounds than on their actual achievements.

So what is the way out of the woods on the question of how best to assess students? The article offers no clear answer to that question, though it does shed light on one clear consequence that seems to be emerging from the pandemic: the use of a single test as an indicator of preparedness for higher education is likely to wane: 

The pandemic may amplify calls to get rid of exams that some already thought unnecessary. Universities in America traditionally ask applicants to sit the sat or act, tests which are not required by the public school system. This year many universities waived that requirement after many exam sittings were cancelled. This delighted critics of testing, who say the exams advantage richer applicants who can pay for test-prep. About 70% of American universities offering four-year courses now operate “test-optional” admissions policies, up from around 45% before the pandemic.

In England the pandemic has raised fresh questions about the future of gcses, a flurry of exams taken by 16-year-olds. These have become less crucial as a result of reforms that require teenagers to stay in some kind of education or training until they are 18. Developing countries have been gradually junking exams they have traditionally used to decide which children may enter secondary school. This year’s crisis could speed that up.

Ultimately, as educators, psychologists, and policy makers examine the impact of the pandemic and the way technology has been used in a more widespread fashion, a consensus on the way schools are organized might emerge: a consensus that the age-based cohort groupings implemented in the name of administrative efficiency in the early 20th Century might not make sense in an era where everyone has access to self-paced learning… and given the ability to individualize the pace of instruction schools might focus more on their most important function: developing the skills students need to work harmoniously in a democracy. 


Standardized Testing on the Ropes at the Local Level in NYC as SHSAT is Suspended for 2020-21

November 29, 2020 Comments off

Chalkbeat writer and Brooklyn Tech alum Haley Lucas wrote a thoughtful and persuasive essay calling for the end of standardized tests to gain entry to NYC’s “Elite” High Schools. As noted in many earlier blog posts, the SHSAT is the exclusive metric used to screen students for entry into eight competitive high schools in New York City. Given the impact of the pandemic on public schools, Ms. Lucas suggests that NOW is the time to abandon this test, which has unfairly screened out otherwise qualified students. She writes: 

The test has long been controversial and, frankly, problematic, as a metric that has worked to keep many Black and brown students out of specialized high schools. Now, it also faces logistical hurdles, with school buildings closed and social-distancing guidelines in place.

In the convoluted governance world of NYC schools, the State legislature will ultimately determine if the test can be replaced… but… as noted in Ms. Lucas’ essay, NYS law only requires that these tests be used in THREE of the eight high schools that currently use it: 

Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science are the only schools that are mandated by the Hecht- Calandra Act to administer the exam as a requirement for admission. The other specialized high school not bound by law should use alternative admission measures this year no matter what.

As noted in earlier posts… the only positive by-product of the pandemic for public schools and education in general might be the complete abandonment of standardized tests as a total re-thinking of what schools SHOULD be about. The good news is that such a re-thinking is underway….