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Homeless Students Increase in NYC… Underscoring Impact of Externalities on “School Quality”

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Elizabeth Harris’ article in today’s NYTimes opened with this unfathomable fact:

There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany.

The article, which was triggered by the release of a report to be released on today by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, assesses the impact of homelessness on students, noting that on average those 100,000 children missed 88 days of school during the year they were homeless. Ms. Harris provides many facts like that in her article, but the facts understate the impact of homelessness because data cannot capture what the stress must be like for children who are exposed to the threats of losing their homes over extended periods of time. Nor can the data accurately capture the number of near homeless children: children whose parents are threatened with the need to move because of higher rents, lost employment, and family tragedies.

Nor does the article delve into some of the ways homelessness undercuts the efforts of public school teachers and administrators to improve their schools and undercuts the accountability measures used to determine the “quality” of schools. A few examples:

  • How can schools in the Bronx, which had over 10,000 homeless students, be compared with schools in Bayside Queens, which had “only” 823 homeless students?
  • How can the parents of the 100,000 students who are homeless be expected to complete the daunting paperwork necessary to apply for entry into a charter school?
  • And if the charter schools do not include homeless students in their applicant pools or student bodies, how can their results be compared to those of schools like those in the Bronx where there are high concentrations of homeless children?

The overarching questions, then, are these:

  • How can public schools whose attendance zones include the worst housing in the city and highest levels of homelessness be expected to perform as well as public schools whose attendance zones include the best housing and lowest levels of homelessness?
  • How can “school choice” be any kind of solution for families who wonder where they will live?

Reformers need to answer these questions before offering solutions.

Betsy DeVos Refuses to Name the Perpetrators of Evil

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

As noted in a previous post, leaders have moral authority that must be exercised wisely and well in a crisis. Ms. DeVos, like the President who appointed her, fell short in her response.

Source: Betsy DeVos Refuses to Name the Perpetrators of Evil

Categories: Uncategorized

Hoover Institution Survey Finds Diminishing Support for Charters, Which is GOOD News… Continuing Support for Testing, Which is SAD News

August 15, 2017 Leave a comment

The lead story in today’s Education Week feed by Arianna Prothero provides an overview of the results from a recent survey conducted by EDNext, a journal published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The survey was designed to determine support for and opposition to various public education policies. The good news for those of us who oppose the expansion of charter schools and the privatization that it facilitates, is that broad public support for charter schools is falling. The somewhat troubling news is that “…opposition toward school vouchers and other similar policies that direct public aid toward private schools has softened.” a finding that is somewhat mitigated because support for vouchers has not increased.

From my perspective, though, the worst news in the survey was described as an afterthought that didn’t even warrant a header in the column:

Testing and holding schools accountable for student performance continues to have broad support across members of both parties. About two-thirds of respondents agree with the federal requirements to test students in math and reading every year from the latter elementary grades through middle school and once in high school.

To me this finding is disturbing on several levels. It shows that a solid majority of voters equate “test results” with “education quality”. It’s framing insinuates that “grade levels” based on age cohorts are a “given”— that time must be constant and performance must be variable. And it implies that the public still believes there should be some kind of consequence associated with schools that enroll students who do not fare well on standardized tests.

In short, the governance of schools remains fluid in the minds of those composing the survey and those responding to the survey, but the structure of schools remains fixed: they must be organized by age-based grade levels. Until the structure of schools is called to question, summative standardized testing will remain entrenched and performance will vary among age cohorts. Once we are free from the factory paradigm, we can move toward mastery learning based on formative assessments and structured teacher observations.

Leaders Set the Moral Tone for Schools, School Districts, States… and, alas, Presidents Set a Moral Tone for Nations

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

In public education, leaders provide a moral compass. Principals set a moral tone for schools. Superintendents and School Boards set the moral tone for districts. Commissioners and State Boards set a moral tone for the schools in the states they lead.

In education, the way leaders react to crises are often defining moments in setting a moral tone. If a school is struggling and the Principal’s reaction is to fire teachers or the Board’s reaction is to close the school it sets a different moral tone than if leaders work collaboratively with parents and community agencies to help struggling students.

Now imagine a situation where a neo-Nazi student organization announced it would be holding a rally to celebrate the heroism of civil war generals who supported slavery in a school where racial harmony existed. And imagine that the neo-Nazi student organization goaded peaceful demonstrators with hateful chants, lit torches, and menacing behavior. Finally, imagine that one of their group members drove a vehicle through the crowd of counter demonstrators leaving the demonstration killing one of them and hospitalizing scores of others. Surely the leadership of the school, the district, and state would condemn the behavior of the hate-mongering group and particularly the driver of the vehicle that plowed into group of counter demonstrators as they dispersed. And imagine the fall out if the leaders tried to appease the neo-Nazi student organization by asserting a study was needed to determine culpability because both groups attending the rally behaved in the same fashion.

As readers undoubtedly realize, the scenario described above occurred on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. The mayor of that city and the Governor of the State showed their moral fiber, decrying the actions of the new-Nazi demonstrators and condemning the driver of the car for his despicable act. Bt as descried tersely in Diane Ravitch’s initial post yesterday, “August 12, 2017, A Shameful Day for America and Trumpour President’s moral compass was shown to be lacking when he responded to this incident. Like the spineless leadership described in the scenario above, President Trump attempted to appease the neo-Nazi organization who organized the demonstration in opposition to the removal of a statue of a civil war general by asserting a study was needed to determine culpability because both groups attending the rally behaved in the same fashion and were therefore equally culpable.

It is likely that some of the counter-demonstrators used profane language when they were confronted by the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups gathered in support of the statue. It is also possible that some of the counter-demonstrators pushed back when they were shoved and bullied by members of the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups. But it is abundantly clear that the counter-demonstrators were victimized by the actions of a sympathizer of the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups and that they did nothing comparable.

The narrative that will likely emerge from the “study” will be that the violent behavior of the driver was not condoned by the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups and therefore those groups should not be held accountable for the actions of a “lone wolf”. Moreover, apart from this one outlying and outrageous act, the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups lawfully exercised their free speech rights in the same fashion as the counter demonstrators. And just as predictably, when the counter-demonstrators express their outrage in the same fashion as the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups they will be broadly condemned by the press.

How would a moral leader behave in this situation? If President Trump had a shred of decency he would acknowledge that his inflammatory rhetoric encouraged this misconduct. He would pledge to abandon his fiery rhetoric in light of how neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups used it to justify hateful and divisive demonstrations and to justify the death of a peaceful demonstrator. And he would condemn the actions of the neo-Nazis and various white supremacist groups. That didn’t happen and won’t happen.

President Trump’s reaction to the crisis in Charlottesville was a defining moment in setting a moral tone for this nation…. and it was a shameful day for America and Trump.

Researcher Finds Smartphones Are Isolating… and Depressing a Generation

August 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In the title of her her Atlantic article that will appear in the September issue, Jean Twenge poses this question: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?“. The short answer to her question is “NOT YET”… but an alternative answer might be “IT WILL IF ADULTS DON’T MONITOR THE EFFECTS OF SMARTPHONES QUICKLY AND FORCEFULLY”.

Ms. Twenge’s article is full of data contrasting the current generation, which she dubs the iGen, to previous generations and finds that today’s teens are more isolated, lonely, and depressed despite the fact that they are more “connected” thanks to cell phones. Ms. Twenge describes iGen as follows:

Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

She notes that smartphones have “…radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health…” and given the near universality of cell phone use by teens it has impacted rich, poor, urban and rural teenagers across our entire country. Ms. Twenge elaborates on the changes, some of which result in improvements in the data used to measure well-being but most of which cause a diminishment of well being.

The good news?

More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

The bad news, though, is more subtle and more pernicious. Depression and suicide rates are higher, dating has diminished markedly, part-time work among teenagers has declined, face-to-face group encounters are fewer and farther between, and sound sleep is diminished. Here’s a synopsis of Ms. Twenge’s findings:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011…

…only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has….

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently…The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web…

Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.

The reason for these changes, Ms. Twenge surmises, is that teens are spending more and more time in front of smartphone screens, which are available to them 24/7 and whose siren call (or beeps and vibrations) make them irresistible. And she finds that the more time teens spend with their smartphones, the more they are likely to be depressed and unhappy:

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time….

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

As a casual user of Facebook and a blogger, I can understand this phenomenon. The number of likes and the number of hits are an easy way to determine if anyone is reading what you post. As a blogger, it is an easy route to depression if you believe that a low-readership day on the blog is an indication that you are “losing readers” or “losing relevance”. But putting myself in the mind of a teenager, I can see where getting fewer “likes” on your Facebook page than a classmate or having fewer “friends” on Facebook than a classmate might be devastating. And if a classmate publicly humiliates you on social media, things can get bad… and as Ms. Twenge reported, that is especially the case for teenage girls:

Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

The solution to this isolation? Less screen time, especially in the evening, and more opportunities for face-to-face interaction. The technology is here… we need to use to achieve the best ends possible.


ESSA Does Provide an Opportunity to Expand Mastery Learning… Will States Seize the Chance?

August 12, 2017 Leave a comment

25 years ago when I was beginning my second term was Superintendent in MD, my staff members and I decided we would make an earnest effort to introduce the concept of mastery learning to our district. Our plan was to develop an “Essential Curriculum” that would identify the sequence of skills every student needed to master in subject areas and then develop performance assessments to determine if students had mastered the plan. Students would progress through the sequence at their own pace, based on our credo that performance would be constant and time would be variable. Letter grades would be abandoned in favor of periodic progress reports and “grade levels” might ultimately be abandoned in favor of “families” or “pods”. It was an ambitious plan that was ultimately set aside because the State began launching what would ultimately become the Maryland State Performance Program, a precursor to the the kinds of state level tests that NCLB mandated. As the State Department began developing its guidelines for testing, it became evident that time would remain constant and performance wold be variable. That is, all tests would be administered during one time period to grade level cohorts defined by the age of students. While this state initiative did not derail our efforts to develop an Essential Curriculum, it DID undermine the direction we hoped to head in terms of assessing and grouping students. In effect, the decision to administer state-wide standardized tests flew in the face of mastery learning…. and not just in Maryland, but across the nation once NCLB was put in place.

NCLB testing did not extend to high schools, and some states, most notably Vermont and New Hampshire, passed regulations that enabled high schools to award credit for something other than “seat time”, opening the door for mastery learning to be introduced at the high school level. This open door led to partnerships with post secondary institutions, the introduction of on-line non-profit and public school sponsored on-line courses, and opportunities for students to gain credit for experiential learning.

My misgivings about ESSA are well documented in this blog, especially given the GOP dominated statehouses across the nation who might use the state level flexibility to re-impose failed ideas like VAM and using tests as the sole or primary metric for “grading” schools. But, as Kyle Spencer reported in yesterday’s NYTimes, ESSA DOES provide an opportunity for schools and school districts to achieve the concepts our district in MD set out to implement 25 years ago. In “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry”, Mr Spencer describes precisely the kind of program we hoped to implement… and it describes the kinds of resistance we ran into apart from the state standardized test program. The exemplary program Mr. Spencer profiled in NYC’s MS 442 allows students to progress at their own rate, gives them and their parents timely feedback as the progress through the course sequences, and makes performance constant and time the variable.

But programs like the one Mr. Spencer describes, as he notes, does engender resistance from several sources. Parents who want to know the child’s “grade” are befuddled by the system that tracks progress through a sequence of skills. The high schools, who seek a percentage score as an admissions criteria, are flummoxed by the skill reporting as well, forcing the cadre of NYC schools using the mastery approach to develop an algorithm to assign such “grades” to its students. Teachers who find the change of approach mind-boggling have left the schools where mastery learning has been introduced.

Mr. Spencer’s article captures the ways that mastery learning is a radical departure from the dominant “factory” paradigm and how it plays out from the student’s perspective and emphasizes how the emerging grassroots mastery schools movement is necessarily different from school-to-school. He also describes the two factors that are making mastery learning possible now more than ever: ESSA… and technology:

…The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

He also describes the reasons that mastery learning might be compromised: by focussing on cost-cutting; by devolving into a checklist mentality for all courses; by assuming that the metrics used to measure “mastery” are perfect;

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

But the advocates for mastery learning, which include your humble blogger, see it as an imperfect but potentially better way to reach all students more effectively. This quote reflects my thinking:

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Mr. Spencer’s article is a balanced presentation on mastery learning and it implicitly emphasizes the complications schools will face in implementing such a program. But the traditional factory paradigm is clearly failing large numbers of children in our country and, Mr. Soleway’s rejoinders notwithstanding, does not afford opportunities for students to “… learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”. Indeed, if time is constant and performance is variable, the relentless march to “cover” the curriculum precludes any chance for “…slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”! 

I am heartened to see the NYTimes reporting on this movement… and hope that as other schools and districts read this they, too, will consider moving in this direction.



This Just In: Our System is NOT as Fair as We Claim… and Once Middle Schoolers Figure That Out Their School Performance Sags

August 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Josh Hoxie’s recent Common Dreams post analyzes the results of a recent study of disadvantaged Middle School students in AZ and concludes that we are kidding ourselves but not the children raised in poverty.

A just released study published in the journal Child Development tracked the middle school experience of a group of diverse, low-income students in Arizona. The study found that the kids who believed society was generally fair typically had high self-esteem, good classroom behavior, and less delinquent behavior outside of school when they showed up in the sixth grade.

When those same kids left in the eighth grade, though, each of those criteria had degraded — they showed lower self-esteem and worse behavior.

Erin Godfrey, the NYU professor who conducted and wrote this study, concluded that this decline in self-esteem and behavior was the result of children beginning to understand society’s expectations: “there’s this element of people think of me this way anyway, so this must be who I am.”  Hoxie describes it as having the students experience the cognitive dissonance for the first time: students hear politicians and the media tell them if they work hard and play by the rules they can succeed but they witness something completely different in their daily lives.

Hoxie sees this as a relatively easy and straightforward problem to fix:

we need major investments in universal public programs to rebuild the social safety net, ensure early childhood education as well as debt-free higher education, and good-paying jobs.

In other words, we need to help those born without inherited assets to get the same shot at education and employment as everyone else — and also reassure them that if they fail, they won’t end up homeless.

Those who claim the country can’t afford such programs should look at the massive subsidies lavished out to the ultra-wealthy. In 2016, half a trillion dollars were doled out in tax subsidies, overwhelmingly to the already rich.

Spend more on the safety net, transfer money from inheritances to early intervention programs, and transfer money from the tax subsidies for the affluent to those families who need to start at the same point as the children of affluence. A straightforward and easy to explain program that, if executed, would restore the fairness of our economic system. But, alas, it seems easier to look at the very few children raised in poverty who succeed against all odds and stick to our myth that every child therefore has a chance.