Posts Tagged ‘College and Career Readiness’

Rahm Emmanuel’s Agreeable Fantasy: A High School Graduation Standard Will Fix Public Schools

July 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post eduction blogger Valerie Strauss wrote a post titled “Really Rahm? The Chicago Mayor’s Newest Far-Fetched Plan for High Schools“. The post describes Chicago mayor Rahm Emaanuel’s latest idea for “reform”:

“Learn. Plan. Succeed initiative” — which requires any student who wants a high school diploma to prove they have a plan for life after high school — they called it, to be exact, “an evidence-based proposal that is the first of its kind in the country.”

The new graduation standard can be achieved by providing written proof  of a plan after high school with one of these options:

  • College acceptance letter
  • Military acceptance/enlistment letter
  • Acceptance at a job program (e.g. coding bootcamp)
  • Acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship
  • Acceptance into a “gap-year” program
  • Current job/job offer letter

At first blush, this appears to be an eminently reasonable means of assuring that every graduate is ready for college or ready for work. But I know from my experience as a public high school administrator and public school superintendent that such a plan requires an immense effort on the part of counselors… and based on my reading about the staffing levels in Chicago was not surprised to find that they are woefully understaffed in guidance. Here’s Ms. Strauss’ description of the district’s woes in this area:

Emanuel wants students to provide proof that they have something to do — within parameters — when they leave high school. But that requires planning, and Chicago public schools aren’t exactly filled with counselors who can help young people plan their futures. A 2016 article published by the 74 found that Chicago is one of the big-city school districts that has more security staff than counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, though in Illinois, there was one counselor for every 701 students in 2013-2014, the latest available data period. 

So how does Mr. Emmanuel intend to expand the responsibility of schools without expanding the number of counselors? Training!

In 2013, CPS began training staff to obtain the Chicago College Advising Credential (CCAC), which will best equip staff to support concrete post-secondary plans, with a goal ensuring every high school has a certified counselor or coach. To date, roughly 40 percent of school counselors have obtained this certification and as part of this initiative, CPS will ensure all counselors have the training. Working with the Mayor, CPS is raising the approximately $1 million in funding from the philanthropic and business communities to accelerate this training.

So instead of providing the funds necessary to increase the counseling staff by 280% (the number needed to meet the American School Counselor Association standard, which does not take into account the expectation that counselors would serve as job placement officers), Mr. Emmanuel intends to offer training to existing counselors. Even Arne Duncan, whose op ed piece on high school “reform” was supposedly the impetus for Mayor Emmanuel’s new initiative recognized the need for more staffing. Here’s an excerpt from his op ed piece that was quoted in Ms. Strauss’ post:

For low-income kids, however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally. That’s where the schools and society have to step up. To give every single student in Chicago a better chance, we need to invest in our schools and our counseling programs. We need to make life-planning as much a part of high school as English, math, sports and the arts.

Maybe the mayor believes that his staff development program addresses Arne Duncan’s call for “the need to invest in… counseling programs”. But the mayor’s failure understand the need to to hire more counselors is only a small if his delusion. The list of options above each require the outlay of government funding at either the federal, state, or local level because there aren’t enough jobs, apprenticeship programs, military openings, or community college seats for the graduates of Chicago high schools. Wishing there were jobs, apprenticeships, “gap year” programs, military openings, and community college seats is insufficient. It will require a united effort on the part of government leaders to provide those kinds of opportunities, and such an effort would require a mayor to look beyond the one time expenditure of “…approximately $1 million in funding from the philanthropic and business communities”. It will require higher taxes and a much stronger safety net.  

AP Tests and the Ratings Game

July 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch had two posts yesterday on AP tests: one questioning their validity and another questioning them in the context of Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews’ misbegotten rating system.


In response to one of them, I offered my thoughts on AP, from a retired Superintendent’s perspective and a parent’s perspective:

First, and most importantly, Jay Matthews’ attempts to rate schools— like ANY attempt to rate schools— reinforces the notion that parents are “consumers” who can select public schools. This might be true for affluent parents who are choosing which suburban enclave they want to live in but it clearly isn’t and never will be true for poor minority parents.

Second, the community where I last led a public school system– Hanover NH, home to Dartmouth College— did not offer AP courses when I retired in 2011. As a result, it was not as highly rated by Jay Matthews’ metric as other NH school districts. While some parents wished we offered AP courses, the school boards I worked with supported the faculty at the HS who did not see the need for such courses. (see the next paragraph)

Third, even though Hanover HS did not offer AP courses, many Hanover HS students took the AP tests anyway… and typically those who did take the tests passed. This is a “secret” about AP that is not widely publicized: any student who pays the fee can take an AP test and have their scores reported to a college that cares about them… and any student taking a well taught calculus course, English course, foreign language course, or science course will likely do as well as a student enrolled in an AP course.

Finally, I do believe that SOME public schools benefit from offering AP courses. The rural MD HS my daughter attended (I’ll call it East Phippstitch HS) offered AP courses. I believe her scores on those tests effectively validated the quality of that HS to the competitive colleges she applied to in New England. Hanover HS has a reputation among many colleges. East Phippstitch HS did not. The fact that East Phippstitch offered AP courses and the fact my daughter scored well on those tests she took in her junior year MAY have been a factor in her gaining acceptance to schools that otherwise would have placed her application in another file.

The bottom line: whether to offer AP courses should be a local determination that is made independent of any artificial rating system like Jay Matthews’ index and made in concert with the administrators and teachers in the district.

The Absurdity of Ignoring the Potential of Technology to Support Individualization

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I read Diane Ravitch’s blog every morning to get her take and her commenter’s take on emerging educational trends. While I generally agree with her analyses, I am disappointed that she and many of those who comment regularly seem stuck in the notion that schooling needs to be structured the way it is now and seem reflexively opposed to any kind of technological enhancements to schooling. Her post today and the comments that accompany it are a case in point.

Titled “The Absurdity of applying Industrial Lingo to Schools“, Ms. Ravitch’s post is a well reasoned argument against the notion that schools can be “scaled” the way businesses can be:

While it is possible for schools to adopt and adapt a program or a practice that has worked out for others, the very idea of reproducing cookie-cutter schools designed to get high test scores invalidates the professional wisdom of educators. You can stamp out cars and tools with the right equipment, but you can’t reproduce good schools via mechanical processes.

People who work in business, industry, finance, or the tech sector like to speak of “scaling up,” of “innovation,” of “best practices,” and of “replication,” which they know how to do.

They are frustrated that success in one school is not easily packaged and replicated and scaled up to every school in the district, the state, the nation. They can’t believe how difficult it is to identify and package “best practices.”

So far so good… But then Ms. Ravitch argues against “innovation” itself, apparently linking ALL innovation with charters, vouchers, and for-profit management.

The concept of “innovation” is also overrated. It is not innovative to introduce charters and vouchers and for-profit management. All that changes is who gets the money.

And this raises an intriguing question for me: have the so-called “edu-prenuers” expropriated the term “innovation” the way they have expropriated the term “reform”… or are public education supporters ceding “innovation” to them?  By rejecting “personalization” that is made possible by technological advances, Ms. Ravitch and those who comment most frequently appear to implicitly support the notion that schooling must be provided in the same format that was designed in the 1920s when children were first batched into grade levels based on their age groups and provided with direct instruction in large groups. My thinking is that public schools need to find a way to re-format themselves or they will soon become obsolete. Let me elaborate.

The personalization promoted by some so-called “edu-prenuers” like Khan Academy provides a means for teachers to individualize instruction by using carefully sequenced curricula that embed formative assessments. This form of “personalized learning” is basically an electronic version of the color-coded SRA reading series used extensively beginning in the early 1960s, a form of “programmed instruction” based on the behaviorist theories of B. F. Skinner. While I am very familiar with the animosity many educators feel toward Skinner and the shortcomings of the SRA series (see Audrey Watters article here), I am drawn to the notion that many hierarchical foundational skills (namely reading, science, mathematics, and to a degree foreign language) can be taught effectively using technology-based instruction like Khan Academy. As a first-year junior high math teacher in Philadelphia in 1970 I designed my own SRA-like program for a group of my students who struggled with the basics, a packet of mimeographed sheets that provided individualized instruction and increased the engagement of the class. Preparing this required hours of my time outside of the classroom but reduced the time I needed to spend grading tests, homework, and worksheets. It seemed like a reasonable trade-off since more of the students appeared to be mastering the fundamental skills they lacked when they entered my classroom.

Over the course of my career as an educator, I watched computer technology advance from a clunky card-reader linked to a mainframe in Philadelphia in the 1971 computer class I taught to junior high students… to Commodore PET computers I used in Bethel, Maine in the late 1970s to the various iterations of Apple computers that evolved thereafter…. to where we are today. We HAVE the wherewithal to provide the kind of individualization needed to assure that all students master the hierarchical foundational skills at their own rate. But everyone– including the “reformers”— seems to believe school needs to be formatted in age-based cohorts and that students need to progress from one “grade level” to the next in a fixed time sequence. That is the underlying premise of the standardized tests used to assess the effectiveness of schools and the progress students make and, evidently, the underlying premise of those who support public education and oppose any form of “innovation” that is linked to technology.

At the elementary level the community school concept, whereby public schools house social workers, medical care providers, pre-school programs, and before-and-after-school child care services, redefines the purpose of school facilities in a manner that would help break the 1920 industrial age model that reinforces social service silos. To be most effective, these providers would need to share information on children to ensure seamless services and avoid duplication of efforts. Technology can facilitate that exchange.

There are many promising developments at the policy level that can free public schools from the lockstep methods we currently use. Both Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, have abandoned the Carnegie Unit as the means for determining high school credits. This opens the door for the kind of de-schooling that some commenters decry… but it also promises to make high school far more relevant for those who do not aspire to college. Again, technology can facilitate this development.

I think that critics of “reform”, “innovation”, and “edu-prenuers” should also recognize that profiteering has long been present in public education. The sale of textbooks, workbooks, audio-visual equipment, and office supplies predates the event of computer technology. What IS different is the conglomeration of these formerly independent enterprises, the establishment of a testing-technology-content complex that limits competition, limits diversity of resources, and stifles the creativity of teachers. I believe it is possible to isolate this corporate consolidation from technology and innovation and, in so doing, find ways that technology can be used to individualize instruction without dehumanizing it, to de-school society without eliminating public education, and break away from the age-based cohorts that are based on the premise that children develop in lockstep.



Is Trade School a Good Trade Off for College

June 23, 2017 Leave a comment

One frequent criticism of those who support public education is their implicit (and sometime EXplicit) notion that every child should leave high school prepared for college. Over the past several years there is an emerging consensus that college might not be the best route to economic success for everyone and that trade school might be sufficient for many. In a recent post in the Anova blog, written by education researcher Fredrik deBoer, he describes the emerging thinking on this thusly:

…the idea that we need to be sending more people to trade and tech schools has broad bipartisan, cross-ideological appeal. This argument has a lot of different flavors, but it tends to come down to the claim that we shouldn’t be sending everyone to college (I agree!) and that instead we should be pushing more people into skilled trades. Oftentimes this is encouraged as an apprenticeship model over a schooling model.

But in examining data on whether this intuitively appealing idea can work, Mr. deBoer found the the  recent study conducted by Eric A. Hanushek, Guido Schwerdt, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang, were discouraging. The study by Hanushek et al compared how workers who attend vocational schools perform relative to those who attend general education schools. Titled “Trade Schools are No Panacea”, deBoer summarized the findings of Hanushek et al in chairs and graphs and concludes that “…In broad strokes, vocational/tech training helps you get a job right out of school, but hurts you as you go along later in life

That conclusion seemed right to Mr. deBoer as it does to me as a liberal arts advocate. He writes:

…vocational training is likely more specific and job-focused than general ed, which means that its students are more ready to jump right into work. But over time, technological and economic changes change which skills and competencies are valued by employers, and the general education students have been “taught to learn,” meaning that they are more adaptable and can acquire new and valuable skills.

As he concludes his post, deBoer notes that because predicting the future is impossible and some jobs require years and years of training, it is far more beneficial to avoid specific training altogether. Instead, de Boer finds it

….far more useful… to try and train students into being nimble, adaptable learners than to train them for particular jobs. That has the bonus advantage of restoring the “practical” value of the humanities and arts, which have always been key aspects of learning to be well-rounded intellects.

His closing sentences provide a sound economic and moral basis for creating a guaranteed minimum wage:

What’s needed is not to try and read the tea leaves and guess which fields might reward some slice of our workforce now, but to redefine our attitude towards work and material security through the institution of some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Then, we can train students in the fields in which they have interest and talent, contribute to their human flourishing in doing so, and help shelter them from the fickleness of the economy. The labor market is not a morality play.

I find the last sentence particularly revealing, because many people view humanities arts with disdain. Those who place a premium on efficiency view liberal arts as “impractical” or— even worse— a “waste of time”. By assigning a higher value on courses that “prepare students for the REAL world” education policy makers imply that the humanities and arts have no value when, in fact, those trained in the arts are often the kind of nimble, adaptable learners who will likely weather any economic storms that brew in the future.

The Key to Success in Remedial Math ISN’T Teaching… It’s Counseling

June 11, 2017 Leave a comment

I just read David Kirp’s article in today’s NYTimes on the “Curse of Remedial Math”, the course that tends to be the biggest roadblock to success in NYC’s Community Colleges. Mr. Kirp offers data on the frustrating drop out rates in community colleges, which he and many education policy writers view as the key means of economic advancement for millions of high school graduates. He succinctly describes the existing flaws in math instruction in this paragraph:

Typically, those students fell behind in elementary school, and as new concepts were piled on every year, they never caught up. The “Strasbourg goose” school of teaching, in which students’ heads are stuffed with formulas that bear no relation to the real world, left them convinced of their own incompetence. Old-school remedial education in college — skill and drill, lecture-style classes, taken at the same time as college-level courses — offered more of the same.

Mr. Kirp then describes the way classes are conducted in the CUNY program he is profiling, with the teacher citing two major factors: an intensity (25 hours per semester) and a focus on thinking instead of memorization. But the real reason the CUNY program succeed (and the reason K-12 instruction fails) is described in two later paragraphs:

Counseling is vital to the success of the program, because it gives students someone to talk with about their lives. “They aren’t comfortable telling their teachers about the court date, the pending eviction, the abusive foster parent,” Jessica Mingus, the director of CUNY Start at Hostos Community College, said.

During orientation, students are asked to list the ups and downs in their lives. “Sex experience with a family member,” “Guns fired all the time,” one student wrote matter-of-factly. All that took place while she was still in elementary school. In middle school, she added, she had a miscarriage, tried to join a gang and wound up in jail. Abandonment, homelessness, fickle boyfriends and thoughts of suicide were among the “downs” other students mentioned.

In re-reading the second of these two paragraphs I was struck by the fact that the “downs” in the lives of the students DIDN’T occur recently. They were all issues these students faced from the time they entered school., issues that few of their counterparts in relatively affluent suburban schools EVER faced, and issues that they faced without the support of a caring adult.

Mr. Kirp and other reformers can talk all they want about improving instruction… but the key to making the lives of children raised in poverty better is to make certain all students have “…someone to talk with about their lives”… because the quality of instruction matters very little when children are exposed to the kinds of stresses the students at CUNY describe.

What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in an Iowa Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?

May 30, 2017 Leave a comment

I just read an article by Patricia Cohen in today’s NYTimes that was alternately heartwarming, infuriating, and perplexing. “Immigrants Keep an Iowa Town Alive and Growing” describes the evolution of Storm Lake, Iowa from a community that was about to lose its one and only factory to a corporation who was ready to move because it could not extract huge concessions from its union employees to a community that has absorbed hundreds of immigrants willing to work long hours at arduous work in arguably dangerous working conditions.

The stories of the immigrants is heartwarming. They moved to this sleepy town in Iowa from war town countries in Southeast Asia and Central America and are proud of how hard they work and are thrilled at the material possessions and relative comfort they have attained. After some initial resistance from the community members whose jobs they effectively displaced, Ms. Cohen describes Storm Lake as a community that has achieved a multi-cultural hegemony that is comparable to that achieved in urban neighborhoods and that described in the aspirational speeches of the nations most progressive politicians.

But Storm Lake is part of Steve King’s congressional district, and Mr. King is one of the most strident anti-immigration political figures in the nation. As a extreme nativist, Mr. King plays to the Caucasians in his region who are resentful of the immigrants who “took their jobs”. But Mr. King also champions deregulation and opposes unions, effectively championing the businessmen who told the union workers four decades ago to accept low wages, longer shifts, and deplorable working conditions before closing their doors completely. Ms. Cohen uses the story of a 66-year old Caucasian who is about to retire as an example:

When Dan Smith first went to work at the pork processing plant in Storm Lake in 1980, pretty much the only way to nab that kind of union job was to have a father, an uncle or a brother already there. The pay, he recalled, was $16 an hour, with benefits — enough to own a home, a couple of cars, a camper and a boat, while your wife stayed home with the children.

“It was the best-paying job you could get, 100 percent, if you were unskilled,” said Mr. Smith, now 66, who followed his father through the plant gates.

After nearly four decades at the plant, most of them as a forklift driver, Mr. Smith is retiring this month.

The union is long gone, and so are most of the white faces of men who once labored in the broiling heat of the killing floor and the icy chill of the production lines. What hasn’t changed much is Mr. Smith’s hourly wage, which is still about $16 an hour, the same as when he started 37 years ago. Had his wages kept up with inflation, he would be earning about $47 an hour.

Later in her essay she describes a decision Mr. Smith made when the factory closed and then re-opened under new ownership without a union:

With vigorous support from town leaders, the upstart Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP) bought and reopened it a few months later — slashing wages by more than half and shunning the union.

At that point, Mr. Smith returned to do night cleanup, earning $5.50 an hour with no benefits, but a vast majority of his former co-workers were turned away, he said, because the new owner did not want to hire union supporters. Instead, the company began actively recruiting in Mexico and in immigrant communities in Texas and California.

“They learned real fast to keep a sharp knife and didn’t complain if they had a sore arm,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Cohen describes what happened to communities that didn’t forego decent paying jobs: they experienced a flight of those seeking work and a hollowing out of their businesses and a loss of community spirit. And here is what is both infuriating and perplexing: instead of linking the practices of the businesses to the decline of their towns the Iowans outside of Storm Lake link the decline to the immigrants who are willing to work long hours in tough working conditions for low wages… immigrants who, in the words of Dan Smith, Ms. Cohen’s proxy Caucasian who worked side-by-side with them, are “…just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

After reading this article and looking at this dynamic through the lens of an educator, I am left with the question that serves as the site of this post: “What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in a Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?” Does the next generation of immigrants who are now attending Storm Lake HS seek a better life than their parents or do they stay in the community they grew up in and take over their parent’s jobs? If they DO want to accept the work their parents are doing, are they willing to forfeit wage increases that match the CPI? If they DON’T accept the work their parents do, what work will there be for them in Storm Lake? These children-of-immigrants are not be the cohort to face this question, but if the wall that Steve King wants is built, they could be the last…. and if they ARE the last, will the factories pay higher wages to attract more employees or will they flee Storm Lake for other communities where desperate workers are willing to work longer hours for lower wages?

DeVos-Trump Budget Reneges on Loan Forgiveness, Balancing the Budget on the Backs of Public Sector Employees

May 26, 2017 Leave a comment

An element of the DeVos-Trump budget that has not gotten nearly enough coverage is the Department of Education is planning to propose ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. As described in last week’s CNN Money blog post by Kate Lobasco, these cuts would impact 400,000 graduates who paid their debts on time for ten years and work in public sector jobs as “…teachers, public defenders, Peace Corps workers, and law enforcement officers”.  As Ms. Lobasco indicates:

This October marks the 10th year of the program and the first time anyone will have made enough payments to get their debt wiped away. It’s unclear how much the program will cost the government when its starts to forgive those debts…

The program could cost the government more than originally expected, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Obama Administration had proposed capping the amount borrowers could have forgiven at $57,500, but that proposal was never approved and forgiveness remains unlimited.

The median borrower in the program has more than $60,000 in student debt and almost 30% of them have more than $100,000 in debt, according to a Brookings report.

The article describes the complications the USDOE ran into when they implemented the law, complications that led to confusion on the part of borrowers and lenders and contributes to the inability of anyone to determine what the cost impact would be. When that is the case, the path of least resistance is to spend nothing at all… to effectively renege on the offer made to many students who chose to attend college or graduate school to work in lower paying public sector jobs… or “government jobs” as they would be disparagingly referred to by at least one political party.

And the latest news out of Washington indicates that the USDOE is not going to be offering clear answers on the issuance of loans anytime soon. As reported in a Washington Post article earlier this week, James Runcie, who was appointed chief operating officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid in 2011 and reappointed in 2015, resigned from that post on Wednesday. According to the article “He had planned to retire by the end of the year, according to people who know him, but clashes with the new Trump administration forced his hand.” Those clashes were described in the article as follows:

Runcie said in the letter that the student aid office is contending with pressing projects. Among them: weighing a student-loan-servicing contract bid, shoring up cybersecurity, building out the expansion of the Pell Grant program, tending to loan forgiveness for defrauded borrowers and getting the tax-data-retreival tool in the financial aid application back online. He said his team has asked DeVos to hire staff for additional help but has yet to receive a response.

Instead, Runcie said, the Trump administration has been preoccupied with transferring all or a portion of the functions of FSA to the Treasury Department. Runcie said there have been discussions about creating cross-agency teams, holding numerous meetings and retreats to determine feasibility.

“This is just another example of a project that may provide some value but will certainly divert critical resources and increase operational risk in an increasingly challenging environment,” Runcie said of the Treasury collaboration.

He went on to thank his team but said he has been “encumbered from exercising my authorities to properly lead” and could no longer “in good conscience continue to be accountable as the chief operating officer given the risk associated with the current environment at the department.”

The foot-dragging on hiring, which has been a hallmark of the Trump administration in those departments that are not favored by the GOP, has real world consequences for students, who have been experiencing serious difficulties completing loan applications for the coming year, including the paperwork needed to determine the amount of funding they are eligible to borrow. But when a political party bases its platform on the fact that “government is the problem” it is not surprising that they fail to hire the staff needed tomato government succeed.