Posts Tagged ‘Measurement’

Fighting the Opiod Epidemic in Public Schools

June 22, 2017 Leave a comment

The opiod epidemic has received widespread publicity and affected thousands of families from all strata of society across the entire country. Unlike drugs like heroin and marijuana, opioids are typically highly addictive prescription drugs that are abused by ingesting them in a fashion that leads to a higher probability of overdose.

Two articles earlier this week talked about ways public education is addressing this problem. A NYTimes article on Tuesday by Lisa Foderaro described a “scared straight” assembly being conducted by Frank Whitelaw, a county coroner in Essex County NY. Located in the Adirondacks, Essex County schools serve students raised in the rural and isolated  towns in that region, towns that have been grappling with the problem of opioids among young adults. After the death of a Marine named Justin Ropke, who became addicted to heroin after sustaining injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Whitelaw wrote an op ed article for the local paper

….imploring school officials to risk scaring students in the hope of saving a life. “Are you so afraid to expose students to the graphic and harsh reality in our community that you simply turn a cold shoulder to it and hope for the best?” he wrote.

Several administrators in the region invited Mr. Whitelaw to their schools to give a presentation on opioids, a presentation that featured graphic scenes associated with the deadly use of fentanyl. The efficacy of these assemblies was not readily available… but if the track record of “scared straight” is any indicator the impact is likely short lived, the emotional impact notwithstanding.

Easy Liens’ US News and World Report article on Wednesday described the success of “recovery schools” designed to provide wraparound services to teenagers who are addicted to drugs of various kinds, drugs that in this day and age tend to begin with painkillers and end with narcotics. The article talked mainly about the “high cost” of providing these services…  a cost that is only high if you compare it to traditional public school:

But funding recovery schools is far from simple. Other states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where legislation has passed to build public recovery schools, haven’t seen any results because of funding issues. The cost per pupil at recovery schools ranges from $16,000 and $18,000 per year per student, a steep increase from an average of about $11,400 at traditional public high schools. Recovery schools have fewer students, but they require more resources.

This roughly $6,000 differential pales in comparison to the cost of other treatment centers or prison, which is where far too many addicts end up… and given the data reported in the article is a far more effective intervention than a single school assembly.

But while “recovery schools” are successful, they ARE ex post facto, which leads to the ultimate question, which is what steps can schools take to prevent addiction from becoming more widespread. My idealistic notion is that schools should focus less on external rewards and punishments and more on developing self-awareness. When schools spend as much time developing social and emotional well-being as they do on preparing for standardized testing our addiction problems will diminish considerably.

Faulty “Greatschools” Data Drives Parents Out of School District… Poses Intriguing Question

June 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I read a Mathbabe post earlier this week earlier this week describing the frustration a parent experienced when he relocated to Oregon a few years ago after completing his doctoral degree in biophysics and landing a job at Intel. Here’s the paragraph that describes his problem:

I moved to Hillsboro, Oregon four years ago with my wife and three kids after finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Like many parents when choosing a home, I checked on the school scores of the nearby elementary schools and there was a large variance in the Zillow school scores that are taken from After house hunting for a long time, we finally found a home that was perfect for our family but it was in the school boundaries of Quatama Elementary that was ranked a 5 out of 10 and red. Asking around, other parents told us the reason was because there was low income housing in the area which was driving down the score. We felt that if the only issue with the school was that the school boundaries included low income housing, it shouldn’t stop us from buying the home. We could always transfer to a better school if we didn’t like the experience.

The balance of the blog post describes the parent’s experience at the school, which was excellent at all grade levels and with all teachers. Mystified by the discrepancy between his experience and the rating, he made an effort to figure out why the school was so poorly rated. Low and behold, he found that miscalculated the data. As Cathy O’Neill (aka the Mathbabe) recounts:

…after a few emails insisting something was wrong (  realized there was an error in their publishing system for Quatama. They have now updated the rankings and Quatama is now an 8 out of 10 and “green” which is comparable to its high performing peers. The perception that Quatama is a low performing school was completely erroneous and based off a math system gone wrong.

The parent who doggedly pursued the question of’s misrepresentation of Quatama schools offered this insight at the conclusion of the post:

 My thought that the same way there are bandwagon fans, there are bandwagon parents. Now that the school is rated higher, will the parents view of the school change? Will the parental support change over the next few years? If it does change, this will open up a large question about the morality of publishing overly simplified data.

This leads to an interesting legal question as well. Given that many parents who are prospective home buyers rely on school rating systems and the impact of such ratings on homeowner values: could a group of recent home sellers in Quatama sue for deflating the sales price of their homes and/or increasing the number of days their homes remained on the market? If Standard and Poors can be sued for their role in the housing bubble why couldn’t be vulnerable to a lawsuit?

Choice In Detroit: Spending Less and Getting Same Results = “Better Productivity”

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s links yesterday included one to a Detroit Free Press article written by Nancy Kaffer titled “The Broken Promises of School Choice”. In the article, Ms. Kaffer describes the problems charter schools encounter in that city, problems that mirror those faced by public schools, and problems that stem from the same source: underfunding. In her article, Ms. Kaffer describes the scene in a charter school classroom  comprised of 37 first-graders who were “doubled up” due to the lack of substitutes, something that happens, “…three or four times a month” according to the teacher interviewed for this article:

At storytime, (the teacher) had to lean against the wall, warning the kids they wouldn’t all be able to see the pictures. Kids don’t get time in the school’s computer lab, necessary to learn how to use the machines they’ll take standardized tests on — the high-stakes assessments that determine whether their school will remain open — and the math workbooks teachers were required to use in a school year that started in September, didn’t arrive until March.

As Ms. Kaffer notes, these conditions would presumably disappear once the magic of the marketplace was put into effect. But in Detroit, even charter schools are drastically underfunded:

The state delivers a per-pupil allowance to each school district; when students leave for a charter, the traditional public school loses those funds. Because student departures are spread out across the district — it’s not like an entire third-grade class decamps — those enrollment losses don’t allow the district to make big cuts that would lead to operational savings. Instead, the money dwindles away in dribs and drabs, forcing traditional public school districts to do more with less.

The city’s charter schools educate as many children as its traditional public school district, with nearly identical results — another departure from the rhetoric of charter advocates. Michigan taxpayers hand over $1 billion a year to charter school operators on the premise they’d deliver superior results.

But wait! Before we declare this initiative as a failure, we should look at the operation of schools through the eyes of business. In the business world getting similar results for less money equates to higher productivity and greater profits! Therefore, if we want schools to “operate like a business” we should not be characterizing these newly created for-profit enterprises as “Failures”. We should be hailing them as “Successful” for their improved productivity! For those voters who believe that government is the problem and that “starving the beast” will reduce their taxes without compromising “quality”, Detroit’s charter are not a problem at all. Particularly if those voters reside in the leafy suburbs outside of the city.

“Rigorous Pre-Schools” Prove that We’ve Learned Nothing from “Reform”

May 31, 2017 1 comment

“Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools”, Dana Goldstein’s article in today’s NYTimes, made me want to scream. The article describes what should be self-evident: the more information a child absorbs before they enter school the better they will do once they enter school. That well-known reality is the basis for providing more preschool opportunities for children raised in poverty, children whose parents often have less education than children raised in affluence, whose parents work long and unpredictable hours at low wage jobs, or who are raised in single parent households. The idea behind these preschool opportunities is to compensate for the lack of nurturance and intellectual stimulation they receive at home as compared to that offered by better educated parents with more time.

Ms. Goldstein’s article described a study comparing  “rigorous” or “academically oriented” preschools with traditional prekindergarten programs. She wrote:

The study defined “academic-oriented” prekindergarten programs as those in which teachers reported spending time most days on activities like sounding out words, discussing new vocabulary, counting out loud and teaching children to measure and tell time.

Having raised two children and witnessing the upbringing of five grandchildren, I do not see this as anything different from what my wife, children, and step-children did or are doing with their preschoolers. While neither my wife nor my daughters and stepchildren intentionally taught their offspring how to read, they ALL read to their children frequently and visited the library regularly to keep their children stocked with new and interesting books. My grandsons all knew more about dinosaurs, sharks, and large equipment than I do and they all continue to pursue in depth study of topics that interest them. This is the kind of encouragement that ALL children need, because given the opportunity children have a desire to learn and to train their minds to think about the world they live in and the activities they have done or plan to do.

As an educator who worked in districts with high numbers of children raised in poverty, though, I know that not every parent takes the time to help their children enunciate words properly, learn how to count, learn the alphabet and the sounds associated with each letter, or tell time. The parents are all doing the best they can given the circumstances they find themselves in, but in some cases they have neither the time nor the wherewithal to provide the intellectual stimulation that their children need and desire. In some cases, children raised in poverty do not have the structure in their lives that my children and grandchildren have. When parents have an irregular work schedule, or are working multiple jobs to provide food, clothing and shelter, or when one parent is absent, it is difficult to eat at regular times, set a standard bed-time, establish daily routines, or engage in “play dates” or other structured play activities. By entering school at an early age, these children receive the structure and intellectual nurturance that is a “given” for more affluent and educated families.

Looking at my upbringing, my children’s upbringing, and my grandchildren’s upbringing to date, it is evident that we all grew up in a child-centered environment…. and that is what children want and need from schools in the early years. When “rigor” is measured by standardized tests, the focus on the developmental needs of each individual child will take a back seat to the needs of the adult teachers to “get those test scores up” at all costs. We’ve witnessed this for over a decade in schools thanks to NCLB and RTTT. I hope “reformers” can learn from that lesson… but fear that the lure of the bell curve will pull them away from the need for children to receive the intellectual stimulation they need.

NYTimes College Rankings Measure What’s Important: Opportunities for Upward Mobility

May 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Hats off to NYTimes columnist David Leonardt for his effort to devise an publicize the College Access Index, a college ranking metric released in yesterdays’ Times article titled “The Assault on Colleges— and the American Dream”. Unlike the USNews and World Report‘s index, which relies heavily on test scores and endowments, the College Access Index measures each colleges commitment to economic diversity. It bases this commitment on a metric that factors in the percentage of graduates who received Pell Grants, which are issued to students who can least afford college, and the colleges’ net price. As the title of Leonardt’s article intimates, our country appears to be headed in the wrong direction when it comes to providing opportunities for advancement. He opens his article with these chilling paragraphs:

The country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility is under assault.

Public colleges have an unmatched record of lofting their students into the middle class and beyond. For decades, they have enrolled teenagers and adults from modest backgrounds, people who are often the first member of their family to attend college, and changed their trajectories.

Over the last several years, however, most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically. Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students — and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.

The situation is particularly demoralizing because it’s happening even as politicians from both parties spend more time trumpeting their supposedly deep concern for the American dream. Yet government policy is hurting, not fostering, many people’s chance to earn the most reliable ticket to a good job and a better life.

Leonardt doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is evident that the “government policy” he refers to is the extreme aversion either political party has to raising taxes. Some politicians will disingenuously claim that if they raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans those individuals will lower their donations to post-secondary institutions and that will have a deleterious effect on the endowments of colleges. But as Mr. Leonardt’s accompanying heart illustrates, the endowments to public colleges and universities, the post secondary schools whose presumed commitment is to lifting students out of poverty, are substantially lower than those of private colleges and universities. Moreover, affluent donors tend to come from and donate to their alma maters, which more often than not are already well endowed. Finally, those donations are often earmarked for a particular facility or college that the donor identifies… and it could just as easily be new tennis courts, a new student union building, or a spiffy new football stadium that hosts a half-dozen games a year.

And here the “stunning” consequence of not raising taxes to fund state colleges as described in Mr. Leonardt’s column? “It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.” He offers a series of charts to show the state-by-state cuts to colleges and universities and then offers these insights:

Since 2008, states’ per-student spending on higher education has fallen 18 percent nationwide, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts have occurred in both blue and red states, with somewhat larger ones in Republican-run states. States made deep cuts after the financial crisis and have since failed to restore funding, choosing instead to cut taxes or spend money on health care, prisons or other areas.

“States are making it much more difficult for their residents to get high-quality higher education,” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said. “They are causing their institutions to charge more, to take more out of state students, to cut quality. It’s very shortsighted.” That’s exactly the right word, because spending on education often more than pays for itself in the long run.

The budget cuts affect every realm of higher education, with some of the biggest damage happening at community colleges and less selective four-year institutions. These campuses enroll the great majority of lower-income college students. Yet flagship public campuses — like those in Ann Arbor, Mich., Boulder, Colo., and Gainesville, Fla. — are important to upward mobility too, given the success of their graduates.

In the last few years, many flagships have begun to recruit more upper-income students from outside their state, including from overseas. Those students don’t qualify for in-state tuition or for much financial aid — and thus help bolster the colleges’ budgets.

Mr. Leonardt notes that college administrators do not describe their motives as being driven by budgets, though. Instead they talk about the need for more geographic diversity or, as he intimates, the need to “game” their standings in the US News and World Report rankings by going after students with the highest test scores possible.

At the very end of his column Mr. Leonardt suggests that the only ultimate fix is to spend more on public colleges, which, of course, requires more taxes… and it is easier to point the finger at “waste, fraud, and abuse”. He concludes with these paragraphs:

This country should also be investing more of its resources in education.

A century ago, it did precisely that, making high school universal and making possible the so-called American century. Today’s economy demands many more college graduates than the country currently has. Producing them won’t be free. But it will be worth it.

The alternative — which is the path we’re now on — is just about the worst economic-development strategy imaginable.

VAM: The Mathbabe Declares The Death of a Bad Idea… But I’m Not So Sure!

May 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Cathy O’Neill, a.k.a the Mathbabe, is now writing a column on the use and misuse of statistics for Bloomberg News. Her latest piece for Bloomberg titled “Don’t Grade Teachers with a Bad Algorithm” opens with this heartening paragraph:

For more than a decade, a glitchy and unaccountable algorithm has been making life difficult for America’s teachers. The good news is that its reign of terror might finally be drawing to a close.

Ms. O’Neill then provides a concise history and analysis of VAM— an acronym for Value Added Model– one that has been offered in earlier posts on this blog but one that bears recounting:

The VAM — actually a family of algorithms — purports to determine how much “value” an individual teacher adds to a classroom. It goes by standardized test scores, and holds teachers accountable for what’s called student growth, which comes down to the difference between how well students performed on a test and how well a predictive model “expected” them to do.

Derived in the 1980s from agricultural crop models, VAM got a big boost from the education reform movements of presidents Bush and Obama. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act called for federal standards, and Obama’s Race To The Top Act offered states some $350 billion in federal funds in exchange for instituting formal teacher assessments. Many states went for VAM, sometimes with bonuses and firings attached to the results.

Ms. O’Neill describes the flaws in VAM, the major one of which was it’s opacity. One of her friends, who was Principal of a school in Brooklyn asked to get a copy of the algorithm when VAM was instituted in NYC and was dismissively told it was unavailable and, anyway, “it’s math, you wouldn’t understand it.” So a building administrator, who was held accountable for the VAM results in her school, was not let in on the way VAM was calculated.

She concluded her article by offering two pieces of evidence supporting her contention that VAM is dead:

Happily, the tide appears to be turning. In 2015, a revamp of No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, removed the federal funding incentives that had supported the algorithm. In May 2016, a Long Island teacher named Sheri Lederman won a lawsuit against New York State in which a judge deemed the state’s VAM-based rating system “arbitrary and capricious.” And earlier this month, a group of teachers in Houston, where VAM had been used for firings and bonuseswon a lawsuit in which they successfully argued that the algorithm’s secretive and complex nature had effectively denied them due process.

VAM expert Audrey Amrein-Beardsley told me that the Houston decision, pertaining to the country’s seventh-largest school district, might have a “snowball effect,” influencing the outcome of other lawsuits across the country. Let’s hope so, because teachers deserve better.

While I sincerely hope Ms. Amrein-Beardsley is correct in her forecast of a “snowball effect”, given the inability of politicians to drive a stake through the heart of the Gaffer Curve myth (see my next post), I’m not at all certain this bad idea is dead just yet. Yes, ESSA DOES eliminate the federal funding incentives that supported the VAM algorithm… but there are several states (including NH, the State I reside in) that are led by Governors and legislators who believe in “hard data” provided by standardized tests and love the idea that these tests can prove that public education is “failing”…. and those Governors and legislators will be loathe to abandon simplistic ideas like VAM that demonstrate that “failing teachers” are the ultimate cause of “failing schools”. VAM won’t die until the public is willing to face the facts on public schools… that more money is needed to help the schools that serve the children raised in poverty.


When You Don’t Like Rigorous Research on Vouchers, Open the Doors to Shoddy Studies

May 11, 2017 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago the “reformers” and pro-voucher advocates were stunned to discover that a rigorously conducted study found, for the umpteenth time, that students who use vouchers or attend charter schools do no better than students who attend public— er, “government schools”. So, as Martin Levine reported in last week’s Non-Profit Quarterly, the House included a change in research techniques using the huge (and largely unread) budget bill to fix things:

Buried in the recently passed omnibus budget bill that keeps the government operating and funds the federal government through next September is a provision that bars using “gold standard” research techniques to evaluate federally funded school voucher programs. According to Education Week, U.S. policy requires “the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences to evaluate the voucher program every year. But instead of using randomized, controlled trials, which have been used in prior evaluations of the program, it calls for the evaluations to use ‘an acceptable quasi-experimental research design…that does not use a control study group consisting of students who applied for but did not receive opportunity scholarships.’” The bill does allow ongoing randomized studies to continue without changing their design.

This is consistent with the anti-science bent of the current administration… but is sad because it will deny legislators from making evidence-based decisions about schools. In a capitalist democracy it is important for people to be able to make informed decisions about how they spend their personal money and their tax dollars and important for their policies to be guided by solid information. Actions like this, and the cutting of regulatory agencies, and the cutting of agencies that provide unbiased consumer information, the decisions to eliminate research on “hot button” issues like gun ownership, undercut democracy… but they DO support the profiteering plutocrats who underwrite the campaigns of politicians.