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Posts Tagged ‘Measurement’

It’s the End of April… the Senseless Season of Rating High Schools

April 27, 2017 Leave a comment

I wrote this post exactly a year ago and it is applicable today and probably will be applicable every year for the foreseeable future… and the last paragraph is especially relevant given the direction President Trump and the GOP are headed…. 

Over the past several days my Google feed has been full of articles like this one from Connecticut trumpeting the top 10 schools in the State. Having lived in various parts of the Northeast I look at these articles with bemusement because they prove what we already know: selective high schools, high schools located in affluent communities, and high schools that spend the most outperform any and all high schools serving children in less affluent communities who educate every child that walks in the door.

But human beings thrive on competition of all kinds and so we need to compare one school to another and revel in “victory” when our sports team, school, college, or corporation is rated higher than our neighbors and are especially “victorious” when they are ranked number one. But there is an inherent unfairness in rating public schools using metrics like student-teacher ratios, inputs– like the number of books in the library or computers available for students, or number of course offerings, or test results— like mean SATs, AP scores, and/or state test results. All of these metrics are highly correlated with the wealth and educational level of parents and have nothing to do with the ability of teachers to engage students or the climate in the school. They conflate selectivity and affluence with “quality”.

But the bigger question is this: why rank schools at all? The notion of ranking things is to provide “consumers” with information they need to make an informed decision. Choice, then, is implicit in rankings. And the existence of a “marketplace” is implicit in choice.

When cars are rated by speciality magazines like Car and Driver or generic periodicals like Consumers Report they do so on the premise that a buyer wants specific information about a specific kind of vehicle they are looking for in the marketplace. In doing so, however, they do not rank small, low cost compact cars against costly SUVs and declare that the costly SUVs are superior to the compact cars. Both vehicles can get you to the same destination but only some people in the market place can afford the expensive SUVs… and some people in the market place cannot afford any new car… and others cannot afford any car at all. The only people who care about rankings, then, are those who can afford and want a new car… and the ratings are especially important to those who can afford the expensive SUVs.

Market economics do not apply to a public good like education. EVERY child should be able to have the same opportunities for schooling, not just the children of those who can afford to live in neighborhoods where schools have the inputs– like the number of books in the library or computers available for students, or course offerings— that enable those attending to achieve the test results that yield the higher rankings.

Those who want schools to operate like the marketplace believe the “market” is a way to provide all parents with the opportunity for their child to attend “the school of their choice”. These advocates fail to see that the mechanisms they advocate, like vouchers, reinforce the economic segregation in place today… that is unless the vouchers offered are worth the price tag of the “most expensive SUV” on the lot. The bottom line is this: if the vouchers cannot underwrite the cost of a “any new car” some parents will be relegated to the used car lot and will only be able to afford dilapidated jalopies and we will be perpetuating the system in place today. And if a fair voucher system requires the infusion of huge sums of money, why not use that money to fund the system we have in place now?

David Brooks’ Profile of Jane Addams Offers Rationale for Opting Out of Tests

April 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Dvid Brooks’ column in today’s NYTimes is a paean to Jane Addams approach toward help raise people out of poverty. Having just read Diane Ravitch’s posts on the rationale for opting out of standardized tests and several articles from regional newspapers boasting of their local schools’ rankings in the US News and World Report annual report, I was moved to offer this comment:

In this time of year when state tests are being administered and US News and World Report is issuing its rankings of schools based on the results of those tests and other “hard data”, this is a timely column. Our obsession with the practical results of an education— college and career readiness— leaves little time for “classes in acting, weaving, carpentry” let alone the especially important courses Addams valued in “…art history, philosophy, and music.” Standardized tests cannot measure a child’s desire and aptitude to create beauty and or a child’s thirst for knowledge… and the emphasis on “practical” knowledge and the need to score high on tests leaves little time for students to fulfill their “…longing to serve some high ideal.”

Mr. Brooks note that Jane Addams “…believed in character before intellect, that spiritual support is as important as material support.” Given those convictions I believe that if Ms. Addams were alive today she would be encouraging poor children to opt out schools that focus on attaining high scores on tests, for such an emphasis clearly places the souls of children under siege.

Because of our obsession with tests, we do not surround children with “copies of Rembrandts” or encourage them to attend presentations of Greek tragedies and classical concerts. Instead we place them in front of screens with YouTube tutorials and on-line tests…. and then we wonder why they are disengaged from one another.

I ran out of characters or I would have added a comment on the last paragraph of Mr. Brooks’ column, which read:

Tough, Addams believed that we only make our way in the world through discipline and self-control. Tender, she created an institution that was a lived-out version of humanist philosophy.

In reading that last sentence, it dawned on me that I always believed that public schools should be “…a lived-out version of humanist philosophy”. It also dawned on me that the competitive environment and comparisons made between children batched in age cohorts undercuts this vision. We need to change the dominant paradigm of schools if we hope to change the results we are getting.

Small Michigan District Sees the Light, Ends “Merit Pay”

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I oppose “merit pay” for teachers on a number of grounds, several of which were exemplified in the decision of Whitmore Lake Public Schools decision to end what they called “merit pay”— a laughable bonus of $100 for each teacher who was rated effective and $500 for teachers rated very effective. Based on an article by Lauren Slagter in Michigan Live, Whoitmore Public School Superintendent Tom DeKeyser announced to the Board that he was suspending the merit pay plan because “…while people are happy to receive it – has become negative” adding that “We’ll find another way to reward our highly effective teachers through collective bargaining.”

The article went on to note another problem DeKeyser encountered with his version of “merit pay”: it was linked to test scores and when the State changed their tests it became “…difficult to draw conclusions about teaching quality from students’ scores.” 

Patti Kobeck, president of the Whitmore Lake Education Association, offered her insights on merit pay:

“By taking the merit pay away and rewarding teachers in other ways, I think it will change the atmosphere. We’re here for the kids. Without merit pay, teachers can stop worrying about what another teacher is getting and worry about what they’re giving the kids.

In general, merit pay isn’t an effective way to motivate teachers to perform their jobs better. Small gestures of appreciation can be more meaningful, she said, because of the lack of respect for their profession many teachers feel.

After reading the closing paragraph of this article it is abundantly clear that an increase in base pay would go a long way to improving morale in Whitmore Lake:

Whitmore Lake teachers currently are under a one-year contract that granted them 1-percent raises, following a 4.9-percent pay cut they took under a 2014 to 2016 contract. The current contract expires June 30, 2017.

Hopefully other small districts will learn from Whitmore Lake’s misguided effort to offer bonuses based on test scores and restore the compensation levels before offering bonuses.

OCR’s Investigation Into Richmond VA Suspensions Could Indicate Future Direction

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

After blogging yesterday about the appointment of Candace Jackson– an inexperienced anti-feminist and anti-affirmative action attorney– as de facto head of OCR, I read with interest K.Burnell Evans’ article that appeared in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. Titled “US Department of Education Launches Investigation into Richmond Public Schools”, Evans’ article opens with these paragraphs:

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a civil rights investigation of Richmond Public Schools at the request of advocacy groups that say the district’s disciplinary policies discriminate against black students and students with disabilities.

The decision was announced Monday by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which received word last week that the federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights would investigate concerns the organizations submitted in August.

Among them: Black students with disabilities were nearly 13 times more likely than white students without disabilities to receive short-term suspensions, Virginia Department of Education data from the 2014-15 academic year show.

The article details the basis for the complaint, noting that “…at least 1 in 4 students were suspended from eight Richmond Public Schools in the 2014-15 school year, including at two elementary schools”. The article also noted that State had taken action in two other counties with lower suspension rates. But reading on, it seemed less clear that the State would take any action in Richmond’s case.

Although the Virginia Department of Education does collect self-reported student discipline data from school districts, it was unclear Monday whether Richmond Public Schools had been cited for issues of discipline inequity in recent years.

Public school systems for Chesterfield and Henrico counties have.

State Education Department spokeswoman Julie Grimes said the agency does not conduct investigations based on the data. The information is reported to the federal government for funding purposes.

If the State is not using data to take action, why does it bother to collect the data at all? And if it is “…reported to the federal government for funding purposes” are there any consequences at that level if there are marked disparities in suspension rates?

Based on the closing paragraphs, I think I know the answer:

The federal Education Department did not immediately provide information Monday about the percentage of complaints the Office for Civil Rights agrees to investigate. It was unclear when the probe might conclude.

With Candace Jackson at the helm, I doubt that OCR will display much zeal in their investigation… and frankly doubt that any meaningful investigation will take place. Indeed, given the review of rules taking place, I would not be surprised to read that disaggregated data on suspensions will cease in the name of “efficiency”…

Diane Ravitch’s Critique of American Psychological Association to Speak Up Misses the Point

March 30, 2017 1 comment

In a blog post yesterday, Diane Ravitch quoted from a comment left by testing expert Fred Smith whose comments echoed these questions:

Why isn’t the American Psychological Association speaking out about the misuse of standardized testing? Where are the professors who teach about testing? Why are they silent when children as young as 8 are subjected to hours of testing? Why are they silent when children in middle school are compelled to sit through tests that last longer than college admission tests? Why are they not defending their own standards for the appropriate use of tests? Is their silence a sign of complicity or indifference?

My comment to this post was this:

The psychologists here are analogous to the economists in the lead up to the calamitous Wall Street crash and, as others have noted, the various researchers who give cover to Big Pharma…There are a few renegades who will speak out against the testing, but the corporate line is that testing and measurement are a good thing because it helps feed the paradigm that schools-are-a-business-whose-bottom-line-is-test-scores… And the best tests are those that can be done quickly and cheaply and yield a number that can be put onto a spread sheet and used to establish a rank order… As long as educators use tests in any way to sort and select, standardized tests will be with us.

In the end, we need to change the implicit paradigm of the factory school where students are batched by age cohorts and measured against their age peers and move to a completely individualized and personalized form of instruction where time is the variable and mastery is constant. Such a system would require no more personnel that we use today but would require everyone working the children to do so in a coordinated fashion. It CAN be done… but only if we shed our current framework of how to educate children effectively.

“Can Grit Be Measured?” Yes… but to What End?

March 29, 2017 Leave a comment

As noted in many previous posts, there is a belief that something called “grit” can help determine which students will succeed in school despite adversity… and IF that is the case then developing a means of measuring would be informative to colleges and universities who are trying to determine who will be able to adapt to the more rigorous environment students will face once they get on campus

A column by George Anders in yesterday’s EdSurge online publication poses the question “Can Grit Be Measured?”, explains what grit is, and then explains how University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth is striving to answer that question despite it’s complexity. Anders writes:

Grit is important. Many K-12 educators and researchers all share that starting point. If children try hard, stay on task, and keep pressing through difficulties, good things happen. When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.

While I am afraid of the consequences that might result if we developed a “Grit Quotient” of some sort, I do agree with Ms. Duckworth’s assertion that any measurement of “grit” should be done without adding another standardized examination. But after reading Mr. Anders’ article, I’m not at all confident that the embedded metrics or the “bean counting” metrics Ms. Duckworth advocates will be at all helpful or informative in classrooms.

The one embedded metric described in Anders article is particularly appalling:

One approach that intrigues Duckworth: keeping tabs on students’ moment-by-moment habits when doing schoolwork online. Some students are easily distracted by ads, games or other diversions, she notes. Others can power through their work without interruption.

Also worth tracking, she says, are the ways that students respond after getting two or three online problems wrong in a row. Does their attention drift? Do they give up entirely? Or do they redouble their efforts to learn a difficult lesson?

Both these approaches have the benefit of assessing students without interrupting their normal learning day. As Duckworth observes, the school year already is filled with special-mission tests that interrupt regular course work. The less time commandeered by any grit-specific evaluations, the better, she says, adding: “The goal is something that takes zero extra time.”

Implicit in this approach is the idea that a student’s “normal learning day” includes on-line instruction. Also implicit is the idea that a student who has a singular focus, who “can power through their work without interruption” is somehow superior to a student who might occasionally daydream or “multi-task”. Finally, the idea that a student is deficient because they “give up” on an on-line task assumes that the task itself is not flawed or that the way the task was explained on line was sufficiently clear.

The idea behind what I call “bean counting” is also questionable. Mr. Anders writes:

Another simple measure that’s worth a look, she says, is the degree to which high school students persist with one activity across multiple years, taking on more responsibility in domains such as band, theater or a sports team. Students with an enduring passion for one field could be showing more grit that their peers. Such data is readily available, she notes; it passes her zero-time test.

Implicit in this “grit” measurement is that the “fields” in school reflect the “fields” outside of school, and if someone is passionate about a field, that passion is transferrable to another field. This are both self-evidently wrong. There are students who have passions for things that are not the part of any school curriculum yet are more predictive of success than any “field” currently taught in school. Entrepreneurship, for example, is not a part of any “field” in school… nor are creative thinking, interpersonal skills, intra-personal skills, or many other “soft” areas that are increasingly recognized as crucial to success outside of the classroom.

Ultimately Ms. Duckworth is seeking a measurement that meets the ideal of being cheap and fast, a measurement whose ultimate use seems to be to sort and select as opposed to assisting the student in gaining self-awareness and self-understanding. As long as measurements are used to sort-and-select they are reinforcing the factory model and not the network model that is predicated on each student learning about themselves… learning their strengths and determining what brings them joy and finding a way to parlay those strengths and joyful experiences into a productive career. Grit is not an entity that can be teased out and applied to meet the needs of our economy. It is a by-product of joyful engagement  in mastering a skill.

Thomas Edsall Describes the Vicious Circle of Poverty, Fails to Describe the Best Way Out

March 24, 2017 Leave a comment

In his NYTimes column yesterday, Thomas Edsall offered an insightful and thorough description of the vicious circle of poverty with graphs, research citations, raw data, and paragraphs like this that summarize his findings:

The result is a vicious circle: family disruption perpetuates disadvantage by creating barriers to the development of cognitive and noncognitive skills, which in turn sharply reduces access to college. The lack of higher education decreases life chances, including the likelihood of achieving adequate material resources and a stable family structure for the next generation.

The factors that contribute to “family disruption” are being born to a single parent, being born to a mother who lacks a high school degree, and being born into a household that is below the poverty line.  Mr. Edsall offers evidence that those factors are increasing substantially among less educated populous, noting particularly the non marital birthrate which has jumped among mothers with a high school education level or less but remained steady among college educated parents. This circumstance of birth, in turn, leads to better lives for children born into college-educated married families:

The authors of the “Diverging Patterns” paper — Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns of the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Robert A. Pollak of Washington University in St. Louis – make the case that

there are good reasons to think that children are key to the socioeconomic differences in marriage behavior.

For college graduates, they argue, “marriage has become the commitment device that supports intensive joint investments in children,” a cooperative “joint project of raising economically successful children.” In contrast, they write,

the expected returns to child investments by parents with limited resources and uncertain futures may be lower than for more educated parents with greater and more secure investment capabilities.

At the conclusion of his article, Mr. Edsall draws a series of conclusions, which are summarized below:

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities. Without better funded and better crafted organization and advocacy on behalf of the poor, the propaganda and accusations now emanating from the right will ineluctably reshape the law of the land — and once institutionalized, such “remedies” could prove staggeringly difficult to reverse.

For public schools, these translate into the following action steps:

  • Schools need to emphasize noncognitive skills and character strengths. These have long been a part of the “hidden curriculum” that is implicit in codes of conduct and the timely submission of homework, term papers, etc.
  • Schools need to work collaboratively with religious leaders, practicing politicians, and other government employees to identify intervention strategies that have promise. This is easier said than done in the hostile environment that exists today where much of the political capital is spent on shifting the blame and most of the agencies expend much of their efforts fighting for increasingly scarce tax dollars.
  • The media need to emphasize the pointlessness of gathering data that measures “non cognitive skills”. If the public and politicians have learned anything from the “school reform” movement it should be thiscollecting data for the purpose of “measuring performance” of groups of students is pointless and will always lead to the same result. Whenever time is a fixed part of the measurement of anything (e.g. by the time a student enters “x” grade or is “y” years old), the students who have the strongest start in life— in the development of cognitive and non cognitive skills— will always do better. As noted in earlier posts, when I began my career as a public school administrator in the mid-1970s the state of Pennsylvania administered a test to all students and determined that there was a high correlation between test scores and a mother’s education and father’s occupation based on a metric that scaled work from professional careers to laborers. Mr. Edsall breathlessly reported the same findings— forty years later.
  • Intervention programs need to begin MUCH earlier: It is clear that nurturance is crucially important for both the acquisition of non cognitive and cognitive skills. It is also clear that mothers who were not raised in an environment where nurturance was present are challenged to provide that kind of environment without support.
  • Only government programs can provide those programs. That is “Government is the solution, NOT the problem”. Mr. Edsall is correct in his final point: “Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities.” And here’s my hunch: when those advocates highlight the successful programs they will find that the only way to bring those programs to scale is to provide money raised through taxes to make them government programs. As noted frequently in this blog, before we can restore our faith in the ability of anyone to climb out of poverty we need to restore our faith in the ability of government to provide programs for those in poverty. We need to recognize that part of being a citizen in this country is to help those in need and share the fruits of our good fortune.