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Maine Is Reversing Direction on Competency Based Diplomas. What is the Lesson for Other States?

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum wrote a lengthy and link-flied article describing the rise and fall of Maine’s efforts to implement competency based diplomas for its schools, an article that thoroughly described all the landmines associated with the effort but one that overlooked the fundamental problem, which is the strong hold of the “sort and select” paradigm in our culture.

A quick history of the movement in Maine: In 2012 Maine’s Governor Paul LePage supported legislation to abandon the traditional awarding of high school diplomas based on the accumulation of credits tied to seat time and replace it with a competency based model. Nellie Mae, a philanthropic organization that advocates student centered learning, played a pivotal role in this initiative:

(In early 2012) the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

This “student centered” approach failed in Maine for several reasons, the primary one being that there was no effort to develop a uniform state-level consensus on what constituted “mastery”. As Mr. Barnum reports, once the state mandated “proficiency based” diplomas:

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Without a robust State Department to provide technical assistance, districts turned to out-of-state consultants to help them or foundered on their own. The result was a hodgepodge of definitions for proficiency and, ultimately, the decision to abandon the approach altogether at the state level.

I am a firm advocate of “…mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning”… but that approach is incompatible with the traditional batching of students by age and the traditional method of grading students. As I learned when I attempted to promote this kind of model in districts I led, anyone attempting to change this dominant paradigm of awarding student grades can expect hard pushback from two sources: teachers and parents.

Many teachers are resistant because, as the article explains, they need to make difficult and substantive changes to the way they deliver instruction, changes that some find discomforting. Teachers who hold the view that they are the purveyors of knowledge and students must absorb that knowledge and demonstrate their understanding of it by passing a relatively small number of high stakes tests see students who fail in their classrooms as “not working up to my standards”. Mr. Barnum described that subset of teachers as follows:

(Researchers) found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

And the teachers who were reluctant to change the current system found allies in parents who liked things the way they were, especially the parents of high achieving children who valued the traditional system that invariably identified their children as the best. Their support for the traditional grading system was buttressed by the fact that many colleges expressed confusion over the meaning of the new system, a valid confusion given that “proficiency” meant different things in different districts.

Changing paradigms requires changing minds… and as the post I wrote yesterday about the GOP-raised teacher in Oklahoma indicates, changing minds requires a combination of adverse experiences and a willingness to question one’s core convictions. This is unlikely to happen in public schools in the short run because parents whose children are successful in school are invested in keeping the system as it is. Their children experience no adversity with the current paradigm: they progress from grade-level to grade-level with no difficulty. Moreover, the current method of ranking students places their children at the top. Why change?

Nor do teachers who work in schools see any value in changing the way schools are organized. The current system efficiently drives the poor-performing students out and identifies the best-and-brightest. Replacing it with some kind of system that nebulously defines “competency” can only lead to needless confusion and, as teachers in Maine experienced, lots of wheel spinning and work.

The best hope for changing the status quo is the development of a collective belief that the current age-based grading system is flawed… and perversely the only way that collective belief can be achieved is through the continued emphasis on testing. MAYBE parents and teachers who currently value the status quo but detest the impact of standardized testing can coalesce around a new paradigm based on the notion that learning should be constant and time should be variable. The entire system we have in place now is based on the opposite belief: that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable.

My advice to Nellie Mae is to focus on developing a set of competencies that all children should master, developing a clear and common definition of those competencies, and the developing a new paradigm that is better than the one we have in place now.

 

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Three Research Studies Prove the Obvious: Attendance, Family Income, and Retention Policies Matter

October 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Over the past three weeks I have read three research reports that prove three seemingly self evident facts: attendance; family income; and retention policies all matter.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute proved that Woody Allen was right when he said that 80% of success is showing up. Here’s the synopsis of the research findings of Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss:

Our analysis also confirms prior research that missing school hurts academic performance:Among eighth-graders, those who missed school three or more days in the month before being tested scored between 0.3 and 0.6 standard deviations lower (depending on the number of days missed) on the 2015 NAEP mathematics test than those who did not miss any school days.

And whether you go to a public school or a private school matters a LOT less than your mother and father’s income, as Robin Young’s interview with University of Virginia researcher Robert Pianta revealed. Here’s a synopsis of the study as rendered by Mr. Pianta:

…if you just simply look at private school versus public school — don’t consider any other factor in the kids’ history — you see huge benefits to being in private school. They’re about a standard deviation of like 15 points higher on test scores, they’re more motivated and the like. And then as soon as you put into the equation that you’re using to predict, as soon as you put in family income, those differences disappear — and they never reappear again, no matter how many other variables that you put in.

“So the idea basically being, that it’s what’s happening in kids’ families and the kinds of conditions that they’re able to purchase for their kids and the circumstances that they’re able to provide for their kids over the long haul that really matter in adding up to the kinds of things that we assessed in ninth grade.”

As I’ve cited frequently in this blog, the State of Pennsylvania found a correlation between father’s income and test scores in the 1970s and that ending has been replicated ever since then. This inconvenient fact has not stopped “reformers” from using test scores as a bludgeon to “prove” that schools serving low income children are “failing”.

The third study that proves what any school administrator could have told you involved the impact of holding middle school students back. As reported by Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum, when Middle School aged youngsters are held back their probability of dropping out of school increases:

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

The notion that all children learn at the same rate is preposterous on its face… anyone who has more than one child knows that each of them matured at a different rate and each learned to walk, talk, and read at different times in their lives. Yet the idea that everyone learns the same way and at the same rate persists and underlies the testing of our students who are bathed in age-based cohorts.

It is maddening that we spend time and energy proving what has already been well established… but I suppose until what has been well established in RESEARCH is well established in REALITY that we will continue to prove the self-evident.

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Humanist Entrepreneur Offers Four Ways to Change the Dominant Paradigm

October 15, 2018 Leave a comment

The Evonomics blog offers weekly articles that offer thought provoking insights into how our economy could evolve into one that serves all consumers and citizens more effectively. This week’s blog offered a post that was an acceptance speech by “serial entrepreneur” Nick Hanauer. And the award he was receiving? The 2018 Harvard and MIT Humanist of the Year. 

His speech was full of pithy quotes about the failed Homo Economicus model that has dominated Western thinking for the past several decades. In the speech, Mr. Hanauer described the flaws of the current economic paradigm and his belief that our perspectives on how the market really works:

I believe (we have) a fundamentally flawed understanding of how market capitalism works, grounded in the dubious assumption that human beings are “homo economicus”:  perfectly selfish, perfectly rational, and relentlessly self-maximizing. It is this behavioral model upon which all the other models of orthodox economics are built. And it is nonsense.

The last 40 years of research across multiple scientific disciplines has proven, with certainty, that homo economicus does not exist. Outside of economic models, this is simply not how real humans behave. Rather, Homo sapiens have evolved to be other-regarding, reciprocal, heuristic, and intuitive moral creatures. We can be selfish, yes—even cruel. But it is our highly evolved prosocial nature—our innate facility for cooperation, not competition—that has enabled our species to dominate the planet, and to build such an extraordinary—and extraordinarily complex—quality of life. Pro-sociality is our economic super power.

In effect, Mr. Hanauer is arguing that that the Ayn Rand philosophy of economics– the so-called “Virtue of Selfishness”– proposed by Milton Friedman that is explicitly endorsed by the Conservatives and implicitly endorsed by the neo-liberals is wrong. Instead of adopting the “Greed is Good” credo we should instead adopt a pro-social credo based on the Golden Rule. If we did use the prosocial approach, here’s what Mr. Hanauer sees as the result… and it is full of great quotes, which are flagged in italicized red:

Properly viewed through this prosocial economic lens, we see clearly that it is our humanity, not the absence of it, that is the source of our prosperity.

But of course, in working to change the way we think about the economy, my ultimate goal is to change the way we act within it. And to this end, I’d like to close by offering four simple heuristics to guide your own actions and activism:

Heuristic number one: Capitalism is self-organizing, but not self-regulating.

The notion of market capitalism as a Pareto-optimal closed, equilibrium system is—to use the technical term—bullshit. Throughout the world, the most broadly prosperous capitalist economies are also the most highly regulated and highly taxed. To be clear: Government investment and intervention is not a necessary evil. It is just plain necessary.

Which leads us to heuristic number two: True capitalism is not shareholder capitalism.

The neoliberal claim that the sole purpose of the corporation is to enrich shareholders is the most egregious grift in contemporary life. Corporations are granted limited liability in exchange for improving the common good. Thus, the true purpose of the corporation is to build great products for customers, provide good jobs for employees, provide a fair return to shareholders and to make their communities stronger—in coequal measure.

Heuristic Three: Capitalism is effective, but not efficient.

Schumpeter’s “perennial gale of creative destruction” has proven extraordinarily effective at raising our aggregate standard of living, but it can also be extraordinarily wasteful, cruel, and unequal—unequal to the point that it threatens to destroy capitalism itself. If our economy and our democracy are to survive the ever-quickening pace of technological change, we must use every tool available to close “the innovation gap” between our economic institutions and our civic institutions.

And finally, heuristic number four: True capitalists are moral capitalists.

Being rapacious doesn’t make you a capitalist. It makes you an asshole and a sociopath. In an economy dependent on complex trust networks to facilitate the cooperative tasks from which prosperity emerges, and when prosperity itself is understood—not as money but as solutions to human problems—true capitalists understand that every economic act is an explicitly moral choice—and they act accordingly.

Mr. Hanauer concluded his speech with this hopeful and uplifting note:

And so, to all the aspiring business and technology leaders in the audience today, I want to challenge you to adopt an alternative credo, far more ambitious—and more humanist—than Google’s “Don’t be evil”: “Be good.” Or maybe, “Always do the right thing.”

And when you do the right thing, do it with confidence that if it is the right thing to do for your customers, for your employees, for your community, and for the planet—then it is also the right thing to do for your shareholders.

I hope the audience heard Mr. Hanauer’s plea and adopts his recommended credo… but I fear that doing right by the shareholders will be a hard paradigm to overcome.

The Free Market in Public Schools is Creating— or Reinforcing the Existence of “School Deserts”

October 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Andrea Gabor, the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York, recently wrote an op ed article for Bloomberg.com that concisely describes the way privatizers undermined the original intent of charter schools and expropriated the laws passed to enhance them to their own ends. Diane Ravitch quoted from the article extensively in a post yesterday, which included these two paragraphs:

“Now the charter industry is reaching an inflection point. Business backers are pushing to expand charter schools at an unprecedented rate, doubling down on the idea that free markets are the best approach to improving K-12 education. At the same time, critics — some from within the charter movement — are shining a spotlight on the industry’s failures and distortions…

That faith in markets isn’t supported by the evidence, however. Studies show that, on average, charter schools and traditional public schools produce similar results. But freedom from regulation is associated not with success but with especially high failure rates; charter-school performance tends to be weakest in states with the laxest rules for ensuring education quality.

From the efficiency minded business perspective, the charters ARE succeeding by the only metric that counts in the corporate world: they are making money AND they are operating efficiently in the sense that they are delivering the the same results for a lower cost. Given that reality, why would a taxpayer protest against privatization? After all, if their taxes remain stable and the results stay the same why would they complain? . Haven’t they been paying more for the same results for decades?

Moreover, why would any free marketeer be concerned if the parents of children raised in impoverished neighborhoods don’t have the same choice of schools as the parents of children raised in affluence? The answer is they aren’t concerned at all! The privatizers realize that too many parents in affluent communities believe that parents in impoverished communities have the same opportunities as they do. But that is clearly NOT the case. Do the parents of children raised in impoverished neighborhoods have the same choice of supermarkets as the parents of children raised in affluence? Do they have the same choice of gas stations? Of department stores? Of stores that sell clothing? And… is the unregulated “market” responding to this inequality?

The market IS working in the privatization of public schools… and the ultimate result will be the creation— or more accurately— the reinforcement of “schooling deserts” that mirror the “food deserts” that currently exist in impoverished neighborhoods. In the meantime, the privateers will not have to worry about an uprising from the upper middle class parents who are safely ensconced in their well-heeled public schools governed by elected school boards… nor will they have to worry about an uprising from politicians as long as they get the same results without increasing taxes.

As long as the argument is about getting the most possible from as little taxation as possible, the privatizers will prevail. Instead of supporting candidates who want to reinvent government to resemble business we should look to candidates who want to restore the equal opportunities for all, even if it means spending more money and having more government regulation.

Clay Christensen and Michael Horn Nudge Public Schools to Re-Think Their Delivery

October 9, 2018 Comments off

I am a begrudging fan of Michael Horn and Clay Christensen who, unlike the privatizers, are advocates of disruption of delivery of public education, NOT the displacement of public schools by technology centered on-line learning.

A recent post by Michael Horn in the Clayton Christensen Institute’s weekly on-line newsletter led me to this conclusion. The post begins with a description of how WeWork is moving in the same direction as some former on-line businesses in developing a different model for public education. Noting that on-line retailers like Amazon, Warby Parker, and Bonobos are opening brick and mortar stores that have virtually no inventory but lots of computer terminals, WeWork’s development team has surmised that a similar model might work for education… and they are field testing with their latest partnership with, 2U, which Mr. Horn immodestly describes as “…the standout online program management company.”  And what is WeWork-2U up to?

the partnership allows 2U students to use WeWork’s office space as study halls, and the two companies will build a learning center together in 2019.

The place-based aspect of the partnership is what is so interesting, as it points to what will happen next with the disruptive innovation of online learning, namely how it will improve.

The future of online learning in higher education is in bricks, not just clicks. But these bricks won’t look like the gorgeous and overgrown college campuses we have today….

After a lengthy description of how on-line learning, like Amazon, is finding the middle ground in disruption, he concludes his article with this description of the WeWork-U2 partnership model:

WeWork offers 2U students a place to learn and a community with whom to learn and interact more broadly. Although many of 2U’s students were independently finding and connecting offline with others in their area before, 2U has now embedded that option as a feature, not an inconvenient arrangement that students had to construct on their own.

Importantly, WeWork and 2U are not recreating the sprawling campus environment of college with its traditional classrooms, dorms, grassy green quads, and recreational facilities. But they are offering an in-person environment in an experiment that could dramatically bolster engagement—and herald the future of online learning as it continues its disruptive march.

It isn’t difficult to foresee how arrangements like 2U could migrate into public education. Our local museum’s, galleries, and music studios are already doing something like 2U by bringing homeschooling students together to learn about science, the arts and humanities, to work on art projects and music performances together. When those kinds of options become more clearly known to parents it is not hard to foresee how more parents might opt out of their local public schools, especially if those schools are focussed exclusively on increasing test scores.

From my reading of Mr. Christensen’s book and his newsletter, it is not evident that he wants to undercut public schools. Indeed, when their book Disrupting Class was published when I was still working as a Superintendent, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn gave a presentation at our annual conference and Mr. Horn followed up with several visits to the state. Their ideas, unfortunately, did not gain traction in large measure because the risk of changing was too great: if a district went all in on disruption and the test scores did not go up the Superintendent and school board that advocated the change might not be around for long. But a careful reading of Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen’s concepts leads me to the conclusion that they are inherently opposed to the factory model that standardized testing reinforces. Instead of believing that all children learn at the same rate, Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen believe that all children learn when they are engaged in studying information they are interested in with groups of similarly engaged and interested cohorts. ASSUMING that is the case, it might be helpful for Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn to advocate a total and complete disruption of schooling by advocating the elimination of age-based cohorts and replacing it with interest-based cohorts.

Can Big Data Help Find a Path Out of Poverty? I’m Dubious But Open to Examining It

October 2, 2018 Comments off

An essay by NYTimes Upshot writers Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui describe the findings of a recently completed study by the Census Bureau that attempts to pinpoint specific neighborhoods where children succeed in moving out of poverty in hopes of identifying the elements in those areas that help children escape poverty. After reading the in depth article, it isn’t at all clear that there is any factor or galaxy of factors that a particular government policy or program can institute that will help lift children out of poverty or help transform a neighborhood that keeps children in poverty into one that enables children to escape poverty. The Upshot writers frame the issue as follows: 

The research has shown that where children live matters deeply in whether they prosper as adults. On Monday the Census Bureau, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard and Brown, published nationwide data that will make it possible to pinpoint — down to the census tract, a level relevant to individual families — where children of all backgrounds have the best shot at getting ahead.

This work, years in the making, seeks to bring the abstract promise of big data to the real lives of children. Across the country, city officials and philanthropists who have dreamed of such a map are planning how to use it. They’re hoping it can help crack open a problem, the persistence of neighborhood disadvantage, that has been resistant to government interventions and good intentions for years.

But at this juncture, it isn’t evident that “cracking the problem” will be easy.

Researchers still don’t understand exactly what leads some neighborhoods to nurture children, although they point to characteristics like more employed adults and two-parent families that are common among such places.Other features like school boundary lines and poverty levels often cited as indicators of good neighborhoods explain only half of the variation here.

So if “…school boundary lines and poverty levels” are NOT indicators of good neighborhoods and employed adults and two-parent families ARE good indicators, maybe policy makers should focus on providing decent paying jobs in impoverished communities and enacting tax policies and anti-poverty programs that encourage two-parent families.

The article also features spiffy interactive maps that illustrate the earnings of children who were raised in various census tracks. Clicking through the maps “proves” what policy makers and legislators already know: there are communities that yield high earners immediately adjacent to communities that yield low earners. After examining the “high earning” and “low earning” communities I am familiar with from my work as an administrator and resident, it is clear that communities populated by college degree generate more high earners. But, as a North Carolina activist notes, these neighborhood differences are not accidental:

In the Charlotte area, Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a longtime family physician, sees in these maps clear traces of where the fewest jobs are, where the high-poverty schools are, where African-American families live.

“You could drive from your home in south Charlotte to your banking job downtown and never see poverty, because we’re so segregated,” said Dr. Garmon-Brown, who grew up poor herself, in Detroit. “In some of this, we have to admit that was intentional.”

The NYTimes writers did not have to go to North Carolina to find places where differences in neighborhoods was the result of intention: exclusionary zoning in the North had the same impact as segregation in the South. Maybe it would be possible to pass legislation that would forbid local zoning ordinances that deny the construction low income housing because of density issues thereby enabling those at or below the poverty level to reside in neighborhoods populated by employed adults and two-parent families. 

Predictably given the neoliberal and libertarian response to poverty, the initial solution advanced to this problem was vouchers. But the study found that vouchers failed in Seattle:

In Seattle, that picture confirmed what housing officials feared — that their voucher holders had long been clustered in neighborhoods offering the least upward mobility.

“It really struck us as, well, we are contributing to this problem, not solving the problem,” said Andrew Lofton, the executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority.

Here the response means offering some of those families more choices in where to live. But that solution won’t help every child, or even many of them. The larger question is how to convert struggling neighborhoods into places where poor children are likely to thrive.

Vouchers are seen as a cheap, easy and fast way to solve a complicated issue that took years to develop. And here’s a question for policy makers, politicians, and voters to consider: if vouchers didn’t work to solve the housing problem, what makes think they will work to solve our public education problems?

 

We Don’t Need New Report Cards: We Need Equitable Funding

September 28, 2018 Comments off

Here’s another verbatim excerpt from yesterday’s Politico feed:

The Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology and the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign are teaming up for a “challenge” centered on designing new state report cards under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The new law “requires states and school districts to make more than 2,000 data points about their public school systems available to families in a concise, understandable and uniform format,”the agency’s ed tech office writes in a blog post. “A key challenge is ensuring these digital report cards are user-friendly, engaging, and incorporate best practices for data visualization and human-centered design — a new approach for many states.”

— The Education Department and DQC are calling on experts to “design tools, templates, and other innovative solutions that will support states in tackling the ESSA data reporting requirements.” The challenge will be Nov. 8-9. More details.

I went to the link at the end of the post and offered my two cents:

My prediction: the report cards will show that districts serving children raised in affluent families with well educated parents will “outperform” districts that have large numbers of children raised in poverty.

My deep concern: the issuance of these report cards will reinforce the notion that public schools are a commodity that compete in an unregulated market. NCLB launched us on that path… RTTT reinforced that idea… and Betsy DeVos has put it on steroids.

We don’t need better, easier to read report cards: we need more equitable funding and a means of engaging all parents— especially single parents who are working multiple jobs.