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Childhood Trauma Survey Underscores Need for School Services

October 19, 2017 1 comment

A quick review of the data from a recent National Survey on Children’s Health underscores the daunting challenges schools face in dealing with problems children bring to the classroom. The most compelling chart from the report was one that provided information on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among children in the US. ACEs “…include a range of experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being” and include a lengthy list of incidents ranging from economic hardships to the death of a parent. Researchers have determined that “… the impact of ACEs extends beyond children and can have far-reaching consequences for entire communities” and given this impact addressing the consequences requires a coordinated effort on the part of various service providers and agencies. Most important in reviewing the findings is the “…growing evidence that it is the general experience of multiple ACEs, rather than the specific individual impact of any one experience, that matters.”

That finding is crucial because according to the survey findings, 46% of the children in this country have had at least one ACE during their school experiences and over 21% of the children have had more than two ACEs. That means that 1 out of five students have experienced more than two “experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being.” 

And while schools are not solely responsible for addressing these childhood traumas, they feel the impact of them far more than any other public institution… and today they are effectively held accountable for the adverse consequences that result from these ACEs. Two findings underscore this reality:

  • More than three in four (76.3 percent) U.S. children ages 3-5 who were expelled (“asked to stay home”) from preschool had ACEs.
  • Children ages 6-17 with no ACEs are half as likely to be disengaged in school compared to those with 2+ACEs (24.1 percent vs. 49.0 percent).

And the link between poverty and race and ACEs is also noteworthy, with 58 percent of U.S. children with ACEs coming from homes with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and an astounding 6 out of 10 black children experiencing ACEs.

Armed with these facts one would expect states to increase funding for social services and health services to schools serving children raised in poverty and black children. But these facts are evidently less important than standardized test scores when it comes to determining the well-being of students and the success of schools. Instead of moving in the direction of neighborhood schools that provide comprehensive health and social services, though, we are giving parents “choices” in schools— none of which provide a choice that includes the kind of nurturing environment needed to address children who have experienced ACEs.

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Chan Zuckerberg, Lorene Jobs, and Joel Barker’s Rule About Paradigms

September 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I am no fan of billionaire plutocrats who attempt to make a profit from public services… which makes this blog offering a qualified defense of Priscilla Chan and Lorene Jobs something of an outlier. And given that this defense is in the context of an article opposing the two billionaire’s efforts to “reform” Philadelphia public schools, (see several posts lamenting the sorry state of public schools in my former hometown) it’s even more of an outlier!

The post was prompted by an op ed piece by Lisa Haver, a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools lamenting the impact of two billionaires on public education policy in Philadelphia. Ms. Haver provides a brief background on each of the women and a brief description of the ideas they want to “impose” on teachers, with her commentary on their limited qualifications edited out:

Priscilla Chan is a physcian and wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, now the world’s fifth wealthiest person. Laurene Jobs is the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the world’s fourth wealthiest woman. Neither has a degree in education or any experience teaching in public schools, but both have embarked on massive projects to impose their ideological visions of education on schoolchildren across the country.

The recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is funding the development and distribution of software that would create an online profile of each student’s “strengths, needs, motivations, and progress” and may, according to a June Education Week article, “help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional and physical development.”

…Meanwhile, CZI is investing in lobbying for legislation that would enable the imposition of this unproven program in schools and districts across the country in the same way the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation successfully lobbied for the use of Common Core standards in all 50 states before they had been tested in a pilot program.

Laurene Jobs… and her XQ Institute bought an hour on the four major TV networks to simulcast a star-studded (but not educator-studded) extravanganza  to hawk her plan to “reimagine” the country’s high schools — mostly by using more technology… (and) When you run a technology company, not surprisingly, the answer to everything, including the things you know nothing about, is more technology.

I share Ms. Haver’s concern about CZI’s investments in legislation without any evidence that the programs CZI is advocating work, and I share her dismay that these programs are not emerging from qualified classroom teachers. But I also realize that in many cases the best ideas about how to change the dominant paradigm come from those outside of the system. The notion that paradigms are changed most often by outsiders is one of the cardinal principles of paradigm change that Joel Barker discovered in his groundbreaking work in the 1980s and 1990s.

I am willing to accept the possibility that neither Ms. Chan nor Ms. Jobs are seeking profits with their efforts to improve education and I DO believe that advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers should be applied to public education. Finally, I would prefer that such exploitation be introduced by non-profit foundations and NOT by private corporations seeking to exploit children in the name of profits. The fact that the source of funding for these foundations is from the spouses of billionaires instead of government funded researchers or publicly funded colleges and universities is unfortunate… but the fact that the funds are being invested in public education and not for-profit charter schools is a step in the right direction.

My bottom line: I hope that those who oppose change driven by those “unqualified to teach” based on certification standards might be open to ideas provided by “outsiders” whose hearts are in the right place no matter their source of revenue. In this era, we need billionaires who support the principles of public education more than ever.

 

A Poll that Will Make Reformers, GOP Cringe Shows Americans LIKE Their Public Schools but Want More Social Services, Less Academics in Schools

August 30, 2017 Leave a comment

In a story that warmed my heart, Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss summarized the results of the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll in hr opening paragraphs as follows:

Most American adults are weary of the intense focus on academics in public schools today, according to a new national survey, and want students to get more vocational and career training as well as mental, physical and dental services on campus. Even so, a majority of public school parents give higher grades — A’s and B’s — to the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods than they have in years.

A majority of Americans polled also said they oppose programs that use public money for private and religious school education, policies that are supported by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And a majority said they do not think that standardized test scores  — which have been used for more than a dozen years as the most important factor in evaluating schools — are a valid reflection of school quality.

The Phi Delta Kappa poll is seen as the gold standard among administrators and school board members, and these findings should unsettle “Reformers” in both political parties who want schools to run like a business and have their “bottom line” determined by standardized test scores. And President Trump’s notion that the public wants vouchers is also now open to question. Not only does the American public support public education in general, they have the strongest support ever for their local public school!

The new poll finds that the proportion of Americans who give their community’s public schools an A grade is at its highest in more than 40 years of PDK polling. In the newest survey, 62 percent of public school parents gave public schools in their own communities an A or B grade, compared with 45 percent of nonparents. Grades go higher when parents are grading their own school — 71 percent gave them A’s or B’s.

These findings are consistent with surveys where many people give low grades to “Congress” but high grades to their local legislator. But in the recent survey, even generic public schools are rated better than ever:

The report said that 24 percent of Americans give public schools na­tionally an A or B (with no difference between parents and all adults), and it noted:

There’s no contradiction in the gap. Awareness of a few poor schools can diminish the ratings of all schools together, driving down scores nationally while leaving local scores far better.

All of this relatively good news notwithstanding, there are some results of this survey that could be cherry-picked by “reformers” and voucher advocates.

Still there was this: If cost and location were not issues, just one-third of parents say they’d pick a traditional public school over a private school (31 percent), public charter school (17 percent), or a religious school (14 percent). Fifty-four percent said they would stick with a public school if they were offered public funds to send their child to a private or religious school — but only if they received full tuition. If they received only half of tuition for private or religious school, 72 percent of parents said they would stick with a traditional public school.

Even though cost and location are clearly issues in the minds of parents, I hereby predict that some voucher advocates will use the finding that only one third of the parents would choose “…a traditional public school over a private school” as proof that the public wants vouchers, overlooking the fact that such a switch would only be supported  if they received full tuition… and NO legislation I’ve read of comes close to providing full tuition for the kind of leafy private schools parent might be envisioning as an alternative let alone a public charter or parochial school.

The article provides a list of other findings that contradict the “conventional wisdom” of reformers, such as:

  • Strong support for wraparound services such as  after-school activities (92%); mental health services (87%); general health services (79%); and dental services (65%).
  • Job or career skills classes even if that means… less time in academic classes (82%)
  • Certificate or licensing programs that qualify students for employment in a given field (86%)
  • The need for “…schools to help students develop interpersonal skills, such as being cooperative, respectful of others and persistent at solving problems.” (82%)

And as for accountability measures, the public is developing a deep antipathy for standardized tests. The survey indicated that “…only 42 percent said performance on standardized tests is a highly important indicator of school quality; 13 percent said test scores are extremely important.” What was important? 39% felt that “…developing students’ interpersonal skills” was very important and 37% felt that “…offering technology and engineering instruction” was crucial.

One contentious area, integration, had mixed results. The survey found that 55% said “having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in public schools is extremely or very important”. The demographic breakdown: blacks, 72 percent; Hispanics, 57 percent; whites, 48 percent. Democrats cited this as important nearly twice as often as Republicans.

Looking at these findings is heartening. Despite 30+ years of hearing that public education is failing and having a President and Secretary of Education who repeatedly describe public schools as a “dead end”, the public— especially parents— have a different experience. Here’s hoping these facts will find their way into the consciousness of the electorate!

If Adverse DNA Test Results Do Not Change Personal Habits Why Do WE Think that Standardized Test Results Would Change Schools?

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

I read an article earlier this month by AP science writer Malcolm Ritter titled “Science Says DNA Test Results May Not Change Health Habits”. To those of a scientific bent, this flies in the face of logic and reason. If one was told that their DNA pre-disposed them to a disease, why wouldn’t they eat healthier foods, exercise more regularly, and do everything possible to avoid exacerbating the likelihood of illness? It seems that NOT changing ones habits is in keeping with the findings of several researchers:

Last year, researchers published an analysis that combined 18 studies of people who got doctor-ordered DNA test results about disease risks. None involved direct-to-consumer tests; participants were drawn mostly from medical clinics or elsewhere. Eight of the 18 studies were done in the United States.

The result? Getting the DNA information produced no significant effect on diet, physical activity, drinking alcohol, quitting smoking, sun protection or attendance at disease-screening programs.

That fits with other results showing that, on balance, getting the information “has little if any impact on changing routine or habitual behaviors,” said psychologist Theresa Marteau of Britain’s Cambridge University, a study author.

I read this finding and immediately saw a link to public education policy, where “reformers” and politicians seem to believe that presenting adverse test results will naturally compel schools to change their “bad habits”. But the “reformers” and politicians’ diagnosis of “bad habits” focuses on “overpaid union teachers”, over-regulation, and the requirement that children attend the schools in their zip code and they offer their remedies accordingly. As anyone who’s worked in multiple districts knows, however, it is the students whose “habits” need to change. And as anyone who understands the impact of poverty on the life of a child realizes, it is exceedingly difficult to change habits of mind with an empty stomach and without a roof over ones head. In the end, the “habits” we need to change if we want to change the habits of teachers and students is the “habit of mind” that compels us to believe that there is a cheap, fast, and easy solution to the problems brought on by poverty.

And to stretch this metaphor a little further, unlike human DNA it is possible to change policy DNA and  the operational DNA of public schools. For example, we could:

  • Abandon grade levels based on age
  • Replace summative assessments with formative assessments
  • Emphasize mastery of material over attaining a “passing” grade
  • Offer educational programming year-round and all day
  • Emphasize collaboration and compassion over competition and comparing
  • Divert the money used to provide incentives for businesses to help parents earn a living wage
  • Acknowledge that poverty is the underlying problem of most societal ills, and that poverty could be eliminated through the redistribution of wealth

The abandonment of the factory model for schools and the establishment of a fair, progressive system of taxation are probably both beyond the capacity of our policy makers today. But if we can conceive of such a change it seems to me we could make it happen.

NC Principal Poses Question: If Schools Are a Business, are Students “Customers” or “Employees”?

August 24, 2017 Leave a comment

In an ASCD Journal article earlier this month, HS Principal Vance Fishback laments the persistent analogy that schools should operate like a business and, in doing so, should treat students like “customers”. He suggests that using a customer service model is the wrong approach: that if the public insists on using the business analogy the schools should conceive of students as employees. He writes:

although we do want our students and their families to be satisfied with their school and feel like it is a great choice, it is inaccurate to operationally define our students as our customers because that assumes education is something done to or for students while they simply consume it. Prior to high-stakes testing and accountability programs, this definition was valid. We just needed students to stay satisfied enough with school to earn their diplomas….

For public schools, that reality no longer exists. In today’s schools, students are more like employees than customers. They are expected to perform, and schools are held accountable to the results they produce. Instead of looking for ways to make students happy consumers, we need to find the factors that motivate employees.

Mr. Vance suggests this shift in perspective would result in schools operating differently in four ways:

  1. School leaders would rely on motivational theory instead of customer service theory.
  2. Teachers would emphasize leadership over pedagogy.
  3. All educators would need to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates each student in order to have them be productive workers… and understand that “what motivates this generation of workers is not what motivated past generations.” Drawing on the work of Deep Patel, Mr. Vance suggests that today’s “Generation Z” students: “(First), Crave independence and want to take ownership of their work, but they also want formative feedback and social interaction. (Second) Are the first true digital natives but will need help limiting distractions. (Third) Need to understand the meaning of their work—Generation Z employees might be hard workers, but they are not there to just do a job.”
  4. Since schools and businesses are facing similar challenges in motivating the workforce, they should join forces in researching motivational theories.

Mr. Vance’s thinking on this issue is not completely original. In 1990 William Glasser wrote an article for Phi Delta Kappa titled “The Quality School” suggesting that teachers should conceive of themselves as managers and conceive of their students as workers who need to be motivated to want to learn. He hypothesized that if this model was applied that students engagement would increase and, consequently, classroom management problems would diminish and learning would increase. Original or not, Mr. Vance is on to something: if schools are expected to prepare students for the world of work or a world where learning is expected to continue indefinitely, teachers need to focus on what motivates students more than what results students achieve on tests. Understanding each students’ motivations would be the basis for a truly personalized learning environment. Guiding those motivations to be team-oriented as opposed to individualistic is what we need for democracy and civility to thrive.

 

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

August 15, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 12, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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