Posts Tagged ‘Parent engagement’

Montgomery County (MD) Decision to Return to Traditional Letter Grades is Evidence of Where Change is Most Resistant

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Conservative columnists complain that teachers unions are the biggest block to making changes in public education. Liberal columnists contend change is thwarted by a lack of funding. Progressives look with dismay at the standardized testing that drives decision making and reinforces the status quo and see that as an impediment to change.

But a recent decision by the Montgomery County (MD) School Board illustrates the biggest obstacle to change: parents who want to retain the system as it is. Five years ago, the Montgomery County School Board made a decision to institute a new system of reporting student progress to students. As reported by Washington Post writer Linh Bui at that time, the system would replace the traditional A-F grades on elementary report cards with ones indicating how each student was progressing.

The Montgomery County public school system is joining other districts across the country in abandoning traditional letter grades for some students and instead matching student evaluations with specific curriculum standards.

Instead of seeing A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s on report cards this November, for the first time, parents of Montgomery students in third grade will see ES, P, I or N. Those new letters will also apply to students in first through second grade, who used to get O’s, S’s or N’s.

Teachers also will mark students separately on learning skills such as “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality” with separate codes of DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident).

This kind of grading system is the natural outgrowth of switching to a standards-based curriculum whereby all students are expected to master a series of standards no matter how much time takes for the each student to do so. It is an important and necessary step for any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward a mastery learning model based on the assumption that time is a variable and learning is constant instead of the other way around.

In well funded and equitable Montgomery County the teachers and the teachers union supported the change. From all appearances, a sea change was underway… but from the outset one set of parents never understood what was going on and another set of parents and the conservative media rejected the move to “standards-based” grades because the new grades were based on (gasp) the Common Core. As Ms. Bai reported five years ago, the A-F paradigm seemed to be unshakeable to parents… as did the inherent competitiveness and false sense of exactness and certitude built into the A-F system. Some parents made fallacious crosswalks between the new grading system and the old one, some saw the system as “squishy” since it didn’t have numbers associated with it, and some never saw the link between the curriculum standards and the progress reports.

The terminology itself is crucial: the quarterly issuance of letter grades is called a “Report Card”. The terminology used when districts move toward a standards-based grading is a “Progress Report”. They convey a different intent and a different purpose.

As one who sees technology as potentially assisting in the shift away from the competitive bell curve mentality inherent in standardized test driven grading, I know is now possible to completely eliminate report cards altogether. With parent portals into the student information systems used in virtually every school in the nation it is no longer necessary to issue periodic “Report Cards” or “Progress Reports”. Instead, parents can periodically check on their child’s progress through the outcomes defined for each course and schools can monitor the parent’s assiduousness in doing to to make certain it is appropriate for the age of the child. Technology makes such a change possible… and, as we witnessed in Montgomery County, it is supported by teachers, affordable, and equitably applied. The problem with instituting this necessary change? Parents who want schools to stay just the way they were when they attended.


NYC Free Lunch Frees Up Family Funds for More and Better Food, Helps End Food Insecurity

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

A short post in Wear Your Voice provided an insight I had missed when I first read about NYC’s decision to provide two free meals a day to ALL NYC students:

This program will directly benefit an additional 200,000 students who weren’t eligible for free lunch before the announcement and will save families around $300 per year.

The $300/year is, in all probability, a low ball figure in direct savings… the hassle working parents face in preparing meals, planning for them, and making certain their children remember to take their lunches each and every day can take a toll when both parents work.

And the 200,000 figure is probably a low ball figure in terms of students who benefit because in some cases parents are reluctant to admit that their children qualify for the free lunch and so do not complete the necessary paperwork.

And here’s one other fact that has been underreported: by avoiding the paperwork at the Central Office level the NYC school district should be able to save in administrative costs at the district and school building levels.



The Latest (and Completely Unrealistic) Silver Bullet for High Schools: Starting Later

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Upshot” writer Aaron E. Carroll breathlessly reports on the recent Rand study that claims that starting high school later would result in greater student achievement and, consequently, any additional costs incurred by starting school early would be offset. As a retired Superintendent who worked in five different school districts in four different states over a 29 year time span I can assure readers that anyone who thinks this idea will come to fruition is completely untethered from reality. Here are four reasons:

  1. Extraordinary front-end costs: Both the Rand Corporation and writers who cover this issue acknowledge that the up front costs are daunting. But neither the Rand Corporation nor the education reporters offer any rational explanation on where the funds to acquire new buses will come from. The states? Not with 35 statehouses under GOP control. Local budgets? Not with school spending at a lower level than a decade ago.
  2. Politically untenable implementation impacts of cost avoidance strategies: Assuming a windfall of state or local funds is impossible, there are two ways front-end costs could be diminished: by flipping bus routes, having elementary students start early and high schools start late; or, by combining bus routes so that K-12 children all ride the same bus. Speaking from experience, both of these ideas will result in push-back. When I was superintendent in rural Western ME we DID get K-12 routes put in place, but did so to save money and fuel. We moved the start times to a time somewhere between the high school and elementary school start time. Why? Because we didn’t want to move the end of the high school day too far back because of high school athletic practices… and we didn’t want to move elementary start times too far back because working parents could not find child care coverage.
  3. Unwillingness of politicians and voters to act on “empirical evidence”: The notion that politicians would take action based on “empirical data” is zero given the political response to the clear and unequivocal empirical data on climate change. Moreover, there is no “empirical evidence” that politicians and voters are willing to spend money now to achieve future gains.
  4. Unwillingness to invest in the future: If we wanted to invest in the future we wouldn’t be spending less now on K-12 education than we were spending in 2008-09… and we wouldn’t be spending more three times more on prisons than we are spending on schools.

I wish that we lived in a world where empirical data mattered… but we don’t. We live in a world where we are seeking fast, cheap and easy solutions. Moving school start times is none of the above in the start run and only theoretically beneficial in the long run. Rand Corporation’s spreadsheet mentality, like that of “reformers” who see test scores as a fast, cheap and easy means of “measuring” school performance.


Back to School Means Teachers, Parents Dig Deeper Into Their Pockets… Taxpayers? Not So Much

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Philadelphia public school teacher Jan Cohan’s op ed article in described HER back to school shopping list includes basic school supplies and asks parents to accept the reality that THEIR back to school shopping list should include supplies for their children. It wasn’t always so.

When I began teaching in Philadelphia in 1970 the junior high where I worked was on a double shift due to overcrowding, which posed logistical challenges for administrators and teachers alike. As a math teachers I had access to the department’s supply of chalk, paper, its mimeograph machine, textbooks that were appropriate for the grade levels I taught, and the AV equipment needed to teach mathematics: an overhead projector and a box of acetates to use on the projector. That was not all, though. Each teacher on the staff received a stipend they could use to acquire school supplies or instructional support materials of their choice as long as the department head approved. I forget the size of the stipend, but it was sufficiently large that I was able to use it to buy enough paper to put together my own “textbook” that included exercises for my students that matched their abilities, which, sadly, were well below the 8th grade level they were assigned to based on their age.

Throughout my career as a Superintendent, which ended in 2011, the districts I led ensured that teachers had sufficient supplies, though I would not be surprised if some teachers bought supplementary materials out of their own pockets the same way some parents who could afford to bought fancier calculators and tutorial texts for their children. From 1997 on I worked in a relatively affluent districts, which meant that there was no expectation that parents would need to provide basic materials like toilet paper for the bathrooms, tissues for the classroom, or blank paper for the teacher to use to photocopy assignments.

But from 2000 onward, I began to hear anecdotes from my colleagues about shortfalls that resulted in them cutting essentials from their budgets, essentials that led to districts serving children in poverty essentially requiring teaches to dig into their pockets and asking parents to do the same. And since 2008 I am confident the situation has gotten even worse, as inflation adjusted spending for public schools has declined since the so-called Great Recession. Contrast my recollections as a teacher in Philadelphia with this description provided by Ms. Cohan:

In order to adequately educate kids, we have to pick up the slack, spending on average $500 on our classrooms annually.

And first-year teachers spend significantly more. I easily spent a thousand dollars in my first year on basics like pencils and paper and markers, of course, but also on dictionaries, binders, a hole punch, a pencil sharpener, classroom posters (and absurdly expensive lamination), bulletin board borders, crates and bins, and a projector so my students could see all the lessons I prepared.

Because of the limited resources in many schools, it’s common for teachers to ask parents to provide supplies not just for their own children, but supplies like tissues to be shared with the entire class. It’s helpful to the teacher, who otherwise will be spending even more  out of pocket, but community supplies also reinforce sharing and cooperation and give students ownership of their classroom.

Most parents support their children’s teachers and graciously provide these community supplies, but I have to roll my eyes at the parents I’ve seen posting about greedy overpaid teachers having the nerve to ask for some glue sticks and pencils…

My colleagues and I have relied on crowdfunding to make ends meet. Our engineering teacher raised money on DonorsChoose last year to buy a robot kit and enter our students in a robotics competition. We crowdfund to defray the cost of field trips so our kids can experience the world outside the classroom. English teachers raise the money to buy class sets of novels for their students. Science teachers raise money for labs and experiments.

Ms. Cohan has been teaching for six years, which means she has only experienced budgets that shortchange teachers on supplies, fail to provide needed equipment for activities like a robotics, fail to provide “frills” like field trips, and fail to provide essentials like novels for literature classes and materials to perform experiments in science class. Consequently she sees the lack of supplies as an opportunity for students learning the value of “sharing and cooperation” and giving them “ownership of their classroom”. And she also turns to online sources that effectively equate public schools to charities.

I find this acceptance of deficient budgets distressing. Taxpayers of all ages should dig a little deeper in their pockets to “crowd fund” schools so that teachers can focus their time and energy on preparing for classes. If they did so in a spirit of sharing their resources with children in the community they might regain the sense of ownership in their schools that my community experienced when I attended schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in the districts I served during my career.


Stanford Report Finds that Privatized Charters Do Worse Than ANY Type of School.. Why Isn’t THIS a Big Story?

September 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, both Diane Ravitch and the Atlantic magazine reported on the release of a report from Stanford University that studied the effectiveness of various kinds of charter schools, and the results show that so-called “government schools” with their “regulations that strangle innovation” do far better than privatized de-regulated charter schools. Here’s the understated finding from the of the Executive Summary of the report on “For Profit” charter school results:

Results also vary by the for-profit/non-profit status of the charter organization. Charter schools which are non- profit have an average effect size of 0.02, equivalent to an additional 11 days, in both math and reading. Charter school students attending a school run by a for-profit company have math growth which is 0.02 weaker than their VCRs and reading growth which is not significantly different from the VCRs. The difference in growth between for- profit and non-profit charter schools is equivalent to 23 additional days of learning in math for students attending a non-profit charter school and 6 days additional learning in reading for non-profit charter students.

And later in the report, the for-profit charters (or Vendor Operated Schools— VOS) are singled out for the mediocre performance:

…Schools that contract with external vendors for much or all of the school operations post lower results than network operators that maintain direct control over their operations.

…For-profit operators have results that are at best equal to the comparison traditional public school students (reading) or worse (math).

I have grave misgivings about the expansion of charter schools, mainly because as they function today they primarily draw from a pool of engaged parents who have the wherewithal to complete applications for their children that are time consuming and require an understanding of process that many parents might find daunting. Drawing from this pool of parents, it is not surprising to find that charters in general do better than their so called “local market”, a term that implies that schools should be engaged in a completion with each other for students. And when a for-profit entity draws from this group of select parents and does the same or worse, there is only one group who benefits: the shareholders of the for profit enterprise. That is NOT what our economy or our country wants from its public schools.

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.

MO “Government Schools” that Introduce On-Line Learning “Proof” That Competition is Needed

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

An article by Teresa Mull in Townhall, a conservative publication, asserts that a recently introduced on-line learning program by the Springfield (MO) Public Schools “proves why public education, even if taxpayers are paying for it, should act and be treated as though they are companies in the private sector.” She reaches this conclusion, in part, because their Superintendent, John Jungmann, led them there with his explanation for why his district decided to offer 40 courses on line:

Springfield Public Schools (SPS) is hardly acting altruistically. As the News Leader noted, it wants to attempt to “beat for-profit virtual schools to the punch.” Superintendent John Jungmann told the News Leader, “with private companies looking to expand in the state, it was important to come up with a local solution.”

As a conservative columnist Ms. Mull’s article is full of criticism for “government schools”, which, in her world, innovate only because of the nascent competition. Moreover, anything that takes children out of the clutches of union-dominated “government schools” is a good thing: This paragraph offers an example of the reasoning that girds Ms. Mull’s ideas about public schools:

SPS’s online offerings will still align to the state’s learning standards, which means they’ll likely be limited in what they can teach and how, and they’ll have to comply with the silly left-wing ideologies of government school administrators. But at least fewer kids will be forced to spend time in government school buildings, where time is often wasted and bullies cause unnecessary harm.

The article is worth a read if only to gain an understanding of the invalid assumptions that drive the pro-privatization and anti-“government school” movement. In Ms. Mull’s ideal world, where we are “…a nation free from government schools and odious teachers unions, wherein parents responsible enough to bring another human into this world are also responsible enough to ensure that human is educated without the government’s help” we would also be a world where atomistic students are “protected” from children who do not share the identical values of the parents, from exposure to the multiculturalism that defines the public forums in our nation, and from the chance to learn information that might be unsettling and uncomfortable. It is not the world that this “silly left wing” ideologue sees as viable or desirable.