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Posts Tagged ‘Testing’

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 to any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward mastery learning that assumes 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.

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North Carolina Legislators Haven’t Looked at the Evidence About For-Profit Schools… And Public Schools are Short-Changed as a Result

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

An op ed article in today’s Charlotte News-Observer by Keith Posten, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education in NC, describes how the North Carolina Legislature’s decision to expand funding for for-profit charter schools has diminished the opportunities for public education students across the state. His article highlights four broad initiatives that effectively re-directed education funding away from public education: private school vouchers and Education Savings Accounts; for-profit charter school management; so-called “innovative school districts; and on-line virtual schools. Here’s a synopsis from his article:

Private school vouchers. Lawmakers continue pushing the state’s private school voucher program… spending nearly one billion taxpayer dollars (since 2006). They’re doing this despite the fact that these funds go to private schools that aren’t required to tell the public whether they are doing a good job of educating students and to what degree they profit off of the taxpayer at the expense of providing high-quality educational experiences. And coming right behind vouchers are new Education Savings Accounts, similarly unaccountable and likely to drain public coffers at an even faster rate.

For-profit charter school management. Since the General Assembly lifted the charter school cap in 2011, the number of charters has nearly doubled. When charter schools are managed by private, for-profit corporations, taxpayer funds intended for instruction are used to pay hefty management fees that can be as much as 10 percent of the state dollars allocated for the school. Plus there are lucrative facility leasing arrangements, often with landlords intertwined with charter operators. (NOTE: The NYTimes article in my previous post about Michigan schools offers some stunning examples of how these leases benefit the profiteers at the expense of taxpayers) 

NC Innovative School Districts. This concept, where charter operators take over local schools, has largely been a total failure in neighboring Tennessee. Lawmakers say it will go differently here in North Carolina, where low-performing schools will, in theory, be catapulted toward high performance by a charter school operator, likely one that operates for profit. (NOTE: MANY posts describe the failure of charter operators taking over public schools in NJ, PA, OH, MI, etc… )

Online virtual charter schools. We’re in the middle of a four-year pilot program through which we’ve diverted nearly $35 million in taxpayer dollars to two for-profit companies that delivered classes online. Over that time these schools have seen staggering student withdrawal rates as high as 31 percent – only to have the legislature tweak the law to allow them to hide those numbers – and their students’ academic gains have been poor, with each school failing to meet growth and earning overall “D” school performance grades.

These decisions were all made in the face of contradictory evidence. Evidence, though, is immaterial when voters want to find an easy, fast, and inexpensive solution to a complex, longstanding, and costly problem. Mr. Posten, though, sees no end to the NC legislature adopting these ideas. He concludes his op ed piece with this:

Looking to the years ahead, even more public dollars stand to be diverted to private, unaccountable, for-profit education. It’s clear we are turning away from our state’s mission – and constitutional obligation – of providing high quality public schools accessible to all. Without a course correction, our children – and our state’s economy – will suffer.

Like many of us who want to see public education restored to its rightful place as a force for democracy and equity, Mr. Posten offers an economic argument as well as a moral one. The more I examine the issues of racial and economic justice, the more I believe we should lean on the moral argument for equitable funding and equitable housing. Martin Luther King Jr ultimately appealed to the higher angels in a majority of voters who, in turn, supported the civil rights bills and various safety net funding that accompanied the War on Poverty in the 1960s. When we argue for equity in the name of strengthening our economy, we are appealing to the baser instincts in voters which, in turn, make it easier to sell ideas like exposing public goods to the free market. I am convinced that a majority of voters in this country want to see their neighbors succeed, no matter what their neighbors skin color, nationality, or economic background. I hope that more people will speak to that element of our humanity.

 

Don’t Know Much About History? Blame the Textbooks…

August 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Atlantic writer Matt Ford’s  What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War, an article in yesterday’s yesterday on-line edition effectively laid the blame for our President’s ignorance about the Civil War on the textbooks used in classrooms while he was in school. As a contemporary of the President, I think that the way history was taught during that era was the problem far more than the content…. and the methods used in that era persist in far too many classrooms today.

The history courses— or “social studies” courses— I took in the late 1950s and early 1960s all used thick textbooks that were stuffed with facts, textbooks that were impossible to “cover” in one year and “front loaded” so that the explorers and Founding Fathers were covered in depth. In my experience, the Civil War was taught as a stand-alone event. Contrary to the premise of Mr. Ford, I recall the context for the war was limited to the premise that the South wanted to keep slavery and the North wanted to abolish it. There were facts we needed to memorize about the Civil War, but the facts were not put into a context… a method that was typical of the way all conflicts were presented. As a result, I learned a lot about the time period between 1763 and the election of George Washington, a lot about 1861-1865, and a lot about 1914-1917. Being raised in a Republican bastion, we also learned that FDR’s programs did nothing to left the country out of the Depression. Instead it was our entry into World War II that got our economy back on track.

Throughout junior and senior high school our history teachers relied heavily on AV to deliver many of the facts we needed to recall for the tests… and one teacher in particular showed film-after-film of the battles in World War II, a favorite era for him. Because he emphasized that particular time span in that fashion, we learned even less about the economic factors that led to World War II and hardly anything about our country’s isolationist perspective prior to the war. We all learned that history was about memorizing indisputable facts and timelines.

The result of this approach to presenting material was to conflate the accumulation of facts with “history”, which deadened the subject and, in all probability, led many in my generation to be incurious about the causes and effects of the events we had to commit to memory. Clearly both recent GOP Presidents lack the curiosity needed to delve deeply into causes and effects of events that faced them. The anti-intellectualism of the GOP that has come into full bloom under President Trump dates back to the antipathy the party generated in opposition to Adlai Stevenson, the anti-Communist attacks of Joe McCarthy, and Spiro Agnew’s railing against the “pointy-headed” liberals.

Mr. Ford is right in his criticism of the material in the textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s. It was too often sanitized in order to be marketable in all parts of the country and, consequently, omitted contentious issues like slavery and racism that supported slavery. But he misses the key point that the way we were tested on those facts led us to accept them as indisputable and etched in stone. Worse, it led too many of us to stop looking deeply into the causes and effects of events and to diminish those who bothered to do so.

 

 

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.

In Immigration Debate, AND in School, Don’t Overlook the Value of Hard Work

August 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the past several years– and especially over the past year or so, much has been written about the ongoing debate about immigration. Jeff Flake, a GOP Senator from Arizona, wrote a compelling op ed piece in last week’s NYTimes that argued for acknowledging the value of hard work as well as the value of advanced education when developing immigration policy. In deciding whether to admit an immigrant seeking asylum or a better opportunity, many politicians are fixated on credentials. Not Jeff Flake, who argues that immigration policy needs to take the importance of hard work into consideration:

History doesn’t much record the unglamorous and often excruciating work of moving sprinkler pipe, digging ditch, chopping hay or keeping a broken-down feed truck running for just one more year… Without such work there is no ranch. Without ranches, my town and towns like it falter. And so in my estimation, Manuel (a hardworking immigrant who worked on the Flake’s ranch0 is just about the highest-value immigrant possible, and if we forget that, then we forget something elemental about America.

Near the end of the article, which uses the Flake’s ranch hand Manuel as an example, he writes:

When President Trump embraced a proposal this month that would cut legal immigration by 50 percent, I spoke out against it, thinking of the immigrant workers I grew up with. When re-evaluating immigration policy, it is right to give priority, through a point system or otherwise, to those who have skills and abilities unique to the new economy. We did this in 2013, in the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate. But there must always be a place in America for those whose only initial credentials are a strong back and an eagerness to use it.

This line of thinking led me to consider our current education policy, which uses test results and timed progress through “grade levels” as proxies for entry into college and into the higher earnings that are associated with a college degree. Where does public education take hard work into account? If a student makes an earnest effort to complete assignments but works at a slower pace or learns in a different way than his classmates do we reward that student in any way… or punish them because they are “behind”? And if we punish them by giving them low grades or holding them back despite their earnest efforts, why are we surprised when they decide to work less diligently in later years? And here’s the bottom line question: are we diminishing the eagerness of students to work hard and apply themselves by branding them as incompetent because their rate of learning and style of learning is outside the norm?

 

Homeless Students Increase in NYC… Underscoring Impact of Externalities on “School Quality”

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Elizabeth Harris’ article in today’s NYTimes opened with this unfathomable fact:

There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany.

The article, which was triggered by the release of a report to be released on today by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, assesses the impact of homelessness on students, noting that on average those 100,000 children missed 88 days of school during the year they were homeless. Ms. Harris provides many facts like that in her article, but the facts understate the impact of homelessness because data cannot capture what the stress must be like for children who are exposed to the threats of losing their homes over extended periods of time. Nor can the data accurately capture the number of near homeless children: children whose parents are threatened with the need to move because of higher rents, lost employment, and family tragedies.

Nor does the article delve into some of the ways homelessness undercuts the efforts of public school teachers and administrators to improve their schools and undercuts the accountability measures used to determine the “quality” of schools. A few examples:

  • How can schools in the Bronx, which had over 10,000 homeless students, be compared with schools in Bayside Queens, which had “only” 823 homeless students?
  • How can the parents of the 100,000 students who are homeless be expected to complete the daunting paperwork necessary to apply for entry into a charter school?
  • And if the charter schools do not include homeless students in their applicant pools or student bodies, how can their results be compared to those of schools like those in the Bronx where there are high concentrations of homeless children?

The overarching questions, then, are these:

  • How can public schools whose attendance zones include the worst housing in the city and highest levels of homelessness be expected to perform as well as public schools whose attendance zones include the best housing and lowest levels of homelessness?
  • How can “school choice” be any kind of solution for families who wonder where they will live?

Reformers need to answer these questions before offering solutions.

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.