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Christensen Institute’s Michael Horn is Right: It’s Time to Abandon “Gifted and Talented” Label

August 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Let’s Retire the “Gifted and Talented” Label“, Michael Horn’s recent post in the Christensen Institute Newsletter, had a special resonance with me. Mr. Horn argues against the label because it is inextricably linked to the tests used to identify students who are “gifted and talented” and those tests, in turn, are inextricably linked to the grouping of students in age-based cohorts that fail to take the differences in rates of intellectual maturity. But my personal experience tells me there are at least two more reasons to abandon the label.

In 1957 I was in 4th grade at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, having moved to that city when my father was transferred by DuPont. I recall being amazed that the math topics offered that year were identical to the math topics I covered a year earlier in Pennsylvania. I also recall one news event that fall that captured the imagination of the nation: the USSR’s launching of Sputnik. One of the immediate responses to the launch was passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, an act that included millions of dollars for science education and an act that sought to identify the best and brightest students to help the US win the Space Race that was launched when Sputnik orbited the earth.

At the end of 5th grade, I was identified as one of the “best and brightest” students in Oklahoma and placed in a special program with several of my peers. I am certain my “excellence” in math classes helped in my identification as one of the “best and brightest”, an “excellence” that had more to do with Oklahoma’s lagging curriculum standards than my aptitude. I also am certain that my test scores helped as well, for I have always done well on the tests that stand as a proxy for “intelligence”.  For my 6th grade year in Oklahoma, our group was assigned what would come to be called “inter-disciplinary units” instead of traditional subject-matter classes, working on projects instead of worksheets. It was by far the best year I experienced in my entire K-12 schooling. The teachers and interns worked with us closely and provided individual tutoring and counseling and my classmates were all engaged and committed to learning. We were taunted by others in school on occasion, but once we got on the athletic fields at recess our status as “gifted and talented” students didn’t matter, only our ability to kick a soccer ball (incredibly we couldn’t play football at recess!) and pitch, catch, and hit a baseball.

A year later, my father was transferred back to Pennsylvania and because of the timing of our arrival and the fact that I was “from Oklahoma”, I was placed in the second highest cohort of 60-70 students in the homogeneous groupings in junior high school. I was no longer “gifted and talented”. Instead, I was among the 80% of students at South Junior High Schoo who were identified as UN-gifted and UN-talented. From that day forward I understood the preposterousness of classifying students based on test scores or “academic performance”, for despite the fact that I earned high grades and scored high on tests in 7th grade, there was no room for me in the classrooms in the highest performing cohort and so I was relegated to the second tier for the balance of my secondary education… that is until I qualified to take calculus in 12th grade making it impossible for me to “fit” into second tier classes elsewhere.

I tell this anecdote because it reinforces two adverse elements of identifying “gifted and talented” students. First, when a small group of students is segregated as being “gifted and talented” it simultaneously identifies those NOT identified as “UN-gifted and UN-talented” as my experience with “second tier” students in Pennsylvania demonstrated to me. The teachers who worked with our group in Junior High School constantly told us explicitly and implicitly that most of us in the class “were not college material” and that we needed to work hard if we ever hoped to go on for more education. I know my friends in the top division heard a different and far more positive message from their teachers. Secondly, any isolation of “gifted and talented” students necessarily excludes students who are moving from school-to-school or region-to-region. How many students are affected by this? According to an Education Week article by Sarah Sparks from 2016, 6.5 million students per year! And that same article included this finding:

High churn in schools not only can hurt the students who leave, but also those who remain enrolled. A 2014 report by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement in Georgia found schools with higher concentrations of mobile students had higher percentages of students with disabilities and fewer students in gifted education programs.

In a report on student mobility by the National Academy of Sciences, Chester Hartman, the research director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, noted that high-poverty urban schools can have more than half of their students turn over within a single school year.

“It’s chaos,” he said in the 2010 report. “It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better-trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.

Not only does the identification of “gifted and talented” students penalize “late bloomers”, it also penalizes students attending schools with high levels of transience and stigmatizes all the UN-gifted and UN-talented students who are NOT identified. Michael Horn is right: it is time to retire the “gifted and talented” label for once and for all and begin to identify the unique gifts and talents of all the children.

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Summertime Scheduling Problems That Plague Middle Class Exist All Year for 40% of Parents

August 10, 2018 Leave a comment

In yesterday’s post about Arne Duncan’s latest book, I emphasized one observation Mr. Duncan made in an interview with the Atlantic that I found especially insightful. In assessing the challenges urban schools face, he noted the link between parent engagement and student success:

It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.

This particular quote resonated with me because it did not cast blame on disengaged parents. Rather, it underscored that parents who would otherwise be involved in the lives of their children are often pre-occupied with other issues. A recent NYTimes article indicated that one overarching issue for parents who work multiple jobs or single parents is finding childcare. The headline for Dr. Julia Henley’s article in late July captures the problem. It read “Think Summer Child Care is Tough? Low Income Parents Deal With That All Year“. Dr. Henley describes the frustration upper middle class working parents face in the summertime when schools are closed and notes that these problems persist year round for low income working parents, especially those who work multiple part-time jobs or who work in retail where just-in-time scheduling is practiced:

But the gaps in care that frustrate well-off families over the summer are a constant in the lives of lower-income parents, who disproportionately work jobs with schedules that are not limited to weekday hours and can change unexpectedly. It’s a year-round second job to find safe, let alone enriching, supervision for their kids.

As part of a study my colleagues and I did on the child-care arrangements of parents in the retail sector, a part-time department store sales clerk told me that she had worked a different schedule each day the prior week: on Sunday she worked from noon to 5 p.m., on Monday from 2 to 8:30 p.m., on Wednesday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and on Saturday from 1:30 to 9 p.m.

Over 40 percent of American children live with a parent who mostly works during hours when schools aren’t open and traditional child care isn’t available — during the early mornings, evenings, weekends or overnight — and these work schedules are often changing at the last minute. Some parents choose these shifts as part of a shared caregiving strategy with a spouse, but most don’t have a choice.

Dr. Henley notes that even though 40% of children live in a situation where a parent works nontraditional work hours, only 8% of the childcare centers offer coverage during those times. The result?

This mismatch between child-care needs and work demands forces parents to assemble a complicated bundle of arrangements, often with both formal and informal caregivers. These arrangements can be unstable and difficult to maintain, stress relationships and threaten the stability of already precarious work situations.

Apart from voluntary actions by socially responsible employers and some scheduling laws passed by a handful of progressive state legislatures, no action has been taken to ameliorate this problem. Indeed, the current administration has doubled down on the problem by insisting on work requirements for those getting government benefits for children, effectively requiring more parents to “assemble a complicated bundle of arrangements” to provide care for their children.

Meanwhile, in the face of the reality that 40% of children live in a situation where a parent needs to “assemble a complicated bundle of arrangements” to care for their children outside of the traditional work day and school day, our politicians continue to emphasize test results as the ultimate metric for school quality. If Arne Duncan was truly worried about the children whose parents were not present because they had too much going on in their lives, he might have set an example for school leaders by partnering with the HHS Secretary and the Secretary of Labor to develop legislation that would require predictable work hours to help the 40% of children who live in a situation where parents work outside of the traditional time frame.

Arne Duncan Still True Believer in VAM, “Failure” of Public Schools, Standardized Testing

August 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Arne Duncan has written a new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, and he is getting lots of publicity as he tours the country selling his book and the tired ideas in it. Here’s the opening paragraph from a review of his book by Atlantic reporter Alia Wong:

Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.” If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.

This paragraph itself is full of canards about public education that only someone who never set foot in a public school could believe. I worked in an urban middle school, a blue collar suburban high school, and a rural high school that served many poor families. The teachers in these schools, even the weakest, had high expectations for their children.

As for the “accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their test-score results”, I presume he must be referring to the grading systems that allow students to pass a course with a “C” or a “D”, grades that typically require a student to get grades that do not require mastery of ALL the information presented. And the norm-referenced tests that were the backbone of the RTTT “accountability systems” Mr. Duncan imposed on schools that were presumably designed to avoid the “fudging” did nothing to help students. They only reinforced the notion that students were poorly prepared because teachers were lazy and incompetent and did so by providing a sheen of precision.

In the interview with Ms. Wong that accompanied this overview of his book Mr. Duncan DID reveal an understanding of the root cause of “failing” schools… and it isn’t the teachers… it’s parents who are disengaged from the lives of their students, parent’s whose disengagement is often the result of working multiple jobs or, in the worst case, drug and alcohol abuse. Here’s Mr. Duncan’s take:

It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.

But, as written frequently in this blog, actions speak louder than words. IF Mr. Duncan believed this as the head of public education in Chicago and then the nation, why did he not take action to provide support for the children of disengaged parents, the children whose performance pulls down the test scores he values so highly and whose ultimate withdrawal from schools increases the drop out rates he blames on “the system”?

Mr. Duncan’s perspective on gun violence was also on point. But like his views on the problems presented by disengaged parents, it’s a perspective he failed to share when he led the nation’s schools:

I talk a lot about gun violence—it’s what I’m dealing with in Chicago all the time; it unfortunately shaped me as a kid; we saw it in the Sandy Hook massacre, which happened when I was education secretary. There’s no political leader who says they don’t value kids, but the truth is: we value guns more than we value the lives of our children .And that is irrefutable if you look at the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. compared to other nations that make other policy choices.

Mr. Duncan purports to be one who perceives education as a great equalizer and one who attempts to use data to help him see what works and what doesn’t work. I wish that as Secretary of Education emeritus he would take a dispassion look at the true impact of RTTT and acknowledge that it was a doubling down on NCLB, a program he viewed as “horribly constructed.” I wish he would acknowledge that the standardized tests he advocated were not constructed to perform the VAM he mandated and resulted in the discrediting of the teaching profession. I wish that he would trumpet the need for programs to support parents who “…just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education” and speak out against the politicians who value guns more than we value the lives of our children. Finally, I wish he would acknowledge that the programs he advocates, the expansion of choice and charters, reward those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children, sidestep the need for a larger investment in the safety net, and divert needed funds away from public schools.

Tennessee’s Faith in Testing is Based on the Flawed Premise that More Money is Unnecessary

August 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday decrying the “colossal failure” of the school district comprised of the “failing schools” taken over by the state, a district that received millions of dollars from Race to the Top to replace “failing” public schools with charters. There’s only one problem, as noted in the Chalkbeat article that was the basis for Ms. Ravitch’s post: low-performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools, where most of the “failing schools” taken over by the state are located, have outpaced progress of those run by the state! 

The agreeable fantasy that a “state takeover” of “failing schools” or the outsourcing of those same schools to deregulated charter schools would lead to their “improvement” underpins virtually all federal and state legislation. It also underpins the reform movement and leads to other agreeable fantasies promoted by reformers. These agreeable fantasies enable politicians to dodge the need for legislation that would either require them to raise more money for public education or divert the money already allocated to less affluent districts. It also enabled them to adopt other ideas based on magical thinking, ideas that don’t require more money but result in “improvement”. Ideas like: firing “bad teachers” would improve “failing schools”; or, “adopting a uniform curriculum” would improve the teaching and learning in “failing schools”; or “eliminating frills” would direct more resources “to the classroom”; or implementing merit pay plans that would reward the “best and brightest teachers” and withhold raises from “weak teachers” thereby “improving failing schools”; or implementing programs that “increase the grit” of students raised in poverty to help them overcome the adversity they face. None of these ideas require more money and all of them directly or indirectly scapegoat the teachers who work tirelessly to improve their “failing” schools.

But the biggest agreeable fantasy is that statewide standardized norm referenced tests are the best means of measuring the “quality of education”… and, as we are witnessing, the state that gave us value added testing has tremendous faith in that fantasy… and. alas, so do most voters across the country despite the accumulating evidence to the contrary.

Palm Beach Florida Exemplifies Disturbing Result of Flat Funding: Mid-Career Teachers Lose

July 28, 2018 Comments off

An article by Andrew Marra in yesterday’s Pal Beach Post describes the impact of a 2003 decision to withhold “automatic raises” on the mid-career teachers today… and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The article doesn’t offer a detailed description of the “automatic raises”, but it is evident that they are the pay increases that result from the traditional unified pay schedule that provides teachers with both a “step” and a “cost-of-living” (COLA) increase in their pay. The article indicates that in 2003 the Superintendent proposed eliminating these raises should a financial crisis warrant such action and the Board at that time concurred by a 4-3 vote. When the Great Recession took place, the step + COLA increases for mid-career teachers were abandoned entirely and eventually replaced with flat across-the-board pay increases. To make matters worse, the State funding for public education was flattened making any compensation increases a zero-sum game, and in that zero-sum environment mid-career teachers experienced diminished compensation so that new hires could get competitive pay. To make matters worse, the Florida State legislature passed a bill that required districts to give teachers rated “highly effective” larger raises than those rated “effective” based on test scores. Consequently, Marra reports that “highly effective” teachers generally receive an extra $350 to $450 when raises are given out. And as district officials note, this combined with flat funding makes it difficult for districts to address the under-compensation.

Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation, defended the district’s handling of teacher pay over the years, saying that no individual teacher’s pay was ever cut.

He said that what the district spends on employee salaries is largely constrained by the money the state Legislature provides each year.

State lawmakers’ unusually low boosts to education spending since the recession, he said, has made honoring the teachers’ old salary schedule impossible.

“When we started giving increases again, we couldn’t afford what was on the schedule,” he said. “We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”

Years ago when I was in high school, I recall accompanying my mother to the grocery store and seeing my calculus teacher (and Mathematics Department head) working at the cash register. Even though I felt that it was demeaning to see my favorite teacher working at a menial part-time job, it didn’t prevent me from going into teaching. But the experience did make it clear that I would not be able to be a teacher unless I supplemented by income in some way… and did make the path to becoming an administrator more enticing.

I am not an advocate for the unified pay schedule, though I understand it’s appeal to teachers because it is usually fair and predictable. But I AM an advocate for providing enough compensation to teachers so that they can devote all of their time and energy to educating the children in their classrooms. If our country, our States, and our school districts are serious about providing all children with an opportunity for success, we need to provide the resources needed to ensure that they are taught by individuals whose attention is fully focussed on them… and not on the line of customers awaiting them at a grocery store.

In PA, Neither Candidate for Governor is Facing Fiscal Reality… and Neither are Voters

July 13, 2018 Comments off

Today’s Google feed featured three articles about a war of words between the two candidates for governor: the GOP’s Scott Wagner and the incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf. According to a US News and World Report article by AP reporter Mark Levy, Mr. Wagner is claiming, with no facts to support his claim, that the incumbent intends to short-change some school districts in the state by redistributing funds from districts with shrinking populations to growing districts who supported the Democratic party. This baseless claim comes from a candidate who decried the hold harmless provisions Mr. Wolf supported in order to increase funding for public education in the state. But Mr. Wolf cannot get off from a funding reality: the public schools in his state remain underfunded, the legislature seems unwilling to provide the tax increases needed to close the gap, and he has not indicated how he will close the gap.

What is happening in PA mirrors and illustrates the daunting challenges politicians face if they hope to keep promises. No one wants to see their taxes raised, no one wants to see their services cut, and no politician seems willing to point out this obvious: these two outcomes cannot be achieved without some kind of compromise. At this juncture, it seems that children are the ones who ultimately suffer the consequences.

Where You Are Born Determines Your Future… But Fixing That Reality is Vexing

July 12, 2018 Comments off

A the title of a recent NYTimes Upshot article by Neil Irwin describes a reality that vexes both economists and policy makers: “One County Thrives. The Next One Over Struggles. Economists Take Note.” The article uses Loudon County VA and Jefferson County WV as exemplars of this phenomenon, but there are several other paired counties across the nation that have the same issues. Here’s Mr. Irwin’s description of the divide:

Economically, Loudoun County is humming from the technology boom in Washington’s suburbs, with the number of businesses rising 49 percent from 2005 to 2015. But on the other side of that border, Jefferson County doesn’t have the same economic dynamism: The number of businesses in the county fell 11 percent in the same period, according to census data.

Mr. Irwin uses this as a springboard for political analyses, noting that the poorer counties supported Donald Trump in 2016 while the more affluent counties trended toward Hillary Clinton. He also notes that average increases, which drive macro-economic thinking, often mask marked differences in well-being, differences that can put regions into a death spiral due to “path dependence”:

But averages can mask a lot of discontent. If growth in jobs, incomes and output is concentrated in a few areas, the overall national numbers might look perfectly fine even as people in huge areas of the country feel despair and a lack of opportunity.

Path dependence may be one cause of recent trends. In a place with a depressed economy, for example, the most ambitious people move to places with more opportunity, leaving an even bleaker situation behind.

Having consulted in school districts in poor counties in New England and worked in a relatively poor county in Maryland, I repeatedly heard the lament about the outmigration of the “best and brightest”. Even New Hampshire, which has a relatively strong economy, is trying to hold onto those “ambitious people” who work as entrepreneurs and provide forward thinking local leadership.

Mr. Irwin doesn’t offer any clear answers to the steps counties or policy makers can take to address this divide. He describes an idea advanced by the Third Way think tank that suggested two bad ideas bookending a relatively good one: “...a public fund to support small-business loans in the struggling regions, nationwide broadband internet and vouchers to help the unemployed move to places where there are more jobs.” Increased broadband would clearly help counties attract new technology related or impacted businesses and hold onto those who favor their hometowns over other areas where technology is more readily accessible. Small business loans might make a difference, but only if the loans are available to existing businesses as well as new ones, who often get benefits that create resentment among existing ones. The notion of offering vouchers to help the unemployed move would only exacerbate the negative economic cycle sine those left behind would tend to be the elderly or those who have extended families in the area. Irwin concludes with this:

Individual proposals aside, experts haven’t formed a consensus on how to make economically moribund places feel more like economically dynamic ones. But it is clearer than ever that this divergence explains much of what ails the United States’ economy, and just maybe its politics, too.

Here’s an idea for Mr. Irwin and the “experts”: invest in local government agencies— including public education— instead of businesses. Local government agencies employ highly educated individuals whose salaries will fuel the local economy and whose commitment to developing community will attract other businesses to move into the town. If you want to make a community more vibrant and more attractive to new business ventures and the in-migrants who would follow, you need to invest in local government as well as business.