Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Housing Policy & Educational Opportunity: Some Notes

Today I had the pleasure of being a panelist in Richmond at HOME's (Housing Opportunities Made Equal) Blogger Luncheon on Housing & Opportunity. Besides being treated to a tasty lunch (& free parking!) I got to listen to and partake in interesting conversations about Richmond Metro Area housing, public and mass transportation, families, parenting, entrepreneurship, politics, democratic process and institutions, social media, real estate, communities, and, of course, education. Here I'm going to summarize what I shared there, including links.

Three ways I could think of that housing influences educational opportunities and outcomes are:

1) Housing conditions, meaning the conditions and environment that students and their families live in. Such conditions can affect a child's readiness to learn.

  • Is the dwelling and surrounding neighborhood safe?
  • Is the housing well-maintained?
  • Is there running, potable water? 
  • Is there adequate heating/cooling? Is the heating and cooling affordable? 
  • Is there a lot of noise? Is there a quiet place to study or read?  
  • Is the housing in an area of concentrated poverty? Is the child in an environment causing toxic stress for them and/or for a disproportionate number of their neighbors?
  • What is the air quality in the neighborhood?
  • Is there access to supermarkets and healthy food?
  • Are there adequate public transportation options?
  • Is there access to adequate health care?

2) The strength and existence, even, of a neighborhood school. Studies show that most parents prefer to send their children to schools in their neighborhood. It's more convenient but also serves as a positive community and support systems builder. Of course, this practice can conflict with making schools diverse and providing equality of access, which bring me to point 3.

3) Housing and zoning policies. Economic integration of housing and neighborhoods is an over-looked yet proven tool for school reform (N.B.: I am by no means saying it's the only one).

  • According to the (must-read!) book The Color of Their Skin about the Richmond Public Schools desegregation process (the book also covers other districts in Virginia), school desegregation only occurred in any substance for a few years before the schools in Richmond proper and the surrounding areas re-segregated. Busing was a temporary and heavily protested solution. Housing policies needed to change but did not. In fact, zoning policies became more discriminatory, serving as de facto segregation laws.
  • According to a study reported in 2010 by The Century Foundation, low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland, who go to high-performing public schools in more affluent districts do better academically than their peers who live in lower-income districts attending schools with majority low-income populations, even if those schools are given more resources.
  • Furthermore, a study by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program released last week showed that metropolitan areas' housing policies keep low-income students from attending high-performing schools. Restrictive or exclusionary policies that prohibit the development of apartment buildings and smaller houses on smaller parcels cause economic segregation. 
  • In high-performing, mixed-SES schools, all kids benefit from: lower rates of teacher and principal turnover; parents with more time and resources to give to the school; parents who feel more empowered to advocate for rich, meaningful, and vital educational opportunities; fewer families who are under significant stress; and being part of a diverse, pluralistic learning community.
  • Additional links:

  1. Study of Montgomery County schools shows benefits of economic integration
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/14/AR2010101407577.html
  3. Interactive: Housing Costs, Zoning and School Access:

  4. The New Brookings Report on Economic Segregation

  5. http://botc.tcf.org/2012/04/the-new-brookings-report-on-economic-segregation.html 
  6. Could new zoning laws help educate poor kids?

  7. Study Links Zoning to Education Disparities

  8. Education For Poor Students Threatened By Exclusionary Housing Policies, Report Says


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parent Jiggernaut Follow-Up: Opting out vs. Opting In

This is a follow-up to my post from earlier today:

Some people have asked me why we don't opt our kids out of testing such as this movement encourages people to do. That is definitely under consideration. My reluctance with that is two-fold:

1) I see value in the disruptive route--there are many ways to effect change. I am grateful to have been made aware of my rights as a parent and I see value in publicizing those rights. All power to unitedoptout. But I am not a disruptor. I'm a persuader (though apparently not a very successful one if measured by actions taking after reading this blog). I'd much rather try to reason with people first, citing evidence, and then try to work something out collaboratively without being disruptive, especially if children are involved.

2) Even if I did opt my kids out of the official standardized tests (in my state of Virginia they are the SOLs), that would not change everything that leads up to the tests or everything that the tests drive. In fact, if there really were only four testing days (in 3rd grade there are four SOL tests) with four tests at the end of the school year, I would not care so much. I might not care at all. It's everything else that bothers me. I don't want to opt out of the tests themselves as much as I want to opt my children out of excessive test prep, practice and benchmark tests (which mirror the official tests), as well as out of a test-narrowed curriculum. I want to opt in to rich and meaningful curriculum, to more hands-on learning, to more inter-disciplinary studies, to field trips, to more recess, to more art, to more music, to more theater, to more PE, to more history, to more civics, to more science, to more "life" skills, to a better education.

If I am going to my children's school or even school district office to tell them as a parent that I want a richer and more meaningful curriculum, a more joyful and interesting school experience for my children, one that capitalizes on children's curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and their response is We agree but we have no control over that then that's a problem. That's a big problem. And I don't see this being solved at the root by parent trigger-type laws or by the current federal and state education policies that dictate the very practices I find wanting. If the school or districts are structured such that power is not theirs to relinquish in the first place, with no flexibility to grant educators, then how can I as a parent, without there being any real change in policy or power hierarchies, locate any real power to make or advocate for change in how and what my children are learning?

Parent Jiggernaut

As a parent who used to be in the classroom, I sometimes struggle with which perspective to think from: from that of a parent or from that of a teacher. Becoming a parent made me a much better and more understanding teacher. Conversely, strategies I used in teaching and things I learned there about human nature and interacting with children have proven invaluable to me as a parent. Interacting with other people's children, of course, is not the same thing as interacting with my own. My own children can tick me off in ways my students never could; I can have a hard time getting to that calm, clinical space with my own kids, even as I know I'd make fewer mistakes if I could get there.

So sometimes I feel conflicted when it comes to advocacy and opinions. Watching my own children develop has taught me a lot about how people learn and has challenged some of my old (teacher's) thinking. On the one hand, I have much less tolerance, for example, for constructivist approaches and for the teaching of reading strategies and skills. On the other hand, I appreciate that constructivists envision schools as meaningful, joyful, and relevant places. It breaks my heart whenever my children are driven to tears, overwhelmed by the tedium and stress they sometimes feel at school, which is in contrast to the how they joyfully think and engage in learning outside of school. I understand that reading strategies are emphasized out of a desire to equip students with the tools to be successful learners. My children enjoy their reading block even if it's unclear how much they are actually learning from it when there is not much curricular coherence to it.

So, to get to the point of this post, especially as the topic has been popular in edu-news lately, I have been thinking a lot about parent trigger laws and actions. Also, my own daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and the topic of school quality and parent activism has come up on the playground at her preschool, especially since many of her classmates also will be starting kindergarten, though unlike her, many don't have older siblings who have already been through it.

The situation in Desert Trails in Southern California, especially struck me. Some parents organized to pull a parent trigger on their neighborhood school because they felt their kids weren't learning what they were supposed to, though it sounds as if the parents were really trying to work with the district. I'm not going to get into the process there or discuss the ins and outs of what may or may not have happened there. What really struck me was what the parents wanted, why they were organizing a a parent trigger: They want smaller classes, more art, music, and other subjects beyond reading and math. The parents refer to these as "reforms" but most educators would call them essentials; most public schools and educators want these things as well.  It seems, to me at least, that it is the state that isn't providing what they want. Surely, there are other problems and I don't blame these parents for being upset. I'd be upset. But it sounds like they want the school to provide what the state doesn't have the will or means to provide.

So, if we grant parents more choice or power to turn their schools into charters, for example, is the charter going to provide what they want? Will parents be more engaged or involved? My sense is that perhaps in the short run they will be, but I'm not sure about the long-run. I tend to agree with Diane Ravitch and other detractors that public schools or public spaces do not belong only to the group of people currently using them; they belong to the community, including future community members. Furthermore, once the school is turned over to private or unaccountable hands and is detached from any democratic process, the parents will have even less say. Parents Across America explained this in their statement in opposition to parent trigger-type solutions, saying that they won't ultimately result in meaningful parent engagement or voice (also relevant is their position on real parent empowerment). It does seem like parents get hooked in and then used to make a change that ultimately leaves them with little role in the new or parent-trigger-changed school. But that's ultimately what parents should be after: more of a role and more of a voice.

In my own (older) children's school, we are navigating excessive and unhealthy high-stakes testing. I am not opposed to testing but to developmentally inappropriate and high-stakes testing. It is corrupting what and how my children learn and what and how they are taught. I want my children to learn more science, social studies, the arts, PE, foreign languages, and practical skills. If I organize a group of parents to take over the school, will this change? I don't see how, not as long as the current policies stay in place. This is where we as parents need to go to central administrations, school boards, elected officials, legislators, and other decision makers. It is their policies and legislation that are eroding the quality of education my children receive; it is not the teachers or their principals. So, here I am in a tricky position. I support the school and teachers (my children have yet to have a "bad" teacher) in my community but I feel I must contest the bad practices they are forced to implement.

In my own conversations with other parents, I often hear them talk about school ratings. At the same time, they bemoan the state of the curriculum--the lack of art, music, science, social studies, unstructured play. I try, diplomatically, to remind them that school ratings (such as those in Great Schools) tend to be based on test scores. If we as parents use or value those ratings to judge schools, then that is what our schools are going to aspire to. If we rate or value a school based on the curriculum they offer (such as more art and music) and their pedagogy or instructional practices, then that is what they will aspire to (and that's what I'd argue we want them to aspire to). It's not that I don't look at the test scores because I do, but it's a matter of the context I consider them in and the judgments I make based on them.

It seems like what we need is more democracy, not less; to build sustainable, long-term parent engagement. Even though I am a relatively well-informed parent, sometimes even I don't know what parent engagement looks like or should look like. I started parenting simply thinking of all the things my struggling students were missing and built from there. Everything I knew would have helped my students do better academically and learn more, I made sure to do as a parent. That often seems to me like the greatest gift I can give my children, their teachers, and their peers. But then being involved in their schooling is another step, but how much involvement is appropriate? When help or feedback is requested from school, I do my best to answer the call. I express my displeasure at all of the high-stakes testing, I state clearly that I won't be doing any test prep at home and then I support as much as I can in a positive way what I'd like to see more of in schools. I am trying to help the art teacher get an award in the form of a big grant so that she'll bring back resources to classroom teachers. I participate and volunteer in book swaps. My husband taught an after school chess club. When surveys are sent out, I complete them. I offer to serve on long-term planning committees. I volunteer in classrooms. Are we doing too much? Too little?

While I recognize the expertise of my children's teachers and having been a teacher and given the current climate, I acknowledge the limitations and stresses they are under, I try to subvert the high-stakes testing, test prep, and narrowing of the curriculum in a positive way. But there's only so far this goes because for now none of that changes the continued unhealthy emphasis on standardized testing. It doesn't change the amount of data collection that takes place via developmentally inappropriate and misery-inducing standardized tests. It doesn't change the current realities that my children are learning in and that their teachers are teaching in. That's why I have real sympathy for people like me who choose to home school (and there are a lot where I live). I cheered Dana Goldstein's defense of public schooling versus home schooling, but I also know that it's an easy thing to defend when you don't have a child who melts down at home in tears and anger and questions of Why?!?! every time there's a benchmark, practice, or high-stakes test. (And my children do quite well on them!) Sometimes I want to give them what I see my homeschooling neighbors giving their children. What's so frustrating is that there's no good reason why public schools can't offer many of those same things.

So far, my children are high achievers and performers. Besides contributing positively, perhaps I can lead by example. If my own kids, who are are among the youngest in their class, come to school ready to learn, excel academically, and rarely miss questions on these tests; if I'm not doing test prep and I am making sure my kids have a knowledge-rich home life and I'm opposed to high stakes testing, maybe I'm on to something. If policy makers, legislators, and education reformers really wanted to empower parents, at the very least they'd they'd stop simply trying make it easier to hand over to schools to outside parties who can only pretend they know better. At the very most, they'd start listening to and acting upon what it is exactly that parents and communities envision for their children's education.

We parents must resolve to make them.

To read my follow-up post to this one, see here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Some Comments on Beautiful Souls, Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press

This is a guest post by an author who wishes to go by the pen name of Molly McGuire:

There's Many of Us Out There
by Molly McGuire

Caught as I am in a compromised world, Eyal Press’ book encouraged me to keep fighting. There’s a lot of us out there. We’re public school teachers. We’re told by our bosses to do things that hurt children. We refuse. 

We’re the sort who read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, or Diana Senechal’s The Republic of Noise, or Dan Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School. I’d like to add Eyal Press’ book to this list. He’s telling the stories of ordinary people (when Steven Spielberg wanted an ordinary civilian job for his hero in Saving Private Ryan, he makes him a high school English teacher) who act in ways they believe to be right. These people go beyond the times and the political winds, violent as they may be, to the fundamental principles of their group or activity. 

There’s the Swiss police officer, believing in his nation’s tradition of a haven for refugees, forging documents so that Jews fleeing Austria in 1938 can stay. The Serb who stands up for the decency of his neighboring Croatians during the Yugoslavian war. An Israeli soldier asserts the humanity of the Arabs whose land he refuses to occupy. And the American financial services consultant, who questioned the safety of an investment that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Doing their jobs, as they see fit to do them. 

Most consoling is how much these people aren’t ever seen as heroes. They’re shunned, pushed aside by those too embarrassed to acknowledge how principled, how brave, how right these few were. The pleasure in taking such a stand, Eyal Press tells us, is that you get to live with a clean conscience. 

I teach part-time now, having been fired for being ineffective, and then offered a part time gig to stop the howling by students and parents. I do more gardening. I look at my grandchildren. I smile, knowing I’m with a band of brothers and sisters, over time, over continents. Read Eyal Press’ wonderful book. Join us. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Textbook Dependence

There's been lots of talk lately on textbooks (or maybe not so lately--I've been avoiding writing). First, Beverlee Jobrack's Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms was published. Next, the edu-world was all aflutter over Apple's entrance into the textbooks market. Finally, veteran textbook author and publisher Annie Keeghan offered some not-so-pretty insights into the aging, hulking industry textbooks have become.

I haven't gotten a chance to read Jobrack's work, but luckily Education Week curriculum journalist Erik Robelen and by the Fordham Institute's curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee did.

I agree with Jobrack's premise as stated by Robelen that in discussions of education reform:
improving the curriculum—what actually gets taught in classrooms—is all too often left off the table. And the author, who provides an insider perspective on the world of developing and selecting curricular materials, contends that this neglect is a key obstacle to increased student learning.
Now I can't refute Jobrack's contentions, but I can speak to my opinion on textbooks, which is that they may well be inaccurate and I can only imagine that they are just slapping new labels on old content. (And this is why textbooks on i-pads will not be "revolutionary.") I also can mostly speak as a social studies teacher. When I taught strict ESOL, I didn't use one textbook in particular but various books and resources depending on what I was teaching. That was true of social studies, too, but I did lean on the textbooks more. But I think the problem with textbooks is two-fold:

1) Especially in subjects such as social studies, textbooks are over-emphasized. Sure, textbooks are useful. Especially when I teach social studies, I use them as reference books and encyclopedias. I like to have two or three sets of textbooks in the class--to check different sources but also so that students of varying reading levels can access the content. Otherwise, I have students read historical fiction and non-textbook non-fiction books, and I use articles and readings that I come across on relevant topics--from the newspaper, from periodicals. What I like about using these is that they usually reflect in some way current scholarship in certain matters, and they are what I want my students eventually to be able to read and make sense of outside of school, independently. Part of what I'm teaching students is that yes, there are facts in social studies and history, but there is also how you put together the facts, interpret them, and which facts are accepted and which are controversial and why. This leads me to the problem that. . .

2) teachers, especially at the secondary level, don't often know enough about the subjects they teach to know if the textbook is wrong or to come up with readings beyond it. When you know very little about a subject you will be teaching, if for example if you are assigned at the last minute to teach World History (as I have been), when you know much more about US History, there's going to be a lot to learn in a brief amount of time and the textbook will get leaned on more and questioned less. I won't be able to fact-check an entire textbook and nor should I have to--that's the publisher's job. And, unfortunately, these days it seems like textbooks need even more scrutiny.

Porter-Magee is right on when she says you can't just have a great curriculum and expect teachers who don't know what they're doing to implement it well. Pedagogy matters; quality of instruction matters. Nor should we just make "teacher-proof" curriculum. Where I might disagree or question Porter-Magee is when she talks about emphasizing data-driven instruction:
And so any discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.
Implementation and assessment are vital but before they even get to the classroom (and continuing as they're there), teachers, especially at the secondary level, should be much better educated (and yes I think they should also be better trained) in the subjects they teach. Teachers should rely less on textbooks and more on other books, texts, and other sources of information. Teachers should be able to spot and to point out inacccuracies. They should help students notice diverging viewpoints or conflicting information in different sources and they should facilitate discussions about these different perspectives--their genesis and how to evaluate them. Far from making textbooks and curricula teacher-proof, teachers should be able to make sense of and judgments about the curriculum and texts they're teaching and to teach their students to do the same.

To attract people that knowledgeable and educated, we have to at least provide much better working conditions, greater professional autonomy, and better pay, but I guess I already covered that in another post.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Teacher Tea Leaf Reports on SchoolCrock: An Explanation

SchoolCrock has published the teacher tea leaf reports using a new tool that was created by interactive journalists at The New Hack Times and WNLIC. The goal of the tool: to make the tea leaves easier to understand and put the prophecies into context.

The tool can be found on Web pages created for every school whose teachers’ prophecies were released on Friday by the city’s Department of Testucation. You can find those pages by typing in a school name in the box on the left.
You will find a wealth of tea leaf reports on that page, starting with an overall snapshot of the school, as told by the percentage of teachers at that school whose leaves from herbal or black tea were “above average” or high — two of the city’s five prophecy categories. You’ll also be able to see how that compares to schools across the city.
Below those school tea leaf reports are the names of individual teachers, grouped by grade. The complete tea leaf report listed with the teachers’ names are the prophecies, meaning that teacher’s place when compared to other teachers like her or him, on a scale of 0 to 99.
A teacher can have up to four rankings for each grade taught: for black teas during the 2009-10 school year, black tea career, herbal teas in 2009-10 and herbal tea career. Career prophecies are based on one to five years of tea leaves.
The leaves are situated along a black line. That line indicates the margin of error for that teacher’s prophecy. A fuller divination, and an example, can be found on each school’s page.
Clicking on a teacher’s name brings up additional foretellings: the amount of coffee grounds in the cup the prophesy is based on; an “expected” divination based on images manifest in the clouds; and the actual average tarot card readings of those students. Tarot card readings are reported as standard deviations above/below the citywide mean.
The difference between the expected divination and the actual divination is considered the “value added” by the teacher.
One more piece of foretelling can be included with a teacher’s listing: his or her response or explanation of the ranking, as submitted to SchoolCrock. We encourage teachers to add their responses.
A module that allows you to search by teacher name is also on that page.
For more information, see our FAQ (Frequently Avoided Questions).
In creating this tool, SchoolCrock decided to showcase only the most recent and career prophecies, since we agree with many critics that the older tea leaves are less useful. We wanted to make clear the margin of error, since one of the weaknesses of these prophecies is the large margins. And we wanted to put every collection of tea leaves in the context of the school and expected divinations.
All of the leaves were provided by the city’s Department of Testucation (prophecies for teachers in charter schools and District 75 are expected to be released on Tuesday). A team of journalists spent several hours verifying the tea leaves, dealing with anomalies, searching for missing tea cups and making sure everything foretold as planned before posting it on our site.
We are interested in your feedback. You can add your thoughts in the comment section below or e-mail us at SchoolCrock@nhtimes.com.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rather than Choosing "Best" Teacher, Parents Should Seek Best Match

I have another guest post up, this one over at Nacy Flanagan's Education Week blog, Teacher in a Strange Land. In it, I respond to the matter of letting parents choose their children's teachers.

Check it out.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Legislating to the Test

Recently, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would eliminate the 3rd grade SOL (Standards of Learning) Tests in Science and Social Studies. That means less standardized testing! As a Virginia public school parent, I should be thrilled, right? Not necessarily.

See my post on this over at The Core Knowledge Blog.

Charter or Traditional: Making Kids Play Musical Schools Is Wrong

Here's a composite of conversations I've had with other education folks (and myself) about charter schools:

Q: Are you in favor of or against charter schools?

A: Well, I'd rather we didn't feel the need to have them in the first place. I have what I think are valid concerns about segregation, isolation, inequity, and denying appropriate and accessible education to special needs and ELL students.

Q: Okay, but they're here. Would you rather have them all closed and go back to the structure we had?

A: No, no. I acknowledge they're here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least. But if their existence is a reality, I'd rather they be community and educator-initiated, under the umbrella of and accountable to the districts and communities where they're located with no profit motive (as Chad Sansing describes here).

Q: Well, charters sometimes form because the home district is too rigid and too dysfunctional. Look at DC. Charters formed their own system entirely apart from DCPS precisely because they were fleeing the dysfunction of DCPS. Then charters grew in part because people got even more turned off by Rhee-form.

A: Yes, yes, I understand that. And I understand it's much easier to say, well, make the traditional district better, more responsive, than it is for that to actually happen any time soon. How long must families wait for that to occur? Now I get to ask a question: What happens when charter schools are largely unsuccessful according to the current accountability schemes with the same population the traditional, home district seemed to fail with?

I'll answer my own question. If we're just going to judge schools' success or necessity according to (in many cases poorly conceived) standardized test scores then it doesn't matter, if they're charter or traditional, we're not going to know how successful or unsuccessful any school is in improving the quality and meaning of the education for the students they are supposed to serve.

This is why I am against closing charter schools based on test scores, just as I am against closing neighborhood based on test scores. There is so much else to consider. The IDEA Public Charter School in DC serves students at-risk for dropping out. It faces closure. The school has been around for ten years. I've never stepped foot in the school, so I don't know what or how much those students are learning. I don't know if they're getting the best and most appropriate and meaningful education possible under the circumstances. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. Maybe it should be closed, maybe it shouldn't. But test scores alone most certainly don't tell me that either.

Just as when a neighborhood school closes, when a charter school that has become a fixture in a community, that the community is largely satisfied with, that fills a need that other schools don't, is closed, it will have a very negative effect on the student population and the community it serves. And what will then replace it?

Disruption as a goal is not a positive one for education. I don't care what kind of school they're in, kids and their families, especially those with enough disruption, crisis, and loss in their lives already, shouldn't be forced to play musical schools to the tune of "Get Those Test Scores Up." If that's our idea of reforming education, we're in big trouble.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Opportunity to Listen

Each day this week I have presented a response to different parts of Governor McDonnell's "Opportunity to Learn" education agenda. On Monday, I gave an introduction and talked about the goal of advancing literacy in the early grades. On Tuesday, I wrote about implications for repealing the unpopular Kings Dominion Law. On Wednesday, I talked about proceeding thoughtfully and carefully with expanding choice in the Commonwealth. On Thursday, I discussed evaluating principals and teachers. This concluding post brings me to the end and back to the place where I started in the first post of this series: Money.

It looks like McDonnell has some great funding initiatives in his agenda but it's hard to reconcile them with the major budget cuts and bleak fiscal outlook across the Commonwealth. Every day, I read a new tale of budget woes, possible layoffs of essential staff from school districts across Virginia including Culpepper, NorfolkRichmondYork, Hanover, Pittsylvania, and Northern Virginia, and of cuts to essential education programs such as preschool for low-income kids.

I understand that a big part of budget woes stem from the mandated VRS contributions that localities now have to make. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents has said that the proposal to put $2.2 billion in Virginia's retirement system is a big cause of the draconian cuts. At my most cynical I think that McDonnell is doing this here and now to demonstrate that the benefits make we offer our public servants are unsustainable and to starve the public schools so that they're set up to fail. At my most charitable, I think Bob McDonnell is very nervous about having debt and wants to remedy the situation ASAP and that he doesn't understand that while there is always room to be more efficient, quality education is not something that can be done well on the cheap.

The public has to realize that retirement benefits are not extras; rather, they are deferred compensation. They have been promised as part of an agreement the state made with employees. The problem with striving to replenish the VRS funds all at once is that causes a bigger and longer-term problem: compromising the quality of education districts in Virginia can provide. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We will never improve our public education system by starving it of funds and pushing it to a breaking point. Redlining our schools is the wrong thing to do. Unfortunately, in this context, money matters. The government is not a business; schools are not businesses--that's for car dealerships and supermarkets. While there are always ways to reduce wasteful spending, providing a quality public education to ALL of Virginia's children is inherently inefficient, but in Virginia it's required by law and it's what good governments in healthy, democratic societies do. Fiscal conservatism is one thing, fiscal lunacy is quite another. As former Harvard President Derek Bok put it, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

So, Virginians, where should we go from here?

The VASS (Virginia Association of School Superintendents) set a fine example by presenting their vision in an education reform blueprint. Why not convene task forces and associations of other stakeholders from across Virginia to present their ideas? Teachers and principals from across could tell us what they specifically need to better support and evaluate all teachers, to attract and retain high-performing teachers, and to remove those who shouldn't be in the classroom. Parents could discuss what improvements and changes they'd like to see for their children's education and what they value in schools. Educators from colleges and universities in Virginia need to be consulted: What are deficits are K-12 students arriving with and what are K-12 schools doing well? Virginia-based industries should also be called on to let us know what kind of education and skills they need potential employees to have. Virginia's scholars could examine the curriculum and practices in schools and let us know where the gaps in the curricula we're presenting exist and how we can improve our pedagogy. School finance experts could let us know what's smart spending, what's wasteful, as well as what's possible. Finally, we need to hear from a diverse group of students about the kind of learning communities they'd like to be a part of.

I urge Virginia's governor and legislature to resist the pressure to bow to the interests of big money and lobbyists, to hear their constituents, the taxpayers, and the people of Virginia. The Governor and the legislature must do what's best for quality education for Virginia's public school students, in line with what their parents envision for them, with what our professional educators say is sound practice, with what Virginia's communities and industries need to grow and thrive, and with what's best for the future of the Commonwealth.

The next and most crucial step will be for Virginia's politicians to listen.

cross-posted at the Virginia Education Report

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Opportunity to Evaluate Teachers

Welcome to Part IV of my response to Governor McDonnell's "Opportunity to Learn" education agenda--we're almost to Friday, folks! On Monday, you read about advancing literacy. On Tuesday, you read about extending the school day/ year. Yesterday, you read my thoughts on expanding school choice in Virginia. Today, I'll share my thoughts about McDonnell's ideas for evaluating, retaining, and recruiting teachers.

The "Enhancing Teacher Quality, Strengthening Teacher and Administrator Contracts, Evaluation Policies and Streamline Grievance Process" section proposes to establish annual contracts and evaluations for teachers and principals. This, the McDonnell administration says will, "allow for a new evaluation system to work by attracting and retaining the top-tier educators in our K-12 public schools." The agenda also calls to streamline the grievance process. As long as due process is built in (and no, merely saying, "don't worry there will be plenty of due process" is not sufficient) no one I've heard of disagrees with streamlining the grievance process. However, McDonnell's ideas to "enhance" teacher quality and "strengthen" contracts are more controversial.

First of all, teachers and principals should be evaluated yearly and observed and given feedback even more often. The biggest question, though, is how this will be done, based on what, and with what consequences. Will teachers be evaluated with an eye on craft and content or with an eye on test scores? Will the goal be to improve practice and strengthen curriculum? Will the goal be to support teachers? Or will the eye be on standardized test scores parading as real achievement and learning, de-selection, and playing gotcha? If the eye is narrowly focused on boosting test scores and de-selection, we're going to lose good teachers and fail to attract new ones.

Another problem is that this walks and talks like yet another unfunded mandate. Virginia principals barely have enough time to do the evaluations they have. Furthermore, while there are certainly incompetent principals out there, at least one reason that incompetent teachers aren't removed faster is because principals have so much to do. Has Governor McDonnell ever been inside a public school principal's office and seen the students waiting outside, the stacks of unfinished paperwork, and heard the phone ringing off the hook? Has he ever tried to schedule an evaluation? Or how about re-schedule an evaluation?

Streamlining the grievance process may eliminate some paperwork, but mandating yearly high-stakes evaluations without making other changes will merely replace it, and then some. Tennessee recently changed their teacher evaluation process without thinking it through and it's been a nightmare for principals and a largely useless, bordering on absurd, process for many teachers. If we want all principals and teachers to be evaluated once a year, we had better fund it, staff it, and make sure the process is fair and that the tool itself is useful.

I would add a peer evaluation component to the evaluation process. I'm not quite comfortable with students doing high-stakes evaluations but I certainly think collecting and implementing feedback from students should be a required part of a teacher's evaluation process. I'd like to see master educators in each school who evaluate and mentor other teachers while still teaching some courses of their own. Also, we need to diversify evaluations: What a first-year teacher needs is different from what a veteran needs and what a math teacher needs is different from what an art teacher needs. For ideas about where Virginia districts might go, this Massachusetts teacher, who has published a book on the subject, has some great ideas for better evaluationsMontgomery County, Maryland, has had great success with their peer-review teacher evaluation process. Finally, two districts in California have done well revamping their teacher evaluation systems by integrating support and evaluation. Finally, Accomplished California  Teachers put together an important report about improving teacher evaluations, with one of the authors, NBCT David Cohen, offering some further insights on the process here.

As for one-year contracts, I don't see how using them (which by the way will not be a big change in some Virginia districts as budget woes have forced many principals in recent years to offer one-year contacts) strengthens contracts. In fact, it sounds more like weakening contracts (and like spinning one's education agenda). I also don't see how offering them exclusively will attract top-tier educators. Here's a job. Please leave the one you have or give up other opportunities for this one-year contract. Now run along and get those test scores up. I don't see that as a winning recruitment strategy. Moreover, as Chad Sansing pointed out, it's not really going to grow the profession as much as it will offer "jobs."

One-year contracts will also undermine stability and continuity in communities. Of course I want my children to have the best teachers possible, but the fact that the educators at the schools my kids attend have gotten to know our community, our family, and my children as learners, facilitates that. Most of them and most of the educators I have worked with work long hours with too much to do. I, for one, don't want to reward them with the prospect of one-year contracts and I don't want the uncertainty of not knowing which educators will be back each year. In these hard economic times, Virginia's families have enough uncertainty already.

I've also heard McDonnell wants to use merit pay. I was glad that his administration took a more cautious route and merely piloted merit pay before going all out with it. And as I explained here, I think we need to raise salaries across the board, as well as differentiate pay more than we do currently, based on a combination of  responsibility and experience. Educators who lead extra-curriculars, or who take on mentoring, peer evaluating, or more responsibilities should be paid more. Also, we should pay teachers more who work in hard to staff schools with more challenging populations. They have to work harder and have more difficult jobs. Also, it is harder to attract STEM people. It just is. I am not a STEM person and I don't like that they would get paid more, but I understand we can't ignore labor market forces. Nevertheless, merit pay should not be based on a boost in test scores and nor has such merit pay proven to raise achievement in other places. As it has in DC, such an approach easily turns into: Here, you teach the more affluent kids who score higher on standardized tests. Congratulations! Here's some extra money.

By all means, let's re-imagine and then revamp our evaluation tools and processes in Virginia. Let's pay educators more and let's attract the best ones we can to our state. But let's do so in ways that are fair, meaningful, and cognizant of the unique roles educators play. A hasty switch to annual high-stakes evaluations, one-year contracts, and merit pay based on standardized test scores will increase paperwork and teacher turnover and lower morale without growing the profession or improving the quality of teaching. We can do better by our educators and by our students.

cross-posted at the Virginia Education Report

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Opportunity to Expand Choice (Maybe)

I've been busy responding to my governor's education agenda. On Monday, I wrote about the initiative to advance literacy. On Tuesday, I wrote about possible implications of repealing the Kings Dominion Law. Today will be a much meatier post about choice. I want to take a minute to acknowledge that school choice is a very thorny and complex issue; I do my best to approach it as such. To read a sampling of related posts on my blog, please go here.

In "Expanding Educational Options for Virginia's Students," McDonnell talks about virtual learning, charter schools, university lab schools, and granting tax credits to businesses that contribute to private school scholarships for low-income students. Many of these ideas seem to have been borrowed from Florida. One recent Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed praised education reform in Florida, but Florida has hardly proceeded carefully. Virtual schools have a very mixed record there with some schools giving out worthless diplomas. The McKay Scholarship Program, intended to give vouchers to parents of special needs, though a savior for many who know how to navigate the choices, has been a harrowing experience for others, "pioneering" an industry of fraud and chaos. As for charter schools, those in Florida enroll far fewer poor and special needs students. Furthermore, they operate as a parallel school system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords with very little oversight and too much corruption. Finally, by their own measurements, charter schools in Florida aren't getting the results advocates said they would. Virginia's education system and efforts to reform it would be better served if we learned from Florida's mistakes rather than if we imitated them.

Using technology to expand learning spaces, methods, and opportunities is exciting and well worth exploring, but as with extending the school year or day, it needs to be done thoughtfully, based on evidence and with strong considerations of design. I was incredulous when a high school teacher in my district told me about p.e. as an on-line class, but when she explained to me the requirements and curriculum, I changed my tune. With that in mind, as we explore virtual education options, we should first tap the knowledge of our in-state resources. We need to look at what our districts are already doing in this arena and learn from their successes and failures. Furthermore, we should consult with Virginia-based virtual learning scholars such as VCU's Jon Becker. Even then, we need to be very careful that virtual learning is offered for the good of students and not merely for the benefit of those with a financial stake in the virtual education industry. Furthermore, we need to ensure that for Virginia students, any virtual learning is quality learning--for some caveats, see hereherehere, and here.

As for charter schools, if the goal is to offer more choices and further racial and socio-economic integration, magnet programs such as have been started in Miami-Dade County, Florida and Wake County, North Carolina, seem to have relatively stronger and more stable track records. We should also consider merging some of our urban and suburban school districts such as has been done in the afore-mentioned Wake County and also recently in Memphis, Tennessee, challenges notwithstanding. Montgomery County, Maryland, offers a magnet school/ choice-system of sorts at their traditional high schools--an effort worth studying. Each district in Virginia should examine its structure and programs--magnet schools and programs, Governor's Schools, alternative schools, vocational and trade schools, and even course offerings per school--to make sure it's offering the most options possible in the most inclusive and accessible way possible, towards meeting the needs of ALL students.

After this, if the people of the Commonwealth decide they do want more charters specifically, then we must make sure they're done right: initiated and managed by communities and educators and held accountable to the districts where they exist. Chad Sansing has a great post on this. As he describes the already existing charter schools in Virginia:
These schools matter to their students and communities and serve as examples of grass roots start-up efforts in Virginia schools. Because of their local origins and capacities to address local needs, these schools might not “scale up”, but the community-based processes used in their development are definitely replicable.
Districts, for their part, need to stop being hostile to groups of parents and educators who want to try something different, lest they drive them into the arms of profit-minded and unaccountable outsiders. Finally, while charters such as Richmond's Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts were started with a mind towards more integration, we must keep in mind that nationally charters are leading to increased segregation.

One final thought on charters: They will only be as "innovative" as high-stakes-testing and accountability schemes allow them to be. Schools will only be as good as what we hold them accountable for. Most of the glowing reports about Patrick Henry, for example, in the same Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed cited earlier, glow about their test scores:
Recently, Richmond's first charter school (and the state's first elementary charter), the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, announced that its students surpassed school district and state averages in every subject on the Standards of Learning tests in its first year. In fact, every group of its students (white, black, economically disadvantaged) outperformed both district and state, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that the school teaches a more truly diverse population of students than any other in the city.
Test scores certainly give us some information about how a school is doing and we can glean some other useful information from them, but what's more important is what kids are actually learning (curriculum) and how they're being taught (pedagogy or instruction). If we keep doing the same thing we've been doing for the past ten years and focus on scores on limited and narrow standardized multiple-choice tests, instead of on what is actually being taught and learned and how, education in our state will not progress or innovate, and our students won't engage in meaningful, challenging learning, whether they're in traditional schools or charters.

If we're going to expand choice in Virginia, we need to do it with two goals in mind. First, we should make choice as fair, equitable, and democratic as possible. Exclusion of special needs students and English Language Learners, and increased racial and socioeconomic segregation should not be the outcome of increased school choice. Second, the choice provided should be diverse options between different schools, rather than a competition to get the best test scores. Increased choice could be among programs that provide rich and meaningful learning and quality teaching along different dimensions (such as language, science, or arts magnet schools) while meeting the needs of all students. Or choice could simply be among schools beholden to the same corrupting incentives that undermine real student learning  in our current system, which means having many poor choices, which, frankly, is no choice at all.

cross-posted at the Virginia Education Report

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Opportunity to Extend the School Year

Yesterday, I posted the first post in a series of five in response to Governor McDonnell's recently announced education agenda, entitled, "Opportunity to Learn." The first post provided an introduction and discussed McDonnell's ideas to advance literacy.

Another major piece of Governor McDonnell's agenda included "Reducing Mandates on Local School Divisions," which in this case means a repeal of the "Kings Dominion Law." In substance, this is mostly uncontroversial and seems to make sense, i.e., letting districts decide how to set their calendars. Some have made the leap to, "the Governor is pushing a longer school year," but so far, I don't see it. Many school districts don't like the law, and thus the Governor wants to repeal it.

Now, I'm in a bit of a bind here because my county, the home of Kings Dominion (otherwise known as The Promised Land among the under-10 set in my house) is opposed to repeal of the law as it would mean a big loss of revenue in particular for them. Given our bleak budget outlook, particularly for education, we need that revenue. Of course, there are (horror of horrors) other reasonable ways to raise revenues. Also, it is rather ironic that as the current local political climate is infused with cries for smaller government and fewer mandates, some seem to want an exception made for the mandate that helps them. Sigh.

Back to the topic at hand, if the idea is in the long run to reorganize the school year and extend the school year and/or school days, it needs to be done thoughtfully. While doing so would certainly benefit many kids and I bet many working families in Virginia would welcome it, the most important thing is not adding more time but rather what is done with the added time (or even with the time we already have. . . ).

If a longer school year and day means more test prep, more narrow focus on reading strategies and math drills, then Virginians should say: No, thank you. However, if we're talking about more time for meaningful and interesting project-based learning, extra-curriculars, clubs, school newspapers, unstructured play, P.E., sports teams, science, social studies, art, music, theater, practical skills (cooking, financial literacy, etc.), foreign languages, gardening, computer science, robotics, entrepreneurship, etc., then we should say resoundingly: Yes, please!

Furthermore, any longer day or school year must be matched with increased pay, staffing, and resources. Otherwise, we'll have yet another unfunded mandate. And no, throwing some cheap math workbooks at teachers does not count as increasing resources, nor will piling such activities on to the school day improve the quality of education Virginia's children receive.

If we're going to extend the school year and day in Virginia, we need to do so in a way that's smart, fair, and that will provide meaningful and rich learning experiences for students.

cross-posted at The Virginia Education Report

Monday, January 16, 2012

Opportunity to Develop Literacy

On Monday, January 9th, Virginia Governor McDonnell announced his education agenda, entitled, "Opportunity to Learn." This has been covered by The Virginia Education ReportThe Washington Post, as well as commented on by many throughout the state (For Chad Sansing's excellent commentary, read here. Or, for a partial listing of other reactions, see here.) I am going to offer my reactions in a series of posts starting with this one.

Before I comment on the agenda, I want to reiterate a point that Chad Sansing made in his piece:
McDonnell’s blueprint promises “a bold education proposal that will dramatically increase money for Virginia’s teachers and students by $480 million a year.” Meanwhile, his budget plans also include “hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, including to child-care subsidies for low-income families and to health and parent-education programs for poor pregnant women.” Families who need social and support services to help their kids attend school and access curriculum won’t benefit from McDonnell’s cuts.
I will return to issues if budgeting and funding in later posts but for now I'll assert: We're not going to succeed in improving education for low-income children with one hand if we're squeezing their parents and communities with the other. As I explained here, single-issue advocacy is problematic and students don't lead single-issue lives. Furthermore, the more we deny help to those in need, the more needs our students will come to school with and the more resources our schools will need to adequately serve those students. And right now there is a growing number of people in need.

Now, on to the education agenda:

In the "Raise Standards - College Workforce and Readiness" section, the McDonnell administration proposes, among other things ("other things" being streamlining diploma requirements, positive youth development, and expanding dual enrollment programs--none of which I have any objections to, so far :), advancing literacy. McDonnell wants to make sure all third graders can read before they move on to fourth grade. That is a worthy goal, but I'm not sure that his way of achieving it is sound. McDonnell wants to pay kids who learn to read. Harvard Researcher Roland Fryer tried something similar to this, and it didn't really work. If kids aren't reading by third grade, it's not (good grief!) because we're not paying them. Nor do I think the strategy of waiting until third grade and then simply holding kids back will help much--it's too reactive.

If we want struggling readers to struggle less, we need to do two things:

1) Invest in reading intervention programs that work and reach out to struggling readers long before third grade. Many of the children who are likely to struggle with reading would probably benefit from the very preschool programs McDonnell is looking to cut, so if he wants to advance literacy he should reconsider cutting those programs. One program that my school district successfully uses and that helped my own son when he was struggling to learn to read was Reading Recovery. Such programs are expensive and require investment and commitment. (UPDATE: After I drafted this post, I read that McDonnell proposed adding $8.2 million to the budget for early reading programs. This is good news, though I'd want to know more about the efficacy of the specific programs being funded and the real estimated impact of the dollars allotted.)

2) We need to spend much less time teaching reading as a subject and teaching reading strategies beyond their utility and much more time teaching content or subject matters, such as literature, science, social studies, p.e., art music, foreign languages, technical education, etc. Yes, most kids need to be explicitly taught to decode and yes, to a point reading strategies are useful. Of course, content should be taught as reading and writing intensive. However, literacy is largely representative of someone's background and content knowledge, and knowledge of vocabulary and does not develop or improve without it. As the University of Virginia's own Dan Willingham says, teaching content is teaching reading. (It's also much, much more meaningful and interesting for kids.) My regular readers know that I talk about this ad nauseum. In case you're new to my writing on education, here are some posts that elaborate further: herehere, and here.

You know what I've found, as a parent and in my observations of my kids' teachers, is the best reward for kids who are working hard to learn to read or who are already reading? More books. Let's reward students for reading by giving them more books.

UPDATE: In a misguided effort to get Virginia third graders to do better on reading and math tests, State Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) wants teachers to spend even more time on reading and math and even less on science and social studies. And he wants to do so to get test scores up in fifth grade (not necessarily because it will mean better education). Ugh. Even supporters of NCLB say the bill is too limited in scope by just focusing on math and reading. Sorry, Senator Miller, but this bill will take us in the complete wrong direction!

cross-posted at The Virginia Education Report