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