Considering the relatively slow pace of change in many things education-related, the recently announced SAT revamp is practically whiplash-inducing. After all, the test reinvented itself in 2005, adding a writing section and dropping some question types. So what’s up with the new version?
1) With Writing Optional, Welcome Back 1600!
The writing section on the SAT never really took off. Many college admissions offices ignored it. Length mattered much more than quality. People who took the pre-essay test resented the fact that the new 2400 point scale made their old scores look less impressive. Now the writing section will be optional, so the 1600 days are here again. (Also, I wouldn’t bet on many students opting into future essay sections.)
2) Good Bye Surfeit of Inscrutability, Hello Sensible Vocabulary
Another significant change is the decision to forsake the interminable, vexatious lists of arcane, even odious, vocabulary words. Instead, the new-new SAT will emphasize terms more useful for academic and professional life. This is another good change.
3) The Business Case: The 2005 “New SAT” was New Coke
Ultimately, the College Board’s decision was probably about dollars and sense. The SAT has lost market share to the ACT for years, and was surpassed a couple of years ago. Part of this was a quality problem, and the “New SAT” turned out to be the standardized test equivalent of New Coke. However, it’s also because the ACT has been much more successful at getting states like Michigan, Colorado, and Illinois to adopt it for statewide usage. I would expect to see the SAT -- currently given statewide only in Delaware, Idaho, and Maine -- to push for similar arrangements in more states.
4) The Common Core SAT
I’ve only seen a brief nod to this in other coverage, but it’s worth remembering that current College Board president David Coleman was a key architect of the Common Core State Standards. Some of the new redesign, such as the move to online testing and the push to incorporate more founding documents from US history, clearly channel some Common Core characteristics. Also, a more explicit alignment of the SAT with the Common Core would be good for business.
5) Zooming Out: Can the SAT Be Made Useful?
Ultimately, the big question facing the SAT is, “Will this help?” Recent studies support the notion that the SAT just isn’t that good at predicting student performance in college. It’s also unclear what, if anything, the College Board will do to address concerns about cultural bias or the fact that family income continues to be a great predictor of SAT scores, with the benefits extending well above the middle class.
Students must feel safe if they are to learn well. That’s easy enough to say and to agree with. Making it happen is an entirely different matter.
The Minnesota legislature is now hosting another round of debate on a bill aimed at reducing bullying. In addition to language on cyberbullying and many other topics, the bill contains a lengthy list of characteristics about which students cannot be bullied. Perhaps the most controversial of these at present are sexual orientation and gender identity, but the list also includes race, disability, physical appearance, and religion, to name just a few of many.
This language is significant because it confronts local policies, like the now-abolished “neutrality policy” in the Anoka-Hennepin district, that prohibit educators from addressing matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, these policies can be seen as tying educators’ hands when responding to anti-LGBT bullying. I discussed some of the fight to change that sort of policy in Anoka-Hennepin in my recent report, “Local Lessons: Five Case Studies in Community-Driven Education Reform.”
One of the key lessons from that struggle was that, whatever the official policy of the state, it will still be important for community leaders at schools across Minnesota to stand up for students hurt by all kinds of bullying, including bullying with anti-LGBT characteristics. The stakes are high, which the Anoka-Hennepin example again demonstrates. The local efforts there started in part in response to several student suicides brought about, at least in part, by bullying. In addition to that worst-case scenario, bullying also makes it tougher for students to stay focused on actually learning, which should matter the most in school.
Another portion of the anti-bullying bill that is of interest is the requirement that state and local policies “emphasize remedial responses over punitive measures” in responding to bullying. This gets at another aspect of student discipline, and will hopefully lay the groundwork for wider adoption of a restorative justice framework rather than the more common “law enforcement in miniature” approach.
One final piece of language that stuck out to me was the importance of policies that include preventive measures to deter bullying rather than strictly reactive approaches. Bullying is often a symptom of other underlying causes, and a real reduction in bullying will come from emphasizing prevention as well as enforcement.
We can and should work from many angles to promote safer schools for all students.
Please join us tomorrow (8 - 9:30 am) for a Tuesday Talk conversation about this issue.
“Twenty-first century education” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. It means different things to different people, but certainly education in the modern age must include needed updates to how we teach well-established disciplines as well as recognition of new disciplines.
Math education is one area ripe for an overhaul. Many otherwise successful graduates of the US public education system describe themselves as bad at math. There is evidence that the way we teach math undermines students’ likelihood of mastering the skills most important to their academic, professional, and personal life after high school.
This reflects a combination of what we teach, how we teach, and in what order we teach when it comes to math. Retooling math curriculum and instruction to be more playful and exploratory, more conceptual, more reflective of a growth mindset, and less focused on drill-and-kill could all, perhaps counterintuitively, help students master the math skills they do need.
If mathematics is one of the oldest disciplines in need of curricular overhaul, computer science is one of the newest. Often shoveled into math, science, or business standards, computer science deserves more attention as a discrete, multifaceted discipline. This means starting earlier, offering computer science classes at more (ideally all) schools, and developing more teachers who specialize in teaching computer science. There is great need for a true pedagogy of computer science that reflects the ways that students will use these skills in the future, including in conjunction with fast-growing fields like biotech.
All of this requires an approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is different from more traditional techniques. Responsibility for this change is shared between schools of education, local school districts, and state policymakers. The more our schools, especially for students from under-resourced backgrounds, are driven by lockstep curriculum and disempowered teachers, the less able they are to take on the significant work of updating teaching for current needs.
Ultimately, this is about equity of access to a solid education. That equity of access -- especially in disciplines like computer science -- is a prerequisite for equity of outcomes. Of course, equity of access does not mean that this will look the same in every school in every district. It is important for schools to invite their communities to join them in defining what’s important and supporting the work of achieving those goals, and it is important that schools have the freedom and power to do so. Policymakers at the state and local level need to know what Minnesota communities want and need for students to thrive in this day and age.
I'm wrapping up my coverage of the recent Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) conference in Duluth, and hope you enjoyed the series.
Many of the educators at the MAAP conference faced a shared dilemma: The vital work they do doesn’t always show up clearly on standardized tests. This raises an obvious question for policymakers and community members. If tests aren’t the right tool, what is?
One session focused on the use of multiple measurements in assessing alternative programs. “Multiple measurements” is a term that didn’t have a very precise meaning to begin with, but the way the presenters used it differed strongly from the way it’s used in the state’s Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) system. Most of the MMR uses calculations based on a single measurement tool: standardized tests. The other measurement, at least for high schools, is graduation rate.
However, state tests aren’t particularly appropriate for programs working with students whose past school history means they’re unlikely to take the tests seriously. Even more inappropriate is using a conventional graduation rate measure for a school with an average entry age of 17 and which specializes in students who have already dropped out or at severe risk of doing so.
What, then, should we do? In part, we need to have a more flexible system that assesses schools on what they’re actually trying to do. For some programs, that means including not just achievement on state tests, but growth on other measurements, rates for dropouts and dropout recovery, and engagement measures like attendance improvement and student surveys.
Another session went even further. It suggested a process of schools working with communities to define the student outcomes that were most meaningful and agreeing on ways to assess those outcomes. It would be more difficult to compare schools and districts on these measurements, but schools would feel a much more immediate sense of accountability to their particular communities. This approach would also allow each community to make sure that its priorities are being addressed in school, whether those priorities can be put on a standardized test or not.
The schools at the MAAP conference represent some of the most clear-cut cases where the current accountability approach is a bad fit, but all schools can and should focus on skills beyond those on the state tests. We need to give more consideration to measurements and accountability that better reflect the needs of specific students and communities.
Can we reframe education conversations, in Minnesota and beyond, by talking about students’ achievements, rather than student achievement?
That is one vital question I took away from a recent visit, by Alfie Kohn—an author and lecturer on human behavior, education, and parenting—to Macalester College.
Kohn always packs a punch, and this visit was no exception. When speaking about the six most “fatal flaws” of education policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, Kohn zeroed in on what he thinks are the policies’ “dark undertones.”
These policies’ persistence for example, in creating schools where everything hinges on “student achievement,” as measured by standardized test scores, guarantees that a certain number of students will fail, and that “there will always be losers.” Kohn reinforced the increasingly obvious point that the students who tend to fail under this system come from the vocational track, or low-income families. Often, they are also students of color, as well as Special Education students, and students whose first language is not English. They are students who, for whatever reason, are least acclimated to the dominant culture’s value system and methods of constructing and measuring knowledge.
In Kohn’s view, this system then guarantees that white, affluent, English speakers are always ahead of the game, and it is their version of success that sets the standard for everyone else. Kohn even went so far as to say that the current standardized education system we offer students amounts to “educational ethnic cleansing in America.”
Pushing all students to get higher scores on standardized tests, Kohn said, “measure[s] what matters the least” in education, such as rote memorization and test-taking skills.
Instead, Kohn asked those in the packed room to think about paying attention to “students’ achievements.” For Kohn, real achievement and deep thinking come from interdisciplinary, project-based learning, and is far more likely to produce meaningful, life-long growth for students. It is important, Kohn said, to call attention to the “unethical” ranking of schools according to test scores in order to create an authentic culture of learning.
In a world where it is often true, as Kohn aptly put it, that “the rich get richer, and the poor get worksheets,” it would behoove those who create, implement, or uphold education policy to consider this gem from Kohn: “Of all the chasms that separate one world from another, none is greater than the gap between the people who make policy and the people who suffer the consequences.”
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Not all of the results of the recent Saint Paul Public Schools negotiations will show up in the teachers’ contract. Some of the proposals, identified by both the community and the teachers’ union as priorities, will receive action from the school board without being written into the contract. (Full disclosure: I was part of the union’s community engagement process, taking notes and doing follow-up research for community discussion groups.)
Whole Child Supports
Beyond the new contract’s tighter class size language, the district will hire at least 42 full-time positions’ worth of staff in critical roles, including nurses, media specialists, school social workers, and counselors. This reflected a joint priority of families, community leaders, and union members, who spoke passionately and frequently about the importance of these roles in keeping children safe and healthy, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. According to the districts’ summary, “Staffing guidelines will be incorporated into a board resolution on staffing supports to be adopted by the SPPS Board of Education on March 18.”
Another popular, shared priority was increasing access to early childhood learning opportunities. The district operates a popular pre-K program, and has committed outside of the contract to spending at least $6 million a year on it. This should help reduce the waiting list for the program, benefiting hundreds more students every year. Much of the additional investment was made possible by the state’s new funding of all-day kindergarten, freeing up district funds that had been set aside for all-day-K.
Again, it is important to note that these agreements reflect areas of community and teacher interest well outside the conventional boundaries of wages, benefits, and conditions of employment. Even though these particular pieces were not written into the contract, the progress that has been made on these issues should be seen as a result of the recent negotiations process. These outcomes demonstrate the power of proactive, inclusive union engagement with communities, and they also reflect the deep interest families, community leaders, and teachers have in working together to make schools better.
After an intense negotiations process, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers and the Saint Paul Public Schools have reached agreement on a wide range of proposals. The union will vote to ratify the contract on Tuesday, March 4. Here’s a look at some of what wound up in the new contract. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it emphasizes some of the proposals that came from the union's work with the community. (Full disclosure: I was part of the process, taking notes and conducting follow-up research for community discussion groups.)
The new contract tightens the rules on class size, especially for schools serving more students from under-resourced backgrounds. The previous language held elementary schools to an average class size for the attendance zone, allowing some classes to grow too large so long as enough others were kept low within the attendance zone. The new language requires each grade level in an elementary building to have an average in the approved range. The schools with the highest shares of students from under-resourced backgrounds will also have smaller average class sizes. Previously, in secondary schools, the average was determined by the subject area classes. New language in secondary schools will be an average per teacher and in the 2015-2016 school year will include all subject areas (with the exception of musical ensembles), not just core subject areas.
The union’s highly regarded Parent Teacher Home Visit Project was strengthened by the agreement, which should increase the amount of high-quality engagement. The contract also takes a first step towards addressing community concerns about conferences by creating pilot Academic Parent-Teacher teams, which should create more flexibility around family-teacher communication. Parents will also serve on committees evaluating each school’s safety concerns and class size exception needs.
One of the major disruptions from testing is the amount of time spent not only administering tests, but also preparing for them. As a result of the new agreement, the district will reduce the amount of time spend on these activities by 25%. Tests will be reviewed for cultural relevance, and the district and union will work together to lobby policymakers “to reduce mandates for unnecessary testing and to eliminate the misuses of standardized tests.”
Support for New Teachers and Teacher-Led Redesign
The agreement bolsters the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program that works with new teachers (as well as more experienced teachers seeking to improve). It also shields new teachers from teaching off of mobile carts, a change which should help new teachers better focus on their development in that important first year. Additionally, while in no way limited to new teachers, the agreement also defines the process for teacher-initiated school redesign.
While many of these are not conventionally part of the teacher contract, the union advocated for them after engaging in extensive community outreach to identify common areas of concern. In an upcoming post, I’ll look at a couple topics of community concern that the board will act on but that did not end up in the contract.
Food is what gets me through my hectic college days. My friends and I at Macalester College, often joke that food is what motivates us to work hard. We often look forward to meals and I know if I don’t eat a healthy meal, I won’t be able to focus and give a hundred percent to the various commitments I have. This is true for students the world over. In fact, eating right is what parents around the nation and the world have been spelling out to us since we were toddlers: to be more food literate.
Food literacy, simply put, is being aware and conscious of what we put in our bodies and eating “real food” like whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit. In an article published by Harvard School of Public Health, spotlighting a growing body of research, school kids who ate food of high calorific value, and low nutritional value, were at a higher risk of becoming obese and acquiring a host of other health problems.
“Research shows that up to 40 percent of what children consume every day takes place during school hours and that 80 percent of children who were overweight between the ages of 10 to 15 were obese by age 25,” said retired Army generals John M. Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, who are also former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, set into motion a lot of changes with school districts across the nation changing the kinds of food they fed the students. Fresh fruit and grains are now prepared in innovative ways for the kids replacing fried foods and high calorie soda. A number of Minnesota school districts are leading the way with programs of their own that build off of the federal effort.
Improvements included “Farm to School,” a nationwide collaborative to bring fresh local fruit to local schools. However, since these improvements were put in place, there have been numerous sourcing concerns related with the food. Another issue, is that we don’t know if the students know why these changes are taking place. Localized and intentional programs on food literacy could better serve these children in the future and help them understand how to incorporate better food choices into their diet in the future.
For the next few days, I'll be reflecting on last week’s Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) conference in Duluth and passing on my thoughts about the sessions I attended.
Though it may seem unlikely at this moment, the current test-and-punish mode of education reform will eventually peter out. I, for one, am interested in what will replace it. We have already seen cases of overreach in Tennessee, public backlash in Chicago, even parent rebellions in Texas. The core value of many reformers -- that equity and student outcomes should be at the center of education policy -- should be preserved. As we reach the limits of testing, layoffs, and school closures as tools to advance educational equity, we will need something else. I think I may have seen some of the seeds of that something at the MAAP conference last weekend.
Part of it is pedagogy. Empowering more students in setting direction for their schools and helping more students take control of their learning through personalized project-based approaches are two routes. Another is building our capacity to identify individual student needs and help each student find a program that’s a good fit.
Another part of it is policy. It’s tough to reconcile a focus on student outcomes with a diverse population of schools offering high levels of individualized service. Expanding the range of our measurement tools to better assess schools on what they truly do will be one aspect of this. Helping schools get better at working with their communities to define local goals will be another.
A third part is politics. Whether David Berliner’s Thursday night keynote decrying the misuse of research and statistics in advancing the cause of more testing or Stephanie Rivera’s lessons on helping students organize effectively, there is a need to build a base of people who are both critical and forward-looking. We need to acknowledge that, for many, the current mode of education reform comes from a genuine concern about students and equity. A new mode of reform should retain that goal, but offer alternatives to the current, limited set of policies. That new reform will also need people who are organized enough to claim seats at the table.
The story of reform is, by its nature, one of change. Before the current reform movement, we weren’t focused enough on what our schools were producing. We must ensure that the next phase focuses on the most appropriate outcomes for students and communities, not just the ones we already have tools to measure.
Posted in Education
For the next few days, I'll be reflecting on last week’s Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) conference in Duluth and passing on my thoughts about the sessions I attended.
The debate over the future of education in the U.S. is full of adults arguing about what’s best for students. However, a growing number of student-led protests and actions have popped up across the country. From Philadelphia to Portland, students have made their voices heard. On Friday of the MAAP conference, activist Stephanie Rivera -- a graduate student of education at Rutgers -- spoke about what she’s seen and heard from successful student activists and their adult allies.
Whether it’s funding cuts in Newark, excessive testing in Cleveland, or school closings in Chicago, Rivera found plenty of reasons that students protest. Most of those reasons, it turns out, reflect the effects of conservative budget cuts or test-and-close reform policies. Students who see their schools shut down, their teachers fired, their course options reduced, or their aging resources unreplaced will, understandably, get upset.
The role of adult allies is not to tell students what to think, but rather to prove to them that students can organize successfully. That’s another of Rivera’s key findings. Students don’t need adults to give them orders about this or to organize their protests; in fact, adult attempts to do so can be counter-productive. Rather, adults can provide examples (personal, current, or historical) that show students the power of organizing, and they can offer resources that give students more tools and ideas for how to channel their energy.
As with student engagement in school governance, then, the key is to work with students rather than to treat them as tokens or subordinates. Facilitating conversations, offering to help, and helping students understand their immediate struggles within a larger context are all ways to nurture their activism. Students should not be props, but rather their own leaders.
It was a powerful session that reminded me of my own experiences with student activism as a high school senior joining many others in advocating for school funding equity. Rivera’s lessons can and should also offer guidance to those who want to help students develop their own voices in the great education discussion.