Remember What We’re Testing

We’re now over halfway through the testing window for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). Testing began on March 10, and it ends on May 9. Weeks, and in some cases months, of test prep have led to these two critical months, when students show what they know and care about. The results will be used to label schools and evaluate some teachers, with that pool of teachers growing next year.

Many students will be taking the tests on computers, while others will use pencil and paper. Students in third through eighth grade will take both math and reading tests, with students in fifth and eighth grade taking science tests as well. Tenth graders will take a reading test, eleventh graders a math test, and biology students in high school will take a science test.

Going untested will be all other subjects, as well as any standards that don’t appear on the tests (like most of the writing and research standards in English). While the difficulty of both the math and reading tests have increased in recent years, most questions will still not get at the highest levels of learning.

At many schools, preparing for the MCAs included identifying those “bubble students” who might hit the artificial cutpoint for “proficiency,” but weren’t certain to. Students who were already proficient likely received some enrichment and keep-it-together encouragement, and those who definitely weren’t hitting the target this year hopefully still received remediation. Still, those bubble students got special attention at many schools.

The final results? A comparison of this year’s fourth graders with last year’s fourth graders (to pick a grade at random). An estimate of how this year’s seventh graders advanced in the two months after testing last year, the three months of summer break, and seven months of school this year. Another look at how Minnesota’s social, economic, and educational inequities translate into test scores.

We will not see a complete representation of student learning, nor will we see a wholly accurate picture of how effective our schools and teachers are. We certainly won’t get information that lets us know what to do to help students in the time that remains in this school year, and it’s unclear how much of the data we do get will be useful in determining what to change or sustain next year.

Is there some utility to all this? Yes. But let’s remember exactly what it is we’re measuring, and what that does to our students’ experiences of school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Student Assessment 

Falling Into Segregation

More and more, it looks like we can’t integrate our schools unless someone forces us to.

Exhibit A is the recent Atlantic story detailing the return to segregation, specifically in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and throughout the Old South generally. Districts forced to adopt integration did so, and saw their academic performance gaps narrow thanks to higher scores from black students. Meanwhile, black and white students alike built relationships (or, if you prefer, “increased their social capital”) across racial lines. Of course, this was not an easy process, and the early days of integration in particular were difficult for students. Still, the net effect was positive.

These gains are being lost now that the courts have stopped requiring districts to integrate. Absent that pressure, and in an attempt to lure white students back from private schools and the suburbs, districts redrew attendance zones to resegregate their schools. The result is a gradual reversion to the bad old days, to no one’s benefit.

It would be easy and comfortable to write school segregation off as a product of Those Backwards Southerners, but it’s alive and well up here, too. Part of this is the result of heavily segregated housing, with Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Buffalo, NY, topping the list of most segregated metropolitan areas. Chicago, St. Louis, and Reading, PA, are also in the top ten, joining Birmingham and Gadsen, AL. When housing is that segregated, it’s tougher to integrate schools.

Nor is it just housing. The way school boundaries get drawn and the roles played by private and charter schools also contribute to school segregation. This is how New York City’s schools became the most racially segregated in the country, and why observers in the Twin Cities have watched our schools grow more and more segregated as well.

The message running through all of these examples is that, left to our own devices, we in the United States segregate our schools. It isn’t always done with the blatancy of the Jim Crow era, and it’s possible to find exceptions at the individual or even (rarely) the city level. For the most part, though, we regress to segregation when not compelled to do otherwise.

To some, this may not be a problem. To others, it may be a problem to which they don’t see a solution. To others still, it’s a problem with a solution, but there’s insufficient political will to carry out that solution. Whatever your perspective, we need to name this for what it is.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Racial Inequalities 

Full-Service Community Schools 101

At a recent Minneapolis school board candidate forum, hosted by the Coalition for Quality Schools, several candidates committed to the “full-service community schools” model. That phrase gets a lot of use, it risks becoming a vague buzzword. For context, the only Minnesota schools currently recognized by the Coalition for Community Schools are the Brooklyn Center school district and Saint Paul’s Achievement Plus schools.

So what constitutes a true full-service community school? Here’s a starting point, with much more at the Coalition for Community Schools web site.

1) Keep the buildings open.
Schools need to be available to the community during more than the school day, and for more than school-related activities like athletics or concerts. Offering a range of services to students, families, and community members outside normal school hours, and even on the weekends, greatly increases the usefulness of these public buildings.

2) Locate services on-site.
Offering a variety of services -- both academic and not -- during these additional hours is critical. Co-locating services on school grounds also increases service providers’ abilities to coordinate services and provide quick and easy referrals.

2a) Match services to community needs and strengths.
It’s common sense that services offered through the school should align with community needs, but it’s also important to identify community strengths and build on those in the schools.

2b) Plan to increase health services.
One of the most common needs is easy access to on-site health care. Consider a hypothetical student with needs outside the purview of the school nurse. If there’s a clinic built into the school, the nurse can immediately refer the child. Even with a community clinic a few blocks away, co-locating at the school is a much more direct route to access. (If, like Brooklyn Center, you also make health services available to staff, the district can wind up saving money through better health insurance deals and lower substitute costs.)

3) Invite, recruit, and sustain community partnerships.
Critical to all of this is the school’s ongoing work to build partnerships in the community and with service providers. This opens the door to increased community input in the school, as well as shared responsibility for the well-being of students, the school, and the community as a whole.

It’s far too common for great educational ideas to transform into meaningless catchprases. The full realization of the community schools model requires a broad, sustained commitment to several key ideas. The preceding list is a good starting point for interested school and district leaders, with much more to come if we want schools to be truly transformative.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration 

At the Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Language

Growing up with the toxic stress and other harmful effects of poverty is tough. So is growing up when the language at home is different from the language at school. Both at once is obviously even tougher, although students who can hold onto their home language while becoming fluent in English will have a leg up as adults. That’s the main thrust of a recent Pioneer Press piece investigating the need for, and development of, more teaching aimed at bilingual students and those still learning English.

It’s a topic that raises a host of interesting questions. Nearly 70,000 Minnesotan students this school year are officially designated as English Learners, which works out to about 8% of the statewide student population. Some districts are working with much higher concentrations; roughly one quarter of Minneapolis Public Schools students and one third of Saint Paul Public Schools students are English Learners.

Nor is the concentration of language need uniform across racial and ethnic groups.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Between 2011 and 2013, roughly two out of every five Asian and Hispanic students taking the state math test was an English Learner, most of whom were also eligible for free or reduced price lunch, a common definition of low income status.

This obviously and intuitively has an effect on test scores, even when we focus just on students coming from low income families and look at math, which is not as immediately connected to language fluency as reading.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Indeed, the effects of language fluency cut across subject matter and income levels, with the graphs for low income reading proficiency, middle/high income math proficiency, and middle/high income reading proficiency available through the links provided. These results are also summarized in the table at the end of this post.

Of course, test scores are an imperfect measure of student performance, and the arbitrary cutpoints used to define “proficient” are debatable. Still, these are not minor differences we’re seeing, and they should be a reminder that our test score gaps aren’t just about race or poverty alone, especially when comparing Asian and Hispanic students to white ones. The need for high-quality services that support English Learners is very high, and many schools do not have the resources they need to provide the support they should. We should do better.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Student Assessment 

What Minnesota Can Learn From Indiana’s Teacher Evaluations

They’ve measured twice, and it turns out there’s not much cutting to do.

Indiana recently released results from its new teacher evaluation system, which has been updated like many other states’ to incorporate calculations based on test scores as part of the evaluation. The results: Only 2% of teachers and administrators were identified as needing improvement, with less than a quarter of those labeled as outright ineffective. This resembles other states’ results. For example, 98% of teachers in Michigan’s new system were rated effective or better, as were 98% in Tennessee and 97% in Florida.

For those who believe that educational inequity is the result of an epidemic of bad teaching, these results raise eyebrows. For everyone, they raise questions. How many of this year’s teachers who “need improvement” or are “ineffective” will be rated as effective or better next year? How about the year after that? What is the appropriate response to teachers labeled “ineffective”? What is the “right” percentage of “ineffective” teachers?

Teacher evaluation is still growing as both a process and a policy tool. Various critics have questioned the validity and usefulness of in-person observations. Critics have also challenged the accuracy, reliability, and usefulness of evaluation techniques that rely on calculations based on student test scores. And none of that helps figure out what should happen when the evaluation system stamps a teacher “ineffective.”

As Minnesota looks ahead to statewide implementation of its new evaluation system in 2014-15, we can learn from other states’ experiences. We shouldn’t expect a large share of our teachers to be labeled “ineffective.” We shouldn’t bet on firing teachers as a major path to improvement and equity. And we should give more thought to how we focus on support and improvement for teachers at all points on the evaluation scale rather than hoping that the hunt for bad teachers will fix much of our equity problem.

We could interpret the results from Indiana and other states as a sign that most teachers really are effective at their jobs. Some will no doubt argue that we just aren’t being tough enough in our evaluations. Others will argue that we still don’t have the tools we need to reliably assess quality on a large scale. Whatever your interpretation, our focus for the next few years should be on supporting and developing teachers as professionals, not betting on the new system unmasking thousands of terrible teachers.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers  Teacher Assessment 


The Dean on the Screen

There’s not much poetry in our education discussions, but one pair of rhymes has endured. “The sage on the stage” and “the guide on the side” describe teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, respectively. The two have been engaged in a boxing match over the direction of pedagogy for decades.

For most schools during most of U.S. history, the teacher-centered sage has been the champion, so much so that I’d bet when most people hear the word “teacher,” they first picture an adult in front of a chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of a classroom.

The student-centered guide has mostly been the plucky challenger, though recently it’s gained more attention. While teacher-centered instruction is still the dominant mode of education—further reinforced every time a school or district adopts a heavily scripted curriculum that precludes most student-centered approaches—some people are growing increasingly interested in how technology can help more teachers move to the guide role.

We have to be intentional about how we incorporate technology into education, at least if we want it to help students. Those hoping for “The Dean on the Screen” to automatically transform stage-sages into side-guides are in for disappointment, especially after recent years have penned in so many teachers with narrow curriculum and teacher-centered approaches mandated from above. Effectively incorporating new technology with new teaching requires the change in instructional approach to precede, or at least accompany, the new tech.

A move to a more student-centered approach is good, and technology will be useful. However, effective student-centered teaching doesn’t require the latest in modern technology. In fact, pinning our instructional hopes on new tech is basically a guarantee they won’t be realized, at least in the short term. Basically every given piece of shiny new technology is subject to the Gartner hype cycle, where we imagine the grand new possibilities, then find that the technology alone doesn’t get us there, and then (maybe) climb out of the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Here’s the bottom line: If you want student-centered schools, make student-centered schools. To the extent technology is helpful, use it. To the extent it’s overhyped, avoid it. But focus on the teaching, not the tech.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

Voucher Advocate Is Bored with Common Core Debate, Thinks We Should Have More Vouchers

Education Week recently ran a commentary piece from the board chair of Democrats for Education Reform, who expresses impatience with the debate about the Common Core and argues instead for vouchers. I am less than impressed.

Reading through the commentary, we can see the usual checklist of market reform rhetoric. Reference to the civil rights movement? Check. The false dichotomy of reformers vs. “the status quo”? Check. Overblown claims that “choice is the answer”? Check.

The author cites an anecdote from Milwaukee, home to the country’s longest-running voucher experiment. The results of that experiment after more than 20 years aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for vouchers. Milwaukee’s voucher students do slightly better than students from under-resourced backgrounds in the Milwaukee Public Schools district, but worse than the district as a whole. Since voucher students can now come from families with incomes up to roughly $67,000 for a family of four, that’s a wash. And, of course, half the families that enter the voucher program leave after two years.

The author also conflates vouchers with “school choice,” ignoring the other forms of choice such as charter schools, open enrollment programs, and magnet schools. All of these exist in Milwaukee, too, and have for over fifteen years. The result of all this choice and competition between schools? A marketplace with lots of mediocre options and only a couple of standouts in each system. It’s a stark reminder that choice alone is not “the answer” for educational quality, contrary to the author’s claims.

Meanwhile, the Common Core -- debate over which has so exhausted the author -- has only existed for a few years, and only the last year has seen much controversy. Of course, if we were much more aggressive about promoting private schools and vouchers, the Common Core debate would grow increasingly irrelevant, since those private schools wouldn’t be held to the Common Core standards. (This is similar to how vouchers enable the publicly funded teaching of creationism.)

The author calls for proposals for other options. How about we stop betting on a market approach to schooling, invest in building and activating schools’ capacity, promote full-service community schools, get explicit about making schools anti-racist, rethink the present accountability system that (intentionally or not) promotes narrowed curricula and scripted, teacher-centered instruction, and promote more student-driven and project-based learning? Just as a starting point.

I understand that the slow pace of change in schools is frustrating. I’m frustrated, too. But to pivot from impatience or boredom with the Common Core debate to questionable voucher systems isn’t helpful. We can do better.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Education Funding 

We Don’t Always Know When We’re Biased

Most of the bias in our society operates without people being aware of their own bias.

Over at the Shanker Institute’s blog, research associate Esther Quintero has rounded up some key points about implicit bias, which operates below the conscious level, using the same system as other mental shortcuts that help us function in day-to-day life.

This bias gets into everyone. As Quintero writes, “Stereotypes operate implicitly...regardless of our own race/gender, and even when our personal beliefs are completely to the contrary.” That doesn’t make its effects any less harmful, but it hopefully makes it easier to accept that having implicit bias doesn’t put you in the same camp as Bull Connor; it just means you’re a human being living in a society that continues to be marked by its past and present racism.

The ramifications of this are broad. Quintero offers three classic studies looking at the effect of implicit bias on hiring and academic tenure decisions, as well as on letters of recommendation. It’s also fair to hypothesize that implicit bias may contribute to the racial disparities we see in school discipline responses and special education identification. Especially when formal policies are ambiguous, like when “defiance” is a suspendable offense, implicit bias subverts decision making.

There is some good news about weakening implicit bias. The more familiar we are with an individual, the weaker our implicit bias becomes, at least with regard to that individual.

For teachers, this means that building strong individual relationships with their students can help undercut any implicit bias that might affect their judgment and behavior. Additionally, teachers can help students disrupt their own implicit biases by, for example, intentionally structuring group work to help students build those individual associations and break down stereotypes.

At the policy level, this is another argument for smaller class sizes. The more students a teacher is trying to serve, the longer it will take and the harder it will be for them to build strong individual relationships with each student. Additionally, this offers additional reasons to pursue integrated schools. Finally, policymakers should support professional development that helps teachers build awareness of and counteract their implicit biases without shaming them as bad people.

By default, schools in a society with deeply embedded institutional racism and sexism (and other forms of oppression) will replicate and perpetuate those problems. However, we can use the available research on implicit bias and teachers’ capacity for building relationships with their students as tools of anti-racism. We need to do so intentionally, with the recognition that the default state is harmful implicit bias.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Racial Inequalities  Revenue Sources 

If Congress Wants Different Ed Policy, It Should Replace NCLB

Sometimes a criticism of policy is a reasonable argument. Other times it’s a diversion.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weathered criticism for conservatives in Congress. They were unhappy about the role the federal government played in promoting the Common Core. Duncan flinched away from the attacks, describing himself as “just a big proponent of high standards,” with the shared nature of the Common Core State Standards a less important concern. He also offered the questionable claim that no federal grants required the Common Core.

So here’s the thing: Yes, Common Core adoption was helpful in the Race to the Top grant contest and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver process. Yes, there are reasonable criticisms to make of the Common Core’s design, implementation, and testing requirements that don’t require indulging conservative paranoia about national standards as the grasping hand of Big Brother. None of this, though, makes Congressional conservatives’ attacks on Duncan anything other than a sideshow.

Yelling at Arne Duncan about the Common Core is one of the least productive things Congress can be doing on education right now. If they really want to decrease the power of the Department of Education, they should pass a new education bill replacing NCLB. The law is overdue for replacement, and its failures are well-documented. Working on a new law that maintains NCLB’s attention to equity concerns while addressing its larger failings would be a worth use of representatives’ time.

It would also require conservatives to compromise on various points, so there’s no chance of it happening. Still, for legislators to chew out the Secretary of Education for trying to advance education policy when the legislature is apparently incapable of producing an alternative smacks of hypocrisy.

There are reasonable debates to be had about the Common Core, and any serious replacement for NCLB will actually require compromises that the right seems unwilling to make on any issue. With that said, let’s not confuse conservative complaints about the Common Core for actual education policy.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform  NCLB 

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Put the “Comprehensive” Back in Sex Education

For some late teens and young adults, engaging in the “hookup culture” is part of growing up. Instead of turning a blind eye and hoping our kids aren't part of it, we should get serious about educating people about the issues that come with the behavior, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual  assaults, rape and harassment.

Many of our college campuses have been and continue to do just that, helping students lead healthier, happier and safer lives, including Macalester. There are numerous talks and campaigns that are embracing the fact that college students are having sex, and are trying to encourage safer sex practices rather than shying away from the fact. However, what are high schools doing to ensure that these students come into college equipped to deal with the stresses like college, where casual sex is a prevalent practice?

Young people (ages 15-24) are particularly affected, accounting for half (50 percent) of all new STIs, although they represent just 25 percent of the sexually experienced population,” according to a 2013 CDC report. Abstinence only education isn’t realistic at all. To ensure that these kids don’t end up pregnant or contracting STDs, comprehensive, age appropriate sex education is important. The world these kids live in is a lot more complicated and dangerous than people want to believe.

According to the American Public Health Association, “Experts in the fields of adolescent development, health, and education recommend that sexuality education programs as part of a comprehensive health education program assist young people in developing a positive view of their sexuality, provide them with information necessary to protect their sexual health, and help them acquire skills to make informed decisions, both now and in the future.”

Morally and ideologically justifying why or why not the “Hookup culture” exists, isn’t going to help anyone. In the end, everyone should have youth's best interests at heart. These students are going to enter the world, unprepared to deal with the variety of issues related to sex, including pertinent issues such as rape, sexual assault, and harassment. Thus, comprehensive sex education should aim to address these issues.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Public Health 

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