When Dropping More Time on a School Doesn’t Work

As Kenny Rogers once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” A Connecticut elementary school that knew when to fold on longer school days (and what changes to keep) offers lessons to Minnesota schools considering big changes.

The Hechinger Report recently profiled Brennan-Rogers School’s experiment with expanded school days. The New Haven elementary school underwent significant changes during a 2010-11 turnaround effort. In addition to replacing most of the staff, the school added roughly an hour and a half to four days each school week. After the effort didn’t produce hoped-for results, students returned to the typical school days they’d had before, while the school held on to expanded time for teachers to collaborate and develop.

Expanding the school day is a tricky move to pull off well. Many successful charter schools operate with longer days, but families are signing up for those schools knowing what they’re getting into. Brennan-Rogers did not communicate the change to students ahead of time, and many families were unhappy with the switch. Major changes to existing schools should generally include families and students. This goes beyond communicating changes to actively involving families and students in the deliberative process.

Brennan-Rogers did not just revert to the way things were before, however, and that’s in part because of the democratic processes it preserved. When deciding what to do with the school after the extended student days were deemed a failure, school leaders consulted teachers. This produced the current arrangement, where teachers are still at school longer so they can collaborate and work on developing as professionals. This respect for teachers in the decision-making process and trust in collaborative professional development are examples of what did work during this story.

Scaling up major shifts in school operation always poses implementation problems. Being transparent and inclusive in the decision-making around those changes can reduce those problems, and being willing to reflect and alter course when the desired results don’t pan out is a helpful attitude to have. As Minnesota schools look for ways to innovate, some may consider extending their days (and some already have). The lesson from Connecticut is that the people closest to the ground in education need to be part of that change-making process if it is to work well. We should expect our schools to learn from this example and be democratic in their innovating.

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

How Conservatives Co-Opt the Language of Equity

Here we go again.

Conservatives running for governor in Minnesota have justified their calls for school vouchers and market approaches using the language of equity. Now, the leading conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate has joined the chorus denouncing Minnesota’s educational equity gaps. Calling the test score gaps between black and white students in Minneapolis “immoral,” he went on to argue for defunding district schools and doubling down on the questionable market-based strategy conservatives love.

On the surface, this looks like a simple case of everyone agreeing about a problem but disagreeing about the solution. In fact, matters are more complicated. It’s no coincidence that a conservative’s policy recommendation is to move from a public service to a market. That measure is right up there with cutting taxes as a favorite conservative tool. The problem this candidate sees isn’t actually the test score gap but rather the institution of public schools.

Similarly, progressives who favor adequate and equitable funding for public schools, more full-service community schools, and greater democratic involvement in school improvement aren’t simply reacting to test scores. We’re trying to overcome a history of systematic oppression at many levels of society, prolonged underfunding of schools, and widespread opportunity gaps between the comfortable and those working hard just to get by.

We may have reached a common rhetoric but that shouldn’t be confused with a shared understanding of the real problems. We don’t actually see the same problem, which is why our preferred policies look so different.

The unfortunate reality is that conservatives have co-opted the language of equity to argue for a market-based approach that has a terrible track record for promoting equity. Markets have not produced equity in housing, health, or food; why should we expect them to produce equity in education?

Functioning markets produce efficiency but even a basic introduction to economics should include the disclaimer that they don’t automatically produce equity. What’s more, the conditions required for an equitable education are fundamentally incompatible with a competitive market. Striving to create “better” markets in schools will not produce a fair school system.

Innovation can happen outside the marketplace. Results can happen outside the marketplace. Equity almost always happens outside the marketplace. Those looking to promote equity should be wary of conservatives using the language of civil rights to justify defunding our schools.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Achievement Gap  Conservative Policy  Racial Inequalities 


Crowded Classrooms: Mapping it Out

Minnesota has consistently ranked among the relatively low in terms of pupil-teacher ratios in recent years. However, the pattern shown on the map below reveals that even adjacent school districts can have dramatically different average student-teacher ratios. Thus, it is clear that there is no single cause for the variation in ratios across the state; race, income, and basic population density all come into play.

For help identifying individual disctricts, see this map.

Conventional knowledge holds that a lower student-teacher ratio ensures more individual attention and better academic performance. Student-teacher ratios are often a major factor for parents when comparing schools, or making the choice between public and private education for their children.

Although most parents would prefer that their child be placed in a school with a low student-teacher ratio, not all families can afford to act on this preference. Many low-income and minority parents do not have the means to travel farther or pay for private schools, leaving already disadvantaged students packed into overcrowded classrooms. This disparity is evident in the fact that suburban districts such as Central and Eastern Carver County have among the lowest ratios in the state while inner-city districts lie at the other end of the scale.

Another important factor that influences pupil-instructor ratios is whether a district is rural or urban. Only a few districts in western Minnesota exceed a student-teacher ratio of 18, simply because populations are lower. This phenomenon complicates the assumption that low student-teacher ratios indicate smaller class sizes and a higher quality of education; students at many rural schools lag behind their urban counterparts because of limited resources, despite low student-teacher ratios.

In general, Minnesota’s student-teacher ratios will continue to grow until recent trends in educational funding are reversed. Budget cuts have limited new hires and made teacher layoffs a necessity in many school districts, and schools are suffering as a result. High student-teacher ratios are a symptom of a much larger problem, and the only solution is meaningful investment in the future of Minnesota’s educational system.

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

Lucky Beginnings

I was lucky growing up. I had two parents, and we were a middle class family living in a suburban community outside of New York City. My parents had a very strong belief in the value of education even though my mother was the only one who finished high school.

I was born in New York City, but shortly before I turned six, we moved to suburbia on Long Island. My father still worked in Brooklyn and his commute was 90 minutes each way. I am not sure why we moved but it probably was because they wanted a single family home with good schools. My father, although he never finished high school, was smart, the foreman at a company with a number of people reporting to him. We were not rich, but we lived comfortably. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until it was time for me to go to college, and then she went back to work to earn money to pay my college tuition and in turn, my brother's.

My brother and I were raised with the understanding that we would go to college. I never remember even giving it a thought. Eventually, I earned a bachelor's degree in physics, and continued my education while working earning my second master's degree at the age of 48. I was the first person in either of my parent’s families to complete college. My brother earned a Ph.D. in High Energy Particle Physics.

My wife and I are married almost 46 years. Our son has a doctorate in space physics and our daughter has a M.S. in Library Science. My wife since our marriage has completed a bachelor's and master's degree. I'm sharing my life story, not to brag, but to explain that my life is very much the result of my parents' effort and sacrifice. Our middle class status enabled us to move to communities with good schools and little crime or violence. If they had not pushed education, taking steps to ensure good schooling, neither my brother I would have had the lives we have. The point is that if we had been poor, and our parents' highest priority was putting food on the table and a roof over our heads, it is doubtful we would have had the opportunities we did. My brother and I can talk about our achievements, but we have climbed life's ladder from our parents' backs. Our story is not unique.

When we talk about the education gap, we need to understand it is due to more than the quality of our schools. We need to change a society where a parent or parents must work multiple jobs to feed and house their families. We need to put to bed the fantasy that it just takes hard work to succeed, and build a society where the poor have a chance for a good education and do not have to live in fear of violence, and going hungry or not having a roof over them. We all have a stake in everyone succeeding. Schooling can't change lives if kids life barriers can't get them to school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Achievement Gap 

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Ending Net Neutrality: Greater Higher Ed Costs

This is the third in a four-part series. See also: part one, and part two.

With more college students than ever jumping on the Internet, the issue of net neutrality is ever more relevant on campus.

During the FCC’s open comment period; ed-tech startups, The New America Foundation, Educause, numerous public and private colleges, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) all filed complaints condemning the possible end of net neutrality.

What stakes do these disparate actors have in this issue? The simple answer is cost.

With increasing pressure and scrutiny to keep the cost of higher education in check, an open Internet offers great potential as an equalizer. For example, ed-tech companies have—or better or worse—been able get their start via the internet as a distribution service.

Organizations such as the ARL have pointed out that “more and more content is [being] made available in a primarily digital form” and therefore “maintaining an open internet is critical.”

It’s not hard to imagine the harmful effects losing net neutrality would have on college life. Students, attempting to access materials online for research projects would be waiting in a digital queue as ISPs place a ‘speed cap’ on these networks.

Higher education institutions, like K-12 schools, don’t have an abundance of money to spend on faster access.

Additionally, the fall of net neutrality has the potential to derail open thought and argument at colleges and universities. Open access to all points of view is vital in developing an intellectual and ideological “place” in the world; however, without a neutral access point (i.e. the internet) certain viewpoints could be stifled by dramatically slowing access to them.

Without equal access to sites such as InsideHigherEd.com, EdTechMagazine.com, and ARL.org, this blog post would have been significantly more difficult to write, to say nothing of researching and writing college-level projects and papers.

From students to ed-tech company managers, the potential end of net neutrality is cause for significant concern. The final post in this series will examine how losing net neutrality would put innovators and small businesses in the same straits as students and educators at all levels.

For a few additional introductions to the complex issue of Net Neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education  Technology 

Five Years of Racing to the Top

Congressional conservatives have made it hard to get much done these past few years. This has led to a series of creative workarounds by the Obama administration, including the Race to the Top grant competition five years ago which in part took the place of passing new education legislation. I’m less than thrilled with the program which led to many states agreeing to significant policy changes but only funded a few of those efforts.

Minnesota was not one of the major grant recipients although we did get a smaller Early Learning Challenge Grant in 2011. Five years after Race to the Top, the twelve states receiving the “big” grants (amounting to about one percent of their total education budgets) have spent much of the money. Major priorities include teacher evaluation systems, Common Core adoption and implementation, and beefing up science, math, and technology options.

The federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top priorities meshed in many ways with its conditions for receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Together, these two policies sparked a wave of teacher evaluation systems that place more weight on test scores and fed an image of the Common Core as a federal program (even though it was initiated by foundations and the states). If you like  analogies, Race to the Top was the carrots and the NCLB waiver process was the stick.

As the carrots run low, the Department of Education is left with the stick although they haven’t threatened most states’ NCLB waivers. It’s a make-do approach to policymaking that has encouraged the rapid adoption of several policies, many of which have struggled as they move to implementation. With a new administration taking over after the 2016 elections, it seems likely that the new President and Secretary of Education will continue to use the waiver process and perhaps the occasional grant competition as a way of promoting their policies. This is especially likely if conservatives continue to choke Congress’ ability to function. Were a conservative policy activist such as Michele Bachmann or Scott Walker become the Secretary of Education, the likely result would not be pretty.

The Race to the Top experiment has shown both the power of competitive grants to provoke policy change and the limitations of those grants in ensuring high-quality implementation. We would be better served by actual education policy set in law.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform  Race to the Top  Federal Government 

Ending Net Neutrality: Leaving K-12 Behind

This is the second in a four-part series. Read part one here.

Every Minnesotan has a stake in the fight to keep the Internet an accessible, open platform. Schools and education groups, however, are particularly vulnerable to the damage of losing net neutrality.

School librarians are notably opposed to Internet service providers tearing down net neutrality access protections. Already strapped for time and resources, the country’s librarians have a unique view on how their jobs could become much harder if net neutrality were lost.

Lynne Bradley, the director of government relations of the American Library Association, quoted in the Washington Post, states, “We can't afford to pay more [to ISPs]. As public institutions, we're being threatened with limited resources and are trying to provide the best possible service we can given the access we currently have.”

As discussed in my earlier post, the ISPs’ proposal eliminating net neutrality would throttle content based on the bits per minute the content provider (such as Netflix, Twitter, CNN.com) offers as well as the amount of money the content providers give to the ISPs distributing it.

This would inherently limit the ability of public institutions and their limited budgets to ensure that all of their students and teachers have access to the educational materials needed to continue learning and teaching.

Rebecca Buerkett, a librarian and technology specialist in a New York public school district, wrote an Education Week article arguing that the loss of net neutrality could harm the equalizing potential of the Internet, aggravating the existing gaps already between students.

She points out that “for students who might otherwise be ‘low on the totem pole, on the Internet, they're the same as everyone else…Protecting good technology access for my students is very important.’”

ISPs may not even deem educational content to be a significant use of their bandwidth. With the proposed change, these corporations could decide on a whim what content deserves to be sped up or slowed down. It isn’t hard to imagine that educational materials could take a back seat to entertainment providers (such as Netflix or gaming services). Our policymakers and education leaders should know that maintaining net neutrality is important for Minnesota’s children.

Read part 3

For a few additional introductions to the complex issue of Net Neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Technology 

The Importance of Teachers, Time, and Training

“Blended learning” is one of those buzzwords that flies around the edu-sphere. Done right, the combination of in-person and online education, often spread between time in school and time at home, has real potential to aid in helping each student learn at their own pace. Done incorrectly, it turns into a frustrating waste of time and money. A pilot project at a handful of schools in Oakland, CA, recently got some attention from Education Next. The story highlights key areas that districts considering blended learning should remember.

The first of these is the central role of teachers in making a pedagogical shift of any kind happen. In the Oakland blended learning example, according to Education Next, “all the teachers within the schools that implemented blended learning were “early adopters” who wanted to try something new.” It’s tough to overstate the significance of voluntary adoption in place of top-down mandates for creating positive changes in teaching. If a change is successful, those early adopters can become local experts, helping other teachers who have become interested master the new approach (especially in schools and districts that prioritize local, teacher-led professional development).

Time is another critical consideration. The roll-out of blended learning in Oakland wasn’t a rush job. It certainly wasn’t the kind of massive, district-wide technology purchase like the $2 million iPad boondoggle in Los Angeles or the bulk iPad purchases many Minnesota districts have made or discussed. Instead, different schools in the Oakland pilot tried different tools, learning from each others' successes and failures. This is the kind of deliberate pacing that allows teachers, principals, and district administrators to learn and make informed choices as they work for change, rather than betting big on one fast, big purchase.

Finally, the Oakland experiment realized the importance of training. Teachers spent at least an extra hour a week on training and collaboration. The foundation footing the bill made specialists available, especially to schools that struggled the most. The current goal is to adapt the early lessons into training and coaching support for expanding the approach.

The importance of teachers, time, and training aren’t just important for blended learning. They’re important to all major changes in how teaching and learning happen in schools. We need a school system that trusts teachers as leaders and gives them the time and training they need to make education better.

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

Game-Based Ed Gains XP

Say the word “game” to someone and their first thought might be of a frivolous (perhaps even trivial) pursuit. However, effectively merging the best of games with education offers real potential for increasing learning and personal development in many areas.

The Atlantic has covered some of the leaders in bringing game-based learning to higher education. Notoriously slow to change its pedagogy, college and university learning is dominated by the lecture approach that too often bores students and proves less effective than desired in helping them learn. A few professors have applied the principles of game design—narratives, quests, collaborative guilds, experience points (XP), etc.—to their classrooms, and have seen increases in attendance, engagement, and performance.

The use of gamification isn’t limited to the college level. Perhaps the most widely known gaming-and-learning Minnesota educator is White Bear Lake elementary teacher Ananth Pai. He has put significant time and personal resources into using technology-supported games to help K-12 students learn better. The results have been impressive.

In higher education and the K-12 environment, the benefits of games reach far beyond test scores. The effects of well-designed gamification support collaboration, persistence, and problem solving, along with many other tough-to-measure areas. Gaming at home, whether with classics like chess or newer games like Set or Quarto (both of which have been around for years, but which are still new in comparison to chess), has also been shown to help children build executive function, strategic thinking, concentration, and impulse control, among other areas.

As with all innovations—especially where technology is involved—the use of game-based education shouldn’t be enforced by top-down mandates. Instead, it relies on teachers putting the time and effort into changing the way they teach to use gaming principles effectively. They should be supported in this effort. Teachers who have already had success would make good candidates for local, teacher-led professional development for other interested teachers.

There is a lot of good to be reaped from integrating games and education, and teachers who are interested in doing so should have the flexibility, trust, and support they need to make it happen.

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

Summer Melt’s Impact on High School Graduates

Many new high school graduates are spending the summer thinking about their fall college plans. College is an enormous shift for recent grads. Between classes, being away from home, and finalizing school financing plans, new, soon-to-be first year college students shoulder considerable anxiety.

For most nervous graduates and their families, however, high school resources are suddenly unavailable to them. Many students struggling with the high school-to-college transition are reluctant to approach their new school’s staff for fear of ‘making a bad impression." Returning to their high school support system can bridge the gap.

According to an Associated Press investigation, “first-generation college students and low-income families are particularly vulnerable” to this post-grad “summer melt.” In a startling statistic by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, up to 40% of prospective community college students in large metropolitan areas abandon their plans.

As many as half of these students decide not to pursue post-secondary education due to financial concerns. They are, however, making this decision without professional guidance.

What is the solution to this growing problem in Minnesota? Enhance the number of counselors in our schools and extend summer counseling hours for recently graduated seniors.

Minnesota’s counselor shortage is well-documented. In February of this year, the Minnesota School Counselors Association urged Governor Dayton to continue working on Minnesota’s dismal counselor statistics. With one school counselor for every 792 students, Minnesota ranks 48th in the United States.

The press release also cites the fact that counselors offer a unique range of talents that help students. Their role in the school “helps students maximize their academic success, career readiness, and personal and social development.”

This service is crucial to all Minnesota families and reduces many issues facing students and colleges. Having a better understanding of financial aid plans can improve the financial health of students. Knowing what college courses will be like can lead to less time spent in remedial courses and improve retention. Familiarity with academic and procedural deadlines can ease students’ navigation of college bureaucracy.

Counseling is crucial in preparing students for college of any form. After leaving for college, when many students need it more than ever, this already limited resource ends. While not all graduates will take advantage of school counseling resources, many will. While “summer melt” is a real phenomenon, it doesn't have to be a reality for Minnesota’s high school graduates.

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

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