Students in the Driver’s Seat

As the hunt for effective school models continues, I see signs of a growing challenge to the orderly, regimented “no excuses” model associated with schools like the KIPP charter chain. That challenge comes, not from a wholly new model, but from renewed interest in an older one. While the student-driven model may not be the newest kid in the block, and it might not be best for all students, it’s probably better for more students than it serves right now.

I touched on the student-driven model in my discussion of project-based learning during the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs conference, and alternative programs are far more likely to feature deeply student-centered approaches than more conventional or “no excuses” classrooms. You can read a different perspective from a different state at Education Week’s “Learning Deeply” blog, which has a post describing Massabesic Middle School, a student-driven district school in Maine.

Common features of student-driven approaches include deep student awareness of learning objectives, but students are not forced to study the same topics at the same times. Instead, each student takes ownership for demonstrating their learning satisfactorily. The role of teachers is to help students adjust to this more self-directed approach, to provide learning support and guidance, and to ensure students are in fact making appropriate progress towards their goals. Many student-driven schools are getting better and better at incorporating technology to support this learning model, but it’s notable that the learning model comes first, with the technology as a tool, not a savior. Uniform classroom behavior and instruction is deemphasized, group work is made easier, and students get lots of experience setting goals, making plans to achieve them, and following through. All of these are useful attributes for students preparing for life in modern society.

As I said, this approach is not new, but it does seem radical when contrasted with the highly controlled, teacher-directed environments at the “no excuses” schools or the scripted curriculum and instruction that characterizes too many district schools afraid of bad test scores.

We will continue to see our school landscape diversify, both in and outside of districts. Some students may well do best in the “no excuses” environment, but we need more teachers and schools prepared to operate with the student-driven model.

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

Even With New Teacher Evaluations, Brace for Uncertainty

The experts have weighed in, and they urge caution in designing and interpreting the results of new teacher evaluation systems.

At Education Week, a group of psychometric experts have presented a piece that lays out several conditions that need to be met before a teacher evaluation system’s labels can be considered meaningful. These conditions include, among others:

Many of these are quite challenging. Observations of teachers, relying as they do on human beings, will require significant, ongoing effort if they are to “appropriately assess teacher performance” and be “sufficiently reliable.”

Cold hard data seems a safer bet for those looking for that reliability, but as Matthew DiCarlo at the Shanker Institute has observed, “Value-added estimates are imprecisely estimated, and so there’s a limit as to how much they can ‘match up’ with each other, whether between tests or years. In fact, even if value-added was a perfectly ‘accurate’ measure of teacher effectiveness, there would still be a great deal of instability due to nothing more than this error (which is itself mostly a result of the countless factors that might affect student testing performance).”

The Education Week authors lead off with an example of a teacher inappropriately labeled “the worst teacher in New York City in 2012” due to an overly regimented application of the evaluation algorithm. They call for states to take advantage of additional time granted by the federal Department of Education when rolling out statewide teacher evaluation systems using newer techniques such as “value-added” models.

Minnesota’s legislature recently decided not to delay our system, which goes live across the state next school year (with some districts implementing their own systems provided they meet certain criteria). Still, we would do well to remain cautious and open to revision when relying on the new system to label teachers. It’s also worth remembering that our expectations for the new system’s effect on students should be realistic, in both scope and timeline.

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

What Happens When the U.S. Does Well on International Tests?

We’re used to seeing the U.S. show up somewhere around the middle of the pack or slightly below on international assessments, but what happens when we come in above average? That’s a question that needs confronting now that the 2012 results for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) problem-solving test have been released.

The U.S.A.’s mediocre performance on the PISA math and reading tests is routinely used to justify anxiety about the country’s education system. When the assessment focuses more on real-world style problem-solving questions, however, it turns out that the U.S. comes in statistically significantly higher than the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Statistically, we share company with Germany, Norway, France, and the UK, among others.

At the top of the charts are names familiar from other PISA tests: Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and a collection of Chinese jurisdictions (which should be evaluated with a grain of salt). Also outscoring the U.S. are Canada, Australia, and Finland.

Of course, the amount of real information that can be gleaned from these tests is relatively small. For the same reason that we shouldn’t get too anxious about U.S. performance on the math and reading tests, we shouldn’t get too excited about our performance on the problem-solving test. Still, those who point to disappointing U.S. scores on PISA’s math and reading tests as a rationale for their preferred policies should be asked if their preferences change at all in light of these findings.

Other interesting findings:

There’s no question that we have real equity problems in our country, and that many of them manifest in our school system. Taking the time to recognize that we’re not in a total performance crisis is also important (even on international tests that don’t say much about our long-term economic competitiveness or students’ future quality of life), if only as a preventive measure against making bad decisions out of panic.

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

School Needs to Be Safe

Perpetually feeling unsafe is emotionally harmful, physically stressful, and not conducive to learning. Students subjected to regular bullying experience all of these painful effects, which means our schools need to be active in keeping students safe from bullying.

That’s why a bill currently making its way through the Minnesota state legislature is important. As I’ve summarized before, the purpose of the bill is to strengthen anti-bullying policies across Minnesota to make sure students of all identities -- including, but not in any way limited to, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender -- are protected from bullying at school.

For those worried that the current bill is only aimed at protecting students from LGBT-specific bullying, here’s the actual text of the bill: “Examples of bullying may include, but are not limited to, conduct that...relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic...of a person or of a person with whom that person associates...”

That’s a pretty comprehensive definition of identity groups. If you still think that leaves gaps in who is covered by the bill, bullying is also defined to include conduct that “has a detrimental effect on the physical, social, or emotional health of a student,” regardless of identity group. The message is clear: All students should feel safe and supported in school.

The purpose of the bill is to make sure that district policies don’t tie educators’ hands when addressing bullying. The most frequently referred to example is Anoka-Hennepin’s old “neutrality policy” that declared discussions of sexual orientation out of bounds for teachers. That policy featured heavily in the lawsuit and district-wide debate about reducing bullying directed at LGBT students. However, the reach of the new law still covers much more than just bullying targeted on LGBT grounds.

At the same time, local communities still have a major role to play in ensuring their schools are safe for all students. Creating and implementing an anti-bullying policy with fidelity will only happen if community members hold their local leaders accountable to that goal. Should this bill become law, it will offer guidance and expectations, but the real work of keeping schools safe will stay where it is now: in the schools.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Children's Health 

School Employees Are a Reflection of Our Community Values

Frequently the focus is on teachers and compensation when we talk about K-12 education and contracts. On occasion we forget about education as a social contract that involves all members of the community in which it occurs. As we have watched classroom instruction of our children turn into a commodity to be traded on, the services that surround supporting children in their education are becoming privatized as well. Basic services like keeping the classrooms safe and clean, serving lunch, and transporting children to and from school are being bid on by outside companies.

Both the School Superintendents Association and the National Education Association have recognized issues with outsourcing. An in-depth policy brief co-authored by the Education Public Interest Center and the Educational Policy Research Institute cite data and numerous anecdotes about how outsourcing has hurt schools and students across various states. Research conducted in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and here in Minnesota show that outsourcing is not the best value for schools or their communities in many cases.

There can be great variability in how companies and school districts negotiate their contracts and relative cost-to-quality ratios, but in all cases it means districts are no longer unilaterally in control. Third parties interested in making a profit off children’s educational experience are now part of the decision making process about how often to perform maintenance on school buses, the quality of food served at lunch, and the chemicals used to clean the drinking fountains.

Outsourcing to a third party can come with drawbacks, such as the school district divestment of equipment in the form of selling off bus fleets or cafeteria equipment. There can also be a divestment of employee quality and experience if school districts do not fight to retain their employees when they outsource.

Take cafeteria workers for example; they must have food service skills that would make them employable in any restaurant or fast food establishment. But there are additional expectations placed upon those who work with children. Some are mandated, like the ability to pass a background check that allows for work with children or to pass a food safety course. Some are an outgrowth of district policy, like mandatory attendance at training sessions for bullying or sexual harassment.

Other worker expectations and qualities are not so easily prescribed, like the ability to relate to children or the genuine desire to make food both nutritious and palatable, but they matter. And luckily, they are easy to detect in a potential employee when someone with the same skill set is involved with the hiring. There is a difference between an employee who works in the education sector serving food and a food service employee who happens to work in the education sector.

American education has always contained a socialization aspect that teaches children the expectations of their behavior and role in society. They learn about their obligations to their community, state, and country. And they learn through both direct and indirect messages how much those in power care about the quality of their educational experience. Frequent staff turnover due poor compensation, poorly maintained school buses, and low quality food let children know their value to their community.

When given a choice, districts that value the skills and training their employees bring to the table retain them. We should be funding schools in a way that allows them to put the values the community and their staff into practice in all aspects of the school atmosphere.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

First Steps in Evaluating Family Involvement

There’s no question that families play an important role in students’ lives and learning. It turns out, though, that there are lots of questions about how different kinds of involvement affect students. A recent summary of existing research offers a starting place for answering those questions, though it has some clear limitations and leaves many questions unanswered.

The research (written by professors at the University of Texas and at Duke, and covered in The Atlantic) finds that some involvement -- like regularly reading aloud to young children -- has a clear positive effect on standardized test scores, while other steps -- like helping children complete their homework -- can wind up having no effect or even being counterproductive.

Of course, if you read that last sentence and frowned at the use of standardized test scores as the primary measurement, you have a point. Many of the benefits of family involvement won’t show up directly in test scores but are still deeply meaningful to children, schools, and even communities. Still, looking at test scores is a better starting point than raw guesswork at identifying the effects of family involvement.

Another very important finding from the research, unrelated to test scores, demolishes the myth that families of color, including African-American and Latino families, don’t value education as highly as white families. According to The Atlantic’s description, “Across race, class, and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college.”

With that said, class still matters when translating those values into reality. Children from upper-middle class and wealthy households simply have access to more opportunities, experiences, and connections that make a college education more likely. This is where our school system is important, as it can -- if managed properly -- help more students get to similar or alternative resources that lead to success after high school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

The School Board as Justice League

When voting in school board elections this year, voters across Minnesota must keep in mind what they want their school board to look like. Although I’m sure the authors themselves wouldn’t put it like this, a recent report suggests that key features of a school board can be compared to the Justice League (or other superhero teams like the Avengers).

Just as the Justice League brings together different heroes – Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. – school boards assemble groups of people who wield immense power. School district budgets can rival city budgets in size, and in many areas, the school district is one of the biggest employers. The (sometimes) mild-mannered citizens who end up on the school board can dramatically influence the lives of students, teachers, and other school workers, as well as families, local employers, and communities in general.

New research from the Fordham Institute as part of a larger project in conjunction with the Center for American Progress presents numerous findings about how school board’s members backgrounds and priorities do – and do not – affect areas like academic performance. For example, boards that prioritize student academics do in fact see better outcomes. Interestingly, districts that elect school board members during general elections tend to have better academic outcomes than those that elect “off cycle.”

Also, people with more professional experience in education aren’t necessarily better informed than other board members. However, the report doesn’t address how professional experience can improve decision-making. Clark Kent might not know The Daily Planet’s budget backward and forward, but he’ll be better than non-reporters at distinguishing boneheaded publishing fads from meaningful change.

Another finding concerns who school board members represent. While districts that elected most or all of their members at large tended to have better outcomes than those that elected members by particular wards in the district, wards offer other advantages. A major criticism of school boards and super-teams alike is that they tend to be disproportionately white. A ward system helps improve the diversity of the board, which has its own advantages.

In the end, it’s important that our school boards reflect a range of experiences and expertise. If the Justice League only had seven copies of the Flash, they’d be good at addressing problems that required a lot of speed, but not so good at things outside that narrow focus. We need Wonder Woman and Hal Jordan in the mix, too.

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

History Day: The power of project-based learning

For all the standardization, testing, and negativity we pour on public school students, we have not completely dampened their spirits. Minnesota's 2014 Regional History Day competition at Minneapolis' Anwatin Middle School reminded me of this.

History Day is a national academic competition for students in grades 6-12, and the Minnesota Historical Society sponsors it locally. Every year there is a new theme; this year, it was “Rights and Responsibilities.” Working from that theme, and within the structure of their social studies classes, students must choose a historical event to cover and come up with a unique way to “show what they know.” Often, students create huge poster board presentations; others do performances or documentaries, or write an essay.

I was at the regional competition with my seventh grader and her friend, who worked tirelessly for weeks pulling together a poster board presentation connected to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. They agonized over a topic, doing extensive research, how to present their work clearly and effectively to a wide audience. I took them to “History Day Hullabaloo” events hosted at various libraries to help students work on their projects.

This is the work we should be asking all of our students, from the earliest ages on up, to engage in. It is the work that makes school a powerful place to be.

When we walked into Anwatin Middle School on the day of the competition, I was surprised and delighted to see hundreds of giddy, bouncing students of all backgrounds proudly setting up their History Day projects.

There was a nervous girl getting ready to do a performance about Blackface theater. There were smiling students, taking pictures of each other. My eyes began tearing. There is still a love and excitement for learning despite all of the rigid, drill and kill instruction and memorization that standardized testing demands.

My daughter’s classmate, newly arrived from South Africa, created a towering display about Apartheid that made a clear impression on her classmates.

As I walked the crowded rows of students, the variety of topics struck me -- from child labor laws to Angela Davis, from the 1970 Minneapolis Teacher Strike to education pioneer Michael Dowling’s work, and a moving look at the 1920 Duluth lynchings.

The creativity, critical thinking, and independent learning I saw at History Day was palpable and inspiring. With the spring standardized testing season upon us, will we be able to say the same thing about the rows of students who must sit silently, often for hours, in front of a computer screen, answering questions a testing company has generated?

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

Rethinking “Data-Driven”

Outside of a few contexts, the phrase “data-driven decision making” would provoke either yawns or vague anxieties brought on by images of spreadsheets and regression lines. In education, however, the phrase will get the blood pumping. Sometimes the rush will be one of excitement, as the term has become a touchstone for some people looking for more emphasis on outcomes and rigor in schools. For others, the heart will pound with anger, not excitement. These are the people who have seen “data-driven decision making” used to justify excessive use of standardized tests, the adoption of narrow and limited curricula, and the focus on “bubble students” close to arbitrary cutpoint for “proficiency” at the expense of other students.

A reevaluation seems in order.

At its core, the idea behind using information about student performance to improve instruction is sound. Most of the people advocating for “data-driven decision making” are really asking for informed decision making on the part of teachers. (There are also some -- a small but powerful collection of advocates -- who see this as a tool for closing neighborhood schools, advancing a competition-and-punishment agenda at the school and classroom levels, and generally messing with teachers’ unions.)

The thing is, most teachers are deeply committed to the idea of informed decision-making in their classrooms. The real discussion here is about how to make sure they’re collecting the best information possible and continuously improving their effectiveness and their students’ performance. Unfortunately, that work gets derailed when we confuse data for information and let decontextualized data points drive our work. We should be constructing information from data points and using it in the service of the work, not jerking spasmodically in reaction to the latest round of standardized tests.

These ideas come out in a recent Education Week blog post, where school administrator Ben Daley explains his resistance to “data-driven” improvement since, “too often the only data anyone is ever talking about is student performance on poorly constructed end-of-year standardized tests.” He contrasts that with a teacher-led research approach that uses a broader range of information sources to guide more direct improvements in how classes operate.

“Data-driven” comes with many meanings. Implying that teachers are averse to informed decision-making is insulting to many, and being too kneejerk in our reactions to standardized tests isn’t helpful. We need to ensure teachers and administrators have the freedom and support they need to put many sources of data to use in the right way.

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


Redirect Your STEM Worries

Sometimes, it feels like the U.S. has been in a perpetual state of panic over its science and technology skills shortage. From the early days of Sputnik freakouts to the current agonizing over our middle-of-the-pack math and science scores on international tests, we’ve got a serious case of science anxiety. However, the direction of our fears may be misplaced.

That’s the thrust of a recent piece in The Atlantic and a less-recent feature from last summer at IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Both point out that we’re producing more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates from college than we have jobs for them to take. There are obviously variations in this, and certain fields go through times of shortage and surplus, but in the aggregate, we’re overproducing STEM graduates at the bachelor’s-and-higher level. A substantial share of STEM jobs require some postsecondary education short of a bachelor’s degree, and that is an area that might need more attention.

Broadly speaking, though, our goal shouldn’t be to push more and more students into STEM fields out of concern over their employability. Instead, we need to recalibrate our thinking about STEM education. I’d suggest the following:

We live in a shiny age of glittering technology, and it’s easy to let the high times of Silicon Valley color our understanding of the science and technology workforce. As the folks in Rochester watching IBM ship jobs overseas can tell you, though, having a background in science and technology or a job at a tech-related business is no guarantee of the Google lifestyle. We need more nuance in our discussion of STEM education.

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


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