When Teaching Better Means Teaching Less

When Vox interviewed Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher, the following passage stuck out: “The Japanese were doing all these things differently in terms of teaching. I didn't know how Japanese teachers got to that point, so I went to Japan myself and I asked them. It was this really strange experience where they would all say, "We learned from you. We learned from the US."

This might be news for people in this country who have grown tired of how often Japan beats us on international standardized tests. Especially if they assume that the difference is in the quality of teaching, it might be disturbing that Japan adopted practices developed but unused here. Some might wonder if this is about teachers with such a strong work ethic that they put in substantially more hours of work with students. Those folks would be wrong; the average Japanese teacher spends hundreds of hours less than the average U.S. teacher in front of the classroom with students. (This is true in Finland as well.)

Instead, Japanese teachers spend more time with each other, collaborating and doing research on what works best for their students. In many ways, the assumptions underlying this model are radically different than the assumptions driving much of the U.S. debate about teaching, which seems more interested in shaming teachers for being bad or lazy than in helping them improve.

Entrusting teachers with their professional development and building a system where they are expected to work together regularly to improve their practice would seem a worthwhile use of our time. However, that might require more trust from administrators and policy makers than they’re prepared to give right now.

For the rest of us, though, it reinforces the idea that good teaching can be taught. Indeed, it must be. As Green points out, teaching is in many ways more complicated than practicing medicine, and we have over 3.8 million teachers in this country. (We’d need more if we moved to a system like Japan’s or Finland’s with less student time and more development time.) Hunting for talent can’t be the core of our strategy; developing it must be.

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

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Racial Divisions Plague School Discipline

From unfair hiring practices to unequal incarceration rates, the evidence of persistent racial biases is overwhelming. One area where racial inequality is particularly clear and particularly concerning—is within schools.

Disparities in school discipline are well-documented. African American students are suspended and expelled much more frequently than white students, even though research shows the two groups exhibit similar behavior. This is true in school districts across the country. In a nationwide survey of school-related law enforcement incidents, 70 percent of arrests were of black or Hispanic students.

In Minnesota, the problem is particularly acute. Four percent of all black students are diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders, a rate three times the national average for that demographic. That is the highest rate of any state in the country. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, that rate is 7 and 8 percent, respectively. In Minneapolis, 14 percent of black students were suspended in the 2012-13 school year, compared to just 2 percent of white students. The disparity is not just present within schools but also between schools. In predominately black and Native American charter schools, the rates of suspension are significantly higher than in public schools.

Suspensions and expulsions hinder normal academic development and considerably reduce chance of graduation. They create a culture of hostility and alienation that pushes too many students toward delinquency and incarceration.

No quick fix exists. Despite nominally colorblind policies, racial discrepancies generally result from unconscious biases among those administering discipline, making it difficult to assign blame on any one person or group. But that is not to say nothing can be done.

As Michael Diedrich proposed earlier this year, we should stop modeling discipline in school after law enforcement and instead emphasize rehabilitation and treatment. A critical piece of this involves educators and administrators exercising restraint when they dole out punishments. The state legislature should clarify its existing statutes on discipline and specify legitimate and illegitimate grounds for dismissal. School districts should provide training for its employees that stresses consistency and proportionality in punishment. Additionally, schools should make clear to students which actions could result in dismissal so that they may adequately self-correct their behavior.

If we want to get serious about addressing the inequality issue in our state’s education system, this is a good place to start.

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

The Reformed Status Quo

It’s common to hear today’s debates about improving our schools framed as “reformers” squaring off against “the forces of the status quo.” At least, that’s how people pushing a given reform will tend to frame it. In recent years, though, the status quo has shifted, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

The status quo now involves nearly every state in the country using a teacher evaluation system that incorporates test scores or other student performance data into teachers’ ratings. The specifics vary from state to state, and some states continue to tweak the details. However, it is now the norm for states to require the use of student performance data in the evaluation of teachers.

The new status quo for most states also includes the Common Core State Standards. Only a couple of states hadn’t signed on to the standards, with Minnesota in an odd half-in position, having adopted the English/Language Arts standards but prohibited by state rules from adopting the math standards for a few years. While a few conservative-led states have abandoned the Common Core in recent months, they’re not doing so because of any allegiance to “the status quo,” and certainly not to the teachers’ unions who are often held up as the embodiment of that status quo. Instead, it’s been far-right Tea Party elements worried about federal overreach (because of the U.S. Department of Education’s support for Common Core in the Race to the Top grant competition and the No Child Left Behind waiver process) that have been most effective at challenging the Common Core.

Finally, the prominence of the early childhood experience as a matter of education policy (as opposed to the historical child care/human services focus) is a new part of the status quo. We may still be debating how best to give more children a high-quality early education, but most people are on board with the principle.

It’s been a tumultuous few years for education policy, and we’ve seen the status quo redefined as a result. There are some who are uncomfortable with this new state of affairs, and with the way it was achieved with targeted philanthropic and political efforts. As we grapple with what parts of the new status quo are and aren’t working as intended, we would do well to emphasize more democratic participation and an understanding of “a good education” that's broader than test scores.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Race to the Top 

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Full-Service Community Schools: Vision is Important

Video by Katie Lescarbeau, Policy Associate

At Brooklyn Center High School, a couple of years ago, a small room was transformed into an optometrist’s examining room. On the first day it opened in January 2013, 18 students were seen, and 15 of them needed glasses. At last, those who needed eyewear had access to it.

The eye doctor who donates a few hours per month of his time to seeing patients, free of charge, at Brooklyn Center High School is part of that school’s full service approach to education. The eye doctor has his own space across the hall from a dental clinic, which shares space with a medical clinic, which extends out to a mental health clinic. This model of comprehensive wellness—designed to help boost the overall success of the school—embraces students, staff, and families.

I learned firsthand about the full-service community school model that Brooklyn Center has adopted while on a listening tour of the high school. The listening tour was arranged by the newly emerging Coalition for Quality Public Schools, that I am part of through ACT for Education. The session was designed to educate more people, and especially candidates running for a seat on the Minneapolis School Board, about the potential of the full-service model.

Brooklyn Center Community Schools Director Patrice Howard led the tour, and while doing so she made it clear that her district adopted the full-service model because of its former superintendent, Keith Lester. Lester, she says, saw all of the barriers students face on the road to personal and academic success, and looked for solutions.

He had the vision to pursue the full-service community school model, and the wisdom to make its implementation district policy. That way, Howard said, Lester was doing his part to ensure that a whole child, whole family approach to education would continue beyond his years as superintendent (Lester retired in 2013).

Many of us on the tour sat agog as we listened to students, staff, and a parent (who was still volunteering at the school, even though her only child had graduated) extol the virtues of Brooklyn Center High School. Wow. In a state where the student to counselor ratio is abominable, the presence of onsite mental health services, during the critical middle and high school years, seems like a sure form of mercy, and a necessary step on the path to truly preparing a student for his or her future.

At one point during the tour, someone asked how Howard knows whether or not the full service community school model is working. Is there any data, she was asked, that would make other districts want to replicate Brooklyn Center’s approach? Well, sure, Howard answered. There is some data available, and more coming each year. But, she noted, “Our true success is in our stories.”

Call her up. Go hear the stories for yourself. Then, let’s work together to give students access to all the resources, from eyeglasses to homework help, that they need.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Community Schools 

Thinking About Progressive Unity on Education

Progressives aren’t always known for speaking with one voice. This has certainly been true in education.

In two posts, veteran educator Larry Cuban has sketched the history of two different progressive camps in education. Administrative progressives closely resemble the technocratic reformers of today, while pedagogical progressives are most easily seen on the edges of our educational debates.

During the industrial era, administrative progressives argued that education lacked the systematic regularity of industry. This was back in the period when “running a school like a business” was the same as “factory-style education.” There is some irony to the fact that many of today’s technocrats draw such a stark line between those two ideas, when the underlying concept— measure regularly and have the system make decisions based on measurements—hasn’t changed.

The intellectual heirs of the pedagogical progressives aren’t nearly as prominent as the heirs of their administrative counterparts. Progressive pedagogy focuses on student-centered approaches to learning and teaching. Think project-based learning, experiential learning, and similar approaches. While some of the people dreaming big about the uses of technology for personalized learning might end up fitting this definition, many of today’s pedagogical progressives end up stifled by top-down curriculum and instruction requirements or working at alternative programs.

Cuban does point to some examples of the two camps working together, especially around differentiating curriculum and instruction. However, more often than not, these two groups end up working at cross-purposes or serving as alternate ends of a pendulum swinging between the student-centered approach of the pedagogical progressives and the standardized, back-to-basics approach that makes it easier for administrative progressives to measure and regulate.

Ultimately, I think education in the 21st century is too human an endeavor to be easily systematized and regulated. The pedagogical progressives appear to have the right side of this argument. It’s possible they will win over some of the administrative progressives who were hoping that well-designed systems would foster innovation, only to see creativity stifled more often than not.

All of this is a discussion within a progressive world that assumes a strong public education system is worthwhile and can always be improved. For political purposes, some (on both sides, it should be noted) have occasionally made peace with conservatives who favor a more dismantled system. Our end goal must be schools that are student-centered and democratic, as well as efficient (without being stingy). Here’s hoping more progressives can find common ground on that soon.

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

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 

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