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Thompson: Fact Checking the New Orleans Reformers' Spin

When I first read the Education Research Alliance (ERA) report on the effectiveness of the competition-driven New Orleans model of reform, it was clear that true believers in "relinquishment" and market-driven reform would be disappointed by its findings. However, they have still spun the mixed results from the NOLA corporate reform model as a great success.

I have left the fact checking of the ERA's methodology and data to the experts. I've mostly limited myself to fact checking the reformers' spin - the soundbites they use to put the NOLA record in the best possible light, and to use its model to break unions and extend test-driven reform across the nation.

I admit to being surprised that analyses such as those of the NEPC, Andrea Gabor, The International Business Times, In These Times, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Mercedes Schneider, Gary Rubenstein, and others have found so many problems with the ERA research. I still remain most shocked by the soundbite of the respected researcher Douglas Harris who has contributed to headlines asserting that the reforms "worked."

At first, I assumed Harris was just being diplomatic when he said that the "typical elementary- or middle-school student's scores rose by 8 to 15 percentage points," and that "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time." 

In fact, I'm not aware of many districts that haven't made dramatic increases in bubble-in test scores over a short time, and then saw those illusory gains disappear.

It is hard to believe that any scholar would be so quick to trust bubble-in data after reading Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working? by Bruce Fuller, Kathryn Gesicki, Erin Kang, Joseph Wright. Fuller et. al assemble a much greater batch of test score growth claims by entire states, not just a district with an unflinching focus on bubble-in accountability.

How could scholars forget the New Jersey Miracle, where 4th grade reading scores increased 7.9 points per year for nearly as long as NOLA produced gains? NOLA can't hold a candle to Arkansas's miracle where 4th grade reading scores increased by 19 points between 2001 and 2002, and where there was nearly a 75% increase in those scores in four years.  In fact, Fuller et. al calculate an average of the average of gains in fourteen states and find  2.6 and 2.7 points per year for the decade preceding NCLB! 

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Thompson: Greg Toppo Sees the Game's Future and It Works

image from images.macmillan.comI've always been confused by the seemingly absurd dichotomy. Brilliant computer geeks and digital geniuses create such potentially liberating technologies. But, they also became a driving force in corporate school reform and its efforts to turn schools back to the early 20th century.

Gosh, as Greg Toppo explains in The Game Believes in You, computer games were pioneered by a small group of mostly unconnected, visionaries, In the earliest days of the 1960s computer breakthroughs, some inventors were even influenced by LSD. So, why did such creative people commit to turning schools into a sped up Model T assembly line?

It would be too much to ask of Toppo, or any other single writer, to definitively answer this question but his excellent book helps us understand why so many architects of 21st century technological miracles helped impose test, sort, reward, and punish, bubble-in malpractice on our schools.

Toppo chose to study computer gaming after his still dynamic young daughter became disenchanted with reading, and after he tired of reporting on school reform wars.  The fundamental problem predates corporate school reform; for instance, 1/3rd of high school graduates never go on to read another book for the rest of their lives. And, as teacher and reading expert Kelly Gallagher says, the problem is both under- and over-teaching of reading. But, full-blown "readicide" has been made far worse by the test prep which was caused by output-driven, competition-driven reform. 

Toppo writes:

At exactly the same time that schools have taken the questionable path of implementing more high-stakes standardized tests keyed to the abilities of some imaginary bell-curved students, games have gone the opposite route, embedding sophisticated assessment into gameplay ... becoming complex learning tools that promise to deflate the tired 'teach to the test' narrative that weighs down so many great teachers and schools. 

The Game Believes in You does a great job explaining the cognitive science behind computer games (and in doing so he may foreshadow an explanation why corporate school reformers became so obsessed with competition that they helped impose nonstop worksheet-driven, basic skills instruction on so many schools.)

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Thompson: Ta-Nehisi Coates & School Reform

image from ecx.images-amazon.comToni Morrison rightly compares Ta-Nehisi Coates to James Baldwin. I hope teachers and education policy makers will read Coates Between the World and Me, and consider its obvious implications for school improvement. I do not want to drag his beautiful book, a touching letter to his son, into our vicious school reform wars. Instead, I will review some of the key parts of Coates’s wisdom that can inform our practice and education policy, and mostly leave our education civil war to another day.

I would think that teachers would be thrilled to have a politically conscious student like Coates. Surely most of us would welcome the creative insubordination of a high school student who would quote Nas and challenge us with the idea “schools where I learned they should be burned, it is poison.”  After all, teachers and education policy-makers should all wrestle with Coates’s indictment of schools for “drugging us with false morality.”

At times, however, class discussions involving Coates could easily become uncomfortable. He “was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” Moreover, “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up on your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.” If that doesn’t hit too close to home, Coates adds that he resented school more than the streets.

Schools are supposed to be a “means of escape from death and penal warehousing.” But, too often, educators don’t understand what it takes for poor children of color to avail themselves of that escape hatch. For instance, he recalls that “each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not.”

Coates knew he was being robbed of that third of his consciousness, and that education should enrich his entire mind.  But, he felt that school “had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls.” Coates found himself “unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them.”

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Thompson: Tulsa Cuts Testing Time Fifty-Four Percent!

The Tulsa Public Schools has reduced the time that teachers and students must spend on testing by 54%, or by more than 72 hours. The Tulsa World’s Nour Habib, in Tulsa Public Schools Says District-Mandated Testing Time to be Reduced by 54%, reports that, “The decision to reduce district-mandated tests is based on recommendations from a task force of teachers that was put together last year to study the issue of overtesting in the district. Teacher representatives from all grades were selected based on recommendations by principals and from the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association.”

Habib also quotes Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association who says, “We are just ecstatic, over the moon. … We really appreciate all of the work that the testing task force did, and we super appreciate and are very grateful for Dr. [Deborah] Gist listening.”

The reduction of testing is doubly important because it follows the testing cutbacks initiated by the state. The Oklahoma Department of Education was limited by law from making major reductions, but State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has been clear in explaining why we must "push the reset button" on testing.  

Fundamentally, the reconsideration of testing was prompted by a grassroots Opt Out movement of parents, as well as the superintendents of the state’s major school systems. The Tulsa task force was formed after two elementary school teachers made national headlines for refusing to administer “high-stakes student surveys and tests.” Sadly, those two heroes, Nikki Jones and Karen Hendren, are no longer with the TPS. Even more disappointing is the way that Jones tried to remain with the system but every time she would hear that the principal would like to hire her, but that “they had to ‘represent the district.’”

So, the cutback will not in itself stop the cycle of test, sort, reward, and punish. Tulsa doesn’t seem to have much to show from its multimillion dollar Gates Foundation “teacher quality” grant, and as long as it takes the foundation’s money, it will be pressured to continue to impose bubble-in accountability. And, Tulsa has seen 20% of its teachers "exit" in the last 14 months.

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Thompson: A NOLA Middle Ground

John Merrow, in Deciphering Schooling in New Orleans, Post-Katrina, writes that he hasn’t seen enough people take the middle ground when discussing the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans's school reform. He also remembers the city's schools as so bad, pre-Katrini, that one had to "steal electricity from other buildings and utility poles because its own wiring was inadequate—probably rotted through.  And the schools, many of them, were violent and dangerous places."
 
I mostly see middle ground in reports on the New Orleans competition-driven reforms, with NPR Marketplace's series on the debate being the latest example. In fact, most of the panelists in the Education Research Alliance conference, where Douglas Harris released research on the test-driven, choice-driven outcomes, were squarely in the middle ground of the discussions. Harris's conclusions were seen as too rosy by many (or most?) of those moderate experts.
 
But, advocates for the New Orleans model of reform had to be upset by these findings and discussions. Harris, and others who are impressed by much of the New Orleans's outcomes, have hardly found evidence in support of other school systems trying to replicate its market-driven, outcomes-driven approach. 
 
I wish we could focus on what actually worked in New Orleans and what didn't work, what methods could be improved and what should be rejected, and discuss lessons for systemic improvements of schools and systems. Such a conversation must wait, however, until we educators who oppose corporate reform beat back the well-funded campaign to impose test, sort, reward, and punish across urban America. As long as teacher-bashing organizations like The 74 seek to break our unions and destroy the due process rights of educators, we must concentrate on exposing the falsehoods intertwined in the reformers' spin about the supposed glories of New Orlean's charters.
 
Teachers have other things to do rather than criticize reforms that help students. For instance, we welcome the extra counselors who helped raise graduation rates across the nation, and that are the likely reason why New Orleans's graduation rates and college-going rates increased. Educators oppose the hastily implemented silver bullets that have backfired, damaged public schools, undermined our profession and, above all, hurt a lot of students.

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Thompson: 2nd "This American Life" Report on School Integration Just As Great

In the second This American Life report on segregation, The Problem We All Live With - Part Two, Chana Joffe-Walt reports that the Hartford, CT school system sought to convince white families it’s in their self-interest to go to integrated schools. Joffe-Walt concludes that “the results have been impressive. It used to be that 11% of Hartford students were in integrated schools. Now it’s nearly half.”

As is the norm with This American Life, the report is nuanced in explaining how tricky the issue is, and every twist of the plot was enlightening. Hartford demonstrates great marketing skills and savvy and persuades enough white parents to participate. It is unclear whether it will be able to continue to increase white participation rates enough to meet the policy’s metrics and thus survive. (This weird numbers game is worthy of Catch 22, but Hartford is not alone; Sarah Garland [whose work was cited by This American Life] documented a similarly bizarre situation that hindered a successful desegregation effort in Louisville, Ky.)

Also, at a key point in Joffe-Walt's report, where we are reminded that not all poor children are being admitted to integrated magnet schools, we are implicitly reminded of the need to do a much better job of improving the toughest schools that serve entire neighborhoods with intense concentrations of generational poverty and where so many children endure extreme trauma. And, that makes the lost opportunities of 2009, when Arne Duncan took over as US Secretary of Education, feel even more like a betrayal. Duncan’s test, sort, reward, and punish policies provided two types of opportunity costs. They shifted attention away from research-based, holistic methods for improving instruction in troubled schools and they were a lost opportunity for encouraging voluntary integration efforts.

At the end of The Problem We All Live With - Part Two, it was explained how the election of President Barack Obama could have assisted in promoting desegregation, and his Race to the Top could have been a vehicle for promoting voluntary integration. Civil rights attorney John Brittain said that when he realized that such efforts were left out of the RttT, it was “like a punch in the gut.”

Then, Joffe-Walt and Hannah-Jones had an opportunity to ask Arne Duncan the questions that so many of us have longed to ask.

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Thompson: This American Life, School Integration, & The Ultimate School Reform Excuse

Former ProPublica writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, in School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson, recalls of the inescapable truth that educators once acknowledged, and that we now need to remember. Children who attend the most segregated schools, Hannah-Jones reminds us, “are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults.” Moreover, “their children are more likely to also attend segregated schools, repeating the cycle.”

Contributing to a continuing series by ProPublica and the New York Times on segregation, Hannah-Jones reports that “over the past 15 years …. the number of so-called apartheid schools — schools whose white population is 1 percent or less — has shot up. The achievement gap, greatly narrowed during the height of school desegregation, has widened.”

The national market-driven, test-driven school reform movement has downplayed the damage done by segregation. It’s choice-driven policies have actually increased the separation of students by race and class. And, This American Life’s The Problem We All Live With, featuring Hannah-Jones, begins with a mention of the research which explains why NCLB-type reforms have failed to improve schools serving neighborhoods with a critical mass of families from generational poverty. In doing so, it properly articulates the question that must be tackled before school improvement and other policies can promote racial justice and economic equality.

Accountability-driven reformers proclaimed their movement as the civil rights campaign of the 21st century, but they haven’t found a viable path towards school improvement. Competition-driven reformers derided traditional educators, who embrace socio-economic integration, early education, and full-service community schools, for allegedly making “excuses” and shifting attention away from the supposed real issue – bad teaching. But, This American Life has it right; reformers using competition-driven policies to improve instruction within the four walls of the classroom are distracting attention from the true problem.

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Thompson: To Improve Poor Schools, Ban Disney Movies

The key anecdote in Nick Chiles's Full Court Press for Mississippi Third Graders in Summer School Has Disappointing Results, also provides a great metaphor for why test-driven, accountability-driven reform continues to fail. Chiles, writing for the Hechinger Report, describes the Mississippi 3rd grade retention law, and how one school tried to use a four-week summer school remediation program to get struggling students back on track.

Frankie Blackmon, the director of federal programs, was conducting a site visit on the eve of the High Stakes Test that would determine whether remediated students could be promoted to the 4th grade. While checking whether students were being properly primed for the big test, she saw children watching a Disney movie. Blackmon “stopped cold,” and asked, “what’s going on here?”

The value of an end-of-the-session fun day should have been obvious, but it also turned out that the school had a good explanation. The video was embedded in their lesson plan. More importantly, it makes sense to relieve the anxiety of students as they approached such a test. Even so, “Blackmon [later] explained, her brow furrowed, ‘But this was the last day. We don’t have any time to waste. Every minute should be instructional in some way. There’s not going to be a movie shown on the test.’”

And that illustrates a key problem with test-driven reform. Its advocates were in too much of a hurry to study the complexity of interconnected education problems, to understand why their band aids, such as summer school remediation are inherently inadequate, and to think through comprehensive solutions.

As one teacher added, “Nothing is impossible, but being realistic about it, it’s almost at the point where there’s no help for them in just four weeks.” Improving the reading skills of 3rd graders is extremely important, but the teacher said, “They didn’t get it in kindergarten, in first, second or third grade. You can’t give to them in four weeks what they haven’t gotten in four years.”

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Thompson: NY Reformers Claim that Elections Don't Matter

A cornerstone of the contemporary school reform movement is the assumption that experience and a knowledge of education research, history, and the way that systems actually operate don't matter.  A few weeks of summer training supposedly preps 23-year-olds to be teachers and business leaders to become superintendents, and to mandate the top-down policies favored by the non-educators at the Broad Institute.  

During the first decade of NCLB, reformers drew upon some of the best public relations spin that money can buy and corporate reformers won political victory after political victory. Over the last few years, hugely expensive test-driven reforms have produced little in terms of education improvements and they are now suffering political defeats across the nation.

The implication of Kate Taylor's New York Times analysis, Bloomberg Is No Longer Mayor, but His Schools Agenda Thrives in Albany, is that in New York, at least, elections no longer matter. Taylor reports that Bloomberg "has been out of office for a year and a half, but his influence over New York schools is practically as strong as ever." 

Taylor explains that StudentsFirstNY, "a group devoted to continuing his education agenda and founded in part by his longtime schools chancellor has become one of the most powerful forces in Albany by pouring millions into lobbying and adroitly exploiting rivalries in state politics." Taylor doesn't editorialize, but her reporting leads to the question of whether the most vocal of those Albany forces, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is more interested in the substance of school improvement or in rebuking Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Not surprisingly, the elite reform coalition has been skillful in attacking de Blasio, teachers' unions, and, basically, anyone who disagrees with them.  Perhaps it is surprising however, that corporate reformers have come close to revealing what they are really devoted to - and its not democracy.

Governor Cuomo and his deep-pocketed allies ignored the fact that de Blasio was elected by voters who presumably knew that their mayor is in charge of NYC schools. He slapped down the duly elected officeholder by limiting his control of schools to one year.  Cuomo then explained, “Next year we can come back, ... and if he does a good job, then we can say he should have more control.”

De Blasio's spokesperson replied, “When a group professing to support education reform opposes mayoral control of schools, it calls into question what exactly it stands for.” That is an appropriately precise characterization of New York edu-politics, but a broader question must be asked. Nowadays, what does the accountability-driven school reform movement stand for? 

Alexander Russo, in NYT Details Topsy-Turvy NY Education Debate But Mysteriously Omits FOIA Emails, grounds the topsy-turviness in some reality, "And it’s also worth noting that the hard push from Governor Cuomo and others has included some proposals that have appeared to be more reckless than bold, such as making student test scores count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation."

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Thompson: Project Fatherhood

978-080701452-3When writing her excellent Project Fatherhood, the UCLA gang expert Jorja Leap exposed herself to a daunting risk. Leap accepted a degree of physical danger but it was the professional risk that could have been intimidating. Leap defied academic convention and spoke honestly about race, family, child-rearing, domestic abuse and, even, the “P-stuff” or post-traumatic shock.

Much of the credit for Project Fatherhood’s open and candid discussion of some of the 3rd rails of social policy must go to “Big Mike” Cummings, who guided her and the quest they shared with felons and fathers in Watts. Big Mike was exceptionally astute in coaxing the project’s participants into an honest appraisal of the causes and the effects of domestic abuse, as well as fathers not holding up their share of family responsibilities.

Scholars and educators often shy away from the issues tackled by Leap and Big Mike, and correctly argue that it is not just fathers - of whatever backgrounds - who have failed our kids. The horrific conditions of the inner city are a legacy of history, of economic exploitation and oppression, and of abusive political and criminal justice systems.  It is often feared that a conversation about child-rearing will be seen as “blaming the victim” or excuse-making.

We cannot improve inner city schools without building trusting relationships, however, and neither can we establish those bonds with students and patrons without dialogues about fatherhood. As Leap writes, “These men – who routinely used guns and dealt drugs and brutalized women and went to prison and had no clue how to father their own children – needed first to be fathered themselves.”

One of the first things that an inner city teacher seeking to build relationships should learn is that students will test them. It should be clear that much of the chronic disorder of urban classrooms is due to high-risk kids acting out their pain. A crucial reason is less obvious, however, and it is made much more understandable by the chapter entitled “Are You Gonna Leave Us, Too?” Teachers aren’t being tested to see if we are tough enough; students, like their fathers before them, want to see whether mentors are “for real.” These fathers also doubt whether outsiders, who may seek to do good, will care enough to stick it out when the going gets rough.

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Thompson: Chris Barbic's Resignation & the Failure of School "Reform"

In 2009 and 2010, the contemporary school reform movement became the dog that caught the bus it was chasing. The Obama administration funded the entire corporate reform agenda. The wish list of market-driven reformers, test-driven reformers, and even the most ideological anti-union, teacher-bashers, became the law (in part or in totality) in 3/4ths of the states. Due to the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other innovations, competition-driven reformers, and corporate reform think tanks were granted the contracts that they claimed would reverse the effects of poverty. 

Now, ideology-driven reformers are supposed to be announcing the increases in student performance that their gold-plated reforms promised. Instead, across the nation, outcome-driven reformers are delivering excuses about their experiments’ disappointing results. Some are completely contradicting themselves, as they announce gains in graduation rates that are attributable to more counselors and student supports. Accountability hawks conveniently forget that they previously derided those old-fashioned, input-driven programs as artifacts of the education “status quo,” and its “low expectations.”

Some defeated reformers, like Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson, remain blunt in blaming teachers and persons who disagree with them for the failure of schools that accept every student who walks in the door to produce significant gains. Others, like Kaya Henderson and the true believers in the New Orleans portfolio model, predict that early education and wraparound services will turn the toughest schools around. In doing so, these reformers forget how they previously condemned advocates of those policies as the problem.

Perhaps the most interesting spin was issued by Chris Barbic  when he resigned as the superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). Chalkbeat Tennessee’s Daarel Burnette, in Chris Barbic, Founding Superintendent of State-Run Achievement School District, to Exit, explains that “Tennessee used more than 10 percent of its $500 million windfall in federal education funds to launch the ASD. Those funds, which arrived through the Race to the Top competition to spur education policy changes, have now disappeared.” Moreover, the legislature has made a number of efforts to shift gears away from Barbic’s and the ASD’s approach to school improvement.

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Thompson: Rick Hess's (& My) Lessons from Race to the Top

Some academics persist in a strange ritual - gauging greatness by the effects that government office holders have on the political process, as opposed to the results of their policies for flesh and blood human beings. Andrew Jackson and Teddy "the Big Stick" Roosevelt have been categorized as "great" because they were so effective in stealing Indians' land and leaping into imperialism. Ronald "the Great Communicator" Reagan gets high marks for the transformative nature of his politics, as the Central American death squads he supported and the destruction of blue collar jobs are forgotten.

Now, some proclaim Arne Duncan as a great transformer because he completely changed the nature of education policy. Those who celebrate Duncan's political victories, like William Howell and Joanne Weiss, remain curiously silent about the possible benefits and the costs of his school improvement experiments.

Fortunately, conservative Rick Hess's contribution to the discussion in Education Next, Lofty Promises but Little Change for America's Schools, offers a real world critique of Duncan's gambles. Hess recounts the results that matter, concluding "the breakthrough wins touted so avidly by Race to the Top enthusiasts in 2010 and 2011 now look much more like pyrrhic victories—shot through with design flaws, tainted by federal compulsion, and compromised by half-hearted follow-through." 

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Thompson: Why Did the TNTP Fail to Turn Around a High-Profile Tulsa School?

The Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger, in McClure Elementary School’s “Faculty Restart” Flopped, Educators Say, writes, “Last summer’s ‘faculty restart’ at one of the city’s toughest inner-city schools wasn’t the extraordinary new beginning it was hailed as. Educators and parents say it was a disaster.”

At the beginning of the school year, after replacing 3/4th of the school’s faculty, McClure School Principal Katy Jimenez said, “I have never experienced a vibe and energy like we have right now.” Jimenez said, “The team has come together in an amazing way. My returning teachers gave up their summer to build a team they wanted to be a part of. Their investment is very deep. We are exhausted but so excited.”

The principal borrowed a line from the corporate reform spin-meisters known as the TNTP and praised a second-grade teacher, Paige Schreckengast, as “an irreplaceable.” Ms. Schreckengast was featured the story’s photograph.

The Tulsa Public Schools had partnered with TNTP to help recruit teachers. It should be no surprise to educators familiar with its blood-in-the-eye assaults on veteran teachers that the hiring process was called “very strenuous, focused” and resulted in a staff where 88% had less than three years of experience.

Eger reports that even in this high-profile restart, “two vacancies went unfilled for much of the year because of a lack of applicants.” I’m not surprised by that, however, because many or most of the best teachers have heard the jargon before and many refuse to participate in such restarts because they know that the ideology-driven playbook is likely to fail. Neither am I surprised that “seven teachers bugged out mid-year; and then another seven left at the end of 2014-15.”

The irreplaceable also left.

Now, Tulsa says that the district officials learned from mistakes made in McClure’s faculty restart. The principal, Jimenez, says that she will no longer accept Teach for America candidates. According to Eger, Jimenez is balancing her remaining optimism with “a brutal, unrelenting reality.” The principal says:

I’m not hopeful for any more support this year. I say that because I’ve been in TPS for 13 years, … I don’t think people know what to do for a site like us. If you ask them at the district level, they think they’re giving us plenty of extra help. I don’t have enough students to qualify for an assistant principal, but I have one. I receive two discretionary (teacher) allocations. I have Reading Partners, a full-time therapist from Family and Children’s Services — but it’s still not enough for the day-to-day needs.

-JT (@drjohnthompson)

 

 

Thompson: The Good, Bad, & Ugly of Chicago Grad Rate Improvements

The Atlantic's Kate Grossman, in What Schools Will Do to Keep Students on Track, asks the right questions, draws on some of the world's best social science research, reports on all sides of the key questions, and gives insights into whether Chicago's increase in graduation rates will be sustainable.

Even if I hadn't personally witnessed the benefits of my school's Freshman Team, I would still perk up and listen when a Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) scholar endorses efforts to help students transition into high school, saying “I’ve been arguing against silver bullets my whole career—but this is one.”

Even better, the CCSR has found more evidence of "a direct link between improved freshmen pass rates and dramatically improved graduation rates." Best of all, it studied "20 schools that had early success improving their on-track rates [and] did not find widespread gaming by principals eager to make their schools look good."

If data is used for diagnostic purposes, and real interventions by caring mentors are offered each step of the way in helping students to overcome failure, perhaps the single best approach to school improvement is helping students progress through school. Teachers should be able to "turn to the school’s 'care team,' which finds ways to get kids more intensive help." The team should help students "make up assignments they blew off or didn’t understand," and as long as extensions on deadline aren't "endless," everyone can benefit.

But, what happens when promoting power metrics and graduation rates are incorporated into formal or informal accountability systems?

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Thompson: Will President Obama's Trip to the Choctaw Nation (& a Federal Prison) Help Move the Administration Toward Comprehensive Solutions?

The President who I still love will visit the Choctaw Nation this week and look into the Promise Zone initiative he launched last year. My first hope for the trip was that President Barack Obama would swing over to the far corner of “Little Dixie,” and visit Frogville. 

But, President Obama has a better plan. The Daily Oklahoman’s Chris Casteel, in President Obama Heading to Oklahoma Next Week, reports that the President will visit the federal prison in El Reno, where inmate Jason Hernandez was housed until Obama commuted his life sentence on drug charges. 

Until recently, President Obama has been especially reticent about hot-button issues such as race and the legacies of generational poverty and discrimination. The 2014 off-year election defeat and tragedies culminating in the Charleston massacre have liberated our President, however, and he has been speaking and singing the truths that previously he held back.  It sounds like we can anticipate another honest conversation with an atypical journalist, this time with HBO’s VICE. 

According to VICE Media, the visit will “give viewers a firsthand look into the president's thinking on criminal justice reform ‘from the policy level down to one-on-one conversations with the men and women living this reality.’” 

Maybe President Obama will return to the Indian Nation and drop in on our family's homestead so we can discuss school reform and its cousin, the War on Drugs, and how these ill-conceived reward and punish policies backfired because they were dismissive of the realities that flesh-and-blood people live in. We could gaze upon the graves of whites, blacks, and Choctaws in the family cemetery, and muse about our long history of living together in peace and conflict, as well as both unity and divisiveness in victory and defeat at the hands of political and economic oppression.

As I explained recently, school reform and the War on Drugs were both deeply rooted in the Reaganism and the lowered horizons of the 1980s. Both were quick, simple, and seemingly cheap solutions to the complex social problems that the War on Poverty did not eradicate.

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Thompson: What Explains the Remaining Support For NCLB Testing?

The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton, in Even As Congress Moves to Strip His Power, Arne Duncan Holds His Ground, begins her portrait of the last days of Arne Duncan with an anecdote documenting the sincerity with which he approached his job as US Secretary of Education. She also writes, "In a town where many like to talk, Duncan is regarded as a good listener. 'Arne is a great sounding board for the president,' said Valerie Jarrett, the president’s close friend and adviser."

It's too bad that Duncan listened so well to the Billionaires' Boys Club and ignored the professional judgments of teachers and education researchers. Now, even the Third Way, which seeks education policies consistent with corporate reform has to admit, “The question is not whether we’re going to put handcuffs on Arne Duncan,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of Third Way, a centrist think tank. “The question is how many handcuffs.”

One top education expert, Jack Jennings, concludes in regard to Duncan's policies, “The record will show these policies brought about minimum improvement, ... They also did considerable harm.”

And that is the essence of Duncan's competition-driven reform and its test, sort, and punish approach to education. Some students may benefit but only at the cost of inflicting harm on other children. 

Its ironic that the market-driven movement - that still pretends it is a civil rights movement - is going out with such an ignominious whimper. Output-driven reform not only damaged poor children of color by treating them as test scores, it has undermined liberals and Democrats who seek a larger agenda of equity and justice. So, a crucial short term battle is the civil war between progressives, with teachers determined to prevent Hillary Clinton (or anyone else) from repeating Arne Duncan's agenda.

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Thompson: Remembering The Full Horror of "Death at an Early Age"

Screenshot 2015-07-07 11.33.30
Thanks to Alexander and NPR's Claudio Sanchez for reminding us of the 50th anniversary of the firing of Jonathan Kozol for "curriculum deviation."

Everyone should (re)read this book. 

Rather than immediately using it to discuss the ways that education and racism has and has not changed in the last half century, we should first focus on the horror of Death at an Early Age.

Kozol was a substitute teacher in a class of 8th grade girls who were designated as "problem students" because they either had "very low intelligence" or were "emotionally disturbed."  In a 133-word sentence, Kozol recalls his reading of Langston Hughes's "The Landlord."

No transistor radios reappeared or were turned on during that next hour and, although some children interrupted me a lot to quiz me about Langston Hughes, where he was born, whether he was rich, whether he was married, and about poetry, and about writers, and writing in general, and a number of other things that struck their fancy, and although it was not a calm or orderly or, above all, disciplined class by traditional definition and there were probably very few minutes in which you would be able to hear a pin drop or hear my reading uninterrupted by the voices of one or another of the girls, at least I did have their attention and they seemed, if anything, to care only too much about the content of that Negro poet's book.

In subsequent years, most of the students forgot the poet's name, but they remembered the names of his poems and "They remember he was Negro."

Kozol was fired, his students' parents protested, and the career of a masterful education writer began. The details of the dismissal, however, are also noteworthy.

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Thompson: We Need a Marshall Plan for Schools and Prisons

I grew up in the post-World War II era known as "Pax Americana." We all knew that our ambitious New Deal/Fair Deal era policies, ranging from G.I. Bill to the rebuilding of Europe with the help of the Marshall Plan, were not perfect. But, we knew in our bones that tomorrow would be better than today. Government and social science would both play a role in the campaigns to expand the promise of America to all.

The Marshall Project's Eli Hager, in What Prisons Can Learn from Schools, pulls two incredibly complicated social problems together in a concise and masterful synthesis. Hager's insights are deserving of a detailed analysis. This post will merely take a first step towards an explanation of why Democrats and liberals, especially, must heed his wisdom.

School and prison reform are both deeply rooted in the Reaganism and the lowered horizons of the 1980s. The defeat of the "guns and butter" approach to the Vietnam War demonstrated the limits of our power. The Energy Crisis of 1973, along with a decade and a half of falling or stagnant wages, was somehow blamed on liberalism. The U.S. entered the emerging global marketplace without the confidence that had marked our previous decades, meaning that we were more preoccupied with surviving competition than building community. 

Americans lowered our horizons. As Hager explains, we were loath to tackle the legacies to the "overwhelming unfairnesses of history."  So, we broke off schools and prisons into separate "silos," and sought less expensive solutions for their challenges. We rejected the social science approach to tackling complex and interconnected social problems that were rooted in poverty. Our quest for cheaper and easier solutions would soon coincide with the rise of Big Data as a substitute for peer reviewed research in service to a Great Society.

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Thompson: A Different Take On The NYT's Common Core Coverage

I'm not about to reverse myself again and support Common Core, but my reaction to Kate Taylor's English Class in Common Core Era: "Tom Sawyer" and Court Opinions is somewhat different than that of many educators who I highly respect.

The NYT's Taylor wrote, "In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different." She described lessons where ninth graders study excerpts from “The Odyssey" along with sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and 10th graders read Catcher in the Rye along with articles on bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain.

Those lessons remind me of my old history classes where, for instance, we had multimedia lessons on Ralph Ellison and Oklahoma City's "Deep Deuce," and students learned how they inspired his classic novel The Invisible Man. The district used to encourage teachers to devise those sorts of multidisciplinary lessons in the name of "horizontal alignment." 

Then came NCLB, "vertical alignment," and paced instruction that often killed engaging and in-depth classwork, as teach-to-the-test was mandated. Common Core supposedly began as a way to turn the clock back to the days before bubble-in testing dummied school down. When stakes were attached to Common Core tests, however, much or most of the potential value of new standards was lost.

That being said, I agree with Diane Ravitch that "every English teacher should be free to decide what to teach. If he or she loves teaching literature, that’s her choice. If she loves teaching documents, essays, biographies, and other nonfiction, that’s her choice."

The slower approach of persuading and coaching teachers would have been much better. The impatience of Common Core advocates created the environment where test-driven accountability was used to force compliance. I suspect this is the prime cause of unintended negative effects, such as the one Taylor reported, where a fifth-grader had to do "painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" to the point where after only nine days of school the child "got into the car after school and started to sob."

Too many reformers want it both ways. They mandate aligned and paced, skin-deep instruction to high stakes tests. But, they supposedly do so as a stepping stone to a system where schools select their own materials and teachers are freed to teach for multidisciplinary mastery - as long as the do so within the constraints of high stakes Common Core testing. After imposing these mutually exclusive dictates, reformers ask why educators don't trust their promises to, some day over the rainbow, stop their micromanaging and allow innovation back into schools. -JT (@drjohnthompson) 

Thompson: What Does New Orleans Test Score Growth Really Mean?

Let’s recall the excitement in 2007 when Bruce Fuller, Katheryn Gesicki, Erin Kang, and Joseph Wright published Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working?  Fuller et. al showed that NAEP test score growth had largely declined after NCLB took effect, but states reported huge gains on their standardized tests. Oklahoma, for instance, posted a 48 point gap between its 4th grade reading NCLB scores and its NAEP results. After NCLB, the state’s 4th grade reading scores increased 2.3% per year while its NAEP results dropped by .3 per year.

Fuller’s blockbuster was a definitive indictment of the reliability of state NCLB test scores; it even got the test-loving Education Trust to question whether bubble-in accountability was working. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before testing received a unanimous verdict as guilty of being a hopelessly misleading metric. I thought the idea that state test score growth, during an age of test-driven accountability, could stand alone as evidence of increased learning would soon be discredited. 

While I must emphasize how much I admire the work of Douglas Harris, I’m dismayed by one passage in his report on the New Orleans model of reform, The Urban Education of the Future?. I’ve got no problem with Harris et. al reporting that New Orleans increased student performance, as measured by Louisiana’s embarrassingly primitive state tests, by .2 to .45 std. It is a scholar’s responsibility to report such data. However, why would Harris speak as if he assumes that those numbers mean anything? They might mean something or they might not, but certainly they don’t provide evidence that New Orleans portfolio model has increased student performance more than early education would have. 

Even when they are valid, test scores measure a narrow band of skills and knowledge.  They rarely or never reveal what information was retained by a student, or what went into one of a student’s ears and out the other. Neither are NCLB-type test scores likely to say much about whether any alleged learning was meaningful. So, I have been searching for a metaphor to illustrate why test scores, alone, during a time of test-driven accountability, can’t be used to argue that a pedagogy that focuses on raising objective outputs is more effective than early education or any other approach to holistic learning. 

NFL running backs share a lot of athletic skills with their counterparts in rugby. So, what would we say about a quantitative analysis estimating that football halfbacks are .2 to .45 std more effective in racking up the metrics (yardage, scoring etc.) on NFL fields than Australian rugby runners would be in competing in the American game under our rules and referees? Wouldn’t the response be, Well Duh!?

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Thompson: Washington Monthly Spins NOLA School Reform Impact

The safest summary of evidence on the effectiveness of New Orleans school reforms is Politico's Caitlin Emma.  Emma's The New Orleans Model: Praised but Unproven explains that "mayors and governors from Nevada to Tennessee have sought to replicate the New Orleans model by converting struggling public schools into privately run charters and giving principals unprecedented autonomy to run their own staffs, budgets and curricula — as long as they deliver better test scores." But, she adds, "behind all the enthusiasm is an unsettling truth: There’s no proof it works."

Emma further notes that there have been "similarly mixed signals in other places where the New Orleans model has been tried." As we wait for better evidence, a newcomer to education, such as the Washington Monthly's David Osborne, could have contributed to the discussion on the lessons of New Orleans, but he would have had to have written an article that was far different than his How New Orleans Made Charters Work.

Osborne starts with the dubious claim by the pro-charter CREDO that charters receive less per student funding, but he did not mention the additional $3,500 per student funding provided for post-Katrina schools. He cites the objective researcher, Douglas Harris, who says that NOLA undertook “the most radical overhaul of any type in any school district in at least a century.” 

But, Osborne cites no evidence by Harris or anyone else that the New Orleans radicalism can work in a sustainable manner or that it could be scaled up. Instead, he devotes almost all of his article to praising true believers in unproven theories on school improvement.

Had Osborne dug deeper into Harris's research, he would have seen that the scholar's first report on NOLA strikes at the heart of reformers' claims that high-performing charters serve the same students as lower-performing neighborhood schools.  Neither does Osborne ask whether the test score evidence he cites is meaningful or not. But, Osborne's greatest failing was ducking an opportunity to consider his daughter's experience as a lens for evaluating policy issues. 

Osborne's daughter was a Teach for America teacher at a charter that faced closure if it did not raise scores dramatically. The school "pulled out all the stops on remediation and test prep. Its scores soared, the state raised its grade from an F to a C, and BESE renewed its charter. But the school continued to struggle with student discipline, and the next year it fell back to a D."

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Thompson: What's the Real Harm in the Wasting of Post-Test Time?

In Do Lazy June Days Include Too Many Parties and Movies?, The Washington Post's Jay Mathews says that June 1 is "the traditional beginning of parental complaints about how little work is done as the school year nears an end." He cites an Arlington parent who complains, “Every year the standardized tests come and go, and after that the education stops.”

Well duh! The suburban dad should remember that education often stops when the annual test prep season begins. Moreover, this testing teaches lessons about life that I bet most parents would reject.

After further inquiry into what was happening at his son's suburban school after testing finished, the father discovered that more opportunities for learning were still being offered than many would have anticipated. But, he concludes, “Nearly this entire week seems like a waste of time to me.”  I believe Mathews reached a wiser conclusion, "He (the dad) has a point, but given the depth of what his sons have been learning during the year, I’d let it go."

I'd also ask whether schools today have too few parties and movies during their entire year. It is especially worrisome that films and videos aren't used enough to teach cultural literacy. My biggest concern, however, is that accountability pressures are teaching value systems that are disgusting.

My first principal said she could never figure me out - a liberal who held students to high behavioral standards. She wasn't surprised that a former academic's second rule was "work smart," "focus," and "learn how to learn." She couldn't wrap her mind around a free thinker, who taught "creative insubordination," but whose first rule was "work steady from bell to bell."  There were important academic reasons (like avoiding classroom distractions) why I insisted on a rigorous work ethic. The big reason, however, was the real-world need for teens to develop "inner-directedness" and self-control.

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Thompson: High Stakes Testing Is *Not* a Civil Right

The Education Trust's Katie Haycock, in Calling the Nation's Civil Rights Leaders Ignorant on Testing: Really? inadvertently illustrated the key issues involved in Common Core and Opt Out controversies. First, she blasted Marc Tucker for challenging her prime soundbite - that testing is a civil rights issue. Second, Haycock's venom shows how preoccupied she and many other reformers are with settling scores with teachers and policy people who resist their test, sort, reward, and punish approach.

Tucker's sin, in Annual Accountability Testing: Time for the Civil Rights Community to Reconsider, was calling on civil rights communities to reconsider the idea that annual testing is necessary to advance equity. He noted the critiques of testing by an array of highly respected education experts. Tucker also reminded civil rights leaders that the growth in student performance slowed after No Child Left Behind.  

Haycock responded by condemning Tucker's "arrogance" and accusing him of "subterfuge." Neither did she miss an opportunity to blast teachers unions that supposedly "dupe parents into sabotaging the best tests we have ever had just because those tests also are used in the evaluation of some teachers."

The essence of Haycock's tirade is:

What is so especially galling, though, is that Tucker’s attack is simply subterfuge for the real point he is trying to make, which is not about the accountability that the civil rights leaders have been working so hard to sustain. He doesn’t approve of the use of tests in teacher evaluation.

But, then she accidently points to a solution.

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Thompson: The Perils -- And Potential -- Of "Right-Click" Credit Programs

image from apps.npr.orgNational Public Radio committed fourteen reporters to an investigative series, The Truth about America's Graduation Rate, which identifies three major ways that school systems try to improve their graduation rates.

NPR finds that some districts did it in the proper way, by "stepping in early to keep kids on track." 

Too many improved graduation rates by "lowering the bar by offering alternate and easier routes when students falter," or "gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them."

NPR's excellent series should push us to ask some tougher questions, such as what is the harm of "juking the stats" in order to graduate more students? Credit recovery is the alternative route that might have the most potential for helping students graduate, but when abused, it has great potential for harm.

In the early years of NCLB, my students shunned credit recovery as "exercising your right-click finger." But, as credit recovery expanded, the practice literally became dangerous. In many inner city high schools, most of the chronic disorder and violence is prompted by students who attend irregularly and/ or who come to school but don't go to class.

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Thompson: Petrilli Endorses Integration & Segregation & Trusting Relationships for Some

If the purpose of school reform is improving education and not union-busting and privatization, reformers should do some soul searching after they read Robert Putnam's Our Kids. Had they known twenty years ago what Putnam documents today, would accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers have rolled the dice and sought to increase equity by holding teachers accountable for raising test scores?

Would they have believed that education failures produced by the stress of generational poverty could have been reversed by the stress of high-stakes testing? Would they have pretended that increased segregation produced by school choice could have been the cure for segregation created by economics? Had they recognized the importance of trusting social relationships, would reformers have demanded a basic skills testing regime that would inevitably degrade the learning cultures of poor schools and replace holistic instruction of poor children of color with nonstop remediation for primitive bubble-in tests?

I've long thought that conservatives like Fordham's Mike Petrilli, who now criticize value-added teacher evaluations, would be especially open to the insights of Putnam and others who help chart an escape from the constraints imposed by top-down micromanaging of classrooms. And, yes, Petrilli seeks to liberate some students from the social engineering known as "school reform." 

Petrilli's How Schools Can Solve Putnam's Paradox offers support for Putnam and advocates for socio-economic integration like Richard Kahlenberg. He writes, "If loneliness, isolation, and extremely fragile families are big parts of the poverty problem, then connecting poor children with thriving families and communities can be part of the solution." Even better, Petrilli seeks to, "Build on the social capital that does exist in poor communities."

I think Petrilli's next proposal, "Build social capital by creating new schools," is weird, but he offers a reality-based disclaimer. He admits, "But the people who run these schools are often not from the community, and that creates inevitable conflicts. It’s also something of an open question whether these brand-new schools can create true social capital beyond their four walls."

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Thompson: The Truth None of Us Wants to Face

I still teach GED part-time, so I have not become completely absorbed into the edu-political world that is so divorced from the reality of inner city schools. I seek a balance, addressing the school improvement proposals that are politically viable, while remaining connected with the reasons why practitioners and parents are so dismissive of reform agendas. 

I can't deny that I've been acculturated into much of the "status quo" mentality illustrated by my first principals' mantra, "Pick your battles." The battles that we inner city teachers want policy people to launch are simply not winnable. 

However, Jay Mathews, in How Do We Help Our Least Motivated, Most Disruptive Students?, tackles the issue that I know I shouldn't  touch. 

Twenty years after I was repeatedly warned that assessing disciplinary consequences in a credible manner is an issue that school systems won't dare address, and as the agenda has shifted to reducing suspensions, why should I try to answer Mathews' question? Against my better judgment, I'll respond to his columns and readers. (After I read the book he cites, I'll see whether I dare to get closer to the 3rd rail of edu-politics by discussing it.)

Mathews wrote a three-part series on Caleb Stewart Rossiter's Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin'.  His first column on Rossiter's indictment of grade inflation "inspired a flood of comments and e-mails saying such malpractice was happening nearly everywhere in the country." But Mathews, like so many teachers turned advocates can only ask, "What do we do about it?" He then turned to Rossiter’s solution to low academic and behavioral standards which doesn’t seem practical to Mathews (or me) but which "represents the toughness I sense many Americans think is overdue."

Mathews begins his third column with his obligatory praise of KIPP, even though he probably realizes that its methods can't be scaled up and are thus irrelevant to systemic improvement. He concedes "that a significant number of low-performing students are likely not to enroll in schools like KIPP — or will drop out — because they don’t like the emphasis on good behavior and hard work."

Mathews agrees with Rossiter that neighborhood schools should teach good behavior and they should not keep returning disruptive students to their original classes, "where they distract students trying to learn." I would add that disruptive students also want to learn and, above all, they want to learn how to control their behavior. I would also argue that troubled students should never be described as "miscreants" or "slow learners" which is Mathews' characterization of Rossiter's views.

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Thompson: How Houston's Test and Punish Policies Fail

As the normative test, sort, and punish approach to reform continues to fail, I often recall Houston's Apollo 20 experiment, designed to bring "No Excuses" charter school methods to neighborhood schools. Its output-driven, reward and punish policies failed.  It was incredibly expensive, costing $52 million and it didn't increase reading scores. Intensive math tutoring produced test score gains in that subject. The only real success was due to the old-fashioned, win-win, input-driven method of hiring more counselors.

The Texas Observer's Patrick Michels, in Politico's Houston's Learning Curve, surveys the failures and successes of Superintendent Terry Grier and Houston schools, and he reveals a pattern that is even more bifurcated than I'd anticipated.  Michels finds no evidence that Grier's test-driven accountability has benefitted students, but he describes the great success of constructive programs that build on kids' strengths and provide them more opportunities.

Michels describes Grier as "a data-driven risk-taker who’s part task-master, part cheerleader [who] said he’s not about to give up, even after six long years at HISD’s helm." Under Grier, 900 teachers have been exited using an evaluation system that holds teachers accountable for test score growth. Moreover, his value-added pay for performance plan has cost Houston $136 million in bonuses in the last three years.

If Grier is correct and test score growth is valid for holding individuals accountable, then surely he also should be fired. NAEP reading scores have barely increased since 2002, and remain below the average of major urban areas.  In the all-important metric of 8th grade reading, Houston has been flat since 2007, even as other major urban districts increased those scores. Plus, Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk reports that Grier now seeks to cut "the $14 million bonus-pay program to just $2 million, a far cry away from the $40 million a year it once gave out."

With the help of local philanthropies, however, Houston has introduced a wide range of humane, holistic, and effective programs. Michels starts with Las Americas Newcomer School, which is "on paper a failing school." It offers group therapy and social workers who help immigrants "navigate bureaucratic barriers—like proof of residency or vaccination records." He then describes outstanding early education programs that are ready to be scaled up, such as  the Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood, and Project Grad which has provided counseling and helped more than 7,600 students go to college.

Michels' analysis is very consistent was Bruce Katz's and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution, which described Houston's Neighborhood Centers. This $675 million nonprofit is one reason why "'If you're poor, you want to be poor in Houston, because there is a ladder there.'" Children who attended the Neighborhood Centers' Head Start program produce higher test scores - as high as 94% proficient in 3rd grade reading.    

Michels also reports that Houston Education Research Consortium, which partners with Rice University and is funded with a startup grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, "gives researchers direct access to district data to study which programs work best, and why, and what to do about it." Its director, Ruth Lopez Turley, led the team that reviewed Apollo 20. It agreed with the program's chief advocate, Roland Fryer, that the math tutoring showed results but doubted that the score increases were sustainable."

Turley seeks to reach "students whose families must move often mid-year, who can’t always make it to school, or don’t have a stable place to sleep at night—all the factors that interrupt education in poor urban schools."

Also, Michels cites Peter Beard, of the Greater Houston Partnership, who praises Houston's work on STEM education and technical training, but who says, “At the end of the day, you need to show up on time, you need to have the right mindset for work and you probably need to read, write and understand science." In other words, test scores might be important, but it is the immeasurable social and emotional factors that really matter.

Finally, I was struck by the promise of Houston programs that did not just remediate but built on students' strengths. And, that raises a key question for Houston and for reformers. What if we shifted the focus from the weaknesses of students and teachers to a commitment to building on the positive? Grier's test and punish policies have already failed and been downsized. Of course, I would like to hear an open acknowledgement that test-driven reform was a dead end. But, mostly likely, systems will just let data-driven accountability quietly shrivel and die. Then, we can commit to the types of  Win Win policies that have a real chance of helping poor children of color. - JT(@drjohnthompson) 

Thompson: What Do We Mean When We Talk of Graduation Rates?

Graduation rates used to be incredibly easy to fabricate (almost as easy as attendance rates and even easier than jacking up proficiency rates) but I don't doubt they have become more reliable. I used to assume that the annual increase in graduation rates, and the equally ubiquitous decline in dropout rates, were half real and half bogus. Although graduation rates may be somewhat more reliable today, it is hard to see how they could ever function as a valid "output" accountability measure. (It also feels like "deja vu all over again" when reading Jay Mathews series on "passing kids on" in Washington D.C.) 

That being said, when John Hopkins' Robert Balfanz proclaims a big improvement in any metric, I reign in much of my skepticism.

We must acknowledge that increases in graduation rates may not mean that students are learning more about classroom subject matter. But, there is something more important at stake. More high school graduates mean that larger numbers of teens are learning something more important than the standards of instruction. They are learning to succeed. Conversely, they avoid the real world penalties attached to dropping out.

The Civic Enterprise and the Everyone Graduates Center, along with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education released Building a Grad Nation 2014-2015 Update. It presents news that is probably somewhat too good to be true, and it certainly reads like a document that is a compromise highlighting the priorities of numerous advocates. But, the annual report makes a lot of sense and it points the way towards fruitful collaborations.

First, Building a Grad Nation is a reminder of the importance of perhaps the most overlooked issue in school improvement. When schools' Promoting Power (or the ability of students to advance into higher grades) goes up, students benefit. Of course, we must ask what we mean by promoting power. Real Promoting Power must be more than social promotion. It must be more than "credit recovery" tricks to make accountability stats look better.

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Thompson: Stand for Children Reports that Testing is Oklahoma Teachers' Top Concern

Oklahoma's underfunded schools had plenty of problems before funding was cut 23%, the most of any state. This year we'll face more cuts and Oklahoma teachers, already ranked 49th nationally in salaries, will probably face another year without a raise.  It is no surprise that the state has a shortage of 1000 teachers, and 40% of new teachers leave the profession or Oklahoma within five years.

Neither should it be a surprise that the Tulsa World's Nora Habib, in Report Says Oklahoma Teachers' Greatest Concern Is Testing, reports that Oklahoma teachers are frustrated  by "overcrowded classrooms, changing reforms, decreased classroom autonomy and a lack of representation in policy discussions."

But, guess what Stand for Children learned in a "Listening Tour" and from focus groups with 81 teachers from across the state? Stand learned that "testing was the issue of greatest concern for teachers." Teachers also believe "reforms written from a 'one size fits all' approach ... ultimately doom any practical implementation."

The section on the concern that gained the most attention began with representative teachers' statements such as, "So much time has been consumed with testing, over testing, to the point kids have lost all motivation for the test that really matters.” It closes with the protest, “The whole focus is on testing and not learning... there’s no passion for learning.”

Stand's most watched conclusion involved the TLE evaluation system (which was adopted in an effort to win a Race to the Top federal grant.) Teachers recognize the problems with all practical policy solutions for evaluating teachers. Stand concludes that the benefits of peer evaluations seemed to outweigh their concerns because they "instigated more interaction and collaboration among teachers." 

The report also concludes, “Teachers believe tying teacher evaluations to student test scores should be delayed until student assessments can be aligned to newly written standards that would better reflect a teacher’s role in student growth.”

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Thompson: Robert Putnam and Ending the Education Civil War

The conservative Fordham Institute's A Conversation with Robert Putnam foreshadows the way that our education civil war could end. Fresh from his conversation with President Barack Obama, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and E.J. Dionne, Robert Putnam last week discussed his new book, Our Kids, which could be read, in part, as a call for deescalating a full range of political fratricides. 

Surprisingly, Putnam had only recently learned of the bitter battle of output-driven, market-driven school reformers versus teachers and our unions.  Putnam wants to tackle the "Opportunity Gap," but apparently he was unaware of the baggage attached to those words. We teachers who oppose corporate school reform seek a campaign to close the Opportunity Gap.  Data-driven reformers dismiss such a goal as an "Excuse."

I doubt that either Putnam or President Obama fully realize that the goal of equal opportunity has been derided by reformers as "Low Expectations," meaning that those who embrace it supposedly aren't committed to meeting measurable outputs, or test score growth targets. Under the President's School Improvement Grant, a teacher can be dismissed for merely expressing support for Putnam's goal and recommendations, thus being labeled a "culture killer" who doesn't focus solely on "outcomes" i.e. test scores.

Fordham's Mike Petrilli kept a straight face when telling Putnam that he would provide research by CREDO and others that would document the better outcomes produced by charters over the last seven years. Putnam graciously agreed to look at Petrilli's information but he said that his reading of the evidence says that sorting is the problem, and choice is not the answer.

Moreover, Putnam replied that none of the poor kids profiled in Our Kids would have been better off if they just had better information about school options. Putnam concludes that socio-economic segregation, not schools, is the cause of our growing Opportunity Gap.  

In contrast to Petrilli, a liberal or neo-liberal reformer like Arne Duncan would likely have stayed on message, ignored reality, and tried to deny that charters "cream" or accept only as many of the most challenging students as they can handle. After all, a liberal reformer couldn't admit to leaving the poorest kids behind or stop pretending that test-driven accountability is not unfair to teachers and students in the schools where it is harder to meet growth targets.

But, guess what Petrilli did?

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Thompson: Why That John Oliver Testing Segment Hit a Nerve

My wife kept pestering me to watch John Oliver's 18-minute, hilarious indictment of standardized testing on HBO, but I had a long "to-do" list. Skimming the replies by Alexander Russo, Peter Cunningham and others, I thought they were challenging the substance of Oliver's routine. The Education Post, as usual, countered with some out-of-context numbers, disingenuously pretending that low-stakes test score increases in 1999 were attributable to the NCLB Act of 2001. Then, Cunningham concluded with the standard attack on "self-serving union leaders, and the complacent middle class." 

When I finally found time to watch the video, it became clear that Oliver had done his homework but that that wasn't what drove reformers up a wall. I had previously joked that reformers should have to watch videos of students reduced to tears and explaining how the testing mania had cost them a chance for a meaningful education. Oliver showed videos of the "human consequences" of test, sort, and punish. And, its not pretty. 

The real reason why Oliver hit a nerve, I believe, is that his opening videos were so sickening. Russo, the curmudgeon, sees school testing pep rally videos as "like something you might see on America's Funniest Home Videos." But, to many or most parents and educators, I bet they are viewed as documentation of the repugnant practices that "reform" has inflicted on children. 

Oliver hit a nerve by displaying the repulsive unintended consequences of high stakes testing. Under-the-gun (and I believe otherwise decent and caring educators) are shown mis-educating children, training them to be easily manipulated, outer-directed persons.  He shows children being indoctrinated into compliance. He shows children being socialized into a herd mentality. 

Its hard to say which is more awful - the way that stressed out children vomit on their test booklets or schools trying to root inner-directedness out of children. On the other hand, even reformers should celebrate the way that students and families are fighting back, demanding schools that respect children as individuals. Even opponents of the Opt Out movement should respect the way it embodies the creative insubordination that public schools should nourish.  

Before watching Oliver's indictment of high stakes testing, I assumed that it had merely provoked the standard corporate reform spin machine to spit out its off-the-shelf, pro-testing message. But, I believe this anti-Oliver campaign is more personal than that. How can reformers hear a child tearfully say that she feels like she has been punched in the stomach without accepting blame - or finding others to blame?

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Thompson: Did Fordham Accidentally Offer Support for Socio-Economic Integration, Not School Closures?**

It would be easy to read the Foreward to School Closures and Student Achievement, by Fordham’s Aaron Churchill and Mike Petrilli, and prejudge the paper as a similar piece of “astroturf” spin. But, the actual study of Ohio school closures, by Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu, is solid. Their work will be a particularly valuable contribution to education research when it is not misused in support of scorched earth edu-politics where school closures are often used as an anti-union, anti-teacher battering ram.

It is possible to connect the evidentiary dots the way that Fordham does. A careful reading of the study gives as much evidence in opposition to closures as a school improvement strategy as it does in support of Churchill's and Petrilli's soundbites. 

Carlson and Lavertu note, "most of the few existing studies that rigorously examine the impact of school closure have found short-term negative effects (presumably from student mobility) and no discernable long-term effects on student achievement." So, if their study and future research does not conclude that closures produce more benefits than harm, it argues against the Fordham position.

Carlson's and Lavertu's findings "suggest that school-closure policies can yield academic benefits for displaced students so long as there are higher-quality schools nearby that students can attend." Of course, that is a huge "IF." The district schools that were closed were 92% low-income and 73% black. The non-closing schools in the districts studied were 85% low-income and 59% black. Even in this sample, 40% of students were placed in schools that were not higher-performing.

The study also analyzes the closing of charter schools. They were 74% low-income and 73% black.  Non-closing charters were 72% low-income and 54% black. That would be a topic for another post.

Moreover, those statistics are consistent with other research showing the benefits of socio-economic integration in schools and in housing. So, in light of the reappraisal of the Moving to Opportunity program and Robert Putnam's Our Kids, the increases in student performance might not be the result of competition that increases segregation. The gains may be due to a reduction of segregation.

Although you wouldn't know it by reading Churchill's and Petrilli's Foreward, a strength of the study is that it gives two possible baselines to be used in calculating the effects of school closes. The Forward showcases the first, I'd say less meaningful baseline. The disruption and demoralization which accompanies the closing of a school means that the student performance of its last year is not likely to be a fair metric. So, Carlson and Lavertu also generate a second, more "conservative" baseline which is based on student performance during the two years preceding the closure years.

If you only read the Fordham Foreward, you will conclude that three years after district-run schools are closed, its students will gain .073 STD in reading and .041 STD in math. They translate those gains into 49 extra days of learning in reading and 21 extra days of learning in math. But, using the conservative baseline (which seems a lot more reliable to me) reduces third-year estimates .060 or 40 days of learning in reading and to 0.041 or 21 days of learning in math.

If the days of learning estimates are valid (and since the Fordham Foreward gives no reason to doubt them), a casual reader might be more likely to conclude that closures are good policy. I do not have the expertise to determine whether the formula for translating standard deviation into days of learning is accurate or not, so I look forward to other critiques of those metrics.  But, footnote #10 explains, "We warn the reader not to read too much into this metric. ..."

Before School Closures and Student Achievement could be read as evidence for more school closures, these possible benefits must be compared to the costs for students of those policies. Carlson and Lavertu mention this issue and report "there is a significant negative effect when one focuses on the superior, growth-based measure of school quality. ... The quality of the schools that take in displaced students declines by 0.10 and 0.18 standard deviations--for district and charter schools, respectively--before and after absorbing students and staff from closing schools."

It will take additional research to calculate, apples to apples, how the gains of some students compare with the losses of others, but one thing is clear. Even though Carlson and Lavertu study the effects on a large student sample, the numbers of students in the receiving schools - schools that saw a decline - are much greater. So, the data of this study raises the question of whether the harm done to all students is greater than the gains for others.

The authors chose to study a region where student population was dropping, so school closures were inevitable. This raises two issues. First, given the region's economic decline, there is little  reason to believe the Fordham spin that, "Ohio's experience with urban school closures was primarily market driven." Perhaps, as Fordham speculates, "families voted with their feet," but more likely their neighborhoods, like the weaker schools, "withered and eventually died." So, is Fordham arguing for the quicker killing off of low-performing schools or of low-income communities?

Second, we should not the question of the value of research like Carlson and Lavertu when read as an attempt to objectively analyze school closures, as opposed to the spin of competition-driven reformers for their preconceived position. This might sound naïve, but what would happen if reformers read such research for insights into how to best improve all schools, and not as a part of their campaign to defeat unions and traditional public schools?

On the other hand, maybe we should be as brazen as Fordham and other reformers in spinning any and all research as support for our agendas. Then, we could have at least three headlines for Carlson's and Lavertu's work:

1. Fordham's School Closures Work!

2. My reading that School Closures gain produce gains of .060 and .041 standard deviations while producing drops of .10 std* 

3. Or, Maybe we should have tried socio-economic integration instead of market-driven reform.

* Dang if I know what that really means! -JT(@drjohnthompson)

**Editor's note: This post was originally published yesterday, taken down and corrected for spelling and other reasons, and is republished now. Please address any questions to contributor John Thompson @drjohnthompson.

Thompson: To Improve Baltimore's Schools, Learn from The Wire

The violence in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, and other urban areas is inextricably connected with the deindustrialization of America. The rapid decline of our manufacturing base, and our ineffective response to the decline of working peoples' wages has also undermined confidence and, thus, our ability to solve serious social problems.

Ironically, Baltimore not only exemplifies the failure of our society to successfully tackle social problems, but it is also home of some of the world's best social science, such as the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, and it is the inspiration of David Simon's and Ed Burns' The Wire.

The Wire is the contemporary equivalent of the wisdom of Joseph Heller's Catch 22. It is not only the definitive dramatic depiction of the failure of the data-driven War on Drugs, the devastation unleashed by the destruction of blue collar jobs, and the shortcomings of the both War on Poverty and gentrification in revitalizing inner cities, but it shows how school reform was doomed by those same dynamics. So, a silver lining in the Baltimore tragedy is that it gives us a chance to reconsider Simon's genius (as well as that of Johns Hopkins' Robert Balfanz.)

As long as America's economic pie was growing dramatically in a fairly equitable manner, we had the confidence to invest in the War on Poverty, as we also reinterpreted the Bill of Rights to expand our nation's promise to all. As the rich got richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class shrinks, however, fear grows and too many citizens become impatient with constitutional democracy. We have become open to corporate values that subordinate individual rights to the short-term bottom line.

For instance, as Simon explained in an interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, the right of probable cause was destroyed in Baltimore's drug war. For too many police, it becamewhatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.”

This sounds familiar in two ways for teachers who have endured corporate school reform. Our fundamental right of due process was attacked. Moreover, anti-tenure crusaders felt free to make up any charge that they believed they could get away with.

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Thompson: Reformers to Teachers - Please Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Teachers have to think ahead. What questions do I ask, in what order? How do I pace instruction for seniors with 5th grade skills so they can master college readiness concepts? What classroom disruption should I ignore? What will happen if/when I make an issue of different sorts of misbehavior? 

I've long had great success in teaching students to plan their work and work their plans. I've failed consistently, however, in understanding why reformers never look before they leap. They seem to just dictate without anticipating the predictable results of their mandates.

Now, the anti-Opt Out soundbite is that teachers should relax, don't worry about what is in store for us in the near future. High stakes Common Core testing has barely begun to release its fury and, according to reformers, we should give it a chance because we might dodge a worst case scenario.   

The Hechinger Report Lillian Mongeau, Emmanuel Felton, and Sarah Butrymowiez, in Stakes for "High-Stakes" Tests Are Actually Pretty Low, report that few students are currently subject to high-stakes Common Core tests, and most teachers are not yet subject to the sanctions that have already been codified into law.  Their graphic shows that only 11 states are already using test scores for teacher evaluations. However, their interactive graphic shows that all but eight have plans to do so. 

Mongeau et. al report that the Council of Chief State School Officers' Chris Minnich hopes that teachers "can continue to be part of an ongoing conversation about the best way to use measures of student learning in evaluations." But, that gets the issue backwards. Why wasn't there a real discussion about whether it was good or bad policy to include test score growth estimates to sanction individual teachers? Why were teachers ignored when non-educators decided how we should be evaluated?

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Thompson: Why Teachers Leave the Profession

The best thing about a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year teacher is that they have the potential to become a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year teacher.

I kid the young teachers - mostly. Besides they are on the receiving end of far more abuse than my good natured jab. 

Seriously, the learning curve of the first years in the classroom is incredibly steep. When schools lose newcomers' hard-earned knowledge, that is tragic. And, the idea that we can have effective schools without a cross-generational sharing of insights is preposterous.   

Let's recall the (mostly) pre-reform days of the 1990s when the predictable retirement of Baby Boomers was discussed as a problem that must be addressed.  Back then, we understood that the loss of so much teaching experience would be a threat, as opposed to a potential stroke of good luck. 

In my experience, stakeholders at all levels used to accept the common sense that education needed to institutionalize ways for the professional wisdom of veteran educators to be passed on the newbies. Then came NCLB and the indictment of veteran educators as the problem, not a part of a solution for our education woes. As NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia says, veteran teachers are leaving the profession because reformers "tie both [our] hands and a foot between our back." They "hyperventilate" over test scores and impose ridiculous ideas like evaluating us on the test scores of students that we have never met.

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Thompson: Kristof Points the Way Toward Ending the Education Wars

The New York Times’ Nick Kristof, in Beyond Education Wars, does what Babe Ruth supposedly did, and more. He points to where he'll hit a home run and then delivers a grand slam. Kristof articulates the best single suggestion for improving schools, and he offers the wisest political message I’ve heard.

Although Kristof still identifies himself as a reformer, he wonders whether the reform movement has peaked. We’ve seen a dozen years of an idealistic movement where “armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.”

But, now, the education reform “brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.” Kristof observes that “the zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. … The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity." Those expensive campaigns have left K-12 education "an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after.”

Kristof provides three reasons why we should, “Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.” He starts with the scientific evidence that “early childhood is a crucial period when the brain is most malleable, when interventions are most cost-effective for at-risk kids.” He writes:

Growing evidence suggests what does work to break the poverty cycle: Start early in life, and coach parents to stimulate their children. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evidence, have shown this with programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, Reach Out and Read, and high-quality preschool. These kinds of interventions typically produce cognitive gains that last a few years and then fade — but, more important, also produce better life outcomes, such as less crime, fewer teenage pregnancies, higher high school graduation rates, and higher incomes.

Second, Kristof notes that reformers picked “the low-hanging fruit” of the K-12 world.

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Thompson: A White Suburban Dad Named Arne Duncan Needs Out

New York  Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch says that "it’s been well over a year since I’ve had someone talk to me about instruction and curriculum. Everyone has talked to me about evaluations."

Well duh!

We are in the middle of a wonderful democratic moment as the Opt Out movement is poised to kill the high stakes testing vampire. And, even Tisch ridicules the idea that the test, sort, and punish school of reform can be saved by punishing parents who are standing up for their children. She says, “I would say to everyone who wants to punish the school districts ... Really, are you kidding me?”

But, Arne Duncan has even surpassed his previous political blunder of dismissing the concerns of "white suburban moms" whose kids might not be as brilliant as they think. He again demonstrates political sensitivity comparable to that of Southpark's Eric Cartman. As Chalkbeat's Patrick Wall reports, in As Opt Out Numbers Grow, Arne Duncan Says Feds May Have to Step In, Duncan now threatens to punish low-income schools in states which fail to hit participation rate targets.

The Education Czar demands, "Respect My Authorit-iii!"

Even better, Duncan reveals his lack of education judgment by asserting that his children aren't being injured by punitive testing mandates. After all, testing hasn't sucked all of the oxygen out of elite schools. Whether Duncan knows it or not, its under-the-gun, high-challenge schools that face the most pressure to impose drill and kill. He remains clueless about the inevitable ways that the toxicity dumped on teachers and administrators flows down onto the kids.

Duncan, the white suburban father, knows best. He, not moms and students, should decide how much of the joy of learning should be sacrificed in the name of bubble-in accountability.

Duncan's gaff is the best news since the announcement that 185,000 New York students have already opted out. He has just thrown more gasoline on the irreversible fire that is spreading through states that first adopted his extreme version of test-driven  accountability.

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Thompson: Building on Common Ground

In their joint Huffington Post contribution Is There a Third Way for ESEA?, Linda Darling-Hammond and Paul Hill acknowledge that they are "members of very different 'camps' on school reform," but "we think there is more common ground than has yet been evident in the political process." They drew upon the efforts of two "distinct groups of scholars and policy experts that met separately to rethink educational accountability."

Perhaps the most important point of agreement was Darling-Hammond's and Hill's statement:

We agreed that, because a student's learning in any one year depends on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

State and federal governments can provide data and research, as well as systems of support, and can incentivize improvement. But they should not make decisions about how to evaluate individual educators or manage individual schools. 

I just wish they had taken their impeccable logic one step further and applied it to individual students; for the same reasons, a student should not be denied a high school diploma simply because he failed a college-readiness test. 

In my experience, many or most reformers understand that value-added evaluations are a big mistake, but they sometimes are reluctant to openly call for a reversal of that failed policy. Sadly, in my experience, liberal reformers are often more uneasy about separating themselves from this crumbling cornerstone of Arne Duncan's term.

So, when I followed their link to Fordham Foundation's and The Center for Reinventing Education's Designing the Next Generation of State Education Accountability Systems, was only somewhat pleasantly surprised. The CRPE cites their "emerging consensus about state accountability systems providing a light (or lighter) touch on districts and schools." It also acknowledges that the "lack of autonomy forced by consequences can also drive high-performing teachers away from the schools that need them the most."

I was more pleasantly surprised by Robin Lake's Time for Charters to Lead on Special Education.

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Thompson: My Contribution to Oklahoma Edu-Bloggers' Discussion of Teaching Content

The Tulsa blogger, Blue Cereal, challenged Oklahoma edu-bloggers to describe, in 1200 words or less, our personal beliefs regarding the teaching of content. Here's my contribution: 

Akili (as I will call him) borrowed every issue of my New York Review of Books.  One evening we were shocked to learn that it was past 6:00 and we had been talking for hours.  He had wanted to discuss Herbert Gutman's theory about the black family.  Akili said, "You are the coolest white man I've known.  Here we are having an intellectual discussion.  You respect my brain."

Such experiences taught me that poor students of color respond with pride and with excellence when challenged to meet high and authentic standards.

My approach was consistent with Martin Haberman's critique of The Pedagogy of Poverty. Haberman argued that good teaching for poor children was a "process of drawing out" the power inside students rather than "stuffing in" knowledge. I also saw learning stimulated by "divergent questioning strategies" and culminating in reflective conversations to help students “see major concepts, big ideas, and general principles and ... not [being] merely engaged in the pursuit of isolated facts."

Even in the 1990s, it would have been hard to teach effectively had I not experimented under the cover of "Orientation" during the first weeks of the school year. Administrators wouldn’t demand that teachers immediately rush into teaching the tested subject matter.  They understood the importance of laying a foundation for a successful class.  Teachers were encouraged to heed the wisdom of progressive scholars like Haberman and use the first week of school to get to know their students as individuals.

At the beginning of the year, we could move outside the prescribed curriculum to promote motivation and teamwork. Teachers were told to take two or three days to lay out rules, procedures, and expectations.  We could "break it down" for children, establish relationships, and steer them for success by teaching them to be students. The expectation was that this would be over and done with after a week. I preferred to stretch opportunities for dynamic classroom instruction far past the date when the administration expected us to focus on the curriculum pacing guide.

My first lesson each year initially surprised students who had heard the laughter coming out of my classroom the years before.

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Thompson: Micromanaging Other Peoples' Classrooms

Educator Jessica Waters, in “Results Matter More than Practice,” replied to my Education Post contribution,  “A Teacher Proposes a Different Framework for Accountability,” with the claim that teachers should be evaluated by student “outputs.” She made no effort to address the most likely scenario where the use of test scores for teacher evaluation prompts even more destructive teach-to-the-test rote instruction and further increases the exodus of teaching talent from schools where it is harder to raise test scores. 

In a longer piece (that I still hope the Education Post will publish), I argue that the willingness of supporters of high stakes testing to ignore a large body of social science has especially damaged poor children of color. This post will address Waters' stubborn demand that all states and schools comply with the same one-size-fits-all federal mandates for using tests to punish students and teachers.

Waters cites positive experiences with an elementary school with an eight to one student teacher ratio, and which seems to have far more resources than any schools I know. It is only 83% low-income.  Less than 10% of my district's elementary schools and none of our neighborhood secondary schools have such low numbers of poor students.

Also, Water's state of Rhode Island spends nearly $15,000 per student. She should accept the burden of proof before insisting that my state, which spends nearly $7,000 per student less than that, must divert our scarce financial and human resources from science-based pre-kindergarten investments, for instance, to high stakes testing.  

I had argued that data-driven accountability makes "the juking of the stats the #1 priority." But, "federal and state governments should encourage collaboration and experimentation in data-informed accountability. It could borrow from data-driven crime fighting to use metrics to identify 'hot spots' of schools, systems, or other areas that need additional patrols, or other forms of oversight."

Waters ignored my critique of data-driven oversight and said that her state already uses data to pinpoint areas that need further oversight. If that is the case, congratulations are in order for her state, but that reinforces my point. Waters should walk awhile in the shoes of educators who face different and, almost certainly, far greater problems before micromanaging the rest of us.

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Thompson: Atlanta Is Still Just the Tip of the Testing Icebergs

Once again, the convictions of the eleven surviving educators for their role in Atlanta's infamous cheating scandal provides a "teachable moment" in regard to the inherent harm of high stakes testing. The Guardian's Max Blau, in Why the Atlanta Cheating Scandal Failed to Bring National Reform, cites Fair Test's Bob Schaeffer who says, “Atlanta is the tip of the iceberg. ... Cheating is a predictable outcome of what happens when public policy puts too much pressure on test scores.”

During the NCLB era, other cheating scandals have occurred in Baltimore, Camden, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Houston, El Paso, Norfolk, Virginia and, yes, in Michelle Rhee's Washington D.C. As Schaeffer explained to the Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teichner Khadaroo, in Atlanta Teacher Conviction: Do Standardized Tests Pressure Foster Cheating?, today's testing “creates a climate in school where you have to boost scores by hook or by crook.”

Khodaroo also cites Harvard's Daniel Koretz who explains why high stakes testing reveals just the tips of other dangerous icebergs. Koretz describes “shortcuts” that educators are encouraged to take, such as teaching to the “'power standards' – the types of items most commonly tested." He says that "states now routinely offer teachers old test items to use for test prep," even though that practice was frowned upon in the 1980s.

“'Clearly cheating is unethical, but at what point does this other stuff become unethical?'” Koretz says.

In my experience, these more subtle means of manipulating metrics are the most pervasive and thus the most destructive.

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Thompson: Best Reason Ever for Anti-Teacher Legislation

Too often, it is hard to tell the difference between progressive school reformers and Scott Walker, ALEC, and the far right wing. Maggie Paynich's Teachers Should Have to Pay Union Dues Out of Pocket is based on even more misinformation than the National Rifle Association's attack on teachers' collective bargaining rights, but it is written in the same toxic spirit. 

Paynich is unaware of both contract law and the ways that police, firefighters, and others negotiate common sense arrangements for collecting dues for unions and professional organizations. She incorrectly claims that, "Every other entity on the planet has to collect monies on their own, and unions should not get the unfair advantage of ease of payment."

Paynich inexplicably writes, "I see it as taxpayer dollars going directly into the hands of unions with little or no say or control from the teachers unions are supposed to be protecting." According to her reality-free appraisal of these contracts, "This seems like the LEA is paying the union to negotiate the contract with the LEA." 

As Oklahoma conservatives attack the rights of teachers unions - but not other organizations - to engage in this type of legal contract with their employers, the OK2A pro-gun rights organization took a stand that is nearly as dubious as Paynich's in terms of education policy. It announced support for HB1749, which would halt automatic payroll deductions by state agencies for employee dues in any “public employee association or organization or professional organization that … collectively bargains on behalf of its membership.” They specifically attack the Oklahoma Education Association because "this politically leftist organization has made clear its stance against gun owners’ rights."

There may be an unintended benefit of the loose talk of reformers and gun rights union-bashers, as they make it clear that they are specifically targeting one type of union because of its political positions. It bolsters the legal case that will likely be filed by the AFT/OK, probably alleging discriminatory intent in drafting a law aimed at a single target.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 

Thompson: Looking Back At Russo's Critique of Common Core Coverage

Its been two weeks since Alexander Russo's Common Problems with Common Core Reporting, in the Columbia Journalism Review, criticized the education reporting of some of journalism's greatest institutions. Russo argues that Common Core coverage is "overheated," it dwells on problems that have not recurred this year, and it is not precise enough on the actual size of the Opt Out movement (as it exists at this point.) Neither does he like the precise ways that education reporters have described the resistance to Common Core testing within the context of school reform, and its bitter battles between proponents and opponents of test-driven accountability  
 
Russo is criticizing the first draft of the history of Common Core testing and the backlash against it. But, history is a "seamless web." The latest round of testing for college readiness can't be understood without remembering the years of mindless NCLB-type bubble-in accountability that narrowed the curriculum, encouraged the "juking of stats" and outright cheating, and inspired a massive revolt against top-down corporate reform. 
 
Assessments tied to Common Core standards can't be understood outside the context of high stakes testing. Neither can it be understood without recalling the ways that test scores have been the ammunition used by reformers like Newark's Cami Anderson to replace neighborhood schools with charters. No journalist or historian could describe the New Jersey Opt Out movement, for instance, while ignoring the massive political revolt against Anderson, presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie, and market-driven edu-philanthropists. 
 
Above all, this year's fight over Common Core testing has expanded the use of test scores to punish teachers to a Battle Royal where reformers attack and insult parents, and threaten to punish students who opt out. Politically speaking, there is a huge difference between scorched the earth edu-politics against teachers and unions versus high-profile punitive actions against children. 
 
A couple of weeks ago, Anthony Cody nailed the essence of Russo's argument, as it was expressed during opening of the Spring testing season. The first quarter of the competition had just begun, and Russo was already "working the refs."  
 
So, how has the contest unfolded since then?

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Thompson: Schools and L'Dor V'Dor; From Generation to Generation

Oklahoma education bloggers have been challenged to articulate what we would do about schooling if we were a Queen or King for a Day.  The first ten of the 600-word posts are here. 

My aspiration is inspired by the words of Randi Weingarten who reminds us of the Jewish concept of L'Dor V'Dor, or "from generation to generation." I dream of a learning culture where each generation teaches and learns from each other.

My parents' generation, having survived the Great Depression and World War II, were committed to providing children with greater opportunities than they had. This was "Pax Americana" before our extreme confidence was shattered by Vietnam. In my postage stamp of the 1950s and 1960s,  children continually heard the exhortation, "Pay close attention, I'm only going to show you once."

Coming from parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors, those words were the opposite of a stern admonition. They challenged us to focus, so we could "learn how to learn." By the time we were teens, our mentors urged us to practice "creative insubordination." 

Never facing a shortage of caring adults for schooling us on life in a democracy, I learned as much "wrasslin iron" in the oil patch and from fellow workers as I did from formal education.  We Baby Boomers listened to Woody Guthrie and read Ken Kesey, and jumped into exploratory learning, often hitchhiking and backpacking widely.  

My buddies were first generation working or middle class. We assumed that tomorrow would be better than today. We sought social justice where everyone could enjoy the same opportunities that we had.

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Thompson: Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

NPR’s Eric Westervelt, in Where Have All the Teachers Gone?, addresses the “alarming drops in enrollment at teacher training programs.” Westervelt is correct; the decline in the numbers of prospective teachers is “the canary in the coal mine.” 

In California, enrollment in teacher education programs is down by 53%, but the problem is more pervasive. TFA enrollment is also down.

Westervelt reports:

The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations. Throw in the erosion of tenure protections and a variety of recession-induced budget cuts, and you've got the makings of a crisis.

Bill McDiarmid, the Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education, attributes the K-12 decline to teachers who “simply have less control over their professional lives in an increasingly bitter, politicized environment.” McDiarmid says that “the job also has a PR problem.”  Teachers are “too often turned into scapegoats by politicians, policymakers, foundations and the media.” He concludes:

It tears me up sometimes to see the way in which people talk about teachers because they are giving blood, sweat and tears for their students every day in this country. There is a sense now that, 'If I went into this job and it doesn't pay a lot and it's a lot of hard work, it may be that I'd lose it.' And students are hearing this. And it deters them from entering the profession.

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Thompson: Oklahoma Education Battles Are Worthy of National Attention

This is a fascinating time for Oklahoma schools. As school funding was cut by more than 20% over the last five years, and in the face of a $610 million state budget shortfall, out-of-state corporate reformers, ranging from the American Federation for Children and ALEC to the Parent Revolution, have stepped up their attacks on traditional public schools. The most noteworthy assaults include the secretive local effort to cut funding for Oklahoma City Public Schools to pay for tax breaks for the downtown corporate elites, and the now-defeated state voucher bill.

On the other hand, a grass roots rebellion by parents against high-stakes testing swept out the former Chief for Change Janet Baressi. Now, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has rebuilt the partnerships with professional educators, started a public dialogue, and taken the first steps towards ending the test, sort, and punish policies that have been wrecking our schools.

A growing body of education bloggers along with innovative media outlets like the Red Dirt Report and Oklahoma Watch, as well as more Old School progressive institutions such as the Oklahoma Observer, the Oklahoma Gazette, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute, are publicizing the facts that, previously, the conservative press never deemed fit to print.

This week, the venerable Oklahoma Observer, under its masthead which promises to “Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable,” published an email informing Oklahoma City staff about SB 68 which had quietly passed the state Senate. (Scroll to the bottom of the post to read the memo.) It would allow Oklahoma City and Tulsa to unilaterally authorize charters. Republican Sen. David Holt emailed, “I wanted to give you a brief heads-up on a bill that passed the Senate today that has flown a bit under the radar, and that’s partly by design. But, the progress it is making might eventually be noticed, and I want you to hear from me what is intended. If it becomes law, it is a game changer for our city.”

Holt then explained, “Here at the Capitol, I have not portrayed the bill as a request bill, which of course it is not. I have told my colleagues it is important that OKC not publicly ask for the bill, as that may cause tension in the relationship with OKCPS.”

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Thompson: "A Place for Us"?

After NPR's Wade Goodwyn’s moving report, One Night Only, about two dozen homeless singers performing at the Dallas City Performance Hall, I wiped tears from my eyes and made a resolution. This wonderful event must be celebrated, but I vowed to not use it as ammunition in our edu-political civil war.

The orchestra began to play "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," and the homeless singers were "still a bit wobbly" as they joined in. After all, only about five of them were regular members of the chorus.  Choral director Jonathan Palant had worked with 57 different choir singers over the last three months.

Then, Goodwyn reported, "Suddenly, a world-famous opera singer appears on the stage, seemingly out of nowhere. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade walks into the middle of the Dallas Street Choir and puts her arms around two of the singers."

Together, they sing, There's a place for us. Somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.

Goodwyn noticed "a lot of surreptitious wiping of eyes.” As a hundred other trained voices joined in, the homeless singers grew far more confident and melodious. "It was an evening they said they'd remember the rest of their lives."

But, Goodwyn's final words were nearly as striking in their pessimism, "For a night, two dozen of Dallas's homeless were lifted from the city's cold streets and sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect and goodwill - one performance only."

Then, I read Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue post on the Gates Foundation’s new effort to address complex and interrelated housing problems.

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Thompson: Asking the Wrong Questions regarding NCLB and Testing

The Shanker Institute's Matt DiCarlo, in The Debate and Evidence on the Impact of NCLB,  issues a typically nuanced, precise and (I'd say overly) cautious summary of what quantitative researchers may have proved about the meager positive effects of NCLB, as he overlooks the extreme "mis-naepery" of non-educators who support test-driven accountability.  

DiCarlo correctly asserts that it is invalid to "use simple, unadjusted NAEP changes to prove or disprove any policy argument." But, he ignores a more meaningful and relevant reality. It is possible to use NAEP scores to disprove disingenuous claims that NAEP shows that NCLB worked. 

DiCarlo concludes that "(test-based) school accountability in general" (emphasis in the original) "tends to have moderate positive estimated effects on short-term testing outcomes in math, and typically smaller (and sometimes nil) effects in reading. (emphasis mine)

The quantitative researcher then concludes, "There is scarce evidence that test-based accountability policies have a negative impact on short-term student testing outcomes." Such a narrowly worded statement is not false.

But, DiCarlo then states that "the vast majority of evaluations of test-based accountability policies suffer from an unavoidable but nonetheless important limitation: It is very difficult to isolate, and there is mixed evidence regarding, the policies and practices that led to the outcomes." That conclusion ignores the vast body of qualitative evidence by journalists and scholars who do not limit themselves to regression studies.

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Thompson: Anya Kamenentz's 4 Alternatives To "Test and Punish"

Anya Kamenetz’s The Test is an awesome analysis of how “the test obsession is making public schools … into unhappy places.” But Kamenetz’s great work doesn't stop there.  In the second part of the book, she presents alternative approaches to high-stakes testing:
 
Team Robot tests conventional subjects (math, reading, writing) in unconventional ways (invisible, integrated, electronic).
 
Team Monkey tests unconventional qualities (mindset, grit) in conventional ways (multiple –choice surveys).
 
Team Butterfly, which Kamenetz would use as the basis for a new system, integrates learning with assessment and covers twenty-first-century skills without quantifying the outcomes in a way that’s familiar or easily comparable …
 
Team Unicorn, which is still emerging, relies heavily on video games. She offers an intriguing distinction between Team Unicorn and Team Robot: “the former understands the limitations of what they are doing.” (Sign me up for the more adventurous approach, whose metrics also should be the most incompatible with stakes being assessed.)

The Test concludes with four strategies for dealing with tests.

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Thompson: Russo's Disheartening "Eight Lessons for Funders and Grantees"

Almost every paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute’s conference, Is the ‘New’ Education Philanthropy Good for Schools?, made me somewhat more hopeful that the Gates Foundation, at least, will learn and back off from insisting that stakes be attached to standardized tests, and start down more promising policy paths. The exception is Alexander Russo’s Inside Foundations: Eight Lessons for Funders and Grantees on Education Giving

According to Russo’s astute article, the lessons of this new generation of philanthropy are:

1. Policy and advocacy are great tools—to a point.

2. New approaches complicate measurement/evaluation issues. 

3. Newly-created organizations bring focus and fidelity but can lack credibility and engagement.       

4. “Strategic” philanthropy is a powerful way to narrow priorities—unless it’s applied too rigidly.  

5. Setting clear metrics helps—until you take them too far.

6. Fail fast—but don’t overreact to bad news, either.

7. Don’t forget/underplay “the grind.”

8. Little more coordination, please (but not too much!)

In a rational world, this witty and insightful call for balance would contribute to better policy-making. In contrast to the statements made by other insiders to the other contributors, however, I fear that the several elites interviewed by Russo are concluding that, yes, we lose credibility with each of our risky policy gambles -- but we will make it up on volume.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.