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Rethinking large urban middle schools

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr. is a veteran educator. This is the latest installment of his newsletter, “Another View.”

From Waiting for “Superman”:

After noting that many kids slip from being B students in fifth grade to C students in 6th and then D students in 7thgrade, Geoffrey Canada asks: “Either kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system.”

Here is one way to see how Canada’s point applies to us in Colorado.  Take a look at the declining percentage of African American and Hispanic students from this year’s junior class who scored at the proficient or advanced level, from 2005 to 2010.  Where were they back in fifth grade—prior to middle school—and where were they last spring, as tenth graders? Troubling, agreed?

Declining percentage of minority students scoring proficient or advanced on CSAP – Class of 2012

Black students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 53 54 47 50 50 48
Writing 42 42 43 36 33 30
Math 43 36 28 26 16 12
Hispanic students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 46 46 41 45 45 47*
Writing 35 37 39 30 28 24
Math 42 35 28 25 15 12

*This reading score—sadly still under 50%—was the only case where the 10th grade score was better than the 5th grade score, from 46 to 47 over five years. And just to be even more glum, as we know that a number of low-performing African American and Hispanic students drop out as freshmen or sophomores, what if they had stayed to take the test in 10thgrade? The scores for these groups would likely be even lower.  Even more cause for alarm.

The trend for all of Colorado’s students, regardless of race, is almost as disturbing. Especially in math.

Click here to read the full newsletter.

Popularity: 5% [?]

We must evolve

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The publisher of this website and I recently talked about the idea, held by many, that societal change must occur before the education system (and other systems within society) can change.  I promised him that my next blog post would address this issue directly. So, here goes…

There are three typical stances people take towards change of America’s educational system:

  1. Everything is fine, so nothing really needs much fixing.
  2. Things aren’t fine, especially for those who are “underserved,” and we know specific strategies to fix the system (think – our nation’s current dominant narrative on education reform).
  3. Things aren’t fine, but that’s because society is messed up.  So, we need to fix society first, and then education can change.

There is a fourth way to think about this issue – co-evolution.

Over the past 100 years or so society has evolved in three “great waves.”  It has moved from an agrarian society to an industrial age and then to our current wave, the information age.  Some key characteristics of the industrial age are adversarial relationships, centralized control, compliance, and compartmentalization.  In contrast, key aspects of the information age include cooperative relationships, team organization, shared leadership, and participatory democracy.

Dr. Bela Banathy, a systems scientist, wrote extensively about the idea of societal evolution, especially as it connected to education.  He posits that, over time, society has evolved, and ideally, as a society evolves the systems within it should evolve as well.  He calls this concept “co-evolution.”  Banathy believed in a co-evolutionary relationship where education’s role could be “…in the form of co-evolution with and mutual shaping of the society and even spearheading societal development.”

“Our concern here is primarily the public image, the image that “makes” our contemporary society, the image that at the same time is shaped by the emerging and transforming society.  It is important for us to understand the dynamics of this mutual shaping, inasmuch as the same will apply in creating a new image of education.  That image IS shaped by the societal image, and the societal image IS shaped by education.  Earlier we named this dynamic recursive relationship as co-evolution.”  (Banathy – Systems Design of Education)

So, here is a fourth way to consider educational change; education must co-evolve with society in such a way that each shapes the other; society not only effects education, but education effects society.

Unfortunately, our nation has not seen the necessary co-evolution of education with society and its systems.  This evolutionary imbalance is dangerous, and we have begun to see its effects.

There is a disconnect between the core features of the information age and the reality of life for so many in our country.  Our current society still has significant inequality and injustice, to mention just a couple social ills.  In fact, over the past 40 years our nation has seen increased apathy and civic disengagement on these issues.  We can tie this to the disconnect between our society and its major systems – educational, health care, political.  Simply – while society as a whole has evolved, the educational system (and other key systems) within in it has not.

And there are other dangers with this evolutionary imbalance. Not only is our educational system inequitably meeting the needs of our country’s student population, it also lacks the structures and emphasis to produce the students our nation needs – students who can work well in teams, think creatively, and solve problems, students with well-developed social and emotional competencies, and students with grounded moral centers.  This is in large part due to the fact that it is still operating within an industrial age paradigm.

Banathy writes:

“…The societal characteristics of the current age are markedly different from – and are discontinuous with – those of the industrial age, in which our educational systems remain rooted.  The major shift toward… the Post-Industrial Information Society is manifested in massive changes in general societal characteristics, in socio-cultural, socio-technical, socio-economic, and scientific characteristics, and in organizational characteristics.  These characteristics reflect major transformations in all aspects of our lives, a total change of our societal environmental landscape.  Such a transformation requires radical changes in the “whats,” “hows,” “when,” and “where” of education.  This calls for nothing less than a massive transformation – or metamorphosis – of our educational systems.”

As educators, and those who care about education, we must work for evolution of our educational system – an educational system that can “spearhead societal development.”

This calls for paradigm change – a paradigm as evolved as the information age.  Piecemeal change (which is how we can classify the current educational reform agenda) will not suffice because it is contained within the industrial age paradigm.

I ended the last post with this question which I ask again… I ask you to take a minute, regardless of your feelings about today’s reform agenda, and envision a new paradigm for education.  What would yours look like?

Popularity: 6% [?]

Why I am for the Common Core

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Editor’s note: Tracy is an assistant professor of education at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. She works with middle level and secondary English language arts pre-service teachers. She is part of the “Seawells on Schools” blogging consortium.

As the dust settles with Race to the Top recipients identified, states will have to decide if they will move on with plans to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Since Race to the Top money was tied to adopting the CCSS, I’m curious whether states that did not receive funding will stay the course. My hope is they will.

I like the Common Core State Standards. I like the way they are written, and I like what they say about student learning. As a former high school English teacher and instructional coach, I never thought I’d be saying that because one of my biggest concerns has been that classroom teachers were not directly involved in the creation.

Over the years, I’ve participated in three iterations of revision for South Carolina’s English language arts (ELA) standards. Each time classroom teachers and other educational leaders took the lead on writing, revising and implementing these standards. What’s different with the CCSS is that teachers have not had a direct hand in creating the standards.  Yet, public feedback was solicited on three separate occasions as the standards were written.

As a member of the SC CCSS Implementation Team, I saw that the concerns and suggestions our teachers had with the standards were the same as other teachers across the country (based on the published public feedback to CCSS), and after each solicitation of feedback, changes reflected teachers’ input. A group of about 100 ELA and math educators, mostly classroom teachers, participated in the comparative review, comparing our existing SC standards with the new Common Core.

Our teachers were pleased with the final draft of the CCSS, which was made public in June 2010, all agreeing the standards are more specific, clearer and require higher levels of thinking than our current standards.

Opponents have said the standards represent a loss of local control of education and that the standards represent a national curriculum. Neither assertion is true.

First, I do not think the standards represent any attempt to take away state or local control of education; I see no conspiracy here as some have feared. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched the initiative to (in the words of former Governor Roy Romer) “ensure that every child across the country is getting the best possible education, no matter where a child lives or what their background is. The common standards will provide an accessible roadmap for schools, teachers, parents and students, with clear and realistic goals.”

And the CCSS do not provide a “body of knowledge” for teachers to teach. However, they do provide very clear, high-level thinking expectations for students, their teachers, and their parents. Sometimes I wonder if the opponents have even read the CCSS document.

The CCSS are not a panacea to right what is wrong with our public schools. Rather they are an attempt to make certain all children in every state have access to a similar education. States strapped for resources will benefit from the consortia created by participating states to pool resources for implementation of the standards and to develop common student assessments. Additionally, educators will have access to instructional resources and materials from the partnerships with other states.

When I read the standards (corestandards.org), I see standards that show essential learning, standards that don’t necessarily require additional resources, and standards that foster engagement and innovation. Perhaps most important, the standards allow much, much room for teachers to be creative and innovative in their classrooms.

The curriculum is what the teacher will make it; the standards do not dictate what to teach.  I see them as broad, comforting guidelines that give direction to what teachers will teach. As a professor of education who works with pre-service teachers, I like that these are the standards from which my teachers-to-be will develop their lessons and curricula. I want these education students to understand the importance of critical thinking which the CCSS provide.

With the adoption, the most critical part of the process begins. How can we be sure these standards can make a difference? First, we must end the frenzy surrounding testing. We don’t stop testing, for there is much to be learned from the data to inform good classroom practice.

But we MUST rethink the approach: the high-stakes emphasis. We must ensure no teacher should ever feel one test will determine the quality of his or her career. Dan Brown in a blog for Center for Teacher Quality talked about the importance of teacher accountability without teachers “feeling terrorized.”

Also, states must work to provide teachers with the professional development they deserve to understand what these standards can mean for their classrooms. If the standards are to become viable and effective, they must be supported by aligned curriculum and aligned assessments. And this will take time. But, teachers can accomplish this when they are given time to work together, talk together and build the curricula that will support the spirit of the CCSS.

Popularity: 3% [?]

What is the purpose of public education?

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Editor’s note: Scottie Seawell is Vice-President of Leading and Governing Associates, a governance education and consulting practice specializing in public engagement, problem solving and decision making.

Last week on this site, Marc Waxman ended his first blog post stating that he thinks about the question “What is education?” constantly.  It pleased me to know that I am not the only person constantly turning this question over in my head.  Many people I pose this question to have a well thought-out answer, but on more than one occasion, I have argued that their answer is incomplete. Then I pose a somewhat more nuanced question, “What is the purpose of public education?”

Since the day my first child started third grade in the fall of 2003, I started to fear that as a nation we might be dumbing-down our system of public education with the increasingly narrow focus on data and student achievement.  Tangible measurements of student achievement are easy to obtain – especially in the short run or over two- and four-year political cycles. However, it is the intangible outcomes of an education – the ones that are hardest to measure – that I believe are critical components to the answers of “What is education?” and “What is the purpose of public education?”

Contrary to what many pundits and politicians may state, neither the strength of our military nor the intelligence of our intellectuals make our nation more likely to endure.  It is also not the rise and fall of our economy, the housing market or the stock market that will be our saving grace or ultimate ruin.  Rather, our nation’s future hangs in the balance of we, the people: you and I and our readiness and willingness to take on the mantle of our citizenship. It always has been this way, and it always will be this way until the day comes when the American Dream slips from our collective reach. But in order to take on this mantle and breathe renewed life, generation after generation, into the American Dream, we must first be educated and socialized to do so.

In a June 2010 report from Public Agenda entitled “Are we beginning to see the light?” 1,406 people from across the nation (including parents of high school students) were randomly selected and surveyed on the importance of math and science education to our nation’s future. The survey also asked respondents questions about other educational topics including one regarding the most pressing problems facing high schools in their local communities.  Fifty-six percent of all respondents (63 percent of parents) felt the most pressing problems facing their public schools came from “social problems and kids who misbehave” compared to 31 percent (27 percent of parents) who felt the most pressing problems came from “low academic standards and outdated curricula.”

In the same survey, when asked what “do you think is absolutely essential or important but not essential or not important (for schools to teach students)?” Eighty percent of parents and 74 percent of all respondents agreed “being able to work well as part of a team” is essential. Nineteen percent of parents and 24 percent of all respondents ranked it as “important, but not essential,” and only 1 percent of parents and 2 percent of all respondents ranked it as “not important.” That says to me that we, the citizens of the United States, get the importance of being able to work together to the success of our children and our nation.

Last week, Retired Admiral Steve Allen in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, talked about some of the important lessons learned from his involvement in the response efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Haiti and most recently the Gulf oil spill. “You have to generate unity of effort,”  Allen, “and it is very different when you do it outside of the military ….the ability to create unity of effort has to be the number one priority because there are overlapping roles, jurisdictions, competencies, authorities, capabilities and capacities and what you want to do is bring that together and focus it on the effects that you are trying to achieve. I would say that’s the single most important common denominator in any emergency response.”

He went on to say, “We will never have another major event in this country that does not involve major public participation….We have to figure out a way to better integrate all of those resources, passion and commitment that exists out there, because if you don’t they will be disaffected and you are going to break down that unity of effort you are trying to achieve…you are either going to involve them or they are going to involve themselves.”

I think the take-away for me, from Allen’s lessons learned, is that all of us – average citizens, elected officials, civil servants and military personnel alike — need to understand how to work together, need to have learned what is meant by “unity of effort.”   Unfortunately, it often seems to me that we haven’t been doing a very good job of teaching this lesson for at least the last few generations.  Perhaps not since the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw described them, have we adequately understood the importance of education in creating citizens who know how to work together to find public solutions to public problems.

So I ask, “What do we, the people, need public education to be?” And I come back to my belief that having well-educated and capable citizens is the only way we can ensure our future as a nation and perhaps the future of the human race.  Certainly, our ability to respond to our collective challenges, be they of our own making or Mother Nature’s, depends on it.

Popularity: 85% [?]

Rebuilding Haiti’s school systems: Big breakthrough

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

William Browning is currently the Board President for KIPP Colorado Schools and manages a local consulting firm which focuses on solutions for the public sector.

I recently wrote here about educational reconstruction efforts in Haiti, and since my last article, I have had the distinct honor to serve with a team to help develop a new strategy for public education in Haiti.

I wanted to share my past month’s experience with the educational community in Denver;  there have been some interesting developments.  As some of you may be aware, the story out of Haiti on Sunday was the commitment from the Inter-American Development Bank of $2 billion to support a five year strategy for education in Haiti which was strongly endorsed by President René Préval.

A month ago I visited Haiti and was fortunate enough to connect with Paul Vallas, the Superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District.  Vallas was about to visit Haiti under the invitation of First Lady Préval to provide his perspective on the Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans and how these lessons could be applied to the Haiti recovery.

A group working with Haitian education officials had developed an initial strategy, and I was happy to assist in the refinement of this plan.  This strategy outlined a path for radical change founded on the principle that every child in Haiti should have access to a publicly funded education.

Most children in Haiti attend private schools; nearly 500,000 attend no school at all.  After the earthquake, most educational institutions in Haiti were destroyed and I have seen first-hand the heartbreaking conditions that currently exist in Port-Au-Prince.

Under Vallas’s leadership, a team of experts was assembled (all volunteers) to produce a conceptual strategy that called for a centralized authority to manage the reform efforts and specifically outlined a plan to:

  • Establish transparent accounting standards to ensure public funds are reaching the schools;
  • Establish standards for school building and implement a core team to expedite the building of facilities to these standards;
  • Institute national curriculum standards, with a focus on multiple languages;
  • Allow for multiple programs and school types to flourish;
  • Build international partnerships with leading educational programs to produce highly effective schools and programs;
  • Establish a best-of-class human capital model to develop more effective school leaders and teachers;
  • Implement early childhood and in-school social services to better support communities.

The Haitian leadership reviewed the plan and gave it preliminary support. We were asked to work with Jacky Lumarque, who served as the leader of the Presidential Commission on Education, which was responsible for producing recommendations to improve education in Haiti.

Lumarque flew to New Orleans and shared his own perspective on educational reform in Haiti. This included ensuring that higher education was part of the plan. He called for the creation of a Ministry of Higher Education and development of partnerships with international universities.  He advocated for a decentralization of ministry functions – allowing more provincial or sectional empowerment on building new schools, which is a critical national strategy in line with developing the provinces to reduce stress and demand in Port-Au-Prince.

Lumarque also endorsed the creation of a centralized authority for building school facilities. The nation’s current school construction capabilities are weak at best.

Most importantly, Lumarque called for an Education Commission to support the government, consisting of key Haitian and international education experts to support the necessary reforms.  The following organization was conceived as part of the plan:

Working around the clock, an international team following the lead of Lumarque and Vallas, and supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, produced an updated national strategy along with a more detailed operational plan.  On Saturday last week, this strategy was presented to President Préval in Haiti in the only functional building left standing at the Presidential Palace.

The meeting room was crowded as Lumarque shared his plan and vision with the support of Vallas and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno.   The plan was presented and there were questions about implementation. President Préval mandated the immediate implementation of the strategy.

The leadership and bravery of Lumarque to challenge the status quo with such a bold Haitian plan combined with the sheer energy and generosity of Vallas was nothing short of inspirational.  Haiti remains in horrible condition with the endless tent cities and countless children wandering the streets who clearly should be in school.

But now we may have a glimmer of hope for a future where education is properly funded, international expertise is more properly harnessed, facilities are built to standards, and the children of Haiti may just have a chance to learn as all children should.

After we left the meeting in the palace on Saturday, we ate lunch near a school that consisted of old buses donated from the Dominican Republic which were converted into classrooms.  As the children greeted us with waves and smiles from the classrooms, it made this glimmer seems all the more critical for a nation so troubled and distressed.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Helping build a functioning school system in Haiti

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

William Browning is currently the Board President for KIPP Colorado Schools and manages a local consulting firm which focuses on solutions for the public sector.

I recently returned from a short trip to Haiti, as I have an interest in helping the efforts to build a public education system there.  It was an amazing and emotional journey for me.

It became clear to me during the visit that while we have challenges here in the Denver community, we are indeed fortunate to operate in a stable environment, even with diverse points of view on improving education for our kids.

A few months ago, I woke up to a National Public Radio story about homeless schoolchildren in Haiti. NPR interviewed a school principal who said: “We need help, these children have no place to go to school. “  Those words had a big impact in me.

My passion over the past five years has been helping the children in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools here in Denver as a volunteer board member.  Working with economically disadvantaged kids, I have become an apostle for investing in education, because schools provide a measurable and vital return for our community.

Effective teachers, passionate school leaders and engaged, involved parents can provide students, especially those living in poverty, real hope and opportunity. When children start believing in themselves, communities change, leaders emerge, and we simply function better as nation.

The voice of the Haitian school leader on NPR haunted me and I decided to see if I could help.  I connected with an organization out of New York and traveled down to Port-Au-Prince last week to better understand the situation on the ground.

While the media has been providing some post-earthquake coverage, it doesn’t do justice to the scale of the disaster and the profound challenges currently facing this not-so-distant nation.  Most of the schools in Haiti have been heavily damaged or destroyed.  Nearly every government building in the city, including the Presidential Palace, is heavily damaged or reduced to rubble.

I had a chance to visit a school in the Haitian ghetto of Cite Soleil in Port-Au-Prince.  The school had completely collapsed and had killed six elementary school children, some of whom had not yet been recovered from the rubble.  The majority of the children who survived were orphaned.

Walking through the rubble, I saw the ground littered with children’s homework, school supplies and even toys.  It struck me how devastated I would be if the same incident had happened to one of our schools here in Denver – public, charter or private.  It would simply be overwhelming and in that moment I felt the true pain of this nation and the epic scale of the loss.  Tears in my eyes, I boarded the van with others and we traveled to where the school was relocated a few blocks away.

We arrived at the new school which consisted of two tarps strung in the middle of the street next to a partially functioning kitchen.  Children, mostly young elementary students, were under the tarps, singing songs and clapping.  They were curious about the American visitors but were very engaged with their teachers, who were leading an educational song in French.

Among the ruins of the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, surrounded by devastation, here the children’s singing voices and smiles radiated, showcasing the true human spirit.

Under a tent, in the middle of the street, in the worst ghetto in the entire western hemisphere, children were singing, learning, and adapting to their new circumstance.

I learned profound lessons from my journey.  I believe now, more than ever, that we can rebuild Haiti’s educational system, and I have decided to help with these vital efforts.  I have recently joined a team that is focused on a plan which we believe has a chance for success.

Conceived by experts from recent disasters, including New Orleans, 9/11 and Honduras, the plan outlines a strategy owned by the Haitian people but strongly supported by expertise from the international community. The expertise comes from people like those in the Denver metro area who have demonstrated successful transformations in low-income communities.

The approach must have a very strong financial governance model, allow for free public education, and it must address the development of provincial educational facilities to reduce the burden on Port-Au-Prince.  A strong human capital program for recruiting, training, and placing the 10,000 teachers and 6,000 administrators needed, combined with fundamental national standards and curriculum are key building blocks.

Integration of schools and social programs is also essential to helping improve the lives of the Haitian people while leveraging from the investment in education.  Finally, the need to accommodate multiple models of school management will allow for the flexibility needed to produce new, innovative methods for delivery.

Is it feasible?  Attempts have been made in Haiti for decades without impact.  Today, Haiti still ranks as the poorest, most underdeveloped country in the western hemisphere.  Why would this new plan succeed when so many other efforts have failed?

We believe the confluence of high levels of international support combined with the appropriate governance model and Haitian ownership, support, and leadership has a valid chance for success.  Similar investments have worked in Korea, Ireland, and the Dominican Republic so there is precedent.

There is a direct correlation between educational investment and economic development and if Haiti can transform its educational system there can be significant improvements over time.

While I learned a great deal about Haitian culture and the current state of affairs, I also learned a tremendous amount about the human spirit.  Even in the worst Haitian ghettoes, the children are resilient and they are ready for a new future that the international community is positioned to deliver.

Despite losing parents and siblings, home and school, and all material possessions, the children are there, signing songs and learning.

Haunted by their song, inspired beyond words by their courage, I left Haiti transformed, and hopeful that the international education community in partnership with the Haitian government can finally produce systemic transformation.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Is this the best we can do?

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

A February 27 Denver Post editorial and a related article on Colorado higher education funding were frustrating in an amazing number of ways. Both barely touched upon the single most important issue: Our higher education funding levels are not sustainable.

In 2008, before the current crisis, Colorado ranked 48th in the nation in per pupil funding. Since then our funding level has dropped.  As the February 24th School of Public Affairs event (Ungovernable States: Prospects for Constitutional Reform in California and Colorado) made clear, at the present rate within 10 years the entire general fund will be spent on K-12, health care and corrections, leaving no funding whatsoever for higher education.  Without that context, the rest of the conversation is, at best, misleading.

I sure hope this is the first salvo in a longer campaign by our leadership to discuss the value of higher education with Colorado taxpayers.  But inaccurately characterizing the system as inefficient and suggesting that competition is bad for government seems like a foolish way to start the conversation.  How about a proactive discussion about how to make competition spur improvements in our system, or how our higher education institutions serve our communities, or what we as a state need from higher education?

I wonder why this story even made the paper.  Is this the best thinking we can expect to get from leaders in our state?

The chair of the Higher Education Steering Committee Dick Montfort is quoted  saying, “Maybe not all the business classes are going to be at one university, I get that, but we’ve got to come up with ideas. My biggest frustration is that no one wants to change.”

The reality is we are going to get change whether we like it or not.  But does he or the editorial board of the Post honestly believe increased efficiency can get us out of this funding mess?  This is like focusing on a burnt-out headlight when the engine is shot.

Efficiency is important.  Heck, we are already efficient, graduating more students than the U.S. average while spending less. (See www.higheredinfo.org for information on Colorado relative to other states.)  But what is the use of efficiency when the ability of the system to meet the needs of all students is in peril?

As a conversation about efficiency, this one seemed particularly empty.   Efficiency has two components: How much you spend and how much you get in return.  This argument was mostly about numbers of programs (as a proxy for how much we spend) and had very little about what we get from those programs.  One output cited was the small number of math and biology majors at Adams State College.  Does that mean we should seriously consider shutting down the math or biology departments at Adams State?  Do we believe that students can get an adequate college education in, say, business or teacher training without mathematics and biology?

Finally, I question the whole premise that having multiple programs compete in one geographic area is inherently inefficient.  We have learned from initiatives in the K-12 arena that competition leads to innovation and makes consumers happy.  We have also learned that to support improvements through competition, we need to provide good information to consumers and sophisticated tools for evaluating programs.

The debate about duplicate programs is a red herring being tossed into a pool of sharks (one of several red herrings the Post has tossed out lately on education funding). It makes for titillating headlines, but ultimately misleads Coloradans about the crisis we face.

I expect more from our state’s leadership than leading us down a dead end that cannot possibly solve the critical problems of a higher education system that has been starved for funds for nearly two decades.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Local is the way to go on education reporting

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Last month I posted a commentary about a new Brookings Institution report that chronicles the alarming decline in the quality and quantity of U.S. education news coverage. One way to push back against the trend, I asserted, would involve a kind of grass-roots writing spree on the part of school administrators and teachers. The theory holds – but in the weeks since the column ran, a number of readers and colleagues have responded with opinions on the issue. Their ideas seem well worth airing here.

At the heart of the discussion lies the question of local education reporting. The writers of the Brookings report admit that local journalists tend to cover the substantive work of schools better than national reporters, but they nevertheless takes a doom-and-gloom stance. The report concludes that “it is difficult for local outlets to maintain the quality of their coverage in the face of financial cutbacks and staff layoffs.”

Local papers certainly face many of the same challenges as the national news media, but whether or not their education coverage has been adversely affected seems to be up for debate. For example, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews recently published a column in which he challenges the very premise of the Brookings report:

Maybe national education news is hard to find. Maybe it deserves to be, as boring and repetitive as it can be. But education reporting, at least the local kind that fills most of my days, is alive and well and provides more than 1.4 percent of what Americans read in their newspapers each day. […] Smaller papers are still devoting much of their space to schools.

Jay is not alone in his optimism. One reader responded to my column by pointing out the increasingly active and visible teacher blogosphere. Another, the managing editor of a local Denver paper, wrote saying that she has readers imploring her to cut back on her paper’s schools coverage.

The most striking response came from a friend in Indiana, who alerted me to an extraordinary series that has been running for six months in the Indy Star. The project began when columnist Matthew Tully decided to embed himself at Manual High, one of Indianapolis’s toughest public schools, and the results are nothing short of dynamite. Tully’s stories are colorful, incisive, and full of analysis that connects the school’s goings-on with changing conditions at the local and national levels. The project has garnered an impassioned following – so impassioned, in fact, that more than 2,000 people showed up to the school band’s winter concert after Tully chronicled the heroic efforts of its director.

This is the stuff of reporters’ fantasies and Hollywood movies, and it certainly suggests that local education coverage is still flourishing in some corners of the country.

My question, when it comes to the Manual project, is why nobody except for local Hoosiers seem to be in the know. Sure, a series focused around a specific school seems most directly relevant to local citizens. But given the lack of substantive national educational coverage, such a coherent and insightful series deserves to be brought to the attention of interested readers everywhere.

Maybe, then, national papers should start featuring a roundup of links to the best local stories? The industry has always worked in the opposite direction, with local papers relying on AP headlines to round out their content, but unusual times call for unusual measures. The roundup would take minimal effort and space, and it is hard to imagine that audiences would mind.

For this to work, of course, local education stories need to make their national relevance utterly clear. As far as I am concerned, this should happen anyway. Most of the interesting work happening in schools right now is either influencing or responding to national policy – oftentimes both. Journalists need to follow Tully’s lead and explore these two-way connections as best they can, connecting policies to classrooms and classrooms to policies. Only then might the public begin to fully understand the real, complicated, and exciting experiments that have begun to shift the landscape of public education in America.

Sarah Fine spent four years working at a charter school in southeast Washington, D.C. Her recent piece on the community schools movement appeared in Education Week’s February 3rd issue.

Popularity: 3% [?]

The nightly grind

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Editor’s note: Brendan Craine is a junior at the Denver School of the Arts.

In my dissection of the sorer points of Colorado education, I have tried to save the best for last. Naturally, as a student, this is my greatest woe.

Let’s be fair here – this post almost writes itself. The universal student opinion towards homework is far from secret. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that every person who reads this has, at some point, expressed dislike towards homework, even if it happened a while ago.

Before I begin bringing up any points, or dissecting anything, consider that. Homework is almost universally disliked. Mentioning it to a student (especially a high school student) is an invitation for grumbling and irritation. So why, then, do we have it at all?

I am not going to spend any time debating homework as an idea. I think that our school system is far too heavily based on a platform of grading, budgets, and statistics, and I am all too aware that removing homework is not only drastic, but probably also impossible without a complete revamping of the system. I may not like it, but I’m not going to waste any time yelling about it.

I will also not talk about homework amounts. Whether or not six hours of homework is too much is an entirely different debate. It’s assumed that third graders will do less work than high school sophomores, and that’s really the way it should be. As we advance on to more complicated subjects, it’s natural that they would require more work.

Finally, I readily admit that, as a student who has to deal with homework on a nightly basis, my opinions are far from neutral. I have no way to balance that, aside from plain open-mindedness. Hopefully, my points will still be valid.

So, if I’m going to pick apart homework, I’m going to need a working definition. So, what is homework?

It’s practice, and that’s it.

Whether you’re reading and re-reading a history text to memorize dates and figures of the French Revolution, moving equations from factored to standard form, or just repeating the same letter in cursive over and over, all you are doing is practicing. Nothing new is learned through the activity of repeating a task, aside from being able to do it more quickly and more naturally.

This is even the case with history, since while individual dates and events may change, the process of learning about and understanding history remains static. In fact, history tends to repeat itself often enough that it could be argued that the individual dates and events are irrelevant.

So, based on that, there is one problem I see with homework right off the bat: We are graded on it.

Why is that a problem? Well, homework is intended to be practice. I have no problem with the idea of working to become better at something – I already do it without prompting – but to grade on the practice doesn’t seem logical.

For instance, are Olympic athletes given scores based on how much they prepared for the event? No. And yet, that’s what homework has become, because our system demands frequent grade updates, and therefore, frequent assignments.

So, the first thing to change about homework:

Stop grading on homework. Yes, even if it’s just a completion grade. Completion grades make absolutely no sense, even in the current system. We have a 0%-100% grading scale, and a completion grade can only be one extreme or the other.

Students, however, don’t learn in absolutes. To grade me on whether or not I turned in a piece of paper with some writing on it immediately puts me on par with every single other person who did the same, even if they all got the questions correct, and I did not. The grade isn’t based on learning or understanding, and it doesn’t make sense. To continue the simile, it’s like giving every athlete a gold medal just for competing.

The natural argument here is that, once the grading is removed, so will be the incentive to do any work, since a student who did no homework and one who did all of it will receive the same grade for it – no grade at all. The only difference, of course, is that the second student will have a much more concrete understanding of the material, and is likely to do much better on any quizzes, which is why my next point is…

Replace the lost homework grades with quizzes and tests. Students take quizzes and tests very seriously. This is because with homework, the mindset is one of “students vs. teacher”, (“Ms. So-and-so gave us so much lit homework to do! Ugh!”) which tends to foster dislike and hostility towards the teacher.

This is opposed to quizzes, which have the mindset of “student vs. all the other students,” a much more productive environment, especially among teenagers, who enjoy feeling like victims. Suddenly, the teacher becomes more like an overseer, spurring the students to compete against each other. Plus, quizzes can be immensely diverse in their grading – almost as diverse as students.

The main benefit here is that a student has the freedom to regulate his or her own workload. Instead of being forced to stay up studying until 12:30 each night, I have the option to go to bed, (and be more awake and able to learn the next day), without it affecting my class grades. Because I want to do well on any quizzes, I will study as much as I can – but also as much as I feel I should.

The only person who really knows when they’ve mastered a set of dates, a mathematic method, or the themes of a novel is the person who is mastering them. This prevents more intelligent students from being stuck with what is essentially “busy work.” If they have mastered the coursework, then they can stop studying. A greater amount of control would also mean a higher level of maturity and structure in students, since it would be necessary, but not required, to organize one’s time. Making something like that a requirement makes it hard to obey, but students will make good choices on their own.

Finally, the most important point:

Homework should never be a substitute for teaching. This is very important, because there really is no substitute for good teaching. I have been in several classes where the teacher does nothing more than review the homework. That really is no good, especially in the fast-paced curriculum that most high schools have. Ideally, I’d be given an opportunity to try something, and then have it explained, and then be able to try again with my new knowledge.

Right now, only steps one and two in that process are taking place, and there isn’t time for a step three. I am aware that this is partially because of the poor student/teacher ratio, with as many as thirty-five or forty students in a single class. That’s something that needs working on, too, but not in this post.

The one problem with what I’m suggesting is that what is being taught in the classroom needs to parallel the studying that the students are doing. This would especially be an issue in a history class, since the teaching tends to be very sequential. However, if period in history were broken up into very small chunks and taught a week or three days at a time, then the students could study that chunk for any amount of time during the period when it was being taught, then take the test on it, then repeat.

Overall, the most important thing is to focus on the fact that school is meant to be about learning. As soon as learning is sacrificed for grades, structure, or just “getting through the year”, then changes need to be made.

A successful school system puts control in the hands of the students, and puts them in a position to make good decisions, or suffer the consequences of making bad decisions. The more the educational system is based around forcing students to be responsible, the more they will resist, and this is especially true with homework.

Anyway, I better call this a wrap, because I need to get on this math assignment…

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Loaded language and questionable data

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Editor’s note: Jim Griffin is president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools

In the recent EdNews blog post, Charters and demographic stratification, Kevin Welner points out a new study from CU-Boulder that compares the demographics of schools operated by Education Management Organizations (EMOs) with their local school districts. The report claims findings of “extensive” segregation in these schools.

First, the Colorado League of Charter Schools takes issue with the use of the term “segregation” when referring to school choice. Segregation is a toxic term associated with governmentally sanctioned, “forced” segregation of another era. The segregation that occurred in our nation’s past was deliberate policy designed to limit public school access. By contrast, charter schools and public school choice provide parents and children an opportunity to increase educational opportunities that have been traditionally unavailable.

Second, the League put the CU-Boulder data to the test by performing its own informal study. We compared EMO-managed charter schools in Colorado with similar, non-charter, neighborhood schools, and with the district.

After backing out online charters, and one operated out of a correctional facility, our data relates to five (5) EMOs and twelve (12) charter schools across multiple districts and communities. Some of these neighborhoods are high minority and low income, while others more white and middle class. In the end, the data contradicts the study’s claim of “extensive” segregation. On the contrary, it reveals that Colorado’s EMO-managed charter schools look more like the district than the neighborhood schools with respect to the percent of minority students they serve.

Parents are demanding higher-quality public school options for their children and rightfully so. Just last week, the Denver Post revealed that of the Colorado students who graduate high school and go onto college, nearly one in three require remedial classes. This doesn’t even touch on the numerous other students (many of whom are minorities) who fall through the system completely and drop out. This is exactly why Colorado charter schools got in the business of providing ALL students, regardless of race or any other factor, a chance at a better education and a better life.

Over the past 16 years, charter schools have proven that there is another option when it comes to public education. Charters have created choice and competition in the public school market – and are showing positive results. Unfortunately, naysayers who want public education to remain exclusively in the hands of those currently operating the system – the status quo–pull out all the stops when trying to convince the public to steer away from better school options for their students, even if it means using emotionally charged terms such as “segregation.”

As Americans we demand choice and snub monopolies when it comes to selecting doctors, automobiles, and grocery stores. Yet when we want to shop for the best public school option for our children – we are criticized. To insinuate that minorities should pass up quality education options for their children if a school’s demographics are too black or too white sounds like some confused priorities.

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