Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SAT Scores Drop: Wanted One Whipping Boy

Jay Matthews reports today in WaPo on the sizeable drop in SAT scores, particularly on reading (5 points). The led reads, "The average reading score on the SAT for last spring's high school graduates had its biggest drop in 31 years, the College Board disclosed this morning in a report that decried a decline in composition and grammar teaching in U.S. high schools."

Call me incredulous, but should teaching really take the fall for a test that continues to be re-normed, and re-designed: a test that according to many is not a measure of any set curriculum, but is instead designed to assess skills necessary for success in college (Marchant and Paulson, 2005)? The SAT predicts above all else the future performance of a college freshman's first semester. The SAT has been equated to an intelligence test, measuring students’ ability to learn, not mastery of what was learned (Gose, Selingo, & Brownstein, 2001). ETS loves to distance themselves from any IQ or g comparisons, but doesn't wholly discount them either. And Princeton Review makes promises of 100 point increases on SATs for its paying customers. Basic SAT coaching increases scores by 30 points. See the Boston Globe for solid discussion.

The other fall guy, ETS said in their press conference, is not as many kids taking the test twice. The decline in multiple test taking dropped from 43.8 percent for the class of 2005 to 46.5 percent in the class of 2006. More discussion and less blind following would benefit us all. It may be true that schools should continue to improve composition teaching, but curriculum is a piss poor whipping boy for a brand new SAT that more kids failed take twice.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Trouble with Melting Pots

An article published in the NYTimes this past weekend, "In Schools Across U.S., the Melting Pot Overflows" forecasts a melting pot of gastronomic proportions. The article bubbles with attendance and demographics statistics like those published by ED that show three decades ago, in 1973, 78 percent of the students attending the nation’s public schools were white and 22 percent were minorities. In 2004, 57 percent of all public school students were white, while 43 percent were minorities. The Times also predicts that if trends continue as they have for 30 years, minority students will outnumber white students within a decade. They already do in California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas.

But is the metaphor really right? Is Loudon county Virginia, one of the wealthiest per capita and fastest growing counties, really an exemplar of what U.S. schools look like? What about all the city schools that are primarilyHispanicc and black, and all the suburban schools that are primarily white? Are U.S. schools really a melting pot? What's with the melting pot metaphor anyway? And who is this Park View High School Thuy Nguyen? Roving in and out of cliques like a challenger candidate trailing marginally in the polls days before election day?

Melting pot ideals have lost somelegitimacyy over time. Horace Mann's Common School movement based in large part on the universality of American ideals is long gone, replaced, and with some good measure, by an awareness of the ethnocentrism that thrived during some of the uglier moments in American nation building. The danger is that we go too far and lose sight of the role of majority, collectivity, and responsibility. We've all heard other metaphors, salads, layered sandwiches, or supreme pizzas (making you hungry no?) that better describe what we are and how we would ideally all work together. We keep and celebrate our differences--no melted unidentifiable soup--but remember the responsibility we have as Americans collectively working for the good of all. The melting pot metaphor, for my money, implies too much naivete to toss around willy nilly.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Batting Cleanup

I've got some cleanup to do as I may be away for a little while. A number of policy developments this week including:

PDK/Gallup issued its annual poll results this week on the state of education and found that NCLB support appears to be down, while respondents claiming to know more about the law increased. 69 percent of respondents said a single test will not provide a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement, and 81 percent said they believed students should be tested in subjects beyond just reading and math. For my money these seem to be reasonable attitudes. It's tough to get too excited however over what people say about a law as complex a NCLB, but if negative attitudes change to outcry it could precipitate some change in the law--like growth modeling.

The Times' coverage of the NAEP assessment broo-haa of charter school performance can be found here. It all comes down to needing longitudinal data for individual students. Without knowing anything about improvement over time, or a baseline of achievement, (hierarchical liner modeling de damned) groups who want to poke holes in studies will be able to.

My favorite led of the week comes from the Arizona Republic where "Gov. Janet Napolitano wants Arizona teenagers to stay in school until they are 18 or until they graduate"--whichever comes first I presume. Hmmm, staying in school until you graduate. Now there is an idea. Good thing "or until they graduate" is in there.

Otherwise Arizona's mandate would be to stay in school until you are 18. Imagine, Arizona the first state to mandate kids stay in school even after they graduate. You're an Arizona 17 year-old. You've graduated. And in August you go back to high school not college. I cannot tell you how many dreams I've had of being back at high school since I graduated. Sweet dreams for all you Arizona graduates. Don't let the boogeyman get you.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Legend of Education

I come from a generation that has grown up with video games. And I'll preempt any disgust with a disclaimer that I prefer games that emphasize creativity and immersive design over violence. However, I'll admit, the two are not mutually exclusive. I've often wondered when videogaming would, in earnest, embed itself into literary criticism and education. Sure there have been tinkerers, and dissertations, but a discussion published in September's Harper's Magazine (sorry no link without a library subscription) titled "Grand Theft Education" reveals what has attracted so many of my generation to video games.

For their part, most good video games (and there are more bad ones than good ones) require players to master certain skills, skills players may not realize they are mastering, like spacial relationships, memory assignment, and accurate timing. Video games encourage us to figure out the rules of the game and then tweak how we play to improve nearly without end.

The promise for gaming and education lies in a simple idea, an idea video game designer Raph Koster suggests by quoting Mark Twain. "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." The beauty of games, video games in particular, is that there are no explicit consequences from winning or losing. Koster argues that it's okay to fail in video games, and that a problem with standard pedagogy is that "it all matters too much, there's pressure to succeed. And that turns off a lot of learners." Devouring a novel cover to cover for a class by decoding every ounce of irony, pouring over every plot element, and revealing all of a character's humanity can leave a lot of learners with a sterile imprint of a masterpiece.

In terms of pedagogy, the use of classroom games are valuable. I believe great potential exists for teachers and learners to tap into video games and help to alter the gaming landscape currently strewn with hyper-violent games. Gaming trends are ripe for change, especially with the success of recent games like Big Brain Academy and Nintendogs for Nintendo's DS platform and a soon-to-be released Wii platform touting gaming for the masses. Classroom applications could aid this trend towards games that encourage the types of literacy skills all students need for instance.

The Harper's discussion describes an application that would resemble wikipedia and allow students to perfect a writing assignment together. Students would receive points for improvements they make to the writing and those points could be accumulated as pride points. The article goes on to suggest play and games are having an impact on how we learn and how we create--a very democratizing effect.

For me the takeaway of the article is in the type of literacy we should be teaching, and gaming's impact on current literacy. There are no easy answers here, but clearly our contemproary media are written and performed a lot differently than Victorian era media. The suggestion that great challenges exist for teachers in an age where so many literacies are accepted and promulgated should raise cause for alarm. A lot of kids don't understand what we are teaching them when it comes to literacy because the way we teach it is unidentifiable with their lives.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Happiness as a Cause

It's hard to tell whether this is postmodernism gone terribly wrong or genuine happiness, but it got me thinking about happiness and a few other things. Mostly the bouncy rhythm and convivial swaying reminded me of an article published awhile back (March 10, 2006, in the Friday Boston Globe) about D. Ben-Shahar, a Harvard lecturer who teaches a Positive Psychology Course, and, if I had to guess, how much of Ben-Shahar's success as a teacher blooms from his willingness to share "deeply personal stories."Course materials appear here.

Ben-Shahar has been criticized about the level of difficulty the course presents. He argues that if the course seems easy, it is because it holds such great relevance to students' own lives, which they naturally are fascinated by. "Most things we find interesting, we also find easy," he said.

Interesting equals easy; own lives equals fascination. These are concepts for teachers and learners of all types to consider as the new school year is set to begin for most.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rural Charters: Intersection This Way --->

A great story of schooling appeared in the Denver Post yesterday. Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer writes of an often overlooked type of charter school--rural charters. She describes kids who would otherwise travel three hours a day to and from schools far removed from their homes and their, small, but significant communities.

I like this story because it gets us away from talk about allocative efficiencies--parents matching their kids with schools they deem best--and productive efficiencies--schools improving their product. Market based arguments are fine and well for charter advocates to tout, but these market arguments miss the mark when it comes to the intersection between community, schools, parents, and students. That's what I like about this article about rural charters in Colorado--we found an intersection.

In Marble, CO, Wittmeyer describes the Marble Charter School as a town hub. "It hosts fashion shows, and residents often volunteer their time for school projects. Citizens take pride in their town school, and it's brought the community back to life." The formation of social capital within a community as the result of parental choice cannot be overlooked.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Janey Wants Brakes on Charters

D.C. Schools Chief Clifford B. Janey has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. According to WaPo Janey cites lack of quality, diverted funding, and high school graduates unready for college and work as reasons for a moratorium on chartering in the District. Lori Montgomery writes, "Janey called on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the D.C. Council and education officials to help develop a method for evaluating the city's 51 charter schools before permitting any more to open."

Funny thing is that D.C. has a method for evaluating charter schools--SAT-9 student performance tests. A PPI report, Capital Campaign: Early Returns on District of Columbia Charter Schools by Sara Meade, cites better average test scores across District charters than DC Public Schools (DCPS), a lower percentage of charters failing to meet AYP than DCPS, and a December 2004 report by economist Caroline Hoxby that showed DC charter school students were 12 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 14 percent more likely to be proficient in math than their traditional public school peers.

True, these aren't stellar numbers, and there are some bad apples among the DC charter landscape, but this action by Janey seems motivated by more than meets the eye. When Janey says he isn't trying to push back on the idea of chartering, he's not being entriely truthful. Maybe Janey's real problem is in the decreased enrollments that are diverting funding from traditional public schools and leaving DC with a multitude of half empty school buildings (DCPS operates 141 elementary through high school buildings according to 2004 numbers, the most recent data on DCPS site). The PPI report cited earlier cites a Washington Post report in April 2005 that counts over 12 DCPS vacant properties and 37 buildings at less than 2/3 capacity. Strangley, Janey has expressed support for charters in the past, particularly when it comes to leasing excess space in underused DCPS facilities to charters desperate for a roof over their heads.

Or maybe Janey is just trying to build a stronger case for charters in the District. If he can find ways to further demonstrate charter successes, like grad rates, and college attrition rates then maybe the District will go forward with an eventual "all charter" plan.

Whatever Janey's motivation, his call for a moritorium makes him look soft on charters.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Who is Accountable?

Two days old now (I missed this one first time around), The Times' Diana Jean Schemo cites a number of great sources in "It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap," including the Coleman Report, Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander's findings about improvement in a school year, and Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools.

Schemo's tact is to keep us mindful of the socio-cultural contexts children live within daily outside of school. However, I disagree with her bent, if only in one word, on NCLB. Schemo writes:

"The law, one instance in which President Bush and Congressional Democrats worked together, rests on the premise that schools make the crucial difference. It holds a school alone responsible if the students--whatever social, economic, physical or intellectual handicaps they bring to their classrooms--fail to make sufficient progress every year."

NCLB rests on the premise that schools make "a" crucial difference, not "the" crucial difference.

It's an interestingng notion to think of other groups accountable besides schools under NCLB. If a school fails to make AYP for two years students have the option of changing schools. In a way this option brings parents into the decision to move a child, making them accountable for finding better education for their kids. One would think that this option for choice would promote increaseknowledgege and lead to more accountable, better informed parents. The answer to this is mixed, at least according to one study. Schneider, Teske, and Marshall (2000) found that in central city districts "incentives provided by public school choice produce few if any effects on levels of information accuracy." In a suburban community where school choice is near universal, the authors find some increase in the amount of information parents have regarding their choices.

What about states? State's are accountable under NCLB. For good or ill, we've already seen this year that states may lose a percent of their Title I Part A administrative funds for not fully complying with the NCLB testinrequirementsts. But really only the state's school functions are impacted, not other state functions.

The spirit of Schemo's argument, that schooling is affected by what happens outside of school as much by what happens inside, cannot be ignored. I hesitate at her suggestion that only schools are accountable under NCLB because A) it is a law about schools, and B) schools touch so many lives in different ways that this argument seems myopic. Could we all be made more accountable for our schools by making the schools' successes or failures impact our lives more significantly or directly? Do we already feel the impact in our economy, in our jails, in our daily interactions? She seems to think we've gone plenty far in making school solely accountable for a child's success. She's probably right, but there are still far too many schools that don't do enough and should remain accountable for not doing enough. Bottom line: getting more people and groups involved would be a welcome addition to NCLB.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Rogue States Drop Out of Dropout Data

Stateline has published an article on the NGA and several states backing out of a graduation compact signed by the governors last July. A report from NGA entitled Implementing Graduation Counts: State Progress to Date provides an update on what states are doing to comply with the graduation compact.

Meanwhile, Stateline reports the Dakotas are dropping out and three other states, Hawaii, Illinois, and Washington are considering dropping out. Maybe the states feel disaffected. Maybe the Dakotas are rogue like South Dakota Secretary of Education Rick Melmer suggests on Stateline. Or maybe states think that by keeping graduation rates artificially high that their education systems will continue to fool people into believing that their high schools generate success for most students. Seems like a simple calculus to me that if a state opts out of a compact signed by so many govs. the state will look like they are trying to hide something.

Beyond the "apples to apples" sound bite provided by Bridget Curran at NGA, Ms. Curran will also tell you that in order for states to systematically address the dropout crisis, states need to have some uniform data to identify the problem and trends indicative of the problem. This should be a good one to watch develop over the next few years.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

4 Percent by CEP

Everything you ever wanted to know about mandatory 4 percent Title I Part A improvement activities funds and how they are distorting the amount of money available for Title I programs in states and districts. CEP breaks it down in Title I Funds--Who's Gaining and Who's Losing: School Year 2006-07 Update. From here, it looks mighty ugly.

This study could bring the napalm onto ED, Congress, and George Bush. The tired and worn--NCLB is underfunded--may be doing victory laps with stats like these:
  • Nearly 90 percent of the nation's school districts articipating in the federal Title I program will have their Title I funding cut or frozen for 2006-07, and half the states will also lose funds.
  • The mandatory 4% reservation of funds that states must make for school improvement activities adjusts the federally predicted 38 percent of districts get an increase to only 10 percent of districts get a Title I funding increase.
  • States will receive only 60% of the funds they could potentially receive under NCLB to assist schools in need of improvement.
Weak for states and weak for kids. Double weeeak.

A modest rejoinder (sort of, barely) . A state sponsored study that doesn't disprove federal funding is inadequate at one state's SEA level but suggests that NCLB funding at the LEA level is inadequate.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Strength in Language

Not enough children are learning critical languages. This article in WaPo discusses some of the growing interest in language programs for young children (Preschool immersion programs are all the rage among the uber-educated). However, obstacles exist. The troubles cited in implementing these programs include cost, and, gasp, NCLB. But when the U.S. Department of Education cites more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, and only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese, a problem begins to emerge. Sure English is the language of commerce, and I recall a class in English criticism that cited some reasons why, including the linguistic structure of the English language, but it wouldn't hurt Americans to know a little Mandarin Chinese.

An idea stolen from Suzette Wyhs, foreign language supervisor for Loudoun schools. Regarding NCLB concerns, since languages are not tested subjects, use differentiation approaches in the classroom for students that have mastered a topic/skill. Base the foreign language lesson on a simplistic version of the already mastered English language lesson. As a elementary school student I always had gobs of extra time after I mastered a topic or finished a lesson in school. I would have happily spent that time learning another language.

Peer Opinion Counts in Dropping Out

Late last week Greenville News published a grounded opinion on dropouts. In response to EdWeek's recent graduation rate ranking of the states, Hayes Mizell opines on the source of the dropout problem: disaffection.

Hayes suggests, "Neither state law, nor the admonitions of their families, nor the prospect of long-term minimum wage employment is powerful enough to overcome these students' decision to withdraw from school." With a national dropout notoriously hovering around 1/3, and South Carolina annual near the bottom of the dubious rankings, it's obvious that change is needed.

I'm reminded of my high school experience, not too far gone to be lost in the haze of memory. I had friends who were more motivated than me and friends who were at risk of dropping out, and friends who did drop out. The idea that students need to feel connected to their schools or at least motivated by some kind of outside fear is spot on. Peers make such an impact in school that it's hard to imagine an effective solution that doesn't use peers.

If I were king of a high school for a day, I would implement peer responsibility as a supreme ethic. Of course this ethic could not be built in a day, it would need to become part of the ethos of the learning experience at the school. Too often students are encouraged to seek volunteer positions in the community (a noble effort) when their own community, the community of learners at the school, could use some serious help as well.

I envision a student run, faculty sponsored, school wide peer support network aimed at motivation, curbing dropouts, and supporting school completion. To my friends that dropped out, I made an effort, not the effort I should have, but I tried to convince them of the folly of dropping out. They might have stayed in school had they known and trusted more people like me. Ideas like separate freshman academies, faculty advisory systems, and small schools all help, but without the peer component dropping out will continue its pandemic course.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Charter schools are good for

Students. It would be best and easier to always answer resoundingly, "students." Not the case. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a piece on the battle for the purpose of charter schooling and proposed lack of direction. Author Sarah Carr identifies the solution to what she sees as charter schooling's adrift-at-sea personality. Carr sees a need for oversight and innovation.

More oversight and innovation may help a "disoriented" Milwaukee charter movement, among other districts and states with gobs of charter schools, but I think the most provocative idea in Carr's piece is the suggestion that many charters are contributing to a feeling of doubt or disorientation not because they aren't good schools, but because they don't look any different than traditional public schools. Long for: why charter if you look and act the same as all the others?

Charters exist for any number of reasons as included comments/questions from Ed Sector and Ed Trust in Carr's piece suggest. Of course the quotes don't sum up a person's or an organization's position, but they do help illustrate the myriad "uses" charters may have. The quote from Ed Sector

"what is the ultimate vehicle of accountability for a school? Is it parents or is it government?"

suggests that it's accountability (to the parent v. to the government) that matters at the heart of charter philosophy. The quote from Ed Trust

One wants to use charter schools to do a better job educating children, particularly poor ones. The other camp simply wants "freedom from everything, from regulations, from state dictates."

suggests two sides of different coins at the heart of charter philosophy: disadvantaged children v. Individualism turned egoism (in the Tocquevillian sense).

This is just the tip of an iceberg of reasons for charters, or what I like to think of as roots in the philosophy of charter schooling. But it is interesting and probably worthwhile to consider charter schools as instruments of deviation, or the product of a series of waivers and exemptions.

Criticizing charters for not doing enough differently from traditional public schools seems like a waste of energy. However, the criticisms expose a tension and a reluctance for a reform that in some cases doesn't seem to do much. This is a problem only if: A) you hate charters and/or B) chartering schools requires a lot more effort and expense than establishing schools through traditional means. For me, the worth of a charter must be measured by what it does, not by what it doesn't not do differently.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Public v. Private Round ... 100?

The Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard has released a new report fueling the discourse between online and hard line supporters of private schools and public schools. The confrontational Harvard study by Peterson and Llaudet acknowledges the ETS/NCES study released July 14, 2006 then knocks it down. "NCES's measures of student characteristics are flawed by inconsistent classification across the public and private sectors and by the inclusion of factors open to school influence." It appears Peterson and Llaudet has worked fast and into the wee night hours to rejoin ETS/NCES's work and demonstrate contrary results.

Peterson and Llaudet come up with three alternative models of reclassification of variables. Basically they didn't like the proxy constructs NCES used to measure affluence and poverty, so they came up with their own. Alternatives three:

Peterson and Llaudet didn't like NCES's Title I and Free Lunch variables since Title I funding is used by only 19 percent of private schools versus 54 percent of public schools. Instead Peterson and Llaudet's first model, Model I, substitutes the Title I and free Lunch variables for parents' education and the location of the school (regionally and by urban or rural area) . Model II eliminates NCES's use of the LEP and IEP variables, replacing them with other variables based on student reports of the frequency with which a language other than English is spoken at home. Finally, Model III, eliminates NCES's absenteeism, computer, and books in the home variables, thereby, according to Peterson and Llaudet, avoiding the inclusion of student characteristics that can be influenced by the school. This is all a way of trying to prove a bias NCES's report that "under-counted the incidence of disadvantage in the private sector and over-counted its incidence in the public sector."

The part about all of this that makes me laugh are the constant disclaimers about moment in time effects that lack reliability without longitudinal data. Peterson and Llaudet at ondenounceuce NCES's use of the NAEP data sbecausesue NAEP never measures individual student achievement over time, yet the data are not their biggest gripe. Inconsistent and potentially confounded variables are their gripe. But come on, the headlines are big and neon and glowing: Harvard says privates do better. Well, Harvard also suggests that poor kids go to private schools too. Some do, but I don't need any data to tell me that a whole lot more poor kids go to public schools.

Really all Peterson and Llaudet have done is introduce to the rest of us, who generally already understand, that when it comes to schools and people, we don't have all that many reliable indicators. Thank God we can't be reduced to a simple set of characteristics. The debate rages. Touche Crimson and White. Touche.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cast or Don't: Earmarks and Catching a Big One

Living in the Alt-Dominion and relying on satellite internet is neither as glamorous nor as reliable as the Post's Joel Garreau suggests. Connections are spotty, top speeds are slow, and true affordable wi-fi is still a year or five off.

Anyway, now that I am back up and running (for now) I direct attention to colleges fishing for funds. Earmarking or "directed appropriations" is the word of the day, and federal earmarking is serious business for colleges and universities--to the tune of $2.4 billion in 2006 according to American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). So serious that it takes no time at all to find an examples of once 'upstanding' universities succumbing to the "can't beat 'em, join 'em" ethic. In searching for my own institution's academic directed appropriations I came up short, but that could change with upcoming legislation.

The argument against academic earmarking, described by University of Virginia professor James Savage, goes: "Federal research agencies were created to address certain national needs: curing diseases, national defense, space exploration. Earmarking undermines their ability to set priorities, create coherent programs, and spend their money optimally."Additionally, the earmarks generally don't fund the projects they are designed to fund entirely. So the earmarks can create black holes from which other university funds have difficulty escaping.

The rub here is that academic earmarks are noncompetitively awarded appropriations that members of Congress obtain for favored colleges and universities. The whole idea behind academic work is that it is supposed to be competitive and peer reviewed and really difficult to do well and even more difficult to get published (tell Noah about the flood!). When colleges and universities secure noncompetitive monies, it makes the hard way--the peer review, competitive grant process--seem that much more sadistic.

It would be interesting to account for the monies that one institution received through the directed appropriations process, and trace the money to see if the money did any good for the state or the nation. I haven't made up my mind about academic directed appropriations, in large part because certain universities have always been privileged and received more state and federal funding. Also, in a higher education environment that increasingly engenders competition between institutions, the earmarks seem to be in support of the spirit of the times. I tend to think that the moral responsibility rests with the institutions. The higher education landscape is vast and varied. Just because your average college administrator and college president wants to grow grow grow and compete doesn't mean it's best for the state or the students the institution serves.
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