Thursday, October 26, 2006

If it's education, it's also an election year.

The Washington Post seems to take every chance it can get to marry education and election year politics. Earlier in the week, Florida's FCAT graced WAPO's front page. Peter Whoriskey wrote that exam revolts were holding sway in campaigns in other parts of the country including the races for governor in Texas and Ohio.

Matrimonial profiteering continues today by the Post--in a year where education, sadly, figures low in voter priorities. Virginia's Senate race wrestles with the questions of NCLB and possible future iterations thereof. This is fine and well, but don't expect a substantive educational debate to happen in Virginia in the next 12 days.

As far as proposing something new both candidates pull out strange guns. Allen, to his credit, wants to spend big bucks (shocking I know) on technology grants for HBCUs and other majority minority schools. Webb, lamely, proposes money for troops returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to go to college. A spokesperson for Webb, Denny Todd, said Webb envisions a plan modeled after the post-World War II G.I. Bill. Hmm, the G.I. Bill still exists! In fact today an Army service member can get up to $72,900 for college. Or build a gun library of their own with the money they'll save.

In closing two beefs: WAPO states that Allen was chief architect of the SOLs. Allen was not. He likes to take credit for the work of a hard working Charlottesville lawyer among others.

Also, in a speech to Patrick Henry College (appealing to the Evangelical Right much!) Allen said NCLB is "forcing Virginia schools to dumb down our curriculum." Right, which is why all Virginia students slam the SOLs based on the "dumbed-down curriculum" and score high NAEP marks year in and year out.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mo Flow for Teach: Republicans Rescue Election with Merit Pay?

The Boston Globe publishes an AP story "Money Flows into Teacher Bonus Program" that has the Bush administration set to dole out federal pay-for-performance funds to select states that qualified for grants. Sixteen grants totaling $42 million will impact local teachers whose schools secured federal monies by submitting a successful application back in May. Schools that serve high populations of economically at-risk children received priority in the grant process.

The article waxes suspicious on the timing of the grants, and suggests that the monies will inject some sorely needed good news into sinking Republican campaigns. (See this post's title for incredulous response) I'm not so sure that more money for teachers is something many Republicans put high on their wish list anyway. We'll see.

Secretary Spellings believes the grants will work to ameliorate teacher quality differences between affluent and poor districts. "These grants will work to fix this by encouraging and rewarding teachers for taking the tough jobs in the schools and classrooms where our children need them the most," Spellings said. The grants--valued at $1800 to $2000--will be dispersed to teachers and administrators who raise test scores. The off chance of receiving twenty Benjamins isn't much of a reason to swap jobs. Teachers who work with kids who on average are more motivated and achieve more don't gamble for a chance to work with kids whose life chances are severely bleaker.

I'd like to do a study of what happens in these schools after the federal pay-for-performance monies land. There could be some interesting aftereffects like teachers jostling for the kids that are more inclined to make gains in the upper tiers of at-risk tracked schools? I'll shut my trap. Between the Globe and me, that's enough cynicism for one afternoon.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Goin Down to Minco Gonna Have Myself a Time

Wow! Thanks to Eduwonk and out of Oklahoma for making my weekend.

In the video--watch the whole thing--I keep waiting for Kenny to accidentally get killed and for the South Park boys to appear to deliver the classic lines. Maybe instead of body armor for troops in Iraq we should send Bill Crozier (frequent republican candidate featured in the nnuck nnuck nnuck video) over there with a bunch of used textbooks. This could be another brilliant and cheap policy solution for Republicans.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

True Colors at Montgomery Blair High

A policy at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD has caught the ire of parents and students and has made its way all the way to the Washington Post. In a "you-have-to-read-it-to-believe-it" story, Daniel deVise explains a policy that overtly labels kids. As if that doesn't happen enough. Students wear ID tags coded by one of ten colors that identify them in a variety of ways including by magnet program and in some cases by class year. One color, red, codes for two groups of people, a confounding decision that potentially reveals a lot about the decision makers. Red codes for freshman and ESOL students. So if you are learning English you are the spiritual equivalent of a freshman and vice-versa.

Montgomery Blair's parent association met last night to register an official opinion on the potential dangers and unintended consequences of the ID policy. A Blair website that features open discussion about the policy can be found here. I'm sorry, but the folks who came up with this draconian policy who claim they couldn't have imagined unintended consequences should be censured.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Fenty Studies Bloomberg Takeover Plan

The Washington Post writes that Adrian Fenty (D), ostensible governor elect for DC mayor, believes he has a mandate to takeover D.C. Public School. Fenty is quoted as saying "In all eight wards [of his primary campaign], people said, 'Fenty, do something about the schools.'"

Coached by New York City Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein, Fenty is strongly considering plans to size control of the DCPS immediately upon election. Current Mayor, Anthony Williams tried a similar takeover in 2004, but failed. The Post attributed that failure to the loss of democratic parent and community voice in their children's schooling. In New York, part of the takeover philosophy has been about seizing control from disparate and dysfunctional groups.

"Parents know about their kids, but they're not professional educators," Bloomberg said. Of course, by that logic, neither are Bloomberg or Klein. "There is no reason to think they should be designing a school system or running a school system. Do you want parents to make medical decisions? I don't think so." Bloomberg's analogy to the health system is completely flawed. Citizens do make decisions about health care everyday. They make decisions on what doctor to see, or what procedure to have done, or what medicine they can afford. But unlike schools, citizens aren't as overtly barred from being admitted to quality health care as they are when it comes to quality education.

Much of the success Bloomberg and Klein claim from the takeover bid is from small schools--a $100 million, Gates Foundation vehicle that has created some real hope for New York City schools, but has not offered hope to scale. Many kids are turned away from these highly coveted spots in small schools in New York. New York City is not the educational envy Bloomberg might like to project.

For Fenty to imitate the Bloomberg takeover, a lot will have to happen. I think a lot of people will hold their breath on this one. Here's hoping Fenty can make it work better than New York. I for one think he'll have a hard time gaining control of the schools, D.C. school politics being what they are. But stranger things have happened. Look for more to come.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Insiders: An Outsider's Perspective

It's the end of the work week and I'm a little low on energy, but the good folks at Public Agenda are making this easy on me. I'm sure they've gotten other bites besides this blog, but here goes anyway. You're welcome.

The Insiders: How Principals and Superintendents See Education Today, a new report in the Education Insights series is worth a look. The report, among other things, takes the contemporary pulse of school leaders (at-risk and on-par contexts included) on several topics including math and science achievement, teacher professionalism, and meeting NCLB requirements. For me there were few surprises here. For most questions I could have put on a superintendent hat and then switched to a principal hat and my responses in both hats would have been with the majority responses every time. Some surprises curdle at the top. *Note: these are not verbatim findings, only casual observations that will misrepresent Public Agenda's research if you don't read their published findings here.

One: Superintendents believe kids are learning enough math and science and that academic standards are high enough. Public Agenda (PA, here onward) cites a disconnect between what business leaders perceive: in a flat world this would be more worrisome.

Two: Principals and superintendents put stock in their teachers knowing their subject matter, i.e. they are confident that NCLB teacher quality mandates are being met and will continue to improve.

Three: Although PA portrays this statistic positively I latch onto the negative. PA summarizes the finding thusly: Most superintendents and half of principals say the quality of new teachers is improving. What is more interesting to me is that 19 percent of principals surveyed believe new teacher quality is worse--8 percent of sups say the same! Is there too great an age gap for these folks to relate? Have standards in ed schools supplanted talent, enthusiasm, and creativity? Or is there a more deviant correlation--ed schools have trained a generation of teachers incredulous of standards. It's probably none of these--it's probably just lousy memory--but further inquiry would be valuable as to why some school leaders perceive less teacher quality in their corps.

The report's findings about leaders at "mainly-minority" schools are revealing, if not troubling. Go read them. I could say a lot about why these school leaders' responses don't surprise me, citing theory and sources, but I can sum it up easily with one word: politics. Project what you expect and it will almost be as if it is.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bush's Summit on School Violence Fingers Schools as Solution

School violence buzz continues. This time the administration is responding. In a summit today in Maryland suburbs, Bush, Spellings, and several cabinet members met with community leaders, experts, and concerned parents to at least demonstrate a federal interest in the recent school violence that claimed lives in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The message for the morning was cooperation and coordination. Bush took a few cracks on the chin when reporters revealed that the Bush administration has recommended cutting $347 million in school-safety grants for states this year due to their "ineffective" nature.

Despite these violent acts including: yesterday's account of a 13-year-old student in Joplin, Mo., who carried an AK-47 into his middle school and fired a shot into a ceiling; and schools in Virginia, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wisconsin that have been closed or locked down in the past week because of threats of violence or guns school violence as a trend is on a downturn.

But that doesn't mean that we should avoid policy solutions. Any policy solution should include discussion about gun control. The San Francisco Chronicle publishes an opininon here worth reading. Might be a good time to slide Bowling for Columbine into the Netflix queue. Bush is right that we must focus on school preparedness for crisis as well as creating a culture of identifying and confronting brewing violence among hostile and disaffected youth. Bush is wrong for avoiding any discussion about guns. For sh*t's sake, can we please keep AK-47s off the streets. And can we please, please do something about legislators like Republican Frank Lasee who want to tackle violence with clandestinely armed teachers in the schools.

*update: While we're at it, focusing all the potential policy fixes on schools, here's an angle by the New York Times suggesting things could have gone smoother for law enforcement in the Pennsylvania case.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Where's the Beef? Texas.

An article on merit pay in the Dallas Morning News here caught the eye of the Gadfly here. A few beefs. One, the condescension in the story is spread thick. Modestly paid teachers opting out of gobs of cash??! They must be crazy or communist or both!

Choice is built into the Texas law designed to send "cash" to low performing schools to reward core subjects teachers who improve. Schools may either accept or reject funding. Dallas Morning News cites around 2 percent of 1,161 eligible schools have rejected the money so far.

Speaking of bias, Gadfly annoys with a fatuous analogy likening teachers to pro sports players. I repeat, teachers to pro sports players. Gadfly is baffled by merit pay's detractors who cite their allegiance to teamwork and collegiality over competitive bonuses.

"This "teamwork" argument is oft-cited within the walls of the education system. But somehow players on professional sports teams manage to live with themselves--and create a winning spirit--even when the quarterback gets a bonus or the pitcher makes ungodly sums of money."

Brilliant! A rookie's minimum contract salary in the NFL is $275,000 in 2006. Many rookie teachers make less than $35,000. Maybe $275,000 helps to live with oneself, or maybe the conference title bonuses that arrive for winning teams helps. For profit, hyper competitive professional sports leagues are exceedingly different than schools. Also, last time I checked many professional sports teams lack that certain 'winning spirit' Gadfly assumes they all have. '03-'05 San Francisco 49ers anyone?

Teachers would do well to avoid using family similes. Teachers work in teams. I like families as much as the next guy, but talk about families connotes a homely, unprofessional, and soft vibe. Schools are organizations of professionals who in Texas have the option not to "take the money and run." Instead schools have the option to behave critically, act on principle, and make a choice, becoming of their institution.

Last beef I promise. I'll close with Gov. Perry's equivocal sales pitch for the Texas merit program. "It's time to start treating teachers as individual professionals and not as just a monolithic profession. When you reward excellence the same as mediocrity, all too often mediocrity becomes the standard." Perry falsely asserts that teachers have been rewarded for excellence in the past. To suggest that pay schemes based on undifferentiated performance amount to reward is a linguistic leap. Salary and reward are just not the same.


Following a spate of depraved school violence last week, Maine is examining its own crisis guidelines. Current law requires all 177 school boards to "approve a plan developed by the school unit administration working with local public safety, mental health and law enforcement officials to deal with crises and potential crisis situations involving violent acts by or against students in each school in the school administrative unit." The Maine Department of Education requires that school boards report a readiness plan, but does not examine the individual plans. Last year, 40 percent of districts did not report their readiness plan in case of a crisis.

In a crisis, particularly one involving crazed individuals, a few good decisions by school staff can help a lot and save lives. Lawmakers would be wise to make sure that every school has a series of disaster criteria, including what to do in a hostage situation and a school shooting. Legislation enacted in Minnesota recently reflects the need to be prepared.

MN is considering developing specific K-12 teacher and school administrator competencies related to emergency preparedness and providing emergency preparedness training to K-12 teachers and administrators.

Schools are largely safe areas for children, and notoriously unsafe schools have been made safer by police presence, bag and person screening, and ID cards. Safe schools would be even safer if they provided more training in disaster situations. Part of the blessing in surviving tragedy is the chance to keep trying.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Skinned Knee and Parental Involvement on Yom Kippur

In recognition of the most holy day of the Jewish Calendar I offer a post on learning. The New York Times today published a fine piece by Slate Magazine's Emily Bazelon. The subject of the article is a book by Los Angeles psychologist Wedny Mogel titled The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.

Mogel having discovered Jewish faith after a primarily agnostic childhood discovered some of Judaism's tenets buried in the Talmud like fathers teaching their sons to swim. Mogel credits her faith's teachings for filling in gaps clinical applications of psychology cannot. Skinned Knee reads:

"Jewish wisdom holds that our children don't belong to us. They are both a loan and a gift from God, and the gift has strings attached. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children's job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or feel too comfortable to want to leave."

Mogel diagnoses many of her younger patients as lacking balance between their school lives and their home lives. These children are symptomatic of parents who push too hard when it comes to school and compensate as push-overs when it comes to chores, family obligations, and courtesies in the home life.

This dovetails with an area of research I've been recentlty exploring: parental involvement. Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey et. al (2005) review the literature in the field and conclude that parents' decisions about becoming involved in their children's education are influenced by role construction for involvement, sense of efficacy for helping the child succeed in school, perception of invitations to involvement, and life-context variables. To understand what these mean beyond simple deduction really requires a full read here, but examining why we participate in our children's lives, and how we participate in their lives can help us better prepare them to go do the one thing we cannot stop them from doing, nor should: our children will assume responsibility for our collective future.
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