Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finland (part 1)

Every time I get into a conversation about education lately, someone drops a side-comment about Finland, like it's the Valhalla of public schooling. In the past few months, the success of Finnish students on international exams has been widely touted and press-ganged into the service of various arguments about what we do and don't need more of in America. Most notably, perhaps, in the documentary Waiting for "Superman", Davis Guggenheim cites Finland's success as proof that you can have a good public school system without spending any more money per pupil than we do currently.

I don't know much about the Finnish school system—I'm sure it's a good one—but to give teachers, schools, and school-systems the sole blame and credit for differences in test scores is one of the most common misuses of data in the study of education.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Poor Kids Have To Memorize

I want to clarify something from my last post: when we talk about rigid, test-driven instruction that leaves students without the tools or confidence to think critically or solve unfamiliar problems, we’re talking about a phenomenon occurring primarily and maybe exclusively in poor neighborhoods. There are two main reasons for this, in my view. (Note well this “in my view.” I normally try to ground these posts in established fact and concrete data, but in this case that is impossible. As noted in my last post, this entire discussion is a foray into the realm of the unquantified, because it deals with precisely those qualities of mind and education not measured on the exams. The evidence behind this post is anecdotal—largely my own experience.) The first reason has to do with differences in academic achievement, the second with differences in behavior and school funding.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The New Age of Testing

My brother forwarded me this Times article about Shael Polakow-Suransky, the soon-to-be second in command of the NYC public school system. The focus of the article is Mr. Polakow-Suransky's approach to assessment: despite a progressive pedigree—he attended an extremely progressive highschool and studied under Ted Sizer at Brown—he's for more testing and better testing. Strange as it sounds, that may be the only viable position for a contemporary progressive educator, working at the policy level; and though some will probably call it a softening of ideals, Mr. P-S's position represents not so much a compromise as an adaptation of old principles to new circumstances.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Organizational Mediocrity

Why is it that mediocrity is a pervasive rather than an isolated trait in a company? Riding the 3 back to Brooklyn a couple weeks ago, I was struck by a flashy-looking ad campaign for Delta Airlines that took up half my car. The tag lines ranged from meaningless ("The only way up is up") to impenetrable ("Sleep is not a perk") to baffling ("Our newest international destination: California") to downright alarming ("An ounce of humanity can outweigh five hundred tons of metal," over a close-up of a jet engine during take-off—don't they realize that when you read "five hundred tons of metal" the first thing you think of is five hundred tons of metal falling out of the sky? Don't they realize that people contemplating trips through the heavens in giant combustion machines don't want to think about humanity being measured in ounces?!)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Empathy Training – Link and Ruminations

I don't have a new essay ready, but I want to post this link. It's a New York Times blog post on a Canadian empathy training program for elementary- and middle-schoolers. The article speaks for itself, but just so you don't think I'm being lazy, here are three reasons why I think Roots of Empathy is a great program. (but please read the article first! The following discussions are more ruminations than well-researched essays. Many of the claims I make are supported by nothing but my own experience; their validity as arguments must rest ultimately on the extent to which the reader's experience and intuition coincides with my own. Cave Skeptic!)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Well, I finally saw Waiting for "Superman." There's a lot to dislike about the movie, but the ultimate impact is difficult to parse out. I try to avoid writing about things I don't like, so I'll make the critical part of this post short and to the point.

A number of journalists have already taken the film to task for the many ways in which it misrepresents and overlooks data. The best of these, though I don't agree with everything in it, is probably Diane Ravitch's article for The New York Review of Books. The quickness with which the film has been attacked reflects not only its journalistic shortcomings, but its combative, simplistic approach to the discussion, its vilification of the teacher's union, its disparagement of the public school system. All these individual flaws, however, have distracted critics from the fundamental vagueness of the movie.

Monday, November 1, 2010

More on Mensch Prep: "Shave and a Haircut" Like You've Never Seen It Before

[On September 27th, I posted a description and analysis of the first hour of the first day of school at Mensch Prep Charter School (the name, like all other identifying details, is invented.) This post picks up where that one left off.]

After breakfast is cleaned up at each table, there are a series of coordinated bathroom visits. Then, Mensch Prep's principal[1], Nonyameko Pertinax (if I have to invent names, I'm not going to invent boring ones), announces that they're going to learn a song. The teaching of the song, which turns out to be "Shave and a Haircut" (sung without lyrics) provides another opportunity to reinforce habits of when to speak and when not to speak in class, and it is a rigorous exercise in that most fundamental component of discipline and maturity—self-control.

The song is taught as a call and response: Ms. Pertinax sings the "shave and a haircut" part, and everyone else sings the "two bits;" but first the kindergartners have to listen to the song with "teachers only," i.e. Ms. Pertinax sings the call and the rest of the faculty sings the response. That's harder than it sounds, because like any well-constructed song "Shave and a Haircut" begs for its resolution. When Ms. Pertinax sings "dum da da-dum dum," many children are compelled to sing "dum dum!" along with the teachers.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The "Charter Movement" Is Not The No-Excuses Movement
Or: Why There's So Much Charter-Love And So Much Bad Charter Data

A user, under the nom de plum of cybergrace, posted this comment yesterday, on an old post in this blog. Thank you cybergrace, whoever you are, for bringing this up.

Since I put up my page on the No-Excuses Movement, and since Waiting for Superman started generating all this media hype, a number of people have come to me with data of the kind cited in cybergrace’s comment—data showing that charters, on average, are worse than public schools.[1] Well, what do you say to that? everyone wants to know. There’s a lot of legitimate confusion around this issue, so let me try to clear this up.

When Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim, and the like say that there’s a model out there that works and is ready to “go to scale,” they’re not talking about charter-schools in general; they’re talking about a specific pedagogical model, called No-Excuses education. Debates on the subject have been careless about maintaining that distinction, however, and the result is a peculiar tangle of incidental ideological alliances and confusing data.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To all my faithful visitors-- I see there are a couple of you stopping by every day-- I apologize for the lack of posts lately. I have been on the road for most of the last two weeks, and my computer recently had a cold shower, courtesy of a glass of ice-water and a rambunctious seven-year-old, in the restaurant of the Embassy Suites Hotel, Brea, CA; so as you can imagine, it's been difficult to get work done. This post is being typed on a borrowed machine, but I'm hitting the electronics stores tomorrow, and rest assured, I'll be back in action sometime soon.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 1 at a No-Excuses Kindergarten

This post is based on an observation of a No-Excuses charter elementary school, which I conducted a couple weeks ago. You will hopefully be seeing more of this kind of thing on this blog. I will never post anything about a school without the permission of the school's administration. As will often be the case in observation-based posts, names and distinguishing features have been modified in this post to hide the identity of the school described.

Not Until the Arm Drops

When I arrive at Mensch Prep Charter School, at 8:00AM, the new class of kindergarteners is already seated silently at six long tables in the florescent-lit cafeteria of PS xxx, in whose old, brick DOE building the young charter school is housed. The children occupy only a small space in the center of the cafeteria, which is built to seat a few hundred, and they are surrounded on all sides by teachers—the whole first-grade and kindergarten faculty is here, to provide as much adult attention as possible, on this, the first day of school of these kids' lives.

The eighty or so five- and six-year-olds arrived at Mensch Prep about half an hour before me and have already been divided into three homerooms, each named after a prestigious American University—though, in the tradition of No-Excuses charters, the word "homeroom" has been replaced with "cohort."[1] The students are almost all African-American, with here and there, a white or Hispanic kid mixed in, and they are dressed in uniforms of light blue and navy.

The dean of students is standing in an open space beyond the ends of the tables, addressing the students. Behind her, a sheet of chart-paper is tacked to a column; it reads:

E very bottom on the bench.
A lways say please and thank you
T rash to the middle

Evidently, they're already part way through a lesson on table-manners.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I’ve rewritten the introduction to this blog.

My readers may be forced wonder: am I stalling? Well, maybe a little—I admit, I’m a little daunted by all the different things I want to research and write about—but I’m also trying to lay a foundation. The more I think about the subject of this blog and the more I try to write the posts that I really want to write, the more I feel that the basic terms are not defined, or else poorly defined—that the theoretical framework has not been established to have the discussion that I want to have. These pages—these introductions and overviews and glossaries—are my attempts to sketch out that framework. It will be a very cursory sketch, partly because I don’t want to get lost in a theoretical discussion, but mostly because I am still piecing together the origins and subtle interrelations of today’s major educational movements.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I've significantly altered the page on No-Excuses charter schools. The final section has been completely rewritten, because I had previously overlooked a major selection bias in No-Excuses student populations— namely, student-attrition— and other significant changes have been made throughout the article. If you read the original version and are interested in the subject, I recommend taking another look.

Monday, August 30, 2010

No new post today, but I just created a new feature for this blog-- an overview of No-Excuses charter schools. If you don't know much about No-Excuses charters, or if you already know a lot, but you're curious what I have to say about them, please read up!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teaching For the Test

I've been slaving over this long enough—I'm just going to post it. More on this to come.

In my last post I outlined the trap in which American education reform is mired: our best hope for improving education—tying incentives to outcomes—has reduced inner-city education to a massive, year-round test-prep regimen. I want to talk about how we could improve the situation, but first we need to look more closely at the phenomenon of test-driven education.

The phrase "teaching to the test" gets thrown around a lot, and I don't want to write facilely about the ills of No Child Left Behind, because that leads to the kind of simplistic ideology I'm trying to avoid. I think that there are serious downsides to NCLB, and I'd like to discuss those in detail, but I'm hindered by the narrowness of my experience. I can talk with great specificity about the impact of NCLB on New York State middle-school mathematics education; but it's hard to be sure how generalizable that analysis would be. At some point, I'd like to conduct a qualitative study of state exams and curricula in a variety of subject-areas, at a variety of grade-levels, from a wide selection of states—but that study will require months of research. Anecdotal evidence from teachers in other states and subject areas, however, suggests that New York State middle-school math is not some wild aberration. What follows, therefore, in lieu of more definitive conclusions, is my analysis-by-extrapolation of the specific mechanisms by which NCLB is undermining education in America.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Measurement, Incentives, and Educational Reform

In my last post, I talked about how the way we assess the quality and effectiveness of education comes to determine the overall quality and effectiveness of our entire education system. I made that argument principally with regard to colleges and universities, but in fact, the relationship between assessments and outcomes is one of the most important questions public education in America today—and it is a discussion many layers deep. In this post, I will peel back another layer of that debate, and disassemble the assumptions behind the arguments in my last post.

If you missed the last post, my point was this: in a system as massive as that of American higher education, educational quality can be maintained only to the extent that educational quality is measured: in the other words, you only get what you test for. Why? Because if we do not measure educational quality, then we cannot know where and when it exists; if we do not know where and when it exists, then we cannot reward anyone—teachers, administrators, and staff—for producing it, nor punish them for failing to do so; and if there are no incentives to produce it, then why should anyone care about educational quality? Now, of course, there is another reason why anyone would care, but I'll get to that a little later.

As obsessively mechanistic as the above argument may sound, it constitutes a fundamental assumption behind contemporary American education policy. What's more, there's evidence that that assumption is at least partly correct. The seminal education act of the past couple decades, No Child Left Behind, nationalized what had been a growing movement at the state level towards high-stakes testing. The principle behind this movement is that you test kids regularly, and you reward or punish teachers and administrators based on students' performance. Why? Because, if you don't, teachers and administrators won't bother educating anyone.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Higher Education: Not Really About Education Anymore

There was a disturbing little article in the Times a couple weeks ago about the increasing share of college and university budgets going to athletic facilities, sports teams, student clubs, fancy dormitories, and other non-instructional ends. The article quotes Ohio University Professor Richard K. Vedder giving the obvious explanation: "In the zeal to get students, [schools] are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities." Professor Vedder studies the economics of higher education, but it doesn't take a specialist to see how this is playing out.

I was riding the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge a couple days ago, and the whole car was plastered with an ad campaign for Monroe College; the ads touted the school's sports teams, its student clubs, its athletic facilities; they compared the dormitories to luxury condos; and they said very little about academics. I think it's pretty clear that what we're seeing is a higher-education system that's responding to market forces.

This is something that we want to take a close look at, because a lot of people think that the model for public primary and secondary schooling ought to be a lot more market-based. In an article from 2000, for example, U. of C. professor of economics and Nobel laureate James Heckman makes the argument in no uncertain terms: "Once it is recognized that public schools, especially inner-city public schools, are a virtual monopoly, while the U.S. university system is highly competitive, the mystery of the poor performance of the former, and the great success of the latter vanishes.".[1]

On the surface, the decreasing emphasis on instruction in college and university budgets seems like an argument against Heckman. In fact, I think that decreasing emphasis tells a different story, not about the merits of competition in education, but about the tools by which education is measured.

Heckman's thinking on this issue is, like that of so many academics, distorted by the assumtions and paradigms of his field. Economists are used to thinking about goods whose quality is relatively easy to determine. An education is vastly more complicated than your average widget, and its quality is extremely difficult to assess. It is the tools and structures by which we evaluate it, far more than the competition or lack thereof, that will ultimately determine quality of education. Only what is measurable can be rewarded or punished by the market. In other words, it's all about incentives.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crisis-Point Interventions, Part I

I've been working on a new post for five days now, and it keeps squirming out of my grasp. The fact is that the data on the topic is a lot more ambiguous than I wish it were. My goal was to use last Friday's Times article on Chicago's new program to reduce gun-violence against grade-schoolers (actual article; my summary) as a jumping-off point for a discussion of crisis-point interventions versus early interventions and prevention programs: the Chicago program is taking highschoolers who are currently in gangs or have been in the past, and trying to get them safely out of gangs and out of the way of former gang-contacts who are seeking retaliation; why not, I wondered, target younger kids and try to prevent them from joining gangs in the first place. It's harder than I expected to make that argument.

When you're talking about a program like this, the big question is cost-effectiveness. You only have so much money—six million dollars, in federal stimulus funding, in this case—and you want to use it to have the biggest impact you can. By my admittedly rough estimation, the Chicago program is costing around $6,000 per student, per year. (See my calculations.) To put that number in perspective, that's about 60% of the total cost of sending these kids to school every year.[1] By that estimate, the program will cost a total of around nine million dollars, when it's expanded to cover 1,500 students next year.

Based on the data in the article, it's impossible to be sure what the real impact of the program is—there were 40 fewer students shot this year than last year, a reduction of about 16%, but there's no way of knowing whether that's due to the program or not, especially since the article gives no information on the variance in number of shootings from year to year.[2] Even if we assume that the reduction in shootings was due entirely to the advocates program, though, that doesn't mean the program was cost-effective—after all, there might be another program that could prevent more shootings for the same amount of money.

I assumed, naively, that the motivations for the Chicago program were sentimental: the city was devoting all its resources to the neediest few, rather than stepping back, practicing a little triage, and fixing the problem at its source. Turns out, I may be the sentimental one. The current wisdom on how to reduce youth gang activity is decidedly cool-headed—possibly even cold-headed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cyber-Bullying & Public Moral Education

Interesting article on cyber-bullying in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. That is to say, it's not a must-read in and of itself, but it leads to some interesting discussions. If you have a special interest in cyber-bullying, though, you can read the original article here.

Here's the issue: say you're the 42-year-old parent of a sixth-grade girl who has just received a series of text- and Facebook-messages from a classmate, in which she is addressed as "whore" and "prude," along with a couple four-letter words, and directed to perform sexual acts that you had assumed she'd never even heard of. Now, hopefully you have the wherewithal to recognize the obvious solution—stop giving your twelve-year-old unlimited access to technology whose social, or for that matter cognitive, impact you don't really understand; actually, hopefully you never gave her such access in the first place—but if you're the average American, chances are you don't and you did, and so you're left with a dilemma. You have neither the means nor the experience to protect your child; and at the same time, you want to lash out at someone, but the someone in question is someone else's 12-year-old, so you have no recourse whatsoever.

According Sunday's article, more and more parents are turning to schools to protect victims and punish bullies. The trouble is, almost all of the actual cyber-bullying goes on outside of school, and there is no consensus among school administrators, school boards, parents, or state governments as to how much authority the school has to resolve such issues.

I'm interested in this discussion because it relates to two important trends in how we, as a society, deal with kids. One is the increasing involvement of the state in child-rearing; the other is the increasing involvement of adults in the lives and especially the social-lives of children. These are both part of a larger trend of paternalism within this country, arising it seems from the growing societal fear that if anybody is ever left too much to their own devices they will probably injure themselves and others, physically or emotionally—and somebody somewhere might get sued… or worse!

I don't mean to be glib, though. The obsession with oversight and regulation isn't coming out of nowhere, and we had better understand why it's happening before we start making fun of it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Overhaul of Locke Highschool not That Pricey

The New York Times reported today on the $15,000,000 Charter-based reform effort at Locke High School, in Los Angeles; but that number's not really as big as everyone thinks it is.

(You can see the original article here.)

The further you read, the mathier this post will get, so, as they say in ancient Rome, cave lector!

According to the Times article, Locke High, located in South Central LA, was a prime example of America's failing urban public schools, when it was turned over to a Charter School Group, Green Dot Public Schools, in 2008. Since taking over, Green Dot has cleaned up the school: "gang violence is sharply down, fewer students are dropping out, and test scores have inched upward." (The only state-test data we have for the reform effort come from the spring of '09, just a few months after Green Dot took over. Given the other data, we're likely to see much larger gains in test scores when the '09-'10 results comes in.)

The projected cost of this overhaul is $15 million over the course of a four-year transition period—which sounds like a lot at first blush. The Times article, which is entitled "School is Turned Around but Cost Gives Pause," splits its time between reporting on the changes in the school and discussing the debate over whether that price-tag is exorbitant. Let's get a little perspective on that number, though.

In America, public money is assigned to a school on a per-pupil basis: within a given school district, each public school gets a given amount of money for each pupil that attends that school. This money constitutes the school's operating budget. For Locke High, that is expected to come to about $115 million total over the course of the four-year turnaround period. The $15 million price-tag on Green Dot's turnaround effort is above and beyond the operating budget and is paid for largely by donations from private foundations.

$15 million over four years amounts to an expenditure of 13% above the regular operating budget for each of those four years. Put another way, it's an investment of $1,172 per student per year, for four years. That's a small and fairly short-term investment to turn a failing school into a good school; or, put another way, to give 3,200 students a decent education.[1]