Friday, October 30, 2009

Disrupting What?

I finally gave in and skimmed through Disrupting Class, and I think you could easily re-write the book completely omitting the concept of "disruptive innovation."

Binding Arbitration and School Reform in Rhode Island

Let's look at a little history: of the goals in the strategic plan was to renegotiate contracts with the district’s unions to try to align better with reform efforts. Portions of the teachers’ contract were singled out as “obstacles” to reform. District leaders felt that the teachers union had focused more on member salaries and working conditions and less on the issue of teacher professional growth. Furthermore it appeared that over the years, the teachers union in Providence had negotiated numerous provisions into the contract that seemed to inhibit implementation of different elements of the district’s strategic plan. The five and one-half hour workday, for example, made it difficult to arrange times for teachers to plan, share, problem solve, and learn together in small groups or as whole faculties. The contract required cancellation of in-school professional development activities during the regular workday if substitute teachers could not be found for all of those teachers involved. Given the shortage of qualified substitute teachers in Providence, this was often the case. Moreover, school administrators were not permitted to ask teachers to cover a colleague’s classes in such circumstances. Contractual restrictions on altering teachers’ schedules after September made it difficult for schools to experiment with alternative arrangements of time for teachers’ joint work and for dealing with unexpected shifts in student enrollment during the academic year. Waivers that might be agreed upon by a majority of teachers in one school were subject to approval by the union membership across the district before they could be granted.

Anecdotal accounts from staff in schools where there had been a history of failure suggested that the union’s traditional stance might have been well justified due to the dysfunctional management styles of some principals and the frequent principal turnover that had existed in the past. What’s more, the situation was exacerbated in part by the apparent failure of the district administration to successfully involve the union in the original design for reform, thus treating the union more as an obstacle than as a fundamental partner. In a sense, rather than forging a more collaborative relationship, this perpetuated long-standing adversarial relations between the district leadership and the union.

The challenge of working together was further complicated by an apparent division within the union between those who supported the reform initiatives and plan and those who were opposed to it for reasons stated above. The union executive during Superintendent Lam’s tenure reportedly was more disposed to seeking ways of working with the administration, and this support was manifested in several concrete actions.

Union executives helped craft the hiring process for instructional coaches in a way that gave precedence to the technical and interpersonal skill requirements of the job overcontractual provisions favoring seniority. They mediated member concerns about the intent of administrator Learning Walks and about the coaches’ perceived interference with professional autonomy. The union executive also suggested a strategy for building lesson planning into the teacher appraisal process through the contractually authorized teacher evaluation labor-management committee, thereby mitigating the need to insert lesson planning into the contract. In the 2001–2002 contract negotiations, the union agreed to a process whereby teachers, with financial compensation, could voluntarily provide coverage when substitutes could not be found for in-school inservice activities that did not involve all staff.

The union executive leaders who took part in these actions, however, had reportedly been elected by a slim majority. When they presented the draft of a new contract negotiated with the district to the membership in February 2002, it was defeated in what the media portrayed as an acrimonious public vote. A new contract was finally approved late in the school year.

The rank and file rejection of the first contract proposal was a huge setback for school reform in Providence. It weakened the administration, helped trigger a decade long cycle of revolving door superintendencies, divided the union, and as the final contract included both a bigger pay raise and fewer concessions in work rules, reinforced the idea that intransigence by the union would be rewarded. Also, the entire conflict triggered a long period of "work to rule" right as a whole range of promising reform initiatives were ramping up.

If Rhode Island had binding arbitration in 2000, everything would have been different. No work to rule, and the orderly adoption of a contract that would have probably closely resembled the original agreement between administration and union leadership. This would have been followed by two more contracts that progressed in an orderly way toward more reasonable work rules, and we'd be working on the fourth in that series right now.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a look at recent history confirms that binding arbitration would be good for school reform in Rhode Island.

On the Ground View of School Desegregation

Bill Ferriter, from Wake County, NC, in comments:

There isn't a school in our county where I wouldn't want to teach because it is overwhelmed by the challenges of immense proportions of high needs students. What's more, there isn't a corner of our county where businesses are hesitant to relocate to.

Regardless of where they decide to "set-up shop," their employees will have good schools for their kids and their locations will have access to an educated workforce.

It would be nice to be able to say that about Rhode Island.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Modeling the "Who Cares?" Habit of Mind

Mark Guzdial:

Back in December, when I first got Guitar Hero, I wrote a blog post where I agreed with Alan that Guitar Hero is not nearly as good as learning a real musical instrument. At that time, I wrote:

Guitar Hero might still be fun. But it’s just fun. I might learn to do well with it. But it would be learning that I don’t particularly value, that makes me better.

Now I’m thinking that I might want to eat those words. I found Guitar Hero hard. I own a guitar and have taken guitar lessons for two semesters. (Even putting it in terms of “semesters” suggests how long ago it was.) Some of my challenges in learning to play a guitar included doing two different things with my hands, and switching chords and strumming to keep the rhythm. I noticed that that’s exactly what I was having a hard time doing with Guitar Hero. I also noticed the guitar parts of rock songs — songs that I had heard a million times before but never had noticed all the guitar parts previously. I noticed because I missed my cues, and so those guitar parts were missing. While I have known Foghat and Pat Benatar for literally decades, Guitar Hero had me listening in a different way...

Now here’s the critical question: Does Guitar Hero lead to real music playing, or is it a stopping point? Nobody is arguing that playing Guitar Hero is making music, that I can see. Does it work as scaffolding?

I don’t know, but I’m now wondering: Does it matter? If Guitar Hero stops some people from becoming musicians, then it is a problem. If some people, who might have pushed themselves to become musicians, decide that Guitar Hero is hard enough, then Guitar Hero is doing a disservice. But if that’s not true, and people who never would become musicians, have a better appreciation for the music and a better understanding of the athleticism of musicians because of Guitar Hero, then Guitar Hero is providing a benefit.

See also.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Belated The Wire Commentary

John Thompson:

It is no surprise that the concept that gained the largest support in the Public Agenda poll of teachers was alternative schools for disruptive students. Overall, 68% of teachers predicted the proposal would be "very effective" while 27% thought it would be somewhat effective. A previous poll by the same organization showed that the idea is even more popular with teachers in high schools and high needs schools. Only 6% of this poll's teachers said that a safe, orderly and respectful atmosphere was a serious problem in their own school, while 39% said they faced a "manageable" problem. But 88% of high school teachers say that "the most pressing problems come from social problems and kids who misbehave."

I never got around to writing a long review of the handling of urban education in The Wire (mostly because it would take a long time to explain why Dan Meyer's reading was so far off), but these poll results point to the two things that stuck out to me as off-key.

  1. Everyone's astonishment at the idea of pulling disruptive kids out of the classroom for a special program, as if they'd never conceived of such a thing. In real life, they might be for or against it, but they'd be talking about a dozen similar initiatives that had been tried over the years.
  2. The existence of, what, a psychology grad student (?), who could just stroll in and do a very good job of handling those kids. I don't remember her name, and she's just referred to as "the teacher" in the otherwise detailed plot synopses on the HBO website. She's a total deus ex machina. People like that -- academics seemingly without specific experience with kids in schools, but still experts in the classroom -- don't exist. Which is why we don't get a chance to look at her very closely. If people like her did exist, it would open up all kinds of possibilities.

Fear and Uncertainty will Kill Innovation

Given Commissioner Gist's recent assertion that Rhode Island's new Basic Education Plan gives her the authority to overturn contractual language on teacher assignment in districts statewide, it is interesting to revisit Tom Sgouros's analysis of the new BEP when it was passed this summer:

...the “basic educational program” ... specifies what you can expect the staff of a school to look like. For example, it says there should be a music program and a library, and says more or less what they should look like.

Until now. You’ll be glad to know that after the Regents’ meeting on June 4, many of these restrictions on local districts will be raised.

In February, the Regents put out a proposal for a new set of standards. The new standards excise pretty much every mention of staff and staff qualifications, save only for psychologists. The old standards contained sentences like “there shall be a halftime [librarian] in schools with 250 to 499 children,” and “at least 20 minutes in each school day is devoted to health and physical education taught by certified personnel.” (Recess is not considered physical education.)

The new standard contains sentences like these: “A high quality visual arts & design and performing arts education program leads to arts literacy for all students.” But nowhere does it require any school to have such a “high quality” program. In fact, in the very next paragraph it says schools will only be obligated to offer courses in “at least one” of the performing arts.

The language in the BEP on teacher assignments is similarly vague; however, the Commissioner's interpretation is very specific, and, she asserts, legally binding. So perhaps Commissioner Gist, or a successor might someday send out a memo to superintendents stating that, for example, "no system that does not include a full-time physical education teacher for each 300 students in a school can comply with this regulation.” It might happen. It might not. But it certainly seems possible. The point is, you don't really know, do you?

Similarly, the Providence School District has aggressively (if quietly) asserted its right to abrogate site-based agreements with schools.

So basically, if you're thinking about non-charter school-level reform in Rhode Island, there is no legal basis for it. The state and the district are quite clear that they will not honor agreements they sign with teachers or schools. The Basic Education Plan is vague, but subject to specific interpretation by the Commissioner. And, if the Commissioner feels you are out of compliance with the law, she will threaten your board with personal lawsuits and decertification of school administrators.

If you're a career teacher or principal, not an itinerant technocrat, you'd be a fool to pursue implementing ambitious reform in a school district on these terms. And you can't undo a pattern of ignoring and breaking contracts. There is no going back, and no basis for trust going forward.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

I'm not sure I'm going to come up with a more articulate response than the above to the brand new recommendations of the brand new report of the Rhode Island Urban Education Task Force, particularly the section on "Innovation for Successful Schools." Two members of the task force, (the other) Tom Brady and Sharon "the days of allowing schools to pursue their unique brand of education are over" Contreras, have already created the most reactionary and hostile-to-innovation educational climate Providence has seen in twenty years. At least. Whatever.

I actually thought it would take about five years for someone to hand the School Board a report like this one after they dismantled every shred of autonomy or variety in the Providence School District's high schools (notwithstanding Classical, natch). Apparently I overestimated by four years and six months.

I Like Being on the Same Side of an Argument as Diane Ravitch

Ravitch, National Journal:

I would like to see public education improve, and I would like to see Catholic and other religious schools survive. So I have a simple principle to propose: Public money for public schools, private money for private schools. That way, entrepreneurs would stop picking the public's pocket for their enrichment, and philanthropists would be encouraged to support effective and worthy religious schools, especially those (like Catholic schools) that have helped poor and working-class families and children. The survival of inner-city Catholic education now hangs in the balance, and only private money can save it. And should.

This is a key underlying point. All the private money that's going into policy debates, prizes, etc. could have simply gone into private schools serving low-income populations, whether you like Catholic Schools (which, among other things, already have real estate) or small progressive schools like Community Prep in Providence (celebrating its 25th year!). I would have preferred that to the hostile takeover of the public sphere we've been experiencing.

On her blog:

We both recall that John Dewey wrote that what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child is what the community should want for all its children. That's a good starting point. What does the best and wisest parent want for his or her own child?

Certainly, that parent would want a school with small classes, which guarantees that her child would get personal attention. Class size is a pretty good indicator of what most people mean by quality. If you visit the most elite private schools, you can bet that they don't have 32 students in a class. On the Web sites of such schools, one learns that classes are typically 12 to 15 students to a teacher. Such luxury is unheard of in most public schools, with the possible exception of schools in tony suburbs. Many of those who pronounce that class size doesn't matter send their own children to schools with small classes.

Another indicator of quality is the presence of the arts. The best and wisest parent would not want his child to go to a school with no teachers of music, art, dance, or other arts. Yet we know that in most of our public schools today, the arts have been sacrificed to make more time for test-prepping.

One more point: That wise parent would demand schools that were physically attractive and well-maintained. He or she would not tolerate the neglect, deterioration, and obsolescence that we see so often in our schools. There are lots of other things that our mythical best-and-wisest parent would insist upon, but these three points, I think, are indisputable, and a good starting point.

This is the most effective counter-argument we've got.

A Providence Counterfactual

Larry Cuban:

Consider small high schools. Although the romance has soured recently, small high schools have been the darling of Gates Foundation to the tune of $2 billion over the last decade. Even with Gates grants, tensions inexorably arose between some superintendents and their small high schools over autonomy to hire staff and spend money. District officials expected these newly-formed schools to increase student test scores and graduate larger numbers of low-income minority students who then enroll in college—all within a couple of years. Be Free to Innovate But Increase Student Scores. Talk about mixed messages!

How can superintendents negotiate these inevitable tensions over small high schools and be consistent in their message to practitioners? One superintendent in Mapleton (CO), a small urban district north of Denver, has learned to manage this common dilemma.

With school board and key stakeholders’ support, Charlotte Ciancio, a rookie superintendent appointed in 2001, designed a reform with her executive team in this largely Latino and low-income district of just over 5,000 student that promised to reverse the downward spiral of student test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase graduates entering college. Between 2004-2007, district officials converted Skyview High School into seven small high schools on the main campus and elsewhere in the district. After visiting projects around the country, they imported whole school models such as New Tech High, Expeditionary Learning Schools, and Big Picture schools plus home-grown versions of Coalition of Essential Schools. The imports came with coaches and professional development opportunities funded by each of the model developers and the Gates Foundation. District officials largely hired mostly outsiders as principals and these principals, they were called “directors,” hired many new teachers (the local union endorsed the small high school reform) as veterans retired or left because these major changes were too much for them.

As implementation unfolded, state test scores showed further declines (e.g., Anglos tested 7 percent proficiency in math while Latinos tested 4 percent). The Superintendent realized that the imported models and their developers would have to pay far more attention to state curriculum standards and tests or the district would be put on probation. The tension between school-site autonomy and doing something about low test scores in reading and math (Colorado tested students every year through the 10th grade) reached a peak by the third year of implementation.

The superintendent and executive team then hit upon a collaborative process that could reconcile each model’s core principles, site-based autonomy, and attention to test scores: Staff Support Teams (SST). These SSTs do monthly walk-throughs of small high schools classrooms, meet with the school-based team of director, teachers, and other staff and debrief each visit to determine the consistency between what the school is doing, the climate in the school, and what it says it wants to do.

Together, the SST and school team figure out how the district office can help on problems that have cropped up during visit including getting additional resources. Together, they work out ways that staff can integrate state standards into the curriculum, improve classroom work, and respond to out-of-state model developers’ advice. SSTs negotiate important changes in curriculum and instruction. In some cases these adaptations have been adopted by the model’s out-of-state developers. Both formally and informally, SSTs maintain consistency between district and school policies as well as become a crucial mechanism for sustaining the model’s core principles while adapting to changing circumstances.

SSTs, however, are not miracle cures. The teams are school-smart district officials but not extra-terrestial super-stars. They have created a climate of trust with directors and staffs. They work closely with the school team on each visit to bring more consistency between district expectations, school decisions, and what happens daily in classrooms. In negotiating more internal consistency through specific actions by both district officials and school teams, they reduce mixed messages to teachers and students.

Or, you could do like we did in Providence, and explicitly turn your small schools into exact copies of your large schools, except, you know, smaller.

Data: It Cuts Both Ways

Comment at Pissed-Off Teacher:

Yes, there are 8th grade records for each of my students. You know what gets to me, too, is the fact that there are students who had 60% or less attendance in grades 8, and 9. Then as 10th graders, they can't do the math and are still using their fingers to add and subtract! What happened to the chancellor's regulation of a student passing the class and maintaing 90% attendance (C.R. A-501) in order to be promoted to the next grade?

This kind of thing may come in handy if you want to file a grievance or lawsuit (remember, the alternative to contract law is tort law) over being denied your merit pay (in the abstract future).

Monday, October 26, 2009

I am So not a Lawyer


PROVIDENCE — Dropping a bombshell on the teachers’ unions, state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist ordered school superintendents to abolish the practice of assigning teachers based on how many years they have in the school system.

Gist, who sent a letter to superintendents on Tuesday, is upending tradition and taking on two powerful unions, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFT), who together represent 12,000 public school teachers.

On Friday, the unions said they were blindsided by Gist’s announcement, adding that the commissioner made no attempt to confer with labor before going public with the decision.

“We’re going to court,” said Marcia Reback, president of the Federation of Teachers. “I’m startled that there was no conversation with the unions about this. I’m startled there were no public hearings, and I’m startled at the content. This narrows the scope of collective bargaining.”

Gist says she has the authority to do away with seniority under the new Basic Education Plan, which the Rhode Island Board of Regents approved in June and which takes effect July 1.

“In my view,” Gist said in a news statement, “no system that bases teacher assignments solely on seniority can comply with this regulation.”

“Our response is that we have authority to set educational policy and to establish rules and regulations that are in the best interest of students,” said Regents Chairman Robert G. Flanders Jr. “To the extent that there are contract provisions that are at odds with the Basic Education Plan, it’s our view that those provisions would be unlawful. If a challenge were to be brought, we would expect to prevail.”

According to the new regulations, districts must select and train only the most highly effective staff, and teacher assignments must be based on student need. The Basic Education Plan requires that each district “shall maintain control of its ability to recruit, hire, manage, evaluate and assign its personnel.”

How much power does the RI Commissioner of Education and Board of Regents have? I guess we'll find out. As it is, I can't tell if this is just audacious posturing, or what. Regardless of what you think of seniority policy, if the state prevails, the fundamental structure of education governance in Rhode Island will change significantly. I suspect that it would make comprehensive revision of RI education law a lot more likely in the near to medium term. If the Regents and Commisioner can, on their own, change regulations and overturn contracts, what's the limit to their power? At that point, it would make more sense to just run the state as one school district, because the the biggest thing they couldn't do is even out inequity between school districts in Rhode Island, which is a far bigger issue than inequity within them.

Also this implies that good teachers should be moved from high achieving schools to low achieving schools. But you and I know that they will never move the best teachers out of high achieving schools on the East Side, Classical or gifted and talented programs. It won't happen.

The actual text of the memo is here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Consolidating Rhode Island

I'm coming to the conclusion that this is necessary:

STATE HOUSE – Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III (D-Dist. 7, North Providence, Providence) announced today that he plans to introduce several pieces of legislation in the 2010 General Assembly session to consolidate cities and towns in Rhode Island and reorganize the composition of the legislature.

Senator Ciccone’s first proposal is to consolidate the state’s 39 cities and towns into a county-type form of government, in order to achieve significant cost savings. Under the legislation to be introduced in January, all municipal services- including public safety, public works and education- would be regionalized in each of the state’s five counties (Providence, Kent, Bristol, Washington and Newport).

Providence County is everything north of East Providence/Cranston/Sictuate/Foster. According to The Poverty Institute's 2007 numbers, the poverty rate in the City of Providence was 27.2% (39.6% child poverty). Providence County's poverty rate was 16%. The state's is 12%. So consolidating school governance to the county level would provide greater opportunities to desegregate by income -- and it is on those terms that I would favor it, following Wake County, North Carolina's lead and establishing a ceiling of 40% for the poverty level in each school, ensuring that every school has a majority of working, middle and upper class students.

Of course, that doesn't solve every problem in education by itself, but it makes every issue more tractable.

Ted Sizer, RIP

Ted Sizer's work has had a profound and tangible impact on my life, and his passing has deeply saddened Jennifer and I.

I remember sitting outside the art building on the Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut, where I was temping as a department secretary, and I was eating my lunch on a sunny spring afternoon, reading Horace's Compromise, which I found to be a sensitive and penetrating analysis of the real work of high schools, and I turned to the back and read the author credit. Hm. Brown University. Over the border, but not that far away, really. What does that sign on Rt. 6 say? Fifty miles to Providence? I suppose I could just go there, couldn't I?

When I arrived at Brown in 1998, Ted had already moved on, but I was grateful to have many opportunities to hear him speak over the years, and, while I was at Brown, Eileen Landay, Bil Johnson and Larry Wakeford did a wonderful job of teaching us to teach in ways consistent with Ted's vision.

In reflecting on Ted Sizer's work, my mind draws a parallel to Martin van Creveld's comparative study of the American and German armies in World War II, which I've been re-reading. One way of summarizing Creveld's thesis is this: The American army was organized like an industry; the German army was organized like an army. That this doesn't quite make sense to the American reader is exactly the point. Left to our own inertia, Americans tend to see every enterprise as a business; we can literally forget that other kinds or organizations exist as legitimate, first-order peers to commerce, not just chronically defective copies.

So we need people, like Ted Sizer, who can see schools as schools, to periodically come along and explain back to us, from first principles, what "schools" are and why. That they have a logic and ethos and beauty and tragedy all their own which, if we are to have a society, we must grapple with, understand and come to create.

Ted's passing is especially poignant today in Providence, as over the past year we've watched the influence of his ideas in the Providence Public Schools, fragmentary and partial as it might have been, being completely erased. It was Ted's vision which led us to Providence, and his death comes as we realize there is nothing left to keep us here; we are doubly bereft.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

If the Solution was that Simple, We wouldn't have a Problem

Jay Mathews for Kaplan Test Prep Daily:

The excerpts of the speech we were given, however, did not appear to address one part of the classroom management problem that is often raised when successful teachers explain how they learned to keep students in order. These teachers often say they learned by doing, by facing a class alone without help, trying one thing after another until something worked for them. Education school deans have been critical of the Teach for America program, which pushes recent college graduates into classrooms with only a few weeks training, but teachers who have survived that toss-them-into-the-water approach say it works better than class management classes at their teacher's colleges.

Also, Uncle Jay has never met anyone who drowned after being dropped in the deep end of a pool.

The good news is that there is increasing momentum for residency based programs.

Also, addressing another random point from the post, I would point out that another reason college/district collaboration is difficult is the instability of leadership in urban districts and national policy. Every time a new supe comes in and shakes things up, or previously "successful" schools are now found to be "failing," it breaks existing relationships.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This is a Problem You'd Have with Open Source Curricula, Too

Chris McDonough:

A common sort of patch received by open source project maintainers is the "paper towel roll" patch. It's a patch that was coded while its author looked through a paper towel roll at some very specific bit of code in your larger system. The patch is wrong, but its author does not have enough context to know why: it patches some subsystem in a way doesn't make any sense when the entirety of the system is considered. It works, but applying it as-is would be disastrous on some level (documentation requirements / conceptual integrity / code cleanliness, additional unwanted software dependencies, etc).

Paper-towel-roll patches are tricky to deal with as an open source maintainer. Do you throw it away? Do you add the feature implied by the patch in "the right way"? How do you deal with the original submitter? How pissed off is he going to be if you reject it out-of-hand without trying to help him implement it in the right way? Do you even want the feature? Even if you're +0 or +1 on the feature, do you have enough time to deal with doing it properly?

OTOH, a pissed off contributor isn't the end of the world, so it isn't as big a problem as some people think, even in the worst case.

A Disheartened Teacher is an Idealist Who Has Been Mugged by Administration

Public Agenda's new survey, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today, could have a positive effect on discussions of teacher quality, retention, etc., if given a fair reading. Here's the basic idea:

Researchers at Public Agenda conducted a cluster analysis of the survey results revealing three distinct groups of teachers. Based on their unique individual characteristics and their attitudes about the profession, teachers naturally fell into three broad categories which researchers call the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

The view that teaching is “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,—they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and the undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rate their principals as “excellent”” at supporting them as teachers, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Nearly three-quarters cite “discipline and behavior issues” in the classroom, and 7 in 10 say that testing are major drawbacks as well.

By contrast, the vast majority of teachers in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) view teaching as a lifelong career. Most say their schools are “orderly, safe, and respectful,” and are satisfied with their administrators. Sixty-three percent strongly agree “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and roughly three-fourths feel that they have sufficient time to craft good lesson plans. Those teachers tend to be veterans—94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years, the majority have graduate degrees, and about two-thirds are teaching in middle-income or affluent schools.

However, it is the Idealists—23 percent of teachers overall—who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession (42 percent say it was “one of the most important” factors in their decision, and another 36% say it was a “major” factor). In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, “given the right support, can go to college,” the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field.

Unfortunately, this analysis has some serious spin on it. The attitudes of "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" toward teaching and learning are more similar than different; more similar to each other than to the "Contented." The difference between "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" can be summarized thus:

Q13. When it comes to having an orderly, safe and respectful school atmosphere, are the working conditions at your school

Very Good: Contented - 76%; Idealists - 68%; Disheartened - 28%

A Serious Problem: Contented - 2%; Idealists - None!;   Disheartened - 14%

There are similar examples, that's just one. So while 10% more "Idealists" think all their kids go to college, they're all working in schools with at least adequate working conditions, and 11% fewer are in high schools, where teachers have a more tangible sense of who is going to be ready for college. Also, 74% of "Discouraged" teachers were motivated by a desire to help underprivileged kids, compared to 78% of "Idealists," but only 56% of the "Contented." Considering those responses and others the underlying similarity in philosophy between "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" is evident.

The "Contented" are the teachers that David Warlick and Will Richardson get paid to talk to year after year. They present their own kind of low-grade reform problem, but it is completely separate from urban school reform.

Let's go back to those numbers on having a "orderly, safe and respectful school atmosphere." There are a few ways to read the results, but I think this is a valid and straightforward interpetation:

Of 890 teachers surveyed, not a single "Idealist" survived in a atmosphere they percevied as presenting "a serious problem." Not one.

All the "Idealists" either avoided those schools, left, or became "Disheartened." That should tell you something about the influence of a school's environment on a teacher.

Nonetheless, this is how Public Agenda frames their "Questions for the Field" (from their presentation):

  • Should Idealists be retained and nurtured? Are they "Transformers?"
  • Could/should we try to attract the Contented to high-needs schools?
  • Should the Disheartened be eased out of the profession? Can some be reclaimed, and what would it take to do it?

What dishearteningly stupid questions. Should "Idealists" be retained? Of course. Are they "Transformers?" There is no reason to think they are inherently different than the "Disheartened," aside from having less experience working in badly run schools. Why would the "Contented" succeed in high needs schools? They are by definition happy with their current situation, and their motivations are significantly different than the other groups'. "Disheartened" teachers deserve better schools and better working conditions, or at least a followup study of the objective circumstances under which "Idealists" and "Disheartened" teachers work.

Here are some better questions:

  • What turns an "Idealist" into a "Disheartened" teacher?
  • What turns a "Disheartened" teacher back into an "Idealist?"

Unfortunately, the Corporatists may have Already Pulled this Off in Education

No More Mister Nice Blog:

But since party identification has fallen to its lowest level ever, and they are splitting off between social conservatives and small government conservatives its not clear that this will still be a winning strategy nationally. In fact, its not going to be until the social conservatives free themselves of the corporatists and reach out sucessfully to hispanics and blacks, or the corporatists free themselves of the social conservatives and reach out sucessfully to everyone else.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Official Feedback

I had to make a point to not turn my formal comments on the Common Core Standards into a grand thesis. I've got other stuff to do with my life. Here's what I knocked out and submitted:

The draft College and Career Readiness Standards for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening (CCRS RWLS) are not defined and explained clearly enough to generate a valid outside evaluation.

If I had commissioned this draft, I would reject it out of hand for simply not fulfilling the assignment. The CCSSI asked for "English Language Arts" standards and received "Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening" standards. What is the difference? Simply to acknowledge that other disciplines are also responsible for these standards? Is English Language Arts a subset of these standards, a superset, or do they overlap?

In comparison to high quality state, international, and other comparable US ELA standards, RWLS standards are significantly narrower, often covering a half to two thirds of other ELA standards. Without knowing the relationship to ELA standards, whether or not this is grounds for a valid critique is a mystery.

The introduction to the standards states "English language arts teachers not only must engage their students in a rich array of literature..." Does this document contain a complete set of literature standards, or a fragment? The placement of narrative writing as important but outside the scope of the CCRS suggests that RWLS only partially overlaps a complete set of English Language Arts standards in writing.

The relationship between these standards and English Language Arts standards is particularly important because the draft language for the Race to the Top grant requirements states that "... a State may supplement the common standards with additional standards, provided that the additional standards do not exceed 15 percent of the State's total standards for that content area." In this case, what is the content area? English Language Arts?

What is the definition of "Career and College Ready?" It covers a broad range of possibilities. Are these standards meant to apply equally to all collegiate courses of study, from engineering to marketing to creative writing, or are some more important than others? What is "workforce training?" Does that cover on the job training for jobs requiring only a high school diploma?

What is the relationship between CCRS, graduation standards, and other standards in a high school? They are referred to in passing as skills and understandings that students must have "no later than the end of high school" under "How to Read the Document" / "Strands" / "Standards for Student Performance," but the issue is never directly confronted. Some literature on CCRS standards suggests that these will be used as a higher tier of standards than simple graduation. Elsewhere, Achieve seems to regard them as the basis for a single graduation standard. One might argue that CCRS are merely a subset of graduation standards, as the mission of schools is not limited to college and career readiness. This basic definition is never addressed.

In comparison to other high quality standards documents, specifically the ones listed and linked in the CCSSI document, the RWLS standards frequently are phrased to require simpler, lower level skills (judging by, say, Bloom's Taxonomy) than the benchmarked references. Is this intentional? Are the CCRS RWLS standards deliberately lower than the graduation standard for English Language Arts for a high-performing state or country? Or is this an accident? Incompetence? Haste? Willful deception? Does "international benchmarking" require equal rigor and scope, or simply a comparison?

For example, the introductory evidence states "The expectation that high school graduates will be able to produce writing that is logical and coherent is found throughout the standards of top-performing countries and states." Yet in these countries and states, "logical and coherent" writing is considered merely the foundation of more sophisticated expectations within the high school curriculum. Only the CCSSI standards regard this as practically sufficient for end of high school writing.

The clear long term goal of the federal Department of Education for these standards and subsequent assessments is teacher evaluation. Will subsequent tests and evaluation systems recognize the shared responsibility across content areas for meeting these standards?

Interpreting these standards is further confounded by their complex organization (compared to similar documents in ELA) and poor internal alignment between different sections.

For example:

The introduction on page i states "When reading, students demonstrate their comprehension most commonly through a spoken or written interpretation of the text." Yet no subsequent standards require a student to create an individual interpretation of a text.

The "Student Practices" section (which is itself highly idiosyncratic and not benchmarked at all) states "4. They comprehend as well as critique." But "critique" never appears in any subsequent standards.

Under "Student Practices" / "8. They use technology strategically and capably," is included "They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communications goals." Yet there are no subsequent standards that require this selection.

Under "Range of Content of Student Reading" / "Complexity," (the range of content standards are also idiosyncratic and not benchmarked) is stated "In college and careers, students will need to read texts characterized by... subtle relationships between ideas or characters." There are no subsequent performance standards that require students to understand "subtle relationships between ideas or characters." The language in the performance standard is more limited: "6. Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals in fiction and nonfiction based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact." These are different. Which one counts?

The "Range of Content for Speaking and Listening" / "Group and One-to-One Situations" state "The immediate communication between two people might be replaced by formal turn taking in large-group discussions." But there are no performance standards for one-to-one discussion or "formal turn taking" in discussions.

What is the practical implication of, under "Range of Content for Listening and Speaking" / "Varied Disciplinary Content," "College- and career-ready students must develop a foundation of disciplinary knowledge and conventions in order to not only comprehend the complexity of information and ideas but also to explain them." Does meeting this standard require meeting all other subject area standards (math, science, etc...)?

Without referring to definitions of the above terms, or clarifying the extensive internal misalignment of the document, it is impossible to evaluate the level or completeness of these standards. The document should either be revised to clearly explain its scope and intent, and resubmitted for public comment, or simply scrapped in favor of one of the many well regarded and vastly better developed examples of English Language Arts standards which CCSSI is well aware of, such as those of Massachusetts, Indiana, the Diploma Project, NECAP, Texas's CCRS, NCTE, or those of Finland, England, or various Canadian provinces.

With that, I will go re-caulk my tub.

I Try To Get Out, But They Pull Me Back In

Jennifer and I need a new Mac every five years, so I was waiting for the new iMacs, and then thinking "If I could eliminate getting a new TV, I could justify a 27" model... but how can I connect my Wii?" And then:

In a clever touch, the 27-inch iMac has a new feature that dramatically increases its versatility. Via a series of adapters Apple says will be available shortly, users will be able to attach external display sources, such a DVD players or even other computers, to the iMac’s display. At that point, those sources will take over the iMac’s display, effectively turning it into an external monitor or an HDTV.

Updating the Ubuntu Code of Conduct


The Ubuntu Code of Conduct is one of the most surprisingly successful projects I've ever had the privilege of working on. On my first day working for the company that would become Canonical, I talked with Mark Shuttleworth about some ideas for community governance. Partially in reaction to some harsh behavior in other free software projects we'd worked on, Mark and I agreed that some sort of explicit standard for behavior in Ubuntu would be a good thing. Over lunch of what was my literally first day working on Ubuntu, I wrote a draft of code of conduct that was essentially the version that Ubuntu has used until today. Shuttleworth made a series of modification to my draft but I don't think either of us took it too seriously. We figured it would be easy to update it later.

Over time, that code has become a central piece of the Ubuntu community. Every new Ubuntu member cryptographically signs the code. When conversation in any Ubuntu forums, channels, or lists becomes disrespectful, users almost instinctively remind each other of the code. Through this process, the code has become a sort of constitution of our community and a widely enforced standard. People treat the code as a reflection of what "ubuntu" --- both the concept and our project --- stands for.

Over time, the original code has spawned a Leadership Code of Conduct (which I also worked to draft), and has been modified and employed by scores of free software projects and by many projects that have nothing to do with free software at all. This is all wonderful, but a side effect has been that updating the code has become a more a difficult process that we originally imagined.

Despite it success, the code remains a text written in an afternoon in Mark's flat. At times, this fact shows. For example, the code contains some off-hand humor that now seems a little akward and the text was a bit too developer centric at points. And there was a lot that, quite simply, we would have done better if we had realized that the code would be so important. So this summer, Daniel Holbach and I spent another afternoon in Berlin discussing and crafting a new version of the code along with a detailed rationale document that describes all the things we'd changed and why.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Point of Free Software

Mark Pilgrim:

Still, there’s a qualitative difference between letting people download your own work from your own site, and watching other people try to profit from it. But it is precisely this difference that strikes at the heart of the Free Software/Free Culture ethos. Part of choosing a Free license for your own work is accepting that people may use it in ways you disapprove of. There are no “field of use” restrictions, and there are no “commercial use” restrictions either. In fact, those are two of the fundamental tenets of the “Free” in Free Software. If “others profiting from my work” is something you seek to avoid, then Free Software is not for you. Opt for a Creative Commons “Non-Commercial” license, or a “personal use only” freeware license, or a traditional End User License Agreement. Free Software doesn’t have “end users.” That’s kind of the point.

Wireless Generation Acquires The Writers' Express

Wireless Generation:

Wireless Generation, a leading provider of tools, systems, and services that help teachers to teach smarter, announced that it has acquired The Writers’ Express (WEX), a creator of writing curriculum and professional development for grades 3‐12. Based on 15 years of research, the WEX curriculum and teaching methods have helped thousands of students to become motivated and effective writers.

I hadn't seen WEX before today, but it is essentially a structured writing workshop program developed by two former Brown MAT's. It is used a lot in summer and after-school programs. It is always a good sign when students don't have to be bound by law to get them to participate.

It is an interesting acquisition for WG; WEX doesn't seem to have a technology component, and one of the big hurdles of writing workshop is the amount of in-classrom administrative overhead, paperwork, re-copying, and other fiddly paper-based procedures. There is a real opportunity to do a completely integrated content management system based around a well-defined workshop system.

OTOH, WEX's mission -- "To give all students the power to explore their ideas, the skills to communicate them clearly, and the conviction that the world wants to hear them." -- is poorly aligned with the draft Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, of which WG is an endorsing partner, so they may want to straighten that out one way or another.

Test What Was Taught, Not What Students Should Be Able to Do!

Jay Mathews for Kaplan Test Prep Daily:

Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a member of the U.S. advisory board to PISA, offered this sample question for 15-year-olds from the mathematics literacy section of the exam:

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100m by 50m was reserved for the audience. The concert was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing. Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending the concert?

A. 2000

B. 5000

C. 20000

D. 50000

E. 100000

I think this is a bad question and not just because I got it wrong. I said 5,000. The answer is 20,000. I don't see why deciding four people, not one, would fit better in a square meter is a sign of math literacy.

This might fly for the lede in a column attacking the validity of standardized testing in general, e.g., "See how this discriminates against students from small remote towns without television reception, the Amish, and agoraphobics," but Mathews and Loveless's argument that this is an example of the specific flaws in PIAS is ridiculous. Understanding how big a square meter is is important and non-trivial. It is sufficiently non-trivial that Mathews doesn't even know he doesn't understand it.

If Loveless wants to argue it is an ill-chosen question because "I think it would throw kids off," then can we apply that criterion to every distractor in every other multiple choice test ever written?

Anyhow, if anyone can find a picture of a sold out outdoor rock concert with people spaced standing one per square meter, I'd like to see it.

They continue:

A key failing of PISA, Loveless said, is that "it does not measure what kids have learned in school." Why not? Because PISA exams are written by the losing side in a century-old debate over how to teach math. For convenience, call the pro-PISA people progressives and the anti-PISA people traditionalists. Loveless is a traditionalist but appreciates the arguments on both sides. The progressives want to make math instruction more relevant to the real world and emphasize mathematical reasoning more than calculation.

"The losing side?" According to whom? But beyond that, the argument against "progressive" math isn't that it is differently successful, but that it is a failure. Why shouldn't "traditionally" taught students know how big a square meter is?

And this is just a non-sequitur:

"(Traditionalists) dislike their approach being dismissed as "shopkeeper math," Loveless said, "like it was old-fashioned to try to compute anything."

First off, according to Google, progressives don't actually throw around the term "shopkeeper math" very much, and even then use it descriptively, not dismissively. More importantly, nobody believes teaching "shopkeeper math" to fifteen year olds is sufficient. We teach algebra today people! College or bust! What planet did Loveless beam down from?

Finally, they pull out this hobby horse:

Conservative politicians who decry how bad the test makes us look should be careful, as the attitudinal parts of PISA lean left. On PISA's student questionnaire, those who support statements such as "I am in favor of having laws that regulate factory emissions even if this would increase the price of products" are deemed to be environmentally responsible. Students who disagree are not.

OK, what is the argument that no regulation of factory emissions is environmentally responsible? It seems to me that there is a clear global consensus based on science and history that some regulation of pollution is responsible and necessary. If you read that and think "I am not in favor of more regulation." Or "I am in favor of less regulation," and then you chose "no," you didn't read the question carefully enough. You only answer "no" if you are against all regulation of factory emission, a position which is manifestly environmentally irresponsible. If someone wants to make the argument that eliminating all regulation of air, water, and other effluent pollution from factories is an environmentally responsible position, I'd be happy to hear it.

Now, you can argue that the plain reading of that question is not obvious to you. Fine. Can we apply the same jaundiced lens the the standardized tests you prefer?

All I know is this, someday my daughters will be standing in a field, watching a sold out rock concert, standing at a much smaller density than one person per square meter, and at that time I hope they are not standing on a toxic waste dump, breathing lead and mercury laden particles in a 110 degree summer day in New England.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Maybe the Problem is that Fordham's Rankings are Ideologically-Driven Garbage

Russ Whitehurst:

The lack of a systematic relationship is illustrated when reviewing the data for the “high” standards and the “low” standards states. Massachusetts, for instance, has high standards according to both the Fordham Foundation and the AFT and high NAEP scores. However, New Jersey has low quality content standards on both the Fordham Foundation and on the AFT scales, but scores comparably to Massachusetts on NAEP. Likewise, for gains in NAEP scores from 2000 to 2007, there is no systematic relationship between the “high” standards and the “low” standards states. California is given the highest Fordham Foundation rank and has high gains in NAEP scores. Arkansas, which receives a very low Fordham Foundation rank, has almost identical gains to California on NAEP from 2000 to 2007.

OSFA Ed Working Group

Open Source For America now has an education working group, headed by Mike Huffman, a perfect choice for the job.

The Best Book I've Ever Read on Management... Available Now!

In Tom Hoffman World, this is the book on management, particularly in government bureaucracy:

Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (Contributions in Military Studies)

Unfortunately, even with Amazon and the web it has been nearly impossible to find; now Praeger has put it back in print. I actually originally read this about 15 years ago it as a monograph that couldn't be checked out of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. The only problem is that now that I'll have a copy I'll have to try to write a review...

This review nails the thesis:

The "problem" with Creveld's work, of course, is not with his methodology, but with his conclusions. Creveld concludes that the "German army was a superb fighting organization. In point of morale, elan, unit cohesion, and resilience, it probably had no equal among twentieth century armies." He attributes this conclusion principally to that army's internal organization, which he sees as "creating and maintaining fighting power." His view of the German soldier also makes him a marked man among historians, for he opines that the landser was motivated not by Nazi ideology, but by the reasons that men have always fought: because the German soldier saw himself as a member of a well-integrated, well-led team whose structure, administration and functioning were perceived by him as being generally equitable and just. In his view "the German army …[developed] a single-minded concentration on the operational aspects of war to the detriment, not to say neglect, of everything else." It sent its best men to the front; "its organization was designed to produce and reward fighting men." This, in Creveld's opinion, was the secret of its fighting power. Creveld concedes that even by the standards of the U.S. army in World War II, and indeed "by modern and even contemporary standards", the German army was a crude organization. Some of the reasons for this were negative: innate conservatism, lack of interest in innovation, and outright adherence to Nazi ideology. On the other hand, this crudeness reflected a positive element, namely "a conscious determination to maintain at all costs that which was believed to be decisive to the conduct of war: mutual trust, a willingness to assume responsibility, and the right and duty of subordinate commanders at all levels to make independent decisions and carry them out." In short, Creveld concludes, the German army "was built around the needs, social and psychological, of the individual fighting man. The crucial, indeed decisive, importance of the latter was fully recognized; and the army's doctrine, command technique, organization, and administration were shaped accordingly."(56)

Consider this: what do we call "elan, unit cohesion, or resilience" in a school? Do we even have languguage for these concepts?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Incentivizing Finance

Nice threads following up Calvin Trillin in the Times yesterday on the effects of attracting too many smart people to Wall Steet.

But the bigger incentive problem may be—almost certainly is—the drain of talent from other fields, into finance. If there were more evidence that this drain was producing significant net benefits for the economy, than there would be less cause to worry. To an increasing number of people, it looks as though the financial sector is recruiting the nation's best brains and putting them to work endangering the global economy.

Of course, it also has an effect on all those statistics about the growing wage gap between more an less educated people -- smart, well-educated people aren't coincidentally getting rich through some neutral process -- we've allowed the financial sector to make them more rich, ripping the rest of us off.

James Kwak: corporations become increasingly dependent on complex technology or complex business processes (for example, the kind of data-driven marketing that consumer packaged companies do), you end up with CEOs who don’t understand the key aspects of the companies they are managing. And the underlying problem is that, for all the blather that CEOs and boards spit out about succession planning and the importance of people, the fact remains that the market for CEOs is deeply flawed, as shown for example by Rakesh Khurana.

We're importing this culture into educational administration as well now. Yay.

Aligning the Common Core to State Standards

At this point, I'm not betting on major changes or improvements to the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) for Reading, Writing and Speaking and Listening, nee English Language Arts, before the final version in January. What I do think will happen is that the final language for Race to the Top, or its official interpretation, will not require that states use those standards as "85%" of their English Language Arts standards. Certainly the fact that the CCSSI stopped calling them English Language Arts standards points in that direction.

Also, I can't imagine many states actually going through with discarding their existing standards for the CCSSI turds. There are a few states that still have genuinely badly conceived and executed standards; they're just failed bureaucratic documents. It happens. But I've looked at various state standards over the past week, including Massachusetts', Ohio's, Indiana's and the shared New England standards Rhode Island uses, and I don't see how anyone could sustain an argument that they are "higher" or more rigorous than the current model in those states. Granted, there is a certain "revision is for pussies" crowd that will prefer them, but beyond that fringe, who?

What will probably happen is that the states will look at the CCSSI ELA standards and say "These are a subset of our standards," declare them "aligned" and leave it at that. This will serve as a green light for a national test based on the CCSSI standards, without directly collapsing everyone's actual English standards and curriculum. Of course, there will be the same effect indirectly, via the eventual test.

The Proprietary Learning Sciences

I just skimmed through three National Academy commissioned papers on "Bringing Game-Based Learning To Scale: The Business Challenges Of Serious Games," and not only did none of them have what I'd regard as a plausible strategy for bringing commercial games to schools, I didn't see a single mention of open source methodologies or distribution channels.

Where All That Race to the Top Money is Really Going to End Up

Tim Bray at Oracle Open World:

Legacy · I also asked people about pain points, and they were all over the map, but one did stick out: dealing with legacy. The fact is that companies grow in messy non-linear unpredictable ways, and this almost inevitably leaves behind a messy non-linear inventory of business-critical infrastructure and apps.

Michael Dell in particular hammered away on this in his keynote, and based on what I heard he’s got a point; there’s nothing these people would like better than to get their houses retroactively in order.

The problem is, there’s just no easy way. If you could wave a wand and accomplish it by force of management will, we’d be there by now. I already believed that legacy migration is an area full of great big honking business opportunities, and after this conference, I think I may have been underestimating.

I was struck by the variety of technologies that got the “legacy” label pinned on them. This included COBOL, C++, WebSphere (!?), and back versions of various Oracle products.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ugly Truth

Dave Winer:

But the netbook is not just a new product. It exposes something pretty ugly about the computer industry. They've been controlling prices. There must have been price collusion before netbooks came out. It's clearly possible to build notebooks for much less than they manufacturers are charging...

(Michael Dell)'s complaining about netbooks probably because his expense structure can't sustain the business. He's a leading vendor of netbooks, yet is selling against them. This means only one thing, and it's kind of obvious -- he's losing money on each sale. He can't afford to be in the business. Which means he can't afford to be in business at all.


This is what happens to your membership numbers when you go to war with Ushra'Khan:

Dana Goldstein to leave The American Prospect

I can't think of another national education journalist who regularly focused on segregation (I'm probably forgetting someone). Now she's leaving the education beat. We cannot afford this.

No-Criterion Based Hiring

Steve Smith:

The Providence Teachers Union (PTU) opposes the administration’s Criterion-Based Hiring (CBH) system, not because we are opposed to criteria, but because there are no criteria. As a result, teachers have experienced numerous inequities and injustices while seeking employment under CBH:

In one instance, a National Board certified teacher with 19 years of experience in Providence and excellent evaluations was deemed less suitable for a position than another candidate, a teacher without any experience who had only recently graduated from college. Under CBH, highly qualified middle-school teachers were denied the opportunity to interview for positions at the new Bishop Middle School and Perry Middle School. The interview system is flawed and inconsistent, allowing some candidates to interview by phone, while others are asked to give 40-minute PowerPoint presentations. These are just a few examples highlighting the flaws of CBH.

CBH was supposed to provide stability within the district. This has not been the case. There are currently over 70 positions with temporarily assigned teachers. Most of these positions have been posted numerous times. The Providence School District simply cannot handle the volume for six schools. What will happen next year, when this program is expanded to all 50 schools?

Teacher interviews and participation in school reform are not new to the Providence school system. We have an opportunity to build on the progress made under former Supt. Melody Johnson, who was able to bring staff stability and effective reforms to several low-performing schools — Hope High School, Perry Middle School, and Textron and Times2 charter schools. We created site-based schools where teachers had to be interviewed and played an active role in designing programs to improve student achievement. Dr. Johnson recognized that the best way to fix a school is to work with the classroom teachers who ultimately would have to implement the education-reform ideas. The proof is in the pudding — all of the schools made significant gains in student attendance and test scores.

Ed in the Apple does an excellent job of explaining a parallel phenomenon in NYC:

A problem with the Klein-Ouchi model is the chimera, the illusion of the “bad, old centralized” bureaucracy versus the sleek, new decentralized school system. By my calculation, under the “old” system, 85-90% of teachers were hired by principals or school-based SBO committees, not assigned by the bureaucracy or by the union transfer plan. The thirty-two school districts varied greatly as far as central office controls over curricula. As far as budgets are concerned principals have “controlled their budgets” for as long as I can remember. There aren’t too many choices!! Over 90% of a school’s budget is used to pay teachers.

In reality Ouchi has been used as “cover” for a school management system that is more controlling then any in memory.

Closing Schools and Restaurants

You should thank me for not sharing with you all the trite restaurant/school turnaround metaphors I have generated watching Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (side note: BBC Ramsay is hilarious; Fox Ramsay is an asshole.).

You're welcome.

Anyhow, restaurants close with great frequency, particularly bad ones, sometimes ones that serve good food but don't manage the books, marketing, etc. well close too. This improves the aggregate quality of restaurants somewhat, but not so much to create an endlessly upwardly spiraling cycle of awesome sauce. Keep that in mind when considering the virtues of simply closing more schools more quickly. There are still plenty of towns and 'burbs in America where you can't find a decent, reasonably healthy restaurant, despite a century of merciless knife-point competition.

National Writing Project? Hello?

I don't see anything on the National Writing Project's website encouraging its members to comment on the proposed Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. Considering that the proposed standards are about as hostile to the Writing Project's agenda as they could possibly be without dropping writing from the curriculum altogether, this might be a problem for them.

MakerBeam for Schools


MakerBeam is a project to build a toy and tool for the open source imagination. Based on Mini-T, a new open source standard, MakerBeam will develop a construction toy for our times: open source precision hardware equally at home doing desktop fabrication or serving as a drawbridged castle for action figures.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for schools to transition to open source hardware for relevant activities like robotics programs. Competition to provide interoperable components will drive down prices and raise quality compared to proprietary systems. Heck, schools will be able to increasingly fabricate parts themselves. But it will take a while. Ten years (btw, that's ten years in part because there are real transition costs, especially when you've got money tied up in physical components).

Via Evil Mad Scientist Labs.

Modern School Movement Week at AERO


On October 13th, 1909 in Barcelona Francisco Ferrer was executed by orders from the King of Spain on charges of Sedition... We will be commemorating this anniversary by posting our entire collection of Modern School related videos for free online viewing all week long! This includes interviews with long-time members and reunions. The first video is, “Nellie Dick and the Modern School Movement.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't Tinker with AYP -- Fix it or Get Rid of It

I'm strongly with Russo on this one: fixing or killing the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress -- AYP -- is central to fixing or killing NCLB. Ignoring, tweaking or otherwise fiddling with AYP in advance of actually passing and signing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act is a terrible idea. It would preempt and confuse the entire discussion (which is perhaps the idea).

The other (bad) motivation for this is to make it easier to reward cities and states that the Feds believe are doing the right thing, despite the fact that they are objectively failing under the terms of NCLB. Otherwise, AYP limits their capacity to pass out money to their friends, allies, and business associates.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Perpetuating the Myth

Chris Lehmann:

But the bigger question is -- why does the media insist on perpetuating this storyline? Let's take the KIPP schools as an example... there is now enough evidence to suggest that KIPP schools have a high level of attrition... and while there doesn't yet seem to be research to define exactly why that is happening, we can assume that not every student who left KIPP or Ginn Academy (or SLA, for that matter) left because their families moved... some students left because they weren't having success.

How different would the current educational conversation be if the KIPP folks said, "Yes... in some of our schools, 25-40% of the families choose to leave KIPP, but KIPP isn't for everyone, and for the students who stay, we do right by them?" What if these schools admitted that it would be much harder to have the success they have if they didn't have the traditional schools to send kids back to when it didn't work out? What if these schools admitted they didn't have all the answers, and instead had to admit that, yes, they do amazing things for many students, but they haven't figured out how to get to a significant percentage of their population, despite Herculean efforts?

Why isn't that the dialogue right now? Because it's not as easy to raise millions of dollars on "We're figuring it out too?" But that would only explain one piece of that puzzle... why is it that Jay Matthews, the New York Times, the Education Empowerment Project, the US DoE and so many others so willing to promote a myth?

Because it is easier... because if we could only believe that we could solve all the problems of educating students in poverty with charismatic school leaders and hard working teachers... and that all the kids who don't get the education they need are simply being underserved by those lazy teachers... that would absolve our society for not being more just, more equitable, more fair. We could point to those schools that succeed against all odds and say, "See... if they do it, every school should be able to do it." It is a myth that keeps us from really understanding what is necessary to solve the problems for the children of our cities. It is the myth of the schools that have solved the problems.

Recent Articles from Kaplan Test Prep Daily


"In the U.S., frequently students are trying to figure out what is in the teacher's mind. What answer is the teacher looking for?" said Patsy Wang-Iverson, a consultant who has studied and written about the Japanese method for a decade and who now acts as the Reed teachers' mentor. "In Japan, teachers are trying to figure out what is in the student's mind -- how they're thinking, what they're thinking and the source of their misunderstanding."

The proposed Common Core Standards for English are an extreme manifestation of the "American" point of view described above. They are entirely and unabashedly about "what is the teacher (or, more precisely, temp working scoring a standardized test) looking for."

If you compare the Common Core standards with well regarded (by conservatives!) Massachusetts Curriculum Framework (as I did yesterday), the biggest conceptual difference is the use of the word "understand." The Massachusetts standards see understanding by the student as the ultimate goal. The Common Core Standards discard the concept of "understanding" almost completely.

Put another way, the Common Core Math Standards are divided into "concepts" and "skills." In English, it is skills only.


So far, there has been no uproar about texts included in (or omitted from) the standards experts proposed last month at the behest of the nation's governors and state school chiefs. That's by design. A full-blown great works debate could scuttle what is a difficult mission: to craft academic standards that can be accepted nationwide without leaving the impression that states and school boards have ceded control of what is taught.

A "great works debate" was never even slightly in the cards. None of the standards currently used by any of the states prescribe texts, at this level of detail -- graduation standards, essentially -- I haven't found one anywhere in the world yet that describes specific texts. Even if you wanted to, what grade levels would you include? All of them? High school? Senior year?

Also, these are "college- and career- ready standards." We know there is no consensus among college English faculty about a canon, and we know there is no canon for starting a career.

It would be nice if someone would write an article about the fact that there are only two kinds of writing in these standards: informative and argument. You'd think someone who makes their living writing would find that a bit odd.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"the Obama administration's commitment to lessening school segregation is no commitment at all"

Dana Goldstein:

So far, the Obama administration's commitment to lessening school segregation is no commitment at all -- it's just talk. And by the way, it's not "many" American kids who are segregated, it's nearly half. Forty percent of black children, for example, sit each day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black.

It is shameful.

The Tradeoff


All of which is just to emphasize a point I’ve been making a lot over the past few months: there’s no way to have a progressive renaissance in the United States unless progressives find some politically feasible way of directly making the case that higher taxes for better services can be a good trade. And it’s worth trying to be honest about this. The other American journalists I’m traveling with, all lefty environmentalist types, can’t stop complaining about how expensive basic consumer goods are here. And it’s true, stuff’s expensive! But college and preschool and doctors and hospitals are all free, and the carbon emissions are low. This is, I think, a good trade but it really is a trade. Low taxes plus cheap dirty energy and large numbers of poor people will give you cheaper restaurants.

Fordham Grades on a Curve

Fordham and I have very different conceptions of the discipline of English, so it is not surprising that I disagree with their criteria for evaluating English standards, and I won't belabor the specifics now. However, I would note that their actual commentary on the draft Common Core Standards for English is consistently and uniformly negative, despite periodic injections of half-hearted praise like "Overall, the content and rigor of most of the core standards is reasonable (within the limits described above) but..." Nonetheless, Fordham gives the standards a "B." What a sham.

I'd also note that in the one place where the text of a CCSSO standard is directly compared to that of a standard from a well-regarded US state document, the results are as devastating as the many examples I've shown on this blog. They notably take the step of not comparing the Common Core Standards as a whole to the standards of other states or countries, but to the frameworks for tests: NAEP, PISA and TIMSS. This lets them slide out of an apples to apples comparison with a high quality standards document like those from Indiana or Ottawa, which the Common Core Standards simply can't stand up to (or to point out that high-achieving countries don't have standards anything like what Fordham advocates for).

Neither of these things are True


Known as the “Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI),” the goal of this state-led initiative is to develop common standards in reading/writing/listening/speaking and mathematics for grades K-12.


The National Governors Association (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) convened a state-led process to develop common core state standards in English language arts and mathematics.

They produced reading/writing/listening/speaking standards, but that is not the goal of the initiative.


In mid-September, CCSSI released a “public draft” of end-of-high-school standards in those two subjects, and asked for comments within thirty days. Further revisions will doubtless follow. Meanwhile, drafting teams are beginning to “backward map” the standards down through earlier grades.

Nowhere are these referred to as "end-of-high-school standards. They are "college- and career-readiness" standards. Whatever that means.

Feelings, but only the Right Kind of Feelings


The (Common Core Standards) are also to be commended for not falling prey to spurious postmodern theories that disavow close reading and encourage interpretations of a text based solely on how it makes the reader feel...

Proper standards for English must also provide enough content guidance to help teachers instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage.

What a bunch of tools.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

He LOLed.

Pete Rock emailed me:

I'm doing an IBO workshop this weekend and while I'm sitting here going through materials for my own class, I figured I'd search the site for English Higher Level standards. They list these as "Aims & Objectives"

I read the first one:

AIMS: The aims of the Language A1 programme at both Higher and Standard Levels are to:

  • encourage a personal appreciation of literature and develop an understanding of the techniques involved in literary criticism

And replied:

Yeah... it is conventional wisdom in public school reform circles here that IB is good and rigorous, but also that standards like "encourage a personal appreciation of literature" are bad.

And that being able to find logical contradictions in arguments is important. ;-)

The Plan, Apparently

Amber Winkler:

... I just wanted to highlight an issue raised in the panel titled, “Current Efforts to Create National Standards.” Gene Wilhoit, executive director of CCSSO and Michael Cohen, President of Achieve, discussed the Common Core Standards in a panel moderated by Fordham President Chester Finn. Checker asked if they thought the assessments that will presumably be developed and eventually tied to the “college-and-career ready” standards would specify “cut scores.”  Wilhoit said yes; in fact, he thinks the whole endeavor will lose credibility if the assessment fails to do so. Then Cohen chimed in and said that there’s a possibility that states could set a “graduating bar” and a “college-ready bar” at least at the beginning. Both felt that if a state decided to grant a diploma to a student who had not met a certain standard, they ought to “note that.”

Achieve's Role in the Common Core Standards Initiative

One of the many peculiar things about the draft Common Core Standards Initiative is Achieve's role. From their website:

Created in 1996 by the nation's governors and corporate leaders, Achieve is an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. that helps states raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments and strengthen accountability.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this organization's entire history and mission has been building up to this moment, meticulously building up political support year over year until finally there is serious momentum toward adoption of a common set of academic standards and graduation requirements. They are the presumptive leader in the field of standards analysis and alignment in the country, by default if nothing else.

And yet, I wouldn't be surprised if the draft Common Core Standards in English Language Arts is the worst document of any kind that they have released in their 13 years of existence. I can tell you one thing, it is obviously worse than their work on the American Diploma Project standards. The Common Core standards are lower, narrower, more poorly written, organized and explained. The Common Core Standards are dramatically inferior to those of Indiana, Massachusetts and Texas, partners in the American Diploma Project.

Why blow it now? I do not know. I am afraid that many actors who have been pushing for national standards for years will finally just close their eyes and hold their nose when confronted with the actual draft standards, because when the final goal is so close, who wants to hold it up by pointing out what a load of crap the document really is.

Eating Good Enough, and Well

My cooking development is about five years behind Mark Bernstein's but we're walking the same path, particularly:

  • For the price of takeout, you can splurge on ingredients almost every day and still wind up way ahead.
  • OK, doc. Steak, and buttery biscuits, and bacon in the turnips, and more butter in the tart crust. And wine. It’s still healthier than fast food. Even out the strain. Tomorrow you can grill some fish, and worry about the mercury instead.

At this point, however, the most I can handle most nights is one good dish combined with two other things courtesy of my friend Trader Joe.

"Middle Skills"

RI Future:

A fantastic report was released today by The Workforce Alliance (as part of its national Skills2Compete Campaign) called “Rhode Island’s Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs.”  As you can guess, the report tells a good story about what we need to do as a state in order to grow our economy, and it discusses the importance of cultivating a workforce with the appropriate skill set to meet the current and future demands for specific types of labor.  Much of the data comes from the U.S. Census, the state’s Department of Labor and Training, and from The Poverty Institute.

In Rhode Island, we have a large demand for middle-skill jobs: these are jobs with more than a high school education, but less than a Bachelor’s degree.  47% of future job growth (the largest share of future jobs in Rhode Island) will be jobs requiring these middle-skills.  These jobs are within health and life sciences, consumer product design and manufacturing, hospitality and tourism, marine related industries, defense electronics, and biotech.

This is the real workplace preparedness problem, one which is not helped by a blanket appeal to send all kids to "college." Responsible people will, when pressed, explain that by "college" they don't really necessarily mean "college," particularly a bachelor's degree, but it isn't helpful rhetoric. This is one case where a new term -- "middle skills" -- might clarify the situation and lead to a more honest and substantive discussion.

"Turning Around" is Not Sufficient

Larry Cuban:

The first dirty secret is that even in those few schools that end up as success stories: Turned around schools often do not stay turned around. There are, indeed, magical moments when people, resources, outside expertise, and community coalesce neatly to handcraft a successful school; yet these schools, be they charters or neighborhood schools, seldom stay together for more than a few years and, either slowly or swiftly, disintegrate and resume their prior dismal state. Stability in academic performance–five or more years–in schools defined as “effective,” “successful,” or whatever label is attached to them are simply hard to sustain. Successful schools, however defined, are fragile inventions that easily fall apart when school leaders transfer, key teachers depart or no longer collaborate, community activists lose interest or a dozen other changes occur including shifting the measures of achievement.