Saturday, December 26, 2015

Charter Schools - Data Show Different Enrollment From District Schools

I recently read in Commonwealth Magazine an excellent article analyzing the data that show who enrolls, and who remains, in charter schools.  Every article that trumpets a charter school's success should also include an analysis of that school's enrollment as compared to the local district.  As pointed out in this article, students without learning disabilities tend to do better than students with learning disabilities, students who are fluent in English tend to do better than students who are not proficient in English, etc.  Not mentioned in the article, but implied, is that students without behavioral issues tend to do better than students with behavioral challenges.  Charter schools that have fewer students with learning disabilities, fewer English language learners, and fewer behaviorally challenged students will obviously have better test scores. If we as a society want that -- schools that provide a good education for less challenged students, while leaving the public schools with a more challenging population -- that's one thing, but full disclosure should be made, and the choice should be clear.

Check out the article at this link --

Monday, December 21, 2015

Competition Reduces Performance of Teams

Excellent new book -- Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, by Geoff Colvin -- with a fascinating analysis of the increasing capabilities of computers, including even creativity, and a great discussion of what capabilities are likely to stay entirely human.

Regarding new "education reform" policies like merit pay, ranking of teachers, and encouragement of competition in general, it's interesting and instructive to consider Colvin's analysis of the research:

"Competing for status poisoned a group's effectiveness regardless of gender composition. . . More ideas and better judgments -- those are what make groups effective.  But when group members can compete for status, the female advantage [in terms of social sensitivity and ability to develop productive relationships that increase a group's collective intelligence], at least in creating collective intelligence,, gets shut down. . .  In real-world settings, group incentives thus become crucially important. . . whether it actually happens [group composition leading to effectiveness] depends on whether group members are given incentives to try to outdo one another.  Not even ancient, inherent strengths can survive bad management." 

It's been shown time and again that schools are more effective when educators work collaboratively, and there is no research indicating that competition among teachers increases effectiveness.  Yet again another "reform" based only on the unsupported beliefs of a few powerful people.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Charter Schools and Student Behavioral Issues

The DESE just published school discipline statistics for last year.  I find it interesting that 25 of the top 30, in terms of most students suspended out of school, are charter schools.  And the top 17 are all charters -- you can check it out by going to the chart ( and sort by percentage of out-of-school suspensions.

It's frequently said that charter schools have ways of causing students with disruptive behaviors to leave, and I have personally experienced a couple of examples of this.  Some years ago, the head of a charter school consulted me about a particular discipline issue.  I gave him my advice, and a couple weeks later, asked him how it had worked out.  He said, "Oh, we just told the parents that we wouldn't pursue it further if they withdrew him and returned him to the regular public schools."

It appears that more frequent use of out-of-school suspensions may also lead to the same result.  Of course, excluding students with difficult behaviors is one of the reasons charter schools are so popular with parents.  And it's difficult to know exactly how to hold charter schools accountable in this area -- if a child is disruptive, and frequently suspended, and parents return him/her to the regular public schools, probably also requesting an evaluation for special needs, that appears to just be parent choice.  In order to have a level playing field, though, the child would have to be required to stay at the charter, and the charter assume the expense of special services if that's what's needed. But that flies in the face of the concept of parent choice. . .

Sunday, November 29, 2015

$2.00 a Day - How Does Poverty Enter Into the Equation?

I just finished reading an excellent book -- $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer.  This eye-opening book provides a picture of the lives of those Americans living on "almost nothing" -- and records the tremendous increase in their numbers since welfare "reform" in 1996.  The descriptions of the lives of the children impacted by poverty are particularly gripping.  It's impossible to read this book and think that all the problems these children have will be solved if we simply "raise the bar" with standardized tests and increase the stakes associated with test results.  How can "raising the bar" help children living in shelters, or who go hungry most nights, or who are abused, or who live in continual chaos? There is a wonderful example in the book of a teacher (a dedicated TFA intern!) who makes a difference in the lives of one student and her family -- not by demanding more, "raising the bar," imposing more "rigorous" requirements on homework, but by helping the family with medical and dental care, clothing, and the like.

Welfare "reform" in 1996 appears to have succeeded in providing more assistance to low-income working people through the means of the "earned income tax credit" but ended up missing the other half of the plan -- providing access to jobs for people who need them.  (It could also be that the EITC actually functions as a subsidy for employers, allowing the continuation of very low wages rather than requiring a livable minimum wage -- the authors point out that there is no state in the country in which a person working full-time at the minimum wage can afford a market rate two-bedroom apartment.)

If we truly want to make a difference for this generation of children, and as a corollary improve the United States' performance on international standardized tests (whether or not that's an important goal, it's clear that many think it is), we need to change their life circumstances and make it possible for them to focus on learning. In comparing the U.S. with other developed countries, the worst statistic is that according to the OECD the U.S. poverty rate is the "highest in the developed world." We should be determined to change that, and invest in doing so. Rather than arguing about such matters as whether 2% of instructional time is the "right" amount of testing, or how to measure that, our representatives could be spending their time working on improving the life situations of children living in poverty.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How Much Testing Is Too Much?? (Hint: It's More Than the Actual Test-Taking Time)

Arrrgggh -- it's been a long time since I've posted -- too many other projects going on, I guess.  Meanwhile, limiting the time allotted to standardized testing has become a popular topic. Even the politicians are supporting test-taking limits, at least if those limits don't impact whatever "reforms" they support. (See the federal government's "Testing Action Plan," which proposes a 2% limit on classroom time spent on testing, and agrees to provide flexibility -- but in areas other than those that are federally mandated.)

I agree that there is too much testing, and way too much emphasis on standardized tests as a measure of how students are doing, how teachers are doing, and how schools are doing.  But -- will simply enacting a law, as New York has done, limiting testing to 2% of instructional time, solve the problem if everything else stays intact, or will it simply add yet another piece of paperwork as school administrators have to calculate testing time and undoubtedly submit a report to prove compliance with the new law?

First of all, how is this going to be calculated? And which tests are going to be included? (And what research supports the 2% figure as the correct one, anyway?  But that's another topic.) Reading the federal "Testing Action Plan," it appears that the limit applies only to the actual time students spend taking the tests and only to state and local "standardized" tests.  The plan includes an offer to schools of flexibility in areas other than federally mandated testing, and nothing that in any way indicates that less weight is going to be placed on the results of testing in evaluating teachers and schools.

Let's take the time issue first.  How will the actual classroom test-taking time be measured?  In Massachusetts, there are at least three different ways of measuring actual test-taking time -- (1) the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's estimate of how long each test session takes, (2) the DESE's recommendation for principals in scheduling the test-taking time, and (3) the time it actually takes students to take the tests.  Not surprisingly, these three measurements are quite different.  For example, the MCAS 4th grade "long composition" test consists of two test sessions.  The DESE characterizes these as 45-minute sessions, but in its 150-page instruction manual for principals recommends scheduling 2 hours for each session.  Furthermore, in practice, these two sessions generally take 4th graders most or all of the school day to complete.  In our school, starting at 8:15, most of the 4th graders were finished by the time a late lunch was served at 1:15 or 1:30, but a significant percentage worked through their lunch and finished only at the end of the school day at 2:25.  Thus, the two sessions actually took close to 5 hours for most students, and 6 for many.  (In fact, the DESE seems to anticipate this length -- the instruction manual includes directions for principals about how to maintain security for students who need to work through lunch, as well as a recently-added permission for students to continue working for a short period of time after the end of the school day as long as arrangements are made for them to be picked up and taken home!)

My guess is that in calculating the 2%, the number that will be included is the stated 45 minutes per test session. 

The second issue, of course, is that the impact on instruction is far more than the testing time for those students taking the tests.  In addition to those students actually testing, the other students in the school are also affected by the testing.  First, students who have finished testing cannot be immediately involved in classroom instruction as long as their teachers are still proctoring testing.  Second, because many students require testing accommodations, most specialist teachers and many teachers in the other grades are involved in proctoring the tests, thus impacting the non-tested students.  (There is no provision for any funding for schools for extra staffing in order to complete the testing and, in fact, there is a prohibition on having anyone other than school department employees do the testing.  It would be possible to hire substitute teachers to work with students who are not testing in order to have their teachers help with proctoring, but aside from the extra expense that's not the same as regular classroom instruction.) Finally, in most cases, the school schedule is significantly affected by scheduling time for testing, in order to schedule the testing at the best time of day and give students the best opportunity to do well on the tests.  That affects the quality of instruction for students in the whole school, both tested and non-tested students. In our school, with only two grades (4th and 5th) testing generally took 10 school days per year, not including time for make-up testing or any test preparation or any district or school level testing.  (Ten school days per year amounts to 5.5% of the school year. )  The problem is worse in schools with more grade levels involved in testing.  Last year, I looked at the spring testing schedule in another local middle school and counted 29 days on which the school schedule and instruction were impacted by testing. (29 days is 16% of the school year.)

As far as I can tell, the current proposal for a 2% limit on testing time will simply create another paperwork headache for principals, who will be required to calculate testing time, undoubtedly either simply using the stated time of 45 minutes/test session or with another 20 pages or so of instructions on how to calculate the actual time when students take anywhere from 1-3 hours per test session, and then will be required to notify parents and file an "action plan" if testing exceeds the limit.

What a great idea (NOT)!!!  Has anybody considered the alternative of allowing schools and districts to determine the amount and type of testing needed to provide sufficient information on student progress and achievement and report out that information to their communities???? Or, rather than enacting yet another supposed "quick fix" that will cause more problems that it solves, taking the time to review the impact of the legislation and regulations that already exist and developing a more appropriate long-term solution?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Rethinking Equity?

A couple of weeks ago at a concert I met an enthusiastic 7th grade trombonist.  During the intermission, our conversation moved beyond the excellent brass quintet we were listening to and his playing experience, and he began telling me about his school.  He explained that at his middle school students are divided into three teams -- the A team, the B team, and the C team -- and that the A team was for the kids who do well in school, the B team was for regular kids who don't work as hard, and the C team was for the kids who have trouble.  He had noticed that most of the kids in band are from the A team, but he wasn't sure why.  He also said that he mostly just knew kids on his team, and that he didn't see the others much.

He was enthusiastic and involved in his school and in band, and I didn't want to say anything to diminish that enthusiasm, so I just listened, but I found it easy to imagine the increasing stratification and inequity in his school.  As I listened to his description, it seemed to me that two different trends were converging to cause what I might call a "flight from equity" in this school. 

One trend is the proliferation of charter schools, and the tendency of charter schools to avoid students who are difficult to educate, whether that is because of learning disabilities, language issues, or behavioral concerns.  In this student's town there is a charter school whose name implies that only top students should apply (the "Advanced Math and Science Academy").  Most recently, according to the state department of education statistics (2014-15), this charter school has 0.1% English language learners (compared to 16.4% for the public schools in the same town), 3.6% students with disabilities (compared to 19.0% for the public schools), 9.6% "high needs" students (compared to 49.5% for the public schools), and 6.1% economically disadvantaged (compared to 25.2% for the public schools).  This charter school is obviously not working with the same population of students as the public schools, and I have heard from parents whose children attend this school that they like it because the school attracts "serious students" and does not have many students who are "behavior problems."  Meanwhile, of course, the student population of the town schools has become more heavily weighted toward students who do have learning or other difficulties, making it more difficult to have balanced classes and to succeed with all students.

Another trend is the increasing emphasis and consequences associated with standardized test scores.  One of the negative results of this emphasis is the tendency of many schools to reinstate "tracking," in an attempt to tailor instruction to the needs of different groups of students, in order to more effectively increase test scores.  Tracking is often supported by parents, particularly parents of high track students, who feel it will provide their children with advantages.  Listening to this student's description of the different "teams" in his school, which sound very much like "tracks," it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the school has this structure at least in part in response to parental concerns about the needs of the "serious students," as well as in a (well-meaning but misguided) attempt to give each group of students teaching geared toward their particular needs.  (As a former middle school principal with experience in scheduling, I wondered whether the students on the C team even could include band in their schedule or if their schedules were too full of remedial classes.)  Unfortunately, as Carol Burris has demonstrated so persuasively in her recent book, On the Same Track,  tracking like this just increases inequities and increases the achievement gap between different groups of students, because the lower tracks inevitably create a culture that inhibits learning.  (She also noted the National Research Council conclusion that "students should not be educated in low-track classes due to the overwhelmingly negative research regarding them." (Burris, 2014))  It seems to me that this town is well on its way, thanks to charter school policies and the pressures created by the current testing mania, to separate schooling for the "haves" and the "have nots."  Because of the charter school, the local students are split into two "tracks," one at the charter school, and one in the local public schools.  Because of pressure created by testing policies and parents, then, within the local public schools, students are further separated into three tracks, thus increasing inequity.

Burris noted, that supporters of school choice (such as charter schools) tend to think that a child's educational opportunity should depend on parental choices:
". . . Parents make good choices or bad choices as to where their children are educated, and children live with the consequences.  This is very different from the perspective that sees the providing of equality of opportunity for all students -- not only those in choice schools, but those left behind as well -- to be a public responsibility."

In my view, we should be responsible for all students and all students should have equal educational opportunities.  The research demonstrating the deleterious effects of tracking is extensive, and a system that tracks between schools (charter school and local public schools) and then again within the public schools is only exacerbating the problem of the achievement gap and making it impossible to succeed with all students.

If you haven't, read Carol Burris's book -- On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle Against Resegregation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).  I hope that many people will read it and join the fight to provide excellent and equal educational opportunities for all our children.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Who's Grading Those Standardized Tests Anyway?

Ever wonder who actually grades kids' essays on standardized tests like the MCAS or the PARCC?  If you care about education, you won't like the answer.

Check out this recent New York Times article on the topic --

And also this blog post about the article --

Even better, take the time to read Todd Farley's book, Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry about his experiences as a grader for these tests.  It's an interesting, if depressing, read -- and explains well how following a formula produces good scores and actual understanding and thoughtfulness may not.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Personal Learning vs. Personalized Learning

A great blog post in "The Answer Sheet," written by Alfie Kohn, about some of the "learning" materials being foisted on schools --

Here's the beginning of it, explaining the difference between "personal learning" and "personalized learning" --
"Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores.   It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week."
To read the rest of it, click here --

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Excellent New Book About Testing

I've just finished reading a new book about testing -- The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing -- But You Don't Have To Be, by Anya Kamenetz.  Although I would take issue with part of the book's title (schools and educators are having the testing mania foisted on them -- they are not naturally obsessed with testing), the book is well researched, interesting, and well worth reading.  Kamanetz does an excellent job of demonstrating the harm caused to children and schools by the current obsession with standardized testing, and also includes an excellent and enlightening history of standardized testing.  I was most surprised (and delighted), though, by the section of the book entitled "Measuring What Matters" in which Kamanetz describes four new trends in assessment; it made me feel there is hope for the future, and that it is possible that we may develop something better before the current trends destroy public education.  She also includes an excellent final section for parents with strategies that can help them minimize the harm to their children.  Anyway -- well worth reading, I think!