Monday, February 15, 2016

Another Laudable Goal and Mismatched Policy

Both Arne Duncan and his successor, John King, seem to pursue laudable goals, but in ways that not only fail to create progress toward those goals but in many cases actually undermine the achievement of those goals.  Recently, King announced a new initiative intended to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools.  (See also the Huffington Post article on the topic.)  The format of this new initiative?  A competitive grant program, providing funds for community efforts at increasing socioeconomic diversity in local schools.

My frustration around this program is two-fold: funding things through competitive grants is a wonderful way to waste resources and a lousy way to fund anything; but, more important, the best way to accomplish this goal would be to reverse the policies of the past few years that have fostered increasing segregation in the schools.

 First of all, policies that encourage the creation of charter schools have contributed significantly to the increasing segregation in schooling.  There is quite a bit of evidence that charter schools foster increased segregation, both racial and socio-economic.  See here, and here, for example.  When you think about how charter schools operate, and why they are popular with many parents, this makes sense.  At a very basic level, charter schools do not generally enroll students with parents who have difficulty organizing themselves to apply for their children, whether because they are hampered by substance abuse or other issues, because they are working many jobs just to stay afloat and have little time left over to investigate schools and complete the application process, or because they are homeless and just barely managing to survive.  Thus, although in some locales charter schools enroll substantial percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, they generally tend to not enroll the very poorest of the poor.  Charter schools also manage to have fewer students with behavioral issues and fewer students with severe learning disabilities. (I have personal knowledge of an incident in which charter school administrators told parents that they would not pursue further discipline if the parents withdrew the child, and another in which charter school administrators told parents of a child with special needs that the child was welcome to enroll but they simply did not provide the services he needed.)  As a result of these policies, and as a result of the loss of funding due to the charter, the local public schools end up with a greater percentage of very poor students and students who are more difficult to educate, as well as less funding to work with.  This result then causes some of the remaining parents in the public schools who are financially able to do so to seek out other alternatives for their children, further reducing diversity.

Second, the test-and-punish policies favored by the current administration also operate in much the same way by reducing funding and closing schools primarily in the most poverty-stricken areas, once again causing parents who have the ability to do so to seek out other alternatives for their children, while leaving those who do not have that ability, either because of personal issues or financial issues, behind in increasingly non-diverse and resource-poor schools.

The goal of this new initiative is very important -- substantial research demonstrates the negative effects of socioeconomic segregation on student achievement.  See, for example, this article regarding student achievement in high- and low-poverty schools in Maine.  Especially noteworthy are the findings that the single best predictor of student performance is school poverty level, and that low-poverty students do not perform as well in high-poverty schools as low-poverty students do in lower poverty schools.

So -- once again, a laudable and very important goal.  But is a competitive grant the best way to solve the problem? Or is it simply a way to avoid analyzing and facing the real factors involved, and yet be able to claim that they are doing something to tackle the problem?  My recommendation for increasing economic diversity in schools doesn't involve soundbites and is not easy to implement -- it would be to develop effective policies to eliminate housing segregation, tackle the increasing income inequality in our country, phase out charter schools other than those that enroll the poorest of the poor and the most difficult students to educate, and support neighborhood public schools for all students.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is "Exemplary?" A Distinction Without A Difference

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released its report on educator evaluation ratings from school year 2014-15.  To my delight, there are still a number of schools and districts where there were no teachers rated exemplary.  To my disappointment, though, many schools and districts do have teachers rated exemplary.

So. . .  why should anyone be delighted about schools and districts with no exemplary teachers?  Notice that I didn't say that those schools and districts HAD no exemplary teachers, just that they had no teachers rated exemplary.  I'm sure those schools and districts do indeed have many exemplary teachers.  Since one of them is my former district, I know that there are many exemplary teachers in that district, in all schools.

What I'm delighted about is that some districts and schools are refusing to play the damaging ratings game in which the DESE wants schools to engage. As in other professions, the process of evaluation is complex.  There really is no such thing as a perfect teacher (or a perfect lawyer, a perfect doctor. . .).  There are many excellent teachers, but as with all people, each has his/her own strengths and weaknesses.  In many school systems, particularly the affluent ones, there are many more excellent teachers than the DESE would be comfortable with having labeled "exemplary."  (Although in published FAQs, the DESE has stated that there is no particular percentage quota or limit for the designation, other communications have implied that the expected percentage is somewhere in the single digits.)  In contrast, in my former school, I would estimate that at least 80% of the faculty are "excellent" teachers -- all human, of course, with different strengths and weaknesses, as we all are.  I would imagine that this is true in most schools and districts.

For the vast majority of teachers who are excellent teachers in most respects, with some weaknesses, splitting hairs and designating some as "exemplary" and the rest as merely "proficient" has no useful purpose.  What could possibly be a good result of this practice?  Creating divisiveness and competition where collaboration is most important? Isn't it far better to acknowledge each person's strengths and excellent skills while helping each improve his/her weaknesses?  (Note that no one is perfect.)  Thus, as an evaluator I only used three categories -- "proficient," "needs improvement," and "unsatisfactory," while complimenting individual excellences and helping with individual weaknesses -- and I am glad to see from the DESE report that there are at least some schools and districts that appear to be doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, I would caution anyone from coming to any general conclusions from the numbers of "exemplary" teachers.  These numbers amount to an artificial distinction and are not any sort of valid measurement of the excellent teachers in any particular school or district.