The current debate between business-minded reformers like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and their critics has often been set up as a fight over whether policymakers should tackle poverty or not as they attempt to improve student achievement.
Last week, Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Fordham Institute, usually found staunchly on the side of reformers who support charter schools and more accountability for schools and teachers, seemed to call for a truce. In a panel at the annual Education Writers Association conference at Stanford University (which I moderated), he suggested that No Excuses reformers were softening their schools-only approach.
The research both sides rely on—dating back to James Coleman’s famous federally-commissioned study on educational opportunity in the sixties—suggests that the largest factors affecting how a child performs in school have to do with his or her family circumstances. These out-of-school factors include parent education levels, poverty status, being part of a group that has faced discrimination, and neighborhood conditions, among other important but sociologically complex characteristics.
Schools have a smaller role to play, according to the research. But the current crop of reformers has insisted that with the right tools and strategies, schools might trump the disadvantages of poverty, minority-status, and less-educated parents. This belief in the power of good schools to disrupt the cycle of poverty has partly fueled the recent movement to overhaul the teaching profession so that the quality of teachers—the biggest factor impacting students inside schools—can be improved particularly for disadvantaged students.
Critics of this school-focused approach, including Diane Ravitch, the historian and former assistant U.S. secretary of education, have argued that schools should not be expected to go it alone. Rather, they argue, policymakers should devote more attention and resources to attacking the societal problems that set up children to fall behind their peers in the first place.
Previously, among the reformers, there was a concern that talking too much about the problems of poverty would allow schools to wash their hands of responsibility for their students’ success or failure. Now, Petrilli suggested, people on his side are taking a second look at this assumption.
“We need to stop having these extreme arguments, between ‘No excuses!’ on one side and ‘It’s all about poverty!’ on the other,” he wrote today in a blog post published on Education Week’s website. “Poverty matters immensely. Schools matter immensely. Let’s get on with addressing both.”
Don’t start the chorus of “Kumbaya” yet, however.
In a responding blog post, Diane Ravitch bristled at the suggestion that she did not believe schools matter.
“I do believe that the dramatic income inequality in this country burdens children, nearly a quarter of whom live in poverty. I do think it is a national scandal that our nation has a higher proportion of children in poverty (about 23%) than any other advanced nation,” she wrote. “But I have never said that schools can do nothing to improve the education of poor children until we redistribute income or raise the minimum wage, etc. I have said and written on many occasions that we must improve schools and improve the lives of children at the same time.”
It might seem that both sides are saying the same thing: To make a real difference in the lives of children who struggle to keep up with their more advantaged peers because of both outside circumstances that hold them back and low quality schools that don’t give them an extra hand to catch up, we should address both problems simultaneously.
But there are still many quibbles about both tone and the substance of what exactly should be done to get such a two-pronged strategy off the ground. In heated blog and email exchanges today, Petrilli, Ravitch and others on both sides of the debate argued about whether teaching disadvantaged children more vocabulary and providing a more enriched curriculum would make up for the educational experiences they lack at home, or whether a more sweeping effort to redistribute resources is critical for reducing the achievement gap for poor children.
There have been a few hints of common ground. Reformers like Petrilli and current D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson have talked lately about the importance of promoting more economic and racial diversity in schools—a subject also dear to advocates who argue more must be done to level the playing field outside of school walls. And Randi Weingarten, president of the second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has crossed battle lines to work with reformers on new teacher evaluations and launching the Common Core State Standards.
But should we expect an armistice in the education reform war in the near future? Maybe not.
The United Federation of Teachers wraps up an election today that will likely see the return of president Michael Mulgrew. It has been a difficult tenure, however.
Nationally, unions and many of the policies they support are under fire like never before from former allies in the Democratic Party as well as traditional political foes. Locally, Mulgrew has fought with Mayor Michael Bloomberg over school closings, charter schools and teacher evaluations.
Although Mulgrew will likely coast to victory, Cramer noted that there are still “a lot of teachers who are unhappy with how things have gone in the last couple of years.” Nevertheless, the union—the largest teachers union local in the country—will probably maintain its “enormous amount of influence” in the city as mayoral candidates vie for its support and endorsement.
For more about the sources of union’s influence and how it’s likely to wield power in the future, check out the link on SchoolBook for the interview in its entirety.
An ongoing argument raging across the country over whether student test score gains are a fair way to gauge a teacher’s skill has hit the courts.
In what may be among the first of many lawsuits over the new evaluations—which have been adopted by multiple states—the Florida teachers union is challenging the state’s use of test scores in decisions about which teachers are fired and which receive pay raises. The Florida Education Association argues the system violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses.
The debate over the new systems has often centered on the frequent errors in what’s known as value-added measurement, which can lead to effective teachers being misidentified as ineffective, and whether the potential problems for teachers outweigh the potential benefits for students.
A new paper published this week explores both sides.
Ratings for teachers based on test scores get it wrong a lot of the time. Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington-Bothell, and Susanna Loeb, of Stanford University, review previous research that finds about a quarter of teachers are likely to be misidentified as ineffective when they’re in fact effective using the test score measures.
“The error rates,” they write, “appear to be quite high.”
And yet, the researchers argue that using test scores to make high-stakes decisions about teachers’ jobs is actually a more accurate method than previous systems, which often depended on cursory classroom observations, pass rates on licensure tests, and degrees earned.
“Flawed as they are, value-added measures appear to be better predictors of student achievement than the teacher characteristics that we currently use,” the researchers write.
What to do? Goldhaber and Loeb, as researchers are wont to do, suggest more research. But they also lay out some of the trade-offs that policymakers (and now the courts) should consider.
Is firing some teachers who may not deserve to be fired worth it if it ensures more bad teachers leave the classroom and more students have the opportunity to sit in the classroom of a good teacher?
Will increasing accountability, especially if the systems are viewed as unfair, have the unintended effect of reducing collaboration among teachers and scaring away good candidates from the profession?
Will the new evaluations prompt schools of education and districts to better train teachers, or will the newly-identified struggling teachers still be left to flounder?
Finally, the researchers ask, “How will the system handle legal challenges?”
At issue in Florida are not the error rates, but the fact that teachers are receiving ratings based on test scores of students or subjects they don’t teach. “This lawsuit highlights the absurdity of the evaluation system,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, in a statement.
Goldhaber and Loeb argue that for the most part, courts will probably defer to states and districts on the new evaluations, recognizing “that value-added measures are intended to improve those systems.” But they also say that the outcome of lawsuits will depend on whether “the state or district can demonstrate that the evaluation system in question was thoughtfully designed and consistent with sound educational principles.”
“Ultimately,” the researchers conclude, “employment decisions need only be based on evaluation systems that are sufficiently valid, not perfect.”
Sarah Carr, a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, went on NBC’s Education Nation on Friday to talk about the radical changes to New Orleans’ school landscape since Katrina.
The city has a higher percentage of charter schools than any other since the flood. Education Nation traveled to New Orleans last week to see how the changes are playing out on the ground.
Carr’s panel focused on the rise in the number of teachers coming to the city through alternative programs like Teach For America and the need for holistic reforms that reach parents and the broader community.
As students choose their colleges for next year, Hechinger contributing editor Jon Marcus speaks on Here and Now about whether they can trust the information they receive from admissions offices.
Several have been caught misrepresenting test score and other information to improve the way they look to prospective students and rise up the college rankings. In the past year alone, six top colleges and universities have admitted falsifying information sent to the U.S. Department of Education, their own accrediting agencies, and U.S. News & World Report, whose college rankings remain the nation’s most prominent. Another was caught the year before.
For many of the schools, the misrepresentations had gone on for years. One law school has also been fined, another has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency, and 15 others have faced lawsuits for fraud, unfair competition, and false advertising for allegedly misreporting graduates’ job-placement rates.
Lawmakers in Mississippi passed legislation on Wednesday that will expand charter schools in the state, a victory for supporters who have made five attempts in five years to change the state’s current charter school law.
The bill would allow the publicly-funded, privately-run schools to open in low-performing districts, and would give school boards in high-performing districts the power to approve or veto charter applications in their area. A 2010 state law in Mississippi makes it possible for failing schools to be converted to charter schools if more than 50 percent of parents vote in favor of the conversion. Although schools were permitted to start converting in the 2012-13 school year, none of the 35 failing schools that are eligible ever made the attempt.
Charter schools have been a contentious topic in the state for years, igniting debates over race and poverty and creating sharp divides amongst lawmakers. While supporters say increased school choice could improve education in a state with some of the lowest test scores in the nation, opponents fear charters will only reach a small number of students and could further segregate state schools.
“We are doing this at a time when we are failing to properly fund our public schools,” said Senator Hob Bryan on Wednesday to members of the Senate, referring to the fact that Mississippi has only fully funded its school system twice since 2002. Bryan, who voted against the bill, also expressed concern that charter schools would be able to cherry pick students, potentially leaving more difficult students in public schools.
The legislation passed Wednesday will allow up to 15 charter schools to open in Mississippi, with the application process beginning in December. Original provisions that would have allowed for-profit companies and virtual charter schools were removed from the final version of the bill. Schools would be up for renewal every five years, with those failing to demonstrate adequate performance subject to shorter renewal terms. A provision in the bill allows for up to 25 percent of a charter school’s staff to be exempt from Mississippi teacher certification standards. However, these teachers must complete at least an alternative certification program within three years. Students would not be allowed to cross district lines to enroll in charters, a source of concern for some charter advocates.
“This will have a damper effect on where charters can locate,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of the non-profit Mississippi First, who helped write the original bill last year. Since a charter school’s demographics must reflect those of the district where it resides, rural charters might struggle to attract a representative sample from a single district without having a large effect on that district’s enrollment numbers, Canter said.
Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says that although he wishes the legislation did not limit enrollment to students within each school’s district, the new law is a step in the right direction for Mississippi. “It makes some major improvements,” Ziebarth said. “For the first time, [it] will actually allow real charters in the state.” The alliance ranks charter laws annually, and Ziebarth says that Mississippi has always been ranked last out of the 43 states that have charter laws. “I don’t think they’ll be moving up to the top of the list,” Ziebarth said. “But I think they’re going to move far up.”
The charter school decision comes on the heels of Tuesday’s passage of a bill that will bring state funding to selected pre-k programs in Mississippi for the first time. Hours after the charter school bill was passed, the Senate also voted to pass a literacy bill that will hold most students back in third grade if they are not reading at grade level. Gov. Phil Bryant, who last year declared that education would be the focus of the 2013 legislative session, said in a statement Wednesday that he intends to sign the acts into laws.
If you’re spending any time in the company of ambitious high-school seniors or hyper-competitive parents these days, you may be reading Facebook posts with status updates proclaiming acceptances at prestigious colleges:
“Dartmouth! Duke! Vassar! Swag! I’m three for three!”
You may not read about rejections, but you will certainly hear plenty about them, along with much speculation about who got in and who didn’t—as well as some malicious gossip like, “I cannot believe Diana got into Yale and Stephen didn’t. Do you think she knew someone? His SAT scores were so much higher…”
Listen closely, and the list of rejected valedictorians, team captains and accomplished test-takers will go on and on. You may even hear navel-gazing parents and students who received too many thin envelopes ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?”
We go wrong by engaging in this wrong-headed, waste-of-time conversation at all, and by comparing our kids’ test scores and GPAs, their merits and drawbacks. Sure, it’s seductive to be drawn into side-by-side comparisons and speculate about the “secret formula” for getting into top schools like Brown University, where 28,919 applicants vied for acceptances that totaled just 2,649.
“Just be yourself,” Fey falsely answers. The film illustrates how largely unsuccessful such advice is by showing a parade of accomplished applicants falling through the floor of Princeton’s committee room and into oblivion.
Unfortunately, the movie perpetuates Ivy League angst, promoting the wrong conversation in a country where community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher education—and where the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with a two- or four-year college degree is just 38.7 percent.
College costs may be one reason. They’ve jumped 440 percent in the last 25 years—which is three times the rate of inflation. A year at Princeton costs $56,750. Two-thirds of students who graduated from a U.S. college in 2011 had loan debt, averaging $26,500 per borrower.
Listen to complaints about how many students are rejected from top schools with near-perfect SAT scores and it will be easy to ignore a more jarring statistic: scores on the exams used in college admissions have plummeted in recent years, suggesting that more students today are struggling with vocabulary, the meanings of words, sentence structure and math problems.
In reporting trips to schools in the impoverished state of Mississippi, I’ve been able to see up close the many challenges that keep higher education beyond the reach of the poor—and the poorly educated. Students there have the lowest ACT scores in the nation, averaging 18.7 points, which is well below the national mean of 21.1. The maximum score on the ACT is 36; many top colleges want to see scores of 30 or above.
You won’t see too many stories about it, though. Major media attention tends to focus on elite schools and who gets into Harvard, a topic I devoted years to covering as a higher-education reporter because editors insisted that readers find it fascinating.
The reporting reinforced my suspicion that there is almost nothing affluent parents with checkbooks at the ready won’t do—starting well before preschool—to give their progeny a leg up. That might mean hiring consultants who charge up to $40,000 to orchestrate college applications, or sending their teenagers off to a four-day application “boot camp” that costs $14,000.
Digging a little deeper, I learned a great deal from admissions deans like Harvard’s William Fitzsimmons, who never allowed me to sit in on committee discussions weighing the merits of applicants, but invited me to a meeting about how low-income students were faring at Harvard.
The answer? They often struggle mightily, a fact that elite college presidents have picked up on; some have spoken out about the need to attract more students who don’t come from affluent backgrounds and do more to make them feel comfortable.
The strategy sounds great, but low-income students with top grades and scores often don’t even apply to the most prestigious schools.
In fact, only a tiny fraction of students even consider applying to or attending elite institutions, according to Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and now head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
“A few years ago, I met a young woman who had been ostracized by her parents because she only got into Wesleyan, [the University of] Chicago and Swarthmore,” said Levine, adding that the problem is also a changing economy that requires postsecondary education.
“When four percent of the college-age population attended higher education in 1900, everyone shopped at Tiffany’s,” he said. “With more than 70 percent of high-school grads entering postsecondary education [now], it’s more like shopping at Walmart—so there is greater pressure to attend a university that marks or differentiates one from the Walmart shoppers.”
At The Hechinger Report, we focus on some of the more urgent issues in higher education, like college costs, access and completion. We’ve looked at schools that are doing a particularly good job at integrating students of color on campus, along with those who have work to do. We’ve questioned why some colleges may be misrepresenting admissions statistics, and tried to keep an eye on the obstacles in the way of President Barack Obama’s laudable goal of getting more Americans to earn college degrees.
We’ve also reported how a community-college degree can be lucrative—and that significant numbers of grads are getting better jobs and earning more at the start of their careers than those with bachelor’s degrees.
Beginning a new conversation about admissions is easier said than done, although I highly recommend the work of Lloyd Thacker at The Education Conservancy as a starting point. I’ve given a copy of his terrific book College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy to many a friend and family member.
But as I contemplate the hundreds of thousands of dollars we may be shelling out to educate the teenagers in my family, I’ve also recommended The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions: Strategies for Helicoptering, Hot-Housing & Micromanaging.
In his review of Admission, New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott notes that he is “the father of a high school junior, paying my tithe to the test prep gods while preparing to sacrifice most of my worldly goods on the altar of the liberal arts…”
Scott added: “How could anyone make light of the brutal, capricious system by which our young people are judged and sorted?”
People do so because the target is an easy one, and the conversation isn’t changing—though it should be.
I asked Thacker—who said he doesn’t plan to see Admission—for some ideas. His long list includes guidance for parents, teachers and students on how to change “the market-drenched admissions process,” which he says imperils qualities like curiosity and risk-taking by emphasizing “where a student goes to college over what a student does in college.”
Sounds like a good start to me.
Mississippi is one step closer to passing sweeping education reforms that could, for the first time, bring state-funded pre-k to the state. On Wednesday, the House and Senate passed legislation that would provide $3 million to partially fund voluntary preschool programs for 4-year-olds beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
Advocates of early education in the state have been surprised by the state’s introduction, and subsequent passage, of pre-k legislation. Mississippi is the only state in the South—and one of 11 in the nation—that does not currently fund pre-k.
In December, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant released his budget proposal for the year, focusing heavily on education but leaving out funding for pre-k, except for a promising private program. Bryant has previously stated that he believes parents are responsible for educating their young children.
While the pre-k bill sailed through the House, the Senate debated the early education legislation, questioning the pre-k bill’s author, Sen. Brice Wiggins, about the effects the legislation would have on church programs and current pre-k teachers. The bill would raise the required qualifications of pre-k teachers and assistants, mandating that they have at least a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree, respectively.
During the debate, Wiggins reminded lawmakers that Mississippi is behind most states in passing preschool legislation, and encouraged skeptics to consider the benefits of pre-k. “ We don’t want [kids] to just be babysat,” Wiggins said, referring to the fact that about 85 percent of children in the state currently attend some form of day care or preschool in the state. “The idea is that if they’re going to be there, that we educate them,” he added.
Passage of the bill could have important implications for children in Mississippi. The state has a large and mostly unregulated system of day care and pre-k programs, and there is no guarantee of quality.
The Hechinger Report has been taking an extended look at education in the state, with a focus on pre-k.
Research has shown that the first five years in a child’s life are the most critical for learning. Often, children who begin school unprepared and behind their peers never catch up. In Mississippi, one out of every 14 kindergarteners and one out of every 15 first-graders were deemed unprepared for the next grade-level, according to the Southern Education Foundation, costing the state over $2 billion between 1998 and 2008 in remediation costs.
The pre-k bill would offer matching funds during the first phase of the program to approved programs that can raise half of their program costs. To receive funding, school districts or licensed childcare and Head Start centers must meet a variety of requirements beyond those required to get licensed. Programs must adopt a research-based curriculum, serve at least one meal a day that meets national dietary requirements, and hire qualified teachers.
Some advocates worry that the bill will not actually serve the state’s neediest children. Unlike legislation in every other Southern state but Alabama, the bill does not prioritize giving seats to low-income children or those with limited English proficiency. And the process to get licensed can be challenging for daycare centers in rural areas that may struggle to raise half the funds, or that lack the capacity to handle the paperwork and demands of licensing.
“It’s going to benefit the communities that have the resources, and leave behind the communities that don’t have the resources,” Carol Burnett, founder and director of Mississippi’s Low-Income Child Care Initiative, told the Southern Education Desk.
The Senate is expected to vote today on a House-Senate agreement of a charter school bill, which passed the House on Tuesday. The bill would allow charter schools to open in low-performing districts, and give school boards in high-performing districts veto power over the schools. Some have expressed concern that, like the proposed pre-k legislation, this bill will not actually help the students most in need. They wouldn’t be allowed to cross district lines to attend charter schools, which could make it hard for schools to attract the numbers and types of students required by the bill.
Legislators are also expected to vote today on other bills backed by Gov. Bryant, including a teacher merit pay pilot program and a literacy bill that would keep most third-graders from advancing to fourth grade if they’re not reading at grade level.
In March, technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, representatives from big-name companies and philanthropies and some teachers descended on Austin, TX for a conference meant to highlight new solutions to the biggest dilemmas in education.
Educational games, apps, data dashboards and social media were touted as the next big things in panels with titles like “EdTech Entrepreneurs: Are They the Next Superheroes?” and “Building Schools Into the Innovation Ecosystem.” The main theme at the SXSWedu conference—which is linked to the better known music and technology festivals—was how these new technologies are poised to make the learning experience for students more “personalized.” With data gathered and organized by new software systems, games and apps, the idea is that teachers will know their students better than ever and be able to pinpoint exactly where they’ve gone off course and, the hope is, what they need to get back on track.
The panelists were passionate and people were excited.
“The market is going to be the best forum that’s going to solve the problems [of education]. Not government. Not NGOs,” said Stephen Coller, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation during a panel about “Big Data” (The foundation is one of the many contributors to The Hechinger Report.)
Somewhat less well attended than the sessions devoted to tips on how to make a profit in the ed-tech sector was the screening of a documentary, “The New Public,” about a school in a high-poverty Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The film, one of several that screened at the conference, held up a more complicated—and less certain—picture of what’s needed to solve some of education’s most intractable problems. The filmmaker, Jyllian Gunther, followed the lives of students, teachers and administrators as they launched a new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media (BCAM), one of the hundreds of new small schools opened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.
Like the technologies being promoted at SXSWedu, smaller schools were also meant to personalize the learning experience for students; the hope was that replacing large, comprehensive high schools with smaller school communities would make education more intimate and student-focused, and would help boost graduation rates. (Early on, the Gates Foundation helped fund the small school movement, but as research on the effectiveness of the reform came back mixed, the foundation abandoned the idea.)
Gunther’s cameras, including the ones students took home with them to film scenes with their parents and siblings, captured how difficult it is to get education right for the neediest students.
For the school leaders and teachers at BCAM, personalized learning didn’t involve apps or data dashboards. They took a less high-tech approach: getting to know the mostly African-American students and their families well during meetings and home visits, taking seriously their hopes and concerns about their own education (even letting students give input on punishments for peers who misbehave), and taking into account their culture and experiences outside school, including incorporating hip hop and dance into the curriculum and providing sessions on self-esteem for girls worried about their body image.
It was attention that the students had often found lacking in their previous schools. And yet it often wasn’t enough. Gunther returned to the school to check in on how the freshman she’d met four years earlier were faring their senior year. Many had left. Others who had once planned on college were struggling to make it to graduation at all. In a particularly heart-rending storyline, a once-buoyant student who wrestled with his sexual identity became more and more dejected as he received college rejection letters, one after the other.
In the fourth year, test prep became a more prominent feature of the school as teachers and administrators reflected that they should have put more emphasis on academic rigor—not just getting to know and engage their students. Perhaps some of the new technology coming down the pike could have helped them better juggle the balance between challenging, engaging and caring for their students.
The personalized learning that ed-tech pioneers are talking about now involves using data points like test scores, attendance and, perhaps someday, information about students gathered from games or their internet searches, to home in what students need academically. Maybe more high-tech systems and detailed data would have helped teachers recognize how far behind many students were on the path to graduation.
But would it have helped teachers figure out how to help a student deal with her rage issues so she could get over her frustrations in science class? Or how to keep a young student who was mocked for being gay at school and at home from losing hope and help him stay focused on his strengths? Or how to salvage the academic career of a student whose prospects once looked promising and who suddenly stopped caring about his future?
The film doesn’t make an argument for or against any particular reforms. Instead, the educators at BCAM discovered that even when you know nearly everything about a student, solutions to help them succeed can still be elusive.
For the third consecutive year, The Hechinger Report has been honored with National Awards for Education writing from the Education Writers Association. Our brand of solutions-oriented, in-depth writing about education has been appearing in major publications across the U.S. since May 2010.
Sarah Carr won first prize for beat reporting, for stories covering k-12 education in the South. Carr’s stories, which span the topics of school choice, segregation, and teacher effectiveness in Mississippi and Louisiana, have been published by Time and The Atlantic.
Sara Neufeld, a contributing writer for The Hechinger Report, was awarded a special citation for her collaboration with the NJ Spotlight and WNYC for “A Promise To Renew in Newark,” a series examining the turnaround attempts of a low-performing school in New Jersey.
Sarah Garland and Jill Barshay were also awarded a special citation for their investigative reporting project “Teaching the Teachers NYC,” a series with Beth Fertig of WNYC that examined the ongoing professional development of teachers in New York City.
The 62 winning entries, selected from hundreds of submissions, recognize the best education journalism produced by print, radio and online media outlets across the country.