Archive for June, 2009

It’s bricks all the way down

Jun 24 2009 Published by under commonplaces,curriculum,education,politics

Nonsense from our national school policy leadership is just so much noise – whether naive or disingenuous, I don’t know. It may be both. Tom Hoffman is right - Arne Duncan will learn some hard lessons of his own before this is all over. In the meantime, it hurts my brain to listen to him – almost as much as Sarah Palin – and I plan to stop thinking about him for a long while after I finish writing this.

Marion Brady offers Arne and Co. some insight in a comment on an article about Duncan’s political battles:

The Duncan-Obama education reform strategy will fail. It will fail not because of institutional inertia, not because of union resistance to change, not because of inadequately motivated teachers, not because of poorly trained administrators or for other reasons currently being advanced. It will fail primarily for the same reason No Child Left Behind failed — because it relies on tests keyed to standards keyed to a fundamentally flawed curriculum.

But Duncan is talking tough love about low performing schools, and he’s got a multiple choice plan for “school turnarounds”:

1. Award planning grants in the fall so new principals and lead teachers can develop curricula to meet students"™ needs. During the spring, they begin recruiting teachers and in June they take over the school. Current teachers can reapply. Some get rehired, but most go elsewhere.

2. Turn the school over to a charter or for-profit management organization. This approach also replaces school staff and leadership.

3. Keep most existing staff but change the culture through:
* performance evaluation and support, training and mentoring.
* stronger curriculum and instruction.
* more learning time for kids (afternoons, weekends, summer) and more time for teachers to collaborate.
* more flexibility for principals in budgeting, staffing and calendar.

4. Simply close under-performing schools and reenroll the students in better schools.

This, Duncan noted, is a state and local responsibility."œ But," he said, "œthe people who run our schools"”and the parents who depend on them"”must demand change if they want it to happen."

Fortunately for us, a group of parents in Chicago prepared a document [pdf] explaining how Arne Duncan’s school turnarounds have worked out for them. Note the easy to read column format comparing “What Secretary Duncan says” with “What the data show.”

He must not be too sure about that local responsibility part, though. Mike Klonsky noticed that Arne, who never met a cliche he didn’t like, promises to “come down like a ton of bricks and withhold the second round of funds from anyone who defies Obama’s wishes.” Mike is curious to know what we have to do to make the bricks fall on us. I don’t have the quote, but as I recall, Duncan was talking about withholding more money from states who chose to underfund schools and use the stimulus money to make up the difference.

But any time we talk about bricks and schools, we should remember that bricks are what they’re all about.

Bricks don’t bother me. Hand me another brick.

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The Global Talent Pool

Jun 13 2009 Published by under borderland,curriculum,literacy,politics,science

Yet another dire warning about the need for workers who can “thrive in the global economy:”

[T]he Commission concludes that reform in mathematics and science will be possible only if we "œdo school differently" in ways that emphasize the centrality of math and science to educational improvement and innovation…. As a society, we must commit ourselves to the proposition that all students can achieve at high levels in math and science, that we need them to do so for their own futures and for the future of our country, and that we owe it to them to structure and staff our educational system accordingly.

Gerald Bracey urges us to think critically when we use international comparisons to guide education policy:

Principle 23 of the “principles of data interpretation [pdf]” that organize “Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered,” reads “If the situation really is as alleged ask, ‘So what?’” The question does not call for some smart-ass response, it calls for an evaluation of the consequences of the situation. So the U. S. is not #1 in mathematics or science testing. So what? So, very little.

First, comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It’s like ranking runners based on average shoe size or evaluating the high school football team on the basis of how fast the average senior can run the 40-yard dash. Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have.

Bracey brought this report from the OECD to the attention of the EDDRA list, Top of the Class: High Performers in Science in PISA 2006

The Global Talent Pool

Figure 1.2 depicts the number of 15-year-old students proficient at Levels 5 and 6 on the PISA science scale by country. Both the proportion of top performers within a country and the size of countries matter when establishing the contribution of countries to the global talent pool: even though the proportion of top performers in science is comparatively low in the United States, the United States takes up a quarter of the pie shown in Figure 1.2, simply because of the size of the country. In contrast Finland, that educates the highest share of 15-year-olds to Levels 5 and 6 in the PISA science scale, only contributes 1% to the OECD pool of top-performing 15-year-old students, because of its small size.

The US seems to be putting up a fair number of high performers, comparatively.

I am 100% in favor of quality math and science education. And since the Cargegie Commission understands that “America"™s young people care deeply about problems such as global warming, world hunger, and poor health and want to be involved in solving them,” I hope they don’t forget to mention this to the corporate interests that are causing all these problems. We’ll want their cooperation when we get around to buiding our “sustainable future.”

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Notes from the Margin

Jun 07 2009 Published by under borderland,curriculum,literacy

It is no surprise that Gov. Palin wants to sit out the plan to write new national common core education standards. After all, she also wants to turn down $28.6 million in stimulus money for energy cost relief because taking it would require us to adopt energy-efficient building codes, which she says should be a local decision, and not “a dictate from the federal government.”

And now, due to a warp in time and space, Sarah Palin and I are in agreement:

"œThe standards are not the education problem we face," the governor said. "œThe major challenges are persistently low achievement among some students and a low graduation rate. Now is the time for the state and school districts to work together to improve instruction and student achievement."


"œThe State of Alaska fully believes that schools must have high expectations of students," Governor Palin said. "œBut high expectations are not always created by new, mandated federal standards written on paper. They are created in the home, the community and the classroom."

Actually, while I’m glad to see the governor standing up for local control of education, her decision to merely monitor the national standards initiative is probably a bad idea from an administrative standpoint. There’s no cost going in, and it’s almost always a good idea to take a seat at the table when the rules are being written.

Alaska’s Commissioner of ED says that we’ve already put a lot of time and money into developing the standards we have now, and adopting new standards with new tests would put us back at square one, making it impossible to use all the test data we’ve already generated. Imagine that! Federal standards written on paper, bad; state standards written on paper, good. Reform talk runs off the rails quickly at every turn.

Susan Ohanian has a new essay review of a book on data-obsessed decision making called Accountability and the Slippery Language of Public Relations. She says:

Certainly language is a good place to start reform. We could start by admitting that the claims made for transparency are at best laughable and hypocritical and at worst deliberately deceptive. How can anybody claim data transparency when the test contents are kept secret? Florida, to name just one state, declares it a felony for a teacher to take a peek at the state test. People who declaim for data-based decision-making operate in a test question vacuum. They cannot speak for the adequacy of a test when people with intimate knowledge of the children being tested must remain blind to that test"™s content.

Ohanian shares some examples of bad test questions, commenting, “No wonder they insist on keeping tests secret.” She points to research indicating that “The more you know about the subject of a test question, the more likely you are to get it wrong.” This research, she says, is “particularly attentive to the role of culture in shaping children’s understanding of what they read.”

Clay observes that Arne Duncan is nearly incoherent whenever he opens his mouth these days. Speaking at the National Press Club, he says, “This is not let a thousand flowers bloom,” and then in practically the same breath, “You have to give these charters real autonomy.” Normally, we’d hope that a guy with $100 billion to throw around would make more sense. But there are no standards for Education Secretary.

Teachers are in the business of letting a thousand flowers bloom, though, and sometimes that means stepping beyond the norm. Father Michael Oleksa, a Russian Orthodox priest with a long-term interest in Alaska’s Native communities and cross-cultural education, wrote that

For 100 years, Native Alaskans went to a school where their own language was forbidden, their history and culture benignly ignored or violently demeaned, denigrated, even persecuted. Teachers were given no orientation to the language or culture of their students or the communities in which they taught. The curriculum was the same course of studies as anywhere else in the U.S.

Oleksa believes that teachers need to understand their students and their communities well enough to help them find relevance in their education. “The village school,” he says, “remains an alien institution whose aim is the destruction of the community in which is operates. We systematically take bright, beautiful 5-year-olds and in 10 years transform them into angry, alienated, suicidal 15-year-olds.” This is a critically serious problem, and a standardized curriculum imposed by people who know nothing about the targeted student population only makes things worse. We need to find ways to include and celebrate local knowledge in the classroom.

This Inupiaq oral history project is a good example of making education relevant to the local community. Also, to illustrate just how different the life experiences of many Alaska Native students are, compared with the US mainstream, look at these videos about an Inupiaq hunting camp, posted in the Alaska Digital Archives.

Alaskans been working on curriculum for some time now. The standards push came along while we were getting our own grassroots education reform going, after over a century of federal control.

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