White's World

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Future Dims

In “What America Can Learn About Smart Schools in Other Countries” (Dec 6), the author concludes that countries that produce the most prepared students “make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.”  Except for the last, we are actually going in the opposite direction.  The efforts by governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie have vilified, marginalized and removed incentives for teachers.  I have not, in my 35 years in counseling and education, seen as few students say they intended to teach as they have this past year.  The selection of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary portends little improvement in these areas on the federal level as well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why the Student College Application Essay is often a Con Job

Are we woefully off track with the college essay?  I had this student, Martin, who was truly brilliant and also a really sincere and wonderful kid.  He wanted to write an essay about a time he was working at a camp for economically disadvantaged students and was asked to run the basketball activity at the camp, which included getting a competitive team to play other camp teams. He laid it out for me:  He was a short white kid with minimal athletic skills who had been asked to coach kids who were tall, athletic, all kids of color and who knew way more about basketball than he could ever know.

The essay had promise and he kept bringing me draft after draft.  I knew this kid could write — but personal narratives weren’t his thing.
One day a University of Chicago representative came to visit me and I shared with him Martin’s final draft.  “It’s serviceable,” he said.  Martin had so much going for him that the essay really only needed to be serviceable.  He was admitted to Harvard University and had a great academic career.  A few years after graduating, he wrote “Equity and Access in Higher Education" with ]former Princeton University president] William G. Bowen and Eugene Tobin, a seminal work.
So here is my point:  Isn’t the college essay just a project, in many cases, of how good a con job a kid can do?

Let’s be real here. We are dealing with 17-year-olds who are often incredibly unformed.  The personal reflective essay expects them to display a written essay that is engaging, thoughtful, somewhat witty, readable, self-reflective and a “window” into the student.
But like most on-line postings that these students produce, isn’t this really just how students want you to see them, not necessarily any reflection on who they really are?  We speak about students “crafting” an essay, and this is really what it is about, isn’t it:  presenting an image of oneself.
Secondly, there is NO connection between those who can write strong personal narratives and those who can write what one is expected to produce in college. So why not make college essays like Bard College’s optional admissions essay?  Let kids write college essays to get into college.
You could even have a random essay generator.  A kid would complete part I of the application and then be assigned a unique essay which involved research and footnotes and technical writing.

You’re admitting or denying a kid based on how well you think they can do college level work. You should ask them to do college level work to apply.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Isn't This MuchFuture-Focus a Problem?

It seems everything legislated about schools is about being career ready.  Let's begin with how students are being pushed into honors programs or to an accelerated tracks who simply aren't ready.  They either do not have the emotional or educational maturity (or both) to succeed by being pushed.  These sometimes are brilliant kids or kids with some amazing talents, coming from years of dedication to it. We need to find a way to meet these kids' needs.  We are just wasting our resources by not doing so.  Pushing harder and more math and science requirements at them in order to even graduate, is putting up a barrier that makes no sense for many kids in society.  Why make every kid take Algebra II and Chemistry to graduate?  Really, how many high school graduates use either of these EVER after high school?  One per cent?  Maybe two per cent?  MD's are not solving problems with multiple variables or balancing chemical equations, but they're among the 2% who "need" to have this course work but, in reality, rarely use anything they learned in these subjects.  And let's look at the other 98%, lawyers, psychologists, designers, painters, and on, and on, don't even pretend to need anything as obscure as the skills needed to be successful in Algebra II or Chemistry.  But we push all these kids, the kids that really hate it, the kids with learning disabilities, the kids with no interest in it whatsoever.  And we start it earlier and earlier.  Competitive kindergartens?  Are you kidding me?

This is one where I need to actually talk about the good old days.  My parents were as supportive and wonderful as you can imagine, but they let me be me.  They never knew where we were in the neighborhood and pretty much would give a strong stare for a weak grade and nothing more.  And we ended up going different ways, one brother working as a DJ, the other as a bicycle store owner, my sister working for Medicaid and me in high school guidance.  The math and science requirements of high schools today had no meaning an any of our lives.  Why are we requiring all students to have skills that are needed by few others than engineers, scientists or science teachers, certain professors and maybe accountants, economists, financial analysts and maybe a few others, and having so many other students struggle and really hate school.  

We need to give much more thought to keeping students enjoying and being involved in school and their lives.  There are other ways to nurture grit, dedication, intelligence and responsibility without forcing kids to do advanced math and science without purpose or reason.  
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I was once depressed many years ago, and I remember feeling that the most horrible part of it was the excessive self-consciousness I had.  I could not live in the moment because I was thinking about myself, and what I was doing, all the time.  We are doing that to our children, pushing them harder and harder and earlier and earlier, and it is not good for any of them.  We need to find ways to allow students to learn and grow at their own pace.  The obsession with ever rising standards is not about education, it is about social darwinism, leaving behind more and more of our students, including some of those who have the potential to do great things, taken away from them for no good reason. 

We consistently hear that some other country is catching up to us intellectually and creatively, but there is little evidence that is true.  We are the country that leads the world in innovation and design.  Why are we not doing more to promote that as a goal.

Why are we not concerned that we are turning out students who feel that they must compete from the day they enter pre-school, and never know what it is like to really enjoy learning and discovery?  

To the college admissions offices pushing this trend, shame on you.  Just because some of you CAN demand that students take schedules that are back-breakingly difficult, does not mean you should.  You have let the laws of economics control the lives of our students, instead of really thinking about what we really want in our kids.  We want them to be responsible, and self-reliant, and kind, and hard working and dedicated.  And you want them to be good people who want to make the world a better place for others.  But none of these are really part of our public education graduation requirements and the curriculum expected at many of our colleges.  Schools that are succeeding in promoting these traits in their kids are doing it despite college and graduation requirements.  Thoughtful education by caring teachers and leaders are the most important factors in producing characteristics we would want in our children.  The way we are pushing our children, and teachers, and school administrators, makes this tougher and tougher to achieve


Friday, August 05, 2016

How Education is Done Right


There is a notion, clearly articulated in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, that schools will improve merely by raising standards and holding school districts accountable when they do not meet the goals.  Despite virtually no evidence that this is successful, the trend continues.  Politicians and state and federal education departments want to believe this notion for a number of reasons.  For one, it’s simple and easy.  The federal or state government merely has to act as if the schools are marionettes, and with the strings being the proper incentives or punishments.  With a pull here and a tug there, every school will fall in line.

There are many problems with this approach.  For one, it is not certain that the tools being used are valid or reliable.  Most approaches measure math and verbal skills, not because they are necessarily the most important things for students to succeed after high school, but because they are the easiest to measure.  Not everything that can be measured is good and not everything that is good can be measured.  Data should inform instruction, not be a goal unto itself.  Data is easily manipulated and short-term goals can actually be counterproductive to long term objectives. 

Perhaps most problematic is that this approach leads to lazy administrators who view their success as being managers rather than educators.  I worked in one school where this was clearly the case.  The department supervisors were assistant principals who had no content area expertise (e.g. having an English Department be supervised by someone with no background or experience in the subject), saw oversight of instruction as the last of their priorities and rarely stepped into a classroom except for mandated observations.  Observations were heavily weighted on things like whether bulletin boards were attractive and students were kept quiet.  Compliance was highly sought, any dissent was stifled and morale was low.  

Three years ago I applied to work at Morristown High School.  I really liked the place, but had second thoughts about leaving the place I had spent most of my career.  But Morristown was persistent calling me a half-dozen times to reconsider.  When I did, I met with the principal and superintendent who told me their goal to develop of “dream team” of high school administrators.   I decided to take the job. They had put together a team of experts in each content area who acted with a unified purpose of having every student achieve what was possible.  The principal was amazing.  Every day, he would spend two hours visiting classes.  He knew every teacher and their teaching style and their ability in an intimate way.  He also knew almost every student and he was truly appreciated and adored.

Administrative meetings were actually a joy to attend.  They were light-hearted but very serious.  Every issue, every question, every decision came down to the same criteria:  was it best for kids and for student learning?  Dissent was not only valued, it was encouraged.  Loyalty meant keeping the principal informed, not just complying without giving informed opinions.  Evaluation was hard work.  We had to do continual walk-throughs.  Evaluations needed to be detailed and every statement needed to be justified by what we saw and experienced.  Every effort was made to support teaching and learning.  The highest priority was placed on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and challenged.  When we received an influx of unaccompanied, undocumented minors, resources, including bilingual social workers, counselors, and parent coordinators were added.  The guidance department made sure to hire a bilingual receptionist when an opening occurred. 

Test scores proved that the approach worked.  The percentage of students in AP courses was much higher than high schools with similar demographics and the scores were much higher than the national averages and what would be predicted by other factors.  At-risk students, including the recent undocumented students, graduated at similar rates to other students.  Teachers felt valued and supported and were willing to go the extra mile to ensure student success.

Putting education and students first and implementing the hard work of carrying it out on a day-by-day basis is what will lead to success.  The illusion that there are short cuts to this goal by devaluing and threatening teachers and demanding compliance with harsh threats is counterproductive.  To lead to the best educational goals, one needs to do the hard work of being an educator. Morristown High achieves the goals of NCLB and Race to the Top the right way, by creating an educational community where students and teachers matter.


Thursday, August 04, 2016

Superintendent's Incentives in NJ

Perhaps one of the most pernicious education laws in New Jersey is the superintendents' pay cap passed in 2010.  It limits superintendents pay to between $125,000 to $175,000, depending on the size of the district.  This has caused the most experienced and talented superintendents, many who were making well over $200,000, to leave the state or the profession.  Many schools had principals earning more than this.

But even more damaging was what was hidden in the details.  School Boards are able to go over the cap by offering one-year incentives based on student performance goals.  The problem with this was amply demonstrated in the crash of 2008 in the business community.  Short term financial incentives led to actions which did not take into account the costs of such an approach.  CEO's designed systems which increased their pay at the expense of the long-term health of their businesses, the benefits of their shareholders and the unintended consequences of their actions.

The same is happening in our schools.  Superintendents are promising Boards to increase the number of students in honors classes, raising college admissions rates, increasing test scores, or raising graduation rates.  And as most Board members are not educators, they are happy to comply.  But like the Collateralized Debt Obligations, often the means of reaching these goals are illusiory and the consequences substantial.

Increasing the number of students in honors classes results in decreasing the rigor of these classes and leaving non-honors classes composed of students who are more likely to have learning or behavior difficulties, ESL students, students of color and students of poverty.  If a school does not decrease the rigor of the honors classes, the result is more failures, more disruption of learning through students dropping to a lower level causing larger class sizes in the non-honors classes than the honors classes.

Similar smoke and mirrors can be used in the other goals, with equally pernicious effects.  Raising college admissions rates can result in having students better suited for vocational training attend college only to drop out with little more achieved than accruing unsustainable debt.  Increasing test scores can be achieved by abandoning the arts and literature and civics and social studies for test preparation.  Raising graduation rates can lead to pressuring teachers to pass students or suffer consequences.

This is just one of many "innovations" where we are treating schools as businesses.  The hard work of education is to have administrators visit classrooms daily and work closely with teachers to improve their instruction.  The simplistic solutions of numerical quotas pretend that this hard work can be replaced by just setting the bar higher.

Requiring the PARCC test

Having gone through it, I have seen the staggering amount of time, cost, and energy devoted to preparing for and administering this test and in carrying out the appeals process.  Has anyone measured whether there is any significant difference in the results of the HSPA and the PARCC, i.e. whether all this cost is justified?  If someone does do such an analysis, I would bet a large sum of money that there is no statistical difference in the outcome.  The amount of money spent on technological infrastructure to give the test is enormous, the time it takes to prepare and administer the test is equally large and the appeals process takes even more teacher and administrator time and cost.  If you added up all the direct and indirect costs, it would be equal to the pay of hundreds of teachers across the state.  Could this money be better spent reducing class size and increasing resources for struggling students?  Not to mention the incredible amount of time students are removed from learning to take these tests.  There are far cheaper and easier alternatives.  How about using the ACT test as the graduation test?  It could be done on weekends, not taking away from instruction, not using administrator and teacher time and the requirement of massive technological infrastructure and would allow every student in the state to have also completed the test needed for college admissions.  How about using the Accuplacer?  This would allow us to directly know who would need remedial college work, for that is what the test is designed for.  

The bigger question is why we need to move from a test of skills to a test of reasoning and what is the potential impact.  So much of student learning and development has nothing to do with what happens in school.  It has to do with early childhood development and ambient learning and the exposure and access to information and challenges in the home and community.  This money and dedication of resources would be much better spent on pre-school education, targeted diagnosis and enrichment for students in pre-K and elementary schools and on expanded and rich libraries, especially in urban communities.

But lets be honest here.  Psychometricians know that there will always be a bell curve and at one end of that curve are concrete thinkers who will have a tougher time with reasoning than skills.  These individuals have as much a right to a diploma as those who have stronger reasoning skills.  Many of those students may do data entry or become aides or barbers or house painters or landscapers or dishwashers.  These are honorable professions and are appropriate for some students.  But this move by the education department says that these hard working individuals who are able to demonstrate the skills to be successful in their chosen professions are unworthy of a high school diploma.  Are these students more likely to be students living in poverty, ESL students or students living in rural or urban areas?  


It is a virtual certainty that there is an almost complete correlation between income and success on the PARCC test.  We as a society can dedicate resources and implement policies to reduce poverty, provide enriching educational experiences for preschoolers in our urban and rural communities increase income redistribution and improve incentives for our best students to become teachers.  This would have the greatest impact on improving our student performance.  Or we can do none of these things to actually improve student performance and blame and harm the victims of our inaction.  You can make the decision on the connection between requiring the PARCC test and background of those who will have the most difficulty succeeding on it.  The answer is clear to me.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The wrong way to teach math

We're teaching the wrong math Montclair used to have the Interactive Math Program, also known as Chicago Math. It was great. I sat in on a bunch of classes and it was discovery math. It introduced a new concept with an idea rather than a skill. It would give problems that required skills the kids didn't have. They tried to solve it without the skill, then learned the skill. It was math that stuck because it was MEANINGFUL. Think back to everything you learned in school. What did you remember? The answer is easy: that which was meaningful to you, that had some context, connection, some meaning to you attached to your present world. But they dropped it. Why? Because these kids were not as good on the SAT's. They were better math students, though. They might do better on the PARCC, I don't know, but, in theory, that would be so. I am someone who found math pretty easy, but who began to really hate it when teachers would try to teach method instead of meaning. I had an AP BC Calc teacher who would put proof after proof on the board because of the elegance, but Calculus was designed as a tool to solve physics problems so that was how it should have been taught. So we shove Geometry and Algebra II and on and on down kids' throats, most of whom will never need it, never use it, never remember it and never appreciate it. Math for much of us should be about taking information and analyzing it. There was an irony when we had that course. The principal at the time said it was great because 100% of the kids passed the HSPA. No control, no comparison, not a mathematically sound statement. Maybe they all would have passed in a regular math class! We keep on designing solutions, like particular tests (SAT, PARCC) looking for a problem, without questioning core assumptions. For most kids, there is a math that will be useful in their lives, and it is not this. I get preparing kids to be scientists and engineers, but the cost of preparing every kid to be a potential engineer is years of useless skills that are no more educational than learning chess and a lot less fun. Read Andrew Hacker, a math professor, who is much more articulate than me. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/opinion/sunday/the-wrong-way-to-teach-math.html

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Much has been written about the inability of some to be able to foresee the potential downsides of a decision.  Psychology and business publications abound with examples of cognitive dissonance preventing us from truly looking at all possible implications of a decision.  What I am exploring is somewhat more specific to decisions made in education.  More specifically, it is about how a decision affects those who are NOT the target of the particular decision.

There are a couple of decisions in schools I worked in that illustrate this.  At my former school, half the students were white and the other half African American.  There was consternation that there were very few students of color in the National Honor Society.  The cutoff of 3.9 (out of a maximum 4.7) covered about a quarter of the student body.  The decision was made to drop the maximum to 3.6 to allow more students of color to apply for NHS. 

On the surface, the decision was quite successful in meeting its aim.   The number of students of color increased from a handful to around 30 students.  The percentage of minority students in NHS more than doubled.  So what could be wrong with this?  The problem is with viewing the problem and the solution solely from the viewpoint of the membership of NHS.  The consequence of lowering the GPA threshold not only brought in about 25 new students of color into NHS, but it also brought in about 100 new white students.  Now, almost half the students in the school were eligible for NHS. 

The greatest impact of this decision was not in the composition of NHS; it was in the composition of the non-NHS pool.  With the 3.9 GPA cutoff, the non-NHS group was pretty evenly mixed between white students and students of color.  With the 3.6 cutoff, the non-NHS group became mostly students of color.  With all good intentions, this decision created a virtual caste system in the school.  Students who were not eligible or accepted into NHS were relegated to a pool of students who were predominantly black and of a lower socio-economic status.

At my present school, there is another decision what equally pernicious in its effect.  We got a new superintendent who was stressing “ascendency”.  Teachers, supervisors, counselors and parents were asked to be on board with getting more students to go into honors and AP classes.  Teachers were told that supervisors would be looking at their course recommendations for their students to make sure they were recommending students for a higher level.  Counselors were given incentives based on the number of students they were able to get to ascend. 

It worked marvelously.  In some subjects, the number of students entering honors and AP courses doubled.  And not only that, like NHS in the example above, the number of and percentage of black and Hispanic students increased significantly.  Unfortunately, the A level classes (non-honor) became predominantly populated by students of color, students in need of remediation and special education students.  Prior to this, the A level classes were an acceptable alternative for a wide variety of students.  The classes were highly mixed by income, race and ability.   Now, with the much academically weaker population of students in these classes, as well as their lack of diversity, we again have created a caste system where one did not exist before.

In education this seems to be the norm.  Well meaning educators created select charter schools or small learning communities in schools that leave the non-participants behind.  In cities with a large number of charter schools, many doing wonderful things, the remaining students in public schools are disproportionately students who are in special education, who have behavioral difficulties or who are English Language Learners.

Almost all new principals and superintendents see themselves as agents of change.  Whether that is productive is open to debate.  But what is certain is that looking at a change only in respect to the desired outcome on the goal of the change, ignoring the impact on those not the target of the change may make the school, the students and the institution worse off in the end.