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.