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The Public School Insights Blog

As the debate about school reforms heats up, it's getting tougher to have reasoned, thoughtful conversations about specific reform strategies. You're either a wild-eyed zealot pushing for scorched-earth change or a dour obstructionist doing all you can to defend the status quo. There is little room for doubt in this super-heated environment.

I see this dynamic at work in the growing crop of opinion pieces urging states to give no quarter on teacher evaluation and merit pay reforms. The standard for many pundits seems to be 50 percent. If you don't base at least half of a teacher's evaluation on test scores, you must be a weak-kneed servant of special interests. An editorial in yesterday's Washington Post offers just the latest example of this argument.

But aren't there some questions we should ask before we base most of our pay and evaluation decisions on test scores? Do we know how this will affect teacher morale? Do we know how it will influence teacher recruitment? Do we know how many teachers would stick around under the new regime? Are we sure ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Why I Worry

The reigning rhetoric of school reform has me worried. This is the thrust of what I'm reading in so many blogs and op-eds these days:

  1. The bolder, the better.
  2. There's no time to wait for more evidence before we act.
  3. There's little time for planning.
  4. Those who question our reforms defend the status quo.
  5. Collaboration with those who must carry out reforms will just slow things down and jeopardize the "boldness" of reform. (See no. 1).
  6. Anything new would be better than what we have now.

I don't mean to say that every one of those points is terrible. But in combination, they could be lethal. Bolder can truly be better, but not when the evidence base is so thin. We can't wait for evidence before trying new reforms, but shouldn't a shortage of evidence prevent us from gambling so much on so few strategies? Shouldn't that put us in a more deliberative mood?

Add disdain for skeptics to the mix, and you have have a very dangerous situation, indeed. Our history if full of hard-won lessons about the need for checks and balances.

And the common claim that anything would be better than what we now have is particularly troubling. It's a refuge of last resort for those who prize boldness over feasibility. It's also a license to check your judgment at the door.

I see the volatile mix of justifications for bigger, faster, bolder measures in a lot of recent writing about Race to the Top. Pundits are counseling states that lost out on the money in round one to ratchet ...

When the President's Blueprint for Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act appeared last month, Chuck Saylors was struck by what he didn't see: much attention to parent engagement. The President's budget proposal had already seemed to eliminate the Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), the only federal program devoted solely to parent engagement in schools. (The Learning First Alliance just released a statement urging a much stronger federal focus on parent engagement.)

Saylors recently told us about the National PTA's work to make parent and family enagement a national priority. Despite his disappointment with the Blueprint, Saylors is optimistic. The administration seems ready to listen, he told us, and the PTA is not about to let up on its fight for parents.

Public School Insights: What are the biggest legislative priorities this year at PTA?

Saylors: There are several things on the agenda, but I am going to say that the reauthorization of ESEA is probably the issue of the day for us. We want to make sure that ESEA is reauthorized in a timely manner and we want to do everything that we can to get parents involved in the process. There are a lot of components to the legislation that need to be addressed, and we want to make sure that a parent voice is at the table.

Public School Insights: Is your sense that the blueprint the Obama administration offered for this reauthorization included the parent voice?

Saylors: I have to admit that I'm very disappointed that it was not more direct in including parental engagement. There are some brief references, but as the leader of the PTA I can tell you that I am very disappointed in the fact that there's not more concrete reference to parental engagement in the blueprint.

That being said, I have to publicly admit that PTA does have a good working relationship with the administration and we are very thankful for that. But this is ...

I was wrong. I thought the debate between the value of schools and the value of community support for children was winding down, but it seems the debate is alive and well in the pages of the Washington Post.

Joel Klein, Michael Lomax, and Janet Murguia resurrected it in an op-ed last Friday. Their opening strikes me as a bit of a strawman:

In the debate over how to fix American public education, many believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn't work until other problems are solved.

I don't know many people who believe that education won't work "until" we fix all the other problems. Groups like the Broader, Bolder Approach (which is a likely target of the op-ed) call for robust work to improve schools and address those factors outside of schools that can hinder students' learning.

The op-ed's following sentences might be jarring to people who work in and for schools: "This theory [that life outcomes are fixed] is, in some ways, comforting for educators. After all, if schools make only a marginal difference, we can stop faulting ourselves for failing to make them work well for millions of children."

Few educators would be "comforted" to think they can make only a "marginal difference." Why go into a line of work that yields such small financial ...

Today, the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 national education associations representing over ten million parents, educators and policymakers, released the following statement:

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act should make family engagement a stronger priority. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of family engagement to children’s success in school, and the President has strongly and repeatedly endorsed the thrust of this research in his speeches. Yet the President’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization contains only glancing references to the importance of parents and lacks a compelling vision for how the federal government can support family engagement. The President’s budget even proposes the elimination of the Parent Information Resource Centers, the only federal program currently dedicated to family engagement. The Learning First Alliance believes the Reauthorization of ESEA should much more strongly support family engagement as a critical priority.” ...

Paying anyone--students or teachers--for test scores might be a bad idea. That's one of the big lessons I draw from Roland Fryer's now famous study of programs that pay students for good behavior, hard work or test results.

In fact, I think the implications of Fryer's study reach farther than that. The study offers a glimpse of how dangerous it could be to attach any big consequences--good or bad--to test scores alone. Here are some of the things I took away from Fryer's report:

We ignore inputs at our peril. It has become received wisdom that outcomes--and that usually means test scores--are all that really matter in school reform. But Fryer's study suggests that people in schools who call for more attention to inputs and the processes of arriving at outcomes aren't just whiners after all. The study found that cash rewards for certain behaviors--like reading more books--were more effective than cash for test scores. In fact, cash for scores seemed to have no effect on student achievement. Why? Incentives to do the right things, the things that promote learning, might well work better than incentives to do well on a test.

Getting kids too focused on their test scores may do them little good--and may even harm them--in the long run. Fryer's team noted that students getting cash for scores naturally grasped at test-taking strategies rather than, say, better study skills or deeper engagement in class materials:

Students [who were asked what they could do to earn more money on the next test] stated [sic.] thinking about test-taking strategies rather than salient inputs into the education production function or ...

The US economy is improving overall, but our schools will be among the last to share in the wealth. Deep and persistent economic troubles can be a deadweight on vital reforms.

A new survey of superintendents released by AASA reveals the depth of the problem. School leaders report that things were bad last year and worse this year. And they're likely to be even worse next year.

A full 80 percent expect cuts in state and local revenues before next year, and many expect those cuts to be more severe than they were last year.

The AASA report's title is as clever as it is grim: "A Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn." The cliff, of course, is the abrupt drop in funding districts will face when stimulus funds run dry. And lest people think district cups have been running over with stimulus dollars, almost nine in ten superintendents "reported that [those] dollars did not represent a funding increase."

This is an important point, because it challenges the notion that districts had gobs of new money to support new reforms. System leaders were clearly grateful for ...

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance, which sponsors this site, released the following statement on competitive grant programs:

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a critical instrument in the federal government’s efforts to promote equity in education. The Learning First Alliance (LFA) believes equity must remain a non-negotiable goal of ESEA reauthorization. We applaud the Obama Administration’s proposal to increase federal resources for public schools in 2011. But we urge Congress to avoid provisions that could undermine, rather than support, equity.

For this reason, ESEA should not divert substantial federal resources into competitive grant programs. This strategy threatens to penalize low-income children in school districts that lack the capacity to prepare effective grant proposals. It risks deepening the disparities between rich and poor districts, effectively denying resources to the students who need them most.

Those who propose the competitive grants have good intentions, but too much focus on such grants might make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Small, rural districts can't generally afford grant writers. Foundations might be able to help ...

When Melissa Glee-Woodard became principal of Maryland’s Lewisdale Elementary School four years ago, it was struggling. The school was in the dreaded “school improvement” process because of the performance of multiple subgroups of students, and it needed change.

Change is what it got. But not the dramatic “fire-all-teachers” change that has been making the papers. Rather, Glee-Woodard inspired teachers, parents and students with a new vision. The staff began focusing on student data in a meaningful way. Targeted professional development addressed areas of weakness in the instructional program. And new summer programs ensured that students kept their academic success going even when school was not technically in session.

As a result, Lewisdale has made AYP every year Glee-Woodard has been principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently honored her for her transformational leadership.

She joined us for a conversation about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Lewisdale?

Glee-Woodard: Lewisdale Elementary School is located in an urban setting in Prince George's County, Maryland. We are in the backyard of the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a working-class neighborhood. 80% of our students are Hispanic. 17% are African-American.

All of our students walk to school each and every day, and we are a neighborhood school. Our parents are very actively involved. Anytime that you are outside in the morning, you will see a lot of parents either walking their children to school or dropping their children off in cars.

Lewisdale is also a Title I school. 84% of our students qualify for free or reduced meals. And 54% of our students speak English as their second language. So that gives you a general idea of ...

As we hear about more and more teacher layoffs across the country, the debate on class size is bound to pick up again. The scars of this recession may be all the deeper and last all the longer if it increases our tolerance for large classes.

It's already becoming received wisdom that class size really doesn't matter, ever. Skeptics point to studies that have shown little or no payoff for class size reduction (CSR) efforts around the country. (Many forget to mention the strong evidence that CSR in early grades can improve learning outcomes, especially for poor children.)

Skeptics also note that CSR efforts forced some schools to scramble for extra teachers who lacked strong credentials. (Some CSR critics seem less concerned about similar problems struggling schools might face if laws compel them to replace most of their staff.)

I'm not ready to accept the research on class size as definitive. Here's why:

  • Even the best studies don't necessarily measure the full impact of large class sizes. Most studies have to limit themselves to standardized test results. What's the impact of large class sizes on students' ability to write a first-rate research paper or carry out a long-term project? I haven't seen much research that answers this question. (If you have, please let me ...
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