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The Public School Insights Blog

Every time you create a new set of carrots and sticks, you create a new way for people to game the system. So what's a policy maker to do? Focus on capacity, not just incentives.

We've all heard about the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. Schools narrow their curricula. They focus on "bubble kids," students just under the passing bar. And they teach to tests.

Defenders of NCLB have argued that schools should just do the right thing and let everything else fall into place. Some schools do, but I don't think this is a compelling argument.

What, after all, is the point of a law that promotes perverse behavior? If we can count on everyone to do the right thing, no matter the consequences, then why do we need accountability systems at all? Fear is a powerful motivator. It can push good people to violate their own instincts about what's best for children.

The carrots cherished by some policy makers are also troubling. Pay for performance schemes assume that, in Linda Perlstein's words, staff have "reserves of greatness they are withholding from children simply because they don’t ...

Some months ago, a friend of mine surprised me. "The public schools really are a mess," he said. "I guess we're going to have to turn them all into charters." This from a well-educated, well-informed and socially-conscious man who lives In a district with some of the most celebrated public schools in the country. I suspect his point of view will become more and more typical. After all, any reasonable person would draw the same conclusions from recent reporting on school reform.

"The public schools really are a mess." That broad-brush portrait of public schools is common, and it can do harm to our reform efforts. Don't get me wrong. Public schools face huge challenges. Some 30% of U.S. students don't graduate high school in four years. Other developed countries are beating the pants off of us in tests of student performance. Even our good schools often don't serve all their students well, a point that became clear after we started really paying attention.

But the tendency to see every public school as a lawless learning-free zone is shaping much of the public discourse on school reform these days--and with troubling consequences.** Take, for example, a recent article in Time Magazine, which presents the despairing words of an 11th-grader as "a succinct assessment of the crisis in U.S. public education today": "It's not like we were learning anything in class anyway."

The same article presents this assessment as justification for "crapshoot" reform ideas that rest on shaky evidence: "The system can't get any worse, he reckons, so why not reinvent?" The author ascribes that sentiment to Arne Duncan, who is not generally given to such reckless statements. (I suspect he was taken out ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Testing... Testing...

If you believe school reform is urgent (and you should), then you should be in an absolute lather over the quality of our standardized tests. Here's why:

The tests are allowing us to stay in a state of permanent emergency response. Despite all our talk of high expectations, we've geared the system to minimum expectations for many of our students. Lousy tests have become de facto standards in too many places. As the pressures to make Adequate Yearly Progress build so will the pressure to narrow schools' vision. With many of the tests we have, it will be hard to tell the difference between the schools that stay in triage and those that lift their students to world-class standards. So much for transparency.

The tests are becoming the measure of everything, not just schools or Students. Every reform, every innovation, every old or new practice seems to rise or fall on the results of state tests. We make sweeping judgments about what works on the basis of tests, and we often use anemic (though "significant") gains in scores to proclaim one reform better than another.

Take the on-going debate about class size, for example. Research on the benefits of small class sizes is mixed. But Nancy Flanagan offers a bracing caution: "When our only measures of student success are memorized material, spit back on a bubble-in test, then a class of 45 listening to a teacher's lecture may be ...

An old idea is making a strong comeback in several states: Let 10th graders graduate from high school and enroll in community college if they're ready to do so. The idea of early graduation has a lot of merit, because it lets students choose a course that best suits their specific talents and aspirations.

But what about the opposite idea? What about late graduation?

No natural law dictates that high school should take four years. Some students can do it more quickly if they're ready to move on. But others, like recent immigrants who are still learning English, may need more than four years.

A high school principal once told me that she did what she could to keep some recent immigrants in her school as long as possible, even though her school's on-time graduation numbers suffered as a result. Some students arrive at her school at age 15 with no English and little or no formal schooling under their belts.

The larger point of any flexible graduation scheme is that the number of hours you spend warming a seat in your school should be less important than what you learn while you're there. As we weigh the benefits of early graduation, we shouldn't forget the needs of those students who need a little more time. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Pity the "Bureaucrats"

It seems we're in for another tiresome round of arguments that we have to fire school district staff to focus our dollars in the Classroom. Del Stover recently came across these words from a Maryland State Senator:

We don’t want to cut public education, so we’re going to have to go to superintendents of schools and say: "Listen, you’ve got to find us some administrators, some bureaucrats, some public relations people that we can cut, because we’re not going to furlough teachers."

Stover praises the Senator for wanting to save teachers' jobs, but he bridles at the suggestion that central offices are "bloated, stuffed by people who don't do essential work."

After all, someone has to write those paychecks. Someone has to make sure the schools are compliant with the myriad laws and ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Utopia

According to Joel Shatzky, this is how your garden-variety public school 9th-grader wrote in the 1950s and 60s:

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple…. With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact.... Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights.” -- Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

That's a far cry from the digital grunts we get from today's students, Shatzky tells us.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying it. Not even for a minute. How many high school freshmen actually wrote that way as a matter of course? And what happened to all those splendid writers after they graduated from high school? I worry that this talk of a golden age can actually do damage.

It sure is alluring, though, and has been for a long, long time. In the 1950s, the Council for Basic Education published a book of essays on the sorry state of U.S. schools. (The authors clearly did not share Shatzky's admiration for the writing students were doing 60 years ago.) One essay writer claimed that his public ...

North Carolina’s Laurel Hill Elementary School is a model school. Its rural, diverse and high-poverty student population consistently exceeds state targets on standardized test scores, and the school has made AYP each year since 2003. It has also been recognized for its great working conditions.

But getting there wasn’t easy. In the early 2000s, one challenge stood out: The school failed to make AYP because of the performance of its students with disabilities (known in North Carolina as its “exceptional children”). Rather than throw up their hands at the daunting task of educating special education students, staff at Laurel Hill made lemonade out of lemons. They took the opportunity to study their school and its structure, revise its schedule and move to full inclusion. The result? A Blue Ribbon school that can confidently say it is meeting the needs of all its children. Principal Cindy Goodman recently told us about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Laurel Hill Elementary?

Goodman: Laurel Hill is a pre-K through fifth grade community school. We have about 500 students and are located in an extremely rural community. We have a very nice facility, which is about 11 years old.

We have an outstanding staff that holds our children to very high standards for behavior, for academics…just high standards in general.

Public School Insights: What kind of population does the school serve?

Goodman: Our community, the little town of Laurel Hill, is located in Scotland County, North Carolina. The county currently has, and for a good while has had, the highest unemployment rate in the state. So it is a very poor area. Between ...

We often hear that students in other countries are leaving ours in the dust. That fact, in turn, becomes the rationale for all manner of reforms.

But reformers often pay scant attention to what those countries actually do to get where they are. Are we slipping in the rankings? Quick--institute merit pay! Grease the rails for alt cert programs! Open more charter schools! That oughta do it!

These may be worthy goals to pursue in their own right, but they won't be enough to close the gap between us and our high-flying competitors.

Linda Darling-Hammond draws a much broader set of lessons from countries that succeed. This 9-minute video from Edutopia sums them up nicely.

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Common, high academic standards. Excellent (and often free) teacher preparation. Strong and sustained support for staff. Time in the schedule for staff to work together. And--crucially--very good assessments that don't knock everything else off course. Darling-Hammond finds all of these things in countries that ...

Many school reformers have eagerly adopted the language of the business world, and that makes a lot of people nervous. I'm not worried by the business speak per se. I'm more concerned about what happens when we draw the wrong lessons from business.

The School Administrator has a wonderful set of articles this month on a promising reform strategy that first came from the business world: the balanced scorecard. They make for very good reading, because they take us far beyond the standard story about reforms inspired by business. You can pretty much sum up that story in four short sentences: Focus on outcomes. Be innovative. Give people choices. Get the incentives right.

The balanced scorecard goes a good deal farther. It looks at process, a word that gets precious little respect these days. Here's how Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall describes it in The School Administrator's feature article:

All school systems focus on student achievement — these are the critical outcomes that we track as educators. But to get to those outcomes, you must measure and evaluate everything we do as a district. The balanced scorecard is our way to look across all ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Separate but Equal?

School segregation is back in the news, and it has me worried.

Early this month, UCLA's Civil Rights Project released a report (PDF) calling the charter school movement "a civil rights failure" for worsening segregation in U.S. schools. Charter supporters shot back, calling it perverse to fault charter schools in poor areas for enrolling mostly students of color who were hardly thriving before the advent of charters. One wise observer struck a more moderate pose, calling on all sides to "make racially isolated schools better, and do lots more to reduce that racial isolation in the first place." 

I worry that racial isolation will mask inequities that can persist despite gains in test scores. Just take a look at what appears to be happening in New York City. The New York Daily News reports that the city's most prestigious high schools now enroll fewer black students than they did in 2002. The share of black students in some of these schools, like Bard and Eleanor Roosevelt, has plummeted to nearly half of what it once was. District officials counter that new "high-performing ...

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