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The Public School Insights Blog

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Brilliance in a Box?

A recent Slate article asked, “What do the best classrooms in the world look like?” Their answer: Surprisingly low-tech.

To find these classrooms, the author looked to Finland and South Korea, both of which perform better than the United States on international standardized assessments without really utilizing technology in the classroom. She points to KIPP charter schools, claiming them among the most effective in the nation, and explains how one KIPP school uses technology--to make teachers' lives easier, not to engage students.

It’s not that this piece is wrong, exactly. Having never been to South Korea, Finland or the KIPP school featured here, I can’t speak to their use of technology in education. But I have problems with the assumption on which the author seems to rely: That these schools are the best in the world, and the ideal model for reform efforts.

Actually, what she claims, after mentioning how these classrooms look like those of 1989 or 1959, is that “the most innovative schools around the world do not tend to be the ones with the most innovative technology inside them.” Now, I agree that innovative doesn't need to mean technology, but ...

Midterm elections are just eight days away. If history is any indication, less than half of eligible citizens will show up to elect the politicians who will guide the country through the next two years.

In 2006, the average voter turnout in a state was 43.35%. This was up from 2002 (42.5%) and 1998 (40.38%). Among voters age 18-29, the turnout is much worse--just 26.76% came out in 2006 (up from 23.74% in 2002 and 22.87% in 1998).

I have been thinking about voter turnout recently in  considering recent conversations about the role of schools and importance of education. We often talk about the individual benefits of education--it is necessary for one to get a good job and have a good life in the 21st century. And we talk about the economic benefits of education--as a nation, we need an educated workforce to compete in the global marketplace.

But we don't often talk about the importance of education for the governance of our nation. And we don't prioritize that role of schools in our schools. A recent survey of high school social studies teachers found that 70% believe social studies classes are a lower priority than math and language arts because of pressures related to standardized assessments, with 45% believing the de-emphasis came from ...

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More on Value-Added

Value-added modeling is back in the news (although did it ever really go away?). Among its appearances this week, Stephen Sawchuk reported that Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and Susan Davis (D-California) recently introduced a bill that would require states to oversee new systems for evaluating teachers and principals. It would also require that student achievement growth as measured by state or local assessments—or value-added analysis where available—be the predominant factor in teacher evaluations.

While Sawchuk points out that this bill will likely not advance on its own, he says to watch it. Given both Polis and Davis are on the committee that will take the lead in shaping the House’s revision of ESEA, it could be an indicator of what is to come.

Language like that of this bill frustrates me to no end. While most, if not all, education stakeholders agree that current methods of teacher evaluation are flawed, why does it always come back to value-added models? After reviewing the research, which clearly shows the limitations of this strategy, how can one argue that more than 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on it?

And please do not say, “It’s better than doing nothing.” Over at ...

"Teachers are the most important in-school factor [in a child’s academic performance]; we should not automatically assume that’s a desirable state of affairs.”

So concludes Daniel Willingham’s recent post on The Washington Post’s "The Answer Sheet."

That piece struck a chord with me. Not because I think teachers should not be the most important school-based factor in a child’s education—I had never thought about that. But because I had never thought about that.

My immediate response to, “Teacher quality is the most important school-based factor” is, “We have to improve teacher quality.” That seems to be the immediate reaction of…well, everyone I can think of. I’d never heard anyone respond, “So let’s decrease its importance.”

Willingham suggests considering it, potentially by making teaching more consistent (perhaps by improving teacher preparation and/or using a curriculum to ensure that all students learn the same material), so that the individual doing the teaching won’t matter so much. To me it did not appear that he advocated this approach as much as he recommended questioning our basic assumptions. And I think that is so important.

It reminded me of a discussion I was at recently in which the distinction between “reforming” and “transforming” education was made clear. I have been hearing that a lot recently. And a post on AASA’s School Street by Francis Duffy just addressed the issue. According to him,

Education reform is a failed strategy because it focuses on fixing the broken parts of America’s more than 14,000 school systems (which is pejoratively referred to as piecemeal change) while sustaining the underlying paradigm that ...

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Georgia District Wins Big

A big congratulations to Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools for winning the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education. The other finalists were North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Maryland’s Montgomery County, and Texas’ Socorro and Ysleta districts.

Each year the Broad Prize honors urban school districts that demonstrate overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps. The winning district receives $1 million in college scholarships for graduating high school seniors who demonstrate a record of academic improvement and financial need. The four other finalists each receive $250,000 in scholarships.

So what set Gwinnett apart from the competition? Among other things:

  • It outperformed Georgia districts serving students of similar demographics (more than half of the students in Gwinnett County are African-American or Hispanic, and half receive free or reduced price lunch) in both reading and math at all levels.
  • It is closing achievement gaps between different ethnic and income groups.
  • It is closing these gaps at a high level, not just raising performance at the minimum level.
  • It had high SAT, ACT and AP participation rates, with rates rising for African-American, Hispanic and low-income students since 2006.

Key to Gwinnett County's success are a number of factors. A rigorous curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives, developed by the district and aligned with (but more challenging than) state standards. A central office that is a model of instructional effectiveness. Using organizational tools, such as ...

In 2006, a student needed to receive 36 out of a possible 56 points (about 64%) on Illinois’ fifth-grade reading test to be labeled “proficient.” Now it’s 31 out 56 (about 55%). It took 36 of 76 points (about 47%) to pass the fifth-grade math test in 2006. Now it’s 32 out of 76 (about 42%).*

According to the Chicago Tribune and a study by psychometrician John Wick, the bar has been lowered on 11 of the 12 Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in reading and math.

State officials claim that the drop is the result of a standard statistical procedure called “equating.” It is used to ensure that tests are comparable across years, despite the fact that the difficulty of tests varies. So the reason that students don’t need to get as many questions right to pass today as they did in 2006 is because the test is harder now.

However, some testing experts question this explanation for the lowered cut score. While one should expect some variation in that score from year to year as a result of equating, changes typically look random. Trends here don’t appear to be. Add to that the fact that the state continues to celebrate increased proficiency rates, and it looks like yet another example of lowering the bar to ...

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Is School Funding Fair?

Not in most states, according to a recent report by the Education Law Center.

Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card examines the school funding systems of our states. It considers four interrelated measures: funding level (state and local contributions to per pupil revenue), funding distribution (how well a state provides funding to schools based on their poverty), effort (the ratio of state spending on education to that state's per capita gross domestic product) and coverage (the proportion of school-age children attending public schools and the income disparity between families using private versus public schools).

Unfortunately, most states do not do a great job of ensuring equality of educational opportunity for all children. Just seven states get an "A" or "B" from the authors for funding distribution: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota and Utah*. Overall, the authors find that six states perform relatively well on all measures: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Wyoming. And four perform below average on each indicator: Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina.

There are, of course, limitations to what is presented in this report. And many of those are addressed in the report itself. One is that the report is based on the analysis of pre-recession data--district-level U.S. Census data from 2007. Depending on ...

Teachers unions have been taking a lot of heat recently. They’ve been called obstructionists, the guardians of the status quo. But actually, they’ve been leading a good deal of education reform. They’ve been working with districts to launch innovative new schools, to extend learning time, to develop professional development.

They've also been working to develop new teachers contracts. Contracts that include new systems of evaluation. That downgrade “glacial process” to “due process.” That create new steps on a teaching career ladder. That, on occasion, include pay for performance. And more.

One revolutionary evaluation system is that of Hillsborough County (which includes Tampa) in Florida. Teachers there voted for an evaluation system that includes three main components: peer evaluation (and mentoring), principal evaluation and student performance. Evaluations based on these multiple measures will guide decisions on tenure, promotion, demotion and termination. Eventually, they will also place new teachers on a merit-based pay schedule. 

To honor the collaboration between the union and district that lead to this new contract, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten chose the district to set the stage for ...

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how we, as a nation, need to increase the amount of time our students are in school. How our school calendar is based on an agrarian economy that no longer exists and hindering our competitiveness in the information-age. How students in the nations that outperform us on international assessments have a longer school year and/or spend more time in class each day. How one thing we can learn from high-performing high-poverty charter schools is the importance of increasing the amount of time that students in poverty spend in school. Students in those schools tend to have both days, a longer school year and school on Saturdays.

No real argument here. I personally agree that it's time to revisit an academic calendar designed in an era that no longer exists.

But consider what John Merrow said in a recent blog post: 

“With the awful truth that 6,000 kids drop out every school day staring them in the face, wouldn’t someone question the wisdom of extending both the school day and the school year? I mean, what are these dropouts leaving behind? ...

People on the stage moaned about the antiquated (agrarian) calendar and the fact that schools still look and act as they did 50 or 75 years ago—and then suggested that what our kids need are more hours and days of this!”

Yet again, we may be taking a promising idea, and killing it with simplicity. Simply increasing ...

As we all know, the current economic climate is challenging. And schools and their districts are among those struggling. Funding is being cut as demands on schools are increasing. So of course, districts are looking to save money anywhere they can.

One potential starting place: cutting energy costs. And one potential model for doing so: Virginia's York County School Division.

Over the past 12 years, York County has developed a comprehensive, three-pronged strategy to managing energy. It includes not only high-reward (but high-cost) activities such as building, renovating and replacing using energy-efficient equipment, but focus on controlling systems and energy education.

Since the middle of 2004, this strategy has saved the district over two million dollars. It has had positive environmental impacts as well--the energy savings are equivalent to removing 2,115 cars from the road. The district has been recognized for the program by everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO International). And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery--the district knows of several schools built using the same technology as in York after visits to their schools.

We recently talked to Doug Meade, the district's Director of Information Technology, and Mark Tschirhart, Associate Director for Capital Plans and Projects, to learn more about the program.

The Background

Public School Insights: Tell me about your district.

Meade: We're a district of about 12,600 students. We have 19 academic facilities—four high schools, four middle schools, ten elementary schools and one charter high school. And we have two administrative locations.

Tschirhart: We have about 1.8 million square feet in total.

Meade: That is important, because for a district three times our size, the $2 million we have saved may not seem like a lot, but it's quite a bit for us.

Public School Insights: Why did the York County School Division decide to start a comprehensive energy management program?

Meade: One theme will run throughout this interview: When we take any particular tact toward energy conservation, it's because it saves money. That's the driving force behind our energy conservation efforts.

Tschirhart: Back in 1997, our former chief operations officer looked at our energy consumption. He wondered if there was a way we could cut those costs. So we ...

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