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The Public School Insights Blog

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The State of the Student

Last week we looked at the state of public schools, as viewed by the American public. Today we’ll look at the state of the American student, as viewed by students themselves.

In creating the recent report Youth Readiness for the Future, Gallup polled students age 10-18 on their hope, engagement and well-being. Why those variables? A number of reasons, including that they are indicators of future success, with links to attendance, grades, achievement scores, retention and employment. And they are malleable—so even if a student is not hopeful now, he or she might be in the future.

The results? Over half of students—53%—are hopeful about the future, while 31% are “stuck” and 16% are discouraged. Over two-thirds of students—70%—are thriving, with about 30% struggling or suffering. And nearly two-thirds—63%—are engaged, while 23% are not engaged (just going through the motions) and 14% are actively disengaged (likely undermining the teaching and learning process for themselves and others). Engagement peaks during elementary school, then decreases through middle school and ...

All over the country, policymakers are calling for systems that tie teacher evaluation to student performance. And from Florida to Colorado, Maryland to Louisiana, they are defining student performance as standardized test scores.

Few would argue that current teacher evaluation systems are adequate. And using standardized tests seems a cost-effective way to define performance, an important consideration in times of fiscal crisis. But are evaluation systems based on those tests valid? Can student performance on standardized assessments accurately identify effective teachers?

A new brief from the Economic Policy Institute reviews the evidence. The conclusion? Taken alone, student test scores are not a valid or reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness.

The brief discusses the lack of evidence that test-based accountability improves student learning, statistical concerns with using standardized tests to evaluate individual teachers and practical concerns with systems that do so, including the difficulty of attributing learning gains to one individual. It also raises concerns about the unintended consequences of these systems, including a narrowing of ...

Seven years ago, Washington’s Everett School District awoke to a harsh reality. A change in how the state calculated graduation rates revealed that only 53% of the district’s students graduated on-time. Officials were shocked and embarrassed. They sprang into action.

Today, Everett’s on-time graduation rate is just under 84%. Its extended graduation rate is just over 90%. And the improvement has occurred across the board, in all ethnic groups and special populations.

To what do they credit their success? Getting a group of committed adults focused on the problem and meeting regularly to try to solve it. And they also moved from numbers to names—getting personal about who is not on track to graduate and what they can do about it. Everett’s Chief Academic Officer Terry Edwards recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Your district has recently gotten some press because of its improved graduation rates. Could you tell me a bit about the success you have had?

Edwards: It is something that I call “An overnight wonder that took seven years to get here.”

About seven years ago, in 2003-2004, the state of Washington changed how it calculated graduation rates. It moved from looking at the number of graduates in the senior class plus those who dropped out over the past four years to a cohort model, the on-time model that the federal government has adopted. This model looks at the number of kids who enter in ninth grade and the number who graduate four years later.

When we converted to that model, our district’s graduation rate was 53%. That was very hard for Everett to accept, because we had always believed that we were a very good school district and doing a good job. 53% was shocking and embarrassing. And it did not seem to follow what we perceived as reality. We did not see hundreds of children standing around on street corners in ...

obriena's picture

Survey Says...

Each year the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools provides an in-depth look at how Americans perceive public schools. This year’s poll probed the public on a wide range of hot education issues. How hot? Think the federal role in public education, school and teacher quality, teacher salaries and evaluation, student learning and rewards and the importance of college.

The results, released to the public yesterday, provide food for thought for educators and policymakers on all sides (and in the middle) of the ideological debates often dominating the education media. It is well worth a read.

One overarching conclusion, drawn by a panelist at the release event: The American public is not necessarily having the same conversation as policymakers when it comes to education.

Highlights of what Americans think:

  • The state is responsible for education, not the federal government. It is responsible for funding schools, setting standards, deciding what should be taught and holding schools accountable.
  • Improving teacher quality should be the top national education priority. Not developing demanding education standards. Not creating better assessments for students. And not
  • ...

After six wonderful years at the Learning First Alliance, and over two years as a contributor to this blog, I'm leaving LFA to take a new position at an organization that will focus on improving science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM). I'll share more about this when I can. At this point I can say that I believe this organization has the power to change the way our nation views STEM while creating exciting new opportunities for our youth.

The Public School Insights blog will flourish without me. My colleague (and blogger extraordinaire) Anne O'Brien will be a frequent contributor. We'll be getting many guest postings from some of the best bloggers in the business. And we'll keep featuring a steady diet of interviews with fascinating thinkers and doers in public education. So stay tuned.

It has been a great honor and a real privilege to work with the Alliance's members and partners over the years. Blogging at this site has become addictive, because it has brought me into a conversation with so many thoughtful and engaging people. I am grateful to all of you who have taken the time to respond to my musings, add your insights, challenge my ideas and broaden my thinking. I used to be a web 2.0 skeptic. All this blogging business has turned me into a true believer.

Thanks again to everyone. ...

Welcome back to school!

While you educators are at various stages of the back-to-school process--you may have been getting to know students for weeks now, or met students yesterday, or be setting up your classroom or office--we know that many of you are preparing back-to-school presentations, columns, and other communications.  So we wanted to remind you that we have sample language available for use in back-to-school communications.  Feel free to steal our words. Take them all, or take only a few. Whatever your needs dictate.

This language outlines an emerging vision for 21st century public schools, a vision that is already taking shape in schools from coast to coast.  It reaffirms the ...

Could the LA Times' decision to publish teachers' value-added scores have a chilling effect on school research? That question came to me as I read about a case in Arizona. Arizona officials are seeking the names of teachers and schools that took part in a study of the state's policies on teaching English, even though those teachers and schools were promised that their names would remain confidential. Needless to say, many in the research community are none too pleased.

The UCLA study found that the state's ESL policies were doing more harm than good. The state isolates English language learners so they can study only English for several hours every day. UCLA researchers found that this practice does not narrow learning gaps but does raise the specter of segregation. State Chief Tom Horne argues that he cannot rebut those findings without full access to the data used in the survey.

His opponents counter that schools will never again open the doors to researchers if they feel their anonymity is at risk. Researchers (like many reporters, I might add) will often go to great ...

Denver’s North High School looks like a persistently struggling school. Back in 2006 (and also 2007), only 7% of 9th graders and 5% of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on state math tests. Just 22% of 9th graders and 23% of 10th graders did so on reading tests. Fast forward to 2009. Just 6% of 9th graders and 3% of 10th graders met state proficiency standards in math. 22% of 9th graders and 34% of 10th graders did so in reading. It was the district’s lowest performing high school and in the bottom 5% of schools in the state as indicated by assessment scores. The district was recently awarded over a million dollars in grants to improve it.

Knowing this, you might not guess that North has “turned around.” But it has, if you use the definition of the term currently in vogue.

In 2007, the school’s entire faculty was dismissed (though they could reapply for their jobs). The next year, about 75% of the faculty was new. There were other changes, too. The school was selected to participate in a program that focuses on teacher training and development to change expectations and drive student performance, includes a math and English curriculum and provides access to study skills programs, among other things. The school would also ...

Imagine you open your newspaper in the morning to find a story about dietary supplements. The story includes a throw-away line or two noting that supplements aren't subject to FDA approval and that the research on supplements is mixed. It then proceeds to extol their virtues, list the ailments each is said to cure, and offer links to discount suppliers. I'm guessing you wouldn't think very highly of your paper.

In some respects, the recent LA Times story on teacher effectiveness isn't all that different from my hypothetical story. The authors mumble a few words about problems with the methods it used to rate 6,000 L.A. teachers. They then launch into full-throated advocacy for the approach. They even publish names and pictures of the city's "worst" teachers.

"No one suggests using value-added analysis [of test scores] as the sole measure of a teacher," the authors write. They then proceed to use value-added analysis as the sole measure of 6000 real teachers in real schools. They brand one as "least effective," name him, and  print his picture in the paper. Then they supply a database of 6,000 teachers rated solely by test scores. A few words about the limits of value-added measures won't blunt the overall effect of the article. Those teachers have been marked.

The authors note that "ineffective teachers often face no consequences and get no extra help." While I'm pleased that the Times has considered the need to help struggling teachers, I'm sorry to see that thought get swept away so quickly by stronger, darker currents. Regardless of what the authors ...

It is no secret that districts are struggling in the current economic climate. They are looking to cut costs every way they can.

One area worth exploring in cost-cutting debates is energy. With energy costs rising—to say nothing of the environmental impact it is becoming more and more clear that our current sources of energy can have—districts need to take a closer look at how they are using energy.

Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish Public Schools did. And as a result, this growing district, which currently has 72 facilities and serves about 36,000 students, has saved about six million dollars in utility costs over the past four and a half years. They’ve put that money back into schools, providing resources to help the district maintain its reputation as one of the best in the state. And they’ve received national and state recognition for their work.

How did they do it? A comprehensive energy management program. And when we say comprehensive, we mean COMPREHENSIVE. The program includes everything from customized reports for principals on their school’s energy performance (generated by the district’s two energy management tracking systems) to an energy awareness curriculum correlated to the state’s grade-level expectations. Automated lighting and temperature controls to daily reminders of energy saving behaviors in the form of posters, stickers and morning announcements. And much, much more.

Of course, in a time of fiscal crisis, districts may not be able to afford the upfront costs of some of the software and automation that St. Tammany now has. But it is important to note that St. Tammany started this program right after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when they were unable to do more than tell principals to turn off the lights and set thermostats to the lowest possible setting in the winter and the highest in the summer. But those behaviors alone saved the district 7% in energy costs.

We recently spoke to the district’s supervisor of administration, John Swang. He told us more about the program and its results. Below are some highlights of our conversation. Or read the full edited transcript.

At the Beginning: Runaway Energy Costs

Public School Insights: Why did St. Tammany Parish decide to start a comprehensive energy management program?

Swang: About four and a half years ago, our energy bills were skyrocketing. At one point, the cost of energy doubled in three years. We were sending a lot of our resources to the utility companies. It was no different than what the rest of the country was experiencing—it was a kind of runaway situation. And still, to a large extent, the cost of energy is increasing and probably will continue to do so.

But at that point the St. Tammany Parish School Board began talking about getting control of ...

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