Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


Blog Entries

A couple months ago, I wrote about an NPR series on efforts by Chicago city and public schools to mitigate violence and vulnerability among low-income students. Yesterday, Edweek featured an article about a new Chicago city-initiative—spearheaded by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in a partnership with Comcast—to provide computers and internet services at dramatically-reduced prices for the families of low-income students. The goal is in part to combat the increasing educational achievement gap between students with and without computers – a gap that, if left unaddressed, will only increase and further disadvantage our most vulnerable students. In a press conference announcing the initiative, Emmanuel pointed to a map and showed areas where only 15-45% of households have internet service. ...

Recently, NPR did a special series on violence among youth in Chicago. Schools and students all over the country—especially in urban areas—deal with the everyday-threat of violence. Clearly, this omnipresent factor can take a huge toll on public schools.

Mayor-elect of Rahm Emanuel says the violence in the city is unacceptable, and he has promised to hire a thousand new police officers as part of his crime policy. One article  quotes him stating, "My goal for the four years, and the measurement of my progress, will be whether that child can be thinking of their studies, and not their safety."

Already the city—relying on schools and police—is implementing intensive efforts to try to combat what some consider an epidemic of youth violence in Chicago—efforts that may provide good models for other cities and school districts facing these problems. ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

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 ...

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 fast becoming a received truth that teachers, teachers, teachers make all the difference in a child's academic performance. But what if analysis of students' scores on state tests threw that belief into question? It may have in L.A.

That's not the impression you'll get from the recent L.A. Times story on teacher quality. The Times used student test data to estimate 6,000 L.A. teachers' relative effectiveness. The  story suggests that it's all about the teachers:

Year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students, or their parents.

It's their teachers.

But blogger Corey Bunje Bower had a look at the report behind the Times analysis, and he drew another conclusion. The Times notes that the best teachers aren't all crammed into the "best" schools. Bower weighs the implications of that finding:

Teacher quality varies widely within schools--just as with test scores, there's far more variation within schools than across schools. ("Teachers are slightly more effective in high- than in low-API schools, but the gap is small, and the variance across schools is large"). Which means that the highest performing schools don't have all the best teachers and the lowest performing schools don't have all the worst teachers. Which means that something other than teacher quality is causing schools to be low and high performing. Which means we should probably focus our attention on more than just teacher quality.

Of course teachers are very important. Why would anyone teach if teachers didn't matter? But should we put ALL our eggs in the teacher basket?

Other bloggers have raised strong objections to the L.A. Times piece. Can we trust the tests? Can we trust "value-added" analysis of test scores? Is it right to publish names and even pictures ...

The big education story these days is the chilling effect of higher cut scores on New York State tests. The miracle in New York City seemed a bit less miraculous after after the state raised the bar. Most of the sniping among pundits and wonks has focused on the extent to which the new standard undermines the claims of New York City's school reformers. But I think the story raises even bigger questions. For example:

Where Have the Media Been for so Long?
Cut scores have by all accounts been low since 2006, but, as late as 2009, only a few newspapers had addressed that fact. Critics like Diane Ravitch had raised the issue for years. In August of 2009, teacher Diana Senechal showed that students could guess their way to a passing score. Only in September did the New York Times cover that story--and their story didn't mention Senechal.

By the time the Times ran the story, state board Chancellor Merryl Tisch was already on the case. She had the real courage to declare the cut scores bogus and call for a higher standard.

But in this case, the fourth estate lagged behind. Given how heated and political the school reform debate has become, and how ready parties on all sides are to make grand claims about success or failure, that's bad news.

Why Do We Have Such a High Tolerance for Data that Obscure as Much as they Reveal?
The answer to that question is easy: politics. When so much of the debate is driven by ideology, PR and even fear, you can't expect truth-tellers to get rewarded. Those whose jobs depend on the scores point out problems at their own peril. Those who stake their political ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Gaming the Tests

If there's a test, then there's a way to game it. It's crazy to think that we should therefore abandon standardized tests. But it also makes no sense to rely on test scores without looking for supporting or conflicting evidence elsewhere. Yesterday's New York Times piece on the City's gifted and talented Kindergartens drives this point home.

Two years ago, the score on a standard city-wide test became the sole basis for admission to those programs. Since then, the share of black and Hispanic children in those programs has plummeted. It appears that wealthy parents are buying pricey test-prep books and services for their children. Poor children are, of course, priced out of that market.

I don't know how healthy it is for wealthy four year olds to "turn to jelly on test day" because they've absorbed their parents' fears that a low score will blow their chances at Harvard. But I'm at least as worried about the fate of poor kids when the testing system gives rise to a market whose very premise is that money buys advantage.

As usual, the intentions behind the testing program were noble. Schools chancellor Joel Klein wanted an objective measure that put all children on an equal footing.

But I'm not sure the unintended outcome should really surprise us. We need look no further than the college admissions industry to see what can happen. Wealthy parents buy test prep services, and some even hire college consultants to help them craft the perfect ...

About two weeks ago, we posted a conversation with two leaders from Boston's City Connects (CCNX) program, which is working with 11 schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services in the community." The approach has helped raise grades and test scores for the mostly low income children in these schools.

We recently spoke with people in two CCNX schools. Traci Walker Griffith is principal at the Eliot K-8 School, and Kathleen Carlisle is the CCNX site coordinator at the Mission Hill School. Each has an insider's view of this remarkable program at work.

Public School Insights: How has City Connects worked in your school? What changes have been made since it began?

Traci Walker Griffith: A number of changes have occurred at the Eliot School. I came in as principal in March of 2007. In May of 2007 the school was identified as one that would take on City Connects.

We were fortunate because the mission and vision of the Eliot School aligned with City Connects in that we are serving the whole child--academically, socially, emotionally. So we have worked amazingly well together in identifying students’ academic and social/emotional needs. And as we began the program I found that the structures and systems that it offers—whole class review, individual student review, and providing a school site coordinator to maintain and sustain partnerships—really aligned with what we wanted to start at the Eliot School at the time.

Kathleen Carlisle: I would echo many of the things that Traci just said. The whole child philosophy especially stands out in my mind—that is a City Connects and also a Mission Hill philosophy. And I think that the presence of City Connects in Mission Hill has especially impacted the identification of student needs and ways to meet those needs, be they social/emotional, academic, health or family. I think there has been greater connection between supports and needs, and also consistent follow-up.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense of the results of the City Connects work in your respective schools?

Traci Walker Griffith: When I came on at the Eliot, a school identified as underperforming and in correction, all of the pieces we needed to put in place to increase student achievement were aligned with what City Connects was working on: identifying services and enrichment opportunities for students both inside and outside the school; working with community agencies that in the past had difficulty working ...

An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

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