Friday, March 23, 2012

Is our district teaching to the test?

They say that most people hate Congress but love their Congressperson. I think there’s a similar phenomenon with schools: many people complain about trends in education, but then view their local schools through rose-colored glasses. Parents in our district, for example, have been assured by school staff that although there’s a lot of standardized testing, our schools haven’t resorted to “teaching to the test.” Is it true?

Yesterday I came across a checklist that our district uses in its sixth-grade curriculum. The students are learning “informational writing,” and are supposed to make their essays conform to the rules that appear on the checklist. Those rules include:
Does the introduction also introduce the subtopics?

Are there at least three subtopics, with each subtopic written as a separate paragraph?

Does the conclusion mention the main idea and the subtopics?

Are there overused words? Replace overused words with synonyms.

Look at the start of all sentences and paragraphs. No two sentences in the same paragraph should start with the same word. No paragraphs should start with the same word.
The checklist proceeds through thirteen such rules. Then, without any recognition of irony, the checklist concludes:
Is there voice in the writing? Does the writing sound like you, or could it be written by anyone?
As a writing teacher myself (at a law school), I know that it’s sometimes helpful to make generalizations, to describe prevailing conventions, and to give students rough templates for different forms of writing. But even generalizations should have good reasons behind them. Several of the rules in this checklist are ridiculous, and are not true of any conceivable form. Others might apply in some circumstances, but certainly not to all “informational writing.”

What possible explanation is there for this checklist other than to satisfy the expectations of some standardized writing assessment? (Let me guess: Evidence shows that the checklist increases student achievement – as measured by standardized writing assessments!) I don’t know which would be worse: that it’s designed to teach to a test, or that someone actually thinks it’s good advice.

The checklist as a whole sends the message that expression is independent of content, and that good writing is a matter of applying formulas. It’s not; it’s a matter of exercising judgment. So is good teaching. But as education policy has become obsessed with quantitative measurement, the concept of judgment has fallen on hard times – even in Iowa City.

(Click to enlarge)

Monday, March 19, 2012

What does equity mean?

I promise this won’t become A Blog About Redistricting. As KD pointed out in the comments to the last post, the redistricting issue has been talked to death, and seems to have distracted attention from other issues, including issues about educational philosophy, about how the kids are being treated, and about what the kids are learning, which are more the focus of this blog. But before returning to those issues, I want to add a few thoughts to my last post about the idea of building a new school on the far east side of Iowa City.

One issue that arose in the comments is how the creation of a new neighborhood school would affect Twain Elementary, which has a particularly high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches (“FRL”), an indicator of the number of low-income students. Twain is not the only school with relatively high FRL numbers, but it’s a good example of one, so the potential effect of a new school on Twain raises broader issues about how our community will treat the educational needs of lower-income kids.

It can be challenging to talk about that issue, especially in terms of a particular school. On the one hand, people might reasonably point out that a school with a higher concentration of low-income families faces certain challenges that other schools don’t face, and might reasonably ask the community to address those challenges. On the other hand, pointing out those challenges can lead people elsewhere to perceive the school as having more problems than it actually does, and those perceptions can then make it harder to address the challenges it has. Anyone who has contact with Twain – families, teachers – agrees that there are a lot of good things happening there.

The district’s latest boundary proposal would try, at least a little, to lower the FRL percentage at Twain, by shifting some children from higher-income areas into that attendance area. As an effort in that direction, it seems as good (or as bad) as any. The Twain families, at least judging from the comments of their PTO president, seem to think it would be good for the school. But the petition to build a new elementary school on the far east side appears to have been triggered by those proposed boundary changes.

I strongly sympathize with people’s desire to have their elementary-age kids go to school close to home. I certainly don’t think wanting a neighborhood school makes you a bad person. I love that my kids can walk to school without crossing a street. But it remains true that the concept of neighborhood schools is inherently in some tension with the goal of making a school like Twain more socioeconomically diverse (because our neighborhoods, alas, are not socioeconomically diverse). It’s hard to see how building a new neighborhood school in a relatively well-off area can do anything but undermine the effort to reduce the concentration of lower-income families in the Twain attendance area.

Maybe the community is so fond of neighborhood schools that it’s unwilling to use boundary changes to address the challenges represented by high FRL concentrations. If that’s the case, then I think the community ought to address those challenges in other ways. And whether we have sufficiently addressed them should depend on what I would call (for lack of a better name) the Indifference Test: Assume that the demographics of the high-FRL schools are unchanged. What would it take to make people indifferent between a high-FRL school and another, equidistant school with a different demographic profile? How many additional resources – diverted, necessarily, from other schools – would it take before people would start to say, “Hey, maybe my kids would be better off at Twain”? Very small classes? More teachers available to give one-on-one help? Newer, higher-tech facilities? Free after-school care? How much would it take before the number of families asking to transfer in equaled the number asking to transfer out, and the number of families looking to buy houses in Twain equaled the number avoiding it?

We may not have the collective will to significantly reduce Twain’s FRL numbers through redistricting. But if we can’t satisfy that Indifference Test, then we’re really resigning ourselves to the idea that the quality of a child’s education should depend on what part of town he or she lives in, or on how much money his or her parents have. If we fall short of satisfying the Indifference Test, it means we’re choosing to give the kids in better-off neighborhoods a better education, just because we can. Judging from the reaction to the redistricting proposal, we’re nowhere near satisfying that test now. When the petition comes along that proposes that kind of solution, I’ll be all ears.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Should there be a new elementary school on Iowa City’s east side?

I have mostly avoided writing about our district’s struggles over redistricting and over how to allocate scarce resources among competing needs. I’m more concerned about how the kids are being treated within the schools, and with what they’re learning, than I am with where the boundary lines are drawn. Moreover, issues about boundaries and resource allocation involve so many tradeoffs that there are never any perfect answers, and every proposal inevitably makes some people unhappy.

This week, parents in our district started a petition to ask the school board and district administrators “to begin the planning and funding of an additional elementary school on the far east side of the District, as well as other critical infrastructure improvements in facilities and technology around the District.” The petition argues that dealing with the immediate needs of east side schools, particularly elementary schools, should take priority over planning for a several-years-down-the-road third comprehensive high school in the North Liberty and Coralville area.

I don’t have a strong opinion about the petition, and don’t feel as informed as I would like to be. My initial feelings toward it are mixed. It seems plainly to have been triggered by the fact that many parents are unhappy about the district’s recent proposed boundary changes, some of which have attempted to even out socioeconomic disparities among schools by shifting higher-income neighborhoods into lower-income attendance areas. So it comes off looking like the petitioners are saying, “We don’t want to go that school, so build us a new school.” Some of the petition’s points may be good ones, but no one was circulating this petition until the district proposed the boundary changes.

That said, I’m skeptical about the wisdom of building a third comprehensive high school. And it wouldn’t take much to convince me that the east side facilities, which are generally older, could use some additional resources. The petition’s case for building a new elementary school, though, is less convincing. The petition seems to acknowledge that the existing capacity at Twain and Hills is currently enough to offset the crowding at the other east side schools, so why doesn’t redrawing the boundaries make more sense than building a new school (which would, of course, require all kinds of boundary changes)? Is there any real evidence that the east side student population is imminently going to grow beyond the capacity of the existing schools? (The petition states that “hundreds of additional residential lots are slated for near-term development,” but how realistic are those projections in today’s economy?) If so, what are the other possible ways to address that problem, short of building a new school? What are the other possible uses of the money that would go toward building a school?

So, readers, what are your thoughts? Educate me!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Local Democratic Party opposes PBIS

Yesterday, the Johnson County Democrats held their biennial convention, and now the county party platform includes the following plank:
We oppose:
139. Discipline systems which rely primarily on external awards and unquestioning compliance to authority.
That’s great to see, especially since Johnson County is heavily Democratic. Not many people read party platforms, but it might at least alert some of our elected officials to the nature of PBIS and similar programs. I do wonder, though, just how impervious the school system is to what anyone outside of it thinks.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Redistricting, the Superintendent, and other things to comment on

Another busy week without much time for blogging. In the meantime, a few items of interest:

The Iowa City school district will hold forums to hear public comment on its latest redistricting proposal – including on the issue of whether existing SINA transfers should be revoked – from 7:00 to 8:30 pm this Thursday, March 8, at City High, and from 7:00 to 8:30 pm on March 21 at Northwest Junior High. You can also comment via email.

Also, the school board is soliciting comment about Superintendent Murley’s performance via an online survey here. I found the survey frustratingly worded, but I suppose it’s better than no survey at all.

The legislature is seeking public comment on the proposed education bills via email to Type “Testimony” in the subject line.

Karen W. has a great post about the limitations of educational empirical research – a topic I plan to chime in on again soon, too.

Also, check out NorthTOmom’s post, and the ensuing comments (including by me) about discussing social justice in school.

Finally, my apologies for the way the comment form has been acting up lately. Blogger has made some unfortunate changes to its comment system, and still hasn’t gotten all the bugs out. I appreciate that people have continued to comment anyway.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mad scientists

Karen W., who reads lengthy and tedious legislative documents so we don’t have to, has been posting updates about the education bills making their way through the Iowa legislature over at her blog, Education in Iowa. She recently posted about Iowa’s application for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Others have written (for example, here and here) about how these waivers are a cure that’s as bad as the disease, and this waiver application seems to bear that out.

I got a kick out of Karen’s suggestion to the drafters: “Please do not find yourself in the position of claiming to hold high academic standards for all students while failing to competently proofread a document you plan to submit to the US Department of Education.” But the trouble is far worse than typos and misspellings. Karen points out, for example, that the waiver application makes it clear that Iowa intends to focus on statewide implementation of PBIS. Moreover, the entire document seems designed to demonstrate just how lost you can get in a faulty paradigm – in this case, the idea that empirical research in social science can dictate indisputable policy solutions that we just need to impose uniformly on all of our schools.

Here’s just one passage I came across, pretty much at random, on “Universal Supports”:
All schools will engage in school improvement through the Seven Characteristics of Effective and Improving Schools, the C-Plan, and the System for Improving Student Success. All schools will be supported in the following ways.

Response to Intervention (Turnaround Principles: strengthening school’s instructional program and using data to inform instruction): From 2003 to 2011 Iowa implemented a process called Instructional Decision-Making (IDM) which was a prototype of Response to Intervention (RtI). IDM was developed by a team of Iowa general educators, special educators, and administrators and information was disseminated to a contact person in each Area Education Agency (AEA). With this train-the-trainer model (AEA contacts provided training to individual schools), IDM was not implemented consistently across the state. In some schools where IDM was in place, it was not integrated into practice as an on-going approach to improving learning. Because of the lack of success of IDM, it became apparent a more concentrated and prescriptive approach to RtI implementation was necessary.

As presented in Principle 1, RtI is a multi-tiered framework by which schools use data to identify the academic supports each and every student needs to be successful in school and leave school ready for life. In their review of 13 studies investigating the impact of RtI on academic achievement or performance, Hughes and Dexter (2011) found some level of improvement in all studies, primarily on early reading and math skills.
Should I go on? Needless to say, the conclusion is that “it is imperative that RtI be implemented with fidelity in each Iowa school” – even though the one previous attempt to implement the program apparently resulted in a “lack of success,” even under its own almost certainly reductive definition of success. When our “robust universal instruction,” “data-based decision making,” “intensive interventions,” and “progress monitoring” fail, it must mean we need to do even more of them!

Once you hack through the bureaucratese and the management guru jargon (I particularly like that C-minus Plan), this program appears to be designed to catch students who are falling behind academically and give them “intensive” forms of attention. Don’t look for any reflection on the definition of “successful” or its susceptibility to measurement. Don’t look for any concern over the need for buy-in by parents and teachers. Don’t look for any limits to the faith in our state bureaucracy to know what’s best for everyone. Don’t look for any inquiry into just how this intervention and monitoring might affect the kids’ long-term attitudes toward school and toward learning, or any recognition that few of us welcome “intensive interventions” into our own lives. There is a citation to a study, after all, which certainly proves that imposing this program uniformly on teachers in every school in every district is better for children than allowing individual districts to make their own decisions about how to help struggling students, and better than allowing teachers to use their experience, judgment, and wisdom instead of applying a centrally-dictated, “concentrated and prescriptive” (i.e., idiot-proofed) “System” to whatever challenges come their way.

Yet the use of “data” in this way is widely accepted and practiced on all sides of the educational debate.

We have seriously lost our way.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Musical chairs

In the past, when elementary schools in our district were declared “schools in need of assistance” (“SINA schools”) under No Child Left Behind, their families were given the option of transferring out to other, non-SINA schools. A few years ago, my kids’ elementary school took in dozens of new students that way.

Now, the state is applying for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Apparently, if the federal government grants the waiver, districts would no longer be required to offer the transfer option to families at SINA schools. This would mean that the kids who were allowed to transfer to our school could be required to return to their designated attendance area. Rumor has it that our district would, in fact, take advantage of that rule and require those students to switch schools a second time – if only because the school district would then have more control over how many kids attend each of its schools.

This strikes me as a good example of the kind of unintended consequence that “education reform” proposals are apt to lead to. The government invited these kids to switch schools on the theory that they had been disadvantaged by their existing school assignment. Many of the SINA schools had a fairly high degree of turnover already, so some of the students who transferred to our school may have already switched schools before. Now, just a few years later, the government may force those kids to switch schools yet again – meaning that some of them may end up having switched schools twice or even three times just during the course of elementary school. How can that possibly help disadvantaged kids?

I hope the speculation is false, and that our district will allow any child who transferred out of a SINA school to finish out elementary school at his or her current school.

More coverage of the waiver proposals is available here.