Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Why the new ESEA won’t change US education


I haven’t been following the ESEA revisions closely as they’ve meandered their way through the Senate and the House, but my general impression is that this new bill will not dramatically transform public education in the United States (surprise!).

My understanding is that revisions as they currently stand are looking to:

The unfortunate fact is that perennial political debates between federal and state rights assumes precedence over the practical exigencies of public education. Transforming an entire nation’s education system requires strong federal guidance and authority.  The most current iterations of ESEA suggests that federal authority will be yet further curtailed.

This isn’t to say that NCLB was perfect. But the federal government clearly established higher standards and accountability to those standards for all students. This was critical for students that had been historically denied access to a quality education, such as students with disabilities. Yet NCLB was admittedly inflexible and created the unintended consequence of a single-minded focus on superficial ELA and math tests that were largely disconnected from any viable curriculum.

As problematic as the testing regime has been, however, tests could serve a more proactive instructional purpose if they were better designed to acknowledge the importance of content knowledge in literacy, if they were better able to adapt to student ability, and if they incorporated community feedback in the selection of the texts they assessed*. Then tests could actually provide direction on curriculum and instructional decisions. I’ve made this argument before, and so has David Steiner, former education commissioner of NY State, just so you know I’m not crazy.

I appreciate that senators are pushing for the creation of “an evidence-based innovation fund,” but I fear that such funds most likely won’t be put towards building infrastructure, despite a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of environment on behavior and learning.

I also greatly doubt that ESEA will be looking to fund or create accountability for any efforts at integration of schools or communities based on socio-economic status, despite evidence demonstrating its impact on reducing the opportunity gap.

I applaud our public representatives for working together across the aisle to negotiate these revisions of NCLB. But I am afraid that their efforts will do little to better outcomes for the majority of our students. Our nation needs to get real about increasing federal authority over curriculum, funding, and regulating school choice.

Let me be clear that I don’t mean that I’m advocating for one-size-fits-all. I believe states and districts require greater flexibility and choice in adapting funding and policies to their students’ needs. But without strong guidance and accountability from the federal government, states will be highly unlikely to do the heavy moral and financial lifting of pushing for more integrated schools and neighborhoods, designing or adopting tests that are adaptive yet more rigorous and content-rich, creating new school buildings that increase access to natural light and greenery, or pushing for increased access to a quality school and program and teacher for traditionally ignored populations.

*Update: I should add that tests should further be tied to rigorous, common standards.

Cuomo Doubles Down on Linear Thinking

“The dunes here are linear, thought to be due to shifting wind directions.”

New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has decided to double down on a misguided effort to increase the weight of state assessments in a teacher’s evaluation from 20% to 50%.

I’m going to spare you the “corporate reform” and “hedge fund buddies” angle on this; instead, I contend that this single-minded focus on test scores is simply bad strategy.

The focus of this blog has been on teasing out the metaphor of a school as an ecosystem, and elaborating on the theme that managing complex systems requires moving beyond linear thinking.

Here’s a relevant quote from Steve Denning (which we’ve examined before) on the principle of obliquity:

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

What would be the opposite of what was intended in this situation (if Cuomo gets his way)? Well, if every teacher in the state is conscious that their evaluation is heavily determined by their student’s performance on that state test — then the problems of focusing mostly on ELA and math and shallow skills-driven test-prep will most likely be exacerbated. And kids that most need access to rich literature and knowledge across the domains of history, music, arts, science, and technology will instead continue to be given drivel. And teachers and schools may be more likely to engage in cheating.

I generally assume best intent when assessing the decisions of others. So to be fair to Cuomo, he is pushing for a simplified accountability system because the current system of 20% state, 20% local, and 60% principal observation may lead to the problems of over-testing and inflated scores.

But moving to increase the weight of the state test scores as a leverage over teachers is not the right move to resolve these issues. Instead, this maneuver is much more likely to compound deeper issues, rather than achieve the goal of increasing student and teacher performance.

It would be great if our elected representatives could move beyond linear models when making critical decisions on how to improve our system of education.

Further Thoughts on Testing

Last Thursday I participated in a live chat on standardized testing and its role in education reform. You can view the transcript of the discussion online.

Here are some of the main points I made about testing during the discussion:

  • Multiple choice tests largely measure shallow skills, not higher order thinking
  • Attempts to measure deeper thinking via “efficient” measures is quixotic
  • Isolates skills from real content – no connection to actual curriculum taught
  • Results in test prep curriculum – shallow skills with little relevance to meaningful texts
  • Test prep curriculum removes engagement with meaningful texts from those students who are most in need of access to rich literature
  • Used primarily to evaluate teachers, not to diagnose students
  • Based on proficiency
  • Needs of students with disabilities are not factored into test design – accommodations are an afterthought
  • Causes suffering to students who are struggling
A NYC public school teacher, Claire Needell Hollander, wrote a great article on the NY Times entitled Teach the Books, Touch the Heart. She develops the argument that current tests are devoid of real literature, and thus test prep similarly removes great literature and the emotional connection it provides from the students who most need access to this form of “cultural capital.”

We should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year.

This is good advice. By connecting tests to the actual curriculum taught, we can avoid the tunnel vision of test prep.

Another great article on testing was recently posted on Washington Monthly, by Ed Sector‘s Susan Headden, entitled A Test Worth Teaching To. Headden notes many of the same issues that Hollander points out, and she also points out that tests are designed to be efficient and cheap, and thus don’t measure the higher order thinking that open ended questions would promote.

Headden is hopeful that the new tests designed by the Common Core testing consortiums will be tests worth teaching to, because they will be more akin to the open ended, higher order thinking challenges posed by AP and IB tests. She also notes that they will be computerized and adaptive, with performance learning tasks that can better diagnose students’ deeper analysis capabilities.

I am also hopeful about the new tests and believe that the adaptive nature of the questions will provide much more timely and useful information. However, I continue to remain skeptical of whether a test that assesses skills isolated from the actual curriculum taught can really be a great improvement.

There might be one other non-robotic way to bring down the cost of scoring: assign the task to local teachers instead of test-company employees. According to the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the very act of scoring a high-quality assessment provides teachers with rich opportunities for learning about their students’ abilities and about how to adjust instruction. So teachers could score assessments as part of their professional development—in which case their services would come “free.”

This is also good advice. I think scoring these deeper tests via local teachers would provide a great learning opportunity for the teachers to get deep into the questions and understand where their students are struggling.

So if we put Headden’s and Hollander’s advice together, we could perhaps have a test worth teaching to: tests based on real literature that students have read during the year, scored by local teachers instead of test-company employees or computers. Then if we also consider the needs of students with disabilities from the outset of test design, rather than as an afterthought, we could truly have some great tests.

But as I said on the live chat, we also need to stop our obsession of using tests as evaluative instruments. We could move testing to a randomized or staggered basis (every 2 or 3 years) and put the remaining money to the much more important direct observation of school learning environments and assessments of school curricula.

 Efficient? No. But well worth the undertaking, given the issues outlined in our live chat.

It Takes More Than War PART II: A Critique of Geoffrey Canada’s Approach to Ed Reform

This is the second post in a series critiquing Geoffrey Canada’s approach to education reform. Read Part I.

In my last post examining Paul Tough’s account of Geoffrey Canada’s initiation of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), I noted that Canada brought much needed focus to “wraparound services” and early childhood years in addressing the achievement gap. However, I critiqued Canada’s approach by pointing out that despite his own acknowledgement of the importance of a long-term perspective, he focused on short-term, bottom-line indicators, putting great pressure on his administrators, teachers, and students to the detriment of an inclusive learning environment that supports and nurtures social and emotional needs.

In this post, I’d like to continue my critique of this bottom-line approach, but before I do so, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to devalue Geoffrey Canada’s work. He is a pioneer, and he has established clear pathways to raising Harlem’s children out of poverty. I am attempting to build on this work by promoting a deeper focus on creating inclusive, positive learning environments that address the whole child as the next step in promoting education reform.

Something else I appreciate about Canada is his utter refusal to give up on poor black communities, and rather than try to isolate children from the culture they were raised within, he seeks to transform the community as a whole through what he calls the process of “contamination.”

Many programs that try to help poor children, including charter schools, charities, and social service agencies, take as their premise that the best way to help children in a bad environment is to separate them as much as possible from that environment, to insulate them from the problems and values of the ghetto or even to extract promising kids from their homes and drop them into elite boarding schools. Canada, by contrast, wants to leave Harlem’s poor children exactly where they are, so that they change the neighborhood and the neighborhood changes them.

In order to give students the skills that they were sorely lacking, Canada’s school team focused on test results, just as so many public schools are prodded to do today in the current “data-driven” environment. This focus is due in large part to research on poverty by James Heckman:

Skills matter. The more ability you have, the better you are likely to do in life. . . . significant skill gaps exist–by race, class, and maternal education–and they open up very early.

Recognition of these gaps in skills has therefore resulted in what we call “test prep,” in which kids are drilled on skills like finding the meaning of a word using context clues, figuring out the main idea of a text, or making an inference.

But focusing primarily on reading skills in this way does a disservice to students who are struggling with those basic skills in two ways. First of all, it ignores the social and emotional needs that all students have. Students that have been raised in conditions of poverty often have great emotional and psychological needs that are direly evident to those who work with them. They need a lot of attention, empathy, and love. As Tough puts it in his narrative:

It was the X factor, the magic ingredient that could outweigh all the careful calculations behind Promise Academy’s strategy for success: on top of the hours and hours of cognitive training, what made the difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate. If the kids didn’t get that, all the tutoring in the world might not help them.

The second way that test prep does a great disservice to kids is that the reason they are struggling with basic skills in literacy is not because they need to be taught reading skills, but because they lack the background knowledge essential to comprehending and grappling with complex texts. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Daniel T. Willingham, and Robert Pondiscio have argued this point more in full elsewhere, but to sum up a major point they have all made: reading is not really a skill, it is more a reflection of prior knowledge. Willingham puts it well here:

We tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way. The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.

So what is it that kids need, then? As I have argued on GothamSchools, they need rich, coherent curriculum that targets their social and emotional needs, in addition to building up their background knowledge with structured, sequential content.

Yet this is almost the exact opposite tack that Canada’s principal of his elementary school took:

McKesey’s belief was that on tests like the one the 2nd grade students were practicing to take, knowledge was only one part of the equation, and a fairly small part, at that. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in teaching content . . . it was just that he thought that when a child sat down to take a standardized test, knowing a lot of information wasn’t necessarily all that helpful. What mattered more was having mastered certain test-taking strategies and tricks, the kind that allowed students to undertand what the exam was really asking.

Wrong. Knowing a lot of information is extremely helpful. Knowing a lot of strategies will maybe get the school some short term boosts on tests, but it’s not going to take those children anywhere. This kind of approach does an extreme disservice to children, especially ones who are already severely behind. They need more knowledge, more deep understanding of the academic fields they are expected to master, not shallow strategies on how to succeed on shallow multiple choice tests.

Furthermore, when children are suffering with great emotional or psychological needs, creating an environment of high stress and emotional vacuity is detrimental to their long-term growth. Eventually, what happens is that some kids — the ones termed “bad apples” in Tough’s account — will be swept under the rug. They need an environment of structured caring, with content that is meaningful and that will enrich their lives and broaden their perspectives.

It takes so much more than war to save our communities and our children most in need. It takes a lot of love and empathy. It takes a structured, consistent focus on restructuring our economy, redesigning our urban spaces, and measuring the things that truly matter. We must stop focusing on the bottom-line of multiple choice tests, and focus instead on the bottom-line of the hearts and minds and well-being of children.