Things have been busy, so newsletters have just been piling up in my inbox unread. But here’s just a few items that have crossed my radar over the last couple of weeks worth looking into.
Momentum in NYC towards increasing school diversity, from both districts and charters
“The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.”
Detroit’s new superintendent is moving in the right direction
“When teachers complained that students were spending too much time taking tests, he reduced mandatory student testing. He also promised to raise teacher pay.
And he’s paying attention to what students learn, something that he says has been neglected. He’s pushing a district-wide curriculum audit to make sure Detroit kids are getting an education that meets national standards.”
Teaching is complex. So treat teachers like professionals.
“I believe that for a teacher to deal most effectively with the complexities of a classroom you must be considered the expert in your room. No one else lives with your students all day. Only you see so many things that others are not privy to so that you, even the beginning teacher, knows your class better than anyone else, no matter their legal power or expertise. You need to be treated like the professional you are and be allowed to make your own mistakes and learn from them. In turn you should allow your students the same rights.”
Achievement First is preparing students for the long haul (and tracking whether they are successful)
“Our evolving answer involves less full-class instruction and more targeted, small group instruction. We’ve made a bet on more personalized and self-directed learning with students completing “playlists” and advancing on their own when they have demonstrated competence in a given area. Students have access to more enrichment experiences — extended exploration in music, STEM inventions, dance, and martial arts. Students also participate in twice weekly “Circles,” based on the best practices of our friends at Valor Collegiate, to build their social-emotional skills and create a strong, supportive peer community.”
To make these kinds of changes, create effective teams. Use the pizza rule for team size.
“How many should be on a team? One rule of thumb: If this group got together, could it split one large pizza? This isn’t about saving money on food provided in meetings — but when you need more than a pizza, the decision-making often gets a lot harder. You want to make sure you have enough perspectives in the room to represent the needs of your school and community, but not so many that moving an idea forward becomes too challenging.”
An interesting piece in Nautilus makes the claim that cognition and emotions are not distinct functions of our brains (and challenges the concept of a “triune” brain), nor does associating physical sensations or signals confer a deeper read on emotions. Instead, understanding the emotions of others and ourselves stems from learning “emotion words” and making predictions based on the context of a situation and our past experiences.
The idea that you can increase your emotional intelligence by broadening your emotion vocabulary is solid neuroscience. Your brain is not static; it rewires itself with experience. When you force yourself to learn new words—emotion-related or otherwise—you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct those emotional experiences, as well as your perceptions of others’ emotions, more effortlessly in the future. In short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence.
People who can construct finely grained emotional experiences have advantages beyond the expected social ones. Children who broaden their knowledge of emotion words improve their academic performance as well as their social behavior, according to studies by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
This is an interesting idea. It certainly lends itself to the idea that reading a wide range of literature can do much to build our students’ vocabulary of emotional words, and thus, of an understanding of the perspectives and feelings of others.
Though if this is true, then why is it that there are those who are widely read and yet are “bookish” and awkward in social situations? Perhaps it is because they are inundated with a much richer and denser swarm of emotional signals than the common nincompoop? Or perhaps it is that there needs to be some balance of immersion in translating the vocabulary and experiences one learns from books into real social situations in order to gain fluency with navigating that greater emotional granularity.
Stop wasting your time on item-analysis of standards and skills on state ELA tests, people
Tim Shanahan has some advice and candor that many principals and district leaders sorely need to hear.
“What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging–that pose barriers to meaning.
. . . The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.”
This is the annual rigmarole that schools waste their ELA teachers’ time with at the beginning of each school year.
Stop it, folks. Just stop it. You’re not going to glean new insight about how to effectively teach literacy to your kids by doing intensive item analysis of the standards and questions on the ELA state test.
Instead, read real literature and engage your kids in learning about their world. Then you might actually have an impact.
“At least on paper, it is difficult to tell what separates the schools at the bottom of the list from those at the top, which cuts to the core of what makes school turnaround so difficult: nobody knows precisely what works.
‘The problem is that there is no silver bullet to turnaround interventions,’ said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. ‘It’s a really tough thing to figure out what makes the difference in schools.’”
Make sure to read behind the headlines on the new CREDO study. There’s a lot of unknowns and nuance to their findings.
Matt Barnum does a nice job of drawing those out in this Chalkbeat piece.
“…the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.
Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.
What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.”
Don Shalvey calls for more learning, rather than competition, between charters and districts
“Let’s leave crushing the competition to the National Football League and not act like it’s the reason educators create and work in charter public schools.”
Sounds good to me. I think the fractious debates between charter and district are largely a distraction from the real work of how to best serve families and educate kids. And I will happily learn from and collaborate with any of my colleagues working in the charter sector.
It’s important when such collaborations do occur to frame them as a two-way street, rather than one sharing “best practices” to another. We all have things to learn from different contexts, structures, and approaches.
Or maybe districts need to be a little more competitive with charters
“In their rush to score cheap political points, both camps sidestep the reality that districts and charters are in a high-stakes competition for students. The truth is that unilateral opposition to charters has never stopped them from growing, just like it hasn’t stopped thousands of parents from enrolling their children in private schools or finding ways to get them into neighboring school districts. The futures of local charters and districts hinge on the same thing—the decisions parents make for their children.”
Celine Coggins advises teacher leaders to be willing to push policymakers for disagreement
“Most educators’ natural instinct is to keep the peace. Your average local politician won’t be as impolitic as the President. They’ll say they care about equity, meaning a great education for all kids. You need to get beneath the hood on that.”
Good point. I’ve met with a number of policymakers to advocate for better policies, and the tendency for these conversations is typically for teachers to share, policymaker to nod and then politely push away any accountability, everyone to get photo ops. The best conversations are when you can have a reasoned argument about something that helps to clarify where everyone stands.
Also good tidbit here from Coggins:
“Which are the policy problems and which are the relationship problems? The battle for greater equity for disadvantaged students is a war on two fronts. Some parts of the problem are best solved at the individual-level through relationships (i.e. influencing a leader’s thinking, getting invited to the decision-making table). Some parts of the problem are best solved at the system-level through formal policies (i.e. who has access to certain support services and programming; how funding gets allocated across schools). Separating the two types of problems, will help you get clear on the issues you can tackle next on each front.”
Diana Senechal asks, “What is a civics education?”
“Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements.”
“This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.”
A notable lack of transparency from De Blasio’s DOE
“Let’s talk about the New York City Department of Education,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which oversees open meetings and public records laws. “Terrible. Terrible. They’re terrible. They’re terrible.”
De Blasio, before becoming mayor:
“The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public,” de Blasio said at the time. “That’s the last thing New York City can afford right now. We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers.”
National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and TODOS: Mathematics for All are “calling on math teachers to assume a “social justice stance” that “challenges the roles power, privilege, and oppression play in the current unjust system of mathematics.”
If assuming a social justice stance means developing greater coherency in what and how a rigorous, sequential math curriculum is provided to all students, then sure.
Speaking of math, here’s sage advice from an 80 year veteran math teacher
The key to teaching math, says Miller, boils down to one thing — repetition. “Repetition is one of the foundations of learning.”
Repetition and rote memorization aren’t exactly cutting edge these days, but it’s hard to disagree with the advice Miller gives teachers who are just starting out: “Be sure that you know your subject.”
But it can’t be all memorization. At least when it comes to learning a language
Do not use flashcards! Do not emphasize memorization of the characters (bùyào sǐbèi dānzì 不要死背单字). Learn words in their proper grammatical and syntactic context. Learn grammatical patterns and practice them in substitution drills (that was one of the best ways Chang Li-ching used to train her students, and she was extremely successful in getting them up to an impressive level of fluency in a short period of time).
For examples of the kind of drills that would be really beneficial to all kids in teaching them grammatical patterns, refer to the Hochman Method.
Speaking of learning a language, why is the US so bad at producing bilinguals?
“…it’s ironic that we have students walking up staircases at one end of their school building to attend Spanish foreign language classes while at the other end of the same building native Spanish speakers are being taught English and content in ways that lead to their loss of Spanish.”
I’ve argued before that one of the biggest problems with what we teach students across our nation is that it’s completely incoherent, and we do little to nurture a collective sense of values, knowledge, and civic engagement.
Here’s that problem in action:
Virginia’s standards of learning for U.S. history to 1865 include “describing the cultural, economic and constitutional issues that divided the nation” and “explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions.” Alabama fifth-graders “identify causes of the Civil War from the Northern and Southern viewpoints.”
Contrast that with Delaware, where school districts set their own curriculum but a syllabus for the eighth grade suggesting what might be covered during instruction says that abolition meant that the American people could for the first time “seriously claim to be living up to their commitment to the principle of liberty rooted in the American state papers.”
In Michigan, curriculum also is decided locally, though the state’s social studies standards for the Civil War and Reconstruction in eighth grade include the instructions: “Explain the reasons (political, economic, and social) why Southern states seceded and explain the differences in the timing of secession in the Upper and Lower South.”
Teacher shortages in high needs areas, such as SPED and math, with no end in sight
One of the suggestions here for addressing this makes a lot of sense to me:
“Make teacher certification national instead of state by state. Prospective teachers must pass an exam specific to the state they want to work in. But if a teacher wants to move from, say, Pennsylvania to California, they can’t immediately apply for jobs there. By having a national certification exam, teachers would have more mobility to go where they’re needed.”
There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things
“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”
I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.
“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”
So how do other countries keep students out of special education?
“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”
Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.
Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:
“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”
This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.
Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.
Society reconceived as a giant market leads to a public life lost to bickering over mere opinions; until the public turns, finally, in frustration to a strongman as a last resort for solving its otherwise intractable problems.
…When we abandoned, for its embarrassing residue of subjectivity, reason as a form of truth, and made science the sole arbiter of both the real and the true, we created a void that pseudo-science was happy to fill.
There’s a teacher shortage in high needs subjects and of teachers of color. Seems to me if charters can demonstrate they can train new teachers adequately without certification, then this could be a viable pathway into the profession that we should be welcoming, rather than fighting against. In the meantime, we can work on actually elevating the certified pathway by beefing up our higher ed programs and more closely examining how well they really are preparing teachers in the field.
Yes, I think charters overwork their teachers and demand a lot of them, often for less pay. I wouldn’t want to teach at Success Academy. But that would be the price to pay for not gaining certification via a more traditional route.
I’m all about honoring the profession. But I also know, like many other educators, that the real learning only began once I got into the classroom. It’s about whether or not you’ve been supported at that point thereon that really matters.
If charters can demonstrate effectiveness with these uncertified teachers, then what’s the problem? Isn’t this about the kids?
Each year in my classroom, I had kids who desperately needed glasses and didn’t have them. My school worked with parents and external partners to obtain them, but it was a process. And there were some of my students who I had to “remind” to wear their glasses in my glass every single day, because they didn’t want to wear them.
But something this elemental can have a huge impact. So I’m heartened to see this effort in Baltimore to bring free eyeglasses to students to demonstrate this impact.
“The outcomes were notable enough even with the small sample size—reading proficiency improved significantly compared with the children who did not need eyeglasses—that the researchers decided to radically expand the study to the whole city to see if the results held.”
Poor children who grow up in rural counties are more likely to marry
Writers such as author and CNN commentator J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, look at rural areas and see dysfunction and decline. Citing Chetty, Vance wrote that in Appalachia “poor kids really struggled.”
What Chetty and Hendren find, however, is that much of rural America isn’t a source of individual pathology but a place where we can all witness the beneficial impacts of community.
Use #CharlottesvilleCurriculum for suggestions on what to start your school year discussions off with
Queens teacher Vivett Dukes writes:
“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.”
I agree. I’ve written before about the need to have tough–and nuanced–conversations with kids about race. You can find some useful classroom materials for doing this using the #ChartlottesvilleCurriculum hashtag.
Betty Rosa and MaryEllen Elia call for integration
“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”
Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.
“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.
It’s nice to see them taking a strong stand on this issue, and making definitive statements. This is the most positive direction I can point to from our state ed leaders.
On other issues, however, I’ve really been struggling to understand what the vision from NY state ed leaders is for moving forward on education. The Board of Regents seems very clear about its intent to dismantle prior efforts at ed reform, but not very clear about what sort of system they would wish to put in its place. It’s easy to lambast what’s wrong; it’s much harder to put in place something better.
Janie Tankard Carnock at New America has a useful compilation of points to bear in mind when looking at data on ELs.
Here’s a good example of one: ELs at different stages progress at different rates.
“This growth principle is an important one to keep in mind when evaluating current EL progress to make claims about a school’s performance. For example, it will be easier for an average kindergarten EL to move from level 1 to 2 on the ELP exam than a sixth grade EL to move from level 4 to 5. This reality suggests the need for differentiated growth goals, ones that are more ambitious earlier on and more conservative in older years and/or at higher ELP levels.”
And another key one: Poverty affects most ELs and, as a result, their educational outcomes.
“…the school and district context as it intersects with poverty is another significant factor for ELs. Around 70 percent of ELs nationwide attend schools with disproportionately greater numbers of low-income students and other ELs. Such schools are typically under-resourced and have higher dropout rates, higher student mobility, more difficulty hiring and retaining effective teachers, and poorer quality curricular resources.”
Data is complex, people. Too many folks in schools are judging their students and programs based on one state test score.
Uncommon Schools on why some kids weren’t making it through college
“Some of the obvious reasons included the very real fact that financial problems dogged many students, as did the difficulties of transitioning to a completely unstructured college setting with complete freedom.
But Uncommon also discovered other insightful reasons why students struggled. First, students, far too often, were “undermatching.” Capable students were enrolling in colleges beneath their academic level, which increased their odds of dropping out of school. Data collected from Uncommon Schools also revealed definitive evidence that students who received less than a 3.0 GPA in high school struggled the most to stay in college.”
All school systems should be tracking and taking action on whether their students are making it to and graduating from college. This is the real work.
Though I would suggest that tracking and taking action on whether students are entering a successful career should be another component of this as well.
Sometimes responsiveness to parents can result in inequity
Some private and suburban schools are inflating grades, most likely due to pressure from parents. This puts urban kids at a disadvantage when applying to college.
“This is one of those things that works like a contagion,” Weissbourd said. “If you’re an independent school or a suburban school and you’re giving Bs and the school in the next community is giving A-minuses, you start to feel like those kids are going to get a leg up. So you start giving out A-minuses.”
Another example that context is everything (rather than isolated data points supposedly based upon meritocracy). Some colleges are adjusting for this, but most are not.
“A lot of people are going to do what’s best for their own kids,” Nichols said. “They’re trying to set things up to give their kids the best opportunity they can have. And that doesn’t lead to particularly good public policy.”
UK research shows 2 month progress as result of “dialogic” academic discussions
“Children in Dialogic Teaching schools made two additional months’ progress in English and science, and one additional month’s progress in maths, compared to children in control schools, on average. The three padlock security rating means we are moderately confident that this difference was due to the intervention and not to other factors.”
There was one strange little tidbit in the overview on this, though:
“The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.” (bold added)
This seems like a problematic assertion to me. I think these results across content areas demonstrate that academic discussion holds great potential as a general strategy, which therefore means that if we make it dependent upon domain-specific knowledge, then we can see much greater advances in knowledge, rather than only “overall thinking and learning skills.”
A really good piece from UK educator Harry Fletcher-Wood on approaching planning as a department
I strongly agree with this approach and have begun targeting departmental coherence as my focus when working with ELA teachers here in the Bronx. Fletcher-Wood provides some really concrete and useful guidance on how to do this work.
I’ll be writing more about how I approach this work with ELA teams.
Schools need more embedded mental health support, like this
I’ve seen firsthand just how powerful a strong team of social workers and counselors can be on kids. So many of the issues that manifest in something like an IEP or a major academic slump or behavioral outburst in the classroom can be traced to underlying psychological or social-emotional factors. With daily support and care, kids that are dealing with a lot at home and in the streets can find sustenance and succor at school that will pay dividends into the future.
What if our system of education works exactly as intended?
Smart questions from Derrell Bradford:
“…let’s assume there are lots of interests, including student achievement, that intersect in schools. Which are most important to you? Are you OK with where minority student achievement ranks against, say, the value of property? Is the maintenance of a segregated system that prioritizes the interests of those who can cluster in the wealthiest areas more important to you than whether a young child of color has the early reading intervention necessary to unlock a future of possibility?”
“According to previous research, inherent explanations come to our minds more easily than extrinsic ones. Considering the many external factors that play a role in an individual’s success or failure requires considerable cognitive effort. In contrast, “those people are simply like that” is a simple idea to process—a way to make a reasonable-seeming snap judgment and move on.
If your tendency is to simply go with that initial explanation, you will find yourself in sync with conservative values, including the idea that society is basically fair, and people get what they deserve.”
Really interesting to consider the implications of this. But I also think we need to be conservative about making sweeping generalizations from a few studies. I’m pretty sure that a study could be designed that would demonstrate some lazy thinking on the part of liberals as well.
Perhaps the one thing that can universally be stated about human beings is that we are biased towards less thinking, rather than more.
The challenge to integrating schools: people don’t want to give stuff up
“There’s a serious problem in white liberalism in New York City,” said Emmaia Gelman, a white parent in District 3 who has advocated for integration policies. “Put to the test, it doesn’t hold up. People don’t want to give stuff up.”
The blockchain is coming to education, brought to you by Sony & IBM
You’ve probably been hearing about this “blockchain” thing for a while now. It’s yet to take hold in a way that means anything on the consumer end, but it’s sending investors into a tizzy.
There certainly is a lot of potential once some “killer app” kicks it into gear. The infrastructure and protocols for building contracts and record-keeping systems are growing increasingly advanced, and it’s only a matter of time.
Sony will be leveraging the open-source work of Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger project.
Worth keeping an eye on. Education data and it’s accompanying privacy concerns blew up prior work to make data centralized and more transparent. But a well-constructed and encrypted blockchain can potentially address concerns about privacy, while also making data more transparent and pooling it together.