Monday, November 1, 2010

So, how DID Finland do it?

I’ve written before about how we should emulate the way Finland pulled itself up, from a stultified, centrally controlled, Soviet-Era educational system to one in which all children perform spectacularly on valid international tests of student achievement. Here, I’ll share what they did and how.

Their success is real

First, let’s establish that their success is real. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests are sponsored by the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), although even more non-OECD nations now participate. These tests in reading, mathematics, and science were administered to 15-year-olds in 41–65 countries in 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009 (results expected in December 2010). Each testing cycle focuses on one of the subject areas, with minor assessments of the others. The international average given is for the OECD (that is, developed) nations.

PISA tests are the gold standard of achievement testing. In order to do well on them, students cannot simply recall factual knowledge; they must extend what they know into unfamiliar settings to solve problems. Students who do well on them have also done well in life — the ultimate test of the success of schooling. In the 2006 cycle, Finland’s students were the top performers in math and science and number two in reading. (For comparison, U.S. students ranked 25th of 30 for math, 21st of 30 for science, and last in reading.) In the 2003 cycle, Finland was at the top in all three categories.

Student success is consistent across all schools

Differences in student performance within schools are generally taken as reflecting natural variation in inborn talent. Variation between schools, however, is an indicator of social inequality — in most places, there is some segregation by socio-economic class among schools, and the wealthier students’ schools have more resources. PISA offers sophisticated statistical analysis of performance controlling for class. Analysis of data shows that, unlike ours, many nations’ students achieve not only high average scores but also scores that do not vary much by socio-economic status: they have realized the ideal of uniformly high student achievement that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) set for us. Again, Finland is tops when it comes to equality of opportunity and performance. And, please note that Finland is no longer homogeneous: recent immigrants, mostly from poorer countries, speak more than 60 languages. In some urban schools, half of the students are from immigrant families whose native tongue is not Finnish.

Here are some examples of results, comparing Finland and the U.S. In the 2006 Science test, mean performance was 563 for Finland (the top performer that year) and 489 for the U.S. (and 500 for the average of OECD nations, on a 1000-point scale). An indicator of unequal opportunity leading to unequal results is the “between-school variance explained by the index of economic, social, and cultural status of students and schools.” This variance was 19% of the total variance in tested countries for the USA but only 1% for Finland. In the 2003 Mathematics test, mean performance was 544 for Finland and 483 for the USA (and 500 for the OECD average). The between-school variance explained by these factors was, again, 19% for the USA and less than 1% for Finland. Even without any controlling for these variables, performance varies by less than 5% overall among Finnish schools. Nearly ALL their students do quite well.

This success does not cost a fortune

I am always wary of examples of success in schools that spend so much more than average as to be irrelevant in the real world of shrinking funding for schools and other civic priorities. For example, the SEED school in Washington, DC, that was put on a pedestal in the recent documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is a residential school that spends $35,000 per student per year — an unattainable ideal for the vast majority of students.

But Finland has transformed its public schools to offer equal opportunity and to achieve consistently excellent results without spending a fortune. OECD figures show that Finland’s total expenditures on educational institutions, expressed as a percentage of Gross National Product, have actually declined over recent decades. Pasi Sahlberg, a Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki, produced an analysis that shows this, in “Education policies for raising student learning: the Finnish approach.” He found only a weak correlation between student performance and “cumulative expenditures per student from age 6–15.” This figure for Finland was at the OECD average, whereas U.S. spending was about 20% above that average. Note, of course, that Finland’s comprehensive social welfare system provides much more support to less wealthy families than does the American system.

AN ASIDE: The dataset and tools for manipulating it at are truly amazing. I encourage you to look into them yourself. When news media do reports on PISA results, as they surely will in December, their summaries and assertions may not be valid reflections of the data, but you can judge for yourself. PISA provides a Data Analysis Manual. You can even “Take the Test” of sample questions yourself to see how much more is demanded of students today! Or, use the Dept. of Education’s International Data Explorer interface at If you feel under-prepared to make statistical judgments, a report on US performance in 2006 from the National Center for Education Statistics can be found at

* * *

To summarize, results on this well-respected test series demonstrate not only that Finland’s students are top performers, but also that their performance varies much less by economic, cultural, and social status than in our country. And they do not “throw money” at education to get these results.

So, what do they do differently that we could learn from?

Sahlberg, cited above, notes that Finland has not adopted the “market-oriented reform strategies” that have overtaken much of the rest of the developed world, including the U.S.: “Consequential accountability accompanied by high-stakes testing and externally determined learning standards has not been part of Finnish education policies.” Instead, cultivating leadership, emphasizing teaching and learning, encouraging creativity, ensuring equity, enabling and trusting teacher professionalism, and “intelligent accountability” have wrought this “miracle.” It was accomplished beginning in the 1990s, when Finland was undergoing “a severe economic decline characterized by a major banking crisis.” Sound familiar? Yet, ten years into the process, Finland began to be ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of the world’s most competitive economies, a distinction it has maintained since then. It is also ranked as one of the least corrupt nations — something we may have difficulty emulating.

We do not have the culture of trust, the respect for public institutions, and the shared values of honesty and equity that Finns enjoy, and that enabled their progress in transforming their educational culture. But, clearly, this values-based approach has worked for them — and reform efforts based on competition and coercion have just as clearly failed here, as elsewhere. Student performance on valid tests such as the PISA ones has not improved, despite the nationwide push that began with NCLB and continues under the Obama administration education policies. Collateral damage from these policies continues to increase, as measured by student drop-out rates, cheating on high-stakes tests, rock-bottom teacher morale and steady defections from the profession, elimination of flexibility and creativity in teaching methods, and a narrowing of curriculum down to the most basic of “core” subjects. What we are doing is not working. What do we have to lose by trying an alternative path?

The first step, it seems to me, is a national conversation about shared beliefs and values. No Mission Statement can make any sense until we establish that context first. Do we truly believe that all children can learn, given enough time and the right support? Do we truly believe that all children should have the same opportunity to succeed, which opportunity must be embodied in the uniformly excellent teachers, facilities, programs, and resources available to them? Do we truly believe that a well-trained and experienced teacher actually has some professional expertise worthy of our respect? Do we truly believe that a well-educated and superbly functioning adult needs more than the “three R’s” to get there? Do we even believe that our society will be better off if all of our adults are allowed and enabled to meet those standards? These are the kinds of beliefs and ideals that underlay the Finnish success.

The policies that flow from such consensus on values would be very different from what we have now. It might seem impossible to reach national consensus on anything, at the moment. But it most assuredly will never happen unless we begin to have these conversations. And we could make a start on the process at the state level, meanwhile. Suppose we subsidized higher education for teachers, to include the master’s level required for all Finnish teachers, in exchange for their teaching in Michigan’s schools for a certain period of time? We could make the payback period shorter for work in our needier schools and communities. This subsidy should be offered on a competitive basis, to attract our best and brightest to this important profession. And suppose we got back to reducing the inequity in per-child funding in our public schools from one district to the next? Suppose our state mandates for days or hours in the school year made allowance for time for teachers to collaborate and to develop their skills on an ongoing basis? Suppose we lobby our political representatives to allow us to divert some of the absolute fortune we spend on mandated testing of nearly all students in most subjects every year to targeted testing with results that are available to teachers in time to be used to actually guide instruction?

Are these ideas really so crazy? Does it make more sense to keep doing what is not working?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I’ve been waiting to comment on the documentary Waiting for Superman, until I could let my emotions cool. For, make no mistake, this movie is brilliantly designed to evoke an emotional response. Anyone with access to televised news over the past several weeks has surely seen clips of cute but desperate children waiting and hoping to be chosen by lottery for the charter school slots that will make or break their lives.

I understand the rationale and the power of such vignettes. At least two generations of idealistic young people were attracted to careers in education by Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Savage Inequalities (1991), both of which books illustrated with heart-breaking clarity the patently unequal educational opportunity available to poor children in this country — and tolerated by most of us without a whimper.

Superman, however, is different. It is taken as some sort of in-depth analysis of the problems with American public schools and purports to offer a solution: the charter schools that those heart-tugging children are so desperate to get into. I, of course, made a decision long ago (partly motivated by that first Kozol book and partly in reaction to my own experience with 12 years of parochial schooling) to support the best possible public schools as a solution that reaches every child. I have followed through on that commitment for decades, by volunteering thousands of hours in the classroom, starting and contributing ongoing effort to parent groups, working on a campaign to bring greater equity to public school funding in Michigan, and serving as a public school board trustee for 20 years. So, I am clearly on the side of public school reform that reaches all children — and that means fixing and investing in the structure and the people we have, rather than throwing everything out to start over.

Obviously, then, my inclination is to resent the emotional manipulation of the film and to cry out for a cooler-headed analysis of what is wrong and how to fix it.

I will begin by noting that the Harlem Children’s Zone model, which is implicitly touted as the answer, is no such thing. Not because it is a bad model, but because it is not replicable. Two-thirds of the project’s considerable expenditures come from private foundations and wealthy benefactors. The $16,000 per student spent in the classroom is just the beginning. A wrap-around series of social services begins with “Baby College” for expectant parents, and extends through free pre-school programs, free after-school programs, additional funding for “healthy meals,” in-school medical and dental care (with personnel paid for by a local hospital and foundation), and free college search advising. Additionally, the project organizes block associations, makes over playgrounds and parks, and renovates housing. In other words, it attempts to completely change poor children’s lives by changing every aspect of their environment.

Does anyone seriously think this model is coming to a school near them?

So let’s not pretend that it is The Answer.

Even the more attainable, garden-variety charter school is hardly a panacea. Waiting for Superman implies that they are all so wonderful that families do and should fight over getting slots in them. But the facts do not bear out this impression. A well-respected (i.e., not slanted) study by Stanford University found just 17% of charter schools performing better, 37% worse, and the remainder about the same as traditional public schools.

A better solution — one inadvertently endorsed by the film — is the Finland model. Setting aside that that nation’s children benefit from a birth-to-death social safety net that the Harlem Children’s Zone can only dream of, there are elements that we could emulate in an attempt to copy that country’s climb from the bottom to the top of international educational standings. (See Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education or Steady Work: How Finland Is Building a Strong Teaching and Learning System for a detailed account of how this transition was accomplished.) Teaching is a prestigious profession there; only a small percentage of applicants are accepted to the state-paid teacher education programs; the (fully unionized) teachers are very well paid. They are also empowered to design valid assessments themselves — and results on them correlate highly with international measures of student achievement. Ours do not.

The lesson I take from this is that treating and supporting teachers as professionals (which includes high standards in their recruitment, training, and performance) is a proven way to make tremendous progress, quickly, for all.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What motivates workers?

In the spring of 2009, I remember being infuriated by a Wall Street Journal article in which it was called “poetic justice” that the United Auto Workers would “finally have a direct stake in the survival and prosperity of General Motors and Chrysler.” The reporter was referring to the negotiated payments to the VEBA (voluntary employee beneficiary association) for UAW retiree health care being paid in stock rather than the agreed-upon cash, due to impending bankruptcy. I (not a UAW member nor a relative of one) found that opinion both stupid and insulting. In what way did auto workers not have a direct stake before? Their pay/pensions and benefits have always been dependent on the prosperity of the companies, and most of them held (now worthless) stock, as well — because they believe in and are proud of their work! When you are intimately involved in making tangible products that you, your friends, and your neighbors use every day, you are both literally and figuratively invested in their quality and in the success of the company. I think that personal stake is something not well understood by folks far removed from manufacturing. Pride is a powerful motivator.

What has this to do with education? It is now widely assumed that educators can be spurred to better performance by that universal motivational tool: money. The federal Race to the Top program of competitive grants specifically insists that teacher pay and job security be linked to performance — and that performance is to be measured largely by student performance on standardized tests. All over the country, teachers are being urged to give up tenure in favor of the possibility of much higher pay, should their charges’ test scores improve dramatically. The underlying rationale for this “pay for performance” is that teachers will thus be motivated to work harder at their jobs. This assumption, like the WSJ assumption that auto workers did not care about their companies or products, is also stupid and insulting. I cannot imagine that anyone goes into public school teaching for the money. The pay starts out low and, although it then doubles as experience and effectiveness increase, it also tops out at a relatively low ceiling given the level of responsibility and the number of degrees earned by most teachers.

No, teachers, I feel quite safe in generalizing, had less mercenary and more altruistic motives for going into their field. While it is possible that low pay can discourage and disaffect them, it does not logically follow that higher pay will energize and encourage them. Human motivation is simply not that one-dimensional. Once we get past a certain level of daily subsistence, we are much more satisfied by the intrinsic rewards of work — doing something well, making a real difference, growing in expertise, feeling useful and productive — than by how much we are paid for it. That is why so many materialistic Americans reach mid-life thinking “Is that all there is?” despite having reached their goals for acquiring all kinds of expensive stuff. The notion that more money will result in better teaching is insulting because it assumes teachers are both lazy and materialistic.

And now it has been proven wrong, as well.

The National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University (funded by a $10M grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education) employs “specialists in social and behavioral science, statistical analysis, economic theory, and policy analysis” to conduct “randomized field trials and evaluations of existing pay-for-performance programs” in public education. The report on one such study, the Project on Incentives in Teaching, or POINT, was released last week. This five-year study and analysis of a three-year randomized trial examined the effects on student outcomes of paying eligible Nashville teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 per year for increasing their students’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.

The bottom line? “We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.

This does not mean that teachers should not be paid more, but it should cause us to reconsider the simplistic pay-for-test-scores plans. If we really want to apply business principles to the improvement of public education, we should go back to W. Edwards Deming, who considered pay for performance one of the “Seven Deadly Diseases.” Instead, Deming suggests a continuous cycle of collaborative planning, implementation, evaluation of results, and adaptation of the plan in order to truly change an organization. And, imagine what being treated like professionals in this way would do for teacher morale and motivation!

May 2011 addition: you have got to see this animation summarizing Dan Pink’s Drive work on motivation and incentives!

Monday, September 6, 2010

How Language Affects Thought

I have long had a layman’s interest in linguistics, which seems inherently fascinating. Anyone who has ever beheld a child learning her native language through observation and trial-and-error will appreciate the complexity and magnificence of this apparently effortless achievement. Grammar is so illogical and yet inflexible that specialists have great difficulty trying to impose a set of rules describing it. Yet a toddler quickly learns — usually through simple modeling and no direct instruction — to replace logical expressions such as “I falled down” or “I want meats for dinner” with their standard versions. Ah, if only we could soak up new languages in adulthood half as well as we all did as babies!

Long ago, I watched a NOVA program in which a speaker of Basque repeated the same pair of words, which had separate meanings and sounds to her, and could not, for the life of me, hear the difference. The point of the program was how we are born being able to hear and to say all the sounds of every language but, in true use-it-or-lose-it fashion, unused neurons are gradually pruned away until we can only hear the sounds of our own language(s). So, adult Japanese learning English will say “Ros Angeres” not because they cannot say the “L” sound, but because they cannot hear the difference. (Presumably, a speech therapist can teach us to form sounds properly, just as profoundly deaf people can learn to speak understandably.) Similarly, a non-native English speaker might be unable to distinguish between the spoken phrases “that’s tough” and “that stuff,” although a native speaker will be able to without the help of any context.

Back in the 1980s, I enjoyed the theory behind Robert Logan’s book The Alphabet Effect. Building on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, he asserted that the phonetic alphabets of Western cultures, as opposed to the ideographic writing of the Chinese, both enabled and encouraged the development of deductive reasoning, abstract thought, and empirical science. Think of the implications of needing only a few dozen characters to write down anything, rather than needing new symbols for every single idea. Logan believes that, because Chinese characters are analogs of the words they represent, the Chinese are conditioned to reason by analogy. Westerners, using “meaningless” symbols (letters) to express ideas, are more likely and able to express them without space or time contexts — that is, as universal truths. This notion of “objectivity” is the beginning of the scientific method. The alphabet even gave us a handy way to begin to classify data (by alphabetizing), and classification systems are absolutely necessary in order to manipulate large amounts of data effectively. The concrete and practical nature of Chinese writing and thought made them terrific inventors. The abstract and theoretical nature of Western writing and thought made for better transfer and wider application of inventions.

Who knows whether any of this is true, but it is certainly thought-provoking. It indicates how much of what we find “natural” or “intuitive” is actually based in culture.

A recent New York Times article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” by Guy Deutscher, expands upon the idea that the particular features of our native language may not constrain what we can think about, but they do change our habits of thought by obliging us to think, often, about something. An obvious example is that English requires us to specify, using tenses, when an event occurred — thus making us habitually take note of time, which has obvious implications for scientific research. Many languages (Spanish, French, German, Russian), unlike English, assign gender to everything — and “various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them.”

But the concept that was new to me, and so truly intriguing, is that languages differ strikingly in how they describe our orientation in space. I was aware that, in general in our culture, women tend to give directions in terms of landmarks and men in terms of cardinal or geographic directions (north, south, east, west). Once Deutscher mentioned it, it was also obvious that we tend to use geographic directions in wide-open spaces but egocentric coordinates (right, left, in front, behind) in small-scale spaces. But it had never occurred to me that languages might exist (among aborigines in Australia, Bali, Namibia, Polynesia, and Mexico) that have no words for or concepts of egocentric orientation. People who can only describe location in compass directions must therefore pay close attention, at all times, to subtle cues to geographic orientation, as well as constantly noting in memory any changes in their own position. And they do! Whether in a strange landscape, in poor visibility, inside a cave, or even referring to something on a television screen, they can instantly and accurately ascribe geographic orientation to what they see. They cannot explain how they know, they just do, even though this skill seems superhuman. Their speech is full of references to position; they could not possibly tell a story without constant notations of the positions of people and things and actions.

How do you imagine this affects other habits of mind? Do you suppose it makes them less egocentric? I bet they’d make terrific explorers on Mars, where the lack of magnetic poles makes compasses useless!

Another really remarkable linguistic difference is illustrated by the Matses language of Peru, whose speakers must always specify in great detail how they came to know any facts they report. Did they experience something directly, hear it from someone else, infer it from evidence, guess it based on past experience or general knowledge? They would never say the truth of a statement “depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.” Any assertion that does not nail down the evidence for it is considered a lie. What fantastic lawyers they’d make! Or medieval theologians.…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More than you ever wanted to know about school funding

Yes, I know, it’s boring, and complicated, and — to many — seemingly irrelevant to their lives. But we are all paying for K–12 schools, so we are all stakeholders. Here are a few things you may not know about how this works in Michigan. I will absolutely have to generalize and over-simplify, as the system is extremely complex. One of the most complete explications of it was published by the Mackinac Center in 2007, and it is 195 pages long. You can get or peruse A Michigan School Money Primer (Olson & LaFaive) at their website.

First, let’s define some terms. I will only be talking about current operating expenditures (COE) — what it takes to run school districts on a day-to-day basis. Most districts will also have some level of bond funding, the equivalent of long-term mortgages that pays to build schools and cannot be used for operating expenses such as textbooks or salaries. Some also have small levies called (I have no idea why) “sinking funds.” This levy can be used for very limited “building and site” purposes, such as renovation, roof replacement, or land purchase. It cannot be used for the purchase of computers or school buses, or for operational purposes like salaries and benefits.

How Michigan is different

We were one of the first states to move away from reliance on local property taxes as a funding source, in order to make the system fairer. It used to be that a district with a power plant, shopping mall, corporate headquarters, or airport, for example, could raise tons of money with a low tax rate, because those large revenue generators paid so much. Sparsely populated rural areas, on the other hand, could not raise enough money no matter how high the tax rate. Now, since the passage of Proposal A in 1994, homeowners pay a much smaller statewide property tax (see note at bottom), and everyone pays a higher sales tax, so that revenue can be collected and disbursed by the state on a more equitable basis.

The theory was that the quality of a child’s education would be less dependent upon where he lives. In practice, progress toward greater equity stalled after a few years, although the lowest-funded districts are certainly better off than before. By my calculations (comparing only K–12 districts or charters with more than 130 — 10 per grade level — students, so as to set aside the small island districts where costs will necessarily be much higher per student), things may even be worse now. The ten highest-spending (COE) districts in 1993–94 spent 234% as much per child as the ten lowest-spending districts. By 2008–09, they spent 238% as much per child. The disparity should be shrinking again after this past year, when the “Section 20j” money that allowed the wealthiest districts to spend more every year was cut from the State School Aid Act. But those figures (Bulletins 1014) are not yet available.

Where does K–12 revenue come from?

The State School Aid Fund has at least ten different sources. About 43% comes from a portion of sales/use taxes; about 16% from a portion of income taxes; about 15% from the statewide six-mill property tax; about 11% from federal funding (more when we get “stimulus” money); about 5% from state lottery proceeds; and smaller amounts from taxes on tobacco, real estate transfers, casinos, liquor, etc. A small but significant portion comes as a “subsidy” from the state’s General Fund, competing directly with every other spending priority.

But the School Aid Fund provides only part of the total revenue for K–12 schools. Since the adoption of Proposal A in 1994, all funding sources are supposed to guarantee a certain level of funding per student, which varies a bit by district. Districts are no longer allowed to ask voters to approve increases in their operating millage. Funding is doled out on a per-pupil basis: if you gain students, you get more money; if you lose students you get less. Local property taxes (typically 18 mills on business and non-homestead property) are complemented by by a state allocation: when local funding rises, state funding declines, and vice versa.

Before Proposal A, some two-thirds of K–12 funding came from local property taxes and about 29% from state resources. By 2001, these proportions had more than reversed: 78% from/through the state and 17% from local property taxes. Remember: the state share includes the statewide school tax on your home. Instead of going directly to your local district, it is now sent to, and slowly funneled back by, the state. School property taxes are, for the most part, paid in the summer. Those (the six-mill State Education Tax) that are funneled through the state, however, do not begin to come back to local districts until October — long after school has started for the year. State Aid, in fact, is paid in 11 installments, from October through August. That means that three payments (more than 27% of the total) are not made until is school is out for the year. Two of them (18%) are made after the legally specified fiscal year for schools is over on June 30.

Cash flow follies

Holding onto this money helps the state with its cash flow, but at the expense of the local districts. Unless they have general fund balances (that is, uncommitted “savings”) of at least 10% of their operating budget, they will have to borrow money to pay their staff and other expenses (such as buying textbooks before school opens) in anticipation of later receiving that money from the state. In 2008–09, Van Buren Public Schools (VBPS), had to borrow $4.5M in a tax anticipation note — and pay interest on that amount. In 2009–10, it had to borrow $5M.

Another serious cash flow problem has arisen for the first time this summer. The State Aid Formula assumes that districts levy the full 18 mills allowed on non-homestead property; if they do not, their per-child funding will be reduced. Similarly, the State Aid Formula assumes that districts are actually paid the taxes that they are owed. When taxpayers do not pay these taxes, they are considered delinquent and can only be paid to the county treasurer.

Typically, county governments “front” school districts the delinquent taxes in the spring, until they are actually collected through late payments or liens or foreclosures. This year, because of the huge volume of unpaid taxes, Wayne County, at least, has been unable to do that. If the taxes are not paid to local districts by the end of August, they cannot legally be booked in the 2009–10 budget. What this means is that, if local districts do not have fund balances large enough to cover the missing delinquent taxes, they will be retroactively in deficit — which is not legally allowed. VBPS does not have a fund balance large enough to cover the more than $1M in delinquent taxes that the state assumes it has been paid. It is likely that many of the county’s dozens of districts will also be thrown retroactively into deficit. Nor can Wayne County be the only one with this problem. By law, this should trigger state supervision: each such district must submit a deficit elimination plan to the Michigan Department of Education.

What a mess.

[Historical note: Van Buren Public Schools levies a total of 2.98 mills for the new high school bond and 1.13 mills for a sinking fund for major repairs and upgrades to other schools. All property owners pay the six-mill State Education Tax and non-homestead properties also pay an 18-mill tax for operating purposes. Local municipal authorities collect these taxes, with the six being sent to the state and the 18 to the local districts. Before Proposal A, for comparison, VBPS residents had voted to pay a total of 47 mills of local school taxes on all property.]

CORRECTION posted 23 Aug 10: I should have noted some of the changes made when the Michigan Business Tax replaced the Single Business Tax in 2007. As part of that rearrangement of business taxes, industrial “personal property” (equipment, machinery, fixtures, etc.) is no longer subject to the six-mill State Education Tax or to the 18-mill local school operating tax; commercial personal property was made exempt from the first 12 of those 18 mills. In effect, state and local taxes for schools were reduced, and the state promised to replace that revenue to guarantee a per-pupil level of overall funding. I told you it was complicated!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

See Dick and Jane cheat

Remember when academic research was a difficult task? You actually had to go in person to a repository of knowledge, search the card catalog or journal indices for relevant sources, find and sift through reams of material, and integrate carefully attributed portions of what you found into your paper. I even live where I do partly because of the mechanics of this process: after my firstborn was provisionally diagnosed with a serious condition on which I could find no information, I swore I would never again live more than 15 miles from a good university library. How quaint that seems now.

In the age of the Internet and broadband access, the process is orders-of-magnitude easier today. You can find information on nearly anything in the comfort of your home, at any time of day or night. And you can also pass the work of others off as your own with amazing ease. That is why plagiarism detection services such as are a growth industry.

A relative of mine teaches in a university MBA program and, much more often than he’d like, serves on appeals boards in plagiarism cases. His university takes this issue seriously: such cheaters get F’s for both the paper and the course, are dismissed from the program, lose tuition reimbursement (if applicable) from their employers, and may even lose their jobs. They continue to do it anyway. These are completely adult, gainfully employed students, from whom one would naturally expect better. They are also part of the sector which, in recent years, nearly brought down the entire United States economy (with the rest of the world, no doubt, likely to follow). The clearly immoral, short-sighted, greed-motivated cheating by so many on Wall Street reinforces the necessity for stronger ethics in business, but one could argue that rampant cheating is undermining our entire society.

Children raised in an environment where the theft of music files, via Napster and its successors, is both commonplace and seemingly acceptable, have a hard time seeing anything wrong with what we geezers call “cheating.” After all, everyone seems to do it. Trip Gabriel reported in the New York Times this month that “in surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams,” which is why a similar percentage of colleges use anti-plagiarism services, as do an increasing number of high schools. Students find creative new ways to cheat, on papers, exams, and even homework. Some universities have intensified the tech war by using overhead cameras and strict rules about what can be brought into exam rooms, in addition to the software filters for text.

This is much more than a question of ethics. The Times’ Brent Staples quoted MIT professor David Pritchard: “The big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue. The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.” And that lack of learning has real-world consequences. Would you want your neurosurgeon to be a cheater, or someone who actually learned what he needs to know?

We assume a certain level of competence, especially among professionals for whose services we pay good money — doctors, accountants, teachers, financial advisers, attorneys, design engineers, nuclear power plant operators, etc. What if they’re all faking it?

Staples phrases this better than I could: “We can see that [young people] have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When [they] think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet. They become like rap musicians who construct what they describe as new works by ‘sampling.’ … This is not just a matter of personal style or generational expression. It’s a question of whether we can preserve the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally.”

It’s not all about the grade; it’s about the learning. How could our children have missed that? [Irony intended.]

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Follow the Money

An Atlanta-area public school teacher and parent recently wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her frustration with and questions about the ideas of the National Governors Association on school reform.

Besides lamenting the “destruction of our children that is being carried out under the sanctimonious and specious names of accountability and reform,” Cindy Lutenbacher advises us to follow the money, just as Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein in their untangling of the Watergate scandal. In fact, most people are not aware of the enormous influence of money — both to advance an agenda and to profit on its implementation — that is contaminating reform efforts.

Coincidentally (not!), the folks making the big bucks tend to be politically appointed by those who create these mandates. Plenty of money has been raked in by firms that create standardized tests, or score them, or offer test prep for them, or provide mandated tutoring services when schools do not make adequate yearly progress on them. An amazing percentage of such companies came from Texas during the Bush II years.

Other reform efforts, which are not strictly mandated but are sources of considerable funding for schools, have been similarly corrupt in implementation. For example, Edward Kame’enui and Sharon Vaughn “earned” well over a million dollars as directors of technical-assistance centers that advised states on meeting the Reading First program’s strict guidelines for its billion dollars in grants per year during the second Bush administration. They did this by prescribing reading programs that garnered them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year apiece in royalties — a glaring, if lucrative, conflict of interest.

A third interesting source of cash-related influence comes from what Diane Ravitch calls the Billionaire Boys’ Club: the richest folks in America, through their foundations, have been driving the school reform agenda since before the turn of the century. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft money), the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart money), and the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation (homebuilding and insurance money) embody their billionaires’ aim to transform education using the principles that made them successful in business. Their intent is to bring market-driven competition and incentives to bear on education. Choice and privatization are assumed to produce a better “return on investment.”

They’ve succeeded — not in achieving their goals, but in setting the policy agenda from the federal level down to the individual school level. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both prescribe reforms based on the theories of these and other very rich men (many from the dot-com boom of the 1990s).

The irony is that, while demanding accountability of teachers, schools, districts, and states, they are accountable to no one. No one elected them. No one can tell them they are mistaken. As Ravitch notes, “to date, not a single book has been published that has questioned their education strategies.” You know why? Because no one can afford to alienate the goose that lays the golden eggs.

What about those strategies?

A prime example of what can go wrong with this foundation-driven approach is Bill Gates’s determination to replace comprehensive high schools with the small (under 400-student) high schools that he thinks are more effective. “Rigor, relevance, and relationship” in these more intimate environments would cure all ills. What few folks realized, in the mad scramble for Gates Foundation grants, was that there was no research proving that small schools are better.

I attended a small high school myself (350 students), so I know their limitations. I’m not talking about the two sports offered, the lack of any art or music beyond a single choir, or the foreign language taught by the unqualified (wherein my French I teacher told us to ignore the accent marks that are fundamental to learning French). No, all those could be considered extras. I’m talking about the weakness in core academic offerings. While my school was excellent in many respects, I was woefully under-prepared for college in science and math, because a school of that size simply did not have the resources to offer advanced physics and calculus classes. (I should mention that, even when two or three small schools co-existed within the same rearranged large building, the terms of the Gates grants prevented them from collaborating to synergize their efforts.)

There had been (1997) research bearing out my concern regarding inadequate curriculum in very small high schools and recommending 600–900 students as a more ideal size. Just this month, a report seemed to find success in the small high schools in New York City, but critics have noted that the improved graduation rate and achievement touted may be illusory, since English language–learners and students with disabilities were (illegally) excluded from these schools for the first few years, and since the well documented “grade-inflation” on the Regents Exams means their results are no longer correlated with those on the SAT or the NAEP exams.

After poor results (several prime-example schools closed in failure) and more than a billion dollars in grants, the Gates Foundation abandoned its small schools advocacy in 2008 and moved to promoting charter schools, pay for performance, Common Core national standards and their joined-at-the-hip national tests, and comprehensive data systems to make all this “accountability” possible. Once again, the strategies preceded or contradicted the research on effectiveness.

Similarly, the Broad Foundation has invested heavily where there were no elected school boards to interfere (in New York City and Oakland after mayoral and state takeovers) or where the board was amenable (San Diego, for a while). Eli Broad wants to run schools as he did his businesses: autocratically. The fact that many of his investments did not pay off to his satisfaction has not discouraged him. Like Bill Gates, he just moves to different places and strategies — with all the strategies seemingly dictated by his corporation-formed “gut instincts.”

It is amazing, when you realize these do-gooder entrepreneurs made their money through creative innovation, to realize that they are now enforcing a focus only on basic skills assessed by standardized tests for a generation of our children. Their philosophy permeates the federal and state departments of education, politicians of all stripes, the foundations that fund research and programming, and even the journals (such as Education Week) that should be judging the true effectiveness of their prescribed strategies — all of whom are beholden to their money.

As Cindy asks, “For the sake of our kids, when will we revolt?”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A solution to the culture wars?

One of the essentials that is largely missing in American education is a common, logical, comprehensive, and sequential curriculum. Our long history of local control and community standards in K–12 schooling has much to do with that. But I believe the primary reason every state, if not every community, “does its own thing” is that it is too difficult to reach consensus on exactly what should be taught.

The apotheosis of cultural infighting over textbook content occurs every few years in Texas, when the State Board of Education reviews and prescribes standards for another area of curriculum. In Texas, the board’s word is law regarding exactly what will and will not be taught. In the recent past, they have mandated phonics over “whole language” (when the correct prescription would have been “both”), explicit challenge of the theories of evolution and The Big Bang, and more emphasis on computational skills than theoretical knowledge in math. This year, in the opinion of many, they took up the rewriting of American history.

No wonder there is little agreement on what a common national curriculum should be. Every choice of inclusion or omission seems to elevate or denigrate knowledge that is important to someone. Is there any way around these culture wars?

Cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham thinks so. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, he rephrases the question: “What should students be taught? is equivalent not to What knowledge is important? but rather to What knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit?

How does content matter to learning? It depends upon the subject. In the area of reading, there is a phenomenon known as the “fourth-grade slump.” Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to do as well as more privileged children in the early years of reading instruction, when the emphasis is on decoding skills. By fourth grade, however, the mechanics of reading have largely been mastered and the focus switches to comprehension. The problem with comprehension is that it is strongly tied to background knowledge; in that, children from richer environments have a definite edge, so a gap in reading test scores opens then and widens every year thereafter.

Background knowledge is important because no writer ever says everything she knows on a topic. We leave out what we assume our audience already knows — otherwise, writing would be both boring and too comprehensive. No one will take the time to plow through overly long expositions of what he already knows. So, if you don’t know what has been left unsaid, you can be in real trouble.

All of us have had experiences where an expert did not share knowledge we needed because it was so obvious to him that it did not occur to him that we would not know it. Decades ago, for example, I was infuriated by math problems in Scholastic Aptitude Tests that assumed I was familiar with certain sports jargon, when it might as well have been Greek to me. In the early 1990s, when my first university email account was accessed through a UNIX mail program, the “cheat sheet” directions were useless to me until I discovered that commands only worked at the beginning of a new line — a fact that had been way too obvious to programmers to be worth mentioning. The same frustration and poor performance dogs the child who knows nothing of the content of a reading selection, compared to her more well-read fellow student. She must work hard to decode new vocabulary and try to tease its meaning from context, and she will have large gaps in understanding where prior knowledge has been assumed.

What does this have to do with curriculum design? When it comes to reading, Willingham argues, we must concede that “much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males.” Unless and until our culture changes and writers stop making those assumptions, he advocates teaching that material to our students so that all can read the “same breadth of material with the same depth of comprehension” as the more privileged kids. In other words, giving in to traditional cultural biases is better for our children cognitively—at least until the day we stop weaving metaphors and phrases from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mother Goose into our everyday language. Children need the culture’s common background knowledge in order to become good readers. That notion could reduce our fights over the content of the books we call readers. (And, of course, children without books in their homes must be given plenty of them to read, so that they can catch up in general knowledge.)

But what about everything else? Willingham gives a different answer to “What should students know of science, of history, of mathematics? The question is different because the uses of knowledge in these subject areas are different from the uses of knowledge for general reading. Reading requires relatively shallow knowledge.” Just knowing the definition of words (such as “savannah,” “cheetah,” and “eland”) will facilitate reading about an African ecosystem. But deep understanding of the interdependence of species and fauna and weather calls for knowledge of ideas as well as vocabulary. “Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again — the unifying ideas of each discipline. Some educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas should be taught in great depth…. From the cognitive perspective, that makes sense.”

This perspective adds another voice to argument that American K–12 education should retreat from the mention-everything approach that is widely derided as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” What good does it do to “cover” so much material if we remember none of it? I recall nothing about the Moguls of India, for example, except their name. The cognitive psychologist knows that, for something to make it to long-term memory and stay there, repetition is required. That’s why I may have forgotten the quadratic equation in the 40 years since I last used it, but someone who used it for 10 or 20 years never will forget it. Repetition helps us learn and reinforcement over time helps us retain. We won’t have time for either unless we cut something out of our curricula to make room for it.

So, in core subject matter courses, we can at least battle over fewer ideas. This won’t help much with biology, where evolution is the grand unifying idea, but it might be helpful everywhere else.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Merit Pay for Teachers

Should K–12 teachers be paid according to how well their students learn? This is one of those ideas that sounds like a no-brainer. After all, aren’t other professionals routinely evaluated and compensated in some way that relates to their accomplishments? Why shouldn’t teachers, too, be rated on their effectiveness and paid more when they do a better job?

The problem, it seems to me, is how their effectiveness can be fairly evaluated. Looking at student outcomes seems reasonable, but that is not simple. We tend to oversimplify it by judging what children learned on the basis of achievement test scores. Most would agree that absolute score differences (just higher scores) are no measure of teacher effectiveness. Obviously, not all students of the same grade begin the year at the same level or possess the same skills. If we used that measure, everyone would fight to teach only the most gifted and motivated students.

So, should we use a growth or value-added model, to see whether individual children show a year’s progress in a year? I ran across a very entertaining video in which cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia Prof. Daniel Willingham describes — in less than three minutes! — six problems (some conceptual, some statistical) with evaluating teachers by comparing student achievement in the fall and in the spring. Among them are biased data when some children move away during the year, the effect of others on how teachers do (such as the help or hindrance of a building administrator), and the effect of peers — is the classroom cohort rowdy or well-behaved? I’ve spent enough time in classrooms to know that sometimes there is a student who seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room, making life difficult for everyone else. I might add that some years (when going through a messy divorce, or when grieving the loss of a child or a spouse) will find a typically great teacher unable to think or function as well as usual. Should she be fired? Are her students permanently harmed? I think of the lessons in compassion and in dealing with difficult people that I and my children learned from such sub-optimal school years — which reminds me of all we learn that is useful in life but not evaluated on tests.

A related conceptual problem with using test scores is that they focus on short-term gains. Most of us, in higher education and then in adult life, did not find that only discrete bits of information were important. Broader knowledge and skills — and especially the abilities to research, evaluate, learn, and apply things on our own — were much more vital to our success. Yet these skills are not evaluated on most tests.

Portfolios of student work give a superior picture of student abilities, but they would be very expensive and time-consuming to evaluate in a fair way. If we cannot find the time or money for essays in our achievement tests, then, realistically, we’ll never use portfolios.

This hints at the major problem with test results as a measure of student learning: in order to make massive testing programs at all affordable, we have made them much less valid over the years. Our MEAP writing test, for example, used to require legions of low-paid evaluators. Not only was this very expensive, and so time-consuming that Michigan was penalized by the federal government for being late with the scores (under No Child Left Behind rules), but it proved nearly impossible to get consistent grading from so many evaluators. So, the writing test today involves very little actual writing.

You get what you measure, especially if the tests have high stakes, and we are not measuring the complex skills that our children need for life success. Even the gains we do measure can be evanescent, disappearing soon after the tests were scored.

Professor of education at California State University, Monterey Bay, Nicholas Meier (rightly) fears that basing teacher pay on test scores will encourage even more focus on test fodder and test preparation alone, at the expense of more worthwhile endeavors. I recently heard an impassioned speech about education outreach plans for the Yankee Air Museum that involved teaching children forgotten history and engaging them in exciting activities, since schools no longer do. My reaction was a sad acknowledgment that, yes, if it’s not on the MEAP, our teachers don’t have time for it anymore. We trade hundreds of students (and their indispensable funding!) back and forth every year with charters and schools of choice — and those decisions are most likely made on the basis of test scores. The draconian penalties levied by NCLB are base largely on test scores. And now we want to raise the stakes by basing teacher pay and job security on them too?

Dr. Meier says this better than I could: “There is an axiom in the social sciences known as Campbell’s Law that says that the higher the stakes on a particular social indicator (e.g., a single test score), the more the use of that indicator corrupts the original intent, as it encourages people to manipulate the system to look good on that indicator regardless of other effects. We see that happening already—retaining students so they take the easier test; pushing kids to disappear from the system. There is the focus on the kids that show the most promise of moving from one category to the next, while ignoring others. Not to mention the examples of out and out cheating….”

So, no, I have little hope that pay for performance will improve public education.

There are other ways to evaluate teachers, of course, with classroom observation being a time-honored one. This tends to be more of a good idea than a good practice, though, as it is done too rarely for validity. As a young teacher in my family put it: “Who will be doing my evaluation? Will it be an administrator who has classroom experience? If so, will that be experience in my field or something totally unrelated? Are those responsible for my evaluation familiar with the standards the students are expected to achieve? If not I would question, seriously, the reliability of their judgment.”

When you think about it, there is a good reason many teachers are suspicious and fearful about the performance-based evaluation required by the federal Race to the Top education funding program. If they are unconvinced of the fairness or validity of evaluation by their own administrators, think how much less confident they must be about the judgment of state legislators (who have changed laws to comply with RttT) in this matter.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Achievement Gap or “Vacation Gap”?

Probably the single thing that everyone involved with or concerned about public education can agree upon is this: some children — often minority or English language–learning, but almost always “economically disadvantaged” — have not done as well as others. We usually call this the Achievement Gap, and the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind was intended to close such gaps. Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s variation on the theme of using carrots and sticks to fix our schools, is equally concerned with closing the gaps. The idea is to have all our children — rich and poor, white and minority, native English speakers and not, those with disabilities and not, boys and girls, migrants and not — becoming equally well educated.

Of course, we don’t define, let alone validly measure, how well they are educated. But we do use the proxy of achievement test scores, assuming that these will correlate with our true objective of producing adults who can function well in society.

Some children come to schools in some way handicapped — they start the race from further behind and run it without the ongoing advantages of other children. These are the ones who need something different and/or something more than what appears to work for the high-achieving students. The assumption, implicit in the critical view of teachers that has now become commonplace, is that schools simply are not getting the job done for under-achieving students.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tears into this and other mythical ideas about who succeeds and who does not. He looks at several keys to success — specific and unusual opportunities, perfect timing (month and year of birth), cultural advantages and disadvantages — to make the case that no one is “self-made.” One of his most interesting bits of evidence directly relates to achievement gaps.

Gladwell reviews in some detail a study done by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander of hundreds poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in 20 Baltimore City public schools. This longitudinal Beginning School Study started in 1982 and is ongoing, but the results from just the elementary years seemed to demonstrate something important, as reported in 2007 by Entwhisle, Alexander, and Olson in a journal article titled, “Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap.”

The children studied began first grade in different places, but the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status children nearly doubled over the elementary school years. But neither differences in native ability nor in teaching quality explained this phenomenon. Because they were given the California Achievement Test at the beginning and the end of each year, test results could show that poor children actually “out-learn” rich ones during the school year (at least insofar as CAT reading scores can indicate). During the summers, however, the poor children fall behind and the more privileged ones surge ahead. The achievement gap really stems from what is not happening for poor children when they are not in school.

This makes sense if you assume one set of children benefits from a more enriched environment (travel, camps, museums, plenty of reading material), but there is also evidence that the differences can be compensated for. The KIPP charter schools, for example, seem to do very well with disadvantaged children — but those children spend more than twice as much time in school, including much longer days, Saturdays, and summer sessions. Simply addressing the books-at-home gap, however, can have startlingly large effects on children's reading skills. Many studies have found strong correlations among the number of books in the home, the amount of voluntary reading done by children, and their tested reading levels — and this can be fixed. One way, which I noted earlier, is to pay children $2 to read and answer quizzes on books. Another is to give them books to read over the summer (remember, these are kids who cannot or do not get to the public library).

You can read one such study, reported on by James Kim, in which more than 500 children were each mailed 8 books during July and August. “The estimated treatment effects on a standardized test of reading achievement (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) were largest for students who reported owning fewer books at home, less fluent readers, and minority students. These findings suggest that a voluntary summer reading intervention may represent a scaleable and cost-effective policy for improving reading achievement among lower-performing students.”

Makes me want to collect old children's books from friends my age and start giving them away....

Monday, May 31, 2010

Multitasking Is a Myth

Your average American middle schooler — doing homework while intermittently texting friends while listening to music — believes she is efficiently attending to many things at once. She is not, of course. She is actually switching among tasks, and the frequent switching prevents any sustained focus on a single task.

Writing about how humans pay attention to stimuli, John Medina (Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School) summarizes all the recent research that proves we are unable to multitask. Practice can help us switch more rapidly among separate tasks, and aging can reduce our speed at making such switches in attention, but our brains are not actually doing several things simultaneously.

Today’s young people are used to lots of stimuli. Many parents and teachers would note that they also seem less able to concentrate on anything for very long. The question is: which is cause and which effect? Has their habit of trying to attend to several things at once made them, over time, more easily distractible?

Every brain is unique, as neural connections or synapses are being made and pruned all the time. What we habitually do affects the physical structure of our brains. Practice wears neural "pathways" through repetition, allowing us to drive or to play an instrument or to make a jump shot without the complete attention required by someone just learning these things. Similarly, we lose, with disuse, the ability to hear (and therefore to say) sounds that are not part of our native language. The structure and, therefore, the functioning of our brains is affected by our environment, whether through exposure to toxins or to the subtle hormonal differences between men and women.

But the sum of our experiences inevitably determines how we learn and perform complex tasks most efficiently and effectively. And that sweet spot will differ for each person — and for a single person over time, as accumulated experience continues to change our brains.

As a child in a chaotic household (a four-bedroom house with parents, a grandparent, and nine children), I learned to tune out distractions. I recall even having difficulty doing my homework on an occasion when I found myself alone in a quiet house. Years later, while editing densely written scientific manuscripts, I found I could more easily get into and stay in “the zone” if I played certain kinds of music (with the right tempo and no lyrics). It was as if the music kept the unneeded right half of my brain occupied, freeing the left side to deal with barely understood physics and arcane editing standards. I had learned what I needed to do to sustain focus.

I worry that our children are not learning these things about themselves. And I worry about whether many of them are even capable of giving anything the sustained attention required to learn or to do something complex.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

This is good news?

The Michigan Senate and House Fiscal Agencies revised revenue estimates this past week, as they do several times each fiscal year. The state’s general fund revenue projections are down another one-quarter to one-half million dollars since the January 2010 estimates.

The “good news,” we are told, is that higher-than-expected sales tax receipts feeding into the state school aid fund mean that K–12 schools will not have their funding cut again this year.

Uh ... the schools let out for the year in 2–3 weeks. How could they possibly cut their budgets in any meaningful way this late in the year? School districts are required by law to adopt budgets for the coming school year by July 1. The fact that, 10-1/2 months later, they still don’t know how much revenue they have to work with, illustrates just how impossible it is for them to be responsible stewards of public funds.

This was one of the unexpected side effects of 1994’s Proposal A, which tried to bring greater equity to K–12 funding by funneling much of the revenue through the state. I don’t think anyone (except the most cynical among us, perhaps) expected the state to begin receiving statewide school property taxes in August but then not relay all of them to local districts until the following August—long after the school year has ended. One consequence of this is that more districts every year must borrow in the spring to meet cash flow needs (that is, to pay their employees) until they receive these held-back funds. The local districts pay interest on these “tax anticipation notes,” further cutting into funds available for use in classrooms.

This is no way to run a railroad—or a school system. Changing the state’s fiscal year to a July-to-June model (as was suggested both in Senate Bill 1281 and as part of a constitutional revision), could alleviate the problems caused by the mismatch in fiscal years.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terrific Teachers

We’ve all had at least one — the life-altering guide who helped make us who we became. I’ll bet you can see a face or recall a pivotal conversation even decades later. A really great teacher is as much a life-saver as a firefighter, a police officer, a trauma surgeon, or a helicopter rescue pilot.

But what makes for a great teacher? And, more importantly, how can we make more? For, although I believe the research over-simplifies things, economists and statisticians, wading through the mass of testing data now available on student achievement, have fixed on teachers as a major variable in student outcomes.

My quibble is that the outcome measures in such analyses are solely these test scores, and that such differences in outcome often do not hold up as years go by. Doing well on a test may well not be a valid measurement of understanding and skill. That said, however, we all know that terrific teachers have made a difference in our own lives and those of our children. How can we help more teachers to become exceptional?

I admit to succumbing, at one time, to the notion that great teachers are born and not made — ignoring the fact that it took years of experience to make them as good as they eventually became. But we had better figure out — fast — how to accelerate that process of on-the-job training, because we need more of them now.

The ingredients of greatness

Expert teachers require at least three separate kinds of expertise: in subject matter, in how a novice misunderstands the subject, and in the mechanics of teaching.

The first should be self-evident: you can’t teach what you don’t know. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. If it were enough, there would not be so many college professors who can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. Understanding is not enough, if you can’t impart it to others.

Part of the ability to actually teach something is really an understanding of how students get it wrong. You have to get inside their heads to appreciate and correct their mistakes. The successful teaching of reading, for example, rests on knowledge of how students learn, what is difficult for them, and the mistakes they commonly make.

The famous video “A Private Universe” revealed that even Harvard graduates commonly have misconceptions about scientific basics such as the cause of seasons (relating them to Earth’s distance from the sun, rather than to the tilt of its axis). One interesting aspect of the video was its revelation that such misunderstandings could be traced back to such simple antecedents as a drawing in an elementary science textbook — one they had misinterpreted as children but which formed the (subconscious) foundation of their (mis)understanding of orbital mechanics. Such learning mistakes can be invisible to both teacher and learner.

Figuring out exactly what students are thinking is an art form. One of the experts in analyzing it is Deborah Ball, now Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work has demonstrated that specialized knowledge of how to teach specific mathematical concepts translates into increased and lasting student comprehension. Her Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching work emphasizes the importance of teachers understanding mathematical reasoning, and of asking the right questions to understand what students are thinking and why, in order to ensure they can not only get the right answers but do so for the right reasons.

Equally important, if less often taught in Schools of Education, is skill in the mechanics of teaching, sometimes dismissed as “classroom management.” A great teacher commands the classroom, gets and holds the attention of students. Some do this through sheer charisma or force of personality, but there are simple techniques that anyone can master. Doug Lemov has spent years finding, categorizing, and videotaping these techniques. His recently published book, Teach Like a Champion, summarizes all that research. [Ugh, hate the title! It evokes a bleeding, sweaty boxer, gloved hand raised after the knockout punch. But maybe that’s just me....]

Here’s an example of Lemov’s thinking (not the specific techniques): “Much of student behavior is opportunistic ... ‘I can get away with it, so I will.’ A far smaller number of students will persist in a behavior once you’ve made it unambiguous what you expect. Fewer still will do so when you’ve shown you’re persistent.” He repeatedly reminds us that children may not know exactly what we want them to do or may not know how to do it. Explicit directions can make all the difference.

Implicit in the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top reform efforts is the assumption that carrots (merit pay) and sticks (firing teachers and principals in “failing” schools) applied to teachers will improve student learning. Not only have those techniques never been proven to work (remember how Edison Schools were going to show the profit motive could improve education?), but they can never reach and help all students. Helping all teachers to refine their craftsmanship can.

Note: These ideas were explored in much greater detail in “Building a Better Teacher” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on March 2, 2010.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Get the lead out!

Oh, boy. There has been so much in the news of late regarding education that I hardly know where to start, so today I will just add a short post while I am digesting all the rest.

The Sunday Detroit Free Press reported on the first extensive study of serum lead levels of the city’s children and how that correlates with academic achievement. The contamination is more widespread and the connection stronger than even pessimists had thought.

“A landmark study by the city health department and Detroit Public Schools of lead data and test scores shows that the higher the lead level, the worse a student’s scores on the MEAP.

“Overall, 58% of roughly 39,000 DPS students tested — 22,755 children — had a history of lead poisoning. Perhaps more startling: Of the 39,199 students tested as young children, only 23 had no lead in their bodies.” [emphasis added]

That’s not 23 percent — only 23 individual children of more than 39,000 tested were lead-free. That's less than 0.059%. I know that dust from lead-based paint is part of the problem, but so is contaminated soil in a city that was until recently filled with heavy industry (including such notorious offenders as smelters). Just breathing the air and playing in the dirt can be hazardous to their health.

The younger a child is, the more susceptible s/he is to neurological damage from toxins, and the damage can permanently affect learning, memory, attention, and behavior. Other studies from Duke and Wayne State Universities have documented a correlation between lead levels and both IQs and reading levels.

Of course, there are other factors at play, but why would we let this unnecessary one continue to hobble our children?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What’s wrong with “accountability” in education

How could anyone credibly fight the tide on this subject? Well, I'm not the only one worried about what the accountability movement has done and is doing to K–12 education.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’” said Dr. Diane Ravitch in the New York Times education section in March 2010. She is not a typical critic, having served in the first Bush administration’s Department of Education and having been a true believer in the power of standardized testing to improve education. Over the years, however, she gradually became convinced that “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools.”

How can this be? We expected tests both to measure accurately what our children were learning and to improve their learning, through some mystical combination of shame, pressure, and market forces. But we have neither measured accurately nor improved outcomes; in fact, the attempt has apparently only made things worse.

What have we measured?

The problem with standardized testing is that we want quick results (so that they can be useful in improving instruction) without spending too much. Both criteria push us toward multiple-choice testing, which can be machine graded. Multiple-choice tests, though, have real limitations. They tend to test only for easy-to-measure, low-level skills, and their results may not accurately reflect what children know and can do, due to poor design.

It is possible to design better tests, which will more accurately measure complex skills, but never assume that’s what we’ve got! Instead, narrowly focused, high-stakes testing has produced a laser-like focus on narrowly focused, high-stakes tests. We don’t simply “teach to the test”; now we also spend time and effort on teaching test-taking skills. The tool intended to improve schooling has now become its point.

How’s that working?

Given the punitive consequences of not making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB rules (which require that, as in the fictional Lake Wobegon, all of our children will be above average by 2014), “progress” has been pursued at nearly any cost. We teach only what is assessed by the tests, states have gradually watered down standards so as to inflate achievement, and outright cheating has become more common.

While average student achievement has shown remarkable gains over the years of NCLB-required testing, U.S. students continue to fall behind in international comparison tests such as NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA. Clearly, both sets of results cannot be valid. In recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing of 15-year-olds, U.S. students ranked 15th out of 29 in reading literacy, 24th out of 29 in problem solving, 25th out of 30 in mathematics literacy, and 21st out of 30 in scientific literacy. And the really bad news is that the PISA tests are good tests! In order to do well on them, students cannot simply recall factual knowledge; they must extend what they know into unfamiliar settings to solve problems. Students who do well on them have also done well in life — the ultimate test of the success of schooling. In addition, analysis of data shows that, unlike here, many nations (Canada, some Asian and European countries) achieve not only high average scores but also scores that do not vary by socio-economic status: they have realized the ideal of uniformly high student achievement that NCLB set for us.

Where did we go wrong?

We might start with where other nations went right. (See “Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement.”) When Germany did poorly on the 2000 PISA, with large achievement gaps for poor and immigrant children, it launched a nationwide study of proven educational policy and practice, followed by a detailed plan for reform that was implemented with support from all sectors of society. By the 2006 PISA, their students’ performance had improved dramatically. This appropriate, communal response, rather than blaming and punishing, is what we need as a nation.

Year after year, we have scrubbed from our classrooms anything that is not explicitly assessed by our achievement tests. You get what you measure — and we are measuring mostly low-level recall rather than application of complex skills in novel situations. Our children are drilled relentlessly on test fodder, but not encouraged or allowed to follow their interests into the side lanes that excite their curiosity, motivate their hard work, and lead them to satisfying and productive careers. Is it any wonder that they are disengaged, unmotivated, and mentally (if not actually) dropping out? Is it any wonder that half of teachers, demoralized by their demonization, leave the profession within five years?

Dr. Ravitch (as noted in the NYT article) outlines a better way: “Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should schools be run more like a business?

You cannot answer that until you define your terms. Before the recent near-collapse of our economy, business did have some sort of cachet that implied efficiency and productivity, likely wrought due to competition. Now, of course, we see the seamy underbelly of what competition and loose oversight can produce: fraud, greed, immoral exploitation, no adherence whatsoever to any kind of social contract.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we are talking about business ideals being applied to public education. Would that work?

My answer would be: only to a point. There are things educators can (and have) learned from business gurus. For example, that there is no perfect model for any operation; rather, efforts should be made to foster continuous improvement. Or, that true leadership helps us face complicated and difficult problems, rather than imposing a simple and/or painless “solution.” Or that real change requires us to internalize our commitment to it so that we don’t slide back into old ways. Or that resistance to change is normal and natural, but it should be dealt with through collaboration and teamwork rather than by bulldozing through or over it. So, yes, “acting like a business” can be good for schools.

But I also believe that the unstated premise behind much mandated “school reform” is that schools should be run like factories. The factory model assumes that all we have to do is fix upon the perfect content (curriculum) and process (teaching) in order to produce perfect, identical products every time. So, if we aren’t getting the right outcomes, it must be because those doltish teachers are messing up the content and process. The answer is ever more detailed prescriptions with, ideally, every teacher teaching the same material the same way on the same day in each grade.

But, folks, any successful manufacturer prizes quality control that begins with accepting only standardized raw materials. In public schools, our suppliers are not sending us uniform raw materials! The children who enter our doors start from different places, they learn differently, they have different advantages and handicaps — so how can this system work? The answer is more individualization, not more regimentation.

A major component of reform efforts like No Child Left Behind is to mandate “highly qualified teachers.” But qualification tends to mean “credential,” because it is so hard to quantify what makes a great teacher. I’d prefer to spend a lot more effort on the process itself. We align and articulate and define and refine our curriculum, but we don’t spend enough time on ways to impart it. Many teachers never see that, just because they give the perfect lecture, that doesn’t mean every- or even anybody “got it.”

The process includes learning as well as teaching — and we all do that differently. In order to get the teaching-learning job done, we have to realize that people often learn better by doing than from lectures; that some people can demonstrate what they know in essays but not on multiple-choice exams; that if we truly prize synthesis of ideas, then maybe we ought to reward that in our assessment systems. Speaking from personal experience (I was a great memorizer!), many of us who did get it long enough to spit something back on a test never really understood or retained it. Valid assessment should indicate whether the student has gained true understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in various contexts.

So, the standardized processes of efficient manufacturing have no place in schooling. Instead of moving raw materials inexorably down a single production line, education should work more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book — branching off in many ways according to individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

Nor, if you value the success of every student, can cost-benefit ratios be your standard for how much to spend on each child. Some need more help than others, even if they will never be rocket scientists or particle physicists. Do we value their potential contribution to society or not?

<>And then there is the whole issue of whether or not competition and market discipline will bring out the best in schools and teachers, as it purports to do in the business world. That is the impetus behind the charter school movement — the notion that, if parents can vote with their feet, all schools will improve. In fact, public schools in Michigan are scrambling to market themselves as neighboring districts and charters lure away their students and funding. I’m not sure whether the results are what people were hoping for and, certainly, the playing field is never level.

Competition, and the greed that it motivates, can also inspire fraud and abuse, just as it did on Wall Street. Last week, for example, a U.S. Attorney subpoenaed officials from 13 Philadelphia charter schools in an investigation of various kinds of questionable financial dealings. At minimum, charters should be required to have annual public audits, just as public schools do. Oversight of public funds is important to our collective faith in government.

It is also, dismayingly, true that charter schools appear to be resegregating America — by race, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status. A February 2010 report issued by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” examined and analyzed federal data and charter schools in 40 states and Washington, DC, finding that “charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country.” Is that kind of resegregation good for society — or for individual children?

We must pay attention to side effects and collateral damage when we radically change an institution (public education) that is so vital to our democracy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Will Facebook and texting be the death of democracy?

It is obvious from the empty streets in our neighborhoods on summer evenings that childhood has changed drastically since mine in the 1950s. We played spud, and kick the can, and capture the flag until dark — but I bet few children today know those games, or all the hopscotch and jump-rope rhymes, either. The game lore of childhood, once passed down from child to child, has disappeared, as noted recently by David Elkind in a New York Times Op-Ed called “Playtime Is Over.”

The kids are inside — watching TV, playing computer games, generally not interacting with other children face to face. My mother used to say, with some exasperation, that my siblings and I spent more time arguing over rules than actually playing games. She was probably right, but think what we learned from that! That’s how we were socialized: we learned to share, to get along, to follow rules, to solve problems, to deal with difficult people. Many children arrive in schools today without those skills.

And where once they might have picked the skills up there, that is less likely today. Tweens and teens are showing a preference for interacting virtually over doing so in person. They’d rather text than even talk on the phone. All their “socializing” is interfering with their socialization.

What are the implications of this enormous shift?

In the last post, I was writing about how much of our decision-making is subconscious, done in the blink of an eye without our conscious awareness. All our lives, we should be developing and further honing those skills. But, like the ability to reliably make a jump shot, the ability to quickly and accurately size up a person or a situation requires endless practice. It starts with the preverbal baby’s wide-eyed attention as she tries to decode language, and the physical laws of the universe, and how to make others serve her better. It should continue through a childhood of encountering other people and situations and learning to master the survival skills required to thrive. That includes a subconscious ability to “read” people.

What if we were to lose the ability/facility to assess things so quickly?

The book iBRAIN by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan has me worried about a loss of skill in gut-level assessments. If our young are losing face-to-face cognitive skills due to immersion in technology, that portends poorer decisions by future voters. If they don’t look people in the face anymore, they either never make or gradually abandon the neural pathways allowing them to assess expressions with any validity. Does that mean that our subconscious judgments about whom we can trust not to betray us are becoming less reliable? Does it offer some explanation of the popularity of good-looking, affable “empty suits”? Certainly, my discomfort with body language has made me nervous about potential leaders (think of John Edwards’ bland and unconvincing “sincere” look). Would younger voters, less attuned to facial expressions, take it at face value?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Emotion versus Reason

I’m still thinking about NOVA’s Mind over Money: Can Markets Be Rational When Humans Aren’t? earlier this week, and the connection it drew between emotionally fueled subconscious decisions and the economic meltdown of 2008. I’d encountered similar ideas in George Lakoff’s The Political Mind, with a focus more on politics than on economics.

We all grew up with an Enlightenment view of reason: that it is logical, universal, unemotional, and interest-based. (This could be a textbook definition of the process supposedly underlying Chicago School’s efficient markets hypothesis.) My father was my model: confronted with a problem, my first impulse is to learn as many facts as possible, to master it with knowledge, just as he did. This is me — hyper-rational. I used to actually believe that voters use primarily facts and reason to make electoral choices. I no longer do.

Recent brain research, especially that facilitated by functional MRIs that show in which areas the brain is active during tasks, has conclusively demonstrated that the dichotomy between reason and emotion is false. Books like Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and Westen’s The Political Brain go into this in detail, but the thesis is that reason requires emotion. In an extreme example, people with specific brain damage making them incapable of feeling emotions or detecting them in others are unable to function rationally.

We think we can divorce reason from emotion because most (and they really mean "most" — an estimated 98%) of reason is unconscious. Our ancestors didn’t have time to reason consciously about the best thing to do, so we’ve evolved to think and behave reflexively. Malcom Gladwell’s Blink is all about these quick and sophisticated judgments. Scientific experiments (see Restak’s The Naked Brain) demonstrate conclusively that your body reacts before your brain has received the nerve inputs on which to base a conscious decision. Our cognitive unconsciousness is really running the show.

That’s why a self-proclaimed rational person like me can think she wants Just The Facts, Ma’am, but reacts to subconscious stereotyping in a decisive way. In elections, I prefer the eloquent candidate who rallies us by appealing to our best instincts, rather than the “Trust me, I know how to do this” daddy figure.

I agree with the research that says we are not nearly as rational as we think. We are making very complex and subtle assessments all the time of which we are not consciously aware. Our reasoning is more like after-the-fact rationalization of decisions we’ve already made. Now, I do think that more information makes for better decisions, but both research and the results of “negative campaigning” show that our “free will” is more limited than we like to think. We use the emotional subtext in our decision-making because we can’t not do so. And these kinds of subconscious evaluations have been shown to be surprisingly sophisticated and often reliable. If someone makes your skin crawl, you should probably trust that instinct or intuition.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Paying kids to achieve

I’ve always had a thing about external reward systems for kids: I believed (and could quote research backing the idea) that these things (stickers, honor rolls, valedictorians, etc.) supplant the intrinsic motivation that we really want our kids to have. I took this to such extremes that I would not tell my kids I was proud of their grades (although I would say, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”), let alone pay them for A’s as our neighbors did. [Naturally, this meant that my kids were exasperated at never getting those magic words from me; the best laid plans oft go awry.]

Anyway, I certainly never supported the idea of paying kids to perform. A recent Time magazine article on random-sample research has me wondering about that stand. The simple and cheap intervention of paying second graders to read and pass quizzes on books (an average of seven books and $14 per year) had major effects on their achievement test scores. This finding validates my notion that our problems with school achievement are mostly rooted in kids not reading anymore. The effects rivaled the well-substantiated effects of Head Start, which costs one heck of a lot more. I’d love to see long-term follow-up on this experiment’s subjects.

The details? Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, and New York City. The programs differed, but students were rewarded for academic achievement (good grades, good test scores, etc.) or for various kinds of behavior (good attendance, not fighting, reading books, etc.) with cold, hard cash. The measure of success would be how the incentivized kids did versus the control groups on end-of-year standardized tests.

Dr. Fryer agrees that “Kids should learn for the love of learning, but they’re not. So what shall we do? I could walk into a completely failing school, with crack vials on the ground outside [and] fights in the hallways! We’re beyond that.”

I had heard, with instinctive disapproval, about the NYC program but not about the results—which turn out to be quite interesting. Paying for good test scores did not work. Paying for attendance improved attendance and grades, but not test scores. Lots of little rewards for improved behavior of various kinds worked a bit, especially for boys. But, in Dallas, “Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year—and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.”


Maybe all those crazy elementary school competitions to get kids to read (wherein, if a threshold is passed, the principal promises to go into a dunk tank, or be hit by pies, or shave his head, or whatever) are pure genius. And, given the elemental motivating power of cash (see previous post), maybe offering a cash incentive is not the disgustingly perverse practice I want to think it is.

There was some other interesting analysis, as well, stemming from interviews of the NYC students. They were motivated by the substantial cash rewards they could earn, but they didn’t know how to get there. They didn’t know how to approach the problem of improving their grades, any more than most of us could “solve a third-order linear partial differential equation.” To really change outcomes, kids must know explicitly what to do and must be encouraged to change the things they can control. “The key, then, may be to teach kids to control more overall—to encourage them to act as if they can indeed control everything, and reward that effort above and beyond the actual outcome.”

That, I can buy (pun intended). Anything that spurs children to take control of their lives and stop acting like helpless victims of life is A Good Thing. But that’s another post.