Thursday, September 29, 2011

The New BHS in the Old Building

For the second year in a row, Belleville High School Principal Michael Van Tassell began the school year with a State of the High School analysis. This report demonstrated with data the progress made toward the school's two primary goals: increased academic achievement and an improved school culture to support that.

The cultural values of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility at BHS start with the adults. The Four Non-Negotiables for staff are (1) we will not use humiliation, (2) we will not argue with students, parents, or staff, (3) we will not yell, and (4) we will not be critical of previous teachers or schools. Staff accept where teens are and look forward to what can be done from now on to help them better achieve their goals.

In a random-sample survey this past summer of the full range of students and their parents, when asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how well BHS exhibits a culture of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility, respondents gave an average rating of 7.7. The average rating for how well BHS provides High Levels of Learning for All was 7.3.

The school culture has changed demonstrably. Discipline referrals declined 46% from 2009–10 to 2010–11. There were fewer thefts, assaults, and fights, and fewer reports of insubordination. In 2010–11, 40% of staff wrote zero–5 pink slips (discipline referrals); 78% wrote 10 or fewer for the year. Some 33% (578) of the student body participated in the Privilege Program, which requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, 95% attendance, and no suspensions for a marking period. The Peer Mediation program, started at mid-year, conducted 70 mediations.

About half (37) of the high school staff spent their own time last summer (significant time, for some) without compensation developing their professional skills. BHS has dived into the Reading Apprenticeship program to address the foundational skill for all learning: 11 teachers attended RA training at RESA; 12 attended RAISE training. Recognizing the importance of student engagement, BHS staff is determined to incorporate project-based learning wherever possible; 21 teachers attended two-day training in PBL. Seven staff members spent much of the summer on training for our New Tech program. Five were trained in the new hands-on biology curriculum. Two studied Layered Curriculum for special education students. The math department chair attended a U. of Michigan program and brought back software to enhance and individualize math instruction.

Regarding the goal of High Levels of Learning for All, BHS has yet to achieve this. In 2009–10, it did not achieve Adequate Yearly Progress due to inadequate English Language Arts performance by the Students with Disabilities subgroup. In 2010–11, it did not make AYP due to inadequate Math performance by the Economically Disadvantaged and African American subgroups. It did meet 18 of 20 participation and proficiency targets. As the No Child Left Behind deadline approaches (by 2014, all subgroups are to be proficient in ELA and math), fewer and fewer schools will be able to make AYP. (Only 60% of Michigan high schools did so this year.) That is why the Secretary of Education specifically invited states to apply for waivers from this requirement and the attached penalties.

Test scores and AYP status, of course, are not the only measures of student achievement. Particular emphasis has been put on ninth graders at BHS, pre-targeting those most at risk for failure with extra opportunities for success and closely monitoring achievement to enable early intervention. The number of freshmen failing English went down a stunning 60% in one year; algebra failures declined by 21%; biology failures were down 36%; world history failures down 22%. Using the Measures of Academic Progress test data, 50% of ninth graders made a full year of growth in reading and 57% a full year of growth in math. While there is clearly room for improvement, Explore test data showed us that 64% of incoming ninth graders were “not ready” in reading skills and 76% were “not ready” in math. (Note that only about 50% of BHS students have been with the district from kindergarten.)

BHS personnel created and have been refining a menu of options for failing students, depending upon the diagnosed reasons for failure, and ranging from mentoring by assistant principals to action plans for disciplinary issues, to E2020 individualized programs, to completely reworked “credit recovery” classes. Within classes, teachers are making heroic efforts to assess frequently and adjust teaching strategies to adapt to the needs disclosed by assessment.

Many other initiatives are bearing fruit. Parent involvement at the school has increased dramatically. We went through several variations of school security personnel until arriving at one that worked well. The new Fusion-based web system has opened new opportunities that teachers are taking advantage of. Special twelfth-grade assemblies and seminar days are offering targeted information that may once have been found in electives, before those were squeezed out by the extensive Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements. Significant changes are being instituted in special education support classes and co-teaching within regular classes. The new, later schedule has already reduced tardiness.

Within the school as a separate, self-contained program is New Tech High, an entirely project-based, interdisciplinary approach to high school that will eventually serve up to 500 students in four grades.

In other words, staff has not waited for the new building to create a new Belleville High School. Pride and productivity are in the air. And, despite all the financial pressures on the district that translate into lower pay for employees, morale is high due to the incalculably valuable sense that great things are being accomplished and that there is more progress in store.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Internet schools: a terrible idea?

When I was laid off by the University of Michigan in 2002, I had six months of unlimited access to Michigan Virtual University. This seemed like the perfect time and opportunity to upgrade my skills, so I tried three information technology–related courses. They were so terrible that I never completed any of them. Although self-paced, computer-based instruction should have been easy for someone familiar with the subject matter and used to working all day on a computer, I found them more frustrating than enlightening. The only detailed complaint I recall today is that they insisted on my getting the right answer in a particular way. For example, I had to do things using function keys rather than keystroke shortcuts or menu options. This makes no sense: if I can accomplish the task correctly, what difference does it make how I choose to do so? Years of learned behavior became a handicap rather than an advantage. This experience left me wary and suspicious of “digital schooling” as a substitute for traditional instruction.

My suspicions were also fed by reading about early classroom implementations of computers in which they seemed to be used most often as “digital ditto sheets.” Anyone my age will recall the smeary purple ditto sheets that too often delivered “drill and kill” experiences rather than useful, targeted instruction that actually reinforced skills. If the exercise is that poorly conceived, the medium will not help to engage the learner for long.

So, I approach Senator Colbeck’s Senate Bill 619 on Cyber Schools with some trepidation. His bill would allow unlimited cyber charter schools to enroll unlimited numbers of students from anywhere in the state with the sole qualification for the applicants that they “demonstrate experience in delivering a quality education program that improves pupil academic achievement.”

I have a few questions about that experiential qualification. What kind of pupils? Does success with upper-middle-class students mean one will be equally successful with at-risk children? What kind of improvement? Improvement over what or compared with whom? Most children will, no matter what, learn more with time; how much more is enough? If a sponsor has managed to run a preschool wherein the pupils make progress, does that make the organization qualified to run a cyber high school?

I worry about this because it is much more difficult to produce high academic achievement with some students than with others. We hold all of our children to the exact same standard now, ignoring the fact that some are born with many more advantages than others.

Census data from the 2010 American Community Survey shows that Michigan, along with every other state, experienced a another decline in real household income from 2009 to 2010. Our median household income remains some ten percent below the national average. Even in relatively affluent Canton, it dropped nearly 14% in one year. When you hear the complaint about how many Americans pay no federal income taxes (although they pay plenty of Social Security, sales, and other taxes), that is because of how little money they make in the first place! When you hear the complaint that our very wealthiest people pay a huge dollar amount of taxes, that’s because they’re the ones with the enormous wealth! If you compare the USA internationally, only Mexico exhibits a larger gap between richest and poorest, and only Russia exhibits more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Nearly a quarter of Michigan’s children under age 18 are living in poverty. It is very well documented that American public schools produce students who score near the top worldwide — IF you remove the children living in poverty from every tested nation’s scores. Our disappointing scores overall are directly related to the high (and increasing!) proportion of our children who are poor.

What do you suppose might happen if a poor teen is offered a computer and subsidized Internet connection so that he can enroll in a cyber school? Since any such school would receive the 2011–12 state minimum funding of $6,846 per pupil, it could well afford to provide these to its students. After all, it need not provide transportation to a building that is lit and heated, cleaned and maintained, or staffed with a reasonable ratio of teachers. Why, the teachers it does provide may not even have to meet any traditional standards, since SB 619 is tie-barred with SB 618. Among other things, that bill would allow for the sub-contracting of teachers from a for-profit agency.

So, we are looking at a literally golden opportunity for someone to make money by going through the motions of providing education through cyberspace. With some unspecified level of experience in improving academic achievement, a for-profit entity can be paid about as much per pupil as any regular school or district, with no requirements related to what, exactly, a quality digital learning experience should provide. And, if the teachers, too, can be a source of profit, so much the better!

Am I being too cynical?

It just seems obvious that a student who is not doing well in a traditional school with in-person attention cannot be expected to do better using unfamiliar technology, via software that may be as poorly designed as that I encountered, with only a quite possibly unqualified and over-committed instructor to help. It would take a year or two to evaluate results and close down operators who cannot “deliver a quality education program.” An “unlimited” number of lives may be blighted meanwhile, but plenty of money can be made during that time.

I must point out that NONE of the nations whose students perform the best on international exams reached that level by privatizing schools and de-professionalizing teachers. Yet a “free market” of schools and “loosening of regulations” that require teaching credentials are routinely touted as the cure for what ails American education. Now, Senator Colbeck’s bill would open the public’s purse to a completely unproven model: cyber schools. To my knowledge, only one such school in Michigan has a two-year track record available for analysis: Westwood Cyber High School in Wayne County. Its students achieved an ACT composite score of 15.6 (of a possible 36) in 2010 and 16.1 in 2011. While that trend might qualify as “improved academic achievement” as defined by SB 619, I hardly consider it a raging success worthy of unlimited replication on the taxpayers’ dime.