Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dismantling public schools

In an attempt to remake public schooling from scratch, Governor Snyder commissioned a proposal by the Oxford Foundation, which advertises that its purpose is to “lessen the burdens of government.” The foundation has now drafted a 300-page “2013 Michigan Education Finance Act” to replace the School Aid Act under which Michigan public schools now operate. The changes proposed are so numerous and wide-ranging that it is impossible to explain — let alone refute — them all in a single column. But Michigan citizens should be aware that drastic and potentially disastrous change is coming to all of our communities, should this act be adopted.

Here are my major concerns:

1. Equal access.

• Already, the three charter schools within the Van Buren school district serve just 26% as many special-needs students and 41% as many economically disadvantaged students as do the regular public schools (based upon Fall 2011 demographic data for the MEAP-tested grades). Because these proposals incentivize advantaged students to leave, they will exacerbate the trend of concentrating the neediest students in the regular public schools without offering the greater resources required to serve them adequately.

• “Any place, anywhere” schooling is only available to those who can get to it — which is precisely those students who are already better prepared for and supported in their schooling.

• Selective enrollment (schools will be able to choose categories of students to serve — or not) will further accelerate the resegregation (by race, poverty, and disability) that is already evident in demographic data for charters. This is simply unacceptable in the United States of America.

• The new forms of on-line schooling will be selectively available to those who have the technology and the Internet access to use them.

2. Accountability.

• In looking through the demographic data for the charter schools within my district, I noticed a disturbing trend: of the few special education students they do have, many tend not to take the Reading and Math MEAP tests, the ones that count in such metrics as Top-to-Bottom rankings and NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress ratings. Now, this plan proposes to allow new types of schooling to avoid such standardized testing altogether. It is unconscionable to call the majority of schools failures on the basis of this testing and then to exempt the “solution” schools from the same scrutiny.

• I am alarmed at the open door for for-profit schooling with no attempt to screen operators for a history or even a capacity for the delivery of quality services. The miserable failure of on-line schooling, in particular, to adequately serve students elsewhere (note Colorado’s several-year, well-documented failures) should serve as a warning to us that profiteers will most certainly take advantage of this system, to the detriment of our children.

3. Lack of research supporting new initiatives. I thought the Governor’s standard for all government initiatives was that they incorporate research-driven best practices, which almost none of the elements of this plan do. How can we justify experimenting on our children, using public funds, while simultaneously undermining public school systems like my own that are doing the hard, day-to-day work of systematically improving teaching and learning in ways that are proven to work? Many of these “new ideas” are egregiously irresponsible in this regard. The proposers persist in the magical thinking that simple solutions exist for complex problems. Research and documented practice show us what we must do — and these plan elements are mostly unproven or disproven techniques.

4. Nonsensical Economics. The voucher-like, money-follows-child system proposed shows abysmal ignorance about school finance.

• Traditional public schools are built via bond issues paid by residents after they vote democratically to take on that debt. Why would they ever be willing to do that if “freeloaders” can send their children to those schools without paying on that debt? How is it fair to ask them to?

• Dividing up the per-pupil foundation allowance by class period (giving one-sixth of it, for example, to another organization for one class period a day) ignores the reality that per-pupil funding is not used that way. Special education students, for example, typically cost more to educate than per-pupil and special-education funding amounts to; the difference comes from all the other children’s per-pupil funding. Transportation, a huge expense in some large districts and a tiny one in others, comes from everyone’s per-pupil funding. Secondary students, with their science labs, career-tech classes, band and other electives, and extensive athletic programs, cost more to educate than elementary students; the difference comes from elementary per-pupil funding. (This is why there are so few charter high schools — not as much profit to be made.)

• Treating per-pupil funding as a personal entitlement, to be spent at the user’s whim, undermines the entire funding system for public schools. We pay taxes for schools not as user fees but to promote the public good, since every child deserves this opportunity and we all benefit from an educated citizenry. If we move to a voucher-like system, childless taxpayers will be ever more resentful about contributing to what should be a societal cause. They will especially resent having their tax dollars misused by for-profit businesses with little meaningful oversight.

• Public school boards are already tasked with adopting budgets by July 1, long before they know how many students or how much revenue they will have to work with. Introducing as much additional uncertainty about both as these proposals do will make it all but impossible to be good stewards of public tax money.

• The envisioned menu of attendance options for each student throughout each day is supposed to be tracked financially by the traditional home school districts – an accounting nightmare. Even if this impossible task could be done, there is no talk of compensating the unwilling fiduciary agents for taking it on. Can we say, “unfunded mandate”?

There are good reasons why critics from many corners say that this proposal will simply dismantle public education in our state. Our legislature has recently exhibited a propensity to adopt extreme measures with little deliberation. The time to make your views known is NOW.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Accountability runs off into a ditch

Sometimes things seem so obvious to me that I cannot fathom how others can miss them. The absurdity of a new feature of Michigan’s accountability system for public schools is one of those things.

Late this summer, Michigan finally got a federal waiver for No Child Left Behind requirements. Congress has been unable to agree for years now on how to renew or update NCLB (which serves as the framework for federal appropriations for K–12 education), because no one likes it. It essentially required all of our children to be above average within the next two years, which cannot be done. So, the Department of Education encouraged states to apply for waivers, substituting their own systems.

There are some admirable aspects to Michigan’s alternate plan, but the Focus Schools designation is emphatically not one of them. The 10% of schools with the largest achievement gaps between their top 30% and bottom 30% within a school are designated as Focus Schools. Note that this statistic has absolutely no reference to achievement, which has been the primary goal for our students. Even if every child in the school meets proficiency standards, it can still record such a gap if the top 30% of students are way more proficient than expected or required. Some Focus Schools are in the 99th percentile of the state’s Top to Bottom List of schools, so their average achievement level is presumably very high indeed.

This is not precisely what happened in the Van Buren Public Schools, but our case makes as little sense. Our Tyler Elementary has long housed a magnet program drawing gifted students from all over the district, comprising more than 30% of the school population. Two years ago, MEAP tests there evidenced a large gap between the top and bottom 30% of those tested. I would think, given that this Title I School housed many of our most gifted students and some of our most economically disadvantaged students, that there would be something wrong if there were not a large top-to-bottom gap. It seems similarly nonsensical that the list of Focus Schools also contains special education center programs, where none of the students even take the regular MEAP tests.

Have we finally reached the kind of denial that people actually exhibit a range of abilities that Kurt Vonnegut foresaw in his story Harrison Bergeron? In that world, “everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the ... unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

I am not suggesting that we accept lower standards of achievement for some children. I am convinced by both research and copious anecdotal evidence that — with diverse approaches, skilled instructors, and the right supports — children from all backgrounds and with all levels of inborn talent can learn the knowledge and skills they need for successful lives. And we clearly have not yet reached the point where we are providing our neediest students with all that they need to reach their potential. But the last thing we would ever want to do is to somehow hold back our brightest students so that they do not get too far ahead.

That is exactly what I fear this system will encourage. Among the 358 Focus Schools are all 21 Ann Arbor PS elementary schools. Might that not be because the children of the privileged go to school alongside the disadvantaged? Do we want them to be sorted into separate schools so as to prevent too large a gap in their test scores? Who, exactly, would that serve? Students at the Title I Focus Schools there were offered (this was mandatory) the choice of moving to schools in Ypsilanti and Lincoln school districts. Realistically, how would that improve their educations? How does diversion of money from classrooms to busing to other districts represent wise or efficient use of taxpayer dollars?

What really aggravates me are the requirements put on us because Tyler is a Title I School (see the Focus School FAQs at the MDE site):
• We must revise our school improvement plan and Title I plan (both of which had just been revised);
• We must set aside 10% of our district-level Title I allocation to offer to parents of students in the Focus School the choice to transfer and free transportation to another of our elementary schools (when we just established new attendance areas to avoid exactly such transportation); and
• We had to send letters to Tyler parents notifying them the school has been identified and of those choice options.

Here is where this whole business becomes a farce: Tyler is not the same school as when those tests were taken two years ago. The principal, most of the staff, and 64% of the students are new to this building this year. The fifth grade, as well as the entire gifted magnet program, have moved out to other buildings. This is a solution in search of a problem.

Moreover, this “solution” creates enormous new problems. Because we have no approved Title I plan, we cannot spend that money. (We submitted a new plan within two days of this Focus School notification, but it may be the end of September before the under-manned Michigan Department of Education can get it approved.) Last May, we went through an AdvancED Quality Assurance Review and developed ambitious plans for accomplishing the changes recommended by the review team. We were commended for “the commitment and focused leadership of the superintendent and administrative leadership team that will guide the district in developing a school system that is vision-driven, targeted on student achievement, and has a systemic and systematic process of continuous improvement.” We are investing (for both materials and training) in districtwide curricular consistency for the first time ever, emphasizing improved instructional practices and increased student engagement using research-based methods. Title I funding and teachers were a vital part of these plans — and right now we have neither.

We were doing everything right, exactly what the AdvancED accreditation team and the Michigan Department of Education recommend, yet our initiatives will be undermined by the inflexibility of this new system — even though “increased flexibility” was the entire point of the NCLB waiver. We are experiencing the fearsome old cliché of “We’re from the government and we’re here to help”!

Friday, February 10, 2012

How much do YOU know about schools and education?

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, Assistant Secretary of Education during the first Bush administration, and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, recently wrote an amazingly succinct summary of the state of the national debate about education, entitled "Do Politicians Know Anything About Schools and Education? Anything?" The ironic tone was fully intended. Because it is so inclusive of the actual, research-supported facts relevant to the debate, it deserves to be spread far and wide. She asks pertinent, if leading, questions to make us all think and rethink our positions. Because she summarizes, and her brief answers may not be believed, I will expand upon them.

Charter Schools. Ravitch asks, “Are you aware that studies consistently show that charter schools don’t get better results than regular public schools? ... That some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools?”

She is absolutely correct about the research. Pro- and anti-charter school folks will each cite their favored results, often from research sponsored or funded by one side, but the studies with the best research designs, which are most supportive of broader conclusions, show exactly the proportion of “results achievement” Ravitch summarizes. It is vitally important, in drawing conclusions about relative performance, to control for differences in student populations.

Charter schools do not serve the same population as traditional public schools; a larger proportion of high-needs students is left behind. Demographic data released a few days ago on the Fall 2011 MEAP tests lets me demonstrate that. Of students in grades 3–8 in Van Buren Public Schools, 54% are white, 54% are economically disadvantaged, and 9.4% have disabilities. Of students in grades 3–8 at Keystone Academy (within the borders of VBPS), 75% are white, 27.5% are economically disadvantaged, and 1.6% have disabilities. This academy serves only half as many poor children and very few children with disabilities. The charter movement is re-segregating our public schools. Remember this the next time a politician with an agenda tells you that charter schools do better with less money.

Merit Pay for Teachers Based on Test Scores. “Are you aware that merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and it has never worked? Are you aware of the exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, which found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference?”

Again, Ravitch is precisely correct. And the Vanderbilt study was carefully designed to test exactly the question of whether, with important variables controlled for, student achievement would rise with significant pay-for-performance teacher incentives. It did not. Human motivation is just not that simple. Daniel Pink elaborates on why this is so in his book, Drive. As he noted in a Washington Post interview last week, merit pay for teachers just doesn't work.

“Are you aware that there is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores? Are you aware that these measures are considered inaccurate and unstable, that a teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next one? Are you aware that these measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher's classroom, over which she or he has no control? Do you think there is a long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired?”

She's got the evidence on every count above. Follow her links and see for yourself. The demoralization of current teachers is obvious; the effect on the prospective teacher pool is even more worrying. Top-quality potential teachers have many more attractive fields to go into, in terms of prestige, remuneration, working conditions, security, and control over the factors upon which their performance will be judged. The sharp increase in debt for new graduates exacerbates the discouraging effect of poor job security.

Vouchers. “Are you aware that Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools? Are you aware that the federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that — after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee — black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana?”

This is the first time the voucher schools have been required to use the same state test as public schools. The voucher students performed worse in both reading and math; controlling for economic disadvantage, low-income voucher students performed about the same as those in public schools. Gov. Scott Walker's response is to propose that voucher kids not have to take that test anymore.

Internet Schools. “Does it concern you that cyber charters and virtual academies make millions for their sponsors yet get terrible results for their students?”

The internet schools do, indeed, have miserable track records. Perhaps the best evidence (in terms of numbers and number of years to show trends) comes from Colorado. An analysis shows that half the thousands of on-line students there leave the virtual schools within a year, often further behind academically than when they started. Colorado’s annual report found that “achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics,” including poverty, English language ability, and special education status. The limited evidence in Michigan is also not encouraging. Students at the Westwood Cyber High School in Wayne County achieved an ACT composite score of 15.6 (of a possible 36) in 2010 and 16.1 in 2011.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by major corporations and conservative foundations, drafts model bills for state legislatures. The “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force is Mickey Revenaugh; he is co-founder and Senior Vice President of Connections Academy — “a leading national provider of virtual public school curriculum, technology and school management services,” which stands to make millions from virtual schools. I wonder where Senator Colbeck got the wording for his bill to allow a huge expansion in virtual schools?

Poverty and How We Rank Internationally. “Did you know that American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment? Did you know that American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea? Did you know that the U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty? ... Did you know that family income is the single most reliable predictor of student test scores? ... Affluence helps — children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security — as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives. Do you think these things matter?”

The disparity in incomes in the U.S. has been growing exponentially. A full third of all income growth over the past 20 years has gone to the top tenth of one percent. Meanwhile, middle-class wages have stagnated or fallen. Sharply rising child poverty is a frightening correlate to that inequality. All you need do is note the startling change in VBPS demographics in recent years to see the trend. And of course that matters when it comes to academic achievement.

The results are documented in our national results on the international PISA achievement tests. National Association for Secondary School Principals researchers disaggregated the 2010 results by income and issued a report entitled “PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid.” When comparing apples to apples — other nations and American schools with equally low poverty rates — our students were first in the world.

Solutions that Aren't. “Do you know of any high-performing nation in the world that got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers? The answer: none.” Nations with the best achievement records have well-trained teachers who enjoy high pay, respect, and prestige. The teachers in the best-performing nations mostly have strong unions, as well. Yet self-styled “reformer” governors all over the country seem determined to destroy unions, especially the teachers unions that did not support their election. One might be justified in questioning their motives, as well as their willingness and ability to base important decisions on real evidence.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Our Lossy Brains

I saw a segment on Sixty Minutes recently about an autistic savant, a teen who learns math and science quickly with the help of an incredible, literal memory. Simply put, he recalls, indefinitely, nearly everything to which he is exposed. The television program Unforgettable is predicated on the idea that some people have eidetic memory, in which they can picture with perfect clarity every scene in which they have ever been present.

This level of detail and clarity is very different from the way most of us remember — or don’t.

Our memories are more like a JPEG-compressed photograph. Working in graphic publication, I learned early the difference between “lossless” compression like LZ, which preserves nearly the full digital information of a photo, and “lossy” methods like JPEG that do not. The difference in file size is quite significant, because there is a great deal of information in a high-resolution photo.

Lossy file compression reduces file size by discarding much of that information in favor of prediction. The value of each pixel in a photo can be predicted in comparison with that of its neighbors. Sophisticated algorithms work by concentrating on deviations from expectations, saving the information that is most important to recreating the photo in a recognizable way when decompressing it.

We need not have perfect information in order to preserve a photo (or an MP3 audio file, for that matter). The decompressed photos or recordings are not the same as the originals, but they are close enough to satisfy most uses and users.

Neurological research is demonstrating that most human brains work in a very similar way: we pay attention to what is unexpected in our environment, since there is simply too much data out there to process it all. Andy Clark wrote a nice summary of the research and its implications in a recent New York Times blog entry, “Do Thrifty Brains Make Better Minds?” “Recent work in computational and cognitive neuroscience suggests that it is ... the frugal use of our native neural capacity ... that explains how brains like ours so elegantly make sense of noisy and ambiguous sensory input.”

Part of our mad skills in data sifting are shared with most of the animal world. For example, we all tend to privilege motion over stasis in what catches our attention, because that which moves is more likely to be predator or prey. Anything that does not seem to “fit” will more easily catch our eye or ear. We are subtly predicting what that motion may imply before it truly registers in consciousness. Nanoseconds can mean the difference between life or death, or between eating or starving, so we operate somewhat on autopilot — which is much faster than thinking things through.

But humans do more than notice the unusual in our environment and subconsciously predict what comes next. Our neural predictive coding also uses “a stacked hierarchy of processing stages.... The prediction-based strategy unfolds within multiple layers, each of which deploys its own specialized knowledge and resources to try to predict the states of the level below it.” Clark likens this to the way information is distilled in a managerial chain of command, with each level of participant passing only the most salient (that is, novel or unexpected) information up to the next higher level. By the time something reaches the President’s desk, for example, the non-newsworthy should have been stripped away, since the person at the top of the chain simply hasn’t the time to pay attention to everything.

Our brains do much the same thing. We do some seriously sophisticated processing of incoming data in order to predict what will happen next. Those predictions are based on past experience, of course. Just like a toddler dropping things from a high chair picks up the law of gravity, we develop theories about how the world works that filter our perceptions going forward.

This is important. “Our expectations (both conscious and non-conscious) may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear and feel.” If we don’t expect it, we don’t perceive it. If we do expect it, we’ll perceive what may not actually be there.

So, if enough people in our past have done something, we will assume that “everybody does it” — whether that’s cheating on our taxes or working as a volunteer. If we have always been hurt by those we love, we see that as normal and assume it will always happen. If we hear a political slogan often enough from many sources, we will assume it is true. If we are raised in a racist or sexist environment, not just our expectations but our very perceptions will be sculpted by that experience. Expecting to see behavior that conforms to our stereotypes, we will see that and will ignore behavior that belies the stereotypes.

Our brains are just trying to be efficient.

We need to think about what information may have been lost in that neurological filtering and compression. Our memories are just as lossy as a JPEG photo. When a photo is decompressed, there will be speckling that was not there originally, especially where two very different colors or luminosities meet. This noise is a signal of lost information. We would profit by paying more attention to noise — cognitive dissonance — in our own thoughts. When something feels wrong or “does not compute,” we have most likely pruned some important information from our perceptions. Efficiency has gotten in the way of accuracy.

We also have been warned by this research that what our children are exposed to can determine how they see themselves and the world. Besides shielding them from ugly experiences, we should expose them to as wide a set of experiences and viewpoints as possible, so that their own mental shortcuts do not disserve them. That's good advice for us grown-ups, too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Best Elections Money Can Buy

This column is only tangentially related to education, as it is about our electoral process. But elections have had dramatic consequences for public education in recent years, so I don’t consider it a stretch.

In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court allowed “super PACs” to spend unlimited amounts of money advertising for or against political candidates. The first heavy-duty use of this new tool was the advertising onslaught against Newt Gingrich in Iowa as soon as he became a front-runner in the polls. And the tool proved to be a very effective hammer: flattening him before the caucus.

I am writing not about Gingrich or about Romney’s PAC or about the substance or veracity of that deluge of advertising. We all knew this would happen — and it will keep happening.

What is unexpected and disheartening is that the timely disclosure of donors to these PACs has been stymied by exploitation of a loophole. The court had ruled that the transparency of full disclosure, which was obviously intended by legislation, would enable voters “to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” That is, once we knew who was paying for the ads, we could consider that source and judge them accordingly.

After all, the Federal Election Campaign Act requires “quarterly filers to make special reports just before primaries.” That will not help most absentee voters, who will have mailed in ballots before such filings, but at least voters can, with some effort and/or some good reporting, discover who is attempting to buy our elections and our elected officials. It’s not a perfect system, but disclosure could mitigate the evils of the unlimited spending allowed by Citizens United.

Unfortunately, the ever-inventive folks behind these PACs have found a way to prevent such timely disclosure. As Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics reported in the New York Times on Jan. 11, 2012, timely donor disclosure has not and will not be achieved. “As 2011 came to a close, many super PACs — including all of the candidate-specific ones — told the Federal Elections Commission that from now on they’d be filing monthly, rather than quarterly. Monthly filers aren’t required to make ‘pre-primary’ reports.” This means that “Romney may have essentially wrapped up the presidential nomination by the time we know who has bankrolled these outfits.”

So, the million-dollar donors can even be anonymous long enough to throw a critical mass of primary elections. If the ability of a very rich and powerful few to exert outsized influence on our elections does not frighten you, it should.