Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Immersion Discussion

Yesterday, I immersed myself in a discussion about our foreign language immersion programs which offer the opportunity to parents to put their children in either a Chinese immersion (Madison) or Spanish immersion (Clearview) program. Somehow this topic got mixed up with a significantly different topic, the appropriate strategy to teach English to non English speaking immigrants. I understand the reason for the confusion, I think. It begins with this basic question: "If Spanish immersion does a great job of teaching Spanish to native English speakers, why doesn't it follow that English immersion should be used to teach English to students whose native language is Spanish or Somali?." I think the answer comes in two parts. First, many of the concepts behind immersion apply to to teaching English to non-English speaking students. Language is best introduced at an early age. Language is best learned conversationally, especially in the context where you must use it constantly. Language is best learned when your peers are speaking it as well. Language benefits from constant repetition.

But there are differences as well. English language learners in a school environment are generally not speaking English at home. That means that the primary place that they are learning English is in school. Second language learners are getting strong English language support at home and elsewhere, and they are already native speakers. The dialog on immersion for non-English speakers, for me, is basically one of tactics, not politics. Its a question of doing what works. I think before one engages in a dispute over the full immersion approach to teaching English to non-English speakers, its important to try to see if there are some things about which we can all agree.
  • There is evidence that by the year 2025, 1/3 of the students who arrive in public schools in the United States will arrive in kindergarten not speaking English. If we want to make sure that these students succeed in school, and if we want to make sure that they develop proficiency in English, public schools will need to use methods that really work. We cannot afford to use methods that are chosen out of political correctness, or because of nationalistic fervor, or based on anger or emotion. If we believe that all students must learn English and learn it well, then we must get really good at teaching English to non-English speaking children.
  • I take it as a given that it is critically important that all young people must become fluent in English as quickly as possible. I think that this proposition cannot be considered controversial. In order to function effectively in school, in the world of work, in civic affairs, it is important that public education assure that all of our students learn English. Moreover, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of our school instructional programs for non-English speaking children by whether they achieve this objective--of assuring mastery of English as rapidly as possible. This is something that I hear over and over again from parents of immigrant students as well. They want their children to learn English, and their children want to learn English right now.
  • The only reasonable debate, then, in my opinion, is what works the best in delivering the critical goal of arriving at English proficiency. There are advocates for many different approaches, but we should not confuse the question about the most cost effective efficient means, which is subject to debate, with the question of the end, which is not. We want all our students to learn English now.
  • We need to recognize that public school districts operate within some legal constraints, but that currently the primary constraint is that school districts must adopt methods that work. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court issued the landmark case, LAU v. NICHOLS., which held that the City of San Francisco could not put non-English speaking children into classrooms that were taught in English only, at least under a system which made no effort to assure that those students succeeded. The reasoning of the case is complex, and it depended in part upon California law as well as national civil rights laws. But since the Lau decision, local school districts have been subject to varying national mandates, sometimes favoring bilingualism, and sometimes offering more local freedom. Title III of No Child Left Behind, (the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act) requires States to ensure that ELL students “attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet.” §6812(1). It requires States to set annual objective achievement goals for the number of students who will annually progress toward proficiency, achieve proficiency, and make “adequate yearly progress” with respect to academic achievement, §6842(a), and it holds local schools and agencies accountable for meeting these objectives, §6842(b). The statute has been interpreted to foster local flexibility in selection of means to reaching the goal of proficiency.
  • This question of what works has often been muddled with other issues that divert our attention from the central goal--which is to do what works. If you believe that English should be the national language, please understand that this is a political ideology, but it has nothing to do with the question of pedagogy--what is the fastest way to teach students to learn English. If it makes you angry for some reason to think that in a classroom, a teacher might be occasionally speaking Spanish, or Somali, or some other foreign language, you are entitled to be angry, if it makes you feel good. If you are politically committed to bilingualism, because you really think its a great way to honor another culture, you are entitled to that belief as well, but don't confuse that with the central issue. The central issue, as far as I am concerned is which method of teaching achieves the main goal, to teach children to learn English with the maximum proficiency in the shortest amount of time, and the answer to that question is not going to come from your beliefs, its going to come from measuring results.
  • The use of immersion programs to teach a second language to native English speakers raises fundamentally different issues, because native English speakers have already achieved the central goal of speaking English fluently. They are reading and speaking English at home, and everywhere else. This is starkly different from the experience of the non-English speaking child, who likely hears no English at home. In order to learn English at school, they need massively more English at school, if they are going to reach proficiency in English. We offer Spanish and Chinese immersion as a choice, and parent can enroll their children in these programs if they wish, based on their own evaluation of whether it will work for their own children. If the program fails to live up to their expectations, still their children will be proficient in English.
We spend too much time these days, arguing about things that make us angry at each other. Let's agree on something that ought to be completely non-controversial: let's make sure that everybody in our community can speak English, and especially young people. Let's do it the way that works the fastest, that prepares every non-English speaking child to function effectively in science, math, and language arts in English.

With that starting point, let's borrow a bit from a website at the University of Michigan, to try to understand the pedagogical debate about the best way to teach English to non-English speaking children. To look at the website, Click Here: U Michigan website.

The website tells us that there are four main approaches to teaching English to non-English speaking children:
  • Submersion: In submersion, "language minority students are placed in an ordinary classroom where English is spoken.." The class makes no special accommodation. The teacher teachers the class exactly the same as she would if all her students were English proficient. Sink or swim. If you believe in doing what works the best, then don't tell my you favor this approach because it makes you feel good. The issue is whether it really works. It is submersion that the Supreme Court found unlawful in the Lau case.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL):In traditional ESL, students are placed in regular submersion instruction for most of the day. During part of the day, however, these students receive extra instruction in English.
  • Structured Immersion Structured immersion involves special accommodations to assure that non-English speaking children are given a fighting chance to succeed in the immersion environment. Content is introduced in a way that can be understood by students. The English language is the main content of instruction. One form of structured Immersion has been implemented in Arizona, described as follows in a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Horne v. Flores "Sheltered English immersion’ or ‘structured English immersion’ means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language… . Although teachers may use a minimal amount of the child’s native language when necessary, no subject matter shall be taught in any language other than English, and children in this program learn to read and write solely in English.”
  • Two-Way Bilingual Immersion: Students are taught in two languages; both their native language and English. "Two-way bilingual immersion programs that follow the 90-10 models begin by immersing students in instruction through the non-English language. As children progress through the program, the amount of English language instruction is increased until the two languages attain parity in the delivery of instruction." "90-10" denotes that 90% of teaching in Kindergarten and first grade are done in the native language and the other 10% of the day is taught in English." In some versions of this program, the school will attempt to enroll a roughly equal number of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language (each group making up between one-third and two-thirds of the total student population) and the two groups of students are integrated for all or most of the school day.
Now you can find all sorts of highly educated experts who claim that the evidence favors one of these programs over another. You can find different definitions as well. Some refer to a form of Bilingual education as "the practice of teaching non-English speaking students core subjects in their native language as they learn English" Under this definition of bilingual education, "such programs were intended to help children keep up with their peers in subjects such as math, science and social studies while they studied English" .

For a defense of bi-lingual education see this page: Bi-lingual education fallacies For an rejection of the approach, see Teach our children English.

See also: USC Resources A lengthy article from the Hoover Institution discusses the issue from an anti-bilingual approach.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Time for some courageous dialog

In yesterday's St. Cloud Daily Times, a candidate for school board announced his position that Somali children should go outside to a tin hut to say their daily ritual prayers. He also argued that we should get rid of language immersion programs. Time for a bit of courageous dialog.

It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as uneducated or, worse, prejudiced and then move on. But I think its a mistake to respond that way. We have too much name calling these days. People connected to public education should try to use education, not epithet, to resolve important public issues.

Let's talk a bit about the language immersion programs and why the board of education has supported the recommendation of our school leadership that we implement an immersion program. Some people wrongly believe that language immersion programs are an added expense. But that's not true at all. They require a single teacher, and so after some startup costs, they are just as cost effective as other classes. Because the programs are popular, they attract new students to the district, and the students they attract are generally low-cost students, so from a business perspective, they reduce our average cost. From a strictly business standpoint, immersion programs have proven their value. Cutting these programs would put the school district in a worse financial position, not a better one.

This is a common mistake in approaching education finance--to think that if you cut something it improves your financial position. If you cut our popular immersion programs, you don't cut costs, because those students still need a teacher. Its not good business to cut a program that parents want.

Some people wrongly believe that because immersion students are learning a second language, it must interfere with the students ability to learn English, math and other subjects. We shouldn't attack these concerns as uneducated, but rather address them directly with hard information. The fact is that in our district, the testing results from these classes so far seem to show that the students are progressing in other subjects as well or better than their peers.

This idea that learning a new language interferes with the rest of your learning is a uniquely American idea, and uniquely wrong. People in Europe and Asia think nothing of learning multiple languages and becoming fluent in two or more languages. For some few people, but not all, lurking underneath the attack on foreign languages is perhaps this idea that well, it is somehow unpatriotic to learn a second language. For these few, "I'm a good American, I speak and learn only English," seems to be the underlying theme.

But from a cold hard simple minded patriotic point of view, a country that knows only its own language is far more vulnerable to attack than a country whose citizens fluently speak many languages.
Arguing that children should learn only English is, however well intended, a way of crippling the national defense.

From a business point of view as well, unless more of our young people learn more languages fluently, we place ourselves at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. The students in our school district who complete our Chinese and Spanish immersion programs are going to be in high demand in business, in technology, in government service, and in education. They will command better salaries and do better in life. Language immersions are popular with parents because they rightly see these programs as providing them with a competitive edge. The graduates of immersion programs have a better understanding of grammar, speak more fluently with better accents, and perform equally or better on graduation in a wide range of subjects as compared to their single-language educated peers.

Now let's talk for a minute about approaching a courageous dialog on the prayer issue. Space does not allow me to discuss this issue in all of its aspects. We need to start, I think, with the underlying recognition that this issue would benefit from more respectful discussion and dialog in this community. What I call courageous dialog. For me, courageous dialog begins with a recognition that we need to bring issues out to the forefront, where we can engage in a respectful thoughtful exchange of ideas and information, without fear of recrimination. In our community, too often, sensitive issues like this are discussed primarily by folks who are on the fringe on one side or the other. Those of us who find ourselves closer to the middle, are sometimes embarrassed by the fringe, and so we are afraid to discuss sensitive topics for fear of being the subject of a fringe attack. We don't want to be identified as intolerant, nor do we want to be attacked by people who are themselves intolerant, and our Minnesota nice keeps us from finding out what is going on and why. And pretty soon, the entire dialog is left to people who embarrass us by being flagrantly on the fringe. People who seriously suggest that children should be humiliated in America by sending them out to pray in tin huts. Or, people who want to say that this is "white cloud", because here and there, somebody makes statement that makes us cringe.

When I was in elementary school, at least once a week, students were released to go to religious education. The schools made that accommodation, because in America, we believe that part of our freedom is to accommodate religion.....religious freedom is one of the things that our ancestors fought and died for. I know as well that it was quite common here in St. Cloud for many students to leave school early once a week for religious education. That practice didn't stop because public schools stopped it. Nor could we accommodate prayer for one denomination or faith and refuse it to another. That would be plainly unconstitutional. Now and again, I hear that public schools these days provide preferential treatment to Islam, and I can only say, doing that is plainly unlawful. We cannot prefer one faith over another.

By the same token, the question of where to draw the line--when to allow accommodation and when not to do so--is not an easy subject to unravel. People who raise this issue are not necessarily intolerant. Here is a link to a discussion of the issue at the First Amendment Center. Fair minded, non-prejudiced people, can take quite different views on what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. There are people who genuinely believe that we should drive religion out of public schools completely, because they see all religion in the public schools as an unconstitutional form of establishment of religion. There are others who genuinely believe that schools should be far more welcoming to prayer and religion, because they feel strongly that the government should not discriminate against religion. These two competing but equally fundamental concepts, both found in the constitution, anti-establishment and anti-discrimination, require deep thought and consideration to get the balance right.

For me, the concept of "courageous dialog" involves open, thoughtful, respectful discussion of these issues. I believe that when we fail to discuss these issues openly, we leave the public forum open only to fringe elements who seek to make them engines of hate, prejudice or misunderstanding. Its ok to ask whether we are drawing the line in the right place. Its probably time to have courageous and respectful discussion about these issues, because we are beginning to see signs that if we don't, the issues are going to be framed by the intolerant. In our community we are blessed with many who passionately believe in their faith, who believe that their faith calls upon them to make sacrifices to be observant. Catholics, Baptists of several denominations, Jews, Methodists and Lutherans also of many denominations, and now adherents of Islam. Few other communities have so many for whom so many different diverse religions are so important. If our young people learn nothing else, as they are growing up, they must learn to respect those for whom faith demands unwavering commitment. Living side by side, we would be well to learn to practice respectful dialog, to listen, to at times disagree, and well, to pray for guidance that we may address each other in the spirit of love that each of our great faiths demands.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

AVID Challenges us to Address the Needs of Students in the Middle Quartliles

Yesterday, I posted about a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) which has demonstrated remarkable success in improving the successful graduation to four year and two year colleges for students "in the middle." By in the middle, I mean students who are currently making grades of C to B+, often in lower level less challenging courses. The students that AVID addresses are students who have college potential, but are not realizing anywhere near their full potential. Several commenters pointed out that AVID entails additional expense, and worried that I was about to launch a campaign to raise the cost of education in St. Cloud. They pointed out that there is a budget crisis in Minnesota, and that trying to find new money for new programs would be pretty difficult to swallow.

I haven't been posting about AVID to think up a new way of spending more money. My primary motive has been to use the AVID success to challenge us to spend the money that we have better. Our school district has programs for students in the upper quartile (top 25%) that are second to none. The other day, I was invited to a coffee with some parents of 742 students, parents who are on the faculty at two of our local colleges. They pointed out that it is common knowledge amongst university people that the college bound District 742 students get a program that is far more rigorous, far more challenging that other districts in our region of Minnesota. That's because we have a robust, highly rigorous advanced placement program that has been developed by teachers in our two high schools over the last two decades. They said that they are bewildered by the fact that the local newspaper doesn't print a word about this, and that many citizens of our area are totally oblivious to our strengths in this area. Almost always, I hear from parents of top quartile students that they are thrilled by the range of opportunities and the rigorous challenge we provide to college bound students. Admissions officers all over the country, from local universities, to Minnesota privates, to the U of Minn, to the Ivies, the Big Ten, and nationally ranked privates, know that our top quartile students are ready to succeed in demanding college programs, because our students have a record of stellar preparation. A high grade point average for our students coming out of Apollo and Tech means something.

More often, I hear from parents that they would like us to pay more attention to students in the middle, and that's the reason that I've been talking about AVID. It reminds us many students who are performing in the middle quartiles in our high schools and others across the country actually are capable of significantly greater success. Many of them are children of parents who don't have college degrees. Some are students who encountered special barriers in elementary school--perhaps a reading disability known as dyslexia, that caused teachers, wrongly, to think that they are not smart. Perhaps they just haven't gotten the message that they can succeed, or perhaps they haven't realized that there is a pathway to college success for them. AVID proves to us that when junior and senior high school puts these students in a program designed to show them how to study, how to participate in a rigorous college preparatory class, how to take notes that huge gains in performance follows. I believe that we can use the ideas that have proven successful in AVID, and other ideas of our own, to make a difference for this untapped resource, underachieving students in the middle quartiles.

I first posted about AVID Back in May. I pointed out that AVID was demonstrating outstanding results in improving the success of students "in the middle" academically. I said:

I said: "AVID is at work in nearly 4,500 schools in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia and 16 countries/territories. Large urban schools, tiny rural schools, resource-rich suburban schools, struggling schools - they all find that AVID meets the needs of their students in the middle." A number of Minnesota Districts have begun AVID programs.including Roseville, Hopkins, and Lakeville, for example.

I see public education as a continuous progress enterprise. It is our job to adopt things that work, and pitch the things that don't.

As a community, when we see something that is working in other districts, we have to stop getting defensive, and we have to stop focusing on attacking each other around why it is that we aren't doing these things already. Continuous progress doesn't mean that we run out and try every new fad that comes along. There is only so much change that can be implemented at any one time. It doesn't mean that we just add a brand new program on top of everything else. But we can't blind ourselves to the things that are really working. Addressing the needs of the students in the middle quartile, especially those students who have greater potential, is just common sense.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Board Listens to AVID Presentation on Programs for students in the middle

Back in May, I posted about a program called AVID, which is demonstrating outstanding results in improving the success of students "in the middle" academically. "AVID is at work in nearly 4,500 schools in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia and 16 countries/territories. Large urban schools, tiny rural schools, resource-rich suburban schools, struggling schools - they all find that AVID meets the needs of their students in the middle." A number of Minnesota Districts have begun AVID programs.including Roseville, Hopkins, and Lakeville, for example.

Yesterday, the Board of Education's "Equity and Excellence Committee" listened to a presentation from a metro area AVID coordinator who has been instrumental in introducing AVID to her own school district. We wanted to evaluate whether adopting AVID in our school district might benefit our students, and we wanted also to understand the essential elements of AVID's success, so that we might use those ideas in our own programs, even if we decide that we aren't ready for AVID itself. I want to emphasize again the fact that AVID is focused on students in the middle. We have advanced placement programs that are focused on students who are already committed to the college path. We have programs to address the needs of students who are not capable of college work, no matter what we do. But this is a program designed to unlock the potential of students who live in the middle. As the program explains:

The program explains:

These are students who are capable of completing rigorous curriculum but are falling short of their potential. Typically, they will be the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. AVID pulls these students out of their un-challenging courses and puts them on the college track: acceleration instead of remediation.

AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It is designed to target students who are currently performing in the C to B+ range, as I have said, and seeks to unlock their unrealized potential. It is not a program designed specifically for minority students, although it has achieved stellar results for those students. Its focus is not white students, black students, Latino students, or English Language Learners. It is an equal opportunity program that works for students who are willing to sign on to a rigorous program that requires hard work, persistence, and, "individual determination."

So what are the essential elements of what AVID delivers?
  1. AVID student selection must focus on students in the middle, with academic potential, who would benefit from AVID support to improve their academic record and begin college preparation. This is the group of students for whom AVID has demonstrated exceptional results. It has significantly increased the number of students in this category who take challenging courses; the number who aspire to attend four year and two year college programs; and the acceptance rate of these students.
  2. AVID program participants, both students and staff, must choose to participate in the AVID program. This element is critical, because students cannot be successful when they don't work hard. AVID is just one of the many education programs that recognize that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" The key to success is getting these students to recognize that they can dramatically improve their future, but that advancement doesn't come for free: it requires individual determination. The requirement that staff participation is voluntary derives from the fact that some teachers are effective in this program, and some are not, and that the key to success is really wanting to make it work. There are teachers who do an exceptional job with other students, but just aren't cut out for the AVID idea. They are good teachers, but they should stick to teaching what they are good at.
  3. The school must be committed to full implementation of the AVID Program, with students enrolled in the AVID year-long elective class(es) available within the regular academic school day.
  4. AVID students must be enrolled in a rigorous course of study that will enable them to meet requirements for university enrollment. One tells these students that they shouldn't be taking easy courses to keep their grades up. They should be taking harder courses and challenging themselves. Many of these students discover that they can succeed at courses they never dreamed they could even pass. But it takes determination.
  5. A strong, relevant writing and reading curriculum provide a basis for instruction in the AVID classroom. The students learn to express themselves in writing.
  6. Inquiry is used as a basis for instruction in the AVID classroom to promote critical thinking. Now here is a surprise for some of you. Students who are struggling in the traditional program, many of them, actually do better when they are exposed to classes which encourage them to think, to find out, to answer deep questions. Instead of spending endless hours preparing to pass a test, the AVID students are exposed to the excitement that comes from applying knowledge to problem solving and critical thinking. I think that one of the reasons is that the middle of our school population includes a number of students who have given up on learning, because they don't see the connection between learning and the excitement of inquiry. Individual determination is partly fueled by the joy of discovery and the excitement of creativity. To those of you who are skeptical, who are died in the wool back to basics folks, I would just say, the proof is in the pudding. AVID works.
  7. Collaboration is used as a basis for instruction in the AVID classroom.
  8. A sufficient number of tutors must be available in AVID elective class(es) to facilitate student access to rigorous curriculum. Tutors should be students from colleges and universities and they must be trained to implement the methodologies used in AVID. AVID uses college mentors heavily, and where possible, it tries to use students who have overcome similar obstacles. Ideally, you would like to use your own graduates attending local colleges. The tutors are role models.
  9. AVID program implementation and student progress is monitored by data, and results must be analyzed to ensure success. This immediate use of student testing results characterizes almost all successful programs, and it is one of the features that we have introduced in our school district already. The idea is that we don't wait until the end of the semester to find out who isn't making adequate progress. Testing results are used immediately to identify who is not mastering the material, and results trigger intervention so that the material is mastered. Students who fail to master material today, can't reasonably be expected to master tomorrow's even more difficult material.
  10. The school or district has identified resources for program costs
  11. An active interdisciplinary AVID site team collaborates on issues of student access to and success in rigorous college preparatory courses. This is another element that is already underway in our School District--encouraging students to take harder courses, to stop coasting and to challenge themselves.
What happens next? This goal--of reaching the full potential of students in the middle is important for many reasons. It unlocks the potential of many more students, students who might otherwise be missing out on college opportunities. It reaches a group of students who have a much more productive future, if they can get on the track of rigor, persistence and individual determination. And so, we're going to stay on this issue. Should we adopt the AVID program lock stock and barrel, or should we use the AVID principles to improve our existing programs? That will be the focus of further discussion in the near future.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Board and Superintendent Set Annual District Goals

During this month, the Board of Education and the Board's personnel committee has been working on annual goals for the Superintendent and the School District. The final goals will be adopted in August. I'm going to post some of the draft goals over the next few days. Superintendent Goals represent the shared expectations of the Board and Superintendent regarding the progress that the District will make on the District’s strategic objectives during the coming years. The Board doesn't set goals for the district by fiat, but rather in consultation with the Superintendent. As part of the goal-setting process, the Superintendent consults with his leadership team and recommends to the Board specific targets and deadlines to measure progress along the way. After adoption, he then reports on progress towards these targets throughout the year.

Academic Goals: The first set of goals would focus on academic progress and is titled:

District Strategic Plan Regarding Academic Excellence

This Goal states that "The District will communicate clearly to parents, employees and the public, the purpose and meaning of the educational and other performance standards in the vision card system..."

The "vision card" system is a method of keeping track of how the district and its individual schools are doing in a variety of areas of academic performance. It not only measures academic performance, but it also sets goals for improvement. Vision card A1, called the "All Student Learning Scorecard" It gives us a measuring rod in each of 20 accountability areas.

Here are some examples of some of the twenty accountability measures that are monitored by the All-student-learning-scorecard that the Board of Education has adopted. You can see all twenty by clicking on the link above:
  • NWEA Map Growth in mathematics. (1) This is a measure of how much math students are learning in a year of school, using the NWEA Measure of Academic Progress tests that are given three times per year. I've discussed the NWEA system in two prior posts. This is an example of a growth measure of academic progress. Growth measures are important because they tell us whether students are learning each year.
  • MCA (2) Reading Levels. These are measures of reading proficiency by grade level as measured at year-end by State of Minnesota tests. Proficiency measures tell us how many of our students score equal to, or better, than the cut score that Minnesota sets as proficient. Proficiency scores are important because they are often used by politicians as the central measure of school success.
  • ACT Benchmark Scores ACT scores are examples of what we call "Capstone" scores, because they are measures taken only at the end of a student's career, just before graduation.
  • Advance Placement Participation Our "All Student Learning Scorecard" also measure the number of students who take advanced placement courses as well as the number of students who receive advance placement scores that qualify them for college credit. These are important measures of the number of our students who are taking the hardest courses generally available in American high schools, and we want to monitor our progress in these areas, because they are an area in which our district shines in comparison with most schools in Minnesota.
The All Student Learning Scorecard reports results district-wide in each of these and 15 other areas. It also adopts benchmarks for scores that we regard as acceptable, unacceptable, and exceptional. We want the superintendent to present this accountability system in an understandable way, so that parents and others in the community understand our results. We expect him report our score results annually, and to report on efforts to make improvements where improvement is necessary.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss some of the other goals that the board of education has proposed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Charters No Answer to the Achievement Gap

Today I want to talk about charters as a solution for closing the achievement gap. I want to begin by emphasizing that there are plenty of good charter schools. This post isn't an attack on, or endorsement of, any charter school. This post challenges the current craze in Washington, among certain business circles, and in St. Paul, that claims, against all the evidence, that a nationwide charter push is a solution to the achievement gap.

In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, CREDO, issued a report measuring the performance of charter schools in 16 states. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes was established to improve the body of empirical evidence about education reform and student performance at the primary and secondary levels. The report is called, Multiple Choice, Charter School Performance in 16 states. You can read it here. The report summary states the following:

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state‐by‐state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools.

The report continues:

Charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers across the country, with every expectation that they will continue to figure prominently in national educational strategy in the months and years to come. And yet, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their Traditional Public School counterparts. Further,tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face.

I've been writing for the last couple of days on the topic of education reform. In the first post, I argued that many of the Obama-Bush reforms coming out of the Duncan Department of Education are unproven and inappropriate for many schools and school districts. In the second post, I argued that the key to genuinely successful reforms in our school district is to unleash the creative energy of our best leading teachers and other education professionals. In coming posts, I'm going to discuss some reform ideas that I think are worthwhile, and others that I think that are over-hyped. But in today's post, I want to ask why, in the face of this evidence, is the Obama administration so fixated on forcing States to join the charter movement?

In my prior post, I emphasized that everyone who writes about education policy should confront these issues with a sense of humility. The history of education policy is riddled with failed fads supported by convincing education scholars who assured us that "the research says...." When I post these ideas, I am cognizant of my own limitations. I could be wrong about the failure of charters to pay the promised dividends on the achievement gap. But shouldn't the evidence be overwhelming, for the federal government to decide to cram an idea down our throats?!

If the evidence were overwhelming that charter schools were making clear difference in closing the achievement gap, perhaps one could understand why the federal government in both the Bush and Obama administration has been so adamant that charter schools represent a critical element of national education reform policy. But actually, the evidence does not support that claim at all. Some are good, some bad, just like so-called TPS (traditional public schools). It seems to me that even if the evidence is merely neutral, wouldn't it make sense to let states and localities choose their own path to reform. Indeed, the CREDO report, and others like it, suggest that on the average charter schools are just plain old public schools pretending to be something radically different. A Schick instead of Gillette. A Grain Belt instead of a Pabst.

DFL governor Rudy Perpich was an early leading proponent for the charter school idea. He argued that charter schools would induce an element of competition into public education and that the new competition would especially result in improvements in low performing urban schools serving students in profound poverty. I want to point out that there are other reasons that one might start a charter school, besides those reasons. This post is not a criticism of any charter school. Maybe you want to start a school with a very different curriculum than in your local school district. Maybe you are a fan of the Saxon math program (I am not), or maybe you want to create a bio-science magnet school, even though your own schools are providing excellent opportunities. You can make a case for the benefits of the freedom to start up new schools for reasons like that with public money. In Minneapolis they are starting new schools with public money at the same time as they are shutting them down. Maybe you think that the benefits of starting new schools while closing down others is justified by the freedom to experiment. But that's not the reason that the national department of education is pushing charters right now. Rather, the feds (and St. Paul) claim that putting a whole lot of money into charter schools will make a huge impact on the achievement gap, and substantially improve the performance of students in those neighborhoods where proficiency scores are abysmally low.

A recent auditor's report here in Minnesota authored by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.

This conclusion about Minnesota charter schools is echoed in the CREDO report as well. It bolsters the suggestion that I have made in my last two posts, that that school improvement doesn't come from shuffling the education deck, but instead requires sophisticated use of best practices by dedicated professional educators, and that the key to success is insisting that public schools engage in continuous improvement through adoption of those best practices.

Professional educators lead reform efforts

Yesterday, I expressed skepticism that some of the top-down, one-size-fits-all strategies propounded by the Obama and Bush administrations for educational reform were appropriate for Districts like our own. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what reform means. But for me, reform means addressing the educational needs today's generation of young people by implementing proven new ideas that work. It means overcoming resistance to change for the sake of keeping to the status quo. It means addressing the emerging crisis in preparation for "first generation" students, so that we realize the full potential of all of our young people. It means responding to the challenge that we do a better job of educating the bottom quartile of students who aren't graduating proficient in math, science, reading and writing.

I said yesterday, that I don't think that pundits, politicians and even school board members are able to dictate how needed change should be implemented. I said that those of us who aren't professional educators must approach the issue of reform with a sense of humility, recognizing that we are remote from what's going on in the classroom. The evidence of the past decades demonstrates that in our district, positive change has always come from hard work and innovation led by the best of our teachers and professional educational leaders. To make continuous progress, we must continue to find ways to unlock the potential of our most creative, innovative and inspirational educational leaders.

Our first son entered District 742 in about 1984. Since that time, there have many significant positive changes in our school district, and most of those changes have been successful because they were sponsored, supported, and implemented by outstanding teachers and innovative educational leaders who said, "I want to try something better." In that period, gifted teachers developed the area's first advanced placement classes, and then over the years, introduced more and more of these rigorous, challenging courses. A lot of work went into that innovation, and one by one, high school teachers learned new and demanding courses, recruited students to participate, and demonstrated their ability to teach courses to our students that are as demanding as found in most introductory college classes. For those of you who have never taught, it may seem a simple matter to make a change in curriculum or teaching practices. Even introducing a new textbook requires a tremendous amount of preparation, but implementing significant meaningful change, such as adding an advanced placement course, is a major undertaking that involves research, extensive preparation, and then years of work trying to make the new course work.

In our district, significant improvements in the teaching of elementary science were developed and advocated for by gifted teachers who were lovers of science, and they put a lot of hard work into making those improvements. In more recent years, improvements in the rigor of our junior high classes have been implemented, again with the active support and hard work of teachers who cared enough to adapt their teaching practices to make things better for kids. Parents, board members, and the curriculum folks supported those changes, but they couldn't have occurred without active support, planning, and innovation by the teachers and professional leadership in the schools. These improvements are way easier to think up, than they are to implement. Improving a social studies course, or introducing new computer or calculator technology, or modern interactive white-board technology, requires hundreds of hours of time from dedicated teachers who are inspired to make their classrooms work better for kids.

In the last several years, several teachers have been working very hard to integrate pre-engineering programs in our district using the Project Lead the Way model. Project Lead the Way is an exciting program that appeals to so-called average students, because it connects pre-engineering to projects that kids can do with their hands. Just as auto mechanics inspired that group of kids back when I was in school, now pre-engineering experiences like Project Lead the Way, provides an exceptional opportunity to attract and retain a group of kids who might otherwise lose interest in school. Project Lead the Way didn't happen because a school board member did something, although the board gave it our full support. The hard work, the inspiration, and the success of that program resulted from innovative hard work from exceptional teachers.

In the last couple of years, teachers and administrators have begun to integrate web-based technology called Skyward to provide better communication to parents. That change too has required, and will continue to require efforts to innovate and change. The District has implemented a new progress reporting system using the best testing and reporting system, the NWEA, that for the first time provides parents regular accurate information on where their student stands on math and reading based on national norms. Again, a lot of work went into implementing that system, and while it represents an innovation to implement board policy, all of the hard work happened at schools.

What I found over several decades is that significant positive reforms can happen. and will happen, by liberating the creative energy of education professionals. Parents can provide encouragement. School boards can provide support and encouragement, and we can manage change in an environment of accountability, but at the core of positive change you are going to find the teachers in our organization who have the drive to make things better. Sure, there are people in any organization who would just as soon keep doing things exactly as they have been done before. But needed reforms do not happen without the hard work of teachers and educational leaders. This is my issue with the top-down, Washington and St. Paul based attempt to inflict one-size-fits-all reform on school districts.

Now yesterday, I warned that some of the quick fixes propounded by Bush and now Obama-Duncan are not proving successful, at least as measured by emerging data. I wasn't attacking all of those reform ideas, but I was challenging the idea that districts should have to implement changes whether they are going to work here or not. I pointed out that charter schools have not yet demonstrated the payoff that had been promised by proponents. I wasn't suggesting that there aren't good charter schools. Charter schools provide an opportunity to create a new school with a different approach or philosophy, and like regular public schools, some are great and some are not. But increasingly, there is evidence that charter schools, and some of the other centralized top down quick fixes are not what they have been marketed to be by Bush-Obama and Duncan, solutions to the so-called achievement gap. In my next post, I'll talk a bit about the use and misuse of education research to promote questionable panaceas in education. Then, I'll try to talk about some of the reforms that show promise.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Teachers Union Shuns Obama Aides: NYT

Yesterday's New York Times contains an article, Teachers’ Union Shuns Obama Aides at Convention. (Click on the link for the may need to sign in to read for free). The article discusses the emerging friction between the Obama administration and the National Education Association, over the Obama's efforts to "reform" the delivery of teaching. The article explains:

[I]n a sign of the Obama administration’s strained relations with two of its most powerful political allies, no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling. .....Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the union, the National Education Association, told thousands of members gathered at the convention center here"

Dissatisfaction at the NEA arises from the fact that the Obama administration has continued--even dialed up--most of the policies of the Bush-II administration. Unfortunately, the state of national dialog on public education has resolved itself into an argument on whether the Bush-Obama-Arnie Duncan reforms or the position of the NEA, is correct. I think the issues are way more complicated than that. Regrettably, the National Education Association has taken some stands against needed reform. But that doesn't mean that the Obama-Bush approach is the correct one. My issue with the Obama administration is that, like the Bush administration before it, Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan believe that they can improve education by imposing the same approach in Newark New Jersey, Chicago and Washington, D.C. on the one hand, and St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids and Wilmar, on the other.

Part of the problem is that most policy makers think of public education as if it all the same across the country. Policy makers in Washington, D.C. seem to think that every school system in the Country is exactly like Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, or Texas. In some large urban school districts, the public system, and in fact the entire urban infrastructure that surrounds it has become so dysfunctional that its almost impossible for strong teachers and strong educational leaders to function effectively. And in some of these districts, there is deep systemic failure that has allowed systemic incompetence to infiltrate or permeate. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are desperate attempts to blow up these failed systems and hope that massive reorganization will create something new and more effective. Both of these ideas have been devised by bureaucrats with good intentions who have fastened on hair-brained solutions borne of desperation. One problem is that the reform efforts are designed to fix completely dysfunctional schools, schools that appear to be mired deeply in systemic failure, and to apply those solutions to schools. Using the same strategies to improve all school systems across the country, as if they were all dysfunctional failing schools, is well, just plain dumb. Different problems require different solutions.

By now, some of you are ready to exclaim that if I'm attacking the Obama-Bush policies, why then I must be on the side of the NEA. But my point is that I don't have to choose one position or the other. Its possible, isn't it, that neither is offering an approach that makes sense for St. Cloud or other Minnesota Districts.

There are lots of school systems across this country that have a core of great teachers, schools that are doing quite well with most of their students and that the solution begins with building on the strengths that we have, and focusing on the improvements that are needed. We don't tear down a building because the roof is leaking. A leaky roof is intolerable for a house, or any other building, and it has to be fixed. But don't tell me I don't want to fix the roof, because I don't want to bulldoze the house down.

Politicians in D.C. and St. Paul don't want to hear this, but the fact is that there is little evidence that the radical solutions implemented over the last decade has resulted in the promised improvement. After a more than a decade of charter school experimentation in Minnesota, the State Legislative Auditor found no evidence that on the average, charter schools are doing any better than their public school competitors, and the data might well be interpreted to suggest that the public schools are doing somewhat better. We can find examples of very successful charter schools. And these success stories are trotted out as proof that the charter school idea is the answer to making education better. The simple fact is, however, that proponents of these reforms compare the very most successful charter schools to the very worst public schools when they tout charter schools as the key to reform.

Research is beginning to question whether radical school restructurings imposed by NCLB has led to significant improvement either. Reports are coming in that suggest that, on the average, the restructured schools are not doing better than the schools that they replaced. More and more examples are being reported of schools that have made substantial progress, with dedicated staff, outstanding leaders, that are being mechanically ordered to restructure, despite the fact that these schools are making exceptional progress. Too often, political leaders find one or two success stories and pretend that these particularized success stories are proof that, well, if we do exactly the same thing in every school and district throughout the country, something great is going to happen.

This issue of education reform needs to be approached with a heavy dose of humility. Arnie Duncan doesn't have the solution: he ran the Chicago school district and there isn't a whole lot of evidence that the reforms that he put in place have made all that much difference. NEA isn't out front advocating for needed reforms. And I'm hear to tell you that, as much as it pains me to admit, I don't claim to have a magic bullet either. We need to start with humility and a recognition that school improvement is going to take a lot of hard work. Most of that hard work, and most of the changes are going to have to be led and implemented by educational leaders, not bureaucrats, pundits, or school board members. More to come.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A word for Civics Education on the 4th of July

Fourth of July weekend is a good time to begin a discussion on the importance of Civics Education. Its the birthday of our nation, in one sense, although the birthday of the United States might rather be traced to other dates. Its certainly the anniversary of the adoption of some rather exciting democratic ideas that have become the central founding ideas of our representative democracy.

We desperately now need a deeper understanding of civics. Time and time again, surveys of Americans starkly demonstrate an amazing level of ignorance about our founding principles. The National Constitution Center Reports:
  • Only 6 percent of Americans can name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (can you?);
  • 62 percent cannot name all three branches of the Federal government;
  • 35 percent believe the Constitution mandates English as the official language;
  • More than half of Americans don't know the number of senators
  • 40 percent High School seniors answered incorrectly, believing that each state has two or three representatives or that the number varies according to the area of the state
  • 1 in 5 do not know that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • 84% believe that the U.S. Constitution is the document that states that "all men are created equal", thus confusing it with the Declaration of Independence.
Next year, a new national assessment of educational progress will report on whether we are doing better now, than a decade ago in civics education. There is some evidence, at least, in recent voting results, that young people are indeed becoming more engaged in government. A previous National Assessment on civics wrote:

Despite a national consensus on the need for civic education in elementary and secondary schools, this vital part of students’ education is seldom given sustained and systematic attention in the K–12 curriculum. Inattention to civic education stems principally from the assumption that the knowledge and skills citizens need emerge as byproducts of the study of other subjects or as an outcome of the process of schooling itself rather than as a consequence of a focused study of civics. As most studies of civic knowledge and dispositions show, this is not so. .......1998 National Educational Assessment

Although civics and government are often included as elements of social studies instruction in grades K–8, substantial treatment of those subjects is unusual. American history courses tend to emphasize social history and devote insufficient time to political history, such as the nation’s founding period and subsequent constitutional development. Civitas International

Here are some links to resources on civics education. Click on the links to view these resources. I strongly recommend the interactive constitution.

Interactive Constitution Fantastic resource.. On line version of The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk (Hyperion/A Stonesong Press Book). Copyright © 2003 Linda R. Monk and The Stonesong Press, Inc.

American Bar Association: "Our Mission is to promote public understanding law and its role in society."

Bill of Rights Institute "The Bill of Rights Institute’s mission is to educate high school students and teachers about our country’s Founding principles through programs that teach the words and ideas of the Founders; the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in our Founding documents; and how America’s Founding principles affect and shape a free society."

Center for Civics Education Campaign to Promote Civics Education

Center on Congress Lee Hamilton's center at Indiana University seeks to explain Congress to laypersons.

an online resource and service for civic education practitioners (teachers, teacher trainers, curriculum designers), as well as scholars, policymakers, civic-minded journalists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) promoting civic education all over the world.

Civics Online Resources for teachers and schools: online project providing a rich array of primary sources, professional development tools, and interactive activities to help in the teaching of civics.

Constitutional Rights Foundation
a non-profit, non-partisan, community-based organization dedicated to educating America's young people about the importance of civic participation in a democratic society.

Federal Resources on Civics Education
Free federal resources on education.

Minnesota Council for Social Studies
" a professional advocacy group that encourages teachers to be proactive leaders who challenge and educate empowered students to promote human dignity in an increasingly global society through the study of all social studies."

National Alliance for Civic Education NACE was launched in 2000 and now has more than 200 group and individual members committed to advancing civic knowledge and engagement. NACE believes the time has come to band together to ensure that the next generation of citizens understands and values democracy and participates in the ongoing work of building democracy in America.

National Center for Educational Statistics NAEP National Assessment of Civics

National Constitution Center The National Constitution Center is an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance, through an interactive, interpretive facility within Independence National Historical Park and a program of national outreach, so that We the People may better secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Youth Leadership Initiative University of Virgina's effort to supply free classroom resources to teachers to promote young people's civic education.

Answers to quiz question:
Congress shall make no law respecting an (1-a) establishment of religion, or prohibiting the (1-b) free exercise thereof; or (2-a) abridging the freedom of speech, (2-b) or of the press; or the (3) right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to (4) petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Teachers Survey Discusses Student Responsibility

Over the last two decades, increasingly there has been an emphasis on holding teachers and principals responsible for student success. To some extent this is a good trend, because it has encouraged schools to work harder on developing best practices, and upon accountability. But I believe that it has led to an abject failure to focus on the importance of students and their families as part of the success equation.

I've been reading the Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher, conducted by the Harris Interactive polling survey. You can read the entire survey by clicking here. Harris surveyed over 1000 teachers and 500 principals, using randomized polling techniques. I want to talk today about what the survey says about the role of students in their own success. The report points out:

Although there is no more important topic in education than student achievement – what it is and should be, how to develop, assess and increase it, and who is accountable for it – discussion often focuses more on adults’ roles than on the students themselves.

The survey reports interesting result in the area of teacher perception of student responsibility. It found that:

Most teachers (80%) and more principals (89%) believe that students feeling responsible and accountable for their own education would have a major impact on improving student achievement. However, only 42% of teachers believe that all or most of their students have this sense of responsibility.

The report continues: "Teachers and principals believe that students have a role as collaborators in creating an environment that will support their academic success. Eight in ten teachers (80%) and nine in ten principals (89%) believe that a school culture where students feel responsible and accountable for their own education would have a major impact on improving student achievement...... However, according to teachers, most of their students do not have a sense of responsibility for their own education. Fewer than half (42%) believe that all or most of their students have this sense of responsibility, with more elementary school teachers than secondary school teachers reporting that this is the case for most or all of their students (45% vs. 33%).

When teachers believe that their students lack a sense of responsibility for their own success, it can damage the morale of both teachers and students in the classroom. Education requires teamwork. Teachers will invest more effort, by far, into students who are investing effort into their own success. Students will put out more effort for teachers who believe in them. There is a self reinforcing cycle of success, when both teachers and students believe that they are doing their respective parts to create success.

Students cannot be successful when they aren't trying, and when students do try, it is hard to keep them from being successful. Hence, if the role of students in their own educational success is so critical, why then do we not put more effort into creating a stronger sense of student responsibility. If the survey of teachers is right--then one key to improving the performance of schools and their students, is to invest more effort into creating a sense of student responsibility for their own learning. What then can we do?

One thing that we ought to be thinking about is investing some time in the early years in training elementary students to develop that sense of responsibility. It is really amazing what children can do, if we unleash their own power to assist in the learning process. The Montessori folks have learned a lot about cultivating the sense of inner responsibility for learning. Whether you like the Montessori methods or don't, still, we can learn a lot from what they try to do, which is to start very early in school to develop a sense of personal responsibility for learning.

Working with parents to develop this sense of responsibility is another important key. Giving students homework is another critical tool in developing responsibility. Often, I hear folks argue that giving homework is a waste of time, because the students don't always complete their work effectively. But the giving of homework is a way of sending a message: an important part of learning is up to you. You need to develop the skills to do some learning on your own.

Too often we dismiss the possibility that students can learn on their own. We tend to believe that students can't learn anything important unless a teacher stands in front of the classroom and delivers a lesson. But we know that properly motivated students can learn a ton of information on their own, if the believe that the learning is important. Had a student a new electronic device, and they'll be communicating with that device in a wink of an eye without help from any adult. Successful schools need to harness this potential for self-motivation and personal responsibility.