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March 5, 2010 standard

Source: Consortium on Chicago School Research

A Chicago Public Schools freshman performing well academically and with good attendance is more likely to gain the credits needed to be promoted to the next grade. This in turn, means that they will graduate; 81 percent of Chicago freshmen promoted on time made it to graduation in four years while just three in 10 students graduated, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Source: Consortium on Chicago School Research

On-time graduation rarely happens in Chicago Public Schools. A mere 64 percent of the freshmen who made up the district’s Class of 2012 had attained the credits needed for promotion to the next grade. It is even worse for the district’s young men, especially the ones attending George Washington High School, one of the district’s poor-performing schools. Just 57 percent of male freshmen were on the path to graduation versus 71 percent of their female classmates. At George Washington, only 48 percent of freshmen males were on path to graduation; 73 percent of females were likely to graduate on time.

The problems are longstanding. Seven years ago, just 49 percent of freshmen males attending Washington were on the path to graduating on time. More importantly, the problems begin long before children reach high school. The dropout crisis begins in elementary school with poor academic instruction along with the lack of focus on addressing deficiencies in reading. An overdiagnosis of learning disabilities — generated in part by the tendency of boys to be boisterous along with a lack of strong parental discipline — means that young boys are relegated to special ed without their issues being addressed through other means. By the time the boys are in sixth grade, the problems have festered. After all, a student failing in math and missing more than 10 days of school a year has just a one-in-six chance of graduating from high school.

These stats can be seen throughout the nation. Over a period of four years, the enrollment of males versus females can reverse, from majority young men to majority female by senior year. The impact of this can be seen on America’s college campuses where young women are now outnumbering men — and in society at large.

All the young men — black, white, Latino, rich or poor — need to graduate. Addressing these academic failures will not only stem the dropout crisis, but also improve the lives of young women and society overall.

January 28, 2010 standard

A reason defenders of traditional public education oppose standardized testing and other data collection is that the information (in their view) yields little usable information, either for helping students or schools. But in this clip from Monday’s Alliance for Excellent Education confab, Ruth Curran Neild, who, along with her fellow Johns Hopkins researcher (and Promoting Power Index creator) Robert Balfanz, offers more reasons why data can be so useful. Dropout factories are not only alike in so many ways, but the underlying causes are so easy to measure.

January 9, 2010 standard

Sometimes schools and prisons seem the same thing. But they aren't. Let's keep our kids out of them.

An argument used by some in education, most recently by a writer in the Edurati Review, is that America spends far too much money on criminal justice — including prisons — at the expense of schools. And at first, it seems valid. From the vast numbers of young black, white and Latino dropouts landing in prison to the scandals within the juvenile justice system, it is clear that improving the educational destinies of students can make it less likely for them to land behind bars. Figuring out which crimes are truly crimes worth prison time (rape, for example) and which ones are consensual acts that hurt no one but the person (physically and emotionally) and her immediate family, would also help.

But do we actually spend too much on prisons at the expense of education. Here are a few

  • Amount spent on operating and building prisons in fiscal year 2005-2006: $70 billion. Total amount on criminal justice, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics $214 billion.
  • Amount spent on K-12 by districts, states and the federal government in the same fiscal year: $528.7 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Amount spent on prison construction in 2006: $2 billion.
  • School construction spending that same year: $45 billion.

The reality isn’t so much that the America doesn’t spend too much on prisons, at least not per se; nor is it that the U.S spends too much on education. It’s that the country spends far too much on both inefficiently. This is especially true with the latter. Too much spending is caught up in a politically-driven system of teacher compensation that fails to reward high-performing teachers and pays laggards far too much. Defined-benefit pensions and unfunded retirement liabilities are sopping up much of the increases in K-12 spending. Younger teachers don’t reap the full rewards of their work until late in their careers; the high level of attrition in the teacher ranks before fifth year of service is far too high.

Given that three out of every 10 American children fail to graduate from high school, the costs of the system are far greater than the results. It’s both tragedy and travesty.

Essentially, criminal justice spending isn’t a problem. Nor is education spending a problem. Spending education funding efficiently for results is. We must do better by our children.

December 22, 2009 standard

Education policy wonks can sometimes be like executives at telecom giant AT&T’s cell phone unit: Even as the world has changed — sometimes radically so — thanks to such disrupting technologies and practices as the iPhone and charter schools, they continue to hold on to old paradigms that no longer matter.

This came to me just as I was reading a satirical commentary on Fake Steve Jobs (run by my former Forbes colleague Daniel Lyons)  in which the guise of America’s favorite ex-hippie-turned-computer industry icon/phonemaker gives its partner AT&T the business for offering incentives to iPhone users and other high-volume data customers to use less data. After reminding the executives that music giant EMI didn’t ask teenage girls to stop buying Beatles albums, Fake Steve pretty much tells them that they should do everything they can to expand network capacity and increase data volume.  After all, the better for AT&T to gain more customers, sell more iPhones and put lie to all those hilariously stinging Verizon ads. Essentially, AT&T needs to embrace change before esubscribers leave for Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile.

This can also be said for the  Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that essentially calls for the return of ability tracking. Ability tracking? Yes, that hideous system of grouping children based on what “experts” (i.e. teachers and guidance counselors) perceive as academic ability and potential which, along with the advent of the comprehensive high school, has done more damage to more American children with so little effort.

The report essentially states that high-achieving students are being ill-served by schools — especially dropout factories and the academic failure mills that feed into them — because they have decided to stop tracking student abilities and focused more on helping their most-disadvantaged children reach grade level. In order to help high-achieving children, Fordham suggests a return to ability tracking, albeit in an amended, less-racially (and ethnically discriminatory form.

Fordham and Tom Loveless, the author of the study, should be commended for researching the effects of ending ability tracking. Fordham research czar Mike Petrilli’s nuanced argument for Fordham’s position, admirably sensitive to the historic use of ability tracking to discriminate against blacks and immigrants, is also appreciated. All that said, Fordham is following AT&T in making the same mistake: Dusting off outmoded concepts for use in a new day and age.

Although you can understand Fordham’s longstanding concern for helping high-achievers reach their potential, there are also plenty of reasons to shake your head at its suggestion. There’s the historic use of ability tracking to deny high-quality education to blacks and other minority students; on this fact alone, ability tracking should be banished along with the comprehensive high school. Then there’s the fact that the teachers and guidance counselors being asked to make the decisions often lack the subject-knowledge competency to even make such judgments in the first place.

Ability tracking is also lacking as a fine-tuned instrument; the lack of homogeneity even within a group of students with similar levels of ability can throw off tracking methods. If you want, you can also use any outliers such as Albert Einstein: If not for his wealthy parents, he would have likely been guaranteed a second-tier education because teachers struggled to distinguish his ability from his generally dismissive attitude towards academic instruction.

The most-important reason why Fordham’s embrace of ability tracking is wrongheaded is because it is reflective of an old-school paradigm in which public schools are black boxes that magically turn out students who can work in factories and behave as good citizens. This paradigm — and the concepts spawned from it — is being replaced by an evolving one, largely based on providing as much contextual data as possible to students, parents and stakeholders for individual and community decision-making.

This is emerging through the expansion of the charter school movement; inter-district choice programs such as those in New Jersey and California (for students in the worst-performing school districts in their respective states) and even homeschooling. Through these forms of school choice, a child’s educational path to be made bywell-informed  parents (who are likely to have a good, if not perfect, sense of their child’s academic capacity) than by  “experts” who may be blinded by their own biases or lack discernment needed for such decision-making.

It also means that decisions can be tailored for each type of student. A high-achieving 9th grader could then double-up on classes in order to graduate early and attend college, while a similar child may attend more AP classes and stay in school until the official graduation day. Students considered low-achieving in traditional tracking systems, on the other hand, may actually have skills needed to do higher-level work; it may just be a question of changing courses or even assigned teachers. Charters, private schools, community foundations, even Kaplan tutoring programs may even emerge in order to give parents a wide array of options depending on the needs of those students.

This isn’t to say choice is a panacea. As I’ve said elsewhere, school reformers need to think about how to provide parents — especially the urban poor — with resources they can use to guide their decision-making. There are some groups such as the GEO Foundation, which operates charter schools and offers resources to parents seeking out educational options; but more-neutral third party players are needed. State-level school data systems are still underdeveloped, still geared to meeting compliance with federal rule-making, and measures few of the data-points most parents need to care about in order to inform their thinking. School reformers should work harder on developing data systems and standards that make information useful for parents and everyone else. Fostering educational entrepreneurism, as Frederick Hess has pointed out, is also crucial to making all of this work; there is more than enough room for schools, curriculum suppliers, data providers and others who can give parents power.

But it is clear that the solutions to educating children of differing abilities lies not in reviving useless theories of the past that stand in the way of children achieving (and exceeding their potential). All players in education, including reformers, must break with old ways of thinking and embrace the new.

Ability tracking is an ashbin concept in this century. And like old an Motorola StarTac, should be placed back in it where it belongs.

August 20, 2008 standard

Did she prove that she is ready for college and life? Did he? Depends on whether they passed the exit test.

THE CENTER FOR EDUCATION POLICY offers its latest evaluation of graduation exams. And for Indiana — whose Graduation Qualifying Exam is notorious for being a tad too easy (only tests 8th- and 9th-grade learning) and yet, so hard for some students to pass — the results are, well, underwhelming. This, unfortunately, is not only true for the Hoosier State, but for most of the other 25 states offering such exams.

Eight percent of the graduates in Indiana’s Class of 2007 garnered a sheepskin despite repeatedly failing the test. But, as I’ve reported last year, it’s actually worse than those numbers suggest when one looks at each district and high school. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, 23.6 percent of the district’s Class of 2007 –281 students — graduated despite repeatedly flunking the graduation test. Sixteen percent of Greater Clark County School’s Class of 2007 repeatedly flunked the GQE, while 17 percent of South Bend Community Schools graduating class this year never passed the test (I’ll spare the Gary school district’s miserable numbers for all of us).

Thankfully, Indiana will replace the GQE by 2012 with a series of end-of-course tests in Algebra I and 10th-grade English. But the state isn’t eliminating the waiver process; students and parents will still have incentives for not passing the tests, while schools and districts will have no incentive to improve curriculum and instruction. This is also true for other states, which also refuse to hold students — and schools — accountable for lagging performance.

New York still allows students who passed a state Board of Regents-approved course to submit a “department-approved” test such as the SAT II — none of which are aligned with state standards — if they don’t pass that state’s end-of-course Regent’s exams. Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, 12 percent of students — 11,747 students — avoided passing the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment in order to grab their sheepskins.

And it’s even more laughable in Washington State, where the legislature approved a series of alternatives to passing the state exit exam there. A student who fails the exam can either compare his work to another student with a similar profile who actually passed the test, assemble a portfolio of work or get the slightly more rigorous total cut score of 1200 — way below the average SAT score of 1500 on the 2007 edition of the collegiate entrance exam — to get out of passing.

The results of these faulty regimes can be seen in the high numbers of students, both in major universities and community colleges, in the low levels of graduation and the high numbers of those students ending up in remedial education course. The fact that these students aren’t even being tested for the knowledge they need to even get into apprenticeship programs means that schools are poorly preparing them for the challenges of the global economy, in which math skills are so highly prized. And state policymakers, in turn, merely weaken the very standards they declare they want all students to learn. Education as both tragedy and farce at once.

The good news — if you can call it that — is that states are moving more toward end-of-course exams, which will force students to show that they have mastered the math, science, history and English knowledge they need in order to get into higher education of any kind, be it college, techinical school or trade apprenticeships. But high-stakes testing, contrary to the arguments of FairTest and other opponents of standardized testing regimes, remains more mythology than reality.

August 12, 2008 standard

A full list of districts with three or more H-1B teachers can be found here, while the original list of H-1B users is here.

Let me note three things of things. The first: The list doesn’t include charter schools such as DC Prep, which are also using a good number of H-1B students. The second: It doesn’t include employment agencies that may be employing H-1B teachers on behalf of districts such as Global Teachers Research. The latter would add plenty more to the number of foreign teachers employed by the nation’s public school systems. And I didn’t add all the schools with one or two H-1B teachers for the sake of brevity.