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August 26, 2011 standard

As the school year begins, families must make sure that our children are on the path to success in school and in life. This starts with literacy and making sure our kids have strong reading comprehension. In this Rewind from April, Dropout Nation offers parents some steps on what to look for in reading instruction in your child’s school. More tips will be offered throughout the school year. Read, consider, and take action.

Reading is fundamental. When children don’t read at basic or proficient levels by third grade, they are unlikely to graduate or succeed in life. This is especially true for young men, who develop their capacity for reading just as they enter school. So for parents, it is important to read to your kids. At the same time, it is also critical to make sure that the school your child attends is also on the job, especially since 40 percent of all kids will need special reading instruction no matter what you do at home.

Dropout Nation offers six key things to look for in your school’s reading instruction. Also, listen to Dropout Nation Podcasts on how to improve reading for your kids and the youngsters around them, and learn what teachers should be doing in classrooms when it comes to reading instruction. Read, pay attention to what teachers are doing, and take action if you don’t think they are doing the job.

  1. A focus on phonetic awareness: Your child should be learning the ability to manipulate sounds in words, an integral part of decoding what it read.
  2. Emphasis on phonics: Teachers should be teaching your child the relationship between written letters and sounds. If this doesn’t happen, your child will not be able to read.
  3. Building background knowledge: This is as critical as phonics because your child needs to know about the world around him — including history, social studies, even science — in order to build strong reading comprehension — or the ability to gain meaning while reading. The school should have a strong, rich curricula for each grade — and every teacher should be able to tell you what your child should learn (and what the school or district expects you to learn) in the grade your child is in. If not, begin advocating for the adoption of more-rigorous curricula or find them another school.
  4. Gain a vast vocabulary: Each day, your school should be doing what you do at home: Teaching your child words, their definitions and the context in which they should be used. Preferably, the teacher should teach your child at least five new words a week (if not more). Again, if it isn’t happening, start making it happen — even if you have to do it yourself.
  5. Get your child to read faster and pick up information more quickly: Sure, every child reads at different speeds. At the same time, there is a point where your child should be able to read aloud a text designated for their grade without a lot of stumbling (a first-grader should be able to read 60 words per minute). The teacher should have your child read constantly, repeatedly, sometimes working on the same passage, until they get up to speed. If this isn’t happening, take action.
  6. And it all should lead to strong reading comprehension: This doesn’t just mean being able to just pronounce words correctly and being able to speed through a book. They should be able to tell you or their teacher what is being discussed in a book or paragraph. Again, if this isn’t happening, you need to take action, both in school and at home.
May 7, 2011 standard

Chances are that there will be no reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind this year. The fractious disagreements among all the players (and among themselves), along with the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to give President Barack Obama a victory for his re-election effort, means that it will be another two years before the law is revamped. On one hand, this is a good thing: What some reformers (and foes of No Child’s accountability provisions) are offering would do little more than set back school reform. At the same time, the lack of movement means that efforts on some important areas of reform — including efforts to overhaul the way teachers are recruited and trained — are in standstill. In this Rewind from January, Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle explains the need for expanding No Child’s accountability rules to the monitoring of ed schools.

Your editor says little about a lot of news items these days largely because, in all honestly, given what really matters, those items are not worth discussing. Every argument about whether Finland is or isn’t an epitome of high-quality education doesn’t matter because Finland doesn’t resemble the United States in any meaningful way (and therefore, few lessons can be derived from it).

So I have little to directly say about the whole hullabaloo about Washington Post scribe Nick Anderson’s latest piece on No Child Left Behind. Anderson is a fine reporter (contrary to what Democrats for Education Reform political guru Charlie Barone may think right now), but Andy Rotherham and Sandy Kress rightly called him out for buying Fairfax County’s anti-No Child line (the one typically used by suburban districts that aren’t all that interested in improving how it educates poor and minority children). Anderson also doesn’t fully look at the fact that state laws allow for some gamesmanship on proficiency (the biggest problem with the law). Enough said.

What I will say is that Rotherham, Kress and Barone indirectly hit upon an issue everyone should discuss: The need for even greater, wide-ranging accountability in overhauling American public education — especially in the recruiting and training of teachers.

No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through its Adequate Yearly Progress measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.

But No Child is only the start of accountability and not the end. Besides the fact that No Child (or actually, the U.S. Department of Education’s implementation of AYP) has allowed for gamesmanship by states, the law also doesn’t hold fully hold accountable important elements in improving the quality of teaching, curricula and school operations. The Highly Qualified Teacher provision, for example, didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality; it still focused on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement. The definitions were also too wishy washy, meaning that the whole mess was quality-blind, allowing states and school districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of students and taxpayers alike. It took Race to the Top to fully push for the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality and bring quantifiable, quality-based definitions (and objective data) to the table.

Another area that No Child didn’t cover was university schools of education, which train all but a smattering of the nation’s teachers. Given the importance of recruiting and training teachers, this was a terrible oversight. One reason why it happened: Ed school quality was supposed to be governed through the reauthorized versions of the federal Higher Education Act, which requires states to hold teacher quality programs accountable, identify laggard schools, and assure the U.S. Department of Education that ed schools were meeting the needs of districts and teachers. But because it isn’t an element in the main law governing American public education, it has allowed ed schools to slip under the radar of accountability.

The results have been predictably terrible. As the National Council of Teacher Quality, the Center for American Progress and former Teachers College president Arthur Levine, have pointed out in numerous studies, the quality of teacher training in ed schools remains lackluster in the main. But this isn’t just the fault of ed schools alone.

As the Education Sector points out this week in its study of state regulation of ed schools, it is rare that state teacher licensing agencies — the departments that oversee ed school quality — shut down an ed school, even when its peers call it out for being a waste of student and federal dollars. Twenty-seven states have not identified an ed school program as being low performing within the past decade; this includes Colorado (which has been cited for its poor monitoring of ed schools). Twelve more states have only identified between one to five ed school programs as laggards. Just three states — New York, Ohio and Kansas — have actually gone so far as identifying 20 or more programs as being of low quality. Only two percent of all ed school programs have ever been cited as being ineffective; and in some cases, the states actually step in to keep the worst ed schools around even when they’ve lost accreditation.

Meanwhile the nonprofit that are supposed to oversee ed school accreditation — the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (and the groups whose merger formed it, the National Council for Accreditation in Teacher Education and TEAC) — also hasn’t stepped up to the plate. Eleven of the 18 laggard ed schools as identified by states still maintained their accreditation, according to the Education Sector report.

The reality is that, contrary to the views of defenders of traditional public education (and libertarian and conservative school reformers of an anti-No Child bent), there isn’t enough accountability — especially in the areas that count. Even AYP doesn’t cover such areas as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions or the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (and the amount of time special ed students spend outside of regular classroom instruction). In short, those who complain that No Child is too prescriptive either don’t know what they are talking about or simply want to ignore reality.

What is needed is a wider form of accountability that accounts for teacher training and for other aspects of teacher quality. This includes requiring the use of Value-Added data in evaluating ed school programs; this can come naturally as states begin requiring the use of student test data in evaluating teacher performance and in the development of school data systems. Another solution lies in education governance reform: Moving ed school oversight (along with teacher licensing) to state education departments, where the responsibility rightfully belongs.

None of this will fully solve this aspect of the teacher quality problem; after all, the problem is also tied to the iron triangle relationship between state universities, teacher licensing agencies and teachers unions. But expanding accountability will at least shed the light needed to force even more reform. And it can’t come soon enough.

March 25, 2011 standard

As Dropout Nation noted last week, it is critical to use the disruptive power of data  to overhaul American public education. But it is equally critical to restructure how schools are operated and how education is governed at all levels. In this Rewind from November, I discuss the need to follow the approach to change embodied by Sony, Apple and other firms.

When Sony announced last month that it would stop producing the cassette version of the famed Walkman, few had shed a tear. The music device had long ago been tossed into the proverbial ashbin of history by portable CD players and MP3 players. But in its time, the Walkman did something rather amazing: It helped foster the development of personalized culture and interactive entertainment. And American public education can learn plenty about how to develop a governance structure — and culture of genius — that fosters the kind of dynamism that led to the Walkman and the iPod.

At the time Sony introduced the Walkman, the world was still stuck with just a few choices in entertainment and almost no way of personalizing media. You had three networks and a handful of independent stations; cable had yet to be widespread and even then, there were few channels. Music was almost purely a communal affair; with boom-boxes and large-scale stereo systems, you didn’t have much choice but to listen to Disco Duck or More Than A Feeling – even if you preferred London Calling or September. The Walkman made the personalization of music, media and culture possible. You didn’t have to listen to your neighbor’s music and in fact, both of you could co-exist in the same space without offending one another. As I wrote in Reason back in 1999: “You can stand in Grand Central Station during the afternoon rush hour and have one foot in Lilith Fair; or in a studio session with Mingus, Monk, or Miles Davis; or in a shouting match with Rush Limbaugh.”

This, in turn, fostered new generations of electronic devices and digital formats that allow people to reshape parts of the world to their liking — and even forced other technologies to evolve in ways that allowed for more-customized experiences. The former came in the form of the Walkman’s successor devices, including the iPod and the Nintendo Gameboy. The latter can be seen in the evolution of the Internet; thanks to the Walkman (and Tim Berners-Lee’s development of Hypertext Markup Language), the World Wide Web has become the ultimate tool of personalized media and culture. The Walkman and its successors also influenced the development of the cellphone (invented six years earlier by Motorola), transforming it from a simple mobile version of the landline phone to the portable computer and entertainment device it is today. And these changes, in turn, has made culture customizable– from video on demand editions of Community to Grey Album mash-ups of Jay-Z and the Beatles.

These innovative answers to unexpressed desires came largely because of the dynamic environments in which technology and media are fostered. Sony was a master of experimentation; this was the company that helped pioneer the compact disc and the third generation of videogames with the PlayStation. In fact, the Walkman emerged out of a period of reorganization in which Sony’s tape recorder division — fearing consolidation into one of its rival divisions — took an existing product (the Pressman) and added microphones; instead of complicated development and market testing, Sony put the Walkman out into the marketplace, showing teens using it while rollerskating and biking.

This same dynamism has played itself out decades later with the development of the iPod, and even the development of Google, Facebook and Twitter. No board or commission mandated their creation (and more than likely, such authorities would have stifled their development); instead, they were created by people who came up with responses to needs and desires unmet in the marketplace and provided compelling answers to questions asked and unconsidered.

While these changes in technology and media have been taking place, American public education remains stuck in the age of the phonograph. Forget for a moment that our classrooms largely look the same as they did at the turn of the last century. The structure of how our education system is governed would be familiar to a Detroit parent of the early 20th century: State boards of education and superintendents bereft of the capacity to fully hold districts accountable; elected school boards that are easily cudgeled into submission by teachers unions and occasionally, by superintendents; superintendents, in turn, whose positions are inherently unstable (because they lack political bases of their own) and are hamstrung in managing districts by collective bargaining agreements and state laws; principals who have little influence over the key elements of schools that are critical to educating students, yet bear much responsibility for results; and teachers who, despite their complaints of little power, have almost complete autonomy over what happens in classrooms.

Not one element of this structure actually recognizes the true role of families as consumers and lead decision-makers in education. More importantly, it doesn’t even allow for the embrace of new concepts in instruction and school management. While a lack of dynamism is generally acceptable in government because it keeps majority constituencies from reveling in (and subjecting the minority to) their worst excesses, in education, it all but assures that school reform moves in all deliberate speed (or as Thurgood Marshall defined it, slow, if not at all).

This certainly benefits teachers unions and their allies among traditional public education’s status quo; for them, a disruption in the structure of education governance (and of American public education overall) is troubling, not because it doesn’t matter, but, as Paul T. Hill noted a decade ago, because they know that it absolutely does matter. After all, they benefit from the ways things are and, while they may care about the millions of kids failed by American public education, the kids are only a secondary concern to their own goals.

Yet in keeping the status quo in place, we are failing to take advantage of the possible innovations in instruction, data system development and other areas that can help stem the nation’s dropout crisis. The success of high-quality charter schools such as KIPP, along with the work being done in New York City’s public schools with the ARIS data system offer promise. The technological developments outside of education — including tools for online learning — also offer possibilities. But little of this will be of any use in an education governance structure that promotes the slow and the status quo over stemming the nation’s education crisis with innovative solutions.

What is needed is a disruption in the education governance structure. This may mean the end of school districts and state boards of education; it could mean replacing education departments with contracting divisions that simply monitor what schools do on the ground. The Hollywood Model that I offer up is one possibility; there are certainly others. (It would help if education was a fully private system funded by out-of-pocket dollars than out of tax money that parents and others don’t directly control; but a fully private education system isn’t going to happen in this lifetime — and some would argue it wouldn’t help our poorest children.)

But it will take more than just revamping educational governance. One of the biggest problems in education is the lack of a dynamic mindset among its traditionalists. As seen with charter schools, vouchers, and the use of Value-Added data in teacher evaluations, any new idea that disrupts the status quo is greeted with outright hostility. School reformers have had to go outside of the traditional ed school confines to develop innovative approaches to the human capital and instructional practice problems within education, but such an approach is unsustainable. So reformers will have to storm the gates — including teaming up with grassroots activists — and oust the status quo by force. It will also mean bringing in talented, innovative thinkers outside of education.

It also means accepting the end of a few conceits. This includes: That education decision-making should only be in the hands of supposed experts (who, since the advent of the comprehensive high school model, haven’t actually succeeded in improving public education); that only teachers and educators should be in charge of education (and that outsiders should not be anywhere near the classroom); that parents are nuisances who should remain ill-informed about such matters as growth models; and that, perhaps, public education should be the financing of the best educational options instead of district bureaucracies.

We need a Walkman and iPod for education — especially for educational governance. And we need to make education a more-dynamic, data-driven, innovation-oriented sector. Our kids need it. It’s just that simple.

March 5, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

As you read the latest This is Dropout Nation on the importance of addressing foster care as part of school reform, listen to this rebroadcast of the Dropout Nation Podcast from January 2010 discussing the other “canaries in the coal mine of education”. Addressing special education, the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities and reforming America’s juvenile justice system are as much keys in stemming the dropout crisis as expanding school choice and improving teacher quality.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player or smartphone.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

March 4, 2011 standard her appearance yesterday on The Daily Show, once-esteemed education historian Diane Ravitch has proven once again that logic and evidence doesn’t mean all that much to her when it comes to discussing the problems of American public education. But the biggest problem with Ravitch and her pseudo-conversion to the side of defenders of traditional public education is that she has a faulty grasp of education history, which is supposed to be her expertise.

As this Rewind of a December Dropout Nation commentary explains, Ravitch no longer deserves to be called the nation’s most-eminent education historian. Especially when Jeffrey Mirel was doing a better job in the first place. Of course, we would all be better off ignoring Ravitch altogether.

Dropout Nation usually reserves commentary on education historian-turned-thoughtless polemicist Diane Ravitch for the Twitter feed, not on these pages. As proven by folks more willing to dissect her every thought, her use of data is often slipshod and her wrongheaded conclusions would be more-laughable if she wasn’t given so much credence by others who should know better. But her latest claptrap, an attempt to persuade congressional Republicans to essentially gut the No Child Left Behind Act  published in the Wall Street Journal, is just too interesting to ignore. Why? Because Ravitch has seemingly lost her ability to master her career subject: The history of American public education.

The piece offers more than enough for Ravitch critics to ridicule. Just in one paragraph alone, you can take aim at the fact that she (like Linda Darling-Hammond and other opponents of standardized testing and value-added assessment-based teacher evaluations) tries to trot out Finland as an example of a country that manages to recruit top-performing collegians into teaching without considering that Finland is a much-smaller country with different economic and social traditions from the United States. You could also note that she trots out Japan and South Korea without mentioning that in those countries, students spend more time in school and teachers devote more time to instruction than their American counterparts (by the way, those conditions can be duplicated) or that South Korea actually does conduct standardized testing at a national level.

There are also her declaration that school districts are being forced to close schools and fire teaching staffs because of No Child’s accountability provisions — ignoring the fact that most school districts and states avoid using those (much-useful) prescriptions for stemming faltering performance. By the way: Obama’s School Improvement Grant program allows for other turnaround measures, which states and school districts have used instead of shutting down dropout factories and replacing teachers (as they should). Her declarative statement that value-added assessment is considered too flawed for use in evaluations by education researchers ignores the fact that this isn’t so. Such use is backed by researchers such as Eric Hanushek and institutions such as the Brookings Institution (which released a report earlier this month in support). The opposition largely comes from National Education Association-backed outfits such as the Economic Policy Institute (whose petition asking states to not use student test data in teacher evaluations counts Ravitch as one of its signatories).

The biggest problem with Ravitch’s piece is that she offers a history of the Republican Party and federal education policy that doesn’t square with the facts. While she is right in writing that the Republicans face an ideological divide on federal education policy (I’ve said this myself with greater nuance and thought), she  misinterprets the role that Republicans have long played in expanding federal policy. If anything, Republicans have been as willing to expand the federal role in education decision-making when it sees fit.

It was President Dwight David Eisenhower who urged the federal government to expand its role in education and successfully advocated for passage of the first major expansion of federal education policy — the Cold War-prompted National Defense Education Act of 1958. The law was responsible for fostering the first major wave of standardized testing in the 20th century. By 1966, nearly all high school students were taking some form of standardized aptitude test, versus just one-third of students in 1958, according to a 2006 report by the Institute for Defense Analyses. Seven years later, 18 Senate Republicans would join Democrats in the upper house in supporting the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (14 Republicans, along with four Democrats, would oppose its passage).

As Chester Finn points out, it was Richard Nixon (at the urging of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the famed Coleman Report) who pushed for the earliest efforts at bringing rigor and accountability through a proposed center that eventually became the Institute for Educational Sciences. And the school reform movement would  have merely remained one based in the southern states without the help of the Reagan Administration, which issued A Nation at Risk, the report on America’s education crisis that helped rally Republicans, centrist Democrats, big-city mayors and urban progressives to embrace standardized testing, charter schools, school choice and teacher quality reforms. In the most-recent two decades, Republicans have pushed for even greater expansion of the federal role in education. While the passage of No Child by a Republican-controlled Congress is the best-known example, there is also the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity school voucher program (whose revival is now being sought by Congressman Jason Chaffetz and others).

Certainly Republicans have opposed expansion of federal education policy when it didn’t suit their ideological (or political goals). After all, it was the GOP-controlled Congress that in 1995, passed budget blueprints that proposed to reduce increases in federal education and Head Start spending by $40 billion for a seven-year period and voted (in the House of Representatives) to reduce spending increases in Title I by 17 percent. The Republicans also opposed Bill Clinton’s efforts to move towards national testing and efforts to fund class-size reduction efforts. But most of that opposition was motivated not by pure ideological concerns, but by the general effort to weaken Clinton’s case for a second term in office. Once Clinton won re-election in 1996, Republican opposition to expanded federal education policy weakened substantially; by the time Bush came into office, the school reform movement had gained substantial momentum in both GOP and Democrat circles.

Given that Ravitch was a former U.S. Department of Education flunkie during the first George Bush administration, and an advocate for the very school reform policies she now opposes during those years, she should know this history well. But as typical with Ravitch these days, she engages in the kind of cherry-picking of historical facts that wouldn’t be tolerated by either an adjunct professor or an editorial page editor. The piece, like her book, is just plain shoddy.

It’s time for Ravitch to put down her pen and her Twitter feed, and get back to the books.

February 18, 2011 standard

After you listen this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on importance of high expectations in ending achievement gaps, listen to the rebroadcast of December’s podcast on the need for churches, iron men of success, parents and our other grassroots players to lead the overhaul of American public education. More than ever, parent trigger laws and sheer force of will is compelling grassroots activists to challenge the status quo and improve the quality of instruction, leadership and curricula in our schools. But we need more people to play their part.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast Network and Zune Marketplace.