Study: Child’s Neighborhood Is “Biggest Factor” On Future Income

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2009

Being raised in a poor neighborhood plays a major role in explaining why middle class African American children are far more likely than white children to slip down the income ladder as adults, according to new findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project reported in this morning’s Washington Post.

Using a study that has tracked more than 5,000 families since 1968, the Pew research found that no other factor, including parents’ education, employment or marital status, was as important as neighborhood poverty in explaining why black children were so much more likely than whites to lose income as adults.

The study points out that middle-class blacks are “far more likely than whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, which has a negative effect on even the better-off children raised there.”  The Post reports two out of three black children are raised in neighborhoods with at least a 20 percent poverty rate, compared with just 6 percent of white children.

Even middle-class black children have been more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods: Half of black children born between 1955 and 1970 in families with incomes of $62,000 or higher in today’s dollars grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods. But virtually no white middle-income children grew up in poor areas.


Test Data Plan Personally Approved by Obama

by Robert Pondiscio
July 25th, 2009

Insisting that states allow the use of standardized test data to evaluate teachers, the signature feature of the Race to the Top fund initiative, was personally approved by President Obama, according to EdWeek’s Michele McNeil.

When Education Department staff members finally settled on the data firewall rule, which would effectively knock out two states with giant student populations and powerful Congressional delegations, I’m told that education staffers took it up to those above their pay grades.  To Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and eventually, to the president himself. And Obama, apparently, didn’t need much convincing.

Meanwhile, in a detailed analysis of the guidelines, Stephen Sawchuck says the data firewall issue is not just about performance pay. 

States receiving Race to the Top funds must commit to using their teacher-effectiveness data for everything from evaluating teachers to determining the type of professional development they get to making decisions about granting tenure and pursuing dismissals. And, they will also be expected to track graduates of their education schools into classrooms to help institutions figure out which pathways and courses produce the best teachers.

The issue is not the use of the data, but the value of the data.  Is it possible to make good decisions with bad data?  Perhaps it doesn’t matter. One possibility raised by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli is that states will “superficially swear allegiance to these reform ideas but implement them half-heartedly down the road.”

Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
July 24th, 2009

Near the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sought to reassure Americans that what was known at the time as “The Great War” was a just cause.  In a speech to Congress, he outlined America’s war aims in “Fourteen Points” that were as broad as insuring freedom of navigation on international waters and fair trade, and as specific as redrawing the borders of several European nations and restoring their pre-war populations.  French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in one of history’s finer bon mots, quipped, “Fourteen points?  Why, God Almighty has only Ten!” 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan goes Wilson one better.  Five, actually.  He has Nineteen Points.  God has fallen nine back, well off the pace.

According to detailed guidelines being released today in Washington, states that hope for a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund will have to abide by 19 detailed criteria on academic standards, data-tracking, teacher recruitment and retention, and turning around low-performing schools.  “You can’t pick or choose here,” Duncan tells USA Today.

EdWeek’s Michele McNeil notes the guidelines “send a strong message that any state hoping to land a grant must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.”  While opposition to that will be summarily dismissed as the product of accountability-averse teachers unions, Dan Willingham has cogently described why this particular reform is not ready for prime time.  Still, states like New York and California, which currently forbid by law using test data to evalute teachers will not be eligible for Race to the Top funds, as McNeil points out:

Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “We believe great teachers matter tremendously. When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”

To be sure, there is much to like about this Ed Reform Early Christmas, and the sense of urgency is welcome and laudable.  But let’s be clear, No Child Left Behind, however well-intentioned, did little to advance the idea that children benefit from a robust, well-rounded curriculum.  It did much to advance the idea that children must be taught whatever might appear on a year-end test. If time was limited, anything that did not contribute to this near-term payoff was jettisoned. Thus, aggressive accountability measures actively worked against the patient, steady development of background knowledge that creates both well-educated children and, ultimately, higher test-scores.  It beggars credulity to think that using data to hold individual teachers directly responsible for student gains will result in a sudden outbreak of big picture thinking in classrooms across the country. 

The idea that reading comprehension is a function of background knowledge has not taken deep hold in America’s classrooms.  And what teacher — especially the new, young and relatively inexperienced teachers who disproportionately fill struggling urban schools — will have the wherewithal to insist on the steady buildup of knowledge across the curriculum?  Indeed, if we are to have 19 points, why not round up to 20 and insist that a Race to the Top cannot happen without attending to a well-rounded curriculum?   Instead we are almost certain to have more — much more — of the deleterious effects of our data-driven, muscular accountability age:  endless focus on reading strategies that have limited impact, mind-numbing test prep, and no attention to the essential long-range development of background knowledge that will make reading gains possible years down the road.

“Language comprehension is a slow-growing plant,” observes E.D. Hirsch.  “Even with a coherent curriculum, the buildup of knowledge and vocabulary is a gradual, multiyear process that occurs at an almost imperceptible rate. The results show up later.” 

This is clear, this is obvious, and this is certain.  But there is simply no room for this kind of thinking in an accountability system that insists –for every good reason under the Sun–on results right now and encourages individual teachers to compete instead of cooperate.

Fast-forward.  It is 2016.  After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way.  A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras.  But other energetic, well-meaning  reformers see it another way.  Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers.  Aggressive, immediate action is needed.

Because after all, the data doesn’t lie, does it?

Grammar and Syntax Standards?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2009

The “premature” release of the draft national standards on this blog yesterday prompted the National Governors Association to officially release the document today–along with the following statement:

As some of you may be aware, the first working draft of the college and career-ready standards were prematurely released. NGA and CCSSO had hoped to incorporate feedback from states and other experts before releasing a working draft so that we can ensure the best common core possible. 

Sorry about that, er, premature…..wait a second……ummmmm……Hey, shouldn’t that read “was prematurely released?”  The first working draft were prematurely released??  

Ouch.  Any English teachers working on those grammar and syntax standards?

“Clear Guidance and Examples”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2009

Reports of the death of the national standards movement are greatly exaggerated, notes Common Core’s Lynne Munson.  ” This effort is too coordinated, too strategically smart, and has too much momentum to be dismissed out of hand,” she writes on the group’s blog, and I accept her criticism as valid and essentially correct.  To pronounce them D.O.A. was clearly a bit of impulsive hyperbole on my part.  Lynne’s critique of the draft standards is also spot-on:

As they are currently written the “Common Core” ELA standards are poised to repeat NCLB’s mistakes. NCLB has failed to increase reading achievement in any sustained way because it has approached reading purely as a skill and driven the study of literature and other core subjects from the classroom. The current draft of the ELA standards also overlooks the key role that substantial content plays in teaching students to read.

“NGA and CCSSO clearly want their effort to be successful,” she observes.  “This means providing clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read. That is undoubtedly the advice many of the effort’s feedback reviewers—and the larger public—will provide.”

On this Lynne and I may part company at least somewhat.  Getting that feedback and acting upon it are very different matters. It seems we’ve had many decades of calls for detailed content and a national curriculum — yes, curriculum — going largely unheeded.  The reluctance to codify any texts or works of literature as worth reading or even being familiar with betrays a strong (and standard) anti-curriculum bias and a fatally-flawed concept of reading comprehension that needs to be aggressively, adamantly pushed back against.

Does this mean national standards won’t be successful?  That othing less than a National Reading List and orders that every student must read every work on the list will do?  Of course not.  But (I like Lynne’s phrase) “clear guidance and examples” — the kind of information that teachers can use to create lessons, that test-writers can use to select reading passages, and parents can use to effectively use to know if their kids are where they need to be–is essential.   

The writers of the draft standard got one big thing right:  “The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content,” they note.  “This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.”

Amen to that.  But we cannot be content for fate, chance, circumstance or caprice to decide what those rich texts are.  It takes a little bravery — but only a little — to take the next step and offer “clear guidance and examples.”

Voluntary National Standards Dead on Arrival

by Robert Pondiscio
July 22nd, 2009

A draft of the newly developed common core state standards purports to offer “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable,” however the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons–or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

Copies of the draft, an effort spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) have begun circulating among reviewers.  A copy found its way to me without any restrictions on its use or circulation.  I have posted the draft document here.  (Trouble with the link?  Try here instead)

The draft insists that the voluntary standards be “coherent” but defines coherence to mean they “should convey a unified vision of the big ideas and supporting concepts within a discipline and reflect a progression of learning that is meaningful and appropriate.”  Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

To put this as blandly as possible, this is neither a revelatory insight nor a meaningful standard.  Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed.  On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

“At first glance, these language standards are, despite the brave descriptors, very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place,” notes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr.  “Like most state standards, they naively take a formalistic approach to language ability.   They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how–to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”   

 A sample scientific text on covalent bonds in the draft document, Hirsch notes, is a “a good illustration of this general point.  Will it be more useful for understanding such texts to spend class time teaching some will-o-the-wisp language proficiency or to impart a good general education in science and the humanities?  

“One begins to despair,” Hirsch concludes.

Bringing Home Life “Out of the Shadows”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 20th, 2009

Making schools better “should be only one part of our national strategy” on education, writes Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson.  “Life at home has been a relatively neglected topic and needs to come out of the shadows.” In a commentary at Ferguson, who heads the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, says helping parents do their best needs to be as big a priority as achieving excellent schools.

This goes beyond public policies. I am talking about changes in mindsets and lifestyles in a national social and cultural movement to close achievement gaps between groups — a movement to achieve excellence with equity.  More reading at home is a place to start….Black and Hispanic students reported less leisure reading at home compared to whites, watched television more, were much more likely to have televisions in their bedrooms and (perhaps as a consequence) were more prone to become sleepy at school. Also, blacks and Hispanics, including those with college-educated parents, reported fewer books in their homes than whites whose parents had fewer years of schooling.

Ferguson cites research indicating that high achieving students across racial lines have parents who are “both responsive and demanding.”

According to the study, white parents were much more likely to be both responsive and demanding than black and Hispanic parents; whereas black parents, in particular, were often highly demanding, but tended not to be as responsive in the ways the study measured. Among early adolescents, differences along these dimensions helped account for the higher test scores of whites as compared with blacks and Hispanics.

“Findings like the above should be part of the conversation among black and Hispanic community leaders as they respond to the fact that even the children of college-educated parents often achieve at lower-than-expected levels,” Ferguson writes. 

How to Start an Argument

by Robert Pondiscio
July 20th, 2009

Over the weekend, as Tom Watson made his historic run to win the British Open, I ventured an opinion long held but never uttered out loud that “any sport where a 59-year-old can beat guys in their 20s is not a sport, but a skill.”  Winning a major golf tournament, it seems to me, might have more in common with winning a violin competition than, say, winning the 400-meter hurdles or the individual medley in swimming at the Olympics.   If age does not preclude you from performing at an elite leve, what does that say about golfers as athletes?

Now I’m wondering about teaching:  Can an alternatively certified 22-year-old really outperform a 59-year old veteran?  And, if so, what does it say about teaching as a “profession.”

A Band-Aid on the Unkindest Cut?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 18th, 2009

Someone must have been unhappy with the reaction to news that Shakespeare would have no place in the emerging national standards currently being drafted by Achieve, ACT and the College Board.  The over-the-top quote from Chris Minnich, director of standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers, has suddenly disappeared from Linda Kulman’s Politics Daily piece, which was cited by Common Core, Joanne Jacobs and the Core Knowledge Blog (HT:  MagisterGreen). 

Original Quote:

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college.  It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important,” including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

New Quote:

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college. It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important. At this point, we don’t know yet what that will be.”  (Emphasis mine).

A misquote? A “clarification?”  Something uttered “off the record” not intended for the light of day?  The bigger problem with what Minnich said remains not his dismissal of Shakespeare, but the clear and unambiguous focus on skills at the expense of content.  That went unchanged in both versions.

Shakespeare in or out, if Mr. Minnich would like to explain the place of specific curricular content in the draft standards, the floor is his.  An invitation has been issued for him to write a guest post on this blog.

The Bard, Barred from National Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
July 17th, 2009

The eagle-eyed Lynne Munson of Common Core spotted a troublesome quote  in a piece at Politics Daily about the work of drafting common state standards.  It doesn’t bode well for those expecting robust, specific content. 

They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college,” says [Chris] Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors’ Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. “It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important, including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

First, note that Minnich says the panel is looking for what students should be able to do, not what they should know.  Translation: the standards are all about skills, not content.  I’ll leave to others to comment on the, er…opinion, that Shakespeare belongs on the list of “things that aren’t really important.”  

The dark night of pretending we can divorce skills from content in American schools continues (If there’s one thing “most of the studies say” it’s that you can’t). If the first thing you throw overboard is the language’s most acclaimed writer–someone whose name, like Einstein’s for genius, is a synonym for excellence in writing–then there’s not a lot of room for optimism that there will be any defined content whatsoever in these voluntary standards.

This was the most unkindest cut of all.