Whistleblowers Delight

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2010

Did anyone else get that remarkable email from the organizers of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education yesterday?  The subject line read “BBA Needs Your Help.”  If you just hit delete, you missed a fascinating email.  BBA, which argues that test-driven accountability narrows the curriculum and creates test obsession in schools is asking teachers to submit examples of schools (presumably their own) that have suffered under strict accountability measures:

In a recent meeting, we advised Department of Education staff that their policy of identifying the lowest-performing 5% of schools in each state, in order to target these schools for massive intervention and “turnaround,” was bound to have adverse consequences if these schools were identified primarily by such test scores. We said that many schools that should be considered among the lowest performing schools would be missed if they artificially boosted their test scores at the expense of a balanced curriculum, by excessive test preparation activities and other gaming. And other schools that pursued a more balanced curriculum and attended to children’s long run achievement might falsely be identified as among the lowest-performing schools because they refused to engage in activities that artificially boosted test scores.

The letter, which doesn’t seem to appear on BBA’s website, notes DOE staff ”were not persuaded,” and asked the group to provide “examples of low-performing schools whose test scores have been artificially inflated by excessive test preparation and gaming, and better schools with very low scores but that were delivering a higher quality of instruction.”  The email, which carries the signatures of BBA organizers Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant, then asks recipients to identify such schools by name. 

Please include the name of the school, the name(s) of your source(s) of information, and other identifying information in your description. We will not initially provide all of this identifying information in the material we supply to the Department, but we have to be prepared to back up our claims by naming names if necessary.

It’s a bold move by BBA, although they might also consider sending along a copy of Linda Perlstein’s Tested.  I suspect they will find no shortage of schools that have muscled up on test prep and played games to boost test scores.  Whether teachers at those schools are willing to publicly say so is another matter. 

BBA is on shakier ground, I believe, in looking for good schools whose efforts don’t show up on test scores.  If a school is delivering a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum and “attending to children’s long run achievement” that should show up on test scores, assuming the effort is long-running, ongoing and well-implemented.

Blather, Rinse, Repeat

by Robert Pondiscio
November 24th, 2009

In a debate on the Education Next website, Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform and Pedro Noguera of New York University wrestle with the question, “Should school reformers pay more attention to the non-academic needs of poor children?”  The more pertinent question might be which of the two groups Williams and Noguera speak for–the Education Equality Project (Williams) and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (Noguera)–is paying attention to the academic needs of poor children.  Based on the evidence, it’s hard to say.

The tale of the tape:

Word count in the “debate”:  4,188
Number of times the word “accountable” or “accountability” is used:  8
“Tests” or “testing”:  12
“Reform”:  23
“Teacher” or “educator”: 34
“Performance” and/or “pay”: 12
“Choice” and/or “charter”: 23
“Money” and/or “funds”: 14
“Unions,” “NEA,” or “AFT”: 9
“Parents”: 6

Curriculum:  1

I guess they both agree on one thing:  What kids actually learn in school apparently doesn’t matter a bit.

Broader, Bolder Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
June 25th, 2009

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education is out today with its recommendations on school accountability.  As I write this, the report is not yet on BBA’s website, but many of the recommendations will be familiar to readers of Richard Rothstein’s Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right

I suspect the recommendation that will be subject to the most discussion is the call for states to “provide for the inspection of districts and schools to ensure their contributions to satisfactory student performance in academic subject areas, as well as in the arts, citizenship, physical fitness and mental and physical health, work and other behavioral skills that will enable them to achieve success in a pluralistic society and complex global economy.”  The report points that “school inspections as the core of state accountability systems” have precedent in places like England.

There is a lot to agree with in BBA’s insistence that a narrow focus on testing has had a deleterious impact on schools.  But personally, I wonder if a schools inspectorate will make matters better or worse.  Spend time in a struggling school in the weeks before a “quality review” and you’ll see an extraordinary amount of teaching and learning time going to cleaning classrooms, updating portfolios, making sure bulletin boards have up-to-date student work, etc.  Having lived through a few such inspections, its tempting to suggest judging a school from a formal walk-around is like judging a household from a Thanksgiving dinner.  Remember the grief your mom used to give you to clean up and mind your manners before company came?  Now imagine mom’s livelihood depends on it.  That’s a school in the weeks before quality review.   It’s hard not to be skeptical that a visit from the inspectorate would be any less subject to gaming and distractions that a relentless focus on test prep.

Update:  The report is here.  Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards has a detailed summary here.

Never Let The Facts Get In the Way Of A Good Story

by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2009

Back in my ink-stained wretch days, I sympathized with beat reporters whose noses would get out of joint when a “bigfoot” colleague would parachute into town and write a column uncomplicated by reporting or background knowledge.  So I can’t help but wonder what the New York Times’ Paul Tough thinks of his colleague David Brooks’ column about the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Tough, as you probably know, wrote the book on the Harlem Children’s Zone.  Literally.  Whatever It Takes looks at Geoffrey Canada’s mission to change the lives of Harlem’s children by intervening in every moving part of their lives from schools to parenting.  But Le Blogosphere is up in arms this week  wondering how Brooks came to conclude ”the Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right” in arguing that school-based approaches alone can close the achievement gap. It’s a conclusion that’s hard to support based on even a passing familiarity with Tough’s book. 

I don’t have a dog in the Broader, Bolder vs. Education Equality Project (“No Excuses”) fight, which represents the quintessential ed reform false dichotomy. Like many such debates, it seems rather obvious (and utterly uncontroversial) to suggest that we need to draw from both sides to get to a solution.  But to conclude, as Brooks did, that HCZ proves the “no excuses” case makes one wonder if he even read Tough’s book.  As Diane Ravitch notes “there are lessons for American education, but not necessarily the ones that Brooks points to.”   Corey Bunje Bower at Thoughts on Education Policy calls Brooks’ conclusion ”flat out irresponsible.”  Over at Public School Insights, the usually erudite and articulate Claus von Zastrow is driven to sputtering, “What??!?”

Did Brooks really just argue that the Harlem Children’s Zone’s success supports the schools alone approach championed by “reformers”? That’s like arguing that the Surgeon General’s reports discredit the link between smoking and cancer.

“Brooks joins a long line of national commentators who are turning important conversations about school improvement into a morality play pitting the “establishment” against the “reformers.” In the process, he is promoting false and damaging dichotomies between efforts to improve schools and efforts to offset social and economic disadvantages that contribute to achievement gaps,” Claus concludes. 

Just so.  But back to my reporter friends.  It wouldn’t surprise them to hear a columnist wrote the story one way when their reporting led in a different direction.  That’s just the nature of the beast.  A columnist’s job is tell you what he thinks; reporters tell you what they found out.   Brooks recommends Whatever It Takes in his column.  It’s a great suggestion.  He should really see what Tough found out.

Mea Culpa:  Aaron Pallas did a terrific analysis of HCZ’ test results last week which I overlooked.  Do have a look.

Solution to Ed Policy Skirmishes “Bafflingly Obvious”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 13th, 2009

Fix schools or fix communities?  “From an outsider’s perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects of the education policy debate is that both sides are right,” notes The Atlantic Monthly’s Clay Risen.  “It seems bafflingly obvious that change must come both inside and outside the classroom,” he writes on the Democrats for Education Reform blog.  It’s a must-read.

A backstory is required.  Risen wrote a major profile of Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee in last November’s Atlantic Monthly. In the new issue, there’s a letter from the University of Michigan’s Susan Neuman, a former Bush administration education official, arguing that Risen’s piece “left readers with the mistaken impression that [Rhee and other school leaders] must make a false choice between quality teachers and ‘extras.”   She also writes ”there is only so much a quality teacher, adequate classroom supplies, and caring administrators can accomplish.” 

The Atlantic typically allows its writers to respond to letters and Risen replied in print that Neuman is “undoubtedly correct that improving teacher quality and improving a student’s social milieu are not mutually exclusive, and are both important means to improve student outcomes. However, education policy is not made in a vacuum, and cannot be. This is where so much of education policy breaks down: there is, sadly, a broadening gulf between teacher-quality advocates and those aligned with ‘A Broader, Bolder Approach.’ Arguably, the answer lies in a mixture of the two. Whether we can find that answer depends much more on improving our education politics than on improving our edu­cation policy.” (ital mine)

Risen’s reply caught the attention of former newspaperman Joe Williams, now head honcho of Democrats for Education Reform.  Knowing that space is at a premium in print, Joe asked Risen to expand on his reply in the Atlantic’s letters section.  Risen notes that the “Broader, Bolder” group and the Joel Klein and Al Sharpton led Education Equality Project are both working toward the same goal and with policies that should be mutually compatible, yet find themselves at odds politically. Says Risen:

Rhee and Co. are, in my view, too eager to reject policies that addresses anything other than teacher quality and too hostile toward anything that smacks of establishment thinking, from unions to teacher colleges. And they’re not entirely wrong–I fear that while many of the signatories to EPI’s “A Broader, Bolder Approach” manifesto are well-intentioned (the list, after all, includes Education Secretary Arne Duncan), too often this wing of the education sector falls into the role of stalking horse for those who prefer the status quo to the disruptive changes that true reform would bring.

Thus a painful paradox: At a moment when education policy is making real strides, our education politics is stuck in a narrow, short-sighted, antagonistic framework in which each side would rather paint the other as anti-student than admit that it might actually have something to contribute. That’s the irony of Michelle Rhee: As a policy thinker and a force for change she is precisely what Washington needs, but she is so politically untuned, so antagonistic toward unions and teacher colleges and the City Council and anything else that might require negotiation and compromise, that she is preventing her policy vision from being realized.

Sound familiar?  In selecting Arne Duncan, who signed on to both ed manifestos as his Education Secretary, President-Elect Obama “understands the need to bring all sides to the table,” Risen believes, “not to minimize dissent but because everyone has something to contribute.”  But each side, he says will have to “concede certain policy principles.”

While teacher accountability is a vital element of reform, for example, it is vital to recognize that teachers are also workers, parents, and taxpayers, not automatons who can be expected to sacrifice everything to student achievement. Nor should we expect them to build lasting relationships with their students if they are spending all their time worried about their job security. While some aspects of teacher tenure and job protections should be relaxed, making them at-will employees is asking too much.  On the flip side, teachers need to recognize that they are not just another class of workers, and that they cannot always make the same demands that, say, teamsters do. Districts need the flexibility to demand a little extra from them, even if it means longer hours.

It’s a political truism that conservatives seek out converts, while progressives hunt down heretics.  The party labels notwithstanding, it sometimes seems the same is true in education debates–too much concern with heresy, not enough with efficacy.  Risen’s “bafflingly obvious” perspective deserves a hearing.  And kudos to Joe Williams and DFER for giving Risen the space to say what needed to be said.

“Schools Can’t Fix Poverty. And That’s OK”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 13th, 2008

Enfant terrible edublogger Alexander Russo strikes a measured and reasonable tone, rewarding us with a terrific piece at scholastic.com arguing against efforts to introduce a range of health and human services into schools (think “Broader, Bolder“).  Such efforts “may stretch schools’ abilities to make a real difference,” he cautions, “and may take you and your team’s eyes off quality classroom instruction and academic improvement.”

There’s no doubt that students’ home lives play an important role in their school success. The question is whether schools are really the best vehicle through which to address deeper social issues such as poverty, lack of childcare or health insurance, inadequate access to transportation, and adult illiteracy. My view is that they’re not.  Let schools try and do what they are supposed to do. If more is needed—few argue that it isn’t—let’s address those problems separately and head-on, rather than making them something schools have to do.

“Schools can’t fix poverty,” he concludes.  “And that’s OK.”

Even if you like the Broader, Bolder approach, it’s going to be tough to make the case that schools are well-positioned to do more as long as questions exist about how well they execute their primary function.  And accountability hawks across the political spectrum question whether such an approach is really a way to deflect a focus on results.

Broader Bolder Obama?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 8th, 2008

The Democratic party is split into two camps on education, with each wondering whose side Barack Obama is on, writes Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine.  One the one hand, are members of the teachers’ unions; on the other are “the party’s self-defined ‘education reformers.’” Each camp, notes Tough, has tried to claim him as its own.  What is most interesting and novel about Obama’s education plans, Tough writes, is how much they involve institutions other than schools.

The American social contract has always identified public schools as the one place where the state can and should play a role in the process of child-rearing. But a new and growing movement of researchers and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date. It ignores, they say, overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children’s achievement….If we truly want to counter the effects of poverty on the achievement of children, these advocates argue, we need to start a whole lot earlier and do a whole lot more.

The three people who have done the most to propel this nascent movement, says Tough, are James J. Heckman, Susan B. Neuman and Geoffrey Canada, the subject of Tough’s new book, Whatever It Takes.  Obama has pledged to replicate Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities as private/public partnerships, with the federal government providing half the funds and the rest being raised by local governments and private philanthropies and businesses, Tough writes.  And then there’s the politics

A lot of conservatives would oppose a new multibillion-dollar federal program as a Great Society-style giveaway to the poor. And many liberals are wary of any program that tries to change the behavior of inner-city parents; to them, teaching poor parents to behave more like middle-class parents can feel paternalistic. Union leaders will find it hard to support an effort that has nonunion charter schools at its heart. Education reformers often support Canada’s work, but his premise — that schools alone are not enough to make a difference in poor children’s lives — makes many of them anxious.

“Untested Bromides”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 1st, 2008

Ken DeRosa at D-Ed Reckoning has been “perusing the various Background Papers for the Broader, Bolder Initiative looking for some…solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement.”

Here’s what he found.  Or didn’t.