What Works is Boring

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2009

Important, but frustrating piece in the Washington Post this morning about the difficulty of sustaining test-score growth in underperforming schools after dramatic one-time boosts.  “Studies across the country show that many low-performing schools falter after big one-year gains in test scores.  Of the seven D.C. public schools that increased proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more in both reading and math in 2008,” Bill Turque reports, only showed growth in 2009.  “Most of the schools that surged 20 points or more in a single category last year also had difficulty building on the increase this year.”

The piece looks at any number of reasons–from turnover to cheating–why scores might spike in a given year and then plateau or decline.  But if the piece is any indication, DC schools are overlooking the obvious: a key to long-term growth in reading scores is the steady buildup of background knowledge.  Without knowing anything about the particular schools discussed in the Post piece, I’d bet real money that we’re talking about mediocre schools that got religion (or were forced to get religion) about testing and focused on it.  Hard.  But no one should be surprised to see one-time gains.

“Given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement,” wrote Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. ”If not addressed by schools, academic background knowledge can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.”

E.D. Hirsch has obviously spent much of his life banging on this same drum, pointing over and over that reading tests are essentially tests of background knowledge.  If DC school leaders understand this, the Post piece doesn’t say. 

Test prep and simplistic reading strategy instruction that focus on trivial stories–students learn to predict, to summarize, to infer — does nearly nothing to add to a child’s store of knowledge, making an such a one-time boost nearly inevitable.   An absence of background knowledge is the difference-maker and left unattended it eventually shows up in the test scores. 

At a recent Aspen Institute panel discussion with Hirsch, Randi Weingarten observed that the reason we’re not seeing more of this is because “what works is boring.”  Building background knowledge is a slow, steady process.  Boring as hell.  And absolutely effective. 

You Are a Highly Skilled Teacher If….

by Robert Pondiscio
August 23rd, 2009

…you never have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time.

…you respond to students’ correct answers by “probing for higher-level understanding” of the idea being discussed at least three times every half hour.

…you lose no more than three minutes of teaching time to poor organization or planning.

Who says so?  Why, Michelle Rhee says so.

One, Two, Three All Eyes on Rhee

by Robert Pondiscio
June 15th, 2009

Fame can backfire.  Money doesn’t always talk.  Politics matter.  Beware of unintended consequences.  The Washington Post’s Bill Turque sums up the lessons learned by Washington, DC’s lightning rod Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.   “Two years into the job, Rhee has lost none of her zeal,” Turque reports.  “But those who know her well say she’s found that converting conviction into sustainable change requires more patience, indulgence and attentiveness to politics than may come naturally to her.”

Turque’s piece opens with Rhee being called on the carpet by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray over her decision to pose for the cover of TIME Magazine holding a broom.  “What does it get you, to constantly bash those you’re trying to get to help you? he asked her (a question also asked by this blog).  Turque’s piece describes how Rhee’s “rising celebrity alienated key constituencies at home” including teachers and parents.   He also reports that Rhee “expected to be hailed as a hero last summer by the Washington Teachers’ Union” for her proposal to raise pay into the stratosphere for those willing to forego tenure.  And although he notes Rhee has earned points for more tactful recent management of her relationship with the City Council and other constituencies, she still sounds unrepentant:

If I go down at the end of the day because I didn’t play the political game right, that’s okay with me,” she tells the Post. “At least when you’re making decisions that you believe are in the best interests of kids, you may not win in the end, but at least you can operate with a good conscience.”

“By major measures of progress, the jury on Rhee remains out,” Turque concludes.  “It will take at least three sets of annual standardized test scores to assess whether her changes are making a difference in classrooms, experts say. The second set is due this summer.”

At Teacher Beat, guest blogger Liana Heitin focuses on Rhee’s status as an outsider to DC and education politics, concluding “it’s possible she will continue to remain ‘outside’ as long as she stays pinned to a self-imposed agenda, resists collaborating with stakeholders, refuses to sugarcoat the dismal realities of the system, and aims recruitment efforts at a ‘new breed’ of idealists who are willing to sacrifice their personal lives to make a splash themselves.”  Finally, the Post’s Jay Mathews says Turque nails the list of Rhee’s “lessons learned” and invites readers to add on their own.  The comments predictably fall into two categories:  “You go, girl!”  or simply ”You, go.”

Update:  Eduflack, engaging in expectation management, predicts a downturn in DC test scores this summer.

“A Great Free Education!”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 9th, 2009

The Washington Post takes note of a radio ad campaign aimed at “stemming the decline in public confidence” in DC schools:

“Did you know,” the announcer intones on the ads, which aired last month on WPGC (95.5 FM) and are scheduled to run again next month, “that the only school in D.C. to earn a national ribbon for excellence last year was a D.C. public school? Go public and get a great free education!”

The ribbon of excellence bit refers to Key Elementary, which as one commenter on the Post’s piece notes, is not a demographically typical DC school, with only 9% eligible for free lunch, and 16% Latino and African American compared to a 92% average for District schools.

 ”It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” the great Dizzy Dean once quipped.  But the bragging is supposed to come after the doing it. I want to see Washington, DC’s schools go from worst to first as much as anybody, but claims about a “great free public education” are a tad premature.   If you’re providing a great free public education, you won’t need a radio campaign to spread the word. 

PR 101:  Underpromise and overdeliver.  If there’s a problem, tell people how you’re addressing it, not that there’s no problem.

Public or Private?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 10th, 2008

Everyone and their brother is weighing in on where the future First Daughters should go to school once their dad moves to Washington to start his new job.  Jay Mathews of the Washington Post wisely avoids grandstanding, noting that school choice is very personal.  He assumes the Obama girls will find their way to Georgetown Day School, “because of its similarity to their current school, its historic role as the city’s first racially integrated school and the presence of Obama senior legal adviser Eric H. Holder Jr. on its board of trustees.”  However he notes there is a viable public school, Strong John Thomson, a stone’s throw from the White House.

Meet the principal, Gladys Camp, and you understand why Thomson parents think the Obamas ought to check it out. Dr. Camp, as everyone calls her, is a legend. In the past two years, she has won awards from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and this newspaper as the best school leader in the city….Sixty-nine percent of Thomson’s 355 students are from low-income families. Forty percent are Hispanic, 34 percent black, 22 percent Asian American and 5 percent white. That demographic mix often means remedial instruction and little enrichment, but parents say the school offers a feast of music, art and foreign languages as good as what they would find in a private school. 

The last President to send his kids to public school?  Jimmy Carter.  “Thomson is close to capacity,” writes Uncle Jay, “but Camp said she would have room after the holidays for a fifth-grader and a second-grader transferring from the Midwest.”

Banking on Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2008

With both presidential candidates supporting merit pay for teachers, it’s likely that the issue will affect teachers nationwide, USA Today’s Greg Toppo observes this morning in a piece that offers a round-up of pay-for-performance plans nationwide. 

“At least eight states are moving away from a traditional pay model, which increases salaries based on seniority and advanced degrees,” Toppo writes. ”Many of the pay packages are funded by private foundations. In dozens of districts, test scores already have earned teachers more money.”

The most controversial plan is Washington, DC’s which could see high-performing teachers with limited experience earn over $100,000 if they give up tenure.  George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union tells USA Today, “A lot of our younger teachers say, ‘Bring it on.’ ” Older teachers, he says, are more concerned with due process. 

Hiring and Firing

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

Jay Mathews, the dean of education reporters, takes a strong stand on teacher retention, arguing that giving principals the unfettered power to hire and fire teachers is “crucial” to closing the achievement gap.

This is a difficult choice and a hard time for D.C. teachers. They are fine people who have chosen a tough profession and put their hearts into their work. Many fear being judged by principals who were not skillful teachers themselves and have little clue as to what helps kids learn and what doesn’t. But I don’t see any way the city’s children are going to get the instruction they deserve — the imaginative, fun-loving, firm teaching found at schools like KEY — unless principals are given the power to hire and fire teachers based on demonstrated skill and improved learning in class.

Mathews cites the example of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, where principal Sarah Hayes dismissed two teachers who were not cutting it, despite efforts to improve.  “If KEY were a traditional school, Hayes’s only reasonable option would have been to mentor the teachers, note her dissatisfaction on their evaluations and recommend that they not be kept after a two-year probation,” he writes.  “That is the way it goes in most school systems. Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful.”