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September 21, 2017

Closing the achievement gap means closing the word gap

The achievement gap between low income students and their more affluent peers has been well documented and can start even when students enter their first day of kindergarten.  In the elementary school I taught at in Tulsa, OK, I saw students come in and perform below grade level on their kindergarten benchmark assessment at the beginning of the school year.  This prompted many to ask, how can students already be behind this early in their school careers.

One factor is word exposure or the number of words infants hear per day. A research study by Hart and Risley found that low income infants hear many fewer words per day than their middle and high-income peers, totaling to about a 30 million word difference by the age of three. They also found a relationship between the number of words students heard as infants and toddlers and their development of vocabulary and language skills years later.  Several other research studies have confirmed these original findings adding to the notion that word exposure in infancy and toddlerhood is an important component to closing the achievement gap.

Several states or groups have developed and tested different initiatives to address the word gap and increase awareness for parents and communities.  Providence, RI implemented the Providence Talks intervention program to help parents track their word usage around their children.  A word pedometer was clipped onto each child which counted the number of words spoken and conversation changes between the care giver and the child in both Spanish and English.  In addition, families were matched with an in-home coach that would come and go over the data gathered each week with the parent and brainstorm different ways families could expose children to more words and make everyday activities teachable moments.  This program was a success in Providence with 60% of children hearing more words at the end of the program compared to the beginning, and 97% of the parents saying they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the program.

Another intervention program was the 30 Million Words Initiative. Tested in the South Side of Chicago, the initiative also involved tracking words through a device that counts the number of words children hear.  The researchers gave each child a word tracking device and randomly selected half the participants to receive eight weekly one hour home visits to go over the data collected and for educational training sessions for families. The other half received eight weekly nutrition interventional home visits where the data from the word counter was not discussed.  The results showed that the group that participated in home visits that talked about different strategies to increase word exposure and tracked the data each week had significantly increased their talk and interaction with children.

This demonstrates the importance of in-home meetings where families are coached and can see the impact of these changes in the data from the wordometers.  The guiding philosophy of the 30 million Words Initiative states that parents are children’s first and most important teacher.  To tackle the overall achievement gap, we need to start with parents.  Real gains can be achieved if parents are given the tools to help their children gain academic success.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Early Childhood,equity,Parents — Tags: , , , — Annie Hemphill @ 12:09 pm





June 16, 2017

The importance of social and emotional learning: Part I

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a subject that’s being increasingly discussed in the education community. SEL is teaching students character skills, which most people agree are important.  The challenge is, while these attributes are significant, they are often hard to objectively define and analyze to see how exactly they impact a student’s future.  In 2015 the OECD published the report Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills with a goal to shed light on evidence behind the impact social emotional learning can have on students.

SEL

The report has many findings, but I hope to highlight a few that I find particularly interesting.  The first finding is social and emotional skill development plays a significant role in a student’s academic development.  Specifically, out of the many skills measured “conscientiousness, sociability and emotional stability” helped with future career and social prospects.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  If you have a student who can regulate his/her emotions, show respect and get along with his/her peers, this student will have skills that will help in future classes covering all different subject areas, and for a wide variety of careers.

The impact of SEL is significant for any student, but its impact is even higher on those students who have lower academic performance.  These students are often placed in intervention programs to help them catch up to their peers.  The evidence from this report shows that social and emotional development should be a key part of these programs because it can help the interventions have an even greater impact on student performance.  This further makes attention to SEL a key consideration for improving equity in a school system.

The OECD report also notes the importance of teaching these character traits early in a student’s education career.  After reviewing the current literature, they find that focusing on social and emotional development in early childhood programs has future benefits for students, such as fewer behavior problems and greater student learning.  The report showcases a few specific programs that have been researched and implemented in schools.  One of these programs is “Tools of Mind” which is used in preschool and early primary classrooms to teach students how to regulate their emotions and social behaviors.  While no long-term study has been carried out on students who have completed the program, short-term evaluations do show that students have improved classroom behavior and emotional control.  The skills students learn in these programs build on each other, and so the earlier they can start the better.

Six months ago, the OECD released the findings for the 2015 PISA. PISA is an international assessment for 15-year-old students in reading, math and science and is given in 72 countries.  One of the key areas of analysis for this round of PISA is social and emotional development and well-being, and looking at how this may be associated with student performance.  Next week, I will highlight some of the key findings from the more recent report that shows how the U.S. compares to the 72 other countries. — Annie Hemphill

Filed under: equity,SEL,Student support — Tags: , — Annie Hemphill @ 3:08 pm





May 8, 2017

Black and Latino parents express their views on education

School choice advocates seemed surprised earlier this year when the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools. The need for school choice, according to many advocates, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stems from lack of choices and underperformance of public schools for low-income students and students of color. However, a new survey by the civil rights group The Leadership Conference asks black and Latino parents about their views on education. Instead of education advocates and policymakers presupposing that all parents want is choice, we should stop and listen to them.

Parents want changes that would provide fair opportunities to their students. Most of their criticism is centered around race-based inequalities in funding and resources, as well as biased treatment of their students. Some parents may use school choice to attain greater equality, but until every school provides a high-quality education, providing options alone isn’t enough.

The Leadership Conference surveyed 600 black parents and 600 Latino parents across the U.S., all with children ages 5-18. The margin of error for each group is 4 percent. In addition to ensuring that our education system hears the voices of all groups of parents, this survey is particularly important because it helps peel back the layers on why black and Latino students often lag behind in educational attainment. They also make up nearly half of the student population.

Surveyed parents overwhelmingly felt that schools in black and Latino communities received less funding than schools in white neighborhoods. Research from EdBuild, an organization that studies education funding, would back up that sentiment. Black parents whose children attended majority white schools were more likely to rate their school as excellent than parents of students at majority-black schools (61 versus 14 percent). If funding tends to follow white students, then minority students at majority-white schools would also benefit from better supported schools. Socioeconomic status may also play a role in this perception; black and Latino students are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students.

BlackLatino

Parents also cite racism and bias as contributors to their children receiving an inferior education. When their children had mostly white teachers, parents were more likely to believe that U.S. schools weren’t really trying to educate black/Latino students. This aligns with recent research that shows that black students are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college if they had at least one black teacher in upper elementary school. While the mechanisms for the research findings are unclear, it is apparent that black and Latino parents feel that schools aren’t giving their children an equitable education.

Parents also shared what they feel will improve their schools: high-quality teachers, access to educational resources and technology, and high expectations for their students. They also care about extracurricular activities and after-school programs. In an open-ended question, nearly half of respondents cited good teachers as the most important characteristic to make a great school, placing it far above the number who cited a core/general curriculum or safe and nurturing environment. Eighty-nine percent of black parents and 81 percent of Latino parents wished that their children were challenged more.

All of these sentiments have been backed up in importance by research. High-quality teachers are paramount to students’ learning. Strong learning materials support great teaching by ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers. Students with same-race teachers tend to have higher performance. Schools receive inequitable funding, with poor and minority students typically concentrated in schools with fewer resources.

And yet, many policy-makers and education advocates have spent the last couple of years debating the merits of school choice. It seems that we’re missing the more important policy questions. Charters perform at about the same level as district schools, and large voucher programs actually have worse achievement results for students. So, instead of trying to create new systems, maybe we should focus on what really matters; just ask the parents.






April 28, 2017

New federal study of DC voucher program shows academic decline

A new federal analysis of the District of Columbia’s voucher program has found that students who transferred to private schools posted similar and, in some cases, worse scores than their peers who remained in public schools.

The findings appear to be the first time the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) has noted that voucher recipients performed worse on some academic measures than DC public school pupils in general.

It comes on the heels of new research on Louisiana and Ohio’s statewide voucher programs, which showed precipitous declines in test scores between students who took advantage of the voucher and transferred to a private school and similar students who stayed in public schools.

Created by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was intended to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with tuition subsidies to attend private schools. Reauthorized in 2011 as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, it was the first and remains the only federally-funded voucher program in the U.S.

Ongoing evaluation of SOAR was a key feature of the 2004 and 2011 bill, hence IES has conducted numerous studies in the past that looked at student outcomes, parent satisfaction and general characteristics of the participants. But this is the first time researchers have observed a sharp difference between the test scores of SOAR participants and non-participants. Before we get to the specifics, some background: the study’s sample included students who applied to the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and were either offered or not offered a scholarship; the difference between the two on a variety of measures was studied one year after SOAR students transferred to private schools.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • Math scores dropped, on average, 7.3 percentile points for voucher recipients compared to students who applied but had not been selected for the program.
  • Reading scores dropped among elementary students (7.1 percentile points) who participated in SOAR compared to those who did not, but there was little discernible difference at the secondary level between these two groups.
  • Students who transferred from low performing schools (the very students the program is intended to help) saw no significant gain on their test scores one year after transferring to private school.
  • Meanwhile, voucher participants who had not transferred from schools designated as “in need of improvement” saw their math scores drop, on average, 14.1 percentile points and their reading scores by 11.3 percentile points compared to students who were in public schools.

While these findings aren’t as dramatic as Louisiana, where students saw a 27 percentile point drop in math one year after transferring to private schools, it’s yet another chink in the, let’s face it, drafty armor known as school choice.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having options. The problem is when one equates more options with better outcomes. This is not always the case, as this and other studies are showing.






March 13, 2017

Kentucky: School Choice for Whom?

The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently.  In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside).  If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state.  As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.

At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools.  Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role.  The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone.  In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity).  The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer.  This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted  and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.

KY

Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville.  JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity.  Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice.  Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity.  JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151.  The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students.  The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home.  JCPS analyzed H.B. 151­­­ and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts).  Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.

JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity.  By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151.  The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40.  Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students.  JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated.  The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan.  Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school.  This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.

We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement.  A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools.  Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools.  Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students.  However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns.  It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies.  Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.






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