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May 4, 2016

Let’s think about time

Editor’s Note: Breanna Higgins is a former teacher and spring intern at CPE

Let’s start to think about time and realistic timelines for how long reform and school improvement really takes. This era of accountability expects superintendents to turnaround failing schools, or even whole districts, within a couple years. Each new innovative reform or program is expected to be the next great thing- often districts implement several new programs at the same time to increase the potential for success.

Instant gratification- instant improvement. Superintendents and school and district leaders want to see test scores rise instantly and show that their reforms worked. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Test scores sometimes rise, but then flat line again quickly. It’s not necessarily because the reform didn’t work— it’s just that we need to be patient.

We need to devote years to strong and faithful implementation. Teachers need to be trained- in more than the week before school- in how to use the new programs. Teachers also need time to figure out how to teach effectively with these new changes and it will take years for teachers to become proficient in a new system. Teachers see reforms come and go so quickly that the “this too shall pass” mentality is not just a line- it is very real. Teachers don’t feel the need to become heavily invested in a new reform or program when they know it will be changed out again in a year or two.

A district that truly commits to a reform needs to commit long term. The reform needs to be rolled out in stages and implemented carefully. Timelines and hopes for seeing success should be realistic. Teachers are the main element of any reform and if they do not believe in the program, or believe it will be around long enough for them to care, it won’t have much of an impact. By committing to long-term action, teachers have time to adjust and see changes in the classroom and they are able to commit to a program that they see the district has committed to. The district needs to be willing to take the time to ride out the ups and downs of a reform. Some experts in school reform believe it takes five years simply to fully implement a new reform and that achievement results will follow from there.

School improvement takes time. Policymakers and communities need to be patient and allow reforms to be implemented well, and slowly, to see real improvement. A new program every year only ensures that most people “on the ground” will ignore it.

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,Public education,School boards — Breanna Higgins @ 3:15 pm

February 19, 2016

When report cards collide

One surefire way for education policy groups to get press is to release a state report card. Any kind of ranking is clickbait for news outlets. Plus, with a state-of-education report card you get a bonus man-bites-dog story when the grade-giving institution is the one being graded. Consequently, organizations representing business interests from teachers’ unions to think tanks have gotten into the act at one time or another. But readers should beware. When it comes to ranking states on education, a rose is not a rose is not a rose.

Three state report cards released over the winter show how widely the grades vary, even though they are all ostensibly evaluating the same thing – public education. The American Legislative Exchange Council published its Report Card on American Education in November. Just last week, the Network for Public Education released a 50 State Report Card.  Both ALEC and NPE are advocacy organizations with clear, and contradictory, agendas. January saw the release of Education Week’s annual Quality Counts which, as the education publication of record, represents the Goldilocks in this bunch.

What, if anything, can we learn by looking at these three rankings collectively? On the one hand, there is little agreement among the organizations regarding which states are top performers: no state makes the top 10 in all three lists. Yet on the other hand, there is consensus that no state is perfect and that much more work needs to be done, since no state earned an ‘A.’

Obviously, these reports differ because they value different things. ALEC and NPE grade states on education policies that they like. ALEC, which advertises itself as supportive of “limited government, free markets and federalism,” awards states that promote choice and competition, such as allowing more charter schools, providing private school options with taxpayer support, and having few or no regulations on homeschooling. NPE emphasizes the “public” in public education and opposes privatization and so-called “corporate reforms” such as merit pay, alternative certification for teachers, and especially high-stakes testing. Policies that earned high grades by ALEC, therefore, got low grades from NPE and vice versa.

The two had one area of agreement, however, albeit by omission. The report cards say little (ALEC) or nothing (NPE) about actual performance. The result is that grades on both reports have no relationship to student learning.

To its credit, ALEC features a separate ranking on states’ NAEP scores for low-income students as their way to draw attention to student performance. However, by doing so, the authors also cast a light on how little ALEC’s preferred policies relate to achievement. For every Indiana, which earned ALEC’s top grade and produces high NAEP scores, there is a Hawaii whose low-income kids ranked 6th on NAEP, but earned an ALEC ‘D+.’  NPE isn’t any better. Despite the appearance of high-performing states like Massachusetts and Iowa in the NPE Top 10, they also awarded high-scoring Indiana an ‘F’ and Colorado a ‘D.’

In contrast to ALEC and NPE, Ed Week does not take positions on education policy. Its state report card focused on K-12 achievement, school finance, and something they call “chance for success” — demographic indicators related to student achievement including poverty, parent education and early education enrollments. With policy out of the equation, Ed Week’s grades in each domain track fairly consistently with the overall grade suggesting that the indicators identified by the authors tell us at least something about the quality of education.

So which state gets bragging rights? If you want to use one of these report cards as fodder for your own particular brand of advocacy, then by all means go with ALEC or NPE – whichever one fits your views best. But if you really want to know how well different education policies work, you’d be better off consulting the research. You can start here, here and here.

As for ranking states by their education systems? Stick with Goldilocks.

February 10, 2016

Suspension: Does it help or hurt? And how much?

Penn State’s recent report, “Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States” has put the issue of student suspension back in the limelight. The report’s main finding was that:

“Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year- 55% of those suspensions occurred in 13 Southern states. Districts in the South also were responsible for 50% of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.”

Other details in the report go on to show the impact of implicit bias in school discipline. Cultural awareness is something that all US schools need to work on. Studies have shown that black students are more likely to be disciplined or suspended for a specific behavior than a white student, even when their infringement was the same. The disproportionate numbers of white teachers compared to minority students should make cultural awareness an even bigger priority since we need to understand the backgrounds of our students in order to teach them effectively.

A Learning Lab article this week points to another study released last month that shows that as much as 20% of the achievement gap between black and white students could be due to getting suspended from school. This study included more than 15,000 students in Kentucky; researchers analyzed test scores and discipline records from 2008-2011. The study found that students who were suspended did significantly worse on year-end assessments than their peers of similar demographics who had not been suspended, or even compared to their own year-end test scores in years they had not been suspended.

This probably seems like an obvious conclusion that students who are out of school (suspended) are learning less and therefore getting lower scores than students who are consistently in school. Still, a 20 percent difference due to suspension is large and worth looking into.

An article from last week highlighted a disturbing statistic that Massachusetts public and charter schools suspended kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students 603 times in the 2014-2015 school year, which is half as many as the year before. These numbers are not broken down by race but, regardless, it is a large number of children ages 4-5 being suspended.

It is certainly worth questioning if suspensions are doing any good teaching appropriate behavior and changing the way a child would behave in the same situation again. As a teacher, I understand how much one misbehaving student can derail a class. One student can be the difference between a successful lesson and crashing and burning. It’s almost impossible to teach when a student is out of their seat, talking, calling out, or otherwise distracting the other students. Is it fair to leave that student in the class when it is taking away from the learning of everyone else? Is it fair to keep that student out of the building and take away their opportunity to learn (learn both content from class and appropriate behaviors)? I don’t think there is an easy answer. There are persuasive arguments on both sides.

Here is a common scenario: A student is disrupting class (use your imagination, there are a million methods for this); what does the teacher do? There might be a dean of students or a student engagement counselor that you can send the student to. These are the ones who typically dole out punishment, and hopefully, talk to the student about their behavior, why it was wrong, and what they should have done it differently. The student could have to sit in that office for a certain period of time, miss lunch or recess with the class, serve a detention, or get suspended for the infraction. But what does this mean in practice? An adult will have to STAY WITH that student in the office or during lunch or recess- taking away from breaks or other duties. An adult may even need to get paid extra for these duties. Same with detention; there would need to be a specific room available in the school for detention along with a staff member to run detention- which would have to be paid for. You, as the taxpayer, may think discipline is worth the money. It probably is, but it still takes a certain amount of time in the day of a faculty member and money in the budget. But then what happens if the student refuses to go to detention? Teachers can’t physically force them to go to the room, or to stay there, or to behave while there. A lot of times that refusal is what leads to suspension. What else can you do? This is a serious question- what else can the school do for discipline? I don’t have the answer.

My own recommendations for the suspension problem are:

  • Engage parents as much as possible. Not just when the students are in trouble, but throughout the school year. Having parents on the school’s side can make a huge difference
  • Teacher preparation programs NEED to teach classroom management and student-teaching needs to play a huge role in putting the theory into practice. Facing a room full of kids is NOT easy. Many teaching programs don’t have a specific class in classroom management; I suppose it is something that teachers are expected to learn on the job. It’s true, you perfect the craft with time and practice but it is still essential to have some ideas before you get in there.
  • Cultural Awareness needs to be taught in teacher preparation programs and practiced in schools. A lot of research show that there are cultural differences in how various races respond to directions and discipline. Teachers and school staff can all learn how to respect these differences while doing what will most effectively work with each student.
  • Have conversations with students. In my experience, teachers and deans of discipline have done this very well, but I’m sure there are cases of schools where this doesn’t happen. Having a conversation with a student can help adults understand why they acted a certain why and how to approach the situation differently the next time.

I want to make clear that these recommendations will not stop classroom disruptions and will not make the suspension problem go away- but they can help to lessen the issue. What to do when there are severe behavior issues that are consistent is definitely an issue that needs more conversation. Out-of-school suspensions can’t be the only way.

-Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,CPE,Public education — Tags: , , — Breanna Higgins @ 1:38 pm

January 29, 2016

Developing Social Emotional Learning in K-12

The Fordham Institute released a report yesterday on
Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is a process where people learn to recognize and manage emotions, learn empathy and responsibility, and develop positive relationships.

The movement began in the 1960s in New Haven, CT when a collaborative social development program achieved success at one of the lowest performing elementary schools in the district. By the early 1980s, these two pilot schools went from having among the worst truancy and behavioral problems in the district to achieving academic results at the national average and seeing a large decline in absenteeism and behavior issues. This spurred the movement on to other school districts. The field was ultimately defined by the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) which promoted SEL projects such as responsible behavior, good decision making, and building relationships.

SEL researchers and educators believe it will help students develop important soft skills for life and develop their academic achievement by creating a culture of respect in the classroom. Research shows that when students feel comfortable and respected in the classroom, they are more likely to participate in class, take risks, and therefore, learn more.

There has been another developing movement to teach resilience, grit and a growth mindset (versus fixed mindset) in schools. The idea is to get away from talk that sounds like “I’m not good at math” and change student’s mindsets into “I’m struggling with math right now but if I keep working hard and ask for help I know I’ll be good at it.” This is certainly easier said than done but are very important skills for children to develop to encourage the idea that hard work and resilience can help them accomplish their goals. We may know that some people are born with certain talents, but for the most part, people achieve success by hard work and practice, something we should foster in all students.

There is overlap between the growth mindset and SEL and educators need not necessarily choose between the two. Both are important for students for students to learn.

It is interesting that in the world of academic achievement, accountability, and standardized tests, movements promoting soft skills are gaining more and more attention. Districts and school leaders are warming to the idea that soft skills such as SEL and growth mindsets need to actively be taught in schools. Teachers, of course, have always known that soft skills are critical and have been losing time to teach them as they are forced to focus on the next test. Although SEL is important at every grade level, it is most often focused on in elementary and early middle grades when children’s attitudes towards school and their ability to form relationships are most developing.

This is all connected to the newest movement, particularly in high schools, to make students “Career Ready”. The exact measures needed to be career ready are still being debated but some of them are, incidentally, familiar to the SEL goals. Students must be ready to take responsibility for their actions, build appropriate relationships with coworkers and supervisors, cope with adversity etc. There are more specific career goals but the ability to regulate one’s emotions are crucial to beginning a career.

High schoolers are notorious for having raging hormones and difficulty regulating emotion- it certainly comes with the territory of being that age. But, students need to learn and practice skills to get along with difficult people and take responsibility for their actions if they are to succeed, in both college and careers paths.

These three movements have overlapping goals and it may be time to start discussing how social and emotional learning can be vertically aligned from kindergarten through grade 12. –Breanna Higgins

Resources on SEL






Filed under: 21st century education,Career Readiness,instruction,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 2:27 pm

January 20, 2016

ESSA Gives More Power to the States

The Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, is the newest federal legislation to improve national education systems. This act replaces the heavy-hand of NCLB and places more emphasis on states to do the heavy lifting. There was a lot of criticism of state implementation of NCLB (some of the weaknesses and frustrations around the law may have been more the fault of implementation than the law itself) and now the states will need to take on more responsibility over innovation in policy-creation, testing, and accountability along with the compliance role they have been doing for years.

The state and local education agencies will need to reflect on and improve their own staff and capacity to succeed in this important work. Education agencies have become increasingly political in recent years and the average tenure of state chiefs is only 3.2 years. This tenuous environment and rapid shifts in leadership make it more difficult for agencies to complete long-term goals and for staff to have a coherent sense of direction.

In addition to changing leadership, the recession lessened the staff numbers in most education departments, leaving less employees to monitor the same numbers of schools, students, and federal funds/programs. Despite the upturn in the economy, EdWeek reports that staff numbers have not increased and has led staff members to be overstretched and to work on programs where they have little experience.

The point of understanding these staffing problems is that they will be exacerbated as ESSA demands more of the states. States finally have the decision-making power that they have been longing for, but an important question is: do they have the capacity to follow through? We can hope that as states gain power, they will also be able to hire qualified employees who can devise policies that are best for their state. They need experts to transform their lowest performing schools and groups of students, to create or revise accountability systems for schools, create or adopt academic standards (Common Core is an option here but it not required), and update school performance measures to include a school quality characteristic. These initiatives all require experts to take the lead in creating and implementing the policies, as well as to evaluate their effectiveness.

Local education systems should be aware of coming changes and work with states and schools to bridge the gaps in implementation of new policies. The more state and local systems can cooperate and communicate, the better chance policies have of being honestly implemented and becoming a success. –Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,ESSA,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 10:47 am

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