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February 23, 2016

Common Core’s happy days may be here again

Did a relationship ever sour so quickly as the Common Core and public opinion? Back in 2010 when the college- and career-ready standards were shiny and new, leaders from business and higher education as well as a certain U.S. Secretary of Education praised their rigor, coherence and attention to critical thinking. Within a year, 45 governors and D.C. had rushed to adopt them as their own – a move a majority of teachers and parents viewed favorably.

Then, implementation happened. Many teachers felt rushed to produce results. Parents couldn’t understand their child’s homework. Their anxiety fed chatter on talk radio and social media that did the incredible. It united anti-corporate progressives and anti-government tea partiers in opposition to the new standards and the assessments that go with them. States once on board with the program began to bail in face of angry constituents.

Recently, though, the mood appears to be shifting back into neutral. Presidential candidates deliver variations of the “repeal Common Core” line to applause, but the issue doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the race. The newly reauthorized ESEA deflates anti-Common Core messaging by explicitly forbidding the federal government from compelling or encouraging state adoption of any set of standards, including the Common Core.  After a flurry of state legislative proposals were introduced to undo the standards, only a handful were ever signed into law, and in some of those states, the replacements aren’t substantively different from the ones they tossed.

New studies related to the Common Core could prompt a wary public to give the standards a second look. In the first, a Harvard research team led by Thomas Kane surveyed a representative sample of teachers and principals in five Common Core states about implementation strategies. They were then able to match responses to student performance on the Core-aligned assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

According to their report, Teaching Higher: Educators’ perspective on Common Core implementation, three out of four teachers have “embraced the new standards” either “quite a bit” or “fully.” When asked how much of their classroom instruction changed, a similar proportion said it had by one half or more. Four in five math teachers say they have increased “emphasis on conceptual understanding” and “application of skills,” while an even higher proportion of English teachers reported assigning more writing “with use of evidence.” All are attributes emphasized in the standards.

The research team then related the survey results to students’ scores on the new assessments after controlling for demographics and prior achievement. While they did not find strategies of particular impact on English language arts, they did identify math practices that were associated with higher student scores: more professional development days; more classroom observations “with explicit feedback tied to the Common Core”; and the “inclusion of Common Core-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations.”

Casting light on such strategies is only worthwhile, however, if there is also evidence that the Common Core are good standards. Enter the Fordham Institute. The education think tank assembled a team of 40 experts in assessment and teaching to evaluate the quality of PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For comparison, they examined college-ready aligned ACT Aspire and MCAS, the highly regarded Massachusetts state assessment. The grades 5 and 8 test forms were analyzed against criteria developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers for evaluating “high-quality assessments” that aim to assess college- and career-readiness.

The short version.  All four tests scored highly for “depth,” that is, items that are “cognitively demanding.” PARCC and Smarter Balanced, however, edged out both ACT Aspire and MCAS in “content.” The researchers conducted an additional analysis against other assessments and found the Common Core-aligned tests also “call for greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills than either NAEP or [the international] PISA, both of which are considered to be high-quality challenging assessments.”

Whether or not participating in national standards is a good idea is a decision that should rightfully be made by individual states. There are many legitimate political arguments for going either way, and each state will likely view it differently. But whether the Common Core standards – in full or in part – represent the expectations a state should have for all its students is an educational question that is worth considering on its own merits.

These early reports suggest that the new standards are higher and deeper than what states had before. Most teachers, although not all, have “embraced” them and are changing their instruction accordingly. We are learning anecdotally, too, that as parents see evidence of their child’s growth, they come around as supporters (see here and here).  What this means for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now it’s looking like the Common Core or something very much like them may be seeing happier days ahead. — Patte Barth

This entry first appeared on Huffington Post February 22, 2016.


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

February 3, 2016

PARCC test results lower for computer-based tests

In school year 2014-2015, students took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam on a pilot basis. The PARCC exam was created to be in alignment with the Common Core Standards and is among the few standardized assessment measures of how well school districts are teaching higher-level competencies.

On February 3, Education Week reported in an article that the results for students who took the computer-based version of the exam were significantly lower than the results for students who took a traditional pencil and paper version. While the article states that the PARCC organization does not have a response or clear answer on why this occurred, I will offer my own explanation based on my experience as a teacher of students who took this exam last year.

I taught high school History, and the largest discrepancy in the results between students who took the computer versus paper exam was at the high school level. This is my theory for the discrepancy. Throughout students’ academic careers we teachers teach them to “mark-up” the text. This means that as they read books, articles, poems, and primary sources etc. students should have a pen/pencil and highlighter in their hand. There are many acronyms for how students should “mark-up” their text. One is HACC- Highlight, Annotate, Circle unknown words, Comment. There are many others but the idea is the same. Students are taught to summarize each paragraph in the margins and make note of key words. This helps students to stay engaged with the reading, find main ideas, and critically think about what they are reading. It also makes it easier to go back and skim the text for the main ideas and remember what they read without re-reading.

Generally students are forced to mark-up/annotate the text in this way but, honestly, I still do this! And, I would bet that many adults do too. If you need to read a long article at work, many people print it out and read it with a pen in hand. It makes it easier to focus on what you are reading. Now imagine that someone is going to test you on that article. You will be even more anxious to read the article carefully and write notes for yourself in the margins.

The point is that students are taught to do this when reading, especially when reading passages for exams when there will be questions based on the passage. My own students had this drilled into them throughout the high school years when I knew and taught them. Sometime last year the teachers learned that our school would be giving the pilot version of the PARCC exam to our students. During a teacher professional development day we were asked to go online to the PARCC website and learn about the test and take a practice exam. I encourage you to go online and take it for yourself — this exam is hard! We were asked to analyze the questions and think about ways we could change our own in-class exams to better align with PARCC. We were told that it would soon replace our state’s standardized exam.

One of the first things we all noticed was how long the reading passages are for the ELA portion of the test. It took a long time to read through them and we all struggled to read it on a computer screen. I really wanted to have a printed version to write my notes down! It was long and detailed and I felt as though by the time I saw the questions I would have to re-read the whole passage to find the answer (or find the section where I could infer an answer). I knew the students would struggle with this and anticipated lower scores on this exam than the state test. I was thankful that their scores wouldn’t actually count this year. But what happens when this becomes a high-stakes test?

As I anticipated, the scores for students who took the computer-based exams were far lower than those who took a traditional paper test. The Illinois State Board of Education found that, across all grades, 50% of students scored proficient of the paper-based PARCC exam compared to only 32% of students who took the exam online. In Baltimore County, students who took the paper test scored almost 14 points higher than students of similar demographics who took the test on the computer.

The low scores on the test are a different story. Organizations will need to analyze the results of this major pilot test and determine its validity. Students and teachers, if it becomes mandatory, will have to adjust to better learn the standards and testing format associated with this test. The bigger story is that there are significant hardships that come with taking a computer-based test.

My main concern is the reading passages. I don’t believe teachers should abandon the “mark it up” technique to bend to computer-based testing because learning how to annotate a text is valuable throughout people’s lives. I saw the students struggle to stare at the computer screen and focus on the words. Many used their finger on the screen to follow along with what they were reading. It was clearly frustrating for them not to be able to underline and make notes like they were used to doing.

Other concerns are that this test is online. It requires access to the internet, a multitude of computers for students to test, and students and teacher who are technologically savvy. When my school gave the test, it took several days and a lot of scheduling and disruption to get all students to take the test given our limited number of computers. Certain rooms of the building have less reliable internet connection than others and some students lost connection while testing. Sometimes the system didn’t accept the student login or wouldn’t change to the next page. There were no PARCC IT professionals in the building to fix these issues. Instead, teachers who didn’t know the system any better than the students tried to help.

Not all students were ultimately able to take or finish the exam because of these issues. Thankfully their results didn’t matter for their graduation! There are also equity concerns between students who are familiar with computers and typing and those who do not have much exposure to technology. As a teacher in an urban school I can tell you that was not uncommon to see students typing essays on their phones because they didn’t have a computer.

As a whole, I’m not surprised by the discrepancy in test scores and I imagine that other teachers are not either. The Education Week article quotes the PARCC’s Chief of Assessment in saying “There is some evidence that, in part, the [score] differences we’re seeing may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system.” This vague statement only hits the tip of the iceberg. I encourage those analyzing the cause of the discrepancy to talk to teachers and students. Also, ask yourselves how well you would do taking an exam completely online, particularly when there are long reading passages. –Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Accountability,Assessments,Common Core,High school,Testing — Tags: , , — Breanna Higgins @ 4:27 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

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