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March 5, 2015

Drawing a line in the sand (of our Zen garden)

I was looking through the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and stumbled upon an interesting article on mindfulness. Mindfulness is becoming an increasingly “hot topic” in the psychological literature, with particular emphasis in the fields of counseling and positive psychology. Essentially, when one is engaging in mindfulness practices, one is purposefully (and solely) living in the present moment by expelling all thoughts and judgments of experiences and focusing on the present. So, think about riding a roller coaster, that experience of focusing solely on the present is a good example of what mindfulness is trying to achieve. The WSJ article chronicled the growing trend of mindfulness practices, including its rise in school districts.

Citing research from the developmental, clinical, and counseling psychology, as well as neuroscience literature, proponents touted clear benefits from the integration of mindfulness practices in the schools. For example, schoolchildren were more like to score higher in mathematics, demonstrate less aggressive and depressive symptoms, and engage in more prosocial behaviors (e.g., respect, empathy, and perspective-taking). Certainly, these are qualities that any teacher would want to see in their students, so then where is the opposition coming from?

The article included interviews with teachers, some of whom viewed the integration of mindfulness practices into the curriculum as equivalent to promoting religion. A huge leap? Yes and no. While mindfulness (meditation) does have roots in the Buddhist religion, a critical component could be how mindfulness is approached and implemented. While there could be improper ways to teach mindfulness, it is perhaps easier to defend by explaining that a critical difference is differentiating between teaching a skill (mindfulness meditation) and an idea (as a tenet of Buddhist religion). For a more detailed paper on whether or not a practice is too religious to be in a school, check out CPE’s paper on religion and public schools.

Filed under: CPE,Public education — Tags: , , , — NDillon @ 10:20 am





February 19, 2015

A matter of principal

After a conversation with CPE’s senior policy analyst Jim Hull last week in which Jim helped explain to issues of accountability, the conversation segued onto the topic of school principals and the powerful role they play in public education. Apparently, Jim is not the only one who believes that principals are key players in student success.

In a recent piece by Real Clear Education, graduate training programs designed for principals should foster a more practical skillset. The report goes on to suggest that incorporating disciplines such as business administration, could provide principals with the training for activities that are actually practiced on the job. A caveat however, the report also makes it very clear that they are not advocating for schools to be run like automated businesses either. That being said, there are still numerous leadership skills taught within an MBA program that fall directly within (or should) the purview of a principal, such as budgeting, data analysis, talent and quality management, organizational change, and leadership.

One thing is clear; good principals are essential for school success. As mirrored in a report by CPE, The Principal Perspective, high-quality principal leadership can facilitate numerous beneficial school outcomes, such as increasing student achievement, reducing both student and teacher absences, and reducing the turnover of high-quality teachers. Additionally, principals can be the linchpins in school turnaround. When a new principal is introduced into a school challenged by low student achievement, one of the first tasks an effective leader would undertake would be to assess the quality of the teachers, in an attempt to replace the lowest-quality teachers and retain the highest-quality teachers. These recruitment skills could be fostered through training in talent management, whereas retainment skills are taught through quality management, both skillsets that are central in an MBA program. Furthermore, our report found that principals were most effective at the earlier grades (i.e., elementary school), with an effect that diminishes across middle and high school. A plausible rationale for this decreasing effect is that as the structure of the school expands, it becomes more difficult to organize and govern. One way to address this downfall however, could be to incorporate leadership into principal training so that principals are better prepared to handle larger systems producing just as strong effects as elementary leaders.

In summary, the pieces by Real Clear Education and CPE share a common theme: principals matter. Although individual principals are not making broad changes at the state or federal level, they are poised to have (and sustain) incredible impact locally. It is because of their unique position that they play such an important role in increasing school outcomes. Thus, ensuring that principals are provided with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in effective school leadership certainly seems like a good principle.






February 12, 2015

Reading the kindergarten Common Core State Standards with purpose and understanding

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) benchmarks for kindergarteners came under scrutiny in a recently released report. Issued by two early education advocacy organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, the report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten” despite the CCSS requirement that prior to first grade, students are expected to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” If an impossible standard has been set, then expecting children to be able to do something beyond their capability appears to be a waste of time, money, and effort for all parties.

However, a deeper look into the CCSS English/Language Arts for elementary school children, provides an additional piece of information that should ease the concerns raised by the recent report. This introductory information notes that for kindergarten students, the goal is just for children to demonstrate an increased awareness and competencies in the ELA standards. Moreover, the CCSS does not advocate for removing play-based learning from the classroom, although a review of the report could easily allow a reader to believe that the CCSS explicitly denounces such practices. Surprisingly then, a complete read-through of the CCSS shows that the authors of the CCSS explicitly state that “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (p.6). Within the same document, the standard that the DEY/AFC report focuses on (Foundational Skills: Fluency) is on page 16. Thus, it becomes confusing how the DEY/AFC report can read the standards with such purpose, yet without understanding.

Last, and most importantly, the CCSS does not prescribe how teachers must reach these goals. As highlighted in our own 2013 publication on the Common Core, the CCSS is just a guiding document as to what the goals are, not the pathways in which to reach them. In fact, there is widespread support for play-based learning within the kindergarten curriculum. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association agree that pretend play is an important part of the learning process for young children. In an ideal world, using the CCSS in kindergarten should not interfere with incorporating play into the curriculum and in the practical world, whether or not play-based learning is included in kindergarten falls on the teacher, not the standards. Perhaps kindergarten is an excellent time to start raising awareness and competence in reading with purpose and understanding as this is a skill that is often needed by adults in order to comprehend and think critically about information.






February 9, 2015

High-quality preschool reduces later special education placement

A recent study released on Tuesday shows that children who attended high-quality preschools in North Carolina were significantly less likely to require special education services in the third grade. These findings were from a longitudinal study following children from at-risk families from birth to the end of third grade. Two programs, More at Four and Smart Start, both publicly funded programs in North Carolina, aim to provide high-quality child care to 4-year-olds living in poverty and to improve the quality and delivery of child care and preschool services for children from birth to 5, respectively. The focus on this developmental period of life is reflective of much developmental research showing that significant cognitive, social, and emotional development occurs across this timeframe and thus, it is a critical period to support. Furthermore, educational psychologist Jeffrey Liew highlights that cognitive and social-emotional development in early childhood can be heavily influenced by teaching efforts targeting those skills.

These findings evidence the importance of a high-quality early childhood education. Between the years 1997 and 2010, over 127,000 students were serviced by the North Carolina preschool programs. As reported in Thinking P-12: The school board role in pre-k education, appropriate class sizes, teacher qualifications, and teacher training, among others, constitute markers that differentiate low from high-quality programming.

Although the results from this study are encouraging, it is important for readers to not misinterpret the results. Furthermore, the study uses maternal education (at time of the childbirth) as a proxy for socioeconomic status (SES). While maternal education is an indicator of SES, the inclusion of additional at-risk markers, such as household income and whether or not the parent(s) are employed typically provides a more comprehensive picture.

That high-quality education in preschool reduced special education placement years later in third grade just reinforces the many reasons why addressing issues early can benefit children throughout life. Similar to the foundation of a house, early childhood represents the bedrock of development; when this foundation is built poorly or weakened for whatever reason (e.g., toxic stress, poverty, neglect), the integrity of the entire building is at risk. Through the implementation of high-quality education, these positive experiences can help to “repair the cracks.” As reported in our Research on Pre-K, children who are able to attend high-quality preschool programs, like the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, for example, tend to graduate high school, demonstrate higher achievement at age 14, and earn more income at age 40 compared to those who did not attend similar pre-kindergarten programs.

In conclusion, this study reinforces what we already know: high-quality early childhood education is one of the best ways to support optimal development. This study highlights that when cognitive, social, and emotional problems are addressed early through, children can stand to benefit the most before special education is required.

Filed under: Pre-k,preschool,research,special education — Tags: , , — David Ferrier @ 4:29 pm





January 22, 2015

Shhh!! Don’t say anything but more students are graduating now than ever before

One of the great secrets in education is the fact that our nation’s high schools are graduating more students on-time than ever before. Even after it was first reported last year that the national high school on-time graduation rate reached 80 percent it still seemed like this news was all too-often overlooked by critics and proponents of public education alike. Maybe this will change with President Obama highlighting this fact in his State of the Union speech last night. But the fact that the latest graduation rates were released last week by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) without many noticing doesn’t give me much hope.

So, in case you hadn’t heard already here are the facts. Our national on-time high school graduate rate reached another all-time high of 81 percent for the Class of 2013—the most recent year graduation rate data is available. This represents an increase from 79 percent for the Class of 2011. Keep in mind as well, this is an actual graduation rate not an estimate that NCES and most states had used for years. Since states have developed data systems in recent years that can determine which individual students entered ninth-grade and graduated four years later with at least a standard high school diploma it is now possible to calculate an actual on-time graduation rate.

Yet, this rate doesn’t even include late high school graduates who took more than four years to earn the same diploma. If the number of late graduates remains similar to what I found in my Better Late Than Never report it is likely that including students who take longer than four years to earn a standard high school diploma would increase the national graduation rate above 85 percent. Keep in mind, the national graduation rate hovered around 70 percent between the mid-1970s and early 2000s, making these gains all the more impressive.

Just a decade ago, few thought that reaching the 90 percent mark would even be possible, even if late graduates were included. However, now it appears the 90 percent mark is within reach. In fact, Iowa has already achieved a 90 percent on-time graduation rate according to NCES data. And five other states -Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin- are getting close to that marker, boasting 88 percent on-time graduation rates. Again, if late graduates were included it is likely that these states are graduating over 90 percent of their students.

And a number of states not as close to the 90 percent threshold also have reason to be optimistic. Particularly Nevada, Alabama, and New Mexico who have ranked among the bottom of states in terms of graduation rates. From 2011 to 2013, each of them improved their on-time graduation rates by 9, 8, and 7 percentage points, respectively. Such increases represent thousands more students earning the minimal credentials needed to be prepared for life after high school.

Of course, no one should be satisfied until all students leave high school with a high school diploma, even if it is as likely as a baseball player hitting a thousand. Everyone wants all students to be college and career ready and our nation’s high schools have made tremendous strides toward meeting that goal. A high school diploma may not guarantee success after high school but without one the chances are minimal. While there is more work to do, our high schools should be congratulated for this tremendous accomplishment. Fortunately, it looks like they are heading towards another record next year. If given the support they need, there is no reason our nation’s schools can’t obtain and surpass the 90 percent graduation rate. When they do, hopefully it won’t be such a secret. – Jim Hull






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