I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

30 July 2014

Cheating Beats Actual Progress.

Pay for performance is a very popular education reform plan.  The fact that pay for performance doesn't seem to work very well - I give you The VA scandal as just the latest failure - doesn't seem to dampen the fervor for it.  I suppose it's popular because it sounds like it would work, and it lets reformers talk about paying teachers more without actually doing that so much, as this article eventually points out, much to its own headline's dismay.

(I also note, as I must always, that the people who are selling pay for performance never want to submit their own jobs to the same scrutiny.  This goes both for the various DC public school central office administrators running IMPACT Plus and the investment bankers making big returns on charter schools and ed reform.)

And we know specifically that pay for performance has had ugly effects in schools already.  Atlanta is one of the saddest examples.  The New Yorker recently ran a story about Parks Middle School, the subject of many glowing articles and education reform joy during its heyday and the subject of forty or so pages recounting widespread cheating in the eventual investigative report.  The article is worth reading, although it glosses over some of the other scandals at Parks (nepotism, sexual harassment, embezzlement, all involving the principal, whose conduct belies his claim that he wouldn't have cheated for money).

Having read the report in its entirety, though, the story that really sticks with me is Harper Archer Middle School's.  (Harper Archer's narrative is in the second part of the report, available at the link above).  Harper Archer had the misfortune of being co-located with a district administrative team, and that team is believed to be responsible for the cheating.  Not the educators at Harper Archer, nor the principal: the Deputy Superintendent.

You see, Harper Archer had been making small but significant gains in performance.  Despite having a disproportionately high percentage of students with special needs, improvement was happening.  In fact, the Harper Archer staff discussed in the narrative seem to share a collaborative spirit, a real commitment to their students, and a shared purpose. 

This was not a popular attitude in Atlanta.  Both the principal and vice principal were put on improvement plans and given a mandate to increase test scores.  The principal was pushed to place teachers on performance plans if their test scores did not increase; he refused to do this and specifically instructed teachers not to engage in any unethical behavior.  He strongly felt that his hard-working teachers had the skills to support their students and that slow, steady progress was valuable.  (The principal also wondered why children were matriculating at Harper Archer with outstanding fifth grade test scores and poor academic skills, which earned him a reprimand from his Deputy Superintendent.)

The Deputy Superintendent's other suggestion - outside punishing teachers - was to visit Parks Middle School.  Despite the fact that an investigation had already suggested cheating at Parks, the hard working educators at Harper Archer were told to emulate it.

They didn't. 

The principal resigned after not being offered a contract for the 2009 school year. 

But guess what?  The 2008 CRCT scores came back with double digit gains!  Just like Parks!

When interviewed, not one of the teachers admitted to cheating.  Several mentioned being heavily pressured by the Deputy Superintendent to increase test scores; some believed that the principal resigned because he had been asked to cheat.  To a one, they felt classroom teachers at Harper Archer would not cheat.  Some refused to give the test scores to students because the scores were so unbelievable.

When asked about who could have been responsible for a cheating, the principal, vice-principal, and teaching staff all pointed to the Deputy Superintendent and her staff.  Some noted that the Deputy Superintendent had access to the test and was coming to the building very early and staying very late during testing.  Others noted that their tests were out of order when they received them each morning; one was informed by a custodian that the district staff told her the students were testing very well.

So at Harper Archer, you have a staff committed to working with a high needs population and having some real success.  But because their success is reasonable and measured, it's not enough.  They needed to be more like Parks.

This is the end result of pay for performance, then.  The enormous cheating at Parks wasn't only bad for those students, but students throughout the District.  And when teachers and administrators were unwilling to sacrifice their principals for their paychecks, then Deputy Superintendents were willing to take that step themselves.

Ultimately, this is what pay for performance gets you.  Because Parks was willing to cheat, they created an entirely false standard to which every other school could be held.

Christopher Waller created a toxic climate of secrecy and cheating at Parks.  He turned teachers against each other, firing those who wouldn't get with his program.  He used performance plans and reprimands to rid himself of teachers who did not want to cheat.  He was showered with attention, positive press, and bonuses.

Michael Milstead created a climate of teachers who worked together and believed that their students could succeed.  He encouraged collaboration and ethical conduct and protected his teachers from District demands, because he could see that the students at Harper Archer were making academic gains.  He got fired.

Which school served students better? 

Which school succeeded under a pay for performance plan?

28 July 2014

Let's Get Ready for Kindergarten!

Families Get Ready!
  • Using a permanent marker, write your child's first name in a prominent location on all items of clothing your child may remove at school.  This includes jackets, hats, and shirts worn over tank tops (between the long day and late summer weather, children often strip down to their tank tops, leaving a litter of indistinguishable shirts behind them).  Write directly onto the clothing or its tags as legibly as possible.
  • Then write your child's name on any backpack, lunchbox, or similar item your child will bring to school.
  • Fill out your emergency card.
  • On the first day of school, make sure to give your child's teacher
    • a working telephone number at which you can be reached all day (the first day is very hectic, and if a teacher has that number on hand in the event of an emergency, it saves a lot of time).
    • details about any allergies, illnesses, etc. your child has.
    • information about how your child will get home that day, including the name and phone number the person who will be picking up your child.  (Make sure your child recognizes this person).
  • Plan to get to school a little early and if applicable, arrive to pick your child up a little early.
  • Embrace the chaos that is the first day.  Once the meet and greet portion of the morning concludes, it is a remarkably smooth day.  But that meet and greet - twenty or more happy families, all of whom need to check in with one harried teacher - can feel hectic.  (And please, DO check in with that teacher before you leave.)
  • Even if your child generally does not want snacks, consider packing some anyway.  The first few days of school are really hard work for kids.
  • Anticipate that your child will sleep heavily, even if he or she has been in a full-day preschool or TK program. 
Help Your Child Be Ready!
  • If your child has a backpack, demonstrate how jackets, shirts, hats, and lunchboxes can be placed inside the backpack.  This really cuts down on lost items.
  • Kindergarten readiness skills get a lot of press, but the truly important ones are not academic.  It helps a lot if a child feels confident and self-efficacious.  Some ways to support your child:
    • Make sure your child is bathroom-independent.
    • If your child may feel embarrassed about asking to use the bathroom (hey, it's normal!), let your child's teacher know.  This cuts down on accidents.  Teachers have strategies for this - silent signals, simply sending that child to the bathroom, etc.
    • Speaking of accidents, they happen, even to the most school-ready, brilliant, and wonderful child.  Consider tossing an extra pair of undies and pants in your child's backpack.  (FYI, your child's classmates will be excellently understanding of any accidents that happen, as will your child's teacher.)
    • Make sure your child is wearing shoes that he or she can fasten.  Teachers have only two hands and two eyes.  They may not notice every straggling shoelace or be able to fix it if they do.  Moreover, shoelaces go many exciting places, like through puddles, into mouths, across mud, etc.  No one wants to tie manky shoelaces.
    • It is wonderful if a child knows his or her phone number.
    • If your child does not yet write his or her own name, that's fine.  It helps a lot if they can read it, though.
    • No one is expecting copperplate writing from a five year old, but a five year old who has some ideas about pencil grip (it doesn't have to be perfect) will feel more ready to go.
The First Week
  • In my experience, there is often a child (or even two) every year who loves, loves, loves to go to school Monday and Tuesday, but come Wednesday or Thursday wakes unexcited.  Kindergarten is hard work for young children.  It's a new environment with new expectations, a long day with many activities, some of which seem hard.  Moreover, the child to adult ratio is almost certainly lower than in any prior school experience your child has had.  So while I think children's concerns should be taken seriously, I would not worry overmuch about midweek blues the first week of school.

26 July 2014

This isn't hard to do.

This morning, I read this article in the Mercury News about a database of school district employee salaries.

The database is a little misleading, since it includes all benefits, including possible future pension outlays, as part of a teacher's salary.  Teachers might reasonably object to this; pension benefits are not certain, and a portion of one's salary is deducted each pay period to fund that pension.  So while the average teacher may receive a total compensation package adding up to an annual $85,000, the actual salary is significantly less.

What really irks me, though, is that the Mercury News sees fit to inform us that the think tank providing the database is nonpartisan.  This is simply untrue. It is an anti-union, education reform group whose founders have a long history of political action.

This group is the California Policy Center.  Let's take a little look at their website, shall we?  One of my favorite parts is the Prosperity Forum.  The center has many ideas about how to bring prosperity to California.  First off, despite what Nobel Prize-winning economists might write, California needs to lower taxes on the wealthy and get rid of Prop. 30.  We also need to stop our mean-spirited war on the wealthy.  It is our unreasonable jealousy of the deserving rich that holds us back.  The general thrust of the Prosperity Center is that wealth comes to those who deserve it.

(I can't tell whether the Center believes that teachers do not deserve the wealth they receive or what.  Certainly teachers aren't very wealthy, which would argue for us being not too bright.  But the Center also makes teachers' earnings look inflated and suggests that we are too well-compensated.)

A quick look at the "About Us" section of the website is illuminating.  The President of the Center has long involved himself in California politics, particularly in keeping dread unions from exercising their dread power of collective action.  He also likes charter schools.  Board members run the gamut from those who want to destroy pensions to those who want to destroy pensions and the environment too.

This is not a "nonpartisan" group, unless your definition of nonpartisan is so narrow as to be useless.  The group is distinctly partisan.  They have an extremely conservative economic outlook, wherein California will be a far better state if and only if we implement the tax schemes Kansas is usingensure the freedom to pollute, and end the oppressive tyranny of unions.

On school finance and governance issues, the group is distinctly partisan.  The Center's President is Mark Bucher.  He also runs another think tank, Education Alliance.  And he has a long history of shenanigans in Republican politics and school districts (not to mention some financial boondoggles and bad public behavior).

It is irresponsible of the Mercury News to call this group nonpartisan.  If done intentionally, it's misleading at best.  If done unintentionally, it is horrible journalism.  A quick internet search followed by ten minutes on the Center's website was all I needed to do a little investigation.  (I spent an additional five minutes or so looking up Education Alliance.)

Make no mistake.  The Center has a definite partisan bias.  While I am sure its employee salary databases are reasonably* accurate (if misleading), we need to ask what goal the Center has in mind with its press release and data aggregation.  We also need to ask if the Center is a trustworthy source for information, given that its claim of nonpartisanship is laughable.


*I am not claiming that any inaccuracies are the fault of the center.  They are using a variety of public databases, and errors in those are ancedotally common.  I do think the Center's conflation of salary and all benefits is intentional and nefarious.

25 July 2014

Luddite Kindergarten

It's a good thing Proposition 30 passed, because California's schools are going to need it.  Honestly, we had better start the campaign for continuing the Prop 30 taxation schemes, because we are setting schools up to have ever-increasing technology costs.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments are all done online; beyond that, their performance tasks are fundamentally typing tasks.  If every third through fifth grader in a school is going to have the annual pleasure (well, probably thrice yearly, especially at our poorer schools  - how can we know how kids will do on the test unless we waste weeks of learning giving ongoing assessments?) of typing two essays, every kid starting in Kindergarten will need regular screen time.  (Also, SBAC was originally going to make K-2 tests as well as 3-12; if this really happens and the District demands them, they had better realize that one laptop cart isn't going to cut it.)

And since these tests are rather unwieldy and constantly updated, regular hardware and software purchases are going to be annual costs.

This is an equity issue, of course,   Wealthier students have more access to technology outside of the classroom.  Moreover, they have more access to computers that use the kind of interface SBAC does.  There is no Swype typing or touchscreen use on Smarter Balanced.  It demands a keyboard and mouse.  If your home gets online via inexpensive tablet or cell phone, you are less ready for SBAC.

Traditionally, technology is a site-based budgeting item.  Some schools have invested in technology, others haven't.  But between the utter inadequacy of the Weighted Student Formula and the District's ongoing commitment to inequity via PTA, schools with significant tech infrastructure are wealthier schools.  It's a to those that hath shall be given type situation, really.

(Also, there's the whole wifi/ethernet capacity problem at some schools wherein the Disrtict contractor took the money and didn't do the work.  I don't know much about this scandal, but I do know that the schools that have this problem are clustered in poor neighborhoods, probably because the District charges schools to fix the problem.)

Anyway, between Smarter Balanced and the CCSS (Starting in K, the standards demand technology), I think an enormous amount of money is going to end up going to Apple and the like.  Ultimately, I am opposed - not only because I don't think that private corporations should be making quite so much cash off our public system, particularly when they are working so hard to control it, but also because it further warps the school day.

As it is, teachers don't have enough time for everything.  More tech time means less time elsewhere, and I suspect it will be the usual suspects that disappear: the arts, music, physical eduation, even social studies and science (if you don't test it, why teach it?).  Schools serving children with fewer out of school technology opportunities will have to place more emphasis on tech just to get the kids through the test.  So as always, the worst constraints will be placed on the children who most need the freedom.

Personally, I would rather have a sand and water table than an ipad.  I would like my students to spend more time finger painting than typing.  I value parachute play over online learning activities.  Moreover, I believe that the research shows the importance of early childhood play.  I believe getting dirty is a human right, really.

Given our current education path, I sometimes wonder how much longer I really want to work at high-needs schools.

10 July 2014

Snit makes for posting.

FACT: Chi Tschang was found to have physically and mentally abused children while principal at KIPP Fresno.

FACT: KIPP attempted to keep Mr.Tschang in his job.

FACT: Despite corroborated and repeated incidents of child abuse, Mr.Tschang has continued to be employed by charter schools.  Currently, he supervises schools for Achievement First.

FACT: Mr. Tschang's conduct is grounds for loss of his credential in any state in the country.  Including California, where you may recently have heard it is impossible to revoke a credential.

ETA: Apparently Mr. Tschang held no California teaching credential.  Nor did he hold an emergency permit.  I suppose one way to avoid revocation is to just ignore legal obligations.

QUESTION: When will the anti-tenure folks take on Mr. Tschang?  Or is Vegara less about teacher quality and more about anti-union activism?