Monday, May 23, 2016

A Correction to Diane Ravitch's Criticism of Campbell Brown

Dr. Diane Ravitch attacked Campbell Brown on her blog last week. That’s old news: she’s had it in for Brown for some time. What’s new is that in this post Ravitch, who is idolized by her enormous fan club for her educational perspicacity, makes an amateur’s mistake.

Ravitch’s context is a recent video in which Brown says (accurately) that “two out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.” Here’s Ravitch’s response:
[Brown] starts by saying that 2/3 of American students in eighth grade are “below grade level” in reading and math. Apparently she refers to the National Assessment of Education [sic] Progress, the only national assessment of student skills. She confuses NAEP proficiency, a specific achievement level, with grade level.

To begin with, “grade level” is a median. Fifty percent are always above grade level, and fifty percent are always below.
Now, full disclosure: I was an English major and statistical terminology is not my strong suit. But even a lay reader like me knows that Ravitch is wrong. Grade level is never a median. It’s what teachers and other educational experts conclude is the developmentally-appropriate achievement level of a student in a particular grade. That’s what the Common Core (or whatever your state is calling it these days) represents: a list of standards-based, criterion-referenced goals that students should learn by the end of each grade in order to be ready for the next one. If the world stood still on its axis, then these goals would be the same as those 100 years ago. But the world moves and, therefore, the goalposts have changed.

In defense of her distinction between median and grade-level, Ravitch cites NAEP, certainly an authoritative source. Let’s look:
NAEP reading achievement-level descriptions present expectations of student performance in relation to a range of text types and text difficulty and in response to a variety of assessment questions intended to elicit different cognitive processes and reading behaviors. The specific processes and reading behaviors mentioned in the achievement-level descriptions are illustrative of those judged as central to students' successful comprehension of texts. These processes and reading behaviors involve different and increasing cognitive demands from one grade and performance level to the next as they are applied within more challenging contexts and with more complex information. While similar reading behaviors are included at the different performance levels and grades, it should be understood that these skills are being described in relation to texts and assessment questions of varying difficulty.
Here’s the crux of Ravitch’s confusion. When she uses the word “median,” she means norm-referenced, i.e., how kids perform right now against the general population. In this case, indeed, half would be above and half would be below. But Brown, like NAEP, is talking about a criterion-based reference, assessing student performance based on what all these experts believe that kids should know in order to be successful in life after high school.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that a chemistry teacher is starting a unit on the structure of atoms. The teacher gives her lessons and then gives the students a test on what they learned. Is “grade level” what they happen to know after the instruction, regardless of what they learned,  or is “grade level” what they were supposed to have learned?

Answer: it’s the latter.

Ravitch must know this, right? I can see three reasons why she would make such an amateurish error:

  1. She had a bad day and wrote carelessly. If any of her many readers noticed, she decided it wasn’t worth correcting.
  2. She, a celebrated education expert, doesn’t know the difference between median and grade level.
  3. She is deliberately misusing the two terms in order to ding Brown and promote her agenda that our schools are just fine and kids are learning what they need to know.

I can understand the first. We all have bad days. In this case, she owes it to her acolytes to issue a correction.

I don’t believe the second.

I don’t want to believe the third, but maybe I need to get more cynical.

Whatever the answer, Ravitch provides an  emblem of the American education “wars.” If we assess our traditional school system in the way that Ravitch suggests, then we can really teach anything and call it a day and cast aside meaningful expectations, core content, and effective instruction. But if we assess our traditional school system by meaningful criteria -- not on what kids happen to know but what they should know -- then even Ravitch knows -- must know -- that we come up short.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Leftovers

N.J. School Boards Association reports that the Delegate Assembly voted in favor of a proposal "for the state to continue to provide alternatives to the current statewide assessment when determining eligibility for high school graduation. New Jersey’s assessment is the PARCC test. The new NJSBA policy does not seek a change in the state assessment, but rather calls for additional measures to be available to determine eligibility for graduation."

In an article about a visit by Gov. Christie to a charter school the Star-Ledger notes, "critics say charter schools drain funding and resources from regular public schools." That's true, but the drainage happens whenever parents change schools. When, for example, parents exercise school choice by moving to a better district their new home district drains funding and resources from the district they left. When parents choose to transfer their children from a "regular" school to a charter school -- perhaps because they can't afford to move to a better district -- the charter drains money and resources from the the school district. The same thing happens when parents are lucky enough to live near a magnet school. And when many children move,  either to a different district or to the charter school sector, the original district of residence may have to downsize. Why is this so difficult? (Sorry. I'm being obtuse. It's difficult because a drop in enrollment necessitates down-sizing of both teachers and facilities.  The "critics" that Christie refers to don't note that the demand for teachers doesn't change -- the same number of kids still have to be taught by certified teachers -- but teacher unions  are drained of mandated dues unless the teachers choose to unionize.)

NJ Spotlight looks back on the Zuckerberg Facebook grant to Newark:
Ryan Hill, founder and CEO of KIPP-New Jersey, Newark’s largest charter network:
“I think the big-picture conclusion is that if you’re an African-American kid in Newark today, you have a two to three times better chance of being in a high-performing school than you did prior to the FNF grant, and that is pretty enormous progress. As our analysis shows, this improvement is all due to the growth of high-performing charter schools, which was facilitated in part by the matching funds that FNF brought in. So I think the impact has been pretty big, and very positive. That said, there’s clearly still a lot of work to do.”
Crazy times in Montclair. See here and here.

South Orange-Maplewood School District is experiencing a [Trump-inspired?] string of allegedly racist and anti-Semitic social media posts," according to the Star-Ledger, and the "district [is] zeroing in on cultural sensitivity, diversity, and the internet."

The Washington Post released its list of the 50 most challenging high schools, reports the Union News Daily, Elizabeth High School was rate #1 in N.J. and the district is justifiably proud. One little known fact: Elizabeth High School is actually a magnet school that is part of the larger district; all accepted students must take AP and Honor's classes, two years of Latin, 3 years of another language, 4 years of math and science, and maintain a "B" average.

Speaking of Elizabeth, "the city school board has voted to contract with a public relations consultant to the tune of up to $50,000, generating concern from political opponents and parents who say the no-bid agreement looks like a political quid pro quo. The board will call in Pat Politano of Strategic Message Management — who previously did consulting for mayor-backed board members' political campaigns — to handle public affairs for the district on an at-need basis." (Star-Ledger)

When I was a kid in NYC public schools, Girls and Boys High School was already struggling. On Friday Chalkbeat reported that
Long-struggling Boys and Girls High School was in such dire straits by 2014 that the city took a highly unusual gamble: It paid a successful principal a big bonus to take on the floundering school without making him give up his old job.
A year and a half later, it’s become clear that the deal has cost the city — and students at both schools.
The principal, Michael Wiltshire, has rejected the city’s school turnaround program but continues to earn praise from top education officials even though many say the unusual arrangement has gone off the rails.


Friday, May 20, 2016

The Astroturf Echo-Chamber of Anti-Education Reformers

The Education Writers Association has a blog up today that describes the current battle over standards and assessments, one that reared up its divisive head during the annual convention in Boston earlier this month. The EWA post first quotes Robert Schaeffer of FairTest who insisted at a previous event that the opt-out movement is a righteous “act of civil disobedience” that is “not a top-down thing, but a genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement.”

But in Boston my colleague and friend Chris Stewart responded thus:
“You can’t close the achievement gap by erasing the data,” Stewart said at the EWA event, arguing that opting out especially hurts students of color. He describes the efforts as reflecting an alliance of “unions, right-wing people, and privileged, pampered parents.” 
Standardized testing is a critical tool to reveal “where the racial disparities are” in schools, said Stewart, the former executive director of the African American Leadership Forum in Minneapolis. “Every single civil rights lawsuit against the state around education has used test scores to prove its case.” 
A coalition of 12 civil and human rights groups issued a statement last May echoing some of Stewart’s concerns: “Abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.”
Certainly, Chris’s points are borne out by the opt-out activity in New York and New Jersey, where the biggest fans of test refusal live in wealthy suburbs and are financially and educationally invested in local control of their high-performing and exclusionary school districts. Yesterday Jonathan Chait described the “emerging alliance between teacher unions” --  stalwart standard-bearers of, well, no standards or standardized assessments -- and Republicans, both of whom share “cultural distrust” and fierce defense of local control.

Here Chait refers to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s opposition to an Obama Administration proposal to shift more federal aid to poor students and expand efforts to address the disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers in poor, minority districts, a result of current teacher tenure laws and contracts:
Local control leaves those [union-negotiated teacher salary] contracts in place. Federal interference has the potential to bust up those arrangements. The spectacle of unions lining up behind Alexander to oppose Obama’s plan to devote more funding to poor schools is not the first instance of this alliance in action. Unions have likewise opposed the Obama administration and civil-rights groups, siding with Republicans to demand a rollback of testing (which is a necessary tool to measure performance and disparities). The NEA’s president has already suggested she would back away from its longstanding, reflexive support for Democrats.
Sen. Alexander's position is trumpeted by both AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia.

The second point of disagreement in the EWA post is whether or not union-sponsored opt-out lobbying is indeed a “genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement.” This seems farcical both on its face and in reality..

Today, for example, there is a conference at Rutgers University in New Brunswick on “the intersection of education reform, communities, and social justice.” You’d think a conference that bills itself as an “education reform” meeting would include those who actually advocate for standards, accountability, and school choice. Guess again. Sessions include “Hacking Away at Pearson and the Corporate Octopus” (moderated by Alan Singer), “Opt Out as Democratic Civil Engagement,” “School Choice for Latino Students: Misappropriating the Notion of Diversity,” “The Impact of Charter Schools on Suburban Districts” (moderated by Julia Sass Rubin, founder of anti-charter Save Our Schools-NJ),  and“TFA Leadership Model and Neoliberal Education Reform” (moderated by Leah Owens, anti-TFA-er). You get the idea.

So, who’s funding this echo-chamber on educational stasis? Is it really a “grassroots” conference?

Hardly. The "conference" is sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, which describes itself as dedicated to "advancing American public education, specifically with regard to the democratizing function and design of the curriculum of nonselective elementary schools and nonselective secondary schools of the comprehensive type. (Charter schools, voucher schools and specialized academic schools are not eligible for grants.)" Daniel Tanner is a professor at Rutgers School of Education. The Tanner Foundation also funded a series of anti-school choice reports written by Sass Rubin and Mark Weber, both of Rutgers. Sounds pretty top-down to me.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Response to NJEA President's Attack on PARCC Testing

Today the Star-Ledger features an op-ed by NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer who argues that “PARCC itself is a flawed assessment, and it should not be used as a graduation requirement this year, next year or ever.”  It will come as no surprise to readers that I think he’s wrong. Whether or not the New Jersey Legislature should change the state law that requires kids to take qualifying tests for high school diplomas is one question that's well worth asking. Whether or not PARCC is “flawed” is a separate question. Conflating the two issues is efficient but specious.

The subtext of Mr. Steinhauer’s argument is this: the "flaw" in PARCC is its accuracy. Based on objective measures, N.J. schools are not adequately preparing a large number of students for college and careers. Therefore, if we follow his logic, high school diplomas don't need to signify readiness. What, then, does a high school diploma mean in New Jersey? Does it signify that a student showed up for class for thirteen years? Or does it signify that a student is prepared for study beyond secondary school?

Last year’s PARCC results were troubling for New Jersey’s educational community. While scores on our old HSPA tests were comforting  -- in 2013, HSPA’s last year, 84% of 11th graders reached proficiency benchmarks in math and 93% achieved proficiency in language arts --  PARCC scores painted a starkly different picture. in 2014, PARCC’s debut year, only 41% of 11th graders were rated proficient or above in language arts.

Notably, NJEA and other affiliated lobbyists (Mr. Steinhauer's list includes Education Law Center, Save Our Schools-NJ, and Opt Out N.J.) never opposed HSPA tests or demanded changes to state law. That's because HSPA made N.J. schools look good and  PARCC scores make N.J.’s public school system look bad. (Other states’ scores on both PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the other consortium that produces Common Core-aligned assessments, were just as depressing.) So, then, is PARCC a “flawed test”?

Not according to research just released by Education Next. This study, commissioned by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education, compares the accuracy of MA’s old college-readiness test, MCAS, with PARCC. Massachusetts is generally acknowledged to have the best state education system in the country. (see rankings from Quality Counts) and MCAS has long been considered to be the most rigorous high school standardized test.

One conclusion from the Education Next report:
Ultimately, we found that the PARCC and MCAS 10th-grade exams do equally well at predicting students’ college success, as measured by first-year grades and by the probability that a student needs remediation after entering college. Scores on both tests, in both math and English language arts (ELA), are positively correlated with students’ college outcomes, and the differences between the predictive validity of PARCC and MCAS scores are modest. However, we found one important difference between the two exams: PARCC’s cutoff scores for college-and career-readiness in math are set at a higher level than the MCAS proficiency cutoff and are better aligned with what it takes to earn “B” grades in college math. That is, while more students fail to meet the PARCC cutoff, those who do meet PARCC’s college-readiness standard have better college grades than students who meet the MCAS proficiency standard.
In other words, PARCC tests aren’t flawed. They are accurate predictors of student college success.

There are other indicators of PARCC’s accuracy. The highly-regarded NAEP assessments correlate closely with PARCC results. So do SAT’s: last year Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson reported that “44 percent of students who took the SAT in 2015 met the standards for career and college readiness," which is remarkably close to PARCC results.

The union leadership’s frenzy upon the unveiling of N.J.mediocre record of student proficiency isn’t about flawed tests. It’s about resistance to change. Mr. Steinhauer writes that we should award diplomas based on “the professional judgment of the educators who actually work with and know their students,” Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't. Last year WNYC profiled Wendy Cruz, a high school student in Camden who got straight “A’s"  but couldn’t pass the HSPA. “I’ve been studying my whole life and I never got left back or anything.”

Wendy and her family deserve honest information.  PARCC gives us a chance to offer that honesty, and that’s at the heart of Mr. Steinhauer’s opposition.

QOD: Chait on How Teacher Unions Are Blocking Obama's Plan to Give More Money to Poor Schools

From today's Daily Messenger:
Congress is embroiled in an education policy fight that, while it revolves around esoteric policy details, profoundly clarifies the strange new battle lines on education policy that have been formed by the Obama administration’s education reforms. The debate centers on a plan to increase funding for poor public schools. In favor of the plan are the Obama administration and civil-rights groups. Standing in opposition are congressional Republicans and teachers unions. This strange collection of allies is not an anomaly. This is what the education policy fight looks like now... 
The emerging alliance between teachers unions and Republicans runs against decades of built-up cultural distrust. But the interests of the two partners are closely aligned. Unions want to protect the existing contracts they have negotiated. Local control leaves those contracts in place. Federal interference has the potential to bust up those arrangements. The spectacle of unions lining up behind Alexander to oppose Obama’s plan to devote more funding to poor schools is not the first instance of this alliance in action. Unions have likewise opposed the Obama administration and civil-rights groups, siding with Republicans to demand a rollback of testing (which is a necessary tool to measure performance and disparities). The NEA’s president has already suggested she would back away from its longstanding, reflexive support for Democrats.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

My Equity Button

Princeton High School students sure do love their Advanced Placement courses. According to New Jersey D.O.E. data, last year 97.3% of students there signed up for one of the 20  AP courses offered, everything from Calculus BC to Music Theory, and 89.7% of students achieved a score of 3 or better (on a scale of 1-5), widely accepted as proof of college-level proficiency.

Yet while parents of Princeton students delight in their children’s participation in these elite classes and assessments, they disdain any checks and balances for general education courses, as manifested by their enthusiasm for boycotting PARCC tests. This pushes my equity button.

Advanced Placement classes are great. One of the reasons they’re great is because the College Board carefully monitors course content and teacher preparation.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Princeton or ten miles down the road in Trenton: U.S. History and Government is U.S. History and Government. From the College Board’s Course Audit page:
The AP® Course Audit was created at the request of both secondary school and college members of the College Board who sought a means for the College Board to:
  • Provide AP teachers and administrators with clear guidelines on curricular and resource requirements that must be in place for AP courses. 
  • Give colleges and universities confidence that AP courses are designed to meet the same clearly articulated college-level criteria across high schools.
  • All schools wishing to label a course “AP” must submit the subject-specific AP Course Audit form and the course syllabus for each teacher of that AP course.
In other words, an AP course is an AP course, as long as you have access. And Princeton parents love academic courses with clear expectations and measurements of outcomes. Just don’t call them PARCC.

I shouldn’t harp on Princeton (although the irony of the exclusive college town birthing Save Our Schools-NJ just throttles me). After all, this incongruous approach to standards and assessments is replicated everywhere: Long Island and New York City, Bridgeton and Greenwich. How do wealthy parents square their kids’ privilege to pick and choose among a plethora of courses that adhere to  strict standards for oversight and accountability while simultaneously undermining academic checks and balances for students in districts like Trenton and Camden?

Speaking of, at Trenton Central High last year two A.P. courses were offered (U.S. History and Biology) and the participation rate among all high school students was 4.5%.  Forty-five minutes south of Princeton at Camden High School,  0% of students took an A.P. course or test.

We embrace oversight of coursework available to select students but turn up our collective noses at oversight of coursework accessible to all students. Parents know that standards and assessments for AP Literature and Composition are reliable and consistent, no matter what district their children attend. Parents have no such reassurance for Algebra I. That's why people concerned with educational equity support efforts like Common Core (whatever you want to call it) and aligned assessments. Maybe someone will explain the Save Our Schools/Princeton mindset to me. Maybe there's an AP course I can take.

Need Another Reason to Fix N.J.'s School Funding Formula? Free Pre-School in "Gold Coast" Hoboken Where Homes Sell for $6.5 Million

From today's Wall Street Journal:
Hoboken has reached a new benchmark: the sale of a house for $6.5 million. 
The 1854 limestone house at 504 Hudson St. shattered the record price for a home sold in the city, which was $4.35 million. That earlier sale was in 2015 for a Queen Anne style house with a turret a few blocks away. 
The latest sale showed that Hoboken prices, buoyed by a tide of gentrification, were beginning to catch up with many New York City neighborhoods, especially areas with a much longer commute times to Manhattan, said Peter Cossio, a broker with Halstead Property. 
“Historically, Hoboken has been undervalued considering the commute,” he said. Mr. Cossio listed the house along with Matt Brown, and they also represented the buyer.
The sale followed years of rising prices in the so-called Gold Coast of New Jersey, places like Hoboken and Jersey City that are closely linked to New York’s economy. 
Jeffrey G. Otteau, an appraiser and analyst, said the sale showed that affluent buyers were increasingly turning to these areas as part of a backlash to high condominium prices in Manhattan. “New York City has now annexed Hoboken and Jersey City,” he said.
 Wow: tides of gentrification, annexes of New York City, floods of affluent buyers. Wish I could afford to  live in Hoboken or Jersey City.

Oh, wait: Hoboken and Jersey City are Abbott districts, designated by the State Supreme Court (twenty years ago) as so economically-disadvantaged that children are eligible for free full-day preschools and wrap-around services. Hoboken's annual cost per pupil is projected to be $23,250 next year and the State will send a check for $12,131,312 to cover the costs of free full-day preschool for all children, regardless of family income.

Yet N.J. maintains its support of these "Gold Coast" school districts because Education Law Center, which originally litigated the Abbott v. Burke cases, remains steadfast in its support for obsolete school funding formulas and the Legislature has only just now begun to consider whether current state school aid allocations are overly generous to some districts while depriving others that are far more needy.

For more on this, see Jeff Bennett at New Jersey Education Aid. A snippet:
According to Hoboken's User Friendly Budget, there are 615 Hoboken kids in privately-run Abbott Pre-K... The sheer size of Hoboken's Pre-K grades is telling.  By Hoboken Jr/Sr High School the grades have only a few more than 100 kids each.  On the Pre-K level the grades have more than 300 kids each.  It's very plausible that many Hoboken families just move to the suburbs after they take advantage of Abbott Pre-K.