Monthly Archives: October 2010

Steroids and Bubbles

The sky is falling! 

That’s what some observers would have you believe after the scores students around New York State attained in standardized tests plummeted this year. At Harlem Link we do not want to confuse a sense of urgency with a counterproductive panic. We know that only long-term and comprehensive solutions are going to fix the problems that have plagued our schools for generations. 

Has the state of our national educational program gotten worse? The problems our schools face have been compounded by globalization, the technology revolution and a rapidly changing world, but let’s face facts: Our nation has never provided equitable education, not since compulsory schooling began to take hold in the 19th century. And before then – good luck, unless you were landed, male and white.

Speaking of race, are you worried about a racial achievement gap? (I am.) In my office I have a 1950 issue of Life magazine, on which a white girl graces the cover with the headline “U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis.” Sixty years later, we’ve had wave after wave of educational reform driven by panic and hyperbolic assessment of this “crisis.” 

1950 Life Magazine Cover

Reflecting on these facts has helped me put the change in the state test scores this summer in their proper context.  In  sum, New York State Education Department (SED) commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch acted with a courage and an integrity rare among public officals when they decided to ratchet down scores that had been demonstrably inflated over the past five to 10 years. They noted in a July press conference that the state tests had become increasingly predictable and unchallenging. The announcement included a promise to overhaul the state exams and make them more rigorous in coming years. Moreover, the Regents and SED would be holding all students to a higher standard for tests already taken this year.  

In recent years, New York City’s racial achievement gap had appeared to be steadily closing, at least if you believed the test scores, but overnight that gulf re-appeared in force. Suddenly there were heated reactions in the state educational community about the tests and what they had to say about student achievement. Did anyone really think that things had gotten much better?

The critics were merciless.  Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute was quoted in The New York Times the day after the press conference as saying, “The state test is completely unreliable.” Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor, said in a Times article the next day, “We just really can’t trust the state tests for judging whether the quality of education in New York City has really improved.” New York City Mayor Bloomberg appeared ruffled by the sudden drop in scores.  “Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” he said. Later, he infamously added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

The furor reached a head at the August meeting of the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), during which parents protested the drop in test scores and the previously inflated scores so vociferously, bullhorns and all, that the meeting was shut down early.

My view is that for all the reforms, all the changes ebbing and flowing in curriculum and assessment of student achievement, all the fads and the gimmicks, things have not changed all that much since the “crisis” of 1950. Proficiency rates on state tests should not be the goal; student independence and success in higher education and in life ought to be the goal.  So I see this drop in test scores as just the popping of another bubble – not unlike the home run bubble created by steroid proliferation in baseball and the stock market bubble created by an unsustainable housing boom. Do these two graphs appear to have anything in common?

40 Home Run Hitters per team, 1924-2009

Dow Jones closing averages, 1924-2009

Down, up, down again, WAY up, and then, BUST!  If I were a betting man, I would bet that the New York City proficiency scores on 4th and 8th grade tests, if plotted over time, would show the same pattern. (I have searched the Internet, but this data is demonstrably harder to find than baseball and Dow Jones statistics.) 

As with the dreadful state of the economy, panicking in the face of these test scores will get us nowhere. If we are going to have lasting change, we need to ignore fads and focus on what will bring long-term improvement. In the wake of the housing meltdown, hucksters sprung up to “rescue” defaulting homeowners from their crushing debt, only to be prove to be just another bunch of scam artists. There are no quick fixes.  There are no shortcuts. 

In education, we know what works.  School by school, change is possible with a committed group of competent educators focused on a clear and compelling mission, a shared community emphasis on student goals, robust home-school communication and, finally, a clear vision to which everyone subscribes to make those elements come to life. Everything else – all the bells and whistles and promises and panics – is just another manifestation of the crisis thinking that, if obeyed, will send us back into yet another false boom and bust cycle.

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Common Core Standards 2: What We Need

In my last entry on this category, I described my initial jumping-in to the Common Core world through a Math in the City workshop.  I promised to offer what I think our school needs to roll out the Common Core standards.  Below are my initial impressions. 

We need time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our best initiatives at Harlem Link have been planned out over years, not months.  All the same, in the charter environment we have a strong sense of urgency and face tight accountability, so we must begin immediately.  A November meeting at our school began nearly a year of administrative planning around our new student attendance protocol, which we rolled out fully this September.  It is currently undergoing revisions, but off to a powerful and impactful start.  We need this sort of time frame to get the ball rolling with Common Core. 

We need a comprehensive plan.

At Harlem Link, we are following a five-year strategic plan (currently in Year 2) affectionately called LIP.  We have seen in a short time that for any new initiative to be successful, it has to be shared and understood by all stakeholder groups at the school.  So for Common Core to stick and to work well at our school, by this coming spring we need a three- to four-year plan around implementing Common Core, and it needs to be a big part of our Curriculum, Assessment and Student Support Priority Area in LIP for the 2011-12 school year. 

We need Common Core training for teachers.

Now the State Education Department says it is going to provide training for schools through the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative, which Harlem Link has committed to joining.  We shall see whether and when that happens, and we shall see how effective is that training.  The bottom line is that with such a revolutionary document, providing upheaval over all of our learning standards.  Our teachers need to have mastery over this document, before they embark on curriculum mapping in the spring for the 2011-12 school year!  Let’s get started, NYS. 

We need clarity.

We need the State Education Department to be transparent and consistent about its own uses of Common Core.  Will there be any clues as to how detailed the regulations the state plans to issue as part of RTTT willl be?  What about the use of Common Core standards on state standardized tests? 

We need basic math skills refreshers.

I mentioned it in the last post, and educators don’t like to talk about it, but we must confront any math phobia or deficits on our faculty and address them with appropriate training for teachers and/or administrators.  I believe this need is true across the state.  Common Core, like most of the math programs we use at Harlem Link, requires teachers to know the deep mathematical theory and concepts behind what they are teaching, the better to guide the conversation when students are explaining their strategies and defending their answers. Gone are (or willl be, for those antiquated districts that still use them) the textbooks with pages and pages of practice problems, answers in the back.  It’s a new day, and teachers need to know their stuff!

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Maybe I Will RTTT My Words

Maybe I will eat my words, but I’m standing in disagreement with Tom Carroll and many of my other charter school colleagues around the state who are rejecting the opportunity to join the Race to the Top (RTTT).  I’m here to tell you that from the charter perspective, RTTT should be our moment and we ought to seize it.

Yes, beginning with the fact that its acronym capitalizes prepositions (which I hope makes school-folk stomachs churn both upstate and downstate), there is clearly a lot not to like about RTTT.   Yes, the initiative creates a whole new alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms to learn: TPEAC, PARCC, NTE and on and on.  Yes, it has the potential of putting the fate of our decision making on such important and disparate matters and curriculum, hiring and firing and the very definition of quality instruction in the hands of faceless Albany bureaucrats – educational death panels of a sort.  Who needs that?

But there are many compelling reasons why these inevitable flaws should not stop charter schools from signing on to the state’s implementation plan.  I outline five below that have guided my decision to step up and commit to RTTT.

1.       The benefits outweigh the risks.

No, not the piddling tens of thousands of dollars per school being offered to charters as part of the 50% of New York’s grant to implement these items.  Every dollar helps, but in the final analysis that’s chump change for a group of schools still waiting on some assurance of the un-freezing of our per-pupil allocations (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars across the state).  I’m talking about the benefits to public education as a whole.

With charters as one set of voices leading the charge, the four goals of the state’s RTTT plan have the potential to make a lasting, system-wide change.  Isn’t that we want?  Don’t we, as charters, wish we didn’t have to exist?  That the system embraced the core elements of our success?  Under RTTT, we could see across the state implementation of some of those very elements in a variety of settings.

While Tom Carroll’s schools enroll 25% of Albany’s students, and 20% of kids in my local Harlem community are charter students, across the state we are still a drop in the bucket – is it 3.5%?  Or are we now up to 4.0% of students in charters?  In other words, we’re basically irrelevant for most New Yorkers.  Signing on to RTTT allows a charter school to be part of a state-wide movement, one that in its origin honors our autonomy and doesn’t disregard it.

2.       The spirit of the law is outcomes-driven, not compliance-driven. 

Anyone who has successfully navigated a bureaucracy knows that the more you feed the beast, the more it demands.  Checking endless boxes, filling out endless forms, signing all the right pages – this paperwork can add up to a tremendous drain on scarce resources.

But my sense is that this bureaucratic initiative is different, for two reasons: John King and David Steiner.  Not only are they men of integrity and vision, so I take them at their word that this reform is worthwhile, but they have spent their careers in the field clearing roadblocks from the dream of having a high quality, well supported teacher in front of every child.

I think fears that RTTT will dictate the finer grain management details of exactly how the new teacher and principal evaluations will work are overblown.  There is plenty of language to leave wiggle room for charters to do things that are going right, and to choose the exact method of enacting the reforms.  Charters can skip the state panels of service providers (“Network Teams”) and certify their own Network Team Equivalents, an acknowledgement that many charters have or are part of networks that have the chops already in place to execute this work.   In a rapid reform environment, what else could you ask for?

3.       There is an easy parachute.

Don’t do what you’re asked, don’t get the money.  As implied above, plan ahead and the dollars are not such a big deal.  We are talking low-risk here.

4.       Common Core could really rock this town.

I don’t know about you, but I abhor limiting math instruction to back-to-basics and I feel likewise about phonics-only reading instruction.  They may get the job done come testing time, but they simply don’t prepare kids for high-level success in higher education, where independent thinking, defensible reasoning and clear articulation of that logic are the coin of the realm. 

The good news is that Common Core is constructed in a manner that supports higher-order thinking and what I think of as an effective progressive pedagogy.  At our school we teach Wilson phonics every day in grades K-3 (and use it to remediate kids who enroll in grades 4 and 5 with massive learning deficits), and we require our students to learning basic computational skills in math.  But the bulk of our curriculum is consistent with these elements of Common Core.  Maybe that’s why I’m not afraid. 

We made a mistake six years ago when writing our charter.  I insisted that we create our own learning standards because we felt we needed the flexibility and that we could do it better and more comprehensively than the State Education Department.  The state reading standards, for example, were comprised of only overly broad statements about reading in different contexts.  They did not include a scope and sequence for learning every single phoneme.  We borrowed from other states such as California and Iowa to supplement New York’s in building our Harlem Link standards. 

Looking back six years later, after years of reconciling with the state standards as we try to keep up with the state tests, it would have probably been easier to just follow the state standards and supplement with our own scope and sequence as needed.  With Common Core a reality, I’m ready to take a step back and get to work on rolling out a logical and effective scope and sequence with everyone else.  On that note…

5.       It’s going to take a lot of work, but that work will be worthwhile.

Yes – a lot of work!  In charterland, and I think in most education circles state wide, we’re used to the concept.  It’s a good thing, because if all parties are at the table and taking this process seriously (read: not simply checking boxes on state requirement lists) but thinking purposefully about student outcomes and school improvement systems, the end product will be a consistent and wholly worthwhile strategy across the state for implementing curriculum reforms and pedagogical evaluations. 

Charters were once hailed as the laboratories of public education, where best practices could be tested and perfected, the best of the best eventually to transfer on a larger scale to district schools.  I haven’t heard my charter colleagues talk this way in a really long time.  RTTT is our chance to have a lasting impact on the state wide educational scene.  Let’s not let it pass.

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Common Core Standards 1: Jumping In

I hope this note is the first entry of a years-long dialogue in our school community as we learn about and implement the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics.

Last week Michael, Margaret and I attended a Math in the City (MitC) administrator day in which Cathy Fosnot formally introduced the Common Core math standards.  Cathy limited the workshop to a brief general overview and then a review of two key content areas: fractions and place value.   I have a lot to say about the national politics and implications of this stuff, but that’s for a later time.   Also for a later time is the overall structure of the standards and how to use them.  I want this discussion to be a practical learning experience, so I will follow MitC’s lead and jump in at this same entry point.

Below are some initial thoughts on what I find really exciting about the Common Core math standards.

Point 1: They represent a shift in the very conceptual framework for teaching math, to one involving not only a strong skill base but rational understanding of math concepts.

What’s so exciting is that this way of teaching is totally consistent with our approach to instruction as a school! 

  • Most exciting, this framework requires students to develop a deep understanding of number and the structure of mathematical theory, wrestle with competing strategies and present arguments defending their thinking.  In the language of the standards, students “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”
  • The framework is presented in eight “Standards for Mathematical Process”.  These are a companion and counterpoint to the actual content standards, which of course are much more substantial and detailed.  Here’s a quote directly from the website that I think sums up those eight process standards fairly well:
  • The standards stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding, to make sure students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels – rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.

Point 2: Common Core counts on coherence

An overarching promise of Common Core is that the standards will bring a greater sense of vertical coherence (that is, consistency grade to grade).  The policy discussion has focused on horizontal coherence (that is, consistency across classrooms or subjects in the same school; across schools around the country), but to me the real action when it comes to coherence is in a single child’s experience, in the same school, from kindergarten all the way up through the grades.

Simply put, Common Core creates a logical scope and sequence over the years for students to (a) have introduced and (b) master specific mathematical concepts.  Students don’t need to master multiplication in kindergarten, but some of the place value and number sense outcomes in kindergarten create a clear pathway to such mastery by third grade.  Fractions aren’t introduced until third grade, but there are sub-concepts of division that must come first, in second grade.

In other words, no longer is one teacher responsible for one student’s academic mastery now, this year.  Instead, the faculty is a team across the grade levels that builds student mastery from year to year.  And that’s the way it should be!

(I promised I wouldn’t talk about national policy implications but on this point I can’t help myself.)  One thing I like about Common Core is how many states are looking a four- to five- year window to roll out these new standards.  As one skeptical smartypants pointed out on Gotham Schools, what’s really needed is a 13-year window, because only after 13 years will a cohort of kids experience life under Common Core for their entire K-12 schooling.  But I’ll take a four to five year plan since that’s three to four more years than most curriculum reforms seem to get! 

Point 3: The process of studying these standards lays bare the importance of adult mastery of basic student material.

The Common Core Standards do not recommend specific curricular programs or series.  In fact, the structure of the standards begs communities of learning to make their own decisions about how to implement the standards.  If taken properly, this medicine should cure the disease of relying on a rote learning-driven textbook to “teacher-proof” math instruction.  A logical consequence of this process is that if adults don’t understand the math concepts behind their instruction, they will not be able to develop strong standards-based curriculum and will not be able to guide classroom investigations to the correct mathematical conclusions.

The workshop included a confusing and challenging manipulation of place value by Cathy Fosnot.  (It was actually, she revealed, a fifth grade arithmetical exercise.)  A room full of principals and assistant principals were mostly left in a state of disequilibrium by subtle shifts in orders of magnitude and changes of units.  Cathy’s sleight of hand and easy deception led me to realize how part of the rolling out of the Common Core Standards must include confronting skill gaps and providing teacher/administrator training on some of the basic math skills that these standards assume teachers have.  

I’m not villainizing teachers by stating more teachers need basic math training; after watching administrator colleagues from all over the city swoon over multiplying tenths and converting fractions to decimals, I think I’m only stating the obvious.  We’re not going to get anywhere by pretending all of our state’s faculty members are going to be able to do what a room full of teacher supervisors couldn’t. 

In this light, professional development can incorporate remediation – that is, it is already a best practice for teachers to try out the activities they are introducing to students before hand; the Common Core structure suggests that presenters should also have an eye on teaching basic math skills to teachers in workshops where these activities and learning outcomes are being practiced and planned.

I also hope it elevates the status of mathematicians in school environments; two of my favorite books are Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos and this summer’s Maine read, How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years by Peter S. Rudman.  I found that some of the concepts I learned just by reading these books informed my ability to navigate last week’s workshop.  Thank you Common Core for validating nerdy mathematical theory lovers everywhere!

In conclusion

I’ll end this post with a question, the same one with which MitC concluded our day last week: “What are my school’s needs?”  I have some strong ideas on the subject, and I’ll be sharing them in a future post.  I’m eager to read yours in this space.

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