Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have already submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet their obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the remaining thirty-four will do likewise in September. These publicly available documents describe, among other things, how the state intends to hold its schools accountable, including, in most cases, how it will calculate annual summative school ratings.
Unfortunately, many of the first batch of plans overemphasize “status measures” that are correlated with pupil demographics and/or prior achievement. Mainly they rely on test-based academic “proficiency” and (for high schools) graduation rates. While a certain amount of weight should be placed on such indicators, overweighting them in summative grading systems will cause almost all high-poverty campuses to fail for the simple, beyond-their-control reason that the pupils they enroll tend to enter school behind their more prosperous age-mates.
Growth measures, on the other hand, are more poverty-neutral gauges of school performance. They look at the trajectory of achievement over time, regardless of where students start the year. Such metrics should be the primary component of annual school ratings. What policymakers should care most about when evaluating schools is whether they’re giving their students an upward boost.
Consider Fordham’s home state of Ohio. A bill recently passed by House lawmakers and now under consideration in the Senate includes language that would place more weight on student growth measures when calculating ratings for charter-school authorizers, a key part of the state’s multifaceted effort to clean up its long-troubled charter sector. The provision requires that 60 percent of the academic portion of authorizer evaluations be based on student growth measures (a.k.a. value added), instead of 20 percent as under current policy.
The provision, however, shouldn’t apply to authorizers alone; it should be applied to Ohio’s district schools as well as charters themselves. Figure 1 shows how each of these weighting systems—20 versus 60 percent weight on growth—are likely to play out for Columbus school district when the state begins to assign its schools overall A–F grades in 2017–18. Columbus is Ohio’s largest school district and educates primarily low-income and/or minority students.
Figure 1: Projected summative A-F grades for Columbus district schools based on current and alternative weights
Based on my calculations, the top horizontal bar indicates that under Ohio’s current weights (i.e. 20 percent growth and 80 percent status measures) the majority of schools operated by Columbus will fail. A whopping 94 percent will receive a D or F rating and none will earn A’s. This is what happens to high-poverty schools when summative ratings rely too heavily on measures that correlate with pupil demographics.
What would the Columbus ratings look like if state lawmakers placed 60 percent weight on growth? The lower bar in Figure 1 shows the grade distribution under this scenario. The percent receiving D’s or F’s goes down to 76 percent—still a large majority but less than under the present calculus. Once again, no school gets an A. But—importantly—24 percent of them receive B or C ratings, a more believable picture of school performance in the city. Because growth measures don’t sentence high-poverty schools to low grades—any school can demonstrate solid growth—it’s within the control of the district to increase the number of its decent-to-high-performing schools.
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School rating systems that over rely on status measures have significant problems. Assigning virtually all high-poverty schools D’s and F’s are not helpful to parents or policy makers. Consider the perspective of a Columbus parent seeking a good school for her child. Policy makers hoping to encourage families to weigh academic performance in their decisions have done them few favors by rating more than nine in ten schools a D or F. Persistently low ratings for high-poverty schools, even those in which students are making solid gains, can also demoralize educators. It can lead to disinvestment in relatively effective schools while over-identifying “failing” schools, leading to invasive interventions and potentially harming schools whose students are making significant educational progress. Such a system can also fail to identify truly abysmal schools that are the most in need of help (or possibly even closure). These are serious unintended consequences of a system that is biased against schools serving primarily disadvantaged pupils.
Fortunately, there is a smarter way forward—a rating system that places more emphasis on growth over time. This approach will assist families—everywhere, not just in Columbus or in Ohio—to discern school quality. It will establish more productive incentives for educators to help all their students—low and high achievers alike—make academic progress. Mindful of these advantages, states like Colorado and New Mexico are placing greater emphasis on growth. Now it’s time for the rest of the country to do the same.
There’s a lot that’s appealing about personalized learning, properly construed. Rather than march a classroom of students through academic material at the exact same pace, regardless of their discordant levels of readiness or their varying degrees of background knowledge, personalized settings allow schools to target instruction to the exact needs of individual children. It’s not meant to be a euphemism for “computer-based instruction,” but a version of differentiation that uses a variety of approaches, from tutoring to peer discussions to teacher-led lessons and, yes, some digital resources. Done right, it doesn’t give up on academic standards, either. Instruction may be personalized but all students are still expected to master all the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the next step in their learning and for eventual success beyond school.
Hooray for all that. But after seeing a version of personalized learning in action recently, I’m worried that it may be reinforcing some of the worst aspects of standards-based, data-driven instruction. Namely: It might be encouraging a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.
Personalized learning enthusiasts might look to the food industry for a cautionary tale. In his best-selling book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan discusses the notion of “nutritionalism.” As Americans have become more health-conscious in recent years, food companies have developed new products that are “nutritious”: They are low-fat, or low-salt, or high in protein, or high in Omega 3s. But these heavily processed foods, it turns out, still aren’t as healthy as regular old natural ones: fruits and vegetables; lean meats; whole grains; beans; and the like.
So, too, with great teaching and learning. Picture an elementary school. Yes, there’s a long list of skills that kids need to master and for which an individualized approach would work fine: decoding; spelling; writing letters and numbers; counting to one hundred; keyboarding; and so forth. Measuring children’s progress in learning these skills is the sort of thing that assessments like iReady’s can readily do, and then point teachers and parents toward learning modules that will help them take the next step.
Yet there’s so much else that we also want young children to experience and that’s hard—maybe impossible—to break down into little bits. It’s also tough for the kiddos to do on their own, especially before they can read well. For instance: enjoying a great work of children’s literature; learning about the country’s founding and other key parts of American history; exploring the Greek myths; studying folk heroes; putting on a play; performing a concert; and figuring out how to get along with others.
Yes, there’s a lot of promise in videos and apps in teaching some of this sort of content, too, as I’ve written before. And there’s no reason that a “personalized” classroom can’t mix and match the more individualized approach for the discreet skills with more communitarian methods for the other stuff. There’s no reason—but are schools making sure that’s happening?
I visited a public K–8 school a few weeks ago that is implementing personalized learning. What I saw concerned me. The school was obsessed with standards, which were printed everywhere. But teacher-led instruction had become practically verboten. Everything looked like distilled and fragmented test-prep. It reminded me of the kind of boring, uninspiring, skills-centric standards-based instruction that my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee has warned us against, especially for English Language Arts (ELA).
After students learn how to read, the “outcomes-focused” instruction that characterizes the standards era needs to adapt as the classroom shifts to English language arts. Then we must stop trying to teach reading the way we teach math. Rather, we need to view the skills and habits described by the standards as tools—tools that can and should be honed over time, in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, but that are not the “content” of reading instruction.
The way to do that is to forget about teaching individual ELA standards, and instead to teach a wonderful, aligned curriculum. (Here’s one that looks great to me.) Decide what novels, stories, and books are worth students’ time and teach those to the standards.
That would be a huge change from the practices of many “standards-based” classrooms, and personalized-learning ones as well. Teachers would stop projecting the day’s standards-to-be-tackled on the board; they would stop asking students to determine whether they have mastered a particular standard, and how to know when they’ve mastered it—practices I saw at the school I visited. They would stop planning lessons by “back-mapping” from the standards. They would simply adopt a great curriculum that is aligned to the standards, then forget about the standards and teach the curriculum instead. In other words, they would serve fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than processed foods with all of the “right” nutritional values.
That’s hard to do, though, in a personalized classroom, if the model is premised on the idea that we can break knowledge and skills into discreet standards and progressions, and if teacher-led discussions are discouraged. Perhaps that works for math. But for English? History? Science? Art and music? Character, values, and self-control?
Maybe what I saw was an exception. Perhaps most schools across the country are making wise decisions about how to use personalized learning to enhance the educational experience, rather than squeeze all of the joy and inspiration out of it. Maybe teachers are using small doses of digital instruction so they have more time, or smaller groups of students, for the main event: introducing kids to great works of literature, or big ideas in science, or the sweep of human history.
Maybe. But we in education have a bad habit of taking good ideas to their logical extreme. Let’s not fetishize skills and progressions and standards and personalization. Let’s not double-down on the old industrial model, by turning it into the robotic model. Let’s not mimic the food industry, for instance, turning a cauliflower into “cauliflower rice,” which may have certain virtues but loses the shape and the majesty and the opportunities presented by an entire cauliflower. Let’s serve kids a nutritious meal, not one made up of little bits of nutrition.
My first job out of college was in a construction company. I was hired as the office manager, receptionist, typist, and gofer. But I also transported enormous saw blades, delivered Christmas gifts to our best customers, called deadbeat clients to ask them politely but firmly when they were going to pay up, and even directed traffic on a busy commuter road during summer rush hour once in a while.
I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing.
I had pursued that field of study because I wanted to be a writer and the English department at Ohio State University was pretty fertile ground for that. I took seminar classes from poets and award-winning short-story writers. Passed ’em all, too. I evolved from a lover of pulpy science fiction to an aspiring writer of literary fiction. It was thinky and boho and maybe even pretentious occasionally. The work was important, and we were all going to be the next great novelist, poet, or essayist.
And then I graduated. And life called me to dust and driving and deadlines. And you might think that nothing about my four years as an English major or my hard-earned degree mattered. Certainly Lakota Local School District English teacher Ian Avery thinks that. “I believe, as a professional English teacher,” he writes, “that vocational training is neither my role nor my responsibility to my students.” But I want to tell him that he’s wrong.
Everything about my high school and college experiences helped me to become a successful employee. Math teachers gave me the skills to measure work areas and assist in computing price quotes. History professors helped me understand why a developer was converting this former manufacturing plant into apartments. Communications instruction helped me hone marketing pitches to boost business. And, yes, I used every ounce of wordcraft I had studied and obsessed over in Brit Lit and Sonnet Seminar to write newsletters, clarify job specs, and interact with customers. It wasn’t Fitzgerald, but it was clear and direct and helpful to business. They didn’t know they needed an English major until they got one.
And I could have succeeded in the same way in other areas too. Because above all, high school and college taught me how to think, how to work hard, how to budget my time, how to get to the point, and how to produce my best work under pressure whatever the arena. Chemistry or poetry, it was all vital preparation for the future, and my teachers and professors seemed to feel the same. A great school, to me, is one in which every adult involved—the PTA, the cafeteria staff, the guidance counselors, everyone—shows up early and works to their fullest to teach young people (and to show them by example) how to reach their highest potential.
That is why I was saddened to hear Mr. Avery say with such finality that his job is not to prepare his students for the workforce. He is specifically objecting to Gov. John Kasich’s proposal that Ohio teachers serve an externship in a local business as a requirement to renew their teaching licenses. What I believe Mr. Avery means is that teaching English is to him about art and beauty, words and meaning—an abstract pursuit in opposition to career tech or vocational education.
It’s not clear whether Avery would approve of externships for these more practical teaching professionals, but either way, his opposition to this proposal appears to embody the disconnect between teachers and the working world that Kasich was trying to address. The externship proposal may not be wholly practical as pitched, but there’s nothing wrong with the motivating sentiment.
I am proof positive that “professional English teachers” have vital input into shaping their students’ aptitude for work, just as teachers of more concrete disciplines do. I know that STEM is all the rage right now and that high-tech jobs are going unfilled in Ohio and elsewhere due to a lack of qualified applicants. If I were in high school today, maybe I would choose a different path based on these facts. But even though I believe the future needs more computer programmers and engineers than it does transcendentalist writers, the future also needs abstract thinkers, storytellers, lovers of beautiful words, analysts, and people who can render complex ideas understandable in all areas of our workforce. The best employee is both thinker and maker.
English teachers have as much responsibility to build the smartest, most disciplined, cleverest, and most resourceful citizens and workers as any other type of teacher. Any insistence by any teacher upon keeping practicality and imagination siloed and separate seems out of touch with the real world as I know it.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by the 74.
On this week's podcast, special guest David DeSchryver, a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors and OFOM (Old Friend of Mike’s), joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss the most promising developments in ed tech. During the Research Minute, David Griffith examines the effects of part-day absenteeism in high school.
Amber’s Research Minute
Camille R. Whitney and Jing Liu, “What We’re Missing: A Descriptive Analysis of Part-Day Absenteeism in Secondary School,” AERA Open (April 2017).
Cognitive neuroscientists are the Cassandras of education.
Recall that in Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo. But when she refused to sleep with him, Apollo didn’t rescind the gift, he added a curse: poor Cassandra could still see the future, but she was doomed never to be believed. Mark Seidenberg probably envies Cassandra. He writes like someone who wonders exactly whom he has to sleep with to get people to pay attention to him.
Seidenberg is a University of Wisconsin cognitive neuroscientist who has been studying reading “since the disco era.” His indispensable new book, Language at the Speed of Sight, lays out in clear, readable English much of what we have learned over the past several decades about reading; he labors to “cheerfully destroy a few myths” about how we process and make sense of the printed word, but Seidenberg is no happy warrior. He wants his readers to share his fury at the “profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice” that he deftly unpacks.
The first two-thirds of the book covers the current state of reading science, starting with a brief history of human language development and the emergence of writing, “the first information technology.” Seidenberg then describes our current understanding of what happens when we read. “Skilled reading is a specialized type of expertise that only some people possess. So is plumbing,” he dryly observes, before offering his “Proposed Requirements for Licensure as a Certified Skilled Reader.” The necessary expertise includes the “ability to recognize a large vocabulary of printed words quickly and accurately, including academic vocabulary” and the “ability to recognize lapses in comprehension and perform simple repairs.” The point of Seidenberg’s droll exercise is “that expert reading is not an inscrutable art,” he writes. “The major qualifications can be listed. Having specified what skilled readers know and do, we can ask how they got there.”
As noted in its subtitle, the book also focuses on why so many of us don’t get there. This is where the book really takes off—and takes no prisoners. In the last third of the book, Seidenberg launches a full frontal assault on what he derisively refers to as the “culture of education,” which contributes significantly to reading underachievement. By culture of education Seidenberg means “the beliefs and attitudes about how children learn, the role of the teacher, and the educational mission that dominate the schools of education, which are the main pathway into the profession.” His critique is unsparing. “Parents who proudly bring their children to school on the first day of kindergarten are making a big mistake,” he writes. “They assume that their child’s teacher has been taught how to teach reading. They haven’t.”
Shortly after I began teaching as a provisionally certified elementary-school teacher, I remember counting myself lucky that I was assigned to teach 5th grade, since I hadn’t been taught the first thing about teaching children to read. I was terrified that I would be found out and fired. It turns out I wasn’t an outlier. “The principal function of schools of education is to socialize prospective teachers into an ideology—a set of beliefs and attitudes” that form the culture of education, Seidenberg writes. “Prospective teachers are exposed to the ideas of a select group of theorists who provide the intellectual foundations for this ideology.” Reading educators “rely on authorities whose names are not as well known as Dewey or Montessori but who play a similar role.” In a series of case studies, he singles out whole-language enthusiasts like the Harvard-trained Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman of Wayne State University for promoting “balanced literacy” and encouraging generations of teachers to believe “that phonics is the route to poor reading.” He also lambastes the Reading Recovery remedial system invented by New Zealand educator Marie Clay.
“If the whole language/balanced literacy approach is as flawed as described, many children will struggle to learn,” Seidenberg insists. For those students, in thousands of U.S. schools, there is Reading Recovery, “an expensive remediation program based on the same principles. Fewer children would need Reading Recovery if they had received appropriate instruction in the first place,” he writes. As for teachers, they are “left to discover effective classroom practices [on their own] because they haven’t been taught them. One of the first discoveries is the irrelevance of most of the theory they have learned. Some of the concepts are impractical, or don’t work, or don’t work as well as something else, like instruction.”
Reading science has moved on, but education has not. Of course, people should not be faulted for making erroneous claims decades ago, Seidenberg insists. “People should be faulted, however, for having made definitive claims based on weak evidence, for sticking with them long after they’ve been contradicted beyond reasonable doubt, and for continuing to market their stories to a trusting but scientifically naïve audience.”
The question that remains for those of us who lament the nation’s long-standing mediocre performance on international reading tests is how to shake education from its indifference, if not outright hostility, to science.
One significant weakness in Language at the Speed of Sight is Seidenberg’s relative inattention to reading comprehension and the role of background knowledge in helping children understand what they read. The oversight is not entirely surprising, since Seidenberg is one of our leading experts on decoding. And while U.S. reading scores compare poorly to those in many other countries, decoding is a relative strength here, thanks to phonics, which, despite Seidenberg’s complaints, has made some headway in American classrooms. Where we really fall down is in teaching children to read with understanding. That topic would provide plenty of ore to mine, should Seidenberg want to write a sequel. Our schools have improved some, but we have a long way to go in appreciating and valorizing the role of content in comprehension. And our teacher-preparation programs remain unaccountably indifferent to background knowledge as a driver of education inequity. It’s fair, I think, to suggest our schools of education spend too much time decrying achievement gaps, and too little addressing them. Our refusal to acknowledge and attack these knowledge gaps would be a fit target for Seidenberg’s wrath.
Indeed, wrath and outrage are the only sane and appropriate responses to the gulf between science and practice that, as Seidenberg notes, places millions of children at risk of reading failure, discriminates against poorer children, and discourages children who might have become successful readers.
Research on cognition, language, and learning is growing exponentially, as is work in neuroscience, behavioral and molecular genetics, and developmental neurobiology. These are “central topics in modern psychology and cognitive science,” Seidenberg writes—and the subjects our teachers-in-training should be studying. Instead, our schools of education continue to focus on 19th- and early 20th-century theorists such as Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, Piaget, and Montessori, still treating their work “as the source of axiomatic truth.”
In Language at the Speed of Sight, Mark Seidenberg, our Cassandra of reading, makes a deft attempt to shake our schools of education out of their indifference to the science of reading. I hope he succeeds, because children cannot thrive in school and beyond unless they first earn their “licenses” as proficient readers. What could be more important to our future?
SOURCE: Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It (Basic Books, 2017).
Editor’s note: A version of this review first appeared in Education Next.
The release of this latest report from Bellwether Education Partners is fortuitously timed as school districts large and small reach the end of another school year beset by transportation problems. Authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess dissect those challenges and argue convincingly that the difficulties in providing effective and efficient service are the result of archaic structures, bureaucratic inertia, and siloed responsibilities. It is less a question of money, as some would argue, than a lack of wherewithal to change how that money is spent.
The authors begin by describing the main models of student transportation: district-operated, contractor-operated, public transit, and various combinations of the three. While all of these models are decades old, the district-centered model still predominates: school systems own and operate two-thirds of all school buses on the road today. Various state funding models are also described. Some are aimed at maintaining the district-operated status quo, others are more student and family-centric and agnostic on form, and still others incentivize contracting out transportation or seeking economies of scale with parallel public transit systems.
Rural and suburban districts face challenges of distance and inefficient routes. Urban districts face myriad challenges posed by school choice. With magnet schools, charters, and vouchers available to growing numbers of students, transportation coordinators must contend with varying school year starts, school day lengths, and distribution of students and schools beyond their own borders.
Despite a penchant for radical redesign of the educational playing field, Bellwether takes a two-pronged approach to their recommendations here. They lead with “inside the box” suggestions for districts unable or unwilling to change the basic structure of district-operated transportation. These include greater use of technology and data to help redesign routes for greater efficiency and better tracking, changes in funding to incentivize efficiency and lessen environmental impacts, and regulatory changes to allow more and different types of vehicles to serve students more flexibly.
For metropolitan areas where choice is increasing—and where transportation difficulties are mounting—Bellwether has more “out of the box” recommendations (although better data use and incentive funding feature in both sets). These involve a greater integration between student transportation and overall public transit. This could mean a city bus or subway system taking on student transportation rather than simply providing free or discounted passes for students, as is the case in cities like Washington, D.C. and Columbus. Certain federal regulations currently prevent public transit from being used as student-only transportation, severely limiting such integration, but metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) hold the key to bridging this gap, say the authors. MPOs are required in any urbanized area with populations over 50,000 and are tasked with coordinating regional transportation improvement plans in collaboration with all city, county, and state governments in the region. While this has historically meant federal highway projects, a case study from Hillsborough County, Florida, found within the report is an interesting albeit preliminary peek at the possibilities of sharing technology, equipment, maintenance, and schedules among the spectrum of transit providers. The countywide school system is represented on the Hillsborough MPOs board, but the chilling effect of those federal regulations means little practical interaction can occur.
The authors suggest that proper planning and coordination, along with federal regulatory reform, could be an effective avenue for addressing school transportation issues for the twenty-first century. School districts across the country should take note and give this report a look. After all, as any student will tell you, the next school year is just around the corner, even if the bus is not.
SOURCE: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” Bellwether Education Partners (May 2017).