Thursday, August 16, 2012

Which students first?

Its been a while since Students First came into being. I followed them closely when they started in the hope that there really would be a new movement whose goal it was to improve public education and counter the impact of anti-tax or anti-public education ideologues and state legislatures, but the group turned out to be just another body jumping on the dogpile of reform.

One of SF's goals is to impact state laws related to tenure, seniority (unions) and teacher evaluations. Specific to the latter, the group has been calling for the use of standardized test scores in the teacher evaluation process and in the process has ignored any concerns that standardized test scores might not actually measure the quality of teacher input.

One of its first 'achievements' was working with Florida's Governor and legislature to completely change the nature of teacher workforce hiring and firing. The result of this work was the now infamous SB 736. That bill did a number of things, including essentially removing tenure by requiring maximum 1 year teaching contracts, and firing of teachers who rate unsatisfactory for 2 years in a row. But what it also did was require that standardized test results be used as a basis for these evaluations of teachers and administrators. It required that 'at least 50 percent' [my emphasis] of the evaluation be based on student test scores (the percentage could be reduced if not more than 3 years of data is available, or the school had an exemption under RTTT, and for administrators, but there are still requirements that performance factors are 'the single greatest component of an employee's evaluation').

The Florida Dept of Education is also supposed to post information about the status of teacher evaluations on a website, broken down by district and school.

NB: The bill allows the test score calculations to take into account disability status, english learner status or attendance record, but NOT their socioeconomic status. This last point is quite important, imho, because it essentially means that there will be a disincentive for teachers (and administrators) who would like to remain teachers to teach in schools with low parent involvement, high poverty, high single-family incidence, low parent education level; all the things that correlate to lower test scores in spite of quality teachers.

While these things dont have to be a barrier, statistically speaking they are. Especially in our current environment of perennial budget cuts, rising poverty and unequal access to kids and families in need. In the past, a teacher could choose to work in the toughest schools, knowing that even if they didn't always get the results on some standardized test, at least they knew they were helping kids. Now, such a teacher risks career suicide, regardless of how good they are. There is already a tendency for teachers to move, over time, toward the easier-to-teach-in environments. This law will essentially force teachers to make a choice between a career as a teacher and teaching in poverty schools. That's the worst kind of incentive and one that will disproportionately hurt kids in need.

Since this law requires the state board of education to post information about these evaluations on their website starting this July, I went and looked for any such indication. I did not find anything that appeared to be satisfying that requirement (not surprising given that much of the bill related to evaluations does not kick in until 2014-15, though the tenure aspects were already scheduled to have kicked in--if lawsuits haven't derailed that--and gathering student performance data should already have been started), but I did find a listing of 'grades' given to districts and schools by the state board. In fact, the district grades were also presented in a nice, map-based, graphical manner:

After looking at that map for a little while, it made me wonder about something, so I went to the poverty map for Florida (Source: Darker red = higher concentrations of poverty, though the darkest red corresponds to any poverty rate between 16.9% and 100%. ):

Pretty interesting correlation, and thats not even child poverty (child poverty rates average 7.5 percentage points higher for all counties, with the maximum difference being almost 15%--Putnam with a 40% child poverty rate vs 25.6% overall.  14 of the 68 counties had child poverty rates 10 percentage points or more above the overall poverty rate).

So if you believe that teachers are the cause of lower performance in higher poverty areas, then you'll probably be happy about SB 736; and maybe even like Students First's efforts.

But if you believe that teachers have limited control in countering the effects poverty has on kids then you will realize that this bill will work to disincentivize good teachers from teaching in higher poverty schools. And even if they wanted to, if those scores continue along this line for 2 years, those teachers (and administrators) will be fired. Ironically, the law exempts substitutes from these evaluations. Perhaps a perverse incentive to replace teachers in poverty schools with long-term subs? 

This bill seems like the furthest thing from 'students first' I can think of. And this was one of their first 'achievements'.  Just one reason I am hesitant to believe that Students First truly is students first. Except maybe for more affluent students first?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

CA 2011 CST Proficiency Rates by Grade and Parent Education Level

Hi PoliticAli, my response to your last comment was too long to fit in the comment box so I am putting it here in the post. Hope that works..

Hi PoliticAli, sorry for the delay.. you have brought up so many critical components in this post that I wanted to have time to respond properly. You have really touched on some of the fundamental issues in educational policy, imho. Great questions! Of course, I'll provide my opinions. :-)

Before I touch on your specific points, I would like to make a broader statement that I think pure logistics is a huge part of this difference. You touched on that indirectly in your parents-spending-time-with-kids question, but here is a telling anecdote: I was speaking with an ELAC (english learner advisory council) member the other day (ELAC is a school-level group consisting of the parents of foreign language students, and they advocate for the specific needs of their kids in the context of school policy). He mentioned to me that they have had trouble scheduling the meeting in which they invite some of their bilingual parents to assist in translating homework for the foreign language only parents. I kind of stood there for a moment with my mouth agape while I felt something like a hammer hit me over the head. I am quite aware that language is a barrier for non-english speakers, but it somehow never dawned on me that there might not be services that provide support in actually understanding your child's homework. I mean its great that they do this for each other, but think about the time and effort this involves, and based solely on parent effort, by a demographic that is much less likely to be mobile and flexible enough to attend such events. Imagine you went to your local community college to take a class and they handed out homework that was in Greek. Knowing you, you probably speak Greek too.. ;-) .. but if not, what would you do? And more importantly, what would the impact be on your performance? There are all sorts of barriers like this for many parents in our community that may not be obvious even for people who pay attention, let alone for those who dont. Even for those who may have finally learned English, kids start getting pretty nuanced word problems starting in 2nd or 3rd grade. I know English only parents who have problems with those at times, let alone someone who has been speaking English for only a year.

Genetics: I tend to agree with you that Genetics likely plays little to no role. I think its more likely that we have cultural norms (that are often different among groups who tend to self-segregate based on genetics (eg, race, ethnicity, etc)) and it would not be surprising to find out that what we see as obvious in one cultural context may clearly not be in another. This might tend to flush out in terms of genetics when measuring impact, but I dont think that means it has to be the cause. Regardless, when you get to a per-kid level, generalizations become meaningless, especially those based on genetics. So I think it is not relevant. I do admit there are many studies that are trying to push the idea that there is some genetic basis to learning, however, I remain a skeptic, and probably always will be.

Parents who are better educated do tend to have more money and live in better neighborhoods, but that may or may not correlate with better schools. In our community, those who live in the better neighborhoods attend private schools almost exclusively. However, there is maybe one important factor here in terms of 'better' schools. Generally speaking, there is some correlation between emotional disturbance and income level (or parent education to put it another way). There are some pretty straightforward reasons for this. Among them is the higher incidence of single-parent households. There is also the issue of the developmental stress that growing up in certain environments puts on kids. I read a study the other day that said synapses that were needed for literacy tended to develop more slowly for kids who are under undue stress, including abuse, hunger, or simply lack of stability. This is a CRITICAL point, imho. But getting back to good schools, it may not be uncommon to have higher incidences of kids with behavioral problems in lower-income schools and neighborhoods. This has a direct impact on teaching efficiency and many teachers, when they are able, will actively choose against such environments when the opportunity presents itself. Because many of our states have seniority-based movement rights, these teachers tend to be most experienced and most paid. This, in turn means that, generally speaking, those better neighborhoods will have better and more highly paid teachers. Even for states that have equality in funding between districts, this can result in higher income schools getting more money than lower income ones (in order to pay those teachers). Of course, lower income schools can get additional money that higher income ones cant (eg NCLB/ESEA), but when you look at it from a teacher resource perspective, this can be highly unequal.

As Im sure you're aware, many people use this kind of dynamic to argue agains the concept of seniority. However, in reality removing seniority alone cannot solve this while teachers find it too difficult to teach in such environments. Ironically, UTLA (LAUSD's teacher's union) suggested a few years ago a way to disproportionately reward teachers that choose to work in those more difficult schools. They even sued the district to force layoffs to skip over those schools so that they would not lose a disproportionately high rate of their teachers during layoffs (because there is so much turnover there, they tend to be more new teachers). [ed. correction here, it was not UTLA that sued the district, it was ACLU. UTLA was actually against the lawsuit because they felt it would not address the underlying issue of keeping teachers in those high turnover schools, which is what causes the layoffs by seniority to have disproportionate impact. So while ACLU attempted to address the symptom, UTLA wanted to address the cause. Addressing the symptom won. Admittedly, it may be the case that having layoff skip over those schools would tend to make those positions more appealing, however, that would only be the case for lower seniority teachers.]

But the important question is what kind of impact this has. There are many very good teachers who resolve to serve the most under-served environments. Whether this difference in teacher experience becomes the sole factor in lower results is far from clear. I do think when combined with higher behavior issue demographics, it can really be a detriment to have less experienced teachers, but again, it really depends on the situation.

There was a recent teacher survey put out by the Gates Foundation that I found interesting (even though I tend to view their output with skepticism). One of the important points from that survey was that teachers overwhelmingly felt they were not getting enough support to deal with the kids who had the most difficult problems (behavioral, ell, poverty, homelessness, hunger). So as far as Im concerned, instead of 'rewarding' teachers that work in those environments with pay, I think it would be much more appropriate to support them with what they need to do their jobs. Ironically, it is just those environments that society tends to dismiss as 'lost', along with an associated refusal to 'dump more money' into them. So that is how I would see the issue of 'better schools' in better neighborhoods.

It is absolutely true that better educated parents do and can spend more time with their kids than less educated ones. There are very clear exceptions to this I would point out, but it cant be underestimated, especially as the schools demand more from the parents. But there is another aspect of this and that is what kind of time is spent with the kids. There have been studies that talk about the difference in vocabulary of pre-k kids based solely on home environment. Some families sit at dinner and discuss politics or social issues or other things that involve complex vocabulary. Some families dont eat at a table. Some dont ever speak about these things. Some even dont use complex vocabulary. Kids learn language from their environment, so it seems clear that what they learn will be a reflection of what their parent(s) talk about and how. We sometimes forget a child's first teacher is their parent(s). And its probably the most important one of all. At a very broad level, there is probably some correlation with vocabulary and parent education, however, I think this correlation can minimize as you start talking about things at a family level. I even think for some sector of society there might even be a reverse correlation there. For example, I know highly motivated and/or very involved people who work at a lower income level than they might otherwise do because of their interest in social activism. These people tend to be extremely engaging and discuss issues in a complex manner fairly independent of their educational level. I dont know what kind of impact that has on the greater correlation, but I think it is worth mentioning.

I also agree with your lower stress and calmer atmosphere theory. This not only can impact learning directly during that time, but also can impact how focused a student can be as they get older.

I think the question of expectations is a difficult one. I do believe expectations leads to success, at least as we define it in our society. But expectations can also lead to stress, so there is a happy medium there somewhere. I also think passion plays a huge role in motivation in life in general. High expectations can divert passion (though they dont have to). But passion itself is learnable, imho. I do think kids need someone to believe in them (some need it more than others) and expectations play a role in that.

I have a theory that you dont need to 'impose' expectations though. I think they can be implicit in one's environment. Not to remove the discussion too much from education itself, but as an example, I think growing up in a certain type of geographic environment can lead to an implicit desire to sustain that environment (one reason I think aesthetics in low-income neighborhoods is key). This may seem like a trivial thing, but humans really have a fundamental relationship with their environments that is not always consciously recognized.

I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood for part of my young life, but it also had a type of charm that is unique for this area of the country and even state. I still notice the appeal of that charm when I go back to that environment. People who didnt grow up there dont see that charm, rather they see threat because its a rough area. So I think we have an interesting relationship with our environments in that way. I think that can translate to all aspects of our environment growing up (ie not just geographic, but social, economic, etc etc. Sorry for getting too abstract.. :-)

For me, maybe the most important aspect of all this is for our society to better understand and learn about what makes education work or not work. There are many factors, and many of them are clear and even addressable (in theory). I think we tend not to see that as a culture and its really sad. That has a direct impact on how much we're willing to invest in these kids, and that can end up being even tragic. Educating people about these things is something I think we could do a better job of. Our kids deserve more from us than anecdotal, sound-bite based policy.

Its funny, the other day I was talking to a person who works as a councilor at a private school (the horror! ;-) ), and he admitted that sometimes it was difficult to not have the preconception that some kids could not do some things. I was kind of shocked about it because he is a good guy who is also a strong advocate for public education, however, I know that humans tend to classify easily--we are kind of wired that way and he admitted this is something he actively tries to overcome; to his credit.
But when he said this, I realized something about myself. That is that when I look at kids, I see nothing but pure potential. It doesnt matter who they are, what color or income level or whether their family has a home. I had never consciously realized this until he put it in this context. This is how I would hope our society should treat its kids.
And finally, since I'm getting all sentimental, a short story. There is a special education student in a class near one of my child's who for some reason seems to have always had the same schedule as I. Every morning as I was leaving campus I would pass him in the hallway. For six months I said 'good morning' to him. For six months he never even looked at me (and obviously didnt respond). He walked by as if I wasn't there. Then one day I said 'good morning' and he looked right at me and said 'good morning' back. Obviously that is something quite trivial in the overall scheme of things. But I think it is actually quite important in a couple of ways. Of course, selfishly I was ecstatic (and I probably cried). But I also think this is the kind of persistence that we need to have as a society to make sure all our kids get what they need. Persistence pays off. And again, this is what our kids deserve. IMHO, anyway. :-)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

LAUSD 2002-2011 CST Change

The goal of this post is merely to store a couple of test related graphs from LAUSD.



Thursday, December 8, 2011

the kids of saint augustine and saint bernardus

Once upon a time there were two small towns, Saint Augustine and Saint Bernardus. The children of both towns went to the same school.

The citizens of these towns decided to get together and figure out how well their students were doing in school, since this seemed to be all the rage in other towns at the time. So the people adopted a test that their state government had created to see how well kids were learning. They administered the test and were surprised to find out that Saint Augustine kids did significantly worse than Saint Bernardus kids. When averaged together the two town's kids did worse than the average in the state, with Saint Bernardus doing better than the state average and Saint Augustine doing much worse.

Word of the overall result being below state average got back to state officials who soon showed up and had a meeting with the mayors of both towns.

'The school', said the state officials, 'would have to be closed down.' It was state policy that schools that scored below average were disbanded and the students sent to other schools, he further clarified.

The mayor of Saint Bernardus spoke up, 'but our town's children are doing better than the state average', he objected.

'Dont play games with numbers with me, it's the school we rate, not towns', was the response.

Next the mayor of Saint Augustine spoke up. 'I do some statistics as a hobby on the side and I took a closer look at our test results and noticed that many of our kids missed all the same questions. I got a copy of the test and noticed that these were questions that required identifying a color as part of the solution.'

'So?' asked a state representative with a hint of disdainful boredom.

'Well, half of the kids in our town are color-blind', responded the Saint Augustine mayor. 'None in Saint Bernardus are.'

'I'm afraid I can't help that', stumbled the state official, suddenly nervously pulling at his collar. 'The policy is to use the overall numbers. People are not interested in studying every school in detail to decide whether you are making excuses or whether there may in fact not be a reason our tests don't accurately reflect the quality of your learning environment. That would cost money you know!'

With that the state officials hurriedly stood up, left the room and drove out of town.

The school was closed the following month.

The state official gave a toast at the state-sponsored annual school reform extravaganza, praising the virtues of his own department, using as an example how he and his colleagues brought improved education to the children of Saint Augustine and Saint Bernardus.

Friday, August 19, 2011

a PISA what?

A study attempting to characterize the level of student achievement by country was released recently. It also concludes that continued lagging in math performance could have a negative impact on the future of our GDP. Although the report does not attempt to prescribe policy to address the issue, some concerns did arise for me regarding the methodology.

This study required a mapping of NAEP scores to PISA scores. Both tests are only representational (not taken by all students). One test was given to a subset of students while they were in 8th grade, the other was given to a different set of students (from the same graduating class) while they were in 10th grade. A couple points to make about that: first off, the difference in proficiency between the 8th and 10th grade can be enormous, even for the same kids, let alone from different representational samples. Second, about 30% of kids entering high school dont graduate with their peers. About a third of those (ie 10% overall, drop out before 10th grade). In theory that should have a positive impact on 10th grade scores, however, the flip side is that two-thirds of students who will eventually drop out are still there to be tested in 10th grade. It seems clear that would have a net depressant effect on scores. That of course does not mean that those dropouts dont exist as part of our student demographic, but the point is that even if they have some skills, the attitude associated with dropping out will likely lead them to underachieve on any test, which would misrepresent actual skill.
I also find it concerning that there is an statement in the report that 'even the richest' states dont do well, and some examples of the 'richest' are New York, California and Florida. These states have some of the highest levels of minority and poverty concentrations around and have increasing charter populations, which is leading to increased segregation and poverty/minority concentrations. The report also uses white scores as a way to try to dispel the claim that some US subgroups score well. Despite the fact that whites are correlated to high income in many areas, there are many others where the exact opposite is true. I question why the Asian subgroup was not examined and I question why the word 'poverty' does not even show up once in this report or why that metric was not addressed instead of the racial one.
Regardless, the report is descriptive more than prescriptive, so at least it is trying to identify the cost associated with some reality. Many of these same scholars have written studies that blame virtually all of this on teachers. I think it would be interesting to have a study of the impact of poverty on our education system, and perhaps thus our GDP. Having a good grasp of the input to our education system is necessary if we are going to try to assess why the output of that system is not as we would like.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


This morning, after standing in a nervous line of 20 people at Peet's coffee, I was finally summoned to the register. The lady taking my order was a barrista who had come over from her espresso station to help bring the line down more quickly. I ordered my usual: a large latte. Her response was, 'what kind of milk? Whole? Lowfat? Non-fat? Soy? ...'
It seemed like she might have gone on for a few minutes, so in the short pause after 'Soy?'--and because I like playing games with confusing cultural norms--I interjected, 'Normal.' She smiled knowingly and looked down to the register to key in the decision.
Not being able to leave it alone, I tested, 'That still means whole, right?'
'It does to me,' was her response.
'So, I'm waiting for the day when that will no longer be the case. How long do you think that will take?', I pressed.
'Well, technically...', she started with a hint of disdain, looking over her shoulder like an undercover agent trying to avoid having her cover blown.
'No way!' I waved my head in disbelief. 'So, technically, normal means lowfat now?'
'HA!' she snorted, 'Non-fat!' She leaned forward to get the words to me just that tiny bit more quickly.
'Can you believe that?', she asked, 'I mean, non-fat..., that's just..., well, gross!'
'No kidding, you might as well be adding water.'
'You know, its all about the calories now. People want fewer calories and I guess don't care so much about taste,' she explained, trying to make some sense of the world.
'Yeah, but still...,' I trailed off. 'So do people even order non-fat though?', I queried naively.
'Oh yeah!, she stated, closing her eyes and pursing her lips while nodding in a diagonal direction.
'But not more than lowfat..?', I stammered, hoping I had heard the extent of the shocking news.
'OH YEAH!', she gurgled emphatically in a voiced glottal fricative.
'Yikes!', I laughed, 'You know, I guess the world really is a crazy place, eh?'
'No kidding,' she laughed even more loudly, turning to go back to her battle station.
I went and stood by the wall to wait for my latte. She was making drinks, calling people by name, then at one point simply raised her eyes, looked straight at me and pointed to the counter that my coffee was ready. I walked over and picked up the cup. 'There you go, non-fat latte,' she chortled.
'With extra water?' I giggled.
She laughed, then stopped her milk spoon mid-air for a second and leaned forward and said, 'Did you know some people order with powdered milk?!'
'Ew, do you even have that?', I walked away guffawing, not waiting for an answer.
She smiled and settled back into her work.
I walked out the door; the sun glistening off my teeth laid bare by an ear to ear grin.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

my downgrade reaction

Although I am not an expert in international economics (or anything else for that matter), I do have some thoughts related to the downgrade. my initial reaction was three-fold: 'HOLY SH*T', 'meh, who cares' and 'maybe this is actually good'. The first is mostly as a result of the fear of how people (ie investors) will react to this come monday morning and the impact it will have on world markets. Many have said this was inevitable and even should have happened months ago, so perhaps its already priced into the market. The past weeks' performance may have been the 'final adjustment'. Regardless there will surely be some panic. But its questionable where the money would flow, so we'll see whether the reaction is really all that bad.

The second reaction is a reflection of the fact that these rating agencies were a primary factor in creating the environment for the recession. And when they had the chance, they got that completely wrong. Maybe we should re-think their role in our system. Our yields are near record lows, which of course means people are clamoring head over heels to lend to us. If you want to believe something, believe the market, not the guys who tell you what the market should be. One of the interesting things about this downgrade was the admission that this might require a 'readjustment' to other countries' ratings in order to keep the proper relation between them. In other words, although we may not deserve the safest rating overall, we may still deserve to be comparatively ranked as the safest investment.

And the third is because maybe we do actually need a bit of a wakeup call. We continually refer to ourselves as the greatest nation on earth. While there are many reasons for this, I think its fair to question whether our implementation of our ideals is as good as it could be. While we have created immense wealth and technological progress and have modeled our system on the concepts of personal liberty and equality before the law, we also have extreme poverty, extreme income inequalities, excessive crime and inequality in the access to all sorts of quality of life metrics. Its possible that our reaction to the downgrade is evidence that we felt a sense of entitlement to that AAA rating, and that has perhaps been preventing us from working hard to do the work required to actually earn what we think we deserve. Not only with respect to these ultimately meaningless credit ratings, but in the way we run our society and treat our fellow citizens.

Finally, I know a lot of people are looking to lay blame. Although I don't think thats too constructive, I will say that the fact that we are garnering low yields and the specific mention by S&P that the inability to come to agreement on additional revenue was their primary worry implies that this blind adherence to 'no taxes' needs to be 're-evaluated'. 'Starving the beast' is definitely one strategy toward reducing spending, but, in my opinion, it rarely (if ever?) results in a truly positive outcome. I am reminded of a saying that includes the words, 'nose', and 'spite' and 'face'..