Friday, October 31, 2008

In the "better late than never" department...

At last night's school committee meeting, the following estimates were given on the possible impact of Question 1 on the Worcester Public Schools, should it pass next Tuesday:

$70 million lost, leading to:

  • closure of 20 elementary schools
  • class sizes of 40 students
  • the end of all athletic and fine arts programs
Pass it along!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Board of Ed weighs in

Continuing the chorus of disapproval on Question 1 (did you see all the letters this week?), the Board of Ed has now weighed in:

VOTED: that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
expresses its grave concern about the potential impact of Question 1 on
the 2008 ballot, an initiative to repeal the state’s income tax. The
recent report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, “The
Enormous Consequences of Question 1,”, states
that passage of the ballot question would result in a loss of $12.5
billion in state income tax revenue. This loss would cause drastic
reductions in support for students in our schools. As the Massachusetts
Taxpayers Foundation states on page 9 of its report:

The large cuts in education and non-education aid would have a
devastating impact on cities and towns that are already facing serious
fiscal problems. The result would be major cuts in services in almost
all communities and ever higher property taxes that would fall more
heavily on low and moderate income taxpayers.

Consistent with its mission to strengthen the Commonwealth’s public
education system for the benefit of the students we serve, the Board of
Elementary and Secondary Education states its opposition to Question 1.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sign up for a stand out!

If you want to do more to help fight Question 1, you can sign up for a stand out in Worcester over the next week.
Sign up and show up!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Presidential Education Debate

Well, it's happening by proxy, but at least it's happening!

Tomorrow night, from 7pm to 9pm (EST)

"Education and the Next President"
live from Columbia University, broadcast only on edweek

Linda Darling-Hammond, education adviser to Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama

Lisa Graham Keegan, education adviser to Republican nominee John McCain.

Let's go for a walk!

Attending the Traffic and Parking Subcommittee of the City Council (on an un-Who-cester matter), my ears perked up at a term not often heard in Worcester:

"walking school bus"

For those of you not familiar with the term, it's what in Worcester used to be patrol lines, which in many cases of have now degenerated into a sorting system of whose parents are parked where. The idea is that kids actually walk--yes, walk on their own two feet!--to their neighborhood school together, at a set time. In many cases with walking school buses, they are accompanied by parents, dogs, younger siblings, etc.

This is something that is being given some attention by International Walk to School. (The "walk to school day" idea was brought before the School Committee last spring and was sent to the curriculum subcommittee by recommendation of the superintendent, who was somehow under the impression that it had something to do with curriculum.) My neighborhood tried it the first week of October, and it was popular enough that we might do it again in November! (yeah, it'd be great if we could do it all the time, but it's over a mile and VERY uphill!)

Friday, October 17, 2008

We have a new superintendent!

or at least the School Committee has decided on someone!

Only thirty minutes after the end of the final interview with Matthew Maline, the School Committee decided to offer the job to Dr. Melinda Boone.

I'm posting this right away, as I know I'm not the only one without a paper delivered this morning.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tim Connors

A bad analogy

After John Paul II died, there was much discussion about not only who, but also what kind of person, the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church would choose for the next pope. In modern times, there's been a sort of "long papacy--short papacy" alternating pattern, and, as JPII's papacy was long, the thought was that the next choice would be for a short papacy. Usually, the short papacy gives everyone a chance to catch their breathe, keep things as they are for awhile, before moving on with another long papacy. The choice of Benedict XVI bore out that theory.

Which brings us to the next superintendent.

We've had a very, very long papacy, if you will. Forty-five years, arguably. Do we want a short papacy, to catch our breath and hang onto what we have, or do we want to move on with a long one?

Tim Connors would, it sounds like, give us a very good short term hold. He'd keep the wheels spinning, probably make few changes, and keep us right about where we are.

Melinda Boone would, it sounds like, do something very different. She'd shake things up, give things a new direction, bring in some fresh air.

What is it we are looking for here?

We've still got one more to go this afternoon!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Stand Outs for NO on Question 1

Should you be interested in doing a stand out for NO on Question 1:

On the next three Wednesdays at four pm, there will be people holding signs at the Summit (corner of West Mountain and West Boylston Streets) against Question 1 (and for Rep. O'Day).

On October 30 at 4:30 pm, there will be a stand out at Lincoln Square. The theme is "Vote NO on Question 1: It's a Monstrous Idea" and costumes are encouraged!

No need to RSVP; just show up and be ready to wave!

Melinda Boone

While I wasn't at the forum and interview yesterday, I have to say that I really liked what I saw of Dr. Boone. Anyone who says "Mama didn't raise a fool" to a hostile City Councilor is on the right track!

And as a parent, I respect that she's thinking of her daughter's well-being in timing on a new job. Rather than being a drawback, I'd argue that such a view is a positive. Someone who is that concerned and involved as a parent is someone that I find much worthy of my trust in educating my children.

Superintendent interview week!

So, yesterday we saw Melinda Boone. Today is Tim Connors. Thursday is Matthew Malone.

I'm leaving this as an open thread for comments. If you send something in, I'll post it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Testing the test

(Full disclosure: though I never took a class from this professor, he does teach at my alma mater.)

Guest Column: MCAS doesn't measure up
Standards-based reform fails to address problems

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is our commonwealth's version of the federal mandate known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And NCLB is the national version of standards-based reform - which is supposed to be a solution to a problem.

For the most part, the public has taken standards-based reform as the only solution to a problem. The problem being, of course, the deficient quality of our education system and the inordinate number of poorly educated people who emerge, or sometimes never emerge, from that system.

There is a great deal to be said about the complex problems of our education system. These problems certainly have been around for a long time and periodically they become more noticeable, such as when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, or our nation is judged to be at risk because of poor literacy, or when good jobs are outsourced to up-and-coming countries. Whatever particular issues people may focus on, most would agree that our education system has problems.

To solve our educational problem, standards-based reform offers the following two steps: First, set high standards. Second, measure progress toward those standards and hold schools and teachers accountable for achieving them.

The original impetus for standards-based reform came from the business community. (Ross Perot was among the more vocal proponents.). After all, businesses set goals (let's sell a million widgets at a 12 percent profit) and then measure their progress toward those goals (how much money have we made?). Anyone can see how well this has worked for business - until lately?

Truth is, it's impossible to argue against high standards without sounding like a fool or a subversive. Imagine a politician who is seeking election coming out against high standards for schools. As for needing to measure progress toward standards, it seems a self-evident and commonsense notion.

The problem with MCAS - and standards-based reform - is in the details. Standards-based reform sits on the foundation of testing. Yet we never question whether our testing tools are up to the job we need them to do. Instead we put total trust in our ability to measure important educational outcomes. Our trust is misplaced. Testing's state of the art is on measuring narrowly focused skills and specific facts and information. Because we are adept at measuring these things and because measuring progress and holding teachers and schools accountable are core aspects of standards-based reform, we have allowed our standards to be set so that they embody what is easily measured. In doing so, we let the testing tail wag the whole educational dog. Meaningless phrases are often used to obscure the reality of our overly narrow focus. In its Oct. 2 editorial, the Gazette refers to "MCAS as a way of tracking and comparing student comprehension of basic skills." What is comprehension of basic skills? Is that the same as plain old basic skills? Does adding the term "comprehension" impart some special quality to basic skills? Is the term comprehension meant to imply some deeper, more significant kind of learning? A look at the curriculum frameworks and MCAS test items suggests otherwise.

A widely held conception is that students need the basics in order to get to meaningfulness, deep knowledge, and understanding. This simply is not true. The entire thrust of the science of learning informs us that skills, whether those of reading and writing or the ability to perform mathematical calculations, are best learned in contexts where they are used in meaningful ways by student trying to better understand their world. These skills are tools and isolating them from their authentic application will not prepare students for participation in the knowledge age in which we find ourselves.

The Gazette, on Sept. 17, ran an article in which Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts education commissioner, addressed falling scores in reading comprehension. Chester said, "I am concerned that the emphasis in early grade reading may have swung too far toward the mechanics of reading ¿ without enough attention being paid to understanding what you're reading." Exactly. Our tests of skill are imperfect; our tests of subject matter, like history and science, are a disaster. Here testing's state of the art focuses exclusively on specific information and yet we have unquestioningly adopted these tests as the bellwether of our education system. A student may have a growing understanding about aspects of science and how scientific inquiry proceeds; our tests, however, are "either-you-know-it-or-you-
don't." Students do not get a chance to reason with the information they do know. Facts and information are important when they are connected to ideas. Facts and information are best learned and remembered when they are part and parcel of meaning making in schools.

Make no mistake, the emphasis on accountability means teachers will teach to the test. They almost have to. Caught in a system which keeps raising the testing bar - NCLB requires that schools show continual improvement - teachers never get to the point where they can turn their attention to other, more important content. Schools that do not measure up receive funds that must be spent to improve scores and thus are spent on consultant services like those offered by Kaplan.

Kaplan, as a case in point, has gone from a small SAT prep company to an NCLB giant with revenues of $2 billion, accounting for more than half the income of its parent, The Washington Post Company. Much of Kaplan's program doesn't even address content; instead it is aimed at how to outsmart the tests. NCLB is not leaving test makers and test preparers behind; these companies are taking in big taxpayer dollars. By not insisting that our schools integrate academic skills and factual information with meaningfulness, right from the outset, we insure that meaningfulness won't appear at all.

Having said this, it is only fair to note that there are many teachers who manage to achieve much more. They do so despite the tests, not because of them. It is also fair to note that there are teachers who do not belong in classrooms. Giving these inept teachers a script for teaching to the tests is not a solution to the serious problems we face in education. These people should not be teaching. Some people fear that meaningful learning is an excuse for fun and games in classrooms. It is not. Achieving deep learning calls for serious and hard work by students and teachers. Deep learning has the added benefit that students just might find it interesting too.

Proponents of standards-based reform point to particular schools, which for years had been achieving nothing, and are now at least doing something. Perhaps this allows us to think we are doing the best we can with our afflicted, often urban, failing schools. But, if our education system has a problem, it is in our failing schools where the problem is most pressing. And it is the young people in urban schools that most need the kind of education that gives them a chance to be full participants in the knowledge age that will characterize their world.

If we addressed our education crisis with a fraction of the urgency applied to our financial crisis, we might make some significant strides. We need a public debate about education that examines some of our assumptions, most notably that the school experience, which may have worked for them, is not going to work for their children. Education needs leadership that can explain what high standards are and what it will take to achieve them. Education needs the incentives to attract really talented people, educate them appropriately, and support them in all our schools. Setting standards and holding schools accountable for achieving them is a great political applause line and an easy winner on the editorial page. But standards-based reform is reform on the cheap.

Al Rudnitsky is a professor of Education & Child Study at Smith College.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Superintendent search update

You've no doubt read the Telegram and Gazette coverage by Jacqueline Reis on last night's School Committee meeting. Here's a few notes sent to me by a parent who attended; she started by noting that the room was packed with principals:

Jack Foley and Mary Mullaney tried to get Mills added to the list. The search firm guy warned that some of the top 3 might drop out if Mills got an interview, insinuating that they would view it as the inside guy had the inside track and they shouldn't bother. Bogigian and Monfredo tried to pass a motion that would have the school committee interview all 9 candidates that the ad hoc committee considered. That motion passed at first but then failed under reconsideration after the search firm guy brought up his point again.

In the end, they decided to interview the top 3 and after interviewing quickly decide if they needed to go further down the list. This will all happen very fast. Next Tue, Wed and Thursday there will be a candidate in. There are public forums and then the school committee interviews candidates (also open to the public). On Thursday, after the school committee interviews the last candidate, the committee will meet to decide whether to pursue one of the candidates or dip deeper into the pool. All of these meetings are open to the public.

Those public forums are from 3-4:30 at Worcester Technical High School; the interviews will follow at 5-7 pm. The School Committee will debate their choices on Thursday evening.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Superintendent search process

We haven't posted anything here about the release of the names of the finalists for the superintendent's position. The big conversation, even making the Jordan Levy show yesterday (so we hear), is the name that wasn't on the list: Deputy Superintendent Stephen Mills.

I've never heard anyone say anything bad about the deputy superintendent (which is saying something!), and I don't think the decision really had much to do with him at all. I think it had everything to do with timing:

It has been 45 years since the city hired someone from outside to lead its school system, but the School Committee appears poised to do that if it follows the search committee’s recommendation.
(from the above article by Jacqueline Reis)

45 years? Almost half a century? Do you know how many children have gone through the Worcester Public Schools under what has been, in essence, one long continuation of the same administration?

I'm as much of a Worcester booster as anyone, but I find it impossible to believe that we lead the world in educational leadership to such an extent that we need not look outside our own system for leadership in half a century. It is past time that we looked around a bit more.

Jordan Levy said something along the lines of "the fix is in." That phrasing makes it more personal than it is. It's less about personal vendettas and more about new blood. Insisting on a Worcester candidate and disregarding the time and thought the search committee put into this would be a mistake.

Let's throw open some windows up on Crown Hill and get some air circulating in the Driscoll Building. It'd be good for us.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Now here's an idea

(or more than one!)

Imagine a country where no one evaluates teachers, no one evaluates schools, and individual schools' test results remain confidential. You've just imagined Finland, which regularly bests all other developed nations in international assessments of student performance.
How can Finland pull this off without undermining quality? According to Dr. Reijo Laukkanen, a 34-year veteran of Finland's National Board of Education, "We trust our teachers."

n a recent interview with Public School Insights, Laukkanen assured us that this trust is well deserved. Finland draws its teachers from the top 10 percent of college graduates, and teaching regularly beats out law or medicine as a top career choice among high performers. "We can trust that [teachers] are competent," Laukkanen told us; "They know what to do."

It doesn't hurt that Finland's teachers study education at government expense, receive strong professional support throughout their careers, and count on ample time for collaboration with colleagues. This ongoing support creates what Laukkanen calls high "working morale" in schools.

Laukkanen also cited other reasons for Finland's success: Ambitious national content standards guide teachers' work without stifling their professional judgment or creativity. Aggressive, early and frequent interventions keep struggling students from falling behind. And schools coordinate with social service providers to prevent disadvantaged students from slipping through the cracks.

You can read the rest, from "Public School Insights," here.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A few quotes from the City Manager's report on Question 1

I posted my notes from last week's City Council discussion on Question 1. I've since gotten the written report the City Manager gave to the Council. A few points of interest:

  • Current estimates of the magnitude of this revenue reduction to the Commonweath's budget range from 11 billion (Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation) to 13 billion (Massachusetts Municipal Association). In any event it is safe to assume that if the referendum passes, the Commonwealth's revenue stream, which funds its annual budget, will be reduced by approximately 40%.
  • (M)any organizations have attempted to model the potential State revenue reductions and the resultant effect on State aid to cities and towns. Each came to the same conclusion: the proposed elimination of the State income tax will lead to draconian reductions in State aid to the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns on both the municipal and public school portions of local budgets. The City anticipates receiving $258 million in state aid in FY09 to support municipal and school services. This is 52% of our combined operating budgets. Reasonable assumptions result in reductions in the range of 63% for municipal state aid and up to 40% for educational aid for our City. This would equate to reductions on the municipal programs of $40- 50 million and up to $72 million in school spending.
  • It is a fair and reasonable assumption that this level of State Aid reduction will cause us to eliminate core services across the spectrum. These potential realities speak for themselves.
As the Manager said last week, if a department is cut by 75%, they'll just close the department and eliminate that service.

What happens after MCAS

I haven't posted much on the local MCAS scores and reporting because, well, what is there to say? The scores are widely available. The Boston Globe and the Telegram and Gazette are always going to find something to bang the pro-MCAS drum about. But I did think the following articles on what happens after the scores come home to roost might be of interest:

SouthCoastToday points out that the new requirements mean that those who barely passed the MCAS this year (with a "needs improvement") will now have to take remedial classes and pass an additional test in order to graduate. As that additional test has not been designed or designated by the state, there is some question as to how this is going to work in practice.

The Cape Cod Chronicle
explains that in Chatham, the elementary students are losing a gym class a week (they had two; they're down to one now) for added MCAS prep.

And here, from that article, is this kicker that gets us all:
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools must not only improve their scores each year, but they must show an adequate rate of improvement, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

Yes, that does mean that scores have to go up and up and up, forever. Do you know of anything else that does that?
(okay, maybe prices. But test scores?)

Oooh, a map!

The Vote NO on Question 1 website now has an interactive map, showing the projected effect Question 1 will have on each community if it passes.

(And for those of you who were looking, their sources are cited below it.)

Also a good geography check! Remember, Worcester would be a diamond if Auburn hadn't taken a bite out of the lower left corner.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Presidential Candidates on education

or not, unfortunately.

There's an interesting article in last week's Education Week: "NCLB Debate at the Sidelines."

The No Child Left Behind Act has been the subject of intense debate in school board meetings, state legislatures, and Washington policy circles.

Everywhere, it seems, but the presidential campaign—the winner of which may have the most important voice in reshaping the federal role in K-12 education.

As NCLB is the major influence (at a federal level) on American education right now, we can't afford to leave NCLB out of the debate in this big election.

Read it. Think on it. And let's pay attention at these debates!