Archive for the ‘cycle of inquiry’ Category

Another Day, Another Look at Charter Schools

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Now that California, one of many states, has raised the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to apply for licenses each year, it’s time to look again at the realities of the charter school controversy.

California elementary charter school

California elementary charter school

Why do some praise charter schools as the savior of education in the United States?

Why are others cautious, if not outright antagonistic?

The charter school movement came to life in 1988 in Minnesota with the idea to design schools with “renewable licenses to innovate, free of most school district rules.” (John Merrow, “When Roads Diverge…” In 1992 the first charter school opened in Minnesota, followed soon by California after passage of the Charter School Act of 1992 and which now is #2 in the list of schools chartered.

Still charter schools have not, so far, swept over the country.  Let’s look at more numbers.  There are 4000 charter schools in 40 states and DC with 1.3 million students.  Minnesota has the most schools and California in 2009 has 700 charter schools out of 10,000 public schools with 4% of the 6.3 million students.

Even so, Michelle Rhee, superintendent of Washington DC schools, Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, and Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, all are doing their best to restructure their school districts by closing low-performing schools and reopening with smaller charter schools, often in the same building.

Why so?

Money.  State regulations for licensing charter schools have been revised in pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds geared mostly toward low-performing high schools, a desperate problem in large urban areas.  Limited data available does show that charter high schools outperform similar traditional high schools.  In addition, in California at least, charter high schools attract more disadvantaged Hispanic students, one of the groups the state must target for academic help.

Strong teachers and administrators who want to get away from the system of traditional public schools with union contracts that were needed for a long while, but now restrict change, love the idea of starting over with a new school.

In addition, high-performing charters are small schools (average 350 students) with longer school days and year, more time devoted to English language study, a clear academic mission, a moderate discipline policy.  Those schools do well on the assessments to ensure a license renewal.

Top charters really have tried to innovate.

K-5 Conservatory Lab Charter School in the Boston area led by Diana Lam, long time administrator, uses a curricular model called Learning Through Music to support students who must improve their academic achievement.  Teacher contract innovation also is a goal.  A management team is designing the pay formula based on 5 levels of teacher performance, each level geared to identify a teacher as s/he becomes more experienced.  In addition, the teachers collaborate, using the Cycle of Inquiry model to assess, analyze, and modify teaching strategies.

City Arts and Technology High School set in a working class San Francisco neighborhood is one of Envision Schools, a non-profit group of model charter high schools.  The curriculum is rigorous, students collaborate on learning projects, and support is available to ensure all 365 students do well on state exams.

What’s wrong?

Nothing, except those exceptional schools are having difficulty being replicated across the country and time is of the essence.  For instance, in California, elementary charter schools are less likely to serve minorities, English Language Learners, and low-income students.  The schools are small, not reaching enough children.  Studies of outcome data for many charter schools have not shown better results than traditional public schools.

Often said, the parent buyer must beware.  Disinformation has been generated about charter schools, emphasizing their good qualities, denigrating perfectly good public schools, and hiding the fact that 14% of charter schools lose their licenses, just like traditional public schools fall into the low-performance abyss.

Finally, a number of professionals associated with the education field see charter schools as a way to privatize education, paid for with public money.  Others who praise charter schools do so because they hope to drag down teachers’ unions that are accused of holding onto a fixed pay structure which offers no incentives to excel.

Looking again?

Teacher’s pay structure is being re-evaluated, but the public must support the thousands of public schools looking for a model to help students achieve, instead of antagonizing the very highly-qualified teachers needed to close the achievement gap.

Take on a New View

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Teachers spend a lot of time thinking about the children they teach, in fact, all the time that they are not actually imparting a lesson on igneous rocks, say, or quadratic equations or the history of civil rights in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King, Jr. held Lyndon Johnson to the promise of legislation.

Who, though, is thinking about the legislation just passed in California and many other states so that real in-school change in education practice takes place?

Let’s start with one issue that brings a frown to every teacher in the country: teacher evaluation.  The federal Department of Education, ready to revise the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is thinking about this aspect of school reform.

Whether you like the bill or not, the 8 year old NCLB legislation calling for highly-qualified teachers has shown the disparities from state to state in teacher preparation, professional development, and evaluation procedures.  If you look carefully at the new priorities, evaluation is for everyone involved in the education of public school students, not only the teacher in the classroom.

Even California has passed legislation to conform with new priorities, in spite of the teacher’s union (CTA) long-standing argument about unintended consequences of using student testing scores to evaluate teachers.  AFT’s current president gave a recent speech advocating for basic professional teacher standards, defining what a highly-qualified teacher should know and be able to do; and for serious analysis of well-designed tests to determine yearly growth that shows where to improve the program.

The old view.

Albert Shanker, the long-time AFT president, once noted schools have been seen as factories with teachers on the assembly line popping students out after 13 years.  In fact, many school reform solutions have elaborated on business models that increase productivity, thus cutting personnel, revising pay, adjusting the day, and so on, all to save money.  Teacher evaluation?  To be blunt, it was “pay for play.”

Now, in the effort to “make teaching the revered profession it should be,” (Arne Duncan, “Elevating the Teaching Profession” neatoday), money must be provided, this blog’s often-used comment.  However, in a poor economy, budget deficits, and legislator’s recalcitrance, it is difficult to see any dollar signs at the end of the tunnel.

So what’s new?

If you had looked at an economic model devised in the 1960’s by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen from New York University, you would find that some institution’s costs can only be refined down.  They will still rise, but not recklessly.  Teacher evaluation in a public school is one such institution.

Here are examples.

Highly-qualified teachers should have access to technology to save costs.  For instance, some schools use a computer-generated test to determine reading improvement.  Many students can use the same equipment, the computer spits out the score and the tested items, saving time, so teachers can analyze for the next teaching steps.  Still a teacher must boot up the program, supervise students, and keep the equipment, not cheap, in shape.  Outcomes are improved, a teacher evaluation goal, but independent of cost.

In addition, professional development is essential to support excellent teachers and there are good technologically sound training DVD’s, for example, that can be used on-site, over and over, with large groups or small, therefore an efficient and effective staff development tool.*  Still, teachers need to be paid, the computers must be maintained–all costs that remain the same, though the benefits rise.

Many schools, to insure student and program improvement, use a business model called “cycle of inquiry” to set goals, examine how the plan is working, make adjustments, decide on next steps, all an efficient, effective, analytical way to assess progress.  Of course, labor costs aren’t saved by using this procedure in the school, even though good teachers will use these decisions for the student’s benefit.

The point is that schools must find ways to improve the infrastructure, the pay schedule, the way time is spent in schools, teacher evaluation, but the costs won’t go down.  Over time, they will rise less rapidly, but there are a fairly consistent number of students and highly-qualified teachers needed to teach them in a safe facility which will need money.

Think about it.  When calculating costs and benefits of their teachers,  state legislatures would do well to look at this view of the education world.

(*Take Care! is an example, found on the website for this blog.)

School Business

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Let’s look at schools as businesses.  You need a business economist’s point of view to understand how and why some of the latest premises to reform schools have appeared.

Education Next‘s April 2009 interview “Many Schools Are Still Inadequate-now what?” featured the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek who has done a lot of writing on education reform, lawyer Alfred Lindseth, and Michael Rebell from Teacher’s College at Columbia whose focus is on court decisions that have affected education change.  The focus of the article was on Lindseth and Hanushek’s book about the funding-student achievement puzzle and Rebell’s concerns with aspects of reform advocated in the proposal.

Most teachers and administrators, both local and state, already agree on several reforms outlined in the article:

  • give local schools flexibility to determine a model to meet high standards
  • establish reasonable funding based on needs of the particular school and school district (including local tax payer ability to authorize bonds or establish education foundations to upgrade school financial support)
  • best of the reforms, commit to evaluate school and program effectiveness using continuous improvement models such as “cycle of inquiry”-originating from business models of improvement

Sounds good.

Difficulties arise in the evidence to support other aspects of the proposal since all must be interlocked to achieve reform, according to Lindseth and Hanushek.

The two issues that stand out are the plan for performance-based pay, a business oriented policy, and the plan to increase the choice for vouchers and charter schools, seen as sanctions against schools or districts where students haven’t achieved designated levels of proficiency.

Pay-for-performance:  Mr. Hanushek is strongly against limits on spending and regulations for the use of funds provided by state and federal sources.  Further, he wants to do away with contractual obligations, mainly negotiated with unions.

Then, teachers would be rewarded for success in, for example, improving student achievement, bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools, higher pay for taking on subjects with teacher shortages.  These are all “value-added” factors used to determine the teachers’ salary or bonus for the year.  (Exact procedures for setting up this plan were not part of the article.)

Vouchers and charter schools:  Not only would schools and teachers be rewarded, but well-articulated and decisive consequences would be imposed on schools not meeting the goals.  Liberal distribution of vouchers and transfers to charter schools are the sanctions advocated.  If a public school is deemed unsatisfactory, it is unclear how to guarantee that a student’s voucher or charter school choice would be suitable.  How to fund this change is not described in the article.

Enter Michael Rebell from Teacher’s College who does not agree with the data and statistics used as evidence for the Lindseth and Hanushek book.  He says, and many who might read the article (or book) would say, that testing outcomes, pay-for-performance, rewards and sanctions, vouchers and charter schools have been studied for a long time with mixed results.

Readers may also agree the reform proposal is based on unproven business models that may, but haven’t yet, shown great results.  The move to privatization of education may be an economist’s preference, but has not yet shown to improve the academic proficiency for the vast number of students needing help.  For example, is California with more than 6 million students going to privatize every school and turn each student into a perfect product?

Rebell supports standards-based reform, but maintains it is a state education policy goal, supported by ideas from business world economists, researchers in the legal and university community, and especially teacher leaders.

Finally, perhaps the book, but not the article, describes how to resolve the funding problems due to the heterogeneity of students and regions in the United States that underlie the challenges for the education world.

OMG, What To Do?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

So you see (post 7-14-09), everyone in the education world is accountable for helping students become proficient in reading and math.

It turns out that some schools are doing well. They continue to turn out plenty of qualified applicants for high ranking universities. In addition, many schools are still able to hit their targets – just enough students can read at grade level and perform well enough on math exams to reach the yearly benchmark.

The question might creep into your head-what about the students that haven’t reached the yearly target?  Despite NCLB, some schools chronically under-perform.  No matter how stringent or how lax the state standards and exams, a large group of students do not do well in school. Many drop out before they finish high school.

Those students are the ones that schools must figure out how to be accountable for.  NCLB says nothing about how to save those students.  It leaves the nature, depth, and quality of any needed reforms entirely up to schools, school districts, and states.

This blog summarized studies that have analyzed what improving schools look like (post 6-30-09).

To begin a turn-around the federal administration and department of education have enumerated specific basic principles to improve the school day and year for the nation’s children.  For instance, on the Education Agenda of the current White House website, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind legislation specifically states that money should be provided to support programs to retain and train teachers; provide mentoring and planning time; as well as address compensation for work in schools with high need students.

Teachers examine data

Teachers examine data

With those principles in mind, the blog reader should go to the Partners in School Innovation Foundation, based in San Francisco, for information about the ‘cycle of inquiry,’ one model based on the business model suggested in the previous post which supports mentoring and planning time.

Such a strategy helps teachers and other school professionals be accountable.  For a former “program improvement” school like Grant Elementary in San Jose, California, a continuous ‘cycle of inquiry’ strategy was a major thrust to meet AYP goals.  As of 2008 data, school’s performance was 12% higher in reading/language arts and 22% higher in math than the state benchmarks required.

Ted Lempert, former assemblyman in the California legislature, heads a group called Children Now, which has useful recommendations about teacher compensation.  The group also strongly recommends transparency of funding resources and stable funding for schools, especially those working with high need students.

Speaking of money and teacher training, remember that there are many programs available, even in these tough economic times, to provide inexpensive, but valuable, professional development.  See the flexible DVD model Take Care! on the blog’s website.

The NCLB approach for holding schools accountable is clear.  The expected educational outcomes are clear.  Given the need, it’s unclear why the multitude of models available to achieve student success are so difficult to implement.