Nation at Risk VI, Including a Partial Misunderstanding of the Risk

Here it is, “Nation at Risk” VI:  America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.

How many prominent, well-grounded proclamations of doom and gloom do we need before we widely recognize that the changes we’ve made since Nation at Risk I in 1983, plus four more along the way, have not (despite massively increased per pupil funding) addressed the root causes of persistently poor academic outcomes?

But beyond bringing the latest prominent alarm to your attention, my aim is to differ somewhat from the mainstream in describing the nature of the risk. The typical concern is that ebbing skill levels directly threaten our “international competitiveness.” Indeed, that may be an indirect effect. I believe that the direct threat of ebbing skill levels, regardless of international rankings of literacy and numeracy, is political. As Thomas Jefferson warned long ago (confirmed by recent U.S. loss of economic freedom): “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Our plunge from #1 among nations (#3 behind Hong Kong and Singapore) to #17 in the Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World Index says our growing inability to discern bad policy and reject leadership promoting it has us well underway to proving Jefferson, right. Ebbing skills will first rob us of our freedoms, then our competitiveness and prosperity.

The Right to Privacy or the Right to Piracy?

Standardized tests like the SAT go to great lengths to keep the playing field level for students across the nation. Students sign agreements to refrain from discussing questions with each other, parents, friend or teachers; adults monitor the classroom and halls for discussion during the tests; phones are turned off and placed at the front of the room.

Yet over the past few years, testing companies have been taking it one step further: testing companies have begun monitoring students’ social media accounts looking for test question leaks. In addition to the testing companies themselves, a whole industry has popped up whose express intent is to collect vast quantities of data on students’ attitudes, activities, habits and schedule.

These companies don’t limit themselves to public social media profiles. According to a Politico article:

The more comprehensive services attempt to break down anonymity offered by sites like Twitter and YouTube, where students don’t have to display their real names. Analysts cross-reference photos, map friend networks and even try to deduce class schedules from the timing of social media posts in order to unmask students who use pseudonyms online.

Compound this with the massive amounts of data that online education tools collect on children, and it paints a startling picture: Educators are allowing companies to collect invasive, intimate data on American students, and there is very little information available on how that data is used.

While the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student test scores and basic records, it does nothing to protect anything outside of the student’s official “education record.”

A new bill, the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015, is seeking to fix that. Though the official bill has not been released, it aims to keep institutions from selling student data and protect children’s privacy.

Opponents of the bill say it doesn’t go far enough. Loopholes leave room for student data to continue to be sold, and there is no option for parents to opt out of having data collected on their child.

K-12 Education Doesn’t Have to be this Difficult

Public school district superintendent is the world’s most difficult unnecessary job, but as we should expect from the roots of the persistent low performance problem, every key job in our current school system is incredibly difficult. The vast majority of educators and education analysts seem to think that the difficulty is inherent in the task of imparting high value knowledge and skills to our school-age children. Of course I disagree. The unusual degree of difficulty reflected in the widespread disgust, complaints, and high turnover rates is only inherent in the public schooling “business plan” to deliver a uniform product to a diverse clientele. That creates often insurmountable ability grouping and “differentiated instruction” challenges; in effect, multiple simultaneous lesson plans for a single classroom. It also creates demoralizing and often unresolvable conflict as parents complain about poor fits for their children, and from policymaker demands aimed at making the system come closer to being everything to everyone. The conflict arising from the mismatches yields debilitating attitudes like teachers wishing for minimal parental involvement.

In Education Week‘s “Program Preps New Superintendents for Pressures of District Leadership” Corey Mitchell reports that, “districts may face a shortage of qualified and willing candidates,” which is incredible in light of typical superintendent pay.  While there has been some reduction in turnover rates, Mitchell says that, “the position still tends to burn through leaders at rapid rates, especially in urban districts.”

The Editor of a recent Education Week leadership series wonders if Public School Principal is an “Impossible Job;” something that has yielded principal supervisors, another expensive job that is only necessary in the persistently low performing school system we have cobbled together over time through the political process. Private schools are proof that principals can run schools that do not have to serve a uniform product to a diverse clientele without supervision, except from their customers. Arianna Prothero’s “Continuous Learning Key for Principals” describes “rapid turnover rate” circumstances that require training just for survival, but difficulty developing training that addresses the stressful challenges of making one size fit all.

Even at state-level education policymaking jobs, we see high and growing levels of stress and frustration. State chiefs now have “a turnover rate that rivals the chronically high churn among urban superintendents.” Increasingly, “people had just had enough and decided to move on.”

Indeed, as longtime insider Jack Jennings said, it is time to move “Reform from the Negative to the Positive.” We need transformational change that creates a school system wherein price signals arising from market forces orchestrate the consumer choice and entrepreneurial initiative that will produce a relentlessly improving a dynamic menu of schooling options as diverse as our schoolchildren. Why do teacher, principal, and superintendent associations, other than unions (the union self-interest is obvious), support and fight to preserve the school system status quo.

School Choice Benefits Both Public and Private Schools

The addition of private school choice options and/or public school choice options gives students more choices in their education. These new choices could come in the form of more specialized schools that focus on individual students. Allowing parents to choose the school that best fits their children’s needs not only benefits the family, it provides advantages to teachers, the local economy and taxpayers, as well as other students. Everyone benefits from the increased competition stemming from expanded school choice.

Public school choice options are needed as waiting lists for charter schools continues to rise, due to increased demand in every state with charter schools. These option are also needed to encourage public schools to compete and to specialize.

Private school choice options are a Win-Win Solution:

Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.

Unrestricted charter law and private school choice would increase competition and therefore improve school efficiency, teacher quality and student achievement. A properly implemented private school choice program gives families more control over their educational spending, and enables them to spend that money on the tuition of a school that is the best for their children.

Let the Differentiation Wars be Public

The James Delisle declaration that “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” in a back-page Education Week Op-Ed (very prominent) was a public assault on a key rationale for the public school system. I immediately noted its significance and strong language based on research. It’s hugely significant because either extensive, skilled differentiation of instruction is possible and widely ongoing, OR the current “business plan” of the public school system will leave a lot of children behind; i.e. severely uneducated. And for decades, a lot of children have been left without even adequate basic skills.

Sure enough, that declaration stirred an immediate “Empire Strikes Back” response. According to an Education Week Editor note preceding the full-page response by leading proponent of differentiated instruction, Carol Ann Tomlinson, the response was part of an “avalanche of reader comments” received within days of the “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” Op-Ed. Why an avalanche? Because the viability of differentiated instruction is a keystone of one-size-fits-all, no need for school choice, public schooling mostly in assigned traditional public schools (TPS). This is the kind of issue (whether TPS can be the common school that deserves/needs a public finance monopoly) that seems like it can strike at the heart of people that still (despite repeated Nation at Risk declarations) genuinely believe that the current system is best for children or can be made to work acceptably.

The key difference between the Delisle “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” Op-Ed and the Tomlinson response is that Delisle cited numerous studies of differentiated instruction. Tomlinson cited none; citing only studies of teaching in homogenous vs. heterogeneous classrooms, which may or may not have included attempts to significantly differentiate instruction. As another [un-named] commenter noted, “differentiation, as a concept, is sublimely beautiful, while its implementation has been ‘ridiculous.'” Indeed, which means that imagining it can work in often highly diverse public school classrooms is an un-mitigated, wishful thinking disaster for a lot of children, and will continue to be until we get appropriate transformational change.

Parents Must Encourage Girls in STEM

The gender achievement gap in education has been a huge topic for several years. First Lady Michelle Obama is currently visiting Japan and Cambodia to support the “Let Girls Learn” program, which is aimed at promoting girls’ education around the world.

According to an analysis of 2012 PISA scores, young men are significantly more likely than young women to be less engaged in school, have low skills, and have poor academic achievement. In the U.S. alone, the worst-performing girls outperformed the worst-performing boys by 15 percent.

This outperformance spans across both countries and achievement levels. Yet there is one subject where girls are consistently underperforming ― math. Girls are less confident than boys in their math and science competency, more anxious regarding mathematics and less likely to enter into math and science fields. When boys and girls report similar levels of confidence and anxiety towards mathematics, the performance gap disappears.

It seems that the key to closing the gender gap is self-confidence. So how do we boost girls’ self-confidence?

The key could be parental involvement. PISA results show that parents were more likely to expect their sons to work in a STEM field than their daughters. Parental involvement has already been shown to boost overall academic achievement. Parents should encourage boys and girls to engage in STEM fields, and to stay engaged as they grow older.

Beware of Test Scores Masquerading as Data

A semi-taboo area of insufficient discussion is the reliability of the test score data from the statewide, nationwide, and international standard tests; for example, our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but not nearly just the NAEP test scores. You can learn about all of the reliability issues from experts like Richard Phelps, and Richard Innes.

I have frequently raised concerns about test score data generated by exams that don’t impact the students that take them; that is, where a poor effort by a student does not adversely impact the student. The norm for most international, national, and some statewide standardized testing is that the students taking them have no tangible incentive to give their top effort. NAEP ― the so-called nation’s report card is among the no-stakes-for-the-students. Expressing a concern for that data reliability issue in an e-mail or a conversation nearly always yields no response, or a vague, dismissive response; something approaching “emperor has no clothes” proportions.

The discovery that prompted this blog was Richard Phelp’s pronouncement that:

Indeed, one drawback to the standardized student tests with no stakes for the students is that student effort does not just vary, it varies differently by demographic sub-group. The economists who like to use such scores for measuring school and teacher value-added just assume away these and other critical flaws.

So, while such test scores might be broadly accurate ― more substantive persuasion please ― they may just be numbers masquerading as data for some of the uses they have been put to. And it’s another reason to question the current system’s extensive reliance on top-down-only-accountability to formal authority that must be based on objective apple-to-apple comparisons. It’s a narrow basis for accountability, and vulnerable to distortion, including fraudulently. We need robust universal parental school choice to exploit subjective, bottom-up-accountability to clients; the dominant form of accountability in our economy. To orchestrate a high level of performance from diverse children and educators, we need a system that employs a mix of top-down and bottom-up accountability.

I’m willing to rely on NAEP and PISA test score data (etc.), with some reservations and reticence, because the data are consistent with the high stakes-generated data and other indicators of school system effectiveness, and with established economic theory. But the no-stakes-for-the-students test score issue needs a lot more study and discussion. Denial is more than a river in Egypt.


2015 School Choice Options in Texas

Opponents of school choice options in Texas are stalling any effort to bring much needed help through more schooling options for children. These opponents have said that public schools lack the funding necessary to fix failing schools. However, the amount of money spent per pupil does not seem to correlate with student achievement. While Texas education spending has fluctuated over the years with no change in student achievement or school quality, other states have shown that spending increases yield no improvements on student performance.

Approximately 150,000 students are trapped in 297 schools that have been failing for more than two years. The Lieutenant Governor and Texas Senate have made it a priority to improve the Texas public school system.

Step One” by Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor:

  • Giving letter grades (A-F) to individual public school campuses each year based on their performance — something already done for districts.
  • A stronger “parent empowerment” law, often called “the parent trigger,” that would allow parents to petition for new management schools that have been failing for two years rather than five.
  • Removing limits on full-time virtual schools and online courses.
  • Making sure high school students can take more courses that count for college credit.
  • Creating a “college and career readiness” course for Texas middle school students.

As Texas begins to vote on K-12 and pre-k options and ways to improve the current education system, decision makers can look at all of the options presented and pick the best option or options for now. Education reforms must be unrestricted and universal in nature. Also to consider, one reform may work well in one a state like Florida and not as well in a state like Texas, so try many reforms.

Why Many Teachers Don’t Like to Talk to Parents

Based on extensive surveys for his 1990 book, Seymour Sarason discovered that, as a group, teachers so loathed talking to parents that given a choice between a large raise and never having to speak with another parent, a significant majority chose the latter. We also know that lack of co-operation from parents has been a leading cause of early abandonment of teaching careers. And I can say, anecdotally, that when teachers are asked why the public school system performs so badly, bad and uncooperative parents is invariably high on the list of reasons given. The direct evidence is old, but there is nothing in the school system change of the last 25 years to support hope that the underlying causes of parent-teacher tension no longer exists.

So, why is there so much tension and disagreement between teachers and parents?  Can we blame the tension on the public school “business plan”; that is, the public school strategy for delivering instruction to children? Or is it like the “mother-in-law” problem; a hard-to-avoid norm that is just in the inherent nature of human interactions? I say the teacher-parent tension ― parental dis-satisfaction, and teachers holding parents partly responsible for persistent and widespread low performance problems ― is another effect of the public school system “business plan”. That plan aims for uniformity in the name of fairness; vainly hoping that in comprehensiveness, that one size will fit all. The teacher-parent tension and disagreement is another effect of trying to satisfy a diverse, largely trapped clientele with a uniform product; another classroom diversity effect that results from sorting children, mostly, only by age and neighborhood, and making it very difficult to opt out of the assigned public school.

When a family chooses a home, they choose the assigned traditional public school (TPS) of all of their children. Even if they have the money to pay extra for a home in the attendance zone of a top-ranked TPS, the resulting “good” school in the mistakenly one-dimensional sense may still be a poor fit for some of their children.  Parents in that situation will start to demand the differentiated instruction that might engage their struggling child[ren], and then complain when the differentiation doesn’t work or isn’t sufficiently forthcoming.

Properly designed universal expansion of parental school choice can eliminate that tension, and put in its place a mutually-uplifting parent-teacher partnership grounded on the resulting good fit between school and educator strengths and student engagement factors (how a child learns; what makes him/her excited about learning). In other words, engaged, excited, passionate-about-learning children are a key source of the joy in teaching.

School Districts Retaliate Against School Choice

School districts have been outspokenly split on the implementation of various school choice options. According to a Heartland article, some school districts are taking out their ire on parents and students who choose to engage in school choice programs.

In Wisconsin, the Racine Unified School District attempted to cancel bus services to students participating in a voucher program with Renaissance Schools, leaving 44 students without a way to get to school. The district reversed its decision after parents and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty spoke out against the retaliatory actions.

Punishing students for trying to get a better education is far from right. With school choice options, like voucher programs, becoming increasingly popular with the American public, school districts should watch their actions more carefully.

School choice options like voucher programs give low-income students, trapped in poor-performing schools, a chance to get a better education. These same students are likely to rely on sources like busses in order to get to these new schools. Rather than taking away resources, these students need to achieve the best possible education. Public school districts, charter schools and private schools should work together along with lawmakers to ensure all students have access to top-quality, personalized education systems.