Friday, April 29, 2011

Charter to Public, Apples to Oranges

Those who have been paying close attention to the education debate have no doubt heard 'experts' state that charter schools are doing a better job of educating students than traditional public schools. If one were to look specifically at test related data, this conclusion could easily be drawn. As an example, let's look at a comparison of the KIPP Academy (Lynn, MA) against its traditional public counter parts: Marshall Middle School, Pickering Middle School and Breed Middle School. Below is a chart looking at the 'needs improvement' or 'fail' rates on the 2010 MCAS.


*NI - Needs Improvement

From this table, we could conclude that KIPP is doing a significantly better than its counterparts, especially in math education. What experts often fail to take into account or perhaps tend to underplay is that charter schools' populations often differ from that of the traditional public schools. This is important because we may work for a particular group of students attending a charter school may not be applicable to the district as a whole. In this case, the population of KIPP compared to the other middle schools does indeed differ.

Special Ed19.2%18.8%20.6%10.5%
Low Income93.3%58.3%83.7%88.9%
Total Population9306451168370

*ELL - English Language Learner
*LEP - Limited English Proficiency

These numbers show that KIPP is educating a much lower number of English language learners and limited English proficiency students than the other three schools; KIPP also enrolls a lower number of special education students than the district as a whole. Therefore, one could say that comparing the schools is not appropriate because each school is facing challenges that the others may not. Pickering for instance has a much smaller low-income population than the other schools, while Marshall is nearly 100% low-income. Breed has the largest population overall and the highest percentage of special education students. Additionally, the sizes of each school vary such that there is likely differences in the percentage of students facing other issues such as domestic violence, medical problems, and mental illness, factors that obviously affect academic performance. The comparison becomes even more nuanced if you add school absences and parental involvement to the mix. Therefore, simply replicating charter or even private school policies in so-called underperforming schools may not produce the same positive results due to the varying dynamics within each school environment. Because of this, each school should be allowed to created individualized academic plans that would cater to the specific needs of their school's population. The one-size fits all standard of academic progress and success as defined by No Child Left Behind has created a culture in which many if not all of our nation's schools (even charter schools) will be considered failing by the year 2014 (when all schools are supposed to reach 100% proficiency).

While charters school are an option for those searching for an academic experience not found in traditional public schools, the way that policy makers and the media have touted charter schools as "the answer" is unfortunate. Charter schools work for some parents and students just like private and parochial schools work for certain families. To continuously compare charter schools to traditional public schools without considering this sort of data simply perpetuates the apples to oranges comparison that has resulted in direct attacks on teachers and unions without any real solutions to the issue of education reform.

**All data taken from

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

This Day in History: April 27

 -Coretta Scott King born, 1927

-In South Africa, the Group Areas Act is passed formally segregating the races, 1950

-Sierra Leone is granted it independence from the United Kingdom, 1961

-10,000 U.S. citizens march in Washington, D.C. calling for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, 1974

-The first South African election in which blacks could vote, 1994

-The 1996 Lebanon War ends, 1996

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Gap Between College Bound Identities & School Focused Behavior

A 2010 study written by psychologists Mesmin Destin and Daphna Oyserman at the University of Michigan  found that while most students plan to attend at least a 2 year university, the goal of attending college does not necessarily lead to increased school focused behavior (i.e. completing homework, studying more). This finding refutes the logical assumption that because one has a specific goal in mind, that he or she would complete associated tasks in order to achieve said goal. In this case, one would assume that a student who wants to attend college would study more and complete homework in an effort to earn the best grades possible and gain acceptance to college. This study by Destin and Oyserman (2010), however, found that there is not always a link between one's stated goals and actual behaviors.   

In the first study, increased school focused behaviors were largely associated with having a career goal that was school dependent. In other words, students who wanted to become doctors, lawyers or teachers (careers that require advanced degrees) invested more time in homework and received better grades over time than students whose career aspirations were education independent (Destin & Oyserman, 2010). Education independent career goals included athlete, actor and musician. Thus, while 88.8% of the students sampled expected to attend college, less than half (46%) had an education dependent identity and engaged in increased school focused behavior.

For the second study which sought to establish causality, Destin and Oyserman (2010) completed a randomized trial in order to see how education dependent versus education independent identities affected planned and actual academic effort in a real world context. When students were shown a graph relating median salaries to level of educational attainment, they planned to invest more time in school and were eight times more likely to complete an extra credit assignment. Conversely, students who were shown information comparing the median salaries of "regular" citizens against those of the most popular actors, athletes and musicians planned to invest less time in homework and were less likely to complete extra credit work. The researchers concluded that students are more likely to engage in current school focused effort when adult wage-earning identities feel education dependent (i.e."who I want to be is dependent on how well I do in school") (Destin & Oyserman, 2010). For these students a link is drawn between adult identities and current effort. Destin and Oyserman's study (2010) indicates that a student failing to see the connection between adult identities and current action puts him or her at risk for low school focused effort. More importantly, this study indicate that simply saying that one wants to attend college is not enough to propel him or her to exert the amount of effort needed to achieve this goal; the student also needs to understand how current effort is associated with that goal in order to produce the required school focused behaviors.

For parents, teachers and others who work with young people on a daily basis, this important study reveals the connections that sometimes need to be pointed out to young people in order for them to see how current effort is related to their future goals. Reiterating the importance of higher education may not be enough to ensure that specific groups of students reach that plateau.

**Destin, M. and Oyserman, D. (2010). Incentivizing education: seeing schoolwork as an investment, not a chore. Journal of Experimental Psychology

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

This Day in History: April 19

-John Adams secures the Dutch Republic's recognition of the United States as an independent government, 1782.

-German troops enter the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland to round up the remaining Jews, beginning the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, 1943

-The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba ends in success for the defenders, 1961

-The Simpsons premieres as a short cartoon on The Tracy Ullman Show, 1987

-The Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, OK is bombed killing 168, 1995

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The New TEA Party: Tested Enough Already

 The following letter found at (TX) sums up how a lot of parents are feeling about the intense national focus on education reform and standardized testing: 

Stop labeling teachers, label the lawmakers

Dear Editor,

The age of accountability should be renamed the age of blame, when teachers wear the scarlet letter for the failings of a nation. We send teachers into pockets of poverty that our leaders can’t or won’t eradicate, and when those teachers fail to work miracles among devastated children, we stamp ‘unacceptable’ on their foreheads.

I ask you, where is the label for the lawmaker whose policies fail to clean up the poorest neighborhoods? Why do we not demand that our leaders make “Adequate Yearly Progress”? We have data about poverty, health care, crime, and drug abuse in every legislative district. We know that those factors directly impact our ability to teach kids. Why have we not established annual targets for our legislators to meet? Why do they not join us beneath these vinyl banners that read “exemplary” in the suburbs and “unacceptable” in the slums?

Let us label lawmakers like we label teachers, and we can eliminate 100 percent of poverty, crime, drug abuse, and preventable illness by 2014! It is easy for elected officials to tell teachers to “Race to the top” when no one has a stopwatch on them! Lace up your sneakers, Senators! Come race with us!

Teachers are surrounded by armchair quarterbacks who won’t lift a finger to help, only to point. Congressmen, come down out of those bleachers and strive with us against the pernicious ravages of poverty. We need more from you than blame. America’s education problem is actually a poverty problem.

If labels fix schools, let us use labels to fix our congresses! Let lawmakers show the courage of a teacher! Hold hands with us and let us march together into the teeth of this blame machine you have built. Let us hold this congressman up against that congressman and compare them just as we compare our schools. Congressmen, do not fear this accountability you have given us. Like us, you will learn to love it.

Or maybe lawmakers do such a wonderful job that we don’t need to hold them accountable?

Did you know that over the next five years, Texas lawmakers will send half a billion dollars to London, to line the pockets of Pearson’s stakeholders. That’s 15,000 teacher salaries, sacrificed at the altar of standardized testing. $500,000,000 for a test! I’m sure it’s a nice test, but it’s just a test. I’ve never seen a test change a kid’s life or dry a kid’s tear. Tests don’t show up at family funerals or junior high basketball games. They don’t chip in to buy a poor girl a prom dress. Only teachers do those things.

If times are desperate enough to slash local schools’ operating funds, then surely they are desperate enough to slash Pearson’s profits. Lawmakers, get your priorities straight. Put a moratorium on testing until we can afford it. Teachers are our treasure – let’s not lose the house just so we can keep our subscription to Pearson’s Test-of-the-Month Club. We have heard Texas senators often talk about the teacher-to-non-teacher ratio in our schools. Lawmakers, they are ALL non-teachers at Pearson. Don’t spend half a billion dollars that we don’t have on some test that is made in England.

Parents are so fed up with standardized testing that hundreds are now refusing to let their children test. They do not want their children run through this terrible punch press. They do not want standardized children. They want exceptional children!

Let me tell you Texas’s other dirty secret – some schools get three times the funding of other schools. Some schools get $12,000 per student, while others get $4,000. Did you know that every single child in Austin is worth $1,000 more than every single child in Fort Worth? Do you agree with that valuation? Congress does. They spend billions to fund this imbalance.

Now the architects of this inequity point at the salaries and staff sizes at the schools they have enriched to justify cuts at schools that have never been given enough. State Sen. Florence Shapiro, of Plano, says, essentially, yes, but we’re cutting the poor schools by less. Senator, you don’t take bread away from people in a soup line! Not even one crumb. And you should not take funds away from schools that you have already underfunded for years. It may be politically right to bring home the bacon, but ain’t right right.

Legislators, take the energy you spend shifting blame and apply it toward fixing the funding mechanisms. We elected you to solve the state’s problems, not merely to blame them on local government. After all, you have mandated local decision-making for years. Your FIRST rating system tells school boards that their district’s administrative cost ratio can be no higher than 0.2 percent. And over 95 percent of school districts in Texas are in compliance with the standard you have set. At my school, our administrative cost ratio is 0.06 percent – so could you please stop blaming me?

If 95 percent of schools are compliant with the administrative cost ratio indicator in the state’s financial rating system for schools, then why are state officials saying we have too much administration? We have the amount of administration they told us to have! Either they gave us bad guidance and we all followed it, or they gave us good guidance and just need someone other than themselves to blame for these cuts.

Is this the best we can do in Texas? I wish they would worry about students half as much as they worry about getting re-elected.

These same senators have a catchy new slogan: “Protect the Classroom.” I ask you, senators: who are we protecting the classroom from? You, that’s who. You are swinging the ax; don’t blame us for bleeding wrong.

They know that their cuts are so drastic that school boards will have no choice but to let teachers go, and I can prove it: while they give press conferences telling superintendents not to fire teachers, at the same time they pass laws making it easier for ... you guessed it ...administrators to fire teachers. Which is it, senators?

If we don’t truly need to cut teachers, then don’t pass the laws that reduce their employment protections. And if we truly do need to cut teachers, then go ahead and pass those laws but quit saying teacher cuts are the superintendents’ fault. Here’s the deal: I can accept cuts, but I cannot do anything but forcefully reject deceit.

Politicians, save your buck-passing for another day. We need leadership. Get to work, congressmen. Do your jobs, and find the revenue to fund my child’s education.


John Kuhn, father of three, Perrin

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Election 2012

Despite being over a year away, Election 2012 is already ramping into high gear. Naturally, President Obama will run for a second term, although Randall Terry, a pro-life activist from New York, will challenge him for the Democratic nomination. For those interested in other potential challengers, here is a list of Republicans who have announced their intention to run for their party's nomination:

Fred Karger, political consultant and California gay rights activist
Andy Martin, perennial political candidate from Illinois
Jimmy McMillan, candidate from New York
Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota
Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts

Other presidential prospies who have not yet announced their official candidacy include Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani and oh-so-serious candidate Donald Trump. 2012 could be a very interesting year for American politics.

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Day in History: April 11

-President Abraham Lincoln makes his last public speech, 1865

-American forces liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp, 1945

-United Kingdom agrees to Singaporean self-rule, 1957

-Apollo 13 launched, 1970

-Two bombings in the Algerian capital of Algiers kill 33 and wounds an additional 222, 2007

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What We Do to Improve Test Scores

In today's Lynn (MA) Daily Item, there was an article about the Marshall Middle School's implementation of a Saturday morning math boot camp that aims to help students raise their MCAS scores. While a great idea in theory, it is a little troubling to see that my former school offered two slices of pizza and a can of soda as an incentive for students to enroll in this program. Is that what we must resort to in order to raise test scores - handing out junk food?

Indeed, Marshall has been plagued by low MCAS scores for several years now. In 2010, 74% of 6th graders, 80% of 7th graders, and 73% of 8th graders scored a 'needs improvement' or 'failing' on the math portion of the MCAS (Marshall students did slightly better on the English portion with 60% of 6th graders, 53% of 7th graders and 41% 8th graders needing improvement or failing). Likely because of these less than stellar scores and pressure from the state and federal government, public schools like Marshall are turning toward all sorts of tactics and methods to raise test scores. In Marshall's case, a math boot camp has been coupled with weekly pizza parties. It is not entirely clear that one could say that giving out pizza and soda is a complete misstep, but something about this practice still feels a little wrong. It's unfortunate that we have to "bribe" children with things in order to get them to participate in activities which serve to strengthen their intellectual abilities. On the other hand, I never was a big math fan and the idea of giving up Saturday to "play" math games does not sound too appealing, so the draw is understandable. Still, I wonder where the US educational system is heading when programs such as this are created not to promote learning math (or any other subject) for its usefulness, but most importantly as a means to raise a single test score.

Monday, April 4, 2011

This Day In History: April 4

- President Harrison Dies After One Month in Office, 1841

- Maya Angelou Born, 1928

- Nato Established, 1949

- Ben Hur wins 11 Academy Awards, 1960

- Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated, 1968

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Stereotype Threat and Minority Achievement

During my senior year at Wellesley, I wrote an extensive paper on acculturation as it relates to the achievement gap facing African American males in the United States. The concept of stereotype threat was important to this paper as I discussed the ways in which feeling pressure to not perpetuate society's negative ideas about your racial/ethnic group often leads to poor academic performance. Although the theory of stereotype threat has studied extensively, I still have to wonder if this theory is truly what is partly driving poor achievement among African Americans (males in particular). There are many factors that can affect achievement including poverty, a lack of parental involvement, medical illness and undiagnosed or untreated learning/psychological disorders. Social psychology researchers have often focused on stereotype threat as one of the more significant factors affecting achievement, but it hard to believe that this is true across the board. Some minority children grow in minority-majority cities where racial prejudice may not be as significant; there also may also be protective factors such as community solidarity that prevents or lessens the negative psychological affects of discrimination. 

Despite my questioning of the actual real world applicability of stereotype theory, I still think that internalization of racial prejudice can have an affect on minority students. I just wonder if we looked at both white and minority students who don't do well in school, if there would be significant differences in the factors that have led them to this result. A significant number of minorities are currently living in poverty with a lack of access to medical and mental health; if one compared white students from similar backgrounds, would achievement still differ? I am indeed a proponent of the belief that poor achievement is a complicated issue that results from the interaction of a number of factors within certain types of environments. I just wonder if racial differences have been too easily been resorted to as "the answer" by some without the type of evidential support that such a notion requires. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Celebrating (and Supporting) Good Schools

Perhaps due to the Final Four game this weekend between UConn and Kentucky, the NY Times ran the above article about UConn star Kemba Walker's alma mater Rice High School located in Harlem. It was nice to see an article focus on the positives that one school is doing in terms of successfully educating minority (African American and Hispanic) males. Even better was the lack of focus on testing and NCLB status that often accompanies articles on schools deemed to be doing a "good" job. What was sad, however, was the perilous state in which Rice High School has found itself in the wake of the economic downturn and lagging enrollments in faith-based schools; unfortunately, the school is practically on the verge of closing its doors. I know that this is a private institution and this is sometimes what occurs. Still, it is disheartening to see a school that is having a meaningful impact on its students, both academically and personally, struggling to survive. This story is reminiscent what occurred with the middle school section Ford School located in Lynn, MA, which despite its many accomplishments closed in 2009 due to financial considerations. Luckily grades the Ford School is still open (albeit only with grades Pre-K-5) and continues to make gains in educating a diverse population of students. Many are so quick to focus on the schools that are failing in the hopes of closing them or, more recently, on schools that brag about rapid gains in test scores. It would be nice to see society celebrate (and support) those schools, like Rice High School and the Ford School, that are humbly doing their job, but more importantly not only seek, but do educate well-rounded individuals as evidenced from their person and not their test score.