Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Counting the Wrong Things

My drive to school everyday takes me through fifteen miles of wooded countryside following the flow of the Federal Creek. Recently, some logging activity along the riverside has reminded me of how often in so many ways we count the wrong things.

In this case, the logging company will count sales and the quick profit they have turned in just two weeks of stripping the timber, including a number of beautiful walnut trees, from the river side. But they will be long gone when the fall rains begin and the creek flows out of its banks as it always does. With the trees gone and the earth churned up by the heavy equipment the topsoil will find its way into the creek. I already know what will happen; over the next three to four years this area will erode away and before long the creek will begin to edge toward the road.

After the logging company is gone the state will be left to pick up the check for repairing the road. And the silting in the creek will decrease the water quality and flow. The ecosystem will be altered for decades to come; long after the profit loss sheets are forgotten.

How similar this is to so many things in our society.

The economy is in a slide because Wall Street demanded instant profits rather than careful business practices. Mountain tops are removed and streams filled in throughout West Virginia and Kentucky to for easy access to coal. And schools have narrowed curriculum and engaged in the most limited of teaching practices in order to raise scores on standardized tests.

The single-minded focus on testing continues to damage our schools long after it has been established that such scores are, at best, just one indicator of what goes on inside the school walls. Even those who used such scores to assail public schools have found that raising scores are not only easier said than done, but maybe not the most important thing they could do. And recently David Berliner, Past President of the America Educational Research Association, has called for a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing given all the problems with this strategy for school improvement.

As Berliner found in his research, “high-stakes high school exit exams did not improve scores on other tests such as the SAT or NAEP tests, and contributed to higher drop out rates.” We should not be surprised by this or the fact that, as Berliner goes on to point out, corruption “invariably occurs when an indicator of any kind takes on too much value. Both the indicator (test scores, stock prices, return on investment) and those who work with it are frequently corrupted.”

I do not think the people cutting down the trees that once graced my drive to work are bad people. But I think they work in a bad system. One that rewards the quick scalping of the landscape more than it rewards the careful harvesting of trees and the restoration of the land.

Unfortunately, educators are working in a bad system as well. One that only rewards test scores and ignores the human cost in terms of increased drop outs and narrowed curriculum. It could be different, if we changed the accountability system to take into account the entire picture of what makes a good school—from graduation and retention rates to teaching for and assessing higher order thinking skills across the curriculum.

When I drive by this clear-cut every morning I am reminded of that old saying of not seeing the forest for the trees. When it comes to what counts in school, we also seem bent on destroying the forest while measuring the trees.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Surprises Here

Sadly, I was not surprised by the lead story in Sunday’s New York Times: “Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools.” I have seen it at our school—more kids homeless, more on free lunch, more not able to purchase supplies. Our enrollment has been more erratic this early in the year than I can remember as families move in and out in the search for employment.

And America continues to fare poorly when it comes to measures of childhood welfare. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) recent survey of childhood well-being places the US in the bottom third of nations in many indicators and notes that childhood poverty rates in the US are double the average of the OECD nations.

Of course, school people don’t need international comparisons or the New York Times to tell us about the needs of our children. When the economy catches a cold, schools, especially those serving our poorest children, catch the flu. Along with social service workers, teachers are on the front lines of helping our most vulnerable citizens navigate economic dislocation.

We get little or no credit for doing this work—from making sure kids eat lunch and breakfast to helping kids find jobs to walking first generation college goers through the application process. Instead, in this so-called era of accountability, we are told over and over again that the only thing that counts are test scores on fairly low level measures of thinking and knowledge.

It is time to hold the entire nation accountable for the plight of our children. From health care to nutrition to housing America needs to be held accountable for a childhood poverty rate of nearly 22%, a rating of 25 out of 30 in terms of educational possessions held by children, the 4th worst infant mortality rate and 5th worst child mortality rate amongst industrialized nations we can do better.

When it comes to schools, it is time to hold America accountable as well for the educational apartheid where some children find themselves in schools with swimming pools, chemistry labs, and well prepared and supported teachers and others are in schools with few books, permanent substitutes for teachers, and crumbling facilities. For whatever reason we have allowed educational equity to be reduced to equalizing test scores. This is wrong, we can do better.

I am proud to be part of a school community that serves all comers, that provides for children who have very little, and that refuses to allow any child’s needs to go unnoticed. I am also pleased that a new campaign has been launched, Rethinking Learning, that addresses directly the issue of fairness and equity. It is past time that we return to the promise that all children will have equal access to a high quality education no matter where they live, what they have, or the color of their skin.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This year it happened on the second day of school.

I was told there was a young man waiting in the office to see me. My secretary gave me the heads up—he was 18, had moved in with someone in the district, and wanted to come to our school.

His glasses were broken and he needed a shave, and it didn’t help that he had a hard time looking me in the eye because of his nervousness. The story was one I have heard every school year in one form or another. Jeff (not his real name) had left home and landed in our backyard because of a girl he had met on a visit to the area. Living with her family, he wanted to come back to school and try to graduate.

Jeff was earnest enough; he claimed to have heard we were a good school, and he knew he could not make it without graduating from high school. Much to his credit he had come with a copy of his high school transcript. A good start, but we would still need a birth certificate and shot record, things he was not quite sure how to get.

Ten years ago the decision would be easy. Even though we do not have to enroll students over 18, especially if they are not ‘officially’ a resident, we would let him try. But now the rules have changed, and to let Jeff come to my high school puts our standing with the State of Ohio in jeopardy.

Jeff is potentially a drop out; not only has he experienced limited school success, he has yet to pass two of the five tests the state requires for graduation. If I admit him and he decides to quit, or does not pass the state tests, he will count against our graduation rate. If we don’t graduate 90% of our students we lose a point on our state report card…and with 85 kids in the class of 2010 Jeff could cost us dearly.

The problem is that federal and state policies are not focused on encouraging schools to take a chance on the Jeffs of the world. Why admit a student who will drag down the school’s chance of meeting AYP or staying out of ‘school improvement’ if you don’t have to? We get no credit for helping Jeff, but there will be a price to pay if we try and are not successful in getting him to graduate. Even though the first seventeen years of his education was somewhere else, we will now stand solely responsible for his success or failure.

This simply must change. All over the nation schools are playing tricks to avoid the punishments of state and federal accountability systems. Tricks like pushing out students who will struggle with testing programs, or encouraging potential dropouts to leave school voluntarily and enter into a GED program, or refusing to let Jeff come to school. Every one of these tricks, and dozens more, is an attempt to game the system to avoid punishment.

The Forum for Democracy and Education has recently written to Secretary Duncan in response to the ‘Race to the Top’ initiative and pointed out how the current accountability system works against schools that admit the Jeffs of the world. From our letter:

There has been much discussion about NCLB’s “push-out effect”—a phenomenon in which poor performing students are encouraged to leave school in order to improve schools’ Annual Yearly Progress performance. The Forum is deeply concerned that the Race to the Top guidance contains language that may unintentionally accelerate, rather than reverse, the push-out effect.

Specifically, the Race to the Top Fund considers the extent to which a State “has ambitious yet achievable annual targets for increasing graduation rates.” Although this is a laudable goal, the guidance does not provide complementary instructions that ask the State to set similar targets for decreasing dropout rates. With the focus on four-year graduation rates, there are many incentives not to keep or re-admit students who would take longer than four years to graduate, who struggle academically, are credit deficient, have left school due to pregnancy, homelessness, incarceration, illness, or other reasons. Without this instruction, the incentive to push poor performing students out of the system is magnified.

I can only hope that policy makers might actually listen this time around to the voices from the field who work every day with students like Jeff.

In the meantime you should know that we admitted Jeff, and his girlfriend (who had stopped out from high school a year ago) as well. If we manage to make all the right things happen they will both graduate this year and have a much better chance in life than they currently face. If things don’t break their (and our) way, we will take a 2.3% drop in our graduation rate and probably not make state standards. But at least we will have done the right thing, regardless of how the bureaucrats in Columbus and Washington see it.