Darling-Hammond on the Common Core

In an interview with The American Prospect, Linda Darling-Hammond discusses the Common Core State Standards, noting they do not require testing. In places that include standardized testing with them, what people are really debating are the tests and the high stakes attached to them, rather than the standards themselves, she says. In Darling-Hammond’s view, the tests aren’t important; some countries have a national curriculum, but local tests. She does feel, however, that Common Core-aligned tests are good for most states, since they include more open-ended items and provoke engagement. The standards themselves ask students to collaborate, use technologies for multiple purposes, communicate orally and in writing, extensively research, and apply mathematics and English language arts in complex problem-solving situations. The tests tackle standards that are closest to what traditional sit-down tests do. But using these tests to decide whether a student advances to the next grade or graduates from high school, whether a teacher continues to be employed or gets merit pay, or whether a school will be put into some kind of “failing schools” category — is irresponsible, Darling-Hammond says. To move forward, we must change the accountability paradigm in this country from “test and punish” to “assess and improve,” and we should pursue the Common Core standards within that framework.


The data confirm: poor and minority kids have less effective teachers

An analysis of data from the newest state teacher-evaluation systems by the Center for American Progress shows that in some areas, poor students and students of color are far less likely to have expert teachers. The brief looks at Louisiana and Massachusetts, two early adopters of teacher-evaluation systems that have released teacher ratings by school. The data show that in both states, students in high-poverty schools are three times as likely to be taught by a teacher deemed ineffective, although in Massachusetts the number of ineffective teachers overall is low. In Louisiana, students in schools with high minority enrollment are more than twice as likely to have an ineffective teacher as students in schools with low minority enrollment. The brief recommends several policies to ensure equitable distribution of skilled teachers throughout schools, districts, and among districts: identify high-quality teachers by improving data about effectiveness, then use these data to determine distribution; retain effective teachers by reforming career and compensation systems; increase the reach of effective teachers by creating roles for master and mentor teachers; encourage effective teachers to move to disadvantaged schools through incentives; improve the effectiveness of all teachers through proven professional development; and improve recruitment of new teachers. Working toward even one or two of the policies above could greatly increase the chance that disadvantaged students get a level of superb instruction that could change the course of their lives. 


American Teachers Feel Really Stressed, And It’s Probably Affecting Students

Gallup’s newly released State of America’s Schools report indicates that nearly 70 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed in 2012 do not feel engaged in their work, reports Rebecca Klein in The Huffington Post. Nearly half of teachers reported feeling daily stress. When compared to 12 other occupational groups, teachers were least likely to feel their “opinions seem to count” at work; yet the survey found teachers tended to be satisfied with their lives overall. The report also surveyed 600,000 students in grades five through 12 on their feelings of hope, engagement, and well-being. Forty-five percent of students felt “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from school, with rates of disengagement increasing by grade level. Teachers have the biggest influence on student-engagement levels: Students who have “at least one teacher who makes me excited about my future” and feel their school is “committed to building the strengths of each student” were 30 times more likely to be engaged at school. Teachers’ and students’ lack of engagement seems to have filtered down to the public’s perception of American education. An earlier Gallup poll cited in the report found just 17 percent of Americans think high school graduates are ready for work, and just 29 percent think they’re ready for college.


Assessment: Don’t opt out yet

In an article in The Hechinger Report that looks at the pros and cons of standardized testing, Sarah Garland spoke with parents of kids who are opting out, and with Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who advocates having kids participate in the testing process. Three complaints surface most often with opting-out parents. First, that tests don’t actually measure the skills they want students to learn, such as critical thinking, creativity, and complex problem-solving. Second, standardized tests aren’t reliable measures of how much students know and how well teachers can teach. Third, schools spend too much time prepping for the exams, especially at struggling schools where students could benefit from more enrichment. Yet Sandi Jacobs counters that the tests are about to get a lot better, now that Common Core-aligned exams are rolling out next year in many states. The new tests will have problems that ask students to do more than pick an answer from a list of four choices. Second, while tests may not reveal everything about how much a student has learned, they’re an important element of a more holistic picture of student performance. Finally, the tests show how unequal the school system is, and identify which schools need more help and resources because their students are falling behind.


Diane, Bill, and Eva

In a post on The New York Review of Books blog, Diane Ravitch chides New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his recent conciliatory tone toward the charter sector in NYC public schools. “How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?” Ravitch asks. While de Blasio was pressing for universal pre-kindergarten, Ravitch explains, he was faced with a decision about dozens of co-locations and new charters that had been hurriedly endorsed by Bloomberg’s Panel on Education Policy in the last months of that mayor’s term. The three charter proposals de Blasio rejected were part of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. She had asked for eight new schools, the mayor allowed five. According to Ravitch, Moskowitz’s “friends on Wall Street and the far-right Walton Family Foundation” funded television ads attacking de Blasio as heartless, ruthless, and possibly racist. “Somehow this man who had run a brilliant campaign to change the city was left speechless by the charter lobby. His poll numbers took a steep dive. He never called a press conference to explain his criteria for approving or rejecting charters, each of which made sense.” De Blasio caved, Ravitch suggests, and the charter lobby triumphed.


Why We Need the Strong Start for America’s Children Act

A new report from the Center for American Progress looks at whether new federal investment in early childhood education would be duplicative of existing programs, and finds the answer “a resounding no.” Less than a third of low-income children have access to publicly funded or subsidized preschool. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act would improve access to high-quality programs, but still leave 60 percent of low-income children under age 5 without access. The federal government currently has just two major investments in early childhood education: Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Only half of eligible children have access to Head Start, with many on waiting lists. CCDBG serves only a quarter of those eligible; 19 states had waiting lists or frozen intake as of February 2013. State preschool programs reach 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds, with a low per-child spending rate. The Strong Start Act would implement evidence-based standards and offer states assistance in improving existing programs. Teachers would be required to have a bachelor’s degree and training or demonstrated competency in early childhood education. They would be paid the same rates as K-12 teachers, reducing turnover and improving retention. Small class sizes, a research-based curriculum, and comprehensive services to families would be part of the initiative.


School board leadership can make a difference

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looks at capacity of local school board members to lead their districts, finding that that officials who focus on academic improvement are likelier to govern districts that outperform others with similar demographics and funding. It also finds board members by and large possess accurate information about their districts regarding finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size, but such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. Members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than liberal or conservative counterparts. Though a district’s success academically appears related to board-member focus on improvement of academics, some board members prefer a broader approach, such as developing the “whole child.” Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts performing well academically than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on key roles. The report also offers “commonsense board-level advice”: 1) hire well; 2) hold senior managers accountable for running the system effectively and efficiently, in accord with board-set priorities; and 3) provide responsible oversight without micromanaging. 


Why Claims of Skills Shortages in Manufacturing Are Overblown

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds persistent unemployment in the manufacturing sector is likely driven by inadequate demand rather than a shortage of skilled workers as is often contended. While skills required of the manufacturing workforce have increased over time, they’re well within the reach of most Americans, according to the report. For instance, while 38 percent of manufacturing firms require math beyond simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, the level of math expected is at the level of a good high school or community college education. Further, a minority of manufacturers report difficulty recruiting employees. Nearly 65 percent of establishments report no vacancies whatsoever, and 76.3 percent report no long-term vacancies (in which jobs remained unfilled for three months or more). Only 16 percent of respondents — typically plant managers — responded affirmatively when asked if access to skilled workers were a major obstacle to increasing financial success. Employers with the very highest skill demands — those classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as high-technology — actually had significantly lower long-term vacancies as a percentage of total core workers. The current impact of technology does not condemn most people holding unskilled jobs who have not obtained high levels of education and training.


Student Evaluating Teachers

It may sound preposterous, but school systems are soliciting feedback from students at all grade levels using formal protocols.


The homework crisis that isn’t

A new report from the Brookings Institution finds reports of American students overwhelmed with homework to be overblown. In fact, homework loads have been stable over the past 30 years, and the “homework wars” themselves are a century old. While today’s younger students have more homework than in the past — NAEP data for age 9 indicate those with no homework declined from 35 percent in 1984 to 22 percent in 2012 — 13-year-olds reporting one to two hours of work per night declined from 29 percent in 1984 to 23 percent in 2012. Those with less than an hour of homework per night increased from 36 to 44 percent. Seventeen-year-olds reporting no homework grew from 22 percent in 1984 to 27 percent in 2012, and 11 percent reported not doing homework at all. Different data show only 38.4 percent of college freshmen surveyed by UCLA in 2012 reported six hours per week of studying when high school seniors. And the MetLife annual survey of teachers, which in 1987 and 2007 included questions on homework and sampled opinions of parents, found little change over two decades in parental attitudes. Sixty percent of parents rated the amount of homework good or excellent, and two-thirds gave high ratings to quality. Those giving poor ratings to either quantity or quality of homework did not exceed 10 percent in either year. Loveless concludes that “homework horror stories… seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents.”