Grant Lichtman on Simple Metrics

If you haven’t read any of Grant Lichtman’s blog posts, you might want to check out his recent post in which he describes a metric that he suggests is more meaningful in the lives of our children than how well any of them did on a test this week.

http://learningpond.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/simple-school-performance-metric/

Sent from my iPad

The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living

SlideShare

Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

Inquiry: The Cornerstone of Teaching–Part I

Fifth Article in the series on The Artistry of Teaching

Conservative and neoliberal paradigms dominate education, which have reduced teaching to skills, economic growth, job training, and transmission of information.

In spite of these authoritarian policies,  many K-12 teachers practice a different form of instruction based on principles of equity, social constructivism, progressivism, and informal learning.  The cornerstone of this approach is inquiry, and in this article, I’ll explore the nature of inquiry, and why it is the magnum principium of teaching.

Inquiry teaching requires that teachers take risks because the very nature of inquiry brings us into the unknown.  It is like crossing into a new environment.  Some researchers think of this as “crossing cultures,” and for a teacher embracing inquiry as the cornerstone of their approach to teaching, it means crossing into a classroom culture that is very different from the traditional classroom, that we are too familiar with.  For a teacher who is experimenting with their own willingness and courage to accommodate inquiry teaching, it is much like thinking about Lev Vygotsky’s (public library) theory of zones of proximal learning.  Embracing inquiry teaching requires courage and the close collaboration with trusted colleagues who are supportive and believe that in a social constructivist environment, teachers can push themselves into new zones of learning.

Normally, Vygotsky’s theories are applied in the context of K-12 student learning.  But in this article, I want to show that Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism (which researchers suggest is similar to inquiry) can be applied to the artistry of teaching.

The Age of Inquiry

My story of inquiry teaching began in 1960s as a science teacher in a small community near Boston.  The 1960s was the “Golden Age” in science education in the sense that the National Science Foundation invested tens of millions of dollars in curriculum development and teacher education.  The school’s science program was an “Alphabet Soup Science” curriculum made up of BSCS Biology, CHEM Study Chemistry, CBA Chemistry, PSSC Physics, and HPP (Project Physics).  These courses were four of the nearly fifty curriculum projects that were developed between 1957 – 1977.  I was personally involved in four of them, ESCP Earth Science, ISCS (Intermediate Science Curriculum Study), PSSC Physics, ISIS (Individualized Science Instruction System) as a writer, field test coordinator, student, and researcher.

One of the characteristics of these programs was an approach to teaching unified by the word “inquiry.”  Inquiry teaching, with an emphasis on hands-on and minds on learning was integral to NSF programs developed in the 1960s, and has continued to the present day.

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 5.44.03 PMHowever, in 1960s, they concept of equity, multiculturalism, and urban education was not part of the research and development scene. Beginning in the 1970s, especially with educators such as Dr. Melvin Webb at Clark Atlanta University, research and development on issues of equity and multiculturalism in science education began to emerge in new programs, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chicago. My introduction to inquiry teaching and learning was enhanced by participating in an NSF eight-week summer institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago on the PSSC Physics course.  For eight hours a day, five days a week, and for eight weeks, 35 teachers participated in laboratory sessions, lectures, and films on the PSSC physics program, the first of the NSF courses for American schools.  A team of teachers, including a professor of physics, a graduate student in physics, and a high school physics teacher taught the course. The PSSC course emphasized science laboratory work and hands-on investigations.  We did every laboratory activity in the PSSC text that summer, but more importantly we discussed how to integrate the idea of inquiry learning into our own teaching.  The three faculty in our program encouraged us to be activists, to ask questions about the science curriculum and the instructional approaches being used in high school science, and to encourage new approaches and ideas.

Nearly all the teachers, who were from 30 different states, were there because they were going to teach PSSC Physics in their school in the fall.  Not me.  I had taken a new job in a different town in Massachusetts (Lexington) and would be teaching earth science (I earned a B.S. in earth science in undergraduate school and really wanted to teach E.S.).  Later in the year I realized how important this intense study of physics would affect the way I taught earth science.  I adopted many of the labs in physics for the earth science course I was teaching, and began to adapt the activities in the text we used so that students were engaged in inquiry and problem solving.

Lexington. All the ninth grade teachers moved to a brand new high school science building the next year, and two of my colleagues in earth science  “piloted” a new NSF funded earth science project, ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Project).  ESCP was a hands-on inquiry oriented program, different from the earth science program that was part of the high school curriculum.  I teamed up with one of the pilot teachers (Dr. Bob Champlain–Emeritus professor, Fitchberg State University) and planned a research study comparing the ESCP approach to the traditional earth science approach.  As it happened, Bob and I were working on our Masters degrees in science education at Boston University, and thus the study became our thesis study.  We didn’t find any significant differences (on a content test we administered), but qualitatively we saw many differences in terms of how students felt about learning science in the two contexts.  Students were naturally attracted to working with teammates in group activities, and enjoyed trying to solve problems that involved messing about, and trying different methods and techniques.

Columbus. I left Lexington in 1966, and moved to Columbus, Ohio to attend the National Science Foundation Academic Year Institute at The Ohio State University.  I joined with 40 other teachers of science and mathematics to take part in a one-year program of study in science and science education.  Several science courses designed for Institute participants integrated some aspects of inquiry, and were different from many of the other science courses we took.  There were nearly 20 full-time doctoral students in science education, and over the next three years we explored and studied the pedagogy and philosophy of science teaching  After three years of study, I finished my work on the Ph.D., and headed to Atlanta, Georgia, to take a job as an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University.

College Park, MD. Before going to Atlanta, I made a three-week stop in College Park.  My induction into what inquiry was all about, however, took place three weeks before arriving in Atlanta to begin my new job.  At the University of Maryland, Professor Marjorie Gardner, one of the leaders in science education in the U.S. then, invited me to a member of a team of three science educators from Atlanta, even though I hadn’t arrived in Georgia.  Each team that the attended the Leadership Institute at UMD was composed of a science teacher, a science supervisor, and a university professor.  Twelve teams from around the country participated in the first Earth Science Leadership Institute directed by Dr. Gardner.  The institute was designed as a total immersion in the ESCP Curriculum with special emphasis on inquiry teaching and learning.  Each day we did two to three hands-on activities from the ESCP program, participated in lecture/discussions with scientists who were brought in to focus on specialty topics in the ESCP, e.g., astronomy, paleontology, mineralogy, physical geology, meteorology, geology, oceanography, space science).  We also were involved in micro-teaching.  Each of us had to teach several “inquiry” lessons to groups of middle school students.  Lessons were video taped, and then in collaboration with other participants, each lesson was discussed from the point of view of our goal to carry out an inquiry activity.  Suggestions were made to change the lesson, which we then re-taught to a different group of students.  The important aspect here is that collaboration with colleagues was essential in moving each us into new conceptions and zones of activity.

A Cornerstone

Atlanta. Inquiry teaching became the cornerstone of my teaching at Georgia State University for the next thirty-two years.  Through collaboration with colleagues in science education, the sciences, educational psychology and philosophy, inquiry and experiential learning became fundamental characteristics of courses and programs we designed.

When I began teaching at GSU, half of my assignment was to teach courses in the geology department, but specifically to teach geology courses for teachers.  My first course, which was taught off campus at a professional development center in Griffin, GA, was an introductory geology course for middle school teachers.  Using only laboratory and experiential activities, teachers learned geology by inquiry and problem solving.  For the next two years, I taught courses in geology in Griffin, and an opportunity to explore the nature of inquiry teaching with professional educators.

One of the most important learnings that I took away from these early experiences teaching geology was
the joy that I saw in the eyes and minds of these teachers.  A few years later, I began to study the work of Rollo May, an American humanistic psychologist.  In his book The Courage to Create (public library), he speaks to us about what the artist or creative scientist feels.  It is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.  He explains that the artist (or scientist or teacher) at the moment of creating does not experience gratification or satisfaction.  Although he didn’t talk specifically here about teaching, later he does, and it is important to make a connection and bring teachers into the conversation.  This is how I see it.  The teacher, like the artist or scientist, uses creativity to create an environment of learning, much like an artist creates a painting, or a scientist advances a theory.  All are personal.  But May adds another dimension that I think is powerful.  He says this about the moment of creating for artist, scientist or teacher.

Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities (May, R., The Courage to Create, 1975, p.45).

Over the course of my career, I worked with hundreds of teachers, professors, scientists, and researchers with whom we constructed our knowledge of inquiry in particular, and teaching in general.  We teamed to create projects that brought together not only for adults, but students and their families.

The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991
The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991

Moscow & Leningrad. The activity that epitomized the essence of inquiry while I was at GSU was the design and implementation of The Global Thinking Project (GTP), a hands-across-the-globe inquiry-based environmental science project. Utilizing very primitive Internet technologies and face-to-face meetings, teachers from Atlanta and other areas of Georgia forged cross-cultural partnerships with colleagues in the Soviet Union (1983 – 2002).   In 1991 the GTP was implemented in 10 schools in the U.S. & the Soviet Union, after we transported 6 MacIntosh SE 20 computers, printers and modems, and installed them in six schools in the Soviet Union.

In the Global Thinking Project teachers from different cultures came together to develop a curriculum was inquiry-based and involved students in solving local problems, as well thinking globally about these problems by participating in a global community of practice.  Inquiry was at the heart of the project.  By working with a range of teachers and students, the project developed an inquiry-based philosophy that emerged from years of collaboration among American and Russian teachers that was rooted in humanistic psychology.

Inquiry teaching was envisioned as a humanistic endeavor by American and Russian participants.  They believed that students should work collaboratively & cooperatively, not only in their own classrooms, but they should use the Internet  to develop interpersonal relationships, share local findings, and try to interpret each others ideas.

For more than ten years, collaboration took place among hundreds of teachers and students, not only in the United States (led by Dr. Julie Weisberg) and Russia (led by Dr. Galena Manke), but including significant work with colleagues in Spain (in the Barcelona Region under the directorship of Mr. Narcis Vives), Australia (under the leadership of Roger Cross), and further collaboration with the Czech Republic, Botswana, New Zealand, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Singapore, and Canada.  With their work in the GTP, the following principles of inquiry emerged:

  • Innovative, flexible thinking
  • Cooperative–students work collaboratively in small teams to think and act together
  • Interdependence–a synergic system is established in groups within a classroom, and within global communities of practice.
  • Right-to-choose–students are involved in choice-making including problem and topic choice, as well as solutions; reflects the action processes of grassroots organizations
  • A new literacy insofar as “knowledge” relates to human needs, the needs of the environment and the social needs of the earth’s population and other living species
  • Emphasis on anticipation and participation; learning how to learn, and how to ask questions
  • Learning encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive

Inquiry as Magnum Principium

Inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  A method?  No.  It’s a foundational principle that is integral to democratic and humane environments that was espoused more than a hundred years ago by John Dewey.  In Dewey’s mind, this question must be asked when considering the way learning should occur in schools:

Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, on which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life? In Dewey, J., 1938. Experience & Education, p. 34. (public library)

At a deeper level, classrooms organized as democratic spaces encourage imagination, and it with free inquiry that teachers show themselves as Freiean “cultural workers.”  Freire says:

Teachers must give creative wings to their imaginations, obviously in disciplined fashion.  From the very first day of class, they must demonstrate to students the importance of imagination for life.  Imagination helps curiosity and inventiveness, just as it enhances adventure, with which we cannot create.  I speak here of imagination that is naturally free, flying, walking, or running freely.  Such imagination should be present in every movement of our bodies, in dance, in rhythm, in drawing, and in writing, even in the early stages when writing is in fact prewriting–scribbling.  It should be part of speech, present in the telling and retelling of stories produced within the learners’ culture. In Freire, P.,Teachers as Cultural Workers,  p. 51. (public library)

Becoming an inquiry teacher is a life-long phenomenon that emerges from the craft of teaching in the context of classrooms and schools that advocate professional collaboration and a pursuit of wisdom in teaching.  This is not ivory tower thinking purported by an emeritus professor of education.  It’s going on now in schools across the country.  Working together from the ground up, rather the top down, Chris Thinnes says on his blog how he and his colleagues work together to “formulate, analyze, prioritize, and activate driving questions that democratically identify the intersections of individual interest and shared priorities.”  You can go to Chris Thinnes blog, and read the kinds of questions he and his colleagues asked at their first meeting which focused on how a teacher creates an environment and climate conducive to learning.  It is this kind of democratically organized work that leads to teachers growing into cultural workers, inquiry teachers, and artists in their own right.

As way of introduction, here is what Chris said about the in-school meeting among all the staff to explore ways to improve teaching:

For a variety of reasons, I have been inspired for a number of years by the idea that our teachers’ professional learning and collaboration should be governed by the same principles and objectives as our students‘ learning and collaboration. To that end, each of six domains from the framework of our Goals for Learning (Create – Understand – Reflect – Transmit – Include – Strive) will be invoked as we establish language to articulate our core commitments to effective teaching practice; design driving questions that will facilitate further inquiry among our teams; identify teaching practices that should be visible to teachers, learners, and observers; explore resources drawing on a wide range of expertise outside our community; and create our own rubrics for self-assessment, reflection, goal-setting, peer observation, instructional coaching, and administrative evaluation.

Is inquiry the cornerstone of teaching?  What do you think?  What would you add to this conversation?

 

10 Ways to Modify the Druid Hills Charter Cluster in DeKalb County, Georgia

Latest Story

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster, Inc., is a corporation that has petitioned to the DeKalb County School Board to convert seven public schools into a charter cluster. In 2010, the Georgia Legislature amended the Georgia code to enable a local board to act on a petition for a conversion charter school for a high school cluster if approved by 60 percent of faculty and parents. According to the law, two elections by secret ballot must be held, one for faculty and one for parents. One election was held on August 13, where about eleven hundred people cast ballots. According to the DHCC, Inc., 93% voted in favor of submitting a proposal to the DeKalb County School Board by August 15-16.   The Board has 60 days to act on the petition, which you can read here.

Two articles about the DHCC were published on this weblog, and you can read them here (about the vote) and here (a critique).   Some advocates of the charter cluster commented on these posts, and generally did not agree with the analyses presented.  But, the comments were well-intentioned, and provided an opportunity to study more carefully the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition.

In this post I am going to discuss and critique the plan to convert seven schools in DeKalb County, Georgia into a cluster of charter schools.  However, my critique will include 10 suggestions that the authors of the petition might consider to truly submit an innovative petition.

The authors of the proposal make the claim that their charter cluster will take an innovative approach which will enable them to raise student achievement.  More specifically

The DHCC supports the legislative intent of O.C.G.A 20-2-2061 to raise student achievement through academic and organizational innovation as described herein.

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster will develop college and career ready students by providing continuous learning pathways for students from K-12.  These pathways will provide a choice of learning models with rewarding instruction, an authentic assessment process, and environments that value parent, teacher, and community contributions to the education of all children. (DHCC. (August 2013). Druid Hills Charter Cluster. In Petition. Retrieved August 22, 2013, from https://docs.google.com)

As I will show, raising student achievement is focus of the petition, and in my estimation, the fundamental problem with the proposal.

The DHCC Petition

The DHCC petition is 75 pages plus appendices.  The DHCC petition is based on the Charter School Checklist, which is required for a charter school petition by State Law (O.C.G.A. 20-2-2063 (2010) and the State Board of Education (Rule 160-4-9-.04).  The petition contains the DHCC response to 76 item checklist of queries.

There are some good aspects to the proposal, but they  are subordinate to the uncritical infatuation with an accountability system based on standards and high-stakes testing, which means the cluster of schools will be focused on accountability measures to meet the bottom-line and that is how well the students do on high-stakes tests.

Professor P.L. Thomas, who has written extensively on school reform outlines what we know about educational reform based on the present accountability system.  In one of his recent articles, Dr. Thomas refers to a research study by Virginia Tech sociologist David L. Brunsma.  According to research by Dr. Brunsma, what we know about charter schools doesn’t work out well for the DHCC petition.  Thomas writes,

What we know now about charter schools: Despite the increased support and funding for charter schools,“charterness” has not been shown to be a determining factor in school quality (when compared to traditional public schools [TPS]), charter schools have produced a range of outcomes essentially indistinguishable from TPS, but charter schools have increased segregation (by class and race) as well as underserved English language learners and special needs students (see annotated research here).

There is a great deal of evidence that the accountability system that has dominated K-12 education over the past two decades has not worked. Yet, in spite of what we know, the Druid Hills Charter Cluster bases its decision-making on the very tools that have been shown not to work.

For example, according the petition, the “DHCC will demonstrate measurable improvement in student achievement over the same school performance levels for the prior year; and measurable improvement in student achievement in the aggregate over the same school groups and subgroups in the County at large.”  Although the cluster organizers have identified a list of innovations that they will carry out, this will be done in the context of raising achievement.

For example, this is how the authors of the petition put it when they talk about goals.  Goals should be:

  • specifically tied to raising achievement and ensuring efficiency and fiscal stewardship
  • can be measured using public data
  • tied to trend data
  • time bound and established for each
  • based on quantitative data over three years

There are other positive aspects of the proposal including the DHCC’s emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), Montessori, and the International Baccalaureate Program, which was established at Druid Hills High in 2004).  There was also a suggestion to partner with the Healthier Generation/Healthy Schools Program.  But again, these “innovations” will be subjected to a standards and high-stakes testing drag.

A word analysis of the document reveals key words related to the failed accountability system that appear repeatedly throughout the petition,  These include achievement (30 instances), measure (50), school choice (21), standards (25), tests and testing (57), Measures of Academic Program (26), Autonomy (20), board (of directors-150), teachers (42).  I find it telling the board of directors is mentioned three times more than teachers.  These words infer that the authors of the petition are steeped in the rhetoric of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing.

If the DHCC petition was based on research about the effects of charter schools on student learning, the document would include such references and note that charters have not been as effective as regular public schools.  But they don’t.  So, how will this proposal be any different?

Learning should be an exploration into the unknown, and a search for understanding, not something that is done to prepare for another test.
Figure 1. Learning should be an exploration into the unknown, and a search for understanding, not something that is done to prepare for another test.  (Parkes Observatory, Australia).

If they read the literature or even the newspapers, they should acknowledge that there is a trend in the country questioning the use of high-stakes testing.  In Texas, more than 1,000 districts signed on to a letter suggesting that high stakes testing should be greatly reduced.  The Common Core State Standards have created even more controversy, from both the left and the right.  Who would have thought.  And in New York, proficiency rates in English/language arts fell from 55.1 percent to 31.1 percent, and in mathematics they fell from 64.8 percent to 31 percent.  The Georgia Department of Education has adopted the Common Core for all Georgia schools.  What’s going to be the result of this?

The DHCC, if it wanted to make a real difference in the lives of the children and youth and their families that feed into Druid Hills High School, might want to consider some of the following recommendations.  They might seem radical.  But, actually, they are not.  We have to move away from the accountability era.  Here are some ideas that I have modified based on research by Dr. Thomas.

10 Ideas to Modify Charter Schools (or any School)

1. End accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing

All the good in the DHCC petition, such as emphasis on the arts as well as science and math, the implementation of new curricula, the International Baccalaureate program, and the emphasis on community based programing, will be held up to inspection by a failed system of uniform standards and the outrageous dependence on high-stakes testing.  The unfortunate aspect of the accountability era is the focus placed on outcomes, which boil down to performance of students on standardized tests.  It’s as simple as that.

There are six academic goals listed on pages 24 – 26 of the petition, and each one of them will be evaluated by using quantitative measures, e.g. scores on tests, percentage meeting this or that target.  The quantitative tests that are used include Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), End of Course Test (EOCT), Measures of Academic Performance (MAP was rejected by hundreds of teachers in Washington because it did not relate to what they were teaching and they felt it was a waste of time), ACT, Grade Five, Eight & High School Writing Test, ITBS (Iowa Assessments).

And furthermore, the academic goals are not stated in terms of local curricula, but instead are statements of performance on specific tests, which may or may not be based on the curriculum at the seven schools.

And as Paul Thomas puts it,

A growing body of research has shown that the accountability era has failed: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself” (Mathis, 2012). A first and essential step to a new vision of education reform is to end the accountability era by shifting away from focusing on outcomes and toward attending to the conditions of teaching and learning—with an emphasis on equity of opportunity.  (Thomas, P., August 19, 2013, What we know now (and How it doesn’t matter), the becoming radical, August 23, 2013, http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/)

2. Implement a small (low-stakes) and robust measurement system

Instead of the tables of assessments that the DHCC organizers will insist that teachers administer to their students, a better approach would be not to use the assessments listed in the charts shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.  The Formative and Summative Assessment and Accountability Measures in Place for DHCC Students by Grade Level.
Figure 2. The Formative and Summative Assessment and Accountability Measures in Place for DHCC Students by Grade Level.

Instead, researchers have argued that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment system that exists today, and has since 1969 would be a much more powerful way to gather data about the effectiveness of schools.  If you were to study NAEP data over the past four decades, you would discover that there has been a slow, but steady improvement, and a decreasing gap between ethnic groups.  Instead of making every student in the DHCC take an unbearable number of tests each year, the NAEP is administered using a random methodology meaning that not every kid has to suffer through endless testing cycles.

3. Scale back and eventually end tracking

4. Focus on equitable teacher assignments

The focus on teacher quality within the accountability movement has tended to mislead the public about the importance of teacher quality connected to measurable outcomes while ignoring that impoverished, minority, and special needs students along with English language learners disproportionately are assigned to inexperienced and under-certified teachers. Education reform committed to equity must monitor teacher assignments so that no students experience inequitable access to high-quality, experienced teachers.

5. Honor school and teacher autonomy

The DHCC petition states clearly that it wants autonomy, but as I read the document, it seems to be autonomy for a board of directors that might be made up eventually of cronies who self appoint themselves.  There is too much power vested in this board, and it one of the first things that must change.

Teachers and school staff are the ones that need autonomy.  If the accountability system based on standards and high-stakes testing was abandoned, then the autonomy would naturally rest with the faculty of Druid Hills High School, and the other six feeder school faculties.  There has to be a disruption such that the board that wishes to assume power is restricted, and given an advisory position.  The board should not have the power that it has written into this proposal.  All that is being done here is replacing one layer of bureaucracy that already exists with another one, that appears to value power and control.

As Paul Thomas has well stated:

Individual schools and classrooms vary dramatically across the U.S. School autonomy and teacher professionalism are the greatest sources of understanding what populations of students need. The current move toward national standards and tests is inherently a flawed concept since student needs in Orangeburg, SC, are dramatically different from student needs in Seattle, WA.

By removing the failed accountability system from the Druid Hill Charter Cluster proposal, the authors would actually re-invent the original purpose of charter schools–to beacons of excellence.  In this re-invented form, professional teachers would make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and student assessment.  In this system, teachers would carry out a qualitative system of assessment (which would still include quantitative measures), but would rely of their professional decision making to make decisions.

6. Replace accountability with transparency

Individual school faculties would give its students’ parents and citizens in the county a transparent approach in which the public is seamlessly informed about the needs of the students, and how the school is providing evidence that the best pedagogical strategies are being implemented to help students succeed.

7. Address wide range of issues impacting equity—funding, class size, technology, facilities

The authors of the petition are quite aware of the diversity of their community.  If the authors are courageous enough to move away from accountability measures and toward equity, then there is a greater possibility of equity for all students.

8. Abandon ranking

We have a fetish with ranking.  CRCT results each year are published in the newspaper, and it seems that the goal here is to name the schools and districts that are awardws gold medals or gold stars using questionable data.

I’ve written at great length on much of misunderstanding associated with international rankings based on PISA and TIMSS assessments which are given to students in countries around the world.  It may surprise you, but the rankings that we see each time these two organization release their results are based on a national test score average.  Recent research at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark reveals that only 10% of all students that were tested in reading were tested on all 28 questions on the test.  As the lead researcher, Dr. Svend Kreiner say, “This in itself is ridiculous.”  He goes on to say that PISA comparisons are meaningless.  We can say the same about the TIMSS rankings based on national averages.

I’ve reported on this blog, that when these international tests are investigated more carefully, and comparisons are based on important socio-economic factors, the rankings change considerably.

As Paul Thomas writes:

Education in the U.S. has suffered the negative consequences of ranking for over a century. Ranking nearly always distorts data and typically fails goals of equity. Instead of ranking, education should honor how conditions of learning match clearly identified learning goals.

9. Rethink testing and grades:

By re-thinking testing and grades, we have the opportunity to change the interpersonal dynamic between ourselves and our students, and their families.  The idea that a student’s worth in science, or history should be based on high-stakes test scores diminishes the student’s quest for knowledge and self-understanding.  By removing the emphasis on tests and grades, students and teachers can work on goals and evidence of progress.  Student interests can surface as important markers for curriculum and for projects.  But more importantly, by doing this, we create environments of trust between students and teachers, quite unlike the system that we have in place today.

10. One More Thing

In my view, reform needs reform, and I hope that the authors of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster can review their plan, and reconsider the plan.  I would hope that they would abandon the accountability system that relies on standards-based curriculum and high-stakes testing.  And I also would ask the faculties of these schools to look at how the board will be formed, and the power that the board has invested in itself.

Finally, here is link to a collection of articles many of the reform ideas presented here.

This is a personal view, and I invite your responses and ideas on this charter school proposal.

 

 

Georgia Charter School Clusters: “Under the Dome”

On August 13, about  eleven-hundred citizens from the Druid Hills area of DeKalb County, Georgia voted on a petition to create the Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC).  The cluster consist of seven schools, five elementary, one middle, and Druid Hills High School.  The purpose of the charter is raise student achievement by creating a cluster of charter schools.

A few miles further to the north, a group of “concerned parents” is working on a petition to form the Dunwoody High School Charter Cluster.  According to one report, the organizing parental group decided to put off a letter of intent to the DeKalb County Board of Education until next year.

Figure 1. Druid Hills Charter Cluster Dome: Image Source: CBS News

So, in DeKalb County, Georgia, there are two efforts underway to create charter clusters, or what I am calling charter schools “Under the Dome” (Special thanks to Cita Cook for suggesting the notion of a dome in this context).   These domed neighborhoods will have autonomy from the county board of education, and will have complete and comprehensive power to work out its own business plan, establish curriculum, and hire teachers that meet its own criteria.

The document describing the petition (75 pages and appendices) outlines the rationale and goals of the DHCC.  School choice, teacher policy, high-stakes testing and academic achievement dominate the DHCC.

Druid Hills Dome

I know the Druid Hills Dome very well.  I lived there for ten years, but for more than 30 years I worked with schools, teachers and administrators in all DeKalb County.  Indeed, one of the schools that I had a twenty year relationship with was Dunwoody High School.  Dunwoody was a partner school with Georgia State University’s Global Thinking Project, and under the principalship of Dr. Jenny Springer, Dunwoody participated in more than ten student and teacher exchanges with partner schools in Russia.

Druid Hills High School and Dunwoody High School are outstanding schools, and for years have been important to their respective communities.   Why would this group of parents want to segregate the schools in each cluster from the rest of the DeKalb Schools?  Yes, there is a new school board, and an interim Superintendent, and the county has had problems.  Is now the time to break up the district?

Convincing the board of education to let a group take away schools and land to form their school system is unbelievable.  Imagine.  You get a group of like-minded parents together (mostly white) and decide that creating your own cluster of schools would be in the best interests of all the parents and students under the dome.  It’s a real deal.  Not only do you set up a power-based structure, but you take over school properties owned by DeKalb County.  And it doesn’t cost you a dime.  The Druid Hills Charter Cluster, Inc., is a Georgia non-profit corporation, and as such, has already begun a campaign of raising money through its website. The current officer of the DHCC and chair of the Druid Hills High School Council is Mathew S. Lewis.  Mr. Lewis will also become a member of the charter board of directors of the DHCC.

Location of Schools in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.  View as a larger map.
Figure 2. Location of Schools in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster. View as a larger map.

So in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster “under the dome,” some residents have banded together to try and form their own mini-school district, essentially cut off from the larger public school district. When you read the DHCC petition, it is clearly stated that this group seeks academic autonomy, including their own hired staffs, food service, transportation, and financial independence.  Now keep in mind, that the funds to support the DHCC will come from DeKalb County and the state of Georgia.  It is also possible that venture capital will find its way into the dome, and most likely out-of-state investors and “school” reform organizations such as the Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundations will appear.

In time, there will be huge problems when teachers realize that their jobs are at risk. They will discover that in the long run it will be more cost effective for the DHCC to partner up with Teach for America who will supply inexpensive teachers who will leave after two years.

For example, after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans schools were converted to charter schools, with thousands of employees fired, and then replaced by recruits from Teach for America who have a 5-week program to learn how to teach.  Instead of innovation (I use this word because it is used in the DHCC petition), New Orleans schools were set up to be managed by data and numbers, not critical thinking, inquiry and problem solving.  The DHCC will follow the same path.  The DHCC will test the daylights out of students, and will use data in unsubstantiated ways to evaluate teachers.  This is clearly a set up.  Teachers will be replaced on the basis of faulty data and fraudulent assessment methods.  Indeed one of the tests included in the lineup of formative assessments is MAP (Measure of Academic Progress), the same test that teachers in Washington refused to administer to their students because it was unrelated to their curriculum.  And it goes on and on.  Summative assessments are no different.  There is complete line up of end of course and criterion referenced tests.

Will this be the future for the DHCC?

Is the DHCC a Parent Trigger in Disguise?

Another question I have is this.  Is the DHCC using the “parent trigger” strategy disguised as a cluster of conversion charters?

Under Georgia law, a group can petition to create a conversion or start-up charter school.  Unfortunately, most of the laws on the books were really not written with Georgia students, parents and teachers in mind.  In fact, I asked last year, Why don’t our elected representatives write their own legislation?  Well, it’s because ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) writes them, brings like minded (mostly Republicans) together, and passes out “model bills” that our elected ones take back to the legislature, put their names on them, and submit them as a bill.  The charter bill that passed in the last session was written by ALEC, and in fact you can go here to read the bill.  Notice that the bill is written so that all that our elected officials have to do is fill in the blanks (with their names, dates, etc.).  That bill was used to strike down a Georgia Supreme Court Decision in the previous year that ruled unconstitutional, a statewide charter authorizer.  The commission on charter schools was reinstated.

In the last legislative session, the Parent Trigger Bill (which would enable disgruntled parents of low-performing schools to fire teacher and administrative staff and turn the school over to for-profit management company paid with district funds) made its way through the House, but was held up in the Senate after some very courageous citizens of Georgia (Empowered Georgia) said, enough is enough.  The people behind the Parent Trigger simply imported the same ALEC bill that had been floating around in California, Florida and Oklahoma.  It comes in many names, one of which the Parent Empowerment Act.  There is no parent empowerment.  The parents are pawns in a shifty business deal in which failing schools can be replaced with charter schools. Now, if you think parents at the local level will set up the charter school, I’ll sell you a bridge.

But here is the problem with the Druid Hill Charter Cluster.  It is being submitted under the law which defines the nature of conversion charters.  It smells like its a parent trigger.  When independent reporters attended the polling site for the DHCC, most of those in attendance where white, and by all estimates, very few teachers were there.  Yet only 18% of the students in the Druid Hills Dome are white, while 61% are African-American, 10% Asian, and 7% Hispanic/Latino.

Is a Charter Cluster the Answer?

Well, that depends upon the question.  In the present age, the question is how can we make American students more competitive in the global market place and how can we improve the academic scores of students on yearly national and international tests (TIMSS and PISA)?  That is the question that most charter petitions use to claim that their approach will exceed the expectations of regular public school students.  Charter schools actually do worse than regular public schools on end-of-year or other benchmark tests used for national assessments.

Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.
Figure 3. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.

Professor Michael Marder at the University of Texas has looked at the type of school, charter vs regular public school, he found the results to be quite dramatic.  If you look at Figure 3, there are 140 charter schools in Texas with 11th grade data.  As you can see in Figure 3, most of the charters form a flat line at the bottom of the graph indicating that except for 7 charters off the flat line, the rest of the charters are doing worse than the regular public schools. Dr. Marder has analyzed data from California, New York, and New Jersey and found that charter schools do not do better than regular public schools in any of these states.

Georgia has opened the door to the charter management world, and there is no doubt that the DHCC is capitalizing on this moment in history.

If you listen to the politicians and owners of a charter schools, public schools do not know how to meet the divergent needs of Georgia students.  You often hear, “one size does not fit all.”  Professional educators know this instinctively.  Furthermore, teachers in public schools (and independent schools, by the way) have worked with researchers who are on the cutting edge of the learning sciences.  This two-way interaction between teachers who have experiential knowledge of the classroom and students, and researchers who take themselves out of the ivory tower to work with teachers to seek answers to questions about how students learn is much more powerful way to improve schooling.

The managers of charter schools do not have the interests of parents or students in mind.  They make the false claim that charters will put schooling back into the hands of parents, when in fact the charter school movement has led to putting taxpayer money in the accounts and hands of charter management companies.  Parents and students are being used to secure this end.

Democratic Schools?

Last week I published Dr. Chip Carey’s report on the Druid Hills Charter Cluster election.  In Dr. Carey’s words:

In all the elections that I have observed around the world, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Pakistan, Romania and the Philippines, I have never seen such a sham election within a polling area.

If the election was a sham, then this is evidence that a bogus attempt to manipulate the law, and set up a collection of conversion charter schools using the parent trigger strategy is being made.

What we are observing in DHCC is an un-democratic activity that purports to represent the opinions and needs of thousands of parents and children.  If there is not a broad cross-section of constituents involved in the DHCC, then what we are witnessing is simply another attempt by school choice advocates to privatize public education.

Unless the election is investigated to find out if democratic voting rights were in place for all citizens, then how can a small group of advocates claim to represent, and then later control education in this corner of DeKalb County. A new bureaucracy will be established managed by the DHCC, Inc, with the real decision makers being at the bottom of the hierarchy.

One More Thing

The notion of a charter school, when originally conceived 20 years ago, was an innovative idea.  It was a teacher led initiative which resulted in creative and new approaches to teaching and learning.  The idea was hijacked by corporations who saw the charter school provision as back door into local public schools.  Coupled with the support of conservative politicians and their corporate allies to privatize government agencies and activities, schools have become the target of this effort.  Charter schools are seen as a way to privatize education, and devastate public education as we know it.

The thing is that charter schools do not nearly do as well as regular public schools.  The research reported in this post casts a vague eye on the efficacy of charter schools in fulfilling the promise that charters, because they can run more flexibly than their public school counterparts, will create environments where students will not only do as well as public school students, but out do them on achievement tests. The massive amount of data that has been analyzed by Dr. Marder’s team at the University of Texas, and the results of charter school performance in 16 states does not paint a very pretty picture of charter schools.

In a major study done at Stanford University, the researchers concluded that the majority of students attending charter schools would have fared better if they are gone to a public school.

Yet, most of our legislators in the Georgia House and Senate refuse to look at the research that clearly shows that public schools should be supported even more than they are now because they not only do a better job in the academic department, but they work with all students.  All families.  Regardless.

I hope that the DeKalb Board of Education reads this post, and questions the legitimacy of the DHCC, Inc. to establish a schools “under the dome.”