In Spite of the “System,” Urban Teachers Have a Record of Success

In spite of the “System” the evidence is that urban teachers have a record of success, not one that is spiraling down.  The present state of reform of American education is based on the idea that American students are doing poorly, and this will lead to disastrous economic consequences, and the loss of American’s place in the global economic competition.

But, education (for our students) should not be a competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of society.  Schooling should not be based on job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be based on fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and create school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

We’ve been told that urban education in America needs to be saved by pouring advise and money from the élite and influential corporations and philanthropic groups.  The problem is that these groups are focused on only one set of outcomes that all come down to increasing student academic performance measured by high-stakes examinations.

I want to show here that urban teachers have held their own for the past decade and half in spite of the problems they face in their schools day-to-day.  They not only have held their own, but the evidence shows that academic performance of their students (in mathematics at the 8th grade) in the example below has slowly but surly increased as shown in Figure 1.  As you can see, in Atlanta, students at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile increased performance on NAEP tests given from 2003 through 2013.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.

Reading and Math in Urban Schools

Take a look at the next four figures (Figures 2 – 5).  They were compiled by Mr. Ed Johnson in his study of the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).  Johnson, who is a student W. Edwards Deming, examined the TUDA results through a Deming Lens.  A Deming Lens means that to understand the behavior of a system, one must look at the system.  Breaking down a system into its parts (goals, policies, finances, curriculum, teachers, administrators, parents, directors) loses one’s ability to understand the system.

Each of the graphs below shows the behavior of these four systems over ten years.  You will notice that there is variation in the achievement scores of students in reading (grades 4 and 8) and mathematics (grades 4 and 8) from one testing period to the next.  But the variation is within upper and lower limits that would be expected in each system.

Causes of Variation in Scores

According to W. Edwards Deming 94% of the variation is due to the nature of the system, not the people who work in or make the system work.  Only 6% are attributable to special causes.  (W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 33). Kindle Edition).

As you look over the graphs you will see ONLY FOUR instances where the variation in scores lies outside the Upper Control Limit (UCL), and then only in 4th grade reading  Examples include: Charlotte, 2009, Austin, 2011, Charlotte, 2011, and Hillsborough, 2011.  Except for these four instances, all the variation is due to the nature of the system.

Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle--not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card
Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle–not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card.  Click on Map for more details.

The graphs below plot reading and math scores for 21 school urban school districts.  Mr. Johnson highlighted Atlanta (in red) and DC Public Schools (purple).  As you can note in the following graphs, achievement scores in reading and math for Atlanta and DC Public Schools fell within the Upper and Lower Control limits.  There is no radical change in scores, either up or down.  It appears that the teachers in these urban schools are doing the job they were hired to do and that is help their students learn how to read, and do mathematics.  And they’ve done this in spite of all the issues that surround schools in urban communities.

In systems thinking, as Mr. Johnson would tell us, there are two types of causes of variation in any system.  The most important cause of variation in any system is what we call “common causes” of variation that is really a function of the system itself.  Examples of common cause variation will fall within control limits on a graph (as shown below in Figures 2 – 5). Examples of common causes that influence variation (scores on tests, for example, or graduation rates) include 

  • High percentage of children from low SES groups.
  • Where the school is located. It’s zip code.
  • Age of the school building.
  • Size of the school system.
  • Underpinning policies, practices, procedures of the school which determines it’s culture.
  • Inadequate resources.

According to Deming, nearly all outputs of schooling are the result of common cause variation, and these would include drop out rates, achievement test scores, violence, bullying, gang activity, low self esteem, attitudes, under performance and literacy skills.

Defying Gravity

When we examine a school system from a systems thinking view, these outputs are causes by the day to day effects of common causes of variation.  As Deming and other systems thinkers, such as Ed Johnson would say, trying to seek achievement scores beyond what see in the graphs (Figures 2 – 5) is to “defy gravity.”  Reformers have charged ahead as if they can “defy gravity” and have put the blame of not improving test scores in the wrong place.

Managers (administrators) and workers (teachers) are not “common cause” variables.  However, since schools are based on a linear factory model, “reformers” ignore common causes, and instead claim that teachers and administrators can overcome the challenges posed by common causes.  When reformers insist on market reforms, and they don’t work, they blame the teachers and principles.  And to make matters worse, they use student test scores (which are the result of common causes) to evaluate teachers on the basis of false assumptions about schooling.

We think that the present system of reading and mathematics is fairly stable.  The output in reading and math (as measured by a test score) vary little, and one can make predictions about future reading and math output.

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We will explore systems thinking in future posts.  But for now, what do think about the analysis of the NAEP TUDA data as compiled by Ed Johnson?

Why Were Test Answer Sheets Altered? The Atlanta Case, Report #2

Students in Atlanta attending Summer Math and Science Enrichment Camp. Source APS website.

I’ve read the complete report on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) CRCT testing scandal. It’s hard to believe that there was such widespread activity in which student answers on the state’s CRCT bubble sheets were changed.


That is the central question of this post. I’ll say upfront, that I don’t know, and the report really does not answer the question. There is lots of evidence—the actual bubble sheets which were analyzed using a high speed optical computer program, interviews with more than a hundred teachers and administrators of the APS, Admissions by educators (probably under duress)  that they participated in changing answer sheets, and other documents that were too numerous to include in the report presented Governor Deal last week.


Culture of Fear

Could a culture of fear have caused teachers and administrators to change answers on the CRCT bubble sheets?  Did the focus on the reaching “targets” at any expense become the driving force in the way in which educators practiced in the APS.  On page 2 of the report, the authors concluded that:

A culture of fear and conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct. From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence.

Reading interviews of teachers and some administrators (some administrators refused to answer interview question) conducted by investigators, there is evidence there to support the authors conclusion that there was a culture of fear in the district. Some teachers feared retribution if they did not go along with what appears to be an administration led effort to deceive the public.

However, it is important to note that 178 educators were identified as being involved in the erasure scandal. This represents about 3% of the educators in the APS. Surely not acceptable, but now the other 97% of educators that did not participate will be required to attend “ethics” classes.

If there was a culture of fear, what conditions created this culture? Was it unique to Atlanta and was it brought on by conditions from which other school exempt.

Corporate vs Communal Ideologies of Education

Christopher Emdin, professor at Teacher College, Columbia suggests in his research that a corporate model of education is the dominant force in the organization of schooling today in which teachers and students work with subject matter and function in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. In the corporate mode, the primary goal is maintaing order and achieving specific results as reported on achievement tests such as Georgia’s CRCT.  This mode is a “one size fits all” scheme, which is the anthesis of what we know from the research in the learning sciences.

He contrasts the corporate model with a model in which students and teachers work together with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.  He labels this model, “communal.”  In my own view, the communal form of education asserts the professionalism of teachers in that they know what is best for their students, and that they also realize that knowing and understanding subject matter is not always measurable on bubble tests, and instead rely on formative means to help students understand the subject matter.  This means that the professional teacher in a much better position to assess what students know and have learned.  It could include an end of course test, but professional teachers also know that students’ teaching each other, building portfolios, keeping journals, writing reports, presenting papers, talking with peers, developing digital reports and projects, designing website, keeping blogs, analyzing data, are as powerful, and taken together provide a more meaningful picture of student learning, than a score of 825 on the CRCT test in science.

Although the corporate model of teaching is not new, has taken on a different and more centralized system of control by the passage of the NCLB Act a decade ago, the development of Standards in all subject areas over the past 20 years, the implementation of high-stakes tests in all states as the single measure of student academic achievement, the recent mandate within the Race to the Top Program to tie student achievement to teacher effectiveness and school accountability.  These various policies have put in place an authoritative system of education in which a centralized command and control system regulates schooling as if it were a factory producing nails.

We have created a system of education that is a top-down dominion in which administrators in Washington and each of the state’s capitals monitor “progress” in front of their computers based on “Spring” assessments that take a few hours to administer, and then a few more shine lazer and computer lights on the bubble sheets that millions of students filled out.

I believe that the citizens of Georgia, and in particular Atlanta, need to stand up and question the form of education that is now in place, and raise “tough questions” about the scandal, and how high up in the educational system in Georgia we should investigate to get at the bottom of this mess.

Emdin, C. (2007). Exploring the contexts of urban science classrooms. Part 1: Investigating corporate and communal practices Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (2), 319-350 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9055-z

Social Justice in Science Teaching

I received an email from Nate Carnes, President of the Southeast Association for Science Teacher Education (SASTE) announcing the SASTE’s annual conference entitled: Social Justice and High Quality Science Education for All which will take place at the University of South Carolina, Columbia on October 10 & 11.  Follow this link for details for the conference. Papers and poster sessions are invited.

The conference conveners are seeking papers from science educators in the southeastern region of the nation that focus on the theme of social justice.  Some of the presentations will take place as interactive poster sessions, while others will be papers presented to small groups of participants.

I thought it might be interesting describe a paper on social justice and science education; perhaps the type of paper that would be presented at the conference. A good example is this paper: Working for Social Justice in Rural Schools: A Model for Science Education by Mary John O’Hair & Ulrich C. Reitzug, published in December, 2006 in INTERNATIONAL ELECTRONIC JOURNAL FOR LEADERSHIP IN LEARNING.

According to the authors, the purpose of their article is to call attention to a neglected dimension of social justice—social justice for rural schools and, particularly, for the education of the students who attend these schools and the professional development of the educators who serve in them. They do this by describing the kindergarten through graduate education (K20) Oklahoma Science Initiative for Rural Schools, a program within the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal at the University of Oklahoma.  The authors point out that:

Rural America, representing one-third of all U.S. schoolchildren, is much poorer than urban America, with 59 of the 66 poorest counties located in rural areas. Rural schools are at a disadvantage when competing for resources for professional development and attracting qualified teachers, with one in four rural science teachers lacking in academic preparation or certification.

The authors support teaching that fosters an active learning environment, and that is based on social constructivism.  They also base their program on the fact that research indicates the achievement benefits for all students, regardless of SES.  They then go on to describe a program of teacher education that:
  • deepens the content knowledge and comfort with inquiry-based teaching of rural secondary science teachers through authentic research experiences;
  • transfers and sustains teachers’ authentic research experiences into classroom practice through lesson study; and
  • creates professional learning communities that provide meaningful learning experiences for teachers and students.
They conclude that:
K20 SCIENCE advances social justice in rural schools through new conceptions of teacher professional development that enhances learning and prepares citizens for democratic participation.
If you are interested in the conference, follow the links above for further information.
Some resources:

Atlanta Schools Should Be Emphasizing Science

Yesterday I raised the question whether literacy in reading and math was necessary to teach and learn science. I was prompted by the statement made recently by the Atlanta Public School District’s superintendent that she was not concerned that science scores were low when the district needed to emphasize literacy, not science. And of course the reason for this is that literacy is what is tested on the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) Assessment program. Although the Georgia Department of Education does test in the area of science, the bottom line is how well schools do on the NCLB assessment.

However, science ought to be emphasized in Atlanta’s schools, K – 12. It is outrageous that Atlanta is using testing as an excuse for not emphasizing science in its curriculum. The resources in Atlanta in the area of science are first-rate. There are four major universities (Clark Atlanta University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University). Fernbank Museum is located in Atlanta. Zoo Atlanta is home to the Georgia Panda Project. And just last year, the former co-owner of Home Depot financed and built the Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the world. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens are some of the most beautiful in the country, and they are located in Atlanta adjacent to Piedmont Park. The Atlanta School District has had a history of serious involvement in science education over the past 30 years, and there is no reason why science could not be used to foster fundamental changes in the district.

Atlanta participated in the recent test that was administered by NAEP, the Science Report for the Trial Urban Districts Assessment. The purpose of the test was to examine the performance of fourth and eighth grade students in ten American urban school districts. According to the NAEP site, these ten districts are more diverse than the nation’s public schools overall. Fourth grade students in the Atlanta test population did not differ significantly from a comparison group of large central cities, but did score below the national average. For eighth grade students, their scores were lower than the large central cities, and lower than the national average. I recommend that you visit the NAEP site and examine the results from the basis of grade level, as well as race/ethnicity and economic level.

It is outrageous that the Atlanta schools are not a pinnacle for science education, given the context of the district within the midst of such world-class science education institutions. There is the need for these institutions that I mentioned above to join with the Atlanta Public Schools to create a climate of scientific literacy that can be translated into a re-creation of the science curriculum, K – 12. Here in the most scientifically literate and cultural center in the Southeast is a school district that serves youth that could prosper if provided an education that went beyond the basics. A strong science curriculum can foster literacy in other areas such as reading and math, and bring to students the excitement and wonder of science, from astronomy to geology to zoology.

The presidents and directors of the institutions listed above need to join with the Atlanta Public Schools and explore what can be done to improve science education in the schools, and turn the tide in such a way that we do not look the other way when students do not do well on a national test, and claim that we need to pay attention to the areas of the curriculum that are tested by the Federal Government and the State.

With the world’s largest aquarium and four of the nation’s top universities, why can’t this be done?