Friday, December 7, 2007

Friday Afternoon KIPP Caribbean Pile On

There's a blogospheric pile on regarding KIPP's private-public financing of staff retreats to the Caribbean. See A-Rus and NYC Educator for two views.

In an era where public education is struggling to justify its need for more funds, stories like this certainly don't help the cause. Even if it is "just private money," this case (and the many others I've seen like this) raises the pesky and under-explored issue of investment-return ratios in educational philanthropy.

A group that's doing really interesting work in this area is called Give Well. The organization was founded around the idea that "generosity and good intentions are nice - but not enough." They're gathering effectiveness data on many kinds of non-profits, including educational non-profits. You can check out the orgs they are reviewing here. As hybrid private-public arrangements grow in education, we should all start reading their blog - check it out here.

Kudos to Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio enriches this site with the time and care he takes to comment - so check out his article, "Mr. P Learns His Lesson," in this week's Business Week. Congrats on the new job, Robert!

On Best Practices and Learning from "No Excuses" Schools

Yesterday, someone quipped that I write longer blog posts than Gary Becker. The key difference, of course, is that he is a Nobel prize winner. So here's my attempt to keep it real and keep it short:

1) Can we learn something from "outlier schools?" As I have written in the context of KIPP, looking closely at these schools can reveal potential best practices that warrant further study. This is important and useful, so long as we resist the temptation to make strong causal claims about the impact of a given practice on achievement solely from these cases.

2) Karin Chenoweth, the author of It's Being Done (that got short shrift this week because I am admittedly only half-way through - review to follow in the near future), wrote in yesterday's comments:

Wouldn't it be worth trying to identify those practices and structures and then making sure all children--particularly poor children--have access to them? Then we could have a real discussion of the effects of poverty on learning. Right now it is impossible to separate out the effects of bad schooling on students who grow up in poverty because so many poor children are forced to attend schools that do not use the "practices and structures that increase the odds of success."
I'm all for identifying those practices and making sure that all children have access to them. Holding schools accountable for practices and structures, rather than solely measuring results, is something we should be talking much more about. Robert Pianta has a nice commentary on the need to "measure teaching" in Ed Week. On this point, we agree.

But on your second point, I think we know more about the effects of poverty on student achievement than you are acknowledging. That poverty does not have large effects on kids' achievement and life chances is a deliciously American fantasy - and one that I find frustrating to defend in light of the weight of the social science evidence on this topic. As studies analyzing data from the Early Child Longitudinal Study - Birth Cohort (a study of 14,000 children born in 2001) are beginning to show, these gaps emerge early - well before kids ever walk through the school door. Another way of isolating the impact of social class is to compare poor and advantaged kids' learning rates during the summer - where school cannot be the problem - and it's also clear that poor kids are at a disadvantage.

None of this is to deny that schools can, and must, do a lot. So like Debbie and Diane, we agree, we disagree. Can folks on both sides of this argument bridge differences at some point? We'll see.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone!

Cool People You Should Know: Doug Harris

Doug Harris is an economist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin - Madison's School of Education. He writes about a wide range of ed policy issues, so you should check out his papers and see if anything suits your fancy. He has a terrific website and most of them are available there. You can also read about his cool findings in yesterday's post.

Since Harris has a chapter you should read ("Educational Outcomes of Disadvantaged Students: From Desegregation to Accountability") in the new American Education Finance Association Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy, let me blurb that volume here. 40 chapters strong and including just about every education policy topic imaginable, this is the mother of all research handbooks. For those of us who complain that we can't find good literature reviews to use as course materials, the whining stops here. More details and order form at the link above.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Three on Rhee in DC

Dr. Seuss is no match for me.
You'll see!
I give you three on Rhee in DC:

1) Check out a very thoughtful edbizzbuzz post on Michelle Rhee's personnel policies.

2) Watch Rhee's talk at a Democrats for Education Reform event.

3) Fight Union Bosses! Donate to the DC Republican Committee! You, too, DFER-wonks and DFER-wonkettes. (This fundraising plea went out yesterday - click below to enlarge.)

The Troubled Logic of the "It's Being Done/No Excuses" Argument

On Tuesday, I reviewed the "it's being done/no excuses" argument. Today I consider the evidence for each pillar of this argument.

(Props to for the image.)

1) Some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting exceptional results.

The identification of especially "effective schools" for poor and minority students dates back to Ron Edmonds' work in the late 1970s (hat tip to Sherman Dorn and anonymous 6:16AM). The Education Trust (1999, 2001) and Heritage Foundation (1999) have carried the Edmonds flag since then. Both have published reports on schools that are high poverty/high minority, but are "beating the odds."

What does it mean to be "high-flying" or "beating the odds?" The 2001 Education Trust report defined high-flying schools as those schools in the top 1/3 of their states' test scores that are also “high-poverty” (more than 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch). Over 3,500 schools were identified. According to Ed Trust, if this many schools can make it happen, all schools should be able to.

It turns out that a school could make the Ed Trust's list if it posted high achievement in only one subject, in one grade, for one year. Doug Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, reanalyzed these data (paper here), and found that the number of high flyers was, unfortunately, too good to be true. In his analysis, the Ed Trust definition classifies 15.6% of high poverty schools as “high flyers.” Requiring high performance in two subjects, for two grades, for two years reduces the number of high-flying schools to 1.1% of high poverty schools.

These high-flying schools are what statisticians call “outliers” – data points that are quite atypical of the general relationship between school poverty and school achievement. (See also my previous posts on KIPP on this issue - and for more on the problems with Ed Trust and No Excuses lists, see the Harris paper and Chapter 2 in Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools.)

2) If some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting good results, poverty must not affect academic achievement - at least not in ways that can't be overcome by good schools.

After the release of “Dispelling the Myth Revisited,” the Education Trust's Kati Haycock commented, "How many effective schools do we have to see in this country before we conclude that it's not the kids?" (See the NY Times article.) Advocates like Haycock often argue that educators' low expectations, not students’ out-of-school conditions, remain the biggest challenge faced by poor children.

One way of thinking about the impact of poverty on student achievement is to consider the odds that a low-poverty school will exhibit consistent high achievement compared to a high poverty school. Harris found that:

Low-poverty schools are 22 more likely to reach consistently high academic achievement compared with high-poverty schools. Schools serving student populations that are both low-poverty and low-minority are 89 times more likely to be consistently high performing compared with high-poverty, high-minority schools.

This argument has been made at length elsewhere, so I won’t go on. For more, see Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods or Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools.

3) If some schools can get exceptional results in spite of the challenges their students face, all schools should be able to.

Let’s think about what it would mean for the bottom 50% of any group to perform at the level of the top 1%.

Comical examples first – this argument implies that if we all went crazy at the gym, we could all achieve the physiques of the top 1% - i.e. Heidi Klum and David Beckham. It also suggests that if students currently scoring in the 25th percentile of the SAT distribution studied harder, they could make it to the 99th percentile.

Proponents of this argument will respond by saying “we’re just asking for basic proficiency.” But that does not change the fact that they are asking 99% of high poverty schools to suddenly do what only 1% have been able to. We don’t use exceptional performance – the top 1% - in any other field to argue that everyone else can do just as well. It makes no sense to do so in education.

4) These high-achieving schools employ shared "best practices." These "best practices" have a positive causal effect on educational success.

Boring alert - this claim is a basic misunderstanding of the concept of conditional probability. Conditional probability is the probability of one event happening given that another has occurred.

In this case, what organizations like the Ed Trust really want to know is the probability of a school being a high-flyer given that it uses one of these “best practices” (i.e. high expectations, collaborative decision-making, etc). Instead, “high-flyer/no excuses/it’s being done” studies look at the characteristics of a school given that it is a high-flyer, and then attribute these schools' success to these characteristics.

But if you want to identify the effect of particular practices on achievement, you want to know the probability of a school being a high flyer given that it uses best practice #10. There are lots of schools where teachers have high expectations, work collaboratively, make decisions based on what is best for students, etc that do not achieve exceptional results.

Of course, it is the case that there are practices and structures that increase the odds of success. But even if everyone used these practices, I suspect that most high-poverty schools would still be low-flying.

5) If schools aren't achieving results on par with these "high-flying" schools, it is the fault of the schools and their educators.

Other folks have argued this point more eloquently than I can, so here's an excerpt from last week's Richard Rothstein/Russlyn Ali debate. Rothstein wrote:

Pretending that more effective schools can close achievement gaps on their own — promises the impossible, setting schools and teachers up for failure. Why shouldn't the public conclude that schools are incompetent if educators cannot achieve what some foolishly promise? I am often accused of letting schools "off the hook" by making this argument. Not at all — both schools and social policy need improvement. But claims that schools alone can close achievement gaps let politicians and business leaders "off the hook." We let them claim one day that it's too expensive to provide health insurance to all children, and on the next pose as advocates for minorities by demanding that schools close the gap.

To sum up - I am not arguing that schools don't matter or that schools can't have important impacts on kids' life chances. They can, and they do. But the existence of a small number of schools with exceptional results is not evidence that all schools can produce them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NYC's Blackberry Brigade

Alexander Russo captured the cultural ethos of the NYC DOE yesterday, snapping the Tweedie Birds strumming their Blackberries on camera. If you've attended any NYC events recently, you already know that the best way to identify DOE employees is to scan the room for Blackberry action when someone else is speaking. Another telltale sign: most DOE employees recently hit puberty.

But what are they doing with those flickering thumbs?

- Sending winks to potential dates on
- Checking fantasy football scores
- Changing mood emoticon on facebook
- Reading alma mater newspaper (here, here, or here)
- Making plans to meet date at Nobu Next Door
- Browsing for Next Door date get-up
- Shopping for private schools for future spawn of the Next Door date
- Submitting application for job at the Parthenon Group ("smart, nice, and driven")
- Online betting
- Online betting on which NYC schools will close next
- Creating solutions through synergistic best practices and paradigm shifting
- Stocking up on absinthe for holiday party
- Playing Pub Fun Duck Shoot
- Pricing newest Blackberry model

*And a great addition by reader "skoolboy": real-time transcribing of Diane Ravitch's remarks.

Imperial Death March Sounds for 6 NYC Schools

The NYC Department of Education announced that it will phase out 6 schools this year serving 3417 students. NY1 reports that up to 14 additional schools may be closed by the end of this year.

What's perplexing, though, is why these six schools were chosen - 3 of the 6 got Ds, not Fs. If you really believe your progress report system identifies "failing" schools, why would you close D schools before F schools? Note to Joel: legitimate regimes follow their own rules.

Some basic facts about the schools that are slated to close:
  • 3 are in Manhattan, 2 are in the Bronx, and 1 is in Brooklyn.

  • 3 are middle schools, 1 is a K-8, 1 is an elementary school, and 1 is a high school.

  • All schools serve a high proportion of free lunch eligible students (ranging from 66.3 to 86.4%).

  • Five of the six schools serve 60% or more Hispanic students.

  • Two of the six schools are more than 25% ELL.

  • Four of the six schools have very high concentrations of special education students (ranging from 17.1 to 26.1%).
See the two tables below for more details.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dinos in Central Park Will Help You Procrastinate

This is a plug for a National Geographic Sunday special on dinosaurs - click here for the fun promo:

Featuring a hidden “webcam” in Central Park, the website allows users to scare the pants off of unsuspecting New Yorkers walking through the park by controlling a virtual Dino hidden in the bushes.

Clear your head and get back to work!

The "It's Being Done/No Excuses" Argument

Today I want to lay out the "It's being done/no excuses" argument that is so in vogue. On Thursday, I will pick apart each of these assumptions.

This argument has roughly five tenets:

1) Some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting exceptional results.

The Education Trust and Heritage Foundation have both published reports on schools that are high poverty/high minority, but are "beating the odds."

2) If some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting good results, poverty must not affect academic achievement - at least not in ways that can't be overcome by good schools.

As the Ed Trust's Russlyn Ali argued in last week's LA Times debate with Richard Rothstein:
No one would deny that there are too few of these [successful] schools, but I think you may be confused about exactly which "odds" they are beating. The biggest challenge these educators face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed and therefore gives them less of the stuff that academic success is made of.
3) If some schools can get exceptional results in spite of the challenges their students face, all schools should be able to.

As the Heritage Foundation's "No Excuses" introduction said: "Help us to shine a spotlight on their success and join us in demanding that failing schools meet their standard."

4) These high-achieving schools employ shared "best practices." These "best practices" have a positive causal effect on educational success.

For example, in her recent Ed Trust conference presentation, Karin Chenoweth argued that "it's being done" schools share the following characteristics: 1) They have high expectations for all students., 2) Teachers work collaboratively and plan together., 3) They make decisions based on what is best for the students, not what is best for the adults., 4) They teach (well, I never?!), 5) They are stubborn. These "best practices" explain their success.

5) If schools aren't achieving results on par with these "high-flying" schools, it is the fault of the schools and their educators.

Kati Haycock best exemplified this position in her introduction to the 1999 "Dispelling the Myth" report, writing:
Over the past decade, we have watched a kind of creeping malaise infect more and more educators, and indeed, more and more entire school systems. The clearest manifestation of this malaise is found in the conversations we have with teachers and principals in high poverty schools who often tell us that, “these standards you’re talking about may be find for some kids, but certainly not for the kind of kids we have in our school.” ….Somewhere along the line somebody decided that poor kids couldn’t learn, or, at least, not at a very high level. And everyone fell in line. But the truth is actually quite different.
As I will explain on Thursday, the "it's being done" argument - to put it kindly - is logically troubled. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Two New York Minutes: See "Class Dismissed" and Save JREC

Two important notes for New Yorkers:

1) On Thursday, December 6th, Teachers Unite and NYCORE are sponsoring a screening of "Class Dismissed," a documentary about the textbook industry and the teaching of history, from 5-7 PM at the Julia Richman Education Complex, 317 East 67th between 1st and 2nd Ave. Seating is limited, so RSVP to sally (at) teachersunite (dot) net if you'd like to attend.

2) After you visit the Julia Richman Education Complex (JREC), visit the "Save JREC" website and get involved in the effort to keep Hunter College from displacing the six small schools housed there. JREC has hosted these schools since 1996, and is a national model for shared building governance. Now Hunter College would like to build a high rise in its place - you can read about Hunter College's plans here. But as those fighting for JREC have argued:
A school is never simply a physical structure – especially not a constellation of schools that have worked for more than a decade to fuse a cooperative community for children ranging from toddlers to seniors in high school. And students, parents, and staff are not widgets that can be carted off somewhere and expected to operate with success – particularly with the high-level of success that the JREC community has achieved.
Please visit the website or email SAVEJREC (at) jrec (dot) org for more information.

This is Your Brain on School...Any Questions?

Remember the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's public service ads? Watch these before reading this post.

Ask a class full of 9th graders in an urban school if they're going to college, and the overwhelming majority will tell you that they are. These kids see education as a pathway to social mobility. The problem is in getting from here to there. While urban kids' skills and behaviors - like watching less TV or completing homework - have not followed from their aspirations, their belief in education itself is not the central problem.

Yet much of the debate about "rebranding school" in NYC is about using advertising to change urban kids' attitudes and "make school cool." Whenever Joel Klein talks about this topic, he appeals to the popular understanding of the acting white theory, essentially arguing that minority kids do not value education. (Full explanation here on Fordham and Ogbu's acting white theory.) In a Newsweek article, Klein said:
"It's no secret," says New York City schools chief Joel Klein. "All you have to do is ask kids in these areas and they'll tell you: school is not their thing. They don't want to be identified as being good at it. Studying is not something they want to be seen doing," he says.
So here's the plan as described by Newsweek:
In January about 15,000 middle-schoolers from high-poverty neighborhoods will be given free cell phones. Through those phones kids will then receive taped-and perhaps even personal-messages from entertainment and sports celebrities reminding them to try their best in class. They'll be able to download "interviews" with well-to-do men and women who work as dentists, technicians, scientists and accountants and who will discuss the way they parlayed school success into financial security. Teachers will also use the phones to remind pupils about upcoming tests or an overdue homework assignment. When individuals or groups of kids improve their attendance, up their grades or display good citizenship in school, they'll be rewarded with free minutes on their phones and tickets to shows and sporting events. Kids who get phones will also be assigned mentors.
My generation was the target of the "Just Say No" campaign. It's now clear that those public service ads had no effect on teenage drug use. Why? The campaign tried to change our attitudes about drugs with the hope that changed attitudes would translate into changed behaviors. But the only part of this program that sounds promising in this regard is the mentoring component.

My bet is that in 20 years, some blogger will be posting slick ads from the NYC Department of Education and reminding readers that they had no effect on student success. Hopefully, these ads will give NYC kids a better line to sass back at their parents than we had: "You, alright! I learned it by watching you."

See Ms. Frizzle, NYC Parents, Ed Notes, and Inside Schools for their takes.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

This week: The Outliers

Thanks to everyone who sent get well wishes - I'm feeling much better and should be back in action this week.

We hear a lot about "high-flying schools," "no excuses schools," or schools where "it's being done." The basic idea is that some schools are getting exceptional results with low-income and minority students, which proves that all schools should be able to.

As the Heritage Foundation wrote in its monograph, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High Poverty Schools": Help us to shine a spotlight on their success and join us in demanding that failing schools meet their standard. Should we join them?

Tuesday: The "It's Being Done" Argument

Thursday: The Troubled Logic of the "It's Being Done" Argument

Friday: What Can We Learn from these Schools?