Thursday, July 18, 2013

Epic Fail: The Student "Success" Act (H.R. 5)

I received a call from the AFT this afternoon asking me to contact my congressman to urge him not to support H.R. 5 The Student Success Act. I declined to be connected directly to my congressman's office, but decided to take a look to see what the fuss was about.

H.R. 5 is an attempt at a reauthorization and overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (more commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, NCLB), which has desperately been in need of attention for years. Section 1111 of the Act outlines the plans that States have to put together in order to receive Federal funds to support improving education for disadvantaged children. In NCLB, this included stipulations about Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and required sanctions for schools that failed to make AYP for a certain number of consequtive years. Certainly, the accountability portion of sec. 1111 is a big part of what has needed an extreme make-over, but I certainly wasn't expecting what H.R. 5 proposes.

The bill stipulates that States must come up with an accountability system "to ensure that all public school students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for remediation." This accountability system must:

  • identify the performance of every public school based on both individual student achievement and achievement gaps between groups of students; and
  • include a system for school improvement for low-performing public schools that implements interventions designed to address the schools' weaknesses.
And that's about it.

No, really, that's pretty much it. In particular, there are no indications about:

  • how rigorous the academic standards must be (other than the vague reference to college/career readiness, and I don't think anyone has agreed on what that means);
  • how to identify low-performing schools;
  • how to determine whether low-performing schools are improving satisfactorily;
  • what to do with schools that are chronically failing to improve; or
  • anything else of substance.

Moreover (and here's the kicker!), Sec. 1111(b)(3)(C) explicitly states:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Secretary to establish any criteria that specifies, defines, or prescribes any aspect of a State's accountability system developed and implemented in accordance with this paragraph.
In other words, States would have completely free reign to do whatever they want and call it "accountability," and the Secretary of Education can't do anything about it.

I suppose the Secretary of Education could simply start rejecting State plans under some vague notion about not ensuring that schools are graduating college/career ready students, but this would hardly be desirable, since the Secretary would be prohibited from providing any guidance to States about what kinds of plans would be accepted.

The short of it is that the AFT is right on this time about the abysmal state H.R. 5 (as reported to the House) would leave educational policy in. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was supposed to bring us closer to equitable educational opportunity, but decades of pumping money through its programs to States did little to shift broad educational inequities. For the first time, NCLB gave ESEA teeth to require that States demonstrate that their use of the funds was getting results. Certainly, the accountability provisions in NCLB had a number of major flaws, but what was needed was some "orthodontics" (not a massive tooth extraction) to straighten out ill advised provisions while keeping a strong stance on demonstrating results.

For more information on the shortcomings of H.R. 5, see the minority committee report, starting on p. 949 of House Report 113-150.

H.R. 5 was debated on the floor of the House this afternoon, but they only got through 20 of the 26 proposed amendments. I presume they'll continue tomorrow. The last amendment, proposed by Rep. George Miller of California, is a complete replacement of the bill (starting on p. 62 of House Report 113-158). I haven't looked at it in detail, but surely it has more reasonable accountability provisions than the current bill.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Massachusetts Education Reform: Innovation Schools

Last week, I outlined turnaround plans for under-performing schools as described in Massachusetts' most recent education reform. Today, I'd like to take a look at the brand new institution of "innovation schools."

An innovation school is a "public school, operating withing a public school district, that is established for the purpose of improving school performance and student achievement through increased autonomy and flexibility," and as such fills the gap between traditional public schools (which are fully under the policies of the local school district) and charter public schools (which are fully independent of the local school district). The flexibility granted an innovation school may be related to:

  • curriculum,
  • budget,
  • school schedule and calendar,
  • staffing policies and procedures,
  • school district policies and procedures, and
  • professional development.
Innovation schools may be either existing schools or new schools, may serve students from multiple school districts, or may be virtual (online) distance-learning programs.

Nearly anyone except private and parochial schools can submit an application to form an innovation school, including parents, teachers, and non-profit organizations. The applications are reviewed by the school committee (i.e. local school board), the local teachers' union, and the district superintendent. The application must include a school prospectus that outlines:
  • the overall vision of the school, including how the increased flexibility will help improve school performance and student achievement;
  • the specific needs or challenges the school will be designed to address;
  • the kind of autonomy and flexibility sought;
  • preliminary components of the school's innovation plan, to be developed in full by a stakeholder committee upon approval of the application;
  • the process that will be implemented to involve the appropriate stakeholders; and
  • a tentative timetable for developing and establishing the school.
Once the application has been approved, the applicant must promptly form an innovation plan committee of not more than 11 people chosen largely by the applicant, provided that it includes:
  • the applicant,
  • a representative of the superintendent,
  • a representative of the school committee,
  • a parent,
  • a principal of the school district, and
  • two teachers, one of whom is nominated by the local teachers' union.
The innovation plan describes how the school expects to improve school performance and student achievement, and must address: curriculum, budget, schedule, staffing (including recruitment, employment, evaluation, and compensation), policies and procedures, and professional development. The plan must include measurable annual goals with a variety of indicators, and should be based on student outcome data, to the extent practicable. The plan may optionally be implemented by an external partner.

The local school committee must hold at least one public hearing before voting whether or not to authorize the school for not more than five years. The school will then be evaluated annually by the district superintendent, and the school committee may amend the plan as necessary if the school fails to meet the goals set out in the innovation plan. If the school fails substantially to meet the plan's goals, the school committee can terminate the school's authorization (but not before the end of the school's third year). If the school meets its goals satisfactorily, school leadership may petition to renew the authorization for another period of not more than five years after convening a stakeholder committee to discuss potential revisions to the plan.

Additionally, the law requires the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education to:
  • provide planning and implementation grants for innovation schools,
  • provide technical assistance to applicants, and
  • collect and publish data and research relating to innovation schools, particularly about successful programs serving limited-English proficient students and other practices in innovation schools that could be adopted by other public schools.
The motivation behind the innovation schools reform seems to be the idea that some schools are locked into policies and procedures that are not optimal for meeting the challenges they face. For these schools, measures such as new leadership, new faculty, or supplemental educational services may not be as helpful as the opportunity to relax certain current policies in favor of something more amenable to their particular circumstances. The new innovation school provisions create an opportunity for schools to benefit from just this kind of flexibility. Moreover, since parents, teachers, universities, and community organizations can submit applications for innovation schools, reform no longer has to come from the top down, but can be initiated by those most intimate with the challenges or those highly experienced in meeting them; and since innovation plans must be developed with a variety of stakeholders, innovation schools will hopefully enjoy broad support and engagement from all directions (above, within, and without).

As with turnaround plans, the eventual success or failure of innovation schools will likely depend on whether workable solutions to the particular problems local school districts face can be identified and implemented by the innovation planners and school leaders. Hopefully, the technical assistance provided by the commissioner and expertise from external partners will provide an open conduit for fresh (and tested) ideas to increase local school capacity for improvement.

In any case, innovation schools and the turnaround plan procedures seem to be a much more reasonable approach to school improvement than the reform recently passed in California (SBX5 4, 2010 Cal. Stat. ch. 3), which includes the "parent trigger" first introduced in the Los Angeles school district. According to the new law, a petition with at least 50% of the parents of a school in corrective action under the No Child Left Behind Act forces the school district to implement one of the four school intervention models described in the Race to the Top regulations (Appendix C, Federal Register, v. 75, n. 221, p. 59828-30):
  • replacing the principal and at least half the staff, inter alia, ("turnaround model"),
  • reopening the school as a charter school or with external management ("restart model"),
  • closing the school altogether, or
  • replacing the principal and instituting a series of guided reforms ("transformation model").
But, beyond the "trigger," the law makes no provision for parent participation or any other stakeholder consultation in planning the subsequent school intervention, which is developed and carried out by the local school district alone. (More discussion about the measure is available here.) In contrast, the Massachusetts reform presents a much more collaborative (and less adversarial) model for school improvement, in which:
  • anyone with a beneficial idea has a platform to present it;
  • parents and other stakeholders participate throughout the planning process;
  • school teachers and administrators are not presented as the enemy;
  • plans are flexible enough to include small, but effective interventions or sweeping changes; and
  • self-evaluation through measurable annual goals and reports plays a prominent role.
I look forward to hearing about the new things to come in Massachusetts schools.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Massachusetts Education Reform: Turnaround Plans

Last Monday Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a new set of education reforms (SB 2247) into law. The three major portions of the law (1) expand powers of school district superintendents and the state commissioner of education for improving underachieving schools, (2) modify certain charter school provisions, and (3) establish brand new provisions for "innovation schools," which are something between traditional public schools and charter schools. A detailed list of what the law includes is available here. I'd like to focus for the moment on the new powers of the commissioner vis-a-vis underachieving schools, and will outline innovation schools in a subsequent post.

Since the Education Reform Act of 1993 (69 MGL 1J), the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has carried the responsibility to establish regulations concerning the determination of schools and districts that have failed to improve the quality of the education they provide. When a school was determined to be under-performing, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education was to appoint an independent fact-finding team to determine the causes of persistent under-performance, and the district was required to submit a remedial plan with "specific goals" for improvement, means for achieving them, and a proposed time-line. The school then had two years in which to implement the plan, with technical assistance from the commissioner. If at the end of two years, the school failed to demonstrate significant improvement, the school might receive a new principal, be allocated additional funds, dismiss teachers for good cause, or undergo "such other actions determined by the board of education, to be reasonably calculated to increase the number of students attending the school who satisfy the student performance standards."

The new reform spells out in much greater detail how plans for improving under-performing schools, dubbed "turnaround plans," will be developed, as well as what they should contain. There are also new consequences if schools fail to demonstrate long-term improvement under their turnaround plans, and new options to facilitate integrating external assistance into school management.

Once the commissioner deems a school is under-performing based on a variety of student performance indicators, the school's district superintendent, in consultation with the commissioner, has almost six months to develop a turnaround plan for the school to "maximize the rapid academic achievement of students." The development of the plan follows a series of well-defined steps, most of which can take no longer than a month and which are designed to incorporate the needs, values, and expertise of a number of different local stakeholders. This is accomplished by forming a committee of no more than 13 people who represent:

  • the state commissioner,
  • the school committee (i.e. local school board),
  • the teachers' union,
  • the school administration,
  • the school's teachers,
  • parents,
  • social services,
  • workforce development agencies,
  • early childhood (for primary) or higher education (for secondary schools), and
  • the community.
(Unfortunately, it seems they left out the most vested stakeholders of all: the students.)

The stakeholder group submits recommendations to the superintendent, who then drafts a plan, giving "due consideration to [the stakeholder group's] recommendations." The plan is sent to the stakeholder group, the school committee, and the state superintendent for comment. After making receiving further recommendations and making any necessary modifications, the superintendent sends the final plan to the commissioner. The entire process, including stakeholder group meetings, recommendations, and plan drafts, will be open to the public.

The law specifies that the turnaround plan should include:
  • steps to address social service and health needs of students and their families, to help students arrive and remain at school ready to learn;
  • steps to improve child welfare services and, as appropriate, law enforcement services in the school community, in order to promote a safe and secure learning environment;
  • steps to improve workforce development services provided to students and their families, to provide them with meaningful employment skills and opportunities;
  • steps to address achievement gaps for limited English-proficient, special education, and low-income students;
  • alternative English language learning programs;
  • a financial plan; and
  • an outline of measurable annual goals for improvement.
The legislation doesn't mandate any particular strategy for school improvement (since the particular strategies should be selected to suit the particular challenges the school faces), but it does provide a non-exhaustive list of potential strategies, including:
  • adjusting the curriculum,
  • reallocating or securing additional funds,
  • increasing salaries "to attract or retain highly-qualified administrators, or teachers or to reward administrators, or teachers who work in under-performing schools that achieve the annual goals set forth,"
  • expanding the school day or year,
  • having the entire staff re-apply for their jobs,
  • modifying district policies or collective bargaining agreements,
  • supplying greater in-service professional development for teachers or administrators,
  • increasing teacher planning and collaboration time, and
  • searching for and studying best school and instructional practices.
The superintendent can choose to appoint an "external receiver" to operate the school and implement the plan, or to assist with its implementation. (But, the school committee can appeal this decision to the commissioner.) This external receiver is "a nonprofit entity or an individual with a demonstrated record of success in improving low-performing schools or the academic performance of disadvantaged students."

The turnaround plan is authorized for no more than three years, with annual review. If the school fails to meet the planned goals, the superintendent may modify the plan, or the commissioner may appoint an external examiner to evaluate the plan's implementation. If at the end of the plan the school has not significantly improved, the plan may be renewed for no more than three more years, or the commissioner may designate the school as "chronically under-performing," in which case the procedure is followed to develop a new turnaround plan under the direction of the state commissioner (instead of the local superintendent). The commissioner may have the superintendent implement the new plan, send a targeted assistance team to help the superintendent implement the plan, or select an external receiver. If after twelve years (two three-year periods under the superintendent and two three-year periods under the commissioner) the school still has not significantly improved, then heaven help us.

The turnaround-plan reform for under-performing schools makes great strides in:
  • setting up a framework for developing plans for school improvement,
  • incorporating more voices into plan development,
  • increasing transparency and opportunities for public engagement,
  • broadening the focus of improvement plans to include consider more than instruction, and
  • increasing opportunity to bring in outside assistance in achieving goals.
However, the long-term success or failure of the reform will crucially depend on whether superintendents (and the commissioner) can indeed identify (and implement) effective solutions to the problems undergirding low achievement. If the strategies they select are inadequate, no plan, however beautifully constructed, will lead to sufficient improvement. Thus, the next step in complete education reform will be to study schools that are achieving significant gains and open channels for their stories to reach struggling schools, in Massachusetts and across the nation.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System

The Delaware Department of Education announced last month agreements with the American Institutes for Research to develop a new computer-adaptive Comprehensive Assessment System, including summative assessments of reading and math in grades 3-8; end-of-course exams for English, math, and science; and formative assessments in reading and math for grades 2-10. The assessments for all grade levels will be on a common scale for longitudinal study of students' learning growth over time. The press release suggests a very rapid development time-table: AIR is to pilot test the system this spring for full operation next Fall! Developing such a large item bank, as well as all of the associated computer software (perhaps AIR already has the delivery system in place), and ensuring the technical adequacy in all schools (which is, I suppose, a bit easier given Delaware's size) seems to be a tall order for a single year. If Delaware can pull it off, DCAS will be a major step forward for state-wide student assessment that is timely, efficient, and relevant for local instructional decisions. In an informal survey I completed two years ago, only a few states were experimenting with computer-based testing, and those that had operational systems were using them mainly only for end-of-course examinations. Oregon was using a computer-adaptive test for a while, but gave it up for a reason that escapes me at the moment (it may have been pressure from the US ED). In any case, I look forward to seeing what Delaware achieves, and hope the "First State" can serve as a model for twenty-first century student assessment.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What Does Everyone Need to Learn?

The characteristics of the family in which children are raised have an enormous effect on the kinds of formative experiences they enjoy, which, in turn, direct the trajectory of the remainder of their lives in dramatic ways. Children born into wealthy families have access to rich formative experiences, which lead to a greater variety of opportunities during adult life than children born into poorer families. But this hardly seems fair: Why should opportunity for success in adult life depend so much on the luck of birth, irrespective of natural ability or personal motivation? In recent decades, the international community has pushed for universal schooling as a means of equalizing, in part, the formative experiences of children in richer and poorer families. Unfortunately, many states find themselves in the unhappy position of having too few resources to provide every child with the lavish education they might desire. As a result, it has become increasingly important for states and other educational providers to seek out ways of maximizing educational benefit given limited resources, while still achieving the opportunity-equalizing function we assign to schooling.

This suggests the question: Is there some guideline curriculum planners can use to reduce the cost incurred by a given curriculum without jeopardizing the power of their schools to reduce the opportunity gap between rich and poor? Is there some minimal set of content to which everyone ought to have educational access? The international community has yet to establish a detailed answer to this question. International discussions about education have certainly underscored the great importance of educational and curricular quality, but descriptions of what counts as quality content have remained rather vague. Moreover, the common indicators used in international monitoring reports are unrelated to the quality of curricular content. Since access to schooling is nearly irrelevant if the quality of what students learn in school is insufficient, the international community needs to begin monitoring curricular content, in addition to the current indicators. This can be facilitated by an analytical device---a schema for basic education curricula---used in the evaluation and comparison of curricula in diverse contexts.

Read more in my Ed.M. thesis! I also have audio for a 10 minute overview and a 1 hour presentation with discussion under "Talks and Posters" in the Repository.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Narrowing the Curriculum

From oldandrew at Scenes from the Battleground:

We don’t need to consider whether French is more important than Latin, or whether biology is better for children than history for it to be possible to identify a failure in education where large number of those leaving the system are unable to read, write or behave like civilised human beings.

Recent national education reform efforts here in the United States that require school accountability for student outcomes in reading and mathematics have received a considerable amount of push-back, some of which has taken the form of complaints about a narrowing of the curriculum, saying that students need well-rounded educational experiences and that testing only in reading and math forces schools to myopically hammer these skills to the exclusion of other important lessons. I've never found the complaint convincing: Schools that successfully get students to learn to read and do math should have no problems with their students' passing mandatory external assessments, and can go on their merry way teaching as many other subjects as they like; schools that can't even get their students to read have major problems that need to be addressed before we can even begin to consider what kind of well-rounded curriculum students should learn (since they aren't really learning anything at all at this point, after all).

What's really going on behind the outcry against trying to teach students to read and do math? I have a sinking suspicion that much of it has to do with (a) incompetent administrators who respond to national and state reforms by imposing inane requirements on teachers who are otherwise doing a fairly good job and (b) teachers and administrators in failing schools who don't particularly like the fact that there are now consequences for that failure. As for the latter, we've known for half a century that our schools are failing far too many low-income and minority students, and yet have failed to make much progress in correcting the problem. It's about time to expect that students leave school able to read, write, and behave like civilized human beings---if achieving that means teaching fewer subjects in certain schools for the time being, so be it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Few Notes from the History of the Massachusetts Department of Education

In 1837, the Massachusetts General Court established the nation's first state Board of Education, whose statutory mandate was to

collect information of the actual conditions and efficiency of the common schools and other means of popular education; and diffuse as widely as possible throughout every part of the Commonwealth, information of the most approved and successful methods of arranging the studies and conducting the education of the young, to the end that all children in this Commonwealth, who depend upon common schools for instruction, may have the best education which those schools can be made to impart.[1]
In its first eighty years, the Board established ten teacher-training institutions, improved the leadership and organization of schools, pushed for the first compulsory school attendance law in the nation (1852), pushed for the first free textbook law in the nation (1884), and established schools for children with disabilities.[2] Thus, from its inception, the Massachusetts Board of Education acted in accordance with its mission as an educational development agency.

In the early Twentieth Century, Massachusetts executed a series of administrative reorganizations. These included merging the Board of Education with the Commission on Industrial Education in 1909 and placing them under the direction of a commissioner of education, who replaced the original office of the secretary of the Board of Education.[2] In 1919, the state again enacted a widespread consolidation of boards and commissions, which dissolved the Board of Education and replaced it with an advisory board for the new Department of Education (DOE) with divisions for elementary and secondary education, vocational education, teacher training, immigration, public libraries, and post-secondary colleges.[3] Despite the many administrative changes, the Department of Education has retained its developmental character with the mission to
provide a public education system of sufficient quality to extend to all children including a limited English proficient student ... , and also, including a school age child with a disability ... the opportunity to reach their full potential and to lead lives as participants in the political and social life of the commonwealth and as contributors to its economy.[4]

The DOE's Student Assessment Services (SAS) unit developed in response to the Public School Improvement Act of 1985, the purpose of which was to
ensure educational excellence and equity for all students in elementary and secondary schools of cities and towns, regional school districts and independent vocational schools of the commonwealth [and] increase accountability of teachers and students, provide resources for creative educational improvements at the local level and provide resources to equalize educational opportunity.[5]
SAS therefore continues in the Board of Education's original mission to "collect information of the actual conditions and efficiency of the common schools" and supports the developmental goal of improving equity of educational opportunity through increased accountability. Specifically, the Act of 1985 called for "a statewide testing program to improve curriculum and instruction and to identify those students needing assistance in mastering basic skills."[6] This testing program consisted of two parts. The first, the Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), provided information about the progress of educational achievement in schools and districts by means of reading, math, and science tests administered biennially in grades 3, 7, and 11. After the initial cycle, the assessment added a social studies component and shifted to grades 4, 8, and 12 in alignment with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). MAEP also included test items from NAEP to provide a basis for national comparisons.[7] The second, the Massachusetts Basic Skills Testing Program, provided information about individual students' achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics in grades 3, 6, and 9 to identify students for additional assistance in mastering basic skills.[8]

In the wake of the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act (P.L. 103-227), the Massachusetts General Court passed the Education Reform Act of 1993, which included provisions for the establishment of statewide curricular frameworks and an accompanying Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for
evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools [with respect to] the extent to which schools and districts succeed in improving or fail to improve student performance, as defined by student acquisition of the skills, competencies and knowledge called for by the academic standards ... in the areas of mathematics, science and technology, history and social science, English, foreign languages and arts, as well as by other gauges of student learning judged by the board to be relevant and meaningful to students, parents, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers.[9]
MCAS expanded the state testing program to include standards for academic achievement, a competency determination requirement for graduation, and state-wide comparisons of the performance of schools and districts.[10]

Today, SAS manages the development, administration, and analysis of MCAS tests in English/Language Arts (grades 3-8, 10), math (grades 3-8, 10), science and technology/engineering (grades 5, 8), and history/social science (grades 5, 7) in order to provide the data necessary for tracking the improvement of school performance and student achievement in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA, ``No Child Left Behind,'' P.L. 107-110) and in support of the DOE's primary mission to provide high-quality and equitable educational opportunities to all children.

[1] Chapter 241 of the Acts of 1837, section 2.
[2] Payson Smith, Eighty-third Annual Report of the Department of Education, Boston, 1920, at 15.
[3] Ibid. at 13.
[4] Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 69, section 1.
[5] Chapter 188 of the Acts of 1985, section 1.
[6] Ibid., section 6.
[7] Massachusetts Department of Education, The Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program: 1990 Statewide Summary, 1990, p 1.
[8] \footnote{Massachusetts Department of Education, \emph{Massachusetts Basic Skills Tests: Summary of State Results, 1989 Update.}}
[9] Chapter 71 of the Acts of 1993, section 29; Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 69, section 1I.
[10] Massachusetts Department of Education, "Education Fact Sheet," August 1997, at 20.