Data Digging

IMG_0021This article, found in the December 5, 2017 New York Times and titled How Effective Is Your School District, should trigger some more in-depth thought about test results and effective schools. The assumed narrative hyped by press and edu-crats, is that urban school systems, more particularly public urban schools systems, are failing to educate students.

My experience with standardized testing and assessment of children based solely on such measurements has not been all that informative or enlightening. As an example, the last class of fourth grade students I taught before retiring regularly wrote reflective responses to their reading. Their writing was (developmentally) appropriate and most were meeting grade level standards based on the rubrics and inter-rater discussions my colleagues and I used as an assessment guide. Yet the results of their state standardized testing did not reflect that.

One could certainly make the case that, in knowing my students, there could have been a layer of subjectivity which I applied during my assessment, but I don’t think that was true very often. In fact, when my grade level colleagues and I looked at student work, my assessments were most often in alignment with theirs.

So what does this anecdote have to do with school effectiveness?

For most if not all of the years when I was teaching in urban and high poverty schools, I felt as if there were more factors influencing students’ tests and my school’s educational effectiveness. And, as Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy point out in the Times article, by looking more deeply at test results and tracking student growth over time, the rest of the universe just may discover what educators have known in their gut: that when students begin education from trauma and poverty, it may take a bit of time – years actually – to catch up and many students do.

Badger and Quealy refer to third grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Collectively those students are a year or more behind when tested in Grade 3; however, by Grade 8, many of these same children have grown 6 years and are nearly at Eighth Grade performance expectation. To me, that shows a school system that despite being nearly starved to death financially, is able to provide effective education to students, many of whom come from situations of poverty and trauma.

Looking more analytically at standardized test results over time might actually show urban (and southern) schools are actually working. Using a measurement of student growth alongside those performance results shows some remarkable results. Be sure to utilize the graphic further into the article where a reader can add the name of a local district to view that district’s result on the scatter plot.


Could it be that our urban districts are models for effective education?  Here’s some solid data that shows that effective schools are not only found in wealthier communities. And it’s a good place to ask how our urban schools are effectively fostering student growth in educational achievement.


Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?

Adventures in Web-meetings

10082015TryAgainHere in the Northeast, we’ve endured some whacky weather – high winds and plenty of rain. Not exactly a hurricane, but a giant inconvenience, particularly for those without power since Sunday night. The wind damage and power outages resulted in school cancellations throughout the Merrimack Valley; some school districts are now left with just 2 of the allocated 5-day calendar allowance for snow days before snow season actually starts. Buckle those seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy ride this winter.

So what does the weather have to do with web meetings?  One of the off-shoots of a no-school day is that all activities after school are cancelled. For me, and the trusty group of participants in the graduate literacy course I am leading, that meant our All-Hallows-Eve session of EDUC 7226 was postponed and would need to be made up.

So, in a semi-panic (okay, that was a full-blown panic), I offered the possibility of doing a conference call based lecture to the participants in lieu of a face-to-face class. Making up the class would be a scheduling problem in that the class sessions needed for the full course already occupy every Tuesday between mid-September and December 19. I was pretty certain no one would be enthusiastic about pushing out the end date to the first Tuesday after the holiday break, January 2.  We needed to hold the Halloween class now somehow.

Anticipating that with 2 days out of school, some people might actually want to try to hold this session even if it was held off-site, I started to wonder about having a conference call where participants could access the slides that I use to accompany our class session. It turned out that quite a few participants were willing to give this a go, even those who were without WIFI and electricity.  The problem solvers in the group found ways to overcome those challenges, some even heading over to local coffee shops where WIFI and electricity could still be had.

So, my task yesterday morning was to quickly get up-to-speed with webinars and conference calls.  Never having hosted such a thing, I Googled “webinars” and discovered  hosting an online web-meeting was indeed possible… at a cost of $89/month to $429/month. I was pretty sure the bookkeeper in this family would veto that. Next search was “free+webinar+software” and BINGO! The product I serendipitously discovered was Free Conference Calls.

When something is free, there shouldn’t be any expectation for easy use or full functionality.  Free usually means there will be some pain for the user, because… free, what do you expect?

This product, however, is the real deal.  Since I had to come up to speed with the product in about 3 hours, I keep my wishlist simple:  a) ability for access to audio only (for those listening in on cellphones) or for audio+shared screen b) easy (for me) to negotiate invites and manage participation, and c) free.  Free Conference Calls was all of that – and I was able to record myself for participants who may need this class session on instant replay. Other functions that I didn’t use (yet) included Q&A boards, break-out sessions, and using pointers and highlighters on my shared screen.

At the appointed hour for our class to start, nearly all of the 22 participants in this course were logged in either as either full meeting participants or audio only.  The audio recording resides on my Conference Call account as a weblink which will allow anyone who was unable to attend our live meeting to listen in later.  And, considering that I’m not the most technology-saavy person on this planet, the fact that all of this went off without a disaster, is totally gratifying.

Sometimes the stars do line up in our favor.  We are Technology Warriors – every single one of us!

When we push children to learn before they are ready…

There is a cost for pushing readers! We don’t just TEACH readers – we help them to BECOME readers.

Dr. Mary Howard

2016-sep-22_btubooks2As an educator, I find more often than not that I have conflicting emotions about the current state of curricula. The narrative, at least from much of the press and definitely from state and federal education agencies, is that our schools are failing. And while I think that education can always find ways to improve instruction and to reach all learners, I do not believe our schools are dismally inept at education.

Consider the current climate in reading instruction for example. There is almost an atmosphere of panic in making sure students are reading with rigor. Kindergarten children are expected to leave that grade level as five- and six-year old readers on F&P Level D. Did you leave Kindergarten reading?

What exactly does that designation “Level D” mean? Let me quote the introduction to Readers at Level D from Fountas & Pinnell’s Continuum (2016, p 428):

At Level D, readers process and understand simple fiction and fantasy stories and easy informational texts. They can track print with their eyes over two to six lines per page without pointing, and they can process texts with more varied and more complex language patterns. They notice and use a range of punctuation and read dialogue, reflecting the meaning through phrasing, intonation, and appropriate word stress. Readers can solve many easy, regular two-syllable words – usually words with inflectional endings such as ing and simple compound words. Pointing may occasionally be used at difficulty, but readers drop the finger when they are confident and are reading easily. The core of know high-frequency words is expanding. Readers consistently monitor their reading, cross-check one source of information with another, and often use multiple sources of information. Readers use text and pictures to construct the meaning of stores and nonfiction texts. They infer meaning from pictures and connect the meaning of texts to their own experiences. At level D, readers process and understand simple and some split dialogue.

Yes, these are the expectations for ALL KINDERGARTENERS as they leave to transition to Grade 1. In the beginning days of my teaching career, many of these characteristics were quite normally found in typical mid-first and early-second grade students.

So I ask again, were you reading in Kindergarten? I was not.  I don’t think I fell behind in my education because I wasn’t reading in Kindergarten. I do know that I have cultivated a love of print that has lasted a lifetime. I believe I was fortunate that when I was learning to read, my teachers worked not only on how to read, but also on development of a love of reading.

Because I was taught the skill of reading when I was developmentally ready to not only word-solve (decode), but also to comprehend, I learned to become a reader – exactly what Mary Howard speaks about in the quotation above.

The demands being placed on our youngest learners are unrealistic and oftentimes unattainable. My opinion? Children who are in Kindergarten need to learn to love learning: they need to practice social skills through play. They need to get used to school and learning.

Squeezing all children, ready or not into the same curriculum funnel makes me think that education policy makers need to realign their focus. When the goal of reading instruction is so skewed toward the mechanics of reading at a developmentally inappropriate age, is the opportunity to help a child become a reader sacrificed?

Adventures in Oxymorons

DSC_0107Say what you will about living in these political times, snaps go to the marketeers coming up with the names. Why if you didn’t actually spend a large portion of your reading time being skeptical and following up with questions and queries, you might just miss out on some really fun oxymorons.

Let’s take the group, Families for Excellent Schools as an example. Or Students First. Or Great Schools or Building Excellent Schools.

Is there a single person on the planet who is NOT for excellent schools or excellent opportunities for students and children?

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy (FESA), a close cousin of Families for Excellent Schools, recently was fined more than $450K and banned from campaigning in Massachusetts for 4 years. Why? Because in an effort to win over a ballot question that would expand charter school networks unnecessarily, the FESA group attempted to hide large donors, including Paul Sagan (Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015)  from campaign finance reporting.  Not cool, FESA. Not cool Mr. Sagan. Link to Maurice Cunningham’s piece on this published on the WGBH website here.

What these names, knee-deep in oxymoronic descriptors, demonstrates to me is the never-ending need to question and check on “advocacy” groups for their true mission and purpose. Marketers are expert manipulators of vocabulary. They know which word combinations may cause unsuspecting audiences to be lulled into endorsement of groups which may, or may not, be supportive of their own beliefs. Exhibit A: Democrats for Ed. Reform (DFER) which endorses expanded charter schools, rigorous high-stakes testing, and top-down school structures particularly in the areas of “accountability”.  Building Excellent Schools apparently believes the only way to make a school “excellent” is to partner with a charter group.

It always is a good policy to learn about groups purporting to advocate, especially those involved in or attempting to be involved in public education. What you may find out can be surprising.



September 11, 2017

WTC MemorialWhen one reaches un certain âge, the realization dawns on you that the past is measured in events; the moment you meet your true love, graduation, your child’s birth, a parent’s death.

But time is also measured by events of such great historic proportion that you can remember with clarity where you were and what you were doing. We mark time by the events of historic proportions. The events mark us with changes too.

On November 22, 1963, I was in sixth grade at Huron Junior High. We had an “honors” study hall which was about anything but studying. If you can imagine it, a group of sixth grade students were allowed to sit in a classroom alone and without supervision for the purpose of doing homework. I suppose this was considered a privilege, but, as junior high students are wont to do, we spent most of the time being noisy and silly and, I believe just before we heard the news about the President, we had been threatened with loss of privilege by a teacher who was passing by the room and recognized the sounds of “un-studying”.

I cannot recall the particulars of how we found out about the events in Dallas, but I do remember snippets of the rest of that day. It was unnaturally quiet. After that, things felt a little less safe, as if the world had made a seismic shift and we weren’t quite sure how to react. But time blurs those feelings and puts them into a back corner of our memory until the next time.

And there are so many “next times”. RFK, MLK, Newtown, Oklahoma City, and closer to home, the Boston Marathon. And September 11, 2001. On that morning, I was testing second grade reading out in a hallway. With each tragic event of that day, one of my colleagues came out to whisper what had happened. We were directed not to discuss anything in front of our students; however, given the eery quiet with which the staff went about the day, I would not be surprised to learn from former students that they knew something bad had happened that would impact their world, as the Kennedy assassination had for me.

Over the past sixteen years, we observe a moment of silence to remember the people and events of 9-11. And each year when that moment of silence is broken by the playing of taps, the magnitude of that day is with me and many others.  The memory of the circumstances, the events of September 11 is renewed. May we never forget.



Speak up. It is important.

IMG_0859Last Tuesday, I was able to attend the Joint Committee on Education’s hearing in Boston. I say “able” because, while I am sure the legislation before the Committee would have garnered interest and testimony from many active educators, they largely would not have been able to attend as the hearing took place the day after Labor Day, a school day. As a teacher retiree, I was not in my first (or fourth) day of a new school year and could attend, so I did.

There were many proposed pieces of legislation under discussion last Tuesday; however, two bills, S.279 and H.304, aroused my curiosity and alarm. These two pieces of legislation appear to target teachers and students in gateway cities and,  if you are a Massachusetts parent, teacher, or administrator and your student attends school in one of these districts, you should pay attention. Your voice in what happens in your local school is being threatened.

Bill, S. 279 unnecessarily singles out and targets urban and gateway districts. How do I know this? Because the “opportunity” to become an innovation partnership zone is based on a the results of a single high-stakes test, the MCAS and consequently the assigned school level that stems from that test. To base the worth or value of a school – or a district – on how students perform on a single high-stakes exam is w.r.o.n.g.  It is bad educational practice. No teacher would ever give a student a final mark based on one measure and the Commonwealth shouldn’t be doing this with schools and school districts either.

Those who favored moving H.304 and S.279 forward spoke frequently about the power of looking at students’ (test) results and collaborating to determine school budget priorities, schedule/time allocations, and coordination of student needs with curriculum. My reaction to that is NO KIDDING. Why, why, why, do some in the Commonwealth feel that a piece of Legislation would make this a) any different from current practice, or b) necessary to mandate?

Those in favor also spoke about the empowerment zone created in Springfield. The Springfield schools working in the empowerment zone are all middle schools and have done so for two years. Even James Peyser, Secretary of Education, had to admit the “data” on the success of these schools was rather green and not established. Others from this panel (two teachers and a principal) spoke about their experience meeting as teacher teams to think about what the students need.

Sorry kids this is not a new concept or practice, nor is it one that requires a mandate from the Commonwealth. Lowell teachers, and I suspect teachers in most districts throughout Massachusetts, routinely meet to do this very same thing regularly. We call these collaborations PLCs (professional learning communities) or CPTs (common planning time). We do these things because a) we are there to figure out how to help students go from learning point A to B and b) we are professionals.
Here’s another thought: if a school is considered lower performing according to MCAS results, H.304 and S.279 would allow the Commissioner of Education (appointed, not elected) to begin the process of designating the schools for empowerment or innovation zone status. In the case of H.304, if the local teachers’ union and the school committee cannot agree to concessions to the collective bargaining agreement, the Commissioner can just make the school a lower Level 4, and in effect, start the process of diluting local control anyway.

Under S.279, the legislations proposes to “support” struggling schools through the creation of an innovation partnership zone. From what I can tell, the “partnership” is that the Commissioner of Education and DESE has a large stake in how the school is run. Schools are eligible to be in an innovation zone if their MCAS scores put them in Level 4 or Level 5 status. But – and this is key – in order to create an innovation zone, there needs to be at least 2 schools participating.

Just to put that into local perspective, if Lowell has a Level 4 school (and it does) and the decision was made to create an innovation partnership zone for that school, the Commissioner of Education could pair that Level 4 school with another higher performing school – a Level 3, a Level 2 or a Level 1. So don’t breathe easy if your school’s MCAS results are great, you too could be part of this education magic show.

When a school is “in the zone” (sorry Vygotsky fans, I couldn’t resist that), an appointed The-Zone-of-Proximal-Development Board of Directors has autonomous control over personnel, budget, curriculum and hours. This unelected board with possibly no connection to the community could decide to do anything, including conversion of the public school to a charter school through a charter management company.

Just for comparison, if a school is not in the zone, the elected School Committee and a combination of school administration/school site councils (theoretically) make these decisions and if you, a parent or voter, don’t agree with those decisions, you can voice that in person or you can make your feelings known at the ballot box.

Wait. Who is missing from those groups? If you said “teachers”, you go right to the bullseye of the Zone of Proximal Development. At least on this topic. Despite the Springfield testimony highlighting empowering teachers and teacher teams, the decision-making for what takes place in a classroom is still top-down.

The act of creating empowerment or innovation zones is different from what has happened in a few districts in Massachusetts, namely Lawrence. In those districts the state has outright put the entire district into receivership, meaning, the local governance of the public schools is given over to the Commonwealth. There is no local control over the education of the students and an un-elected “receiver” makes all the decisions. It also includes a favorable environment for education management organizations (EMO) to set up a network of charter schools. If you are interested in the track record of the charter school industry in Michigan and in particular Detroit where entire public school districts were replaced by charter school entities, read this article from the NY Times. Chilling.

The full text of S.279 is found here, and the full text of H.304 is found here.  For now, both of these bills warrant a close watch. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education seem to be ready to dismantle traditional public education one school at a time.