Saturday, February 04, 2012

The MPS Special Ed Lawsuit Decision

This is a very big decision, but it all hinges on a technicality--the definition of the class--rather than the substance. The interesting thing now is what the three parties do next:
1. MPS: what it keeps and what it doesn't from the plan if it is not under the court order. My impression is that there is a lot of good in that plan, particularly in identifying students that need extra assistance in reading and math, and having differentiated instruction. If done well that should help all students.
2. DPI: what does it do now that its settlement has been thrown out?
3. Plaintiffs: can they redefine the class more narrowly as suggested in the dissent? At this late date, does that make any sense?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Read to Lead Recommendations

The Wisconsin reading task force (now called Read to Lead), chaired by Governor Walker and Superintendent Evers, has just issued it recommendations (Journal-Sentinel article here, task force report (pdf) here). Although we will have to see how things develop, some of its recommendations could prove quite important. It is particularly reassuring that the task force prominently refers to the five elements identified by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehensive. I was on the Milwaukee school board when it adopted its reading curriculum and I was struck by how little mention was made of these, either by the administration or the publisher.

One is that new teachers would have to pass the Massachusetts test for reading instruction. Compared to Wisconsin, Massachusetts has been one of the leaders in improving reading scores and its reading test could be instrumental in identifying weaknesses in teachers' knowledge of teaching reading and in education schools' curricula. It is also refreshing that the task force avoided the widespread practice of inventing everything new (click here for a pdf copy of the Massachusetts practice booklet).

A second interesting proposal is that children be screened at age 4 or 5. It is not clear why the task force did not follow its own lead on the teacher test and pick an already-available screener. Doing so would seem to have the twin advantages of economy and timeliness, as well as taking advantage of others' experiences. The report doesn't comment on whether the task force looked at presently used screeners and found them wanting.

A Read Wisconsin website has also been established with links to many reading resources. Maybe too many: I think many teachers will be uncertain as to where to start.

Perhaps one approach for existing teachers would be to offer a interactive version of the Massachusetts test that would identify the holes in their knowledge of reading instruction--or offer assurance that they are using current research--and make suggestions as to how to fill in the gaps.

(Click here for a discussion and links to reading research that I prepared.)

Update ( 1-8-12): Alan Borsuk has a post on the subject in today's Journal Sentinel.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Back again

It's been a while since I last published on this blog. I think it's time to start again, but this time the posts will not be limited to education or Milwaukee public schools. Here are some topics I hope to hit:
  • In education, questions of research, charter schools and choice schools, the effect of schools on economic prosperity, and innovation in education.
  • Poverty, both on its own and in connection with education.
  • The use of data in public controversies (here is on puzzlement: why don't Democrats talk about the fact that the stock market has done much better under Democratic presidents than Republicans?)
  • The recent ferment in Wisconsin.
  • The national argument.
  • Bicycling and trains: why the hostility in Wisconsin?
But maybe I'll start by talking about political philosophy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Common Core State Standards

The final draft of the Common Core State Standards was released June 2. The same day, Wisconsin's Superintendent of Public Instruction announced that Wisconsin had adopted them. Why so fast? The obvious answer is to gain points in the state's Race to the Top application.

But unlike in other states, where groups have organized to protect their state standards from the common standards, I have not been able to spot any support for keeping the Wisconsin state standards. In Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, Texas, and other states supporters argue that their state standards are more challenging or more specific than the Common Core. Not in Wisconsin. Wisconsin standards fell down in a number of ways, often being couched in very general language and applying to broad grade "bands" rather than specific grades. Their weaknesses likely reflected the attempt to get broad consensus in writing them.

Let me mention two areas, one in math and the other in reading, where the Common Core standards have the potential to make a huge difference.

In recent years many widely-used math textbooks have encouraged students to invent their own methods of solving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. Some books present a set of non-standard algorithms and invite students to choose their favorite. Promoters of this approach argue that it encourage creativity and, besides, in an age of calculators facility at calculation was no longer a necessary tool. Opponents argue that this approach confuses students and encourages math illiteracy. The Common Core Standards specify that students learn the standard algorithm for addition and subtraction (fourth grade), multiplication (fifth grade), and division (6th grade) for whole numbers. They also require the standard algorithm for all four operations for decimals in 6th grade. It will be interesting to see whether the nonstandard algorithms get downplayed as a result.

In reading, the standards require that students in kindergarten and early elementary grades be taught print concepts, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and reading fluency. These reflect the recommendations of the National Reading Panel.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Race to the Top Applications

Last week the Department of Education announced the names of the thirty-five states that had applied for the second round of Race to the Top grants. Not surprisingly all the states that were finalists on the first round also applied for the second round (except, of course the two winners, Delaware and Tennessee).

Minnesota, in twentieth place on the first round, was the highest-rank state that did not apply. Wisconsin, in 26th place on the first round, managed to gain the endorsement of most of its teachers' unions, which will doubtless add points to its score. But as I suggested in a Journal-Sentinel op ed piece, it is not clear whether Wisconsin has sufficiently improved its plans for the use of student achievement data for decision making.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Consensus on MPS further away than ever?

An article in this morning's Journal Sentinel, entitled Doyle, Barrett warn MPS on tax increase, underlines the fragmentation on opinions about what to do about MPS. The article is actually about three happenings:
  1. The aforementioned-press release from the Mayor and Governor criticizing the just-released MPS budget.
  2. A hearing held in Madison by Rep. Polly Williams' educational reform committee.
  3. A press release from several Milwaukee legislators proposing that the state assume the whole cost of the Milwaukee Parental Choice program.
The Barrett-Doyle press release criticizes the timing of the release of the MPS budget, coming on the same day as an announcement of stimulus funds going to MPS. The reality is that the proposed budget is flat, but may result in large tax increases because of reduced state funding under the present formula. Barrett and Doyle do not spell out what they think MPS should do. There is an implication that they believe MPS should use the stimulus funding to offset operating funds. A couple of objections to this approach immediately come to mind. One is that this may not be legal under federal rules. Another is that it could result in an extremely large tax increase two years hence when the extra federal funds go away and MPS has to replace them.

The article then quotes three board members and a Milwaukee legislator as quoting the cost-savings proposals in recent consultant's (McKinsey) report. As is his wont, the board president is quoted as taking personal credit for any improvements in MIPS.

This is the third time to my knowledge that a serious attempt is being made to make corrections to the funding flaw to MPCP funding, that results in choice students costing property tax payers more than MPS students. The first two attempts, in 2001 and 2007, died in large part because of lack of support from members of the Milwaukee delegation (and in 2007 from the MPS board). It appeared that this year might be different because the delegation appeared to be together. Since there is no possibility that out state legislators would support complete state funding, the question is whether the press release from the Milwaukee legislators is simply a political statement about their dislike of vouchers or an attempt to deep-six the latest attempt at reform.

From the article, it appears that MPS may be facing two overseers of its spending of federal stimulus money. Tony Evers, the incoming superintendent of public instruction said he intends to appoint a "federal funds trustee" to oversee how MPS spends tens of millions of dollars of federal economic stimulus money. This trustee would join the commission that Barrett and Doyle intend to appoint which apparently would have much the same job. No word yet on who might be on the commission.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

McKinsey and MPS Academic Achievement

The McKinsey report does not examine academic achievement in great depth. It does note improvements in 8th grade science and math tests, a gain in ACT participation, and a slight improvement in the graduation rates as positives.

However, its overall assessment of MPS progress is overwhelmingly negative, based mainly on three comparisons:
  1. The growing gap in the percentage of students rated as proficient between MPS and Wisconsin in 4th and 10th grade state tests.
  2. The gap between MPS and the state in the percentage of proficient students in every demographic group.
  3. Comparing the gap between major Midwestern cities and their states on test scores, with Milwaukee showing the greatest, particularly at the tenth grade level.
Currently it is difficult to compare urban districts in different states. There is no consistency in tests from one state to another. Results for the one national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is available for Wisconsin, but not MPS. This is due to change in the future, allowing a direct comparison to other urban districts.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cost savings in the McKinsey report

As noted, the report Towards a Stronger Milwaukee Public Schools has both a broad based assessment of MPS' financial and academic challenges and some suggested cost savings in non-academic areas. The latter include:

1. Procurement of supplies and textbooks (Savings: $5.8-7.8 million)
a. Compare prices before ordering
b. Specify lower end computers
c. Rationalize sku’s
d. Consolidate text book purchases

2. Food service ($8.8-15.6)
a. Pre-pack school lunches
b. Reduce benefits for food service workers
c. Reduce cost of purchases
d. Increase prices to students and participation

3. Transportation ($7-14.2 million)
a. Lower prices with yellow bus companies
b. Negotiate a greater discount with county transit
c. Increase use of public transit, including middle school students
d. Put a cap on the number of miles students would be transported
e. Use smaller buses
f. Charge an annual fee to students not qualifying for free and reduced lunch (would require a change in state law)

4. Administration ($17.3-28.6 million)
a. Restructure salaries
b. Benefits
c. Reduce administrative staffing in schools

5. Benefits ($23-43 million)
a. Lower cost packages–PPO vs HMO
b. Redesign benefit packages
c. Raise eligibility from 20 to 34 hours per week
d. Shift retirees to lower cost plan
e. Reduce retiree eligibility

6. Maintenance & facilities ($12-23 million)
a. Benefits for maintenance workers
b. Reduce salaries where above market rates
c. Better use of boiler engineers
d. Custodian staffing
e. Sick policy
f. Sell closed facilities
g. Consolidate facilities

Some of these are likely to be implemented by MPS, such as the pre-packing of lunches and more negotiating on bus contracts. Other may prove impractical or hard to implement. The day after the report was issued, one group of employees appeared at a board meeting to protest the recommendations affecting them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The "McKinsey Report"

A few days after this month’s election, the Journal Sentinel headlined: “Study finds millions in waste at Milwaukee Public Schools.” The headline itself misrepresented both the accompanying article and the report itself, titled Toward a Stronger Milwaukee Public Schools.

The report consists of two quite different parts. One is a detailed review of the challenges facing MPS, both financially and in raising student achievement. The other has a series of detailed suggestions of ways to save money on administrative costs.

But beyond the content of the report are its implications for the future. Its funders are a who’s who of the mainstream Milwaukee funding community. The report is introduced by a letter from Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett, in which they promise to take a much more active and continuing role in the affairs of MPS. Although Barrett and Doyle avoid spelling out specifics, they do say that “MPS must make major changes to improve its performance management.”

As the report was release, Barrett and Doyle promised to establish an advisory panel, called the MPS Innovation and Advisory Council. This panel would be charged with developing an "action plan" to improve MPS, particularly using federal money, including stimulus funding, as leverage. As of this writing, there is no indication of who might be on this panel.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

ASA Landscape Poll: What Voters Think

For me, the most interesting result of the poll taken at the beginning of the year is how much voters want radical change in MPS. For example, when forced to choose between two statements:
With the right leadership in place, MPS as it exists today can make solid progress on improving achievement over the next few years
MPS has so many problems that something drastic needs to change for Milwaukee to make any real progress on student achievement
62% of those who answered chose the latter. This dissatisfaction is reflected in several other of the responses, including low ratings for both MPS and the school board.

From a board member viewpoint, having served for the past two years on a very divided school board, the most striking response was the nearly 90% of the respondents who preferred that the school board should "put aside their ideological differences, and unite to provide real solutions" compared to those who agreed that members "should stick to their principles."

Another striking impression is how little most results varied by district or by race. In part, this may reflect that the populations in the three districts are more similar than different. For example, they were overwhelmingly Democratic or independent; there were few self-identified Republicans. Then president-elect Obama was by far the most popular of any of the public figures mentioned in the survey.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Creeping Takeover

The release of the so-called "McKinsey Report" earlier this month has revived the debate about mayoral control of Milwaukee public schools, or some other form of governance that would replace the present school board. Generally such proposals have been framed in an either/or, all or nothing form. Either the mayor would take over or the present structure would be left unchanged.

Less remarked upon is that we have had a sort of creeping takeover for some time. The flow of federal funds through the Department of Public Instruction, the push by the Obama administration to use stimulus money to reform public education, the federal law's expectations for improved reading and math scores, and the special education lawsuit all shift power away from the MPS board.

Thus the tools exist for a potential power shift. If the promised "MPS Innovation and Improvement Council" comes up with a sensible plan that the various non-MPS stakeholders sign on to, it is likely that the MPS administration and board will find it difficult to resists. But the makeup of the council becomes critical. One could easily envision a council chosen to reflect the various interest groups floating around MPS that could suffer the same ills as the board.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Obama's Educational Thinking?

Today's New York Times magazine has an article, 24/7 School Reform, speculating on Barack Obama's thinking about school reform. If the author is correct about Obama's thinking, an Obama administration could be very good for schools.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

All MPS All the Time

For MPS junkies, this week's Crossroads section is a bonanza: with an editorial, a column blaming MPS' challenges on school vouchers, letters expressing all sorts of opinions, a column by three school board members, and a discussion of the Neighborhood Schools Initiative by the superintendent.

Superintendent Bill Andrekopoulis acquits himself with honor, both for what he says and what he does not say. He puts the Neighborhood Schools Initiative in perspective, as a still incomplete effort, connecting it to the current efforts to further reduce busing. And he avoids the easy temptation that superintendents often fall into of blaming his predecessor for any bumps in the road.

The column by the three school board members inadvertently serves as an demonstration of why the current school board is largely dysfunctional. Even though two of the authors joined the school board before implementation of the NSI started, they embrace the temptation to disclaim any responsibility for how it was implemented.

The present school board is all about grabbing individual credit rather than developing a consistent vision. That comes through in the column where the three authors are generous in giving themselves credit for a hodgepodge of activities. Ironically, in several cases, one or more of the authors of this column attempted to derail or delay the initiative they are now claiming credit for.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Neighborhood Schools Revisted

Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a three-part series on the Neighborhood Schools Initiative, concluding that it was a "failure." That conclusion seems rash and unfortunate to me. It can only help to make Milwaukee even more skittish about trying anything new.

Neighborhood Schools attempted to operate at two levels. The easier, but still very complex, level was a program to take money destined for busing and convert it into new classrooms. The far more difficult level was an attempt to reconnect schools with their neighborhoods, while expanding genuine specialty schools for those who wanted them and developing partnerships with social service agencies. I will discuss each in turn.

The school construction part of the initiative must be judged a success, in my view. One need only look around the country to find problems that have plagued school systems' major construction programs--corruption, environmental or structural problems, or politicized decision making. Aside from one project that was added after planning at the behest of a board member, it appears from the series that MPS largely avoided these problems. The series mentions the damage done by the corruption of one of MPS' partners by a state senator, but neglects to mention that far more potential damage was avoided because MPS convinced the governor to veto a section of the bill that would have given the same state senator control over contracts. In addition to all the challenges of a major construction project, the initiative had to thread a needle in making sure the reduction in busing met the legal requirements of paying for the construction bonds.

The second level was far more difficult, and for me far more interesting. From early polls and interviews it became evident that "forced busing" was a myth. Parents put their children on buses for a variety of reasons and it was clear that the neighborhood school would have a challenge convincing many parents to send their children there. The article, although noting that a number of schools have been successful in attracting neighborhood students, concentrates on those schools who suffered enrollment declines due to the growth of choice and charter schools. It would have been interesting to have had an exploration of the reasons for the difference in success of the various schools.

Some of the tools developed as part of the initiative have lived on. For example, it quickly became evident that for many parents, a long bus ride was a form of day care. Thus there was an intense effort to develop partnerships with social service agencies that would provide after school programs in the building. That effort has continued and expanded since.

In the late 1990's MPS was straining at capacity. It had a number of specialty programs with long waiting lists, but efforts to expand them were stymied for lack of space. As buildings were added in the center of the city, buildings on the periphery became available for expanded Montessori and other programs. But the article makes no mention of the appearance of schools like Fernwood and Maryland Montessori, a direct outgrowth of the initiative.

That said, my frustration throughout was the resistance in much of the administration to working through what it would take to attract students to nearby schools. For much of the administration and the board it was business as usual.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

School closing marathon

The Journal Sentinel published two articles (here and here) about a school board hearing attempting to close four schools. Two articles were needed because the hearing ran to 1:30 in the morning, way past the paper's deadline.

The meeting ran so long because all four schools recruited administrators, teachers, and some parents to come to the meeting and protest the closings. This is standard operating procedure in the case of school closing. It is almost a total waste of time, particularly for board members. The speakers stress that the closing is traumatic for those at the schools, which everyone probably assumed already. The almost never offer any information that would challenge the analysis that led to those schools being placed on the list (as the result of low enrollment and poor achievement ranks mostly).

I happened to tune into a short section of the hearing on my way home from teaching a class. It all seemed very familiar, very predictable, and very depressing. There were a couple of oddments: according to one speaker, the school board was closing schools and building prisons. Another speaker against a school closing appeared to be married to the administrator in charge of the closings.

So far as I could tell, no one suggested a better way of identifying schools for closing. Yet by keeping all schools open, all schools will have fewer resources.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Big changes in works?

Under the dramatic headline, Big MPS changes may be in works: civic leaders team up with school officials to create long-term strategy, the Journal Sentinel reports on a new effort by MPS, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and the MTEA. It is not clear exactly what the effort will be doing, but my initial cynical reaction is that this sort of thing has been attempted a number of times before (sometimes with my involvement) but has never been especially successful.

I hope I am wrong.

The broad mandate, to do strategic planning, is not particularly reassuring. That implies months of meetings and uncertainty, leading to a set of mushy consensus goals. At worst, these efforts are aimed at subverting the responsibility of the school board to set policy. I would be much more reassured if the group were to look at specific issues, such as identifying strategies for the bottom-performing schools.

MPS and health care

The New York Times has an article based on interviews with about half the incoming senators and congressmen. A surprisingly common theme is the need for health care reform, including national insurance.

Generally I have been critical when MPS board members try to drag MPS into issues, like the Iraq war, that go beyond education. But the health crisis directly impinges on MPS's ability to accomplish its mission. I would like to see MPS take a leadership role in reforming health care both in Wisconsin and the nation (as well as look at alternatives to its present plan).

First the major cause of the financial squeeze on MPS is the high and growing cost of health insurance. As presently constituted the health care system has major incentives for shifting costs on to generous providers, such as MPS. Second, many MPS students and families do not have insurance. Health worries can affect education. MPS has worked to find ways of serving its students but that should not be the responsibility of a school system.

Does MPS have a future in vocational education

A recent article reported on a new program to train adults in welding, held at the former North Division High School. Oddly, there is no mention of MPS or what happened to North's welding program. Similarly a front-page article today reports on a Public Policy Forum report slamming the city for its development efforts, particularly the neglect of workforce development. Again there is no mention of MPS. It appears that MPS has become irrelevant to preparing people for the workforce.

Ten years ago, when I first ran for the Milwaukee school board, I prepared a flyer lifting five goals I hoped to accomplish. One--allow high schools to apply admissions standards--was completely accomplished. Despite controversy and opposition at the time, there has been no effort to role it back. Three others enjoyed considerable progress--add more specialty schools, move decision making from the central bureaucracy to schools and parents, and identify and eliminate wasteful spending--although more remains to be done.

The fifth, however, was a complete failure--restore Milwaukee's leadership in vocational education. This failure hurts Milwaukee students who miss out on good jobs. It also hurts Milwaukee's economic future if companies cannot find skilled workers.

The reasons that vocational education is so difficult to promote in MPS is not totally clear to me, but stems partly from a culture that only values college, from the economics of shop classes, and from a seniority system that does not recognize experience in the trades.

My guess is that leadership in this area will have to come from somewhere else than MPS. For example, the mechanisms are in place for a charter school sponsored by MATC, a trade union, or an industry group.

Goodbye to ideology?

While I don't wish to compete with the many post mortems on this Tuesday's election, for me one of the most gratifying results is the apparent rejection of ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. By ideologue I mean someone who believes that there is only one correct set of beliefs about most major issues, and that those who disagree with those beliefs are not only mistaken but at best dupes and at worst evil.

I had my own run-ins with ideologues, generally of the leftward persuasion, while serving on the Milwaukee school board a few years ago. On a number of issues, there was simply no room for discussion. Most notable was the question of vouchers that would allow low income kids to attend private schools. But other only slightly less emotional issues were busing (theoretically for integration) and standardized tests. It is certainly possible to have a serious discussion of the pros and cons of any of the issues, but members of this group wanted none of that. (In fairness, right-wing ideologues weren't entirely absent; a candidate questionnaire asked only one question--whether I agreed with the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. It is hard to think of any issue less relevant to decisions of a school board.)

The Bush administration and the congress that enabled it reflect the dangers of government by ideologues. Sharing the right "conservative" beliefs seems to have been far more important than competence or honesty. This was compounded by the stress on loyalty and efforts to intimadate critics. Rather than relishing discussion and argument they created an intellectual wasteland in which those who might challenge their actions were driven out or marginalized, as moderate Republicans came to discover.

While the Bush administration tried to win by narrowing its ideological base, the Democrats succeeded by broadening theirs, recruiting an ideologically diverse group of candidates. While the heretic burners on the left are still active, the two attempts at purges I am aware of--against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and Jeff Plale here in Wisconsin--ultimately failed.

So both for the way the Republicans lost and the way Democrats won, I think there are hopes for us pragmatists. But we will see what lessons are taken from the election.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Journal editorial on education and governor's race

Monday's Journal Sentinel had an interesting editorial comparing Gov. Jim Doyle and challenger Mark Green on education. It did a useful job of summarizing the differences between the two candidates (presumably the always-perceptive Greg Stanford played a major role), generally preferring Doyle.

Green has endorsed the so-called 65% solution, apparently raising the mandate so that 70% of education money would have to be spent in the classroom. While appealing on the surface, it is not clear that this proposal would actually improve education. It seems likely that the differences reported by districts in the percentage going to classrooms may have more to do with differing accounting systems and definitions than a genuine concentration on classroom resources. So far, attempts to find a connection between this figure and achievement have been unsuccessful. Depending upon how classroom spending is defined, the proposal could force resources away from areas with potentially higher impact on student achievement to those with less (for example, from school libraries to driver's education). Thus the proposal becomes one more mandate, telling schools how to do things, but disconnected from outcomes.

Another issue discussed in the editorial is that of vouchers. Clearly Green is a much stronger supporter than Doyle. As the editorial points out, Doyle tried to leverage expansion of the voucher enrollment to expansion of class size reduction. Doyle's relatively neutral position on school choice, while earning the enmity of some choice supporters, is probably as far as a Democratic governor could go, reflected by the fact that the compromise he negotiated was supported by only four Democratic legislators.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A disappointing Borsuk article

The surprisingly biased headline "MPS doesn't pass along savings: tax boost comes despite budgetary windfalls" sets the tone of a news article by Alan Borsuk attacking an MPS decision to put savings into classrooms. This article is disappointing, particularly coming from the usually thoughtful and fair-minded Borsuk.

While the MPS decision is difficult politically, it is the responsible one. MPS schools have been operating under an increasing squeeze caused mainly by benefit costs that have continued to rise faster than either inflation in general or the state spending caps. Finding savings in non-classroom areas and putting them into classrooms seems exactly the right strategy to ease that squeeze.

In addition, the state spending limits have a ratchet effect. Thus a decision to spend under the limit has the effect of making the squeeze in future years even worse.

Finally, it might be noted that this is in part a good news/bad news story. Taxes are rising in part because state aid decreased (bad news). But aid decreased in part because property values have continued to increase more in Milwaukee than elsewhere--good news because that reflects the increasing attractiveness of Milwaukee. And certainly improvements in MPS have played their part.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The challenges and accomplishments of giving families choices

Opponents of school choice sometimes accuse its supporters of believing that choice is a panacea for all the problems of American education. Of course it is not. At best, choice, broadly construed to include vouchers, charter schools, and increased flexibility within the regular Milwaukee public schools, offers opportunities--opportunities to try new models. Some of these experiments will fail. An article in tomorrow's Journal Sentinel reports an MPS charter school, Expressions School of Inter-Arts and Communication, asked to be closed after only four weeks of operations because two teachers had left. The opportunity to try new approaches does not guarantee success.

But there have been successes, mostly undramatic and therefore unreported. A recent article is a happy exception, reporting a study of students at Craig Montessori School comparing those who were accepted in the lottery to those rejected. It found, in the words of the article, "that Montessori students might be better prepared academically and socially than students in traditional classrooms." In recent years there has been a healthy increase in the number of Montessori schools in Milwaukee in response to public demand. I am on the board of Downtown Montessori Academy, a city charter school. The outside evaluators note that the average second grader last year read at a fifth grade level.

I believe, however, that a major impact of increased choices may have gone unanalyzed and unreported. Under the title, "City sets pace in home values," the Journal Sentinel reported that the five-year increase in Milwaukee home values exceeds that of either the state or the suburbs, according to a new Census Bureau report. It appears that this increase has occurred across the city rather than been limited to East Side and Third Ward condos aimed at empty nesters and others without school-age children. I would hope that some social scientist will study the connection between this phenomenon and the growth in the choices of schools. Among other things, such a study could look at the values of houses designed for families and values in comparable city and suburban neighborhoods.

Keeping a perspective on the advantages and limitations of giving choices becomes more difficult because of the stridency of partisans on both sides. Recent articles report on a series of attack adds against Governor Doyle sponsored by a pro-voucher group called All Children Matter. Ironically Doyle has been ahead of his party in allowing the voucher program to expand in Milwaukee. If nothing else, these ads will likely make it more difficult for Democrats to support school choice, therefore playing into the hands of hard-line choice opponents.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The end of fuzzy math?

In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued new guidelines for teaching math. Among their critics the guidelines were dubbed "fuzzy math" and set off the math wars. The NCTM guidelines were endorsed by the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, for a time, the US Department of Education. With National Science Foundation grants, a number of textbooks were developed using the guidelines, including those adopted by most schools in MPS.

Several factors seem to have influenced the NCTM guidelines. With the widespread availability of calculators, it was argued that students no longer needed to memorized addition and multiplication or learn the mechanics of math. Instead they would concentrate on gaining a deeper understanding of math. The guidelines were also influenced by a philosophy sometimes called "constructivism," that they learn when they construct their own model, rather than simply accepting what their teacher says.

Texts written around the NCTM seem to have a number of characteristics in common. Compared to traditional math books, they tend to be wordy with relatively little math, reflecting both their aversion to exercises (derided as "rote learning") and their desire to encourage students to discover the principals for themselves. They offer alternative ways of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, apparently on the principal both that the choice should be up to the student and that in any case the choice is not particularly important since the heavy lifting is now done by calculators. Their explanations are often missing or confusing, again reflecting a desire to avoid dictating to the student.

As a recent New York Times editorial observed, the NCTM has just reversed itself, saying that the basic skills are important after all. This is good news for American students, but how good depends upon how much change actually takes place.

In many ways fuzzy math is reminiscent of "whole language" in reading. Both were developed and widely adopted with no field testing or research base. Both resulting in large measure from a feeling that traditional teaching was overly structured and discouraged creativity. When challenged, defenders of each adopted an ideological defense, accusing critics of having a conservative agenda. And both eventually fell because they could not produce results.

Another parallel is less encouraging for the future. When whole language went out of repute because of research that clearly showed the benefits of teaching the structure of language, the name disappeared. But many believe whole language continues to be widespread under the alias of balanced literacy. Already many advocates of fuzzy math are claiming that they always taught basic skills.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The disappearing librarians

This morning's paper has an article about the increasing number of Milwaukee public schools with no librarians (often called "media specialists") on the premise. This has been a long-running issue, with a small but well-organized group of librarians demanding that every school have one.

While it is hard to argue against having librarians, the campaign runs up against several problems. A school forced to add a librarian must then cut somewhere else to balance its budget. Presumably this may be a teacher, unless the librarian does double duty as both a teacher and a librarian.

It is not evident that having a librarian makes a difference in student outcomes. The last I looked, I could not find a difference in outcomes between those schools with librarians and those without. Perhaps if we had information on how well the librarian was integrated into the school's educational program, we could find a measurable difference.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Public vs. Private Schools

A recent federally-sponsored report comparing scores on NAEP tests (National Assessment of Educational Progress)for public and private school students has received considerable attention, particularly by those opposed to school choice programs. By issuing the report on Friday afternoon, generally considered the best time to bury embarrassing news, the Bush education department gave credence to the notion that the report undermined school choice.

In essence, the report found little significance difference between results at the two groups of schools when adjusted for measured student characteristics, although generally the private schools did better before the adjustment was made.

This result should not be especially surprising. Controlling for student demographics certainly helps in making a fairer comparison. But one question left unanswered is which students within a democraphic group get sent to private schools. Are they the most able students whose parents are looking for a more competitive environment? Or are they struggling in public school and have parents who are desparately searching for an alternative, as seemed to be true of many participants in the Milwaukee choice program? Unfortunately with NAEP data there is no information on students' previous performance.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

More control on lower performing schools

Under the somewhat misleading headline, "MPS to take back control of teaching," this morning's Journal Sentinel reports that a number of low performing schools will be required to give "60 to 90 minutes a day on reading and 30 to 45 minutes on math" under the direction of the administration. Despite the rather sweeping headline, it appears that only 19 schools are covered by this program.

The schools were chosen based both on low test scores and low growth on scores by individual students from one year to the next. Including the latter measure makes it less likely that schools were singled out just because they served academically needy students. Even if students start low, their scores should improve over time.

The article says little about how the central administration hopes to improve skills in reading and math, and that is a concern. Picking effective reading and math programs has not been an MPS strength in the past. Perhaps the best approach would be to try a variety of programs and carefully monitor which ones work with the target population. The article does note that MPS intends to intensively monitor student progress. Ideally the central administration will apply the same tests of effectiveness to its own programs as to the schools.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Charters and the school board

One way of defining the divisions on the Milwaukee school board is to look at their positions on charter schools. One group is strongly supportive of expanded charters. The other, in part reflecting opposition to charters from their teachers' union supporters, are much more suspicious of charter schools.

Ironically when it comes to holding charter schools accountable, the roles usually reverse. This is reflected in an article in this morning's Journal Sentinel about a committee meeting on the administration's proposal to end the charter for something called the Truth Institute for Leadership and Service. According to the article, strong charter supporters Danny Goldberg and Ken Johnson voted to terminate the contract, while charter skeptics Jennifer Morales and Charlene Hardin wanted to give it one more year.

Perhaps there is some logic to this apparent role reversal. If one believes strongly in charter schools, one wants to make sure they are successful. If one does not, then success or failure are less important.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Alan Borsuk has a detailed, interesting, and rather depressing series on what goes on in the Milwaukee Public Schools, particularly the heavy number of students who are unmotivated. It appears that the majority of schools have not figure out how they can demand commitment from their students. Students at private schools know there are certain expectations; not meeting these expectations can lead to expulsion. Perhaps a start for MPS schools would be to decide on the consequences for students who do not meet their obligations.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

J-S Article on Morales

An article in this morning's paper, MPS board member Morales comes out as a lesbian, refers to a post in this blog, one of several profiles of school board members published in 2004 prior to the last election. For the original post, click here.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Washington Consensus

One of the ironies of the No Child Left Behind act is that it sets basic requirements on how many students in a school need to be considered proficient, but then gives proficiency-setting authority to the states. As more than one commentator has pointed out, if a state wishes to avoid having lots of schools declared failing this creates an incentive for states to set the standards low. According to a report from an organization called Education Sector, Wisconsin has played this game particularly skillfully, better than any other state. (Click here for a Journal-Sentinel article on this report.)

A recent commentary describes the "Washington Consensus" on education. According to the authors, the Washington Consensus has three big ideas:
  1. The most important goal is closing racial and economic achievement gaps.
  2. Schools can overcome the challenges of poverty.
  3. External pressure and tough accountability are critical to school improvement.
Both the people behind Education Sector and the two authors of this commentary have embraced the Washington Consensus. It is easy to understand the motivations behind this consensus: for too long the education of low-income and minority students was neglected, schools used poverty as an excuse for poor results, and there was no accountability for outcomes. In the historical context, the Washington Consensus was a necessary corrective. Yet in many ways, it is as unbalanced as the ideas it replaced.

By emphasizing gaps, does it encourage neglect of the best students? For example, a school where 100% of the white students and 80% of the black students are proficient has a wider gap than one where 50% of each race is proficient. By putting such emphasis on the school's responsibility, does it deemphasize the student's responsibility for his or her education? In its emphasis on penalizing schools, will it discourage the best educators from working at schools likely to be at risk?

Perhaps it is time for a more nuanced version of the Washington Consensus. It could emphasis the absolute achievement of all students. It could use the massive amount of data being collected to start to break out the effect of schools on achievement. It might recognize that asking states to set proficiency levels is silly: the educational requirements for success do not vary from state to state. Until that is done, I am not sure that Wisconsin game-playing is all that important.
The indignation reflected in the report

More math wars

I recently came across the Project 2061 evaluations of middle school math curricula on the web site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It is clear from these that AAAS has chosen to take sides in the so-called math wars. The textbooks rated excellent, such as Connected Math (widely used in MPS), all seem to stem from a series of standards first promulgated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and later embraced by the National Science Foundation. Programs preferred by critics of the NCTM standards, such as Saxon, are rated much lower.

It is puzzling why the AAAS, the country's largest scientific organization has decided to take sides in this war. Recently there has been a disturbing tendency among much of the public
and members of our national administration to discount the findings of science, whether on global warming, evolution, stem cell research, or a host of other issues. In each of these cases, perhaps the most telling charge by the critics is that the scientists acting as ideological
advocates rather than on the basis of the evidence.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is not available concerning which type of mathematics curriculum leads to better outcomes. An analysis in 2004 by the National Research Council of 147 studies, 75 of which were of curricula supported by the NSF, concluded that these studies did "not permit one to determine the effectiveness of individual programs with a high degree of certainty." Similarly, reports by the What Works Clearinghouse on middle school mathematics programs leaves the reader unable to say whether one program is more effective than another.

My impression is that programs like Connected Math are based much more on an underlying philosophy of how students learn mathematics than any empirical research on effectiveness. It appears that the students believe that students: don't like math, need to be convinced it is relevant, learn best when they discover the principals for themselves rather than having them explained, and that there is no best way for students to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. (This latter assumption leads to a daunting array of alternative techniques.) When good research is finally done, I suspect it may show that the programs work for students to whom these assumptions apply but that for many others the results are disappointing.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Do proficiency levels give useful information?

Wisconsin has finally released its test scores from last year, described in an article in the Journal Sentinel. One odd headline--which I cannot find on-line: "Some schools above average." I would guess that about half were above average.

The tests were changed sufficiently this year that the Department of Public Instruction felt the need to reset the proficiency levels. The way they did this apparently is to take all the test scores and then set the cut off point between proficiency levels so that the same percentage of students would be in each category as last year. This seems like an efficient way to do it but begs the question of whether students are doing better or worse.

I think proficiency levels are a pretty poor way of reporting test scores. First it is not at all clear what they mean. Proficiency for what? With many jobs it is possible to define a needed level of competence, but it is not clear what should be the standard for students. The aim of most education is to prepare the student for more education. Thus the percentage of students at a given proficiency level may tell more about the people setting the levels than about the students. A recent comparison of NAEP and state proficiency standards, based on a comparison of the percentage of students judged proficient on the two exams, found huge variations between states. Wisconsin rated near the bottom with a C- compared to Massachusetts with an A. Similarly the frequently repeated comment that students do worse in high school than elementary school cannot be shown using proficiency levels. It is just as likely that the explanation lies in who sits on the committee setting the cut offs; at the high school level the members are likely to included teachers who specialize in the subject and therefore are more demanding.

A second problem is rating schools by the percentage proficient creates bad incentives. Rather than work to improve every student's score, the incentive is to concentrate on those students who are close to the cut off point. This may contribute to the common complaint of parents of able students that their children don't feel challenged.

There are a number of ways that test scores can help find out how students are doing and encourage improvement. One is to compare individual students' scores from one year to the next to make sure each student is progressing. Another is to make comparison between schools, locally to internationally (international comparisons do seem to show that American students fall further behind the longer they are in school). Finally, test scores can be used to search for factors, such as particular curricula, that affect learning.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Schools facing more scrutiny

Two recent articles (here and here) reported that some MPS schools have been singled out for intervention based both on low overall test scores and low scores on the district's value-added measurements. These schools would have a district-appointed "instructional facilitator."

This move is the first time there have been real repercussions from poor test-score results. Low enrollment, rather than low achievement, has led to schools closing or having their budgets cut, although presumably a reputation for poor achievement could hurt enrollment. Ideally this move will help schools focus more strongly on figuring out how to help student achievement.

Neither article discusses the approach the facilitators will take. This could be crucial. Too often, districts have pursued approaches that have not been shown to be effective.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Milwaukee property values rise again

Property values continue to rise within the city of Milwaukee, apparently at a higher rate than those in the suburbs. It appears that city schools have lost much of their depressing effect on property values. This does not mean that all the schools are in good shape, just that parents have so many choices they need not avoid a neighborhood because they don't like the school.

I continue to feel that a study of the relationship between schools and property values would be valuable. One complicating factor in such a study, however, is that there is unlikely to be a direct relationship between schools and property values in the immediate area of the schools, again because of the wealth of choices parents have.

It is also very likely that property values in the city still lag between those of similar property outside despite recent percentage gains, simply because city values have fallen so far behind.

Accrediting Choice schools

The recent law raising the enrollment caps for the voucher program also requires that the schools be accredited. Clearly there was a need to have someone looking over the schools' shoulder and making sure they have the basics in place. Yet I had some skepticism about the accreditation approach. Based on my experience with university accreditation, I am not convinced that, as practiced, accreditation has much value to students. Typically the accreditation process involves a lot of effort and money for the institution and tends to push colleges towards a single dominant model.

I was pleased, then, to find that the legislation offers the schools a choice of accrediting agencies, from the conventional ones to two Milwaukee-based organizations, PAVE and Marquette's Institute for the Transformation of Learning, both experienced with both good and bad choice schools. A recent article quotes Howard Fuller of the ITL as saying that the emphasis will be on student achievement. A particular challenge will be how to evaluate start up schools with no record to judge achievement.

I think the legislation sets a nice balance between the need to weed out the schools born to fail and the desirability to avoid a single gatekeeper.

More for our school

An article in the Journal-Sentinel last Tuesday described the effort of some parents at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts to convince the school board and the administration to give their school more money. The trouble is that this group's idea of where the money would come from did not go beyond taking it from other schools.

In the past, MPS gave different schools different amount of funds per student. There seemed to be no logical explanation for the difference other than history and politics. It appeared that certain schools had particular clout at one time or another.

There are several reasons why the school board may be reluctant to return to this earlier practice, including equity and opening the door to being lobbied by every school in the district. In addition, varying the payments makes opening new schools much harder, since the payment itself becomes an issue for negotiations.

I would hope that the parents and staff members lobbying for taking money from other schools for Arts would instead turn their energy and talent towards exploring other options. These might include looking at other buildings, finding out what happened with a recent fund-raising effort, and helping the principal learn to live within a budget.