The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

Apr 30, 2014

Valerie Strauss, education writer and author of The Answer Sheet blog, led this weekly discussion on what's important and new in the world of education.

Hi everyone. Welcome to today's chat. I was told that the website was having some technical difficulties earlier so if you tried to submit a question and couldn't, please try again. It's fixed... Let's get started...

Did that school in New York really cancel the kindergarten show so the kids could keep working and studying? What is going on with kindergarten?!

I wrote a blog post about a school in New York that did cancel the annual end-of-the-year kindergarten show staged by kids. The reason, according to a letter sent to parents by the interim principal and the kindergarten teachers: the students needed to keep working to become "college and career ready" and couldn't take out a lot of time to prepare for the show. Actually, when someone sent me the letter, I thought it was phony because it seemed so, well, unreal. But it was real. The thing is though that this is part of a movement toward making kindergarten academic rathern social. In some kindergarten classes today kids work all day and have no time for recess. Early childhood experts are concerned that young kids are being subjected to hours of academic work without breaks and without the chance to learn through structured play. It is also true that kindergarteners are now taking more tests than they ever have. That's what's going on with kindergarten.... I should say that there was some speculation among some parents at that school in New York that the teachers and interim principal sent the letter and cancelled the show as some sort of protest against school reform policies, but I haven't seen any proof of that.

How is the National Teacher of the Year really picked? I saw that the 2014 winner is from Maryland. Who decided that?

You must have seen something on the Internet today about the selection of Sean McComb, from Baltimore County Public Schools, as the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. He is actually the 62nd national winner in this contest, which is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers (which is just what it sounds like -- a group of top state education officials). Each state has a winner as does Washington D.C. and the U.S. territories -- selected by different processes. The national winner is picked by a group of representatives from a bunch of education organizations. McComb is a really impressive guy. I met with some of the 2014 state winners and they all seem like they are amazing teachers, actually.

I find something very disingenuous about the Answer Sheet piece stating that "great teachers" only averaged a B grade on this quiz. These questions ask about trivia that is useful in assessing a good DC tour guide, but not a teacher. The exact height of the Washington Monument and how many deaths the gold stars on the WWII monument represent are interesting tidbits, not knowledge. I know that this was probably meant as a fun exercise, but there is no need to imply that good teachers are ignorant in the process.

This question refers to a quiz on my blog, The Answer Sheet, that was published today, that some 2014 State Teachers of the Year took after touring D.C. monuments. You are right: It was just done in fun. There is no reason for any of these teachers to have gotten most of these questions right; it was easy to miss the information being imparted, a lot of it is technical, etc. We didn't mean to imply that good teachers are ignorant in any way. If that is the message you take from it, I'm sorry.

You wrote something about millions of kids taking field tests this spring. What is a field test?

A field test is basically a practice test. Millions of kids are taking practice Common Core-aligned tests with the aim of seeing whether questions work and online administration works. There have been major computer problems in at least five states so far. You can read about that here.

One thing that came up when we went throught it in Washington State was that the Public School Students took the WASL Exam in the 10th Grade, Private and Homeschooled students were not. Is this going on in states on the East Coast?

Yup. In the middle of the country too. Private schools don't have to follow public schools. But it is one of the ironies of school reform that policymakers talk about holding schools and teachers "accountable" through standardized test scores but don't necessarily require that students who go to private schools with public money take the same tests.

I would like to know if CC standards are being implemented in DC

Yes. D.C. schools began training teachers in the Common Core and teachers began giving Core-aligned lessons a few years ago.

Are there textbooks being published for " The Common Core Curriculum " ? If not , how will teachers and students know what is expected ?

There is all kind of material being published said to be aligned to the Common Core standards. There is no real way of knowing if they are, though, as there is no central authority actually checking. When you ask how teachers and students will know what to expect, I wonder what you mean. Expect from what? What will be on the new standardized tests that will be given to measure learning of the standards? What kind of lessons teachers should be giving based on the standards? In both cases, it all remains unclear. Teachers are still learning the standards and designing lessons they think will work in their classrooms. Some companies are marketing a lot of materials they can use, and teachers are sharing lessons over the Internet. At this point, it's all an experiment.

Are administrators really just making up the "cut scores" on the standardized tests kids are taking so they can make the schools look bad when most of the kids flunk?

Cut scores, according to the Educational Testing Service, are selected points on the score sale of a test that are used to determine whether a test score is sufficient for some stated purpose. Or, in other words, the cut scores decide who does well on the test and who doesn't. They aren't made up out of whole cloth, but as a guest post on my blog, by principal Carol Burris, shows, the criteria used to determine them don't always make very much sense. Some people do think some administrators are making cut scores too high so that big percentages of kids do poorly on the tests.

Hi Valarie, do you have any thoughts on the high school graduation report that came out Monday. The researchers from Johns Hopkins who issued the report attributed all the gains to education reforms and school closings. The US Dept of Education drop out statistics suggest that the graduation rate was already higher than 80% six years ago and that drop out rates have been going down long term. I wonder if the report underestimated the rate from six years ago, calling the gains into question.

I think the points you make are important. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers, wrote an interesting piece on his blog, which you can see here, that says he is skeptical of using graduation rates as a measure of student outcomes because these rates can be strongly influenced by local norms and practices. That means, he says, it's hard to validly compare graduation rates from one place to another or even over time, as graduation standards may change. I think we can make data say whatever what want it to make and we have to be really careful about intrepreting results from causation.

I work for a university, and enrollment services would like to hire and "intrusive counselor" who would work with new students that have been put in an at risk group, at risk of not succeeding. Have you heard of this instrusive counselling? Am wondering what it is exactly and if its a common thing.

I ran across that concept in a report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin about practices at community colleges that seem to be helping students succeed. "Intrusive counseling" was one of them, along with things like peer mentoring and learning communities. The report essentialy describes "intrusive counseling" as an aggressive way that counselors engage students so they can build a relationship that winds up helping the students. They use e-mails and phone calls to force students who seem to be at-risk to engage. The report details how Zane State College in Ohio used this practice, to help keep at-risk and underprepared students stay in school during that all important first year. It has dramatically increased the number of kids who do graduate. Hope that helps.

IWhen I read it, I was also wondering if the parents had made it such a terror for the teachers that they tried to cancel it for "Acedemic Reasons"

Interesting thought. It seems to me that if parents are making the kindergarten show so hard that teachers don't want to do it, the administration should do something to stop the parents from having so much influence on what goes on in class.

So is it still getting down to poorly-made tests that will affect the employment of the teachers in a school? If the school "fails" does it mean it will get more money and resources to bring their disadvantaged students up to standards? Or is it just an way to get rid of tenured teachers before they hit retirement?

Well, yes, highly limited tests will affect the employment and pay of public school teachers. In some cases "failing" schools get more money to help students but often the money has to be used in highly prescriptive ways that educators don't always feel is the best use of the cash. In other cases "failing" schools are closed. Are some of these evaluation policies designed to eliminate tenured teachers so that less-expensive younger teachers can be hired? There are plenty of people who think so.

Are these students passing with twelfth grade levels in math, reading, etc.?

Some of them are. Some of them aren't.

Hi Valerie, I was hoping to get your thoughts on your perceived value of working programming into the core curriculum for kids in the U.S., and how parents can start helping their children to adapt to what's been called "the new literacy". Are there any specific tools or methodologies you would recommend? Thanks! Raj

I think most kids should learn something about programming in school. But this is just one area where curriculum hasn't caught up to reality. A colleague of mine recently wrote a story about how little teens learn about computer science even though many of them essentially spend their lives online. I don't know enough programming to recommend tools or methodologies but if others can, send them in and I'll share.

I live in Newark and am totally confused with what's happening with the public schools in this city. This is my first year with my child attending and it seems the teachers and staff also confused on the process. Do you know anything about it from the State Level?

You aren't the only person in Newark who is confused about what's going on. The superintendent of Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Christie, is implementing a highly controversial plan called One Newark that is a reorganization of the schools that creates a single enrollment system for the city's 71 traditional public schools and 21 charter schools. There is so much anger about the plan that dozens of clerics in the city recently wrote to Christie asking him to intervene. You can read about that here

I've heard that parents opting their child out of SOLs hurts the school. Is this true or not?

Good question. Many principals tell parents it will hurt the school because federal law requires that a certain percentage of students be tested annual for accountability purposes. I asked the U.S. Education Department about whether it would hold districts responsible for parents who opt their children out and couldn't get a straight answer. People who have looked at this issue say it is highly unlikely that schools will get hurt if parents opt out.

What are your top 3 traits/markers/determinants would you use for a late-September born boy to determine advancing or holding back from K-->1st grade?

Afraid I don't have three top traits to make this determination. In general, educators will tell you that it is helpful to give children time to develop before throwing them into the academic rigors of today's schools. Anecdotally, over many years I've rarely, if ever, heard a family say they were sorry they held a child back. I have heard regrets the other way, but, again, this is individual. There are academic and social considerations for parents to determine in consultation with the school. Wish I had a more concrete answer for you.

The saddest part of the college admission process is that parents and students do not understand it. Recent court decisions eliminate using race as part of the admission process. Parents and students do not get that a multitude of factors, unknown to most applicants and their parents, are considered. For example large universities need to fill seats in ALL OF THEIR DEPARTMENTS. So your maxed out AP classes, class president, top 5% of the class, perfect SAT scores who wants to major in psychology which has an abundance of applicants will not be admitted because some students who want to major in entomology will beat your super star student/psych major. Parents please know that your super student/child may be better "qualified" than another student. But please understand that Caroline County or Prince George County in Virginia will have students in all of the state colleges/universities. Fairfax County could probably fill William and Mary and UVA. However, the parents in all the other counties pay taxes and their students will be part of the "diversity" on the college campus. The college has a marching band and needs tuba players guess who has a better chance? Parents need to understand legacy admits aka parents with connections. Please understand that the celebrities and politician's children will get in before your child no matter how perfect their GPA and SAT scores. Please also understand that teacher's recommendations are often honest and confidential. Your "perfect" child with super SATs, extra curriculas, etc., may have been given an honest appraisal by the teacher who states that "this student while who is bright, leadership, etc. flourishes best in an intimate learning environment. The college's average class size is 200 students in a lecture hall. College admissions may pass on the student because it isn't a match. Just some thoughts as people go crazy over who and who wasn't accepted where. BTW: DD applied to over 10 colleges got accepted to the majority and attended the college 7th on her list. Three years later.....happy as can be and loves her college. Breathe it will be ok.

There's pretty much nothing I can add to that, so I won't!

That's all the time we have today. Please come back next week and send in questions I didn't get to or any that occur to you in the coming days. Thanks, as always, for joining me. Have a great week.

In This Chat
Valerie Strauss
I've been covering education for at least as long as I went to school - from kindergarten through graduate school - and The Answer Sheet gives me the opportunity to keep learning (and get paid for it).
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