The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

May 07, 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.

Welcome to this week's chat. There's a lot going on, so let's begin...

You covered scandals in DC special ed for years. How is the system doing now?

According to people who know, the District has made some improvements from the years when the special ed system was entirely dysfunctional. Still, though, parents and advocates say that services are not good enough, and some teachers say they are not given the supports they need and the system hasn't yet fully emerged from court oversight of the system. David Catania, who chairs the D.C. Council's education committee, has gone so far as to say there is a "crisis" in special ed and he has proposed legislation that would do a number of things, including cutting in half the time schools have to evaluate a child referred for special-education services. The District now allows schools to take up to 120 days for that first evaluation. That's the longest time of any school system in the country.

Has Stanford started a trend by announcing it will divest from all fossil fuel companies?

Maybe. Stanford University did just announce that it would divest its $18.7 billion endowment of stock in coal-mining companies. That makes it the first major university to do so, giving support to  the campaign to purge endowments and pension funds of fossil fuel investments. Some other schools are already talking about doing it and you can expect others to follow. How many, though, I can't say.

Does true vocational education still exist, and do you think it should? Aren't there kids who would be better off and happier studying something practical and no-academic?

There are schools that offer true vocational education around the country. It may be that all students would benefit from some vocational education, not because it is practical and non-academic but because it is a different way of learning how to think through problems. Way back when I was in junior high school, the girls took sewing and the boys shop. I wanted to take shop but, alas, I couldn't.

Thank you for the column about the teacher from New York, it was interesting to get his perspective and you really have to feel for the kids taking these tests. However, I have a couple of questions. Hasn't New York added "extra" standards that go above and beyond Common Core? I also think that critics often fail to discriminate between the standards themselves and the implementation- are these bad tests in New York a fault of the Common Core standards themselves, the extra New York standards, or the way the test was written? All these articles make me wonder what the real problem is and where the breakdown is occurring- are the standards too hard or is it the curriculum development and test writing? Also keep in mind that each state has their own curriculum. I was recently talking to a teacher in Massachusetts and she doesn't find the curriculum to be all that different than what she was teaching before- however, her kids haven't taken an aligned test yet.

Smart questions ... there's a lot here. States that adopted the Core were permitted to deviate from the standards 15 percent, though I don't think New York did that. What New York did do was give students Core-aligned tests before most other states and, unfortunately, before teachers had had a chance to absorb the standards and design new curriculum around them. The real problem depends on your view of the Core. Many supporters of the Core acknowledge that the implementation has been botched. Some people who like the idea of national standards don't like the process through which the Core was written. Some people like some of the standards but not others; there is a lot of criticism, for example, of the early learning standards as being not developmental. Some teachers may not have to change much in the way of curriculum to align their teaching with Core standards, while others will. You are right in saying that many people don't differentiate between the standards and the implementation.

My daughter attends parochial school, and we’ll very soon need to select a (catholic) high school. My husband and I have our eye on an all-girls school based on its academic excellence as a college prep school combined with the positive school/social/ extracurricular experience it offers students. Of course, my daughter wants to go to the one school where all of her friends expect to attend. How do parents determine, or what criteria, do families apply to guide finding the right environment for your child’s high school experience? We neither want to ‘pull rank’ any more than settling for a school just because all of her friends are going there without minimizing how important it may be for her to sustain those long-term friendships. To add to the mix, how do we explain or showcase the potential rewards of an all-girls high school experience to an almost 13 year old who foresees it as a negative. Thank you.

Thanks for writing. You are asking a lot of the right questions but I'm afraid there is no definitive answer. Of course your daughter wants to go to school with her friends, but, as you say, that can't be the only reason you choose a particular school. Choosing a private school is very individual because people look for different things. Some send their kids there for smaller classes, some for religious education, some for safety issues. One thing that may help a lot is to see if the schools that interest you will allow your daughter to go for a day or two and shadow students. This can be really helpful for your daughter to learn whether she can see herself in the environment. She may be surprised. You can look at the curriculum, the arts offerings, extracurricular activities, class size, where graduates go to college. Those matter. So does your daughter's sense of belonging. You and your husband have to factor all of that in. Nobody else can do it.

I saw on your blog something about teachers being evaluated by test scores of students they don't teach. There was a lawsuit in Florida by teachers who said that but a judge said it was legal. Is this really a thing?

Yeah, it's a thing. And it's not just in Florida. School reformers have decided that teachers should be evaluated -- sometimes 50 percent of an assessment -- by the standardized test scores of students. But there are only standardized tests for math and reading. So what do they do with teachers of other subjects? They are often evaluated by their school's average test scores, or by the reading scores of the students they teach -- which means they are being evaluated by scores of students taking tests in subjects they don't teach. Seven teachers in Florida sued the state. A federal judge this week said while he thought the evaluation method was completely unfair, it was nevertheless legal. Teachers in Houston recently filed a lawsuit against that city's teacher evaluation system for much the same reasons as the Florida teachers sued.

What's become of the reading wars (phonics vs "whole language") from the '90s?

How to teach children to read most effectively has long been a subject of contention in education. The  “reading wars” hit a peak in 2000 with a report by the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel that was criticized by many reading experts who said the panel relied on a limited number of research studies that supported literacy education that involved, among other things intensive drilling in phonics, with less emphasis on comprehension of text. Along came No Child Left Behind, with its Reading First initiative, which mandated a particular kind of reading instruction that focused on direct instruction phonics curriculum and method and banned whole language. Still, there remains a battle over how to teach reading to kids. Some literacy experts are worried that reformers trying to change colleges of education are trying to revive the reading wars by limiting how future teachers are prepared in this area. So the short version to your question: They are quieter, but the reading wars aren't over.

Who is against the Common Core? Why would anybody be against a set of standards that were written to raise student learning?

For your first question, opposition to the Core is coming from the right, the left and the center, though it is most loudly coming from the right at the moment which is accusing the federal government of trying to take over local education by conceiving and mandating the standards. The federal government didn't actually conceive the standards and didn't outright mandate them but do coerce states into adopting them through its Race to the Top contest for federal funds. There are people all over the political map who are upset with the implementation of the Core as opposed to the standards themselves. And as I wrote earlier, there are people who like some of the standards and not others, and those who don't oppose standards but believe the Core was written through a process that was rushed and did not give classroom teachers any primary say in their development. As for why anybody would be against a set of standards written to raise student learning: There are researchers who say that standards-based education hasn't really improved student learning.

Do you think high school students can too many AP classes, or do colleges want to see as many as possible?

I do think high school students can take too many Advanced Placement classes but there are people who disagree. Some kids leave high school with the number of AP classes in the double digits. Since AP classes come with a lot more work than regular or even honors classes, these kids spend many hours every day doing homework. I don't think kids should be spending every waking hour doing homework. As for colleges, some do like to see a lot of AP classes, and most give some credit for AP classes depending on a student's score on the AP exam. But many colleges and universities know that some top high schools have gotten rid of their AP programs because, ironically, they thought the courses were too superficial.

New York is an example of how top down dictation to the teachers leads to a terrible roll out of he common core. New York curriculum is much more centralized and my poor niece (in second grade) is enduring a year of terribly written worksheets (confusing word, awful grammar, and totally different from the way they did math last year) and endless repetition and the poor teacher has very little freedom to change things up to meet the needs of her students. She "snuck" (her word) my niece some more advanced math recently so she could have something more challenging, but she as to do it at home after a long day of school. My sister is at a loss, because when she talks to the teacher or eve the principal they say their hands are tied by decision made in Albany. There are certainly ways the CC standards themselves could be improved, but I think the biggest problem is in implementation.

Thanks for writing. I keep hearing similar stories about Common Core-aligned material that teachers are giving to students because they are the only ones available. In New York, policymakers decided to have Pearson quickly make up standardized tests aligned to the Core and then gave them to students even while teachers were still absorbing the standards and developing their own lessons and materials. You are right: Common Core implementation in New York has been a mess. is written by an education professor who also has a child in an NYC public school. There is a lot there to unpack, including the influence of hedge fund managers looking for revenue streams in a lot of the implementation. Also unpacking the claims of charter schools to be less expensive than public schools when they don't provide services for expensive special ed students.

There are a lot of great blogs out there by people who are taking a critical look at school reforms. Thanks for pointing this one out.

If a young person asked for advice about how best to train as a teacher--where to study, what to watch out for, what to expect--what would you say?

Good question. There are a lot of good programs that can train you to be a teacher. I don't want to single out specific programs but you should look for one that is reputable and that infuses student training in real classrooms along with the theory. Any reader of my blog knows that I don't think that very quick preparation programs, like the one Teach For America gives its students over five weeks in the summer, are enough to train someone well.

Do you think high schools shoudl start school later because teenagers need more sleep? Why don't they?

I've written a lot about this. Yes, it is sort of nutty to have teens have to get up for school before the sun comes up given that they have unique biorhythms that make it harder for them to go sleep until late and wake up early. I have heard from people who don't believe this but sleep experts have said repeatedly that research shows that it is true. Many districts are looking into pushing back start times for teens.

I've gotten a number of questions that boil down to this: " I get confused about No Child Left Behind. It supposedly expired a long time ago but is still in force?"

So, quickly, NCLB did expire in 2007 and was supposed to be rewritten by Congress. It hasn't been, and because of that, it still stays in force. Because there were so many problems with NCLB, the Obama administration offered waivers to states from the most onerous parts of NCLB, but only in exchange for promises of reforms the Education Department liked. In fact, the Ed Dept. just revoked a waiver -- the first time it did this -- that had been given to Washington state because the state legislature hadn't passed a law linking educator evaluation with standardized test scores. Other state waivers may be in jeopardy too. Ed Sec. Duncan has said that NCLB is fatally flawed, but now Washington state has to revert back to fully complying with it, even its most problematic parts. We'll see how that goes.



Thanks for coming. Have a great week and let's do it again next Wednesday.

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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