The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

May 14, 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. Welcome to this week's chat.

This week is the 60th anniversary of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that ended the "separate but equal" doctrine that effectively codified segregation in public schools. While some progress has been since then, the decision's promise has yet to be fully realized, and public schools are as segregated today as they have been in decades.

On that note, let's begin.







There was a report that came out recently about how our high school seniors scored in reading and math. Honestly, I was shocked. 26% of students scored at or above grade level in math, and 38% of students scored at or above grade level in reading.The achievement gap between African Americans and Caucasians increased by a small margin. Why is it that our system isn't changing? We have essentially been doing the same thing in schools for a long, long time. I see this from multiple perspectives - as a mother, former classroom teacher, and now a teacher educator at a state university. When there are changes, they seem to happen one school at a time - like a longer school year, or a school year that has the same number of days but a shorter summer break. Is our school system just too large to do anything different? Why don't the policy-makers listen to the people who actually do the research at universities? It is so disappointing. I feel like a traitor sending my students out to schools to teach when I know the system is lacking.

I'm not sure to which report you are referring. Scores on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is sometimes called "the nation's report card", were just released for fourth and eighth graders in math and reading. Forty-one percent of public school students at grade 4 and 34 percent at grade 8 performed at or above Proficient in mathematics in 2013. Thirty-four percent of public school students performed at or above Proficient in reading in 2013 at both grades 4 and 8, with the percentages in the states ranging from 17 to 48 percent. You may be interested to know that many people believe that the cut scores that determine NAEP proficiency in a particular subject are way too high. Beyond this, you ask a number of good questions with complex answers. School reformers have long been looking for a way to "scale up" success with the idea that something that worked in one school will definitely work in all the other schools in the district, but success could look different in different schools and districts. I also think after watching school reform for a long time that as long as the main thrust is about test scores, the roots of the problem will not be addressed.

I am an MCPS elementary school teacher. When I enter grades into the Pinnacle electronic gradebook, I can see a student's grades down to the second decimal (2.71, for example.) This tells me precisely where on the ES, P, I, N grading scale the student falls. Why are these more precise grades unavailable to parents on their child's report card? Do MCPS officials not want parents to know how broad the P grade range is?

Good question. I don't know the answer but I'll ask MCPS and report next week. For those who don't know, MCPS changed the traditional A-F grading system for elementary schools a few years ago. Now the schools use the ES, P, I, N grading scale. ES means “exceptional,” P means “demonstrating proficiency,” I means “in progress,” and N means “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards. There is more information on the report cards too, with concepts broken down within subjects. For example, social studies is no longer just social studies but there are grades for civics, culture, history, etc.

I heard that some families put deposits down at more than one collelge because their child couldn't decide where to go by May 1. Is that legal?

Lots of families do this. It isn't illegal, but families do lose one of the deposits because they are non-refundable. This is one reason some students on college waiting lists get admitted after the May 1st decision deadline. Now people are talking about some colleges that are trying to get students to put down deposits before the traditional May 1st deadline.

Valerie, one question that often comes to mind when looking at dropout rates or college attendance rates at terrible schools is that even in the very worst schools, there is a small percentage of students who are successful and go on to college, full employment, etc. Have there been any analyses of why these students succeed in schools that are otherwise overwhelmingly failing their students? If so, what are the factors that are making these students succeed against such long odds? Thanks.

Yes, there are always some kids who are motivated enough, and who find the support they need to excel. The factors are complicated and individual. I can't give a definitive list of factors but certainly all students who succeed against the odds have uncommon determination, smarts, and luck in finding adults who can help them.

Why is the Education Department threatening states on their NCLB waivers? Washington state lost its waiver recently and some other states have been warned. What happens when a state loses a waiver?

The Education Department recently, for the first time, revoked Washington state's No Child Left Behind waiver, the first time it did that to any state. It is also threatening a few other states in regard to having their waiver yanked. The waivers relieve the states of having to comply with the most onerous parts of NCLB, especially the idea of making "annual yearly progress" on test scores. The goal of having nearly all students proficient in reading and math by this year was always just aspirational. But now, with the revocation of the waivers, the states will still have to comply with a law that everyone agrees is flawed. Why is the department doing this? It is saying that some states have not carried out the reforms they promised to undertake in exchange for the waiver. In Washington state, the legislature didn't tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. Now, under NCLB, nearly all public schools in the state will be considered "failing" even though that is ludicrous.

Couldn't many of the arguments against Common Core be said about ANY set of standards? Excepting the corporate sponsorship (etc.), why are we so much more against CCSS than existing standards?

Sure, some of the arguments against Common Core could be said about any set of standards. For example, a study came out of the Brookings Institution that found that standards-based education doesn't do much for student achievement. That's any standards-based education, not Common Core. There are a lot of different criticisms about the Core, some legitimate, some wacky (such as an accusation that it promotes communism and gay marriage). Some people aren't opposed to the standards but are upset about the way it has been implemented. In fact, some Core supporters fear the initiative is being compromised because of lousy implementation. Some critics don't like this particular set of standards because they don't believe in national standards, which the Core isn't technically. There are also critics who charge that the Core standards for K-1 are not developmentally appropriate, which would be specific to the Core. So, short answer to your question: Yes, some of them.

You said this is the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board. How did it work and how didn't it work?

Richard Rothstein, a very smart education researcher and author, wrote a piece which you can read here about what Brown accomplished and didn't.  Here are some of his conclusions:

* Although Brown stimulated a civil rights movement that desegregated many facets of American society, it was least successful in integrating education, the decision’s aim.

* Initial school integration gains following Brown stalled and black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been available (1970).

* Academic achievement of African Americans has improved dramatically in recent decades, but whites’ has as well, so racial achievement gaps remain huge.

*Schools for black children had enormous resource shortages in 1954. Inequalities still exist in some places, although they are much smaller. But resource equality itself is insufficient; disadvantaged students require much greater resources than middle-class white students to prepare for success in school.

* Expensive but necessary resources include high-quality early childhood programs, from birth to school entry; high-quality after-school and summer programs; full-service school health clinics; more skilled teachers; and smaller classes.

Is the Common Core implementation failing in all of the states that adopted them?

Implementation isn't the same in all of the states because a few, especially New York, pushed ahead with standardized tests aligned to the Core before teachers had a chance to really absorb the standards and create new curriculum. Core supporters wouldn't say that it is failing, either, but that there are problems to be worked out.

"Expensive but necessary resources include high-quality early childhood programs, from birth to school entry; high-quality after-school and summer programs; full-service school health clinics; more skilled teachers; and smaller classes." In most communities, all but the last two (teacher skill and class size) are provided or paid for,or should be, by families. Is it too much to ask or expect that the schools can provide every facet of a child's upbringing? Specifically, to pin the requirement for success on teachers given the needs the author outlines as necessary for success? Is this why national assessments are so flawed, that the teachers and students are being tested when it's the kids' entire safety net/development that should be taken into account?

I do think we expect too much from public schools, and yes, one of the reasons there are problems with assessments (though not national) is because teachers are being evaluated for student "growth" when other factors contribute to student achievement. On the other hand, some kids don't have families with the resources to take care of their basic needs. That's the idea behind community schools, where families can go to get services that they can't get otherwise. Kids shouldn't be penalized for the behavior of their parents.

States were required to address the needs of English learners in their waiver requests. Do you know how well States addressed this population of students in their requests and if the Department of Education has held States accountable if they did not sufficiently address the needs of these students?

Good question and I don't know the answer, but will find out. So far, the Education Department has paid the most attention in waiver renewals and revocations to the issue of teacher evaluation systems over any of the requirements.

It seems like there is a new report coming out every month about why value-added measurement shouldn't be used to evaluate teachers. Does Arne Duncan read them?

I don't know about every month but there have been a number of important reports recently that have concluded that one of the critical methods being used to evaluate teachers -- called "value added" -- isn't reliable and shouldn't be used for high-stakes decisions. The American Statistical Association issued a report last month, and this week two researchers put out a report about the issue. There have been lots of similar warnings from assessment experts. Does Arne Duncan read them? I have no idea. The real question is whether he knows about the over-abundant research on the problems with VAM, considering that he has supported its use.

Thanks for joining me today. Hope you have a good week.

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