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Corbett's education chief changes PSSA testing rules for charter schools without federal approval

From: The Morning Call October 5, 2012

A review of PSSA math and reading scores shows charter schools outperformed traditional public schools in 2012.  That's because state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, at the behest of charter school advocates, changed the testing rules in a way that makes it easier for charter schools to meet state benchmarks.
The new method is less stringent than the standards that must be met by traditional public schools, and which until this year were also applied to charter schools. As a result, 44 of the 77 charter schools that PDE has recently classified as having made AYP for 2011-12 in fact fell short of the targets for academic performance that other public schools had to meet, some even declining in proficiency percentages rather than making gains.

But the change Tomalis quietly instituted was done so without receiving the required approval from the federal Department of Education.

Assessing Multiple Measures

If you follow education news at all these days, it’s hard to avoid hearing about “multiple measures” - usually in the context of developing teacher evaluation tools, but sometimes as another way of assessing student “achievement” (a discussion for another day).  There appears to be a consensus that multiple measures are a good thing, but why?

The idea seems reasonable to most people, but there’s good reason to examine it more closely.

The argument for multiple measures - which, obviously and importantly, are far more time-consuming and expensive to produce than say, a single, standardized test - is that no one has confidence that any single measure will accurately capture what it is that we're trying to “assess”; in this case, teacher "effectiveness".

It would be one thing if each of the measures in the current PDE proposal addressed a particular aspect of so-called “effectiveness”. If that were the case, you would have a potentially useful way of determining that a teacher is strong in one area, but less so in another. But no one is saying that. Instead, PDE appears to be wishfully-thinking that the shortcomings of one measurement tool will somehow cancel out the shortcomings of another. I should note that the law of GIGO (garbage-in, garbage-out) has not been repealed. Read more »

Now, what? reprised

Regular readers will recognize the reference to Beetle Bailey, and General Halftrack's catch phrase when faced with the bizarre and inexplicable.

To what am I referring? Well, it could be one of several things, but I’ve already talked about Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation plan, so let's begin today with the Corbett administration's recent decision to place a moratorium on the PlanCon process.

There is just no way to say this politely: this decision is hare-brained on almost every conceivable level.

“PlanCon” is the procedure that school districts must follow if they want to receive partial state reimbursement for school construction projects. In State College, that amounts to about 9% of construction costs; in many districts, that number is considerably higher. It makes no economic sense for a school district to do a construction project of any significance without access to PlanCon funding.

At a time when architects and construction companies are looking for work – thereby creating a highly favorable bid environment - and interest rates are at historic lows, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a better scenario for undertaking a school construction project. It’s good for the economy because it “creates jobs” and it’s good for taxpayers because, well, it saves money!   Read more »

The "Attack on Public Education"

Several months ago I noted that we appeared about to reargue an issue that for 150 years had been considered settled: whether a free public education is a public good, an essential foundation of a democratic society. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that the “attack on public education” is not hyperbole; we are in the midst of a serious debate having enormous implications.

The root of this attack has recently become clearer to me, and it goes back at least a generation: the issue is whether or not our students should be taught how to think for themselves.

The Texas Republican Party has helped clarify this by actually taking a stand against the teaching of critical thinking skills. From their 2012 platform: “we oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Read more »

Are computers really necessary?

When 'old-timers' - that is, people of my age -  say "we didn’t have computers when I was in school, and I turned out fine", they have a point.  That’s why it’s necessary for educators to explain why the education we remember is not adequate for today’s students.

It is also important to understand that a "21st-century" education is not really about technology. Technology is only a tool; a means to an end. More than one school district has spent a fair sum buying new computers, only to have them sit in classrooms, collecting dust.  If access to new technologies doesn’t provoke us to fundamentally re-think the teaching and learning experience, they’re not worth the investment.

So it is important to understand how technology allows us to do things in the classroom that we couldn’t do before - and why that matters. That was the opportunity that several members of the school board had on a recent visit to State High.

For members of the public who have not stepped inside a classroom in decades, this would be enlightening, and would hopefully jump-start a community-wide conversation concerning the direction of public education.

Perhaps the most significant way that education has changed (or rather, needs to change) is that it has become less about the consumption of information - which, in the information age, is not nearly as important as it once was - and more about what you can do with that information. As one teacher put it, we’re seeing s shift from "content" to "analysis."

Educators and employers have identified a set of "21st-century skills" that today’s students will need in order to be successful. The list includes critical-thinking, collaboration, broad communication skills, civics and creativity. What technology does is make it possible, or at least considerably easier, to incorporate that set of skills into the student learning experience.
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The recent release of "Bully" and the controversy over its initial "R" rating (it was eventually released "unrated") has sparked a national conversation over bullying in school. Putting aside the absurdity of the MPAA rating, I’d like to talk about the movie itself, and where we might go from here.

First, the movie is worth seeing. It is an excellent portrayal of what bullying looks like from the perspective of students. It also does a nice job of showing how clueless adults can be, adults within the school system in particular. You can imagine how frustrating that is to both affected students and parents.

It’s probably too much to ask, but where I think the movie falls short is in solutions, which don’t get much beyond insisting that the school, and the public at large, face up to the issue. While that’s a good start, it highlights the shortcomings of traditional anti-bullying efforts: they tend to be reactive, with the focus typically on changing the behavior of the “bully”.  Not enough attention is paid to the behavior of the bystanders, nor on the overall climate of the school. Read more »

A revolt against high-stakes testing?

Perhaps it's the arrival of spring, but I'm catching a whiff of optimism in the air: there appears to be the makings of a revolt against our national obsession with high-stakes testing.  And it's originating in Texas of all places!

Even more encouraging, it's not just educators who are standing up (which begs the question: why weren't teachers consulted in the first place?); it's also parents who are beginning to say, "enough is enough!"  Some parents have gone so far as to not allow their children to take these high-stakes tests. Just saying.

Truthfully, parents were never really on board in the first place. When you ask parents what they want from their schools, they've never supported the inevitable shrinking of the curriculum that occurs when you test only a narrow band of the curriculum, place enormously high stakes on those tests, and then cut resources.

From the parents' perspective, it's not just about being prepared to get a job, either. Parents have always believed that schools should also prepare students to be citizens - the original justification for public schools, by the way  (ask Ben Franklin); to discover what interests them, and to be exposed to the arts. Read more »

Comparing Apples to Oranges

A friend recently wrote to me on the subject of standardized teacher evaluations:

"Just musing, but maybe there needs to be some standardization with respect to teacher evaluations.  I am generally of the opinion that each community knows best and that standardization means more bureaucracy, but it would be nice to compare apples to apples instead of apples to oranges.  What do you think?  Please be brutally honest."

This was my reply...  

That's an excellent question. There's certainly a strong push towards developing objective, universal standards that can be used to compare teachers across districts, states, etc.

My biggest problem with this idea is that "teacher effectiveness" depends to a considerable extent on the quality of the teaching environment. Do teachers receive appropriate administrative support and training? Do they have opportunities to collaborate with and learn from more experienced teachers? (I am very much of the opinion that most good teachers are made and not born.)

Class size, and especially the students themselves vary enormously. (Are they hungry? Are they being bullied? What's going on at home?)  Is there adequate heat, light, books?  Obviously, the "climate" for teaching and learning varies considerably from school to school. Even the "effectiveness" of an individual teacher can vary significantly from year to year, depending on the students in his/her class. (Ask any teacher.) And how do you evaluate teachers when students have more than one, or enter a class mid-year, or...?
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Act 1 redux

“That makes no sense whatsoever,” said Hutchinson.

That statement begs for an explanation, which, to be honest, I was not fully prepared to give at Monday's board meeting. I did not anticipate having to defend a practice widely used by school boards in the era of Act 1, and I certainly didn't expect to have to defend the ethics /morality of that decision.

A little history on school budgeting is in order. Once upon a time, although school budgets were developed over a period of months, the actual tax rate wasn't determined until fairly late in the process - usually not until June - by which time you would have a much clearer picture of the most important factors impacting the budget, such as: Read more »

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