Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the Debate About School Choice, Relevance and Evidence Lose

During the recent “Impact of Charter Schools in Chicago” panel discussion presented by Catalyst Chicago, proponents and opponents of charter schools came together for a brawl that ended in every side (including the moderates) only further entrenched in their viewpoints.  Though no one “won” the debate, there were two clear losers: evidence and reality. While every side presented evidence in support of their argument, no one was willing to acknowledge evidence that was not ideologically aligned with their own viewpoints. Charles Payne, University of Chicago Professor, mentioned some research though he explicitly cited CREDO’s 2009 study of charter school performance. Though, Dr. Payne’s more reserved assessment of charter schools in Chicago included the CREDO study due to the mixed results from the study. Andrew Broy, President of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, cited Caroline Hoxby, a free-market economist who has studied competition in education in great detail. Hoxby’s findings typically support free-market reforms, but are also contested. Broy also mentioned certain findings from CREDO’s study of charter school performance, though ignoring some of the larger findings to focus on those favorable to charter schools. Jackson Potter, a representative of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), also blatantly ignored any studies with inconvenient findings, only to mention Diane Ravitch (not any particular study, just mentioned the historian’s opposition to charter school expansion). Though the debate was chocked full of claims, there was little evidence to support the claims being made by either Mr. Broy or Mr. Potter.

Another loser of the debate was the acknowledgment of the systemic inequities facing our nation’s schools, especially those in cities like Chicago. For the proponents of charter schools, in this case Andrew Broy (Teach For America alumni turned law student, turned lawyer, then finally self-actualizing as an education expert), market competition that pits individuals (students, teachers, schools, and districts) against each other in the spirit of neoliberalism is the best approach to solving inequality.  Fundamentally, this approach negates the obvious realities of competition – there are winners and losers.  In fact, it is this very type of competition that has created a society where we have, and largely tolerate, systemic inequality of winners and losers (haves and have not’s).  For Broy, and the likes, what is missing in our society is school “choice.”  That is, our schools are not performing well because they have no market incentives to “outperform” some other school (and their students) – and in lacking that, these schools reproduce a stratified economy.  For Broy, injecting market competition into what has traditionally been public and democratic (well, at least in theory) is the best way to fight for what he, and the other neoliberals, deem the “civil rights” issue of our time.
           Juxtaposed to Broy’s insistence that market ideology is the best route for reform, was Jackson Potter (Chicago Teacher’s Union).  While Potter did not make it a pivotal point of his argument, he did mention twice (once in the beginning and then again at the end – if you watched that long) that the greatest decrease in the so-called “achievement gap” occurred during President Johnson’s Great Society.  For those who point out that the achievement gap is nothing other than an opportunity gap, this is the quintessential argument.  That is, schools are not the source of inequality; rather, it is society that creates and perpetuates inequalities that predetermine the types of education that students have access to and ultimately realize.  For Broy, this point is understood in that poor students have access to bad schools – so, what they need are “better” schools.  For Potter, and most educational researchers, what matters most are not the brick and mortar schools that students attend; rather, the homes that they come from and go back to after school.  If they followed the research, the panelists – and even venture philanthropists at the Walton Foundation – would put less stock and money into school “choice” and more into ensuring that parents had access to a livable wage, affordable housing, access to healthcare, etc.  Dr. Payne, Mr. Broy, and Mr. Potter used little evidence in their assertion there is an achievement gap while ignoring the larger opportunity gap.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Doing Less with More: the Social Significance of For-Profit Higher Education in the US

Portraying higher education as a business is the dominant metaphor for higher education in our time. By now it is commonplace to consider students as consumers, faculty as producers, degrees and publications as products, while universities labor to protect their brand.

To some extent, US higher education has always functioned at least partially as a market, with institutions vying for faculty, students, and funding. Clark Kerr defines responsiveness to the market as a fundamental characteristic of institutions in the American system, and calls it a “gift of history”. However, in concert with the historical US marketization of education has been the longstanding philosophical tradition from Thomas Jefferson, to John Dewey and more recently to others such as Henry Giroux, of the assumption that democracy demands education as a public good. 

In response to the encroachment of corporate power into the public sphere of education, Giroux called for educators and others to mobilize a civic dialogue providing an alternative conception of the meaning and purpose of public education in resistance to the rise of corporate influence. For-profit higher education represents perhaps the clearest manifestation of this encroachment, as the for-profit higher education institution is a company or corporation. Despite the staggering growth in the for-profit higher education industry in recent years, alternative civic dialogues are not often voiced within the academy.  Instead, the criticisms of proprietary institutions are more often located in the popular press, documentaries, or Congressional reports, and tend to center on issues of student loan repayment, graduation rates, and admissions activities. These are essentially unfair business practices, with the larger, far more significant concerns of race, power, and politics, left largely unexplored.  Within many of these narratives, avoiding fraudulent behavior seems to be the sole standard that society demands of higher education.  In fact, some voices advocate for public and other institutions to emulate the “efficiencies” of the corporate model

Yet, if we look at the for-profit sector of higher education, it is clear that the exponential growth in the industry is far from evenly distributed. Rather, it has occurred primarily in groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Currently, the University of Phoenix is the largest educator of minority students. In fact, for-profit institutions enroll a disproportionate share of non-Asian minority, low-income, and female students. The for-profit industry hails this accomplishment as “access,” yet questions about what exactly their students have gained access to seem to go unasked.

Publicly traded, and yet publicly funded through federal and state student loans, this sector of higher education demonstrates what waits at the bottom of the slippery slope of marketization in higher education.  Absorbing roughly 30% of the federal student loan funds plus multiple private loans in many cases, and then spending approximately 25% of the budget on marketing, the for-profit sector demonstrates the incongruity of shareholder profits and the public good (see Harkin Report). Standard criticisms of the for-profit model highlight the higher tuitions, low graduation rates, high percentages of part-time faculty, high student loan defaults, and frequent indictments for fraud.  Yet, by allowing business practices to become the center of the debate, critics have seemingly acquiesced to the corporate instrumentalist vision of education, at least for large numbers of minorities and non-traditional students who enroll in such programs, accepting that for those students at least, getting a job upon graduation that pays enough to service student loan repayments is enough. Elements of racism and even a kind of Social Darwinism permeate some of this discourse, where prepackaged curriculum taught by part-time faculty in abandoned store fronts, or online, counts as “access to higher education” for minority students who for reasons that remain unstated, “could not be served” by traditional public institutions.  Capacity within the public system is often cited as the justification for tolerating this system, but such an excuse rings hollow in a nation that originated massification of higher education and is widely regarded as the leader in higher education worldwide.

For their part, public institutions espouse diversity and tout carefully calculated minority and traditionally underserved students. However, there is little to no consideration for the issues raised by a profit driven industry feeding off the raging need for higher education left unmet by the current public and private non-profit system. Moreover, research on for-profit institutions and the students they serve is scant. Policing only the “consumer protection” fundamentals of the programs seems to assuage the sense of responsibility of the academy, public institutions, government, and society in general to rectify the exclusions from civic engagement that the for-profit, instrumentalist manifestation of higher education perpetuates.

Giroux called for “educators [to] confront the march of corporate power by resurrecting a noble tradition, extending from Horace Mann to Martin Luther King Jr, that affirms education as a political process encouraging people to identify themselves as more than consuming subjects, and democracy as more than a spectacle of market culture” (2001).  While the fraudulent practices of some proprietary institutions are certainly egregious, the issues of “gainful employment” must not be allowed to dominate the discussion.  Instead, the debate should also consider true issues of access centered on larger social realities of power and oppression. The debate should consider alternate conceptions of higher education in America that would provide access for all. Without resistance to the continued vocationalization of higher education for minority and other non-traditional students, without demands for noncommercial goals for higher education including minority and non-traditional students of all ages, and without insistence on the integral and potentially transforming role of faculty as more than messengers delivering a pre-packaged product of mass produced curriculum, democracy and the institutions originally designed to serve it, have been reduced to mere spectacle in this market culture.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

China Bridge Delegation: Reflections On Educational Policy and Practice in China and the United States

From November 7-15, I traveled to China as part of the 2012 Chinese Bridge Delegation to China.   This was a unique opportunity to visit Chinese schools, dialogue with teachers and educational leaders, and learn firsthand about contemporary Chinese educational policy and practice. My perceptions remain fresh and unrefined, yet I would like to share a few thoughts:

First, regarding Chinese policy, it was reported to us that new curricular reforms are intended to produce more hands-on, experiential learning.  Further, they aim to develop students’ critical/analytical and communicative/collaborative skills.  Interestingly, Chinese leaders articulated the importance of developing the “whole child,” although we suspected certain differences in how we define these and other terms. Importantly, all delegates were left indelibly impressed that the Chinese view a strong education system as critical to individual and collective success.

With respect to Chinese practice, our observations suggest these goals are not yet fully reflected in practice; classroom instruction tended to be teacher-directed and linear.  For instance, in a Primary Art class, approximately 35 students sat in rows and followed along as their teacher worked step by step, engaged in Jhianzhi (paper cutting).  By contrast, some American educators (classroom observers) immediately began folding and cutting the paper as they desired, with no reference to the classroom directions.  Even the ‘play’ that we observed in morning exercise on the playground was organized and structured according to class, with a prescribed group activity set for each.  Altogether, I perceived that certain reforms are “easier said than done” as they require shifting educators’ mindsets and gradually developing certain skills.  Potentially, logistical changes (e.g., smaller class sizes) may be important as well.

Still, Chinese policies and practices are interesting when juxtaposed against what is occurring in the United States.  From an international comparative perspective, it would appear that we are advantaged in certain key areas, and disadvantaged in others.  Moreover, in my view, some areas of U.S. educational advantage may be weakening as direct or indirect effects of current policy in each nation. 

For example, I am concerned about the implications of curricular narrowing in the U.S. (a function of NCLB).  Some argue that the U.S. system has historically shown relative strength in its development of creative/innovative, critical thinking adults.  This, in turn, has contributed to American economic prosperity.  Recent policy, however, has caused many educators to “teach to the test” and administrators and officials to alter instructional programming toward items and areas that are measured by state-required tests.  Arts programs, for instance, have been cut and recess time decreased or eliminated in many places.  Beware:  such measures may create a context less conducive to creative and interpersonal development.  This, in turn, may ultimately amount to an unwise squandering of international educational strength/advantage, at the same time that Chinese educators and policymakers wisely pursue opposite aims.

Another area of Chinese advantage (or disadvantage, depending ultimately upon the efficacy of reforms) lies in its ability to quickly and sweepingly reform its systems.  In the U.S., it is much more difficult to make fundamental changes; the U.S. system is layered and complex, with multiple powerful players and stakeholders involved.  In China, structure and hierarchy are clear, and reform documents have immediate and far-reaching impacts. 

Lastly, I left with strengthened conviction that the study of Chinese language and culture should occur in American schools.  The school district in which I work includes Chinese programming, including a partial-immersion program.  It is heartening to learn that the study of Chinese in U.S. schools has markedly increased (see here); however, the Chinese students’ study of English still positively dwarfs the American study of Chinese – indeed, Jon Huntsman Jr. estimated that currently there are more English speakers in China than in the United States.

China, a nation “on the rise,” rightly views its educational system as central to its present and future.  It is crucial that American citizens and policymakers continue to view education likewise.  Moreover, it is essential that we pursue policies that not only aim to address perceived failings of our system, but that aim to nurture or grow our considerable strengths.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

MOOCs and differentiated higher education

Dan's entry yesterday focuses on what he describes as the surveillance potential of data-mining in large courses and higher education more generally. That is in fact what EDx's founders promised: to use MOOCs as a research base. It is remarkably similar to the "personalized education" promise of those advocating algorithm-driven K-12 lessons, such as the School of One in New York City. I have argued elsewhere that there is a significant difference between personalized and algorithmic education, but maybe I should use an old Garment District joke to explain:
A wealthy patron enters the small dress shop. "I need a dress for a banquet!" She yelled to the dress shop's owner, who was in the back.

"Ah, Madam," he said, scurrying forward. "What were you thinking of?"

"It has to be unique."

"Of course, Madam. You have been our customer for years, and I know just the cut that will flatter you and no one else in the entire world. I've been waiting for the chance to try it."

"In a color that no one else could have."

The dressmaker took a stub pencil from behind behind his ear and started scribbling on a stained take-out menu by the cash register. "I know a man in Estonia who owns a hillside of berries that are of a shade of purple known nowhere else. I can email him and ask him to dye several silk bolts for me."

"You will make this dress just for me?"

"But of course, Madam. You are a valued customer. You deserve a dress no one else could have."

"But how long will it take to make this one-of-a-kind dress?"

"Next Tuesday."
Call me just a little skeptical of both the dressmaker's honesty and the ability of any algorithmic system to generate a truly personalized education.

If we are going to use the notion of surveillance in looking at MOOCs, or invoke James Scott's Seeing like a State, we need to also look at the likely ways that surveillance will #fail, in the way that overdrawn plans of central micromanagement usually fail. Data-mining is valuable to marketers right now, because ANY useful information about what makes individuals spend money has a high return on the investment in the technology. What that means five years from now, or in other fields, is different entirely from the first-mover advantage that Google had, or that the Obama campaign staff had. I think there is some research potential if EDx or any other MOOC platform has an architecture built around the research of teaching and learning (as opposed to the research of profit). But that is likely to be limited.

The claims of personalized learning are a pretty thin smokescreen given the lecture-oriented mode of most MOOCs and the high attrition rates, and I think the same is true of claims that MOOCs will unbundle higher education (as Clay Shirky among others has predicted). Students have been unbundling college for decades: that what the "swirling" term refers to, all the students who attend more than one college as undergraduates. (Yes, both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama can be called swirlers.) It's easy to take courses in many places. It's much harder to put all of that together as a package called a diploma.

If anything, I think that MOOCs will speed the differentiation of college degrees on the low end rather than break down barriers to access to elite credentials. So-called degree-completion programs are the obvious easy fit with MOOCs--put together a smorgasbord of courses from different places, a few courses from the degree-granting institution, and voilá! a degree. And to protect the value of current bachelor's degrees, this will be called something different, such as the Bachelor of General Studies. Or MOOCs will be part of non-degree certificate programs. And, like the degree-completion program, these certificates might be stackable with a certain amount of coursework completed at the degree-granting institution to make a distinction between a college graduate and someone who has accumulated a smattering of courses.

Call me skeptical, but I don't think MOOCs are disruptive in higher education, or at least nowhere near as disruptive as something like the 2008 financial crisis.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

MOOCs and Disruption

I have become obsessed with MOOCs. That’s “massive online open courses.” Not because they are, in the words of Thomas Friedman, a “college education revolution.” (Though there is some truth to that as well in my perspective.) Rather, I think they make vivid many of the fault lines of how we think about and enact teaching and learning in higher education. And while the vast majority of attention has focused on the standard (and understandable) issues of postsecondary access, quality, and cost, MOOCs also reveal deeper assumptions around issues of socialization, stratification, and success in the academy.

I have written a couple of op-eds for general audiences about this in the last few months: “Disrupt This” at the Huffington Post; “I Am Not a Machine” at the New England Journal of Higher Education; and “MOOCs R Us” and “What MIT Should have Done” at eLearn Magazine. Here, I want to lay out a few of issues that don’t get mentioned as much in general audience discussions. I hope in the coming weeks and months to delve into these issues and look forward to any feedback and pushback.

For now, I want to lay out just one implication of MOOCs that draws from recent work in Security Studies, and specifically around the notion of “data doubles.”  The idea comes from Haggerty and Ericson’s (2000) “The Surveillant Assemblage.” This assemblage, they argue, “operates by abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled into distinct ‘data doubles’ which can be scrutinized and targeted for intervention.” The implication of all this, they suggest, is a “leveling  of  the  hierarchy  of surveillance,  such  that  groups which were previously exempt from routine surveillance are now increasingly being monitored.”

Their work, as much of the work in the Security Studies field, draws from and extends many of the ideas of the panopticon from Foucault, with strands of Deleuze and Guattari, Giddens, and Haraway. Torin Monahan’s recent (2011) “Surveillance as Cultural Practice” really nicely extends this discussion by suggesting that surveillance be seen as “embedded within, brought about by, and generative of social practices in specific cultural contexts.” This means that there is no Big Brother out there, per se; no conspiracy theory; no police state that is all knowing and future-predicting. Which does not mean, of course, that it is benign.

The connection for me to MOOCs can be seen in this interview with the leaders of Knewton, which provides an “adaptive learning platform” that provides a “personalized online learning content” for each user. I have cut a long section, but it is fascinating:

You do a search for Google; Google gets about 10 data points. They get, by our standards, a very small amount of data compared to what we get per user per day. If they can produce that kind of personalization and that kind of business, based off the small amount of data they get, imagine what we can do in education.

Here's why education is different from search or social media. For one thing, the average student studies for more time than they spend on Google or Facebook. People spend way more time in Knewton than they spend on Google—they spend hours a day as opposed to minutes per day. So that's one big reason why we produce a few orders of magnitude more data per user than Google, just based on usage.

But then there's the more important reason even than that, which is that education is not like Web pages or social media. It's a different product. And it lends itself infinitely more to data-mining than does any other industry right now. The reason is that nobody has tagged all the world's Web pages for Google down to the sentence level, the way that we ask publishers to tag every sentence, every answer choice of every question. They say, Here's what this sentence is about, or this video clip. They're basically telling us every single thing about every single piece of their content. That's how we can slice and dice it so finely.

So what Knewton and many other computer-based learning platforms allow is the construction of a highly personalized learning profile through such data aggregation and analysis. The idea, of course, is that such a profile, such a “data double,” better supports the adaptation critical to quality real-time feedback. To be clear, such adaptive learning systems have been shown to be as effective for learning as human tutors and instruction.

Yet the implications of such data assemblages are far from clear. Above and beyond the instrumental aspects of better learning of certain content knowledge, there are troubling aspects of data privacy, of the normalization of competence and intelligence, of the asymmetries of visibility, of the embedded nature of self-surveillance. Similarly, such “big data” fosters an entwinement between our notions of education and the capacities of technology: those “data doubles” are the foundation from which we define, determine, compile, analyze and ultimately deploy the data of what counts as teaching, learning, and knowledge. These are socioculturally, strategically, and politically complex and fraught processes that become reified and stabilized in particular procedural and institutional structures. This raises a host of questions about what counts as teaching and who benefits from such structures and practices.

I truly believe that MOOCs are going to disrupt large segments of higher education in the coming decade. But they may disrupt our notions of teaching and learning even more.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A New Shot at Testing and Accountability

Well, this is my first blog post ever.  I am used to just mulling things over in my head, grumbling to my pals, or telling students what to read.  Today, though, my topic is a few overlooked gems I would like to assign as reading to aides to members of Congress regarding decisions they will soon have to make about our nation’s testing policies.

My expectation is that Congress will, at least some time in 2013, resume debating whether to keep mandated state testing in grades 3 through 8 under No Child Left Behind, and what kind of stakes to require states to attach.  So once again, staffers have to figure out how to design a policy that works for all students.  Collectively, the readings below point to some clear flaws with current policy, and suggest possible alternatives. 
One is from five years back, a 2007 Education Week Commentary entitled “No Child Gets Ahead,” by Anthony P. Carnevale.  Colleen Donovan, David Figlio, and Mark Rush of the National Bureau of Economic Research used data from the federal early Childhood Longitudinal Study to analyze low to middle income, high-achieving students’ educational attainment. Specifically, there were "more than a million grade school students from families making less than $85,000 a year who start out in the top half of their class but fall off the college track on the way to high school." Part of the story was that these achievers were being harmed by NCLB’s focus on the lowest-performing students in the schools they attended.  They found that teaching to the test “dulls creativity and generally ignores the students who can meet the standards.”
As Carnevale writes: "With lower standards on offer, many high-performing students from working families rush down to meet them.  They give in to lower standards because their college and career expectations are fragile and they get less support at home and at school than students born into affluent families." The way forward, he says, "is to move beyond uniform standards altogether, toward individualized standards."  Hmm, how does that fit with the onslaught of Common Core assessments?

The second is the 2011 report of the National Research Council, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, which interrogates what the behavioral and social sciences (in particular, economics and experimental psychology) tell us about the use testing and incentives to improve performance.  Based on 10 years of empirical work, this group of psychologists, economists, and testing experts concluded that "the available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education and provides only minimal guidance about which incentive designs may be effective"(p. 91) The report explains the trade-offs in different kinds of accountability systems, and reviews the various considerations about incentives: target, performance measures, consequences, and support (p. 33).   NCLB, obviously, has provided "many ways for schools to fail" (p. 49); wouldn't it be better to have test scores instead serve as a trigger for a deeper examination of instructional and organizational norms inside the schools? 

Last but not least is a new piece by Andrew McEachin and Morgan Polikoff in the October 2012 Educational Researcher, "We are the 5%: Which schools would be held accountable under a proposed revision of the ESEA?" The authors model the bill’s proposed accountability criteria, which seek to identify lowest performing, largest within-school achievement gaps, and lowest performing subgroups, to schools in California, attempting to answer questions about the stability of the various classifications, as well as whether they identify the schools they were designed to identify. Based on their findings, they have numerous important policy recommendations, including “considering alternatives to the proposed Lowest Subgroup Achieving Schools [LSAS] criteria, which, as written, target schools serving significant numbers of students with disabilities,” such as stratifying the LSAS by subgroups, such as Hispanic, special education, etc. (p. 250).  They also note the importance of administering accountability separately by school level (elementary, middle, and high) – say, 15% of each type if the policy goal is to hold 15% of all schools accountable per year.   McEachin and Polikoff highlight the importance of state policymakers using 3-year averages of combined proficiency level and growth measures to give the most optimal picture of persistently low-achieving and low-growing schools.  The authors recommend that Congress should commission similar analyses from all states to look at possible implications.  

Now some may argue that the Common Core assessments will, in time, solve some of the problems with low-level state standardized tests driving instruction down.  But does that tell aides to members of Congress what kind of testing and accountability system to enact next year, 2013?  What are the likeliest measures to build state capacity for intervention while not harming instruction?  The 1994 Improving America's Schools Act, with its mandate of testing just once in three grade intervals between the early grades and high school was too loose for many in the civil rights community, who pushed for the sub-group tight enforcement model.  How do you tend to the lowest-performing students without dragging down Carnevale's "low-hanging fruit" of high-performing, middle-income students (many of whom he points out are likely to become teachers and public servants themselves)?

If the answer is obvious, it has eluded me.  One thing I do know is that there is no substitute for good congressional deliberation, and that just might involve bringing some of these researchers to testify, run more models, answer questions, and even be permitted to debate each other as well as interact with state officials who have to run these programs. Aides, happy mid-air reading after you go flying over the cliff. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Students with Disabilities and Charter Schools – Legal Watch

Three weeks ago, I attended the Education Law Association Annual Conference.  Over the course of the three-day conference there were many discussions regarding whether charter schools are appropriately serving student with disabilities.  These conversations were quite intriguing considering that I handled special education legal matters for almost ten years.  Over the last decade, the number of students enrolling in charter schools has increased.  Many education professionals see charter schools  as a way to fix some of America’s failing schools.  To date, much research has shown that charter schools have not achieved the significant improvements in American education that were expected.  

Charters are not exempt from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  They are still responsible for providing students with disabilities with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  In the recent years, there have many complaints regarding charter schools and their ability to serve students with disabilities, and advocacy groups have began disseminating publications and information regarding parent’s rights. (See here, here, here, here , and here.)  Many charter schools are trying to find ways to appropriately serve students with disabilities, including joining together to collaborate special education services and attending trainings specific to servicing students with disabilities.  

As the number of students enrolling into charter schools increases, it is vital that education professionals and policy makers have appropriate data regarding the impact that these schools have on students with disabilities.  Currently there is a lack of research available pertaining to charter schools and their ability to serve students with disabilities.  In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that analyzed data from 2008-2010 and found that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools.  However, the GAO was unable to outline the factors that contributed to the difference.  The GAO also found that charter schools faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities.   After the GAO’s report, the findings became highly publicized. (See here, here, here, here, here.) This month, a study by Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) also suggested that additional research is needed to understand why charter schools appear to have an lower enrollment of students with disabilities than traditional schools.  I am interested in seeing the data from the U.S. Department of Education 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Unlike the 2009-2010 CRDC, the 2011-2012 CRDC will include enrollment data from all public schools and school districts, including charter schools, therefore giving a nationwide picture of enrollment.  

There are lessons we should learn from the GAO and CRPE reports.  First, that there is insufficient data to effectively analyze or criticize charter schools’ overall ability to comply with special education law.  Second, in order to get appropriate data, it is imperative that charter school operators provides an open and untouched picture of what is actually going on in regards to students with disabilities.  Any research should take a very close look at the quality of service being provided to students with disabilities that are already enrolled in charter schools.

Based on the recent reports, I anticipate an increase in special education litigation as it pertains to charter schools.  There are already cases popping up that I will be watching.  The Louisiana case, Berry, et al. v. Pastorek, et al, is one of those cases.  In this class action lawsuit, the parents are suing the State Education Agency for the alleged violations of the charter schools.  I am waiting to hear the court’s ruling on this case because it might cause other State Education Agencies to start taking a closer look at their students with disabilities that are enrolled in charter schools.   
Many traditional charter schools have difficulty implementing services for students with disabilities, therefore it would not be a surprise to anticipate potential noncompliance issues with virtual charter schools.  In July, the National Education Policy Center released a study on virtual schools.  That study made recommendations for additional research questions pertaining to how virtual charters are providing services to students with disabilities and how the funding is being used? One can envision the potential complications of a virtual charter school implementing IEPs and 504 plans for some students with disabilities.  With the national campaign for digital learning, and as more school districts embrace digital charter schools, districts/charters will continue to try to determine how digital learning can work for students with disabilities.   
The bottom line is that we must invest in additional research in this area to ensure that student with disabilities are not discriminated against and are receiving appropriate services.  On another note, I wonder if voucher programs will receive the same scrutiny, considering some of the same arguments are being made regarding discrimination of students with disabilities.  Civil rights groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  alleging that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program discriminates against children with disabilities. (See here, here, here.) As policies change and school reform continues, new legal issues will arise, therefore we should be prepared to handle them.  

By:  Tiffany Puckett

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Freedom to be College Ready? Reforming Community College Developmental Education

I am fresh off the fall conference season having most recently attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), the leading scholarly organization on all things postsecondary education. The conference theme was “Freedom to Learn,” which ASHE President Anna Neumann eloquently defended in her keynote and further challenged the association membership to consider how teaching and learning touches their work, including work in the policy domain. This challenge could not be more central to the predominant policy conversations and research related to college readiness and developmental education. Inspired by several sessions at the ASHE conference and my own work on college and career readiness and developmental education, here I focus on developmental education (also known as ‘remediation’) reform and the role of teaching and learning.

Developmental reading, writing, and math courses, offered at both community colleges and universities in some states (but more often at community colleges), have garnered a significant degree of policy attention. This is, in part, because accumulating evidence suggests that many students participate in developmental education but do not progress into college-level credit course or complete college; this is especially the case at community colleges. For example, data from Complete College America show that approximately 51% of all students at public 2-year colleges in 33 states need developmental education. Of those students who need developmental education, 62% complete developmental education but only 22% complete a college-level course (in the associated academic discipline) within 2 years and even fewer graduate. Other data from community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative show similar disappointing results.

The point I want to emphasize here, and what the evidence suggests, is that existing developmental education programs and policies are not working and students are not succeeding. Though existing K12 reforms may reduce the need for developmental education courses at colleges, as many as 40% to 60% of incoming community college students are enrolled in developmental coursework and colleges must act now to ensure these students are college ready. More troubling is that we know students of color and low-income students are overrepresented in the total population of developmental education students, so these students are disproportionately affected by existing policies. The question left unanswered by this body of research and other quasi-experimental research focused on testing and placement policies (see here, here, and here), however, is why? Why is developmental education not working and what is needed to improve student success?

As I was reminded by the ASHE conference theme, we need to better understand how and why developmental education students are or are not learning in the classroom to better inform practice and policy. Let me offer a few theories or explanations and related solutions from the literature—explanations that are relevant to the teaching and learning process. One theory is that traditional developmental education instruction is decontextualized from the students’ lives and experiences, and proposes the use of contextualized or integrated forms of instruction can improve student learning through both cognitive and effective mechanisms. Another explanation is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of expectations that faculty and students have of one another, and proposes to create stronger faculty learning environments to support community college faculty. A third theory suggests the sequential and multi-semester structure of developmental education sequences is too lengthy and takes students too long to complete, and proposes accelerating the pace of instruction as a solution. And a fourth explanation suggests that traditional face-to-face instruction is disengaging, and proposes the use of technology be integrated into the classroom, where students use self-directed technologies or receive supplementary technological instruction.  

This is not an exhaustive list by any measure, particularly relative to the sweeping state and national strategies penetrating community college developmental education. The similarity among these four ideas, however, is a set of pedagogical issues about the relationship between content and student experiences; the assumptions and expectations of faculty and students in the classroom; the pace at which students learn and faculty teach; and the instructional environment and platform of developmental education courses. Returning to Anna Neumann’s point in her ASHE Presidential address, state and national policy conversations often ignore these pedagogical issues, especially in the policy context of college completion and college readiness. If we believe teaching and learning are important as researchers, and more importantly, as educators, we need to look for intersections between teaching and learning and our policy work. I would argue we need to elevate the relevance of teaching and learning in our research, and the models and policy solutions we research or evaluate need to make pedagogical assumptions explicit.

I do not pretend these are easily achievable goals for researchers, but I extend Anna Neumann’s invitation to those studying developmental education. I particularly extend it because those students who matriculate to college in developmental education are often those that have already been failed by educational systems and by society, and we need to know why these students have been failed and then work toward not reproducing that failure in developmental education. These students deserve the freedom to learn and to be college ready. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Last week, I wrote a post for the Office of Community College Research and Leadership. This post focuses on the need for state education agencies to collaborate around establishing research agendas. As states begin developing state longitudinal data systems for collecting student information, it is important that a coherent and developed research agenda exists as a framework for conducting educational research.

You can read the entire post here:  http://occrl.illinois.edu/collaboration-and-statewide-research-agendas/

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Earlier this year, Zócalo Public Square asked several higher education policy experts: Will America’s public universities remain competitive with elite private universities in their teaching and research? Several researchers and experts responded (you can view the full discussion here). Among them was Forum Fellow and University of Illinois Assistant Professor, Dr. Jennifer Delaney.

Dr. Delaney’s response:

Only if funding is properly restored–which is unlikely. Both public and private institutions suffered in the last recession, but there is increasingly cause to be concerned about a growing stratification between elite public and private universities.
State support for public higher education tends to be cyclical. However, the length of time to recovery following a cut in state general appropriations has been increasing. Whereas recoveries were swift in the 1980s, they slowed in the 1990s and stagnated in the 2000s. Past public campus leaders could be reasonably assured that state appropriations would eventually be restored; however, today, cuts may be permanent. Going forward, the problem is likely to get worse, since most states face structural budget deficits, and public higher education is one of the largest discretionary–and therefore cuttable–spending areas in most state budgets.
Elite public institutions can generate funds from non-state sources (such as tuition, federal grants, private giving, etc.), and political leaders can make different choices about state investments in public higher education. However, privates are likely to recover fully as endowments rebound, while publics will continue to face challenging futures with regard to state support. As such, there is likely to be increased stratification in wealth between elite publics and privates, which portends disparities in teaching and research quality.

This article was originally published at Zócalo Public Square

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Turnaround, Transformation, and now Trigger: Repositioning parents in reform recipes

It is worthwhile to think about the ways parents are positioned in school reform models, old and new ones. Until 2010, parents were engaged in education policy primarily, if at all, through School Site Councils, in Chicago known as Local School Councils, which are local decision-making bodies of parents, teachers, and community members that make school policy such as but not limited to curriculum, principal hiring and termination, and budget. This has changed in some ways with the US Department of Education School Improvement Grants Program endorsed school reform models: turnaround, transformation, restarts, and school closure. Of the 4,941 eligible Struggling Schools: 71% of schools have chosen turnarounds, 21% transformation, 5% restart, and just 3% of schools have chosen closure. In turnarounds and transformation models, parents’ roles are not explicitly outlined, whereas charter and voucher models position parents as consumers and choosers.

Seeking to reposition parents higher on the decision-maker ladder, Parent Trigger allows parents to choose their own reform recipe. Working closely with Parent Revolution, California Democrats passed the first Parent Trigger law in January 2010. Their bill held that parents who lived within the boundaries of, or whose children attended, an eligible failing school could sign a petition that would, with 51% parent body endorsement, trigger the school district to turnaround, transform, restart, or close the school. California remains the only state to allow all four reform recipes. With the exception of Louisiana, six other states have moved in a restart-to-charter-only direction. Here’s a state-by-state synopsis:

Revolutionary? Yes. Progressive? Sure. Policymakers are demonstrating efforts to move beyond involvement and toward engagement. Effective? We don’t know yet, but probably not. For now, here is a working hypothesis of why: The causal relationship between “pick a reform” and “watch your school transform” is weak, at best. Rather than jumpstarts, a more likely improvement scenario would include building authentic relationships around the co-construction of a school that includes community, parents, teachers, and students. Let’s look at this a bit further:

Parent Trigger supporters contend that the law will affect change, reform, and school improvement. The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, thinks this is pretty easy: “A. Organize with fellow parents; B. Pick your reform option; C. Get signatures on your petition; and D. Watch your school transform!” Yet, we can see that parents are empowered to neither change, reform, nor improve schools. In California, they are simply empowered to choose a preferred reform recipe. Elsewhere, they are simply empowered to ask for a restart. Instead, several data reveal that what parents want is to see change happen within their own schools, in their own communities, and in their own unique contexts. Parents’ comments from McKinley Elementary School, the site of America’s first Parent Trigger, reveal that they wanted to see change happen within the walls of their own school. Perhaps this is why only approximately one-third of parents who signed the pro-charter petition actually moved their children to the new nearby charter school. Desert Trails Elementary parents, reveal similar discontent: after a year-long, highly public fight to pass their pro-charter petition in Adelanto, CA, less than one-third of parents who signed the petition voted the new charter authorizer for their school. Their choice of charter authorizer came down to the charter that demonstrated experience with students and families of color, despite its “traditional” approach to education. And in March of 2012, in a last minute flood of letters to Florida Republican Senator Rory, parents demanded a recall against Trigger on the grounds of false empowerment.

These parents’ perspectives do not stand alone. Data on parent engagement in school improvement reveal true value in cooperation, inclusivity, and validation of parents’ roles as partners in school decision-making. Findings from a few recent studies are particularly provocative:
- The Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) found that community organizing over time led to mutual support between under-served communities and school districts that yielded several stronger metrics of school improvement;
- In her study on Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Soo Hong finds that trusting relationships and equalized distribution of power are “core strategies” for school improvement;
- In their study of community organizing efforts in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, San Jose, and the Mississippi Delta, Warren et al. found that collaborations between educators, parents, and communities led to “deep, and sustainable school reform”;
- and in his participatory study with Latino/a high school students, Irizarry et al. uncover improved educational experiences for Latino/a youth through connections to Latino cultural and linguistic communities (Irizarry, 2012).

We need to do a lot more to better understand parents’ roles in school improvement. Empirical evidence is indeed hard to come by, as experimental models have to draw a strong, statistically significant causal relationship between parent engagement and school improvement. That aside, the rigor and richness of the qualitative data above and of other high quality studies remind us why Parent Trigger is unlikely: it’s nothing new. It’s the same four reform recipes, at best. The “easy as A-B-C-D” Trigger process jumpstarts reform but does not necessarily extend toward improvement. Reversing the effects of a historically tenuous relationship between parents and schools, particularly for low-income communities of color, is a complex process. Perhaps new Reform Recipes should consider repairing the parent-school relationships as a vehicle by which to move from reform and toward improvement.

Irizarry, J. G. (2011). The Latinization of U.S. schools: Successful teaching and learning in shifting cultural contexts. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

By: Priya Goel

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Myopic Perspectives/Reforms Are No Match for Systemic Inequalities

Love it or hate it, Teach For America (TFA), continues to grow as an alternative route to teaching.  Marketed as an organization committed to closing the achievement gap, TFA recruits high performing college students (who often also hold campus leadership positions) to teach, often outside of a content area not supported by an undergraduate degree, in low-income urban and rural schools plagued by underperformance on standardized tests, graduation rates, and college acceptance (Urban Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago for example).  The idea is that if you take smart, more than often White, graduates from Harvard (and the likes), give them a crash course in teaching (which breaks down into 5 weeks of courses and 18 hours of student teaching in an unrealistic setting), get them excited about “other people’s kids” and the “civil rights movement of our time,” teach them to employ strict behaviorism and a “no excuses” attitude towards student outcomes…then poverty will be eradicated.   Nevertheless, a primal aspect of the reproduction of poverty via schools is not only overlooked; it is actively subverted as a paradigm.  How honest can an organization that markets “equity” actively ignore the root causes of economic and educational disparities.

TFA’s Academic Impact Model (at right) holds that teachers, and teachers alone, are the fundamental determinant of student outcomes (not parents, principals, the students themselves, access to healthcare, food, housing, parental jobs, cultural/social capital, parental educational attainment, safety, etc. – think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 1966 Coleman Report).  I've written about this topic previously; but, as studies continue to confirm decades old understandings of the realities of poverty, this framework must continue to be scrutinized.

The naivety about and complete disregard for individual student backgrounds, aspirations, volition, etc., is indicative of the neoliberal “no excuses” paradigm sweeping across education reform.  To be sure, if a teacher enters a classroom and fundamentally believes that students cannot learn the educational environment can be ruined.  But, what of the opposite mindset?  If teachers, TFA corps members or others who subscribe to the no excuses paradigm, are taught to believe that socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, student volition, parental educational attainment, for example, are a zero sum component of student outcomes then are those corps members operating under a paradigm that is destined for failure?  As an educator, I believe in having high expectations for students.  But, I also understand that there are limits to what I can accomplish.  Many education reformers call this an excuse.  However, studies and science continue to confirm that students living in poverty begin school with more disadvantages than their affluent peers, seen here, here, and here.  Should we then relegate poor students to a life without education?…of course not.  But, the naivety in believing that we can eradicate systemic inequality by “fixing teachers” (especially by putting inexperienced corps members with only 18 hours of training in the classroom) is not only ludicrous, it shows a willingness to ignore larger systemic issues – like poverty and racism. 

If schools mirror society, we cannot progress towards more equality by trying to fix the reflection we see in the mirror.  We must dramatically increase our investments in anti-poverty programs and continuing education for parents.  We must commit to ensuring that every adult has access to a job that pays a livable wage.  We must protect and further attempts to provide access to affordable healthcare.  And, we must eradicate racist and classist policies that subvert equality and only promulgate a stratified economy.  All of these efforts need to take place and there is little - dare I say no - room for inexperienced do-gooders who ignore student cultural backgrounds (namely because they typically do not share the same backgrounds – ethnically and economically) who believe that teaching students to do well on standardized tests will give them the chutzpah to overcome poverty.

By: T. Jameson Brewer
An article-length examination of TFA's Academic Impact Model is available here.
Excellent blog post by Larry Cuban, "Online Instruction Outsources Jobs." http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/online-instruction-outsources-jobs/

Monday, November 05, 2012

Presidential Politics and Education Policy: Pell Grants with Consequences

I should preface this whole blog by saying that I am not a scholar of education finance. But since one can hardly talk about education in this election season without talking about the federal budget and the economy, it’s pretty hard to write something about the future of public education following the upcoming election without talking about money. 

When Education Week and Teacher’s College at Columbia University teamed up to host an education debate on October 15th titled “Taking the Election to School: Making Education a Focus of the 2012 Election”, the budget, economy and the role of federal government in education were front and center. The debate featured education advisor to the Romney campaign, Phil Handy, against Obama education advisor, John Schnur; the president of Teachers’ College, Susan Furhman, served as moderator. This debate was a welcome respite from the high profile and very tense presidential and vice-presidential debates, characterized by two collegial men sitting next to each other, clearly at ease with the topics of debate, and respectful of their opponent’s time to talk, never interrupting or talking over the other.

In what followed (you can read the full transcript here), these surrogates provided details about each candidate’s plans for education, which reflected starkly different positions on the role of the federal government in all levels and arenas of education. Teacher’s College provides a bi-partisan summary of the debate that touches on the major issues including Common Core standards, NCLB Waivers, Pell Grants, early childhood education, teaching force.

But, it was the discussion of the Pell grant program was particularly compelling to me because of a point that Handy made at the end. He said, “the one thing we do with Pell grants, for example, is to have a completion requirement.” Using an analogy, he described how a Florida virtual school that offers a course does not get paid until the end of the course when the student is proficient in that course.  “That should be the same with federal programs which allows kids to go to school, not complete school, but still get the money…there’s a much more rigorous criteria that should be, I think, administered as it relates to give out federal money for going to school and not completing a course or completing a program.”

While his words are open to interpretation, this statement seems to support requiring students to complete college in order to keep their Pell grant monies. It implies that if students do not complete, there would be consequences as well (such as having to pay it back). It proposes holding individual students accountable for the spending of federal dollars on education! Indeed, Handy earlier referred to the Pell grant program as accruing “tens of billions” of dollars of “unpaid liability” (because helping low-income students go to college isn't worth it if they don’t become stock brokers and pay 15% tax rates…).  

Let’s backtrack a moment. If you remember, in the first debate, Romney indicated that he does not want to cut spending on education but also indicated that he does not plan to spend more money on education either. During the second town hall style debate, Romney was a little more promising in trying to sway undecided voters by saying “I want to make sure we keep our Pell grant program growing.” And during this particular debate between education advisors, Handy agreed that the Pell grant program is a good thing but given the budget deficit and uncertainty of how Pell will be funded, the program needs to be “radically fixed.”

By putting a system of consequences in place, the amount of money currently invested in the Pell grant program does not have to change. In fact, I’d bet my student loans that if Romney was elected, the federal government will spend less money on Pell. To gain access to higher education through a Pell grant would be a risk for low income students who are already four times less likely to finish college than students who are not low income.

This sort of system reminds me of the welfare drug testing law that was instituted in Florida last year. Attorney to Florida governor Rick Scott said that requiring welfare recipients to take a drug test in order to receive benefits was a “common-sense measure to make sure the purposes of the program are advanced.” The law was proposed to save the state money by eliminating persons from the program who were using benefits for drug use and scaring those who use drugs from applying. A Pell program of consequences would serve to do the same – scare students out of taking Pell money for fear that if they could not finish, they would not be able to pay back the federal government.  While we know now that the Florida law did not work, I still find this strategy of ‘scaring people straight’ quite alarming and contradictory to the goals of the Pell Grant program.

None of the articles I read addressed Handy’s comment (see here, here, here, and here). Perhaps the comment appeared to be given off-handedly in a broader discussion of student debt and college affordability. Or perhaps, and I suspect this is more likely, that no one picked up on this is actually indicative of two campaigns so focused on the middle class that comments like this don’t quite make the radar. Pell Grants are need-based program for poor Americans; in 2010-2011, 58% of Pell Grant recipients dependent on parents for support came from families with incomes of $30,000 or less (College Board, 2012). Yet, both Romney and Obama defined the ‘middle-income’ as households who make less than $250,000, despite the reality that the median income for American households is just over $50,000 and that only 9% of households make over $150,000. Like I said, you just can’t talk about this election without talking about money.

By: Nora Gannon-Slater, a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Psychology (QUERIES division), studies educational evaluation, assessment, and accountability.