Posts filed under ‘Student Outcomes’

A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.


January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

Using the IEP to Ensure Access to Grade-Level Curriculum

Several years ago, a US Department of Education memorandum announced a planned shift in Special Education policy to emphasize academic outcomes and progress toward grade level performance. This past November, a significant step toward such a benchmark was announced. Now that school is back in session after the holidays the reality is sinking in…this is kind of a big deal.

Late last year, the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services issued new guidelines focusing on access to grade-level curricular content for students with disabilities. These new guidelines suggest that IEP goals for students who, for example, are below grade level in Math or ELA should clearly address interventions at two levels:

  • Accommodations that would ensure access to the curriculum in relevant content areas with alignment with State standards at the grade level of the student’s enrollment, and
  • Interventions that should lead to accelerated progress, i.e., greater than one grade year of progress per education plan year, towards grade level competency in the primary Math or ELA disability.

This is good news for students with disabilities. The best intentions in Special Education often have been undermined by regulatory procedures emphasizing a student’s eligibility for services. For more progressive schools, this latest memorandum will reinforce existing commitment to inclusive practices for Students with Special Needs across the curriculum. However, other schools will need to rethink their programs and make adjustments in their…

  • Goal-setting process for IEP teams,
  • Instructional strategies for students,
  • Professional development for teachers, and
  • Ongoing assessment of students’ academic progress against IEP goals.

The Office of Special Education urged educators to continue to pursue high expectations for achievement for Students with Disabilities. Perhaps most significant is the Education Department’s effort to address some of the process that was missing from the strictly results-oriented NCLB. As such, it represents a strong step forward for educational equity.

January 8, 2016 at 9:19 AM Leave a comment

New Year’s Dream #AllGrade3by2016

Suppose we could promise parents across the country that we have a plan to eliminate any service gaps* that allow children to finish 3rd grade while missing their benchmarks for math and literacy? Could there be any single effort that would have a greater educational benefit than that?

Last night I had allowed my cynical side to choke on news items dropping buzzwords like Big Data and Moneyball in the context of the new teacher hiring process. Already the charlatans were crawling out of the woodwork to offer consulting services that gave school districts the jump on new regs for teacher prep…using data that doesn’t exist yet. And I was ready to challenge any one of them to identify that key parameter in their education vaporware that would be analogous to Moneyball’s on-base percentage…if they had thought that far ahead. Then I caught a nasty glimpse of myself in the mirror…could I?

What IS the best predictor of success for school children? None came to mind. Only the many indicators of future failure. Who will be over age in grade? Who will drop out? Who will end up in the prison pipeline? Or at best emerge from school as SPED-for-life despite higher potential? The child who is out of synch by Grade 3 seems to be the answer for all of the above.

So…what would it take to gather every parent, every volunteer, every philanthropist, and every available elementary educator or academic for the sole purpose of demonstrating that we could collectively put a stop to 3rd grade failures. Say, “This ends here. We will never let another 3rd grade class finish the year with a child unprepared for the rest of his or her schooling.”

If ever there were a single change that would enable so many future objectives to fall into place, I would put my money on that one. Any takers? #AllGrade3by2016


* The “achievement gap” in student outcomes has been challenged for citing the victim and not the cause of the problem. Lest we lose sight of that underlying problem, “service gap” seemed more relevant here. Many children are clearly under-served.


January 2, 2015 at 11:17 AM Leave a comment

What’s Up in Holyoke? Privacy, Freedom of Speech, and Due Process under Fire

A teacher has been fired for speaking out against district administrators in Holyoke. Or at least the Commonwealth of Massachusetts thinks there is probable cause to investigate. His offense? Revealing that students’ names and test scores were being exposed on a data wall…then releasing the PowerPoint presentation in which teachers were directly instructed to include the students’ names. Opportunity, action, and intent on the part of the school district to violate the privacy of the children are in evidence.

Our children are our future. And our schools are on the front lines teaching those children about democracy, civil liberties, and citizenship. Unfortunately, in the Holyoke case, the teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and due process appear to have been flagrantly violated. In addition, the children’s rights to privacy have been encroached upon. Most details of their growth and development are protected from scrutiny in matters ranging from intellect to discipline until they reach legal adulthood at age 18.

Let’s start with the schools and their possession-with-intent-to-distribute of very personal data on children. In the era of Big Data, interpretation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) already has left parents, guardians, and children vulnerable to a couple of gaps in privacy guarantees. The first is the definition of directory information, which can be distributed without permission; the second is the waiver of prior consent for “…a contractor, consultant, volunteer or other party to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.” In either event, FERPA has a bad nudge.

Parents get disclosure of policies or contractual arrangements with a brief window for them to prohibit access to their children’s data. It would be far better to offer parents a one-click opt IN if they wanted their children’s privacy rights to be violated, not requirement of an opt OUT action to keep data secure. Passive responses should protect the kids but, in reality, FERPA errs on the side of protecting access to the kids’ privileged information on behalf of public information requests or private consultants who mine data.

Holyoke school officials went the next step to provide the kids’ names and test scores expressly to subject them to intrusive offers of motivation and intervention in public and did so without prior notice. This action also left the students vulnerable to embarrassment or mockery regarding their achievement or lack thereof. When first exposed, the District issued a denial. When cornered, they retaliated against the whistle blower.

The Holyoke school teacher in good standing who led the protest against the inappropriate disclosure of students’ identities and test scores lost his job. Due process for teacher termination had been defined for tenured teachers; however, the teacher in question had not earned his access to those internal protections yet. He needed the Department of Labor Relations to intervene, which they have now done.

As for Freedom of Speech, that may remain in question within the Holyoke Public Schools for some time to come.

September 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM Leave a comment

Fast Company Misses the Point

I’ll say it again…Our children, the details of their growth and development, their hopes and dreams, their emerging intellects and identities…are not for sale. They are not to be profiled, tracked, or manipulated for profit. And their privacy is not to blame for our “secrecy” problem in education.

As a fan of effective tech solutions, I read the Fast Company piece on Jim Shelton, “The Man Who Wants to Fix Education’s Secrecy Problem,” with more than a little curiosity. Unfortunately, the substance was missing. Essentially, Gregory Ferenstein cited the problem of teacher performance to be our reliance on intangibles – quite true – then proceeded to describe possible ways in which privacy loss on the part of children was justified by the insight gained into how they use technology in lieu of human instruction. The lack of connection between objectifying teacher performance (and I mean that in the best possible way) and improving instruction was a disappointment. Our human instructional model was barely essential to the conversation, merely introduced and forgotten.

As we pursue valid reports of teacher effectiveness, a digital solution would seem to be essential. An argument that Ferenstein could have suggested (but did not) was that we need to stop relying on pen and paper student portfolios if we are going to get beyond test scores, attendance records, and graduation rates as actionable measures of student outcomes. Unfortunately, the author suggests that the tools of the social network and advertising effectiveness serve as a valid proxy for research-based pedagogy. Instead of looking for a better, student-focused link between educators and their students…the Fast Company solution extols the virtue of institutionalizing a bridge between external marketers and the children. And he presumes the leap from archaic fuzzy impressions to hyperbolic micro-analysis without stopping on any logical middle ground – a common mistake among advisers who offer no more than the veneer of a grandiose scheme.

I am pleased to learn of Mr. Shelton’s background in technology and hope that his ideas include rebuilding a student-centered education database…one that integrates finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness. And I hope to see real tools for interactive instruction – not double-clicks and distractions – as well as opportunities to explore ideas while building computer-aided models or speeding up the process of studying and building memories. However, we can hack our way beyond the insular nature of education in good conscience without exposing the children to unscrupulous vendors. Their data must always be held sacred.

July 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM Leave a comment

Turning Leadership to a Young Man’s Best Advantage

I am a believer in Girl Power…but today’s reflection is on empowering young men, something of a lost art in an era of binary thinking. As our young women have grown, we have neglected our young men, especially children of color, and we owe them a chance to feel the power of being strong in their minds, their hearts, and their best intentions as leaders.

For several years, I taught advanced algebra in a small Special Ed classroom in an urban high school. The class typically comprised 10-12 young men of color between 17 and 19 years old. There may or may not have been a young woman in the class, never more than two. The students were typically quite astute in their ability to size up a situation, find their best interests, or cut their losses. Learning the math was rarely a problem.

Students who had been taught in relative isolation for up to 13 years often had a strong behavioral component to their learning style issues. One of the more striking aspects was the ability of cohorts of students to organize themselves around the mission of undermining instruction. And the usual mistake was to attempt to resolve the problem through punitive disciplinary measures…more isolation, more conflict with the ruling regime of adults.

But the reality of the situation was that there were true leaders among the students. They had realized that they were being under-served academically, but they were not prepared to fail quietly. So how does a school community come together to turn an emerging adult child’s natural leadership to his (or her) best advantage?

Some of the issues I encountered…

  • Gaining the trust of my students that I was on their side.
  • Reflecting on student choices to help them become more self-aware.
  • Getting beyond the survival mode and the solipsism that attends it.
  • Acknowledging the leadership inherent in self-directed behavior regardless of its positive or negative outcomes.
  • Engineering enough successes to break failure cycles.
  • Giving up my own ego needs for being the most visible leader in the room.

That last one was a revelation. I still led my classes, and I overheard one of my toughest customers whispering to a classmate, “Never mess with Kathleen on the math.” That was a relief, but I also sometimes heard, “Okay, it’s just us guys in the room…” Receding into the background was not a problem so long as the learning happened. Leaders needed a chance to choose their audiences and to get frank feedback to see themselves as others saw them.

Consequence-based discipline sounded right, but it had as a prerequisite that students have a vision of being successful. Young men trapped in failure cycles did not benefit from another chance to see the negative consequence of their actions or choices. In fact, such plans often motivated frustrated leaders to cut to the chase…to hurry up and fail and get on to the next item on the agenda. They could not see success as an incentive if they hadn’t experienced one in recent memory. I had to sort of drag a few students toward their own best interests.

In addition, manifestations of egocentric behavior tended to be more diagnostic of despair than indicative of an older child’s maturity. However, the two often went hand-in-hand. I was dumbstruck once when I encountered one of my students diligently moving through the school posting notices of a one-on-one basketball contest he had organized for later that day….WHILE THE SCHOOL WAS IN A LOCKDOWN  OVER A GUN SIGHTING! Basketball was his one strength, but he was not a team player. The contest was his one chance to show his stuff, and a stupid gun was not going to ruin his big day, He was still furious with me later for interrupting his progress. I finally found the words, “Being in the halls made you look like a suspect…and I do not want that for you.” He started to get it.

March 8, 2014 at 11:41 AM 2 comments

A Vision for Information and Pedagogy

A little over a year ago, I offered a proposal for a systems integration project in education that would redefine our approach to school finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness. Today, I would back off from the notion of cloud-based data. Rather, the missing element in this system is the interface with the pedagogy cloud in which each district would privately invest. However, I believe the core of the plan remains quite viable and present it here more publicly for discussion.

SchoolsRetooledTM                                                                                 Confidential Draft

Sytems Integration Proposal

A crucial problem in the management of public K-12 education in the US is a mismatch between information systems and mission. Existing systems evolved from a regulatory compliance model centered on federal exigencies and do not support the mission of delivering high quality education services to all children locally. Essentially, $500 billion is spent annual without sound microeconomic analysis of the process or a clear understanding of the outcomes.

I am proposing that we create a model that starts with individual students and builds up to an integrated finance, student outcome, and educator effectiveness system. The three main components of the systems would include…

  • Finance: Unit funding of students would be based on formulas built around cohorts of students with similar educational needs. Total funding would depend on actual enrollment and collective intensity of service need.* Financial reporting would be developed for each student education center, which could run the gamut from online programs to residential schools. District services would be demand driven and funded by the education centers.
  • Student Outcomes: Each student would have a multi-media portfolio, including an educational profile and evidence academic progress, psychosocial benchmarks, and individual accomplishments over time. Student records could be uploaded from school activities as well as remote diagnostic and learning resources.
  • Educator effectiveness: Each educator would have a professional development record with details of employment, credentials and evidence from professional practice. Effectiveness reports would be developed from narrative, audio/visual, and survey data collected from student portfolios as well as relevant supervisory, peer and consumer input. This information would link to merit pay files in the finance system.

The system could be built on existing platforms such as Google Plus, Google Docs, etc. However, the key distinction between emerging social networks and the education plan would be the context for sharing data. While social networking enables an explosion of data to be amassed and shared widely in consumer markets, public education data would be collected for very private internal use only, essentially an implosion of data that was harnessed for microeconomic analysis and internal quality improvement. Regulatory reporting would remain public and identities would be continue to be protected.

The long range vision would be to develop an education data cloud that comprised a series of intranets serving individual school districts across the nation. State and Federal regulatory compliance needs could be met; meanwhile, each local education authority would be the keeper of its own details. However, a major enhancement would be a shared data standard that would allow for periodic and ad hoc surveys of system-wide data to document the performance of the nation’s public education system. In addition, the movement of students and educators across schools, districts, or states could occur without loss of data integrity.

* This would entail a major redefinition of data standard for a government service. A precedent can be found in the shift from cost-plus to a case management model in healthcare services in the 1980s.

© 2013 Kathleen T. Wright



February 5, 2014 at 8:56 AM Leave a comment

Advanced Placement or Early Introduction

To get kids ready for college, we need to expose them to rigorous courses in high school. Advanced placement (AP) courses are designed to offer college-level material to highly proficient students. But we also need to introduce intellectually challenging content to many students in a non-threatening way. These can be divergent goals. So, how do we address these needs…in the same class?

It’s always a little bittersweet when AP Calculus teachers boast that all of their students scored a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Congratulations are in order, of course. The teacher’s students have delivered great results under his or her guidance. The concern I have, however, is that admission to that course must have been extremely selective. And that we may be missing part of the goal of college preparation.

We rush to make sure the kids who are strongest in math have access to calculus in high school. But we allow the rest of the kids – weaker in math skills by definition – to wait and face the topic for the first time in college, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous transitions of their lives. The latter group of students would benefit from early introduction to calculus…while they are still in high school. They may drag the average AP exam scores down a bit, but does that matter?

The conflict between college placement and college readiness is somewhat moot – all students will need to be diligent in their college studies. In the final year or two of high school, however, we need to take care of the students who, at 16 or 17, are intellectually ready to grasp complex concepts faster than even above average students bound for college at 18 or 19. This is not a tracking issue – which is controversial when it begins as early as middle school – but more of an exit strategy for students whose variations in ability suggest a dichotomy between advanced placement and early introduction.

As we design new programs for high schools that encourage students to pursue STEM careers, more students will need to be ready for calculus in college. There will be analogous situations in science, technology, and engineering as well. In fact, one could argue for reconsidering our objectives in most AP subject areas. As public school children achieve better outcomes in education, an increasing number of students will qualify for accelerated college courses, but many more will benefit from access to advanced content in a sheltered environment.

May 2, 2013 at 9:54 AM Leave a comment

Anti-Testing Activism Is Destroying Evidence

Testing for compliance with NCLB is meant to reassure regulators that we are delivering on 14th amendment rights of our students for that personal property that is education. Period. We owe it to the students. Hiding the evidence that some of the kids are not given that which is due them is a cover-up. And part of what is hidden under that cloak is a secret belief among educators that all children are not equal in their most basic potential.

Educators who rally against achievement tests probably to not think they are obstructing justice. In fact, they may be wonderful teachers of social justice, environmental justice, or economic justice. But their efforts to obscure this measure of educational justice are out of synch. Kids who cannot pass the tests have been cheated out of some piece of their property rights for an equitable education.

Achievement tests set lower limits for adequacy of education in terms of literacy and mathematical ability. We still need to work harder to prove to ourselves and to the children that they have the intellectual ability to match their peers in the classroom and in life. Those who are afraid the children cannot pass the test guarantee that those same children are less likely to find out how great their accomplishments in life might be.

Hiding the evidence does not negate the charges levied against us…nor does it save the children from paying the price for life.

May 1, 2013 at 10:52 AM Leave a comment

Hey, You! Get Off of My Cloud…

Flexible data platforms to build robust student portfolios over time? YES! Data mining by outsiders? NO! Need-to-know cannot be extended to outside entities that offer to provide analytical support to schools while covertly sharing content with others. In fact, the data architecture must not follow the social networking model. Rather it must be designed to shield the data from ready transfer and exploitation.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this comment with GatesEd concerning their $6 million contest for education applications:

Great idea…but I am worried that we do not have a platform to receive these innovations. Education needs a systems integration project to reinvent the standard for information technology. School systems need an integrated financial, student outcomes, and educator effectiveness system…and it needs to be able to upload activities and download stats with technology-based pedagogy apps. We are being creative, but the process must stop generating incompatibilities eventually. Would love to open a dialogue on this, beginning with…

It was posted briefly on  and then deleted…I think I understand why. Platforms for student portfolios and learning apps have already been invented that marry cloud-based educational resources with externally focused profiling of the students via social networks. As commercial ventures they are attracting good buzz and ready money among venture capitalists. Unfortunately, they also are opening the door for exploitation of children.

This gets us into the conflict between a public good and private enterprise. As business men or women, we may be in awe of any database that uses object design to build a flexible platform for student data, especially one that promises to comprise a wide range of episodic data over time as well as provide access to a content cloud for pedagogy. And it is becoming populated with data quickly because it’s free?!? We also know that’s too good to be true.

Clearly, these new student databases can only turn a profit through data mining and selling to paying clients. As adults we can chose to flagrantly ignore our own privacy rights as we connect with others in the ether. However, as parents or educators we cannot expose our children. The details of their growth and development, their evolving intellects and identities, their hopes and dreams…are not for sale.

It would be naïve to think that opportunists would not enter the market by simply exploiting existing technology. Next time around, however, we must develop decision architecture that is fundamentally different for student applications. My analogy would be a database that implodes rather than explodes in terms of availability. It has to be an insider’s club with “need-to-know” rules that rival those of GooglePlex or Microsoft employees. If you can’t shout it out on the school bus…don’t advertise it on a social network.

March 5, 2013 at 8:47 AM Leave a comment

Privacy and Data Solutions in Education – Part 2 of 2

Big data in education must be just as big on security. Everything from children’s journals to administrators’ meeting notes can turn up on Google Docs or Facebook. These may seem like great platforms for trying out 21st century tools. However, the long range plans must include tight security as we take very privileged information and make it broadly available…on a need-know-basis?!?

The future for education data is bright. We are just beginning to realize the potential for developing integrated systems that are student-centered and can bring together student funding and outcomes…which can then be reconciled with delivery system and educator effectiveness. Whew! But can this brave new world accommodate the privacy requirements for all the players?

Consider that…

  • The New York Times has published test performance data that might have been better kept in NYC DOE teachers’ human resource files.
  • Children who are not old enough to join Facebook or understand their ever-changing privacy rules are active on the site through their classroom pages and may be revealing too much about themselves in journals or personal essays.
  • Confidential memos have been leaked and shared for sport and maximum exposure.
  • Risqué videos and inappropriate photos of teenagers have trended on Twitter with record speed.

Everyone is in the media and social networks, but it is not clear who is in charge or what the rules should be. Privacy has become a thing of the past…at least for the present.

In a period of rapid technological change, it is all a person can do to stay current. Being open to new technology is a requirement for today’s professional, but the blurring of boundaries between public and private personas challenges even the savviest users. Bringing social networks into the classroom and school community has unleashed the potential for innovation in communication and collaboration. But it has brought with it loss of control over content.

Platforms offered by Facebook, Google, or Pinterest allow us to experiment with shared portfolios of content from a variety of media. Concepts for limiting access to information exist in theory, but most privacy shields have been proven to be flawed. For the moment, anything posted on an Internet site carries risk of exposure. Does that mean we should stop experimenting with new apps? No…because the milieu will define important ways that we can integrate data in the future.

Education data banks will need to accommodate all media types, but they also must be exclusive for participation. Essentially, the old privacy rights need to be engineering into new Intranet systems. For example,

  • Children need to be shielded from personal exposure to people beyond their immediate families or the school community.
  • Only students, their parents, and relevant teachers and administrators should have access to certain student information.
  • Every staff member has the right to privacy in employment records and personal information.
  • Student outcomes, teacher performance, and education effectiveness data may be intertwined for quality assurance internally, but the identities of the participants can never be revealed in public records.

We have a major opportunity to become far better informed as decision-makers in education. But as the song says, some things are private.

January 10, 2013 at 1:36 PM Leave a comment

Privacy and Data Solutions in Education – Part 1 of 2

Fully integrated systems in education hold incredible potential to combine a variety of types of data and media from finance, human resources, and education operations…organized around students. Once this very big picture was in place, truly mission-driven education services could become a reality. But do we have the courage to abandon our regulatory model?

Let’s make our education information systems a do-over. Start with student funding and build a zero-based budget from there. Financial statements aggregate from student education centers up. District services would be driven by demand and economy.

Then build student records that combine data fields, documents, and audio-visual inputs. A continuum of real and metaphorical snapshots of the whole child would emerge over the course of his or her education.  It would comprise the usual demographic data, formal assessments, and grades. However, portfolios also could be included with key samples of student work as evidence of academic and psychosocial benchmarks, distinctive strengths, or leaning style profiles. Special education or English language learner files could be included as well.

Every educator would have a consolidated record. It could capture the teacher or administrator’s personnel data and link it to evidence on dimensions such as student progress, videos of practice activities, or feedback from students, parents, and colleagues. Professionalism and dimensions of leadership could be captured as well.

Each player would have a good picture of current achievement levels in addition to a longitudinal progress report. Beyond the individual, finance and performance analysis would inform system leaders as they refined the education delivery system for efficiency and effectiveness. Continuous quality improvement would not only be possible – it should become mandatory – for the people and the system.

Clearly today’s regulatory model is not working. But are we ready to give up bad data, scapegoating, and plausible deniability for real information that allows us to grow?

January 10, 2013 at 11:45 AM 1 comment

New PreK-12 Education Priorities for the Returning Obama Administration

The Common Core State Standards, NCLB waivers, and Race to the Top initiatives have altered the landscape in education in the absence of an NCLB rewrite. On this day of reflection after Election 2012, I offer a few thoughts on resetting policy priorities until ESEA renewal becomes feasible.

Entering the 2nd term, in my humble opinion, the Obama Administration could benefit from raising the priority of three issues in PreK-12 education…

  • Decision architecture for education finance, reporting, and analysis
  • Federal support for government employee pension reform
  • Incentives/accountabilities for grade level proficiency for students in general or special education and students who are English language learners

Decision Architecture

The Race to the Top program (RttT) has instructed states and districts to design new approaches to student funding, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes. Having completed the idea generation phase for reinvention of the decision architecture within education authorities, it is time to draw expertise from beyond traditional regulatory compliance models. Educators need to learn from non-education sources with more expertise in aligning information and analyses to the mission of educating children efficiently and effectively.

The finished products should draw on the best of the general industry models and those presented by RttT exemplars. They should include a standard for financial reporting that is student-centered as well as data elements to be automated in support of teacher effectiveness and student outcome reports.

Pension Reform

Government employee pensions are straining fiscal resources while yielding inequitable benefits for plan participants and limiting their career mobility. Current retirees and vested employees need security with their defined-benefit pensions. Separately, the wisdom of continuing to underwrite such pensions in the future needs to be assessed. However, any introduction of defined-contribution pensions for new or unvested employees would result in eventual bankruptcy for legacy plans.

The Federal role in the issue could be one of mitigating the financial crisis in pension funding. Changes to the tax code could lower the effective cost of borrowing for sponsors to meet pension obligations. In addition, elimination of the Social Security opt-out would extend the safety net for employees switching to higher risk, defined-contribution pension plans. A prior post discussing this issue can be found here.

Grade Level Proficiency

When redefining the data elements needed for measuring student outcomes, Federal regulators will need to keep in mind new targets and deadlines for general grade-level proficiency among PreK-12 students. Longitudinal tracking across content areas will need to be enhanced significantly, especially to ensure that students receiving services in Special Ed or ELL programs are demonstrating accelerated progress in response to accommodations and modifications.

This shift in emphasis should create incentives to move beyond regulatory compliance to demonstration of real benefits for students, a continuation of the work announced in an Education Department notice available here.

Other items on the Federal agenda

Meanwhile, teacher preparation does not need to be such a high priority on the Federal agenda. Educators are being trained under a variety of conditions ranging from rigorous 5­-year programs that combine baccalaureate and master’s degrees to boot camp immersion programs or online courses with limited apprenticeships. Aggressive evaluation of the most highly structured programs exclusively is both unfair and at risk of overestimating the state of the art in actual practice. In addition, success has been seen with many teacher prep models, raising doubt that the problem lies with the pipeline of new teachers.

Rather, a crucial lapse in quality arises because individual schools and districts show uneven results with their ability to keep teachers in top form professionally throughout their careers. That is a local problem that is being addressed retrospectively through the teacher evaluation process. Prospectively, Federal regulators should consider grants for demonstration projects to introduce general management and human resource expertise from general industry into education leadership development.

November 7, 2012 at 2:46 PM Leave a comment

My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4

Puberty undermines the identity of middle school-aged children and initiates their exploration of a variety of possible adult personas. Paradoxically, it is also a time when their need to fit in seems to hit an all-time high. As a result, the simple act of getting dressed in the morning actually may require students to solve a daunting set of simultaneous equations. Their intellectual development in the years leading up to that time is crucial to their successful academic and psychosocial transition to more sophisticated abstract reasoning. However, the question is when, not if, they can handle the mental gymnastics of exploding possibilities.

The psychosocial exigencies of puberty may be as important as education as a driver of need for abstract thinking in young adolescents. The baffling combination of the search for a new identity and the peer pressure for conformity sets up the conundrum; intellectual strength can be the advantage or the goal. However, the mere act of living in the body of a pubescent child will stimulate cognitive ambition. As educators, we need to give the pre-adolescent as much reasoning ability as possible to face the task. He or she will get to a higher level with or without us…but the less confident student may try to hold off the challenge through social dysfunction and academic avoidance.

The math problem: suppose, in a class of 25 students, each child is trying on three unique personas at any given time. Then the number of possible combinations in that one class is 325. That would be a bit hyperbolic, so the children solve part of their problem by limiting the number of options that qualify as cool. Then, they begin the iterative process of arranging themselves in groups with similar attributes. Leaders will emerge as trend-setters, and controlling behavior will define many friendships. Best friends will become enemies, for example, if a group member forgets to make sure the blouse she promised to wear to school was laundered the night before. (Yes, her mother really *did* ruin her life.)

Students will find temporary comfort in groups that offer options that best match their coping strategies. However, precocious children may be excluded because of their tolerance for ambiguity and may seek adult approval through individual excellence in academics, sports, or the arts. At the other end of the spectrum, insecure children may opt out socially and need safe harbors to protect them from predatory groups, the most extreme being street gangs. Alternately, in the digital age, kids may take solace in virtual worlds.

So, my theory is that the 4th and 5th grade math teachers could help us understand why one child joins a gang while another joins a choir or a study group. Or why middle school friendships can be so fleeting. Or why kids who played computer games in isolation through puberty might emerge more socially adept in high school than the most popular kids in middle school – or at least make better social choices.

And it is not just about the math. Students need the vocabulary to express themselves and journals to document their inner lives, a sense of history and perspective, and methods for exploring cause and effect. And each needs a distinctive competency that becomes the backbone for an emerging identity that transcends the social turmoil. I would go beyond visiting the K-5 faculty to gain insight on behavior to making the 4th and 5th grade teachers a part of the team with shared accountability for readiness for the middle school mission.

I believe middle school should be redefined as grades 4-8. Research suggests that the trauma of the grade 6 transition to middle school has the most negative impact on academic outcomes for children. A grade 4 transition would ease the social and intellectual leaps for the child, who will not enter puberty until later. In addition, it would allow for vertical alignment of curricular and psychosocial goals as well as continuity for faculty members and the children through this tumultuous developmental phase.

In the context of a school system that resolved basic literacy and numeracy needs in a PreK-3 early elementary school, the Grade 4-8 middle school could give students a more solid academic readiness for puberty, safe harbor in a familiar place when it hits, and greater opportunity to develop academic and psychosocial readiness for high school.

October 9, 2012 at 9:45 AM 1 comment

Test Results as the Floor and the Ceiling for Learning…

Comment Submitted in Response to John Merrow’s 17 Sept 2012 blog entry, Blended Learning – But to What End?

Thank you for a wonderfully cogent set of caveats with regard to blended learning. While I share your view, the issue of achieving basic literacy and numeracy as the floor and the ceiling is a problem I would love to have. Frankly, we have so many children who cannot get their footing on that floor that I side with the folks who would seek that goal by any means necessary.

Testing can never hope to make promises beyond ensuring the basic toolkit for knowledge acquisition. As educators, we should take every child beyond the basics. And that is where the multiple measures of teacher effectiveness come into play.

Suppose, for example, we could say that all children would be empowered with enough basic knowledge and skill to pursue grade level challenges as active thinkers by 2019. That would mean every child entering 6th grade or lower today would be truly prepared for college and life through a mixture of remediation and accelerated progress.

Such an accomplishment would break the failure mentality of educators, which I consider to be a major part of the problem. In addition, it would take enough time that our innovators should have come up with solutions to the very good concern you have voiced…that of raising the ceiling toward infinity.

I would like to add a link addressing this issue in the context of benchmarks…

September 27, 2012 at 6:20 AM Leave a comment

Sliding Scale Accountability

Too little too late…schools systems have acceded defeat in their efforts to adequately educate all children by 2014. But that does not mean we should give up in every grade. A sliding scale system of accountabilities could keep our eyes on the prize. So let’s try again for 2019 and ask schools to get it right for students who are rising 6th graders or younger.

We may not be able to achieve the goal of NCLB for 2014. However, the class of 2019 is entering 6th grade this fall. There is still time for them to achieve proficiency in math and literacy and be college ready by 2019. Indeed, the ideal of proficiency should be kept alive for every child in school today with six or more years of elementary and secondary education left to go.

Growth models for student achievement have become popular as RttT is extended to districts and states rush to meet their obligations implied in their earlier applications. However, most of these models just kick to can out and postpone universal achievement for the children to the next generation or later. This is not good enough.

We need to put a stake in the ground again and say, “This stops here.” Educators are not likely to get their students ready for college if they are thoroughly unprepared when entering high school. The climb is too steep. However, schools that are struggling need to show they can win the battle with children who are entering middle school. And they need to keep trying to do their best with high schoolers.

A sliding scale system for accountabilities would reassign the goals originally set for 2014 as the goal for 2019. Then the goals for AYP could be reset according to a sliding scale for the graduating classes of 2013 through 2018. Any thoughts?

August 14, 2012 at 10:38 AM Leave a comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 2 of 2)

Data is here to stay, and even hard-core test deniers are tiptoeing into the next phase. “Let’s trade a new list of details for those high stakes tests. Yeah…that’s the ticket”. No way! Clearly, we do not have adequate data, and that’s never the time to start throwing any of it away. Yet, as we move from denial into bargaining…can resolution be far behind?

Embracing student data can be a little like the grieving process. Achievement tests offer one approach to threshold data points – those which capture the minimum acceptable competency levels in a content area – but they can be rejected as inadequate on many counts. However, that does not eliminate their relevance, regardless of how much better that might feel. It just means we need more data.

Even educators who feel victimized by fallout from test scores are grudgingly coming to grips with the fact that data-driven instruction is here to stay. They continue to attack the tests with a vengeance in hopes of discarding their own failing report cards. But, their new tactic is elimination of achievement tests in exchange for other details and benchmarks. Indeed, the opponents of high stakes tests are tripping over one another as they rush to offer alternative data sources that offer a more complete picture of the child…all of which seem to draw the same conclusion. The kids are alright, and so are we.

What’s missing here is the notion, once again, that we can have it both ways. Remember, in many ways we are still in the brainstorming phase for database needs; nothing gets thrown away.

In many public schools, benchmark tests barely cause a ripple in school operations. Students in high-performing cohorts take the tests and move on; students in special populations may struggle, but only a handful of students raise serious concern. Ironically, these institutions also tend to be the ones that have more highly developed approaches to the whole child. They can afford to move beyond basic competencies and pursue higher order needs with their students. Still, subgroup failures persist.

When threshold scores on tests are not achieved, there is a necessary emphasis on sources of failure. Minimum expectations must be met, because the children will not excel at the next level unless they have a secure set of foundation skills. That is why achievement gaps tend to widen over time. However, understanding the children better will help us to serve them better. We just have to accept the test scores as part of the picture of the whole child at any given time over a longitudinal trajectory. And we have to support the growth of that child…including progress toward grade level proficiency in the basics.

Inequity in educational opportunity tends to track with income inequity. It will never be fair. Urban and suburban educators share concern for students of poverty as well as students with special needs and new English language learners. These educators come together and commiserate over the weaknesses of their special populations, ultimately challenging the relevance of tests for them. However, they could benefit more from sharing their strengths.

Many high-performing schools have an edge in programs for the whole child, but they give up too quickly on their marginalized student subgroups. Struggling systems tend to understand students who are at-risk and help them overcome obstacles daily, but they have so many students in need that they have a hard time getting to the whole child. How about a joining forces for the good…to share the secrets to their successes and set a standard for excellence in educating the whole child in every population. And dream and scheme for the day when even poor kids just take the test – no sweat – and move on.

August 12, 2012 at 12:34 PM Leave a comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 1 of 2)

When students do well in a school system, the system tends to work well; when students fail, the system breaks down. While there is a chicken-and-egg thing going on here, there also is a game of dodge ball that undermines problem-solving efforts. Dumping an unhealthy dose of blame on the schools with disappointing test results only intensifies that dysfunctional behavior. But making the data go away is not the solution; rather, we need a safe harbor for teachers even as they rush to learn to play by new rules.

Test obsession would seem to be the root of all evil. Results-orientation and accountability have not been nurtured in education historically; in fact, rigid standards have been declared antithetical to a milieu with safe harbors for children. However, it is the grown-ups in the education system who go more than a little batty when there is bad news, and the test data would seem to be the messenger. Get rid of it, and we can all go back to behaving like the professionals we know we are. Huh?

This logic has obvious flaws but seems to play well in a school culture that traditionally has rewarded success and offered excuses for failure. When the children were successful, the adults had their ego needs met and could go about the process of nurturing one another in an exemplary fashion. When the children failed, the scene looked more like the end of Casablanca: the usual suspects were rounded up, there was an inquiry, and the victims remained dead. Terminations happened, but the insiders to the culture developed an invisible hand that could deliver a failed teacher on an “as needed” basis. This latter case was part of failure cycle that tolerated passive aggressive leadership and cemented unofficial hierarchies among teachers.

NCLB challenged that culture, eliminating the protective cloak of the cognoscenti in troubled schools, who could no longer shield more than half the staff, and introducing the notion that successful schools could no longer get away with marginalizing their less successful populations. That alone was enough to wreak havoc on the social systems within schools; however, the legends of bad teachers became one of the hottest topics in politics and popular culture. Throngs of political leaders, parents, and education reformers organized around various themes of vigilante justice on behalf of the children. They were going to find those bad teachers and get rid of them.

School leadership programs changed in response to the new world order, reducing the emphasis on administration and focusing on instructional leadership. Using a distributed leadership model, new principals were trained to focus on data-driven instruction and use of a team of lead teachers to share in the administration of content areas and dissemination of best practices. Unfortunately, this approach was not terribly successful in driving structural change or accelerating student achievement. Perhaps, the new approach was too close to the existing informal leadership model, essentially formalizing some of the unofficial roles and even empowering the old-school bullies in some cases. Teachers walked around with targets on their backs, and relationships with students, parents, and colleagues became strained.

Outside of the system, charter schools were created to compete with traditional public schools and serve as incubators for new ideas. Outsourcing of teachers happened through alternative recruitment and boot-camp prep programs. Technology was brought into play to supplement and/or replace direct instruction. Each approach has contributed to the body of knowledge in education. However, none offered a rapid, scalable and resilient solution to reform within the existing public school system.

What a mess…all caused by those darned test results. Enter the defenders…new vigilantes going after the testing advocates, the test makers, and even the tests themselves.

To be continued…

July 13, 2012 at 1:07 PM Leave a comment

Reading for Success by 3rd Grade

To hold back or not to hold back…that is the question? Maybe it is, if you are caught up in the trap of binary debate over 3rd grade retention. It is irresistible to enter an argument with adorable children, a high-stakes reading test, and studies that would suggest that 3rd grade is second only to kindergarten in determining lifetime earnings for every citizen on the planet. But we are missing the point. We look back with regret instead of planning for success from Day 1.

Why is it that the dialogue around children who fail does not seem to lead directly to failure prevention? A child who cannot read well by the end of 3rd grade has not been able to read for four years. During kindergarten, that child was the norm, but there was a need for intervention by the end of the 1st grade. Something was not working and should have been changed and changed again through 2nd and 3rd grades until the child was a reader.

One of my sisters – a fabulous 1st grade teacher – has often seemed like my most forgiving advocate in life. It was something I took for granted without knowing why until well into adulthood when she joked about how I had taught her to read. Apparently, she had admitted to me that she couldn’t read one day toward the end of 1st grade. As a 3rd grader, I was horrified and told her to sit down and I would show her how it was done. We worked together at home for a few weeks, which I had totally forgotten over the years. One day during class transition, she decided she was ready. She got up and joined a reading group. The teacher tried to send her back to the non-readers’ group, telling her, “Now, you know you can’t read.” My little sister assured her, “Oh yes I can,” and refused to back down. Her teacher relented and let her show everyone how she could “read.” The class laughed, but the teacher was dumbstruck as a very brave little girl opened a book and read.

That story should be anachronistic, but thirty-five years later another sister was advised by a friend to get her child out of a school because of reading. The friend worked as an aid in a 1st grade classroom. She had observed with dismay as my niece and another child in the classroom were left behind. Every day when the reading groups formed, they just stayed at their desks and looked sad. No one intervened. My niece would continue to struggle in various schools for the next five years until my sister moved her family to another county to get access to a district with a good reputation in Special Education. During 6th grade, a reading specialist assessed her reading at a grade level of 2.3. She worked with her for 18 months and raised that to 6.8 before she entered 8th grade. By 9th grade she was reading well and earning a B in Latin. She is entering college in the fall and plans to become a teacher.

Last year, it happened again. A young family member was having behavior problems, getting into fights. He had been the sweetest, most enthusiastic kid. He was finishing 2nd grade with low reading scores. Again, a family moved and the new school was a better fit. Reading was within his reach, and the young man has recovered his confidence and his good nature. But, like his cousin and his aunt, he had been treated to low expectations and interventions only for the symptoms of the problem in primary grades.

Yes, I come from a family of kids who tend to struggle verbally. However, my unrelated practice as a special educator has introduced me to far too many students who entered high school with 2nd to 4th grade reading skills. As a math teacher, I would pre-teach vocabulary and accommodate reading issues with word problems. I loved to build visual models as concrete bridges to abstract concepts. But I worried about my students’ futures as adults trying to earn a living and have families with such barriers to success.

On a hopeful note, some of the lowest performers had picked up at least a couple of grade levels in reading by the end of high school. Ironically, this was during the early years of high stakes testing. Under pressure, the system was able to deliver 2-3 grade levels of progress in 4 years. Unfortunately, there had only been a year or two of progress toward grade level in the previous 6-8 years. What had happened?

My SchoolsRetooled world view mentions my belief in miracles in Special Education. However, a truer translation would suggest that those beneficiaries of the miracles were actually children with far more ability than at least some of the adults in charge of their educations had expected. A missed intervention by 3rd grade can make a middle or high school special educator seem like a wizard. But I don’t really want the heroics; I want the best interventions in place when they still can prevent small problems from escalating into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Update and Correction – email from my sister…

Good morning Kathleen,

I enjoyed reading your blog this morning. Its well said and to the point. I don’t mind you sharing at all. I tell my students about it every year. I tell them not to let someone else’s thoughts decide what they can do. I also tell them to take up for themselves when they need to. They are always amazed that you could teach me to read. You were actually younger. You were in second grade and I was in kindergarten, but the sentiments are the same. I should find a picture of that teacher and put her up in my room to visually remind me when I need to rethink how I’m working with my children. I bet I could get one from Fox. I may just do that. I should also post a picture of a teacher that inspired me. Thank you. You’ve given me food for thought.

May 15, 2012 at 11:18 AM Leave a comment

Bridging the Gap…A Roadmap to Tomorrow

Play it again…this time we are going to get it right. Let’s put that stake back in the ground and make a promise to the current kindergarten class that they will be the new “no excuses” cohort. For them, there will be no achievement gap. And, because we are smarter this time around, we know we can focus on them without forgetting their older or younger brothers and sisters.

The Kindergarten-Grade Three Cluster – New World Order

Today, make the declaration for all entering kindergarten students who may be at risk that, “This ends here!”  They will become the universal “no excuses” cohort across the nation for whom there will be no achievement gap.

Establish an elementary school grade cluster of K-3 with an administrative leader and dedicated team who are charged with establishing proficiency in basic literacy and numeracy by the end of grade three.

Define benchmarks for progress toward that goal and tracking systems for the whole child. Ensure alignment vertically and assign accountability clearly for academic and psychosocial SMART goals.

Plan proactively, but assess progress and remediate as necessary. Create a planning cycle of continuous plan adjustments and growth.

Offer extended day programs for play, academic support, and social skill building.

Grades Four through Eight – Catch-Up Time

Analyze data from the lower elementary grades to identify students with special needs or risk factors. Pursue academic accommodations in the general education setting. Supplement content courses with special skill-building sessions to bring entering students to a common level of proficiency.

Engage all of the children in the dialogue about their learning. Set goals with them and have them chart their own progress. Accentuate their physical, intellectual, and psychosocial growth in anticipation of puberty. Intend their self-awareness as higher level learners in upper elementary grades – especially prior to onset of puberty.

Continue to plan, defining benchmarks and accountabilities, ensuring vertical alignment, and measuring progress.

Create extended day programs that offer options for skills laboratories, homework support, and extracurricular activities. Identify students with special strengths or talents for deeper engagement and development, e.g., STEM, writing, art, or music.

High School – Rushing Toward Readiness

Engage students immediately in academics with a vision for college and career readiness. Quickly assess entering students for academic progress to date and offer remediation to bring students to a common skill base. Offer extended learning opportunities to make advanced placement accessible to a broader number of students.

Open, or continue, the dialogue with the students about their individual growth plans and goals. Integrate personal interests and objectives into discretionary assignments.

Challenge, challenge, challenge…in preparation for college.

April 24, 2012 at 8:33 AM Leave a comment

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