Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tony Bennett not giving up on Social Promotion bill

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, working with Senators Kenley and Kruse is keeping SB258 alive by taking the financial ramifications of grade retention and extra instruction out of the bill. I'm not clear on how that's going to work, but ending social promotion as a blanket policy in all grades, not just grade 3 as the bill is written now, is still a worthy goal.

Meanwhile at FWCS Wendy has given a press conference on the district's intention to turn around the district's eleven worst performing schools by changing their designation to "LEAD" schools. She says she intends to overhaul the culture of learning and strive for parent involvement. One way to do that would be to eliminate blanket social promotion in the elementary and middle schools, which promotes a culture of rewarding failure. Get the parents involved in the decisions for promotion and retention and "LEAD" the way instead of letting the state tell you what to do.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shuffling the deck won't improve the hand

Since Thomas Smith can't get test scores up as principal at SSHS, let's see if he can get them up as principal at Wayne, which is even worse. He can't, and that's not a reflection on Mr. Smith whose fate depends on the middle schools. The administrative musical chairs makes no sense, especially when Wendy isn't taking away any chairs. It's hard to see how the Feds will view this as a reason to lavish "Race to the Top" money on the district, but you never know. It doesn't address the current budget shortfall, as board member Kevin Brown pointed out. Most important it won't improve achievement in the high schools. Yet only one board member, Pamela Martin Diaz, refused to rubber stamp the proposal and voted against it.

Yesterday's JG printed a letter from a former FWCS educator Ronald Flickinger (how come more retired teachers don't speak out?) that referred to an article documenting improved performance in several urban school districts. It was done by adapting teaching methods to the realities of modern day society, something which most education bureaucracies, including FWCS, don't seem to be able to do. They still cling to methods based on the ideal middle class family of the fifties. The article said nothing about shuffling administrators and teachers. But they have to learn to adapt, most importantly in the earlier grades if we want to see the later grades improve.

Sorry, but full day kindergarten isn't going to turn the tide. So what's the rest of the plan for the elementary and middle schools?

Friday, January 22, 2010

JG says Social Promotion not a pressing concern

Well, there you have it. Karen Frisco says social promotion is not a concern, unless maybe you're a math teacher south of Coliseum Boulevard and half your students can't use their algebra textbooks because they can't read them. Or unless you're the principal or an administrator at North Side or South Side HS who's expected to improve test scores in spite of having (40-50%)unprepared kids dumped on him from the middle schools. Well, you'll probably get another job somewhere in the system when you reapply.

Social promotion is both a sign and cause of the system's problems. What Karen fails to mention is that FWCS adheres to a blanket policy of social promotion once a student is past the first or second grades. As FWEA's Steve Brace said, teachers favor a policy that gives them some discretion, not the inflexible policy we have now. Maybe the parents should be involved in the decision whether to hold a student back. Currently, the student will be promoted even when the parents request that they be held back.

Clearly the practice is now so prevalent that it's not possible to hold back everyone who should be held back without opening a few more middle schools. But holding them back with teacher discretion and parental consent would send a message to some that they won't get a necessarily free ride to high school like they do now. Right now we're sending the wrong message to all the kids in our middle schools, even the ones who are serious. And the high schools are placed in an impossible situation. They will not improve.

But talking about the practice as it pertains to FWCS, Karen, is another admission of failure. The public would realize that all the "changes" coming to our high school staffs as well as "High School Reinvent" will accomplish nothing but that the most important thing to FWCS is perceptions. Oh, and Federal money.
Let's see how Don Willis handles social promotion when he opens his first high school.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tony and Mitch target Social Promotion

Governor Daniels State of the State speech proposed legislation to end social promotion in Indiana's public schools, at least for third graders who can't read. What would happen to the kids who are now getting socially promoted through the middle schools and devastating the high schools isn't clear but presumably holding back kids in elementary school would reduce size of the problem later on.

So why does this proposal have to come from the state? Why doesn't FWCS (or Karen Frisco for that matter) talk about, let alone acknowledge the problem and propose some solutions instead of abdicating its responsibility to the State? Because it's politically uncomfortable. Most of the kids held back would be minorities and rather than "doing the right thing" and facing the flack for holding them back, they push them through and give them a "diploma" they can't read. Because they would have had to give up cherished but expensive and ineffective programs like "Reading Recovery" a long time ago, back when board member Kurt Walborne was going against Wendy's and the teacher's union's grain by telling them it didn't work.

Reform proposals have to come from the state and the feds because FWCS hasn't been willing to do anything that would cause discomfort to the teachers union (even though in this case social promotion is the number one complaint among high school teachers) or the parents. None of the ballyhooed items to improve test scores praised in last Sunday's JG editorial put anyone in a strain, least of all the teacher's union. There will be no real reform without pain. And for Public Education the only motivation for reform is money for jobs. They can go through all the gyrations they want but nothing significant will change until their funding is threatened. So don't tell us compliance with "Race to the Top" isn't about getting Arne's money. The failing schools that are being "reinvented" should have been targeted a long time ago, not just when there's federal money at stake.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Serious? Maybe. On target? Doubtful.

Watching and listening (with my thumb on the mute button) to last night's FWCS board meeting, I finally heard the kind of conversation I expected to hear seven years ago when Wendy ascended to high office. The serious part of the discussion, however, followed the inevitable self congratulations on higher graduation rates even though this was common to the whole state and most likely due to the rise in teen unemployment with the recession. Like college students, high school students who can't get jobs are opting to stay in school. As Time Magazine said last week, there are some benefits in the recession. But our board can't resist claiming credit where none is due.

There does finally appear to be some impetus for "doing the right thing". Imagine Schools appears to be a serious competitor despite the JG's campaign to smear Don Willis. The visit by the Cambridge group and comments from the governor and Tony Bennett may be a factor. It could be a letter to the editor from a North Side High (or any other high school) School student describing his classroom with half the kids asleep or texting or socializing, which would be news to any clueless board member. Or just maybe it's Federal money at the end of the "Race to the Top" rainbow.

But when they talk about fixing the problem all you hear about over and over is "High School Reinvent". True, the high schools, being at the end of the line, are the key to the system's reputation. But the problems in the high schools originate in the elementary schools and carry through the middle schools. The only mention of that came from a high school teacher speaking at the end of the meeting. The same teacher said the same thing after a meeting two years ago and got nothing but grief for telling the truth. They didn't want to hear it. Whether they heard it last night and whether they take it to heart remains to be seen. If they don't, Don Willis may be our next superintendent.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What does "Higher" graduation rate mean?

State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett is "beaming" about a steady increase in graduation rates since the state implemented a new standardized formula for their calculation in 2006. What that means is hard to say. Time Magazine's article on teen employment suggests kids are only staying in school because they can't get jobs. (It's not because of "high school reinvent".) For the time being at least, more kids are staying in school for four years and coming out with a diploma. More kids have the opportunity to take advantage of the four years they spend in high school.

Whether they're doing that or not isn't clear. One way schools have of keeping kids around is to make it easier to pass their courses. Dumb it down. Course grades are meaningful only in a relative sense and as any university and business will testify, a high school diploma doesn't mean much unless you know the standards of the school district and even the individual school that gave it.

With the adoption of spring testing, the state also eliminated the Graduation Qualifying Exam given to high school sophomores as a "requirement" for graduation (except when they were given a waiver). Instead they're now giving "End of Course Examinations" (EOC's) for the "core forty" math and English courses. FWCS did not publicize their scores for the first round of these tests, but their passing rates were about 20%. The statewide rate was about 40%. Not very impressive. Needless to say, (in FWCS) the course passing rate as determined by their grades are typically in the range of 50-60%. High school teachers are afraid to flunk too many kids. (In middle school it doesn't matter, since everyone gets promoted regardless.)

The only way to know what's really going on is to give every graduating senior a national standardized test. The SAT's and ACT's given for college entrance are the closest thing we have to that right now, but they're optional. So, unfortunately, unless the feds get involved individual states and school districts can play too many games. That's what they've been doing up to now and that's why they'll scream about any such attempt at federal interference.