mikeTwo weeks ago, the Maryland State Department of Education released its first ever set of star-ratings for schools.   According to this system, the presumably most successful schools got 5 stars.   The presumably most struggling schools received 1 star.  The whole educational world here in Baltimore and throughout the state responded.  There were star maps of districts and counties in the papers.   There were multiple television and news articles about the star ratings and where schools fell.  Social media was abuzz:  “How many stars did your school get?”   The world accepted the stars.

We respectfully submit that the star-rankings are hooey.

With all due respect to the policymakers who spent recent years developing this new rating system and the expenses committed to this venture, we simply cannot accept that schools should be rated like the last Marvel movie or the slightly fancy restaurant you may have eaten in last weekend.

For years, our policymakers have worked to simplify the understanding and evaluation of schools.   The simpler, the better, right?   Just test scores.  Simple star-ratings.  Some states grade schools on a scale of A to F.    This fundamentally misses the idea that educating children, in every context, is a complex, nuanced, and intricate effort and that outcomes are equally complex.   The more we try to simplify our understanding of great education, the further we are from making it any better, richer, deeper, more effective.   Instead of coming to this realization, we keep doubling down on simplistic, inaccurate, and corrosive measures.

Moreover, we continue to rely on measures that are simply not valid.   This year, 65% of the star rating is based on PARCC scores, a test that the state has already decided to abandon after less than a decade of implementation.   (By the way, we announced our concern about PARCC testing and predicted its demise in the first year of its implementation.)   Most educators and honest education policymakers know the many flaws of standardized testing (with a special nod to this particular standardized test), yet school Boards, State policymakers, and star-rating developers continue to pretend that this measure matters–until the next test comes along and the last one doesn’t matter anymore.

The other problems with this star-rating system are numerous.   It clearly favor schools with lower levels of poverty.   It relies on bureaucratic tricks around course offerings and gradings.  (Watch the star-ratings increase next year when districts get the hang of the tricks!)  They will rely on climate surveys that will be skewed to groups and constituencies that are more prone to respond to surveys.   Districts will begin to use these star ratings in ways they were not intended – like school accountability, charter renewal, or other levers of decision-making.   They simply do not report out the complex strengths and challenges of any individual school and, instead, invite folks to look no deeper than a star-level label.

We have been pursuing standardization and simplicity in school accountability since No Child Left Behind in 2004.   No empirical evidence says our public schools are any better.   Experiential evidence may indicate that they have been co-opted by testing and accountability and have become less effective.   In 2018, we will start transitioning to our third standardized test and a new star system here in Maryland.   In another five years, we will mostly likely try a new test or maybe apples or grades instead of stars – with the presumption that it will be these things that will fix education.

We realize that we may offend many who are excited by the stars.    And there may only be few strong voices against this kind of rating system in this era of school accountability and testing.   But we are convinced that this focus will do nothing – absolutely nothing — to improve our schools, the education our students could and should receive, or make our society better.  In fact, this focus, like the focus on standardized testing, will continue to weaken public education.   While this idea might be counter-cultural now, history will not be on the side of high-stakes standardized testing and school star-ratings.

Somebody needs to say it while we all sit around staring at the stars.

Mike Chalupa, Director

bobMuch debate in the field of mathematics instruction revolves around questions like these:

Do we teach for conceptual understanding or procedural fluency? Do we opt for direct instruction followed by application, or do we facilitate as students explore and make connections for themselves?  Is learning multiplication facts an appropriate use of class time?

Literacy instruction has been the subject of a similar debate.  While there are still people who advocate strongly for either a phonics-based approach or a whole-language approach, most progressive educators agree that a balanced approach that combines the best of both phonics and whole language is most effective. I believe that the same is true in math instruction, and that looking to literacy for a model can be helpful.

In reading, the ultimate goal is comprehension–understanding what we read. In math, it’s problem solving–using numbers to represent real world situations. In both cases, students need other skills and proficiencies to achieve these goals.

Learning phonics, or the sounds the letters make both on their own and when combined, is critical for reading success. Similarly, in math, the building blocks are the number system and basic fact fluency. Just like it’s difficult to make sense out of a passage of text if one does not know that “c” and “h” together make “ch” like in “chip,” understanding mathematical situations becomes extremely challenging when one does not know that 9 x 5 = 45.

Understanding and remembering what you’ve read is difficult if you have to stop and sound out every word. This is why teachers model and students practice reading–so it becomes smoother and more natural. In math, using inefficient strategies or relying on clever mnemonic devices to complete calculations diverts attention and cognitive energy and, in many cases, can cause students to lose track of the bigger problem they are trying to solve. That is why building both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, sometimes through practice and repetition, is important.

In a balanced literacy classroom, instruction focuses on both the nuts and bolts of reading and writing, as well as understanding the big picture. Students are expected to know the alphabet and the sounds letter make. Teachers model smooth expressive reading and help students develop strategies to comprehend what they read. Students practice reading in many different contexts every day. Thinking about mathematics instruction the same way can help students master the skills they need to meet the ultimate goal of using math to make sense of the world around them. Students should learn the number system and their basic math facts. They should develop deep conceptual understanding and practice efficient strategies for calculation. Teachers should model and explain strategies for making sense of problem situations and students should be engaged in problem solving in many different ways every day.

~Bob Dietzen, Math Specialist, City Neighbors Hamilton~

monica pic

In my experience in elementary classrooms over the years, (including in our City Neighbors early grades classrooms and now in a mentoring capacity) I find that about this time of year, the question tends to come up:  “What part should effort and hard work play in children’s schooling?”

Teachers in the classroom are readily able to see that there are two parts to the process of learning something new:  whether the child has the skills needed and whether the child has the independent work habits to apply those skills.  For young readers, there is no substitute for their own independent practice at reading.  Skills are introduced at certain times; there is also plenty of time for practice to apply those skills. Or consider middle schoolers, working to systematically research their year-long project.  A certain amount of industrious trying will lead them to be successful.

At times this can be a bit confusing for families.   Sometimes parents’ reasoning can be:  “We chose City Neighbors so that our child would enjoy school and not find it tiresome, as our own schooling sometimes was.” So when the first rush of back to school excitement is naturally lessened, when some reluctance for working at skills asked of children can come up, parents may become concerned.  “But I want my child to love to come to school…”

Yes, but:  Even if adults love their profession, will they love every minute and aspect of it?  (paperwork or repetitive parts of even a well-loved job?)  For kids’ job as students, there will be some practice and “repetition for mastery” at school, necessary to grow skills.

Research in the past few years about learning shows that those who feel industrious mental effort actually makes a person smarter are more likely to take on difficult tasks, doing well at them.  It is apparent to teachers that how successful children are with mastering skills is in large part related to how well and how long they are able to persevere  working independently—even when it becomes difficult or “hits a snag.”  Children’s  ability to stick with it does not appear to be necessarily related to how “bright” the children are but rather to how much they see themselves as independent people who can work at something until the job is done.

So as parents it helps to praise our kids’ work not with a “You’re so smart” as often as with a “Look how hard you worked at that.” This message is that their effort matters, and will bring a result which is in their control. (And we can encourage “sticking-with-it” skills at home too, with even simple chores like making the bed neatly or organizing or doing a load of laundry.)

My impression from City Neighbors classrooms is this: they do love to come to school! There is a lot of the pure joy of discovery in those City Neighbors classrooms, but also satisfaction of a tough job, tried and completed well!

~Monica O’Gara, Early Childhood Specialist, City Neighbors Charter School~

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