Category Archives: school leaders

“Successful” Schools? Looking at MetWest High School and Social Justice Humanitas Academy

For the past two years I have been researching and writing about definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. education. As I have done with all of my book projects, I draft posts for this blog to clarify my thinking and learn from reader comments. Then I revise what I have written and those revisions become part of the book I am writing.

A year and a half ago, I posted a series on “success” and “failure” in schools (see here, here, and here). Since then I have written a few chapters for this forthcoming book that answer questions driving this study.

  1. How have “success” and “failure” been defined and applied to reforming schools and judging programs past and present?
  2. From where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come?
  3. How were these ideas transmitted to Americans then and now?
  4. Who decides (and how) whether schools “succeed” and “fail?”
  5. What does “success”and “failure” look like in contemporary classrooms, schools and districts?
  6. So what?

Now I have four chapters that tentatively answer the first four questions. Last month I began research on the fifth question by looking at two schools deemed “successful” by current metrics but have gone beyond traditional definitions of “success” to carve out a larger, expansive view of what student, teacher, and school “success” look like.

Both California schools are non-special, that is, neither a charter nor magnet in their districts. MetWest High School* with about 160 students is in the Oakland Unified School District. It is a Big Picture school launched in 2002 that combines academics and community internships for its largely poor and Latino students (see here and here).

The other school is Social Justice Humanitas Academy with just over 500 high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A school founded and governed by teachers as a school-within-a-school at a nearby large high school in the early 2000s and eventually becoming an autonomous school in a new facility in 2011.

I visited these two small high schools between February and March 2019. I read documents, observed teachers, listened to students, and interviewed key staff members. For MetWest, I have published descriptions of the school and observations of four teacher lessons (see here, here, here, and here). I will have more posts about classrooms and internships there in the next few weeks.

And shortly, I will begin publishing posts about SJHA and lessons I have observed.

These visits to two different schools in California aim at describing two small non-charter, non-magnet schools that have an expanded and expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” and, more important, what that expansive view looks like up close. I do this not to suggest that all public high schools, big and small, should copy these two schools. While there are similar high schools like MetWest and SJHA elsewhere in the nation, albeit in small numbers, there are two other reasons I concentrate on these schools.

First, most Americans overlook a basic fact: there is no one national system of American schooling. There is great variety among U.S. public schools (e.g., 50 state systems, over 13,000 school districts, and over 100,000 urban, suburban, and rural schools). Yet there is one definition of “success” and “failure” that dominates  policy talk and action, the rewards and penalties, the metrics used in judging all U.S. schools: A “successful” school has higher than average test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, etc

I describe and analyze MetWest and SJHA to demonstrate that broader definitions of “success” not only exist amid the prevailing narrow view of “success” but also that these expanded definitions have been put into school and classroom practice.

In describing these two schools I want to show that variation among U.S. schools also shows up in how schools define “success” for their students, teachers, and sites, revealing that there are notable exceptions to the prevailing monolithic view of “success” across U.S. schools. And just because I identify only two schools does not make exceptions insignificant.

In short, these two schools are an “existence proof.” They demonstrate what has been done by public school administrators and teachers who define “success” in far broader terms than conventional ones.  How these two urban school staffs bent bureaucratic rules in large districts in joining traditional “success” metrics with other criteria that capture a far more expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” shows that mixes of the conventional and unconventional can be brewed into a do-able hybrid public school serving youth of color. Such hybrid definitions of “success” exist in the very neighborhoods that are too often judged as inhospitable to experimentation and excellence.**

Second, both of these high schools are at the margins of both systems, not a part of a growing core of schools in each district. Both have achieved a “protected niche” within each district and they have survived and thrived. Moreover, their approach to teaching and learning are instances of what some observers have called “deeper learning” (see here and here). To achieve such “deeper learning,” these schools have to overturn the historical “grammar of learning” (e.g., age-graded school organization, rows of desks, whole group instruction, homework, frontal teaching, tests) that continues to dominate public and private education in the nation. A most difficult task. I am not sure these two schools do but they surely grasp for that evanescent deeper learning and teaching.

So MetWest High School and SJHA become part of my book as proof that an expansive definition of “success” exists in public schools and aspire to forms of “deeper learning.”  Both schools deserve our full attention in a society unthinking in its acceptance of economic and social inequalities and one driven by individualism rather than community and by attaining fortune rather than friends and family.

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*As of this date, MetWest High School has no website.

**There are also private schools catering to parents who can afford high tuition costs that have expanded views of “success” such as Sudbury Schools , Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, etc.

 

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Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

Six years ago, I published a post on the highly popular slogan of principal as instructional leader. Following up on this blog’s post of Chicago Mayor’s Rahm Emmanuel’s publicized reversal of his initial school reform beliefs and what he ultimately learned about the importance of Chicago’s principals in turning around schools’ low academic performance, I re-visited this earlier post.  I was surprised that few, if any, observational studies of principal behavior linked to student achievement have been published since 2013. The one I did find is included below.

The strong belief held by practitioners and researchers that of the three essential roles principals perform (instructional, managerial, and political), they “must” be first and foremost, instructional leaders continues its dominance in the literature in spite of weak evidence.

 

 

Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet recent studies (https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/grissom%20loeb%20%26%20master%20instructional%20time%20use_0.pdf

of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction

 

results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.

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Basic Dilemma Teachers, Principals, Superintendents Face: Supervising Others While Seeking Approval

 

 

In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district and had no entourage–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and whispered whether I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “Let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told my wife about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those I am expected to lead and who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then she reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when Facebook and “friending” are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. In such situations, evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for teacher approval, ultimately neither affection or respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially with the availability of Facebook for older students, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning neither erases boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned and went into permanent records.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent is an essential lesson that novices and veterans have to learn (and re-learn) but goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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Teacher-Led Schools: The Mouse and Hippo

Groups of teachers founding charters, taking over failing schools, or simply creating different ones is a smart idea. It is worthwhile and needs much support to spread since teachers can design, implement, and administer such schools as well as if not better than policymakers hiring  principals and high-paid consultants. After all, one doesn’t have to know too much history of U.S. public schools to remember that teachers ran their own schools when rural one-room schoolhouses prevailed a century and a half ago and before principals (remember the first ones were called principal-teachers). Nonetheless, there are some facts that cannot be ignored.

First, some teacher-run schools will fly and some will crash.

Second, as these teacher-run schools get established, they will be a small (but nonetheless, important )contribution to the necessary mix of schools needed to improve urban districts. Even though :Os Angeles, Detroit, and other districts have authorized teacher-run schools there are still less than 100 across the nation (of about 100,000 public schools). This is where the mouse and hippo enters the picture.

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New schools including charters come from policymakers who decide that such schools can alter what usually occurs in traditional schools. Politicians and policymakers create most schools. The hippo. And teacher-run schools, the mouse, will always be small in comparison but, as in the Mike Twohy story, can be both a friend and a guide to “good” schooling.

Such teacher-led schools will mobilize many teachers (Teach for America graduates, deeply committed novices and a chunk of mid-career professionals) and parents to form democratic cooperatives (mostly charters) and run schools but fall far short of a majority of teachers–there are over 3.5 million in the U.S.–since most teachers went into teaching to teach, not to organize and govern schools.

So what? Sure, some teacher-run schools will flop. Designing new schools and running them is as complicated and risky as starting any new venture as edupreneurs say repeatedly. Failure is common. And, sure, most teachers didn’t enter teaching to run schools but to teach children and youth. So these ventures, like homeschooling and charters, will always be a small fraction of public schools.

The over-riding reason for having teachers organize and govern schools, especially in urban and rural poor districts, is that having a mix of different kinds of schools (KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire, hybrids of high-tech and traditional classrooms, magnets, cyber schools, community schools that offer wraparound services, etc.) offers diverse ways of organizing and governing schools with possibilities for teaching children differently and well.

Offering a menu of choices is sensible when you do not know for sure which ways are best to get minority and  low-income children to learn, achieve, and succeed in school. And, the fact remains that we do not know how to school, much less educate, the diversity of low-income children that enter public schools.

A menu of choices is democratic when different definitions of “good” schools compete with one another. To many parents and policymakers, a traditional school–a “real” one–is “good.” That is, students in each grade determined by age, one credentialed teacher in a classroom, students sitting in desks, same state curriculum, bells ending lessons,  textbooks, homework, testing, and after school clubs and sports.

To other parents, a teacher-led school that organizes itself around multi-age groups with similar performance levels who work on student-generated projects that probe deeply into content and skills cam be “good.”  And even other parents and teachers judge schools to be “good” that seek social justice by problem-solving and working closely with community groups. There are even other parents who see cyber-schools as “good” because each student can work at his or her pace and meet performance objectives.

Both sensible and democratic, the creation of alternative schools can (and has) become experimental laboratories for the vast majority of public schools to borrow and implement new ideas. Teacher-led schools add to the menu of potential “good” schools in the two-century old decentralized system of U.S. public schools.

 

 

 

 

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Why Principals Differ: Joe, Ralph, and Edna

The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.

Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.

Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.

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But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.

Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.

 

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What Makes a Great School? (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is  “a historian and policy analyst who studies the influence of politics, rhetoric, culture, and information in shaping attitudes and behaviors. His research examines how educators, policymakers, and the public develop particular views about what is true, what is effective, and what is important. Drawing on a diverse mix of methodological approaches, he has written about measurement and accountability, segregation and school choice, teacher preparation and pedagogy, and the relationship between research and practice. His current work, on how school quality is conceptualized and quantified, has been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Massachusetts State Legislature.

The author of three books, Schneider is a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The Atlantic” and co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard.” He also serves as the Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.”

This piece appeared October 23, 2017.

 

What are the signs that a school is succeeding?

Try asking someone. Chances are, they’ll say something about the impact a school makes on the young people who attend it. Do students feel safe and cared for? Are they being challenged? Do they have opportunities to play and create? Are they happy?

If you’re a parent, getting this kind of information entails a great deal of effort — walking the hallways, looking in on classrooms, talking with teachers and students, chatting with parents, and watching kids interact on the playground.

Since most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to run our own school-quality reconnaissance missions, we rely on rumor and anecdote, hunches and heuristics, and, increasingly, the Internet.

So what’s out there on the web? Are our pressing questions about schools being answered by crowdsourced knowledge and big data sets?

As it turns out, no.

There’s information, certainly. But mostly it doesn’t align with what we really want to know about how schools are doing. Instead, most of what we learn about schools online — on the websites of magazines, on school rating sites, and even on real estate listings — comes from student standardized test scores. Some may include demographic information or class size ratios. But the ratings are derived primarily from state-mandated high stakes tests.

The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.

Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional. And just because a school is strong in one area does not mean that it is equally strong in another. In fact, my research team has found that high standardized test score growth can be correlated with low levels of student engagement. Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value.

Another consequence is that we can make unenlightened decisions about where to live and send our children to school. Schools with more affluent student bodies tend to produce high test scores. Perceived

as “good,” they become the objects of desire for well-resourced and quality-conscious parents. Conversely, schools with more diverse student bodies are dismissed as bad.

GreatSchools.org gives my daughter’s school — a highly diverse K–8 school — a 6 on its 10-point scale. The state of Massachusetts labels it a “Level 2” school in its five-tier test score-based accountability system. SchoolDigger.com rates it 456th out of 927 Massachusetts elementary schools.

How does that align with reality? My daughter is excited to go to school each day and is strongly attached to her current and former teachers. A second-grader, she reads a book a week, loves math, and increasingly self-identifies as an artist and a scientist. She trusts her classmates and hugs her principal when she sees him. She is often breathlessly excited about gym. None of this is currently measured by those purporting to gauge school quality.

Of course, I’m a professor of education and my wife is a teacher. Our daughter is predisposed to like school. So what might be said objectively about the school as a whole? Over the past two years, suspensions have declined to one-fifth of the previous figure, thanks in part to a restorative justice program and an emphasis on positive school culture. The school has adopted a mindfulness program that helps students cope with stress and develop the skill of self-reflection. A new maker space is being used to bring hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math into classrooms. The school’s drama club, offered free after school twice a week, now has almost 100 students involved.

The inventory of achievements that don’t count is almost too long to list.

So if the information we want about schools is too hard to get, and the information we have is often misleading, what’s a parent to do?

Four years ago, my research team set out to build a more holistic measure of school quality. Beginning first in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and then expanding to become a statewide initiative — the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment — we asked stakeholders what they actually care about in K–12 education. The result is a clear, organized, and comprehensive framework for school quality that establishes common ground for richer discussions and recognizes the multi-dimensionality of schools.

Only after establishing shared values did we seek out measurement tools. Our aim, after all, was to begin measuring what we value, rather than to place new values on what is already measured.

For some components of the framework, we turned to districts, which often gather much more information than ends up being reported. For many other components, we employed carefully designed surveys of students and teachers — the people who know schools best. And though we currently include test score growth, we are moving away from multiple-choice tests and toward curriculum-embedded performance assessments designed and rated by educators rather than by machines.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. Segregation by race and income continues to menace our public schools, as does inequitable allocation of resources. More accurate and comprehensive data systems won’t wash those afflictions away. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear and common language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

 

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How Much Do Educators Care About Edtech Efficacy? Less Than You Might Think (Jenny Abamu)

Jenny Abamu is a reporter at WAMU. She was previously an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covered technology’s role in K-12 education.

She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.”

 

This article appeared in EdSurge, July 17, 2017

Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, was relatively sure he knew the answer to this research question: “When making, purchasing and/or adoption decisions regarding a new technology-based product for your district or school, how important is the existence of peer-reviewed research to back the product?” Nevertheless, as part of the Edtech Research Efficacy Symposium held earlier this year, Kennedy created a research team and gathered the data. But, to his surprise, the results challenged conventional wisdom.

I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah, we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research.’ Of course, we found that that wasn’t exactly correct

Michael Kennedy

“I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research,’” says Kennedy. “Of course we found that that wasn’t exactly correct.”

With a team of 13 other academics and experts, Kennedy surveyed 515 people from 17 states. Out of those they surveyed, 24 percent were district technology supervisors, 22 percent were assistant superintendents, 7 percent were superintendents, 27 percent were teachers, and 10 percent were principals. Within this diverse group, 76 percent directly made edtech purchases for their school or were consulted on purchase decisions. This was the group Kennedy expected would put its trust in efficacy research. To his team’s surprise, however, about 90 percent of the respondents said they didn’t insist on research to be in place before adopting or buying a product.

In contrast, respondents prioritized factors such as ‘fit’ for their school, price, functionality and alignment with district initiatives; these were all rated by those surveyed as “extremely important” or “very important.” In the report, one of the administrators interviewed is quoted saying, “If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.” Kennedy also noted other statements made him pause.

“Research, according to one of the quotes I received was the icing on the cake,” says Kennedy “Having a lot of research evidence, like the type demanded by the feds, was cool but not essential. I found that to be pretty surprising and a little bit troubling.”

The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to.

Kennedy defines randomized control trials, a research methodology that tries to remove bias and external effects as much as possible from the experiment, as the gold standard of research. Though this type of extensive and carefully planned research is expensive, the federal government does offer funds to support groups willing to go through the process. However, without schools demanding such research, Kennedy says while the government has made a way, but there is no will—and that could dry up funds.

“The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to,” says Kennedy.

So what explains theme educators who did put research at the top of their list? Kennedy speculates it’s a question of exposure to quality research and district funding.

“Some people who responded to our survey had doctorates, other had advanced degrees, and they understand the value of research,” says Kennedy. “Some respondents are from districts that are very well-funded, and they have the luxury of being picky. Other districts have very limited budgets, very limited time and they are going to what is cheapest and easiest.”

Whether rich or poor, all school districts do have to answer to their tax bases, who often foot the bill for edtech purchases. Schools that cannot show academic gains are often under more scrutiny from outside forces, including parents and local officials. However, Kennedy notes that the complicated nature of education and all the variables that can affect student achievement water down any accountability that can be placed on edtech product purchase decisions made by the school districts.

“I suspect they will look at how are we teaching reading and math because technology is often used as a supplementary tool,” says Kennedy. “I hear parents say they want more technology, but they don’t know what they want. They think any tech is good tech, and I think that myth has pervaded as well. It’s a wicked problem, a layered contextual kind of issue, that will take more than the field can do to fix.”

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