Sunday, December 13, 2015

ESSA and Iowa Schools: Meet the New Boss (Guest Post)

[I’ve been putting off the task of posting about the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the successor to (and in some ways a departure from) No Child Left Behind. I tend to react to changes in federal and state education laws the same way I react to severe weather: I just hunker down and prepare for the worst. Fortunately, Karen W. from Education in Iowa offered this great summary of how the new Act will affect school districts here in Iowa. —CL]

The big education news last week was that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era has officially ended with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). There are a number of articles and websites summarizing various aspects of ESSA:

  • US Department of Education, ESSA page (includes a comparison chart with NCLB and waivers plus ESSA highlights and links to other documents)
  • Alliance for Excellent Education, ESSA page (includes links to one-page fact sheets and short videos on accountability, assessments, high schools, and teachers and school leaders)

Any of these links can get you started. However, a key change in ESSA is a shift in responsibility for the details of policies from the federal government to the states. This means that understanding--or predicting--what ESSA might mean for Iowa schools requires looking not just at the language of ESSA, but also looking at current Iowa law, the Iowa Department of Education (DE), and the Iowa State Board of Education (State Board).

For this post, I have looked at parts of the ESSA and tried to link to related Iowa state law and statewide education policies. Note that this post isn’t a comprehensive look at ESSA.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Why I voted against ThoughtExchange

At our last meeting, the board voted 4-3 to enter into a three-year contract with ThoughtExchange, an online platform to solicit ideas and opinions from district residents. The contract cost $106,462. I voted against it, for several reasons.

The cost alone was not my primary objection. I can imagine issues on which a well-done survey of community opinion would be worth paying for. My concerns about ThoughtExchange were:

1. Although ThoughtExchange was presented as a way to “take the temperature of the community”—the vendor even referred to it as “polling”—it was not at all vetted for that purpose and is very clearly not up to the task.

There is a difference between tech expertise and statistical expertise; the vendor provided no information about the statistical capability of ThoughtExchange to measure the opinions of the community as a whole. He probably couldn’t, even if he tried. Participation is not random; some users might make one quick visit while others might visit repeatedly and participate for long stretches; it’s fairly easy for people to have multiple accounts; and the total number of participants on any given issue is likely to be a small fraction of the total community population. As a result, the margin of error, if it could even be calculated, is likely to be so enormous that the results would tell us very little about community sentiment.

That problem is compounded by the fact that a significant chunk of our community (estimated at about six percent of households) does not have regular internet access, and that’s probably not a random chunk, but skewed toward low-income residents.

2. I’m concerned that the motivation to use ThoughtExchange is more about putting on a show of community engagement than actually engaging in a meaningful way. (I had these same concerns about ThoughtExchange’s predecessor, MindMixer.) There’s no point in asking the public for input if we’re not willing to adjust our decisions accordingly once we get it, but it often seems like the district wants to do the former and not the latter. In those instances, people just feel worse than if their input was never solicited at all.

The district’s likely strategy is not to ask any questions that it doesn’t want to hear the answers to, and to word the questions in ways designed to push participants in certain ways. Three years ago, I made fun of the district for using MindMixer to ask, “What are the school district’s biggest strengths?” Then, when the ThoughtExchange vendor made his presentation, one of his examples of a question that could be asked was, “What are some things you appreciate about your school this year?”

Unfortunately, my (1) and (2) correspond to the two things we’re actually paying for (that we wouldn’t get from engagement through, say, the district’s Facebook page): (1) the “data” analysis (which is of little value if the data is not representative of the community as a whole), and (2) the manipulability and control that comes from being able to decide what questions to ask and how to ask them. We should not pay for either of those things.

It’s hard not to see ThoughtExchange as primarily a public relations campaign posing as a concern for community input. The board should consider whether that might put off as many people as it attracts. As commenter Amy Charles wrote, “No, do not tax me in order to build a case for more taxes. Spend the money on the frigging schools, and do it sensibly.”

Pay no attention to the “AP Honor Roll”

On a pretty regular basis we see reports like this—this one apparently prompted by a College Board press release. I wish we saw fewer of them.

If there were a metric that could accurately show that our educational policy choices were enabling more kids to succeed at challenging coursework, that would be worth celebrating. But the number of students taking AP courses, and the number of students getting a 3 or above on an AP exam, are absolutely awful, utterly useless proxies for anything worth measuring.

First, whether AP courses—courses geared entirely toward preparing for tests created by the College Board—are the most valuable type of advanced coursework is entirely debatable. That debate is less likely to happen if people take “honors” like these at face value.

Second, there are ways to raise AP participation and score numbers that are academically unsound—but become incentivized when people start valuing this kind of “honor.” For example, a district can simply open the doors to AP courses regardless of whether the students are ready for the course. The district can then encourage only the most successful students to take the AP test in that subject. Many students might be poorly served by that kind of course, but the College Board gets more business and the district gets an “honor”!

Our district has celebrated this kind of accolade in the past (examples here, here, and here). In our district, some students—more than just the rare outlier—are invited to take AP courses in the first semester of their freshman year in high school. Are those really “college-level” courses? If so, are they really right for high school freshmen? The answer might well be “no” to both questions.

The fact is: we don’t know what the “right” amount of AP participation is. The last thing we should do is start chasing isolated numerical indicators, which is just a recipe for unintended consequences. That’s all the more true when those indicators are in service of thinly disguised advertising for companies like the College Board.

Some thoughts on the superintendent’s visit to Hoover

Our superintendent visited Hoover School last week to talk with parents about the planned closure of the school. There wasn’t much new in terms of rationales for the closure, but he did make three interesting statements:

1. Hoover parents have repeatedly been told that the loss of Hoover won’t be so bad because there are other nearby schools that Hoover students will end up attending. Longfellow is frequently given as the example; it would be the closest alternative for a big chunk of Hoover’s attendance area. Some of Longfellow’s attendance area is an “island” out in the easternmost part of town, whose students would almost certainly be redistricted into the new East elementary school. The idea has always been that the departure of those students from Longfellow would create room for kids who are displaced from Hoover.

But the superintendent recently informed me that there are currently 79 Longfellow students who live in that “island” out by the new school. Longfellow’s enrollment, however, is currently 80 students over its capacity. So I asked the superintendent how there would be any room at Longfellow for Hoover students when the school closes. He said that it is unlikely that there would be many seats at Longfellow for Hoover kids.

That fact has big implications for current Hoover families, as well as for families at Lucas and Lemme (the two other likely destinations for Hoover kids). It means many Hoover kids would end up at schools much farther from their homes. The redistricting of Lucas and Lemme will also be that much more difficult if those two schools have to accommodate almost the entire population of Hoover.

2. One parent asked the superintendent what would be the worst consequences of leaving Hoover open, and how big a role City High’s needs play. The superintendent said that City High’s needs would not even be in his top three reasons for the closure. Instead, he emphasized the operational cost efficiencies that could be achieved by having one less elementary school to run.

I found that response to be significant for two reasons. First, it seemed to be an admission that the “City High needs the land” argument is not particularly persuasive, especially since the district is still unable (unwilling?) to tell the public what will actually appear on Hoover’s land.

Second, the operational cost efficiency argument is the argument that is most transferable to other schools, several of which (Lincoln, Hills, Horace Mann, Longfellow, and Shimek) are significantly smaller than Hoover. In my view, the argument that This One Additional School Is Breaking the Bank is simply inconsistent with saying But Schools That Are Smaller Than Hoover Have Nothing To Worry About. (It is also arguably inconsistent with the district’s simultaneous exploration of starting a magnet school, which would almost certainly be more costly than the average school to operate.)

3. One parent asked whether enrollment will still be over capacity when all the projects in the facilities plan are completed. One major goal of the facilities plan, after all, was to alleviate overcrowding. The superintendent said that under current projections we would be right at capacity, but that we’re a growing district and thus will probably have to start talking about building new schools as soon as the facilities plan is done. I don’t disagree with this statement, but it certainly drives home the point that destroying over 300 seats of elementary capacity has a serious price tag. What’s incredible is that over two years after the board voted to close the school, the district has still not put a number on the cost of replacing 300+ seats of elementary capacity and how much it will increase the district’s future bond request.

The Hoover closure is a big topic, and it’s impossible to discuss all aspects of it in one post. Right now, it’s clear that there are not four (out of seven) votes on the school board to reconsider the closure. The next logical moment to consider the issue will be when the board starts drawing the attendance zones that will apply to the east side when the new East elementary school opens. The board is planning to draw those zones this coming Spring (even though they will not go into effect until 2019). I anticipate that it will be harder than expected to draw workable attendance zones without using Hoover’s capacity, so that will be a good moment to stop and rethink whether the closure is worth the associated costs.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Topics on the December 8 board meeting agenda

Some of the topics we’ll be discussing at this Tuesday’s school board meeting:

We’ll hear a review of the district’s progress in addressing disproportionate referral of African-American students to special education services. Info here.

We’ll be revisiting the topic of the Smarter Balanced Assessments. After having failed to persuade the legislature to require these very expensive standardized tests, the State Board of Education decided it had the power to impose them without legislative approval, and did so via an administrative rule (over the formal objection of our board). Info here. What’s the next step?

We’ll discuss the possibility of exploring a year-round school alternative. There are no details about this topic included in the agenda.

We’ll hear the district’s annual financial audit report. Info here.

We’ll hear from the committee that examined the issue of discretionary busing. To be entitled to a school bus under state law, a student needs to live a certain distance from his or her school — over two miles for elementary and junior high, and over three miles for high school. We’re free, though, to provide buses for kids who live closer if we choose to. We can’t afford to do much of that “discretionary busing,” however. A committee has been considering what our standards should be for offering discretionary busing.

We’ll hear a proposal for how to handle athletics as part of the transition to opening Liberty High. When Liberty opens in 2017, students who are juniors and seniors at West will have the option of staying on at West. That will pose some challenges for fielding sports teams during Liberty’s initial couple of years. The administration will discuss its recommendation for how to handle those challenges. Info here.

And more! The full agenda is here; please chime in if anything attracts your attention.