kitchen table math, the sequel: fuzzy charters

Saturday, May 21, 2011

fuzzy charters

My email correspondent gave me permission to post this email response to "Building a Better Edsel":
This is an important issue, and I'm glad Pondiscio and Joanne Jacobs have put it out there. Many, even most, of the charter (and private) schools offer the same "all fuzzery, all the time" curricula and instruction as your neighbourhood Everyday Math Academy.  They can and do get better results (in some cases, but not in most) by creating an achievement-focused school climate, hiring young people with loads of energy (who rarely stay for long), having a certain selection bias -- not necessarily the accused "creaming" of high performers, but simply the ability to select students whose families support the "mission" of the school -- and the ability to remove students who are clearly dysfunctional or misplaced.

Nevertheless, schools like KIPP and HSA* (who are firmly committed to fuzzery) could and should do much, much better and probably would do so with a better-constructed curriculum. They need to start out with an intensive compensatory model (DI or DI-like) that gradually morphs into more student-led investigative and project-based work. Morningside does this (Catherine, you may not see that so much at the summer session, because the summer school is not organized like the full-time school) with empirical evidence of success. The students need to develop the critical foundation skills early and fluently and then there can be more balance between teacher-directed instruction and student investigation (still pretty teacher-directed).

All the hoopla about teacher accountability, incentive schemes etc. is missing the mark.  It's like saying we're going to hire the top doctors and forbid them to use antibiotics, effective surgical techniques or diagnostics and simply command them to "heal the sick." 

Right.

What I see is few to NO "bad teachers" in the last 15 years -- the demands of the job are such that those who can't, quit or are pushed out. Not publicly "fired" but counseled out.  There are incredibly talented and hard-working (and smart and well-educated) people in the ranks now, but weak curricula and demands for "all fuzzery all the time" seriously handicap them -- and the students.
In a follow-up, my email correspondent suggested I point out that not all charter schools are fuzzy:

The Charter Day School has a significant precision teaching component.

The Arthur Academy has strong Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge elements.

* Harlem Success Academy

18 comments:

palisadesk said...

I'm glad to see some mention of Arthur Academy (actually it should be Arthur Academies, as there are about 6 of them now). Chuck Arthur, when I first started reading his thoughtful and learned contributions to the DI listserve, was teaching first grade IIRC and running an after-school tutoring program for primary kids in a low-income Oregon school. He started with one charter school and has expanded gradually. I had a look at the website, and thought the parts I perused were models of clarity (I particularly appreciated the clearly-defined expectations for teachers and teaching assistants. Would that we had such defined guidelines everywhere). Nice balance of curriculum and academic focus with an appreciation for the importance of values, school climate, and so on.

I see the problem -- or one problem -- with the school choice movement being the absence of a clear focus on curriculum and instruction. The emphasis seems to be that if we just hire non-unionized teachers, demand a high level of performance, and make the school day longer, miracles will happen. Why not improve curriculum and pedagogy (with or without a longer school day) and see what THAT can do?


Not on anyone's radar apparently, with a few notable exceptions as posted above. Unfortunately I've heard sad stories from friends involved in charter schools that started out with Core Knowledge and systematic phonics which dropped all that for Fountas and Pinnell and discovery learning at the request of parents who didn't like all the "rigor." As one of the charter school studies -- from the Fordham people? -- pointed out, charters that didn't meet their goals, even ones that were spectacular flops, rarely closed. Accountability there is apparently no more consistent than in the system as a whole.


There are other charter schools, though I'm afraid they are a small number, with a clear and classical academic focus. The BASIS schools in Arizona come to mind, along with a few in Colorado -- Rocky Mountain Charter School and Littleton Prep. I was at a summer institute a few years ago which focused on effective instruction (featuring the estimable Anita Archer), where a lot of the other attendees were administrators and teachers from charter schools who had a strong instructional focus. I only wish I had written the names down. None were biggies that you have heard of ( I remember PA and New Orleans were represented), but if they were on track the symposium was promoting, they would certainly be an alternative to the usual fuzzery. So some do exist, but far too few.

I love the idea of micro schools!! If only I were 30 again.....

SteveH said...

"There are incredibly talented and hard-working (and smart and well-educated) people in the ranks now, but weak curricula and demands for "all fuzzery all the time" seriously handicap them -- and the students."

I don't go along with this blame the administration philosophy. The teachers at my son's K-8 schools (both private and public) might have been hard working (I didn't get that impression), but they surely were NOT pushing for better curricula. At most, I saw a change at 7th grade, where our state requires that teachers have certification in the subjects they teach. I saw more emphasis on content and skills. The administration was not stopping it. In K-6, however, I saw little philosophical conflict between the teachers and the administrations. In fact, I talked with a principal once who said that she was getting resistance from the lower grade teachers on expecting more from the capable kids in their differentiated instruction environment. They didn't want those kids to get too far ahead. If ed schools only teach "fuzzery", how do teachers magically lose that later on?

Bonnie said...

I don't think you understand how powerless teachers can be. And also don't forget that administrators come from those same ed programs.
My mother taught in a very expensive private school, one where the elites in our area sent their kids. The unspoken rule at this school was to not demand too much of the kids. My mother pushed for stronger curriculum at every turn, but was always overruled, and even in danger of her job because the administration considered her to be a trouble maker.

In the end, the demographics of the area shifted, and many well to do Asian execs and professionals arrived with their families. My mother's school courted these families aggressively, but they all chose to put their kids in the public schools because they felt the curriculum in the public system to be much stronger.

palisadesk said...

Nothing in my comment suggested a blame the administration philosophy. In my area, teachers have very little, I would say no, input into curriculum per se, although there is some consultation about how to "deliver" it. Both teachers and school-level administrators tend to take a more instructivist stance than the higher-ups, by whom I mean, central bureaucrats from the district and department of education levels who enforce curriculum mandates.

I've been on teacher lobbying groups on various curriculum issues (using effective and empirically-validated reading curricula for example),so I know that teachers can and do try to affect decisions about curriculum change. However, they have even less input than parents, and KTM is rife with stories from parents about how their opposition to Everyday Math has been circumvented.

SteveH's district has significant dissimilarities to mine. Notably, it is smaller, less diverse, more middle class, and serves smaller communities. Most students in my district are from low-income families, are "visible minorities," represent dozens of ethnically distinct communities, and attend hundreds of schools which include a wide spectrum of alternative or special program schools (IBI, STEM, arts). So one should be cautious in generalizing what one sees at the local level. My observations of what goes on around me may very well NOT apply to SteveH's district -- but just as likely, his observations don't necessarily apply to mine.

My district, obviously unlike SteveH's, has a centralized and tightly controlled model of curriculum delivery. Inspectors come around to the schools, visit every classroom (taking notes on clipboards, examining all the resources in the room, the student's notebooks, desks, portfolios, work on display, asking students questions about what they are learning and why). If they find unapproved materials, evidence of emphasis on low level skills not in the curriculum (math facts practice, grammar, spelling), the school administration and staff will be reprimanded and an "improvement plan" put in place. The days when a teacher could close the door and teach the skills required are passé. Centralization and power consolidation have radically changed things.

When school administrators, i.e. principals and assistant principals, are supportive of more emphasis on basic skills, teachers can address this to some degree, but there is no way to circumvent the required curricula, and teaching to mastery is complicated by the full inclusion model, an absence of homogeneous grouping (specifically forbidden), no tracking until high school, so no expectation of algebra for all in 8th grade.

We have an administrative level well beyond SteveH's district because of our size. Many bureaucrats (I would distinguish them from school-level administrators) have no regular contact with students, parents or citizens; they enforce policy decisions made by other bureaucrats similarly disconnected from the end users. However, the fuzzery described by Pondiscio is endemic. It thrives in the education schools, but it is not confined to them. It dominates private and charter schools as well.

Because competition for teaching jobs in my area is intense, it has a cohort of very capable younger people. I think they would be even more effective with good curricula; most programs and textbooks are strongly discouraged in my district. Teachers are supposed to create their own. The success of fuzzery oriented charters like KIPP is a testament to their talent and commitment, but compare them to Arthur Academies & others and you see that adding effective curricula and teaching pedagogy to the mix significantly enhances outcomes.

THAT is my main point. It's not about us vs. them, it is about requiring and implementing effective curricula. That’s critical, and not sufficiently acknowledged in most reform circles, although KTM regulars certainly appreciate it.

SteveH said...

You were the one making this comment?

"There are incredibly talented and hard-working (and smart and well-educated) people in the ranks now, but weak curricula and demands for "all fuzzery all the time" seriously handicap them -- and the students."

and this:


"What I see is few to NO "bad teachers" in the last 15 years -- the demands of the job are such that those who can't, quit or are pushed out. Not publicly "fired" but counseled out."

That's what I was responding to.

But when do teachers speak as one voice about curriculum? Is there an army of teachers out there just waiting and prepared to use Singapore Math? Are you defining a path to correcting the curriculum problem?

Some teachers might want to improve things, but what's the point, that we somehow allow teachers to take control? I really shouldn't care about the internal workings of schools. The "us vs. them" I see is the parents vs. the schools.

I know that administrations and districts and states enforce fuzzy curricula. I still don't see how ed school graduates suddenly become an army of advocates for effective curricula.

"... it is about requiring and implementing effective curricula."

... and the solution will come from teachers?

Allison said...

"... it is about requiring and implementing effective curricula."

... and the solution will come from teachers?

Well, you're right, it can't yet, because bluntly, how would teachers as a group know about implementing effective curricula? Where would they even see it?

This is one of the reasons charters seldom have a curriculum focus: there's little way to get a critical mass of people with curriculum knowledge in the same place at the same time when they start. Even when they want to have it, who would they turn to? What sources would be valid to them? Who's expert enough to evaluate?

In many states, charters must still use certified teachers--so they've been stewed in the same ed school as everyone else. Where would they see effective curriculum?

I do think that current and future teachers will have to be the main stakeholders for successful implementation of effective curricula--because there are so many of them, and you're not going to change what they do in the classroom to be better without their support. I've now seen half a dozen private schools which all tried to improve curriculum by bringing in outsiders as curriculum heads or consultants. Their average stay was 2 years before moving on, and everything done previously always fell on the floor. Outsiders can't change the culture.

But in math, common core is the only way to even push states, districts, admins to see what their teachers and students are lacking--and we're still far from that. No one else in the system knows enough to know what needs to be taught. But pushing common core top down won't work; it needs to be defined top down and evangelized bottom up. How do people who aren't teachers start moving teachers to change their culture?

palisadesk said...

This is a critical issue. So for those interested, I’ll weigh in again, in 2 parts.

Pushing common core top down won't work; it needs to be defined top down and evangelized bottom up. How do people who aren't teachers start moving teachers to change their culture? pushing common core top down won't work; it needs to be defined top down and evangelized bottom up. How do people who aren't teachers start moving teachers to change their culture?

Yes and no. The curriculum (standards and more specific delineations of what is to be taught and what student achievement should look like) must be defined from the top and implemented from the top down. This requires a real commitment to training and involvement of staff at all levels. Not your old "workshops" (which longitudinal studies have shown yield only about a 2% change in instructional practice), but on-site training, collaboration, coaching (Sorry, Catherine -- I know you hate this idea but it has been shown to work. DI schools swear by it), incremental and specific instructional foci, and lots of descriptive feedback to teachers and others who work directly with the students. You can change the culture. I've seen it happen.

Unfortunately, it isn't precisely the cultural change I would personally choose, which would include a more mastery-based curriculum focus on reading and math skills in the elementary grades. But it is a massive cultural change all the same, and it was definitely initiated from the top down. It started slowly, about 15 years ago, and has gradually gained momentum. When you are inside a system changing, you are not in a good position to observe the phases of change -- it's like sunrise; by the time it's fully daylight, and you notice it, it has been going on for a while.

Classroom practices in my district have changed dramatically and consistently as a response to these top-down initiatives, and the classroom culture has also changed dramatically to one where teachers on the whole accept responsibility for teaching every student. This was not always the case -- one used to hear, "that kid should be in Sped," or "I'm a science teacher, I shouldn't have to teach reading," or "if they don't want to learn, I can't make them" and other attributions of responsibility to external factors. I am sure there are still people who feel this way, but it is no longer OK to voice such sentiments, even privately. It would be akin to using the N-word.

The "Lone Ranger" culture is gone, too. There is the expectation that teachers work in teams --grade teams, subject teams, division teams -- to plan, teach and assess student work and problem-solve. There are real benefits to this, as weaker staff learn from those with stronger skills, who can share expertise and mentor others."Lone Rangers" -- teachers (often outstanding ones, but not necessarily) who shut their door and did their own thing, for better or worse, were very common, maybe a majority, even 20 years ago. The classroom was their domain, which they set up, organized and ran, within parameters, pretty much as they saw best. They had latitude in teaching methods and materials, although limited by available resources.

The requirement for PLC's, which in my area have been entirely top-down in format, focus and function, the regular reporting to the instructional leaders required -- grade teams had to design, teach and evaluate particular units according to specifications, for instance, and the leader would come in and monitor progress and report to school administration and higher-level bureaucrats -- all made the rugged individualist approach impossible. If you hated the current focus, you could transfer, quit, go into the private sector, or whatever, but you could not opt out. You have to work with your team, you have to be part of the curriculum implementation going on, and you are answerable for outcomes.

palisadesk said...

(Part 2)
I first noticed that the culture was changing back in the late '90s when administrators I knew came back from meetings spouting about the research that teacher-directed instruction is more effective than center-based, "activity" learning. My area had been very discovery-oriented prior to this. It seems like the cultural indoctrination, if you can call it that, started at upper levels, moved to school administration (principals, assistant principals, consultants) and finally to the classroom teachers through school-based PD, coaching, PLC's, regular evaluations and descriptive feedback.

The changes were gradual, but I had to change schools several times to really see how they have snowballed. This year I'm traveling to different schools and although they are quite unlike each other in some ways (although all are high-diversity and low-income), the changes to teaching practice, assessment, classroom culture and expectations are consistent everywhere. Everywhere, when I pass (or enter) a classroom ,the teacher is actively teaching the class -- not a lecture, necessarily, but an interactive teaching model with questions, discussion, presentation, responses. Usually the teacher is teaching the whole class, but sometimes he or she is teaching a group while others are working on explicit assigned tasks. The only discovery learning I see now is in Kindergarten, and not much of that.

Interesting, to me, is the fact that the top-down changes have been informed by a lot of valid research into learning science. I recognize many principles, strategies and practices from what I learned at Morningside and the published research into effective teaching. So far, however, the “change agents” have not glommed onto the need to teach math and written language in a mastery-based manner. One can hope. What I see is that many good and effective practices HAVE been successfully integrated across a diversity of schools through a top-down model that was extremely prescriptive but also supportive and provided much assistance through peer coaching and interaction. Certainly the quality of student work I'm seeing is much higher than before. It's probably similar to the KIPP or HSA effect -- the curriculum may be seriously flawed, but with teachers actively teaching, setting high goals and pushing student to meet them, overall results will be better. I do not think, however, that it is good enough. Knocking yourself out to teach a weak curriculum strikes me as a misuse of time and energy – students’ time and staff energy both.

Coming back to Allison's ruminations. The culture can be changed -- I've seen it change -- and could change some more. However, you have to have the staff to make it happen. My point in observing that we have a highly educated,capable and kid-focused younger cohort of teachers is that they could (and would, if necessary) adopt and implement a curriculum like Singapore Math. It's poles apart from what we are doing now, but if anyone had told me ten years ago I would see the changes I see now, I wouldn't have believed them. If they can take fuzzy curricula and work like maniacs to make it effective, I know they could also do it with well-designed curricula. The top-down implementation has to be thorough, coupled with instructional support and resources, and regularly monitored. When teachers see results, they do the needed evangelizing Allison alludes to.

If only the powers that be would prescribe validated math and reading curricula with such fervor. Focusing on curriculum is ESSENTIAL. I too am grateful to Robert Pondiscio for repeatedly bringing it up. He has done it before:

Interview
good one
more

Catherine Johnson said...

The days when a teacher could close the door and teach the skills required are passé. Centralization and power consolidation have radically changed things.

That's my district in K-5, I believe.

Possibly the middle school, too.

The high school goes its own way, pretty much.

Catherine Johnson said...

coaching (Sorry, Catherine -- I know you hate this idea but it has been shown to work. DI schools swear by it)

I don't hate the idea when you're talking about DI coaches; I hate the idea in my own district, where it meant another tier of super-expensive, tenured quasi-administrators pushing reading workshop & writing workshop with no measurement of student achievement.

I may be wrong, but at this point I'm a proponent of the Adlai Stevenson model, which is far less expensive and does not create a new tier of permanent coaches.

That's another thing: why does a school with zero turn-over require a permanent staff of coaches?

In my district, the model seemed to be that we would have the same teachers for 30 years and the same "teaching learning facilitators" for 30 years -- how does that work?

Why are the same teachers going to need coaching by the same other teachers for 30 years?

Does that make sense?

(I'm asking --- it seems wrong to me; it seems that at some point teachers should be working on a professional model...?)

And, again, this permanent coaching model was put in place with no meaningful measurements of student achievement to assess the costs and benefits. Kids passed the state tests before we hired teaching-learning facilitators; then they kept on passing the state tests after we had teaching-learning facilitators.

I don't want to pay for that.

In any event, we are not currently funding this model. After the crash, one of the teaching-learning facilitator positions was cut; next year the second teaching-learning facilitator will return to classroom teaching.

Next we need to have the "technology coordinator" return to classroom teaching.

He's a very good math teacher, and he's spent the last couple of years teaching teachers how to use their Smartboards one-on-one.

Of course, we have no measures in place to see whether or how the Smartboards are affecting achievement, either.

My district is Inputs Heaven. We buy stuff because other districts are buying the same stuff; then we declare the stuff we bought to be good because we bought it and we are a high-performing district.

Everything the district does is good because the district is good so everything we do is good.

palisadesk said...

Your coaching model sounds nuts to me. No wonder you have voiced scepticism in extremis School based "coaches" to "coach" the same teachers year after year?

That's not the DI model, or the model my district is using either. Our coaches -- they keep changing the names, I think currently they are called "math achievement officers," and similar titles -- are not assigned to one school, but to a group of schools, and they are classroom teachers with demonstrated curriculum and teaching expertise who are put in the coaching position usually for a two-year period (sometimes extended another year by mutual consent). Then they go back to classroom teaching. The "coaching" position is not an administrative one and does not pay more than the teacher would get in the classroom, although I believe they do get some kind of mileage allowance for traveling around.

The good part of this model is, when the "coach" (by whatever title) is a very capable teacher with a lot of skills, s/he can share this expertise with others in a non-threatening way (since s/he is not an administrator). Our literacy coach last year was really outstanding -- very experienced, a good problem solver, and never pretended to know what she didn't know. Her response, when she didn't have direct knowledge of how to deal with an instructional problem, was something on the lines of, I don't know, but I know who to ask and I will get back to you -- and she did. Sharing video clips of classroom practices from other schools was a great help (along with work samples and other resources).

Having these coaches has brought consistency in some good practices, like team planning, moderated grading, common formative assessments, "backward mapping" in lesson planning, and a current focus is on learning to provide regular and descriptive feedback (not just grades) to students and to provide students with exemplars -- samples of work at various "levels" -- and "success criteria" so that they know exactly what is required and what it looks like.

Unlike your district, we didn't have all students passing the state tests, and they are a blunt instrument to measure student achievement anyway. We do use the DRA (for reading) and different math assessments, none norm-referenced. I see a higher quality of student work in some areas, but the "basics" still leave much to be desired -- no surprise, since they are not a focus of instruction.

And that's the down side of the coaching model. The coach is not an administrator, but is required to report to administration, and will sooner or later "out" anyone still wedded to "drill and kill" or "low level skills." I can't get away with DI writing programs any more, although I can still sneak in some DI reading (when no one is looking).

I don't know much about the Adlai Stevenson model. Do you have a link?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I thin the reference was to the school described here:
http://www.allthingsplc.info/evidence/adlaistevensonhighschool/index.php

Catherine Johnson said...

Your coaching model sounds nuts to me. No wonder you have voiced scepticism in extremis School based "coaches" to "coach" the same teachers year after year?

That's not the DI model, or the model my district is using either. Our coaches -- they keep changing the names, I think currently they are called "math achievement officers," and similar titles -- are not assigned to one school, but to a group of schools, and they are classroom teachers with demonstrated curriculum and teaching expertise who are put in the coaching position usually for a two-year period (sometimes extended another year by mutual consent). Then they go back to classroom teaching.


That sounds excellent!

I would have ZERO objection to a coaching approach that actually worked --- and that you could demonstrate to parents & taxpayers that it worked.

What our superintendent clearly wished to do was to create a third tier of quasi-administrators, who were "above" the classroom teachers but who had no administrative authority & whose salaries were the same.

Our superintendent favors a supremely hierarchical approach.

Did I tell you all that we now have a "professional learning community" room -- it's labeled "Professional learning community" -- but no professional learning communities?

The room is set up with a tiny little table in the middle (maybe seating 4) & lots of long tables lining the wall with computers on them.

The coaching model here was absolutely that the same teachers would coach the same teachers forever.

We have no turnover.

Catherine Johnson said...

I love the Adlai Stevenson model -- I'll send you the articles I have.

I think the best place to look for starters is gasstation's link

I'll send you the Japanese lesson study article, too.

I see "professional learning communities" as an American version of Japanese lesson study.

(Although teachers in PLCs -- at least the teacher at Adlai Stevenson in the 80s -- didn't spend a lot of time developing lessons together, which I believe Japanese teachers may do. Richard DuFour's original PLCs were about structuring the curriculum - deciding what would be taught & when; writing common assessments; and going over the test results after kids had taken the tests.

Then they adjusted instruction accordingly.

I think teachers helped each other out naturally when they found differences in their students' scores, but the teachers were quite independent in terms of deciding how to teach a concept or skill.

The PLCs really are a 'professional' model; in a PLC the teacher functions like a professional who is to a significant degree her own 'boss' --- not quite, but pretty close.

Catherine Johnson said...

hmmm...I just looked -- apparently I never put up a real post about Japanese lesson study.

Here's the short post I wrote: Anonymous on Professional Learning Communities in Utah

It's got a link to Stigler's article on Japanese lesson study.

Catherine Johnson said...

My mother's school courted these families aggressively, but they all chose to put their kids in the public schools because they felt the curriculum in the public system to be much stronger.

What a story!

Why did the private school have a 'don't push too hard' ethos?

What was the parent population like (who was choosing the school -- )?

Catherine Johnson said...

The requirement for PLC's, which in my area have been entirely top-down in format, focus and function, the regular reporting to the instructional leaders required

right -- this is, as I understand it, VERY different from what Richard DuFour invented at Adlai Stevenson.

I'm just discovering that you can have PLCs in a top-down administrative structure.

I'd love to know what DuFour thinks about all this -----

Catherine Johnson said...

Knocking yourself out to teach a weak curriculum strikes me as a misuse of time and energy – students’ time and staff energy both.

You can say that again.