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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Policy Debate Charter School in Chicago?

Today, I went to the park with Charlie. He spent the morning chasing ducks and is now off in dreamland. As for me, I just got of the phone with Chicago Public Radio. They are working on a piece about debate for the Chicago Matters Series. The conversation got me thinking about how urban debate was my most rewarding experience in urban education.

Ever heard about policy debate in Chicago? No? Then you are not alone. As an means to improve academic achievement, policy debate is underutilized in Chicago, and that is a travesty.

In terms of academic rigor, policy debate outpaces even the most demanding academic programs, and unlike International Baccalaureate programs and magnet schools, debate is open to students across the economic, geographic, and academic spectrum. Yet, debate isn’t really talked about at 125 South Clark (the Chicago Board of Education) as a means to improve academic achievement across the system. I have seen the power of policy debate to transform students into advocates and scholars. Check out the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues for more information about the power of debate.

Perhaps the folks down at 125 just don’t get it. They don’t see the spark in the eyes of students as they encounter the complex rhetoric, research, and philosophies that make up policy debate. They don’t see kids at schools with single digit academic achievement reading and coming to terms with philosophers like Foucault. Note: these are the kids who are increasing academic achievement at these schools because, for them the PSAE is important as a means to open college doors. No, the folks at 125 don’t see kids actively debating for 12 hours in a weekend. I’m talking 12 hours on point, at full focus. God, teachers would kill to see this kind of attention in their classes.

How’s this for an idea—a policy debate charter school? Think about it. The centerpiece of the school would be each year’s debate resolution. That means that the curriculum would actually change annually! No more teaching the same content over and over again. Of course kids would take all the core subjects, but the academic focus would be in preparing for policy debate tournaments. This type of charter school would garner national attention and it would be an easy sell in terms of partnering with any of a number of university debate programs in the immediate area.

A policy debate charter school would be a cutting edge place where students would learn the language of power and politics. Since debate teaches advocacy, what a better way to revitalize struggling neighborhoods than to teach children the tools that make the policy wheels in our nation work? A policy debate charter school would not only produce top notch policy debaters, but more importantly top notch college bound citizens. A policy debate charter school would be a radical departure from the status quo, even among charter schools. So, let’s give it a try. Why not? If you chase ducks in the park, you just may catch one.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

How Standards and Test Prep Shrink the Curriculum

The kids are feeling better and have played hard today, now they are sleeping. I've just come across a piece I originally wrote for an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) monograph. It is fairly interesting, and, I think, fairly readable. Anyway, it provides a real look at the profound, and, for the most part, undocumented shrinking of the curriculum as a result of standards and accountability.

As a ten-year veteran of the Chicago Public Schools, I have observed the rise of the standards movement. My tenure in the Chicago Public Schools has been spent at one of the largest schools in the city. I have spent this time in the classroom as an English teacher and as an instructional coordinator responsible for professional development in reading, standards based instruction, and test preparation. It is my contention that the standards movement has destroyed rich multicultural curriculum possibilities. While writing this piece, I came across the following definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Standard: b. (Originally, standard of commerce.) A commodity, the value of which is treated as invariable, in order that it may serve as a measure of value for all other commodities. (1989)

From this definition it is clear that standards formalize knowledge, and therein endorse specific types of knowledge. This endorsement of specific forms of knowledge is problematic in its creation of an exclusionary hierarchy of knowledge that engenders numerous questions akin to whose standards, whose knowledge? However, it is important to note, that standards by definition curtail inquiry. After all, how can one argue with something that is “invariable”? All of this is troubling, but what is more insidious is how the standards are measured and the effect this has on the school curriculum and day-to-day instruction. What emerges is a triangle of standards, accountability, and test preparation that overpower school-based curriculum and instruction.

Standards are measured through standardized tests. In Illinois, for example, six- sevenths of the accountability mechanism is measured by tests designed by the ACT. These tests are retrofitted to meet the Illinois Learning Standards. Given the high stakes involved in these tests, it is no shock that schools have analyzed test items to clarify how the standards are measured. The logic is straightforward—if a teacher knows how a standard is assessed then they will figure out how to teach to that standard. However, when one examines how the standards are assessed it becomes evident that not all standards are assessed. Now, if standards are a subset of knowledge, and the assessed standards are a subset of that subset, then we have a rarified set of standards that are the only ones that count in the accountability game. If teachers teach to the test, and they do, then the curriculum shrinks, and with it the possibility of rich multicultural education.

In 2004, due to budget constraints, Illinois removed the social science test from its accountability mechanism, and with it many schools walked away from the social science curriculum in favor of test preparation. After all, here was a set of standards that were not being assessed at all by the state. Due, in part to the pressures of accountability, my school purchased a test preparation package from a major corporation. In implementing these materials my school decided to re-design English classes for the ACT English test, mathematics classes for the ACT Mathematics test, science classes for the ACT Science test, and social science classes for the ACT Reading test. The school then decided to use 2 days a week per class to implement the program. In essence, 40 percent of the curriculum has been displaced by test prep. In this system, teachers become delivery conduits for a one-size-fits-all test preparation curriculum. Worse yet, social science teachers forfeit their curriculum in favor of packaged reading skills review and test preparation. Given these circumstances, it is shocking that any young teachers stay in the field. The contracted company promised a “targeted approach” to test preparation that focuses on questions that when mastered will produce an average test score. Essentially, through targeted test preparation we have yet another subset of the standards. Clearly, the real “target” is the ever-vanishing curriculum, and with it any hope of expanding students’ understandings of the diverse world they inhabit.

The standards-accountability-test preparation triangle has vivisected curriculum and instruction. This technocratic Bermuda Triangle over limits students’ exposure to meaningful, diverse curriculums and, in essence, kills any and all forms of meaningful student inquiry, be it multicultural or otherwise. In keeping with the spirit of the Nation at risk document that gave rise to the standards movement, I posit that if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose this triangle on America, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000-(ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Potential for Disruptive Change in CPS

Charlie is taking another nap. We went to Stuff and Gym at the YMCA. I had a discussion with a mom who was marveling at the amount of stay at home parents with advanced degrees. Anyway, Charlie and I returned home had some lunch and, yes another nap. This gave me time to read a great article and take a wonderful quiz on disruptive innovation.

The article “Change or Die” by Micahel J. Petrilli is on the NRO website. Petrilli, vice president of national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation, examines the promise of vouchers and charter schools as a reform mechanism for large urban bureaucracies. He finds that they are for the most part ineffective in this reform effort. He asks “What if some bureaucracies are so brain-dead, so dysfunctional, so entwined in special interests that they simply cannot respond to competition?”

Instead of reform Petrilli appears to endorse the radical overthrow of the current educational bureaucracies that rule urban areas. He acknowledges that this will take time, but that if students learn better in charter schools or under voucher systems then it is only time before the bureaucracies go belly up. Finally someone, albeit a conservative, who gets it.

One thing that bureaucracies excel at is preservation of the status quo. What happens if the bureaucracy attempts to co-opt the movement? Recently I attended a Teach for America alumni meeting at Harris Bank in Chicago. Although not a TFA alumnus, I went with a friend who put me on the guest list. CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan spoke at this networking event. Ringing the room were a series of tables where charter schools had set up shop to recruit alumni. Duncan praised the efforts of Teach for America and endorsed their participation in Renaissance 2010—the education initiative to open up 100 new small schools throughout Chicago. Coincidently, the CPS Renaissance 2010 Office is run by TFA alumni. Duncan called TFA essential to the future of CPS. He spoke briefly about the need for Renaissance 2010. He was speaking to the choir. I found it interesting that the head of the third largest district in the country recognizes that the system as it exists is broken and bloated.

It is a matter of time before the small schools replace the behemoths down the block. Vishnu is both destroyer and creator. Vishnuic reform would imply the dismantling of the bureaucracy before a new system could replace it. This is the problem with urban school districts---they want both the spirit of the charter school movement and the job security/inertia/shuffle the chairs on the Titanic mentality of preserving the status quo.

If 1,000 teachers lose their jobs in CPS they should go out and form charter schools! Simply, they owe nothing to a system that has in some cases nailed them twice—don’t forget the 1,000 teachers who were cut last year. And of course the real irony is that the lousy teacher down the hall with 20 years experience kept his job while the go-getter third year, finally hitting my stride, teacher lost hers. But for those teachers to reinvest in a system that is broken, bloated, and impersonal is insane. Go, form a charter. Of course, the poorer teachers will balk at this because they view CPS as an employment agency. The better teachers will welcome the challenge and be able to see the fruits of their labors at work in small charter schools.

Just for fun I took a Disruptive Innovation Quiz to see if CPS was ripe for disruptive innovation. It is. According to Professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard, disruptive innovations either “create new markets or reshape existing markets by delivering relatively simple, convenient, low cost innovations to a set of customers who are ignored by industry leaders.” Sounds good to me; Vishnu, your day is coming.

IRONY Rules!


After reading Foucault's Fearless Speech, Charlie deserves a nap.

Mayor Daley is out praising charter schools and lauding the efforts of the private sector to finance them at the same time CPS is $325 million short. Aldermen in Chicago are talking about how excited families are when their kids get into the charter schools. Wait, as opposed to going to the crumbling monolith down the block? Is this an admission that Chicago Public Schools aren’t doing as well as has been touted? What about those schools? Are we moving toward the Vishnu Reform Plan? High school scores in math and science are down. Reading scores are up. What gives? What about turnaround specialists? We need Big Audacious Goals for the system. Like trimming the fat.

Anyway, turns out that the private funding for Ren 2010, about $40 million, isn’t all that much when compared to the $325 million gap in the CPS budget. Does anyone really think there are grounds for comparison here?

Did you know?

Acording to Pauline Lipman, CPS has the largest operating budget of any public works in Illinois. All of those contracts…

In response to CPS budge woes, union boss Stewart says that ‘teachers are sacred,” is she kidding? Over 1,000 teachers were cut last year. What did the union do then? Not a whole lot except sponsor resume writing sessions. Remember it was the union that bailed out CPS back in the day to the tune of $110 million dollars from the teacher pension fund in 1993.

This just in:

According to the Sun Times CPS is poised to go ahead with the Chicago Virtual Academy:

"Students will have 300 minutes a day of instruction. It's not an issue anymore. We have determined that there is a way to verify attendance," said CPS spokesman Maylon Edwards.
The Chicago Virtual Academy would serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. They would receive a computer on loan, free Internet access and about 70 pounds of books and supplies to take online courses.
According to the proposal, students will range "from the academically challenged to the academically gifted, including difficult to reach populations such as expelled and homebound students. . . Parents or other responsible adults will guide students through their daily coursework in their own home or other small group setting."

Did you know?

Chicago Virtual Academy will be run by K12 Inc which was founded by William Bennett in 1999. This is the same Bennett who decried CPS as the worst school system in the country back in the 1980’s. How’s that for irony? (Bennett resigned from K12 Inc. following remarks he made about abortion, African Americans and crime rate on his radio show.)

That aside, having elementary kids stay at home with the expectation that they complete 300 minutes of instruction per day is a compelling, almost utopian idea. Exactly what parents are we talking about? Is this targeted to the traditional home school set or are we talking about virtual school for other groups as well? How do we prove that the parents or “responsible adults” are “highly qualified”? How about discipline issues? Substitute teachers? Surprise, the union is… against…the proposal.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quick and Dirty Guide to Raising PSAE Scores

Charlie is napping so I have had some time to think about the things I used to do to raise test scores. Test scores are not about play, so let's put down the crayons and get down to business. In my former incarnation I worked on improving student test scores on the PSAE. Over the years those scores increased, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. If your school needs an edge—a few points here or there—then this will serve as a good quick and dirty guide. Remember that this is about raising test scores and only that. It does not reflect my belief in education. It is simply a means to an end. As for test prep, I have very specific ideas on that but they are outside the scope of this piece.

1) Do not invest in a test prep program with the idea that it will “fix” the problem. In Illinois, the ACT is administered to juniors statewide. It is a demanding, text heavy test. Students need to be able to read demanding passages and decode difficult questions in order to be successful. Test prep programs assume that the students can read these passages with a degree of fluency that is simply not the case in many schools. Don’t assume that a test prep program will do this. Most programs will tout that they can raise the bottom quartile, but the real movement under state accountability is from the second to third quartile—or roughly the difference between a 16 and an 18 on the ACT. Remember at the end of the day, test prep companies do not face NCLB sanctions, the school does.

2) Take an initial practice tests early and a second practice test after explicitly teaching students how to take the test, and hold them to the strategies that you are pushing. Go on a special schedule that mirrors testing conditions for both exams. You can purchase practice ACT exams from…the ACT. Score them and report the scores to students and faculty. Invest some time in item analysis, but not too much. Some companies provide these services. If I were to take anything from a test prep company it would be their score reports; as for their intervention strategies, no way.

3) Have kids paraphrase question stems that appear in practice tests and classroom assignments. It is amazing how many kids are unfamiliar with what the questions are asking. Like one teacher pointed out, "If they don't know what the question is asking, how can they possibly know the answer?"

4) There are numerous ways to administer the PSAE. It may be a shock, but why not use data driven decision making here? Why not group students according to score ranges on the practice test? For example, you could group students according to a cut score of 16. Goup studnets who score below 16 together and students who score 16 and above together. Adjust these cut scores according to your situation. Don’t tell students that you are doing this. The easiest way to get around this is to group the under 16’s by division for testing. Those that score 16 and above are pulled out. The benefit and justification is that all students area being provided a smaller testing environment in which to do their best. Note, students who score higher on the ACT tend to try harder on the test and take the whole thing a lot more serious then those who do not.

5) Many schools provide students with show up prizes on testing days--BIG MISTAKE. Instead of having “show up” prizes have all incentives tied to a measurable attitude and behavior rubric. I had proctors score each student that was testing according to such a rubric and attached a cut score to be eligible for prizes. Of course, this rubric was shared with all students and faculty prior to testing. Yes, there was a strong correlation between high rubric scores and high test scores on the PSAE. The beauty of it is that any student who took the test seriously was rewarded for their efforts. High scoring students on the ACT were also rewarded with still more special incentives.

6) If your school is struggling with the PSAE then a schoolwide focus on vocabulary pulled from the academic word list, and nonfiction EPAS aligned reading assessments both weekly and quarterly may be necessary. These programs should be continuous from 9th grade through 12th grade. I found that the longer students worked these programs the better their test scores. Nonfiction readings should be selected by the content area teachers and they should both relate to what is being studied in the class and be of an appropriate length and complexity. I suggest looking to the Explore, PLAN, and ACT to guide the length and complexity of readings for 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students accordingly. These programs require buy in and monitoring, but in the long run they can improve student achievement.

7) Always keep the students and teachers in the loop regarding the testing plan. Small group forums work best for this. In my experience when more than 60 kids were present for a presentation it was a waste of time. The same goes for teachers—the smaller the group the more profound the impact.

8) Always stay on point—if your goal is to increase test scores then don’t let anything detract from that—this includes initiating or implementing school policies that distract the faculty or students from the goal. A good rule of thumb is to keep everything stable except for the test push.


In the meantime, take a look at my test prep posts. They are free, and they have worked with city kids. If you have any questions drop me a comment. All comments are posted to my email first. I will never post any email addresses in the comment section. So if you want to contact me, drop me your email and I’ll get back with you. It is my hope that my expertise in this field will help someone out there. Let me know.

Posts Concerning Test Prep

Quick and Dirty Guide to Raising PSAE Scores
PSAE Test Prep Strategies that Work
ACT Reading Prep and the Two-Point Conversion
Maximizing Brain Power on the ACT Reading Test
Realizing Focused Active Reading During the ACT

Monday, January 23, 2006

High Stakes Budget Cuts in CPS

Charlie just went down for his nap and I just read an article that will make CPS teachers freak out. According to the article in Crain's Chicago Business, CPS can't remotely balance the budget and will have to cut about 1,000 jobs along with pension woes for teachers. Last year over 1,000 teachers were let go because of budgetary constraints, so what is new? The pension and increased class size, that’s what and the union is irate. All of this makes for an interesting fight in the media, but as a friend of mine points out, taxes in Chicago have increased, property values have increased, development is up and enrollment is down, so where is the new revenue going? Good question, but there is a deeper question, who wins when education, globalization and neoliberalism come together? Better yet, how does this effect teachers and students?

CPS teachers should turn to Pauline Lipman’s book, High Stakes Education for a unique, informed perspective on their schools. Lipman, a professor at DePaul University, validates even most paranoid teacher’s fears. She details the efforts of the Chicago Commercial Club, the Mayor’s office, and CPS Officials to gentrify the city and attract corporate finance at the expense of the poor.

The heavy hands of globalization, neoliberalism, and simple framing are all here. I was transfixed. Is it all so bizarre though? Not too long ago the CPS website contained the phrase “people of means will choose our schools”. If that is not in your face neoliberalism, what is?

I had a professor who when asked about NCLB would reply, “the con is on.” Well, CPS reform efforts were praised by Clinton and used by Bush to inform his NCLB agenda. Reading Lipman it is clear that the con rolls on. Of course kids and teachers suffer because the focus is test scores and not education. Anxiety fuels fear and fear fuels the appropriation of discretionary funds to test prep programs that are all hat and no cattle.

The underlying belief is that the public and policy makers do not trust teachers to do the right thing in the classroom. From this viewpoint teachers, particularly those at “less academically rigorous” schools too often pad their lessons with fluff activities when given autonomy. The blame here is off. It needs to fall on the heads of the administrators of those buildings who do not create academically rich cultures and supervise those environments.

This book provides a critical lens for understanding what is happening to teachers, administrators, and children in Chicago. Although written for academics, this book is prime reading material for a broader audience. Like all critiques, I’m left with wondering what the alternative to the status quo is. Once, in graduate school I suggested the Vishnu policy of education—one in which the current system is torn down and a new one is built in its place. Perhaps it is time…

Other books that teachers and administrators should look into reading are Foucault’s Fearless Speech, Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and Hernstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve. I’ll write about these books in the weeks to come.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Stossel gets Stupid with America

Last Friday after watching the Princess Bride with my daughter my wife and I caught the 2020 Report “Stupid in America” by John Stossel. In a time that calls for a measured sober discussion of the future of education in America, Stossel and company opt for a sensational critique of American public schools. Oh, and they get the thesis wrong—it is not American schools that are the problem; it is that most American schools are too large to meet the educational needs of their students. Oh, and they miss the boat on special education funding. Oh, and…

As with most mainstream media reporting these days, Stossel sounds very corporate. His ideas are those of the business community. For example, Stossel adopts the competition is good mantra for schooling. Of course this assumes that we have equity of access for the lowest performing/poorest students. Otherwise a free market approach to education will further widen the achievement gap. However, we get no discussion about access. We are led to believe that all kids do or will apply to charter schools. Not true, charter school applicants reflect a subset of the population in a given attendance area because these students “opt into” the lottery system. More apathetic parents (bad parents) do not take advantage of these school choice options and dump their kids in the general public schools.

Nevertheless I found the discussion on spending interesting, but not without its flaws. Reducing spending to per-pupil comparison is contrived. I get this per-pupil rhetoric all the time from the Catholic school my daughter attends—“We do a better job with less per-pupil expenditure”. Okay, great, but Catholic schools don’t have to take special need children. Special needs children can cost in excess of $50,000 a year to educate. Of course, these “special” expenditures are folded in to the per-pupil statistics—skewing them. Not a word was spent on this in the Stossel report.

Next, the data on charter schools is somewhat muddy; therefore, any absolute claim is just silly. Let’s be clear, I’m a supporter of charter schools in America, but the data is not definitive, yet. Come on!

Finally, what gives with the Sylvan Learning product placement and endorsement in the middle of the program? I’m referring to the part where “20/20″ sent Dorian to Sylvan, to see if teachers there could teach Dorian to read when the South Carolina public schools failed to. At Sylvan Dorian used computers and workbooks, and he reading went up two grade levels — after just 72 hours of instruction. Please note that 72 hours is the equivalent of 14 weeks of an hour a day class. And please note, that Dorian and those that attend Sylvan Learning Center want to be there. If Sylvan were available to all it would be no surprise that a subset of the population would shrug its shoulders and continue in mediocrity.

Of course his mother, Gena Cain, is thrilled with Dorian’s progress but disappointed with his public schools. “With Sylvan, it’s a huge improvement. And they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re on point. But I can’t say the same for the public schools,” she said. But are they “on point” enough to have Dorian take the test that the kids in New Jersey and Belgium took?

Stossel and company make a case, but it is not as strong as it needs to be. Instead of attacking American education in general, they should have focused on the failure of large schools to maximize academic achievement, instead of opting for sensational programming. Sadly, the future of American Education cannot be reduced to an advertisement for neoliberalist values.

By the way, I believe that the public school system as we know it needs to be dismantled and re-imagined to meet the acceleration of information technology. Simplistic and sensational programs on what’s wrong in Public Schools collapse on their own specious claims. However, from what I’ve read online about this report it appears that Stossel and company are right about one thing, many of the posts represent the “Stupid in America”.

A final note, someone should make a documentary comparing the state of the bathrooms that our students use and the test scores they produce. A news piece like that might facilitate real debate and I’m sure would make riveting television.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Education, NCLB, and Nap Time

I have a five year old and a two year old. My oldest is in kindergarten, my youngest at home. I am a stay at home dad. We keep busy: doing the arts, sports, reading, all the good stuff. I take my little guy, Charlie, for coffee and bookstore runs. Like his dad, he enjoys these things. He chatters on about coffee and books--not bad for a two year old.

Yet I worry about my kids. I worry about school, as an English teacher by trade and a curriculum and instruction guy, I hate to say that my anxiety is all too well informed.Since the advent of the school reform era, the school curriculum has been hijacked by the government-testing-industrial complex. It's all about the numbers baby, because the numbers show up all over the place and are interpreted by folk who have no clue. The uninformed make decision based on numbers all the time. The numbers aren't necessarily fuzzy, but the interpretation of them is up for grabs. For example, what constitutes a good school? I've asked a bunch of people this over the years and there is little consensus.

A buddy of mine--a stats and evaluation guy--argues that NCLB will implode because its targets are unattainable. Let's hope. In the meantime, teaching and learning in public schools have homed in on a discrete set of standards--those that are tested, and ignored the rest. Why? Because the fear of failure is palpable. Nervous laughter and jaded cynicism are just as bad as neophetic optimism when it comes to standardized testing.

Let's be clear, NCLB fulfills one neoliberalist goal--comparison. In the global economy comparison is essential to the open market. When did our children become data to be compared in the open market? Don't believe me, check out the The Interactive Illinois Report Card that allows anyone, anywhere to do just that. Most disturbing is the tab labeled student data that allows those with passwords to examine data by student. I don't care how secure it claims to be a talented hacker could have a field day. Well my little data packet to be is getting up from his nap so it's time to go change a diaper, get some coffee, and let my thoughts percolate.