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December 2011

School Leader News and Resources Roundup: KY finally scores RTT, more

A roundup of recent education news and resources:

  • On its third attempt, Kentucky finally receives federal Race to the Top funds.  $17 million will fund professional development for Senate Bill 1 rollout and expanding programs for math, science, and technology.
  • The latest ASCD Express features useful articles on leading with vision, the dynamic tension a principal faces between caring for the emotional needs of staff and pushing them to get things done, a video presentation from Doug Reeves on the necessity to limit new initiatives and improve professional development to make last school-wide change, plus more.
  • Indiana's sweeping new voucher law is popular.  Nearly 4,000 students have already left public schools to exercise school choice under the law.  Now the National Education Association is challenging the law in court.
  • What is the proper role for the federal government in education?  Read a fascinating exchange between the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess and the Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey here, here, and here.
  • As we discuss in EDAD 696, Advanced Organizational Theory, conflict is not in itself a bad thing.  In fact, conflict can be the sign of a healthy, growing organization.  How leaders respond to conflict can steer an organization toward greater effectiveness - or off a cliff.  Read more in a series of articles from Learning Forward's winter newsletter, Tools for Learning Schools.

Finally, just a reminder that classes for the WKU Spring Semester begin January 23.  If you're enrolled in one of my courses, start checking your WKU email regularly as I'll be sending out important announcements and information in advance of the new semester.  See you in class!

Looking for alternatives to jailing students for truancy

A flurry of media attention has lately raised questions about Kentucky's high rate of jailing juveniles for status offenses such as truancy.  In many parts of the state it is common practice for judges to incarcerate teenagers for short periods of time for chronically missing school.  State officials and juvenile advocates are challenging this practice, insisting that research does not support its effectiveness and that better alternatives must be found.

Hasan Davis, who is deputy director of juvenile justice for the state, says runaways and truants don't belong in a facility with juveniles who are charged with offenses such as murder and rape.

"There has to be a better alternative than locking a child behind a door to get their attention," Davis said. "You can detain a youth all day. If what they are running away from hasn't been addressed, they will go back to running away."

I have some direct personal experience with this issue.  As an alternative school principal, m0st of my students had chronic problems with truancy.  I also served as school district liaison to the local juvenile court, and not only did I watch as the judge frequently sentenced students to stints in detention for missing school, I often encouraged him to do so and explicitly asked for it.

In those cases, I was sure that school officials had exhausted every possible avenue for convincing students (and their parents) to improve their attendance.  Many of the students I worked with feared and dreaded the possibility of detention and the threat of lock up kept many in school who would otherwise drop out.

 Since then I've seen the number of detentions in my old district drop off dramatically thanks to a well-organized truancy diversion program, a highly-structured approached that involves intensive interventions with students and their families before the student ever makes it to court the first time.  These programs are extremely time-consuming but when done correctly yield excellent results. 

My impression is that truancy diversion programs are flourishing around the state.  Perhaps they aren't catching on fast enough or the results aren't being realized yet to make a dent in Kentucky's rather embarassing statistics on juvenile detentions.

Nevertheless, I'm actually more convinced now than ever that, in the presence of well-run truancy diversion programs, when a student has failed to respond to the school's efforts to improve attendance, drastic measures are in order.  I agree with Mr. Davis from the Department of Juvenile Justice that locking up students without addressing the root problems that are causing truancy is a largely ineffective approach.

The court system must be far more aggressive in dealing with the family issues that underly chronic truancy.  In some cases, it's the parents themselves who should be locked up.  Sadly, this is rarely the case and children often languish for years in highly dysfunctional homes.  In some cases lackluster efforts on the part of social workers are to blame, but far more often social workers are doing everything in their power and the courts themselves fail to respond.

At any rate, it will take a lot more than simply complaining about the number of juveniles in detention to solve this problem.

National School Choice Week to be observed January 22-28

Advocates for school choice have announced January 22-28, 2012 as National School Choice Week.  Visit their website for more information, resources, and events.

I'll be blogging in advance of and during the week-long observance.  As I've argued elsewhere, it's a fundamental injustice and failure of public policy that consumers have more choices of toothpaste at a local inconvenience store than options for their children's education.  This is especially true for families in poor communities or rural areas.  Visit my blog posts on school choice for more information.

Below, watch Fox News commentator and journalist Juan Williams discussing how school choice is the "civil rights issue of our era:"


How teachers learn to use formative assessment

Yesterday ETS, the test publishing organization, sponsored a research forum on formative assessment.  Education Week's Stephen Sawchuck has a report here.

It was clear from today's forum that, according to the experts, you can't do formative assessment on the fly: The technique has has to be planned and executed purposefully as part of a lesson using a variety of strategies (i.e., "entry tickets," questioning). Nor are they "interim" or "benchmark" assessments, which some districts give every few weeks.

As students in EDAD 683 know, I would direct readers to W. James Popham's notion of formative assessment as a process, rather than a test (or simply a "check for understanding"), for further clarity on this.  While formative assessment has become one the latest buzzwords in education, few teachers have fully understood the distinction being made by Popham or made the full shift to formative assessment as a way to approach the entire instructional process.

Why is this the case?  The ETS researchers examined syllabi and course descriptions from university teacher education courses and found a "fairly uneven landscape" relative to formative assessment. 

But what about school and district-based professional development programs designed to support teacher implementation of formative assessment?  Here, the researchers emphasized that the problem is usually a lack of sustained, focused, monitored, and on-going professional development opportunities over long periods of time:

The best professional-development research shows that teachers need sustained contact hours (between 30 and 100) of training before altering their practices. So, she did a back-of-the envelope calculation about how much time it would take to implement 50 hours of formative-assessment training over the course of a school year.

Again, the results were not encouraging: Teachers would need about six hours a month, for eight months, which amounts to one early-close afternoon a month plus two additional hours. (Good luck with that in this economy.)

I understand Sawchuck's skepticism, but this level of sustained professional development is neither expensive nor beyond the realm of possibility for most schools.  Here I recommend Dr. Tom Stewart's recent doctoral dissertation, which describes his use of a Formative Assessment Academy model, an approach that can be adapted for the long-term implementation of any instructional initiative.

In full disclosure, Tom is my consulting partner and we offer the Formative Assessment Academy as a professional development program for area schools and districts.  But as Tom and I always emphasize (and his dissertation makes clear), the Academy approach rests on research-based principles of effective adult learning that can be duplicated by any leadership team willing to do their homework, gather resources and support teachers in a sustained effort of professional learning.

Essentially, Tom's approach uses a voluntary professional learning community model.  Teachers volunteer to attend five after-school sessions spaced out over a semester or school year.  Each of these sessions includes time to review, discuss, and reflect research on formative assessment, and then teachers are introduced to various formative assessment techniques, which they take back to their classrooms and try out until the next session.  The following academy meeting repeats this process with new research and new strategies, but also the opportunity for teachers to debrief their experiences using various formative assessment techniques, including what worked, what didn't, and how they adapted the strategy or will do so in the future.  The richest learning takes place during these times of professional sharing.

In time, these teachers become building "experts" and can model and encourage others to also learn and try new approaches.  Of course, even more follow-up, encouragement, sharing, and feedback, all in a risk-free and trusting professional environment, is needed.  For all of this, leadership is absolutely critical.

The point is that sustained professional learning is possible, whether the topic is formative assessment or other instructional approaches.  But it takes a clear instructional vision from school leaders and the willingness to learn, experiment, and above all support and monitor teacher learning and practice to make it happen.

Reminder about mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect

In light of recent high-profile cases of alleged child abuse that allegedly went unreported by school officials, it's worth a reminder that in Kentucky any person - and school personnel in particular - are required to report such cases directly to legal authorities.

KRS 620.030 is the relevant statute here and stipulates that anyone...

who knows or has reasonable cause to believe a child is dependent, neglected or abused shall immediately cause an oral or written report to be made to a local law enforcement agency or the Kentucky State Polic; the Cabinet [for Child and Family Services] or its designated representative; teh commonwealth's attourney or the county attorney; by telephone or otherwise...

A few important points here:

  • This statute does not just include abuse, but also dependency (a case where the parent or legal guardian is unable to provide for a child's basic needs) and neglect (when the parent or guardian willfully choose not to provide or for a child's needs or allows the child to be placed in a position of harm or danger).
  • Cases must be reported directly to legal authorities.  It is not sufficient to simply report the suspected abuse to a supervisor (though you should do that too and many local policies stipulate this as a requirement also).
  • A supervisor who receives an employee report about abuse must make a prompt report to the proper authorities for investigation.  But as a supervisor you should also make sure that the reporting employee makes a direct report to law enforcement as well.  It has been recommended in the past that you make the phone call together, and each of you separately get on the phone to report what you know, or go in person to make such a report.

Failure to comply with the law can lead to criminal charges.

Child abuse and neglect is serious business and educators are often the first to become aware of such situations.  Make sure you are well versed in state and local legal and policy requirements for your own protection and above all for the protection of children.



KBE revises regulations to limit testing accomodations for special education students

Earlier this week the Kentucky Board of Education approved new regulations that will place substantial restrictions on testing accomodations once considered routine for students with disabilities.  Read the KSBA news story here.  Full text of the revised regulation here.

Specifically, the Board is concerned about testing accomodations that distort an assessment's measure of whether students can actually do the skill or knows the content being assessed.  Under the new regulations, students will not be allowed a reader for reading tests or the use of a caculator for math tests that measure math computation.  Readers may still be used, depending on how accomodations are laid out in a student's IEP, for other content areas. 

An additional stipuation of the new regulation is that students must initiate the use of accomodations themselves, rather than the previous practice of adult-directed accomodations.

These represent substantial changes in testing practice for Kentucky schools.  I'm certain many practical questions will need to be resolved.  Aspiring administrators would do well to stay abreast of these changes.


Making the Case for School Choice

A just-released report and Educational Choice and Competition Index from the Brookings Institution helps make the case for expanding educational options for all American families.  The index grades 25 large (100,000-plus students) school districts in terms of the availability of choice within their jurisdictions.  This information is interesting, but to me the index introduction, written by Grover "Russ" Whitehust, is the real gem.

Whitehurst documents how about 50 percent of American families exercise some degree of educational choice, typically by deliberating living in the jurisdiction of a high-quality school, or by paying private school tuition.  Of course, these options are available primary to affluent families, mostly in urban and suburban areas .  In the absence of charter schools, magnet schools, or vouchers, most poor families have no such options.

Whitehurst argues that educational choice can enhance the quality of competing public schools, and echoes the point I made yesterday (citing Rick Hess) about how choice fosters innovation in a way that regulation and policy mandates can't:

Expanding school choice and competition is desirable not only because parents want to exercise choice and schools respond to competitive pressure, although those are compelling reasons.  It also provides an alternative to top-down efforts to improve schools through regulation.  Often education reform is seen as selecting between two opposing paths, centralizing control in Washington though efforts such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top or devolving recently accumulated federal power to states and local school districts.  Both courses of action have drawbacks.

Top-down federal control imposes significant regulatory burdens on schools, is inflexible and far removed from the consumers and providers of education services, and has to date had only relatively small effects on raising student achievement.  Local and state control, in contrast, is often undermined by special interests that control school bureaucracies.  The ability of taxpaying parents of school-aged children to leave school districts with which they are dissatisfied is severely constrained for the low-income and otherwise immobile populations that are most likely to find themselves served by low-performing schools. Introducing substantial school choice and competition within the boundaries of public school districts provides an alternative to both increasing top-down control from Washington and a return to the status quo of the past century in which local and state school bureaucracies carried out their missions with little accountability either to the federal government or taxpayers and parents.

I've argued elsewhere that no one policy solution, like opening a charter school, is a silver bullet that will instantly raise educational achievement (a recent news report documented how many charter schools have posted only average levels of student learning by various measures).  Many educational options will fail to deliver a high-quality product, but as long as parents have a multitude of choices, no one is condemn to stay stuck in a failing school.