Category Archives: public education

Public schools belong to the people, not corporate interests. Teachers organizing professionally and politically is A Good Thing. And every students needs something different to learn well.

What are LEAs?

In our public school system, we have school districts, with elected officials who are publicly accountable. And we have state education departments, with an elected school superintendent who is publicly accountable. Money that goes to these entities is, at least in theory, transparently spent.

But there’s this other thing we don’t hear too much about. It’s kind of in between the school district and the state. It’s a “local education agency” or LEA. Here are two examples.

The Puget Sound Educational Service District includes King and Pierce Counties, plus Bainbridge Island.

Educational Service District 112 includes counties in southwest Washington.

According to ESD 112, State lawmakers created ESDs in 1969 for these purposes:

  1. To help districts pool their resources to maximize education dollars and realize cost savings;
  2. To create equal educational opportunities for all children of Washington, whether they live in districts large or small, rich or poor, urban or rural.
  3. To bring greater efficiency to school district operations through creative program development and partnerships

So it sounds like they do some pretty awesome work.

But there are some things I wonder about. I checked out ESD 112 because a Seattle Public Schools “Friday Memo” referred to them as a source of information for how to align curriculum to the Common Core, while the district was in the process of creating a “scope and sequence” document. Here’s what the memo said:

It is our goal that whatever math assessments are used in Seattle Public Schools that they provide insight for teachers into how well their students are progressing toward learning the key work of the grade. To define the key work of each grade, the central math program is using guidance from OSPI on the major focus of the grade and guidance from the Common Core State Standards on fluencies at each grade.

Here are the links to these major emphases from OSPI:

Here is a link to a document containing the Common Core “Required Fluencies” per course:

A team of centrally based math curriculum specialists and math teachers from across the district are working diligently this spring to be sure that the math Scope and Sequence is aligned to these major emphases. The central math team will then align mClass Beacon assessments to the Scope and Sequence and therefore to the key learning for each grade.

I find it really depressing that the school district decided to mandate this “Scope and Sequence” before the assessments were finished and without having the least idea what curriculum would be used, but that’s not what I got curious about.

I got curious about what this “” thing might be and why a school district memo would say it was OSPI (the state department of education). So that’s why I started looking at it.

What I don’t like is that it is a public/private hybrid. I am opposed to school privatization, and by that I don’t mean charter schools, I mean a collection of practices that are intended to remake our schools into an image of the “free market.” There’s a really thorough treatment of what that means and why it’s a problem in the document “Hidden Privatisation in Public Education” from the Education International 5th World Congress, 2007.

I’m not opposed to privatization in a knee-jerk fashion. I really like the thought that the League of Women Voters has put into its position paper on privatization. They suggest:

The League believes that some government provided services could be delivered more efficiently by private entities; however, privatization is not appropriate in all circumstances. . . The decision to privatize a public service should be made after an informed, transparent planning process and thorough analysis of the implications of privatizing service delivery.

They go on to list a number of specific criteria that should be followed. Check it out. Good stuff!

Going back to ESD 112, the reason I would say it’s a public/private hybrid is the amount of money that seems to be coming from private grants. That money always comes with strings. And then there’s the stated philosophy:

In addition to acting as a liaison between local districts and the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to deliver programs mandated by the state, Washington’s ESDs are public entities, which operate in a highly entrepreneurial fashion. We blend the benevolence of the public sector with the spirit and ingenuity of the private sector.

Not necessarily bad, but worth keeping an eye on.





Inklewriter in the classroom

I’m volunteering in my son’s fourth/fifth grade classroom, and we’re putting together a Choose Your Own Adventure based on the Iliad and the Odyssey. It’s been a whole lot of work but even more fun! That’s because we’re using a free online tool that’s just amazing.

Here’s their website and their description:

At inkle, we believe it takes great writers to tell great stories.

That’s why we’ve created inklewriter, to help writers tell interactive tales with the minimum of fuss. inklewriter keeps your branching story organised, so you can concentrate on what’s important – the writing.

inklewriter is a free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories. It’s perfect for writers who want to try out interactivity, but also for teachers and students looking to mix computer skills and creative writing.

Yep. On the first day in the classroom, I logged on and started typing, based on student feedback. It turned out that the protagonist was a 12-year old thief from Ithaca, happening upon the Trojan War. After the first paragraph, I entered two options: investigate or run away.

The next step was to organize the students into groups, and work with each group. Because the tool is so flexible, I didn’t have to do it in the order the story branched.  Instead, I assigned groups based on location and student interest. The groups were:

  • Battle of Troy
  • Sailing with Odysseus
  • Sirens
  • Death
  • Hades
  • Mount Olympus
  • Modern Day

(I fought valiantly against having a Modern Day category, to keep it in ancient Greece, but the Percy Jackson contingent was just too darn excited.)

After I got the Battle of Troy group started, I moved on to the Odysseus and Sirens groups. I typed in their pieces and added the necessary links from one section to another.

As you might imagine, it got pretty complicated pretty fast. But that was OK, because there are some awesome tools. For instance, there’s a map tool, which shows you a tree of the story structure, with one box per paragraph. You can click on any box to see the path that gets you there, and you can double-click on it to close the map and get straight back into the story in that exact paragraph. There’s also a searchable panel of paragraphs to the right, and it shows you any loose ends (options that lead nowhere) and paragraphs that aren’t connected to anything. That makes it really simple to unattach one paragraph and re-attach it somewhere else.

Smooth, elegant, intuitive, easy.

Not that the process itself was easy. Keeping track of student drafts, making sure all the students knew what they were doing, and making sure the students all had something to do — that was hard. Fortunately, the classroom teacher is experienced and basically fabulous, and I was able to work with students a handful at a time.

After the Battle of Troy, Odysseus, and Sirens groups were mostly done, I moved on to Death, Hades, and Mount Olympus. By then I had figured out how to manage groups a little more easily. I brought a packet for each group, containing their planning and rough draft documents, and I handed it out at the beginning of each session and then collected it at the end, to review and enter their drafts.

One thing you wouldn’t know unless you were a classroom teacher is that the kids all finish up at different times, produce wildly varying quantities of work, and require either no support or intense one-on-one support. Again, thank goodness for a classroom teacher who knows how to manage that kind of thing. For that last category I did scribing — that is, they spoke and I typed or wrote.  I love doing that, because my hope is for every student to grow up feeling confident about their writing, and scribing is an important tool for some.

After that, I worked with the Modern Technology group.

At some point, the work of entering and organizing the student work got ahead of me, and I ended up taking some time off to enter it. But once I had done so, I was ready to show it off to the class! That was so fun. The teacher chose students to read passages, alternating between girls and boys, and when we came to an option the class voted. We went through about four storylines and then we cut it off.

The best moment? Seeing the smile on the face of one of the students I had scribed for, as that student’s work was read.

There is still work to do. I had the challenge of how to help the students edit not only their own work but also its connection to work that came before and after. To do that, I printed a hard copy of the story-in-progress that I had copied into a Word document.

Copying it over was complicated. I titled each section with the name of the student who had written it, the group they were in, and, if they had written multiple sections, which one it was. At the beginning of each section, I used bracketed text to indicate where it had come from, and at the end of each section, I used bracketed text to indicate where the options led.

Then I handed it out, group by group, to be checked over by the students who were done with their first drafts. Students who were still working on their first drafts kept on working.

Now I have some new text to enter and some edits to make. I’m looking forward to it!


A Conversation about Common Core

After a year of grappling with the new Common Core standards, I feel mixed. I oppose the new Common Core assessments because they’re all part of privatization, top-down control of schools, and high-stakes testing — all those things that have come to be known as “corporate education reform.”

But I’m not sure I’m against the Common Core standards. Yes, they’re deeply flawed. They are copyrighted by a private sector organization, which means the public — that’s you and me — has no control over their content. On the other hand, I think national standards make sense. They are a way to communicate to parents what their kids are expected to be learning, and we definitely need that. Having just one set of standards also makes it easier to develop and plan curriculum at lower cost. So I’m asking myself: might it make sense to keep the standards, but ditch the high-stakes assessments?

That’s why I was excited when I saw a friend start a Facebook conversation on the topic. With the permission of the participants, I’m reposting it here — not as a debate, or the last word on the subject, but as part of the ongoing conversation on what kind of education real parents want for their kids.

Zara: I’m out of alignment with my Party and my usual allies on this one. I’ve had qualms about Common Core, especially about its sloppy, rushed, improperly-supported and counterproductive implementation. I was angry about the way it was developed, like so many recent reforms, without real educator influence and with much pressure by wealthy private individuals. However, Democrats and Progressives are very much disappointing me in their all-or-nothing, un-nuanced approach to the reality of CCS.

To throw it out wholesale at this point would be incredibly disruptive. How, instead, can we organize to make sure Common Core works the way it should? How can we assure that the test results are not used inappropriately and harmfully?

(They should NOT be tied to teacher evaluations – neither as sticks nor carrots. They should NOT be used to grade or rate schools. They should NOT be a trigger for punitive measures against schools. They SHOULD be a signal that a school needs greater, long-term, stable support – not short-term interventions (such as three-year grants) or threats of mass firings or closure.

CCS is deeply imperfect (as I understand it). The assessments are even less perfect (as I understand them) and the profit to be made from them is troubling. But I don’t believe they’re the educational, social-justice napalm my friends do. And the response from my own corner of the ring strikes me as short-sighted, stubborn, slightly paranoid and possibly harmful to our school systems, given the phase of CCS we have already reached.

I know I’ll get criticized by my allies for being ignorant or co-opted or some other unhappy thing. I’m not looking forward to it, but I felt I had to speak up – under my own name – no matter how unpopular or suspect it might make me in the anti-reform circles I generally respect so well.

Kim: People I’ve talked with would rather revert to standards we had in place prior to CCSS, and then with educator input, tweak those. And then there are others who really value a national set of standards, but they need to be developmentally appropriate, created by educators, and minimal so as not to drive everything happening in schools. Also, Pearson and Gates need to be uninvolved.

Sandi: Zara, I agree with you! I want my kids to have the same expectations and learning opportunities in our public school kids that the kids in the best public and private schools across the nation offer. If that takes a set of “standards” then so be it. I’ve always agreed to the concept, but not this current incarnation of the implementation and tests.

Recess is being cut even more than before, and kids’ progress is charted and managed like vacuum sales results, project based learning is gone in some places, and pre-scripted curriculum is rampant.

Teachers are not truly being allowed to develop curriculum to meet the standards, but are being told what to teach, when, and how.

The focus is still “learn this to pass the test,” not “learn to love learning and learn this because it is knowledge and process that will help you develop and find your passions.”

Kristin:  I’ve been thinking the same thing as you, Zara. There is benefit to be had in common state standards. And yes, changing them NOW would disrupt kids for another two to five years. On the other hand, though, they are copyrighted and can’t be tweaked.

Kim: Teacher driven education is key, and to let the testing madness continue is to let the community believe that test scores matter in ways that they do not. As Sandi points out, the testing is the serious problem. The standards are flawed, but I bet we can find flaws in all standards. And so it goes back to data collection, excessive time at the computer, too much emphasis on test scores, not enough time on subjects that aren’t tested, and so on.

Thanks to everybody for letting me post your thoughts. Readers, what do you think?

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

How much do the Common Core tests cost?

Last week I wrote about the ongoing failure of the Washington State Legislature to fully fund schools. They’re in contempt of court and sanctions may be taken at the end of this legislative session if adequate progress hasn’t been made. And from those charts it looks to me like adequate progress would mean an extra $1500 per year right now.

Instead of fully funding schools, though, the legislature decided to implement new standards and require every school to administer brand-new computer-based tests for them. I have to ask: how much is this all costing, and what could we have done with the money instead?

In this era of privatization and underfunding, the public needs to be especially careful with the money we have.

It turns out the answers are not easy to find. Here is my rough stab at the broad categories of expenses at the state, district, and school level.

  • For the state, the cost to buy the standardized test.
  • For the district, the cost of professional development for the teachers, and the cost of substitutes to take over classrooms while teachers are doing professional development. District-wide technical support for the computer labs. Cost of new instructional materials. Cost of software to help prepare students for the tests. Internet access and headphones.
  • For the schools, the cost to upgrade the computer technology so the tests can be administered. The cost of extra computers if two or more classrooms must give the tests at the same time. The school-based setup of the computer labs. The cost of extra proctors to give the tests. The cost of disability accommodations for students.

Do you suppose the legislature had a complete picture of these costs when they decided to require all schools in the state to take the tests? I bet not. I bet they were given cost estimates by private sector organizations with a vested interest in selling the tests.

That responsibility, then, falls to us. The public. The parents.

And ESPECIALLY to the people (you know who you are) who are always saying, “Why should I put more tax dollars into education when it’s being misspent anyway?” Be the solution, folks.

where did the money go

Who makes public policy?

Lawmakers pass laws. Lobbyists influence lawmakers and therefore the laws. But who writes the laws? And most importantly, who decides on the public policy that shapes the laws? That’s the part of government that we don’t usually see. Luckily, it’s easy to find, if you know where to look.

The private sector creates public policy. This includes for-profit corporations, nonprofits, billionaire philanthropists, and think tanks. One well-known example of the private sector creating policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – read more about them here.

ALEC does their work in secret, but many organizations do the same thing out in the open. I found this out when I started learning about corporate education reform, which mostly means creating opportunities for the private sector to take public education dollars and use them to “improve” public education and control what is taught to our kids. For the public to swallow this, I learned, it took quite a bit of propaganda. Being a curious person, I researched and wrote a post on the think tanks that create the propaganda.

As it turns out, these same think tanks are holding policy discussions on topics that affect us, and our children, quite intimately. Seattle Public Schools, along with thousands of schools across the nation, is about to administer a suite of tests called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests are meant to measure student mastery of the Common Core, a set of education standards that was designed and promoted by the private sector — specifically, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two nonprofits. These standards are copyrighted by the NGA and the CCSSO, meaning that any modifications to the standards are completely out of the control of the public.

Let’s go back to the think tanks for a minute. One of the think tankers I mentioned in my blog post on think tankers is named Rick Hess, or Frederick Hess. He’s a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders. It has drawn fire over the years for spreading propaganda for the tobacco industry and for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warming. Not a poster child for the public good.

Hess, to my surprise, came out with criticism of the Common Core. Curious as always, I poked around a bit and found that the AEI had hosted a symposium with the topic “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.” It asked the question: “Going forward, will the Common Core initiative complement or conflict with the school reform agendas that states are currently pursuing?” That question was tackled by people who influence policy in one way or another (see participant bios).

The papers show a debate over various corporate reform policies such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the Common Core. For example, here is a policy recommendation from the article “The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reforms” by Morgan Polikoff.

(A quick note: There is a note on this article claiming it is a draft and asking people not to cite it. That’s silly. Since it’s online, it is published, and citations fall under fair use guidelines.)

“Because these changes are happening simultaneously, both reforms might be more faithfully applied if there were a moratorium on making high stakes decisions about teachers (e.g., hiring, firing, tenure) until after the Common Core and its assessments are fully implemented.”

So the recommendation is to implement Common Core and assessments, and then work on legislation to use those assessments to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

That conversation ought to have occurred in the public eye and with the involvement of the public, especially the parents, teachers, and students this recommended policy will impact.

It didn’t. That’s not how our government works.

But seeing what’s going on behind the scenes does give us the ability to stop it. Knowing about ALEC, for instance, has helped us oppose dangerous laws before they are passed.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge is Power!

Seattle, there’s a train wreck coming

Heads-up to anybody who lives in Seattle, might want to move here, might have kids, and/or might care about taxes ten years from now: there’s a train wreck coming. And that train wreck is school buildings. We don’t have enough of ’em. Nobody in a position of leadership in the schools or in the city is incorporating new development in its capacity planning. Seattle Public Schools hasn’t got plans in motion to purchase new buildings. The city doesn’t include funding for schools in development impact fees — those are fees that most cities have in place to ensure that when new homes are built, there will be schools for the kids to go to.

How do I know all this? I’ve been attending meetings on capacity shortages for years. I’ve seen the abysmal demographic reports the school district uses. Their projections always fall far short of enrollment. I’ve seen the game of musical chairs played with school boundaries, parents fighting tooth and nail over possession of school buildings, and portables, portables, portables.

So I’ve seen the start of the train wreck, but I’m willing to bet there’s worse to come.

That’s all for now.

What’s it gonna take?

At my kids’ school, the third through fifth grades have no playground equipment. How come? Seattle Public Schools tore it up and put a portable in its place, that’s how come. In theory, funds from Seattle Parks and Recreation, combined with funds from our PTA, will put in new equipment — but if the district adds another portable, all bets are off.

My kids used to get bus service to school, because their walking route includes crossing a dangerous state highway. Not any more. That’s been cut.

There’s a substitute shortage, meaning that some days kids show up to school and there is no teacher for them. Yes, really.

New housing is going up in my neighborhood, in preparation for light rail, but no new schools are being planned.

Our schools need funding so badly that the Washington State Supreme Court is currently holding the legislature in contempt of court and will consider sanctions if adequate funding does not arrive by the end of the 2015 session.

Meanwhile, though, the legislature is talking about suspending an initiative Washington State citizens recently passed to reduce class sizes. Why? They don’t want to do what it takes to fund it.

Oh yes, and the legislature has also given our schools an unfunded mandate to administer expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming tests.

What’s it going to take?  Seriously?

At a minimum, we need a reality check on the scope of the problem. Here are three charts from the website Network for Excellence in Washington Schools — the group that brought the lawsuit to the legislature and is monitoring and reporting on it.  They are from the group’s 2014 report to members.

Washington State funding for education falls far short of the actual expenses.

Washington State funding for education falls far short of the actual expenses.


Washington State legislature fails to comply with the Supreme Court order in 2013

Washington State legislature fails to comply with the Supreme Court order in 2013

Washington State legislature fails to comply with the Supreme Court order in 2014

Washington State legislature fails to comply with the Supreme Court order in 2014


Washington parents, take a minute for teachers!

Washington parents, teachers need our help right now. With luck, you’ve been following the controversy over whether student test scores should be used in teacher evaluations. The Washington State Legislature is considering it now. I think they should NOT, and here is the reason I gave when I signed a petition to my legislators.

Because it’s ridiculous. No reputable study has said that student test scores measure good teaching. My kids’ underfunded teachers work hard in their overcrowded classrooms, but bureaucratic interference like this just makes their lives more stressful, which interferes with my kids’ ability to learn. Meet the constitutional mandate for fully funding education instead.

Should teachers be evaluated? Yes, absolutely! But they should be (and are currently being) evaluated fairly. If their evaluations are based on student test scores, they’re going to have to “teach to the test” — that is, the Common Core test — even more so than they already are. Critical thinking and creativity will get shorter shrift, because there just won’t be time for it.

The state PTA is probably out to lunch on this issue, but here is a petition from the Washington State Education Association. Sign it. Now. Please.


My daughter, the guinea pig

We’re a very mathy family. We all learned math the way human beings learn things — that is, by making it a fun part of our everyday activities. But this year, my daughter is a guinea pig for the new national experiment that is called the Common Core standards. Her class is using a new curriculum designed specifically for the Common Core, “My Math,” and she hates it. I’m hearing her say, “I don’t like math,” and I’m concerned. She still likes math, really, but only when we mess around with it as a family. Her homework is procrastination and resentment and sometimes tears.

The Common Core standards came to us by a fairly strange route. Sixty people wrote them without public input, and only one of them was a teacher. And there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, particularly the assessments designed for them.

I’m trying to keep an open mind. As one of my kids’ teachers told me, they’re simply one more set of standards. I do like one thing about these new standards: they tell us what our kids are supposed to be learning.

But what exactly are they supposed to be learning? Mathematical reasoning, the boring way. What makes it boring is the frequent testing to make sure kids have learned each individual concept, which appears to mean that each individual concept takes priority over a holistic understanding. Even worse: there is national pressure to base teachers’ job evaluations on kids’ mastery of these standards.

Also, it looks a lot like math fact fluency is being pushed aside. I’ve looked at the standards many times, and they do say what kind of fluency kids are supposed to have, but as one standard among many. And I’m not seeing it in the curriculum. My kids, and other kids whose parents I’ve talked to, are not getting the five minutes of math fact practice per day that they need to learn the facts.

Here are the standards, if you want to know more.

And here are some examples of math lessons that teach to these standards. The National Education Association (NEA) teamed up with some company or other to bring together lots of teachers to share the curriculum that they use in classrooms. So this curriculum is free online for browsing, which makes it a godsend for parents who want to understand what their kids are learning in class. I keep looking and looking for math fact fluency exercises, but I’m not seeing them.

I do realize that there are lots of things I don’t understand about the standards, the way they’re being implemented in curriculum, and the way my kids’ teachers are handling them in class.

But I sure am sorry my daughter has to be the guinea pig. 

Cartoon Anthony’s Student Growth Percentile

In my last post I looked at student growth percentiles, a new kind of data that the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. This post follows up by going into more detail about how SGPs are calculated. Back to the simple video with cartoon Anthony!

Cartoon Anthony got an MSP reading score of 344 in 3rd grade and a score of 381 in 4th grade. His score grew in that time. To get his SGP, they took the amount of growth and compared it to a group of 3rd grade students who began with that same score. His score of 381 was higher than 80% of the students in his comparison group, so he gets an SGP of 80. That shows “high growth.”

I’m going to set aside for the moment a couple of really large questions. First, exactly what does the MSP reading score measure? Second, what would have happened to the SGP if Cartoon Anthony was instead compared to a different set of students?

I’m just going to pretend those other questions don’t exist and ask, “How accurate is the SGP?” There are different ways to look at the answer to this question, but I’ll just give the easiest one here. Hang on to your hats, because I’m going to use just an eentsy weentsy bit of algebra. I’m going to use the variable x to indicate the absolute measurement error of a single MSP score. I’d use the real number, but I don’t know it and I couldn’t find it online anywhere. 

The change in Anthony’s MSP scores is 381-344, or 37.

The absolute measurement error for each test is x.

Using the simple method (that doesn’t rely on calculating standard deviations), the absolute measurement error for the change in scores is 2x.

So let’s suppose x is 10. That would make the absolute error 20, which means the change in scores could be anything from 17 to 47. Pretty big difference there!

If the measurement error is high enough, it makes Anthony’s SGP meaningless.

Is it meaningless? I don’t know. But the question needs asking.