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.

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.

Student Growth is WHAT?

In early December, the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) announced that it would be making student growth percentiles available to school districts. Parents will be able to see the student growth percentile for their individual children.

What’s a student growth percentile? Good question. My answer is:  magic fairy dust. The OSPI’s answer is:

A student growth percentile (SGP) describes a student’s growth compared to other students with similar prior test scores (their academic peers)

What are they talking about? Height? Weight? No. “Academic growth.”

Well, then you have to ask, “What kind of academic growth? Measured how? And how accurately?”

You’ll find answers to the first two questions, but not the third.

They’re defining “academic growth” as a change in test scores on the state tests. They’re measuring it by a rather complex, involved process. It’s worth looking under the hood here. Maybe we need to go find a mechanic to ask whether it’s a working machine or a convoluted Rube Goldberg device with a fault in the middle? Maybe we need a crash course in statistics. Or a friend who understands this stuff.

Rather than trying to explain their Rube Goldberg device, the OSPI gives us a video with a fairly simple explanation. Too simple, really. They take a cute cartoon kid, Anthony, and show us that last year his 3rd grade MSP reading assessment score was 344, and that this year his 4th grade score 381. But is that amount of growth more, less, or the same as his peers? To answer that question, they take a bunch of kids who had the same 3rd grade score and compare the growth. Turns out that although Anthony is still behind, he had more academic growth than his peers.

Fairy dust. Did he really have more academic growth? Or did he maybe forget to eat breakfast in the third grade, making that score unusually low? That would compare him with a whole different set of academic peers. The problem here is that the OSPI is pretending that those two scores are accurate measures of how well Anthony can read. But they’re not. They’re both estimates.

Student Growth Percentiles are made by mashing up two estimates in really complicated ways. What is that, twice the inaccuracy? Or worse?

Let’s dig into the details here by looking at “A Technical Overview of the Student Growth Percentile Methodology: Student Growth Percentiles and Percentile Growth Projections/Trajectories.” I’m sorry. I really am. Math can be scary. But it’s like reading the fine print in a contract: you have to do it if you want to know what you’re getting. At the very least, head on over to page 16, under “Student Growth Percentile Estimation.” It says:

“Calculation of a student’s growth percentile is based upon the estimation of the conditional density associated with a student’s score at time t using the student’s prior scores at times 1, 2, . . . , t-1 as the conditioning variables.”

It is an estimate. How come the OSPI doesn’t say that on its website? Do they think we’re too stupid to understand? Or do they not understand?

Either way, it’s a bad sign. Because they’re going to be using the SGPs to evaluate teachers. Without looking under the hood. Teachers’ jobs will be on the line, so somebody has to look under the hood! Which means we have to learn some statistics. Oh dear!
Luckily, they have comic books for that nowadays. Here we go:


The Cartoon Guide to Statistics


Strange times to raise children

This week we found out that the state had agreed to hand over all kinds of confidential data to our local newspaper, so they could get grant money from a nonprofit funded by our local billionaire to help further his political goals. I wrote about some of the ramifications on the Aqueduct Press blog.

Racial segregation of schools in the 21st century

Seattle Public Schools is rezoning right now, to meet capacity shortages that were caused by their decision several years back to close a bunch of schools. The closures occurred largely in the south part of Seattle, which is the most racially diverse area. There were closures in the north part of Seattle too. The school that our kids now attend was slated for closure. The community fought back and won, and two years later it was completely overcrowded. So the closures made no sense.

Something else happened as a result of the closures. When capacity shortages started to happen, the Summit K-8 program at the Jane Addams site was closed down, and about half of the students, who bussed in from South Seattle by choice, were sent back to South Seattle. What could the district do? There really were not enough seats to go around, and the Jane Addams site was being underutilized. And the choice to close schools in the north, while a mistake, was in the past.

That’s how racial segregation of schools is working in the 21st century.

Now the school district is rezoning to meet capacity needs. Some neighborhoods were once assigned to schools within walking distance. (It’s actually called a “walk zone” because Seattle has quite a few geographical barriers to walking to school, such as hills and freeways.) But this isn’t happening equitably. The district, which is probably shorthanded because of budget cuts, drew preliminary boundaries and then requested community feedback. Now, mysteriously, it appears that more diverse neighborhoods are losing access to nearby schools than less diverse neighborhoods are.

Why? How could this happen?

Let me back up and explain why I even know about this. In Seattle we have a community blog called Save Seattle Schools. I think it started back when the original school closures did. Bloggers Melissa Westbrook and Charlie Mas report and comment on district goings-on. And they provide a forum for parents all over the city to share information and perspectives.

IMO, they’re among the best investigative journalism around schools in Seattle.

Anyway, they posted open threads for parents in the different areas of Seattle to comment on these boundary changes. The thread for Southeast Seattle has a blogger, JvA, with a theory about why this has happened. Here’s what her neighborhood looks like:

Mid Beacon Hill is far more mixed, with white, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese each only comprising 17-26% of the population. There is no racial or linguistic majority at all. The majority of residents speak a language other than English.

Her neighborhood was rezoned out of its walk zone. So was another neighborhood, Georgetown. Both neighborhoods, quite rightly, protested the change. However:

As far as I can tell, the district didn’t consider any such cultural or linguistic factors when assessing the input. I mean, it’s obvious white / US born / English speaking populations speak up more often than other populations, right? It’s obvious this is a farce, right?

She’s not even sure that the non-English speakers were notified:

Has the district even translated any of the materials about these radical changes to Beacon Hill, let alone tried to distribute them? My daughter goes to Maple, so I know for a fact that there have been no handouts in her backpack about it. Is it up to me to try to explain to all the folks on my block (Tagalog, Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Eritrean…) what is going on?

This is how racial segregation of schools happens in the 21st century.

And this isn’t just about that one neighborhood. No, there’s a pattern:

–Citywide, families at 28% of Title 1 (low-income) schools would lose official Seattle Public Schools-designated walk zones, compared to 12% of non-Title 1 schools.

–Under the new proposal, 67% of Beacon Hill schools would lose walk zones, compared to 13% for the rest of the city.

–All of the Beacon Hill schools losing walk zones are Title 1 (low-income) schools.

Poverty and racial inequity. What a winning combination.

There’s just one thing in her comments I disagree with:

I know it’s not very Seattle to talk about racial / cultural inequity . . .

Plenty and plenty of people in Seattle care about this. Plenty don’t, of course. I do.

What’s going to happen with this small neighborhood? Stay posted by watching JvA’s blog, at:

What are our students’ privacy rights, really?

As a parent, I want to know that my children’s information is kept private. I tell them not to put their birthdates on any Web pages that ask for them, I keep their names out of this blog, and I have filled out FERPA opt-out forms to prohibit disclosure of student information.

But there are some things I can’t control, and information given away by my child’s school to the private sector is one of them. That’s because of recent changes to the federal privacy law (FERPA). These changes were made right around the time that it became possible to build massive databases of student data — databases that can be shared across states and over the life of my child, from cradle to grave. Let’s take a quick look at the law, to see where the weaknesses are.

A summary of the FERPA law is available here. It tells when schools need permission to disclose information, and when they don’t.

  • Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record. However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions (34 CFR § 99.31):

    • School officials with legitimate educational interest;
    • Other schools to which a student is transferring;
    • Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes;
    • Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student;
    • Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school;
    • Accrediting organizations;
    • To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena;
    • Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies; and
    • State and local authorities, within a juvenile justice system, pursuant to specific State law.

Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (special letter, inclusion in a PTA bulletin, student handbook, or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.

Note that organizations conducting studies on behalf of the school can get access to this data, and it’s nonconsensual — meaning that parents can’t opt out.

There’s also a little something in there that’s extremely misleading. School officials can get access. That’s reasonable, right? But wait — how are “school officials” defined?

For that, we have to check out the actual text of the law (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Under paragraph 99.31, it says, “A contractor, consultant, volunteer, or other party to whom an agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions may be considered a school official under this paragraph provided that the outside party—”

(It goes on to list the specific conditions that have to be met.)

That’s awfully misleading.

There are also conditions under which this information can be redisclosed by “school officials” to other parties. That gets tricky and complicated.

Paragraph 99.33(a)(1) says:

An educational agency or institution may disclose personally identifiable information from an education record only on the condition that the party to whom the information is disclosed will not disclose the information to any other party without the prior consent of the parent or eligible student.

That makes it safe, right?

Oops, no. Paragraph 99.33(b)(1) says:

Paragraph (a) of this section does not prevent an educational agency or institution from disclosing personally identifiable information with the understanding that the party receiving the information may make further disclosures of the information on behalf of the educational agency or institution if—

To make a long story short, there are times where a school can disclose personally identifiable information, such as social security numbers, to third parties in the private sector, and then those third parties can then disclose this information to somebody else. And this can be done without parental consent.

Even worse: if you dig into some other privacy laws, such as those protecting medical information and those protecting students with disabilities, you’ll find that they all point back to the FERPA law. This means that information can be shared to third parties as well.

Now we know this can be done. But is it?

The long answer is a subject for another post. But the short answer is “yes.” There have been different releases for different regions of the U.S. In the Puget Sound region (Washington State), this data has been released to a nonprofit called the Community Center for Education Results for all students attending in public schools residing in these areas:


If you live in any of the affected areas and want to know more, post a comment and I’ll get back to you.