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.

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.

Mysterious timing for Chicago school closures


This spring, thousands of Chicagoans gathered to protest school closures. 54 schools were closed, against the wishes of the impacted communities. If you’ve missed this story, you can follow it back all the way to 2011 on the Huffington Post.

The official story behind the closures was that they were underutilized and that Chicago Public Schools just didn’t have the money to run them. But at the very same time, the school district is requesting applications from charter school companies.

They’re closing neighborhood public schools, against the wishes of the communities impacted, and replacing them with privatized charter schools.

In which kinds of neighborhoods? In Chicago, as in New York and Philadelphia, these school closures are happening mostly in communities of color. Here are the numbers:


But I digress. I was talking about the mysterious timing. What I’m talking about here is Teach for America, the nonprofit that was originally supposed to staff schools where teachers were hard to find. I remember learning about it many years ago from a PBS special. It showed a bright-eyed, passionate teacher going into a difficult classroom and excelling. Great, right?

Not so much, as it turns out.

In January, months before the school closures were announced, the Teach For America Board of Directors by some strange coincidence projected that the number of charter schools in Chicago would double, or in other words, increase by 52.

The same number as the public schools that closed.

Was Teach for America involved in the school closures? It sure looks that way. Blogger Ed Shyster, who broke the news about TFA’s charter school projections, argues that these projections  represent “backwards planning” in which those in power decide on the result they want (52 new charter schools) and then design the plan. He further points out that there are close ties between TFA, charter school companies, and charter school authorizers (who help decide which charter schools can open).

The Washington Post Answer Sheet reprinted his blog post in the article “How Big Can TFA Get?” Check it out.

Why would TFA do this? If the mission is to help poor communities, why would TFA override their express wishes to keep their neighborhood schools?

I think the easiest way to answer this is to look at an article from the right-wing blog Education Next. TFA leaders go on to become “educational entrepreneurs” — which is to say people who are starting charter school organizations or otherwise privatizing education.

And, as it turns out, this is a core part of TFA’s mission. Read between the lines on their “Lifelong Leaders” web page. It says:

“As an alum, you will join a network of like-minded people who support each other personally and professionally in endeavors that further our mission – such as opening and staffing schools, partnering on social entrepreneurship initiatives, and sharing additional opportunities to advocate for students.”

Just to be clear, “opening schools” means opening charter schools. And “social entrepreneurship initiatives” means privatization.

And why would TFA want to privatize education? This part is really really important. It isn’t because TFA is somehow “evil” or whatever. It’s because the people who run it, who have loads and loads of money and power, think that privatizing our schools is the best way to “help” our communities.

But look back at the original photograph here. These people didn’t want to be “helped” by having their schools closed.

Next up: Are nonprofits our frenemies?

Are our schools teaching arithmetic?

My dad the mathematician taught me something important about math. Mathematics has two aspects that go hand in hand: arithmetic and concepts. Arithmetic is basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It’s hard to learn the concepts if you don’t have a good grasp of arithmetic, and it’s boring to learn arithmetic without the concepts. 

Math can be fun. I’m serious here! How come so many people hate it? How come so many women feel like they’re no good at math? 

There are a lot of reasons, but let’s start with ground zero. Arithmetic. How many people have their math facts memorized? I assumed everybody who gets to adulthood has their math facts memorized, and I assumed it was being taught in schools. Now I’m not so sure. 

Here in Seattle there are a lot of the parents I know are paying for math tutoring, particularly for arithmetic practice. Check out this map of Kumon tutoring centers. There are ten centers within nine miles of downtown Seattle. 


Kumon tutoring centers near downtown Seattle

People are paying for something that really should be the job of schools. However, it’s hard for teachers to “squeeze it in.” How could that possibly be? Is it because high-stakes standardized testing has squeezed it out? 

Now take another look at that map, bearing in mind that northeast Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond are the most affluent and whitest parts of this area. Where are these tutoring centers concentrated, and where are they completely absent? There are none in southeast Seattle. Guess it’s not so profitable there. 

This is the “opportunity gap” in action. 

In addition to paying for tutoring, many Seattle parents are practicing math facts at home. This would be fine if kids were also getting it at school. But if they’re not getting sufficient math fact practice at school, then parents who are practicing math facts at home and paying for tutoring are masking a significant deficit in our children’s education. 

This is the opportunity gap in action. 

So I’ve been asking around. Math fact practice is not necessarily a daily event in the classroom. If kids haven’t mastered arithmetic and subtraction by the end of grade 2, they’re not necessarily going to get any more practice, but they will be expected to start learning multiplication, division, and fractions. If they are significantly below standard, they will be eligible for some kind of pullout service, where they get math help but miss the regular curriculum other kids are getting. Plus, the stigma of “not being good at math.” So they fall farther behind. 

This is the opportunity gap in action. 

Now, there’s a lot of talk of “accountability.” High-stakes standardized testing is supposed to hold teachers and schools accountable, isn’t it? Well, it doesn’t work. It punishes teachers if they spend too much time teaching what’s not on the test. And I don’t think that basic math facts are on the test. 

Through elementary school, there are two tests Seattle kids get. One is the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), and it’s district mandated. The other is the Measures of Student Progress (MSP), and it’s state-mandated. The MAP test is untimed, which means that if kids are counting out their math facts on their fingers, that’s fine. As for the MSP, I’ve looked at a practice test  and it hasn’t got much in the way of math facts. It focuses on math concepts and generally uses easy arithmetic. And yet enormous amounts of time and money are spent on these tests. Schools have to give up their libraries for weeks in order for these tests to be given. Schools are rated based on these tests, and the trend is for teacher evaluations to be based at least partly on the results of these tests. 

If parents want math facts to be taught in schools on a daily basis, then we kind of have to stand in line, behind the demands of these tests. 

What’s the answer? To me it’s blindingly obvious. Do these three things.

  1. Take five or ten minutes out of every school day to drill on math facts. But some kids are farther along than others, right? Won’t the kids who already know addition and subtraction be bored? Actually, I think it’s okay for kids to be bored for five or ten minutes a day.  
  2. Take some of the pressure off the teachers. Cut down on the amount of concept material that is required to be taught and eliminate the high-stakes component of standardized tests.
  3. If you’ve got to have insanely expensive standardized tests, at least take part of that test time and use it to measure math fact mastery.

Of course, everybody and their dog looks at schools and thinks they see a massive problem that is blindingly obvious to them. Most people are wrong. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? 

All I know is I’m out of time for today. I’ve got to go drill my son on math facts. 

Playing computer games at school

Starting this year, there’s been an increase in the number of computer games at school. They’re called “educational software,” but that’s debatable. Honestly, I think my kids are learning more from games like Katamari and Plants vs. Zombies.

Here’s an example. Go to ABCya dot com and click on sugar_sugar.htm. It’s a “physics game.” Basically, sugar comes down from the top of the screen and you have to divert it into the right place. That does sound fun and interesting, but marginally educational. I didn’t appreciate my kids coming home from school and wanting to play it. I don’t appreciate having their valuable school time being used playing games, especially when the time they spend in “technology” class is time they used to spend in gym – which is now two days a week.

Here’s something that’s educational, but the ratio of wasted time vs. learning time is too high. STMath dot com. Our school district spent money on it. It’s an “intervention” for struggling students. It teaches math using visual concepts and lets kids progress to the next level when they have “mastered the concept” as measured by their success at correctly answering ten questions with one or fewer mistakes. So, for instance, you know carrying in addition? (That’s now called regrouping, by the way.) It used to be so simple. You line numbers up in neat little columns and follow a pretty simple process that works just as well for ten-digit numbers as for two-digit ones. In this game, though, it’s all based on flower petals. Flower petals represent the ones place, flowers represent the tens place, and bundles of flowers represent the hundreds place. To do the regrouping correctly, you have to count the petals and flowers and bundles accurately and “regroup” them into one number. Now, my second grade daughter knows regrouping. But she can’t “master this concept.” Why not? Because it’s hard to count flower petals that are scattered all over a computer screen!

Meanwhile, I doubt it’s helping the struggling students. They could probably shuffle flowers around, but without direct instruction it can’t be easy to translate this into a concept that can be done with pencil and paper in neat little rows. And if you’re going to have a teacher who can do the difficult job of translating the visual concept into the numerical one, what do you even need the computer program for?

The claim on the website is that “schools which implement more than 50% of the program get fewer students at the lowest performance levels, and more at the highest performance levels. Schools below 50% proficiency to begin with have averaged 15 to 20 point gains in proficiency within two years.” Hard to say what that means. What does it mean to implement more than 50% of the program? How much time is involved? What is the scale being used for this “15 to 20 point gains”? In other words, is this real, or is this rhetoric?

Delving more deeply, I clicked on the page that discusses research done with Arizona schools. (By the way, was this research vetted by a Human Subjects Research committee?) Here’s what it says:

“The grades implementing ST Math on average grew 6.9 points in the percentage of students at level MS or above (student passing standard), as compared to an average increase of 3.6 points for the comparison group (p-value = 0.28).”
So okay, there was a gain as measured by the company that sells the project. Hooray. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that there was no test bias or cheating and that this gain is higher than the standard measurement error and that the company is reporting all the research studies, not just the ones that showed positive results.
That still doesn’t prove the software works, because these studies involved not only the software, but also teachers who were specifically trained in mapping these visual concepts to “connect to the conventional language-based instruction.”
Is it possible that the software had absolutely nothing to do with the gains, and it was the instruction instead? Having an entire school trained in one type of math instruction is rare.
How many hours were put into this software, and how much did it cost, and how much did the trainers cost?
With that money, how many tutors could have been hired? 
Our school districts and school administrators need to be asking these questions. But I don’t think they are. I think they’re looking at glossy charts and making decisions based on numbers that look good. And if that’s true, then it’s up to parents to monitor what kinds of software the school district buys and why. 

Best writing teacher ever

Now that I’ve spent the week complaining about writing curriculum in schools, it’s time to give a shout-out to my best writing teacher ever. It could well be my ability to write with confidence came from him.

Now what’s funny is that he wasn’t a writing teacher. He was my seventh grade social studies teacher. But here’s what he did: he started off every class period with a ten-minute freewrite. It was graded — by quantity, not by content. He came around and looked at our journal entries and gave us a check, check-minus, or a check-plus. But he made a special point that he didn’t read what we had written, which meant we could write whatever we wanted.

I loved it. I wrote snippets of stories, complaints about being tired or hungry, and who knows what all.

Now, that didn’t turn me into a writer. I’ve always loved to write stories, from early elementary school to now, and I would have done it even without that teacher’s help. But would I have written as freely?

I don’t even remember that teacher’s name, but he sure did me a favor. Thank you, teacher.

Is our writing curriculum broken?

Preschool. My son started to write, exuberantly, exultantly.

Kindergarten. More fun with words.

First grade. Chugging along.

Second grade. Dead stop.

What happened? What changed?

We need to know that because it’s not just my son. It’s a lot of kids. It’s a lot of adults. How many people do you know who say, “I can’t write,” or “I’m a bad writer”? How many people do you know who are ashamed to share their writing with other people? What happened to their confidence?

I have two theories. First, when writing began to be graded and evaluated, suddenly it became a Thing you could Fail At. And second, the way grammar and spelling is taught makes writing Ever More Perilous.

Anybody else have any theories?

The sad and frustrating thing about my son is that he’s an advanced learner with just amazing creativity and depth of analysis. You can hardly see any of that from his writing.

He’s been making a ton of improvement in third grade. But you know what I wish? I wish it wasn’t graded at all. Or rather, I wish it was graded on the number of words and nothing else. Or the amount of time he sat and worked steadily, rather than staring off into space with who-knows-what going through his head.

In short, ideally, I would love to have a complete overhaul of writing curriculum. And to throw out some of the Common Core standards as being actively harmful to kids.

Short of that, what should I do???

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin: Some Thoughts

Note: This is an expansion of a book I reviewed on the blog post “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012” on

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin

This YA novel is the dystopia for our time. What happens when you put together No Child Left Behind high-stakes standardized testing with surveillance measures like spy-cams and GPS monitoring of cell phones, and then introduce a company whose product is a single score for every child, which colleges and corporations will then use to sort people?

That is the reality for Imani LeMonde, a high school student whose scores put her on track for a college scholarship — something that is otherwise out of reach for all but the very rich. The scores are supposed to establish a meritocracy to replace our system of inequalities, but something else is going on. Scores update minute-to-minute, and they depend not only on school performance but also day-to-day activities and peer group associations.

Imani’s troubles begin when her score drops precipitously because her friend Cady is kicked out of her house and moves in with a boy. This takes her off the college track, and if her scores drop farther, her only options will be welfare or the military. She has a choice to make — but it’s not the simple moral dilemma of whether or not to denounce Cady to regain her score, because that option is not open to her. Instead, she has to look deeply into the scoring system to understand how it works — and what matters to her.

The society pictured here is not far off the mark. Our teens and children will be subject to more surveillance than we ever imagined. Case in point: school records are kept in “longitudinal databases” where they can be tracked over long periods of time and across school district and state lines. And by school records I mean test scores, tardies, absences, ethnicity, dental records – you name it. (For a sneak peek of the hundreds of items that can be collected, visit

This information is being provided to the private sector without public comment or scrutiny. For example, the Seattle Public School district signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an organization called the Community Center for Education Results, indicating that the district would be sharing its database of student information with CCER. This database excludes “personally identifiable” information about the students according to the federal FERPA law, but because it is so specific, it is potentially identifiable information, particularly if you are nonwhite, use special education services, and so forth. Also, private sector organizations could easily combine this information with other databases.

(Thanks to the mirmac1 for her comment on Feb 21, 2013 on the blog

Just as one example among many, yesterday I went to the Pacific Science Center and visited an exhibit called “Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health and Wellness.” This is a grant and foundation-funded exhibit. As part of the exhibit, children can join the “Academy” by entering information about themselves – first name, school attended, and health habits such as diet and sleep. So now there’s a database about kids per school, and a certain lack of clarity about who will get that information.

Ten years from now, could a prospective employer check the database for these types of information about my children? I bet. Could they get a score? I bet.