Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Image and Appearance… Education’s top priority?

I repeatedly hear parents in suburban communities brag about their schools.

“It’s the reason I moved to this area”, they say.

“I agree they’re good, but why do YOU think they’re good?” I ask.

The responses almost always point to test scores.

The problem is that in most cases people don’t understand what the scores really mean. It’s not that they are incapable of understanding… it’s that schools rarely provide enough meaningful information.

I wrote about this in an article here:

Detroit News: Many students aren't ready for college (09/10/08)

Schools (and the state) report test scores, but don’t really help parents to interpret them. Oftentimes they’ll report their relative rankings, comparing themselves to neighboring schools, county averages and state averages.

While being “above average” or “among the best” might be an accomplishment, it really says nothing about whether a school is preparing kids for college and it’s really not a meaningful goal.

What it does do is present a positive image. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that… unless it’s the ONLY thing presented. Image might be everything in Hollywood, but it should be secondary in education.

Parents can be excused for not understanding how to parse and interpret the data, but school boards cannot. Schools have an obligation to be candid with parents. And sharing the data – good or bad – creates an opportunity to start (or continue!) a dialog with parents.

It’s a chance to explain the importance of rigor, and relevance of taking challenging classes. It's an opportunity to reinforce the importance of engaging in their child's education.

School boards have – or should have – data on the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, and identify specific ways to increase the percentage of students that meet the benchmarks. Establishing those types of goals, and reporting progress on them would be much more helpful to parents than knowing whether they are “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Also, for clarification, it appears that I incorrectly associated the ACT with The College Board in the print edition when I said, “According to the College Board…” That quotes that followed came from ACT’s material. The College Board is responsible for Advanced Placement courses, which I frequently write about, and they are not associated with the ACT. It was corrected online. Sorry to both organizations!

Here is the full article in case the link doesn't work:


Many students aren't ready for college
Make it easier for parents, taxpayers to gauge whether kids are prepared
Mike Reno

The results are in for the Michigan Merit Exam, which includes the ACT -- a national college entrance exam that's considered a reliable predictor of college success. Rather than take a comprehensive look at the results, most high schools will spend the next month reassuring the public that they're doing a splendid job.

Oftentimes it's an illusion, inviting rebuttal and reinforcing the growing concern that schools are out of touch with reality.

Schools need support. But also they need to admit -- to themselves and to parents -- that there's much to do.

The common approach presents parents with their school's average scores and rankings, and offers no explanation of how to interpret them. Schools atop the rankings are dubbed "high-performing," while everyone else will be reassured their district is "above the state average." These comforting descriptions are designed to make parents feel secure that all is well.

Any mention of disappointing results will include official comments about the difficulty of the test and how parents need to be patient because the test is new. "This is only our second year" or "We need more time" are the usual rallying cries -- as if the idea of preparing kids for college is new.

And no education press release will be complete without the "inadequate funding" potshot aimed at Lansing.

This posturing does nothing to drive school improvement or help our children.

Consider the 299 schools that can boast that their average ACT composite score beats the state average of 18.9. Does that mean those schools are doing a good job of preparing students for college? Who knows? Beating the state average has little bearing -- if any -- on college admission or success.

Knowing how many students met the nationwide average ACT score for incoming college freshmen would be more meaningful. The average freshman score for many universities in Michigan is between 21 to 23 with the highly selective universities accepting freshmen with averages pushing 28 to 30.

Just 60 high schools in Michigan -- out of 722 -- saw their average student achieve a score of 21 or higher.

Another meaningful goal might focus on the ACT college readiness benchmarks. According to the ACT folks, they represent "the minimum ACT test scores required for students to have a high probability of success in ... college courses," such as math, science and English." They are "empirically derived based on the actual performance of students in college."

Mind you, a "high probability of success" means earning a "C" or better in an entry-level college class. Few schools find their average student meeting these benchmarks.

Increasing the percentage able to perform to these minimum levels would be a great goal.

Unfortunately, the state doesn't report the percentage of students meeting these benchmarks. Knowing that data -- especially knowing how many students meet all four benchmarks in English composition, college algebra, biology and the social sciences -- would help parents better evaluate their schools.

Consider that Rochester Community Schools ranks among the top in the state by many measures, and 95 percent of its graduates are college-bound. Yet less than half meet all four benchmarks.

That may mean remedial courses in some subjects -- at the going college tuition rate -- or disappointing outcomes for students who aren't prepared for the rigor of college coursework even though they're admitted.

Really, aside from being self-serving, there's little value in trumpeting the fact that a school is "above the state average" or "top tier."

In fact, such public relations tactics can be harmful because some parents may easily be lulled into complacency.

Parents instead need a wake-up call from their schools. Transparent and informative achievement reporting could be an effective way to get parents more involved in their children's education.

The leadership needs to start with local school boards, which tend to set weak goals and have shallow communications. This is unlikely to change until parents and taxpayers demand candid assessments from these boards and hold them accountable for the results.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The 2008 Algebra Revolution

This is a follow-up to the posting on "Parents lobby to raise the education bar and face hurdles "
The district publicly reported that 135 children opted to take the more rigorous Algebra 1 Course.

I wrote about it in the an opinion piece:

Oakland Press: Parents right to stand up to board (09/05/08)

(by the way, I did't write the headline! I would've called it "Parents stand up for increased rigor!")

Here is the full article, in case the link doesn't work:


In late August — days before the start of school — some Rochester middle school parents connected to press for a critical curriculum change … and won!

This display of parent resolve gives hope that attitudes about education are changing.

These parents recognized the importance of insisting their eighth-graders take Algebra 1, setting higher expectations for their children than those set by the district. Hopefully their actions will inspire other parents, and send a clear signal to educators that it’s time to raise the bar.

The story begins two years ago when State Superintendent Mike Flanagan led the effort to reform high school graduation requirements. It the time, the state expected but a single class in government and one in gym/PE. Requirements have since been updated to what are now among the highest minimum standards in the nation.

Michigan high school students must now take four years of math and English, and three years of science. Graduates must at least complete Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. The state wisely defined the content of each class, preventing schools from circumventing the requirements with inappropriate class names.

The Rochester math curriculum was adjusted to meet new state guidelines, and parents discovered students in the Class of 2013 — incoming eighth-graders — who had taken pre-algebra last year were scheduled to take a “new” prealgebra course instead of moving to algebra 1.

Parents felt their children were being shortchanged. They began calling schools, and contacting the school board. The board president thought they’d be satisfied with answers like; “It will take a couple years to complete the transition from our current math classes to the new classes.”

The district went on to say the “new” pre-Algebra was basically equivalent to the “old” Algebra.

Pressure built as nearly 100 parents attended a board meeting to voice their concerns.

Fortunately, the district superintendent was listening and responded admirably. The district still maintains Algebra 1 might be a stretch for some students, but will give them the opportunity to take it as long as parents take the initiative to “opt in.”

This innovative approach places responsibility squarely back in the hands of parents. Parental insistence on greater rigor allows teachers to insist on a stronger learning partnership with those parents.

Algebra 1 in eighth-grade should not be viewed as “accelerated” in Rochester, or anywhere else. It puts students on track to take Algebra 2 by tenth-grade, thus fully preparing them for their junior year ACT college entrance test, which includes a math component that assesses a significant number of Algebra 2 topics.

It affords students the opportunity to take AP Calculus by their senior year, better preparing them for college.

Some Rochester officials seemed willing to support the status quo by arguing the “old” curriculum would’ve gotten these students to pre-calc by their senior year, and the “new” curriculum — with Pre-Algebra in eighth-grade – would accomplish the same thing.

In fact, it was stunning to hear that the average student in Rochester won’t take Algebra 1 until ninth grade and will only get to pre-calc by their senior year.

By comparison, California has new state requirements that all eighth-graders take Algebra 1. And some studies show that of students who take calculus, more take it as high school students rather than as a college freshman.

Establishing Algebra 1 as an eighth-grade standard, as well as encouraging more graduates to study calculus are relevant and achievable goals that should be embraced by a top-tier district like Rochester. Actually, they’re appropriate goals for Michigan schools statewide.

It’s truly inspiring to see parents send a clear message to school boards that they have higher expectations. Let’s hope it’s contagious!


Friday, September 5, 2008

Parents lobby to raise the education bar and face hurdles

This lengthy rant spotlights a front-line math skirmish that just played out in Rochester. It clearly shows the difficulty in trying to improve public education in Michigan. Identifying new curriculums is really the simple part of the battle. Educating and changing the attitudes of parents and teachers is the tougher part.

Just before the opening of school, the Rochester superintendent published an op-ed,

Rochester Eccentric: As school year dawns, recommit to educational excellence (08/31/08)

Mr. Pruneau advises:

“If you are a parent in the Rochester school system, I would ask you to make school the number one priority for your child. In the global society of today, we need to raise the bar for all of our students, but that means students will have to spend more time about school, take harder courses than they may want (that Advance Placement course is worth the extra effort), and don't let a day go by not asking your child what is going on in his/her school life.”

Heeding that call, mothers and fathers of 8th grade students did just that, requesting that the district place their children in a more rigorous math class, and thus preparing them for higher-level science and math classes down the road. The superintendent was responsive to parents and allowed the option.

I wrote about it in an opinion piece that ran today:

Oakland Press: Parents right to stand up to board (09/05/08)

(by the way, I did't write the headline! I would've called it "Parents stand up for increased rigor!")

The issue centers on basic Algebra, and the adopted changes in the Rochester math curriculum designed to increase rigor and, and align with state requirements.

The Algebra taught by Rochester last year is apparently closer to what the state calls “pre-algebra”. Students who took Rochester’s pre-algebra last year appear to be caught in what one mother dubbed a “math opportunity gap”, in which their skills fall somewhere between the “new” Pre-Algebra and the “new” Algebra 1.

The question is whether students should take the new pre-algebra, which will repeat some material, or if they should move ahead to Algebra 1, which is likely be a more challenging course.

In light of these changes, and hoping to expand their children's learning opportunities, parents asked for options, and the superintendent supported that idea.

However, it seems everyone didn’t get the superintendent’s “raise the bar” memo.

Eighth graders came home the first few days of school, telling parents they were being advised that the new Algebra 1 class would be WAY over their heads. Students told parents, and parents told other parents, creating a sea of mixed messages in play.

A packed informational meeting designed to share details unfortunately deisintegrated into a confusing “fright-night”. One math teacher – not part of the official program – took the floor and shared her opinion that, “Unless your child prefers math homework over soccer, this class is not for them.”

Other teacher comments I heard included:

* “Nobody but the true math geeks take calculus as a junior.”

* It’s “crazy” that kids might “be forced to take a math class at a University in their senior year”.

One teacher suggested that reaching pre-calc by a student’s senior year was “good enough”.

Again, these comments were not part of the official presentation, but they were effective in discouraging and scaring parents. And while their opinions might be based on legitimate concerns, it would’ve been much more professional to present them in an objective, and unemotional manner.

For it’s part, I wish the district had offered a more clear and concise explanation of the differences between these various algebra curriculums. Better yet, the district – and objective math teachers – could’ve offered a plan showing how much additional learning support these students would need if they step up to the challenge of Algebra 1, as well as a list of how much overlapping content they’d face with the "safer choice" of the "new” pre-algebra.

Absent a lack of clarity, and influenced emotionally by the unofficial generalization that “this math is SO hard” and "will set your kids up for failure", some parents left more confused, frustrated, and unsure than ever.

Incredibly, some even questioned why the more rigorous course would even be OFFERED!

Relevant thoughts notably absent from the discussion that night:

* There was nothing to balance the message that “your child is ill-prepared and likely to fail”.

* There was no mention of the fact that there are online resources available with these new texts that can provide additional support.

* There was no mention of the fact that Rochester does have some outstanding math teachers that are more than capable of teaching the new curriculum.

* There was no discussion about how neighboring districts have plenty of seventh and eighth graders taking “true” Algebra 1.

And while Rochester may not have many juniors taking AP Calculus, it’s not uncommon at all in districts such as East Lansing, Bloomfield Hills, Forest Hills, Birmingham, and Troy. And, it’s commonplace in schools like Marion, Brother Rice, Cranbrook, Country Day, and Greenbriar.

Let me be clear: I’m in no position to evaluate which math class is best for any individual child, and I’m not trying to “sell” anyone on anything. But it is very discouraging to see emotional appeals sabotage the genuine interest parents had in seeking more rigor and opportunity for their children. My purpose in spotlighting this issue is to demonstrate one of the biggest challenges facing public education today: motivating students, parents, and teachers to reach higher.

It would’ve been inappropriate for me to speak out at the meeting. But what I would’ve liked to have pointed out is that we live in competitive and challenging times, which undeniably requires higher standards and expectations. We need to make sure students are prepared for that challenge. Other districts – many other districts – successfully shepherd students through the very same “new” math curriculum adopted by Rochester, and begin with Algebra 1 in middle school. Rochester children will be competing with them – as well as children from China and India – for seats at Michigan’s colleges and universities.

I simply cannot understand why some believe Rochester students and teachers are not up to the task.

Again, let me be clear: when asked, the only advice I’ve ever given is that parents talk with their teacher and look for clear, objective, unemotional explanations of why the teacher believes this specific student is prepared – or not – for Algebra 1.

If all they're told is, “It’s hard because I said it’s hard”, then perhaps parents might consider looking at this important decision in the same way they would a proposed medical procedure or treatment. In medicine, we get a second opinion – from someone other than the doctor’s partner – hoping to get a complete picture. It’s prudent, and is not disrespectful to your doctor.

After the fear-mongering I heard the other night, a second opinion might be a good idea.

A former teacher wrote to me and shared what they thought would’ve been a much more effective message from teachers:

"Hey, it's a transition to a totally new textbook. There are differences in the two texts.

If your child takes the Pre-Algebra before the Algebra I, then we can assure you that while there will be repeated material, that your child will get adequate and thorough coverage of all the different material before advancing to Algebra I. If your child has struggled, takes longer to pick up on a concept, is easily frustrated by math, is involved in activities that preclude lengthy homework assignments, if your child has no intention of advancing beyond the minimum required Algebra II in high school, or is not willing to put forth a reasonable effort, then this is the best option for you. Realize the highest your child can achieve is pre-calculus.

If your child opts for Algebra I, then understand they will be expected to work at an accelerated rate to cover both the material that is unique to the new textbook series and also the Algebra I material. I as a teacher will do everything to support and teach your child and make them successful. This will not be a class for slackers. Your child will need to work. We will be going at a faster rate but it will give them the opportunity to achieve AP Calc by senior year. But I will always be available to your child and your child's success will be my top priority."

Advice like that, coupled with a meaningful discussion of an individual child’s specific math skills, might be just what the doctor ordered!