Failing Equals Proficiency

The press release at the Newburgh Schools site about improving ELA results contains this gem:

The accountability system, which results from federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation, requires school districts across the country to assess their students in grades 3-8 and at the high school level yearly in mathematics and English Language Arts and to rate them according to Performance Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 with 4 representing advanced proficiency (85-100), 3 representing proficiency (65-84), 2 representing basic proficiency (55-64), and 1 representing basic performance (0-54). Performance Levels 1 and 2 indicate unacceptable performance.

That can't possibly be right can it? "Basic proficiency" used as a label for what old-timers would call a failing grade, for performance which NCLB categorizes "unacceptable".

According to the Accountability Peer Review document submitted by New York State Education Department and available from the federal Department of Education it is indeed possible:

The State has also defined an additional level of achievement: basic proficiency. Basic proficiency is defined as the performance of a student who scores Level 2 on the State assessments in grades 3-8 English language arts, mathematics; or scores Level 2 on a State alternate assessment; or for certain Limited English Proficient (LEP) students grades 3-8 shows Level 2 growth on the NYSESLAT; or scores between 55 and 64 on the Regents comprehensive examination in English or a Regents mathematics examination; or 65 or greater on a Regents competency test.

That about destroys any meaning "proficiency" once had.

English Language Arts Improvement

The Times Herald-Record reports Newburgh School District improving rapidly in English Language Arts and there's a corresponding press release at the Newburgh Schools site. There are a couple of comments on the Record Forum here.

It is no doubt a good thing that a computer in Albany has churned through the numbers and categorized Newburgh Schools' 2006-2007 performance as better than its 2005-2006 performance.

Do the students, parents, and teachers in the district perceive this improvement as well? If so, to what do they attribute the improvement? If not, well, then what do we ask?

Some Huge Problems With The Data Driven Approach

An excellent post titled Can Data Threaten Good Teaching? can be found at the Teacher Leaders Network website.

In order for data to be meaningful, as many variables as possible need to be controlled. If you are to compare students in different classrooms, the instruction needs to be as similar as possible. So as we go forward, if we view the solution to our educational troubles as being the generation of meaningful data, then we will tend to seek to standardize curriculum, instruction and assessment as much as possible, so the data will have the greatest possible validity.

But there are some huge problems with this approach. One large problem is that we are attempting to standardize all these factors in order to generate reliable data. But it is not clear that the new data is substantially better than the data we have had in the past, or that we have interventions that are appropriate responses to the data.

But the bigger question I would raise is the hidden cost of all this standardization. From the edu-technocrats’ point of view, it is no problem to expect the teachers to follow this or that timeline, or use this or that scripted curriculum. But as accomplished teachers, we know there is a huge cost paid by the teacher and students. The teacher has lost discretion to craft a sequence of lessons that reflects her best knowledge and her understanding of her students -- and the students have lost access to her special knowledge, and her ability to respond to their interests, strengths and weaknesses.

I think the standardized teaching model is having trouble. Its flagship vehicle, No Child Left Behind, is in grave jeopardy, and the serious problems of equity in our schools have not been substantially shifted, in spite of the "bright light" high-stakes test data have shone on them. As the model begins to sputter, its proponents look to rescue it by intensifying the standardization, making the systems even more thorough and reliable, unwilling to recognize the flaw in the premise.

The flaw in the premise, from my point of view, is that we are dealing with an immensely complex human enterprise. In a single classroom with 20 learners, we have a wide range of abilities and aptitudes, interests and backgrounds. No matter how good the scripted curriculum, no matter how sophisticated the tests, the decisions made by a strong teacher based on skillful classroom assessment practices will, on the whole, be better than those that would be made as a result of the standardized system.

In order to take advantage of this expertise, of course, you must empower and trust that teacher. You must invest in that teacher (and the development of more teachers like her), and create the conditions that sustain and support her. You can ask her to be accountable, but only if you give her the support and autonomy she needs to be effective and in charge of the learning for which you are making her responsible.

The teaching strategies promoted by the Newburgh School District Central Administration often incorporate this data driven approach. "Curriculum mapping", "Curriculum Alignment", the "Audit of Curriculum", the attempted quarterly district-wide subject tests all tend to view standardization as either something desireable or as a given. How are we empowering and trusting our teachers? How are we taking advantage of their exprtise? How are we encouraging them to develop skillful classroom assessment practices?

Freedom From NCLB

A handful of school districts are turning down federal funds in order to be free of the oppressive provisions of the NCLB Act. The Newburgh School District can probably not afford to do this. However, please consider why some districts are choosing this option. It's not an easy decision to turn down federal funds--these districts honestly believe they can provide their children a better quality education without the burdens imposed by NCLB.

Money left behind

Lincoln Elementary is among a small number of U.S. schools turning down Title I funds -- and gaining independence.
By Susie Pakoua Vang / The Fresno Bee
01/20/08 22:17:30

LINDSAY -- Last fall, one little elementary school in this poor farm town did something startling: it said no to nearly $250,000 in federal funds.

In exchange, Lincoln Elementary gained something its teachers considered even more valuable: more independence.

"We want to do a better job than we've been able to do and we want to do that by being flexible," Principal Pam Canby said.

Lincoln is among a small number of U.S. schools -- no one can say how many for sure -- that have gained flexibility in following federal education mandates by turning down Title I funds.

In rare cases, whole school districts have rejected Title I as a way to opt out of the federal academic accountability system set up by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. But most heed the warnings of state and federal educators who caution that the cost of giving up Title I can be steep.

Hat tip to the Schools Matter blog.

Harsh And Accurate Criticism Of NCLB

An article by Richard Rothstein, nicely summarizes the flaws of the NCLB.
Html version at American Prospect or PDF from Mr. Rothstein's employer, EPI.

Our No. 1 education program is incoherent, unworkable, and doomed. But the next president still can have a huge impact on improving American schooling.

Here are a few interesting comments by Mr. Rothstein at a conference in 2006:

Richard Rothstein, Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute, said, "Nothing can save NCLB unless we jettison the incoherent demand that all students be proficient by 2014." Rothstein focused on what he sees as a fundamental contradiction in the law: "Standards cannot be simultaneously challenging and achievable for all students. Proficiency for all is an oxymoron." Rothstein added that NCLB’s focus on either unachievable or meaningless goals undermines public education: "[the law is] not simply trying to do something good and failing; it is doing enormous damage."

Rothstein and Linn both advocated alternatives to the 100 percent proficiency requirement. Rothstein proposed measuring progress towards elimination of statistical gaps between the scores of various populations of students. Linn proposed measuring progress by looking at "effect sizes" -- increases in the mean score of groups of students.

Manny Rivera, Superintendent for the Rochester, New York School District, concurred, telling the audience of schools in his district that have made great progress and have even won awards for their performance, yet under NCLB's accountability system the schools are considered "in need of improvement." "NCLB's accountability system undermines true educational reform and is a very demoralizing system for those of us working in the schools," said Rivera, who called for locally-based accountability systems and a withdrawal of NCLB’s sanctions on low-performing schools, which he said have no basis in research or evidence.

Failure of Testing

Excellent article from the Santa Barbara Independent. Hat tip to the Schools Matter Blog.

The Failure of Testing to Address Actual Proficiency

My wife had a group of elementary school kids do a scavenger hunt at the Farmers Market to gather fruits and vegetables for a "tasting day" at school. On the morning of the tasting, big banners hung from the cafeteria ceiling for all to see--Tasting Day. A child walked into the cafeteria and visibly slumped, his smile vanished, and his eyes clouded. When my wife approached him, he said, "I thought we were done with testing."

Welcome to the post-accountability No Child Left Behind (NCLB) world, where no child is left untested. Are today’s students better readers and mathematicians than 10 or 20 years ago? Has all this emphasis on content standards, annual testing, and exit exams worked? No. It is time to recognize that the standards-based, test-driven, school-accountability movement has failed. After 10 years, these measures have not improved education.

NCLB is based on the idea that after 12 years of testing and punishment for under-achieving students and schools, 100 percent of the nation’s students will be English and math proficient. For the last six years of NCLB, national reading proficiency has remained nearly flat. Math proficiency has improved, but at the same pace as before NCLB. Now we face a balloon payment of proficiency. For the next six years, students climb the Everest of proficiency, during which all students--regardless of language, ethnicity, economic status, or disability--must rise to 100 percent proficiency.

Given that only 24-34 percent of the nation’s students have been proficient readers for the last 20 to 30 years, it would take a miracle to achieve a national policy of Only Half Our Children Left Behind. On this preposterous road to universal proficiency, we abandoned the idea that education is about more than annual test performance. Millions of tax dollars were given to private test companies like ETS and McGraw-Hill. Art, music, and shop classes vanished. Average class size grew. More kids dropped out.

In 2005, Harvard’s Civil Rights Project conducted a study that tracked California 9th graders during four years to gauge how many received their diploma by the end of 12th grade. Only 71 percent of these 9th graders graduated with their peers. Twenty-nine percent--nearly a third--had disappeared from public school four years later. Minorities fared worst: 42 percent of African Americans, 40 percent of Latinos, and 48 percent of Native Americans did not graduate high school.

No one noticed that the blind academics-only routine was driving fragile, disadvantaged teens out onto the streets. Consider the schedule of a below-proficient high school student: two English classes, two math classes, a science, a history, maybe physical education, and no electives, sports, art, shop, or music. Or consider the teacher--required to teach only specific standards at a mechanical pace. The pace dictated by the "if it’s October, this must be Standard 5" calendar. No adaptation was made for the learning needs of individuals. Teachers were told to teach the test, not students.

Decoupling what is taught from what students know is the single greatest flaw in the accountability movement. Having a common set of standards for every subject makes some sense. It is easy, however, to list everything we’d like kids to know. The hard part is getting them to care about learning it.


The Newburgh School District Contract for Excellence Strategy

This is the second page of the "Needs and Strategies" document submitted by the Newburgh School District (available here).

Contract for Excellence Needs and Strategies 11/8/2007
(snapshot: 11/06/2007)
Overall strategy
In order to improve the achievement of all students in ELA across the district, we have several initiatives, approved in our May
15 Budget vote, that fall into the categories for funding by the Contract for Excellence. Through two successfully passed bond
referendums, we were able to begin implementation of a master plan that included renovations of district buildings and new
additions of two elementary schools that have been in good standing in the NYS Accountability system. This master plan also
includes grade-level reconfiguration that will be completed over a period of years, also part of the Contract for Excellence in
years 2-4.
-Two additions¿Balmville and New Windsor Elementary schools, 14 new classrooms with students transferring from all of the
other elementary schools, thereby reducing class size across the district over three years to 20 students per class. New
teachers are being hired for one new class at each grade level (K-6) as well as for special subject areas, such as art, music,
-New research-based core reading series for all K-6 students (7,000); district-required 90-minute literacy block for all K-6
classrooms, including all SWD as we move towards a more inclusive environment.
-New texts for new secondary courses in Mathematics, Social Studies; focus on reading/literacy in the content areas;
instructional support for new math course to meet new NYS standards.
-New teachers at secondary level including 3 reading/literacy teachers/coaches for AIS at the high school; additional teachers
to extend the school day by one period; expand AIS at the junior highs to provide explicit literacy instruction and infuse literacy
instruction across content areas.
-New Extended School Year program for literacy (K-6), course recovery and literacy (grades 7,8), course recovery (9-12) and
courses in advance (9-12). This extra summer term will allow students to take courses in advance to meet cohort graduation
requirements in four years.
-Extended School Day programs will offer instruction beyond the school day for all students in need of support to meet NYS
Learning Standards.
-Revise and develop existing and new curriculum maps in all subject areas K-12 to provide expanded rigorous curriculum and
instructional practices to facilitate attainment of the NYS Learning Standards. This will ensure appropriate instruction for all
students, especially for ELL and SWD.
-Revise and develop benchmark assessments that will provide frequent progress monitoring to inform instruction at all grade
levels in four core content areas.
-Two leadership coaches will assist principals and assistant principals to become more effective instructional leaders and
improve instruction for all students, especially our underperforming groups in each school.
-2 additional instructional coaches (literacy) for teachers.
-Create/expand partnerships with local labor unions to implement a new construction career academy; and with local hospitals
and nursing homes to expand certified nursing assistant program to create/expand career pathways that will provide
opportunities for students to participate in career and technical education programs that will allow students to complete
requirements for graduation.
-Social workers will provide support services for at-risk students and their families to improve attendance rates that will improve
student performance and increase graduation rate.
-Additional funding for our Young Parents Program will provide quality and affordable day care for their at-risk babies. This
allows the students the opportunity to attend school and complete graduation requirements.
-Retain smaller supportive alternative learning environments and transitional programs to provide challenging academic content
and learning opportunities for our most at risk students. In addition to academic support these environments will provide
restorative counseling and links to community agencies for students and families.
Page 2 of 2

Which of these items will really improve student achievement?

Suppose student achievement does improve. How will we know how much difference any of these items made?

Is there an overall strategy?

Newburgh Schools to Receive Contract For Excellence Funding

There is an article in the November 20 Times Herald-Record, Initiative program helps needy schools, which discusses new New York State funding that will be awarded to selected school districts for the 2007-2008 school year. Newburgh schools will be receiving about $8 million under the plan. Not much detail is provided about the Newburch School District plan in the Record.

More detail can be found in the documents submitted by the Newburgh Enlarged City School District which are available through this New York State Education Department web site. Here is a direct link to the Newburgh Schools documents.

In the "Needs and Strategies" document submitted by the district, Newburgh schools administrators made the unfortunate decision to describe "Student achievement need" using a laundry list compilation of the NCLB deficiencies of schools in the district. All other school districts receiving C4E funding at least attempted to use sentences to describe Student achievement need. Subjects, verbs, stuff like that.

Contract for Excellence Needs and Strategies 11/8/2007
(snapshot: 11/06/2007)
Student achievement need
NECSD ?Status for 2006-2007
I. DINI 3 for Elementary/Middle Level and Secondary ELA
A. Elementary/Middle
B. Secondary
All, B, H, SWD, ED

II. Elementary/Middle Level
A. Temple Hill Academy?SINI 2 for ELA for SWD
B. Meadow Hill Schools??--SINI 2 for ELA for SWD

C. Heritage Junior High
a. Restructuring Year 1 for Math for SWD
b. Planning for Restructuring in ELA for B, H, SWD, ED

D. South Junior High
a. Restructuring Year 1 for ELA for LEP, and Participation for SWD
b. Planning for Restructuring in Math for SWD

E. North Junior High
a. Planning for Restructuring for ELA for B, SWD
b. Corrective Action for Math for B, SWD

III. Secondary-Level
A. Newburgh Free Academy?
a. Corrective Action for Secondary ELA for All, SWD, B, H, ED
b. SINI 2 in Math for SWD
Page 1 of 2

Sentinel Editorial and Response

The Sentinel published a not so well reasoned editorial on October 26. This prompted a spirited response from an elementary school principal in the Newburgh School District on November 9. The Sentinel deserves credit for publishing such a critical response, and for their usually more supportive attitude toward educators, which the response letter acknowledges. The principal has provided a necessary dose of reality and reason to the conversation, well worth a read.

Policy Brief on the Implementation of SES

The excellent Schools Matter blog brings to our attention a Policy Brief on the Supplemental Educational Services program of the NCLB. The brief is published by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and concludes with these recomendations:

Five years after NCLB mandated the SES program, there is very little evidence documenting its effectiveness. Even so, the program continues to receive substantial funding. Until there is better evidence of the effectiveness of these programs, SES should not be required and there should not be a mandated federal set-aside to fund the program. We recommend that the set-aside currently mandated for SES be used to support state school improvement efforts and the implementation of a school’s improvement plan. In this way, schools can be encouraged to adopt evidence based school improvement strategies that can be carefully designed to meet identified educational needs.

If Congress decides, as it debates reauthorization of NCLB, to continue the SES program, we suggest requiring a federally mandated evaluation of the entire program that examines the quality of these programs, documents the instructional benefits of the various providers, and identifies the effectiveness of SES for improving student learning and other noncognitive indicators, such as attendance, graduation rates, and progression through school. Under the current policy, states are primarily responsible for evaluating the quality and effectiveness of SES, but they have not been provided the resources to so. It is unclear that, even with additional resources, states have the capacity to conduct rigorous evaluations and monitor the performance of SES providers. Clearly, providing rigorous research on SES is an appropriate role for the federal government.

Finally, we recommend that SES instructors be subject to the highly qualified teacher provisions that NCLB requires of all other public school teachers and that federal antidiscrimination laws apply to SES providers by specifically identifying them as recipients of federal funding.

Negative Effects of NCLB Stereotyping

Referencing an Ed Week article:

Stanford University psychologist Claude M. Steele made headlines in 1995 with a study that introduced the phrase "stereotype threat" into the national lexicon. Put simply, it’s the idea that people tend to underperform when confronted with situations that might confirm negative stereotypes about their social group.

Jim Horn writes in the excellent Schools Matter blog:

Could there ever be devised a more consistent, hammering confirmation of stereotype for minority children and parents living economically disadvantaged lives: the more you struggle, the steeper the hill gets over time, and the more likely you are to fail the high stakes tests on which NCLB is built?

It is sadly interesting to note, too, that now as we finally start talking about interventions to address stereotypes and the achievement gap, there is a focus almost entirely on psychological interventions--as if the poverty that drives the achievement gap can be fixed by tinkering inside the heads of students and teachers. While surely the psychological space is critical in terms of shaping learning and education, fixation on the psychological can lead to a debilitating blindness to the equally-strong sociological realities that shape children's lives.

Ed Week requires subscription. For some background information on Stereotype Threat try the Wikipedia entry.

Evaluating NCLB

From The Nation, May 2007, by Linda Darling-Hammond...

For an annual cost of $3 billion, or less than one week in Iraq, the nation could underwrite the high-quality preparation of 40,000 teachers annually--enough to fill all the vacancies taken by unprepared teachers each year; seed 100 top-quality urban-teacher-education programs and improve the capacity of all programs to prepare teachers who can teach diverse learners well; insure mentors for every new teacher hired each year; and provide incentives to bring expert teachers into high-need schools by improving salaries and working conditions.

Students will not learn at higher levels without the benefit of good teaching, a strong curriculum and adequate resources. Merely adopting tests and punishments will not create genuine accountability. In fact, adopting punitive sanctions without investments increases the likelihood that the most vulnerable students will be more severely victimized by a system not organized to support their learning. A policy agenda that leverages equitable resources and invests strategically in high-quality teaching would support real accountability--that is, accountability to children and parents for providing the conditions under which students can be expected to acquire the skills they need to succeed.

NYS School Report Cards 2005-06

The New York State "report cards" for the Newburgh School District and individual schools are available from:

The currently available Accountability and Overview Report for the district is AOR-2006-441600010000.pdf

The district status and the statuses of individual schools are important and can affect our schools directly. They are excerpted here. Apparently the 2005-06 results determine the accountability statuses for 2006-07.

NCLB and Curriculum

The Record's Paul Brooks reports that a "Survey finds some mid-Hudson school subjects left behind".

It's terrific that the Record devotes some space to education policy. The impact of NCLB on local school districts should be examined and reported. However, the report this article is about appears to be Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era. While the report is valuable for the information it provides, it's not clear whether any local districts participated in the surveys or interviews used as data sources.

How has NCLB affected curriculum in the Newburgh Schools?

The Record has few facts to share. There is only this puzzling anecdote:

The Newburgh School District is one of six local districts under special attention from the state. The attention brings a "contract for excellence" and some additional money to improve scores.

The money is paying for an additional 25 teachers and the district has wedged another instructional period into the school day by trimming other periods.

"The students are not missing a thing," said district spokesman Tom Fitzgerald. "They are getting another period."

What subjects will the new period stress? English and math, he said.

Link the Record Forum about this article.

Purpose of Public Education

Bush, July 2007:

The economy is going to demand brain power as we head into the 21st century, and therefore now is the time to make sure our 4th graders can read, write, and add and subtract, and our 8th graders are more proficient in math, and when you graduate from high school, your diploma means something. And the best place to start is to measure.

Jefferson, 1810:

I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain its strength. 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be in reach of a central school in it.

Metcalf on NCLB

In this article from 2002, Stephen Metcalf explains how the NCLB Act is designed to meet the needs of business.

The big players now at the education table, some with a considerable financial stake in the new regime, believe that money is best spent on testing and textbooks, rather than on introducing equity into the system over the long term. Meanwhile, thanks to a suave PR campaign, a large segment of the education community takes for granted that the science behind educational research is disinterested and rigorous. Both assumptions prevail in the current legislation; both need to be examined with clarity and skepticism in the years to come.