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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Limits of Educational Software

So if you control for the variables you know help students achieve, your study of (fill in the blank) shows no significant gain due to (fill in the blank). In this case the blank is filled by the darling of grant funders everywhere, technology, specifically education delivered by computers.

For the second year in a row, a controversial $14.4 million federal study testing the effectiveness of reading and math software programs has found few significant learning differences between students who used the technology and those taught using other methods.
“These studies are intended to wash out all the variation in school environments, teacher quality, resources­—all the things that we, in fact, know make a difference when it comes to student learning,” said Margaret A. Honey, a technology expert who is the president of the New York Hall of Science.

In other words, students who do well with the educational software were doing well anyway, probably because of the school environment or teacher quality or other known predictor of student achievement.

Technology is way over-rated. Consider the mathematical concept of place value. Teachers can design an activity that involves students boxing objects into groups of ten, and then packing ten boxes into a case, then stacking ten cases on a crate. I have such an activity with pinto beans. Students keep a columnar tally as they fill each “box” with beans. One rule of the game is that there can be no partially filled boxes, cases, or crates.

Subtraction is modeled with the same manipulatives. Students must often unpack a crate or a case or a box do complete the subtraction. If, for example, students must open a case in order to subtract boxes, they must empty the case entirely and stack all ten boxes with however many full boxes they already have, all the while keeping a columnar tally. If students have 2 crates, 4 cases, 3 boxes and 6 loose beans and want to “fill an order” (subtract) 4 boxes, they must empty a case. Now they have 2 crates, 3 cases, 13 boxes and 6 loose beans. We do not worry about conforming to the standard algorithm when we model on paper the actual mathematics of the task.

I once had a group of education students do the same activity on computer using a Java applet. Among other features, the applet used a rope tool to surround 10 loose objects and a box tool to pack into full boxes. I asked the students to compare the educational soundness of each activity. They quickly observed the “magical” aspect of the computer version. The concrete activity was real. Students could easily see how boxes were filled because they physically filled the boxes. The computer converted a lassoed group of objects to a box by some mystical means. At least, it may seem mystical to a child of the target age group.

Computers compromise sensory experience. No matter how 3D the graphics, the display is essentially two dimensional relying almost exclusively on the visual. Brain scientists might say the concrete activity forms more neural pathways by utilizing more of the five senses.

Paradoxically, some computer animation looks amazingly real. I often wonder how unhealthy a reliance on computers might be. At least in the days of Captain Kangaroo, small children could easily distinguish the real from the unreal. At a age when children are known to confuse reality and fantasy, can it really be a good idea to deliberately smudge the line between the two? Could computer animation undermine the development of analytical ability when the child's own senses cannot be trusted? When painted pictures of squirrels on cardboard placard danced around on Captain Kangaroo, no child was led to conclude that squirrels actually do hip-hop. The cardboard squirrel was obviously unreal. Can the same be said for the squirrel in the famous commercial doing a fist pump after causing a car accident? Will our children think less critically and be more vulnerable to scams?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Charter School Misconceptions

A post about charter schools is sure to scare up the usual litany of misconceptions. As long as ideology drives the debate, then nothing anybody says matters. Each ideologue cherishes their own set of misconceptions.

Charter schools are private schools, or at least, a variation on private schools. Less money goes to public education when charter schools are operating, with the result that public funding can be reduced.

The word “public” in the phrase “public school” means publicly funded. Parents do not pay tuition. In fact, charters schools sponsored by a public entity such as a traditional public school or the county office of education, usually operate on 85% of the per-pupil funding of the traditional public school. The sponsoring entity retains 15% of the funding, ostensibly to pay for stuff charter school parents do not use, such as busing. Some of the 15% also pays for support, such as having the charter school payroll handled along with the payroll for the public entity.

Critics of charter schools recognize the public nature of charter schools when they worry that a churchgoing principal of a charter school is deceptively running a private religious school on the public dime. No one similarly charges the churchgoing principal of a traditional public school. Now I will admit that some founders may have hoped that they could get public funds for their private religious schools by going charter. Even if they successfully secure their charter, the religious aspect immediately goes by the wayside. Typical religious private or parochial schools have weekly chapels; charters cannot.

Charter schools do not have to accept every student. Public schools must take everyone.

The charter for every single charter school by law must contain the standard non-discrimination clause. Many states mandate the exact language of this clause. Charter schools take every student they can on a first-come, first-served basis. Some fortunate charters have waiting lists, but most take all comers. Their funding is based on enrollment numbers just like traditional public schools. Would that our public schools were as desirable as the need for a lottery at some charters indicates.

Charter schools “skim the cream.” Charter schools can expel disruptive students. Public schools cannot.

Public schools routinely kick out extremely disruptive students.  My local school board has expulsion hearings about twice a week.  Because actual expulsion would put the expelled students on the street with way too much free time, such students are not actually expelled in the classic sense, but are sent to alternative education, community schools, the county independent study program or charter schools. Some charter schools specialize in these students.

Charter school are less likely to offer special education services because it costs too much money and the schools are too small.

I do agree that there are fewer special services.  Yet charter schools may have special ed teachers, and if an aide has been assigned to a student, the aide will accompany the student to charter school classes just as readily as to classes in a public school.  Public schools, while providing many more social services than when I was a child, are failing to provide other basic services because of cost.  The most conspicuous example is the school nurse.  In my day, every school had a full-time nurse who had her own office with a couple beds.  Today, one nurse may be responsible for multiple schools.

Charter school teachers are unprepared and unqualified. If qualified, they tend to be inexperienced novices because charter schools pay less than traditional public schools.

What every teacher knows is that public schools tend to hire newer, less experienced teachers over more experienced teachers because of cost. What often happens is that the more experienced teachers will work at a charter school for less pay. Such a situation happens when teachers move their household to a new district. These out-of-district teachers find themselves virtually unemployable in the public schools.

Most credentialed private schools require their teachers to be certified if only to avoid paying the fine for hiring uncertified teachers. I have seen private schools lay off uncertified teachers for the year they are renewing the schools credential. I have also seen private schools pay the fine as the cost of keeping an excellent uncertified teacher.

Half of the teaching staff of many urban or rural traditional public schools may be uncertified. Funny thing is certification is a very poor predictor of teacher quality. Certification only certifies the teacher has completed the state-mandated indoctrination, usually at a college of education. Most colleges of education give short shrift to proven educational philosophies such as Montessori or Waldorf, among others.

Charter schools lack oversight and accountability.

I also agree that sometimes oversight can be a problem. Regardless of the official accountability mechanisms in place, practically speaking, parents handle academic oversight ad hoc. They expect results for their extra effort, or they pull their children. Some charter schools have had their charters pulled for financial hanky-panky.

Charter schools cheat on tests so their scores will look good.

In the beginning charter scores tended to be better than the traditional public schools. Over the years considerable regression toward the mean has occurred so that now there is no significant difference in scores on the aggregate. Teaching to the test plagues charter schools AND traditional public schools.

The existence of charter schools threatens the existence of traditional public schools.

Charter schools are public schools.  If traditional public schools want to diffuse the so-called threat of charter schools, they could do so by providing a superior alternative.  If parents thought they were getting a superior result in the traditional public school, they would not expend the extra time, effort and personal cost to send their children to a charter school. They would happily send their children to the local public schools.

But most parents do not have the luxury of, in their perception, sacrificing their child's short window of academic opportunity to political or ideological considerations.  If motivated parents believe the local traditional public school compares unfavorably to the local charter school, it is quite understandable they would choose the charter school or even other alternatives, such as private schools, or homeschooling.

There are excellent traditional public schools and there are failing traditional public schools. And there are merely satisfactory traditional public schools. There are excellent charter public schools and there are failing charter public schools. And there are merely satisfactory charter public schools. As Dr. P.L. Thomas observed, "Evidence on charter schools, public schools, and private schools all produce a RANGE of quality. There is no evidence that "charterness," "publicness," or "privateness" is the reason for any differences, be it positive or negative." Here is another effort to debunk the persistent myth that from the beginning the entire purpose of charter schools has been to destroy public education.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Charter School Good News, Bad News

A new study of charter schools will vindicate some and disappoint others.

In the last seventeen years since the first charter school opened in 1992, 4000 charter schools educate over one million students. So far most studies have managed to harden preconceived notions.

Supporters argue that charter schools can improve student achievement and attainment, serve as laboratories for innovation, provide choice to families that have few options, and promote healthy competition with traditional public schools (TPSs). Critics worry that charter schools perform no better (and, too often, worse) than TPSs, that they may exacerbate stratification by race and ability, and that they harm the students left in TPSs by skimming away financial resources and motivated families.

The study sought to answer four questions:

(1) What are the characteristics of students transferring to charter schools? (2) What effect do charter schools have on test-score gains for students who transfer between TPSs and charter schools? (3) What is the effect of attending a charter high school on the probability of graduating and of entering college? (4) What effect does the introduction of charter schools have on test scores of students in nearby TPSs?

Characteristics of Charter School Students

Charter schools do NOT skim the cream.
We find no systematic evidence to support the fear that charter schools are skimming off the highest-achieving students. The prior test scores of students transferring into charter schools were near or below local (districtwide or statewide) averages in every geographic location included in the study.


...students entering charter schools often have pretransfer achievement levels lower than those of local public school students who have similar demographic characteristics.

My own experience with charter schools supports the study's finding. Many parents pull their children from the traditional public school and enroll them in a charter school precisely because their children are not doing so great. Far from picking and choosing their students, charter schools will accept every child. In fact, the charter school law of most states requires charter schools to include in their charter document language that explicitly forbids exclusion on all the typical grounds.

Effect on Test-Score Gains

Because the study's authors could not locate baseline scores for kindergarten age children, they hesitate to overgeneralize. They have more confidence in data gathered from charter schools that begin accepting students at later ages.

In five out of seven locales, these nonprimary charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local TPSs.

Older studies consistently found superior results for charter school students, but those studies may have been flawed, or the exploding growth of charter schools has been accompanied by that bugaboo, regression toward the mean. Poor performance of charter school students has been associated with virtual delivery of education, but the authors have no confidence in forming any generalizations. More work must be done to identify possible idiosyncratic characteristics of students or their parents who choose virtual delivery. The educational implications of the technology itself also merit further research.

Likelihood of Attending College

Charter school students are significantly more likely to attend or graduate from college than students from traditional public schools. Given the flat difference in test scores, perhaps parents of charter school students have higher expectations for college attendance. Certainly, charter school parents are more likely to have invested substantial time and effort in their children's education, if only the daily grind to drive the kids to school every day.

Charter schools do not necessarily have to provide the one-stop comprehensive education experience usually expected of a traditional public school. Parents often make the extra effort and pay the extra expense to supplement the charter school program.

Charter School Effect on Neighboring Traditional Public Schools

None, one way or another.

There is no evidence in any of the locations that charter schools are negatively affecting the achievement of students in nearby TPSs. But there is also little evidence of a positive competitive impact on nearby TPSs.

Charter schools receive money on the same basis as traditional public schools—according to enrollment. What may surprise some people is that charter schools are often required to educate their students on 85% of the public funding allowed per child enrolled. The other 15% goes to the sponsoring school district supposedly for infrastructure costs that do not benefit the charter school. An example of an infrastructure benefit the charter school does receive may be payroll services for its employees. An example of an infrastructure benefit the charter school does not receive may be school bus service. The charter school must pay a share of the transportation costs even though none of its students takes the bus.

I know of situation where, at one time, the sponsoring traditional public school had 150 students while its charter school had 600 students. Thus the traditional public school got funding as if they had 240 students without the costs of the additional 90 students (6.67 charter school students equals 1 traditional public school student). Mountain Oaks Charter School started out as the independent study department of the Calaveras County Office of Education.

The researchers identified possible shortcomings and recommended further research.

Finally, one of the most important implications of our work for future research on charter schools is the need to move beyond test scores and broaden the scope of measures and questions examined. Our estimates of positive charter-school effects on high-school graduation and
college entry are more encouraging than most of the test score–based studies to date (including our own test-score results). Future studies of charter schools should seek to examine a broad and deep range of
student outcome measures and to provide evidence on the mechanisms producing positive long-term impacts.