The Common Core and college instruction

Here is a nice overview of how the new national Common Core standards for K-12 might intersect with college instruction and learning. Here are a brief overview:

Those adjustments, if the Common Core vision is realized, could transform dual enrollment programs, placement tests, and remediation. They could force colleges within state systems, and even across states, to agree on what it means to be “college ready,” and to work alongside K-12 to help students who are unprepared for college before they graduate from high school. In the long run, it could force changes in credit-bearing courses too, to better align with what students are supposed to have mastered by high school graduation. While the effects will be most obvious at public institutions of higher education, private colleges, particularly those with broad access missions, will feel the effects as well.

Still, although a few states have seized the standards to develop “P-20” systems — stretching from pre-kindergarten through graduate school — progress has been slow in many others. In 2010, as the standards were being developed, policy makers touted the effect they could have in bringing together K-12 and higher education. And they pointed out that the ultimate success of the standards, particularly beyond K-12, will depend on whether colleges are willing to change placement and remediation criteria and work together to determine what “readiness” really means.

In some cases, that’s coming to pass. Three years later, proponents for the standards are arguing that they have already changed the way K-12 and postsecondary education interact — at least by putting the leaders of each system in the same room together and forcing states to collaborate.

And there is a little bit of a disconnect between what high school teachers say they are doing and what college educators perceive:

ACT’s most recent survey, released last week, looked at the gap between high school and college expectations for students. It found that only 26 percent of college faculty thought that students entered their classrooms prepared for college-level work. High school teachers gave themselves much higher marks. Nearly all — 89 percent — said they had prepared their students well for college.

There is going to be a lot more discussion about this in the years ahead.

What to do with closed schools

Once schools are closed, what should communities do with them?

One of the thorniest issues (in what is a veritable forest of mess) is what to do with those school buildings once they’re empty. Often, the facilities are in poor shape, with promised renovations put off quasi-indefinitely. Many are located in depressed neighborhoods. And there are only so many developers with the know-how and resources to convert classrooms into condos or a community center.

Then, there are often complex laws that limit who may or may not take over city-owned property. Some cities ban charter schools from moving into empty traditional schools (officials know that moving a new school into an old school can foment frustration with the district); others require time-consuming input from the community. Laws like these can tie school districts’ hands and slow re-development…

It’s not unusual for closed schools to sit empty for years at a time. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report estimated that there were 200 vacant public school campuses in six cities — Philadelphia, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. — alone…

Kansas City isn’t the only place to have found success with school building conversions. In Chicago, one closed school became an Irish American Heritage Center with a library, museum, and regular step dancing performances. In Lansing, Michigan, an elementary school was turned into a hub for technology start-ups; another was converted into a business incubator. The third was reborn as a gym.

It sounds like the biggest issue is for cities to move relatively quickly when schools close and find new uses. In fact, the buildings might even generate a little income that could then help the cash-strapped cities that had to close schools in the first place. But, having no plan simply means communities lose potential opportunities.

With that in mind, what is Chicago planning to do with all the schools they just announced would be closing?

Designing schools to be safer and encourage learning

Architectural Record takes a look at how schools might be designed differently after the December 2012 Newtown shootings:

While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning. Edmund Einy, a principal at GKKWorks, says that what’s been done so far in many urban schools in the name of safety—such as slapping bars on the windows—has had a pernicious effect on students’ morale and performance. Einy’s new Blair International Baccalaureate Middle School, in Pasadena, foregoes bars. But administrators must greet students before they are allowed to go inside, which led GKKWorks to create an entry plaza. “There’s not much more we can do,” he says. “What are we going to do, put kids in prisons?”…

In recent years, glass has become the material of choice for the walls of many schools, which have cottoned to the idea that students will be more stimulated in rooms bathed in natural light. An example—according to Thomas Mellins, an architectural curator—is Ennead Architects’ Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, N.Y., where a transparent façade allows close-up views of ballet and other classes. (Mellins’ exhibition, “The Edgeless School: Design for Learning,” is on view at New York’s Center for Architecture through January 19, 2013.)

For his part, Mellins doesn’t rule out that the shootings may result in design changes; he just hopes law enforcement talks to architects early in the design process. But, Mellins says, “I don’t think safety concerns translate into a simple and direct agenda, like build this way, don’t build that way.”

In a sense, school design has baked-in security concerns ever since the mass school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999. Doors now routinely lock after the first bell. Metal detectors are also common. Possibly, more steel could be used in doors, but “that seems to be sort of in the opposite direction of where schools have been headed,” says architect Jerry Waters, of Portland, Oregon’s Dull Olson Weekes Architects. School buildings make up 70 percent of the firm’s portfolio. Waters adds, “When someone has the intent to kill, I’m not sure if architecture can solve that problem.”

I have multiple questions after reading this:

1. It sounds like there might be different designs based on the primary purpose of a school’s architecture: is it to help encourage learning or to keep kids safe? How much should the two be mixed?

2. I wonder about lockdown procedures in buildings with a lot of glass and open space. Where can students and staff hide if need be?

3. I’m intrigued that there is no reference here to any studies of this issue. Isn’t there any data on what environments are safer? I wonder if this is similar to the zeal that was once expressed in the US and elsewhere for high-rise public housing but these ideas were reversed decades later when the results weren’t as expected. Architectural determinism can be misused.

Narratives of racial segregation in private and public schools in the South

A larger story about segregated schools in the South contains this bit about the competing narratives behind the more white private schools and the more non-white public schools:

According to one narrative, white leaders and residents starved the public schools of necessary resources after decamping for the academy, an institution perpetuated by racism. According to the opposing narrative, malfeasance and inept leadership contributed to the downfall of the public schools, whose continued failings keep the academy system alive.Hury Minniefield is a purveyor of the former narrative. He was one of the first black students to integrate the town’s public schools in 1967 through a voluntary — and extremely limited — desegregation program. He and his two younger brothers spent a single academic year at one of the town’s white schools. “Because the blacks were so few in number, we didn’t interfere with the white students too much and never did hear the ‘n word’ too much,” he said.

Despite his unique personal history, Minniefield does not believe the schools in Indianola will ever truly integrate. “It has not been achieved and it will likely never be achieved,” he said. “It’s because of the mental resistance of Caucasians against integrating with blacks. … Until the white race can see their former slaves as equals, it will not happen.”

Steve Rosenthal, the mayor, takes a different view. He argues that many white families have no problem sending their children to school with black students, but choose Indianola Academy because the public schools are inferior. His two children, both in their 20s, graduated from the academy, where he believes they received a strong education. “I would not have had a problem sending them to public schools had the quality been what I wanted,” he said, adding a few minutes later, “If there’s mistrust, it’s the black community toward the whites.”…

Students tend to offer the most nuanced perspective on why wholesale segregation endures. “It’s because of both races,” said Brown. “No one wants to break that boundary or cross that line. Both sides are afraid.”

And this is tied to larger concerns about segregation in schools throughout the country:

As the Atlantic reported last week, throughout the country, public schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the late 1960s when Indianola Academy opened. In many areas, they are rapidly resegregating as federal desegregation orders end. White families continue to flee schools following large influxes of poor or minority students. And in Indianola, as in the rest of the country, there’s stark disagreement as to why: Whites often cite concerns over school quality, while blacks are more likely to cite the persistence of racism.

As an urban sociologist, I can’t help but think that residential segregation plays into these issues across the country. Schools tend to draw kids from particular geographic areas and people are pushed into and also choose to live in particular places. Whites tend to want to live with other whites while other racial and ethnic groups have higher tolerances for mixed-race neighborhoods. One attempt to rectify this decades ago was busing students to different schools, something my current students tend to recognize best only when I mention the movie Remember the Titans.

But this may not explain all of the story. One way to segregated public schools is to have segregated neighborhoods. Another way is to simply opt out of the public school system. While the narrative about this decision involves a better educational opportunity or having children in a school with particular values, it is still tied to issues of race and social class.

Daily Herald discusses appropriate tablet use in school but misses bigger point: do new tablets help students learn more?

The Daily Herald had an editorial yesterday that argued tablets used by students at school and home need to be used appropriately:

Other districts also have committed to the devices’ use, though some taxpayers might see them as an extravagance. Educators get just as starry-eyed over new technology as the rest of us, and why shouldn’t they? Kids are growing up with lightning-fast change in the electronic tools we use every day. This is the world they know and will need to keep knowing, and schools are adapting.

But how they adapt is key. Without good policies and solid technology plan that includes training and evaluation, the tablet revolution — called “one-to-one” programs by educators — could amount to little more than handing kids high-tech notebooks at best or, worse, free video gaming.

Gurnee Elementary District 56, for one, is rolling out its iPad initiative for middle-schoolers this week and appears to be doing things right by involving parents in a checkout night with consent forms, user agreements, guidelines and a downloadable instruction manual. It cannot stop there, however, nor can administrators be certain those 46-page manuals will be read.

Perhaps the most important way to make these devices as cost-effective as possible is to ensure teachers on the front lines have the training to use them to their fullest and to focus the instruction on learning, not the device.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about the appropriate use of tablets but the key is here in the last sentence of the quote above. Do the tablets and iPads contribute to student learning? It is one thing to suggest students need to learn about new technology. This is helpful in itself, particularly for kids who may not have consistent access at home. And tablets may help students to be more engaged in the classroom. But, there is a bigger question that should be asked here: does using a tablet help students learn math or reading or science or social studies or other subjects better?

TV shows for teenagers show professors as “old, boring, white, and mean”

Here is how college professors are portrayed on television shows for teenagers: “old, boring, white, and mean.”

They may be fictional characters, but their small-screen images may affect students in big ways, says one researcher. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, found that television’s image of the professor is intimidating, uninterested, and generally old, boring, and white. She is scheduled to present a working paper on her research, “The Primetime Professoriate: Representations of Faculty on Television,” this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education…

While previous studies of television have focused on how much time students spend watching TV and not studying, Ms. Tobolowsky looked at the content of those television shows. In her study, Ms. Tobolowsky, who has a master’s degree in film history and criticism and who previously worked in the film industry, analyzed 10 shows that aired from 1998 to 2010 and were geared toward the 12-to-18-year-old demographic group in the Nielsen ratings.

Scrutinizing professors in those shows, she examined characters’ clothing and ways of talking, camera angles and background music, and a variety of other film nuances to break down how enthusiastic the faculty were and how they interacted with students, along with other criteria.

On the whole, she says, professors on the television shows tended to be relatively old, white, and traditional, wearing sweater-vests and sporting graying hair. Young, female, and minority professors on the shows tended to teach only at arts-oriented institutions or community colleges. Most were intimidating or, at the very least, distant, throwing a scare into characters like Matt on 7th Heaven, who worried he’d seem weak if he asked a question in class.

This study seems to suggest that shows for teenagers depict professors as the enemy. While not all teenagers love school, I wonder if this is part of a larger message on television and in movies that the learning part of school isn’t that important while the social aspects, think of the message in Mean Girls, is what really matters. Of course, there is a genre of movies that depicts heroic teachers but these are formulaic in their own ways.

It would be interesting to compare these depictions to how professors are portrayed on shows aimed at adults. I’m reminded of the TNT show Perception that features Eric McCormarck playing a neuroscientist at a Chicago area university. (Disclosure: I know about this show because I tend to catch a few minutes of its opening after watching Major Crimes which I watch because of The Closer.) The show tends to open in this way: McCormack is at the front of the classroom that is full of eager students who are hanging on his every word. At the side of the room is his trusty graduate student TA who occasionally chimes in. McCormack has scribbled all sorts of profound things on the board and then he ends class with a deep question or a witty joke. When the class ends, he quickly leaves the classroom and gets wrapped up in some fascinating case. Sound like a typical college classroom? While the professor here is depicted as a cool young guy, it is not exactly realistic to most college classrooms.

I realize what takes place day in and day out in a college classroom likely does not make scintillating television. Indeed, have you watched DVDs of The Great Courses? Yet, this doesn’t mean there isn’t something worthwhile going on in that classroom that doesn’t require severely stereotyping professors one way or the other depending on the audience.

Sociologist on bigger issues facing Chicago schools: poverty, demographics, segregation

There has been a lot of commentary about unions in the wake of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. But, sociologist Pedro Noguera argues there are three bigger issues that will trouble the Chicago schools and the city of Chicago long after the strike is settled:

President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools…

  1. Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 7 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
  2. Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
  3. Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, 44 percent of schools in the United States are comprised almost exclusively of minority students. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?

I’m glad a sociologist writes about these; we need the big picture in mind, not just the immediate issues of contracts. There are certain things that can be done in school yet there are a number of other factors in society that also affect schools, children, parents, and neighborhoods. Schools are one lever by which we can affect society but not the only one.

Of course, tackling these issues would require going far beyond schools and instead look at the changes that threaten a number of American big cities. Issues like these are not new and have been at least several decades in the making. Would major candidates, say those running for President, be willing to tackle these three issues? Thus far, it is easier to stick to the ideas of education reform…


Summer break widens achievement gap

Summer break may be welcomed by children but research shows that it contributes greatly to the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds:

Consider, first, the evidence for the summer fade effect. Taken together, a variety of studies indicate that students’ academic skills atrophy during the summer months by an amount equivalent to what they learn in a third of a school year, according to a review by Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, and several co-authors.

This deterioration, furthermore, varies substantially by income and race, and its impact persists even past childhood. Barbara Heyns, a sociologist at New York University who studied Atlanta schoolchildren in the late 1970s, found that although academic gains during the school year were not substantially correlated with income, summer decline was.

Subsequent studies have replicated the finding. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that the summer fade can largely explain why the gap in skills between children on either side of the socioeconomic divide widens as students progress through elementary school. Children from all backgrounds learn at similar rates during the school year, but each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind.

The impact is felt even years later. The learning differences that begin in grade school “substantially account” for differences by socioeconomic status in high-school graduation rates and in four-year college attendance, Alexander and his co-authors report.

This article adds some more information:

Many low-income kids actually make great progress in school from August to June, only to see much of it wiped away by an idle summer, he says. “We need to get over ourselves a little bit over our idyllic view of what summer is and what it’s supposed to be,” he adds.

A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that by the time students enter high school, “summer learning loss” accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s achievement gap in reading between poor and middle-class students.

If the evidence is clear, how long until more districts go to reduced summer breaks or year-round school? Overcoming the culture of summer break could be difficult to do. Also, might we have a situation where wealthier districts continue summer break while less well-off districts try to combat this summer achievement decline?

Residents still benefit in paying taxes for schools even with no children

These days, you can find plenty of people who make this argument: I don’t have any children in school so why should I have to pay high property taxes? A sociologist counters this common argument:

In their study, Neal and co-author Jennifer Watling Neal, assistant professor of psychology, analyzed the data from a Gallup survey of more than 20,000 people from 26 U.S. communities from Michigan to Florida to California. As part of the survey, participants were asked how satisfied they were with their communities and to rate the overall quality of their public schools.The researchers found a strong relationship between those who were satisfied with their communities and quality schools. This finding was not affected by gender, age, race, employment status or whether the participant owned or rented a home or had children in school…

Neal said this is likely due to two major reasons:

  • Public schools offer amenities to the entire community such as adult education courses, after-hours computer labs, workout facilities, auditorium space for churches and other groups, and more.
  • Public schools have the more indirect benefit of promoting relationships among neighborhood residents. These relationships lead to issues getting solved – such as broken streetlights, unplowed streets or crime problems – that benefit everyone.

Additionally, good schools are often seen as markers of a good community. I think this is often tied to ideas about class and race: if the schools are good, people think this is due to being in an upscale, quality community.

I would be interested to see if these researchers controlled for the socioeconomic status of the community. Are communities that are wealthier more or less likely to reject additional funding for schools? Are residents who are more able to pay for increased education funding the ones who are most resistant to it?

If all residents do benefit from better schools, what is the best way to pitch educational funding increases? Perhaps you could throw a study like this at them but I don’t think that would be enough…

Sociological study says junk food sales in middle schools don’t lead to weight gain

A new study in the Sociology of Education provides some insights into the current debate over whether public schools should be selling junk food to students:

The authors found that 59.2 percent of fifth graders and 86.3 percent of eighth graders in their study attended schools that sold junk food. But, while there was a significant increase in the percentage of students who attended schools that sold junk food between fifth and eighth grades, there was no rise in the percentage of students who were overweight or obese. In fact, despite the increased availability of junk food, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese actually decreased from fifth grade to eighth grade, from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent.

“There has been a great deal of focus in the media on how schools make a lot of money from the sale of junk food to students, and on how schools have the ability to help reduce childhood obesity,” Van Hook said. “In that light, we expected to find a definitive connection between the sale of junk food in middle schools and weight gain among children between fifth and eighth grades. But, our study suggests that—when it comes to weight issues—we need to be looking far beyond schools and, more specifically, junk food sales in schools, to make a difference.”

According to Van Hook, policies that aim to reduce childhood obesity and prevent unhealthy weight gain need to concentrate more on the home and family environments as well as the broader environments outside of school.

“Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment,” Van Hook said. “They can get food at home, they can get food in their neighborhoods, and they can go across the street from the school to buy food. Additionally, kids are actually very busy at school. When they’re not in class, they have to get from one class to another and they have certain fixed times when they can eat. So, there really isn’t a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they’re in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they’re at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat.”

This study has a big sample of nearly 20,000 students and the findings were so counterintuitive that the authors waited two years to publish the results.

While this study suggests schools don’t contribute to weight gain, it doesn’t necessarily mean that schools should suddenly revert to selling all kinds of junk. At first glance, this could be the sort of study that people worried about the “nanny state” could jump on. For example, see the response of the Center for Consumer Freedom: “Maybe it’s time for the “food police” to educate themselves. All the attempts to limit choices apparently won’t do the students any good.” At the same time, schools can be part of a larger package of social forces pushing for better eating and exercise but they aren’t likely to solve the problems by themselves or by operating in simplistic ways.

I wonder if this points to a bigger issue: Americans expect that schools will be able to even a lot of social ills. In this case, being obese and overweight is a complex issue that schools themselves can’t overcome. As the authors note, there are a lot of other factors at play and by the time students reach middle school, they have already been shaped in significant ways. While education is one of the best ways to promote upward mobility and the opportunity to compete in a rapidly-changing world economy, it is not a silver bullet for all problems. Of course, public policy is limited in what it can feasibly or popularly change and politicians and advocates only have so many levers they can move.

Another thing to note: I wonder how some might see an admission from one of the authors. One author said, “We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn’t there.” Some might be suspicious and wonder if there is an ethical issue: did the authors data mine looking for other connections? Were the authors afraid of how some might respond to their findings? At the same time, scientists can also be surprised by their findings and I would guess they were simply being thorough before exposing their work to the public.