Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What else contributes?

The 2007 Expect Success Annual Report reveals academic gains for OUSD students since 2002.¹ Gains are very important, but shouldn’t a narrowing of the achievement gap be demonstrated by now since there have been so many local, state and federal efforts over the last several years to make schools “accountable” for educating ALL students? My look at OUSD's Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO’s) from 2002-2007 showed that test scores have increased, but that the achievement gap actually increased as well.²

As far the overall increase in test scores goes, I thought it would be wise to sort out the internal factors (such as the initiatives of Expect Success) from the external factors (like the state and federal demands). I speculated that, at the least, gains have been due to standardization efforts. Then I thought I would get the opinion of Steve W., a veteran OUSD teacher who has an extensive body of knowledge about testing. Not only does Steve understand the testing process and how to interpret the data, but he would NOT have a motive for inflating the data for PR purposes. It was inevitable that his comments would add useful layers to help explain what is really going on.³

Steve believes that the Academic Performance Index (API) is a better indicator than AMO’s for looking at improvement because it factors ALL student levels into its formula. As Steve explained, “…looking at the AMO only counts the number of students Proficient and above, so if a group had lots of students just below the Proficient level, that group would be more likely to show improvement than a group where most of the students are Below Basic…” This point makes sense. I originally chose the AMO’s because those figures are the ones that NCLB looks at for determining a school’s future; they supersede the API, the state's measure of accountability.

Steve said that by looking at the AMO's, “…better performing groups would show a bigger increase in the percent of students Proficient than lower achieving groups.” This insight explains what I originally found.

So, using the new information from Steve, I thought I’d compare the API figures of 2002 and 2007. Here is what I discovered:

1. The achievement gap between Asian and African American students increased 31 points. The gap was 145 points in 2002 (684 minus 539) and 176 points in 2007 (778 minus 602).

2. The achievement gap between White and African American students increased 13 points. The gap was 267 points in 2002 (806 minus 539) and 280 points in 2007 (882 minus 602).

3. The achievement gap between Asian and Latino students decreased 28 points. The gap was 190 points in 2002 (684 minus 494) and 162 percentage points in 2007 (778 minus 616).

4. The achievement gap between White and Latino students decreased 46 points. The gap was 312 points in 2002 (806 minus 494) and 266 in 2007 (882 minus 616).

When analyzing the achievement gap using API scores, the picture is brighter for Latino students. For African American students the news is still not good. The achievement gap between the African American and the Asian and White subgroups has increased over the past several years. When comparing Latino students to African American students in 2002, Latino students had the lower API (494 to 539). The 2007 results show that they have now surpassed African American students (616 to 602).

Steve explained that, from observing for a number of years he has learned that, “... there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between education program changes and test scores. Just when you think you have a pattern figured out, the next year’s data doesn’t support your hypothesis.” He mentioned other things that are never publicized but are definitely part of the picture, for instance, “Fair measurement is also made more difficult because the tests are not the same every year.” Changes in the way tests are scored can also affect the numbers. Steve's example was about seventh grade writing test scores which shot up throughout the state last year. He subsequently learned that, “…the state had changed the weighting it gave to mechanical errors in scoring the tests, so the improvement was not a sign of writing [improvement], it was a sign of the scoring getting easier.”

Steve describes other contributors that may have increased test scores over the years, for instance, eliminating practices that used to depress test scores previously, such as “…telling students that the tests don’t matter or having students test too long each day.” Also playing a role is the heightened awareness on the part of parents, students, teachers, etc. about the importance of these tests. Additionally, teachers are better able to prepare the students for the tests because they are more familiar with the format and content of the tests. And of course, textbooks are also better aligned to the tests.

Steve’s concluding opinion is that “… most of the improvement in test scores is artificial, based on changes in how components of the tests are weighted and not real improvements in students’ knowledge…” and adds, “… the jury is still out on the question of whether some of it reflects real improvement.”

As far as OUSD subgroups go, he wonders if “… some of the gains for Hispanics and Asians represent a decrease in the percentage of students in those groups who are recent immigrants.”

As far as the smaller gains for African American students, noticing that this group had the biggest drop in enrollment between 2002 and 2007, Steve suggests the likelihood that a set of African American families with higher incomes removed their children from OUSD by moving out of Oakland during this time and adds, “If you remove some of the highest performers from any group, that group’s scores will suffer.” The inverse would be true, too, and is one indisputable rationale that solidly counters the fantastic claims of certain charter schools. The frank discussion of this factor is too frequently avoided.

So who knows where things stand after all? If we're going to fixate and judge schools by numbers that supposedly reflect gains, or stagnation, in student performance, wouldn't it be nice if more of the subtle factors that influence these numbers were objectively presented in reports to the public?

¹ The figures are on pages 11 and 12. Read the report at http://public.ousd.k12.ca.us/docs/13668.pdf.

² “Who would have guessed?” Perimeter Primate posting (May 11, 2008)

³ Comment #23 on The Education Report, entry for May 13, 2008, “The elephant in the race.” http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2008/05/13/the-elephant-in-the-race/

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Poetry: Arithmetic Lesson

This week the Oakland Tribune is doing a series of reports called “Oakland Homicide 2007.” The articles take a closer look at crime in my city from many different angles. To read them please go to http://tinyurl.com/59u228.

When I started working at the middle school, I immediately started to feel connected with my husband’s work as a criminal defense attorney. I knew that some of the playful 11 or 12-year-olds who would pass by my room everyday would eventually be arrested and thrown into jail. It seemed predictable that my husband, or someone like him, would be interviewing them before too long, maybe in five, ten, or fifteen years.

Because I was new to this world, it was sad to realize how much pain and suffering these children were going to experience or inflictin the coming years. Of course, pain and suffering often begets the same.

Lawyers must be cautious; they do not often reveal things about their work. This simple poem is a tiny peek into their world. The speaker could easily have been one of these kids' dads.


by George Higgins

I aint gonna do another 16 months.
That bitch expects me to take another pro-
bation; what’s she been smoking? Once
she gets me there it’s time to bend over so
what’s my choice if she won’t go…
I can’t be spending time up here over this
chicken shit. You know it’s just a slow
boat to the joint so should I just let her piss
all over me? And why can’t she give me low
term instead? It is low term says who?
I been doing this longer than you been…
Okay, okay I’ll take the 16 months to
shut you up. I know there ain’t no way I can win.
Let’s just get this shit over with. You know
how much back time I got, how much I owe?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

(School) climate change

Last week I posted the following message about neighbors, neighborhoods and local public schools to the Oakland Public School Parents and my local Laurel Village Yahoo groups:

On my short one-and-one- half-block stretch of street in the Laurel district where we have lived for 20 years, there are currently seven families with school aged children. None of them send their kids to the local public elementary school. Some attend private schools and some attend OUSD schools in the hills. This has been the predominant pattern for many families in this neighborhood for years, street after street after street. I know this goes on in many places throughout Oakland.

Last summer, one neighbor told me that he didn’t want to send his kindergartener to Laurel Elementary because it was a “failing school.” I later checked the California Department of Education website and learned that Laurel Elementary was not in Program Improvement, and it never had been. My neighbor had been completely wrong.

Last year, the school’s API was a very respectable 778. At that time it was 35% African American, 40% Asian, 17% Latino and 4% White. It was also 78% Socioeconomically Disadvantaged. These demographics do not reflect our neighborhood; we are much more White and much more economically advantaged.

White parents who are concerned about test scores can take a look at Asian student test scores to get an idea of how their children would perform. The achievement gap is a national phenomenon with White and Asian kids scoring higher, on average, than African American and Latino kids. OUSD schools are no exception.

According to last year’s figures, the percent proficient for Asian students at Laurel Elementary was 65.2% for English Language Arts (not bad considering the fact that many are from non-English speaking homes) and 80.4% for Math. These are also very respectable scores.

Shifts in the reputations of a number of non-hills OUSD elementary schools have been occurring over the past few years. Peralta Elementary and Glenview Elementary are the ones that come to mind. I recently learned from a good source that Sequoia is definitely on its way “up.” The schools that are shifting have primarily been in transitional neighborhood zones (areas on the interface between higher and lower poverty neighborhoods) such as our own. These neighborhoods have many young families because this is where they are more likely to be able to afford a home.

A Yahoo group would be an excellent way for young families in the Laurel to connect with one another, hopefully by the time their kids are about three. Knowing your child’s future classmates and their parents would be a very reassuring thing. I wish that a network such as this would have existed when our older daughter was in pre-school and we were trying to navigate these difficult issues on our own. I’ve heard that there was an effort to develop something like this in the Laurel district, but I don’t know how much progress was made.

I would also urge young families to join the Oakland Public School Parents listserv so they can listen in on the conversations about our public schools. Just go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaklandpublicschoolparents/

Over the years, I have acquired a very solid understanding of how to access school data and how to interpret the information. I would be more than happy to share my knowledge with a group of young Laurel neighborhood parents. Knowing the facts may help you unravel the truth from the fiction as you are trying to make your decisions.

The posting stimulated a response from a young mother who lives in the Laurel district. She said:

“Hello, I'm a mother of two (4 and 1) living in the Laurel school district. I am new to this list and am thrilled to find all of this very useful information. While I'm obviously concerned about the quality of education that our neighborhood schools provide, I must admit that I am more concerned about the environment and safety of our children. Is there anywhere to find out how many violent incidents or reports of weapons each school has? Is this public information? Thanks again for all the great information, it is very encouraging to hear so many parents are happy with their neighborhood schools.”

This mother’s specific concerns about the “environment and safety of our children” in Oakland's public schools – over those of the quality of education children might receive in those schools – echo those of other parents in Oakland. Parents continually express this lack of confidence in the public schools by moving out of town, or by sending their kids to schools somewhere else. I am convinced that OUSD’s passivity with confronting this singular issue is the biggest problem our district has. To answer this mother’s question, I posted the following message:

The nature of the environment and issues about safety at a school are called "school climate." The concern of prospective parents about the "school climate" at OUSD schools is probably the biggest barrier to voluntary enrollment. I wish this fact was talked about more and that the district would be more proactive about addressing these totally justified concerns. If they did, more families would probably use the public schools.

Here's how to get information about suspensions, truancies, etc. as they are tracked for official records.

1. Go to http://www.cde.ca.gov
2. In the navy blue bars above Jack O'Connell's head, click on "Data & Statistics"
4. Underneath Highlights, click on DataQuest under Highlights
5. Under Select Level, click on "School"
6. Under Select Subjects, click on Expulsion, Suspension, and Truancy
7. Click on Submit
8. Follow the instructions for entering a portion of the school's name
9. Select the correct school in the correct district
10. View data of your choice

Keep in mind that a fair number of the cases at any school are caused by individuals who are repeat offenders. Also, keep in mind that the "players" in fights often know each other and are engaging in mutual combat. Fighting does not always mean that an innocent bystander is attacked by an aggressor.

Many of the kids who use mutual fighting to solve their problems have not been taught alternative verbal methods in their homes. From my experience, kids from homes where physical fighting is taboo -- and unnecessary -- often avoid getting involved with these situations entirely. On the playground they're busy playing with their friends who are also more oriented not-to-fight. This set of kids is more capable of using their words to solve problems and are less likely to feel the need to provoke and challenge each other by fighting.

I encourage prospective parents to have the school climate data on hand when they meet with a principal. Ask the principal to discuss your safety concerns with you. Ask to see their discipline policy. Hopefully the response they give will be reasonable and reassuring.

Many principals are working hard to make their schools better and would love to have the children of strong families enroll at their schools.

Here is something else I would like to belatedly add:

It is a benefit to any school when it has plenty of kids enrolled in it who aren’t inclined to physically fight. The kids who do tend to fight will have fewer other “fighters” to engage with. They will also be exposed to other modes of behavior (like NOT needing to fight) and the school climate will improve for all.

Some children are coached about fighting at home by family members and friends. Rather than being taught that fighting is taboo, they are taught that it is a preferred method for handling interpersonal conflicts. They are taught that it is an acceptable method for earning respect and establishing one’s status. This instruction may even be done by decent parents who view fighting skills as essential for their children to have. They believe, perhaps quite justifiably within the context of their community, that having those skills helps their children cope with peripheral peers who are prone to violence.

Part of the picture must be connected to the fact that some families have more limited vocabularies than others. A refrain often used by middle-class adults at playgrounds and preschools when they need to intervene in an escalating conflict between battling three-year-olds is, “Use your words.” I doubt that this phrase, and the persistence with enforcing its message, is as present in poor and working-class settings. The possession of a larger vocabulary must certainly increase the capacity for anyone to express their feelings more accurately, and to negotiate their conflicts more skillfully.

Richard Rothstein in “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (2004) cites many studies which describe the nature of the vocabulary gap in children. One of them shockingly reported:

“... two researchers from the University of Kansas visited the homes of families from different social classes to monitor conversations between parents and toddlers. The researchers found that, on average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children. Indeed, by three years of age, the children of professionals had larger vocabularies themselves than the vocabularies used by adults from welfare families in speaking to their children. Cumulatively, the Kansas researchers estimated that by the time children were four years old, ready to enter preschool, a typical child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with 45 million words, compared to only 13 million for a typical child in a welfare family.”

These days most, if not all, of the schools have conflict management programs and they definitely help somewhat. A middle school principal once told me that “The kids here who have been through conflict management training are able to handle things much better than their parents can and sometimes step in to help their parents through a conflict.”

Part of the problem is that the rules for managing conflict by mediation are at complete odds with those that the children are being taught, and then practice, during the many, many non-school hours.

To learn more about how children are socialized towards violence read “Why They Kill” (discusses the phenomenon of coaching) and “Code of the Street” (discusses how the willingness to use violence can earn a child respect). Both books are listed in my suggested reading list on the right hand column of this webpage.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Who would have guessed?

Over the past several days there has been quite a lot of commentary on the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group listserve.* Much of it has related to the OUSD school board campaign for Oakland’s District 1 and expressions of support, or not, for one of the candidates, the son of a local educational philanthropist.

Brian Rogers, the son of T. Gary Rogers (of Dreyers Ice Cream fame), is a local candidate who has emerged in OUSD goings-on over the past few years. He has been involved somehow with the district’s Expect Success program, undoubtedly by way of the considerable Rogers Family Foundation donations to that same program. Expect Success is the brainchild developed by the Broad-trained State Administrators of OUSD and their central office assistants, many of whom are Broad-trained as well. It's their specially devised management system for our school district.

The glossy annual reports of Expect Success always paint a glowing picture of its accomplishments. When skeptics were challenged to look at the data by one of Rogers' supporters on the listserv, I jumped to the task and discovered the following.

I could not pull up district-wide API scores for 1999-2001; I could only see them broken down by school in those early years of record keeping. However, the scores for 2002 to 2007 were 568, 592, 601, 634, 651 and 658. They do reflect improvement for the time Expect Success has been in operation, but it also reflects an increase in the years before Expect Success had been well established.

I initially speculated that before Expect Success can be given credit for the improvements, internal factors that may have lead to the increases (such as the initiatives of Expect Success) would need to be sorted out from the external factors (the state and federal demands).

I posted the API comparisons to the listserv and then took a long walk in the hills, an activity that often generates ideas for me. While I was out I thought of another angle to research, so I came home, sat at my computer and discovered something else. I was curious about how OUSD’s achievement gap has been progressing over the years.

What I discovered is that, despite all the efforts of NCLB and Expect Success over the past several years, the achievement gap in OUSD (between Asian and White vs. African American and Latino subgroups) has actually grown in nearly every comparison!

Here are the achievement gap trends when comparing the academic achievement of different OUSD subgroups in 2002 and 2007. The figures are based on the percentage of students who attained proficiency according to the Annual Measurable Objectives of NCLB.

Subject: English Language Arts

1. The gap between Asian and African American students increased 13.1 percentage points. The gap was 16.5 percentage points in 2002 and 29.6 percentage points in 2007.

2. The gap between White and African American students increased 2.4 percentage points. The gap was 51.8 percentage points in 2002 and 54.2 percentage points in 2007.

3. The gap between Asian and Latino students increased 12.9 percentage points. The gap was 21.6 percentage points in 2002 and 34.5 percentage points in 2007.

4. The gap between White and Latino students increased 2.2 percentage points. The gap was 56.9 in 2002 and 59.1 in 2007.

Subject: Mathematics

1. The gap between Asian and African American increased 11.0 percentage points. The gap was 30.2 in 2002 and 41.2 in 2007.

2. The gap between White and African American students increased 4.6 percentage points. The gap was 48.6 in 2002 and 53.2 in 2007.

3. The gap between Asian and Latino students increased 6.1 percentage points. The gap was 30.6 in 2002 and 36.7 in 2007.

4. The gap between White and Latino students decreased 0.5 percentage points. The gap was 49.2 in 2002 and 48.7 in 2007.

Summary: The average increase in the achievement gap was 6.5 percentage points. Over the past several years, there has been no progress with closing the achievement gap.

There is no question that since 2002, test scores have gone up for the low performing subgroups. However, they have risen even more for the other subgroups. The important issue to me is that, despite the many efforts, our achievement gap has actually grown larger!

I’ve concluded that the gains have not been due so much to special initiatives at the local level (i.e. Expect Success), but because of a bigger initiative at the state-wide level, i.e. “standardization.”

Putting opinions about it aside, standardization is the process of determining which topics must be taught to students and when, ensuring that the textbooks align with this material, and then testing the students to determine how well they have learned this specific material. This is a top-down process that starts with California’s Department of Education, since they are the ones who determine the standards and then create the test. The only role at the local level is compliance.

Over the past several years a great effort has been made to create and institutionalize these standards. They only loosely existed before 2002. Such an immense effort would explain why test scores have increased for every subgroup. More and more children are being taught and tested on the same material. OUSD’s improved test scores mostly demonstrate that the teachers are being compliant with the mandates.

So, although the Annual Reports of OUSD produced by Expect Success reveal a certain amount of progress, they don’t reveal one unpleasant fact – that our achievement gap has not become smaller over all these years, nor has it even remained the same.

The truly ugly thing I discovered is that Oakland ’s achievement gap has grown significantly during the time that Jack O’Connell’s administration has been at the helm of OUSD, despite the fact that they have received millions of donated dollars worth of extra administrative support (from Broad, Gates, Rogers, etc.).

Apparently, as for determining how much progress has been made, it all depends on how one spins the figures. By the way, do you think this administration would ever have announced this news to the public?

*Join the Oakland Public School Parents group by going to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaklandpublicschoolparents/

My sources are from the California Department of Education @ http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/ar/

2002 ELA % proficient scores for African American, Asian, Latino and White students were 12.9, 29.4, 7.8 and 64.7 respectively.

2007 ELA % proficient scores for African American, Asian, Latino and White students were 26.4, 56.0, 21.5 and 80.6 respectively.

2002 Math % proficient scores for African American, Asian, Latino and White students were 10.9, 41.1, 10.3 and 59.5 respectively.

2007 Math % proficient scores for African American, Asian, Latino and White students were 25.3, 66.5, 29.8 and 78.5 respectively.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Four stories

1. A church adopts a school

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me this story. He belongs to a church that decided to help an East Oakland elementary school. One of the first things they did was to give the teachers a luncheon. One teacher was near tears as she expressed her gratitude, “I’ve been here for 20 years and no one has ever done anything for us.”

2. At the movies

In 2003 I went to the Great Mall in Milpitas with my daughter and her boyfriend. I didn’t feel like shopping, so I ended up going to a movie at the Cineplex. It was a Ron Howard film called “The Missing.”

Sitting right next to me in the theater was a little girl about four-years-old. On the other side of her was an older woman. I figured this was the grandmother. On the other side of the grandmother was a little boy who was about five, probably the brother. Sitting on the row in front of them, but with them, was a young woman who looked like she was about nineteen or twenty-years-old. Was she the mother? Was she an aunt, or an older sister?

This movie was incredibly violent and not particularly pleasant to sit through. It was R-rated. It included scenes of a naked body shot with arrows, a trussed up dead body suspended over a smoldering campfire, a body with a slit throat, a distraught woman holding a dead child who then shoots herself in the head, men being attacked with hatchets, knives, clubs and shotguns, blood flowing out of the eyes of a man, blood flowing out of the head of a man, etc.

As the movie was playing, I spent some time looking over at the children’s faces. They were fixated at the images on the screen for the entire time. Their eyes were huge and the expression on their faces was blank. I ended up peeking at them nearly as much as I watched the movie.

Witnessing these kids watch this movie was incredibly upsetting to me. Everything about it was wrong. As I sat there I tried to formulate different things I would say to them when it was over, if I had the courage to actually confront them.

My favorite option was to ask the little girl if she liked the movie and what was her favorite part? Did she like the part with the blood leaking out of a crushed skull, or when the hatchet chopped into the man’s chest. Knowing that it would be pointless to say anything at all, I ended up holding my tongue.

Violent R-rated movies at four-years-old? Maybe the kids will be ready for snuff films when they are seven or eight.

What’s wrong with an adult who would do that to a child? What’s wrong with an industry that permits an adult to do that to a child?

3. At the restaurant

My husband, our six-year-old daughter and I were having lunch with a group of black professionals at a restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. I was the only white person. Another child was there, Billy (not his real name), the six-year-old son of an attorney in my husband’s office. At one point while we were waiting for our food to arrive, I took the two kids over to a bubbling and glowing aquarium to look at the pretty fish.

As we were watching the fish Billy spontaneously said, “I hate white people.” It shocked me to hear such a little boy say that, especially this little boy. I stayed quiet and just took it in.

The boy's parent is now a Superior Court judge.

4. Young ladies

One day I was at my daughter’s high school (Skyline) for some reason or the other. As I left the main office, a female student standing in the hallway cleared a huge glob of mucus from her throat and and expectorated it onto the linoleum floor. I couldn’t keep myself from saying to her, “That’s disgusting. Why did you do that?”

She glared back and straight-faced stared me down, never saying a word.

Another time, my husband was waiting to speak with a guidance counselor. A female student came up and ripped a flyer off a bulletin board right next to him. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said. To which she snottily and aggressively replied, “And you’re not going to do anything about it, are you?”

The 16 or 17-year-old darlings.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Any Evidence of Shame?

YouTube is documenting our society. You really need to watch this one; it's somewhat entertaining, and somewhat not.

I can't keep myself from thinking about the look in his eyes.