Sunday, August 28, 2011

Some Issues in Tacoma Schools OTHER THAN the Contract Negotiations

During the recent school board primary campaign, one candidate spoke of courage, the need for a school board member with the courage to lead.  If it’s courage we need, I hope the current board, the next board, the union, advocacy groups...all of us will have enough to confront the issues before us.  But not with a well-oiled agenda sharpened merely on conviction and preference.   Rather, I hope we all consider questions like these below, first by examining our own thinking as we evaluate our reasoning and the evidence we use to support it, then by entering a discussion in which we listen as generously as we talk.
Achievement Gap

  • How do we prioritize all the suggestions the consultant’s report makes?  What evidence suggests that cultural training supports student achievement?  The district has undertaken several cultural awareness initiatives before, why haven’t those generated more success?
  • What is the best evidence about causes of and solutions to the achievement gap?  The consultant’s report contains the following two sentences--about a page apart.  

The Advisory Committee found that the achievement gap for African American students is caused primarily by: 
     Inequitable distribution of skilled and experienced teachers (p. 13)


The degree to which quality teachers are available to African American students in Tacoma schools could not be determined with the available information (p. 15)

How do we make sense of the “primary cause” of the achievement gap?

  • Why has there been so much less mention of the Hispanic achievement gap?
  • How does adopting the Common Core affect our pursuit of closing the achievement gap?  How does cultural competency square with the Common Core?
  • How does ‘innovation’ in school arrangements--for the sake of closing the achievement gap--affect our commitment to the comprehensive high school?  Do speciality schools like SAMI and SOTA concentrate effective students in one place by drawing them away from their ‘regular’ high school, thereby depleting that school community’s breadth of students?

Balancing Objectives

  • The Tacoma schools have the responsibility to get students to standard, and get them college ready, and close the achievement gap.  Sometimes these objectives are at odds.  Getting a nearly-at-standard student to standard is much different from making them college ready.  How shall we reconcile these sometimes competing responsibilities?

Teacher Evaluation

  • What are the components of a robust and supple teacher evaluation method?  Are there any ‘predictive’ measures of a teacher’s quality?  Should the district use such measures?  
  • What connection can we verify between student test scores and teacher effectiveness?  How confidently can we use test scores to evaluate teachers?

By way of summarizing these points, Vibrant Schools Tacoma’s agenda reflects the general trends animating the current discussion. The advocacy group calls for a teacher evaluation protocol (student test scores constituting a significant portion) and increased cultural competency training to close the achievement gap.
But proponents of such programs offer little evidence that either cultural training or more elaborate teacher evaluations generate higher student achievement.  Indeed, VST’s web site calls the reforms “common sense,” and offers up the BERC report, whose only discussion of any research is the listing of various effective teaching characteristics (the STAR protocol, etc.).
VST also provides the inaptly named “Will Seniority-Based Layoffs Undermine School Improvement Efforts in Washington State?”  This document is merely a description of how many teachers would be affected by the different School Improvement Grant programs--transformation, turnaround and closure.  It contains no analysis or projection of educational effects from the programs.
By contrast, the Economic Policy Institute has presented a thoroughly researched briefing paper on the concerns over test-based teacher evaluations.  They point out various technical and statistical difficulties of such programs, to be sure.  The more serious problem, however, is the slew of unintended negative consequences, like a narrowed curriculum, decreased teacher collaboration and disincentive to work with needier students that follow.  The authors counsel caution when using score-based evaluations.
In short, there is no magic bullet out there to fix education.  It takes steady and consistent building of trusting relationships among the community, families, school administration, school staff and students.  This relationship-building could follow from a serious conversation addressing the kinds of questions above.  
Those kinds of conversations seem less likely every day.

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