Thursday, December 31, 2015

L.A. Times Editorial: THE ONGOING WAR ON CHARTERS + Caveat 1 & Caveat 2

Dec 31, 2015  ::  Charter schools: good or bad?

There are few subjects on which school officials, parents and advocates for students are more impassioned and divided, which is why the proposal to open hundreds of new charter schools for Los Angeles' students is shaping up as an epic education battle. But now a new study out of UC Berkeley — looking specifically at charter school performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District — provides a more nuanced view, showing that the yes-no, either-or attitude that tends to dominate the debate is not only misguided but also counterproductive.

The study found that students who enter charter high schools within the district are already higher achievers than those entering traditional public schools. The same was true of elementary schools, though it's harder to estimate the differences there. Middle school students started out no more advanced.

Once students are enrolled in charter schools, their academic growth was slightly steeper in elementary schools than it would have been in a traditional L.A. Unified school; far steeper in middle school; but not better at all in high school.

The Berkeley study also backs up a long-held contention of charter opponents: Simplistic comparisons of student test scores from both kinds of schools, charter and district, don't necessarily give the public useful information — because the students begin at different levels of achievement. Most likely that's because parents who are savvy and proactive about their children's education — the kinds of parents who give their kids a head start on their schooling — are more likely to find out about charter schools in the first place, attend their meetings, enter the lotteries for admission and then help their children succeed at those schools.

Policymakers, school officials and charter supporters should all be paying attention to the new research. There have been previous studies on L.A. Unified's charter schools, the most important of which came from Stanford University and found that when similar students attended charter and district schools, the charter students learned more. What the Berkeley study adds is a first look at differences between students when they arrive at the schools and at which grade levels charters offer the most advantage. This information can help educators determine which kinds of schools will do the most good. L.A. Unified leaders, rather than viewing the charter push with dismay, should be figuring out what makes charter middle schools work better and emulating them.

The California Charter Schools Assn. also reacted defensively when the new research was released. Instead, it should try to figure out what it can learn from the new data. The researchers aren't saying that charter schools are without value; on the contrary, they're praising the middle schools that work so well and suggesting that perhaps they have something to offer to improve education for disadvantaged students at all levels. Charter schools should be willing to change their ways in response to new data; their defensiveness makes them seem a lot like the traditional public schools they criticize as being hidebound and self-interested.

More study is obviously needed, both to confirm the Berkeley findings and to understand the effect of charter schools on education in Los Angeles Unified. For instance, what's the effect on district schools if charter schools draw off higher-achieving students? Obviously, the district schools lose money when state and federal dollars follow those students to their new schools, but another important question as the number of charter schools grows is what the effect will be on the culture of schools and on their achievement levels as more motivated parents and their children abandon district schools.

It's tempting to imagine a district in which the two sides worked together to enhance education. The school board could welcome outstanding charter middle schools, and learn from those that do the best job. Charter management organizations could take steps to recruit more low-achieving students, to level the playing field between their schools and district schools.

Better yet, the district and charter schools in it could make the confusing landscape of school options easier to navigate by creating a one-stop online shop where parents could find out all about the educational offerings reasonably close to their homes, including the neighborhood schools, magnet and pilot schools and independent charters. That site could include research from studies like those at Stanford and Berkeley, and information about the rules governing the different schools. Parents might not realize, for example, that even though some charter schools have told parents they have to volunteer in order for charter schools to enroll their children, state law prohibits such requirements.
Or both sides — the charter supporters and naysayers — could keep arguing, but that way, everyone loses, especially students.

CAVEAT 1:Disclosure: The Times receives funding for its digital initiative Education Matters from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way administer grants from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

CAVEAT 2: "You get what you pay for." - John Arbuckle

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Sarah Tully, EdSource
John Marsh, Garden Grove Unified’s assessment director, shows Vivian Nguyen how to take a sample Smarter Balanced Assessment test on the computer, while her mother Hang Luong and grandmother Quyen Truong watch during a parent night Oct. 7, 2015.
Two laws passed in the waning days of the 2015 Legislature, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will have an impact on students and parents. Under one, former high school students who failed the state exit exam can receive their diplomas retroactively, beginning Jan. 1, 2016, if they met all other graduation requirements. The other law, which also goes into effect on Jan. 1, passed despite protests from hundreds of parents and eliminated the “personal belief exemption” that had allowed parents to enroll their children in school without having them vaccinated.

1. Students take Smarter Balanced assessments for first time

California joined 16 other states around the country in administering assessments in the spring of 2015 to measure student achievement based on the new Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts/literacy. The standards, which stress critical thinking and problem-solving, aim to ensure that students acquire 21st century skills in grades K-12 and graduate college and career-ready.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium created the computer-adaptive tests, which adjusted questions based on students’ answers, to more accurately pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Questions were more difficult for students who answered them correctly and less difficult for those who did not. Students in 11 other states and the District of Columbia took a different set of tests aligned to the Common Core that were created through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. California’s tests are part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress that also includes science tests and alternative assessments. Students’ scores will be used when measuring future growth.
The state released the scores in September for the more than 3 million California students in grades 3-8 and 11 who took the tests for the first time following a field test in 2014. The results revealed an ongoing achievement gap between white and Asian students and those in other racial or ethnic groups, as well as between students who qualify for free and reduced price lunches and their peers who did not and between English learners and fluent English speakers.

2. Every Student Succeeds Act approved by Congress to replace the No Child Left Behind Law 

Last summer, it looked like California would be stuck with the No Child Left Behind Act until President Barack Obama left the White House. The U.S. House and Senate had passed very different rewrites of the nation’s primary education law, President Obama threatened to veto either version, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced he was resigning.
But, led by skilled consensus builders Sens. Lamar Alexander, D-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., negotiations came together quickly last month, and on Dec. 11, President Obama signed NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
A wide range of state educators and advocacy groups have given thumbs up to the new law’s framework. The new law will allow the Legislature and the State Board of Education to downplay the role of standardized tests in measuring school progress and, in keeping with the shift to local control, give school districts flexibility in setting school improvement goals and propose their own fixes to problems they identify.
But state leaders are also worried there may be trap doors in the complex blueprint. Among their initial questions: Will ESSA, as the new law will be called, require the state to re-create the Academic Performance Index, the 3-digit measure of school performance that the State Board of Education would like to kill? And will California have to keep giving a standardized test based on old science standards until the state creates a new test based on new standards, which may be three or four years from now?
Look for some clues in the coming months.
EdSource stories on passage of Every Student Succeeds Act: 
No Child Left Behind rewrite works for California, Dec. 3, 2015
In bipartisan vote, Congress overwhelmingly approves new federal education law, Dec. 9, 2015
President Obama signs Every Student Succeeds Act, Dec. 10, 2015

3. State Capitol the scene of vaccine showdown 

A protest against school public health measures erupted this year after the introduction of state Senate Bill 277, a proposal to eliminate the “personal belief exemption” that allowed parents to enroll their children in school without having them vaccinated.
The number of parents whose kindergartners hold a personal belief exemption to state-mandated vaccinations is small — 2.5 percent in 2014-15 — but they organized a vocal opposition. Hundreds of parents queued up at microphones at legislative hearings to say they should have the right not to vaccinate their children, a position that the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuked. The court has ruled twice that the government’s interest in protecting the public from communicable diseases overrides individual decision-making.
Dozens of education and medical groups supported the measure, including the California School Nurses Organization, the California School Boards Association, Children Now and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Supporters noted that the rate of students holding personal belief exemptions rose from less than 1 percent in 2000 to 3.2 percent in 2013-14, with the rise in unvaccinated population clusters linked to disease outbreaks, including the Disneyland measles outbreak that began in December 2014.
Senate Bill 277 passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Brown. The longstanding immunization requirements stand: Children will not be admitted to public or private child care or schools unless they are immunized against 10 diseases — diphtheria, Haemophilus influenzae type b (known as bacterial meningitis), measles, mumps, pertussis (known as whooping cough), polio, rubella, tetanus, hepatitis B and chickenpox.  The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, also eliminated a religious belief exemption.
Two exemptions exist: a medical exemption and a homeschooling exemption, which includes students enrolled in independent study with no classroom instruction. As of last week, it is still uncertain whether students who receive special education services, and are thereby federally entitled to those services, are required to be fully vaccinated. The California Department of Public Health says parents should consult their local school districts for information.

4. Diplomas at last for students who failed high school exit exam

Tens of thousands of former high school students who failed the California High School Exit Exam learned in October 2015 they would at last receive their diplomas.
Brown signed into law Senate Bill 172, which requires that school districts across the state retroactively award diplomas to students who met every other graduation requirement, but failed the exit exam. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1.
“My reaction is just pure joy and happiness,” former Santa Rosa High School student Telesis Radford, who failed the test in 2006, said following the governor’s signing of the bill. “I will be able to take the phlebotomy course that I want to take and get the job I want to get afterward. I’ll be living my dream now.”
It’s estimated that at least 40,000 students statewide will qualify for the retroactive diplomas, including at least 8,000 from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The new law also suspended the exit exam through the end of the 2017-18 school year, while lawmakers and educators determine if the state should create a new version of the test that’s aligned with the Common Core State Standards, or eliminate it altogether as a graduation requirement in the future.
“The high school exit exam is outdated and does not reflect California’s new, more rigorous academic standards that emphasize skills needed to succeed in college and careers in the 21st century,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in October. “I look forward to convening a task force of teachers, parents, students, and education leaders to find a more thoughtful approach to high school graduation requirements that better suits California’s modern education system.”
Nearly 5 million students took the exit exam since it debuted in 2001. It became a requirement for graduation starting with the class of 2006.
Students who failed the exit exam but met all other graduation requirements were often awarded certificates of achievement, which are diploma-like documents. Still, many were prevented from applying to four­-year colleges, vocational training programs, military service or for jobs that required a high school diploma.
Supporters of the test said it ensured that more students graduated with basic skills in English and math, helping close the achievement gap. Meanwhile, opponents argued that the exit exam discouraged some students from staying in school and that it disproportionately punished some low-­income children and English learners who were unable to pass the test.

5. Schools reap benefit of strong economy

If EdSource were to name a Person of the Year for 2015, it would be The Taxpayer.
Revenue from taxes on capital gains, dividends  and top income earners continued to feed state coffers this year, and Proposition 98’s rules for funding education in high-revenue years steered most of the increase to K-12 schools and community colleges. Spending under Prop. 98, the chief source of revenue for education, rose $7.6 billion in the 2015-16 budget, to $68.4 billion.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in turn, gave his Local Control Funding Formula an extra $6 billion. That helped raise per-student funding an average of 11 percent, or $1,011 per student, although, under the formula, districts with few low-income children and English learners saw less and those with high proportions of those students received an increase of 15 percent or more. In addition, Brown sent districts about $5.5 billion in one-time money with few strings attached. He did dedicate about $1 million over three years in competitive grants for career technical education partnerships between districts and businesses.
Brown budgets conservatively; the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts  there will be $2 billion more in revenue than the governor included in the state budget. That money will flow to  schools in 2016-17, starting in July. Next year, while not promising to bring as great a financial bonanza, the LAO predicts an average increase of $530 per student.

EdSource stories on school finance:


Experts on K-12 education offer their reasons for optimism and pessimism going forward.

Seth Wenig / AP / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

   ::  It’s been a tumultuous year for America’s schools—one marked by an expanding minority-student population, an increasingly discontent teaching force, a backlash against standardized testing, and shifting understanding of education reform. It’s seen greater attention on areas traditionally dismissed as nonessential: things like early-childhood education, after-school programs, and project-based learning. It’s also seen evolving attitudes toward discipline, with tactics such as restorative justice starting to replace zero-tolerance approaches, including in high-poverty urban districts. Debates over how to address disparities in achievement have been highly politicized. The ed-tech market has continued to grow.
Education is often touted as a means for boosting social mobility and making communities more equal, but inequality in school funding and resources has made that difficult to achieve, especially amid increasing poverty rates. Segregation in districts, both tacit and explicit, is holding scores of children back, and performance on math and reading assessments has remained relatively stagnant. President Obama has just signed into law an act that will replace the widely despised No Child Left Behind, but whether it’ll succeed in its goals—boosting the attainment of disadvantaged students, reducing the amount of testing taking place in schools, promoting classroom innovation, and so on—is far from guaranteed.
We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Angrist, professor of economics at MIT
Reason for despair: “No Excuses” pedagogy is characterized by a long school day and year, an emphasis on traditional reading and math, extensive use of Teach for America interns, data-driven instruction (just as pro sports teams use data and review video), and an emphasis on discipline and comportment. Our research team and other colleagues have repeatedly and rigorously shown the power of this approach to produce life-changing gains for students who would otherwise do poorly (the “No Excuses” moniker refers to schools and not students: No excuses allowed for a failure to educate). I’m worried because the foundations of this success are under attack: The federal government and many districts now propose to limit the testing that provides essential feedback and accountability. And it has been regular, reliable testing that’s laid the empirical foundation for discussions of school quality and educational inequality. Also worrying: In Massachusetts and elsewhere, concerns about racial imbalance in school discipline are making it harder to use suspension to establish a structured and safe school environment (the primary beneficiaries of which are poor African American children).
Reason for hope: In the 21st-century, administrations from both parties expanded the federal role in education, encouraging reform and experimentation to an unprecedented degree. These policy explorations have been extraordinarily fruitful, yielding findings that are as clear and convincing as any in the history of social science. The most important of these findings is my reason for hope: Although charter schools vary in quality, schools adhering to “No Excuses” pedagogy (like KIPP, and many of the charters in Boston, Denver, New Orleans, and New York) consistently produce spectacular achievement gains for low-income minority students—enough to close the black-white achievement gap in a few years of enrollment. We see this in data from randomized admissions lotteries and from districts (like the New Orleans Recovery School District) that assign responsibility for failing schools to “No Excuses” networks. Research designs exploiting lotteries and takeovers take the guesswork and politics out of the analysis of education policy.

Charles Best, founder and CEO of
Reason for despair: We already know teachers go above and beyond to give their students an excellent education, a lasting love of learning, and the self-confidence to succeed. But teachers can only do so much with the resources they have. More and more, projects on our site tell us that teachers face a large population of young people who go to school cold or hungry. In addition to school supplies, they are requesting food, warmth and care for their students. As a society, it’s time to confront that problem.
Reason for hope: More than ever, students understand that they have the power to shape their own education. We gave young people the access to do that through crowdfunding this year with an expansion into student-led classroom projects. After just a few months, hundreds of students have led the charge by posting projects that matter to their communities. At Ritenour High School—a 15-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri—one group started a reading buddy program with younger students at their school. Their project, “Reader to Leader: Mentor Program,” delivered 300 elementary-school books for their initiative. It’s just one of more than 840 projects that students have successfully gotten funded on their own terms.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
Reason for despair: I despair over the growing number of so-called Religious Freedom bills that would grant licenses to discriminate—even for education professionals working with children—and at the schools that seek permission to discriminate by getting religious exemptions to their Title IX responsibilities. My mom was a teacher. She always told me being with people who are different than you, even if you disagree with them completely, is one of the most valuable aspects of school. You have to learn to articulate your ideas and defend your beliefs, and really listen to understand. “RFRAs” and religious exemptions are about withdrawing from that social contract. They also do real harm to youth—when an education professional, a counselor or a nurse, refuses to deal with an LGBT student, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, it sends a horrific message.
Reason for hope: I get hope from the dedication and goodwill of great educators everywhere. I have seen it time and time again: When education professionals learn about how discrimination and violence hurt their LGBT students, they want to know what they can do. During my tenure, as GLSEN has raised awareness of these challenges, we’ve seen an explosion in adult support for LGBT youth in schools. In 2001, only about 60 percent of LGBT students could identify a single supportive adult in school. Today, more than 95 percent can. Good people want to do the best by all the students they work with. When we show them what they can do, they’re ready to act. And great teachers make all the difference in a students life—when they have that support, they do better in school, feel better about themselves, and feel more hopeful and determined about their own future. It’s a joy to see, and a privilege to support educators in making that difference.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute
Reason for despair: Fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 60 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, America’s education system is still one of the most segregated and inequitable in the Western world. The most advantaged public schools spend many times more than the poorest, and resource allocations exacerbate race and class inequities in many states. While some students attend schools in palatial settings offering small classes, expert teachers, and high-tech computers, others attend a growing number of apartheid schools serving low-income students of color in crumbling buildings, where a revolving door of substitutes and untrained teachers try to teach in overcrowded classrooms lacking enough desks, not to mention books and learning materials. In the last few years, matters have gone from bad to worse: As poverty levels for children have grown to one in four nationwide, and the number of homeless children has doubled, states have been cutting funds for both education and social services. In 2015, at least 30 states were funding their schools at lower levels than they had before the Great Recession, with those serving the neediest students often the hardest hit. Because of the aggressive neglect of so many our children, the United States has slipped to the level of many developing countries in virtually every category of child welfare and education. This situation is perhaps the greatest threat to our national security. In today’s knowledge economy, we need every young person to be well-supported and well-educated, able to find a good job and pay taxes to pay for the social security and health care of the growing number of seniors if our social contract is to survive.
Reason for hope: This month, Congress passed and the President signed a new federal education act into law—one that could begin to change our current landscape of inequitably funded schools, too often focused on a low-level curriculum unsuited to our 21st-century needs. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind, a much-criticized law whose emphasis on high-stakes testing frequently narrowed the curriculum to the content and format of low-level multiple-choice reading and math tests, especially in low-income schools. Under this law, inequalities in educational access grew, while achievement stalled and then dropped on measures assessing higher-order thinking skills, like the international PISA tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The new law encourages states to focus on students’ opportunities to learn (the resources and quality of curriculum and teaching they receive), as well as a broader range of outcomes—such as graduation rates, completion of college-and-career-ready coursework, and richer measures of student learning that evaluate the critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills essential for success in today’s society and workplaces. If this law is successful in rekindling state innovation, while focusing them on educational quality and equity, it could provide the shot in the arm the nation needs to reclaim the American Dream for the next generation of young people and their families.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association
Reason for despair: I don’t despair; I’m an educator, so I live in a constant state of hopefulness. But I am frustrated and angry about the inequality that denies many of our students a great education. Here’s just one example of what this means: overcrowded classrooms, like the class of 39 fifth-graders I taught in Utah. In those conditions, students don’t get the individualized, one-on-one time they need to thrive. We are [one of the richest nations] in the world, yet we have not ensured that all students, regardless of ZIP code, have the well-staffed and well-resourced schools they need. We know a well-rounded education offers students a way out of poverty, yet the schools serving the poorest students are often impoverished. We say every student who’s able and has the desire should have access to college, yet we don’t make higher education accessible and affordable. These disparities are immoral and costly for our nation. But fighting for equity is our calling as NEA members. Our frustration and anger just make us fight harder.
Reason for hope: What gives me the most hope right now is that everyone is focusing on education. “No Child Left Untested” was such bad policy that it got people’s attention, and it was the law for more than a decade. It created a crisis in public education, but we can use this crisis to move forward. President Obama signed a law that ends test-and-punish policies and opens the door for real teaching and learning. We finally have an opportunity for transparency and an opening to make every school a place that inspires students’ curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn. We will have meaningful indicators to show us in black and white what educators have been saying all along: Not all students have what they need for success. And we can finally begin addressing these opportunity gaps. This could be a new golden age for education, but we’re not just hoping it happens. We’re organizing with parents, business leaders, and communities to make it happen.

Anya Kamenetz, lead education blogger for NPR and the author of The Test
Reason for despair: The continued tacit acceptance of deep racial and social segregation across most of our school system, from prekindergarten through colleges and grad schools. All this year we have been hearing eruptions of despair across the country from students who have climbed the heights of elite education only to brave chilly winds of hostility and aggression. Some members of the highest court in the land seem to believe that the status quo is just and right. I believe this comes from a basic confusion about the nature of excellence in education. A high-performing institution can’t be defined any longer by who is barred from its doors.
Reason for hope: The requirements of No Child Left Behind, with its insistence on math and reading benchmarks, have been softened. Thanks to the work of countless researchers, policymakers, and educators, I see real and serious attention being paid to cultivating and measuring the human tasks of education: communication, collaboration, empathy, creativity, self-awareness, and self-management, to name a few.
We have a lot to learn, but it seems that schools that excel in building these qualities are places where students are loved and supported by highly engaged teachers, where they work on getting along better, play together, satisfy their curiosity, make art, try new technologies, and explore new ideas. I believe this work will continue to build momentum. Measuring what matters can help tug schools in the right direction.

David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO and founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design
Reason for despair: In my work across different domains and disciplines, one of the biggest sources of frustration for me has been the dismal state of K-12 education. Today’s public-school system is the same one we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution, and it’s no longer relevant. Sure, there are great ideas and initiatives scattered here and there, but they’re not making a large enough dent in the system as a whole. And one of the main reasons the current system is not working is because we don’t value teachers enough. Though we all collectively say we value education and that we value our kids, somehow that esteem is not reflected in the reality of the salaries and status of our educators. And when we don’t value teachers, the system as a whole suffers. Plus, with more emphasis on grades and test scores, we don’t make the necessary time and space for the things we actually want for our kids—things like social and emotional skills and creativity.
Reason for hope: As a designer, I have had the great pleasure of seeing the impact of design on some of the most important innovations of our time. The biggest surprise for me was realizing that the innovations themselves are not the most exciting outcome of design—it’s seeing what happens when people are able to unlock their creative confidence. Whether it’s a business leader, a politician, the head of an NGO, or a student, anyone who has opted out of believing that they’re creative, it’s exciting to see that sudden spark of realization. We see that glimmer in their eyes and they’re thrilled by the ability to flex those creative muscles to solve just about any challenge. With a little help, that confidence grows, and it can have a profound affect on their lives and what they are able to accomplish. From where I sit, the more people who have confidence in their creative abilities, the more hope I have for our future.

Amanda Ripley, Emerson Senior Fellow and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World
Reason for despair: Countries around the world have become measurably smarter in recent years—which should be a reason for hope, I know. But bear with me. Fifteen years ago, teenagers in Poland scored below their American peers on the PISA test of critical thinking; today, Polish students perform well above our kids (despite Poland’s significant child poverty and political dysfunction). A greater percentage of Polish kids now graduate from high school than our kids. So what’s wrong with that? Well, it’s fantastic for Poland, but over the same time period, the U.S. has not budged. We remain subpar in math and science, and average in reading. Even our richest kids do worse in math than rich kids in 27 other countries. I’d feel better if we were trying our hardest and not succeeding; but we are not. We still don’t do the few things we know help all kids in every time zone: make teacher colleges serious and selective; offer all kids quality pre-k; and for God’s sake, stop tracking young kids into different schools and academic programs based on their alleged abilities. I am waiting for one U.S. state—just one—to do those three things with relentless focus. I hope I live to see it.
Reason for hope: Washington, D.C., where I live and where my child attends public school, has done something almost no other U.S. district has managed to pull off. The city has turned teaching into what appears to be a serious profession. For real. You can earn $125,000 in fewer than 10 years on the job here. You can coach other teachers and influence policy and curriculum. Teachers I know spend more time talking about the intellectual challenges of the craft than most teachers I meet in the rest of the country, where many school systems are still too broken for such conversations. It’s also true that D.C. still has a very long way to go, and I could list a hundred things that could be better. But I have to admit it: This city has proven that it is possible to treat teaching with something close to the respect it deserves—even in America. And that change is always going to be Step 1. Nothing else will work. Now just 99 more steps to go.

Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools
Reason for despair: In my field, public education is under unprecedented attack by a bipartisan coalition that calls themselves “reformers.” It includes the Obama administration, the Republican leadership, the Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, hedge-fund managers, ALEC, and rightwing governors. They seek alternatives to democratically controlled public schools, such as privately managed charters, for-profit charter schools, virtual schools, and, in some states, vouchers for religious schools. The reformers’ excessive reliance on standardized testing as both the measure and goal of schooling has corrupted education. Because of the reformers’ attacks on teachers, experienced teachers are retiring early, and the number entering teaching has dropped sharply.
Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.

Dale Russakoff, reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
Reason for despair: My primary reason for despair is the polarized state of relations between reformers and defenders of the status quo in public education. As these two groups make war over everything from the growth of charters to the role of test scores in teacher evaluations, critical issues for children go unattended. One example is the dire financial state of school districts in cities where charter schools are growing rapidly. When children leave traditional public schools for charters, the dollars leave with them, and districts are unable to downsize as quickly as the money exits. Districts in Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, are facing budget crises that have major consequences for learning, and they still educate more than half the children in those cities. The only way to address this issue is for every force in education—politicians, unions, philanthropists, reformers, parents, community activists—to make difficult compromises and commitments necessary to stabilize school districts in the face of charter growth. Polarization makes this impossible to contemplate, and children are the losers.
Reason for hope: I find hope in the growing attention of politicians and policymakers to forces outside K-12 classrooms that impinge on learning, particularly for the poorest children. The mounting emphasis on early-childhood education, the renewed interest in community schools—with services for adults and neighborhoods as well as for children—and the movement to create trauma-informed classrooms for children exposed to violence all reflect this trend. The education-reform movement argued that poverty was an “excuse” for failure, but these developments embody a shift in perspective: America may not have to solve poverty before improving education for the poorest children, but we definitely have to address it.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Reason for despair: It’s easy to despair when politicians stoke fear and hatred, and ignore the millions of Americans struggling to get by. Poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality, violence, discrimination, lack of opportunity—all of this impacts our kids. For many, school has been a way out, a safe sanctuary to grow in the face of incredible odds, to get the skills they need to succeed in life. But the recession dealt a heavy blow to our schools and working families, No Child Left Behind took the focus off equity and put it on testing, and privatizers swooped in to capitalize on a system struggling from swift, unbridled change with little support, financial or otherwise. After more than a decade, we know that this “test, punish, and privatize” strategy hasn’t worked to help all students succeed.
Reason for hope: Today, the tide is turning in public education. Policymakers on Capitol Hill, heeding the calls of parents and teachers, have rolled back high-stakes testing and put the focus back on logical decision-making, listening to those closest to kids and targeting funding to support the children who need it most and the public schools they attend. States have the chance to take the ball and move plans that let teachers teach and students learn. We know that high-quality early-childhood education, additional pathways like career-and-technical education, community schools that provide wraparound services, and changing instruction to include project-based learning are ways to engage students, address poverty, and make every public school a place where parents want to send children, educators want to work and kids are engaged. We need the resources and support to get there. And by doing so in 2016, we can bring back the joy of learning and widespread economic opportunity. When we do that, we will help kids, families, and communities get ahead and stay ahead.

Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University
Reason for despair: Improved education is the key to the future for the U.S., as our economy depends on having a highly skilled workforce. While most people give lip service to the desire to improve schools in order to invest in the future, they often stop short of endorsing any significant changes in the schools. This reflects, in my opinion, two factors—an imperfect understanding of just how important quality schooling is for the country and complacency with the current situation. The complacency enters from the fact that the U.S. remains a wealthy country, leading to a sense that maybe it is alright just to keep going along as we are. From this complacency springs a myopia that is difficult to overcome but that could harm the future of the country.
Reason for hope: Over the past five years, my sense of hope and optimism has actually overtaken despair with U.S. schools. First, there is now broad recognition that quality teachers can lead to revitalized schools that are competitive internationally. Second, there is a new willingness by legislatures in a majority of states to push actively for more flexibility in hiring, paying, and retaining teachers and for improved teacher evaluations so that we identify the teachers that we want to nurture and retain. By focusing attention on the effectiveness of teachers in raising student achievement, these progressive states are setting the stage for U.S. schools to climb out of their doldrums and to compete with the top schools around the developed countries of the world. For the first time in the past half century there appears to be a strong possibility that we will serve all of our students and that we will restore the strength of the U.S. workforce.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Threat or hoax? Schools find it’s harder to weigh the risks

“It was a first for us, in terms of the breadth of the threat and the specificity,” Conrad said. Last Sunday evening, after consulting with the police, Conrad did something that, as far as officials in Nashua knew, had never been done there before: He ordered that all schools stay closed that Monday because of the fear of violence.

The previous week, the Los Angeles school system also shut down for a day, in the face of a threat of terrorist attacks against multiple schools. Last month, the University of Chicago canceled classes and activities for a day, after discovering a social media post that talked of killing “16 white male students and or staff” and “any number of white policemen”; Western Washington University suspended classes after a post suggested lynching a student leader; and Washington College in Maryland closed for several days after a distraught student disappeared with a gun.
FILE -- Parents drop off children at Gardner Street Elementary, a day after Los Angeles closed its schools because of a threat, in Los Angeles, Dec. 16, 2015. On campuses, deciding how to respond to threats of violence often falls to administrators, who have a small window in which to act and little verified information. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)
Parents drop off children at Gardner Street Elementary, a day after Los Angeles closed its schools because of a threat.
Monica Almeida / The New York Times
But for every such reaction, there have been decisions not to lock down campuses in the face of a threat. To name just a few, schools officials in New York City, Houston and Miami received emails similar to those received in Los Angeles and Nashua, and two social media users last month wrote that they wanted to kill African-Americans at the University of Missouri, including one who stated a plan to “shoot every black person I see.”

None of the threats, it seems, were serious. Threats of mass violence on campuses have proliferated through social media, educators say, but most are hoaxes — in fact, most are never made public.
Yet school officials and campus safety consultants say they have to take threats more seriously than they did a decade or two ago, given the history of campus massacres like the one in October at an Oregon community college and the public’s heightened fear of terrorist attacks like the one this month in San Bernardino, California. And they said they could not recall anything like the recent spate of class cancellations and school closings.

Even when schools do not shut down, administrators say, they are more likely to order increased security patrols, or ask people to be on the lookout for a person or vehicle. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, many schools adopted electronic alert systems, sending text messages to students, parents and staff members about potential dangers.

“There is a big difference in how we interpret possible threats today, because of the violence we’ve seen,” said Will Marling, interim senior director for operations and programs at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a campus safety group created by relatives of victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech. If a suitcase was left unattended at an airport 20 years ago, he said, “the reaction might have been ‘Someone put it in lost and found,’ but now it’s ‘Call the bomb squad.’”
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 15: School buses stand idle as all Los Angeles city schools are shut down in reaction to a threat on December 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. A bomb threat against LAUSD schools was sent to various members of the Los Angeles school board late last night, according to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Local authorities immediately notified the FBI. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
School buses stand idle as all Los Angeles city schools were shut down in reaction to a threat on December 15.
David McNew / Getty Images
On campus, deciding how to respond usually falls to administrators, who lean heavily on the advice of law enforcement officials, often have little verified information to go on and only a few hours to make the call, and have a sense that they might be second-guessed no matter what. An administrator fears not reacting strongly enough when lives are at stake, but college and school officials say there are costs to overreacting — in policing expenses, lost classroom time, frayed nerves and the danger of encouraging copycat threats.

“It’s a real dilemma, and it puts university administration and law enforcement, both, in a tough position, to evaluate those threats,” said R. Douglas Schwandt, chief of the University of Missouri police. “Most recently, I think there’s definitely a tendency to err on the side of caution.”

In Missouri’s case, officials learned of the social media threats from students in the evening, and within hours, police had determined that neither one had come from the immediate area. One person was arrested during the night, and another, farther away, was arrested late the next morning.
Officials decided not to advise people to change their routines, but some professors canceled classes and many students stayed in their dorms and apartments. Schwandt said he could not guess how the university would have reacted if the threats had originated nearby, or if neither person had been arrested by sunrise.

Both the substance of the threats and their context influence administrators’ decisions. The threat at the University of Chicago was similar to those in Missouri, but it was more specific. The threat was also posted from somewhere in the city amid angry demonstrations there over the killing of a black youth by police, and the university was alerted to it by the FBI.
epa05049684 A university police officer stands guard on the campus of the University of Chicago after the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that they were investigating an online threat of gun violence that would reportedly take place in the Main Quadrangles of the university at 10:00 AM cst in Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 30 November 2015. University official cancelled all classes and other activities on the campus associated areas and urged students and employees to avoid the area. The hour came and went without incident. EPA/TANNEN MAURY
A university police officer stands guard on the campus of the University of Chicago after the FBI reported they were investigating an online threat of gun violence that would reportedly take place in the Main Quadrangles of the university at 10:00 AM cst in Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 30 November 2015.
Tannen Maury / EPA
In Los Angeles, when aides awakened the schools chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, with news of an anonymous email threat, he had barely an hour to decide whether to cancel the school day and did not know that New York had received virtually the same message. As Cortines noted, the region was already on edge after the shootings in San Bernardino days earlier, which were said to have been inspired by jihadi terrorist groups, as the author of the email claimed to be.
In New York, officials did not learn of the threat until the school day had started. They quickly learned of the parallels with the Los Angeles threat, and they noted details in the email that signaled that it was less than credible. By the time similar threats reached other cities’ schools, they were old news.

The most unusual case may have been that of Washington College, where a student who brandished a gun was expelled from his fraternity and his dorm, and faced both possible expulsion and criminal charges. He took a gun from his parents’ home, and was seen on surveillance video buying ammunition in a store, then disappeared. Though he had made no threats, police warned his college and the high school he attended, in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, that he might pose a danger. The student was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sheila Bair, the college president, said that when she shut down the college, she was thinking of shootings on campus by students in the past, including the one just weeks earlier, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. And like other school officials around the country, she said parents and students want strong reactions; the criticism comes from outsiders.

“It feeds on itself, because the more you have incidents that do result in harm, the more sensitive people get, and the more strongly they react,” she said. “You’ve got to put the safety of the students first. If someone’s harmed, that’s irreversible.”

Conrad, in Nashua, said, “I’ve received one concern from a parent saying that we should have been open, but the overwhelming majority has been people saying they were glad we were closed for the day.”


Melissa Iglesias (l to r), 15; Abel Regalado, 16; and Vanessa Martinez, 15, all students at ARISE High School register at the XQ roadshow on Wednesday, December 9,  2015 in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle Melissa Iglesias (l to r), 15; Abel Regalado, 16; and Vanessa Martinez, 15, all students at ARISE High School register at the XQ roadshow on Wednesday, December 9, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. 
December 28, 2015 Updated: December 28, 2015 5:09pm   ::  A national contest with a $50 million prize pool and a billionaire backer has spurred teams across the country to reinvent the American high school, overhauling an antiquated model that hasn’t changed in 100 years.

At least five winners will each get about $10 million over five years to make their schools come to life. The competition hopes to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, with the eight-figure award luring public, private and nonprofit contestants, including San Francisco Unified School District, to vie for the money offered up by Palo Alto heiress Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

“In towns and cities far and wide, teams will be rethinking and building public schools that prepare students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life,” according to the contest literature from XQ: The Super School Project.

If the sales pitch sounds familiar, it’s because cash-prize contests to spur school reform are not new, having been bolstered by several philanthropic billionaires and a couple of U.S. presidents — often with less-than-stellar results. Yet, the contests continue, with cash-starved schools lining up to compete.

The XQ contest — like IQ, but with an X-factor — is funded by Powell Jobs through her nonprofit Emerson Collective, which advocates for social issues like education and immigration reform.

‘Wherever life takes them’

The $50 million has pushed her effort into high-profile territory, prompting hundreds of teams to work on entries that are due in February, with at least five winners expected to be announced in August. The competitors represent both traditional and charter schools, and their new or revamped programs would then launch the following fall.

“Imagine a learning environment you can’t see today that brings the best of technology, the best of teaching, that truly prepares young people to make choices, to be ready for wherever life takes them after high school,” said Russlyn Ali, chief executive of the XQ Institute.

The country’s high schools were last transformed in the early 1900s to accommodate the industrial revolution and factory work. That new system required students to spend an hour a day in each course, a standardization of education based on time spent in classroom seats. That’s a problem, Powell Jobs said at the September launch of the contest.

“Nearly every aspect of our daily lives — from how we communicate to how we work and play — has changed dramatically,” she said. “But our high schools have stayed frozen in time.”
While the contest leaves the door wide open to the kinds of changes teams can propose, several themes have popped up in the concepts submitted and reviewed by XQ officials in November, Ali said.

Using technology is a critical feature of the new high school model. Personalized and self-paced learning, with students focusing on what interests them at their own level and speed, is also a common idea.

More practical lessons

Making academic content relevant to real-world experiences is a core goal, and one that perhaps requires internships or other real-world learning. A teacher standing in front of a class teaching facts and figures, however, is not really on the table.

“You ask a teenager anything, they pull it up on their phone so fast, the capital of New Delhi to quantum physics,” Ali said. “Imagine a school that actually taught people how to think rather than what to think.”

In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, the district plans to submit an XQ application for a school located in a public museum, with students focusing on problem-solving and critical thinking while incorporating the museum’s whale skeleton and other artifacts.

Yet, education reform experts across the country offer mixed feedback on the notion of fueling an overhaul of the high school experience with five schools and $50 million.

“Even though it’s only a handful of schools, it is a lot of money, and it may offer an opportunity for a set of schools to actually try to come up with and try to do something that’s potentially radically different than the past,” said William Corrin, deputy director of K-12 education at MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research nonprofit. “In that sense, I can kind of see the vision behind this.”
But it also raises serious questions, Corrin said, including how one judges success and how to push change across 50 states and thousands of school systems, each with political autonomy and their own funding scheme and demographics.

Amir Williams, 16, junior Oakland High School,  adds his support to a display by placing a sticker on it during an XQ roadshow event at Broadway and 8th Street on Wednesday, December 9,  2015 in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle | Amir Williams, 16, junior Oakland High School, adds his support to a display by placing a sticker on it during an XQ roadshow event at Broadway and 8th Street on Wednesday, December 9, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. 
‘High schools are obsolete’

Those differences were among the factors that bogged down past efforts to spark change, like the New American Schools’ “break-the-mold” initiative in 1991; the $500 million Annenberg Challenge in 1993, supported by President Bill Clinton; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants, starting with the small schools movement in 2000 and “redefining the American high school” five years later.

“America’s high schools are obsolete,” Bill Gates said in 2005. “By obsolete, I mean that our high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”

Now, a decade later, Powell Jobs is repeating that mantra and pushing her chips into the fix-the-public-schools pot.

The difficulty is that while the public school system might need extensive updating, especially incorporating technology, injections of money and good intentions don’t seem to translate directly into success, said Maria Ferguson, executive director for the Center on Education Policy, a group advocating for more effective schools.

Amir Williams (foreground), junior Oakland High School, looks at his image projected on the XQ We Think booth during an XQ roadshow event at Broadway and 8th Street on Wednesday, December 9,  2015 in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle | Amir Williams (foreground), junior Oakland High School, looks at his image projected on the XQ We Think booth during an XQ roadshow event at Broadway and 8th Street on Wednesday, December 9, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. 
Making ‘the same mistakes’

President Obama’s 2011 Race to the Top initiative, arguably the biggest public buy-in for competition-fueled reform, gave out $4.5 billion in grants to schools and districts focused on transformation and innovation. Yet, none of the many reforms paid off in long-lasting change, Ferguson said.

“My entire career has just been watching people make the same mistakes,” she said.

What happens, she asked, when the money runs out? And how do you navigate elected school boards in the thousands of districts across the country, not to mention unions and parent groups?

“One is always a little hesitant to be critical of those who want to do good, wonderful things with their money,” Ferguson said. “You can give it a jazzy name like XQ, but at the risk of sounding too cynical, I haven’t heard anything yet that gives me reason to believe this is anything different.”

XQ officials believe the competition is already creating a movement, with 1,700 teams forming to submit entries or brainstorm ideas. While only a handful of schools will be selected, Ali said the organization is looking at how to support new school models, helping them develop and spread.
“It is fair to say this is the most concentrated grant program, the largest individual school grants that anyone has contemplated,” said Tom Vander Ark, chief executive of Getting Smart, a for-profit education consulting group, and the former head of the Gates Foundation.

“There’s no question they’ll get several dozen extraordinarily good proposals,” he said. “It’s quite likely these will be five extraordinary schools that really do rethink the learning environment and probably deploy technology in new and interesting ways.”

Future Shock members, a youth dance group with Culture Shock Oakland,  Jalen Hodge, 14, Envision High School; Chevelle Robinson, 16, Mission High School and Romeikus Moore, 16, City Arts & Technology High School, perform at the XQ roadshow on Wednesday, December 9,  2015 in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle | Future Shock members, a youth dance group with Culture Shock Oakland, Jalen Hodge, 14, Envision High School; Chevelle Robinson, 16, Mission High School and Romeikus Moore, 16, City Arts & Technology High School, perform at the XQ roadshow on Wednesday, December 9, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. 
Bay Area efforts

In San Francisco, school district officials are working on their XQ entry, getting feedback from middle and high school students about what they think high school should look like, district officials said. Specifics about where the school would be and how it would teach have yet to be ironed out.
Oakland student Camille Brewster, 17, believes she has the recipe for a winning entry. A great high school experience, she said, should include internships and maybe studying abroad, but definitely life skills to navigate what a young person will actually encounter after graduation, like how to get a job or communicate effectively.

Reciting the Pythagorean theorem or calculating the speed of a train leaving Boston is probably not on that life skill list.

“I feel like we are put in a box in high school, and we need to step out of that,” said Brewster, a senior at MetWest High, where students do internships and have customized learning plans. “I think my school is the kind they’re trying to create.”


Congress makes school attendance a national priority

By Tom Chorneau. SI&A Cabinet Report |

Posted December 15, 2015  ::  (District of Columbia) Increasing the emphasis on getting more of the nation’s K-12 students to show up for class, the newly-approved federal education law will require Title I schools to report chronic absenteeism broken down by subgroup.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama last week, does away with the most onerous accountability mandate on schools – adequate yearly progress – while giving states new flexibility to design and implement their own systems for measuring student performance.

But Congress retained some key requirements such as annual assessments in grades three through eight and once in high school for math and English language arts, as well as the need to continue to identify persistently underperforming schools.

ESSA calls on states to create accountability systems that use multiple measures to gauge student outcome. The bill requires that states receiving Title I money must also collect and report “measures of school quality, climate and safety…”

Among the metrics listed that must be broken down by subgroup is chronic absenteeism – both excused and unexcused.

“It is good news that chronic absence data is included in the ESSA reauthorization for Title I schools because it moves us closer to the day when all districts will be using chronic absence data and acting on it,” said David Kopperud, an education programs consultant with the California Department of Education who helps oversee statewide attendance issues.

Long overlooked as a vehicle for improving public education, attendance is increasingly viewed as a fundamental first step in boosting student performance – especially among early learners.

According to a study from Johns Hopkins University, chronic absenteeism in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first through third grade. Johns Hopkins researchers also found a strong relationship between sixth-grade attendance and the percentage of students graduating on time or within a year of their expected high school graduation.

The University of Chicago reported last year that attendance and grades were the two greatest predictors of later academic performance among middle school students.

A number of states have already taken steps to address chronic absenteeism by making schools keep better track of attendance rates and report the numbers publicly.

In California, for instance, as many as 230,000 elementary students missed more than 18 days in 2014-15. As a result, lawmakers there have included attendance as one of the educational goals that districts must report on and set goals to improve – especially for low income students, English learners and foster youth.

The language adopted by Congress is similar:

‘‘(viii) Information submitted by the State educational agency and each local educational agency in the State, in accordance with data collection conducted pursuant to section 203(c)(1) of the Department of Education Organization Act (20 U.S.C. 3413(c)(1)), on –
‘‘(I) measures of school quality, climate, and safety, including rates of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, chronic absenteeism (including both excused and unexcused absences), incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment;…”

Kopperud points out that the new law requires chronic absenteeism rates to be disaggregated by all the significant subgroups, including racial and ethnic subgroups as well as subgroups for homeless students and foster youth.

He noted that ESSA will also allow Title II funds to be used for professional development in chronic absence reduction strategies.

One potential issue for California schools could be the definition of “chronic absenteeism.” The state sets the mark at any student missing 10 percent of the school year, while the new federal Title I rule is based on missing 15 days of the school year.



How A School’s Attendance Number Hides Big Problems

By Elissa Nadworny,Texas Public Radio |

Image credit: LA Johnson / NPR

Posted December 7, 2015  ::  Every morning, the familiar routine plays out in hundreds of thousands of classrooms: A teacher looks out over the desks, taking note of who's in their seats and who isn't.

On any given day, maybe there are one or two empty chairs. One here, one there. And that all goes into the school's daily attendance rate.

But here's what that morning ritual doesn't show: That empty desk? It might be the same one that was empty last week or two weeks ago. The desk of a student who has racked up five, 10, 20 absences this year.

It's called chronic absence. The official definition: missing more than 10 percent of the school year — just two days a month.

And the real-life implication: a warning sign for a student on the brink of failing or dropping out.
Experts call chronic absence an "unseen force" hidden behind average daily attendance figures of 90 or 95 percent that schools hail as a sign of success.

"Daily attendance averages tell you how many students show up every day," says Hedy Chang, who heads Attendance Works, a nonprofit education policy group. "But not how many are missing so much school that they are headed off track academically."

Yet there's a growing effort to pull that chronic absence figure out of the shadows. The U.S. Education Department has taken note: Next year, for the first time ever, it will release school-level data on how many U.S. students missed 15 or more days of school.

The Math Problem

To understand how deceptive attendance numbers can be, take a look at Baltimore. This year, the elementary attendance rate in the Baltimore city public schools is 93 percent. Anything in the 90s is an A — so that's good, right?

But, look more closely and you find that nearly 20 percent of students in grades one through five have missed more than 20 days of school. That's more than 6,000 children.

"As a statistic, attendance can hide patterns," says Mark Gaither, principal at Wolfe Street Academy, an elementary school in Baltimore. He would know. Ten years ago, his school was in bad shape. Test scores were terrible, and the state was threatening to take over.

But when he arrived, he focused on attendance, then in the low 90s. "Not abysmal," he thought at the time.

He soon discovered that day in, day out, it was the same students who were not showing up. And these kids, he says, "were missing 30 percent of their education."

Not surprisingly, these were the students struggling the most in basic things like learning to read.
"That was the performance gap," Gaither says. "The devil is in the details — the devil is in the individual child. If we don't get this kid to school, they're going to fail."

So he launched a kid-by-kid campaign — heavily focused on data — to raise attendance. And today, the school has just a handful of chronically absent kids — and much higher test scores.

Taking A Different Approach

A growing number of school districts are doing what Gaither did: using data to attack this problem head-on.

Patterson Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., is a good example.

Every Thursday morning, Principal Victorie Thomas convenes a small group in the school's conference room. Sitting around the oval table are several social workers, the attendance monitor and a City Year volunteer. They all have a stack of paper: a kid-by-kid list of absences of the school year to date.

What they're doing is searching for patterns, highlighting names of students who have missed three or more days. Then, they share from their different perspectives what they know about each student.

They start with the youngest kids. They talk about home visits, discuss what community resources may be available and make plans to call families and talk to teachers about what might be going on.

"We go child-by-child because that's how important it is to us," says Thomas. "One day can make a big difference."