Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

This from an SF K Files reader:

Do you know an outlier school -- a great school with a low API? Please speak up for it.

On several occasions during the last few months, various leaders of the BBA campaign have met with Arne Duncan and his staff, and with Congressional staffers. Our purpose has been to urge the abandonment of a policy that attempts to judge the quality of schools primarily by their students' scores on standardized tests of basic skills. As the report of the BBA Accountability Committee asserts, we insisted that an accurate assessment of school quality must rely heavily on observation and judgment of experts regarding the breadth and quality of instruction.

In a recent meeting, we advised Department of Education staff that their policy of identifying the lowest-performing 5% of schools in each state, in order to target these schools for massive intervention and "turnaround," was bound to have adverse consequences if these schools were identified primarily by such test scores. We said that many schools that should be considered among the lowest performing schools would be missed if they artificially boosted their test scores at the expense of a balanced curriculum, by excessive test preparation activities and other gaming. And other schools that pursued a more balanced curriculum and attended to children's long run achievement might falsely be identified as among the lowest-performing schools because they refused to engage in activities that artificially boosted test scores.

Department of Education staff were not persuaded, and asked us to provide examples of schools that might fall into each category:

a) Low-performing schools whose test scores have been artificially inflated by excessive test preparation and gaming.

b) Better schools with very low scores but that were delivering a higher quality of instruction.

We are collecting examples of such schools to provide to the Department and need your help. If you can identify one or more schools that would likely fall into one of the two categories described above, would you please send us by reply e-mail (boldapproach@epi.org) a description of these schools?

Please include the name of the school, the name(s) of your source(s) of information, and other identifying information in your description. We will not initially provide all of this identifying information in the material we supply to the Department, but we have to be prepared to back up our claims by naming names if necessary.

As example of the kind of thing we are seeking, we have reprinted below two examples that we initially provided to the Department. But we need more.

Thanks for your help, and we wish all of you a very successful and productive New Year.

Illustrations provided to the Department of Education:

a) A school whose test scores has been artificially inflated, but should properly be considered low-performing.

During the 2008-2009 school year, I was employed by Prince George's County Public Schools. I was placed at XX Elementary School in XX, MD where I spent the first half of the school year teaching 5th grade language arts and social studies. The second half of the year, I taught 2nd grade. At the beginning of the year, the staff reviewed the 2008 MSA (Maryland State Assessment) data to find that the-now 5th graders scored extremely well as 4th graders. However, I was disappointed to find that the data were not reflected in my students' daily work. Almost all of the fifth graders were grossly behind in basic reading, writing, and comprehension skills.

I began to speak to the discrepancies during collaborative planning times. My questions were dismissed and unwelcomed by the principal, XX. As the year progressed, it became evident that there was something terribly wrong with the instructional approaches I was told to use. In November, the principal distributed the actual MSA tests to the teachers during collaborative planning and asked us to: take the test ourselves, write down the strategies we used to answer the questions, find the areas in our curriculum that fit into the test questions and strategies, and teach only what we found from Nov. through March, when the students would take the test.

I was unwilling to forgo the well-balanced and holistic strategies I was successfully using for this skill/drill teach-to-the-test madness. The day we returned from Thanksgiving break, the principal told me she was moving me to 2nd grade for the rest of the school year because the way I was talking, "I could become a cancer in the building."

In summary, until four years ago, XX Elementary School was consistently performing so poorly, it was closed. The new principal, XX, has been celebrated for her leadership achievements in turning around the school so quickly. I am disgusted by the fact that the students at XX Elementary School are not benefitting from a balanced curriculum and not afforded an opportunity to learn anything beyond taking a test.

b) A school with low test scores but a high quality of instruction:

Here is a link for one of several Newcomer schools in California -- Newcomer High in SF. Students attend when they enter the country for only a short time until they learn English.

Its test scores are abysmal but it has a hard-working and experienced staff and a 96% attendance rate among students (unheard of at the high school level). When the students learn enough English to pass the state tests, they move on.


Here's another one, Newcomer Academy in Redwood City, which enrolls all of its students as new immigrants from Latin America. Students stay until they become acclimated and learn English.

The API score is lower than almost any other schools in California, but the school is doing great work with its students.


Newcomer schools also exist in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

For further information about A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,
contact boldapproach@epi.org or visit www.BoldApproach.org.

—BBA Co-chairs Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant


  1. The Newcomer schools are clearly a different category and don't make good examples of what you're trying to show. Can you find examples of "normal" schools?

    The thing with the tests is that they're a simple, repeatable and (relatively) cheap way to evaluate school effectiveness. Identifying "teach-the-test" schools (and districts) is definitely needed (as seen n the Chicago district as written in Outliers).

  2. I'm the one who sent that info to "kate" to post.

    You're correct that the Newcomer schools aren't a great example. I think they were chosen based on sketchy information. (The implication is that they're some kind of interconnected organization, which isn't the case.)

    SFUSD has and had had many schools that fit that category, though. I was hoping that some involved parents would be willing to post the names and brief descriptions. I haven't done a "sort" of SFUSD schools by API in a couple of years, but in the past, Fairmount, Flynn, Revere and others would come to mind. Buena Vista has been a super-popular and successful school for many years and has always had startlingly low APIs in comparison to every other measure of its success. So that's another good example. But insider parents should be the ones to send those, so they can give some details.

  3. Sadly, I don't think you'll have a lot of luck with this. Who has enough resources to look at individual schools holistically? Standardized testing is easy and cheap and quantitative. Unfortunately, here in California and on a national level, we have bankrupted our governments by spending but refusing to tax ourselves to pay for what we feel entitled to. The powers that be will have no choice but to stick to easy and cheap when it comes to our public schools, regardless of whether it's meaningful in the present or helpful in the long run. As the parent of a thoughtful, high-performing student who does poorly on standardized tests, I have a great deal of sympathy for what you're trying to do. Good luck.