First Person

Just How Gullible Is David Brooks?

Now that I have your attention … Today’s New York Times column by David Brooks touts a new study by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Promise Academy charter schools, two celebrated schools in Harlem.  Fryer and Dobbie’s finding that the typical eighth-grader was in the 74th percentile among New York City students in mathematics leads Brooks to state that HCZ Promise Academy eliminated the black-white achievement gap.  He’s so dumbstruck by this that he says it twice.  Brooks takes this evidence as support for the “no excuses” model of charter schools, and, claiming that “the approach works,” challenges all cities to adopt this “remedy for the achievement gap.”

Coming on the heels of yesterday’s release of the 2009 New York State English Language Arts (ELA) results, in which the HCZ schools outperformed the citywide white average in grade 3, but were well behind the white average in grades 4, 5 and 8, skoolboy decided to drink a bit more deeply from the datastream.  The figure below shows the gap between the average performance in HCZ Promise Academy and white students in New York City in ELA and math, expressed as a fraction of the standard deviation of overall performance in a given grade and year.  The left side of the figure shows math performance, and the right side shows ELA performance.

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It’s true that eighth-graders in 2008 scored .20 standard deviations above the citywide average for white students.  But it may also be apparent that this is a very unusual pattern relative to the other data represented in this figure, all of which show continuing and sizeable advantages for white students in New York City over HCZ students.  The fact that HCZ seventh-graders in 2008 were only .3 standard deviations behind white students citywide in math is a real accomplishment, and represents a shrinkage of the gap of .42 standard deviations for these students in the preceding year.  However, Fryer and Dobbie, and Brooks in turn, are putting an awful lot of faith in a single data point — the remarkable increase in math scores between seventh and eighth grade for the students at HCZ who entered sixth grade in 2006.  If what HCZ is doing can routinely produce a .67 standard deviation shift in math test scores in the eighth grade, that would be great.  But we’re certainly not seeing an effect of that magnitude in the seventh grade.  And, of course, none of this speaks to the continuing large gaps in English performance.   

But here’s the kicker.  In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test?  They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests.  Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test.  For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school’s objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy.  In fact, this same cohort had a slightly higher average NCE of 42 in June, 2007.

Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE’s) range from 1 to 99, and are scaled to have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06.  An NCE of 41 corresponds to roughly the 33rd percentile of the reference distribution, which for the ITBS would likely be a national sample of on-grade test-takers.  Scoring at the 33rd percentile is no great success story.

How are we to make sense of this?  One possibility is that the HCZ students didn’t take the Iowa tests seriously, and that their performance on that test doesn’t reflect their true mastery of eighth-grade mathematics.  The HCZ Annual Report doesn’t offer this as a possibility, perhaps because it would be embarrassing to admit that students didn’t take some aspect of their schoolwork and school accountability plan seriously.  But the three explanations that are offered are not compelling:  the Iowa test skills were not consistently aligned with the New York State Standards and the Harcourt Curriculum used in the school;  the linkage of classroom instruction to the skills tested on the Iowa test wasn’t consistent across the school year, and Iowa test prep began in February, 2008;  and school staff didn’t use 2007 Iowa test results to identify areas of weaknesses for individual students and design appropriate intervention.

If proficiency in English and math are to mean anything, these skills have to be able to generalize to contexts other than a particular high-stakes state test.  No college or employer is ever going to look at the New York State ELA and math exams in making judgments about who has the skills to be successful in their school or workplace.  I’m going to hold off labeling the HCZ schools as the “Harlem Miracle” until there’s some additional evidence supporting the claim that these schools have placed their students on a level academic playing field with white students in New York City.

First Person

Why I take class time to teach perseverance (and let my fourth-graders write on their desks)

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
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Every morning, I hand my fourth-grade students dry-erase markers and ask them to do something unconventional: write directly on their desks.

Their task is to write a goal for the day. I have seen them write things like “Today I will be a better friend” or more abstract ideas like “My goal is to accept challenges.” When it’s time to leave, we celebrate those who met their goals and encourage those who haven’t to try again tomorrow.

Daily goal-setting is one of many strategies I use to teach perseverance, self-control, confidence and teamwork — “soft skills” often referred to as social-emotional learning. Most require just a couple of extra minutes at the start and end of our school days, but the payoff seems invaluable.

Research shows that students who internalize those skills may actually be better at learning hard skills like math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school. One study showed that students were more motivated when they were told their brains are muscles that can get stronger with practice, just like any other muscle. This year, I’ve already seen students use their daily goal-setting to focus on tasks they used to think they could not accomplish, like multiplication.

I’ve seen this strategy work with students of all ability levels. We are a diverse community, and the same goals don’t work for everyone, especially my students who fall under the special-education umbrella or whose primary language isn’t English. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded. Part of the learning process for students is crafting their own goals that will work for them.

Another part of this exercise is practicing compassion. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing my students take a genuine interest in each other. They’ve even written goals like, “I want to learn to speak English” (with help from another classmate) or “I will help Alan with his math today.” And they actually did it. Those two students sat together in class and worked on sight words and multiplication problems.

An important part of this work is defining these ideas, like empathy, grit and determination for students so I can be specific about what we’re aiming for. (I like ClassDojo’s Big Ideas videos, which explain those concepts through the eyes of a little monster named Mojo, and prompt my students to talk about how they’ve felt when they didn’t know an answer or were intimidated by a task.)

An unexpected benefit of these lessons has been personal. Lately, my class has been struggling with getting off-task — and, as all teachers know, every minute I spend asking a student to please stop talking or stop distracting others is a minute not spent on academic content or teaching the rest of the class. At one of those moments, I asked my students to empathize with me, one teacher trying to reach 22 of them, and with their fellow students, who wanted to learn but were being distracted.

We talked as a class about building a new set of expectations for our classroom. And by the end of the day, I had received two hand-delivered notes, secretly created and signed by each student in the class, saying that they were sorry for disturbing class.

The notes showed me that my students are learning compassion and also that they are beginning to value their academic time. I hope that it was a sign of soft skills leading to hard skills — students recognizing that how they act has an impact on learning the skills necessary to solve problems and succeed.

Stephanie Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Roy L. Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens.