Must Reading – HML’s School Performance: The Iceberg Effect

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The Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable have published a fascinating report called School Performance: The Iceberg Effect.  I would recommend reading the full report but an Executive Summary is also available – both can be found here.

They wrote the study because of their concerns about the use of international large-scale education assessments (ILSA) such as PISA to compare countries.  As educators, we cringe when newspapers and critics boil down the success of a child, let alone a country, on the results of a test.  They cite several research studies which indicate that up to 70% of tested achievement can be accounted for by out-of-school factors.  Hence The Iceberg Effect – a tendency focus on the part of the iceberg we can see when the part we can’t see is so much more important.

In their report, the part of the iceberg we can see are Student Outcomes (student test results) and System Outcomes (how successfully a country produces educated citizens and skilled workers).  The parts of the iceberg we can’t see include Inequity & Inequality, Social Stress & Violence, Support for Schools, and Support for Young Families.  Four indicators for each of these six dimensions were defined and then used to rank order 9 countries – the G7 plus Finland and China.

What I found most interesting was how the U.S. ranked, compared to these other similar economic powerhouses, on each of the 24 indicators.   The U.S. ranked last or second to last on 13 of the 24 indicators!  According to the report, “It is the only one of the nine nations with a maroon designation [bottom third in rank] in three of the six dimensions. The results for the United States with regard to economic inequity, social stress, and support for young families—all correlated with school performance—leave a great deal to be desired.” Pg. 18.  In fact the U.S. ranked last in Social Stress, last in Support for Families, and second to last in Economic Inequity.

The only area in which the U.S. excelled was System Outcomes, where it ranked first in Years of Education Completed, Possession of Secondary Diploma, Possession of Bachelor’s Degree, and Global Share of High Achieving Science Students.   Isn’t it a bit ironic that even though the U.S. ranked highest in all four of the indicators in the Systems Outcomes Dimension, reformers keep telling us how bad our schools are?  That our students aren’t “College Ready”?  In its conclusion the report stated, “Based on the indicators included in this study, it seems clear that the United States has the most highly educated workforce among these nine nations. At the same time, American society reveals the greatest economic inequities among the advanced nations in this analysis, combined with the highest levels of social stress, and the lowest levels of support for young families.” Pg. 43.

My takeaway?  When reformers like the Gates Foundation wash their hands of social issues and say, “We’re going to fix society by making new types of schools, harder tests, self-paced learning gizmos, and better teachers” they are working on the tip of the iceberg.  Where are the gazillionaires who want to donate a couple of $billion to reduce the number of violent deaths, drug deaths, teenage pregnancies, and infant death due to abuse or neglect?  To increase pre-school enrollment and extend more benefits to young families?  Remember, it was the part of the iceberg they couldn’t see that the sunk the Titanic.

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Vision 20/20 – A Step in the Right Direction

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Many people (me included) have spent a lot of time wringing their hands over what Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, the Walton clan, and the Koch brothers are doing to public education.  As previously posted, I believe a big reason they have gained such a foothold in the conversation is because we the public educators have been too silent.   That’s why I am so optimistic about an effort called Vision 20/20. Their policy brief can be found here and the Executive Summary here.

Vision 20/20 is an effort by six professional associations to take back control of the conversation and influence the political decisions shaping public education here in Illinois.  The Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO), Illinois Principals Association (IPA), Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS), Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), Superintendents’ Commission for the Study of Demographics and Diversity (SCSDD) came together in November, 2012 to create Vision 20/20 and finalized their recommendations two years later.

They recognized that control of public education was slipping away from the professionals into the hands of non-educators.   They promote public education, saying, “As public educators, we believe public education works. We reject the premise that education in Illinois has failed but recognize its impact has not been equitably delivered to all student populations and that there are opportunities for continuous improvement.”

Vision 20/20’s stated outcomes are clear:

Conscious that no single legislative attempt at school improvement can be developed, implemented, or find success without the support, devotion, and hard work of all stakeholders, Vision 20/20 asks not just for state action, but also for local action and the support of educators across the state to fulfill the promise of public education. On behalf of the over two million schoolchildren in Illinois, we challenge the State Legislature, the Governor, and all stakeholders to take action.

Their report includes 24 state policy recommendations in four major areas, as described in their Policy Brief:

Highly Effective Educators – The quality of teachers and school leaders is the greatest predictor of student achievement schools can influence. By attracting, developing, and retaining our state’s best educators, we can have a profound impact on student learning.

21st Century Learning – For success in life, students need more than knowledge of math and reading. It is time to expand the definition of student learning, commit to the development of the “whole child,” and invest in policies proven to link all schools to 21st century learning tools.

Shared Accountability – A quality education for all Illinois students cannot be ensured without the collaboration, compromise, and hard work of both educators and legislators. With that in mind, it is necessary to expand educator responsibility in the legislative process, create a shared accountability model, and restructure mandates to allow more local district flexibility.

Equitable and Adequate Funding – All students in Illinois are entitled to a quality education. It is our duty to ensure our students have access to all necessary resources by improving equity in the funding model, appropriating adequate dollars for education, and allowing local school districts the autonomy needed to increase efficiency.

They are taking Vision 20/20 to local schools boards and asking them to endorse the plan – over 180 districts have done so already.  Their next step is to take the policy recommendations to the state legislature and try to get them enacted.  These are good steps forward, an attempt to make the needs of public schools be heard over the din of Common Core, budget woes, and high-stakes testing.  Their voice would be much louder with the addition of the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.  Together, perhaps they can reclaim the right to shape education in Illinois.

We Got a “C”!

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Today the newspaper announced the release of a “new report grading public education in Illinois…” (Daily Herald, Nov. 20, 2014).  The report, titled “The State We’re In: 2014”, was published by Advance Illinois.  The report said it looked at 55 metrics and, after comparing the metrics those from the other 49 states, found that Illinois got a grade of “C”.  Using their logic, that means Illinois ranked in the middle of all 50 states overall.  Not bad really, considering the terrible shape our finances are in (of course none of the metrics included the degree to which states fund schools – isn’t Illinois at the bottom there?).

I always look at reports like these from well-funded education think-tanks with jaundiced eyes.  Who is Advance Illinois?  What’s their agenda?  Where’s the money coming from?

Of Advance Illinois’ 18 board members, one is listed as an “Instructional Support Leader” for Chicago Public Schools – the only K-12 educator on the board.  At the end of the report Advance Illinois acknowledges 25 “education experts” for their help – only three appear to be from K-12 public schools.  The Executive Director of Advance Illinois is Robin Steans.  Look at the list of supporters below.  Yep, the Executive Director is the daughter of one of Advance Illinois’ contributors.  Is that a conflict of interest?

How about Advance Illinois’ mission?  In part it says it will be “an independent, objective voice to promote public education in Illinois…”  One of their eight mission statements says, “Students and families should have choices in how to meet their educational needs.”  Is it objective to promote charter schools as a solution?

A look at Advance Illinois’ supporters:

Wonder why support for charter schools is part of Advance Illinois’ mission?  The Gates Foundation has given them almost $2.5 million since 2008.  The Gates Foundation supports charter schools.  The Joyce Foundation recently gave Advance Illinois $1.05 million.  It also recently gave $700K to support the formation of charter schools in Illinois.

The report said that Illinois’ “C” grade was based on the comparison of 55 metrics.  It was only 24.  Seven of the 55 were just facts (i.e. number of schools in Illinois).  Of the remaining 48 metrics, 24 had no data available for Illinois.  So the “C” grade was given with half of the data missing.

I actually like some of the things the report says (i.e. “Illinois is notorious for its inadequate, inequitable method of funding public schools”).  But you have to be careful when reading reports like this from private organizations – you don’t know what their agenda is.  And with well-heeled supporters, there is always an agenda.