Like most conferences, the workshops were better than the speakers. Mary Jean Ryan, who sat on the State Board of Education and previously ran for Seattle School Board and is the head of CCER, was the leader of the conference. Sincere, nice but not a particularly inspiring speaker. The Keynote Speaker, though, was Amy Wilkins from the Education Trust. She was a good speaker (although I am still waiting for a copy of her Powerpoint which had great data but she told us to listen and not take notes).
What was interesting about her speech is that she had done her homework and looked up Washington State ed stats. According to her, we're doing better than the average state and making some progress. It was nice to hear it didn't look all doom and gloom from an outsider's perspective. She said that teachers are like doctors and lawyers and that ones new to the craft generally are not the best teachers and are the least effective. (Yes, wait for it because I did get to ask her about TFA.)
Mary Jean did have something that I heard a couple of times in the day which was:
"Find what works rapidly and get rid of that which doesn't."
I attended the breakout session "Getting More Graduates: Improving High School Graduation Rates." This was a presentation by Renton School District and Tukwila school district (and their Community Schools Collaboration project). It was great.
Renton has a 93% high school graduation rate. Yes, take that in. And, it was announced at the session that they had sustained that rate for last year. Overall, they have 49% free and reduced lunch eligible students in their district. It was interesting because they have concerns over "pockets of excellence" in their district but not the overall improvement in every school.
I loved how the guy presenting put it: I need the elevator talk that I can give to Joe Bag o' Donuts. For systemic improvement it's:
1) middle school rise - better than the state average and in all sub-groups
2) increasing the graduation rate and lowering the drop-out rate
They received a state grant which allowed them to look back at the class of 2006 to the 6th grade and see how students did. The factors they found where thing like if you started with a 6th grade cohort, you were more likely to graduate. If you started at 9th grade and moved together, you did better but not as well as if you were together since 6th grade.
Digging down they found that students who change schools do worse, class failure in middle school was a warning sign, attendance rates, and interruption of schooling. That last one was interesting because it wasn't just about not attending school. It was about people who take their children out of school for periods of time for reasons big and small. (Example, some Latinos will take their kids out in winter to go to Mexico to see relatives. Another one cited that surprised me was taking kids out for ski trips/vacations in the winter. Even a week to 10 days can have an effect.)
They found that a low GPA was the worst factor, not race or socioeconomic status.
Like Everett and their tracking system in high school, Renton has an academic team that tracks students in trouble. One issue they found is NOT removing students for inappropriate behavior. Finding ways to keep them in class (or in school) rather than suspending them. They have a PBS (Positive Behavior Support) system in their elementary schools to get behavioral issues under control early.
- They provide a 7th period for failing middle schools students that is mandatory. To their surprise, they have found little parent resistance.
- They have a support system for students new to their district.
- They identify schools that are working well with at-risk students and help other schools to emulate those traits.
- They had focus groups with parents, community members and teachers to learn about barriers that their district creates to positive learning.
- Tukwila also echoed the focus group idea with kids. (It's one thing to take a survey and another to actually talk to kids.) What was interesting is that Tukwila said it was the elementary kids who wanted more fun and snacks. The older students want better services and more help.
- Mentors to students in trouble.
Norm Rice, the former mayor of Seattle and head of the Seattle Foundation, was the lunch speaker. One thing he announced was a "Harlem-style work " initiative for SE Seattle and Highline. (I believe he was referencing the Harlem Children's Zone in NYC.)
There was a press conference during lunch at which every mayor present spoke. The mayor of Federal Way said something good like "all means all" when it comes to educating children.
Dorothy Neville attended this conference and had pointed out to me this chart with "indicators" to be tracked in the Road Map project. One was "% of students exhibiting '21st Century' social skills. This was intriguing so I asked Mary Jean Ryan at the press conference what that meant. She looked distressed and said she could talk to me about it "off-line". This is an odd thing to
say at a press conference about something your own group has stated as a goal. I pressed her and she said things like teamwork, perseverance or being on time. I asked her how those were specifically 21st Century social skills and said well, social skills aren't easy to measure. It was a "huh?" moment.
So I asked Tracy Wilkins from the Education Trust a couple of questions. Keep in mind, Education Trust is based in D.C. I asked her for a comment about Michelle Rhee going on Oprah and saying there are no education groups speaking for children. She tossed her head and said, "Oh Michelle knows that's not true. I don't know why she said that." You get the impression that it's a little exasperating for all these long-term education groups to see Michelle Rhee come in, get the lion's share of attention and ask for $1B.
She also stated that Teach for America had its place and probably does good things where they are needed. I asked where that was and she said hard-to-staff areas. She said she still thought that first-year teachers aren't as effective. I also asked her about NCLB. She said that it was funny because many people don't think it's doing what it should but it did start a conversation about having standards and state/local control over education.
In the afternoon, I attended an session on parent engagement on a big scale in Kentucky where they have had a long-term project going on for 15 years. Basically, they call it "parent professional development." I'll write more about it after I see if I get a reply from the presenter about district/principal buy-in. Bernardo Ruiz, the head of SPS public engagement, was there as well. CPPS is going to be trying to coordinate this on a smaller scale here.
My last session was going to hear Brad Bernatek explain SPS' School Reports. You know, it's hard to dislike Brad - he's such an earnest guy. But, of course, I don't know him so I'm sure he's a nice guy but his work in manipulating data for SPS is not so great.
I learned a new SPS acronym - ADW, academic data warehouse.
His presentation included this:
- create meaningful information that drives decision-making and action.
- use common vocabulary
- what's important doesn't vary
In showing how they can narrow data down, he did also refer to a "trigger" of unexcused absences as a data point to do outreach to a student. But I was wondering what the exact intervention was. Do we have some district-wide intervention program that I missed or is this on a school-to-school basis?
He also said a "culture change" was occurring at SPS.
He talked about the School Reports and briefly about MAP.
Then he came to the part in the presentation that he said should "be a lesson to you all." And he went over the 17% issue. He said he apologized on behalf of he and the Superintendent and it was a "good lesson learned." (And yet they did it again on the School Reports.) He says the 17% is being redacted from the SPS website, the elected officials are getting their apologies by phone and adjusting language used in the School Reports.
He asked for questions. So I did something I rarely do in front of non-SPS people. (It's our little family and we have to try to keep the damage down.) I called him out.
I told him, in pretty much no under certain terms, how damaging this was. How the district's credibility had been hurt and how they hurt other elected officials and how they let it go on far too long when they knew it was being misused (even in teacher contract negotiations). I asked him if he understood this. The room was quite quiet by then. He said yes and they did apologize for the error.
So I did that because SPS should be called out for its bad behavior. People in that room needed to understand how damaging this kind of data manipulation is. People in that room needed to understand they can't just publish anything and not believe there are thinking people out there who will examine the data carefully.
A woman from the Seattle City government asked about the term "typical growth" as Brad was using it one way but the City had been told something different last year. She was worried about being able to explain data clearly to the folks she works with at City Hall.
This is precisely the kind of trouble you can get into when you are not completely clear on terms and data.