Listen to the music: Some things are universal

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Vivek Pandya, a 12 year old, slaying the tabla at the Ragas Live festival in 2016.

A central argument posited by this blog is that context matters. In order to truly understand a school as an organization, you have to account for the physical and social factors of that specific school.

This argument pushes back on the dominant narrative in ed reform that schools are more or less comparable, and if not universally comparable, then at the very least, by grouping according to “peer groups” by similarities in demographic inputs, such as free-and-reduced lunch or ELL populations.

Yet there is a risk, too, in taking such an argument too far, and claiming that local context is everything — and that meaning can therefore only be determined subjectively by those who exist within that local context. Such an extreme argument would suggest that there are no universal statements that can be made about schools.

We can see this play out with music across the world. Is the meaning of music solely determined by the culture that produces it? Or are there traits of music that are universal?

Interestingly, cognitive psychologists side with the latter (universal), while ethnomusicologists fight for the former.

A recent study suggests that ethnomusicologists are being too precious, and that there are universally recognized traits of music. At the very least, people from across the world can identify whether a song made by a small-scale society is a lullaby, dance, made for healing, or an expression of love.

Similarly, I think there are universal traits and principles of effective and ineffective schools that we can discuss. So while I stress—and this blog hinges upon—the importance of acknowledging the strong influence of local context, I also don’t want to take that argument to an extreme.

Context matters—I believe much more than we generally recognize when it comes to schools and many other things—but it’s not everything.

A Study Suggests That People Can Hear Universal Traits in Music, Ed Yong / The Atlantic

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Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

Integrated schools as a stabilizing force in times of chaos

A beautiful post on the benefits of integrated schools. Read the whole thing.

The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.

. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.

–Kelly Bare, “A Divided America Gave Us the Problem of a Donald Trump Presidency. Integration is the Solution.

Our Nation Deserves Better Than Rhetorical Posturing

“For decades now, charter schools have been positioned as the cure to all that ails the public school system. Supporters point to them as the gold standard. What we fail to acknowledge, however, is that for every successful KIPP or Democracy Prep, there are mediocre or struggling charters that aren’t improving outcomes. There are leaders and laggards in the charter movement, and many observers choose not to make the distinction.

Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. Currently, about 4 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools. Even if we doubled the number of students in charters tomorrow, that would still leave more than 90 percent of public school students in traditional public schools. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don’t attend, and likely will never have access to. . . .

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

Otherwise, we are merely tinkering around the edges, seeking to set the next boundaries for the next fight. Our kids, our communities, and our nation deserve far better than such rhetorical posturing.”

–Patrick Riccards (aka  Eduflack), “It’s Time for Reformers, Educators to Work Together” on EdWeek

The Myth of the School as Savior of All Social Ills

Koti Chennayya – Legendary twin heroes known for their martial skills, heroic deeds, discipline and above all strength of character and respect for truth.

Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for NY Post in which she makes the case that schools can effectively overcome all obstacles. In my last post here, “An Editorial on Societal Culpability for Have-Nots,” I argued something somewhat different. So it would be worth examining her argument closer so I can clarify my position.

Eva starts off with a strong statement:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

She then promotes the exemplar of her own schools, the Success Academy charter network, as the supporting evidence for this statement. “Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children. . . . Success Academy schools are at the top of all public schools in the state.”

This is a bit of an aside, but I’d like to throw down the gauntlet here for Ms. Moskowitz. If she is truly committed to the “public” part of education, then why not share all of the wonderful practices and content that makes her schools so successful? I’m someone always seeking to learn from best practices, and I work willingly across charter and district divides.

When the scores came out for the first Common Core-aligned NY state tests last year, and I saw Success Academy II in the Bronx had the highest scores in the city, I tweeted that I wanted to know what they were doing. I’m serious about that.

Share, Ms. Moskowitz, not simply compete. That’s how we can make all our schools better, and not just yours.

Moskowitz then makes the following statements, in which I can find much to agree with:

If we sell low-income, minority children short, because we believe their poverty prevents them from learning, then indeed, they won’t learn. If we want to help our children of color to rise out of poverty, we must give them schools on par with what their more affluent peers have. . . .

I fully concur that we need to make our schools better for students of color and students in poverty AND for students with special needs, and that we must raise our expectations for ALL children. This is why I teach and this is why I blog.

This also made me think about a recent post on Shanker Blog by William Schmidt, “The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes,” in which he says:

It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.

We need to make our schools better. Our schools are not good enough, particularly for our students who rely on them for opportunities the most.

Moskowitz closes her op-ed with the following statement:

We don’t need so much to “lift” children from poverty as to equip them with the skills and self-confidence to achieve their dreams. We must choose to make schools incubators of opportunity, not poverty traps.

Though I agree with her sentiment, I also think this kind of wishful thinking can be problematic. You can see more evidence in the following statements that Moskowitz made earlier in the post:

We as a nation can’t fix poverty unless we fix education, and we can’t fix education if we keep telling ourselves our schools are “good enough.” . . .

If we give all children a fair start, then the race is theirs to win.

Why do I call this “wishful thinking”? Because essentially, Moskowitz is arguing that if we fix everything in the classroom, then we’ve provided our students of poverty and color with ample opportunity and equity. Then it’s off to the races. Our wonderful American meritocracy will then function as it should.

But it won’t. It won’t because even if we provide the best education in the world in an isolated pocket of poverty, what opportunities will the children in that community have upon their graduation? What social networks will they have to support them as they climb to ever more challenging and higher rungs in professional and academic settings?

Fixing education is not enough, and saying that it is enough is in my opinion wishful thinking because it lets us off the hook, and this letting-us-off-the-hook is why I wrote my last impassioned post about our society’s culpability for the horrendous living situations and life outcomes of too many of our nation’s children. If we think we can fix everything in the classroom, that we can dust off our hands at the end of the day, get into our BMWs and drive off to our wealthier enclaves, eat our organically grown fresh produce, and tell ourselves that we’ve done everything we could, then we are fooling ourselves, and we are letting ourselves and those in power in our society off the hook.

Because making schools better also isn’t “good enough.” It’s important, and it’s the battle Moskowitz and myself and educators throughout our nation get up each morning to do, because we believe in its importance. But if it’s good enough, then we are effectively saying that we are endorsing socio-economic and racial segregation. We are effectively saying that so long as you have yours, and I have mine—and it’s equal—then everything’s going to be OK.

It’s not going to be OK, so long as there’s the other side of the railroad tracks. And it’s not going to be OK when even if we provide a world class education such as Success Academy is claiming to do, our students living in poverty still are not completing college at greater rates nor obtaining higher paid careers (is Success Academy tracking longer term outcomes? That’s what KIPP is doing–they’re taking a hard and honest look at the graduation rates of their scholars, rather than giving themselves high fives).

I love Moskowitz’ idea of schools as “incubators of opportunity.” I’d like to extend that idea to entire communities. The communities of the South Bronx and Brownsville must be cultivated as incubators of opportunity, not just their schools. Detroit and East LA and South Texas should be nurtured and invested in as incubators of opportunity.

A school is part of an ecosystem of a community. What economic opportunities are available? What social and physical capital investments have been made? What sort of public transportation options are there?

Even if we had the best schools in the world in our poorest communities, our work has only just begun. Education is important. But that’s only half the battle.