A Musical Performance: Collaborative Learning, Authentic Assessment, Opportunity to Learn

Earlier this week my husband and I attended Reaching Musical Heights, a concert that happens in our school district every four years.  It is sponsored by Reaching Heights, the nonprofit organization that promotes equity and opportunity to learn across the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district’s elementary and middle schools and that rents Severance Hall, the gorgeous, art deco home of the Cleveland Orchestra, for these quadrennial concerts to showcase our district’s school music program.  This year the concert happened, ironically, during the first-ever week of Ohio’s PARCC (Common Core) standardized test. But the test our students took on Tuesday night at Severance Hall was different.

Musical performance is the definition of authentic learning and assessment, and the recent concert was a test that our students definitely passed (despite that their performance will not affect our schools’ ratings based on state assessments and the PARCC). To use the lingo of the day, musical performance also perfectly exemplifies collaborative learning.  Elementary singers stayed on pitch and instrumentalists and singers came together from both of our middle schools in an honors chorus and an honors orchestra to perform together as they will in a year or two when they get to high school. The high school concert band sounded great playing a tricky piece with complicated percussion and lots of brass. A high school a capella choir sang a moving  “Shenandoah” with such intricate harmony and sensitive dynamics it made us cry, and then different student conductors led the next two selections.  When the high school symphony played a movement from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a girl with blue hair played perfect bassoon solos. A recent graduate, Geoffrey Golden, returned from Morehouse College to accompany the gospel choir on the piano and to sing a solo. I attended the dress rehearsal for part of the afternoon, and watched while the high school symphony and a huge choir prepared selections by John Rutter and Beethoven—adjusting the dynamics again and again in the huge and unfamiliar concert hall to ensure that the oboe was audible in one section and the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the choir in another. A jazz combo played for a pre-concert reception, men’s barbershoppers sang on stage, a harpist played a Beatles tune in the ticket lobby, and a mass choir with pit orchestra opened with a show tune by Frank Loesser.

Contrast all this with today’s dominant myth about education, described by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a column in last Monday’s paper.  Krugman describes what can be called “the world is flat” myth, which casts our nation’s economic future amidst a vast competition in a connected techie world.  This story alleges that the nation’s economic growth—and hence our future—is being imperiled by our public education system, which is mediocre at best.   Krugman explains: “The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change.  This ‘skills gap’ is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated.  So what we need is more and better education.”  Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist as well as a NY Times columnist, rejects this myth: “There’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers…  Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.”

Krugman tells us that corporate profits continue to soar, but something besides education is preventing widespread well being and feeding the rapid growth of inequality:  “As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees—all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance.  Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.”  Krugman suggests some solutions for improving the economy: “Levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families.  We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Interestingly, last Monday the NT Times printed a sort of double whammy with an op ed piece on the same theme as Krugman’s column, an op ed from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.  Mishel rejects tax cuts as any kind of solution to the problem of inequality: “What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in—a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate… Taxation does not explain why middle-income families are having a harder time making ends meet, even as they increase their education and become ever more productive.”  In fact tax cuts are counter-productive because they collapse society’s capacity to respond to rising inequality.  Mishel’s prescription is similar to Krugman’s: raise the minimum wage; protect workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, and keep people on salary instead of turning work over to so-called independent contractors. “Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.”

Narrowing inequality, as Krugman and Mishel tell us, cannot be accomplished merely by improving education,  It will instead require policies that support the people who do the work, not merely the titans who manipulate high finance. But educating our children remains absolutely central to who we are as a people.  Think about that concert earlier this week. What made the evening of music especially important is that the concert presented a public school music program in a school district where the children are not affluent. Sixty percent of the students in our school district qualify for free lunch; they are not the children of the powerful financiers Paul Krugman describes. Enriching their skills to make and enjoy music and their opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something beautiful is our gift to them from the public. Public schools can’t get rid of inequality, but they are one way that our society can expand opportunity for our children.

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Richard Rothstein Tells Cleveland Audience: Public Policy Created Segregation and White Flight

In a 2004 book, Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, examined social and economic factors in the lives of children and in the community that affect the academic performance of children in school.  Rothstein has been examining economic factors that affect student achievement for years, and his observations have recently been substantiated by the large research studies of sociologist Sean Reardon at Stanford University.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

Rothstein has recently shifted his own focus to the significance of the convergence of racial and economic segregation in public schools.  In the fall, 2014, issue of the American Prospect, Rothstein published a penetrating piece, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping of greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs by structural racism over the decades of the twentieth century. (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Last Friday, Rothstein presented a major address at the City Club of Cleveland.  I urge you to watch his remarks in this video.  Rothstein begins:  “Evidence continues to accumulate that despite our often stated vows to close the achievement gap in educational outcomes between black and white students, we cannot close that achievement gap in segregated schools.  Yet our schools are becoming more and more segregated over time.”

For Rothstein, racial and economic segregation are inseparable.  The challenges imposed by poverty are compounded when concentrated poverty in segregated schools ensures that all the children need special attention to their learning needs.  Rothstein explains, “Let me give you a very recent development… that is having a terrible effect on the achievement of disadvantaged children.  That is the ability of employers of low wage workers to use computers for much more just-in-time scheduling of work. For black hourly workers, 50 percent—half of black hourly workers—now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  And having received these schedules, they’re often sent home early or called in outside their regular schedule.  Among black mothers of children less than 13 years of age, 32 percent now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  What does this have to do with schools?  Well, parents with those kinds of schedules can’t plan regular meal times, can’t plan regular bedtimes, can’t make child care arrangements that require regular drop off and pick up at predictable times. The idea that children in these circumstances (and their numbers are growing because of the way our economy is being reorganized) can achieve at the same level as children who have regular bedtimes, who are enrolled in regular after school or preschool or early childhood programs is absurd.  But it is not only these individual characteristics, and there are many more of them.  What is much more important is when you take children like these and concentrate them together in the same schools… If you have a whole classroom where all the children have these characteristics, the instruction has to be tailored to a different level… Teachers can’t pay special attention to the children with special problems because every child has a special problem.  So the achievement, on-average, of classrooms like that is inevitably going to be lower.”

Rothstein condemns the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Seattle and Louisville—called Parents Involved v. Seattle— in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that when segregation is de facto—determined by accident of history— the factor of race cannot be considered as a legal basis for addressing segregation by race.  “And that decision indicated to me how far we have come from an understanding of the racial history of this country. Our cities—Louisville and Seattle, and also Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Kansas City—have been segregated not by accident but by explicit, purposeful racial policies emanating from the federal, state, and local governments. We do not have de facto segregation in this country.  We have explicit racial apartheid.  And we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”

In his Cleveland address, Rothstein examines federal housing policy to trace the explicit role of government for driving racial segregation.  During the New Deal at a time of severe housing shortage, the Public Works Administration chose the sites of public housing projects according to a “neighborhood composition rule.” Federal law required the race of the inhabitants of public housing to match the race of the residents of the neighborhood where each housing project was built. Three quarters of public housing during the 1930s was built for white families in white neighborhoods, with one quarter of public housing built in black neighborhoods for black families.  After WWII, as the Federal Housing Administration embarked on a program to subsidize the construction of subdivisions in the suburbs, the condition was that homes were sold only to white families.  In Levittown, NY, for example, 17,000 homes were built and sold to white families who could also qualify for the FHA loans from which black families were shut out.  As white families left public housing in the cities, urban housing projects became segregated sites for African American families. “This was,” Rothstein explains, “all the result of the explicit policy of the federal government.”  And, of course, this process fed inequality because white families built assets when the homes they owned appreciated.

In Rothstein’s piece on Ferguson, Missouri in the fall, 2014, American Prospect, he concludes: “A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.” “Although policies to impose segregation are no longer explicit, their effect endures.  When we blame private prejudice and snobishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

In his recent Cleveland City Club address, after his formal remarks and in answer to a question, Rothstein brings the conversation specifically to Ohio when he comments on the likely racial impact of the “A” through “F” school district rating system the state of Ohio will formally launch as school begins in the fall of 2015:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-'F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-'F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

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A walk in a whiteout

At this time of year, even those who embrace winter the most begin to get tired of it – the cold and gray, shoveling, shivering, trudging and salt-encrusted everything.

But when a new snow storm comes in, I don’t care how long or cold the winter has been; I head out for a walk with my faithful friend.

The best time of day for this is late afternoon. The light – already thin in the northern hemisphere – gets filtered through an extra-deep layer of atmosphere as twilight approaches,  and the storm clouds give everything a tinge of blue.

Combine that with the hush of falling snow, its creaky protest underfoot and the slight disorientation as it covers everything anew, a walk in a whiteout is my greatest seasonal pleasure. (My dog likes it too.)

I interrupted the reverie of the most recent such stroll with an effort to capture it in photos.

Below: My guide and a length of freshly-cleared sidewalk. A rarity during a blizzard – except on certain streets in my neighborhood, where the residents dutifully keep entire blocks clear from the first snowfall to the last.

The snow – some new, and some left from a previous snowfall – sits on everything. It obscures the true shape of ordinary shrubs and trees and provides a surreal mix of sharp edges and soft curves – a smooth, fragile layer hiding chaos underneath.

Gates – portals to pretty yards and family activity – become lonely, idle outposts. The little piles on posts let you know which way the wind is blowing.

Familiar surroundings that I walk nearly every day close in around me and suddenly look foreign and mysterious.

 

My friend – driven more by his nose than his eyes – stops to remind me that all the good, interesting stuff is still there, underneath the snow and waiting to be investigated.

With the light at its flattest and bluest, holiday ornaments wearing fezzes of snow provide the only color. (What is the plural of fez?) 

Winter changes perspective and reveals hidden relationships. I tried but failed to capture how things that seem remote or disconnected – like houses on opposites sides of the same block – are suddenly shown to be closely connected.

I look forward to those surprises, and after nearly 25 years walking four different dogs along the same streets, I still find surprising juxtapositions when the leaves come off the trees. It just requires mindful attention during what otherwise could be mindless exercise.

Here, two trees support at least three nests. I’ve seen more densely populated trees in the neighborhood – but they’re only revealed in winter, when leaves and birds alike are gone for the season.

 Even ordinary – dare I say unattractive – structures that typically don’t draw much attention show themselves in new ways. Their contrast with the monochrome backdrop highlights shapes and contours that on any other day would be of little interest. 

And where all else fails, icicles are always worth a second look.

Everything seems to come to a stop during a good, twilight snowstorm. But some jobs still need to get done. Like this lonely construction worker tasked with stopping what little traffic there is on a quiet side street … 

…so the excavators could continue laying gas, water or sewer lines (I don’t know which) at the new home being built up the block.

The house began to go up in November, and the contractor rushed to get walls, roof and windows in place before the first snowfall. The excavators, it strikes me, could have picked a better couple days to tackle their part of the job. 

I always look for vanishing roofs in the flat light of a winter storm.

Drifts encroach on a carefully shoveled entrance, while a patch of shrub – where nobody wants to walk – gets scoured clean.

Fade to white: Three paint jobs look like antiqued color swatches. How much of the difference is in the paint and how much is in the light? Hard to tell at this moment in time.  

Some homes look like they were built specifically to be viewed through falling snow – like the house below. In fact, it was only painted blue last year. Before that it had always been light gray; so it shrunk to less impressive proportions in a snowstorm. (I took this photo on a different day.)

What’s more inviting at the end of a winter walk than home, lit up from the inside, promising warmth, family and a glass of whiskey.   

 

 

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Life in the Breakdown Lane

 For my second thread blog thread, I’m going to post material from a manuscript titled Life in the Breakdown Lane.

In this country, children’s services agencies and juvenile courts intersect at a place I call the breakdown lane. Telling the story of this place seems as insurmountable as it is important.  An occasional headline gives the public a glimpse into these cases: a father is convicted of shaking a baby now brain-damaged for life; a mother beats a five-year-old boy to death; and another mother fatally scalds a two-year-old girl in a bathtub. But there are so many cases that don’t make the headlines or become the lead story on the evening news.

  I’ve traversed the lane for over thirty years, mainly as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or as counsel for abused and neglected children, although I’ve sometimes been assigned counsel for a parent. I’ve also seen the system through the eyes of a foster parent, and foster care plays a large role in children’s cases.

GALs represent the best interests of the children, not always a simple concept. From time to time I’ve jotted down flashes and fragments of my life in this system, and from those I’ve created Life in the Breakdown Lane. This book is about only one face of the juvenile justice system, the part that deals with abuse, neglect and dependency  (referred to locally as the AND cases). Occasionally one of these cases will touch the delinquency side of the court, but that’s not the emphasis here.

  There are a number of lenses through which to view the system, and each forms a chapter of this book. Probably the most important but least articulated is the public policy behind these cases. We need to pay more attention to what commentators and critics tell us.

 Next in importance,  perhaps, is the physical complex itself. The architecture of the buildings tells the community about their importance or lack thereof. Three years ago Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court moved from three unconnected buildings near downtown to a towering edifice in an out-of-the-way poverty pocket of the city.

 Another lens focuses on the roles in the court system. First there are the judges and magistrates who will hear the cases. In addition to the GALs and assigned counsel, public defenders and private attorneys also represent parties. The County Prosecutor’s office assigns prosecutors to the children’s services cases as well as the delinquency cases, and occasionally probation officers interact with the AND cases.

  The legal foundations for the system rest mainly on statutes and case law that the judges and magistrates apply. There are also procedural rules specific to the juvenile courts of Ohio and Superintendence Rules that apply to the GALs. All attorneys and judges are bound by Ohio’s Code of Professional Responsibility.

  I’m often asked why I do this work, a question that assumes that we always know our motivations. I can only identify two. My eighteen-year-old memories of mothering my younger brother and sister after our mother’s death are an obvious tie into being the advocate for kids.

  The other answer it’s the writer in me that’s drawn to this work. Every case has its own story, and the stories are incredible. Where else would I find the characters in the long-running drama that’s staged at The East 93rd Street Theatre of the Performing Arts? Luigi Pirandello wrote a play entitled Six Characters in Search of an Author. Some of the court dramas seem like comedies, some like tragedies, but sometimes I can insert lines that change an outcome. That’s being a playwright in real life. What writer could resist?

 

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Should the Federal Government Be Determining How States Evaluate Teachers?

Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held another hearing this week on the potential reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2002 called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The subject of this week’s hearing was federal requirements for evaluating school teachers. While it is early yet to predict any sort of outcome for the NCLB deliberations, Lauren Camera of Education Week speculates: “Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.”

Removing requirements for tying evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores would be a radical shift in federal policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for its competitive grant program Race to the Top on states’ basing evaluation of school teachers on their students’ standardized test scores.  And the Obama Department of Education’s waivers from the onerous punishments of NCLB have also been contingent upon states agreeing to connect teachers’ ratings to their students’ standardized test scores.

Describing Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, Camera continues: “Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.  The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers.”  Camera reports on testimony presented to the Senate HELP Committee by Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, that evaluation of teachers should be collaborative and “not done to teachers and leaders.”

Coincidentally, the day after the Senate HELP’s hearing on evaluation of teachers, I attended a packed meeting here at home where a panel of teachers from my own school district’s elementary and middle schools and our high school spoke about how their teaching practice has been affected by standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ scores.  All of them were able to examine these relatively new experiences in the context of long careers that stretch before the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Natalie Wester was chosen as Ohio’s teacher of the year in 2010, but she told the crowd that she worried even as she received the award, because that year only 4 of her third grade students had passed the autumn practice exam leading up to the official state test. In the spring only 50 percent of her students achieved the “proficient” rating. What the state’s examination did not recognize and what no official rating will ever show is that every student in her class that year grew two or three performance levels. The test, like all the standardized assessments since the passage of NCLB, recognizes achievement only when children cross the passing benchmark. If a non-reader enters a third grade classroom in the fall, learns to read, and becomes a second-grade-level reader in that one year, the child still counts as a failure according to the assessment that credits success only when a child reads at grade level. Wester declared, “I fear that in a very real sense we are squashing dreams, confidence, and children’s belief in themselves through testing.”

Another teacher reported he is working this year with a small group of third graders whose reading test scores are so low the students are likely to fail the state mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee test. Students who fail will be required to repeat third grade. This teacher says he watches his students “shut down” when they realize how far behind they are. “I see that spark of wanting to learn dying in my students. I feel we are abusing our students.”

A high school teacher of special education worried that some of her students are so far below the basic level at which the standardized test is constructed that the testing experience itself is emotionally defeating.  All of the teachers who spoke affirm the value of informal quizzes and check-ins with students—formative assessments—that provide the teachers with feedback to plan interventions, support students, readjust the lesson, and add extra challenge as the lesson is expanded.  Very often, according to all the speakers, standardized test scores come back a semester or a year after the test, long after a particular teacher can use the data to address challenges faced by the students who are no longer enrolled in their classes.

A teacher from a neighboring school district framed the evening by explaining the details of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, created as a requirement when Ohio applied for the federal Race to the Top competition and included as a requirement for the state to receive a federal waiver from some of the worst problems in NCLB. This system evaluates teachers in large part based on their students’ standardized test scores.  In the context of listening to a panel of professionally expert teachers speaking to their long experience working with children, it was almost baffling to try to follow the details of the plan by which Ohio’s teachers are rated “accomplished, skilled, developing or ineffective.” Teachers are spending hours filing reams of data about their teaching and their students. These reports along with formal observations of their classes count for 50 percent of their evaluation with another 50 percent from their students’ standardized test scores. A new revision of the Ohio Department of Education’s evaluation rubric will allow a school district to create alternative components for 15 percent of the overall rating and then award 42.5 percent on reports and observations and another 42.5 percent for students’ test scores.

As I listened to  the description of the burdensome evaluation system set up by the Ohio Department of Education, I know I was not the only person thinking about Natalie Wester’s students.  Each one of them gained at least two or three performance levels in her class, but only 50 percent of her children passed the state’s proficiency benchmark that year. Even if they have made substantial academic progress, children’s failures to reach a particular cut score affect not only them and their confidence and will to persist, but also shape the formal state evaluation scores of their teachers—even for Ohio’s teacher of the year.

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