For Safer Schools, Let’s Look to Students’ Views, Not Parents’ Fears

Last week, I received notification from my kids’ school district that new security provisions were being put in place. Armed Class III police officers were being assigned to every school in the district, including lower elementary schools, with new patrol cars purchased for each officer. “Eyes on the door” visitor management processes were being enhanced, as the driver’s license of every visitor is to be scanned, run through sex offender databases and against child custody orders. Security “vestibules” are now being built at each of our 10 schools. School common areas, hallways, and identified exterior locations are being equipped with security cameras. Classroom phones are to be installed. Door swipes and strobe lights are receiving upgrades.

All of this is being done in a highly resourced school district. All being done in schools that have had no security issues (that the community has been made aware of). Much of this being done because a $115M schools referendum passed in the name of increased student enrollments and classroom needs now provides the financial means to strengthen security. And all done because school shootings in other parts of the country have local district leaders seeking to do something, anything, to demonstrate they are serious about school safety. It doesn’t matter if there is no direct threat, we will respond with our checkbook, buying peace of mind for those who ask, “but what about the children?”

Setting aside the failures of a school-located armed officer at a high school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, we like to believe that embedded police are the answer to our school security concerns. But Samuel Sinyangwe, noted data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, recently noted that more than 10,000 school police officers were hired (often with federal dollars) following the Columbine school shooting in 1999. According to Sinyangwe, “Two decades later, they haven’t stopped a single school shooting. Instead, they’ve arrested over 1 million kids, mostly students of color, for routine behavior violations.”

Responding to school shootings with armed officers and enhanced security measures shouldn’t surprise us, whether it is a response in a community directly in the line of fire of such violence or a community far removed from ever experiencing an active shooter. The fear of a worst-case scenario means we need to act, act now, and act in whatever possible way is available to us. We will ensure that Class III officers are well trained and have the temperaments to work in a public school. We will make assurances to the community that this about safety, and not about identifying and suspending students for behavior violations. And we will quietly note that we are successful as long as such officers and such security provisions never have to actually be relied on in an actual event.

Sure, parents like me can bemoan the fact that decisions were made to place armed officers in the schools or spend millions on security improvements without any real community input. Truth be told, it was one of the driving reasons I decided to jump into an ultimately unsuccessful race for school board this year. I quickly learned that most in the community didn’t want to discuss the data or didn’t want to answer the question about proof points demonstrating the efficacy (or lack there of) of guns in the schools. No, we want to trust our leaders will ensure our babies are safe. Do whatever it takes to ensure we aren’t the next school gun headline on the evening news.

The true missing piece in the discussion and the decision, though, is the perceptions of the very students we are trying to protect. In October, students from across the nation gathered to develop a “Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety.” In that Bill of Rights, young people articulated 15 key provisions they want and need to see from their local schools. They asked that qualified counselors be provided in the schools. They called for cultural competency and de-escalation trainings. They sought federal legislation allowing for firearm restraining orders. They sought to reduce the stigma of mental heath/illness issues. They demanded greater regulation of the gun industry and greater focus on responsible gun ownership. And they called for additional CDC research specifically focused on reducing gun violence.

Nowhere in the Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety is there a call to place armed officers in school buildings. Nowhere in the Bill of Rights do they seek security vestibules or brighter strobe lights. Nowhere are they seeking reactive actions that assume the worst. Instead, students see the enormous value of proactively addressing the root issues while advocating for a safer, healthier school community.

I was the parent of a Connecticut kindergartner when Sandy Hook happened, and watched as my son engaged in active shooter drills without him knowing why. I sought a seat on my local school board after the district quickly budgeted $1 million annually for Class III officers, and my sixth grade daughter insisted I “had to win to keep guns out of her school.” Now I’m watching as millions of dollars a year are being spent on officers, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure enhancements in our school district of 10,000 kids, money that could have far greater impact if were being spent on guidance counselors, school nurses, community partnerships, and actual instruction.

For the past year, I have pressed far too many people to present the research on the efficacy of armed police officers in the schools. In response, I’ve received decade-old marketing PowerPoints and educated guesses. I’ve had the question deflected, as I was told Class III officers improve student-police relations (which I do agree with) and can be an effective instrument in addressing drug and vaping issues in the schools (which was never the intended goal). But no one can adequately answer the root question.

In my local community, the course has been set and there is no likely diversion from the intended destination. Millions will be spent on armed officers and enhanced security, with proponent and opponent alike hoping beyond hope they will never be needed. It’s a cryin’ shame that my town isn’t using those available resources to address the concerns and reasonable recommendations found in the Student Bill of Rights. But it is my hope that other communities like ours will see the light, and will direct their attentions to what the students need, and not what makes the adults in the room feel a little bit better.

 

Injecting Some Moneyball into Student Testing

I’ve always been one to find love in both the art and science of a given subject. As a lifelong baseball fan – and a pretty poor baseball player through high school – I quickly embraced Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting, believing that the charts and graphs explaining strike zones and such would somehow transform me from a doubles hitter into a homerun machine. Sadly, it never did.

I’m also an unabashed fan of the New York Mets, and have been since the early 1980s. For more than three decades, I have endured the highs and lows (mostly lows) of rooting for the Metropolitans and in believing this might just be the year.

Sadly, the 2018 season wasn’t that year for the Mets. But it was such a year for Mets ace Jacob deGrom. Last week, the All-Star received the Cy Young, recognizing the best pitcher in the National League. It was a well-deserved honor, recognizing one of the best seasons a starting pitcher has ever had, including an earned run average of only 1.70, a WHIP of 0.912, and 269 strikeouts in 217 innings pitched. DeGrom secured the first place position on all but one of the ballots cast this year, offering a rare highlight in another tough Mets season.

Leading up to the award, there were some analysts who wondered if deGrom would win the Cy Young, despite those impressive numbers. The major ding against him was that he was pitching for the Mets, and as a result posted only a 10-9 record, getting almost no run support at all all season from his team. DeGrom’s top competition in the NL had 18 wins. The Cy Young winner in the American league posted 21 victories. So when a 10-9 record won the Cy Young, some critics pounced, accusing sabermetrics and “moneyball” taking over the awards. The thinking was that one of the chief attributes of a top starting pitcher is how many wins he has. If you aren’t winning, how can you possibly be the best?

All the discussions about how sabermetrics has ruined baseball – or at least baseball awards – soon had me thinking about education and education testing. For well over a decade, we have insisted that student achievement, and the quality of our schools, is based on a single metric. Student performance on the state test is king. It was the single determinant during the NCLB era, and it remains the same during the PARCC/Smarted Balanced reign.

Sure, some have led Quixotic fights against “high-stakes testing” in general, but we all know that testing isn’t going anywhere. While PARCC may ultimately be replaced by a new state test (as my state of New Jersey is looking to do) or whether the consortium may one day be replaced by the latest and greatest, testing is here to stay. The calls for accountability are so great and the dollars spent on K-12 education so high, that not placing some sort of testing metric on schools, and kids, is fairy tale. Testing is here to stay. The only question we should be asking is whether we are administering and analyzing the right tests.

I’ve long been a believer in education data and the importance of quantifiable research, particularly when it comes to demonstrating excellence or improvement. But I still remember the moment when I realized that data was fallible. While serving on a local school board in Virginia, overseeing one of the top school districts in the nation, we were told that our nationally ranked high school had failed to make AYP. At first I couldn’t understand how this was possible. Then I realized we were the victims of a small N size. The impact of a handful of students in special education and ELL dinged up in the AYP evaluation. The same handful of students in both groups. It didn’t make our high school lesser than it was. It didn’t reduce our desire to address the learning needs of those specific students. But the state test declared we weren’t making adequate progress. The data had failed us.

The same can be said about the use of value-added measures (VAM scores) in evaluating teachers and schools. VAM may indeed remain the best method for evaluating teachers based on student academic performance. But it is a badly flawed method, at best. A method that doesn’t take into account the limitations on the subjects that are assessed on state tests, small class sizes (particularly in rural communities or in subjects like STEM), and the transience of the teaching profession, even in a given school year. Despite these flaws, we still use VAM scores because we just don’t have any better alternatives.

Which gets me back to Jake deGrom and moneyball. Maybe it is time that we look at school and student success through a sabermetric lens. Sure, some years success can be measured based on performance on the PARCC, just like many years the best pitcher in baseball has the most victories that season. But maybe, just maybe, there are other outcomes metrics we can and should be using to determine achievement and progress.

This means more than just injecting the MAP test or other interim assessments into the process. It means finding other quantifiable metrics that can be used to determine student progress. It means identifying the shortcomings of a school – or even a student – and then measuring teaching and learning based on that. It means understanding that outcomes can be measured in multiple ways, through multiple tools, including but not limited to an online adaptive test. And it means applying all we know about cognitive learning to establish evaluative tools that live and breathe and adapt based on everything we know about teaching, learning, and the human brain.

DeGrom won the Cy Young because teams feared him every time his turn in the rotation came up. We knew he had a history-making season because of traditional metrics like strikeouts and innings pitched, but also because of moneyball metrics like “wins above replacement,” or WAR, and “walks and hits per innings pitched,” or WHIP. Had he not won that 10th game the last week of the season, thus giving him a winning record, deGrom would have had no less a stellar season. In fact, a losing record would have indicated his personal successes and impact despite what others around him were able to do.

Maybe it finally is a time a little moneyball thinking works its way into student assessment. Hopefully, this discussion will come before the Mets reach their next World Series.

 

 

ELL, More Today Than Before

As we’ve watched the policy and political fights over immigration overtake our public schools, some are asking a lot of questions about the families served by the schools and our obligations to those students who seek an education from our community schools. As a result, in many cities and downs the needs of our schools continue to expand, particularly with regard to English language learners.

These increased demands speak to a need to more effectively address the ELL and immigrant communities in our schools. But for some at the US Department of Education, it shouts the opposite, a desire to contract our ELL offerings and our commitment to meet the needs of all learners.

On the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we take on this important topic, urging the US Department of Education not to bury our commitment to ELL education when it is needed more today than it ever has been. Give it a listen!

When It Comes to Ed Reform, Are We Willing to Do More Than Just Talk the Talk?

As former EdSec Arne Duncan is our promoting his new book, he has a lot to say about what improvements happened – and didn’t – during his tenure at the US Department of Education.

While it is easy to say one needed to work harder to implement real education policy change, the criticisms from Duncan are a little startling. And they beg an important question – are we really willing to put in the work needed to make the changes we like to talk about?

On the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, I explore that very question. Give it a listen!

Are School Issues Just a Matter of Boredom?

Earlier this month, EdSec Betsy DeVos suggested school choice was needed because high school students get bored otherwise.

Yes, traditional public schools have some issues. And yes, high school kids are often bored with their assigned curriculum. But instead of simply changing the operational structure of the school building, shouldn’t we instead be looking at approaches like personalized learning?

I explore the topic on the most recent edition of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Be sure to give it a listen. Tens of thousands of others do each week!

Fully Exploring School Safety

As a federal blue ribbon commission continues to explore the general topic of school safety as it looks at particular responses to recent school shootings, an important question has emerged. Is the deck stacked against real action?

If the panel refuses to look at the issue of guns as it looks at school safety, is it really looking at anything? And if it continues to refuse, does that mean the NRA is calling the shots on school safety for the Trump Administration?

Over at TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the question. And we come loaded to bear.

Give it a listen.