Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A big recommendation and a small caveat for "The Test Generation"

Dana Goldstein has a great piece of education reporting over at the American Prospect. It's balanced and well-informed, though one section did make me a bit nervous:

Colorado politicians don't need to travel as far as Seoul, however, to get a look at education reform that prioritizes good teaching without over-relying on standardized testing or punitive performance-pay schemes. In 2009, in the southwest Denver neighborhood of Athmar Park -- a Latino area studded with auto-body repair shops, tattoo parlors, and check-cashing joints -- a group of union teachers opened the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy (MSLA), the only public school in Colorado built around peer evaluation. The elementary school borrows some of the cooperative professional development tools used in other countries: Every teacher is on a three-person "peer-review team" that spends an entire year observing one another's classrooms and providing feedback. The teachers are grouped to maximize the sharing of best practices; one team includes a second-year teacher struggling with classroom management, a veteran teacher who is excellent at discipline but behind the curve on technology, and a third teacher who is an innovator on using technology in the classroom.

Each teacher in the group will spend about five hours per semester observing her peer's teaching and helping him differentiate his instruction to reach each student. (MSLA is 92 percent Latino, and more than 97 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Sixty percent of the student population is still learning basic English.) "It's kind of like medical rounds," explains Kim Ursetta, a kindergarten and first-grade English and Spanish literacy instructor who, as former president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, founded MSLA. "What's the best treatment for this patient?"

Peer review accounts for a significant portion of each MSLA teacher's evaluation score; the remainder is drawn from student-achievement data, including standardized test scores, portfolios of student work, and district and classroom-level benchmark assessments. MSLA is a new school, so the state has not yet released its test-score data, but it is widely considered one of the most exciting reform initiatives in Denver, a city that has seen wave after wave of education upheaval, mostly driven by philanthropists and politicians, not teachers. Alexander Ooms, an education philanthropist and blogger at the website Education News Colorado has written that MSLA "has more potential to change urban education in Denver than any other single effort."

When I visited MSLA in November, the halls were bright and orderly, the students warm and polite, and the teachers enthusiastic -- in other words, MSLA has many of the characteristics of high-performing schools around the world. What sets MSLA apart is its commitment to teaching as a shared endeavor to raise student achievement -- not a competition. During the 2009-2010 school year, all of the school's teachers together pursued the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' Take One! program, which focuses on using curriculum standards to improve teaching and evaluate student outcomes. This year, the staff-wide initiative is to include literacy skills-building in each and every lesson, whether the subject area is science, art, or social studies.

Don't get me wrong. I think that MSLA is a great model for education reform but it's only one school (so the successes might due to an exceptional leaders like founder Ursetta or principal Nazareno) and it's new (so you have to figure in things like the Hawthorne effect and unsustainable practices).

Unlike many of its competitors, MSLA is based on sound ideas and I'd like to see more schools give these methods a try, but the history of education is filled with promising success stories that didn't pan out. Until a model is replicated and sustained, it should generally be approached with caution.

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