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Edu: Assessment and Research Roundup

Million-Dollar Practices: Does your district dream of winning the Broad?

Boosting test scores is all about formulating a plan, and sticking to it, says Aldine Independent School District superintendent Wanda Bamberg. “It’s not about policy,” she says. “It’s about practices.”

She knows what she’s talking about. Her district outside Houston, Texas, was recently awarded the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education and will receive $1 million in college scholarships. It’s a welcome windfall for Aldine’s high school seniors: The majority of the district’s 60,000 students are economically disadvantaged, with four out of five students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

Aldine’s gains are indeed impressive. But why did they win the Broad? For Bamberg, it was achievements in three key areas.

Standardizing curriculum: Nearly a quarter of the students and their families move domicile during the school year. When each school is teaching the same things in the same order, she says, kids don’t miss anything if they have to move across the district and enter a new school.

Frequent assessment: “We assess frequently, so that we can identify as they’re learning what their skill gaps are,” Bamberg says. “Some campuses will do a short check every Friday.” District assessments at the secondary level in math and science are done every three weeks.

Data crunching
: If a school gives an assessment on Friday, the district official has the data instantly and requests an immediate plan. “We talk about principals being instructional leaders, and they truly are,” Bamberg says.


Research Roundup

The cost of dropping out? $292,000. That is the cost incurred by taxpayers for each dropout over their lifetime in terms of lost earnings, and therefore lower taxes paid and higher spending for social costs including incarceration, health care, and welfare. “The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School” report, released in October by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University, offers a sobering look at the dropout crisis.

Wraparound services work. Community schools with wraparound services and incentives for teacher recruitment and retention are some of the emerging innovations cities are using to improve the lives of urban children and families, according to a report by the National League of Cities . “The State of City Leadership for Children and Families” provides a snapshot of the direction that cities are taking in nine featured areas, including education and early-childhood and after-school programs. 

• Call for LGBT anti-bullying policies. Middle school is a more hostile environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students than high school, according to a brief from advocacy group GLSEN, which calls on schools to explicitly include protections for LGBT students in anti-bullying policies. Nine of ten LGBT students in junior high admit to being harassed.

Identifying effective “idealist” teachers. An in-depth examination of teacher attitudes conducted by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates characterizes 40 percent of educators as “disheartened” by their profession. In contrast, 37 percent, comprising mostly more educated teachers who work at middle- or higher-income schools, were identified as “contented.” “Idealists” comprise the youngest and smallest group (25 percent). Mostly younger than 33, “idealists” feel the strongest vocation for teaching. The study’s authors suggest their findings can help administrators identify, retain, and support the most effective teachers.

Praise for NYC’s social promotion fix. A New York City schools policy that ties promotion in grades 3–8 to state test scores while offering extra support to struggling students has been shown to improve test scores and reduce retention rates. The evaluation from the RAND Corp. found that students who received the targeted support did better in later grades than peers who marginally missed qualifying for the program. Students who repeated grades showed the greatest improvement. 

Ed leaders doubt value of ed research. At every level, education leaders distrust scientific reports, concludes a study from the William T. Grant Foundation. Focus groups asked to identify factors that influence their policy decisions say they often ignore breakthrough research. When pressed, they expressed doubt about the validity of broad studies and about the applicability of recommendations. They placed more weight on data from their own districts and personal experience.    

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