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More algebra, please

I applaud HISD for doing this.

A handful of campuses in the Houston Independent School District are experimenting with placing their best math students in algebra in seventh grade – two years before most take the class.

The earlier they pass algebra, the thinking goes, the more time they have to take advanced math courses in high school that could lead to college credit.

Over the last decade, policy-makers across the nation have pushed for algebra to become the standard for eighth grade, while some educators argue against the rush.

HISD’s move to teach algebra to an even younger set gives the students – many from poor, minority families – a head start in the course, considered a stepping stone to college and 21st century careers.

Time will tell whether the effort produces a crop of math brainiacs who take college-level calculus and statistics in high school or burnouts who ditch the subject after earning the four credits needed to graduate.

“Certainly we don’t want to push kids into something they’re not ready for,” said Monica Kendall, HISD’s manager of secondary math. “But I would like to challenge what people think kids are ready for. A lot of people think economically disadvantaged students can’t do upper-level math. My whole perspective has been, ‘Let’s find out what they can do.’ ”

Little research exists on seventh-graders taking algebra, although HISD isn’t breaking entirely new ground.

Locally, the Spring Branch and Alvin school districts are among those that have been enrolling their top seventh-graders in algebra for years.

I have no opinion on whether algebra should be the standard in eighth grade, but I can tell you from personal experience that seventh graders have been taking algebra successfully for many years. I know because I took it in the seventh grade, which was in 1978-79. My intermediate school (that’s what they call “middle school” in New York) offered algebra for its gifted & talented seventh and eighth graders; it was done as a two-year course, and enabled you to go straight to geometry in high school. By doing so, you were on track to be able to complete a year of calculus in high school, which needless to say gave you an advantage going into college.

Obviously, this isn’t for everybody; the story says that about two percent of HISD’s seventh graders are enrolled, which almost surely means there’s room for growth. It should be fairly easy to identify the kids who are bored with grade-level math and are ready for a greater challenge. It should be the goal to make algebra available in every middle school for all seventh graders who would like to take it.

Rethinking school discipline

Wow.

Nearly 60 percent of junior high school and high school students get suspended or expelled, according to a report that tracked about 1 million Texas children over a six-year period.

About 15 percent of the Texas seventh- through 12th-grade students tracked during the study were suspended or expelled at least 11 times and nearly half of those ended up in the juvenile justice system. Most students who experienced multiple suspensions or expulsions do not graduate, according to the study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

“The findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas and in states everywhere to ask this question: ‘Is our (public) school discipline system getting the desired results?’ ” said Michael Thompson of the justice center, one of the report’s co-authors.

The findings suggest an urgent need to stop the criminalization of students for simply misbehaving, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

Some highlights from the study:

The report also found that during a six-year period, about 15 percent of the students studied were suspended or expelled 11 times or more — and more than half of those students had been on probation or incarcerated by juvenile justice authorities.

The study also found that:

• Nearly 6 in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled from at least one class during grades seven to 12, most of them at least four times.

• Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.

• Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.

• Schools that had similar characteristics, including racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center program and one of the report’s authors, said classroom removal is highly related to an increase of students repeating a grade, dropping out or entering the juvenile justice system.

“We see significant differences in the rates of suspension and explusion for similar student populations, indicating, I think, that it’s possible for schools, by relying less on suspension and expulsion, in theory, to actually reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” Thompson said.

You can find the report and related information here. It’s a first of its kind longitudinal study – every seventh grader was tracked for six years. I think we would all agree that every kid at that age occasionally engages in some knucklehead behavior. What we need to do with all this data is learn how to better distinguish between and deal with the good kids that do dumb things and the real troublemakers. The Trib notes that some school districts are already taking steps.

What the report ultimately means is that schools’ current methods of punishing kids are ineffective, said Deborah Fowler, a contributor to the report and director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group.

“The good news is that we know there are alternatives that do work,” Fowler said. She said schools can stop disciplinary problems from happening in the first place with an approach that emphasizes positive behavioral intervention and support, or a “PBIS” model. That allows teachers “to focus less time on disciplinary referrals and … more on the purpose of their role, which is educating the students.”

Several school districts across the state have implemented PBIS models, Fowler said, including Austin, Leander, Amarillo and Pflugerville.

Jane Nethercut coordinates a positive behavioral support program at Austin ISD. She said the model was based on praising students when they are doing something right, rather than punishing them when they are doing something wrong — and that it has “changed the schools” around the district.

“Disciplinary referrals have gone down; attendance rates have gone up,” she said, “This is not rocket science — in the schools that practice PBIS, academic performance has also gone up. We have seen thousands and thousands of hours of recovered learning time.”

That’s the goal, right? Click on to see the full press release from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. There’s a lot we ought to be able to learn from all this data.

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Hamilton Middle School still designated as magnet

Mostly of interest to folks in my neck of the woods, but worth noting that after receiving a lot of feedback from parents in the community, HISD has announced that it will keep Hamilton Middle School as a Vanguard program for gifted and talented students instead of changing it to a Spanish language magnet program.

Allison Hartzell, whose daughter is a seventh grader in Hamilton’s Vanguard program, said Monday afternoon she was awaiting further clarification from the school’s principal, Roger Bunnell, but she said her understanding was that Hamilton would continue as a magnet school for gifted and talented students.

[…]

Hartzell, a former Hamilton PTO president and now a member of its board, sent an e-mail on Saturday, March 5, to Dallas Dance, the district’s chief middle schools officer, who was hired a year ago.

“The parents, students and Heights community DO NOT SUPPORT this proposal,” Hartzell e-mailed Dance. “I was flooded with e-mails and phone calls yesterday as I’m sure you were ….”

Dance’s reply to Hartzell Sunday afternoon said, in part: “After careful thought and feedback from Mr. Bunnell, teachers, and parents, we have recommended that Hamilton MS become a Vanguard Center in 2011-2012, rather than a dual language magnet.”

If Hamilton were to become a Vanguard Center, the school would receive more district funding than it does now, as well as more funding than it would have received as a dual-language magnet school.

Those changes would still have to be approved by the Board, so the story isn’t over yet. But the fact that feedback from the affected community helped engineer this change in direction is encouraging. There are many more things on HISD’s agenda that will require our input, so we should all keep this example in mind.

Helping middle schoolers

You’d think this would be a pretty basic thing to do.

Texas Sen. Florence Shapiro was stunned a few years ago when state auditors answered her request with a white surrender flag: They could not tell her which programs designed to help struggling, low-income students worked and which didn’t.

Billions of dollars flow into programs designed to boost poor students and to keep them in school. But there are too many variables to measure their impact.

The Plano Republican, chair of the Senate Education Committee, plans to team up with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, on legislation that gives more personalized attention to middle school students.

One of her favorite lines: “Students drop out in the sixth grade and walk out in the ninth grade.”

The focus will be on reading, writing and math, plus absenteeism and behavior for struggling sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. She’s still working out the details to draft the bill.

I know that measuring performance is a challenging thing to do, but you’d think that with all the emphasis we’ve put on standardized testing we’d have some idea what sorts of things tend to help students with their test scores, if nothing else. It’s not like we’ve just started with this stuff. Surely other states must have some ideas we can crib. Let’s get with the program already.

Who’s homeschooling?

Are there a lot more home-schooled high school students, or are they just conveniently mislabeled dropouts? You decide.

More than 22,620 Texas secondary students who stopped showing up for class in 2008 were excluded from the state’s dropout statistics because administrators said they were being home-schooled, according to Texas Education Agency figures.

But that’s where the scrutiny of this growing population seems to end, leaving some experts convinced that schools are disguising thousands of middle and high school dropouts in this hands-off category.

While home-schooling’s popularity has increased, the rate of growth concentrated in Texas’ high school population is off the chart: It’s nearly tripled in the last decade, including a 24 percent jump in a single year.

“That’s just ridiculous,” said Brian D. Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute. “It doesn’t sound very believable.”

Texas’ lax documentation and hands-off practices make it impossible to know how many of these students are actually being taught at home. It also opens the door to abuse of the designation, which could help school districts avoid the sanctions that come with high dropout rates, experts said.

It’s not a particularly hard question. It’s also a reminder of the stark differences in how the two gubernatorial candidates view and approach the issue. We can’t get a handle on this problem until we understand the scope of it a lot better than we do right now.

Where does your school rank?

How good is your neighborhood school? Not just in terms of its Texas Education Agency’s rating, but in comparison to other schools? Here’s a way to find out.

The greater Houston area is home to some of the best — and worst — public schools in Texas, according to the 2010 Children at Risk/ Houston Chronicle rankings.

The Houston Independent School District boasts seven campuses among the state’s top elementary, middle and high schools, but it also has four that placed at the bottom. The Fort Bend and Alief districts each had one school among the state’s best, while five charter schools in Harris County landed at the bottom.

Children at Risk has ranked area high schools, primarily based on student achievement data, since 2006, but this is the first time the nonprofit advocacy group has rated local elementary and middle schools. The rankings use a formula created in consultation with the Chronicle’s education reporting staff.

The full list was in yesterday’s print edition. A searchable database is available at the Chron and also at the Texas Trib, which adds a few items as well. The Trib delves more into how these rankings came about.

When Children At Risk first started ranking Texas public schools five years ago, it only named the top performers, wary of embarrassing educators and students at campuses that didn’t measure up.

The hesitance emerged even though widespread educational failure had prompted the project in the first place, says Robert Sanborn, the president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit advocacy and research organization. The rankings grew out of a conference at Rice University that focused on high school graduation and featured John Hopkins Researcher Robert Balfouz, who talked about “drop-out factories.”

“At first, we didn’t want to make any high schools look bad,” Sanborn says. “But we’ve changed that over the years. What we’ve found is that [spotlighting low-performing schools] proved to be a tremendous advocacy tool for parents — they can ask, ‘Why isn’t my school better?’”

So now, the group’s rankings — including the ones we’re publishing today, for most public schools in Texas — lay out the worst schools along with the best and every gradation in between. That’s a stark contrast from the state’s accountability system, which simply groups schools in one of four broad performance categories: Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, and Unacceptable. Though Children at Risk uses some of the same data that are the basis for the Texas Education Agency’s “ratings,” it does something that TEA doesn’t: It gives every school a hard number that compares its performance with that of every other school.

“You see the best in the state and the worst in the state,” Sanborn says. “This isn’t a PR campaign — they are straight-up rankings. … We used to have [district] superintendents angry with us, arguing this isn’t the right way to measure, but they’ve gotten away from that.”

Sanborn was in the studio for Houston Have Your Say: Education Crisis last week. He had an interesting idea about Houston’s high schools in the Chron story:

While HISD had eight high schools ranked in the top tier in the state, the district had double that in the bottom quarter. Jones was listed as the worst high school in the Houston area and the sixth-worst in Texas.

HISD is planning to turn Jones into a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that would be open to students across the city.

To Sanborn’s way of thinking, “Big, comprehensive urban high schools do not work. That’s something we see across the whole state.” He suggests smaller, specialized schools would help engage students.

Hair Balls wrote about the Jones proposal last month. Large suburban high schools still do pretty well, though I suspect they will come to have similar issues as their urban counterparts over time.

Anyway. I’m glad and not surprised to see our neighborhood elementary school ranked highly, not glad and not surprised to see our neighborhood middle school ranked poorly, and not prepared to start thinking about our neighborhood high school just yet. How did your schools do?