Time for summer (and summer reading)!

Come Thursday afternoon, ANCS students will begin their summer break, and while I hope all of our students get an opportunity to spend time outside playing and exploring, go to camps, and maybe even do some traveling, the summer also provides lots of time for reading.  In addition to all the books students might read on their own, every student at ANCS has some required reading for activities and discussion that will happen once the new school year begins on August 1st. Parents and caregivers, in case you missed them, here are the summer reading assignments:

For elementary campus students:

  • Rising K – Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
  • Rising 1st – Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell  
  • Rising 2nd – The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
  • Rising 3rd – What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada
  • Rising 4th – The Jacket by Andrew Clements
  • Rising 5th – Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

For middle campus students:

There is a selection of books from which rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders can choose.  All of them can be found in this document put out by middle campus librarian Terri Linahan.

Not only do our students have a reading assignment for the summer, but I–and the rest of our teachers and staff–do too.  Each summer, there is a common text that we all read to guide schoolwide professional learning in the coming school year. For the past several years, these texts have been focused on topics related to meeting the needs of diverse classrooms of students, and the books this summer continue that trend.  Our teachers and staff will be reading Culturally Relevant Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  These books promise to spark important thinking and discussion, and ANCS parents and caregivers might find them interesting to read as well.  If you do read one or both of these books (or have read them already), at some point in August, we’ll host a discussion about these books open to all in the community who have read them and want to explore the ideas in them with others.  I hope you’ll consider reading one!

This will be my last blog post for the current school year; I’ll pick back up in August.  However, we do have one final “Principles in Practice” newsletter which will come out in early June, and I’ll continue to post to Facebook and Twitter throughout the summer months.  Thanks for reading!

Thank you to all who volunteered at ANCS this year!

As we near the end of the school year, I’ve seen and heard many parents giving thanks to their children’s teachers, showing appreciation for the work they’ve done to help students grow academically and socially over the past 9 months.  Working with the teachers and staff here at ANCS, I know they are very much deserving of the thanks.

I also know that our students wouldn’t have the type of school they have if it wasn’t for the many people–most of them parents–who give their time to help out at the school in ways big and small.  Though we encourage parents to become involved at school, there is no requirement that anyone volunteer a certain number of hours or participate in specific activities.  Yet ANCS is fortunate to have parents and others who step up to fill needs and to make ANCS a special place for students.  

First and foremost, the folks who take on leading our PTCA are to be applauded for all of their work to organize events, distribute mini-grants, and find new ways to engage parents.  And most all of them are signing on for another year, so thank you to this year’s PTCA executive committee and to those who are leading it next year:

President:  Hannah Beth Millman

Vice President, Elementary Campus:  Brittney Gove

Vice President, Middle Campus:  Nikki Zimmerman

Treasurer:  Megan Gatewood

Secretary:  Alyssa Kopp

Fundraising Chair:  Rachel Ezzo

Communications Chair:  Paige Teusink

Our school is also grateful for the service of the members of the ANCS Governing Board who have put in many hours this year to attend committee and board meetings that shape the present and future of ANCS through policies, budgeting, and strategic planning.  In particular, I’d like to thank those board members in the final years of their terms: Ryan Camp, Tiffany Mitchell, Philippe Pellerin, Tara Stoinski, and Mitch White, who has served for the past three years as chair of the board.

Beyond these people who have filled critical leadership roles, there are countless others who have volunteered their time and talents in important ways for ANCS.  Coaching sports teams. Helping on “zero waste” lunch days. Running our annual auction. Coming in to be a mystery ready. Organizing the lost and found. Overseeing the yard sale or bingo night or Grandparents and Special Friends Day any of the PTCA’s big events.  Serving on an 8th grade exhibition committee. And on and on.

Volunteers helped to start ANCS many years ago, and volunteers continue to make us thrive today.  So thank you for helping us have another great school year!

Why do we fundraise?

As you’ve seen and heard by now, this week kicks off our final push towards this year’s goal for the ANCS “Gather and Grow Fund”, looking to raise $20,000 in the month of May to keep us on track for our annual goal of $125,000.  A letter I sent home to all families goes into more details about this week (and you can find that letter here), so I wanted to use my blog post this week to address two questions related to our fundraising efforts: Why do we fundraise? and How can families participate in our fundraising efforts?

Why do we fundraise? Simply put, state and local funding isn’t enough to cover the costs of running ANCS and offering the educational program we want for our students.  This is in part because we haven’t historically had access to special state revenues for capital facilities improvements and because there’s a gap in how funding flows to charter schools as compared to school districts.  To maintain the historic buildings at our campuses, to keep a low student-teacher ratio so students are known well to be supported in their learning, to create a farm-to-school program that teaches students about where their food comes from and offers healthy, delicious meals–all of this and more necessitates raising additional dollars each year, an average of roughly $400 per student.  While we have been fortunate to receive some grants to make up this difference, we rely on our annual campaign and auction to help offset these costs as well. In fact, our board consistently includes fundraising revenue in our annual operating budget, evidence of our need for these funds.

How can families participate in our fundraising efforts?  Although we have a specific monetary goal for our fundraising campaign, even more important than that is our goal of 100% participation in the campaign from our school community.  Having everyone involved shows our collective commitment to our school and is also impressive to those from whom we seek grant funds. But participation can look different from household to household.  Perhaps you can make a $400 per student contribution to the campaign, but really we encourage you to make a donation of any amount that meaningful for you and right for your circumstances. You can also get your extended family to give on your behalf or your business to make a matching donation.  Volunteering for one of our campaign activities is also tremendously valuable.

I hope you will consider making a donation to our Gather and Grow Fund this week to have an impact on the educational experience of our students.  If you have any questions about the campaign, feel free to contact our fund development coordinator, Stephanie Galer, at sgaler@atlncs.org.  And thank you for your support!

Our former students, growing from acorns to oaks

Ask any teacher, and she or he will tell you one of their favorite parts of the job is when an old student comes back to visit.  Seeing former students–how they’ve grown, what they’re doing–is rewarding in a profession in which the results often take time to be seen and realized, and knowing that students take their experiences in your classroom with them is an acknowledgment that, yes, you really are getting through to them even when you feel like you are not.  As a K-8 school, this is the time of year when we at ANCS often hear from and see many of our alumni. Graduation announcements from high school seniors and visits from college students just arriving home for summer break are all a sure sign of spring.

We strive to stay in contact with our alumni and to track their progress in their schooling beyond ANCS as one of the ways we can assess the impact of our work with students while they are with us.  Annually we put together a report on our alumni based on responses from surveys of them and their parents as well as from information on academic performance on high school standardized tests (we are waiting on final data from Atlanta Public Schools on our most recent alumni to publish this year’s report, but you can see last year’s alumni report here).  We also host an annual alumni breakfast to let our former students reconnect with each other and their school.

ANCS Alumni gathered at this year’s alumni breakfast, December 2017.

If you are an ANCS alum, we’d love for you to complete this contact form so that we can keep in touch with you.  And if you are in your final year of high school or college, please let us know what your plans are post-graduation, as we are very interested in where our students wind up.  In a few weeks, I’ll join my colleagues from other local APS schools on the stage at the Maynard Jackson High School graduation, as many of our former students receive their diplomas, and I will be thrilled to see them as they finish this stage of their lives, one started at ANCS many years ago.

When it comes to using standardized test results, “let the buyer beware”

Starting tomorrow, all ANCS students in grades 3-8 will begin taking this year’s Georgia Milestones tests.  These tests are taken by all public school students in Georgia as required by state and federal law, and there’s significant attention and weight given to the results of them.  In my opinion, this overemphasis on scores from a single test–to serve as a proxy for whether a student, teacher, or school is “successful”–skews what could be valuable information we could glean from these tests as a part of a more complete understanding of what students know and can do and whether a school is fulfilling its mission–including purposes beyond what can be measured by a multiple choice test.  And I’m not alone in this opinion. The condensed interview below with Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Dan Koretz–who has written and researched extensively on educational testing–about his book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us raises some important points about how we can take a more sensible approach to standardized tests, something important to keep in mind in this season of test prep, Milestones pep rallies, and extreme test security that often dominate many schools during this time of year.

Measuring Up, the book by Professor Dan Koretz, gets beneath the surface of educational testing by taking a deep look at key issues that affect students’ scores. Students in one of his HGSE courses, “Understanding Today’s Educational Testing”, persuaded Koretz that a book was needed to help not only educators, but the public at large, to understand testing. “Testing has become enormously important with an extraordinarily powerful influence on schooling, and it increasingly dominates public debate about education,” he says. “The debate, however, is more heat than light, in part because testing is so poorly understood.”

What do you consider some of the most fundamental issues in educational testing today?

In this era of No Child Left Behind, the elephant in the room is high-stakes testing, which holds educators and students accountable for test scores. High-stakes testing has become the cornerstone of education policy in this country, and it is having tremendous effects on schooling, on teachers, and on kids. Unfortunately, we don’t do a good job with accountability, and the issues we need to confront to do it better are poorly understood and are often swept under the rug. For example, the evidence is clear that high-stakes testing can produce severely inflated scores, meaning increases in scores far larger than real improvements in student learning. Few policymakers fully understand this problem, and some simply deny it, so it does not get addressed.

There are many other important issues raised by our current uses of tests. For example, at the federal level there is a strong effort to improve the education of students with disabilities and of nonnative speakers of English. As part of this effort, these students are increasingly included in the same testing programs used with the general education population. As a former special education teacher, I consider these efforts to improve the education of students with special needs to be long overdue.  However, our policies for testing them are not entirely sensible, and we risk harming precisely the kids we want to help.

It is not only policymakers who confront test scores. Parents also need to know how to make use of test scores in choosing a school and how to interpret their own children’s scores. Concerned citizens often need to understand test scores to make sense of the frequent press coverage of international comparisons of student achievement. Teachers need to understand test scores to make use of them in improving instruction.

Do you think the public is aware of the limitations of testing and some of the mistakes that occur?

For the most part, I think the public has a very limited understanding of these issues.  First, it is essential to distinguish the inevitable limitations of tests from mistakes or distortions. Even a very well-designed test is subject to a degree of imprecision, just as a political poll is subject to a margin of error. For this reason, parents in some states, including Massachusetts, receive reports showing that their child’s performance falls within some range of the score they actually obtained. This is what is meant by “reliability.” The more reliable a test score, the smaller that range of uncertainty. Moreover, different tests of the same subject often sample differently from the material in that subject and therefore provide somewhat different views of achievement.

But sometimes a score is not just imprecise but also misleading. This is called “bias,” and it can arise from many sources.  For example, the math scores of students for whom English is a second language may be misleadingly low if the math test includes linguistically complex test items.

To their credit, some states and localities have offered the public some explanation of these issues.  Still, I think few parents, and for that matter, few educators really understand them because they have never seen an adequate explanation. That was one reason I wrote Measuring Up — to provide people with a straightforward, nontechnical explanation of issues such as reliability and bias.

What advice do you have for parents and noneducators looking at the latest test results from their children or from within their communities?

If used sensibly, test scores provide unique and valuable information about student achievement. The trick is using them sensibly, which requires recognizing the limitations of testing as well as its strengths.

Don’t take test scores to mean more than they do. Tests measure only some of the important goals of schooling, and even in measuring those, they are only approximate indicators. They are subject to measurement error; different tests of the same subject often provide a somewhat different picture; and indicators other than tests often tell quite a different story. Therefore, a single score, taken alone, cannot provide a comprehensive measure of the achievement of a student, and it certainly is not sufficient to judge the quality of a school or an educational system.

Use tests together with other information. Ignore small differences in scores, which often do not represent meaningful differences in achievement. In this era of high-stakes testing, be wary of score inflation; improvements in scores, particularly very large and rapid ones, may be illusory.

None of this is reason to ignore test scores. They provide important information that one cannot get from other sources. For example, we know that grading standards vary markedly from school to school. Therefore, grades are not necessarily comparable from one place to another, but test scores are. Use scores for what they provide, but be sensible.

How can education policymakers make testing a more effective part of accountability?  

The advice I offer to parents about using and interpreting scores applies to educators and policymakers as well, but they have additional responsibilities for deciding how tests will be used.

Let’s start with test-based accountability, which is perhaps the most pressing issue today.  As both a former schoolteacher and a parent of two children who went through public schools, I am convinced that we need more effective ways to hold educators accountable, and I believe that testing has to be a part of an effective accountability program. Doing this the way we do in many places now, however — treating one test as a comprehensive indicator of student achievement, pretending that scores taken by themselves are a trustworthy indicator of school quality, and rewarding and punishing teachers and students for scores — is just too simple. It ignores not only what we know about testing, but also what we know from many other fields, such as healthcare, about the effects of incentive systems. We face an enormous challenge in designing better educational accountability systems, and the first step in doing that is recognizing the limitations of what has been tried to date.

What can educators and policymakers do now to start on the path toward more effective accountability?  First, they need to step back and ask themselves what the goals of schooling are and what they want to see happening in schools.  For an accountability system to work well, it has to recognize the range of important goals that teachers should be addressing, not just the aspects of math and reading that are easily measured by standardized tests.  We don’t have a good recipe for doing this yet, and therefore, policymakers and educators need to experiment and try new approaches. Second, because, due to score inflation, rising scores are not sufficient to indicate that reforms are working, it is essential to evaluate these efforts. Are we seeing the types of changes we want when we observe classrooms?  Are scores being inflated, or are teachers finding ways to boost student learning?

What other advice do you have for educators and educational policymakers about testing?

Leaving aside the issue of accountability, I offer educators and policymakers other advice in Measuring Up.  For example, we should stop placing so much emphasis on “performance standards” in reporting the performances of schools and students.  For any number of reasons, this is a very poor strategy for reporting, one that generates bad incentives, creates badly distorted views of trends in performance, and leads to serious misinterpretations by the public.  We should be more realistic about testing students with special needs so that we can begin designing more effective and helpful ways of assessing them. All in all, we have to be realistic and careful in our uses of tests.  As I note at the end of Measuring Up, “In all, educational testing is much like a powerful medication. If used carefully, it can be immensely informative, and it can be a very powerful tool for changing education for the better. Used indiscriminately, it poses a risk of various and severe side effects. Unlike powerful medications, however, tests are used with little independent oversight. Let the buyer beware.”

Using our budget to support our mission

One of the clearest ways to see what an organization values is to look at its budget.  How does it allocate its resources?  What gets the most money? What gets left out and why?

The process of setting ANCS’s budget each year–which our board’s finance and operations committee is doing right now for next school year–takes us through these important questions.  As the recipients of taxpayer dollars, what guides our budgeting are what our school’s governing board has established as priorities in our mission and our strategic plan.  Especially when resources are limited–as they, unfortunately, have often been in public education–having agreed-upon goals helps us to make the best use of these dollars.

Kari Lovell, our Director of Finance and Operations, and I have worked with the finance and operations committee to develop a first draft of the fiscal year 2019 budget for ANCS that reflects the priorities of our mission and strategic plan while accounting for projections about local and state revenue.  There are two main areas of focus for a significant increase in the investment of our resources:

    • Reducing class size: During the bottom of the economic recession, the ANCS board voted to increase class size to help us balance the budget.  In our strategic plan adopted in the fall of 2014, we committed to eventually lowering class sizes again to better support personalized teaching and learning that are part of ANCS’s mission.  Our school’s leadership team developed a plan for moving from 18 to 16 students in each kindergarten classroom, from 24 to 22 students in classrooms in grades 1st-5th, and from 27 to 25 in our middle school classrooms.  Our draft FY19 budget takes us closer to these targets.
    • Employee compensation that attracts and retains high-quality teachers and staff: By far the largest percentage of our annual operating budget goes towards our teachers and staff for salaries, benefits, professional development, and maintaining a low teacher-to-student ratio, testament to our belief that investing in the people who work directly with students is the biggest driver of positive student outcomes.  We will dedicate even more funding to this area of our budget next school year. The board has already approved two changes: a significant boost to the salary scale for our associate teachers and nutrition staff and a new tenure bonus program that will provide annual bonuses of increasingly higher amounts (from $2,500 to $9,000) to employees as they move through their years of service.  The draft budget also includes a minimum of a 2% cost-of-living salary increase for teachers and staff.

Allocating more funds to these two areas is possible for a few reasons.  First, we’ve spent the past few fiscal years accumulating funds to build a healthy set of reserves for emergencies and for major capital needs, so we anticipate being able to reduce the amount of funding we are adding to existing reserves.  Second, we project a small increase in local and state funding, with state revenue expected to be up about 1% and local revenue increasing, with the final amount depending upon the resolution of outstanding issues stemming from Fulton County’s property tax assessments from last year.  Though we also have a 4% higher contribution amount we are required to make to the state retirement system on behalf of teachers and staff, we still have drafted a budget that ends up with a small projected net operating income.

If you would like to hear more about the proposed ANCS budget for next school year, you can attend the ANCS governing board meeting scheduled for tonight at 6:30 PM at the middle campus or the board meeting on May 15th at 6:30 at the elementary campus.  As well, there will be another public budget meeting on May 9th after morning meeting at the elementary campus. You are also welcome to email me (munderwood@atlncs.org) or the board’s treasurer, Ryan Camp (rcamp@atlncs.org), with any questions or feedback you might have.

Zen and the art of blogging

When I spotted this at a dollar store over spring break, it really spoke to me.

Prior to coming to Atlanta and ANCS, I had the good fortune of coming to know three smart, dedicated school leaders–Deborah Meier and Ted and Nancy Sizer–while working in the Boston area.  They wrote letters to the families of the schools they led in their schools’ weekly newsletters, hitting on important and current issues in the lives of their schools. (A collection of their letters is pulled together in a terrific book titled Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools.)  When I became principal of our middle school in 2007, I followed their practice by writing my own weekly letters, offering a mix of updates about the week at school and thoughts about education more broadly.  When I moved into the role of executive director, rather than bog down our weekly Courier with a third letter in addition to the main ones from our principals, I ventured into starting a blog, which I update each Tuesday that school is in session.  Like my weekly letters, crafting a blog post (as opposed to getting really fancy and vlogging) is helpful to me because I’ve always been better able to process my thoughts through writing rather than through speaking because I am more focused (plus I hate the sound of my recorded voice).  That aside, for those that read my blog, I’m usually writing for at least one of these three purposes:

  1. Communicating about ANCS’s philosophy and approach: For both our current families and for our prospective families (or prospective teachers for that matter), I use my blog to share in more detail what we do and why.  For example, I recently posted about why we use a weighted student enrollment lottery, and in the past I’ve written about why we emphasize arts education and why we don’t have a formal “gifted and talented” program.  Posts like these help to sharpen focus on the mission and values of our school.
  2. Putting what’s happening at ANCS in a larger context: While the work we do with and for students at ANCS is our primary focus, we have to keep in mind the world outside of our school as we do this work.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about activities planned at ANCS in response to the most recent school shooting tragedy, all of which happened in the context of a larger national school walkout effort.  Last year, I emphasized how the teacher residency program started at ANCS that has expanded to multiple area schools was an example of the sort of collaboration in which charter schools should be more engaged.
  3. Provoking discussion on big education policy issues: There’s been a tremendous amount of education policy churn over the past 15 or so years, and much of it has been, in my opinion, stifling to teachers and schools. In whatever small way my blog posts can help bring attention to the impact of education policy on schools, I try to use the forum to do so.  Tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, the evolution in federal education law, and approaches to assessing student learning that go beyond multiple choice tests are some of the issues I’ve written about in the past.

If you’ve made it this far, then you are probably one of the handful of regular readers of my blog.  If you happen to be a first-time reader, you should also know that every so often there is a post by a guest author, so it’s not always this educational policy stuff:)  Either way, thanks for reading.

Appreciating teachers

Yesterday marked the start of teacher appreciation week at ANCS, when our PTCA provides all sorts of wonderful recognitions and gifts for our dedicated teachers and staff.  It’s a stark contrast to two items from the news last week that are indicative of a national trend in recent years to belittle and minimize the work of teachers.

First, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave an interview on 60 Minutes (which you can see in its entirety here) that has been widely panned.  What stood out to me was how out of touch her responses seemed from the reality of what most teachers experience and what most teachers want from their schools.  She argued–not always clearly–for education policies that have had mixed impact on outcomes for students and that most teachers will quickly tell you don’t work well.

Yes, DeVos is the head of the federal agency responsible for education in our country.  But we could just dismiss this interview as a bad performance by someone who just doesn’t get it.  Unfortunately, time and again as of late, elected officials and policymakers often suggest or impose policies and ideas–from using test scores to evaluate teachers to arming teachers to protect schools–that are overly simplistic and don’t reflect or respect the professional judgment of public school educators, something that was evident from another story in the news last week: a teachers’ strike in the whole state of West Virginia.

With a legislative proposal for a small pay increase after several years of none and costly changes to the state’s public employee insurance program and payroll tax deduction options, teachers in West Virginia went on strike for over a week to pressure lawmakers into revising the proposal.  And while the strike was clearly tied to compensation, a different analysis surfaces other issues–such as another bill in the West Virginia legislature allowing anyone teach, regardless of their training or education–that suggest teachers there were angry because of a consistent devaluing of their professionalism.  As the article says, “Public school teachers have arguably endured the most direct challenge to their professionalism [of any white-collar profession] in recent years.”

So if we truly appreciate teachers, we should listen to them when creating policies that affect their work helping students to learn.  If we truly believe that education is the key to a successful life for a child, we should create the conditions for teachers to provide students with a great education.  

Why does ANCS use a “weighted lottery”?

This week I’ll be a part of a panel at the Georgia Charter Schools Conference with other charter school leaders discussing weighted enrollment lotteries as one strategy to attaining a socioeconomically diverse student body.  With ANCS’s new student enrollment lottery coming up later this month and this being the second year in which we are using a weighted lottery, I wanted to use my blog this week to provide a little history about how a weighted lottery came to be at ANCS, why we use one, and the way in which it works.

In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance for charter schools that said, if state law permits it, a charter school could give additional weight in its enrollment lottery for “educationally disadvantaged students”, which the DOE defined as students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, homeless students, and/or students who qualify as English language learners.  At ANCS, we recognized that a weighted lottery could be one tool that we might want to use in our efforts to have an economically diverse school. Therefore, we were a part of a group that included other charter schools, the Georgia Charter Schools Association, and others who worked over the next year with the Georgia DOE and legislators to get Georgia’s charter school law amended in the 2015 legislative session to allow charter schools the option of using a weighted enrollment lottery, making Georgia one of only four states that expressly permit the use of these lotteries in state law.

Last year, after the Georgia DOE issued guidance about how schools could implement weighted lotteries, ANCS became the first charter school in Georgia to use one, specifically giving more weight to students who come from households that qualify as “economically disadvantaged” (you can find a more detailed definition of this in the enrollment policy page on our website).  During our enrollment application period, families may voluntarily indicate whether a student comes from a household that qualifies as economically disadvantaged, and then, in the lottery, such students receive up to 4 times as much weight to increase their chances of admission.  Following the lottery, families of students admitted through the weighted lottery must provide evidence of their economically disadvantaged status; if they cannot, the student is placed at the end of the waitlist.

So why do we use a weighted lottery?  Because it is one very helpful tool for helping our school achieve our goal of being racially and economically diverse.  We seek this diversity because of the academic, social, and civic benefits to our students (a topic about which I’ve written several times here before–click here for an overview), and we work to reach it by doing work as a school community on addressing issues of equity at ANCS with our students, teachers, and families, by building relationships in pockets of our school’s attendance zone from where we have had fewer students enroll in the past, and by doing what we can to remove potential barriers to enrollment families–especially from economically disadvantaged backgrounds–might face.  And then, after all of that work, for families of lower income levels who do seek ANCS for their students, we employ the weighted lottery because, in an attendance zone that has seen a marked increase in the median real estate value in the past 15 years, we have vastly more applicants who do not qualify as economically disadvantaged than those that do. So while the weighted lottery tends to get more of the attention, it is really the the last–and, frankly, least important–piece of ongoing work our school is doing to be both truly diverse and an place where students, regardless of background, can experience success.