Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Matter of Due Process? Chicago Public Schools Promotion Policies at Academic Centers

I find myself involved in a bit of a policy dispute with the Chicago Public Schools.
It involves how decisions are made whether an 8th grade student is promoted to 9th grade. (Yes, the issue is personal, in a way, but it also holds some wider professional interest for me.)

CPS has two policies related to promotion: one at the elementary school level, and one at the high school level.

The Elementary School Promotion Policy (605.2) applies to promotion at the "benchmark" moments at the end of 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades. In the past, ISAT scores and grades were used in these decisions. But this year, with the ISAT having been abandoned, a revised version of the policy (for the current academic year) was created that uses the NWEA (otherwise known as "MAP") scores.  The revised policy is fairly intricate. Without going into the details, you can see its intricacy just by glancing at this screenshot:

Students are divided into "achievement levels" based on their NWEA percentiles, and then promotion (and the need for summer school) are determined from grades. NWEA percentiles "in both reading AND math at or above the 24 percentile"  and "passing grades for reading and math" are necessary for the top achievement level, which indicates promotion without summer school (and in 8th grade, participation in the graduation ceremony). Elsewhere in CPS policies, "passing" is defined as a "D average or higher."

All well and good.

The High School Promotion Policy (605.1) is different. It doesn't rely on the NWEA scores, but instead relies on number of credits and number of "passing" scores in the "core courses" (English, Math, Science, and Social Studies). For promotion from 9th to 10th grades, for example, a student has to complete the year with at least 5 units of credit, and must pass at least three of their core courses (during both semesters).

Again, all well and good.

The interesting situation (and the one that I'm now wrestling with) is in the so-called "Academic Centers," which are selective enrollment schools that serve 7th and 8th grade students and are located in high schools. In the academic centers, 7th and 8th grade students (who are admitted based on their scores on an entrance exam) take high school classes. According to the larger Elementary Promotion Policy (605.2) that is still in effect (except for the use of the ISAT),
"Eighth grade students attending an Academic Center, as described in the Board’s Magnet Schools and Programs Policy, are enrolled in a high school and taking high school level courses and therefore are not subject to the requirements of this policy."
(I don't know what "the Board's Magnet Schools and Programs Policy" refers to, except maybe the admissions policy, 602.2, which doesn't mention "promotion.")

So, what policy applies to the 8th graders in the academic centers? Not the Elementary School Promotion Policy, clearly. Then the High School Promotion Policy? That's not clear, because the high school promotion policy doesn't actually mention students in the academic centers. Nor does it deal with 8th graders. Specifically, the policy doesn't spell out how many courses need to be passed, at what level, or how many high school credits are needed for promotion from 8th to 9th grades.

So what's the applicable policy?

Well, I've inquired about this. The answer I got from a principal of a high school that contains an academic center is somewhat surprising. He refers to another policy (605.5), which is "Awarding High School Credit and Placement for High School Level Courses Taken by Elementary Grade Students." Interestingly, this policy also does not mention "promotion."
However, according to the principal, this policy on awarding high school credit provides the criteria to determine whether an academic center student is promoted from 8th to 9th grade.

UPDATE 4-30-15: I have been in contact with someone in CPS's central office and she tells me that the principal is actually wrong, and said that someone will be in touch with him to correct his interpretation.

UPDATE 2, 4-30-15: This isn't over.  The principal just sent me an email defending higher promotion standards for academic center students because they are gifted. (!)

What's somewhat troubling about this is that the standard is higher than it is for promotion in either the elementary promotion policy or the high school promotion policy. A "C average or better" is used to determine if elementary students (including academic center students, apparently) have "passed" their high school classes. My guess is that this is intended to "raise the bar" for elementary students getting high school credit: if they can't get a "C" or better in a high school class, well, then, they shouldn't get credit but should have to wait until high school to get that credit.(I suppose this makes sense?)

So according to this principal, an 8th grade student in an academic center must get at least a "C" average in his "English and math" courses in order to be promoted to the 9th grade. Keep in mind that the English and math courses that an 8th grade academic center student is taking are high school courses.

So, according to this principal, the standard for an 8th grade student at an academic center to be promoted to the 9th grade is significantly higher than for a regular 8th grade student (i.e. one not at an academic center) to be promoted to the 9th grade. Let me spell this out. According to this principal's interpretation:
  • An 8th grade student at a regular CPS elementary school is promoted to the 9th grade if his NWEA percentiles in reading and math are at or above 24 and if his grades in his 8th grade reading and math courses are passing (i.e. "D" average).
  • An 8th grade student at an academic center is promoted to the 9th grade if his grades in his 9th grade reading and math courses are a "C" average or above.

In other words, it is easier for an 8th grade student at a regular elementary school to get into 9th grade than it is for an 8th grade student at an academic center to get into 9th grade. WHAT?!?!

In the specific case that concerns me, if the student had stayed in his regular elementary school, he would have to get "D" averages or better in his 8th grade reading and math classes (and get above a certain score on the NWEA) in order to be admitted into 9th grade at his neighborhood high school.

But because he scored high enough on the academic center selective enrollment exam in 6th grade, he needs to get "C" averages or better in his 9th grade reading and math classes to get admitted into 9th grade at the very same neighborhood high school. And his scores on the NWEA are not relevant to the decision.

Is it just me, or does this raise due process issues?

(Comments welcome.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On Learning A New Metaphor for Learning

This past week, I attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting here in Chicago. More than 12000 educational researchers filled hotel meeting rooms all over downtown with discourse about education in all its flavors.

From what I could see, almost all of them had a rewarding and enjoyable time, personally and professionally.

Once, a long time ago, a longtime colleague/friend of mine, David Hansen (who is now director of the philosophy of education at Teachers College, Columbia University) told me that you can't expect a great deal out of a conference like AERA.

This is Philip Jackson and some of his students. David Hansen in the back left.

At this particular conference, there were over 18000 papers and presentations. A lot of sessions were sequences of research reports "delivered" (using Powerpoint of course) by relatively young researchers who are trying to prove themselves to get jobs and tenure, which often means doing work with relatively simple concepts. These sessions are sometimes simply boring.

But one great thing about AERA--because it is so big--that there are also a lot sessions with reflective, often brilliant, knowledgeable scholars from many fields of research interacting with each other in stimulating ways.

David told me if you only get one valuable thing from a session, or from a day of sessions, or from a whole conference, you should be happy.

I have learned to modify this principle: if you get just one valuable thing out of BEING AT the conference, be happy with that.The good stuff doesn't always come out of official sessions.

For me, the highlight of AERA is the parties and receptions that happen at Special Interest Group business meetings and also after hours. I love these social events because they provide a time to catch up with people I've known for years and also to meet some new and interesting people. Catching up with especially the close personal friends involved in educational research once a year over an over-priced glass of wine or good food is what keeps many of us in this business coming back to these conferences for more.

Sometimes I see close and brilliant personal friends only once a year at a conference.

For example, I had Dim Sum on Sunday with Martha Wagner Alibali, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Martha and I went to graduate school together a long time ago, and are the best of friends. Dim Sum was also an opportunity to introduce a my much newer friend, Katariina Holma, a critical thinking theorist at the University of Helsinki, to Martha. Needless to say, it was a great conversation. Both women are brilliant, extremely well-respected in their own fields, and just a lot of fun.

Katariina, me, Martha, after Delicious Dim Sum.
Martha is a very special friend. I tell anyone who will listen that I met almost all of my friends through Martha, and it's true. One great example is Mitchell Nathan, a professor of educational psychology at Madison with whom Martha often collaborates. Mitch and I have become great friends, too, over the years. Here we are (also Sunday) having the best Buffalo Shrimp I've ever had.

Shaw's Crab House, Mitch, Shrimp, Craig

Mitch is an electrical engineer who became a learning scientist. He is brilliant and generative. He thinks about learning in very interesting ways, using very interesting concepts and data, across multiple domains.

I often ask the people I see at conferences what questions or topics or activities are interesting them right now. This is often a lead in to talking about some hugely important and interesting stuff.

Mitch's answer this time came completely out of the blue. He offered a metaphor for thinking about the relationship between thought and action, one that I had never considered. In the couple of days since our conversation the metaphor has found its way into the center of my thinking.

The metaphor is really simple yet needs some explaining, but it connects immediately and directly to what I have been thinking about lately, which is the function of systems in complex situations. It also fits nicely into Martha's work on gesture and cognition (which is partly why the two collaborate. Surprisingly, it also connects immediately and directly to what Katariina has been thinking about related to the emotional aspects of critical thinking. (Katariina and one of Mitch's long-time friends, Michael J. Jacobson, a brilliant educational technology professor from the University of Sydney, joined us later at dinner.)

Katariina and Michael
The interesting way the metaphor worked its way so quickly and deeply into the different foci of our respective works was what has made me so excited about this metaphor.

So let me now reveal it and explain the metaphor.

The metaphor is "transductive systems," or just "transduction."

The word "transduction" is pretty complex. (See

A "transducer" is a a device that transforms one type of information or energy into another, but in a way that the same device can transform in BOTH directions (

Here's how Mitch explained it to me. He started with a simple example.

The simplest example is a microphone and a speaker. Both convert energy between sound energy and electrical energy.

These two transducers are STRUCTURED the same way. In fact, you can use a microphone as a speaker and vice versa.

Another example is an LED. Put electrical energy through it and light energy comes out; put LIGHT energy on it and electrical energy comes out. (I didn't know that LEDs are the same a photovoltaic devices (solar cells). Mitch, the electrical engineer, does!)

A third example is the generator in a car. It converts kinetic (motion) energy into electrical energy. If you reverse the direction of the energy flow, a generator is a motor.

So by now the metaphor should be at least somewhat clear:
  • Electrical/acoustic energy is transduced by microphones/speakers
  • Electrical/light energy is transduced by LEDs/photovoltaics
  • Electrical/kinetic energy is transduced by motors/generators
 In each case, the devices on the right are the same, structurally.

Now, the really INTERESTING part (from my standpoint) is how this metaphor can be transDUCED into working in a sphere such as the relationship between cognition and action (which is Mitch's issue), emotion and critical thinking (Katariina's issue) or between universities and entrepreneurship (something Michael has been thinking about) or the interaction between a living system and its environment.

So to repeat what I just did above with the bullet points:
  • The relationship between cognition and action/gesture is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between emotion and critical thinking is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between universities and entrepreneurs is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between a living system and its environment is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between teaching and learning is transduced by ...
Now, pay attention to the differences in these two sets of bullet points. The first one is a set of physical devices that transduce energy or signals. The second is a set of complex relationships that educational researchers are working on figuring out. These concepts are sometimes treated in isolation from their counterpart, which treats complex reality too simplistically. The latter group also lack "devices" that transduce. The transduction might be done by very complex systems that have to be modeled and figured out.

We need to rethinking some of our dualistic conceptions about how learning and other parts of nature work. Thinking about transduction as both a real transformation and also a metaphor of interaction is, to my mind, extremely generative. You can thank Mitchell Nathan for this the next time you see him at AERA.

Oh, and the conversation didn't stop there! It generated new ideas for HOURS.

Translating ourselves across the Chicago Cartesian grid for more transductive and transformational conversations.
(Language itself is transductive.) But I can't talk about that right now. I have to transPORT myself home so you'll just have to wait for the next part of this conversation.