Education Policy & Practice

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I was listening to my local NPR station this morning, as part of my usual routine.  The host, Steve Inskeep, talked about the controversial mass firing of educators a local high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, effective at the end of the school year.  Apparently, only 7% of juniors scored proficient on the state math assessment.  The high school’s population is majority Hispanic, where more than 30% of students speak English as a second language.

Despite the fact that all teachers were fired, up to 50% can be rehired.  One teacher, who said she’s been at the school for more than 20 years, said that what people don’t seem to realize is that the kids come to school with significant challenges and that poverty is a major culprit – cue the violin.  A senior added that she thought canning the teachers was unfair and that the teachers care and have formed bonds with the students – then she cried.

What is the best remedy?  I don’t think a mass firing is the right thing to do, although I must admit that the impulsive side of me thinks that decision is spot on.  Certainly, whatever the “formula” is at Central Falls High School has unequivocally failed.  I am still trying to comprehend a 7% passing rate on a state math assessment.  I don’t care – really I don’t – about the composition of the student body.  Why? Because whatever the composition, I believe the adults should adjust.

So, you have a significant number of students whose first language isn’t English, then adjust your strategies to address that.  And “oh we have a lot of poor kids.”  So what?  Poor kids are learning in other places.  I am not suggesting that when the rubber meets the road everything will be magical.  But what I am suggesting, is that building level staff, district officials, public administrators, state education officials and state administrators (here and everywhere) need to do what is right for kids.  And what is not right, is allowing (or enabling) a school staff, including the principal, to continue welcoming students to a sinking ship, a burning building, or <insert any other imagery that makes sense to you>.

I think the situation in Central Falls is sad.  I don’t know the intimate details about the context of this situation, so please take my above comments more as general statements about schools in a similar position, and not as an attack or criticism of those precious souls entangled in a situation that not a single one of them created.   Perhaps some students are lazy, disengaged, or otherwise not willing to learn.  Perhaps parents are not parenting.  Maybe teachers have written some of these kids off as failures. Students still deserve a superior education and sincere effort from all those involved.  I hope you see that this is not just an education issue.  The problems we see manifesting themselves in school are only symptomatic of what ails families, communities, and our entire country.

Read more:

Projo.com

Washington Post

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John Sabat, center, and Doug Snyder, right, at a Success Charter Network event.

Tucked away in the “Fashion & Style” section of the New York Times is an article titled, “Scholarly Investments.” Author Nancy Hass writes about the commitment and zeal of young 30-something hedge fund managers and analysts (with deep pockets) to education, specifically charter schools.

“I think it’s all good and well that these people are finally stepping up to support education,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, referring to wealthy hedge funders. “But I would wish they would do it in a more foundational way, a way that would help all the children instead of just a small group.”

The problem is, the current structure of our educational system severely limits the kinds of bold and targeted innovations and plain old common sense policies and procedures.  Let’s take teacher policy, for example.  A HORRIBLE teacher could remain in his/her position in a traditional public education setting for years and years and years.  A teacher can go UNEVALUATED  for nearly a decade in a traditional public education setting.   Please don’t be surprised if you’re reading this and think that this is overexaggeration on my part or that these are atypical examples.

One of the biggest departures from the traditional, policy-hamstrung public school model is the freedom … ability to control (not complete autonomy as we saw with KIPP Baltimore’s outrageous fight against the union) over teacher hiring policy, calendar, and program, to name a few.

So I ask Mr. Mulgrew (or anyone else who would like to comment), “HOW would you suggest ‘these people’ step up to support education in a more ‘foundational way, a way that would help all the children instead of just a small group?'”

I am not suggesting that all charters are blazingly successful.  If that’s what folks are looking for, perfection or a silver bullet, then you’ll be sadly disappointed.  However, when folks attack success, that’s when I wonder about what’s going on in the cranium.

Whether charters do a better job of educating children, even with the extra help from private donors, is much debated. A study released in September by researchers headed by Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, concluded that on average New York City charters outperform local schools. But another study by a different group of Stanford researchers last summer suggested that nationally the numbers are muddier.

Mr. Reffkin, who was raised poor by a single mother in Oakland, Calif., and says he aspires to run for city office one day, considers charter schools “the civil rights struggle of my generation.”

“In the past, we’ve had one or two big hedge fund guys footing most of the bill for each school,” Mr. Reffkin said. “But now enough of my peers in this industry who may not have the money to carry the whole thing understand what’s at stake and what the return can be.”

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In a recent post, I wrote about Lincoln University’s graduation policy that requires students with a BMI of 30+ to either take and pass a health course or drop their BMI to below 30 in order to graduate.  I offered my take on the policy – what do you think about it? 

 

Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, will require students who are deemed “too heavy” to pass a physical fitness course to graduate, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  In an admirable effort to keep students healthy, Lincoln U. wants to help students become more physically fit with this new policy.  And particularly within the African-American community, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are serious health concerns.

As part of the core curriculum, campus health educators weigh and measure all freshmen in the fall semester to determine each student’s body-mass index (BMI).  Those students with a BMI above 30, suggestive of obesity, must then enroll in a one-credit course called “Fitness for Life” before they graduate or reach a BMI of less than 30 in order to “test out.”

I have serious reservations about this policy. I applaud the university’s courage to make bold strides toward encouraging physical health and fitness, particularly within a vulnerable population; however, why not simply require “Fitness for Life” for all students?  I am especially concerned about the potential social and psychological damage that would be induced by this policy.  I agree with the spirit of the requirement, but only if all students are required to successfully complete the course.

One of the questions raised in the debate about the legality of this policy is quite simple: What is the difference between encouraging physical fitness vs requiring it.  Legal experts have a lot to say, but all seem to be scratching their heads.

Public-interest law professor, John F. Banzhaf III, at George Washington University describes Lincoln’s requirement as “reasonable.”  He asserts that to be considered a disability (and therefore have the policy challenged based on discrimination), obesity and the size of a person must be at a point where the individual suffers severe limitations in performing daily activities.

Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, offers a dissenting analysis.  He suggests that a student’s BMI could be construed as legally protected medical information.

A traditional university, unlike military academies, cannot demonstrate that minimum requirements for physical fitness are central to their missions, or can they?  The educational value of a mandatory course for some, but not all students, in my opinion, cannot be successfully defended.  Lincoln’s mission statement:

Lincoln University is a premier, Historically Black University that combines the best elements of a liberal arts and sciences –based undergraduate core curriculum, and selected graduate programs to meet the needs of those living in a highly technological and global society.

Students are contributing to this conversation as well.  A Lincoln student wrote an opinion column in the Lincolnian titled “Too Fat to Graduate,” in which she objects to the mandatory fitness course.   She makes the truth plain: She came to Lincoln for an education, not to be derailed for having a “slightly high body-mass index.”  She, like I immediately felt after reading about this policy, feels that the required class should be required of ALL students.

An important perspective in this debate concerns the accuracy of BMI as an indicator of health and specifically as a measure of obesity.  J. Eric Oliver, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, has argued that “the BMI reveals far too little about how people live, how they get sick, and why they die.”

What is your take on this policy?  This issue is begging for a poll … stay tuned!!

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This past Sunday morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on Meet the Press to discuss the state and direction of our public schools.

During the tour, Rev. Al Sharpton said, “If we can come together on education, I think it’s an example to the kids that some things should be above our differences.” Newt Gingrich reiterated that sentiment on the air on Sunday. Referred to as a “political odd couple,” Gingrich and Sharpton are standing on common ground.

So I ask, “Is education above our differences?”

 

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