Education Policy & Practice

Archive for the ‘Reform’ Category

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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Dear EducationCEO,

Like you, I am up at 2 in the morning!  I checked my phone and saw that I had an e-mail notification alerting me to a new post on your blog.  The title intrigued me, “Let me set the record straight …”  I couldn’t resisit!  However, please forgive my middle-of-the-night, my laptop-battery-is-low-and-I-don’t-feel-like-fetching-my-powercord-in-the-next-room brief response to one thing in particular that you wrote:   

Perhaps they could ‘color’ their respective boards to reflect the communities in which they serve, and simultaneously make millions each year, per school?

If I read correctly (and please correct me if I am wrong), I understood this comment in context to mean that the boards of KIPP and TFA (among others), are not reflective of the communities they serve.  And though not explicitly stated, I understood you to be talking about the organizations’ national boards.  You’re right, names do pop up in more than one place on the national scene.  But at the local, I feel I can speak to this issue of representation from personal experience, having served a 3-year term on the KIPP Baltimore board of directors.  I believe there is real value in pursuing racial and ethnic diversity at the local level.  What does it really matter if the national board is lily white and estrogen deficient?  At the local level is where I believe board members are going to be most impactful – mobilizing local resources, involving the local community and businesses, and really being champions for our kids.     

So, I’d love to chat with you about this!  Thanks for posting your thoughts – these conversations are necessary. 

– Samantha

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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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Educate to Innovate

Today, President Obama unveiled his “Educate to Innovate” strategy.  This campaign is intended to drastically improve STEM education, particularly math and science education.  The goal: Move the United States to the top in science and math education in the next decade.

In his remarks, President Obama asserted that “we can’t allow division and indifference to imperil our position in the world.”  This sounds very much like the tune of Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, who recently pointed to the need to elevate education “above our differences.”

For more information visit:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/educate-innovate

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Two giant philanthropic efforts have made news this month.  On November 4, 2009, the Ford Foundation announced that it will commit $100 million over 7 years toward “transforming secondary education in urban schools across the country.”  Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will commit $335 million “to promote effective teaching and student achievement.”  Yes, that is a combined $435 million private investment in education and research in education.

The Ford Foundation plans to fund projects in 7 cities that address 4 essential elements: 1) sufficient and equitable school financing; 2) quality teaching; 3) additional and more useful learning time; and 4) meaningful accountability.  Among these districts are the some of the usual suspects, including New York City, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funneling $290 million in grants to support 4 Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching sites that have developed groundbreaking plans to improve teacher effectiveness, according to its press release.  Those sites include  Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools, Pittsburgh (Pa.) Public Schools, and The College-Ready Promise, a coalition of five public charter school management organizations in Los Angeles.  Another $45 million will go toward the Measures of Effective Teaching project, a research initiative that seeks to define effective teaching and identify fairer and more reliable evaluative measures.

According to its website, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $2 billion over 9 years in education reform efforts. I am pleased (quite pleased) to see the focus shift to teacher effectiveness investigation and to have resources committed to that end.

So I ask, what bang are we getting for these big bucks?

Other heavy-hitting foundations investing in urban education (past and present) include:

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To what extent are moral and ethical considerations taken into account in educational decision making? Take unhealthy school lunches as an example. Burgers and fries and pizza and hot dogs, while I will support on occasion [smile], are not healthy choices. We’ve known for a bazillion years what healthy food is and how important smart nutritional choices are for students. But of course it requires more money and resources to provide fresh/nutritional/healthy meal and snack options.

The “right” thing [also moral/ethical] is to provide the babies with what’s good for them! I appreciate what’s happening in the Baltimore City Public Schools – locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, meatless Mondays, and nutritional education to name a few.

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Earlier today, President Obama held his first online town hall meeting and answered questions about health care, home ownership, employment – and education.   In response to a question asking the President how he intends to restore education as a right and core cultural value in America, he addressed the issue of teachers with the following remarks:

Number two, let’s focus on the most important ingredient in the school, and that’s the teacher.  Let’s pay our teachers more money.  Let’s give them more support.  Let’s give them more training.  Let’s make sure that schools of education that are training our teachers are up to date with the best methods to teach our kids.  And let’s work with teachers so that we are providing them measures of whether they’re effective or not, and let’s hold them accountable for being effective.

My quibble is not with what he said; I take issue with what was not said.  When we think of teachers as instructors only, we ignore the multidimensional and complex role that each teacher fills, one the supersedes grade level and content area.  Teaching is NOT just about content and pedagogy.  So when we talk about improving teacher preparation and professional development, we are consistently missing the mark, in my opinion.

We must improve teacher quality; nothing is more important than getting a great teacher in front of every single classroom in this country. And there are many strategies, from national board certification to alternative routes into teaching to get more talent into the pool to rewarding excellence through performance pay.

However, we KNOW that a student does not check all of his/her problems at the schoolhouse door.  On the contrary, hunger, physical/mental abuse, violence, drug or substance abuse, poverty, poor self-esteem, gang activity, promiscuity, and a host of other challenges are sitting right there in the classroom.   Ignoring these issues in conversations about teachers and teacher preparation (including the aforementioned strategies) is naive and is a recipe for continued failure.  We have to face the reality that we must reconsider our understanding of what it means to “educate” and what it means to be a “teacher.”  So, in addition to stepping up our game when it comes to content and pedagogy, we must also simultaneously figure out how to train and support teachers to effectively address the specific needs of today’s students.

Whether we like it or not, the role of teacher has dramatically changed, and it must adapt to the reality of this time in history within which we presently live.  A student can easily spend more time with a teacher and other adults in a school building than with his/her own family or caretakers.  What an awesome responsibility a teacher has!  I do not suggest that the burden falls solely on the shoulders of teachers; we must certainly engage other adults and agencies and organizations in a coordinated, strategic, and sustained effort if we are to ever have a hope of educating our children.

We can’t continue to reduce the teacher to some kind of content and pedagogy automaton. Having been a teacher, with an interest in returning to the classroom later in life, I feel strongly about changing the conversations about how we train teachers. The better prepared our teachers are, the better served our students will be, and the greater the likelihood that our society can be strengthened.

Want more?

  • A link to the video of the town hall meeting is on the right sidebar of this blog.
  • You can read the full transcript of the town hall meeting on the WhiteHouse.gov website.

Education Policy & Practice

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