Learning First Alliance

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The Public School Insights Blog

In a recent report titled, Building Professional Development to Support New Student Assessment Systems, Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, reminds us that all the innovations and new data points in the world won’t improve student outcomes unless the teachers responsible for student learning have their own learning needs met.  We know that key elements for successful, continuous professional learning must include collective responsibility, time and support, use of data, collaboration, classroom-based support, and access to external expertise.  Deep understanding and thoughtful planning will be required of all educators at all levels in the state and school district if new assessment systems are to transform instruction rather than to act as another add-on to a teacher’s day.

We know (and have known for years) that the highest performing school systems focus on recruiting, mentoring, and developing great teachers.  These systems also know that professional development is a career-long imperative.  New assessment systems and Common Core Standards will provide teachers with powerful new resources to guide all students toward college and career readiness.  However, the success of these new systems will rely on the ability of educators using them to ...


Tomorrow begins a Conference on Labor-Management Collaboration in Denver, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, National School Boards Association, American Association of School Administrators, Council of the Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The conference aims to highlight examples of collaborative approaches that ease friction between administrators and union members, expedite education reforms, and lead to better results for students.  

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, and AFT President Randi Weingarten announced plans for the conference in October while celebrating an innovative labor agreement in Hillsborough County, Florida.  

In the past several months, there have been numerous negative depictions in the media of teachers and teachers’ unions—including Waiting for “Superman,” some segments of NBC’s Education Nation summit. The messages indicate that

As National School Counseling Week draws to a close, it seems fitting to reflect on the state of the profession in our nation.

School counselors are highly trained individuals who help students improve their academic achievement, their personal and social development and their career planning. Their services help students resolve emotional and behavioral issues, often improving the climate of a school. And they help students develop a clearer focus or sense of direction, which can improve student achievement. Research over the past several decades shows the positive impact of school counselors.

But for all the evidence, the work of school counselors can be underappreciated and is rarely acknowledged in discussions of school improvement. And in times of tough budgets, it is often the school counselor (or other support staff) whose role is cut.

As Valerie Strauss pointed out back in January, school counselors in America are expected to help an extremely large number of students. It is recommended that there be one school counselor for every 250 students. In 2008, nationwide there was one counselor for every 457 students – and that was before school budgets were slashed. In California there were 814 students per counselor. In Arizona, Minnesota and Utah there were more than 700 students per ...

February is National School-Based Health Care Awareness Month, so I wanted to discuss school-based health centers (SBHCs) as beneficial models for communities nation-wide. The National Assembly on School-Based Health Care explains that SBHCs are comprised of partnerships between schools and local health care organizations to deliver health care (physical and mental) to students on a school campus. Currently, schools with SBHCs predominantly serve low-income students who historically experience health care disparities (although even schools with different student demographics could benefit from the SBHC model.) And while SBHCs serve the student and faculty population at the school where they are housed, many also open their doors to students from other schools, as well as to other members of the community. SBHCs can be funded from both government (local, state, and federal) and private groups, depending on the model each community develops. Currently, there are more than 1,900 SBHCs in 48 states and territories.

There are many compelling benefits to SBHCs. Besides providing care for populations that otherwise might not receive it, research indicates they increase school attendance and academic performance, decrease school drop-out rates, and ...

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School Boards Circa 2010

Last week, the results of a comprehensive national survey of school boards - the first in nearly a decade - were released. They painted a picture of both the demographics of those serving on school boards and the structure of those boards. Among the findings: nearly three-fourths of school board members have a bachelor’s degree and 94.5% of them were elected to their posts.

But it is what we learned about the beliefs of school board members that has gotten the most attention – and with good reason. Over the past ten years, those beliefs seem to have shifted quite a bit.

Back in 2002 (the last time a similar study was conducted), school board members were consumed with what has been dubbed the “killer B’s” – buses, buildings, books, budgets, bonds and such. Today, they are more concerned with student achievement, evidenced in part by the fact they are more likely to cite that achievement as a key consideration in evaluating their superintendent.

Two other trends in board member beliefs that ...

Editor’s note: Our guest blogger today is Kwok-Sze Wong. He is the executive director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), which represents more than 28,000 school counselors across the nation. ASCA expands the image and influence of professional school counselors through advocacy, leadership, collaboration and systemic change. It also empowers professional school counselors with the knowledge, skills, linkages and resources to promote student success in the school, the home, the community and the world. ASCA is a member of the Learning First Alliance.

Sandy Austin, a school counselor at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colo., has seen her share of crises. As a member of the crisis team that worked with students and parents in Columbine in the wake of the shootings, Sandy knew students couldn’t focus on school until they could deal with their grief from this devastating tragedy. She also saw the strength and compassion students have and how important that compassion can be in helping others heal. To give students a way to help those in need, Sandy formed the BIONIC Team – Believe It Or Not I Care. Students in the group reach out to others to provide support when they experience a death, illness or other hardship in their lives. During the past six years, the BIONIC Team has reached more than 38,000 people, and more than 400 schools worldwide have shown interest in starting similar programs. 

Terry Malterre, a school counselor at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, and TeShaunda L. Hannor-Walker, Ph.D., the school counselor at Northside Elementary School in Albany, Ga., may be separated by a continent and an ocean, but they are connected by many similarities. They both work at schools with a high percentage of low-income and underserved students. They both noticed that many of their students were failing because of high absenteeism, so they instituted home visit programs to involve families in learning. And they both found that ...

Continuing with the tenure conversation Cheryl Williams began earlier this week, I wanted to discuss a recent New York Times article that outlines current efforts by governors to eliminate tenure in their states.

Connecting poor student performance to teachers is clearly a general emphasis among many critics of public education, and it seems to be an especially potent issue now in politics, as evidenced in part by President Obama’s last two State of the Union address in which he discussed teacher assessments. Jumping on this bandwagon of blaming teachers, governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, and New Jersey (and legislatures in other states) want to focus on removing perceived ineffective teachers through eliminating or imposing drastic reductions in tenure protections.

I imagine few would argue that current tenure systems are less than ideal, and there are legitimate reforms to tenure that would benefit all major actors involved. And as the article points out, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are in favor of good reform (and the AFT practiced what they preach by endorsing a Colorado law last year that allows for the removal of tenured teachers found consistently ineffective). AFT also helped broker tenure and labor reforms in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Baltimore, Maryland, and the NEA was similarly instrumental in principal and teacher evaluation reforms in Hillsborough County, Florida.

So while there are no doubt thoughtful ways to reform tenure to allow for teacher dismissal based on effectiveness rather than simply seniority, these governors and state legislatures seem focused on quick-and-dirty bills that serve more to score political points than ...

Thanks to EdWeek, I came across an article from Minnesota's Star Tribune earlier today. The headline: Dozens of Minnesota’s Charter Schools Could Close.

According to the article, the state adopted legislation in 2009 that requires charter school authorizers to keep closer tabs on their schools, making them more accountable for their performance and giving the state (and authorizers) more power to close troubled schools.

Not all authorizers are willing or able to meet the new requirements, and some are cutting ties with their charter school(s). Others have had applications to continue as authorizers rejected by the Minnesota Department of Education (and the Department itself has stopped authorizing charters, lacking the capacity to meet the requirements of the new law). As of now, 64 charter schools, serving around 13,000 students, do not have an authorizer for the 2011-12 school year. If they cannot find one, they will be forced to close.

This situation is quite serious. Up to 13,000 students may have to find a new school, a process that could be extremely disruptive to their educational experience – and which could cause some of them to disengage. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs on charters, it is always sad when kids have to go through that.

But I found it a bit concerning that this article focused on the NUMBER of charter schools that might have to close without directly addressing the QUALITY of the schools that might be closed (though it did imply at least some were ...

As I continue my journey through the Learning First Alliance (LFA) member publications, I encounter more articles rich with ideas than I can write about.  However, the January 2011 issue of The School Administrator, published by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), offers up an opinion column that I found especially compelling.   Harold Kwalwasser, a private attorney in Washington, DC, who is researching and writing a book on school reform, has penned a column entitled “Overselling the Myth of the Bad Teacher and Tenure”, that boldly states that, “Eliminating teacher tenure is at risk of being seriously oversold.” 

Kwalwasser has spent the past year researching more than 40 successful school districts, high-performing charters, and respected private schools for a book he’s writing on what works in education.  What he learned is that while tenure is often central to political talk, it has very little to do with success or lack thereof on the ground.  In districts that were organized to promote learning, teachers were motivated even with tenure in place and the system had its own way of encouraging poor performers to leave.  High performing school districts assess students frequently and make the data available to principals and teachers.  The transparency and ...

President Barak Obama’s State of the Union address has drawn a mixed response from players in the education community. I imagine all appreciate the president’s focus on education as an important issue, and approve of his connecting it to broader American self-interest with talk of jobs and competitiveness in worldwide markets. Likewise, few would disagree with Obama’s emphasis on long-term investment in education, parental involvement in children's learning, the shared responsibility of schools and their communities, recruiting more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers, and the need to overhaul No Child Left Behind. It’s also refreshing that he pointed out teachers are the most important school-based factor in a child’s success; he emphasized the greater importance of parents (and though research more specifically shows the influence of socio-economic status, these two categories are related). His talk of curbing the reach of the federal government was also encouraging to many, although his actual policy emphases related to Race to the Top and other competitive funding measures seem to counter this rhetoric.

Many are concerned with federal oversight of schools, as well as competitive allocation of funds. In a statement responding to the State of the Union Address, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten discussed the need to protect children from struggling segments of the population. Likewise, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel expressed his continued concern that “competitive grants such as ...

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