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The Public School Insights Blog

Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.

If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.

Dr. Santiago recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.

Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.

However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.

In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: ...

"Every teacher for himself!" Is that the new rallying cry of school reformers? Well, no. But school reform ideas that are getting the lion's share of press don't necessarily do much to foster a climate of collaboration in our schools. If we're really aiming for dramatic improvement in our schools, that's a big deal.

Here, for example, is an idea that has been gaining ground recently: Sack the bottom 25% of teachers up for tenure each year. How do you identify the bottom 25%? By measuring their students' growth in state test scores, of course. A new study (PDF) suggests that this tactic may raise a district's test scores in the long run. This finding buoyed the spirits of folks at the National Council on Teacher Quality, who urged districts to "hold to their guns" and give the bottom quarter the axe, year after year.

The study's authors are a bit more cautious. They note that the effects of this strategy could be "modest by some standards" and that they might reflect "changes in class or school dynamics outside of a teacher's control." They also limit their analysis to teachers for whom test data are available in the first place--a minority, as it turns out. Still, they feel that student performance on tests should be fair game when it comes time to make decisions about personnel.

Maybe. But I'm more worried by the collatoral damage of draconian firing policies. What will happen to the climate of a school where every new teacher knows he has a one-in-four chance of getting the boot in a couple of years? It's a truism by now that staff in good schools work together and share responsibility for their kids. In the best low-income schools, any given child will have seen any number of ...

vonzastrowc's picture

On Second Thought....

A couple of days ago, I wrote that the President's proposed budget gave staff development short shrift. That may have been a premature judgment.

The languge of the budget may in fact contain the seeds of good news. The budget includes a program called "Excellent Instructional Teams," which includes most of the staff development money for 2011. That program, the budget tells us, should "promote collaboration and the development of instructional teams that use data to improve practice." This new language suggests that the feds may have seen the light on what makes for good staff development.

It is too early to celebrate, however. The overall cut in Title II funds will keep some people up at night, and we don't yet know if the change in language will fuel a change in practice.

At the very least, though, champions of strong professional development will have something to hang their hats on. ...

Run, don't walk, to the February edition of the Phi Delta Kappan. First, there is a truly gripping interview (PDF) with Kevin Jennings, who directs the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. Jennings describes how his childhood experiences with bullying in school have shaped his life's work.

He also calls for "standards around school climate" as well as "a data system so parents know what kind of environment a kid will encounter in a school":

But I do know that what gets measured is what gets done. Over time, it will force this issue onto the agenda. There will always be a role for grassroots activism. What the government can do is to push those ideas along a little faster.

I’m hearing loud and clear from people at the grassroots that they need help with this issue. We can’t just crank out standardized tests and expect that will make our schools better. We have to look at ...

Read President Obama's budget, and you'll get the distinct sense that alternative certification works and staff development doesn't. The first of these gets a big shot in the arm, and the second (Title II) suffers a pretty big blow. Get the right people into the schools, the thinking seems to go, and the rest will sort itself out. But reality is more complicated than that. All roads will take us back to staff development.

Critics argue that federal staff development dollars haven't done much good, so why keep them flowing? Much better to funnel them into alternatives. The critics have a point, or maybe half a point. We haven't gotten enough bang for our federal buck, so it's tough to justify calls for more Title II money unless we can show that we will spend the money well. Of course, alt cert programs haven't yet proven their worth either, but they're newer, some are promising, and none carry the taint of "status quo."

But it would be very wrong to turn our backs on staff development because it has so often been botched in practice. Stephanie Hirsh of the National Staff ...

vonzastrowc's picture

The Whole Story?

A brief CBS News segment on school reform had me gnashing my teeth. The piece contained some good information, but it also broke what should at least be cardinal rules for reporters:

Diversify Your Sources. The CBS segment interviews two people: Andy Rotherham and MIchelle Rhee. Both are impressive. Both have had a real impact on the school reform debate. But Both are on the same side of that debate. And neither has been exactly starved for media attention. So, could the people at CBS have brought in a few more voices? Jack Jennings, maybe? Wendy Puriefoy? How about Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall? Or Baltimore superintendent Andres Alonso?

National reporters all seem to be working from the same shrinking rolodex. What results is a new education orthodoxy.

Don't Just Go Where You Smell Blood. Media folk flock to Michelle Rhee, in part because they can be sure they'll see a good fight. She shows her fighting spirit in the CBS segment, wishing aloud that school principals were less averse to conflict. We then learn about a DC school where a new principal fired a slew ...

We're hearing a lot about Chicago's efforts to turn around struggling schools. Read the papers, and you'll get the impression that a handful of charter schools are the only bright stars in a dark firmament. But that impression is wrong.

At least one other set of schools has been posting big gains. Eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) have made large strides in student performance in the past few years. And their model is quite different from the turnaround models that get the most press.

They do not fire teachers. Their principals don't get the axe. But they do use concrete strategies to change what happens in their classrooms. Researchers from AIR reviewed SLI's results and called on policy makers to take note:

Well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of NCLB, school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as [SLI's] Focused Instruction Process.

As school closings and charter takeovers capture the popular imagination, we are apt to ignore other options. SLI President John Simmons recently told us about the success of his approach in Chicago.

Public School Insights: There is a lot of talk right now about turning around struggling schools. The model that is most mentioned, and has been enshrined in federal policy, is reconstitution, which involves firing the principal and replacing at the least half the teachers at a school. The thinking is that this process is required to create the conditions needed for success. Does your experience bear that out?

Simmons: We think that there's a better way. Reconstitution can work. You can get results. But our experience, which includes not only the last almost four years with our most recent network of schools but also the last 15 years using a similar model in schools in the lowest income neighborhoods in Chicago, shows that our model is getting better results than the reconstitution model. And it is lower cost and faster.

Public School Insights: What kinds of results have you been getting?

Simmons: [Part of our process is weekly assessments of student achievement.] By the way, we call it a “process” and not a “program” because teachers and principals have an opportunity to modify and improve it on a regular basis.

We are seeing that schools are able to improve their weekly assessments pretty quickly after starting our process, typically after the first six weeks. Children ...

"In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program is a world-class education." That sentence from the State of the Union address is bound to spark debate, and here's why:

We know too many well-educated people who are out of work. We can all name the well-educated people who helped plunge the nation into the deepest recession in many decades. Education alone guarantees nothing, and people in schools are right to get their backs up when others imply that schools manufacture poverty. There are just too many other culprits nowadays.

But we should face facts. High school dropouts barely stand a chance, even in good times. Children who can't clear even the lowest hurdles in state tests face a grim future if things don't turn around for them. Schools that lose more than half their students to the streets don't do much to promote social mobility in a ...

Ask South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer about free lunches for poor children, and here's what you'll get:

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that.

He later implied that free lunch lowers test scores. (Hat tip to Alexander Russo.) ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Casting a Wider Net

State test scores just don't tell us all we need to know about how our students are doing. Students' Success in college has to be a part of the picture.

Two new reports support this claim. A few weeks ago, a report by Education Sector found that states could improve their systems for grading high schools by taking college data into account. The success of a high school's graduates in college, it turns out, is more reliable than that same school's "Adequate Yearly Progress" in test scores is.

Less than two weeks ago, a report from the Center for Public Education (CPE) found a "silent achievement gap" in college preparation. Students from families with low incomes are much less likely than wealthy students to have the credentials they need--courses, grades and scores on entrance exams--to get into a good college. This gap isn't "silent" because it is in any way surprising. It is silent because ...

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