Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

I'm getting more and more worried about the heated rhetoric of debates on school reform. This rhetoric is fueling a war without winners. Here's why:

The rhetoric of reform is killing the public school brand.
Too often, the rhetoric suggests that all public schools are schools of desperate measures, schools of last resort. The failing urban school has come to represent every public school. Some say public schools are impervious to reform. Others say they have capitulated to reform and become test prep factories. Public schools are battle grounds for ideologues of all stripes who attack them for straying from ideological visions of what is Good and Holy.

The message to parents of means? Get your kids out.

The rhetoric of reform is shrinking our vision for education.
The language of "high expectations" rings hollow when we consider just how little we expect of some reform models. The tests we use to measure our progress focus mostly on low-level skills. Subjects like world language are disappearing from the curriculum. Those who say tests don't measure everything that matters are sometimes derided as "touchy feely."

But visions that inspire us are by nature touchy feely. They push us to think well beyond our current impoverished measures. (Today, Jay Mathews praised a set of high schools that ...

Stasia Honnold quit her job as a middle school English teacher. Why? She loved her kids, her colleagues and her principal. What she didn't love was the growing focus on multiple choice tests as a measure, often the sole measure, of her students' progress. When poorly applied, accountability regimes can drive good teachers like Honnold away from the profession.

We certainly need accountabiliy, but we have to pay close attention to how accountability--and the language of accountability--affects great teachers. As debates over school reform get nastier, teachers like Honnold can get labeled as obstructionists. What's worse, the very things that drew them to teaching can get lost in the din.

Let's not forget why great teachers are in the business in the first place. They love to teach, but they also love to learn. They're serving their students, but they're also serving their subject area. They see their subject's relevance to their students, but they also see its inherent worth.

In the end, great teachers want to uphold the value of intellectual work. They know that learning is exciting.

Those are the teachers we don't want to drive out of the profession. They're also the teachers who are most likely to decry the effects of standardized tests on schools. They don't want ...

Two visions of the Great Teacher have dominated recent accounts of school reform:

  • The savvy free agent who works on commission to boost test scores.
  • The misty-eyed martyr whose inner strength keeps him on the paths of righteousness, however rocky they may be.

Both of these oddly incongruous visions are alienating good teachers. And neither addresses the kinds of conditions that promote good teaching.

Few teachers believe either vision of the Great Teacher fully represents them. Most teachers aren't in teaching for the money, but neither do they have endless reserves of strength and charity to carry them past any obstacle.

In the end, teachers want a good working environment. They want support, time to work with colleagues, help in maintaining orderly classrooms. They want to feel like their jobs require human, not superhuman, efforts and talents. The rhetoric of school reform can really knock the wind out of these teachers' sails.

It's pretty clear that the martyr method of school staffing won't work. A recent study of teacher turnover in charter schools found that teachers were much more likely to leave charter ...

Why has the recession turned into a Great Depression for African Americans, asks Orlando Patterson in The Nation. Why do they feel the brunt of tough economic times? One big reason, in his view, is segregation.

Times for African Americans are about as tough as they can be. More than one in six black men is out of work. The rate for black teens is 38 percent.

But tough times for black families aren't merely a product of this recession. Black median household income declined steeply between 2000 and 2008. Median black family wealth has been stagnant for the past 25 years at just $5000--a mere five percent of median white family wealth. And even more dispiriting: Most children from black middle class families earn less, and often much less, than their parents did.

For Patterson, the fact that so many African Americans live in segregated communities and go to segregated schools has a great deal to do with the slipping fortunes of black families. It all comes down to networks and "access to cultural capital," he argues. White Americans are ...

For more than two years, we had two websites: our main website (www.learningfirst.org) and our blog (www.publicschoolinsights.org). That arrangement was making less and less sense.

So while the rest of the country was setting off fireworks and applying bug repellant, our faithful tech wizards were combining the two sites into the new website you see here. We decided to herald a new year for our nation with a new look. We hope you like it.

The Public School Insights blog will stay essentially the same. It will still feature interviews with thought leaders, stories about successful schools and districts, and regular commentary. Only the window dressing is a bit different.

As you might expect, we're still encountering a few technical glitches in the site, so please bear with us for the next few days while we iron them out. ...

As lawmakers ponder efforts to save educators' jobs, we felt we should reiterate our support for a jobs fund to stave off major layoffs in public schools and school districts. LFA has not been involved in discussions about Chairman Obey's bill, and we have not had time to consider the impact of possible cuts in other programs to offset the bill's cost.

On May 5, we released the following statement in support of the $23 billion Keep Our Educators Working Act:

“The Learning First Alliance strongly supports the Keep Our Educators Working Act, which would create a $23 Billion Education Jobs Fund to prevent layoffs of teachers, principals and other critical school staff. The need for this relief is urgent as states face unprecedented budget shortfalls that could result in massive job losses in our schools.” ...

About two weeks ago, we posted a conversation with two leaders from Boston's City Connects (CCNX) program, which is working with 11 schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services in the community." The approach has helped raise grades and test scores for the mostly low income children in these schools.

We recently spoke with people in two CCNX schools. Traci Walker Griffith is principal at the Eliot K-8 School, and Kathleen Carlisle is the CCNX site coordinator at the Mission Hill School. Each has an insider's view of this remarkable program at work.

Public School Insights: How has City Connects worked in your school? What changes have been made since it began?

Traci Walker Griffith: A number of changes have occurred at the Eliot School. I came in as principal in March of 2007. In May of 2007 the school was identified as one that would take on City Connects.

We were fortunate because the mission and vision of the Eliot School aligned with City Connects in that we are serving the whole child--academically, socially, emotionally. So we have worked amazingly well together in identifying students’ academic and social/emotional needs. And as we began the program I found that the structures and systems that it offers—whole class review, individual student review, and providing a school site coordinator to maintain and sustain partnerships—really aligned with what we wanted to start at the Eliot School at the time.

Kathleen Carlisle: I would echo many of the things that Traci just said. The whole child philosophy especially stands out in my mind—that is a City Connects and also a Mission Hill philosophy. And I think that the presence of City Connects in Mission Hill has especially impacted the identification of student needs and ways to meet those needs, be they social/emotional, academic, health or family. I think there has been greater connection between supports and needs, and also consistent follow-up.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense of the results of the City Connects work in your respective schools?

Traci Walker Griffith: When I came on at the Eliot, a school identified as underperforming and in correction, all of the pieces we needed to put in place to increase student achievement were aligned with what City Connects was working on: identifying services and enrichment opportunities for students both inside and outside the school; working with community agencies that in the past had difficulty working ...

Another study of charter schools has dealt a big blow to the most die-hard supporters of the free market in schooling. It seems a charter school's popularity is no guarantee of its success. The invisible hand will not deliver better results.

The Department of Education just released the new study (PDF), which focuses on charters at the middle school level. The study examines schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compares students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. It concludes that, on average, the schools "are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress."

Charters, it seems, helped some students but hurt others. Like other studies before it, this report supports a far more cautious charter strategy than we're hearing from politicians and pundits these days. Here are some of the big lessons I drew from the study:

Even the Most Popular Charters Did Not Outshine Traditional Public Schools
First, let's not forget that this study did not review a representative sample of charter schools. It examined the small share of charters that had many more applicants than they could take. These are the charter schools parents are most likely to choose, so we would expect them to be the high fliers.

And that's a pretty select group. Of the almost 500 charters that had been been around long enough to meet the study's criteria, only 36 made the final cut. Some declined to participate, but the vast majority were not sufficiently oversubscribed to take part in the study. Would the less popular charter schools--or those that ...

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance, which runs this website, released the following statement:

“The Learning First Alliance calls for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to promote improved assessment systems that better capture whether students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century. We believe reauthorization should support assessment systems that are designed to improve instruction and that:

  • Use multiple sources to show evidence of student learning. These sources should reflect both progress towards and mastery of the skills and knowledge students need to be successful in the 21st century. In addition to test scores, measures can include writing samples, performance assessments, portfolios and capstone projects.
  • Promote a broad curriculum that exposes students at all levels not only to reading and math but also to history, civics, science, the arts, world language, career and technical education and other important content areas.
  • Use universal design principles to ensure that all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities, are fully and appropriately included in the assessment system.
  • Include a formative assessment component and provide feedback on all assessments in a timely manner so educators may use results to inform instruction, guide and evaluate investments in professional development, and respond to students’ academic needs.
  • Ensure that educators have access to professional development that supports their understanding and use of data.” ...

Every child can learn, but teachers are unteachable. That seems to be an unspoken premise of the current national debate on school reform.

Okay, I exaggerate. But the punditry's enthusiasm for Teach for America stands in stark contrast to the radio silence on issues like staff development and teacher support. Great teachers are born and hired, it seems, not made.

I hope at least some people will take note of a new IES study on teacher induction programs. The study found that teachers who received "comprehensive induction" support for two years were more likely than those who did not to raise their students' scores in reading and math. Mathematica Policy Research carried out the study, which was a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT).

The three-year study's findings are surely music to the ears of people who support induction programs. An interim report last year showed no significant impact on test scores after just one year of induction support. The second year appears to be the charm. It may well be that new teachers need more than one year of mentoring to ...

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