Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

Today, the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 national education associations representing over ten million parents, educators and policymakers, released the following statement:

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act should make family engagement a stronger priority. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of family engagement to children’s success in school, and the President has strongly and repeatedly endorsed the thrust of this research in his speeches. Yet the President’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization contains only glancing references to the importance of parents and lacks a compelling vision for how the federal government can support family engagement. The President’s budget even proposes the elimination of the Parent Information Resource Centers, the only federal program currently dedicated to family engagement. The Learning First Alliance believes the Reauthorization of ESEA should much more strongly support family engagement as a critical priority.” ...

Paying anyone--students or teachers--for test scores might be a bad idea. That's one of the big lessons I draw from Roland Fryer's now famous study of programs that pay students for good behavior, hard work or test results.

In fact, I think the implications of Fryer's study reach farther than that. The study offers a glimpse of how dangerous it could be to attach any big consequences--good or bad--to test scores alone. Here are some of the things I took away from Fryer's report:

We ignore inputs at our peril. It has become received wisdom that outcomes--and that usually means test scores--are all that really matter in school reform. But Fryer's study suggests that people in schools who call for more attention to inputs and the processes of arriving at outcomes aren't just whiners after all. The study found that cash rewards for certain behaviors--like reading more books--were more effective than cash for test scores. In fact, cash for scores seemed to have no effect on student achievement. Why? Incentives to do the right things, the things that promote learning, might well work better than incentives to do well on a test.

Getting kids too focused on their test scores may do them little good--and may even harm them--in the long run. Fryer's team noted that students getting cash for scores naturally grasped at test-taking strategies rather than, say, better study skills or deeper engagement in class materials:

Students [who were asked what they could do to earn more money on the next test] stated [sic.] thinking about test-taking strategies rather than salient inputs into the education production function or ...

The US economy is improving overall, but our schools will be among the last to share in the wealth. Deep and persistent economic troubles can be a deadweight on vital reforms.

A new survey of superintendents released by AASA reveals the depth of the problem. School leaders report that things were bad last year and worse this year. And they're likely to be even worse next year.

A full 80 percent expect cuts in state and local revenues before next year, and many expect those cuts to be more severe than they were last year.

The AASA report's title is as clever as it is grim: "A Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn." The cliff, of course, is the abrupt drop in funding districts will face when stimulus funds run dry. And lest people think district cups have been running over with stimulus dollars, almost nine in ten superintendents "reported that [those] dollars did not represent a funding increase."

This is an important point, because it challenges the notion that districts had gobs of new money to support new reforms. System leaders were clearly grateful for ...

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance, which sponsors this site, released the following statement on competitive grant programs:

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a critical instrument in the federal government’s efforts to promote equity in education. The Learning First Alliance (LFA) believes equity must remain a non-negotiable goal of ESEA reauthorization. We applaud the Obama Administration’s proposal to increase federal resources for public schools in 2011. But we urge Congress to avoid provisions that could undermine, rather than support, equity.

For this reason, ESEA should not divert substantial federal resources into competitive grant programs. This strategy threatens to penalize low-income children in school districts that lack the capacity to prepare effective grant proposals. It risks deepening the disparities between rich and poor districts, effectively denying resources to the students who need them most.

Those who propose the competitive grants have good intentions, but too much focus on such grants might make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Small, rural districts can't generally afford grant writers. Foundations might be able to help ...

When Melissa Glee-Woodard became principal of Maryland’s Lewisdale Elementary School four years ago, it was struggling. The school was in the dreaded “school improvement” process because of the performance of multiple subgroups of students, and it needed change.

Change is what it got. But not the dramatic “fire-all-teachers” change that has been making the papers. Rather, Glee-Woodard inspired teachers, parents and students with a new vision. The staff began focusing on student data in a meaningful way. Targeted professional development addressed areas of weakness in the instructional program. And new summer programs ensured that students kept their academic success going even when school was not technically in session.

As a result, Lewisdale has made AYP every year Glee-Woodard has been principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently honored her for her transformational leadership.

She joined us for a conversation about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Lewisdale?

Glee-Woodard: Lewisdale Elementary School is located in an urban setting in Prince George's County, Maryland. We are in the backyard of the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a working-class neighborhood. 80% of our students are Hispanic. 17% are African-American.

All of our students walk to school each and every day, and we are a neighborhood school. Our parents are very actively involved. Anytime that you are outside in the morning, you will see a lot of parents either walking their children to school or dropping their children off in cars.

Lewisdale is also a Title I school. 84% of our students qualify for free or reduced meals. And 54% of our students speak English as their second language. So that gives you a general idea of ...

As we hear about more and more teacher layoffs across the country, the debate on class size is bound to pick up again. The scars of this recession may be all the deeper and last all the longer if it increases our tolerance for large classes.

It's already becoming received wisdom that class size really doesn't matter, ever. Skeptics point to studies that have shown little or no payoff for class size reduction (CSR) efforts around the country. (Many forget to mention the strong evidence that CSR in early grades can improve learning outcomes, especially for poor children.)

Skeptics also note that CSR efforts forced some schools to scramble for extra teachers who lacked strong credentials. (Some CSR critics seem less concerned about similar problems struggling schools might face if laws compel them to replace most of their staff.)

I'm not ready to accept the research on class size as definitive. Here's why:

  • Even the best studies don't necessarily measure the full impact of large class sizes. Most studies have to limit themselves to standardized test results. What's the impact of large class sizes on students' ability to write a first-rate research paper or carry out a long-term project? I haven't seen much research that answers this question. (If you have, please let me ...

I've worried before that too many pundits seem to see change as an end in itself. The bolder the reform, the better, whether or not it's likely to work. An editorial in Saturday's Washington Post betrayed shades of this thinking.

The Post laments that the boldest reform plans lost points in the Race to the Top competition. The authors have muted praise for the two winning states but write that "other states with even more ambitious plans lost out." Support from unions and school boards carried too much weight, they argue, and that sends a "mixed message": "Alas, the lesson that officials may take from the first round [of RttT] is that perhaps it's better to lower your sights sufficiently to achieve buy-in from the education establishment."

The writers even ask, apparently incredulous, "what was the real worry of the reviewer who considered [DC's] application 'too ambitous'?" They seem to think that's code for "too bold for the unions and school boards." But the reviewers actually go into some detail on the flaws of the DC plan, citing lack of progress in building data systems and lack of detail in other key areas.

But for many pundits, concerns about feasibility seem almost beside the point. You can't possibly be too ambitious.

That stance pretty much sums up what's wrong with the prevailing rhetoric of ...

No one disputes the powerful role that schools play in children’s lives. But schools shouldn’t go it alone in eliminating poverty and inequity in America.

Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest in efforts to create much stronger ties between schools and other providers of services for children. The Harlem Children’s Zone has captured the nation’s attention for its “cradle to career” focus on children’s well being. President Obama has pledged to support similar models to bring schools and communities together around the needs of young people.

One such model is Ready by 21, an effort to build community partnerships that support children from birth to adulthood, in school and out of school. The goal of this initiative? Prepare young people for college, work and life by the age of 21.

We recently spoke with three people who gave us a closer look at this project. Dan Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a member of the Ready by 21 ® National Partnership. Shelley Berman is superintendent of Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville), which recently began a Ready by 21 effort to enhance its longstanding work to strengthen relationships between schools and communities. Rob Schamberg implemented a Ready by 21 effort when he was superintendent of California’s Black Oak Mine Unified School District. He is now an executive with the Forum for Youth Investment, which is the lead national partner in the Ready by 21 approach.

All three delivered a common message: As local budgets shrink and youth investments dry up, better coordination of local resources has become more important than ever.

What Exactly is Ready by 21?

Domenech described it well:

[Ready by 21] is a community-based approach that recognizes that, as important as the schools are—and as important as an education is—they are not the only elements ... of the ability of the child to succeed. There are other very significant factors, such as the ability of a family to have proper healthcare and live in an environment that is conducive for a child to learn. Nutrition, childcare, early childhood education…. Ready by 21 recognizes that all of these factors must come together in ...

Could it be that we're finally laying to rest the false debate between the value of schools and the value of community supports for children? That would be good news, indeed.

Deb Viadero's recent piece on a Harvard study of the Harlem Children's Zone's (HCZ) Promise Academy confirmed my sense that the debate might finally be dead or dying. When it came out almost a year ago, the study sparked a bizarre argument: Had the school alone raised test scores, or should we give credit to all those other services? David Brooks proclaimed the school the winner and implied that all that other stuff was just so much window dressing.

The marvelous Viadero, by contrast, notes that the jury is still out:

What we still don't know, of course, is whether students' improved performance was due to the quality of the schools or the combination of schooling and community supports that the children and their families were also receiving.

The study itself was just as cautious. The authors note that:

The [Academies] provide free medical, dental and mental-health services (students are screened upon entry and receive regular check-ups), student incentives for achievement (money, trips to France, e.g.), high-quality, nutritious, cafeteria meals, support for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare, and so forth, and less tangible benefits such as the support of a committed staff.

It's a relief that no new debate has (yet) erupted in the blogosphere. After all, as Viadero notes, the study has just won a rare nod of approval from the What ...

Collaboration has been getting a bad rap lately, and that's unfortunate. First, there are the pundits who say that it figured too prominently in the selection of Race to the Top winners. Then there was this from Jeanne Allen:

Trained educators believe that collaboration leads to results. But that is not always the case in public education. Excessive collaboration often leads to--frankly--nothing.

Allen's larger point is that outsiders--business leaders and the like--make better school system leaders than career educators do. She notes that "some have never taught. Again, that's fine--and, in fact, often preferable." Best to keep our leaders free of that school taint, she suggests.

Though she doesn't name names, Allen knows who we're all thinking about: Michelle Rhee in DC and Joel Klein in New York City. Like so many other advocates and pundits, she seems to rest her whole case on events in those two cities. Whether you love Rhee/Klein or hate them, you have to admit that there are a whole lot of other reforms going on out there that don't require the outsider's iron fist. And career educators are leading many of them, maybe even most of them.

Let's have a look, for example, at districts that have won the Broad Prize for Urban School Leadership. Six of the eight are led by people who began their careers as teachers and made their way up the administrative ladder. Other successful urban superintendents, like Beverly Hall of Atlanta, followed a similar course. Collaboration didn't ...

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