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The Public School Insights Blog

Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

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Of Customers and Citizens

Rich HarwoodHere's a wonderful excerpt from a speech public engagement guru Rich Harwood made to the Learning First Alliance earlier this year:

When I've worked on public schools over the last 20 years a lot of folks who are doing engagement around public schools have this notion that … people should look at public schools like gas stations. You drop your kid off in the morning, you hope the teacher fixes the kid. When the kid comes home, if somehow or other they can't read or write, we need to go to a school board meeting and complain like you would to a mechanic. …

If we're serious about engaging people, we need to see people not as consumers, not as customers…but as citizens. As people who are able and willing to step forward and engage the tough issues; as people who are willing to deal with trade-offs and choices; as people who are in fact even willing, under the right conditions, to make sacrifices, not only for their kids but for other kids in our communities. …

I have not seen any change, process or movement in current times or over history in America where when we treated people as consumers we got what we thought we needed. It's only when people step forward as citizens that we're able to create the change that we need. To me, that's the beautiful lesson of American history.

You can read more about Rich's remarks here. ...

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Pursuing our Interests

Watch out for those teacher interest groups! They'll smother a good reform every time. Or so the argument usually goes....

I object to this argument not only because it is reductive. I object to it because it implies that all the other groups clamoring for and against changes to schools aren't interest groups. The fact is that the education landscape is simply crawling with interest groups. And that's both good and bad.

The formidable Geoffrey Canada is only the latest person to depict teacher groups as the major barriers to a promising reform. He asserts that they oppose giving students more time in school:

Some educators and unions won’t even consider working longer hours or a longer school year. (New York Times Magazine)

"Some" is the operative term here. In fact, both national teachers unions have supported extended school days and years, provided teachers get paid accordingly.

More to the point, there are legions of others who oppose longer days and years. Take, for example, the 68 percent of adults who voiced their opposition in a very recent national poll. Then there's the vacation and travel industry. And don't forget the virulent opposition of employers who can't shake their addiction to teen ...

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The Moral Argument

Secretary Duncan gave a stirring speech on Thursday. He read from Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to justify swift adoption of innovative school reforms. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Dr. King's letter reminds us of just how high the stakes of school reform are, but it doesn't teach school reformers to throw caution to the wind. It conveys the high moral purpose of guaranteeing every child access to an excellent school. It reminds us that the work of school improvement is urgent. But it does not light the way to any specific vision of school reform. And it certainly does not give us license to rush into reform before we're ready to do it well.

Dr. King was not calling for "innovation." In the 1960s, there was nothing especially innovative about universal suffrage or equality before the law. In fact, Dr. King was speaking out against the nation's betrayal of traditional American values. We had failed to honor our founding ideals, and the way forward was clear.

Duncan is right. Education is a civil rights issue, but that doesn't justify haste to innovate at all costs. Dr. King's experience has taught us that we cannot tolerate unequal access to great teachers or great schools. But he unfortunately cannot ...

Kevin Jennings is the right person to lead the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. He is a passionate advocate for the welfare of all children in our schools. As the former head of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, he demonstrated his devotion to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

He will stand up for any child who faces harassment for any reason: race, religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. You would be-hard pressed to find anyone who has done more to promote values such as trust and mutual respect in our schools.

Normally an endorsement like this would be unnecessary. Jennings's actions and history speak for themselves. But fringe groups have started leveling outrageous charges at him: He is promoting a "radical homosexual agenda." He cares about only gay and lesbian students. He is hostile to religion.

These attacks are preposterous. They are beyond the pale. Jennings worked with the Christian Educators Association to create ground rules for respectful dialogue on sexual orientation in schools. He has always been an outspoken advocate for all students' right to a safe and civil school environment. And he sits on the board of the Union Theological Seminary.

A public school is safe only when everyone can expect to be treated with civility and respect. If anything, the hostility leveled at Jennings proves that we have much work to do. ...

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The Need for Speed

Secretary Duncan channeled MLK to justify the breakneck pace of his reform proposals. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

In a blog posting that reads like a telegram, Tom Vander Ark offers a different view:

AP speculating on 2010 attempted ESEA reauthorization. Related rumors that RttT may be one round. Both bad ideas.

There won’t be more than 6-8 great RttT proposals by November even with McKinsey/Parthenon help.

We need at least 18 months of action to reshape the landscape and debate before reauthorization. Going faster will make health care look fun.

(Hat tip to Alexander Russo) ...

“Although U.S. students in grade four score among the best in the world [on international literacy comparisons], those in grade eight score much lower. By grade ten, U.S. students score among the lowest in the world.” (emphasis in original)

A bit concerning, to say the least…

In response, the Carnegie Council for Advancing Adolescent Literacy has issued a call to action. Driven by the vision of comprehensive literacy for all, their new report Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success argues that we need to re-engineer schools for adolescent learners. To prepare our students for success in the global economy, we must focus on their literacy.

This report paints a detailed picture of what literacy instruction in an ideal secondary school should look like. It goes in-depth on two vital, but often ignored, keys to making that image a reality: teacher preparation, support and professional development, and the collection and careful use of data. The report also ...

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A Rock and a Hard Place

Larry Cuban takes on the issue of social promotion in his most recent blog posting.  One big lesson I draw from his piece: Moral clarity often gives way to moral quandaries as you get closer to the classroom.

Cuban tells the story of Jorge, a (fictional?) fourth grader who struggles in school despite his best efforts. He is eager to please, but he has fallen far behind his peers and is not prepared for the academic challenges of fifth grade.

Should the teacher fail him? Should the school make him repeat fourth grade? The answer seems like a no-brainer. Of course! It would be a farce to send him to the next grade before he's ready. Do five minutes of internet research on social promotion, and you'll discover that it's "a scam," "heinous," "unethical"--exhibit A in the case against do-nothing teachers and administrators.

But what happens to Jorge if he repeats fourth grade? Jorge's teacher ...

The PTA is about far more than suburban bake sales and school carnivals. The national organization has been moving aggressively in recent years to bring more urban families into the fold. It has been getting more fathers involved. And it has embraced a robust policy agenda to ensure all children equal opportunities to succeed.

National PTA’s first-ever male president recently spoke with us about these efforts. He also told us about his journey from volunteer hot dog duty at his son’s elementary school to the helm of one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country.

Download the full interview here, or use the audioplayer (~14:22 min).

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You can also read the interview transcript:

A Place for Fathers

Public School Insights: It’s been widely noted that you are the first male president in the National PTA’s history of 113 years. What do you think is the significance of that?

Saylors: For an association that started as the National Congress of Mothers, I’m very proud of the fact that we are moving in the direction that we are. I follow in the footsteps of a number of ...

An article in yesterday's Houston Chronicle poses a very important question: "Can Teachers' Talent Be Transferred Elsewhere?" This question has profound implications for school staffing and equity. Are good teachers good no matter where they go? Or do a school's working conditions have a big impact on teachers' performance?

According to the Chronicle, a new national study is looking for answers to these questions:

[Cheryl] Contreras and 18 other HISD teachers are part of a national study that seeks to answer some of the most crucial questions in the public school reform movement: Can standout teachers get the same results from students at troubled campuses? If so, what incentives will draw them there, and will they stay?

Research is clear that schools in the roughest, poorest neighborhoods generally attract the weakest teachers. “Student achievement is at stake,” said Ann Best, HISD's director of human resources.

The Houston school district is one of seven nationwide taking part in this federally funded project, dubbed the Talent Transfer Initiative.

Accomplished teachers who agree to transfer to struggling schools receive $20,000 over two years. Math and reading teachers with a strong track record of raising students' test scores are eligible for the program. The study will track those teachers' success in troubled schools.

With luck, the study will help us improve policies to give low income students access to the most effective teachers. These days, most policy makers recognize that you can't just identify "the best" teachers and deploy them like troops to the schools that need them most.

Still, some policy wonks see teacher quality as an absolute value that never varies from year to year or place to place. More than one journalist has been taken in by this kind of thinking. What results is a kind of "widget effect"* where all good ...

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