Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

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 ...

Lately, I'm seeing reforms celebrated more for their "boldness" than for the likelihood that they'll work. This impatience could do much more harm than good in the end.

Take, for example, recent reactions to the Race to the Top winners. The winning states (Tennessee and Delaware) turned in good proposals, some bloggers argue, but they weren't as bold as, say, Florida or Rhode Island. The reviewers placed far too much stock in consensus and buy-in from teachers and other groups that will have to put the reforms in place, we're told. Instead, Arne Duncan could have tipped the scales in favor of big, swift changes.

But isn't buy-in from teachers and other stakeholders important if we want reforms to work? And are we really so confident that the bold reforms spelled out in Race to the Top will work? Let's not forget that the evidence for reforms like merit pay or school reconstitution is meager at best. Is it wise to rush at a handful of reforms whose success is anything but assured? A brief ideological victory for some ...

A Conversation with Stephanie Hirsh and René Islas of the National Staff Development Council

As a national debate swirls around how to hire or fire teachers, we hear precious little about how best to support teachers in the classroom. If you ask Stephanie Hirsh, though, investments in the current teacher corps are among the most important investments we can make. It's just that we have to make those investments more wisely than we ever have.

We recently spoke with Hirsh, who is executive director of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC), and René Islas, her federal policy advisor. Schools don't have much to show for the billions of dollars the feds have spent on professional development (PD) over the past eight years, they told us. But unlike critics who would all but de-fund PD, they argue for much better use of PD dollars.

Hirsh and Islas believe that a "school-wide, team-based approach" to professional learning, an approach outlined in NSDC's Standards for Staff Development, will pay big dividends. And they believe that federal law can foster that approach in schools across the country.

Improving Our Investments

Public School Insights: Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) already includes money for professional development. Why do you think we need something different?

Stephanie Hirsh: The federal government is committed to improving teaching quality, and the single most powerful way to do that is through professional learning. We believe that the federal government has a responsibility to take a position on what effective professional learning is and how it wants to spend its dollars to support it.

The money that has been allocated for professional development over the last several years has not resulted in any significant overall improvement in teacher practice or student learning. New evidence gives us better information on the kinds of professional development that improve practice. So if we can focus the resources we have at the federal level toward more effective PD we can achieve better results.

In addition, PD as included in previous ESEA authorizations has promoted a fragmented, individualized approach to professional learning. The PD that we are advocating promotes a ...

vonzastrowc's picture


In a blog posting a few days ago, Jay Mathews asked, "Could schools cure our uncivil discourse?" He suggested that high schools teach "civil" and "intelligent debate" as a sort of bulwark against the incivility of talk radio, town hall meetings and even Congressional debates.

It's a good reminder to all of us who get embroiled in debates about school reform that all the snark and acidity of the blogosphere can contribute to this broader incivility. It's also a reminder that no one comes out a winner from such discussions. If our ideas can survive on their own merits, then we don't need to be uncivil.

Lately, I've found a few of my own posts a good bit snarkier than I would like them to be. I'll take a lesson from Uncle Jay and return to more civil discourse. ...

Syndicate content