Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

One step forward and two steps back. If you're a school leader who has made real progress against tough odds in the past few years, then brace yourself for those two steps back. Budget cuts and layoffs may threaten much of what you've done. And to add insult to injury, some people will read you sermons on efficiency as you dismantle much of what you and your staff have worked for.

A piece in today's San Francisco Chronicle tells the heart-breaking story of a Blue Ribbon school that has to undo many of its reforms as it cuts staff. "Stability drove the success of Dold's school," authors W. Norton Grubb and Lynda Tredway write:

"I have an incredible staff," Dold says. "My teachers don't leave, unless they retire or move." On her watch, E.R. Taylor Elementary became a National Blue Ribbon School, one of just 25 in California, and one of 300 in the United States. How? Dold led her entire faculty to collaborate to catch struggling readers early. Three reading-recovery specialists ran 120 intense, daily half-hour lessons for every struggling first-grade reader.

"Six years ago," Dold recalls, "just 17 percent of our Latino students were proficient readers. Now 50 percent are."

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Their reward for such inspiring results? The last bilingual paraprofessional? Gone. After-school staff? Cut. A popular upper-grade teacher with a pink slip says, "I can't wait any longer. I need to pay my mortgage." This year's cuts could top the past nine.

Some commentators have portrayed budget cuts as a threat to the status quo rather than a threat to reform. But that sort of thinking betrays a narrow conception of reform. If reform is purely structural--pay teachers differently, hire and fire ...

Yesterday, 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 effective professional development a top priority. The federal government should support frequent, job-embedded professional development for teachers, principals and other school and district staff. It should offer dedicated funds for a comprehensive, sustained and intensive approach to improving staff effectiveness in raising student achievement. The National Staff Development Council’s definition of and standards for staff development identify the characteristics of professional development that are most likely to increase achievement.”

The Learning First Alliance is entirely responsible for the content of this website. The National Staff Development Council is a member of the Alliance.

You can read our full press release here (PDF). ...

It was in a pedagogy seminar years ago that I learned one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about what it takes to motivate people: Don't assume the worst in them. That lesson seems lost on far too many policy makers and pundits.

Oddly enough, it was also lost on the person leading the seminar. (We'll call him Nathan.) He assumed the worst in me. From the start, he signaled to my peers that I was a difficult student. It began on the first day, when I leaned far back in my chair to give him a clear view of my neighbor, who was asking him a question.

"Stop!" he cried, cutting her off in mid-sentence. "Notice that Claus is slouching in his chair, playing the confident man. Emily [who was across the table from me] is sitting upright, close to the table, listening carefully. Your students' body language can tell you a lot about their attitude."

When I protested that he had misread my cues, he used my protest as more evidence that I was a problem student.

I was dumbstruck. I was an adult among adults. What's more, I wasn't used to my new role. In school, I had always been the good child. I had been meek. I used to come home from school with facial muscles sore from the strain of wearing a compliant, attentive face all day. I would drive my more rebellious older brother to distraction with my constant fears that I could get into trouble somehow and ...

Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan made news when it beat out thousands of other schools for the honor of hosting President Obama as its commencement speaker. The President will speak before the school's 2010 graduates today.

His audience will include scores of students whose lives have been transformed by a stunning promise: free tuition at any public university in the state. At a time when many towns in Michigan are losing people, the "Kalamazoo Promise" has drawn a flood of new families into the city and the school system.

We recently spoke with Von Washington, the principal of the high school, about the President's visit and what it means for the school. Buoyed by the Promise, students have been streaming into AP classes and graduating in higher numbers.

Their passion, academic focus and hope for the future come through loud and clear in a video they created to make their case to the President. It clearly hit home.

Public School Insights: Kalamazoo Central High School recently received a big honor. You won the Race to the Commencement. As a result, President Obama is going to give your commencement address. What do you think set Kalamazoo Central apart from all of the other schools that tried to get the same honor?

Washington: It is really tough to tell. We are not entirely sure. But there are a couple of things that are distinct about us. One is that in the video presentation we really believe the students, through their words and their passion, gave a good idea to those viewing the video of what it means to go to school at Kalamazoo Central High School and what it means to be serious about your education.

Second, we are not a school that, by any means, has arrived. But we are a school, and a school district, definitely on an incline. We are reaching towards the sky, and we are moving towards our goals. And because it can appear that education is kind of in the doldrums financially and/or in achievement, I think that people recognize that if you are ...

Can the mere presence of books in a child's home make that child a better reader? If we're to believe recent research, that might just be the case. If so, a small investment in books for poor children might pay off.

That idea still meets with a great deal of resistance, even (or perhaps especially) among those who prize reading. Maybe we believe we cheapen books if we objectify them in that way.

But a trio of recent studies offers food for thought. First, there was the study Roland Fryer released a few months ago. He found that young children improved their reading ability when they were paid for every book they read. The children in his study even maintained their reading habits after the payments stopped. I'll admit that I recoiled a bit at this finding, because I hate to see reading become such a mercantile enterprise.

A more recent study out of the University of Nevada suggested that the number of books in a child's home has a greater bearing on that child's academic prospects than does the parents' education level. The study's author speculates that ...

A private school in New Jersey is running ads that subtly point to the effects of budget cuts on public schools. People in the public school system are, of course, getting a bit hot under the collar.

I can understand why. Recent budget cuts and ten years of school reform rhetoric have made it all the easier for private schools to portray themselves as the anti-public schools. "Public" is hardly a selling point for many wealthy parents.

The story from New Jersey describes only one school, but it gives us a whiff of something larger. If we're not careful, we'll portray public schools as the schools of desperate measures. I've seen it happen in the communities where I've lived.

Even before the budget cuts, public schools suffered from the perception that they were test prep factories. All the talk of shrinking curricula, endangered recess and constant tests of basic skills has hardly drawn in more wealthy parents.

NCLB boosters and detractors may have been complicit in harming the public school brand. The more alarm bells you sound about schools--or what's being done to them--the less appealing they can become. It can seem like a Catch 22.

The budget cuts may also drag down the brand. News of growing class sizes ...

Do you want to write a news story about school reform? Here's how you do it.

Choose two neighboring schools: a successful charter school and a struggling traditional public school. Then choose one student from each school. Profile both students' humble or even tragic beginnings, but then compare the charter school student's great efflorescence with the continued struggles of the other student.

Use the two students to contrast the promise of charters in general with the problems many urban public schools face. Toss in a sentence somewhere about the uneven quality of charter schools, but don't belabor that point.

That has become a tried-and-true formula for quite a few national journalists lately. The Wall Street Journal ran the most recent variation on the theme last Sunday. It's not a bad article on its own merits. The two students' stories are gripping, and the piece drives home the vital message that a school can change the odds for low-income students.

But can you imagine a national news outlet carrying the reverse story? Can you imagine a tale of two schools in which the traditional public school outshines the charter school down the street? Such stories surely exist, but there is apparently no need to write them in the current political climate. The media are, by and large, turning a blind eye to non-charter public schools that are succeeding against ...

[First published April 22, 2008]

LastChildinWoods.jpg In a few days, a new and expanded edition of Richard Louv’sLast Child in the Woods, will hit bookstores around the country. Louv’s book has fueled an international movement to combat what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” children’s growing alienation from the natural world. (Louv’s term for the disorder is quickly catching on, turning up in major newspapers, on television, and even in a February cartoon by Bloom County creator Berke Breathed.)

A quotation from our recent telephone interview with Louv elegantly captures the thrust of his argument: “[T]he message we’re sending kids is that nature is in the past and probably doesn’t count anymore, the future’s in electronics, the boogeyman lives in the woods, and playing outdoors is probably illicit and possibly illegal.”

Development is choking off access to nature, kids are succumbing to the attractions of televisionRichardLouv.jpg and computers, and—yes—time for school recess has dwindled dramatically in the past decade. To make matters worse, Louv argues, parents, educators, and even environmentalists have been complicit in erecting barriers to the natural world. We keep our children indoors to protect them from real or (very often) imagined dangers, we regulate and confine their play, and we tell them to not to disturb delicate flowers, quiet streams or pristine undergrowth.

Louv does find encouraging signs of change in the rapid growth of “Leave No Child Indoors” movements around the country. (Many movement leaders credit Louv’s book for greatly accelerating that growth.) Nature is far too elemental a human need, he argues, for Nature Deficit Disorder to grow unchecked. For an overview of "No Child Left Inside" initiatives around the country, see the Children and Nature Network.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview (5 minutes):

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Or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Last Child in the Woods?

LOUV: The central argument is that you have an increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature. And that this has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of ...

[Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three posts on school-based health centers. Yesterday we briefly reviewed evidence supporting the use of these clinics. Today, Linda Gann talks about how her district founded two such centers. Soon Jennifer Danielson will take us through a day in the life of a nurse practitioner and tell us how her school-based health center has impacted kids.]

School-based health clinics have shown a great deal of promise in improving health outcomes for students, decreasing Medicaid costs at a time when every penny counts and even in potentially raising academic outcomes for low-income students. But yet there are only about 2,000 school-based health clinics (SBHCs) in the United States. Why don’t more districts take this approach? Does it seem too expensive? Too risky? Too separate from the district’s academic mission?

We recently spoke to Linda Gann, Communications and Special Project Coordinator in Colorado’s Montrose County School District RE-1J, to learn more about how her district came to embrace SBHCs. She also told us about her experience planning and implementing the district’s first school-based health clinic three years ago and its second a few months ago. Some keys to their success? The clinics get all their funding outside the general fund. They keep the community engaged in and informed about these efforts. And they consider not only the physical but also the mental health needs of students.

SBHCs alone will not close the achievement gap. But in Montrose, they are part of a broad strategy to address the needs of its growing Hispanic community. And that strategy appears to be working—for example, the district has a 20% higher graduation rate for Hispanic students than the state does.

Here's the story as Gann told it to us in a recent phone conversation.

About Montrose County School District RE-1J

I think from a researcher’s standpoint our district is almost a perfect universe, as far as data analysis goes. We are located in west central Colorado. We are five hours away from Denver. We are about 1,100 square miles, with two distinct communities. Montrose is about 30,000 people. Olathe is probably about 8,000 people. So we are not very large. And we are separated from our neighboring districts by open space, so it is really easy to tell where our school district stops and another one starts.

In our district, we have 6,500 students. District-wide, 54% receive a free or reduced price lunch. But on the south end of our district, which is close to the ski resort of Telluride, the houses are larger, and there are more families considered upper middle class.  The free and reduced price lunch population at the elementary school in that area is about 11%. On the north end of our district, the free and reduced price lunch population is 80%. ...

It has long been suggested that health disparities between low-income kids and their peers contribute to the academic achievement gap. If you are looking for evidence to support that theory, a recent research review by Charles E. Basch—Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap—offers it.

Long story short (and it is a long report), Basch describes the evidence showing how groups of children differ in the incidence of (and access to care for) each of seven “educationally relevant health disparities”: vision, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, physical activity, breakfast, and inattention and hyperactivity. He also reviews evidence on the “causal pathways affecting educational outcomes” (I think that means he shows that not only are there disparities, but that these disparities actually do affect achievement).

One brief, and extremely simplified, example: Children with asthma sleep less. Children who sleep less tend to have worse academic performance than those who sleep more, because sleep influences cognitive function. Low-income children, for a variety of reasons, have asthma at higher rates than middle- and upper-income children. So even assuming ...

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