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The Public School Insights Blog

According to MSNBC, schools can suffer now or later:

Using federal stimulus money to avoid layoffs at schools is going to create a shortfall even more difficult for states and schools to contend with when that money runs out, according to a first-of-its-kind study released Monday.

That doesn't fill me with Holiday cheer.

(Hat tip to Alexander Russo.) ...

If you say that schools should prepare every student for college, someone will object that some students are better off going into the trades. Fair enough. But new research tells us that it's income, not inclination, that sifts people out of the college track.

As far as I'm concerned, that fact alone justifies the "every child college ready" slogan. But college readiness isn't the only issue we have to consider. All kinds of social and economic forces conspire to keep poor students from enrolling in or completing college. We have to address those, too.

That's why I'm pleased to see so many college leaders vowing to boost access to and success in college. They have apparently awakened to the fact that poor and minority students are leaking out of the pipeline at an astonishing rate. At a time when need-based aid is dwindling, they have their work cut out for them.

I'm also pleased to see that leaders are recognizing the many reasons why students don't succeed in college. Yes, far too many low-income students ...

The language of economics is quickly replacing the language of schooling, and that might not bode well for our children in the long term.

Two recent studies suggest that all the recent educonomic talk might thwart children's performance in the long run. (I learned about both studies from Newsweek's Nurture Shock blog).

The first found that students who focus more on test scores than on the inherent value of learning don't retain much of what they get by heart for a test. No big surprise there. 

The second found that students do worse on tests when they believe they are competing with many people. By contrast, they "work harder, and do better, when they are up against just a few people." The study's authors speculate that students are more motivated to succeed when the competition is personal, when there are "fewer people in the race."

So the common language of school reform might actually take some wind out of students' sails. All that focus on test scores, especially those test-prep classes and rallies, might actually smother the urge to learn. And all that time we spend warning students that they're up against millions of Chinese and Indian geniuses? It may be counterproductive.

Reformers will no doubt heave exasperated sighs if they read this. High-flown ...

There isn't an education reformer alive who doesn't profess high expectations for schools and children. But scratch the surface of their rhetoric, and you'll find that some of them have expectations that are really quite low. A few examples:

  • Low Expectations for Assessments. Many state tests are lousy. For some reformers, though, lousy is good enough to determine the fate of teachers and students alike.
  • Low Expectations for Curriculum. Foreign language has all but disappeared from elementary schools. High school research papers have been a rarity for years. But c'mon--What can you expect at a time when we have to boost scores on those lousy math and reading tests?
  • Low Expectations for Policymakers. It's just way too expensive to level the economic and social playing field for poor children. We can gush over the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), but you just can't expect policymakers to strengthen poor communities. We might as well expect schools alone to do the job.
  • Low Expectations for Kids. We'd love to help poor students become creative, inventive, sophisticated thinkers, but we have to focus on academic triage because resources are scarce. All that other stuff seems pretty touchy feely, anyway.

Realists can object that starry-eyed talk of better tests, curriculum and social policies is naive: We can't just abandon the tests we've got. It's very hard to define or measure things like creativity. We don't have the money for an HCZ in every ...

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Here are the conclusions of a new study on teacher turnover in charter schools:

We found that 25% of charter school teachers turned over during the 2003-2004 school year, compared to 14% of traditional public school teachers. Fourteen percent of charter school teachers left the profession outright and 11% moved to a different school, while 7% of traditional public school teachers left the profession and 7% moved schools. Using multi-nomial logistic regression, we found the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132% greater than those of a traditional public school teacher. The odds of a charter school teacher moving schools are 76% greater. Our analysis confirms that much of the explanation of this “turnover gap” lies in differences in the types of teachers that charter schools and traditional public schools hire. The data lend minimal support to the claim that turnover is higher in charter schools because they are leveraging their flexibility in personnel policies to get rid of underperforming teachers. Rather, we found most of the turnover in charter schools is voluntary and dysfunctional as compared to that of traditional public schools. [Emphasis added] ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

vonzastrowc's picture

School of Hard Knocks

We often hear that traditional public schools should learn from the successes of the best charter schools. That's true. But they have at least as much to learn from their struggles.

Here are some of the seldom acknowledged lessons we should learn from great charter schools:

You can't just do away with your central office. What a lovely, romantic idea: Thousands of schools homesteading on their own, free from those meddling, fat-cat administrators. Yet reality looks a bit different. Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) have had to expand their central offices as they create more schools. If you want to "scale up" a good model, you'll need something that looks like, well, a district.

The hard stuff costs lots of money. Charters were supposed to be more efficient, and therefore less expensive, than regular public schools. It turns out that many of the best ones have to rely on extra philanthropic dollars to serve their students well. Even when you account for the fact that some get less less from the government, they cost more.

Teachers should not have to be ascetics. Sure, you can run a few hundred schools that depend on teachers who are willing to forego families, sleep and sanity for the sake of their students--until, of course, they leave. But tens of thousands?

Schools have to do more to motivate children and families. The students who leave demanding charter schools don't just disappear. They go to less challenging schools. As long as first-rate charter schools can use their high ...

Long Before the Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education, it was a model for school district reform. We at LFA wrote about Aldine's success back in 2003.

Since that time, Aldine has kept up its steady progress. The district has not lurched from one reform strategy to another. It has not hired on a succession of superintendent saviors. It has made progress without the knock-down, drag-out fights that the media can't resist.

Instead, Aldine has stuck with strategies it formed over ten years ago and trusted its own veteran staff to lead the hard work of school improvement. Superintendent Wanda Bamberg recently told me the story of her district's success.

Listen to our conversation on the Public School Insights podcast (~17:08)

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Public School Insights: Back in 2003, we discussed Aldine’s focus on curriculum, the work you were doing to make sure you use data very well and staff development. There were a lot of other pieces to the puzzle, of course, but those were three of the big ones we noted. Do you have a sense that you are still carrying on in the same tradition now, or has there been a lot of change?

Bamberg: There really hasn't been a lot of change. I think that we have been following some of the same instructional plans that we started even before 2003. We started a lot of these things in the late 1990s.

One of the things that is different is that the system we have in place for capturing the scope and sequence [of the content we teach in our classrooms], our curriculum and lesson plans, and of course our assessment data is more sophisticated now than it used to be. Our system now has all three components together so that we are able to look at the scope and sequence, put in the [accompanying] lesson plans and then come back look at the data in the same system. So the difference might be that we have tried to become even more tightly aligned and tried to refine our processes. But there has been no major change in the ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Widen the Spotlight

"Do charter schools deserve the spotlight?" asked the National Journal. "Yes--oh yes!" cried the lucky few they allowed to answer.

OK, I should be fair. Three of the people the Journal invited to answer said no. And who were the other ten? We have one person who funds charter schools, three people in think tanks that promote charter schools, two heads of associations that represent charter schools, one person who founded a network of charter schools, one superintendent who champions charter schools, one consultant who caters to charter schools, and one anti-union activist. Did anyone wonder where this debate might be heading?

Charter schools are in the spotlight in large part because the people who start them, fund them, govern them, write about them, consult with them and lobby for them put them there. When journalists ask those same people whether charters deserve all that attention and praise, they create a classic feedback loop.

And you need look no farther than Monday's New York Times to discover that charters have become the new "it" charity. When the Times profiled the young hedge fund managers who are flocking to charter schools, it did so in the Style section. Very glam.

Oddly enough, though, most of the National Journal's charter supporters ...

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