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The Public School Insights Blog

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 ...

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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. ...

Diane Ravitch's new book is a runaway bestseller. Why? It has clearly struck a nerve. Love the book or hate it, you have to admit that its success points to widespread dissatisfaction with the current national debate on school reform. And that's a real problem for people who advocate reforms like choice and merit pay.

A big part of the problem is that the national media have been aggressively peddling a reductive view of school reform. Newsweek, Time, US News, ABC News, NBC News, the Washington Post and other outlets have been running stories they seem to have cribbed from the same set of notes. Those stories tend to ...

Want to kill performance pay for decades to come? Just do what legislators in Florida are doing. Design a performance pay bill that's so preposterous, so over the top, that it is bound to be a dismal failure. Then watch as your complete abdication of common sense wreaks havoc in schools and irreparably tarnishes the very reforms you advocate.

The bill in question is Florida's Senate Bill 6, and it's a real stinker. It would require schools to base teachers' pay and evaluations mostly on students' test scores. The bill is unencumbered by reality. Here's how Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss describes some of its stinkier provisions:

His bill includes a demand that end-of course assessments be developed or acquired in all subjects not measured by state assessments or other tests such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. But it doesn’t provide any money to accomplish the task--even if there was research suggesting ...

I want to write for the Wall Street Journal's opinion page. It would be lovely to have a job with so little accountability. It would be soothing to believe in things like faeries and the alchemy of the unfettered free market.

The Journal's recent hatchet job on common standards shows the lure of magical thinking. Don't do the hard work of figuring out what all students should really know and be able to do. Let the market's invisible hand shape the standards! "Higher standards will be the fruit of such reforms, not the driver." Sure.

The Journal points to Texas as a reminder that common standards will be politically difficult. And that's supposed to make us feel better about the alternative? Don't arguments for the glories of unregulated choice assume that the choosers will make rational decisions?

The Journal also tells us, without any sense of irony, that "National standards won't magically boost learning in the U.S." Well, yeah. A building won't magically rise ...

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Truth in Labeling

The "persistently low achieving" label can be a mixed blessing for schools. The stigma it brings can be just one more burden on a school already laboring under so many others. But it can also supply a bracing dose of reality to a school that sorely needs it. Leaders and policy makers will have to play their cards right if they want the label to have the best possible effect.

That's the main lesson I drew from an op-ed by Patrick Welsh in yesterday's Washington Post. Welsh, an English teacher at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, makes an uneasy peace with the dreaded "low-achieving" label after the feds apply it to his school:

Labels can be unfair. They never tell the whole story. But though we never wanted to achieve our new label, I have no doubt that it will help us get back to achieving our best.

Welsh writes that the label forced him to face facts. The school sends its top students to colleges like MIT and Yale, but too many of its low-income students don't even master basic skills. Welsh wasn't prepared for the challenges he would face as the school's demographics changed. "I just never thought that I would need to teach reading in the 12th grade." Williams is a good school, he suggests, but only for some of its students.

But the label can also do harm. Students can feel the sting, too. Welsh quotes a 10th-grader: "There are a lot of smart, hard-working kids here who are ...

Our timing could hardly have been worse. On the very day we posted our story about the achievements of Carstens Elementary School in Detroit, the Detroit Free Press listed Carstens among the many schools slated for closure in that city. Why? Because there just aren't enough students to fill the building.

Carstens is a victim of Detroit's bitter economic struggles. As whole neighborhoods atrophy, even good schools like Carstens can face dwindling enrollments and end up on the chopping block. There are forces other than academic failure that can bring a school down.

Some observers have hailed the Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, for his vision of "New Orleans-style reform." But the story of Carstens should remind us that even the best plans can leave casualties in ...

At times it seems like researchers, PR flacks and reporters are playing a vast game of telephone. A researcher draws a conclusion, a PR flack inflates it and passes it off to a reporter, the reporter half understands it and then prints it, another PR flack half understands what the first reporter wrote and passes it on to another reporter, and so it goes.

I think the hapless writer who penned a Recent USA Today editorial on school reform was at the end of this chain. His first paragraph ends with this doozy: "Researchers agree that hiring good teachers, and ditching bad ones, is the best way to improve education." Hiring good teachers and losing bad ones is surely important, but is it "the best way" to improve schools? Is that really what "researchers agree?" Not really.

Here's the likely history behind USA Today's claim. A group of researchers finds that a "top quartile teacher" can raise a student's performance on tests much more dramatically than a bottom quartile teacher can. Give a low-performing student four top teachers in a row, they speculate, and the student will close the gap with high-performing peers. No more achievement gap! Other researchers note that the gains may actually fade after the first year, or that a "top quartile teacher" in ...

When Principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens Elementary in 1997 “achievement was zero.” Student behavior was a problem. Some staff seemed uncommitted. As parent liaison Abby Phelps puts it, “This school was in the middle of chaos.”

Today Carstens is a beacon of light for the surrounding community. It is one of the top-performing schools in Detroit. In 2009 third graders at this school—where 98% of students are from high poverty homes—outscored the state as a whole on all tested subjects.

How did the school turn itself around? School staff points to the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison points back to her incredible staff. And everyone recognizes the importance of meeting more than just the academic needs of students.

Members of the Carstens community recently told us the school’s story. In on the conversation were Principal Theresa Mattison, parent liaison Abby Phelps, school social worker Gail Nawrock, and teachers Barbara Haug, Vannessa Jones, Rebecca Kelly and Violet Kiricovski.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Carstens Elementary?

Violet Kiricovski: Carstens shares the Comer philosophy. And we all work together. Teamwork really is our strong point.

Rebecca Kelly: The way I would describe Carstens is that it is actually more than a school. I just saw a presentation in which they described it as a “beacon of light.” And the parents, the families, the students and the businesses are all working together.

Abby Phelps: Carstens incorporates a city philosophy. We offer all services. We have it all.

Public School Insights: What kind of a population does the school serve?

Barbara Haug: We serve a deserving population. Statistically, they are considered high poverty—98% of them come from high poverty homes. And our population is about 98% African-American. But we do not think that statistics are something that describes somebody’s potential. It just describes the situation that needs to be considered when you look at the needs of the individual child or the children. What it boils down to is that they are children who deserve a good education.

Public School Insights: What was student achievement like back in the 1990s?

Theresa Mattison: Achievement was zero…We had people who did not care and it was very, very, very hard. But it is not hard anymore, because everyone cares and everyone shares leadership and responsibility.

Abby Phelps: Having been affiliated with Carstens before Dr. Mattison got here, I can tell you that this school was in the middle of chaos. And I am not exaggerating. I have been here since 1989. The capacity of the teachers and their concern ...

Education historian Diane Ravitch has just published a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book has been a runaway success. It currently ranks among the top 60 best-selling books on Amazon.com, where it sold out within a week of its release.

Public School Insights: I’ve heard your book characterized as a “u-turn,” an “about-face,” a sudden shift from “conservative” to “liberal” views on education reform. Are those characterizations accurate? What are some of the fundamental beliefs that unite your efforts over the past four decades?

Ravitch: I did not do a "U-turn" or an abrupt "about-face," nor (as one story said) did I "recant" almost everything I ever believed or wrote. I certainly did change my mind about things I had advocated in the past, but the change was more gradual than it appeared to those who have not read what I have been writing for the past three years. As I write in the book, I concluded that NCLB was failing when I attended a conference at a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, on November 30, 2006. I was given the assignment of summing up the day's proceedings; paper after paper demonstrated that NCLB's remedies were not working. Very small proportions of students were choosing to leave their school or to get tutoring. In my remarks at the end of the day, I said that NCLB was failing. The next fall, in 2007, when NAEP scores were released and showed meager improvements, I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled, "Get Congress Out of the Classroom." Since then, I have written several articles in opposition to NCLB. So my turn-about on NCLB was very public and not ...

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