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We're hearing a lot about Chicago's efforts to turn around struggling schools. Read the papers, and you'll get the impression that a handful of charter schools are the only bright stars in a dark firmament. But that impression is wrong.

At least one other set of schools has been posting big gains. Eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) have made large strides in student performance in the past few years. And their model is quite different from the turnaround models that get the most press.

They do not fire teachers. Their principals don't get the axe. But they do use concrete strategies to change what happens in their classrooms. Researchers from AIR reviewed SLI's results and called on policy makers to take note:

Well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of NCLB, school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as [SLI's] Focused Instruction Process.

As school closings and charter takeovers capture the popular imagination, we are apt to ignore other options. SLI President John Simmons recently told us about the success of his approach in Chicago.

Public School Insights: There is a lot of talk right now about turning around struggling schools. The model that is most mentioned, and has been enshrined in federal policy, is reconstitution, which involves firing the principal and replacing at the least half the teachers at a school. The thinking is that this process is required to create the conditions needed for success. Does your experience bear that out?

Simmons: We think that there's a better way. Reconstitution can work. You can get results. But our experience, which includes not only the last almost four years with our most recent network of schools but also the last 15 years using a similar model in schools in the lowest income neighborhoods in Chicago, shows that our model is getting better results than the reconstitution model. And it is lower cost and faster.

Public School Insights: What kinds of results have you been getting?

Simmons: [Part of our process is weekly assessments of student achievement.] By the way, we call it a “process” and not a “program” because teachers and principals have an opportunity to modify and improve it on a regular basis.

We are seeing that schools are able to improve their weekly assessments pretty quickly after starting our process, typically after the first six weeks. Children ...

"In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program is a world-class education." That sentence from the State of the Union address is bound to spark debate, and here's why:

We know too many well-educated people who are out of work. We can all name the well-educated people who helped plunge the nation into the deepest recession in many decades. Education alone guarantees nothing, and people in schools are right to get their backs up when others imply that schools manufacture poverty. There are just too many other culprits nowadays.

But we should face facts. High school dropouts barely stand a chance, even in good times. Children who can't clear even the lowest hurdles in state tests face a grim future if things don't turn around for them. Schools that lose more than half their students to the streets don't do much to promote social mobility in a ...

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Measure What Matters

Don't judge schools solely by their students' test scores in math and reading. Also judge them by those students' later success in college and work. That's the thrust of a new report by Education Sector's Chad Aldeman (PDF). It's a compelling piece of work.

First, Aldeman does a better job than most of exposing flaws in current state accountability systems. He finds little correlation between a school's success in making "Adequate Yearly Progress" on state test scores and its students' later success in college.

Two Florida schools help him tell his story. The state gave the first an "A" for two years running, and Newsweek anointed it as one of the best high schools in the country. But students from the second, a D-rated school across the state, did better in college:

D-rated Manatee was arguably doing a better job at achieving the ultimate goal of high school: preparing students to succeed in college and careers. But because Florida's accountability system didn't ...

Long Beach Unified School District in California has long been recognized as a model urban school system. Winner of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003, it has been a finalist for that award five times.

The district hasn’t achieved this success by flitting from reform to reform or looking for silver bullets. Rather, it has spent most of the past two decades building on the same educational strategies, focusing on data, community buy-in and staff development. We recently spoke to Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser (who has spent the past 28 years in the district as a teacher, principal, deputy superintendent and, since 2002, superintendent) about the “Long Beach way.”

Public School Insights: What prompted Long Beach to undertake big reforms for its kids in the first place?

Steinhauser: We've been on this long journey since about 1992. What really prompted it at that time was a massive economic meltdown. Our city was closing its naval base. And McDonnell Douglas [a major area employer] was going through a massive shutdown. They laid off 35,000 employees over a two year period. Also, if you remember, those were the days of major civil unrest in the LA area. We were having massive flight from our system, mainly of Caucasian students.

Basically what we did was say, “Okay. We have got to stop this.” So our board adopted several major initiatives. We implemented K-8 uniforms. We were the first district in California to end social promotion. We introduced a program called the 3rd Grade Reading Initiative to help with that goal, and we also developed a policy that eighth-graders who had two or more Fs could not go on to high school. And we launched a major partnership called Seamless Education with our local junior college and ...

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 film Two Million Minutes made news by claiming that even the best U.S. high schools leave their students unprepared to compete with the academic whiz kids who brandish heavy calculus textbooks on every Chinese street corner. Now comes a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which depicts U.S. schools as pressure cookers that stifle all passion for learning and drive kids to suicide. Which crisis to believe? Take your pick. Crisis itself has become the commodity here. After a while, the specific content of such films will hardly matter anymore.

Such films' PR tactics are overwhelming their specific lessons about school improvement. After a while, all these films will leave only one big lesson behind: Things are bad, very bad, in our public schools, so pull your kids out now! This kind of disengagement spells disaster in the long run.

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo recently spotted what looks like the most alarmist film to come out in a while: The War on Kids. Judging from the over-the-top trailer, this film paints schools as prisons that assign crushing punishments for tiny infractions. They kill students' spirits, the film suggests.

Once again, schools just can't win. Ask most Americans what's wrong with public schools, and they'll tell you that the kids are violent and out of control. Watch ...

The book Nurture Shock is making big waves in parenting and education circles. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are not afraid to tip parents' and teachers' sacred cows. They use science to question the received wisdom about issues such as self-esteem, self-control and IQ. Merryman recently told us about her book and its implications for schools.

Public School Insights: Let me begin a little outside your book. One of the things that first prompted my e-mail to you was your comments on the success versus failure of public schools and how the narrative that is being told about public schools right now might actually hurt the prospects for success. Could you explain that a bit?

Merryman: There is this constant drumbeat that American schools are failing our kids—that our schools are a disaster and kids aren’t finishing school. That kids aren’t prepared when they get to college, if they get to college. That they must do remedial level work. That they can’t read or write or anything like that.

It’s not that I think that schools can’t improve. Certainly they can. For kids at the bottom socioeconomically, and kids who we would label perhaps at-risk, schools definitely are a problem. And I ...

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Reporters Get Schooled

Linda Perlstein's new blog aims to keep reporters honest, and she's off to a running start. Yesterday she took on the oft-repeated claim that teachers are the single most important factor in student success.

Not true, she writes.

Before people get their knickers in a twist, they should consider her larger argument. "Of the various factors inside school," she writes, "teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured.... When you read that teachers are the most important school factor, you can’t drop the 'school' and pass it on."

Of course, that's exactly what happens. Reporters, commentators and politicians commonly drop the "school" and pass it on. In doing so they help sustain the tiresome pitched battles between "in-school" and "out-of school" factors that affect students' learning.

Teachers are awfully, awfully important. (How many teachers want to hear that they don't really make much of a difference?) But choosing between teachers and ...

Charles Haynes is one of the nation's leading experts on religious liberty in the public schools. He has worked with groups from across the political spectrum to help schools create ground rules for respectful dialogue on hot-button social issues. 

Haynes recently spoke with us about one of the fiercest battles in the culture wars: the battle over sexual orientation and public schools. This battle has grown all the fiercer since Education Department official Kevin Jennings started drawing fire for his past work at GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

Schools need to create a safe environment for civil dialogue, Haynes told us. They need to protect the rights of everyone, from conservative Christians to gay rights advocates. They cannot guarantee that everyone will agree, but they can promote trust and respect.

Haynes gives Jennings a full-throated endorsement for supporting these essential principles.

Public School Insights: What do you think is happening when people discuss sexual orientation in public schools?

Haynes: I think in many places people are speaking—or should I say shouting?—past one another about this issue.

Schools, as usual, are caught in the crossfire of the larger culture wars in the United States. We have administrators, teachers and school board members struggling to figure out how to handle this very difficult issue at a time when the larger culture is not handling it well.

Public School Insights: Is it possible for teachers, administrators and other school stakeholders to create common ground on issues of sexual orientation?

Haynes: Yes. I think it’s not only possible, I think it’s imperative that we try harder.

Unfortunately, in many school districts people put their heads in the sand and hope this issue will just disappear and that they won’t have a fight. But then they are unprepared when something emerges, and ...

School reformers take heed: We ignore communities at our own risk.

This warning came through loud and clear in a Chicago Tribune story about the gang brawl that ended the life of Darrion Albert, a 16-year-old bystander. One passage jumped out at me:

The conflict escalated between the two neighborhoods after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) transformed Carver High School, located in the Altgeld community, into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger [High School] behind enemy lines, traversing unfamiliar streets in unfriendly territory.

This reads almost like the history of a small country roiled by ethnic strife years after colonial powers redraw its national boundaries.

No, CPS is not like a colonial power. And claims that school reformers somehow caused Albert's death by reconstituting Fenger High School are way over the top. Fenger was troubled by violence long before the district tried to turn it around.

But the Fenger story reminds us of how important it is to understand the social and political context of communities whose schools we want to transform. Even with the best of intentions, we can do harm.

The vicious circle of violence and reprisals that traps some of Chicago's poorest teens has a logic all its own. It's the stuff of Sophocles, a tragic cycle that ...

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