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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 ...

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 ...

People in our business commonly talk about the challenges of teaching students who are still learning English. Not so Ted Appel of Luther Burbank High School in California. He sees these students as an asset.

More than half of his school's students are English language learners. About nine in ten come from low-income families. Though some schools might see such students as a drag on their test scores, Luther Burbank High welcomes them from neighborhoods far from its own. For Appel, such students enrich the school in ways standard school rating systems cannot begin to capture.

Appel recently told us about his school--and about the state and federal  policies that can at times impede its vital work.

Public School Insights: Tell me a little bit about Luther Burbank High School.

Appel: It is a comprehensive high school with about 2100 students. About 90% are on free or reduced lunch. About 35% are Southeast Asian, mostly Hmong. We are about 25% Latino, about 20% African-American, and whatever percentage is left is from everywhere else in the world.

Public School Insights: So you must have a lot of different languages spoken in the school.

Appel: Yes. The predominant languages are Hmong and Spanish. For about 55% of our student population, English is not the primary language spoken at home. They are English learners.

Public School Insights: I would assume this population has a pretty big impact on your school and the teaching strategies you to use. Is that true?

Appel: Absolutely. One of the advantages of having such a large number of English learners is that we in a way do not have an English learner program. We try to foster a sense that all teachers are likely to be teaching English learners, so there is not a sense that English learners are the kids that somebody else ...

Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.

If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.

Dr. Santiago recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.

Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.

However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.

In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: ...

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 ...

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