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I was wrong. I thought the debate between the value of schools and the value of community support for children was winding down, but it seems the debate is alive and well in the pages of the Washington Post.

Joel Klein, Michael Lomax, and Janet Murguia resurrected it in an op-ed last Friday. Their opening strikes me as a bit of a strawman:

In the debate over how to fix American public education, many believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn't work until other problems are solved.

I don't know many people who believe that education won't work "until" we fix all the other problems. Groups like the Broader, Bolder Approach (which is a likely target of the op-ed) call for robust work to improve schools and address those factors outside of schools that can hinder students' learning.

The op-ed's following sentences might be jarring to people who work in and for schools: "This theory [that life outcomes are fixed] is, in some ways, comforting for educators. After all, if schools make only a marginal difference, we can stop faulting ourselves for failing to make them work well for millions of children."

Few educators would be "comforted" to think they can make only a "marginal difference." Why go into a line of work that yields such small financial ...

When Melissa Glee-Woodard became principal of Maryland’s Lewisdale Elementary School four years ago, it was struggling. The school was in the dreaded “school improvement” process because of the performance of multiple subgroups of students, and it needed change.

Change is what it got. But not the dramatic “fire-all-teachers” change that has been making the papers. Rather, Glee-Woodard inspired teachers, parents and students with a new vision. The staff began focusing on student data in a meaningful way. Targeted professional development addressed areas of weakness in the instructional program. And new summer programs ensured that students kept their academic success going even when school was not technically in session.

As a result, Lewisdale has made AYP every year Glee-Woodard has been principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently honored her for her transformational leadership.

She joined us for a conversation about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Lewisdale?

Glee-Woodard: Lewisdale Elementary School is located in an urban setting in Prince George's County, Maryland. We are in the backyard of the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a working-class neighborhood. 80% of our students are Hispanic. 17% are African-American.

All of our students walk to school each and every day, and we are a neighborhood school. Our parents are very actively involved. Anytime that you are outside in the morning, you will see a lot of parents either walking their children to school or dropping their children off in cars.

Lewisdale is also a Title I school. 84% of our students qualify for free or reduced meals. And 54% of our students speak English as their second language. So that gives you a general idea of ...

I've worried before that too many pundits seem to see change as an end in itself. The bolder the reform, the better, whether or not it's likely to work. An editorial in Saturday's Washington Post betrayed shades of this thinking.

The Post laments that the boldest reform plans lost points in the Race to the Top competition. The authors have muted praise for the two winning states but write that "other states with even more ambitious plans lost out." Support from unions and school boards carried too much weight, they argue, and that sends a "mixed message": "Alas, the lesson that officials may take from the first round [of RttT] is that perhaps it's better to lower your sights sufficiently to achieve buy-in from the education establishment."

The writers even ask, apparently incredulous, "what was the real worry of the reviewer who considered [DC's] application 'too ambitous'?" They seem to think that's code for "too bold for the unions and school boards." But the reviewers actually go into some detail on the flaws of the DC plan, citing lack of progress in building data systems and lack of detail in other key areas.

But for many pundits, concerns about feasibility seem almost beside the point. You can't possibly be too ambitious.

That stance pretty much sums up what's wrong with the prevailing rhetoric of ...

No one disputes the powerful role that schools play in children’s lives. But schools shouldn’t go it alone in eliminating poverty and inequity in America.

Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest in efforts to create much stronger ties between schools and other providers of services for children. The Harlem Children’s Zone has captured the nation’s attention for its “cradle to career” focus on children’s well being. President Obama has pledged to support similar models to bring schools and communities together around the needs of young people.

One such model is Ready by 21, an effort to build community partnerships that support children from birth to adulthood, in school and out of school. The goal of this initiative? Prepare young people for college, work and life by the age of 21.

We recently spoke with three people who gave us a closer look at this project. Dan Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a member of the Ready by 21 ® National Partnership. Shelley Berman is superintendent of Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville), which recently began a Ready by 21 effort to enhance its longstanding work to strengthen relationships between schools and communities. Rob Schamberg implemented a Ready by 21 effort when he was superintendent of California’s Black Oak Mine Unified School District. He is now an executive with the Forum for Youth Investment, which is the lead national partner in the Ready by 21 approach.

All three delivered a common message: As local budgets shrink and youth investments dry up, better coordination of local resources has become more important than ever.

What Exactly is Ready by 21?

Domenech described it well:

[Ready by 21] is a community-based approach that recognizes that, as important as the schools are—and as important as an education is—they are not the only elements ... of the ability of the child to succeed. There are other very significant factors, such as the ability of a family to have proper healthcare and live in an environment that is conducive for a child to learn. Nutrition, childcare, early childhood education…. Ready by 21 recognizes that all of these factors must come together in ...

Could it be that we're finally laying to rest the false debate between the value of schools and the value of community supports for children? That would be good news, indeed.

Deb Viadero's recent piece on a Harvard study of the Harlem Children's Zone's (HCZ) Promise Academy confirmed my sense that the debate might finally be dead or dying. When it came out almost a year ago, the study sparked a bizarre argument: Had the school alone raised test scores, or should we give credit to all those other services? David Brooks proclaimed the school the winner and implied that all that other stuff was just so much window dressing.

The marvelous Viadero, by contrast, notes that the jury is still out:

What we still don't know, of course, is whether students' improved performance was due to the quality of the schools or the combination of schooling and community supports that the children and their families were also receiving.

The study itself was just as cautious. The authors note that:

The [Academies] provide free medical, dental and mental-health services (students are screened upon entry and receive regular check-ups), student incentives for achievement (money, trips to France, e.g.), high-quality, nutritious, cafeteria meals, support for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare, and so forth, and less tangible benefits such as the support of a committed staff.

It's a relief that no new debate has (yet) erupted in the blogosphere. After all, as Viadero notes, the study has just won a rare nod of approval from the What ...

Collaboration has been getting a bad rap lately, and that's unfortunate. First, there are the pundits who say that it figured too prominently in the selection of Race to the Top winners. Then there was this from Jeanne Allen:

Trained educators believe that collaboration leads to results. But that is not always the case in public education. Excessive collaboration often leads to--frankly--nothing.

Allen's larger point is that outsiders--business leaders and the like--make better school system leaders than career educators do. She notes that "some have never taught. Again, that's fine--and, in fact, often preferable." Best to keep our leaders free of that school taint, she suggests.

Though she doesn't name names, Allen knows who we're all thinking about: Michelle Rhee in DC and Joel Klein in New York City. Like so many other advocates and pundits, she seems to rest her whole case on events in those two cities. Whether you love Rhee/Klein or hate them, you have to admit that there are a whole lot of other reforms going on out there that don't require the outsider's iron fist. And career educators are leading many of them, maybe even most of them.

Let's have a look, for example, at districts that have won the Broad Prize for Urban School Leadership. Six of the eight are led by people who began their careers as teachers and made their way up the administrative ladder. Other successful urban superintendents, like Beverly Hall of Atlanta, followed a similar course. Collaboration didn't ...

Lately, I'm seeing reforms celebrated more for their "boldness" than for the likelihood that they'll work. This impatience could do much more harm than good in the end.

Take, for example, recent reactions to the Race to the Top winners. The winning states (Tennessee and Delaware) turned in good proposals, some bloggers argue, but they weren't as bold as, say, Florida or Rhode Island. The reviewers placed far too much stock in consensus and buy-in from teachers and other groups that will have to put the reforms in place, we're told. Instead, Arne Duncan could have tipped the scales in favor of big, swift changes.

But isn't buy-in from teachers and other stakeholders important if we want reforms to work? And are we really so confident that the bold reforms spelled out in Race to the Top will work? Let's not forget that the evidence for reforms like merit pay or school reconstitution is meager at best. Is it wise to rush at a handful of reforms whose success is anything but assured? A brief ideological victory for some ...

vonzastrowc's picture

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 ...

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 ...

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