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In the Metro DC area, the Higher Achievement Program works to increase the educational opportunities for low-income middle school students who are eager for more rigor and support in their academic programming.  And it cannot keep up with demand, which says two things to me. First, the program is making a difference. And second, some children and parents in low-income areas are eager to engage with this type of learning opportunity.  In an era of budget cuts, public schools are being undermined in their mission to provide this opportunity to all children. This reality paints a troubling picture: a lack of resources holding back ambitious and dedicated young students who crave such support is quite simply, undermining our nation’s future one budget slash at a time. ...

In 2001, The Learning First Alliance wrote a report titled “Every Child Learning: Safe and Supportive Schools – A Summary,” which advocated for systemic approaches to supporting positive behavior in our nation’s schools. The Alliance argued for school-wide approaches to improving school climate, safety and discipline: “In a safe and supportive learning community, civility, order, and decorum are the norms and antisocial behaviors such as bullying and taunting are clearly unacceptable.” Ten years later, schools across the nation continually contend with the harsh and terrifying realities of bullying and the sad reality is that we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring a safe and supportive environment for our nation’s children. Fortunately, recent attention to the issue suggests that we are all beginning to take important steps in the right direction.  ...

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (September 18, 2011), featured a cover story entitled “The Character Test”, suggesting that our kids’ success, and happiness, may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.  The two schools profiled were Riverdale, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, and KIPP Infinity Middle School, a member of the KIPP network of public charter schools in New York City.  The common factor in each of these schools is a headmaster or charter school superintendent whose leadership is focused on providing an educational experience for the students he serves that encompasses more than academic rigor and achievement.  Their strategies are based on the work of Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose scholarly publication, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, documents 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras.  The importance of these strengths does not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit:  cultivating these strengths represent a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling. ...

The American Prospect recently featured an article by Sharon Lerner that details an exemplary pioneering effort to combat racial segregation in schools in Omaha, Nebraska, called the Learning Community. It pools resources and allows student movement to help make schools more socioeconomically diverse. But while Lerner argues that this “radical experiment” could serve to be a national model, local resistance may be indicative of potential animosity to similar efforts in other places. If better racial integration in schools is a focus we want to make to improve public education (and I think it should be), this situation provides a prime example of why appropriate legislation, funding, and winning hearts and minds are all integral to success. ...

A couple months ago, I wrote about an NPR series on efforts by Chicago city and public schools to mitigate violence and vulnerability among low-income students. Yesterday, Edweek featured an article about a new Chicago city-initiative—spearheaded by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in a partnership with Comcast—to provide computers and internet services at dramatically-reduced prices for the families of low-income students. The goal is in part to combat the increasing educational achievement gap between students with and without computers – a gap that, if left unaddressed, will only increase and further disadvantage our most vulnerable students. In a press conference announcing the initiative, Emmanuel pointed to a map and showed areas where only 15-45% of households have internet service. ...

Recently, NPR did a special series on violence among youth in Chicago. Schools and students all over the country—especially in urban areas—deal with the everyday-threat of violence. Clearly, this omnipresent factor can take a huge toll on public schools.

Mayor-elect of Rahm Emanuel says the violence in the city is unacceptable, and he has promised to hire a thousand new police officers as part of his crime policy. One article  quotes him stating, "My goal for the four years, and the measurement of my progress, will be whether that child can be thinking of their studies, and not their safety."

Already the city—relying on schools and police—is implementing intensive efforts to try to combat what some consider an epidemic of youth violence in Chicago—efforts that may provide good models for other cities and school districts facing these problems. ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

Could the LA Times' decision to publish teachers' value-added scores have a chilling effect on school research? That question came to me as I read about a case in Arizona. Arizona officials are seeking the names of teachers and schools that took part in a study of the state's policies on teaching English, even though those teachers and schools were promised that their names would remain confidential. Needless to say, many in the research community are none too pleased.

The UCLA study found that the state's ESL policies were doing more harm than good. The state isolates English language learners so they can study only English for several hours every day. UCLA researchers found that this practice does not narrow learning gaps but does raise the specter of segregation. State Chief Tom Horne argues that he cannot rebut those findings without full access to the data used in the survey.

His opponents counter that schools will never again open the doors to researchers if they feel their anonymity is at risk. Researchers (like many reporters, I might add) will often go to great ...

Imagine you open your newspaper in the morning to find a story about dietary supplements. The story includes a throw-away line or two noting that supplements aren't subject to FDA approval and that the research on supplements is mixed. It then proceeds to extol their virtues, list the ailments each is said to cure, and offer links to discount suppliers. I'm guessing you wouldn't think very highly of your paper.

In some respects, the recent LA Times story on teacher effectiveness isn't all that different from my hypothetical story. The authors mumble a few words about problems with the methods it used to rate 6,000 L.A. teachers. They then launch into full-throated advocacy for the approach. They even publish names and pictures of the city's "worst" teachers.

"No one suggests using value-added analysis [of test scores] as the sole measure of a teacher," the authors write. They then proceed to use value-added analysis as the sole measure of 6000 real teachers in real schools. They brand one as "least effective," name him, and  print his picture in the paper. Then they supply a database of 6,000 teachers rated solely by test scores. A few words about the limits of value-added measures won't blunt the overall effect of the article. Those teachers have been marked.

The authors note that "ineffective teachers often face no consequences and get no extra help." While I'm pleased that the Times has considered the need to help struggling teachers, I'm sorry to see that thought get swept away so quickly by stronger, darker currents. Regardless of what the authors ...

It is fast becoming a received truth that teachers, teachers, teachers make all the difference in a child's academic performance. But what if analysis of students' scores on state tests threw that belief into question? It may have in L.A.

That's not the impression you'll get from the recent L.A. Times story on teacher quality. The Times used student test data to estimate 6,000 L.A. teachers' relative effectiveness. The  story suggests that it's all about the teachers:

Year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students, or their parents.

It's their teachers.

But blogger Corey Bunje Bower had a look at the report behind the Times analysis, and he drew another conclusion. The Times notes that the best teachers aren't all crammed into the "best" schools. Bower weighs the implications of that finding:

Teacher quality varies widely within schools--just as with test scores, there's far more variation within schools than across schools. ("Teachers are slightly more effective in high- than in low-API schools, but the gap is small, and the variance across schools is large"). Which means that the highest performing schools don't have all the best teachers and the lowest performing schools don't have all the worst teachers. Which means that something other than teacher quality is causing schools to be low and high performing. Which means we should probably focus our attention on more than just teacher quality.

Of course teachers are very important. Why would anyone teach if teachers didn't matter? But should we put ALL our eggs in the teacher basket?

Other bloggers have raised strong objections to the L.A. Times piece. Can we trust the tests? Can we trust "value-added" analysis of test scores? Is it right to publish names and even pictures ...

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