Join the conversation

...about what is working in our public schools.

Urban

Blog Entries

Newsweek excels at self-parody. It has long produced lop-sided and simplistic reporting on school reform. But this week's lead story takes the cake: "The Problem with Education is Teachers."

I had a hissy fit when I first read that inflammatory and irresponsible headline. And the lede pushed me over the edge: "Getting rid of bad teachers is the solution to turning around failing urban schools." Any journalist who writes about "the solution" to anything should get a pay cut. Another subtitle for the article just added insult to injury: "In no other profession are workers so insulated from accountability." Well, what about journalism?

It's too bad Newsweek ran such a poor piece. They could have learned a thing or two about schools and journalism if they had read Elizabeth Green's wonderful piece in last weeks' New York Times Magazine. Newsweek's authors interviewed only the usual reform suspects, ignored viewpoints that clashed with their angle, ignored the role of factors like staff development and curriculum, and went for the sensational headline. Green's story is a world apart from all that.

For one, Green asks logical questions about what has become received wisdom in some school reform circles. Can TFA really supply the needs of all our troubled urban and rural schools? If we fired "bad teachers" at the bottom and hired "great" ones at the top, would we really solve our education problems? What about the ...

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 ...

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 ...

Recent debates about charter schools are shedding more heat than light. There's enough evidence out there now to keep both the critics and the boosters busy. But as most people know by now, arguments over whether charters are "good" or "bad" are a waste of time. The real question is whether we can create enough of the good ones to make a real dent in student achievement. And that's not at all clear.

Charter boosters got some more wind in their sails after Stanford's CREDO released a study of New York City charters. Their findings: students at charter schools make more academic progress than students at traditional public schools do. This study echoed earlier findings by another Stanford researcher, Carolyn Hoxby. The United Federation of Teachers countered that charters enroll fewer special education students and English language learners. (The City Education Department's data seem to bear this out.) Charter supporters responded in ...

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

Dr. Jerry Weast has presided over a decade of strong and steady gains in Montgomery County, Maryland. How did his district do it? Not by using any of the cure-all strategies that have captivated the national media.

Weast recently told us the story of his school district's success. Several big themes stand out:

  • Stop the blame game and start collaborating. Big fights between administrators and teachers are catnip to reporters, but they don't do much for children.
  • Set common goals and figure out how to reach them. In Montgomery County, everyone could agree that students should leave high school ready for college.
  • Create a system that helps everyone be successful. It's not enough to let 1000 flowers bloom.
  • There's more to equity than equality. Weast describes a "red zone" where most of the county's low-income children live. It's not enough to treat those children and their wealthier "green zone" peers equally. The children in the "red zone" need much more systemic support.

There's much more to Dr. Weast's vision than I can sum up here. Here's the story as he told it to us in a phone conversation last week:

There are some structural issues in the way that we are thinking about American education. You see little Kindergartners come to school, and they believe that they can learn anything. Their parents do too. And so does everybody else who meets them. But a few years later, because of the sorting process and the type of structure that they are in, a lot of that belief is taken away and there are huge achievement gaps.

Then you see beginning teachers. They come in and they feel like they can take on the world and do anything. But within five years about half of them have left the profession.

There is something structurally wrong with a system where about a third of the children in America ...

Charter school opponents often forget that charter schools are in fact public schools. Charters cannot charge tuition or create selective admissions policies. Ironically, we might have charter boosters to blame for the belief that charters aren't public.

The critics aren't the only ones who have odd notions about charter schools. Though Americans tend to like charter schools, most think they are private schools that charge tuition and admit students on the basis of ability. Why the confusion? For one, charters are being sold as the "anti-public school."

This isn't my idea. I got it from Nancy Flanagan, who recently wrote about a charter school meeting she attended in Michigan. She describes one of her main reactions to the meeting:

I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem to be bent on repeating the worst ...

A while back, I suggested that we pay pundits for their performance. Now is as good a time as any to start. First up for evaluation: Jonathan Alter.

He should brace himself for a pay cut.

Let's review his most recent performance in this week's Newsweek magazine. He relishes the tough choice facing states that want Race to the Top money:

[L]ift your caps on the number of innovative charter schools allowed and your prohibitions on holding teachers accountable for whether kids learn—or lose a chance for some of Obama's $5 billion "Race to the Top" money.

A pretty weak showing so far. For one, states have to lift caps on all charter schools, not just the "innovative" ones. Given that charter schools have had rather mixed results, can we blame states for worrying about the charter school land rush that might ensue? Here's what researcher Tom Toch writes in the most recent edition of Education Week: "Even with an infusion of federal funding, it would be difficult for C[harter] M[anagement] O[rganizations] to expand much more rapidly without compromising the quality of their schools."

Let's see if things get any better in Alter's next paragraph:

This issue cleaves the Democratic Party. On one side are Obama and the reformers, who point out that we now have a good idea of what works: KIPP and other "no excuses" charter models boast 80 percent graduation rates in America's roughest neighborhoods, nearly twice ...

Syndicate content