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Do you want to write a news story about school reform? Here's how you do it.

Choose two neighboring schools: a successful charter school and a struggling traditional public school. Then choose one student from each school. Profile both students' humble or even tragic beginnings, but then compare the charter school student's great efflorescence with the continued struggles of the other student.

Use the two students to contrast the promise of charters in general with the problems many urban public schools face. Toss in a sentence somewhere about the uneven quality of charter schools, but don't belabor that point.

That has become a tried-and-true formula for quite a few national journalists lately. The Wall Street Journal ran the most recent variation on the theme last Sunday. It's not a bad article on its own merits. The two students' stories are gripping, and the piece drives home the vital message that a school can change the odds for low-income students.

But can you imagine a national news outlet carrying the reverse story? Can you imagine a tale of two schools in which the traditional public school outshines the charter school down the street? Such stories surely exist, but there is apparently no need to write them in the current political climate. The media are, by and large, turning a blind eye to non-charter public schools that are succeeding against ...

The dream of college for all is one of the first casualties when jobs dry up and the future looks bleak. More and more people are questioning the wisdom of paying big tuition for what could be a small return. Technical school may be a better bet, they say, especially for poor youth who can't afford to get into debt.

They may have a point. But I think it's a very bad idea to retreat from our commitment to get many, many more poor students through college. At the same time, it's unwise to assume that education alone will solve our economic woes.

The "college for all" argument is important, because it offers a vision for overcoming stubborn class inequities. Let's face it, the vast majority of wealthy parents expect their kids to go to college. Even some of those pundits who pooh pooh college in the pages of the Times or The Wall Street Journal would likely pitch a fit if their own children decided to go the voc-ed route. Poor children face a very different reality.

It may be true that college isn't for everyone. But until student inclination--and not income--becomes the major sorting mechanism for college, I'm not ready to abandon the focus on college. After all, those who never went to college are ...

Paying anyone--students or teachers--for test scores might be a bad idea. That's one of the big lessons I draw from Roland Fryer's now famous study of programs that pay students for good behavior, hard work or test results.

In fact, I think the implications of Fryer's study reach farther than that. The study offers a glimpse of how dangerous it could be to attach any big consequences--good or bad--to test scores alone. Here are some of the things I took away from Fryer's report:

We ignore inputs at our peril. It has become received wisdom that outcomes--and that usually means test scores--are all that really matter in school reform. But Fryer's study suggests that people in schools who call for more attention to inputs and the processes of arriving at outcomes aren't just whiners after all. The study found that cash rewards for certain behaviors--like reading more books--were more effective than cash for test scores. In fact, cash for scores seemed to have no effect on student achievement. Why? Incentives to do the right things, the things that promote learning, might well work better than incentives to do well on a test.

Getting kids too focused on their test scores may do them little good--and may even harm them--in the long run. Fryer's team noted that students getting cash for scores naturally grasped at test-taking strategies rather than, say, better study skills or deeper engagement in class materials:

Students [who were asked what they could do to earn more money on the next test] stated [sic.] thinking about test-taking strategies rather than salient inputs into the education production function or ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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