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Former teacher Sarah Fine is no Hollywood heroine, and some people won’t forgive her for it. By leaving her job as a teacher at Washington, DC’s Cesar Chavez charter school, she failed the superhero test. She couldn’t Stand and Deliver.

Fine explains her decision to leave in a recent Washington Post article describing the tough working conditions many Cesar Chavez teachers face every day. Many of her readers left sympathetic comments, but quite a few expressed moral outrage. She was a “quitter,” a “whiner,” someone who cares more about herself than about her students. She was not the teacher you would hope to get from Central Casting.

Unfortunately, this sort of talk often drowns out important discussions of teacher working conditions. Barnett Berry hits the nail on the head:

Investing in research and pilot projects so that we can do a better job of identifying effective teachers makes sense — using rigorous measures and tools that keep a tight focus on the critical dimensions of student learning.

But judging teacher performance without paying attention to the conditions under which qualified teachers can teach effectively will ...

First published August 19, 2008.

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Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. captured some 25 million viewers with his riveting PBS documentary series, African American Lives (WNET). Using genealogical research and DNA science, Gates traces the family history of 19 famous African Americans. What results is a rich and moving account of the African American experience.

Gates recently spoke with Public School Insights about the documentary and a remarkable idea it inspired in him: To use genealogy and DNA research to revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American Students. Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an "ancestry-based curriculum" in K-12 schools. Many African American students know little about their ancestors. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, they are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

If the stories in African American Lives are any guide, they're in for an experience.

The Significance of African American Lives

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about "African-American Lives" and its significance, in your view.

GATES: Wow, that's a big question. [Laughing] I got the idea in the middle of the night to do a series for public television that would combine genealogy and ancestry tracing through genetics. I've been fascinated with my own family tree since I was 10 years old - that's the year that my grandfather died. ...

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NAEP Gains Ground

New York City students’ steady gains in state assessments have sparked debate over the value of the tests. The Race to the Top guidelines have profound implications for this debate.

The city’s gains have far outpaced those of the state as a whole, but critics point to stagnation in the city’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores as cause for concern. State tests are easy to manipulate, they argue. But NAEP, which assesses a much broader range of content and skills and cannot be easily gamed, represents a better measure of student learning.

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein counters that the state assessments do measure what’s important. State standards, curricula and assessments aren’t aligned to NAEP, so NAEP scores offer a less valid measure of learning under New York state standards.

The draft Race to the Top application makes it pretty clear where the Education Department stands. The Department will judge state applicants on the extent ...

With school turnarounds near the top of the administration's agenda, one turnaround model is getting the lion's share of attention: Close the school, get a new principal, hire a new batch of teachers, and start from scratch. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this model is more feasible or effective than any other.

Evidence on effective turnaround strategies is scant, to say the least. To favor any one model is, at least to some degree, to fire a shot in the dark. School reconstitutions will founder if few qualified teachers and leaders are waiting in the wings to replace those who have been dismissed. This is no trivial problem as ...

People looking for a public school Cinderella story need look no further than George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. The once struggling school, which serves mostly low-income children, now boasts state math and reading test scores most wealthy suburban schools would be proud of. (See our story about George Hall's Success).

George Hall did not have to sacrifice all but the basics to get there. Instead, the school's staff courageously focused on what some would consider frills in an era of high-stakes accountability: innovative technologies; rich vocabulary and content knowledge; even field trips.

We recently spoke with George Hall principal Terri Tomlinson and teachers Elizabeth Reints and Melissa Mitchell.

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A number of people have recommended Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Tom Hoffman sealed the deal for me when he offered the following quotation from page 190:

...I am not in principle against the idea of freeing certain schools from bureaucratic oversight under certain conditions, but I don't see any Big Magic in autonomy itself as opposed to the way it is implemented. To the extent that we keep implementing reforms with the idea that there is some one program that is going to make all the difference; to the extent that we keep implementing reform without adequate support or without a spirit of persistence, a determination that we are going to give the work a fair chance to take root; to the extent that we keep implementing good ideas in a spirit of contempt for the practitioners who have to make them work; to the extent that we keep implementing reforms without any capacity for mid-course corrections, without any understanding of the relevant historical context; to that extent we can expect to get implementations that miss the point. How we do this may be as important as what we do, arguably more so. One of the foundational studies of the current discussion of urban school districts (Snipes, Doolittle, and Herilhy 2002) found that successful districts and unsuccessful districts say they are doing the same things; the difference appears to be in the way that they do what they do.

Debates on school reform seem to suffer from two related problems:

  • The assumption that a simple change of governance or incentives will set you free;
  • The tendency to pantomime--rather than truly implement--good reform ideas and then abandon them as ineffective when they don't work.

Payne's book has rocketed to the top of my reading list. ...

Linda Darling-Hammond turns in a thoughtful review of mayoral control at the National Journal's new blog. (The Journal recently invited their expert bloggers to comment on mayoral takeovers.) Her major point seems to be that the proof isn't in the pudding: Outcomes evidence from major urban districts suggests that mayoral control is not necessarily any more effective than other governance structures.

Oddly enough, some of the staunchest mayoral control advocates contributing to the Journal's blog focus more on inputs than outcomes. This is a remarkable reversal, given the reformers' longstanding grievance that traditional educators are outcomes-averse. Perhaps inputs are making a comeback.

Darling Hammond is characteristically balanced in her assessment of mayoral ...

A new and important study of the link between middle school success and high school graduation rates offers a useful caution to anyone looking for education miracle cures. After examining early warning signs that students might drop out, study author Bob Balfanz writes:

These findings...demonstrate why reform is difficult, as no single reform stands out as the major action required. Essentially, we found that everything one might think matters, does so, but modestly at best. This included parental involvement, academic press, teacher support, and the perceived relevance of what was being taught and its intrinsic interest to students. Some of these factors influenced attendance, others influenced behavior or effort, and they either indirectly or directly impacted course performance, achievement gains, and graduation outcomes. It was only when all the elements were combined in a well-functioning system that major gains were observed.

So don't put all your reform eggs in one basket--a useful admonition for education policy's chattering classes. The flip side of that admonition, of course, is that we shouldn't ignore critical improvement strategies either. Parent involvement, academic expectations, teacher support, relevance and other factors are all important to school success. As the nation considers school turnaround strategies, ...

There seems to be no escape from the phony debate over whether schools alone or out-of-school social programs alone can close achievement gaps. Recently, David Brooks fanned the flames with his over-hasty conclusion that the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academies bolsters the schools alone case.

Brooks distorted the conclusions of a recent Harvard study examining the academies' academic results. Responding to a chorus of complaints about Brooks's tactics, blogger Andy Rotherham fine tuned the argument a bit: “It’s the schools that actually matter most even in the HCZ [Harlem Children's Zone] model," he declared. To be fair, Rotherham isn't pulling his conclusions entirely out of thin air. The study's authors suggest that the Promise Academies are an indispensable ingredient of their students' success--and that the HCZ's wraparound services alone don't guarantee strong academic results.

But Rotherham and other Brooks supporters don't ask the essential follow-up question: Can the schools do it alone, without the HCZ model? The study’s authors ...

A New York Times analysis finds that schools led by principals trained through non-traditional routes “have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes”:

The Times’s analysis shows that Leadership Academy graduates were less than half as likely to get A’s as other principals, and almost twice as likely to earn C’s or worse [on the city's grading system for public schools]. Among elementary and middle-school principals on the job less than three years, Academy graduates were about a third as likely to get A’s as those who did not attend the program.

This kind of analysis has the potential to redraw battle lines and unsettle ideologies held by educators and reformers across the political spectrum. ...

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