Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


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As everyone knows by now, Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. And they did it without mayoral control (gasp) or even a single charter school (say it ain't so!)

So what did they do? For one, the board, administrators, teachers and community members collaborated on common solutions to the district's problems. For another, they worked hard to give teachers and administrators the support they needed. Most important, they committed to improvement for the long haul. No quick fixes at Aldine.

The Learning First Alliance offered far more detail in a 2003 case study of Aldine. Here are a few highlights from what we learned back then:

  1. Recognize that you have a problem. When student peformance cratered in the mid 90s, district leaders knew they had to do something.
  2. Set high expectations for students and staff. Yes, this has become a truism--but only because it's so very true.
  3. Give schools a first-rate curriculum. In 1996, Aldine created "benchmark targets," a curriculum aligned with state standards. Teachers asked for

Fewer than half of students in Boston charter high schools make it to graduation. That's the bottom line of a union-sponsored study of the city's charters.

Charter leaders don't deny the numbers, but they do deny consciously pushing students out of their schools. It's those doggone high standards that are to blame! According to the Boston Globe:

Many students, charter leaders said, choose to leave to dodge high academic standards, returning to city-run schools where getting a diploma is often easier. Only in rare circumstances, they said, did a charter student quit school without subsequently earning a diploma.

“We are not just handing out diplomas,’’ said Thabiti Brown, principal at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester. “We want students to be successful in college, but unfortunately we have students who leave because they feel our academic standards are too high."

Is it me, or is there a double standard here? Shouldn't education reform zealots, for the sake of consistency, accuse Principal Brown of heresy? After all, he seems to believe that some children can't learn to high standards. Shouldn't a "no excuses" school do "whatever it takes" to hold on to each and every student, regardless of how unmotivated or intimidated by high standards? I though only "establishment" educators made excuses.

More to the point.... How can we say charter schools are better than traditional public schools if charters can't hold on to less motivated, less accomplished ...

"Say Yes to Education" may finally get its due. Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Tim Geithner converged on Syracuse yesterday to learn about the innovative program.

We've honored Say Yes time and again on this website. The initiative has nearly closed high school and college graduation gaps separating urban youth from their suburban peers. How? By providing low-income youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to academic help and college scholarships.

So will this event catapult Say Yes into the national consciousness? Early signs aren't good. The event has been covered, well, almost nowhere. Not in the education press. Not in the blogosphere.

It did get a few hits in the local Syracuse papers, but those focused mostly on college affordability: an important, but small, facet of the Say Yes program. I suppose I can understand why. The White House Task Force on Middle ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Education Bedfellows

In the past few days, articles in two major urban newspapers have demonstrated how quickly education reformers and the education "establishment" can find themselves in the same boat.

According to the LA Times, the schools at the center of Mayor Villaraigosa's reform efforts have fallen short of their goals:

The scores at Villaraigosa's schools fall well short of what his original rhetoric suggested. He implied that he could deliver rapid academic gains if given control of schools in the nation's second-largest district. At the time, L.A. Unified officials and some education experts said Villaraigosa was unfairly discounting the school system's incremental progress.

On Tuesday, it was the mayor's turn to celebrate increments.

"We expect progress and we have progress, but we still have a long way to go," Villaraigosa apparently told the LA Times. "Transforming a failing school takes more than one year." Very true.

According to the Chicago Tribune, turnaround schools championed by ...

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.


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. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

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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Hear highlights from our interview (5 minutes)


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. ...

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