Archive for June, 2009

We Are Going and We Will Get There

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Woyaya, a gentle, melodic song from South Africa encourages the singer to keep walking, even when the road is hard and muddy and rough, or when she can’t see how far she still has to go.

Of course, the song was composed to keep up the spirits of those pressing for freedom from apartheid, but even now for low-performing schools in today’s education world, the road is long and rough.  And those who embark on a turn around effort need every good word and good tune.

Fortunately, a few studies (see post 6/24) have researched the traits of the schools that are moving in spite of the travails on the road.

In 2008 I heard a presentation from the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, Inc. that outlined the bold steps a school,  school district, and state must take to see students perform as well as students in the most high-performing schools in the country.

Geoffrey Canada, Founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, 2004, was quoted, “Instead of helping some kids beat the odds…why don’t we just change the odds?”

A brief summary of the findings to change the odds shows that instead of a model that merely tries to keep up with the curriculum, the school or district or state must pursue a model that will help each member of the entire school succeed.  Change occurs when the students, teaching staff, administration, and parents are ready to act.

Unfortunately, as we’ve posted on this blog, (5/16 and 5/20), there is little leverage, i.e. funding, from No Child Left Behind legislation; there are few exemplars that are easily available to school districts; there is a lack of public will to sustain support for any school.

Finally, there is a lack of highly visible collaboration among schools, districts, and the state to pull together-as the song urges, no matter how hard the road or far away the end of the trail.

Now, to overcome the odds (some say 5000 low-performing schools will need to be restructured by 2010) the report from the Mass Insight group offers three components, sending the undaunted toward coherent, comprehensive change.

First, revise the conditions for work, time, money, staff, and programs used.  Teachers and administrators will all have to agree on the incentives for work (often a teacher’s union issue), accept the negative impact of the status quo, and be willing to pursue aggressive performance targets.

Second, the capacity to turn around a school requires a school staff that understands and prepares to sustain a revised curriculum, invites other community partners to support the turn around (from nearby universities, for example), and includes students and parents in the effort.  See the article at the end of the Program tab for takecareschools.com.

Third, clustering bolsters successful collaboration for change, the desire to be part of a successful team.  For instance, several schools can band together to access resources, share success, and offer support.

While the components for program improvement seem obvious in a report, be assured beating the odds requires relentless, consistent effort.

That’s why I remember the words “It will be hard we know, and the road will be muddy and rough, but we’ll get there.”

Dodge the Bar or Leap the Hurdle?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Teachers know that school programs come and go.  No wonder they roll their eyes and say just wait it out.  I can verify this claim.  I was a long time teacher and have seen plenty of “new” programs, solutions for any difficulty possible to name.

However, the one worthy mandate of the original No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is that schools across the nation are required to be accountable for student success.  First implemented in 2001, that’s a long, long time ago in the K-12 education world.

Of course, little federal money was authorized to assure the mandate’s success.  States chose from a myriad of assessment tools.  Each state decided at which point students were considered proficient in reading and math.  School districts were left to come up with teacher training and the models of curriculum and instruction to help students succeed.

All those hurdles were enshrined in the NCLB Act during eight years when legislatures were in a constant budget struggle to find funds to support public education.

Until now, many states did the minimum, as has been reported in numerous news articles, so few comparisons have been made to see how children across the nation are doing.  For example, proficiency was set at a ridiculously low level.  The selected assessment tools were poorly designed and offered little information.  Teachers were not provided training to analyze assessment results and plan lessons to improve student achievement.

In spite of the urge to dodge the bar, a number of states and schools and school districts managed to set high standards and show success, especially important in low-performing schools found in neighborhoods with many students “at risk.”  Homelessness, second language issues, and low income levels all set obstacles for student success.

Slowly, with conscientious support at the district level and competent, relentless school personnel, student levels of achievement improved and will continue to improve as long as all components that support the outcomes are kept in place.

We should be relieved that some schools took on the challenge and leaped the hurdles.  Now that models of success have come to the fore, the education community must not let go.

I looked at studies of three models in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Cincinnati Public Schools, and Hamilton, Tennessee, all of which are good, if not perfect, examples of schools making progress.  Such schools, found in neighborhoods across the country, do not use the exact same curriculum, or have the same daily schedule, or rely on the same organization of staff.

They do all have certain components of attitude, teacher collaboration, professional development, and parent and community support.  They can demonstrate how students have achieved.  That’s being accountable.

If interested, the website for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (five universities pooling resources) is filled with articles that address studies and research about successful schools.  Search for articles on ‘accountability.’

School volunteers in times of budget crunches

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

When school resources decline, and districts slice millions of dollars from their budgets, what options are available to reduce the world of hurt?  Every kid in school right now is potentially threatened by cutbacks.  Every kid in school right now deserves school districts ready to innovate and create a powerful and positive response to this financial crisis.

Kids love the attention

I helped in my grandson’s school this year.  About once a week, I’d spend two hours in his second grade classroom working with the kids on their reading or math, or doing some small chore to make his teacher’s life a little easier.  I let his teacher know by email exactly when I was coming, to give her a heads up.  She was very flexible and accommodating.

This weekly outing made the best two hours of my week.  The kids seemed to love the attention, and I know I did.  I’m unsure if I made an academic difference in their lives, but I do know that the additional focus on them was important.

Volunteers can benefit from some instructional guidance

I was handicapped, though, in not having many tricks of the trade for helping the kids with reading or math difficulties.  If a child was below grade level in reading, I couldn’t help much more than telling him a word or helping him work through the syllables.  I’m not trained in even the basics of reading instruction.

Similarly with math.  If a child couldn’t do a subtraction problem, I was locked into my “old way” of subtracting, using “borrowing,” which is not exactly how math is taught today.  I told the unsuspecting child I was giving him a “shortcut,” but I wasn’t reinforcing current math strategies.

Welcome volunteers, build reliability

I think schools need to take the possibility of parents and other volunteers much more seriously as one option for curing the budget disease.  My home school district has one link on its website for “Volunteers,” which reads – “go to your local school site to volunteer.”  Not exactly welcoming.

Ideally, each school would have a volunteer coordinator, but if that’s not possible, perhaps one in 10 schools can have such a person to assess academic needs, numbers of volunteers necessary to meet the needs, to find volunteers, and provide training on student learning styles and basic instructional techniques.  Perhaps the volunteer  coordinator can be a volunteer  also- a reliable parent or grandparent with time to help.

Websites as volunteer-coaching medium

School districts can use their websites for instructional resources to help parents and volunteers understand new methods and reinforce learning.  A section of the site at the district and school level should be devoted to this effort, with marketing to parents especially as a value-added resource.

Parents and volunteers must agree to a full commitment, perhaps in a “contract form” so teachers and schools can rely on them. If a district puts in training and coordinating resources, the volunteers must resolve to do their part regularly.

Clearly, this concept is not a complete solution, but it can help schools in bad times – and good times.  Let us hear from schools who have successfully extended their open arms to encourage volunteering – what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t Re-Work the Bad Old Days

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Reform is exhausting.  No wonder states try to game the system.

Still, it’s like the kid in the classroom that spends an enormous amount of time finding excuses to not complete the assignment.  If the student just sat down and asked for help, studied, and reviewed the difficult issues, the problem would be solved.  He would learn something, she would get into a college of her choice, he would find a job he liked, all would be possible.

Same with school reform.  First let’s look at the assessment issue.  The single yearly summative test ordained by the No Child Left Behind Act may have seemed like a good starting point, but it has left adults running around in a maze, teaching, advocating, wringing their hands over minute bits of knowledge that may or may not be “on the test” that the student must pass.

Dumbing down this test is not the answer.  Instead, changing the assessment process has proven successful in helping students achieve.  The best school-wide learning models use periodic formative assessments to see how students are doing.  Then teachers take time to analyze the data and reorganize their lessons.  It takes personnel other than the classroom teacher to support this kind of help so all students achieve, not just a few.  Are school districts going to put their money where the need is?

Next, a strong complaint about the billions of dollars being authorized by Congress is that the money would be passed out under Title I, the huge education budget to support programs for low-performing students.  Many in the education world warn that this money will be allocated to old, already inadequate, programs.  Look up the San Francisco Chronicle article (March 6, 2009) “Facts, Not Faith” by Bruce Fuller, education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

There are, however, a number of school-wide learning models that insist on best practices from research in the field of education.  I can vouch for a few of these models.  They require local personnel to relentlessly advocate for the models, fund them, and make changes when the data show further reforms are needed.  They require the input and support from the entire school community, every adult connected to the school, to support each child’s success.

Last, the old manner of chipping away at schools and teachers must halt.  There may be a place for a few charter schools or schools like KIPP based on a for-profit model.  There are, however, thousands of schools in this country.

Instead of getting rid of them and starting over with a vast array of “new”schools, privately organized for a huge assortment of reasons and paid for willy-nilly with tax-payer’s money, put that money to work to make “public school” a good word.  The stimulus funds are a start.  Thoughtful changes in each state is another step forward.

Is It a New Day?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

School reform can be hashed over until the end of time, but here and now a few changes have flipped to the top of the pile.

In the February 2009 stimulus package authorized by Congress, a $54 million “stabilization” fund was established to protect schools and school districts against teacher layoffs.  As any current or former teacher knows, laying off and hiring again at the last minute is the worst hindrance to stability in a school, certain to add an obstacle to classroom academic achievement, the improvement of which is every school’s goal.

Next reform of importance is holding down student-teacher ratios.  In spite of studies that support both sides of the teacher-student ratio argument, schools that have increased the number of students who are proficient in reading and math (the current standard), did so with the help of extra teaching personnel that reduced class size in the most important subject areas.  Data from Success for All, originally developed at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, provides an example of the improvement possible.

Of course, the one issue that is up front in any discussion of education reform is the need for “highly qualified” teachers.  See, for example, George F. Will’s “The Last Word” opinion in Newsweek (March 23, 2009).  Now, much research has delineated the best practices that teachers should use to benefit their student’s achievement.  In California, teacher preparation programs have improved since the concept of best practices has been introduced and new teachers are well- equipped for the instructional goals in today’s schools.

Complaining about bad teachers doesn’t help.  To make sure new professionals continue to receive staff development and that experienced teachers have access to new practices, funding is necessary.

Careful planning and use of funding resources helps.  An example is the interactive DVD which allows for training in multiple staff development situations and doesn’t require the cost for trainers to come to the school site.

So, three reforms that every state governor in the union must address if the stimulus money is directed to him or her: stop laying teachers off, reduce the student-teacher ratio, provide resources to keep teachers on top of the game.  A good place to start.