Archive for November, 2009

What It Takes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

With hoopla about grants for Race To the Top, in an effort to turn around high schools in dire need of help; gung-ho proposals about grants for elementary schools; and constant brouhaha over teacher’s union opposition to change, it’s just plain great to see an article about a school that has actually succeeded.

Not only succeeded, it’s in a low-income pocket of my neighborhood on the San Francisco peninsula, known for high-flying salaries and mega-homes and students who expect to go to Stanford, UC Berkeley, or an Ivy League university.  Leroy Anderson Elementary reached the goal of every elementary school with “at risk” students-an Academic Performance Index (API) 800+.

Reading the article “Learning to Teach to Bridge the Achievement Gap” by Phil Yost, New York Times, November 20, 2009, the qualities of a successful school filled the page.  The article covered highly-qualified teachers willing to pursue the achievement goal, dedicated administrators, curriculum changes shown to improve the capabilities of low-performing students, known successful teaching techniques, regular consistent assessment and analysis, and parent inclusion.

Why can’t all elementary schools with low test scores do what Anderson Elementary did, even in California, the land of no money for schools?

Certain requirements are only inferred in Yost’s article which must be present or developed in the effort to close the achievement gap in a school.

First and foremost, a cadre of teachers, who know the goal and stand by it, must agree to stay at the school.  They understand the difficulties to overcome and will not back away or obstruct.  The teachers are expected to be leaders, listened to by the administrators and asked to research and help organize the curriculum changes that will be needed.

Second, the school needs administrators who are determined to see the change through.  They must be partners with the teaching staff in developing and/or preparing for the reading/language arts and math models.  They must not give up when students don’t improve right away.  They must hold off district personnel who want to try the next big thing.  They must be relentless in the consistency of the program, but watch constantly to improve what isn’t effective.

Third, in spite of what one reads about improvement possible even when the funding picture is bleak, it helps to have a district office on the side of the school.  To turn around a school, it’s good to be a small school in a small district, easier for district personnel to keep in mind the issues the school faces.  (Moreland School District has 5 elementary schools and 1 middle school with about 4000 students total.)

When parents at the school need a program, as at Anderson, to learn English and parenting skills to support their children, the district must have helped find the money.  When teachers say they will tutor students after school, the district will find the money.  When the school principal wants professional development time set aside to analyze test data that drives the curriculum, the district doesn’t put her off, but finds the money.

Finally, when Charles Weis, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools (where Anderson Elementary is found), makes general statements about knowing which schools need help and how to help them, it’s not good enough.  If he’s on the side of school reform in low-performing, “at risk” schools, is he working with the district superintendents, the teacher’s unions, and school boards to set a time table for change and not back down?

Jonathan Alter in “Teddy’s Rightful Heir” Newsweek, November 9, 2009, suggests that is happening at the federal Department of Education.  “He (President Obama) and Arne Duncan are showing some Chicago muscle….”

Do what it takes.

Same old, same old won’t do

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Same old, same old won’t do for public education anymore

School boards will be under tremendous pressure for the next three to four years to meet two seemingly contradictory goals:  cut budgets and improve school achievement.

Schools can produce revenue

I submit that schools should add one more goal:  increase revenue.  If districts can increase revenue when tax receipts are down, maybe they can also make forward strides on student proficiency.

School buildings, especially those with dwindling student enrollment, can be more efficiently used to bring broad-based education to whole communities, not just kids in the communities.  With the push for high school kids to take community college courses, and with more adults needing to train for new careers, public schools become an ideal place to institute post-12 education.

I’m suggesting public school-community college partnerships to reduce new construction and to create satellite delivery systems for face-to-face higher education.  Community colleges wouldn’t have to raise money for new construction, and public schools can gain revenue from leasing rooms and advanced technology.

Adult learning in public schools can help kids achieve

A cheap way to increase student achievement is to provide middle and high school courses to adults, particularly parents with kids in school.  Math is taught differently today from 1980.  If parents take a beginning algebra course today, about two weeks ahead of their children, for example, they can be much more instrumental in helping their kids learn.  And we can charge parents for the opportunity.

How can this happen?  As school districts develop online classes for kids, those classes can also be offered to parents, at a price.  Why not?  If a high school class that a teacher wants to offer doesn’t fill, maybe that class should be offered also to the adult community, which would create an interesting mix of adults and adolescents.  Maybe an adult wants to learn the physics he or she never took, or study a foreign language.  Or revisit the classics in literature.  Or relearn grammar.  Or take art.

Online courseware swapping can save everyone $$

School districts can save money and improve education outcomes by trading online courseware.  If one district has great science courseware and another district has great writing courseware, why not swap and trade?  This method saves money for everyone.

Put post-12 remedial education online through high schools

Currently, community and four year colleges do a lot of remedial skill building for students.  Why not bring some of that work back to high schools using online courses to deliver the services.  This may be a place where state or federal funding could intervene to support remedial programs and allow public schools to more expansively use their courseware.

New to a school board in a large Colorado district, my goal will be to think outside of the traditional boundaries, and I hope those ideas will bring more money and better learning to public schools.

Will let you know as changes move forward.

The Changing Teacher

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Change has become the well-used mantra in the past year, often as the start of a taunt or wisecrack.

Columnist David Brooks, however, is glad about change in the 21st century education world.  He’s on the side of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in their determined push to keep education reform as a top priority.  See “The Quiet Revolution,” New York Times, October 23, 2009.

Though I completely disagree with Brook’s despair that a District of Columbia Schools voucher program has been tossed, I do concur that the Obama administration is pushing for change in school districts and schools of education.  (See post 11-4-09).

A Policy Information Report, December 2007, distributed by the Educational Testing Service, confirms the anecdotal changes I saw already underway in new teacher preparation before I retired.

The report’s findings looked at several factors about new teachers and experienced teachers taking courses to satisfy the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate for highly-qualified teachers.  It found that students who passed the exam in the second cohort studies (2002-2005) had higher GPA and SAT scores.  Students from all ethnic groups and both genders showed consistent improvement in academic work.

The most interesting conclusion of the study suggested “that when policies target a common objective and employ a variety of strategies, real change can happen.  …seldom have policy changes been associated with such positive impact in so little time.”  Finally, a good thing from the NCLB legislation.

Problems still remain, of course.  The second cohort had a lower number of passing students, attributable to the increased difficulty of the exam.  Middle-school teachers, both new and experienced, had special difficulty passing the test.

The report looked at 20 states with teachers who take Praxis tests as part of their teacher preparation.  They must pass all parts of the exam or they do not receive certification.  Only 3 of the states, Nevada, Hawaii, and Oregon are in the west.

Some states have identified their own tests.  California, for example, uses the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) when determining new teacher and highly-qualified teacher certification.  The exams must be passed before teacher preparation classes are completed.

While the study demonstrates that teachers entering the profession are better prepared to do well in schools of education, other studies share additional issues that must be addressed to turn out excellent teachers for the variety of students in the 21st century United States.

Let’s look at two other reports Eduflack blogger Patrick Riccardo has noted.

Hope Street Group, a business group interested in better learning outcomes, released “Using Open Innovation to Improve Teacher Evaluation Systems.”  While the report, developed mostly by teachers, is concerned with accountability in the classroom, some of its proposals could be part of further improvement in teacher preparation, attracting new professionals with good academic backgrounds.  Here are several examples:

* Education schools should use clearly defined standards of quality instruction and assessment of a student teacher’s classroom performance.

* Student teacher evaluations that rely on observation and discussion must be in the hands of instructional leaders who have sufficient expertise and training.

* Information from teacher preparation evaluations should be comparable across schools of education and available to districts, and similar evaluations used to address new (and experienced) teachers.

The Forum for Education and Democracy‘s Rethinking Learning Now group released its report “Effective Teachers, High Achievers,” outlining another model of high-quality teacher education.  The government pays all expenses for teacher preparation; the student teacher receives a year of practice teaching in a clinical school; all beginning teachers are mentored; and ongoing professional development is embedded in the work week.

These guidelines would surely change the outlook for the teaching profession.  If so, keep in mind President Obama’s key question-who is all this change for?

Kids, I hope.

Getting Ready

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Rumbles about teacher preparation keep surfacing in the newspapers, on TV, on teacher internet websites, in union magazines.

The concern engulfing the education world is not just teacher quality, but how to improve schools of education, whether undergraduate or graduate programs.

Impressive statistics describe the dilemma.  Of 3.2 million teachers in 95,000 schools in the United States, half are Baby Boomers who will soon retire.  The data estimates that within four years schools will lose 1/3 of those veteran teachers.  By 2014 almost 1 million new teachers will be needed, roughly 200,000 new teachers a year.

Those numbers stood out when Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of the Department of Education, in an October speech at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, New York, addressed mediocre-his words-teacher preparation in the United States.

Veteran teachers may shake their heads.  A long line of famous educators, Horace Mann, William James, John Dewey among them, have despaired of weak teacher preparation.

My favorite quote is from Jacques Barzun, a revered philosopher and educator from Columbia University, who disparaged teacher education as having “a strong anti-intellectual bias, enhanced by a total lack of imagination.”

The good news from the second half of Duncan’s speech is that over the past ten years a few “rigorous practice-spaced initiatives to adapt to the reality of preparing instructors, to teach to diverse students in our information age” have developed.

Sounds like good news for young men and women in schools of education, until those that oversee teacher education look at the kinds of students for which their programs must prepare new teachers.

English Language Learners, isolated rural children, high poverty-high need urban students, kids who need excellent math and science teachers, diverse ethnic groups that would do well to see a diverse teacher population.

What to do about these disparate needs?

A number of options for schools of education have surfaced.  One essay by Susan Engel, “Teach Your Teachers Well,” New York Times, November 2, 2009, suggested more time student teaching, not just sitting at lectures about class management or the latest reading research.  Next, she suggests videotaping and analyzing the lessons taught, similar to training for therapists who analyze good points and difficult moments in therapy sessions.

Also, she suggests more study about watching children learn, not merely memorizing Piaget’s theories, for example, but in-depth study.  Last and best, is Engel’s suggestion to provide financial incentives to public schools to hire several teachers from a similar training program.  With this strategy, called a teacher residency, participants will have backup and camaraderie that may be a boost during difficult moments which any veteran teacher knows will occur.

PACT, Performance Assessment for California Teachers, has been pioneered by a wide-ranging consortium of teacher education programs in California.  It offers some of Engel’s strategies for the aspiring teacher.  Fourteen states are piloting similar performance assessments based on PACT.

One caveat: in California, as well as many other states, the current fiscal budget deficit and the solution of pillaging money from education places a pall over success.  However, there are those who will never say die.  Veteran teachers count on that determination.

Get ready!