Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

OMG, What To Do?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

So you see (post 7-14-09), everyone in the education world is accountable for helping students become proficient in reading and math.

It turns out that some schools are doing well. They continue to turn out plenty of qualified applicants for high ranking universities. In addition, many schools are still able to hit their targets – just enough students can read at grade level and perform well enough on math exams to reach the yearly benchmark.

The question might creep into your head-what about the students that haven’t reached the yearly target?  Despite NCLB, some schools chronically under-perform.  No matter how stringent or how lax the state standards and exams, a large group of students do not do well in school. Many drop out before they finish high school.

Those students are the ones that schools must figure out how to be accountable for.  NCLB says nothing about how to save those students.  It leaves the nature, depth, and quality of any needed reforms entirely up to schools, school districts, and states.

This blog summarized studies that have analyzed what improving schools look like (post 6-30-09).

To begin a turn-around the federal administration and department of education have enumerated specific basic principles to improve the school day and year for the nation’s children.  For instance, on the Education Agenda of the current White House website, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind legislation specifically states that money should be provided to support programs to retain and train teachers; provide mentoring and planning time; as well as address compensation for work in schools with high need students.

Teachers examine data

Teachers examine data

With those principles in mind, the blog reader should go to the Partners in School Innovation Foundation, based in San Francisco, for information about the ‘cycle of inquiry,’ one model based on the business model suggested in the previous post which supports mentoring and planning time.

Such a strategy helps teachers and other school professionals be accountable.  For a former “program improvement” school like Grant Elementary in San Jose, California, a continuous ‘cycle of inquiry’ strategy was a major thrust to meet AYP goals.  As of 2008 data, school’s performance was 12% higher in reading/language arts and 22% higher in math than the state benchmarks required.

Ted Lempert, former assemblyman in the California legislature, heads a group called Children Now, which has useful recommendations about teacher compensation.  The group also strongly recommends transparency of funding resources and stable funding for schools, especially those working with high need students.

Speaking of money and teacher training, remember that there are many programs available, even in these tough economic times, to provide inexpensive, but valuable, professional development.  See the flexible DVD model Take Care! on the blog’s website.

The NCLB approach for holding schools accountable is clear.  The expected educational outcomes are clear.  Given the need, it’s unclear why the multitude of models available to achieve student success are so difficult to implement.

Next Year

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

When I read the newspaper I wonder how schools will ever change.  Budget cuts threaten everyone and everything associated with teaching students.

Now, I’m the lucky teacher.  My district cut costs in the 2008-9 budget, somehow recognizing the dangers lurking in the economy.  Also, the residents in my school district, who strongly support education, passed a parcel tax at the last election.

The district has saved so much money that, at the end of the school year just completed, we were assured of weathering the disasters affecting other districts.  The major disruption will be a reduction of before and after school classes.  They will only be offered for students with learning difficulties.

On the other hand, funding for adult education classes, touted to retrain the unemployed all over the country, is being slashed (the New York Times, May 28, 2009, and the San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 2009).  I question how people are going to get back to work without the programs offered in the community colleges?

In Oakland, California, a school district under state takeover after making a mess of its finances, is now back under the guidance of its school board, along with $60 million of debt.  How is that low-performing district going to devise a plan to raise its students reading and math achievement when it’s searching for money to clean the school restrooms?

A teacher friend in a large district in San Jose, California, told me the schools will revert to 30-1 students per teacher.  The 30-1 formula reduces the number of classrooms needed.  That’s when teachers will not be rehired and the “who-to-lay-off” question comes into play.  A young highly-qualified teacher or a tenured teacher?  In my school, the issue has been put off for a year because of the massive savings held by the district.

In the huge Los Angeles district, I’ve read that most summer school programs have been cancelled.  The cuts leave students whose parents work at loose ends; leaves teachers who depend on the summer income searching for work in a recession; and worst of all, leaves the achievement gap, that most worrisome of school issues, to expand because students don’t have access to learning opportunities.

Most students in my school have highly-educated parents with time and money to provide all sorts of opportunities during the summer.  In my small district I only worry about keeping students at the top of the achievement benchmarks in California.

It’s infuriating that the federal stimulus funds, supposedly available to support a turn around in low-performing schools, will likely be used for basic services.  Why?  Because the legislature in California and other states gives funds and takes them away from the budget depending on the temper of the governor and legislators from one day to the next.

As a teacher I surely want clean restrooms in my school, but I also want to teach my students with all the resources available, not simply ‘make do’.

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.