School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “September, 2011”

Feds Award $25 Million to Successful Charter Schools

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan awarded $25 million in grants to “highly quality” charter schools on Wednesday, continuing the Obama Administration’s strong support for high-performing charter schools. In his September 28 press release, Secretary Duncan explained that these charters are making a difference in the lives of low-income students by raising achievement:

Several high-quality charter schools across the country are making an amazing difference in our children’s lives, especially when charters in inner-city communities are performing as well, if not better, than their counterparts in much wealthier suburbs. Every one of our grantees serves a student population that is majority low-income and virtually all exceed the average academic performance for all students in their state.

Charter Schools are public schools that typically are free of the more cumbersome components of state and district regulations governing schools, particularly those involving the hiring of teachers and staff. Charter Schools also are accountable for their outcomes. This means that if they do not meet pre-determined learning goals within a defined time (according to their “charter”) they can be shut down.

The KIPP network of schools received the largest share of the grant money to build an additional 18 schools throughout the U.S.

Here is a listing of each charter school network and its grant allocation:

Name Funding Amount Project Description
KIPP Foundation in consortium with KIPP regions $9,463,103.00 18 new schools in Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL, Washington, DC, Gaston, NC, Houston, TX, Jacksonville, FL, Los Angeles, CA, Memphis, TN, Newark, NJ, New York, NY, and San Antonio, TX
Rocketship Education $1,881,569.00 56 new schools in Oakland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Chicago
DC Preparatory Academy $878,824.00 4 new schools in Washington, DC
Success Charter Network, Inc. $1,740,970.00 Project description: 6 new schools in New York
Richard Milburn Academy, Inc. $1,575,562.00 6 new schools in Texas
Uncommon Schools $1,400,000.00 9 new schools in Newark and Boston
Breakthrough Charter Schools $3,488,060.00 8 new schools and 3 expanded schools in Cleveland, OH
Alliance College Ready Public Schools $3,139,983.00 10 new schools in Los Angeles
Cosmos Foundation, Inc. $1,431,929.00 7 new schools in Texas

Just Wild For Ideal Schools

Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews writes about Six Wild Ideas for Ideal Schools today. A month ago Mathews asked readers of his blog Class Struggle to send their ideas for an ideal school. If the school was already operating, it should be producing better results without placing extraordinary burdens on staff and students (and I assume parents, too). Check out the six schools he starts off with today (some proposed, some already operating). According to Mathews, the common themes among the chosen six are close teacher-student contact, teamwork, and projects. I’m really struck by the variety in their approaches (an Alice In Wonderland School? Sign me up). He’ll publish the rest of his picks at his blog on Friday.

Schools 2 Prison Pipeline

In a recent column, Seattle Times writer Jerry Large spotlights the “Schools 2 Prison Pipeline” project headed up by League of Education Voters (LEV) and Our American Generation. This project examines the alarming trend of school systems to “push their ‘bad kids’ out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system.” Large’s column explains the role zero-tolerance school-discipline policies have played, and whether these policies should be re-examined. I met with LEV to discuss how school suspension/expulsion policies apply to students who receive special education, and, by extension, how that impacts the Schools 2 Prison Pipeline. Large’s column and Schools 2 Prison Pipeline are both worth the click. Kudos to everyone for tackling such a thorny issue.

We’ve seen the future, and it’s a hybrid

William Mattox offers a glimpse into what will undoubtedly play a huge role in the future of education (and socialization) in Florida Reformers Got It Right: Hybrid Schoolers Reap the Benefits.  Mattox describes how his high-school aged son, Richard, embodies a new breed of “hybrid schooler” customizing his education and extra-curricular activities in a manner that best suits his needs.  The result is not just rigorous academics, but a chance to develop relationships with students, teachers and coaches beyond the traditional classroom or after-school setting.

While technically a home schooler, Richard is in reality a “hybrid” schooler.  His education consists of a combination of online courses, attendance at a small private school, and participation in a local performing arts program.  Richard also plays baseball for the local public high school team at Tallahassee’s Leon High School, where he takes AP courses, too.

During his son’s participation in these academic and extra-curricular offerings, Richard’s father soon discovered other hybrid schoolers, such as the first baseman who was taking online courses at the Florida Virtual School in English and Financial Management, and the outfielder who took several extra online music courses at night and over the summer.  That outfielder eventually earned a college offer from The Juilliard School.

While the academic benefits of customizing education are well established, what is particularly encouraging is the potential for hybrid schooling to broaden social outreach by connecting the student to new people and experiences. Going back to the example of Richard, he developed supportive friendships with thespians in his drama club, college students at his Youth Ministry (through his private Christian school), with public high school students from his AP courses, and with other athletes from his baseball team.  These students and their groups were all different, and yet Richard felt personally connected to each one.  Hybrid schooling thus broadened the diversity of his social experiences, and allowed Richard to develop meaningful relationships with other students, teachers and coaches.

For students whose learning styles and strengths are not a good fit for what Mattox describes as the “factory school model of the 20th century,” hybrid schooling is one way for students to individualize their learning in way to maximize the learning experience, both academically and socially.

Pressure Drop

A report released last week by the College Board showed the average SAT reading and writing scores for high school seniors in the U.S. reached an all-time low, slipping three points to 497 for reading and two points to 489 for writing – the lowest scores for reading and writing on record.

Immediately following this release, the predictable handwringing and excuse-making ensued from all interested parties. Some contended the score drop was not a big deal because of its statistical insignificance. The College Board blamed the diversity of the test-takers.  Others saw it as yet another sign of the continued decline of the U.S. on the world’s academic stage.

Why do we care about SAT verbal scores? Should we? Yes, according to E.D. Hirsch. Here’s why:

This is very worrisome, because the best single measure of the overall quality of our primary and secondary schools is the average verbal score of 17-year-olds. This score correlates with the ability to learn new things readily, to communicate with others and to hold down a job. It also predicts future income. 

 In other words, SAT verbal scores accurately correlate with outcomes for students. Really important, life-changing outcomes, like the ability to learn, communicate and keep a job. Because these scores tell us how students will turn out, they also tell us a lot about the job we’re doing educating them.

Brain Drain in Rural Communities: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

In rural communities, the local public school ends up playing two opposing roles, according to Jennifer Sherman and Rayna Sage in Sending Off All Your Good Treasures:  Rural Schools, Brain-Drain, and Community Survival in the Wake of Economic Collapse.  First, public schools in economically depressed rural communities typically function as the one-way ticket out of poverty, despair and its attendant afflictions, such as drug and alcohol abuse.  They serve this vital role because in these rural communities, a new economic paradigm shifted the basic requirements for what’s necessary to survive.  Families that could previously live off the wages of a logger or other manual-labor type job face a post-industrial economy where high-school and college diplomas are required tickets for entry.  Public schools, not hands-on job skills, thus serve as the launching pad for a better life.

But in these same rural communities where the economy collapsed, the local public school also functions as the primary source of “community cohesion.”  This means the school is the lynchpin for the common events necessary for community vitality, such as volunteer efforts, gatherings, carrying on traditions of the town, etc. So, if the town’s identity previously centered around the logging jobs (or coal mining as I’ll explain below) the town’s new identity is the local public school.

Thus an inherent tension arises.  The local public school pushes academics as the ticket out of poverty.  And that means “brain drain” – the smart kids leave and (mostly) don’t come back.  But, brain drain has a devastating effect on the local economy.  So while schools try to keep communities together, their very mission is designed in many respects to tear them apart.  In the town the authors researched, “brain drain” meant precipitous drops in student attendance at local schools (one parent cited an example of a 100 student decrease at her child’s school in a three-year time span).  And those students who left rarely if ever returned after college.

The phenomenon that the authors witnessed in a rural town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (intentionally not identified by the authors) is similar to what my parents experienced.  My mother grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, and my father in Logan, West Virginia.  Both towns were small.  When my parents lived there, the local economy was in large part fueled by the coal industry (mining, and the spin-off work from mining).  And yet both my parents left their small towns never to return, as did many of their friends and family.  Both moved to one of the larger cities in the state (Huntington – my hometown).  And the cycle continued with their four children.  We were all encouraged to move away from West Virginia (and we all did), because my parents feared the local economy would not fare well for us, and by extension for our children (their grandchildren).

While the story of migration of people from areas of low economic activity to ones of high economic is old as civilization, what intrigues School House Wonk about this offering is the author’s theory that public schools actually pick the winners and losers in this process.  The authors contend their research shows these rural schools “pick” children whose moral standing in the community mirrors their own, and by contrast “assume the worst” of children from the community’s “most challenged families.”  These “good treasure” children are showered with the instruction and reinforcement needed for success.  As such, some parents in these rural communities foster great resentment towards the local public school for purportedly choosing “winners” and “losers” in the education process.  Those not chosen were typically the children whose parents were chronically un/under-employed, likely on public assistance, and often abusers of drug or alcohol.

The authors surmised that by picking certain children over others, the local public school exacerbated brain drain, with the children of more educated families winning the ticket out and moving away, while those children not chosen were left behind to live out yet another generation of underperformance and despair.  In fact, one parent poignantly characterized the children not chosen as the “ones you didn’t want.”  What’s left behind after brain drain?  Families that education not as a way up or out, but as a system rigged against them.   No system can succeed where its participants foster such mistrust and fear.

Back-To-School Night and Beyond

 Confession:  School House Wonk loves back-to-school night (and its numerous iterations, including but not limited to: curriculum night, meet the teacher, meet and greet, etc.).  Why?  Because this is your first real chance to meet the star of the show – your child’s teacher.  You learn about what’s planned for the year, a bit about the background of the teacher, and, if you’re lucky, about that teacher’s philosophy of teaching (hint: if the teacher doesn’t offer this, ask!  It’s a remarkable glimpse into what makes them tick.  That’s important to know in any relationship, especially one as vital as the teacher-parent-student relationship).  It also gives the parent a better understanding of what life is like inside his/her child’s classroom. 

Typically schools host just one back-to-school night each year.  And although there are some other formal opportunities to talk to the teacher (usually at twice-yearly parent/teacher conferences), what if we used technology to create more informal opportunities for parent/teacher/student interaction and feedback?  With the advent of Skype and related technologies, this type of interaction can now be facilitated with ease, eliminating the need to match up rigid work schedules , but still allowing for the face-to-face connection that can make meetings more productive and meaningful. It could include review of student work samples from the teacher, homework samples from the student, and possibly meetings of multiple parents for students who work in teams or groups.  

And while teachers might understandably feel overwhelmed by emails from parents about any matter of items, the prospect of regularly-scheduled meetings for interested parents might in fact reduce the email traffic teachers currently handle.  Parents could be encouraged to save certain types of questions for the next Skype meeting.  Here is a terrific list of 50 Awesome Ways to Use Skype in the Classroom and beyond.

More Not-So-Great News For the Middle Class

Well, talk about a great way to kick off the week!  We’ll learn today in a sobering report that Middle-Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade.  A Democratic think tank, Third Way, crunched data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and national and international testing programs.  What did they find? 

First, spending.  When it comes to spending, middle-income public schools are being outspent by their lower and upper-income counterparts.  Middle-income public schools spend less on average per pupil, pay less for the average base teacher salary, and have higher student/teacher ratios than lower-income or upper-income schools.

Given that we know spending isn’t a reliable predictor of student outcomes, let’s look at results.  How are students in these middle-class public schools performing?  Not very well, according to the same report:

  • Less than a third of students who attend middle-class schools score proficient on national 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 8th-grade math exams. About 36% are proficient in 4th-grade math.
  • For upper-income schools, more than half the students are proficient on the 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math, while nearly half (46%) are proficient in 8th-grade reading.
  • In low-income schools, less than 20% of students are proficient on all of those exams.

 OK, still not sure why we should care?  Like most things in education reform, it’s all about the numbers.  While closing the gap for lower-income students remains critically important, the reality is that if we want to move the needle in terms of student outcomes nationally, we have to take a hard look at how middle class students are performing because of their sheer numbers. 

Again, according to the report, middle-class schools educate 25.7 million, or 53%, of all public-school students.  This translates on the ground into more than half of all white and African-American students, 50% of Hispanic students and 45% of Asian students.  That’s a lot of students touching substantially on every demographic.

Moreover, the trend for the past 15 to 20 years, arguably starting with Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, has been to focus on low-income students.  I know of no TFA-quivalent for middle class students, even though, as Michelle Rhee aptly observed, unless we focus our efforts on middle class kids, reform just won’t happen:  “But for this movement to really gain hold, we need to engage the middle-class parents who think their schools are doing just fine.” 

Or, as Lisa Simpson’s substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom, once said,  “That’s the problem with being middle-class.  Anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.”

School Choice For Me, But Not For Thee

Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) did the right thing yesterday when he reduced the conviction and sentencing of an Akron mother convicted of falsifying her address so that her children could attend a better, safer school.   Kelly Williams-Bolar was jailed for nine days when she was convicted of falsely using her father’s address to enroll her two daughters in a school about two miles from her house, but not in her school district (she resided in the Akron School District; the school was in the neighboring and better performing Copley-Fairlawn District).  Williams-Bolar sought clemency so that she could continue to pursue her education and career path of becoming a special education teacher.  With the felony conviction, getting her teaching certificate would have been practically impossible.

Williams-Bolar stated that her concern about her daughters’ safety at the neighborhood school was what motivated her to falsify her residency records.

This case touched many nerves for many reasons.  School choice advocates pointed to it as an example of the desperate need for parents like Williams-Bolar to have choice to escape failing or unsafe schools (w/o having to wait out the years required for a transfer under No Child Left Behind).  Those in the social justice arena saw it as yet another example of the haves (a wealthier suburban district) excluding the have-nots (a poorer, more urban/minority district).  Defenders of the status quo public education system saw it as more evidence of an underfunded public school system, where kids aren’t safe to attend their neighborhood school.

When it comes to public school choice, I really do feel like I’ve landed on another planet.  I will never understand a system that does not allow parents to choose their own public school, particularly when the schools are taxpayer funded.  I realize if we did start choosing our public schools it would be messy – extremely messy (e.g., transportation, funding, you name it).  But that doesn’t make school choice a bad idea.  It just makes it hard.  Yes there are pockets of public school choice, but for most, these are oversubscribed lotteries where chances of entry are slim.  The daily reality is that most families, esp low income ones, must attend their neighborhood school.

But the dirty little secret (and this is hardly a secret) is that school choice DOES exist for many families.  Families who have the means to research schools and pick (and afford housing in) the right neighborhood.  Families who can afford private school or homeschooling.  Families who can afford to supplement subpar teaching w/ after-school tutoring.  But as a single Mom going to school, working and caring for her elderly, sick father, Williams-Bolar didn’t have those resources to exercise the same choice others do.  So she did what she thought she had to do.  A lot of mothers can identify with this.  And that’s why the story is such a powerful one.


Nixon Goes to China and Opens a Charter School

So did you hear the one about the ex-United Teachers Los Angeles President who wanted to start his own charter school in South L.A.?  Yes, that’s right.  Long-time anti-charter crusader and former President of United Teachers Los Angeles A.J. Duffy recently applied to open a charter school in Los Angeles.  This is the same A.J. Duffy described by Los Angeles Mayor (and charter school supporter) Antonio Villaraigosa as “one unwavering roadblock to [education] reform.”

At his Apple Academy Charter Public School, Duffy aims to make tenure harder to earn (including lengthening the time needed for it).  And while Duffy would allow teachers to unionize at his charter school, he would also require teachers to demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom even after they’ve earned tenure. He also seeks to streamline the process for dismissing ineffective teachers, ideally shortening it to ten days.  The current process can often drag on for years, even where there is evidence of gross misconduct.

But, if American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten can support charter schools, then anything is possible.

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