Friday, May 29, 2009

Reaching My Limits

I just found out that one of the students I taught in sixth grade is pregnant. She's in eighth grade now and the whole thing leaves me terribly depressed.

I taught for two years in a Bronx middle school through the Teach for America program. I had ups and downs during the two years and consider myself to have been thoroughly mediocre during my time in the classroom. I did some things really well. Other things I did much less well. In the end, it became clear to me that while I have many talents, teaching social studies in a low-income middle school is not one of them. So I left.

Even knowing that it was the right decision, I still feel a fair amount of guilt over it - both the leaving and my time in the classroom. I entered TFA (as do many) with grand visions of changing the world. Maybe not the whole world, but at least my little corner of it. At least for the kids I was teaching. Those dreams ran headfirst into an immovable wall that was the reality of teaching. I fought and worked and struggled and hard as I possibly could for two years. It was a draining, emotionally racking experience. And on good days it was all worth it and more. But on the bad days (which far outnumbered the good ones) I was literally embarassed by my lack of ability to accomplish anything. I can't say with certainty that my kids learned or retained any significant amount of social studies after their year with me.

Still, there was the hope that maybe my relentless (and sometimes unfounded) optimism might make a difference. Maybe the presence of another adult who cared about them and wanted to help them succeed would make a difference. They might not have learned social studies, but couldn't I have made a difference anyway? That was kind of the saving grace to which I clung as the possible redeemer for my (and their) lost years in the classrooms.

And then I find out that Priscilla is pregnant.

Priscilla was never a great student. She was several years below grade level in reading and had lots of difficulty processing and summarizing information. Still, she was in my homeroom and we had a pretty good relationship. Apparently that wasn't nearly enough.

As a pregnant teenager (a young teenager at that), the odds are now stacked against Priscilla's success more than ever. The odds for her kids (she's apparently having twins) aren't much better. The bottom line is that I was powerless to do anything.

Maybe other teachers would have done better. I have to hope that's true. And maybe other kids really were positively influenced by me. But I couldn't help Priscilla. There are no do-overs and there are no second chances. And it's really depressing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Progressive Utah

I don't often think of Salt Lake City, Utah as a bastion of progressive anything, including educational ideas. But maybe it's time to start re-evaluating some of those ideas. After all, one school district in the area is rethinking their ideas.

The Canyons School District which serves a high population of ELLs and kids growing up in poverty is beginning to take on an approach to educate "the whole child." This means focusing on more than strictly-defined academic standards. It means providing free meals to kids who need it, ensuring that students receive dental care (because "It's amazing how much of a difference being able to see or not feeling the constant pain of rotting teeth will make in the academic achievement of a child"), and generally making sure that kids' basic needs are met so that they can focus on the college-bound curriculum that will lead to their success later in life.

The district is also working with parents to provide GED classes and other information and services that will help them better care for their children.

I really, truly believe that this is the way of the future for education reform. Focusing just on schools (or just on what happens outside of schools) isn't going to get us the results we need. Focusing on the whole child or even the whole family is the way we're going to get whole results.

Friday, May 22, 2009

It Takes More

A study out of the University of California - Davis has found that students - particularly boys - who face abusive situations at home are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and get in trouble than those who come from more stable home environments. This is one of those things that everyone kind of knows in their hearts, but it's nice to have some solid research to back it up. The other interesting bit of information is that having one of those students in class affects the whole class, not just the individual. Again, anyone who's taught can see how one kid causing trouble can affect everyone, but it's nice to have research to prove what we already know.

The bottom line here is something I come back to over and over again. We know that student achievement isn't defined entirely by their school. Kids don't arrive at school as blank slates and reforms that seem to expect them to are simply not going to be successful. That doesn't mean that schools are off the hook and that we should just give up on kids from the projects or from abusive households. It does mean that we need to do more than just say that we're ending social promotion.

Any effort to really reform the lives of the students who attend school in poor, underserved areas needs to focus on schools and on what happens outside of schools. We need to make sure that social services are in place, that parents have the tools and knowledge to be effective, and that family values conducive to success are in place. Yes, the schools are important and they need to be good. But that alone won't get the job done.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Agreeing into Oblivion

Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich are working together now. At least for a while. In other news, hell has frozen over.

Seriously, though, last Saturday uber-liberal Al Sharpton and arch-conservative Newt Gingrich shared the stage at a rally calling for the closing of the achivement gap. Sharpton called the pairing the "original odd couple" which would be a pretty good line if he hadn't already used it to describe himself and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.

On the one hand, this is great news. It means that leaders, regardless of political affiliation, are seeing that the achievement gap is a problem that demands a solution. On the other hand, this level of ubiquitous agreement doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to get results. Just ask anyone who wants to "protect the middle class" or "support our troops." Everyone agrees that these are good things. Being against them would pretty much be akin to opposing motherhood. But agreeing on the goal doesn't make the fight over achieving the goal any easier.

The danger here is that "close the achievement gap" is going to be agreed into oblivion. It'll just become another bromide that gets thrown out around campaign time. It becomes just another example of unspeak. What we need is not rallies saying that we're against the achievement gap (or for the middle class or in favor of motherhood), but real solutions to how we're actually going to get something done.

At the rally, Gingrich said, "We're not telling you what the answer is." No kidding. But until we do find the solution, all the rallies in the world aren't going to help.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The 1% Solution

I've written before on this blog that contrary to what you might think from reading the newspapers, the school system as a whole is not failing. Public schools in suburban and other upper middle class neighborhoods are actually doing pretty well. However, schools in underserved communities are spectacularly failing. When we talk about the achievement gap and failing schools, that's what we're really talking about.

So where does that leave us in terms of school reform?

Well, it gives us a focus. Rather than running around trying to come up with new systems to measure and account for all schools, we should be looking for ways to boost those schools that actually most need the boosting. I think Arne Duncan gets this.

He just announced a plan to try to turn around the bottom 1,000 schools a year for the next five years. That's about 1% of the school system each year. On the one hand, it's not a lot. On the other hand, just imagine the difference it would make. Targeting intervention on the kids who most need would have a huge impact.

I'm a little less impressed with the means he's planning on using to achieve the ends. The plan seems to be to close down the schools and then re-open them with new leadership and a new staff. That's all well and good, but it depends on the assumption that a new group of teachers is automatically going to be better than the old group. I'm not sure that's exactly a logical assessment of things. Certainly, some schools are beyond help and probably deserve to be closed. But on the other hand, what are we doing to ensure that schools are going to be successful. It's going to take more than new faces. It's going to take an entirely new approach that involves revamped curriculum, teaching, and investment in the community. So by all means, let's focus on turning around the bottom 1% each year. But let's make sure we're actually doing some turning around rather than just taking frantic action to look busy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A TFA Dilemma

Teach for America finds itself in a pretty tricky situation these days. On the one hand, they've got more applicants than ever before allowing them to be the most selective they've ever been. On the other hand, school districts around the country are facing major budget issues, causing some - like New York - to insitutue hiring freezes on new teachers. This, obviously, presents problems for TFA and their new recruits.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina has an interesting approach. They've decided to lay off "substandard" veteran teachers and hire new TFA corps members in their place. Let the battle begin.

On paper, the move makes a certain amount of sense. Cut out the worst of your teachers and bring in a group of highly motivated, highly educated new teachers to take their place. They don't have an established track record yet, but it's a pretty reasonable argument to say that no track record is preferable to a record of failure.

This move comes down to a gamble all around. CMS is betting that the new teachers will be better than the old ones. TFA is betting that the ill-will they create with this move won't fundamentally undercut their argument that they're not trying to replace the traditional paths into teaching. But when you follow up being called "educational mercenaries" with a move like this, people are going to start wondering.

To be sure, many of the new TFAers are going to do amazing things in their classrooms. Just as surely, many will not and will be just another set of mid-level struggling teachers. (Full disclosure: I was a TFA in New York and definitely fell into the second group.)

Ultimately, the question boils down to whether this is good for the kids or not. If it really is the worst teachers being removed from the system, I don't see that they're losing a lot with this. We'll see how much is actually gained.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A New Sensation

I'm still getting used to the idea that I can read about something the president has done and actually agree with it. For the last eight years a more common reaction has been to shake my head or re-read something in disbelief. Now, I'm coming across articles and saying, "Yeah, I agree with that. I've thought that for years." I guess that's the advantage of having your preferred candidate in the White House.

The reason I mention it is that last Friday Obama announced a new plan for unemployment benefits that would allow people to continue to collect benefits as they enroll in educational and training programs. Under the old system, a person collecting unemployment had to be actively looking for work.

Don't get me wrong. I think the old plan made a lot of sense too. I don't think we should be in the business of helping people who aren't helping themselves. However, now we're acknowledging that there is more than one way that people can help themselves.

As Obama said, "In a 21st-century economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, education is the single best bet we can make." Amen to that.

Allowing people to increase their education and build their skill base is more likely to benefit them in the long term them keeping them in a never-ending cycle of dead end, low skill, low pay jobs. By investing in education - even at this relatively late point in people's lives - we are increasing the odds that individuals will be able to break out of the cycle of poverty that captures individuals, families, and generations. Certainly it's not a cure-all, but it sure is a good step.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Beyond Miracles

David Brooks has officially gotten under my skin. He's irritated me before, but now, he's really done it. If he's going to insist on writing about education, he should at least figure out what he's talking about before his next column.

What's sent me into a tizzy here is his column from last Thursday on The Harlem Miracle, by which he means the Harlem Children's Zone. Apparently, Brooks got his hands on a study showing that students who entered the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy in 6th grade made huge gains in math by the time they were in eighth grade. The gains are big enough to prompt Brooks to write things like, "In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students." Pretty big talk.

So what does Brooks think the take-away from all this is? Naturally, it's that his ideas about "no excuses" schools are correct. He thinks that this shows that the "reformers" (a word he limits exclusively to hard line idealocrats) are correct and all those other people who want things like smaller class sizes, better teachers, increased social investment (in other words, the "status quo" crowd) are wrong.

First of all, let's set aside for the moment the fact that the numbers showing this overwhelming success aren't quite as overwhelmingly positive as Brooks seems to think. (Thanks to skoolboy at Gotham Schools for pointing this out.) In fact, even with his own internal logic, it's clear that Brooks doesn't know what he's talking about.

Brooks writes: "Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right." (Got to love the way he sets reformers against those "surrounding the educational establishment.") Then he recommends that people read Whatever It Takes to learn more.

Had Brooks himself actually read Whatevere It Takes, he would know that the Harlem Children's Zone doesn't try to leverage all of its change solely from the school. In fact, a huge chunk of the HCZ model is focused on the kinds of "broader issues" that "reformers" have now refuted. Is it possible that the New York Times is letting Brooks write about things that he clearly doesn't understand? I get that Brooks is a columnist, not an investigative reporter, but come on. Do some research.

Also, Roland Fryer, who Brooks credits as the one who got the mental ball rolling for him, is on my annoying list too. The last we saw of Fryer, he was promoting a plan that was going to pay students for earning good grades. That was the miracle silver bullet that was going to solve all of education's problems. Except that it didn't work. So now we're looking at the Harlem Children's Zone as the miracle that has "changed [his] scientific life."

I don't object to the idea that Fryer is constantly looking for the next best thing and I applaud his willingness to keep moving when things don't work and try to find something that does. The lack of constancy doesn't bother me. What does bother me is that each new policy is THE ONE that's going to fix everything. The problems facing education are inextricably linked with the problems of poverty, race, and societal breakdown in ghetto communities. Expecting to find a silver bullet is a little bit silly. Telling people like David Brooks that you've found one is almost harmful.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Problem With Education

In my very first post on this blog, I wrote that one of the biggest problems with education is that no one knows what the problem with education is. We all kind of have the sense that the schools aren't educating kids as well as they should be and we know that the data shows this is particularly bad for poor children and children of color. But what's actually the problem? No standards or overly rigid curriculum? Bad teachers or administrative micro-managing? Uninvolved parents or lack of choices? The list goes on and on and on. Because we can't even come to a consensus on where the problems lies, we're even more fractured when it comes to finding a solution.

As Dan Brown summarizes on the Huffington Post, Ronald Wolk has written a pretty comprehensive look at what he sees as the major misdiagnoses that have been made since A Nation at Risk was published 25 years ago. Obviously Wolk's perspective on this is subject to debate. That's the whole point of the first paragraph of today's post. However, I tend to think that he may be onto something here.

It's really worth reading Brown's summary of not Wolk's entire piece. I won't do too much re-capping here. What I will say is that if I had to reduce it all to one sentence, it would be this: We've let ideology trump reality time and again in our educational thinking.

We say that we need to find exceptional teachers for every classroom. That's great, but every one of the millions of teachers in this country can't be an exception. We need to make sure that every teacher has the tools and support they need to be a good teacher. Not everyone can be Jamie Escalante.

We say that we just need to increase standards and kids will meet them. Right. Shouldn't we find better ways to reach them rather than just shout "LEARN!" at them.

We've become so obsessed with accountability that we've forgotten that tests should measure learning rather than learning being designed to ensure test success.

We've become so caught up in the education unspeak - Standards! Accountability! Ending Social Promotion! Choice! - that we've forgotten to keep looking at what's actually working.

A Nation at Risk pointed a bright light at education and said, "fix this." Twenty five years later, I don't know that we're any closer to figuring out how.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Teacher Power

We hear a lot about the power of good teachers versus bad teachers in terms of their effectiveness at reaching kids and getting them to achieve at high levels. What we often lose sight of is that every teacher has an enormous impact on the students they teach. Perhaps even more than bringing about higher or lower levels of achievement, teachers have the power to shape basic attitudes and opinions of their students.

As Science Daily reported on Monday, high schol biology teachers have a tremendous power to shape their students' views in relation to the evolution vs. creationism debate. A survey of students at the University of Minnesota found that students who were taught creationism in high school were much more likely to view it as a valid scientific theory than those who were simply taught evolution. What the teacher presented made a difference.

Think about that for second. We aren't talking about completely credulous first graders who believe everything the teacher says because they don't know any better. We're talking about know-it-all, college-bound high school students who still believe what their teacher tells them.

That's a pretty powerful statement about the influence of teachers in our lives.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Can't Afford to Drop Out

Would it surprise you to learn that the graduation rate in New York may be even lower than we already thought? The only real surprise on that would be that it's lower than the already awful 50% where it currently stands. Yet a recent report shows that more than 20% of the class of 2007 were discharged from the system before they graduated. Those discharges are students who were then not counted in figuring the final graduation rate for the system. In other words, the graduation rate may be 20% lower than we thought.

Now, not all of them are actual dropouts. Many may have moved, entered private schools, or any number of other legitimate reasons for removing themselves from the system. But you can bet that many of them were drop outs or were counseled out. And that's very sad.

However, there's research that provides cause for hope. A study out of the University of Michigan shows that kids as young as 11 will work harder in school if they think that college is affordable to them. The logical flip side is that kids who don't see college as a real opportunity are more likely to give up. That makes a lot of sense to me. Why work if there isn't going to be a reward in the forseeable future? But if kids know their work in school can get them somewhere, they'll stick with it better.

That means that we need to do everything we can to make college more affordable (I know I'm not the first one to say that), but also that we need to make sure people know we're making college more affordable. We can start educating parents and students early on to make sure that they see the possibilities and are willing to keep working toward them. When we do that, we may be able to start pushing up our abysmal graduation rates.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What It All Means

A few final thoughts to complete my Gang Leader for a Day triptych.

The projects as described in the book are essentially a smaller, more concentrated version of the urban ghettos in which a huge percentage of our educational problems lie. Looking at them and the kinds of solutions that might work to help alleviate poverty, neglect, and the poor conditions in those projects can help point us in the right direction for how to solve the broader issues in the larger neighborhoods.

I want to turn again to the concept of the vaccuum because that seems to be the key to all this. Where there is a power vaccuum created by the withdrawal/removal of traditional authorities, alternative powers will insert themselves. This is part of the power of the gangs. Where there is a vaccuum in terms of economic possibilities, it will be filled. In the book we learn about drugs, prostitution, and the various other hustles that become the basis for the project economy.

Up and down the line, wherever there is an absence, it will be filled. A vaccuum does not last. Given this, it's pretty tough to try to educate children as if they're operating in a world that plays by the same rules and has the same opportunities as middle class neighborhoods.

The answer, then, is to plug the holes. It means increasing the presence of police and public safety officers while making clear that these people are here to help, not harass. (There's some interesting stuff about police harassment in the book too.) It means making sure that basic social services - health care, sanitation, etc - are provided at the same levels they are in more affluent areas. It also means major economic investment to create actual opportunities for people outside of the alternative, underground economy. Projects like the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, started by Robert Kennedy, are the kinds of things we need to be looking to expand and support.

We can talk about people needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps all we want. But until they actually have some boots to start pulling on, it's not going to make much difference.