Children’s Zones in Milwaukee?

While speaking to a group of students and faculty at Alverno College this week, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle said that Wisconsin would soon be revealing its ideas for the national “Race to the Top” competition. Part of the proposal, he said, will include “Milwaukee Children’s Zones,” modeled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone. The Harlem Children’s Zone Project offers a range of supports and programs for children and families, based on the premise that it takes much more than schools are able to offer in a seven hour day to break the bonds of generational poverty. The project’s “comprehensive systems of programs” including The Baby College, The Three Year Old Journey, College Success Office, and Community Pride, are now offered to approximately 100 blocks of Central Harlem.

The Harlem Children’s Zone’s approach has been very successful, and that model has tremendous potential for communities across the nation that face the challenge of breaking cycles of generational poverty. I am very excited to hear that part of Wisconsin’s “Race to the Top” proposal will mimic what that the Harlem Children’s Zone Project has done so successfully, and I hope that other states will incorporate tenets of this approach into their proposals as well. It takes so much more than good teachers to give impoverished kids a real shot at success. For the Nigerian Igo proverb is as true today as it ever was; “It takes a village.”

North Carolina Superintendent Cuts Central Services to Save Classrooms

Del Burns, Superintendent of the Wake County Public Schools (Raleigh, NC), has called for $20 million in cuts to central office to offset a projected budget shortfall in the upcoming 2010-2011 fiscal year. has called for $20 million in cuts to central office to offset a projected budget shortfall in the upcoming 2010-2011 fiscal year. By calling for the cuts at central office, Burns is protecting the district’s classrooms as much as he can. I applaud you Dr. Burns. There is no more important place in the school system than the classroom. As such, direct cuts to classrooms must be an absolute last resort. That’s the stance that Dr. Burns has taken. So even in the midst of these difficult economic times, high quality instruction in Wake County’s classrooms will continue.

Devaluing the Importance of Pedagogical Expertise– A Dangersous Policy Trend

Since writing my November 3rd post about proposed changes to Indiana’s educator preparation programs,I haven’t stopped thinking about what I see as the beginning of a policy trend in devaluing the importance of classroom teachers’ pedagogical expertise. Perhaps beginning with the No Child Left Behind Act and its surrounding rhetoric, increased emphasis has been placed on teachers’ content knowledge or lack of it. I contend that this renewed emphasis is extremely important. I have worked with and observed far too many teachers over my career whose grasp of their courses’ academic content was severely lacking. This is extremely problematic. If a geometry teacher doesn’t have a solid grasp of geometry, the odds of her student coming away from that course understanding geometry are slim to ridiculous. So again, I whole-heartedly support policy initiatives to make sure teachers have the required content knowledge to teach.

However, I do not support policies that place emphasis on teacher content knowledge but deemphasize the importance of pedagogical skill. Both areas are extremely important and must be jointly emphasized. Most of us, even if we have not worked as educators, realize that teachers’ content knowledge alone is not sufficient for providing the type of learning experiences that we want for our children. I have had the opportunity to observe quite a few classrooms just over the last year where the teacher standing in front of the room was unquestionably an expert in his or her subject area, but hadn’t the slightest clue how to convey their knowledge and understanding to the young people they were charged with teaching. 
Effective teachers are those that have a firm grasp of both their content and pedagogical skill. Policies that sacrifice teacher training in one of these critical areas at the expense of the other not only put the learning of our children in jeopardy, but they are a slap in the face to good teachers who have worked extremely hard to master both.

Louisiana’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS)– Too Important to Lose!

The Louisiana State University (LSU) System’s president, John Lombardi, recently challenged the continuance of Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). Students graduating from Louisiana high schools who meet the program’s requirements, including completion of a prescribed core curriculum, gpa, and college entrance exam requirements, are eligible to attend state post-secondary institutions tution-free. Lombardi contends that given the state’s tight fiscal situation, the legislature should reconsider paying tuition for students whose parents can afford to pay it themselves. Lombardi’s issue is that state legislature has been less willing to approve significant tuition increases because they pay the tuition of TOPS students; increases in state tuition would result in significantly increased costs to the state for the TOPS program.

Lombardi recently made the comment that he has surveyed the parking lots at LSU and the cars don’t look too shabby; implying that many LSU students who the state if footing the bill for could afford to pay their own tuition. In all likelihood, he is right. Many of the students at LSU who get the TOPS award probably could afford to pay the $2500 in tuition and fees per semester. But Dr. Lombardi is missing something very important. TOPS is not merely a need-based financial aid program. I would argue that one of TOPS’ most important purposes is to keep some of Louisiana’s most talented students in the state. So yeah, Billy Davis’ mom and dad may both earn good salaries, and paying state tuition wouldn’t impose a financial hardship; but if Billy qualifies for TOPS, LSU probably isn’t his only option. TOPS may provide enough enticement for Billy to stay in-state instead of going to Flordia or Texas. As a Louisiana native I can say that we desperately need our most talented students to consider staying home. Talented young people staying in Louisiana is important for the future of the state’s higher education institutions, and the economic health of Louisiana as a whole.
While it does not appear that Lombardi’s challenges will have any impact on the future of TOPS, it is important to consider what his statements say to Louisiana students. TOPS doesn’t offer students a whole lot of money, but it says to them, “You are important, and we need you to stay home.” I contend that that is the message that Louisiana needs to continue to send to its best and brightest.

Charter Schools- Bad Word In Kentucky

David Cook, the Kentucky State Department of Education’s advisor for the “Race to the Top” program, suggested Tuesday that Kentucky probably will have to make changes in school governance structures that at least resemble the charter school concept in order to get  “Race to the Top” funds. Currently, Kentucky’s school laws do not allow for the creation of charter schools. Cook suggested, however, that making changes to how school-based decision-making councils operate could give considerable freedom to the school councils of failing schools and put Kentucky in a better position to receive funding.

In the brief time that I’ve been in Kentucky, I’ve come to recognize that the term “charter school” is a bad word in some circles. But the reality is, and I’ve been saying this for some time now, the US Dept. of Education really likes the charter school concept as a strategy for turning around troubled schools. The specifics of charter school laws are different all across the country, but the basic idea is giving school leaders considerable decision-making power, and freeing them from many of the bureaucratic hurdles that traditional public schools have to jump through. To be honest, the charter school concept is not radically different from the school-based decision-making model already in place in Kentucky. School leaders/school councils already get considerably more discretion than traditional public school leaders in other states. 
We’ll see what happens, but I believe it would be a mistake to not make these minor changes and miss out on the biggest pot of federal dollars the US Department of Education has ever had to give away.

Proposed Changes to Educator Preparation in Indiana

The Indiana Department of Education and Professional Standards Board are proposing changes to educator preparation that would require universities  to make significant changes in their education programs. The biggest changes include: (a) restricting universities to 30 semester hours of coursework in “methods”, (b) permitting anyone with a masters degree in any discipline to apply for a waiver from certification to become a superintendent, (c) permitting teachers who pass a “leadership test” to apply for a  waiver from certification to become a principal, and (d) allowing teachers to renew their licenses by taking professional development seminars offered by their school districts instead of having to take graduate-level college courses. If approved, Indiana’s changes could go into effect as soon as July 2010, causing university education programs to make major changes in a short period of time. 

Indiana’s department of education is attempting to step across the traditional boundaries that have separated the K-12 world and institutions of higher education. If approved, Indiana’s proposal would allow the state to dictate to universities what the curricula of their teacher education programs will look like. These changes will require programs to place a far greater emphasis on content courses while reducing the number of methods courses that students take. Additionally, the proposed waivers from principal and superintendent certification will  put into question the future of university educational leadership programs in Indiana.
If this proposal is approved, and it appears likely that it will be, questions arise concerning relationships between state departments of education and institutions of higher education. Traditionally, universities have designed their educator preparation programs without the interference of state departments of education. However, it is not beyond reason that this case could have a diffusion effect, with state departments of education across the US following Indiana’s lead.