Category Archives: School Reform

New Years Resolution: Be Honest About Education 2012

As we start 2012 I propose that we all make the resolution that we begin to be honest with ourselves, and with our children, about education in America. For too long we have led ourselves and our children to believe untruths about schools, teachers, and our systems of public education. This ends for me today. For I believe the only way to move toward fixing our education uglies is to expose them. In that vein, I begin today with a exposing a few lies that we have continued to tell our ourselves and our children about education. Here are a few to get us started:

Lie #1: Schools are all about children.

The Truth: Schools are about money and adults too.
It is true that if there were no children there would be no schools. It is true that children are at the heart of many of the decisions we make in and about schools. But it is also true that P-12 education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in every state. Thousands of adults in every state are public school employees and state public school systems spend millions of dollars every year on contracts with vendors. All this is to say that schools are also the places where lots of adults work, and many of the decisions we make in and about schools are based not on what is best for children, but on what is most convenient for adults. Whether you want to call this truth good, bad, or ugly, it remains the truth.

Is there any way around this? Would it be reasonable to say that we can get to the point where all decisions in schools are made strictly on the basis of what is best for student learning? Probably not. But it is reasonable to set the goal that children’s learning will become our top priority when making decisions. It is reasonable to say that if a decision comes down to two choices: one option being better for student learning, and the other option being easier/more convenient/more lucrative for policy makers/school leaders/teachers, the clear choice would be the option that is best for student learning. We are not currently at that place.

Lie #2: We believe all children deserve a quality education.

The Truth: We do not.
This one is a pretty obvious fabrication. If it were true we would not continue to provide lesser quality education to students based on their socioeconomic background/neighborhood. The vast majority of children in the US who live in more affluent neighborhoods have a higher quality educational experience than children who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Children in lower income neighborhoods typically attend schools with poorer quality facilities, teachers who are less able to meet their needs, and lesser quality instructional and technological resources. Many factors contribute to this reality. A few of these factors are many teachers’ preference to not teach in predominantly low income and minority schools, teacher preparation programs failing to prepare aspiring teachers to meet the needs of low income and minority students, a failure to attract candidates into the teacher profession who would serve low income and minority students well, differential school funding, and outright neglect of resources in schools that serve predominantly low income and minority students.

Lie #3: All teachers are good teachers.

The Truth: Some teachers are completely ineffective.
The claim that all teachers are effective or even that all teachers have the potential to be effective is ridiculous and is an insult to the teaching profession. High-quality teachers are highly-skilled professionials with a mastery of both the academic content that they teach and the pedagogical skill necessary to effectively deliver that content to students. It is insulting to the profession to assume not only that anyone could do this, but that anyone could do this well. Many of our current crop of teachers are not effective teachers. Some of them have no desire to become effective teachers. These teachers should be relieved of their classroom duties immediately.

Lie #4: People become teachers because they love children.

The Truth: Some teachers/principals do it for the money.
I believe that the majority of educators went into the field because they care about children, but I know very well that this is not the case for a significant minority of educators. Contrary to popular belief, public school teaching is not the worst paying job in town. Some people actually do become educators for the money. The stability and benefits that come along with the profession are attractive to some people as well. Also, it might be a little less than pleasant for the general public to find out the number of teachers that majored in education because it was easier to get into and keep a job than the field they would prefer to be in.

What about the principalship? Well, some principals make really good money (really good)! That is attractive to some educators whether they believe they would be effective at the job or not. Higher education institutions have exacerbated this problem as many education administration graduate degree programs have become diploma mills, recommending principal certification to the state for any living breathing human being who pays two years worth of tuition. Worse still, some teachers go into school administration in an effort to work less directly with children.

Please join me in telling the truth about education in 2012. Being honest about our shortcomings in education is the necessary first step toward making things better, and I really want things to get better. Our children’s future depends on it.

Happy New Year!

Teach For America (TFA) is not the Enemy

Over the past few weeks more than a few friends and colleagues have engaged me in conversations about Teach for America (TFA), so I thought it a good idea to clarify my position on the program which is now infamous in some teacher education circles. My position on TFA is probably not what you would expect from a faculty member in a college of of teacher education. To be clear, my views and opinions are only mine, and may or many not be shared by my institution. With that said, as this post’s title suggests, I support the work of TFA and other programs like it. Here’s why:

  • TFA has successfully attracted high ability undergraduates and recent college graduates into the teaching profession; something many of our traditional colleges of teacher education have struggled mightily with doing. As far as I understand, most TFA corps members were not headed for careers in the classroom. They were, however, academically talented students. Through intentional and extensive marketing and recruitment, many of those young people have now spent time in some of our nation’s most under-served schools. Some have taught for only a few years, but others who will spend their career in education as teachers, administrators, college faculty, policy leaders, and researchers.
  • TFA recruits and selects only students who are academically well-prepared to serve as teachers. You might wonder why that’s worth stating, but it’s a shift from the typical academic. Standards for entry into the teaching profession have been much too low for far too long. We ought to want the best and brightest young talent going into the teaching profession. Traditional colleges of teacher education must begin to intentionally recruit high ability students, and raise their standards for program admissions. TFA is one of several groups helping to push this conversation nationally.
  • Most TFA corp members serve in schools and communities where most traditionally prepared teachers have no interest in serving. TFA is committed to placing their corps members in low-income schools and communities, rural and urban. In some of these schools the choice is not between a TFA corp member and a traditionally prepared teacher; the choice is between a TFA corp member and a substitute teacher.
  • Research suggests that TFA corps members are improving academic achievement in low-income schools and classrooms across the country; and in some instances, students in the classrooms of TFA corp members show higher academic gains than comparable students in the classrooms of traditionally prepared teachers.
  • Traditional preparation programs have failed miserably with preparing teachers to serve in rural and urban high-poverty communities. TFA and other programs like it,  have attracted students who want to teach in these types of settings, and they provide training for corps members specifically aimed at meeting the unique learning needs of students in high-poverty communities. Research suggests that they are doing an okay job at it.
TFA is helping to change the national conversation around teacher preparation. Like any program, it has areas for improvement, but TFA is an important addition to the educator preparation landscape in the US. It has made valuable contributions to ongoing conversations about high quality educator preparation and the teaching profession. And if we want to be completely honest, if traditional preparation programs were doing such an outstanding job of preparing and placing teachers in high poverty communities, there would not have been a need for for alternatives.

The Teacher Salary Schedule Must Go

Since my time as an early career teacher it has always struck me as odd that teachers’ pay is as regimented as it is. I can remember my introduction to the teacher salary schedule as a first year exceptional children’s teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools. As a new teacher, I remember coming to the conclusion that it did not matter how good a teacher I became, how hard I worked, or how much my students learned, my salary would be determined solely based on the number of years that I stuck around and whether I earned another degree. That message is not one that we should be sending to new teachers, veteran teachers, or potential entrants to the teaching profession.

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many teachers as colleagues, mentors, mentees, and students. Many of those teachers have been exceptional professionals, but a significant minority of them have not been. As I reflect on the teachers that I have seen and worked with over the years, a few things are apparent to me. First, there has not been a strong correlation between teachers’ years of teaching experience and their instructional prowess. While nearly all teachers take a couple of years to get the lay of the land and get comfortable with teaching, beyond those initial years I have seen immense variation in teachers’ abilities. I have worked with the third year teacher who could teach circles around the 10-year veteran, and I have worked with the 15-year veteran whose expertise in classroom management resembled that of a first-year teacher fresh out of a sub-par teacher preparation program.
Similarly, I have seen absolutely no correlation between instructional expertise and holding a masters degree. I have worked with teachers holding masters degrees in whose classrooms very few children learned anything, and I have worked with teachers holding only bachelors degrees in whose classroom no one–child or adult–ever left without learning. Now, after having taught in and researched teacher and administrator preparation programs across the country, I can completely understand why this is the case (I will explore this in a future post).
Here are a few things that I have learned about teachers: 
  • Some teachers are great. Some teachers are good. Some teachers are average. Some teachers are below average. Some teachers should not be teachers.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between great teachers and student learning.
  • There are a myriad of factors that contribute to great teachers being great. The list is as long as the discussion of the factors is complex.
  • Inputs like years of experience and additional degrees may be important, but these factors may or may not be positively correlated with student learning.
With all that said, we continue with a system where teachers are paid according to inputs (years of experience and graduate degrees) with no consideration of their outputs (student learning). This is preposterous. It makes absolutely no sense to me that a school district would pay two 10-year veteran teachers with masters degrees identically even when one teacher is clearly outstanding and the other is clearly not. It makes even less sense to me that a school district would pay a bad, 10-year veteran teacher significantly more for teaching 6th grade mathematics than it would pay a 5th year teacher who is clearly outstanding. What is even more ludicrous to me is that two teachers with identical inputs entering the profession in the same year in the same school district would earn identical salaries for the length of their careers regardless of whether they have differential development as teachers. What these realities say to me (and to teachers) is what we value most is you sticking around a long time whether you are good or not, and getting a masters degree. If children happen to learn anything in your classroom, that’s fine but not necessary; we are not going to reward you for it. 
As I am not one to mince words, let me go on the record here to say that I think the teacher salary schedule is ridiculous. While it may (or may not) have been useful in previous generations, it will not help us to encourage continuous improvement in the teaching profession or to steal top-notch talent from other professions in the 21st Century. The teacher salary schedule must go, and it must go now. It has already had an unbelievable negative impact on the teaching profession and P-12 student learning. We must eliminate its use immediately so that it can do no more harm.

Leadership Changes Ahead for Three “Struggling” Louisville High Schools

Following state leadership audits conducted in early December at three “struggling” high schools in Louisville, KY, school-based decision making councils and/or principals will be replaced. Findings of the audits showed evidence of  insufficient leadership capabilities of the principal and/or councils at the schools, less than rigorous classroom instruction, failure to set high expectations for the learning of all students, and a failure to appropriately engage parents and families.

Identifying problems is an essential first step toward improving student learning in schools, but it is only the beginning of the change process. Now, Jefferson County Public School officials must decide which state-approved intervention models will be best for reforming these schools. Those decisions are scheduled to be made in late January. Let us hope that school board officials adopt models that are most appropriate for meeting individual schools’ needs and not just the ones that are most expedient.

Rhee-Style Change

Much has been said and written in recent weeks about the future of District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. With DC Mayor Adrian Fenty failing to win re-election, many have speculated (and with good reason) that Rhee’s tenure in DC will end very soon. Rhee campaigned heavily for Fenty in the DC mayoral election and called the election of his opponent, Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray, a devastating blow for the public school students of the District of Columbia.

After Fenty’s election as Mayor of the District nearly four years ago, he appointed Rhee as the Public Schools Chancellor, with the charge of shaking the “failing school system” up, and Rhee did not disappoint. During her reign, Rhee has grown in infamy by closing schools, firing teachers, and completely overhauling that capital city’s school district with reforms including stricter teacher evaluations, more administrative control over teaching assignments, and tying teacher pay to student achievement . Her actions have made her a sworn enemy of many teacher unionists and villified her for many public education traditionalists.

But after leaving her post in the Distict, Rhee, who is undeniably one of the most controversial figures in public education today (see Paramount Pictures’ “Waiting for Superman”) will seemingly have her pick of top-level administrative posts. She has been talked about for top jobs Iowa, New Jersey, and Chicago just to name a few. So why does this woman who so many public education professionals and advocates have villified seem to be so highly sought after? The answer is simple. Whether you love her or hate her, you must admit that she’s about change; not incremental change, but the “tear the structure down to its foundation and build it again” variety of change. That kind of change is messy, and it usually pisses a lot of people off. But in places where people have grown tired of the status quo and the results it has produced, Michelle Rhee’s brand of change is attractive.

So my purpose here is not to assess Rhee’s progress in DC.We’ll take a more indepth look at what’s going on with the DC schools another day. Today, I simply tip my hat to Michelle Rhee for not being afraid to shake things up. It is clear that when she got to DC the system was broken. Time will tell whether what she’s done will make a difference, but no one can deny the fact that she tried to make things better; and for trying, I commend her.

Oprah Gives Millions to Six Charter Schools and a Boost to Charter Schools Everywhere

Oprah announced a few weeks ago that she will be shutting down her Angel Network charity with a grand finale of giving $6 million dollars in grants to six  “high-performing U.S. charter school programs.” The selected schools were Apire Public Schools (Californina), Denver School of Science & Technology (Colorado), LEARN Charter School Network (Illinois), Mastery Charter Schools (Pennsylvania), Sci Academy/New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy (Louisiana), and YES Prep Public Schools (Texas).

These one million dollar grants will surely be helpful to the deserving recipients as they use the funds to support and enhance their instructional programs. But more than just providing funding to deserving schools, Oprah’s gifts serve to further legitimize the relatively strong and still growing charter school movement in the US. Oprah could have chosen to give those funds to deserving traditional public schools or districts. Instead, she chose to highlight the progress that some charter schools have made across the country.

This was a huge boost for the six recipient charter schools, but it was a boost the US charter school movement as a whole as well.