How do rural schools measure up in college and career readiness?

We talk a lot in the education world about urban schools, but what about rural schools? How do rural schools measure up in college and career readiness?

A report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce projects that by the year 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States require some level of postsecondary training. Given projections such as these, it is critical that we as a nation ensure that students have the necessary support to complete both a high school education and postsecondary training.

In the debate about how to improve our nation’s schools and promote postsecondary training, politicians and advocates often focus on the plight of urban schools. It is true that our urban schools struggle to provide quality educational opportunities for all students, but while considering federal policies to improve our nation’s schools, we must also consider that almost a fourth of our students attend rural schools. Graduation rates are higher in rural areas, but rural students are less likely to enroll in two and four year colleges and universities. Why is this case? Could it be that rural high schools offer a less rigorous curriculum that neglects to prepare students for postsecondary education? Could it be that rural students have less geographic access to postsecondary education? Are there other obstacles to postsecondary enrollment that more significantly affect rural students?

In a new report “Big County: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students,” education policy experts Jennifer Schiess and Andrew Rotherman ask whether rural high schools graduate a higher proportion of students under less rigorous standards that urban and suburban high schools. They find a both a gap in access to high-level courses (such as algebra II and calculus) between rural and non-rural areas and that rural students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses were less likely to pass the exams that their non-rural peers. While this final result does not point to a widespread “dumbing down” of curriculum at rural high schools, it does highlight the need to support rural students in enrolling in and successfully completing the high-level high school courses that are predictive of college enrollment and success.

This issue also highlights some potential solutions to a common issue of the need for highly skilled teachers in rural areas. While a high school of 100 or 200 students may not be able to afford teachers that can teach both AP chemistry and AP physics, is there a way that several rural schools in the same area could share these highly specialized teachers between schools and districts? How could virtual learning be used to increase access to highly-skilled teachers? There are many ways that schools and districts in rural areas could better support students, but most of those potential solutions require out of the box thinking and changing the status quo in how things get done.

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Focusing on biliteracy – an option for all students

More states have started recognizing the value of writing, reading, and speaking a second language. As this EdWeek article states, 13 states now provide a certificate of biliteracy on high school diplomas (and 10 more are working on it). My current home state is one of those states in the early stages – and I hope it moves through the proper channels for implementation. Acknowledging students have biliteracy is an important statement that 1) being able to communicate in other languages is an advantage to workers and residents of any community (regardless of that person’s race/ethnicity/native language), and 2) it provides non-English speakers recognition that their native languages are important.

I recently had a discussion with a district administrator who stated that many Latino families choose to put their children in traditional schooling programs (i.e. English only), despite having English/Spanish dual language programs available in the district. The administrator hypothesized that parents choose the English only route because they believe that English is a more valuable language for school (and likely career). This is a common mentality of immigrants and minority language speakers (in any country).

A personal example being that my grandmother was a first generation US citizen and learned very limited Arabic (her family’s native language), so that she could assimilate faster into school and the community. Sadly, the Arabic language was not passed on to future generations – with exception of the names of Lebanese food we still make and random words that were part of my grandmother’s vocabulary.

Back to the policy/practice point of this entry. In order for non-English speakers to realize the importance of native language, we must place a value on language knowledge. Offering dual languages programs (that are implemented with fidelity) and providing a seal of biliteracy are a few ways that educators can demonstrate the value of multilingual knowledge and skills. Until we, as educators and policymakers, change how we describe and value other languages, immigrants and non-English speakers will continue to devalue their native languages in an effort to assimilate — which is something that no one should feel they need to do.

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Breaking Down Funding Silos

Another presentation that I attended at the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference was on breaking down funding silos and featured the work of the Federal Education Group. The two attorneys, Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, discussed many issues related to using federal funds more effectively and a couple of the most poignant pieces (and my commentary on those pieces) are below: 

  • “It’s not a funding problem, it’s a lack of understanding about the work.” (Sheara Krvaric). I see this all too often in my work with states and districts. There is a lot of money for school turnaround efforts, but SEAs and LEAs continue to plan for this work in a piecemeal way. SEAs and LEAs should begin with a set of goals, and then backwards map what needs to happen to reach those goals. Then, find the funds to implement that work. Until we have a better understanding of what the actual work is and how the funds can be used, we’ll continue to implement silo’d and ineffective practices – as opposed to comprehensive aligned systemic improvements.
  • One of the attorney’s also noted that states are so fearful of auditor findings that it limits their creativity. Instead, she recommends using funds in innovative ways (as long as the compliance pieces are met) and then risk a finding from the auditors. If a finding occurs, appeal it. As long as the state is not breaking compliance requirements, the appeal will likely be effective.
  • This is an area that is finally coming to the forefront of states and districts and several organizations are developing tools to assist states navigate the craziness that is federal funding.

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Innovative Approaches to Building Teacher & Leader Capacity

Last week, I attended the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Center on School Turnaround, Council of Chief of State School Officers, and the National Center for Systemic Improvement, and several of the presentations have stuck with me. One of those presentations was by Bryan Hassel of Public Impact and Scott Thompson from DC Public Schools. Bryan provided great information on the Opportunity Culture Initiative and presented innovative approaches to getting the most highly skilled teachers in front of the greatest number of students. Scott followed Bryan with some examples of policies and practices DCPS has implemented to improve teacher quality and retention. Below, I’ll highlight some of the pieces that I found most interesting:

  • DCPS launched a new program, called the Strategic School Operations program, to create new positions in schools that focus on the operational aspect of school relations. This allows the principals to focus on the instructional part of the school. These two leaders must work together to run the school, but the pilot program saw strong results. Scott reflected that before the position was created, school leaders spent almost 50% of their time on operations, and within 4 months, that percentage dropped to 20%. The positions were funded with existing budgets by reorganizing existing staff and FTE positions. The model was developed after looking at key components of successful charter school models. This is a model that should be closely watched and likely replicated in schools and districts across the country.
  • As a result of the SOS program, teacher satisfaction improved as schools are better managed (i.e. they don’t run out of paper, copy machines are fixed, busses run on time) and they receive more support (i.e. principals actually have the time to support and mentor teachers with job embedded professional development).
  • DCPS talks about transactional vs. transformational change – with an emphasis on transformational change.
  • DCPS has experimented with increasing base salaries and offering bonuses and has found that increasing base salaries is much more impactful than offering bonuses (even substantial ones). Scott Thompson stated, “People don’t make life decisions based on bonuses.”
  • Teacher candidate quality drops drastically as the hiring window moves along, e.g. the teachers hired in May are found to have much higher capacity and effectiveness than the teachers hired in August. As a result, schools and districts need to develop practices and policies that allow for the most in need schools to hire earlier (such as bonuses for teachers to alert the district of their non-renewal by an early deadline, preferential treatment in the candidate pool, etc).

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The value of PD – or lack thereof

A new report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) entitled “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development” highlights the collective lack of knowledge regarding what helps teachers improve, despite a myth that we know what works and that teaching excellence is “just over the horizon.” TNTP’s exploration of teacher development activities across three large urban districts finds that school systems neglect to clearly define expectations for teacher performance and growth and do not provide development opportunities that conclusively improve teacher performance.

We know that teacher quality is the most deterministic factor of student success. So, how can school systems promote work cultures that value and support teacher improvement? When teachers, as this report highlights, “are told in innumerable ways that their level of performance is good enough,” what incentive do they have to master this complex job that requires mastery of a “daunting list of individual skills?” In order to drive teacher performance, we must focus on developing and supporting work cultures which value teachers’ individual needs, provide differentiated professional supports, and set an expectation that growth is the norm.

We spend millions of dollars on professional development (PD) each year, but what proof do we have that the PD results in improved capacity and better instructional effectiveness? We know teachers (and district leaders for that matter) need PD, but is the PD we provide working?

This report also highlights some interesting ideas for revamping both teacher training and how schools allocate teacher resources. They suggest that the best professional development for new teachers may well be gained on the job (i.e. job embedded PD)  – new teachers would begin by taking on small (but important!) responsibilities such as grading homework, managing extracurricular programming and communicating with parents. More effective teachers (those with both more experience and a track record of driving student achievement) would mentor these new educators and focus on lesson delivery. Through this system, everyone maximizes their current skill set to deliver the best educational opportunities for youth. Win, win?

Ultimately, this report shows that we have a long way to go in terms of best determining how to support, motivate, and drive the performance of millions of teachers across the country. Innovative ideas need to be tested and evaluated so that resource-constrained districts can begin to use valuable resources to support evidence-based systems for teacher development.

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New report: Examining how charter autonomies can be used to turnaround schools

Today, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center on School Turnaround released a joint publication I authored, entitled: Chartering Turnaround: Leveraging Charter School Autonomy to Address Failure. This paper explores how charter schools and charter autonomies can be used to turnaround chronically low-performing of schools, via:

  • Traditional public school restart (TPS restart): Converting a low-performing traditional public school to public charter school status via the SIG restart model or via another accountability mechanism that requires a turnaround strategy;
  • Closure and replacement: Starting one or more new charters schools in locations with high concentrations of recently closed low-performing schools; and
  • Charter school restart (charter restart): Transferring management of an underperforming public charter school to new management and new board governance.

The paper discusses each of these options at a high-level, and then delves into case studies of three Charter Management Organizations using the TPS restart model to turnaround schools. The case studies are the core of the paper, and were my favorite part to research and write. Finding out about what’s working, what’s not working, and how practitioners in the field rise to the numerous barriers they face, while thinking out-of-the-box to problem solve is one of the best parts of my job. Speaking to the leaders of these three organizations was inspiring and revives my spirit in a sometimes daunting field.

Charter schools, and the charter autonomies they work under, provide us a unique opportunity to think outside of the traditional school building turnaround. It’s time we stop thinking about just preserving chronically under performing building and start thinking about how we can change turnaround opportunities for students. Charter schools, and their autonomies. are not a panacea for low-performing schools, but they do provide us with additional options that should be explored by policymakers and practitioners.

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Addressing the root cause of student behaviors

In school turnarounds, we often talk about the need to address climate and culture issues right away. In order to change the climate and culture in a school, students need to feel that their teachers believe they can learn, teachers need to believe that students CAN learn, behavioral expectations must be set clearly, and those expectations must be enforced consistently and with fidelity. But, what discipline looks like can vary. Too often in turnaround schools we see high out of and in school suspension rates. While it may be easier for the classroom teacher to instruct without a child acting out, that child loses valuable classroom time, and learns that the school (as a system) does not care if he/she is learning. This article (a great read for parents or educators), highlights psychologist Ross Greene’s work, explains why educators must get to the root cause of student behaviors, as opposed to reacting the action. We must find out what’s really going on with kids to prevent that action from occurring in the future. This requires a great deal of time, skill, and patience up front, but it can result in tremendous outcomes for the student. We must acknowledge that kids in turnaround schools (and all kids for that matter) have a lot going on and might not understand how to deal with their emotions and feelings in a productive manner. (Adults have the same issue, myself included!) Educators must step back from addressing the action, and dig deep to find out the root cause of an action. It could be as complicated as the child witnessed domestic violence last night or saw a neighbor being arrested, but it also may be as simple as the child is hungry. All it takes is a patient adult to ask a child what’s going on and what they can do to help. Our schools need to recognize student’s individual needs and then do what they can to mitigate the negative external forces on that child’s life.

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.


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