Archive for October, 2010

Chicago Scholars onsite

The majority of high school seniors affiliated with the Chicago Scholars program will be admitted to at least one college by the end of the day Tuesday, October 26th. The students have already applied to five colleges and have the opportunity to interview with admissions representatives tomorrow. Many will be told that they’ve been accepted to at least one school. The students are still able to apply to additional colleges on the normal admissions cycle and will decide where to attend in the spring. While their peers are starting to think about college essays, applications and opportunities, these select students will already have at least one option for higher education. Watch the forum live online.

UPDATE: All five students in my cohort received admission to at least one school. Many received multiple acceptances and some very nice scholarships. The first few acceptances sent cheers through the building… two hours later getting a college acceptance letter became the norm and while there were still cheers, they were much more muted. By the end of the day, some students were completely nonchalant about gaining admission to 3+ schools (with scholarships). It was still an amazing experience to be there when one of my students was accepted to a very good school in DC and received a $40k scholarship. She’d already had two acceptances, but burst into tears at the interview table, hugged me, and then promptly called her mother.


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When policies aren’t aligned (or logical)

I usually write about school turnaround, education reform, and underperforming schools, but today’s Chicago Tribune includes a story that exemplifies how policies don’t always align with needs (or logic for that matter). The italicized text is from the article.

Fact: There’s a high obesity rate among Illinois children and experts are concerned that young people are eating few fresh vegetables. Meanwhile, a studies suggest children eat and accept vegetables much more readily when they have helped grow them.

A representative from USDA says school gardens can help feed students’ minds, if not their bellies. Several recent studies on the topic include one that “found children who engaged in garden-based learning did better on their standardized test scores, were more environmentally aware and were willing to try and consume more fruits and vegetables, even beyond what they saw in the garden.”

Practice: Over 40 school gardens in Chicago are carefully tended by teachers, students and volunteers, range from several square feet to several acres of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, and some schools even grow plants year-round in school greenhouses.

Similar garden-to-school programs provide learning opportunities for students and produce for an after-school meals program. They can also provide green summer jobs to students who are willing to water and weed.

“When kids are involved in the growing process and buy into the concept and see the end product, that’s when the whole thing works.”

Problem: None of the produce ever finds its way into CPS lunchrooms. Instead, because of rules set by the district and its meal provider, the food is sold or given away.

Policy: “In order to use food in the school food program, it would need to meet specific/certified growing practices,” CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said. These requirements would include eliminating all “pesticides and insecticide” applications and using only “commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson. Commercial vendors, though, don’t have to abide by these rules. They can sell the district produce treated with several pesticides and grown in nonorganic fertilizer.

Reaction: While the CPS policy is designed to protect students, it is now hurting the very students its supposed to protect. Students could have access to more fresh produce, could gain a better understanding of the farm-to-table cycle, and could develop the satisfaction of helping grow and prepare their own food. If done well, the district, which strives to “buy local,” could save money and truly be local. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the policy.

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Don’t slow down

John Thompson’s post on This Week in Education claims that education reform efforts should slow down, that the number of strategies and reforms being discussed and implemented are overwhelming the unions, and that pushing so many reforms at once will negatively impact implementation in the long-run.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have an option to slow down or to implement piecemeal efforts. Drastic changes must be made, and quickly. Too many students are receiving sub par educations now, today.

Yes, we should ensure that the reforms and strategies align to each other and are well thought-out, but we cannot lessen the pressure. The status quo has prevailed for too long and it’s time to change how things run, how decisions are made, and how the political process influences education.

If Michelle Rhee’s tenure proved one thing it’s that one must press hard and make changes quickly to get anything done in education. Her reforms were abrupt, many strategies were implemented simultaneously, were at times overwhelming, and not all of them worked. But, she managed to make some major improvements for DC’s children without worrying how decisions impacted her popularity, and she demanded that the public, the unions, and teachers look at alternatives. Leading an education system is political, and leaders must make changes when they have the chance.

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Waiting for Superman

I finally watched Waiting for Superman this week. Ironically, I saw the film the same day DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced her resignation. It was rather bittersweet to watch the energy and commitment of Rhee on screen and to know that because of politics (i.e. the adults in the system) another leadership change is on the way for DC students.

Yes, the film is pro-charter and anti-union contracts (not necessarily the unions as a whole, but more the highly restrictive contracts and current union philosophies). While I support the schools that were featured in the film, and know many of them well, the piece of information missing is “why were all these ‘beating the odds’ schools actually ‘beating the odds?'” Charters in themselves are not necessarily the answer, but having the ability to hire and fire who is best for the school and having freedom from restrictive operating conditions are key aspects of charters. And, charter schools are public schools – an often misunderstood fact. Explaining some of these issues in more detail would have strengthened the film.

I watched the film with a friend who’s interested in learning more about the education system. During the film, she whispered to me “why do teachers even join the union?” It was difficult to explain the idea that most teachers don’t have a choice. Union dues are automatically deducted from paychecks, if you support union ideals or not. While it’s important to eliminate “free-riders,” I wonder why teachers don’t sponsor a massive protest about the fact that the unions are not representing THEIR best interests and that the unions are not improving the professionalism of the entire teaching field.

Another friend commented that the film doesn’t present enough solutions. In some ways I agree, but one must ask, what was the point of the film? If it was to incite public outrage at the inequities in our education system and to demonstrate the link between economic stability and schools, then the film has surpassed expectations. The solutions are simple in some ways- give students what they need to succeed, give all students access to high-quality schools. But, how those principles are accomplished is where the problems arise. It would be impossible (and very edu-wonky) to discuss the nitty gritty of the potential solutions and the implementation of various school reform models.

Unfortunately, at this point, inciting outrage and educating the public is what we need. Too often we pretend that this is a NIMBY issue (not in my backyard), but even if one of the dropout factories isn’t in your backyard, this issue will effect us all – socially and economically. None of us is protected from the impact of chronically low-performing schools.

My final reaction for the blog — I wonder what about all the kids whose parents/guardians aren’t applying for the lotteries. The students in the film all had someone who was aware of the lack of quality education and searched for a solution. But what about the students whose parents don’t know about the lotteries, can’t navigate the lottery process, or those who don’t even realize that the schools are not educating their children?

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Why school reform fails…

“The larger cause of [reform] failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure…. Motivation has weakened because students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard, and don’t do well.”

When I first read the above I was stunned — stunned that Newsweek would include such a dated argument in a recent edition. Robert Samuelson discusses  Why School ‘Reform’ Fails in the Sept. 13th issue. Maybe Samuelson should stick to writing about economics and business.

Samuelson writes that talking about this argument is “almost unmentionable.” It is unmentionable because it is incorrect. I support healthy debate, but Samuelson obviously needs to spend some time in one of the “drop out factories” across the country to truly understand the reality that these children live every day.

Yes, some students do lack motivation. And yes, some students drop out of school because they “just don’t feel like going anymore.”

But, is it a child’s fault that he’s had unmotivated, uncaring or unqualified teachers year after year? Is it a child’s fault that she didn’t have breakfast and is so hungry during the day that concentration is impossible? Is it a single mother’s fault that she struggles to keep food on the table and a roof overhead? Is it a child’s fault that he fears being shot walking to school? Is it a child’s fault that she’s given subpar curricular materials and if she makes it into college, remedial classes will be necessary? Is it a child’s fault that he’s lost hope that he’ll get into college, be able to afford college, and be able to get a job in the current economic climate?

Schools should not be designed to remedy every social or economic problem in our  society. But, schools must recognize the reality that students endure and work with other organizations and agencies to combat all of the constraints that are placed on these children. Student motivation isn’t the cause of failed reforms, but it is instead a symptom of a failed education system.

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Huberman to stay in Chicago… for now…

Chicago Public Schools CEO denied reports that he will resign soon. That said, his future in Chicago with a new Mayor is uncertain. Speculation is that he will either resign before the Mayor’s transition next May, or he will be replaced after a new Mayor takes over. If Rahm Emanuel wins the election, it’s likely that he would try to get many of the reforms Arne Duncan started back in action. Chicago has gone from a national exemplar of portfolio management and school turnaround under Duncan, to a district overwhelmed by budget cuts, firings, union controversies, and mismanagement. It’s time to get the district back on track.

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