Archive for September, 2011

A tale of two schools

John Zorn of the Chicago Tribune recently looked into the details behind a recent speech given by CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. Brizard discussed two schools in South Chicago, 1 mile away from each other, with students of similar demographics, and yet the schools have stark differences in performance.

Zorn concluded that leadership, class size and time were three factors that likely impacted the success of the High(er) Performing High Poverty school. While class size and increased learning time definitely make a difference in any school, and especially in schools that educate high minority and high low-income populations, in my mind, there is no question that the primary cause of the school’s turnaround is leadership.

In a turnaround transformation having a principal that walks the walk, monitors everything (and everyone) in her building, holds everyone (from parents to teachers to students) accountable, and is relentless in the pursuit of high standards makes a world of difference.

First, change the school climate and culture – and this must come from the top down.

Second, the principal and her leadership team focus on basic instruction, teacher PD, and increasing instructional rigor.

Lastly, the principal should distribute the leadership amongst a team of staff members to ensure changes are embedded into the culture and structure of the school – so much so that improvements remain and continue if the school leadership changes.

The principal sets the tone of the building and she must be the one to determine that the old status quo is no longer acceptable and that change is coming, it’s coming now, and reforms are not going away. While we frequently talk about the shortage of high quality teachers (a legitimate concern) creating a larger supply of turnaround principals and school leadership teams must become a higher priority in federal, state and district policy.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

— Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

Excerpts from the original article:

“I was at a school a few days ago, late last week, on the far, far South Side of the city,” said Brizard, speaking at a recent joint appearance with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “100 percent minority, 100 percent poverty. Yet at the 95th percentile in proficiency.”

Brizard went on to ask how the school could be doing so well when there is another school “only about half a mile down the road, same kind of school, same kids, same neighborhood, (but) at the bottom of the pile in achievement. That’s the question I think we also have to wrestle with: How some schools are doing it and others seem to struggle with the exact same situation.”

Intrigued, I followed up. It turns out Brizard was referring to Burnham/Anthony Math & Science Academy (right) and Robert H. Lawrence Math & Science School, kindergarten through eighth-grade facilities located in the same square mile of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood south of 95th Street and west of the Chicago Skyway.

Both public schools are roughly 99 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, and more or less 95 percent of students at each school qualify as low-income.

Neither school is a magnet or selective-enrollment academy. Each has about 10 percent of its students classified as disabled and has daily attendance rates in the mid-90s.

Yet 88 percent of Burnham/Anthony students met or exceeded state standards on the composite 2011 Illinois Standards Achievement Test of reading, math and writing, compared to 47 percent of students at Lawrence (the city average is 73 percent).

Ten years ago, Lawrence’s meets/exceeds score on the ISAT’s was 41 percent, compared to just 38.5 percent for Burnham/Anthony.

How did Burnham/Anthony do it?

“The new principal came in and changed the culture,” said long-time Burnham/Anthony Local School Council President Felicia O’Neal, who has had children at the school since 1999. “She put the focus on academics and she let the teachers and parents know she was going to hold everyone accountable.”That principal, Linda Moore, a former teacher and assistant principal in the system, took over just prior to the 2004-2005 school year. She began using grant money to operate a one-hour after-school academic program four days a week from October through March.“I meet with each new family and share my expectations for them and their children,” Moore told me. “I tell them the child must take ownership, the parents must take ownership, and the teachers and staff must take ownership of the success of that child.”The result is a 94 percent “parent contact” score on Burnham/Anthony’s state report card, compared with 70 percent at Lawrence.Why is Lawrence struggling and still targeted for improvement under No Child Left Behind?

Put it all together and the answer to Brizard’s crucial question — Why do some schools thrive while seemingly identical schools falter? — seems to involve at least three things in Jeffery Manor: leadership, class size and time.

Burnham/Anthony took off after the arrival of a dynamic new principal who inspired and enabled both teachers and parents and who added four hours a week of after-school academics — though teachers there last week voted down the controversial contract waiver that would have added 90 minutes to the regular school day.

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Turning around charter schools in Chicago

I’ve blogged about this issue before, but it’s important to remember charter schools are (well, charter schools should be) accountable for their results. If a charter school is not educating students, it should close. The management of five Chicago charter schools recently shifted, and one school is currently undergoing a major overhaul (AKA a turnaround-like effort).

Charter schools are often cited as a better option for some students (particularly in high poverty high minority communities), but that does not mean every charter school is strong. Charters may have freedom from traditional union rules and district bureaucracies (and supplemental private funding), but they are also constrained by limited per pupil district/state/federal funding, limited funds for facility/capital improvements, the realities of the surrounding communities, sometimes poorly run CMO’s (Charter Management Organizations), and a low-performing leader in any school will negatively impact the performance of both students and teachers.

Kudos to CMOs (in this case Chicago International Charter Schools) that actively evaluate their portfolio of schools and make changes to schools which aren’t meeting expected goals. Any student attending a public school should receive a basic high quality education, and charter schools are public schools. Charter or no charter, a good school should be replicated and an underperforming school should be changed or closed.

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One teacher’s view on testing shifts from disdain to support

I could blog about my thoughts on the testing for accountability vs. teaching to the test debate, but this teacher does a much better job of it than I ever could. Please read it to better understand the debate, why some teachers embrace testing (of course testing in moderation) and why others fear it.

EdWeek Commentary, Ami Nyamekye
August 29, 2011

In college, I pumped my fist at a rally against standardized testing. I’d never seen the exam I was protesting, but stood in solidarity with educators and labor organizers who felt the testing movement was an attack on teachers, particularly those working in poor public schools. My opposition grew when I became a teacher in the South Bronx, one of America’s poorest communities. I wanted to uplift my students and resented the weight of a looming high-stakes test.

Besides, I thought good teachers should be left to their own devices. And, I was certain that I was a good teacher. For the most part, my students were punctual, respectful, and engaged. It wasn’t until my second year in the classroom that I began questioning this assumption.

In a routine evaluation, my principal praised my organization, management, and facilitation, but posed the following question: “How do you know the kids are really getting it?” She urged me to develop more-rigorous assessments of student learning. Ego and uncertainty inspired me to measure the impact of my instruction. I thought I was effective, but I wanted proof.

In my third year of teaching, I put myself to the test. To formally link my instruction to quantifiable student outcomes, I decided my sophomores would take the state Comprehensive English Regents Examination a year early. As I deconstructed the test—which was a blend of reading-based questions and essays—I appreciated its ability to efficiently achieve what I could not.

Writing rigorous and comprehensive test questions is a meticulous and laborious science. The New York regents’ exam was based on the science of assessment and aligned with state curriculum standards, core curriculum, and federal mandates. The state education department oversaw testing, ensuring questions were written and vetted to be “statistically and psychometrically sound,” and published an online archive of exams, rubrics, and sample student essays. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I decided to learn from these tools. What I learned was surprising and empowering.

I discovered holes in my curriculum. I once dismissed standardized testing for its narrow focus on a discrete set of skills, but I learned that my self-made assignments were more problematic. It turned out they were skewed in my favor. I was better at teaching literary analysis than grammar and punctuation. When I started giving ongoing standardized assessments, I noticed that my students showed steady growth in literary analysis, but less growth in grammar and punctuation. I was teaching to my strengths instead of strengthening my weaknesses.

The test also compensated for the inherently subjective act of grading. I was designing the quizzes and projects used to evaluate my students and, by extension, my instruction. My intimate knowledge of students and the bonds we forged in the classroom influenced my perception of their performance. I knew Michael was a talented, but lazy, writer. I admired the dogged work ethic of Lian, a Chinese-born student, who struggled to master English. Naturally, I was emotionally invested in the success of my students—their grades were my grades.

The test provided me with fresh perspectives on my work. I was not allowed to assess my students’ writing. Colleagues from my English department used detailed rubrics to grade each essay. These peers had emotional distance from the work and could scrutinize essays for evidence of achievement.

Most of the teachers I’ve worked with over the years don’t share my newfound enthusiasm. The 2010 Scholastic-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation surveyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of 40,000 educators nationwide found that only 27 percent felt state standardized tests were essential or very important in measuring student performance. I’m now convinced that these sentiments are the product of a testing movement that has become more about fear and politics than pedagogy. Teachers, I believe, are pumping their fists for the wrong reasons.

Fear is at the heart of this backlash. My colleagues fear the proliferation of drill-and-kill instruction. This outrage, though understandable, should be directed at the policies and school leaders that use standardized testing as a replacement—rather than a measurement—for inspired instruction. These drill-and-kill practices demoralize teachers and warp the aim of assessment.

The most powerful opposition comes from the teachers’ unions. At a recent convention, the National Education Association insisted that it “will always be opposed to high-stakes, test-driven evaluations.” This rhetoric is a distraction from the underlying problem. Standardized testing reflects the curricular priorities of a state’s education agenda. Blaming the test for the shortcomings of that agenda is like blaming the barometer for the weather.

That’s not to say there is no room for improvement. On the whole, testing must become more innovative, technologically advanced, and better at identifying skills essential for college and career readiness. But the same is true of our public school systems. We certainly wouldn’t do away with America’s noble, but deeply flawed, experiment with public education.

Sadly, the actual merits and shortcomings of standardized testing often get lost in this stalemated debate that positions the test as either a scourge on teachers or a panacea for reform. In truth, the test is nothing more than a tool. It will not singlehandedly turn around swaths of failing classrooms or be the death of public education.

Only policies, leaders, and, most importantly, teachers wield that kind of power over school performance. Like any assessment tool—including the ones teachers regularly generate and assign—standardized testing has strengths and limitations.

When I “depoliticized” the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

All of my students who took the exam passed. Most earned high scores. I also found a correlation between improved test performance and growth in reading and writing ability. Grammar and punctuation were still my students’ weakest areas, but there was evidence of growth.

The test didn’t make my students smarter. It made the teacher smarter. I learned that my job wasn’t simply to encourage students to relentlessly pursue knowledge. I needed to constantly test what I thought I knew about teaching.

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