Monday, March 22, 2010

Blueprints for Change

As a school principal, I read everything about education with an eye towards how it would affect my school and my kids. So it is with the recently released ‘blueprint’ from the Administration on changes in NCLB.

I have approached the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with cautious optimism. During the last campaign season I heard lots of talk about ending the over-reliance upon standardized tests, supporting teachers, and equalizing educational opportunities. I hoped this would mean my school, our teachers and kids, would have something to look forward to.

Not wanting to wait for Congress to get around to coming up with what we should be doing, the team of educators that I work with at The Forum is releasing our own blueprint for ESEA next week. So I read the Administration’s blueprint while thinking about both what The Forum will propose and what my kids need. Here is a short comparison of key points:

First, I am pleased that the Administration has finally realized that the key role of the federal government in public education is insuring equal opportunity for all kids. In several places the blueprint calls for equalizing funding across schools, requiring states to address resource disparities, and holding states accountable for providing teachers and principals with the supports they need.

But the Administration’s blueprint does not go far enough. In fact, by making more Title 1 funds based on competition rather than going to support the schools with the highest numbers of low-income students, the Administration’s plan may increase rather than decrease the inequity about which they are concerned.

In the case of my school, the funding disparities are not between schools in the district—we are the district’s only middle and high school. Rather, the issue is the continued disparity in our state where some schools spend over three times more per student than we do. This is the case in state after state as schools that serve the poorest children in the most challenged neighborhoods have fewer resources to help students than those schools in wealthy community. That is why The Forum will be calling for the federal government to use its appropriate powers to allot funding to states based on the state’s movement towards resource equity for every child.

Second, I was happy to see the focus on teachers through out the Administration’s plan. NCLB avoided any serious support of teachers, leaving it to the endless filling out of form and taking of courses to determine if highly qualified teachers were teaching students.

The Administration needs to be bold in the proposals they roll out to support teachers. In my school we have lost several great teachers because they could not make enough money to pay off student loans. Our teacher support programs, built around teacher leadership, professional development on site and consistent with school mission, and common planning times for teachers who share students, are done with little or no support from the feds or the state. This is why The Forum will call for a radical overhaul of teacher preparation, including mentoring of all new teachers, financial support for teachers that work in hard to staff schools, and funds to provide high quality professional development and support activities in each every school.

The biggest disappointment for me in the Administration’s blueprint is that they do not address the over-reliance upon high-stakes standardized tests for federal accountability. It is hopeful to see the Administration at least acknowledge that improved assessments that focus more on actual student performance should be developed. But what happens in the meantime? It appears that the plan is just to keep on testing, using the same tests that Secretary Duncan has acknowledged are inadequate, and then ratchet up the punishments for schools that do poorly and provide cash prizes for schools that do well.

This will do little to turn back the culture of testing that has overtaken all of our schools. Even at my school we engage in test preparation activities, not because we think our kids are not learning, but because the higher order intellectual skills on which we focus are not on the type of test they take. Desperate to avoid being labeled as the worst schools—which could lead to mass firings—and anxious to earn the few extra dollars on the table, schools will continue to engage in test-prep agendas, pep rallies, and all sorts of student accounting tricks to get test scores up. All the while little will change in terms of daily teaching and learning practices; in fact the focus on test scores will further calcify school practices that are focused on memory and rote rather than thinking and logic. Ending Annual Yearly Progress, which is not mentioned in the blueprint but has been spoken about in hearings, is a good start. But not enough.

The Forum will call for rethinking assessment across the board, including performance assessments, school visitation teams, and information about school climate when looking at educational success. Further, it is time to end the radical experiment that judges our children and our schools by answers bubbled in on a machine-scored test. We will recommend a wide selection of measures that will serve to inform teaching and learning; and let each community know clearly what and how their children are learning.

Fourth, it does look like the Administration values innovation, providing funds for new promising practices. Good, my school’s middle name is innovation. We have advisories, integrated curriculum, internships, portfolios, projects, school wide writing rubrics, and we have eliminated tracking and ability grouping. Often these are done in spite of rather than with the support of federal policy. But we are not a charter school—thus, we are eligible for only slightly more than half the pool of federal money for innovation. Out of $900 million set aside for innovation, $400 million is designated for charter schools. Charters educate around 5% of the kids in our county, why the largess? The Forum will call for innovation funds as well, but we want everyone to have equal access to them.

For my school we need more change than what the Administration blueprint seems to be calling for. We need a greater emphasis on equity that guarantees my students educational opportunities will not be based upon their zip codes; we need teachers that are not only well-prepared and well-supported to teach in ways that are engaging and challenging but who also do not have to sacrifice their financial well-being to work with our kids; we need to stop the culture of testing so we can focus on a community of learning; and we need a fair and equal shot at all federal funds for innovation, even if we are just a plain-old public school.

After a decade of tinkering around the edges and making it harder for successful schools like mine (we graduate over 95% of our kids, with the vast majority going on to college and succeeding there—this in a community with an average family income of around $22,000) to do our best work, it is time for a bold change in federal educational policy. While the administration’s blueprint offers some good first steps, I hope the actual legislation rolled out focuses even more attention on equity, teaching, and innovation and less on punishment and sanctions.

Monday, March 8, 2010


This past week I was in Washington to talk with colleagues and friends about the upcoming debates over NCLB. While I enjoy the city and my friends, it was great to get back to my school just in time for Friday—one of my favorite days. And it has nothing to do with it being the day before the weekend.

Every other Friday my staff and I meet for what we call ‘planning period meetings’. Since we are on a semester schedule with long periods this means we have about an hour to talk about our shared work. During the first semester of the year we read a book together and discuss it. In the second semester we take on a protocol called ‘looking at student work.’

The task is simple; a teacher presents work from one of his or her classes to colleagues and asks us to discuss a question generated by the assignment. Usually this involves student work that is not what the teacher had hoped s/he would get. So we examine the lesson, the strategies used, and the student work and try to find ideas that will improve the work of students.

This past Friday lived up to our usual expectations.

We began with an Agricultural Science teacher presenting student essays that did not address the need for evidence in making their case. I sat in the back as the group of middle and high school teachers from math, science, humanities, and special education (along with a couple of student teachers) poured through the work. The discussion looked at how students were coached on such assignments through the term, what the rubric looked like, how to use the building wide writing standards.

Second period a team met to look at a 7th grade science assignment, and the discussion turned quickly to how students see work as opposed to how we see it. (In this case the teacher had asked for students to create a poster showing living things from most simple to most complex — the kids mistook it for a chart showing how humans evolved from sponges!)

Third period we looked at how to create performance assessments in trigonometry; and the most interesting ideas came from the band instructor.

We finished with a look at an integrated humanities class that blends history and literature for ninth graders. The assessment of the unit on ‘Revolution and the Enlightenment’ asked students to compare and contrast the ideas that informed the Founders calls for independence. Having not received the papers he had hoped for, the teacher wanted us to look at the literacy tools he had used during instruction and see if they were best suited for such writing.

I sat in my office at the end of the day marveling at what I had heard. The insights shared amongst colleagues, the seriousness with which they took student work, the effort to understand instruction as it cuts across content areas.

And I wondered, what if the policy movers and shakers who are responsible for reauthorizing ESEA had been with me today rather than still back in Washington. Would they finally understand that the most important investment they can make is in teachers and teaching? That if we have teachers doing the type of work that we did today they would not have to worry about micro-managing schools? That threats and punishments do not motivate teachers, rather that teachers are already motivated they just need the space and support to do their work?

So here’s an open invitation: Before you write one more line of legislation, before you approve one more regulation, before you dare to think you know how to turn around a school, stop by any Friday. We’d love to have you.