Do the right things; avoid the fads
By Karin Chenoweth
The Free Lance-Star
WASHINGTON — It doesn’t take much effort to become disheartened about American education. Dismal statistics point to the fact that our children simply don’t know enough. Our top-performing kids can kind of pant along behind the world leaders, but the rest are left in the dust. Children who live in poverty and children of color fare particularly badly, and with both groups growing, the future bodes ill both for them as individuals and for us as a nation.
The Council on Foreign Relations warned, “The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.” Amid all this doom saying, is there any hope?
The last couple of decades have seen a remarkable growth in the knowledge of practitioners and researchers about how to educate all children. The challenge for us as a country is to make sure that knowledge is understood widely and applied consistently.
One key insight: What schools do matters — a lot. People outside the field of education might not think much of that insight, since it seems pretty obvious. Why else would we send our children to school? But it remains a hotly contested idea within the field. Many have said that schools can do little to help students who come to school from impoverished homes. It is certainly true that schools could do even more if their students were not anxious about their next meal and where they will sleep at night. But educators around the country are demonstrating that they are able to help even children who live in poverty and isolation reach meaningful standards — if they do the right things.
So the next question is, “What are the right things?” I have spent almost eight years trying to answer that question, traveling to high-performing and rapidly improving schools that enroll significant percentages of students of color and students of poverty. Many people would expect these schools to be low-performing, but their student achievement data makes them look at least like middle-class schools; some are at the top of their state. Take, for example, George Hall Elementary School, which serves a poor, isolated neighborhood in Mobile, Ala. All its students qualify for the federal student lunch program, and all are African-American. In 2004, George Hall was once one of the lowest performing schools in the city; today it is among the top-performing schools in the state, outperforming many of Alabama’s most affluent schools.
What does George Hall — and the other schools I have studied — do to be so successful? Each school is exemplary in its own way. Some are small, some large, some rural, some urban, some suburban, some elementary and some secondary, but they all share the same basic approach. They:
- Focus on what students need to know and be able to do in order to be ready for college or career training when they leave high school. Help the faculty collaborate in order to teach.
- Assess frequently to see who has learned the material and who needs extra help.
- Study class, grade, and school assessment data to find patterns of instruction in order to improve.
- Deliberately build relationships between students and staff and among staff so that students trust teachers enough to learn from them and teachers trust each other enough to work together.
This list seems almost too simple, but it gets at the core of how schools should operate and avoids all the fads and fashions that too often overwhelm the field of education. As simple as this formula is, it represents a very different way of organizing schools.
Most schools are organized around individual classroom teachers teaching in isolation. This means that students are highly dependent on which teachers they get. A good teacher means a good year of learning; a not-so-good teacher can mean falling behind. Two or three bad teachers in a row can be a disaster for a student, particularly one whose family is not able to compensate for weak instruction. The schools I have been studying — I call them “It’s Being Done” schools — do not leave teachers to teach in isolation. Their leaders and staff know that no individual teacher can possibly know enough to be able to help every single student and that only by pooling their knowledge and skill can teachers reach everyone.
It turns out, however, that it isn’t so easy to collaborate in these ways. Teachers themselves need teachers to help them work in ways that are best for students. That means that principals are critical to improving schools because, as schools’ head teachers, they are the ones who can focus a school’s efforts to help all children and help teachers learn to work in these new ways.
The big picture? We know what is necessary to make schools work for all kids, and at least some people know how to do get the job done. Now we just have to spread that knowledge around. To me, that seems like cause for hope.
Set high goals for all of our students
By Kathleen Porter-Magee
The Free Lance-Star
WASHINGTON — An independent task force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security brought together by the Council on Foreign Relations released a report in March that found that “the United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.” These findings may be disconcerting, but they’re not new. Politicians, policymakers, educators, parents, and even students have long understood that far too many American students leave high school without having mastered the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and on the job.
Of course, there is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. Many believe that small classes are our best route to closing the achievement gap. Others feel similarly about setting clear and rigorous standards. And still others push for accountability reforms that use results from assessments to hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable. Who is right?
There is a saying among high performing schools that there is no 100 percent solution to helping students learn. Instead, there are a hundred 1 percent solutions that add up to big results.
The same is true in the world of education policy. Our best hope to improve student achievement is to find the right mix of policies that, taken together, have the greatest potential to drive achievement.
Fortunately, over the past two decades, we’ve seen tremendous education innovation and have a sense of what reforms hold the greatest promise. While we can’t do everything at once, we can learn from the most successful gap-closing public, charter, and private schools and districts. Looking to the best among them, there are four policy principles that can lay the foundation for the educational improvement and innovation we need to once again lead the world:
- The power to lead.
Much attention has been paid lately to teachers. This is unsurprising given that research consistently shows that an individual outstanding teacher can have a lasting impact on her student’s long-term achievement — an impact that lasts well beyond the years they’ve worked together. That said, there are too many outstanding teachers who are islands of excellence. These teachers can do amazing things, but they alone cannot transform a school community. To ensure all students get a great education, schools need to be led by transformative leaders who can set clear goals and chart a path to reaching them. And these leaders have to be given the power to lead — to hire the best team for their students, to reward the best teachers, and to decide which teachers should be laid off or fired, particularly in times of financial strain.
- Setting uniform, high standards.
One thing is clear: The only hope we have for students to achieve at equally high levels is to ensure that all students are held to equally rigorous standards. For too long, the expectations for students of color and those who come from disadvantaged families were far lower than the expectations to which we held students from middle class and affluent families. We have no hope of closing the achievement gap unless all students, regardless of their zip code, are held to the same rigorous standards.
- Tying accountability to results.
Setting clear standards is virtually meaningless if those do little more than adorn classroom bookshelves. In order for them to have traction, expectations need to be aligned to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. And student performance — and performance gains — on formative assessments need to be used not only to guide planning and instruction, but also hold students, teachers and leaders accountable.
- Teacher autonomy.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of accountability-driven reforms is that state and local leaders can give teachers the freedom to actually teach — to plan their lessons and to use the materials and pedagogy that they think will best help students reach the goals they’ve set. Because teachers are the front-line educators who know the students best, they need this flexibility and autonomy. Too often, policies seek to dictate how teachers teach.
It’s appropriate to set goals (standards) and to ask teachers to ensure students reach those goals, but they then need the flexibility (and support) to help students meet them. In isolation, none of these policies will transform our schools. But used as a starting point and combined with additional reforms developed in the years ahead, they can jump-start innovation, allow flexibility, and ultimately drive student achievement so that America can regain its leadership position in the world.