Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Achievement School District Helps Low Performing Schools

The most important reform legislation TN was the creation of the Achievement School District, which takes the lowest performing 5% of the schools in the state (roughly 80 schools) away from their local districts and places them in one district, under Chris, who has enormous power and autonomy to fix them. Nelson Smith writes:


The ASD is now leading the charge in developing talented building and classroom leaders, luring high-quality charter-management organizations to The Volunteer State, and incubating new school-choice networks. It runs some schools directly and entrusts others to external charter operators. But the goal remains the same: turn the bottom 5 percent of schools into high-achieving ones (top 25 percent) within five years.

Will this happen? ASD is too new to have produced definitive evidence. But its forerunner in New Orleans, where the percentage of students performing on grade level continues to rise, demonstrates what’s possible. 

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Education Reform in Memphis

I think the analogy with New Orleans and Memphis is particular is apt – and equally exciting in terms of potential for improvement. Like New Orleans, Memphis is a desperately poor city and its school system is very much like New Orleans’ was pre-Katrina: one of the very worst in the country. It’s not surprising, therefore, that nearly all of the TN ASD schools – 69 of the 80 – are in Memphis. Memphis is big: it’s the largest district in TN with more than 100,000 students, bigger than Newark and DC combined.


Below is a great editorial from last week in the local Memphis paper, which ends as follows:

There is a lot of public education reform occurring across Tennessee, especially in the state’s urban areas. Much of it has been driven by the state legislature, but nonprofit foundations also have pumped millions of dollars into the effort. Much of that reform has focused on getting excellent teachers into classrooms. It is not an exaggeration to say that the legacy Memphis City Schools district has been the biggest test tube in those reform experiments because of its tremendous number of failing schools. The ASD is the largest experiment under way to make those schools successful.

Barbic, who headed successful public charter schools in Houston, Texas, before taking the state job, made another point during his visit with the newspaper. Despite being led by some of the best educational minds in the country, very few large urban school districts have been able to make more than modest gains in student achievement.
Maybe that is because some of those districts still are basically operating on a 20th century model from which operational and educational guidance filters from the top down in a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic game plan.

We agree with Barbic that it is an unsustainable model if student achievement here and in the nation’s other public school districts is expected to rise substantially. Individual schools need to be given more autonomy to develop curriculums and operational models that best fit the students and the community their schools serve.

The ASD is trying to do that, and it is a topic that frequently arises in discussions between the new Shelby County Schools board and administrative staff. Talking about it, however, is one thing. Having the fortitude to make it happen is another.

Overall, keep your eye on Tennessee, especially Memphis – I confidently predict incredible things!

For an up-close-and-personal look at the nightmarish Memphis schools, please read one of my all-time favorite blogs/rants, which I sent around in Sept. 2011. It begins:


STOP THE PRESSES!  I just finished I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond, written by NFL star Michael Oher, the guy featured in the movie and book, The Blind Side.  I really enjoyed the book and hearing his amazing personal story (mom was a crack addict, never knew his dad, homeless, constantly moving and hungry), and was particular struck by how he described his experience in Memphis's inner-city public schools. 


I then included excerpts from his book (which you can read here) and then I concluded:

I get very emotional reading this – but not the heart-warming, inspiring emotions you'd expect.  Rather, I feel deep sadness, anger, and outrage because I know that Michael Oher is the unbelievably lucky exception – the needle in the haystack – and that every day, there are MILLIONS of Michael Ohers who are being failed – yes, by their families and our government (our childhood poverty rate has soared to 20% vs. less than 5% in Scandinavian countries, for example), but also by our schools.

I've seem estimates that FIVE MILLION CHILDREN attend chronically failing schools (that's about 10% of the total, which sounds right), where little or no learning is going on and where kids like Michael Oher are just passed along, year after year, on the path to jail, welfare, early death – in short, broken, ruined lives.  This is both deeply immoral, but also suicidal as a country, to waste so much human talent and potential.

Are schools solely to blame?  Of course not!  Parents/families are a much bigger factor.  BUT, Michael Oher's experience – whereby a high-quality school with great teachers who really care about and set high expectations for every kid – is no longer an anomaly.  We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proven by hundreds of schools with tens (hundreds?) of thousands of kids, that high-quality schools CAN change life trajectories meaningfully for the majority (not 100%) of kids from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds.  It's not easy – in fact, starting and running such schools is that hardest thing I've ever seen – but it CAN be done.  It's too hard for this to happen quickly – it's going to be a many-decade journey of 1,000 miles – but for Pete's sake, let's get started rather than saying inane things (as, for example, Ravitch does) that these schools are only a small percentage of schools right now and are not THE answer, so therefore we should focus elsewhere.  In my mind, we should be looking for things that are working, even at a scale, and then: A) Try to scale them as rapidly as possible; and B) Take the lessons/"technology" that's working and spread it quickly in the existing system.

What also fills me with outrage is that people who know what's happening nevertheless fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

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My Visit to KIPP Academy Nashville

During my visit to Nashville, I had the pleasure of visiting KIPP Academy Nashville, the highest performing middle school in the city, and the new KIPP Nashville College Prep, which just opened in the same building (my 54th and 55th KIPP schools visited!) . Each year from 2014-2016, KIPP will open one new school in Nashville until there are two elementary schools, feeding two middle schools, feeding one high school. Here are pictures from my visit and two videos as well: one of a teacher leading students in the KIPP Academy Nashville chant and one of the KIPP Academy Nashville choir, which is performing at the KIPP Summit tomorrow night at the closing gala.

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Local School Board Shows Lack of Faith in Charter

Randy shared with me the letter the local school board sent in February 2004 when it initially denied KIPP’s charter application. Section 1 really caught my eye – ya just can’t make this stuff up! It says:

Central to the goals and missions in the application is KIPP’s “unwavering belief that all students in East Nashville can succeed in the most rigorous college environments.” While the Committee lauds the applicant for setting high goals for the proposed charter school, it is unrealistic to assume that all students can and/or want to attend college.


You know, one of the KIPP leaders I ran into today at the Summit, after I told him about all the things happening in TN, said, “It’s amazing how much things have changed in the past 10 years.” How true! Not even the worst school board today would dare write such a thing…


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Wise Words at KIPP Nashville

 I saw this on the wall at KIPP Nashville and loved it (though apparently Ghandi never said it). I think the ed reform movement is in stage 3, moving toward winning!

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Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander Visit KIPP Nashville

On Monday, Senators Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander visited KIPP Nashville and they had plenty of great things to say:

U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander, leading a one-sided education talk in Nashville on Monday, concluded that the autonomy of charters has advantages traditional schools can’t match as they discussed ways to expand choice and strengthen charter funding.

For Paul, the next step is to push a state law to allow charters in his native Kentucky, where one has regularly died. Both Republican senators, meanwhile, have put their weight behind federal legislation to enable Title I education funding to follow students to schools of their choice.

“When I first heard about charter schools 20 years ago, I said something like ‘Why shouldn’t every public school be a charter school?’” Alexander said at Nashville’s KIPP Academy, site of a roundtable talk Monday stacked with charter school founders, teachers and enthusiastic parents.

“But I still think that: Over a period of time, why shouldn’t every public school be a charter school?”

Alexander and Paul gushed about publicly-financed, privately-led charters for more than an hour as they heard Nashville charter leaders discuss their longer school days and freedom to set curriculum. Parents and former students chimed in with personal stories on how school choice changed their lives.

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Issues Surrounding the Quality of Testing

One of my readers, a TFA alum, sent me the following email that raises extremely important and difficult issues about the quality of the tests used by many states and how much time schools should spend preparing students for them. Some folks who read this will take parts of this email and use it to reinforce their anti-testing crusade, but that would be incorrect. This is not a black-or-white issue, but rather a very nuanced one, with no easy answers, as my reader notes. I’d welcome further comments if you have experiences/perspectives to share. He writes:

Thanks for all the writing and thought-sharing that you do. As a black man from a middle-class background who performed extremely well on state and college standardized tests, for a long time I did not see what all the hullabaloo about testing was about. Then, I joined TFA and worked as a teacher at a high-performing charter school where the kids ROCKED the state tests, and routinely blow everyone, including more affluent students out the water year after year. 

Unfortunately, after the first few months of the school year, I was horrified to see that for the kids in the grade levels that were tested, come January, regular instruction began to cease and they were subjected to full-blown test prep from morning through mandatory after-school test prep (and sometimes Saturday school). As the test date got closer, teachers from other non-tested grade levels who had test-prep experience were pulled from their classroom to help prep the other kids, leaving the assistant teachers to lead their classes. As the tests got even closer, the school began "motivating" (I prefer to say bribing) kids with various prizes to maintain their stamina for hours of test prep. Did this all pay off? Yes. Absolutely yes. To repeat: the school’s scores were astronomical, especially given expectations for the low-income demographic they were serving.

I have visited other high-performing charter schools and the curriculum ranges from rote and developmentally inappropriate to an effective mix of traditional and progressive. The overall curriculum at my school was relatively progressive, very well rounded and in my opinion they have a leg up on other schools because they use many research-based best practices in all academic areas. However, in the tested grades, after the first few months of the school year, the majority of the day is shifted to test prep. It became all consuming. I understand why they do this: it gets results.

I now teach at another charter school, which also definitely does test prep, but they don't start as early and it's only a part of their day, not the majority of it. But the test scores aren’t nearly as good. Is it enough? I'm not sure where the line is, it's just easy to say when it has been crossed in either direction.

I struggle with this issue on a number of dimensions. First, one could also say that getting better at taking these tests will give students the skills to do well on the specialized high school exams and the SATs. A means to an end? I'm not sure, my feelings are really mixed. 

Also, what does it say that these types of all-consuming, "balls to the wall" test preparation methods are needed for low-income students to do well on the state tests? At my former school, the students had been there for a number of years prior to the testing years and the majority were reading and doing math above grade level, yet the test provided such a challenge for them. Without the extensive test prep, they wouldn’t have done nearly as well.

I don't know what the answer is, but the longer I've taught the more I find myself agreeing that the state tests don't actually measure what my students know. I used to think that the reason test scores correlated with income was because of underfunded and poorly run schools without high-quality teaching. After working in an environment with many resources, great teaching, and great infrastructure where the children still do not score well without months of full-time test prep, I am reluctantly coming to being one of those anti-testing people I was so skeptical of before. Additionally, after working at multiple charter schools, I can say that the schools' results have been directly proportional to the amount of time they spend on test prep. It's easy to say "just provide quality education and test prep won't be necessary" but I feel like it's not so simple. 

Anyways, I just wanted to share my thoughts. All the best! 

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Class Discrimination in College Admissions

Mark my words, this front-page story in today’s NY Times, in (rightly) shaming so many of our elite colleges and universities, will result in real change. What school is going to want to be on the bottom of this list? I love the quotes from the President of Vassar:

With affirmative action under attack and economic mobility feared to be stagnating, top colleges profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students. But a comparison of low-income enrollment shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges. A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s a question of how serious you are about it,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar. She said of colleges with multibillion-dollar endowments and numerous tax exemptions that recruit few poor students, “Shame on you.”

At Vassar, Amherst College and Emory University, 22 percent of undergraduates in 2010-11 received federal Pell Grants, which go mostly to students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year. The same year, the most recent in the federal Department of Education database, only 7 percent of undergraduates at Washington University were Pell recipients, and 8 percent at Washington and Lee University were, according to research by The New York Times.
Researchers at Georgetown University have found that at the most competitive colleges, only 14 percent of students come from the lower 50 percent of families by income. That figure has not increased over more than two decades, an indication that a generation of pledges to diversify has not amounted to much. Top colleges differ markedly in how aggressively they hunt for qualified teenagers from poorer families, how they assess applicants who need aid, and how they distribute the available aid dollars.

Some institutions argue that they do not have the resources to be as generous as the top colleges, and for most colleges, with meager endowments, that is no doubt true. But among the elites, nearly all of them with large endowments, there is little correlation between a university’s wealth and the number of students who receive Pell Grants, which did not exceed $5,550 per student last year.

…Among the top private schools, the disparities are even greater. Some private college administrators say they do not have the same moral obligation as public colleges to serve all strata of society, though they are loath to say so publicly.
Ms. Hill, of Vassar, disagrees.

“We receive public support through federal grants, state grants, our tax exemptions, so I think we have the same duty,” she said. “And if young people don’t have an equal shot at getting a great education, we’re going to create a society we’re not very happy with.”

Too bad the article didn’t quote Dan Porterfield, the President of Franklin & Marshall, who has done more in this area than anyone – he’s just a warrior (he’s arriving at the KIPP Summit today). When I sent him this article, he replied:

The Carnevale and Hoxby/Avery research -- and countless earlier studies -- paint an unflattering picture of an America that isn't giving qualified high school students from modest- or low-income backgrounds the opportunities to attend top colleges and universities for which they're qualified.

There are many steps colleges can take to address the phenomenon of undermatching. All can work to increase financial aid; partner with high schools to expand college-knowledge; recruit, admit and enroll more great aid-eligible students; and, of course, educate students for successful lives. Doing this work well enhances the learning of all students and will strengthen the academic quality of almost any college.  At Franklin & Marshall College, we're pleased to have used a Board-approved financial aid increase to enroll three consecutive classes with 17 percent Pell eligible students -- up from 8-11 percent -- and the early academic results are very strong. 

But government and perhaps philanthropy have roles to play -- in addition to promoting continued improvements in K-12 education.  For example, and this policy idea may be controversial, perhaps it's time to adjust the way Pell grants are allocated in order to incentivize strong colleges both to enroll and graduate more Pell-eligible students?

Maybe we should give colleges that hit ambitious enrollment and graduation targets a larger Pell allocation per student, to reflect the fact that federal aid should be an investment in developing the human capital of the nation. And while we're at it, I'd support giving a new Pell-plus bonus grant to high schools serving predominantly low-income communities whose alumni go on to graduate from colleges at very high rates.


Hear, hear!

The NY Times article above profiles two young black men from low-income families in Jackson, Miss. who, against all odds, are now attending Yale and Harvard. Here’s what Travis Reginal, the Yale student, writes:

My mother was 15 when I was born. My parents were naïve, reckless and, in my father’s case, overwhelmed. So I was raised in a single-parent home. No one is surprised to hear that, unfortunately. That’s the norm in many African-American communities; in Jackson, more than half the households with children under 18 are single-parent.

Thanks to my mother, who highly values education, I found a productive substitute, burying myself in studying and reading. In 10th grade, I joined a new speech and debate club at Murrah High School, started by a classmate named Justin Porter (now at Harvard). In him, I found what I had long hoped for — a black male who could push me intellectually. The work we did gave me a depth of analytical skills, perhaps my greatest preparation for college. I also found release in writing poems. In my admissions essay, I gave the reader a glance over my shoulder — at “the process of emptying my soul” — as I composed one.

Postsecondary administrators and pundits wonder why smart students from low-income families are not applying to top institutions. For one, said students may not know what is required to apply to an Ivy League school. Had I not done my own research, I would not have known I had to take SAT subject tests. Also, it was important that the schools let me know I had a chance of getting in.

…For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

…The anxiety has not gone away. I do not feel like the accomplished person everyone thinks I am. But I hope to inspire African-American youth to pave a path to success, regardless of the college they go to or the trade skills they acquire. I know from my personal story that many young people living in at-risk neighborhoods have large imaginations, passionate hearts and deep desires to transcend their community.

He also writes a beautiful poetic tribute to his mother.


And here’s what Justin Porter, the Harvard student, writes:

You might consider me a classic overachiever, minus the money for a college consultant. I had taken every Advanced Placement class I could fit into my schedule — 9 of the 12 Murrah offers. I had participated in science competitions at state and national levels. I had the requisite leadership roles: editor of my high school newspaper and president of its chapter of the National Honor Society. I had started a debate team with some of my closest friends, and spent my free time tutoring elementary and middle school children in mathematics and English.
To my delight, I was notified of my acceptance into Harvard College on Dec. 15, 2011, three days before my birthday. That night, after all of the celebratory texts and hugs, I sat in my room and began to cry uncontrollably.

I felt trapped between the two worlds in front of me. One held seemingly unlimited opportunity — full scholarship, career advancement, travel possibilities. But what would I sacrifice in exchange? My mother and I have never been on firm financial ground, and that was not going to magically change. It suddenly hit me why I was so troubled by her hesitant look: it was the same look she gave me the first time we were evicted from our home. What would happen to her if I left? When she was laid off from her job a few weeks later, my fears multiplied.
The guilt was invasive; beneath my smile, shame dominated my thoughts. I spent the last few weeks of my senior year worried sick — that if I left she would not have enough to eat, a safe place to live, loving company to listen to her stories. I decided to defer my acceptance.
She would hear nothing of it. “Your acceptance into Harvard is one of the shining accomplishments of my life,” she said, “and I’ll be damned if I see you give it away.”
I did not.

Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

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KIPP Creates Partnerships with Colleges for Students

KIPP is doing innovative partnerships with colleges and universities all over the country – 39 so far – to “create recruiting pipelines and campus support systems for students who often lack the higher-education connections routinely found in affluent communities” – and it’s working, as this Washington Post article highlights:

The University of Pennsylvania last year had seven undergraduates who hailed from a national charter-school network that educates children from families of modest means.

This school year, the Ivy League university will enroll 13 more graduates of the KIPP network, including one from the District.

The expansion is the result of an unusual tactic that the network once known as the Knowledge Is Power Program has developed to help its students get into and through college. Starting in October 2011, KIPP and college leaders signed pledges to create recruiting pipelines and campus support systems for students who often lack the higher-education connections routinely found in affluent communities.

The agreements that KIPP has signed with 39 colleges and universities contain no admission guarantees. But they do, in many cases, set recruiting goals, such as at Penn, which pledged to recruit 12 to 15 KIPP graduates each year.

Georgetown University, which announced a KIPP agreement in November, said it aims to actively recruit eight to 12 KIPP graduates a year. Its results for the incoming class: Four admitted, two enrolled.

This year, Syracuse and Trinity Washington universities also will enroll at least eight KIPP graduates each, Franklin & Marshall College six and Davidson College four. Colby College and Duke University will enroll two each. San Jose State University will enroll 34, KIPP said, well exceeding its recruiting target of 15 to 20.

The KIPP effort is one of many that works to help disadvantaged students get into college at a time when experts say too few have access. Among others are nonprofit programs such as QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation. But it is notable that KIPP has obtained written recruiting agreements from numerous colleges, including some of the most prestigious.

“We’re excited to see life breathed into our college partnerships,” said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, a graduate of Penn. “KIPP students are applying, getting accepted, and matriculating to our partner colleges and universities. Next steps will be to figure out how to increase not just acceptances but matriculation, and also how to ensure we are maximizing our partnerships to help our alumni stay in college and graduate.”

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Your Favorite Teacher Could Win a Costco shopping Spree

Looks like a great contest:

Now through Saturday August 10, people everywhere are invited to nominate their favorite teacher to give them a chance to win a 3-minute Costco shopping spree furnished by RetailMeNot, the largest digital coupon site in the United States. The contest is part of RetailMeNot’s new “Do the Math” campaign, a program highlighting continued nationwide education cuts and costs. The goal of the campaign is increase awareness about the impact of these cuts and costs, and to demonstrate how savings techniques on school year spending can be part of the solution to creating a more beneficial experience for students, parents and educators. You can find entry details here.

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Bloomberg's Legacy

Bill Keller with a NYT op ed on Bloomberg’s legacy, with well-deserved kudos for all he’s done for NYC schools:

Bloomberg’s most consequential and controversial unfinished business is the public school system. He set the schools on a hopeful course: stabilizing the system under mayoral control, raising and enforcing standards, giving parents more options, among them charter schools that actually work. There is much more to do. Schools are the work of a generation, not an administration. Bloomberg’s great achievement was taking on the prevailing defeatist view that urban schools were unfixable.

The mayor’s third term, which began with a broken term-limits promise that many New Yorkers have not forgiven, was less successful than his first two, and it felt less successful than it actually was because the city has developed a bit of Bloomberg fatigue. By now, many New Yorkers are ready for a little more consensus, a little less lecturing, a little more attention to those at the bottom. But Bloomberg leaves behind a great 21st-century city, a dauntingly high bar for his successor and a pretty good argument for noblesse oblige.

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