Coming to America

Here’s Schoolhouse Rock on the Pilgrims in No More Kings.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Using observation to improve teaching

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Does Better Observation Make Better Teachers? Chicago Public Schools’ Excellence in Teaching Project (EITP), a teacher evaluation system based on the Danielson framework, led to improved reading performance, according to a study reported in Education Next.

However, the focus on classroom observations and feedback had little or no impact in high-poverty and low-achieving schools. In the second year, when schools had less support from the central office, the gains vanished.

(Under EITP), principals and teachers engaged in a brief (15- to 20-minute) pre-observation conference during which they reviewed the rubric. The conference also gave the teacher an opportunity to share any information about the classroom with the principal, such as issues with individual students or specific areas of practice about which the teacher wanted feedback. During the 30- to 60-minute lesson that followed, the principal was to take detailed notes about what the teacher and students were doing.

After the observation, the principal rated teacher performance, focusing primarily on classroom environment and instruction.

Within a week of the observation, the principal and teacher discussed the observation, focusing on areas of disagreement and how the teacher could improve.

All teachers are not the same

All Teachers Are Not the Same, writes Erika Sanzi in Education Post.

Upset about Time‘s “rotten apple” cover, Nancy F. Chewning, an assistant principal in Virginia, described the dedication and hard work of teachers.

“The Rotten Apples come into work between 6:30-7:30 A.M.” and  “teach all day even during their planning periods,” writes Chewning. “After a full day they go home and grade papers, prepare lesson plans for the following day, maintain an online classroom and gradebook, and answer emails. Most don’t stop until at least 10:00 P.M.”

Valerie Strauss excerpted the letter in the Washington Post.

Sanzi, an educator, school board member and mother of three, recalls a former colleague who works from 6:30 am to 10 pm, “spends summers on professional development, coaches softball and does whatever it takes for children to learn.”

But not all 3 million U.S. teachers are the same, writes Sanzi.

She lives in Rhode Island. Twenty-three percent of Providence’s teachers are chronically absent. Her son’s kindergarten teacher missed 27 days, including the day before Thanksgiving and the two days before the start of February vacation.  He told the class he was going to “Disney.”

The next year, her son had a wonderful first-grade teacher.

All teachers are not the same.

All teachers do not come in at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. Some do.

All teachers do not stay after school and then work until 10 p.m. at home. Some do.

All teachers do not spend their summers taking classes and attending conferences. Some do.

All teachers do not maintain online gradebooks and respond to emails. Some do.

All teachers do not provide their students with breakfast, medicine and clothes. Special ones do.

To imply that all teachers are alike “devalues the extraordinary teaching and generosity of spirit of our best and most dedicated teachers,” writes Sanzi.

“My belief that current tenure laws protect bad teachers doesn’t mean that I think all teachers are bad,” she concludes. “On the contrary, it means that I can easily recognize the ones who aren’t pulling their weight because they are so unlike all the great ones I’ve had the privilege of knowing.”

Los Angeles requires ethnic studies

Ethnic studies will be a graduation requirement in Los Angeles Unified by 2019, reports KPCC.

District officials estimate the new requirement will cost $3.9 million.

Several ethnic studies courses, such as Chicano Literature, African American History and Asian Studies, are offered at 19 district high schools. Only 700 students out of 152,000 high school students districtwide take an ethnic studies course, according to Ethnic Studies Now. Ninety percent of Los Angeles Unified students are non-white.

“There is a saying: ‘The real story of the hunter will be told when the lion and the buffalo get to write,'” said LAUSD board member George McKenna, co-sponsor of the resolution who represents South Los Angeles.

San Francisco should require ethnic studies, says Sandra Fewer, the school board president. “Yes, it will mean that something else will have to go,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first priority is expanding the course to all high schools.

In David Ko’s ethnic studies class at Washington High School, students learn to “talk about their experiences in a way that is less about the individual and more of the cultural norms or systems of oppression,” reports the Chronicle. Many of the students “were placed in the class because there wasn’t room in their elective of choice.”

It appears that few students are choosing ethnic studies over other electives, such as music, art, drama, journalism or an AP course. Why not let them decide?

Moskowitz outmuscles the unions

In a Reason interview, Eva Moskowitz, founder of New York City’s phenomenally successful Success Academy charter schools, talks about how she built a political coalition to fight union power.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to squash Success Academy’s expansion plans, Moskowitz “bused 11,000 charter school parents and kids to the state capital in Albany to protest.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed the charter network, the mayor backed down and “state lawmakers quickly passed a bill to protect charter schools from future interference by the mayor.”

How strict is too strict?

How Strict Is Too Strict? asks Sarah Carr in The Atlantic.  Many high-performing urban charter schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder,” she writes. Critics say students — most are black and Latino — face harsh discipline for low-level misbehavior.

Many parents “appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it,” writes Carr.

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. . . . She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. . . .

. . . Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) . . . The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

Students wear a school uniform. Hats, sunglasses and “bling” are banned.

Summer was 14. It felt like elementary school.

Parents are very concerned about student behavior, writes Carr. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” Troy Henry, a New Orleans parent, told her.

But there’s been pushback from high school students.

Summer—who had received countless demerits and three out-of-school suspensions in her first semester as a freshman—was among the roughly 60 students who walked over to a nearby park wearing orange wristbands that read LET ME EXPLAIN. In a letter of demands she helped write, the teenagers lamented, “We get disciplined for anything and everything.”

High on their list of complaints were the stiff penalties for failing to follow the taped lines in the hallways, for slouching, for not raising their hands with ramrod-straight elbows. “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college,” the students wrote. “If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Carver has modified its rules and decided to end out-of-school suspensions. Other charters also are rethinking strict discipline policies and reducing suspensions.

The changes came too late for Summer, who transferred to a low-performing magnet school.

“Restoring order and discipline” has helped New Orleans’ schools improve dramatically, writes Greg Richmond on Education Post. “From 2007 to 2013, the share of students reading and doing math at “proficient” levels surged from 37 percent to 63 percent in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2011, the high school dropout rate declined from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent.”

Demerits go high-tech

ClassDojo — a popular behavior-tracking app — is raising privacy concerns, according to the New York Times. Tracking technologies make it easy for teachers to award points for good behavior or demerits for bad behavior. Parents can track their child’s conduct, if they choose to sign up.

But some fear a young child’s misdemeanors could be recorded for posterity. The “permanent record” really would be permanent.

HUNTER, N.Y. — For better or for worse, the third graders in Greg Fletcher’s class at Hunter Elementary School always know where they stand.

One morning in mid-October, Mr. Fletcher walked to the front of the classroom where an interactive white board displayed ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

In one out of three U.S. schools, at least one teacher uses ClassDojo, which is free. (There are plans to raise money by targeting ads to parents who sign up.) And there are other tracking apps available.

Critics don’t want teachers to reward of penalize students for subjective acts such as “disrespect,” reports the Times. In addition, they fear “behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly saddling some with ‘a problem child’ label that could stick with them for years.”

The concerns seem silly to me. Teachers have been using points to maintain order — and to communicate their expectations — for decades. This just makes it simpler.

As for privacy, the app doesn’t require the student’s last name. ClassDojo won’t know who’s who –unless the parents sign up to track their child.

Some think it’s wrong to award points and demerits in front of the whole class — again, nothing new. Teachers can use the app privately.

Saving ‘Dre

As part of Hechinger’s excellent Promise to Renew series on a Newark turnaround school, Sara Neufeld looks at a 12-year-old boy who’s doing well in school. D’Andre has lived with his paternal grandmother and her husband since the age of three.Grandma Jean is very involved with his school, Quitman Street Renew School. Will it be enough?

Click to read the entire seriesDre’s mother — who was 19 when she had her second child — gave up custody because of her depression and drug addiction. The boy’s half-sister, who lives with the maternal grandmother, is doing poorly in school.

“From the nights Grandma Jean dried his tears as a little boy missing his mom to her constant presence at school events, D’Andre has seen the extent of her devotion time and again, and he couldn’t bear to let her down,” writes Neufeld. “At the same time, he has never stopped longing for his mother, and he’s held out hope that if he is successful enough, she will want a bigger role in his life.”

Dre works hard in schools, reads goes to the library and created his own home science projects over the summer.

As Quitman strives to reverse years of low academic performance and produce more students like D’Andre, he is a testament to the power of a highly involved caregiver, even with minimal financial resources. Jean, 68, is more protective of her grandson than she was raising her own three boys: No violent games on his Xbox, no Facebook whatsoever, and when he plays outside, she’s there watching from the living room window, with lace curtains inside and protective bars outside. . . . D’Andre stays indoors, watching “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel or building an elaborate dragon or tank out of Legos.

Dre’s mother is thinking of taking her son and daughter to Texas, where her boyfriend has moved. His father may take the boy to Pennsylvania to live near his girlfriend’s family.

Meanwhile, Grandma Jean has persuaded Dre to apply for a foundation-funded program that prepares top students to apply to elite boarding schools throughout the Northeast. If selected in the spring, the seventh grader “would spend a year attending local classes to build his academic, social and emotional capacity and then receive ongoing support once away.”

Can charters require parents to volunteer?

Thirty percent of California charters require parents to provide unpaid labor, according to a Public Advocates report. “Forced work” is an “illegal school fee” that restricts access, charges the group.

Requirements range from one hour per year to 96 hours, according to Charging for Access.  Some schools charge parents $10 to $25 per hour or the equivalent in school supplies for unworked hours.

A parent helps a student with vocabulary at a KIPP school in Los Angeles.

A parent helps a student with vocabulary at a KIPP school in Los Angeles.

A charter school “may lawfully include reasonable admission criteria, including a requirement that parents agree to do work for the charter school,” according to a 2006 memo by a state Education Department attorney.

The report calls on the department to end the practice or face a lawsuit.

Charters should not make service hours an enrollment requirement, says the California Charter Schools Association. However, CCSA is unaware of any school that’s excluded a student “as the result of the parent’s failure to volunteer.”

I checked out the local charters on the report’s list.

ACE charters in San Jose require one hour a month: Parents may volunteer from home, such as phoning other parents with information.

Rocketship schools require 30 hours a year. Again, there are opportunities to meet service hours after school, on weekends and from home.

“Parent participation” schools ask the most.

Village School, a “district dependent” charter in Campbell, asks parents to volunteer three hours a week. It’s not clear whether parents have alternatives

Discovery, which also uses the parent participation model,  promises to “work with you individually to find a mode of involvement that works for you.” No child will be turned away because parents can’t volunteer, the web site states.

Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle Ma Elena Villagas (center in pink) a teacher at Adelante Academy in San Jose gets help from parents.


Ma Elena Villagas (center in pink) a teacher at Adelante Academy in San Jose gets help from parents.

Some district-run schools also require parents to support their schools. In Alum Rock, a heavily immigrant district in East San Jose, Adelante Dual Language Academy, a district school of choice, requires 30 hours. 

Alum Rock considered requiring all parents to volunteer 30 hours a year, not just those at schools choice. That idea didn’t fly.

Two district-run choice schools in Sacramento require parent hours, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Leonardo da Vinci sets forth an annual parent contract requiring at least 40 hours a year for a family with one child enrolled, according to the school’s website. “Parents who fail to meet the obligations of the contract will lose sibling preference and may be given voluntary school transfer opportunities,” according to the school’s website.

The Phoebe Hearst website specifies that families “are required to donate 40 hours of volunteer time per year” and can do so by helping in the office, ensuring safety on the playground or in the school parking lot or helping in the classrooms. Parents can also donate $5 an hour in lieu of volunteering to cover up to 20 hours, according to a parent participation form that families are asked to submit each month.

Asked about the requirement, a district spokesman said “the language would be removed from both schools’ websites,” reports the Bee.

I suspect most California schools will drop the requirements. But is it wrong for a school of choice to require parent participation?

School stops $100 ‘homework buyout’

A California school canceled a “homework buyout” fundraiser — $100 for a week without homework — after parents complained. The money would have helped pay for classroom supplies.