The Bronx is learning


Second graders at Icahn Charter School 2 perform a play based on The Odyssey at the end-of-year Core Knowledge Assembly Program, July 2015.

The Bronx is Learning, writes Charles Sahm in Education Next.  In New York City’s poorest borough, three charter networks are thriving. The common factor is a coherent, content-rich curriculum.

Next to the controversial Success Academy and South Bronx Classical, Icahn is the city’s top-scoring charter school network.

Icahn’s superintendent, Jeff Litt, is a fan of the Core Knowledge approach. All his K-8 students study history, science, geography, literature and the arts, writes Sahm. “I toured one art class where students were learning the finer points of drawing the human face from an artist. In another, students were practicing ballroom dancing.”

About half of Icahn’s English language arts curriculum is based on the Core Knowledge sequence; the other half is developed by teachers and principals. Decoding skills are emphasized in early grades, but as early as kindergarten, students are simultaneously exposed to lively collections of stories, poetry, and fables. English instruction comprises guided reading, read-aloud, shared text, and independent reading.

. . . In one 3rd-grade class I visited at Icahn 3, the teacher was reading the Roald Dahl novel Matilda (an above-grade-level text) aloud while students followed along with their own copies of the book. The class read a chapter together each day, discussed the book, answered comprehension questions, and practiced writing from the viewpoint of various characters in the novel. The teacher hung a new poster in the classroom daily, containing vocabulary from that day’s chapter, words like “diabolical” and “indelible.” At semester’s end, students were rewarded with a trip to see the musical Matilda on Broadway.

Icahn tends to hire more experienced teachers than other charters, writes Sahm. Class size is limited to 18 students. The attrition and suspension rate is much lower than in district-run schools and the atmosphere is “warm.”

Choosing segregation for a black child

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ black working-class parents sent her to the best — and whitest — school in town, thanks to an integration plan. Her husband, an Army brat, got an integrated education in military schools.

As educated and middle-class parents in a black but gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, they struggled with choosing a school in a segregated city, writes Hannah-Jones in New York Times Magazine.

Najya??? Hannah-Jones

Najya Hannah-Jones Photo: Henry Leutwyler/New York Times

An education writer, she wanted to send her daughter to public school. All the local schools serve low-income black and Latino kids and have low test scores.

“I didn’t know any of our middle-class neighbors, black or white, who sent their children to one of these schools,” she writes. “They had managed to secure seats in the more diverse and economically advantaged magnet schools or gifted-and-talented programs outside our area, or opted to pay hefty tuition to progressive but largely white private institutions.”

Not wanting her daughter to be one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white school, she rolled the dice on a segregated school, P.S. 307, with a great principal and strong funding. Most students come from the housing project across the street.

But she worries the school will gentrify. Neighboring P.S. 8, serving well-to-do whites, is overcrowded while P.S. 307 has plenty of room. If the boundaries are shifted — over vociferous objections from P.S. 8 parents — will their daughter’s school become dominated by affluent white families?

Alexander Russo wonders how many other people in “educationland” have chosen a heavily minority public school for their own kids. So far, he’s got Ben Speicher and Eva Moskowitz, both charter school leaders.

Family Sport Night at Community Roots School in Brooklyn. Photo: Beth Fertig

A Brooklyn charter school works at integrating students and parents, reports Beth Fertig on WNYC’s SchoolBook.

Community Roots Charter School is 39 percent white, 33 percent black, 20 percent combined Hispanic and Asian, and 8 percent “other,” much like its district.

To encourage socializing, the school “stays open late for regular get-togethers like family sports or arts nights, cooking classes for parents, teacher-arranged ‘play dates’ for kids who don’t know each other well,” writes Fertig.

More than 700 students applied for 50 kindergarten seats this year, but “only 25 percent of its students qualify for free lunch, far less than in the surrounding public schools.” To create a socioeconomic mix, the school now requires that 40 percent of students must come from nearby housing projects.

Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Teacher training seeks ‘cultural competence’


Amy Davis teaches second-graders about parachutes at a Los Angeles elementary school. Photo: Joel Leavenworth/Slate

White teachers need to become “culturally competent” to teach non-white students, writes Vanessa Romo in Slate. “Minority children now account for more than half of all students in public schools and the teacher workforce remains more than 80 percent white. And so teacher-training programs are increasingly trying to figure out how to bridge this divide.”

When she began teaching a class of second-graders in South Los Angeles in 2002, Amy Davis . . . figured she’d have little trouble relating to her mostly low-income black and Latino students. After all, she was raised nearby, in a household headed by a single mother who for years survived on welfare and food stamps. Like her students, Davis knew what it was like to grow up poor.

But Davis, who is white, struggled to connect with several of the children — particularly a 7-year-old black student named Patrick.

Patrick had frequent meltdowns that disrupted her class.

Davis decided that she was seeing Patrick through a white, middle-class “lens” and needed to understand his home life. She began phoning his mother regularly. “I had to cultivate that relationship, but when he found out we talked almost once a week, he started changing his behavior,” she says.

. . . (Davis) learned to scour catalogs for books featuring black American and Latino protagonists that looked like her students. She adopted classroom management techniques that didn’t disproportionately single out black boys . . . And she figured out how to talk to her students about the beauty and linguistic variations of the language they spoke at home—usually African American Vernacular—and the importance of being able to switch into standard English when necessary.

Davis now coaches teachers in how to help students — nearly all are Latino or black — master standard English. She “helps teachers recognize their own biases and reflect on how those biases influence their expectations of students and approach to discipline,” writes Romo. “She also provides guidance in choosing books and other materials that the children will be able to relate to.”

Is this “cultural competence” or just plain old competence? And wouldn’t Patrick be a royal pain for a teacher of any color or creed?

A comment by “sameoldsameold” asks:  “You really want to sit down teachers, a population already disrespected, exploited, despised, blamed, underpaid, saddled with every social ill the rest of the country won’t deal with, and essentially tell them they’re ‘racially biased’ towards students  and need to confess their ‘privilege?’  Really?”

Gates Foundation learns humility — maybe


Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the world’s largest foundation, talk to reporters in New York on Feb. 22. Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press

After years of “setting America’s public school agenda,” the Gates Foundation is learning humility, concludes a Los Angeles Times editorial.

The foundation funded the creation of small high schools, until its researchers found that size isn’t a critical factor in student achievement.

It funded bonuses for high-performing teachers, coupled with a new evaluation system, but an experiment in Hillsborough County, Fla. proved costly and ineffective.

“Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards,” Desmond-Hellmann wrote. “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers — but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

“This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”

I’m not sure this is quite the mea culpa the Times thinks it is. Gates certainly isn’t abandoning the Common Core. The foundation will focus on providing high-quality Core-aligned learning materials and helping teachers choose from what’s available.

“If the knock on the hidebound education system is that it doesn’t change fast enough isn’t the knock on Gates that they change too fast?” responds Eduwonk. “Their small schools investments were not the disaster everyone thinks they were but they pivoted before the evaluations came in. . . . They soft peddled the results of their own evaluations of measures of teacher effectiveness. And while the rollout of Common Core has certainly been a political disaster and the assessment scene is something of a garbage fire, the standards themselves are pretty embedded.”

Expanding AP: Does it hurt smart kids?


The Obama administration is pushing schools to admit more minority students to advanced classes. Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

Expanding access to Advanced Placement classes is good policy, even if some students aren’t quite ready for the challenge, argues Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. But he gave space in his column to two high achievers who charge schools are ruining AP courses by pushing in unprepared students

Daniel Guth, now at Cal Tech, and Jacqueline Stomski, now at the University of Maryland, took many AP classes at Annapolis High.

“The students who signed up for the AP classes by choice were not challenged to the degree to which they should have been, because the instructors were consumed with catching up the less-prepared students,” Stomski told me. Guth said he thought the less-ready students “are worse off and everyone else suffers from a reduced learning environment.”

Annapolis High ranks in the top 2 percent on the Washington Post’s list of America’s Most Challenging High School, which Mathews invented. It ranks schools by participation in AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests, not by how well participants score.

Stomski and Guth say “their school shoved so many students into those courses and made them take the tests just to look good on the list,” writes Mathews.

 Guth said when he took the two AP calculus courses, AB and BC, simultaneously “most of the time was spent reviewing precalculus to get students up to speed. For the actual calculus topics, the grading had to be such that students who didn’t learn calculus . . . still passed.”

That meant, Guth said, that he didn’t get the challenge he desired: “I was placed in Caltech’s remedial math class because I didn’t understand basic calculus enough from this class.”

When districts open AP to everyone, the passing rate typically falls, but the number of students who succeed goes up, writes Mathews.

In 1997, when (Annapolis High) restricted access to AP, as most U.S. schools still do, it had a 79 percent passing rate on AP exams and a total of 150 passed exams. Last year, it had a 34 percent passing rate on AP, and a 77 percent passing rate on IB, but it also had 599 AP and IB exams with passing scores.

In 2006, the percentage of graduating seniors with at least one passing grade on an AP exam was 21 percent. Last year it was 54 percent.

“Even students who have struggled in those programs tell me years later that the experience made college easier,” concludes Mathews.

Unwanted: In automated future, who needs skills?

If most jobs are automated, what skills will people need? wonders Marc Tucker. Who will be educated and how?

Some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are proposing a guaranteed basic income — everyone gets a check, regardless of need — to deal with the consequences of automation. Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, is funding a trial of the idea.

Matt Krisloff, the manager of the project, sees a day when “95 percent— or a vast majority — of people won’t be able to contribute to the workforce.”

Since the Great Recession, most of the job growth has been among knowledge workers, writes Tucker. Workers doing routine tasks may not have a future.

Raising the minimum wage for low-skilled jobs will encourage employers to replace workers with technology. Self-driving cars, trucks and trains could put millions out of work.

Those on this new dole will have time “to think deep thoughts about protecting the environment,” as one advocate suggests. They can write poetry, create art, grow vegetables or . . . play video games.

If there are a few challenging jobs for the highly educated, and the dole for everyone else, educators would have to decide who’s worth educating, Tucker writes.

There’d be plenty of recess, music, art and sports for those destined for the dole.

Would teaching be automated? I think content delivery might be, but there will be a need for humans to interact with humans. I hope.

On Sunday, Swiss voters soundly rejected a guaranteed income proposal, reports Business Insider. “Supporters had said introducing a monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,563) per adult and 625 francs per child under 18 would promote human dignity and public service. Opponents, including the government, said it would cost too much and weaken the economy.”

New ways to do high school 

At Omaha’s Bryan High, students may plant potatoes, care for chickens, tour Union Pacific headquarters or sort and ship books at a school-based distribution center, reports Education Week.

“Students can choose from 16 career clusters and two pocket academies—one focused on urban agriculture and natural resources and another on transportation, distribution, and logistics—or TDL, for short.”

Katrina Whitford, another junior, holds a chicken in her lap as she works in an animal science class at Bryan.

Katrina Whitford, a junior, holds a chicken as she works in an animal science class. Photo: Ryan Henriksen, Education Week

The story is part of Ed Week‘s Diplomas Count report, which focuses on new ways to do high school.

Another story looks at a new Denver high school that’s struggling to make its model work.

Northfield High was designed to place all students, regardless of past achievement, in rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Students can pursue “pathways” in the arts, business, biomedical sciences and other subjects of interest.

The school also pledged to base grades on mastery, rather than homework completion or class participation.

Teachers were supposed to help run the school and share counseling responsibilities.

However, the principal was forced out in October after complaints about discipline. A majority of teachers will not return next year. The advisory program has been changed.

The second year’s incoming class will be predominantly Latino with fewer white and black students choosing the program.

The four-year graduation rate is up to 82 percent, notes Ed Week. Neerav Kingsland adds: “Expected to hit 102% with new credit recovery program.”

Education reform is for everybody

Education Reform Advocacy Is About Addition Not Subtraction, writes Martín Pérez on Education Post. That is, it takes a coalition.

In his Los Angeles barrio, the neighborhood schools were “dropout factories,” he writes.

My parents were only able to save up enough money to send one of us to a Jesuit high school. They chose me. My brother Ulysses had to stay behind in the public high school. Four years later, when at 18 I became the first in our family to be accepted to college, my brother was entering the Los Angeles County jail. Four years after that, as I walked across the stage as a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, my brother was entering the penitentiary system for the second time.

. . . I decided instead to become the teacher he never had, the one who would understand him, who would take the time to connect with him; the one who he would remember later in life thinking, “If not for this teacher, I would be in jail.”

A Berkeley graduate, Pérez joined Teach for America, became District Teacher of the Year in Phoenix’s Alhambra district and is now an education advocacy fellow at 50CAN. Education reform needs leaders who are “ideologically diverse and racially and socioeconomically diverse,” he concludes.

Isn’t this obvious. Nooooo. Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio kicked off the debate by writing that conservative education reformers feel marginalized by left-wing reformers. “There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.”

The reform movement needs both the market and equity perspectives, writes Derrell Bradford, executive director of NYCAN, on The 74.

I’ve been increasingly frustrated to see so many people I like and respect (from Marilyn Rhames to Justin Cohen, Chris Stewart and Jay Greene) take aim at one another.

. . . Does and should the conservative or “Market” perspective — one focused on choice, pluralism and opportunity as the prime drivers — continue to have a place in the education reform movement, effort, confab, or whatever you want to call it? The answer has three letters: yes. Competition and innovation are essential, and may be the best way to level the playing field for kids of color.

“Even as the education reform movement strives to become more ethnically diverse, it could also become less so ideologically,” warns Bradford. “We do not win with a smaller tent against a unified enemy that has created the conditions we battle against.”

Reformers on the “right” and “left” agree about many issues, writes Rick Hess. However, the “social justice warriors” are using “white privilege” to shut down dialogue.

Those on the left have all too often taken any disagreement on these issues as evidence that those of us who disagree with them are blinded by “white privilege.” If we weren’t blinded, we’d agree with them. If we don’t agree, it’s evidence that we’re blinded. This infuriating little catch-22 can leave even conciliation-minded conservatives thinking, “The hell with it.”

Progressives should care about what conservatives think — and not simply “out of tactical self-interest,” Hess concludes. “It’s because exploring these substantive differences is good, healthy, and important, and makes for smarter decisions about policy and practice.”

It’s almost over

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