About that ‘miracle’ school

When Chris Stewart tweeted about George Hall Elementary — “99% black. 98% student poverty. All proficient.” — skeptics wondered if the “miracle” was real.

The turnaround school in Mobile was one of the highest-performing schools in Alabama in 2013, according to Education Trust, I noted.

A George Hall student

A George Hall student

Ed Trust’s Karin Chenoweth explains how George Hall went from one of the worst-performing schools in the state in 2004 to one of the best. No miracles were involved, she writes.

A new principal followed “what research indicates is important” and aligned “curricula, lessons, professional development, schedules, budgets, discipline — everything — . . . to support high-quality instruction.”

“Our children can’t help what they come from,” Terri Tomlinson told me when she was the principal. “It’s our job to teach them. And I think we do a pretty good job of it.”

At George Hall I have read student essays, heard students read, and talked with them about what they’re learning and what they hope to be when they grow up. The children at George Hall are not “miracle” children but children who have ambitions and — like all humans — are hardwired to learn.

I believe the faculty and staff would find deeply offensive the idea that the only way that their students can achieve at high levels is through divine intervention.

Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) by Chenoweth and Christina Theokas profiles Tomlinson and other leaders of  24 high-performing, rapidly improving schools that serve disadvantaged students.

Hall students strive to improve in behavior and academics. Photo: Dan Carsen

Hall students strive to improve in behavior and academics. Photo: Dan Carsen

WBHM profiled George Hall in 2012 as part of a series on turnaround schools.

In 2004, the district transferred most of the teachers, hired Tomlinson and let her recruit a new set of teachers with “a strong work ethic and a belief that all kids can learn at a high level,” reports Dan Carsen. Teachers were offered $4,000 signing bonuses plus performance bonuses.

The community was angry about the changes, says Tomlinson. “We were a predominantly white staff and a white principal who came into a black school with a predominantly black staff and a black principal, and it was … it was hard for it not to be racial. And there were threats.”

Now, people lie about where their kids live so they can enroll them at George Hall, writes Carsen.

The principal and teachers “leave nothing about teaching and learning to chance. They’re very strategic,” says Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice. “They know where every child is. They have a plan ensure that they move from point A to point B. If they’re not moving along that trajectory, they have a plan to intervene.”

Teachers assess students very frequently, and principal Tomlinson analyzes the data every day. Faculty planning time is protected, and instructional time is guarded like treasure. Tomlinson says you practically need a letter from the Pope to get on the intercom, and teachers recently voted to lengthen the school day by 50 minutes.

Teachers use common lesson plans, and group planning sessions often span grade levels. Collaboration is key.

There are a few white students now, writes Carsen. They are the children of teachers.

‘Proficiency’ means little in some states

States define “proficiency” very differently, write Paul Peterson and Peter Kaplan in Education Next.

Massachusetts, Tennessee and Missouri have the highest expectations, while Alabama and Georgia expect the least of their students. Texas, Michigan, Idaho, Illinois and Virginia also set a low bar.

Standards still declined in rigor in 26 states and D.C. between 2009 and 2011, while 24 states increased rigor, the study found.

The study grades the states for setting high standards, not on whether students meet those standards.

Having been graded an F in every previous report, (Tennessee) made the astounding jump to a straight A in 2011. . .  state tests were made much more challenging and the percentage of students identified as proficient dropped from 90 percent or more to around 50 percent, a candid admission of the challenges the Tennessee schools faced.

West Virginia, New York, Nebraska, and Delaware also strengthened proficiency standards, while New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, Montana, and Georgia lowered the bar.

Uneven at the Start, a new Education Trust report, looks at academic performance to predict how different states will meet the challenge of Common Core standards.

New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts show strong performance and improvement for all students — and for disadvantaged students, reports Ed Trust.  Performance is weak in West Virginia and Oregon. Ohio and Wisconsin do well for students overall, but poorly for “or or more of their undeserved groups.”

Education Trust also has updated its EdWatch reports, which analyze  college and career readiness and high school and college graduation rates for all groups of students in each state.  The state academic performance and improvement tool shows how each state compares with the national average and with other states.

The ‘me’ curriculum teaches nothing

The “me” curriculum is undermining learning, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In its attempt to implement Common Core’s new standards, the Georgia Department of Education is telling teachers that narrative writing is all about me, all the time. A recommended writing prompt for 11th graders:

The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”

The prompt asks students to “reveal things about themselves, not analyze” the story, Bauerlein writes. It’s typical.

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.

“Demonstrating character” cites the Cuban Missile Crisis and asks seventh graders:

If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start or stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.

A president has the power to make laws and end hunger?

“As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments,” writes Bauerlein. Students don’t develop the analytical, reading and writing skills they’ll need in college or an eventual job.

The units claim to align with Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which Bauerlein helped develop. Teaching students to write about their navels is not what he had in mind.

Common Core’s critics are pushing states to withdraw approval, reports Ed Week. The campaign is focused on on Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana.

Alabama is withdrawing from the two consortia developing core-aligned tests.

 

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The expectations gap

Common Core Standards won’t mean much if some states ask students to learn 30 percent of the material while others demand 80 percent mastery, writes Sarah Garland on HechingerEd. The expectations gap is huge, twice the size of the achievement gap between white and black students, reports an American Institutes for Research study.

Tennessee’s eighth-graders are expected to perform at the level of Massachusetts’ fourth-graders.

Using a common performance standard,  the 2007 state results for No Child Left Behind accountability look very different, the report found.

For example, in Grade 8 mathematics, Tennessee dropped from 88 percent proficient to 21 percent, and Massachusetts went from being one of the lowest performing states to the highest achieving state in the nation. (Note: Since 2007, Tennessee has substantially raised its performance standards)

Another example shows Alabama reporting 78 percent of its fourth graders proficient in math in 2007, but on an internationally-benchmarked common performance standard, just 26 percent were proficient.

AIR recommends using national and international benchmarks to calibrate how high the state performance standard should be.