More time may not mean more learning

Boston public schools will add 40 minutes to the teaching day at more than 50 elementary and middle schools.

More time doesn’t guarantee more learning, writes Emily Richmond in The Atlantic. Quality matters as much as quantity, according to a new report from the Center on Education Policy.

Researchers analyzed 17 low-performing schools in 11 districts that expanded the school day. Test scores and graduation rates improved. But the longer day wasn’t the only change.

Successful schools used “community partnerships to provide extra enrichment programs and services the school’s budget couldn’t cover,” writes Richmond.

Teachers who have more opportunities to collaborate with each other tend to be more effective at their jobs, particularly in their work with students. “An hour of professional development seems to be almost as helpful to teachers, and in some cases more helpful, than an hour in the classroom,” said Matthew Frizzell, a policy center research associate and one of the report’s co-authors.

Boston schools with longer days have seen mixed results, reports the Boston Globe.

For many schools, a longer day has failed to dramatically boost academic achievement or did so only temporarily. The uneven results prompted school district officials to scrap the extra minutes at some schools and the state to pull funding or pursue receiverships at others.

But other schools have successfully used an extended day to boost MCAS scores or expand offerings in the arts and other electives.

“I think there are lessons to be learned,” said John McDonough, interim superintendent. “We know time matters, but it only matters if it is used well.”

At the Eliot K-8 Innovation School, which added an hour to its school day, there’s more time for enrichment, reports the Globe.

On Monday morning, 25 third-graders built and programmed motorized cars out of Legos in a robotics class. Students said they did not mind the longer school day.

“Time goes by fast,” said John D’Amico, 8.

As the students buzzed the cars around the classroom, their regular classroom teacher, Holly McPartlin, mentored a new teacher downstairs, observing her teach and then providing feedback.

Eliot is considered a model of good implementation. But the Edwards Middle School, once “the poster child for the success of the extended-day movement in Massachusetts,” has seen performance slide after “a high turnover of principals,” reports the Globe.

School goes ‘rogue’ on Core teaching

Principal Billy Bean sits with third-graders Kendra, Ian and Edmund who are trying to decipher a Common Core reading passage. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Principal Billy Bean sits with third-graders Kendra, Ian and Edmund who are trying to decipher a Common Core reading passage. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Test scores fell at nearly all New York schools due to the shift to Common Core-aligned tests. The Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner looks at a rural school that raised scores by “going rogue” on Common Core teaching.

Lockwood teachers divided up lesson planning to have time to design new lessons using technology. “What’s worked well for us is the whole teamwork thing, realizing that we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Tyler King, who teaches third grade. “We show no shame in letting each other know when we fail.”

. . . the school decided to group children by ability for 30 minutes daily in both math and English across the grade. That allowed some children to catch up, and a deeper dive for others even as they all learned the same basic material together. The change meant that for an hour each day, teachers left their classes and took a group of students that could number between 3 and 15, who were at a similar learning ability for that subject.

As a result, the lessons, and the assessment of the children, had to be in lock-step. The strongest and weakest teachers worked as a team, and often met at the end of the day to discuss which lessons worked and which didn’t. They also kept track of the progress of individual students using “exit tickets” or short assessments on tablets at the end of each class.

The state curriculum included a manual with “minute-by-minute directions for how teachers should teach,” writes Kolodner. Teachers were allowed to deviate when the script didn’t give students enough time to understand concepts. The next year, they dropped the manual — and the homework that came with it. It simply repeated the day’s lessons, said teachers.

“If they couldn’t do it in class, there’s no use having them get frustrated at home,” said (third-grade teacher Traci) Krist. For the students who did understand, teachers didn’t see the value in having them simply repeat the exercise. Lockwood teachers assigned their own homework.

Knowing parents were frustrated by the new curriculum, Lockwood staffers invited parents to meetings to ask questions and express their concerns.

Does Core teaching need more time?

Are American class periods too short for Common Core? asks the Hechinger Report. As districts across the country implement the new standards, some are moving to block scheduling — typically 90-minute periods two or three times a week — to facilitate Core teaching.

“Most of the high performing schools we have seen do not maintain the 40- or 45-minute block schedule,” said Jennifer Davis, cofounder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a non-profit dedicated to redesigning and expanding school time. “In those schools, when you walk into a classroom you see four or five groups of kids, some are getting support through high-quality computer programs, some are working in a small group with a teacher and some are working in small groups just among themselves. It is very difficult to do that kind of rotation in a typical 45-minute block.”

Some see block scheduling as a way to give teachers more time to share lesson plans and discuss what’s working in the classroom and what’s not.

On the flip side, it can be challenging to teach a 90-minute class without boring or exhausting students.

Redesigning and Expanding School Time to Support Common Core Implementation argues for longer class periods.

Here’s a summary of the research on block scheduling’s effectiveness.

Schools improve to compete with charters

Charter school competition is improving district-run schools in New York City, argues Eva Moskowitz in the Wall Street Journal.

Her Success Academy charter schools serve low-income, minority students, yet students “not only rank in the top 1% in math and top 3% in English among all state schools, but they take top honors in national debate and chess championships,” writes Moskowitz.

Critics charge her schools and other charters cherry-pick the best students and dump harder-to-educate students in district schools. If that’s so, “any academic gains by charters are offset by losses in district schools,” she writes.

The city is divided into 32 community school districts. Math and reading scores improved from 2006 to 2014 in community school districts with the most charters and fell in areas with few or no charters, Moskowitz writes.

Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one. The district that jumped furthest, rocketing up 11 spots between 2006 and 2014, was District 5 in Central Harlem, which has the city’s highest charter-school enrollment (43%).

And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings, and not one rose. For example, District 12 in the Bronx, which in 2006 ranked higher than Central Harlem, now ranks 13 spots lower. District 29 in Queens, which in 2006 ranked 15 spots higher than Central Harlem and has fewer poor students, now ranks lower.

Average charter-school enrollment was 20% for those districts that rose in the rankings and 6% in those districts that fell.

If there holes in this, I don’t know New York City well enough to spot them.

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña should be looking for ways to emulate successful charters, rather than dissing them, writes Richard Whitmire. “New district/charter collaborations were announced in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Rhode Island and Florida, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reported last month. They will join the more established compacts well under way in places such as Denver, Houston and San Jose.”

Why teachers quit: Working conditions

Half a million teachers switch schools or leave the profession every year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The churn is worst at high-poverty schools.

Improving working conditions will keep new teachers in the classroom, writes Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center.

The most frequently cited reasons new teachers give about why they leave center on dissatisfaction with working conditions like issues with classroom management, opportunities for professional development, input into decision making and school leadership. . . . (Teachers) are looking for a work environment where they are supported to improve by the administration, feel valued and are able to contribute in a collaborative culture.

Beginning teachers leave because they “don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve,” reports the Carnegie Foundation.

High-quality mentoring and induction is effective, writes Moir.

The district and the charter can be friends

Traditional and charter schools are working together in Spring Branch, Texas, near Houston, reports PBS.

Choir class blends district and KIPP students at Spring Branch’s Landrum Middle School, reports KERA.

One recent school day, students sang “I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy ’til I make you happy too…” Choir director Jaime Trigo led students through the lyrics and dance steps for an upcoming concert. The mix is “awesome,” he says.

Cities collaborate with charters

More than 20 school districts, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, are collaborating with charter schools on teacher training, ways to measure student progress and other issues, writes Richard Whitmire in Education Next.

Districts have signed “compacts” with charters — with funding from the Gates Foundation.

In Denver and in Aldine and Spring Branch, Texas, superintendents have invited high-performing charters to share space in schools. Charter and district principals and teachers interact with each other. Students take some classes together.

District superintendents want to import some of the charter classroom culture they see. At Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch, students have adopted a new attitude about academic success. Now, “it’s cool to know the answers.”

Charter school leaders need building space, and access to students. Districts have helped charters coordinate services for special education students and by setting common performance metrics for low-performing charters.

Don Shalvey, who’s leading the compact initiative for Gates, is a former school superintendent and founder of the Aspire charter network.

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments. Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments.
Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

Spring Branch adopted SLANT (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod for understanding and track the speaker) from its charter partner. Now they’re thinking of adopting YES Prep’s math curriculum.

Texas provides no facilities funding for charters, so YES Prep saves millions by co-locating. The district gets to report the charter’s higher test scores as its own.

Aldine plans to adopt YES Prep’s college-prep curriculum, writes Whitmire. Again, the charter gets shared space it would struggle to afford without the partnership.

In San Jose, Franklin-McKinley Superintendent John Porter invited Rocketship and KIPP to open schools in the low-income, heavily immigrant district. To compete for students, a district elementary school developed a science theme in partnership with the city’s Tech Museum.

Group work does not equal collaboration

[This is my last guest post for this stint. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for having me, and thanks to Rachel and Michael for your excellent co-blogging.]

Often we hear that in today’s workplace, there’s increased need for collaboration, since projects are typically complex and require the combined efforts of many. Education policymakers then turn to schools and say, “OK, kids need to learn to collaborate, so there should be more group work in the classroom.” (This argument came up in a comment on my recent NYT piece.)

The problem here is one of translation. Collaboration and group work are not necessarily the same. You can have strong collaboration with minimal group work, and vice versa.

Suppose you have submitted a piece to a journal. You wrote the piece alone–but later receive comments and edits from the editor. Even if you never speak with the editor (except by email), these edits will inform your revision. Thus, by the time your piece reaches its final version, some collaboration has taken place.

Or say you are co-teaching a unit on the Renaissance. Your own contribution to the unit (which focuses on literature) requires much independent thought and planning–but when you hear what the other teachers are contributing, you adjust some of your presentation and questions, in order to play off of theirs. The independent planning is essential, as is the planning with your colleagues.

Or consider a musical ensemble. If rehearsal time is to be spent well, the members must learn their parts on their own. Then, when they come together, they can shape the music. Sometimes they will spend rehearsal time going over a new piece–but they still have to take it home and work on it, unless it presents no difficulties (in which case they will still need to practice the instrument on their own). In addition, to play well in an ensemble, you need to be able to play your instrument in the first place–and that requires years of practice, most of it solitary.

Also, many research projects are collaborative–yet the various pieces may not come together for a long time. Individual contributors may be working on their own pieces for years, only occasionally consulting with the others. (This could be good or bad; it depends on the nature of the project.)

Even a lecture is collaborative in that it requires joining of efforts. An attentive, inquisitive audience can make the difference between an outstanding lecture and one that falls flat. Likewise, the lecturer must respond, even subtly, to those in the room and to the room itself.

How is group work in the classroom different from what I have mentioned above? Too often, the group is expected to do most of the work together, in company (and surrounded by many other groups). There’s little room for independent work and thought. The scope of the project is typically limited; it may amount to nothing more than a Venn diagram. In fact, group work, when overused, can diminish collaboration by limiting what students do and learn.

Now, some people favor group work because it exposes students to social situations they will encounter later. Even this argument misses the boat. Good social interaction requires a degree of solitude. If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table. Imagine lawyers negotiating before they had researched their cases. The one with even a slight edge on the research would have the advantage. To negotiate over ideas (and information), you need to have them in the first place.

Sometimes group work in the classroom can result in something substantial. Often it does not–especially when the group work is there for group work’s sake. Yes, it’s important  for students to learn collaboration, but group work is not necessarily the way.

Addendum: In April I took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service’s flagship program The Forum, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li. At one point we discuss the overemphasis on group work in schools. The entire discussion is interesting–and can be heard online until July 28.

A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk? [Read more…]

From near-death to Silicon Valley CEO

As a 22-year-old Marine in 1984, Ramona Pierson was hit by a drunken driver while running. Her body shattered, she spent 18 months in a drug-induced coma. When she woke up, she couldn’t walk, talk or see. Without any family, she was shuttled through VA hospitals, then sent to a senior citizens’ home in Colorado.

Pierson is now a Silicon Valley CEO, reports the San Jose Mercury News. She sold her first startup, an educational software company called SynapticMash, for $10 million. Investors have put more than $5 million into her new company, Declara.

Pierson’s comeback started at the retirement home, where the seniors helped her learn to speak and walk. It took three years. Still blind — after 11 years, a corneal transplant restored her sight — Pierson enrolled at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. She went on to earn a doctorate in neuro-clinical psychology.

Declara’s “radical collaboration” engine uses a “very powerful cognitive map” to help teachers connect with other educators trying to solve similar classroom problems.

Designed initially as a tool to connect educators to information and analysis about how people learn, the software was shaped by Pierson to mimic her own experience, particularly her years in the old folks home. “I think that helped me see these elders as experts,” she says, “and that’s where the radical collaboration came from.”

The technology is in wide use in South America and Australia. Pierson hopes to expand in the U.S.