New Orleans: Traditional public schools close

Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand in the class of Hannah Bunis on May 27, 2014 in New Orleans. Akili Academy in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans will be absorbing some students from the city's closing public schools.Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand. The New Orleans charter school will take some students from closing schools. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

New Orleans schools won’t all be charters next year, but the post-Katrina state agency that controls most of the city’s public schools has closed its last traditional school, reports the Washington Post. Recovery School District students will use OneApp, a computerized lottery, to find a place in one of 58 charter schools. The city’s old school board, the Orleans Parish Board, also runs six schools and has chartered 14 more.

Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools. . . . Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents. “We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. . .  “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was one of the worst school districts in the nation. The Orleans Parish Board was “bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money, reports the Post. After Katrina, the school board was left in control of a small number of magnet and selective-admissions schools. Activists complain the board’s admissions policies limit black enrollment, though a very high proportion of OPB — and RSD — students are black. The state’s Recovery School District seized 102 low-performing schools. The schools have improved significantly, “although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons” because many students never returned to New Orleans, reports the Post.

Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23?percent in 2007, according to the state.

“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” (RSD Superintendent Patrick) Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor performing neighborhood schools.”

The mayor vs. the charters

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s denial of school space to three Success Academy charters is “part of the national “pushback” movement against school reform,” write Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire on Slate. So far, it’s not going well. “By going after the charters, he is attacking one of the most promising urban school reform strategies available to Democratic mayors across the country these days, and he’s doing it without offering a clear alternative.”

De Blasio misread his mandate, writes Conor Williams on The Daily Beast.  

. . . at one of the schools he’s evicting, Success Academy Harlem 4, 83 percent of students scored proficient or better on the state’s math assessment in 2013. Nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the school is getting great results.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted a video purporting to tell “the real story” of school co-locations. It features parents touting the virtues of the non-charter schools that were sharing a building with Success Academy Harlem 4. “They have plenty of activities, they have a very good after-school program,” says one.

At P.S. 149 — the district run school in the building –5 percent of students scored proficient on the math test; 11 percent were proficient in English.

Democracy Now hosts a debate on “privatized education”  with former public school teacher Brian Jones and Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network.

Sam Chaltain thinks this “isn’t really about co-locations, or charter schools, or the right of a parent to choose: it’s about the ongoing tension between our country’s delicate, dual allegiance to the core values of capitalism (consumption & competition) and the core values of democracy (conscience & consensus).”

Does democracy demand that Harlem parents send their children to P.S. 149?

“I voted for DeBlasio,” says Shamona Kirkland. “But I didn’t vote for you to take my child’s future.”

Core teaches citizenship

The Common Core will teach kids to be good citizens, argues Ross Wiener in The Atlantic. The new standards aren’t just about college and career readiness. Common Core is “deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

The Common Core identifies three texts—and only three texts—that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (Preamble and Bill of Rights), and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

. . . Acknowledging the explicit prioritization of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution can re-center the political debate on the merits of Common Core. These documents are embraced across the country and across the political spectrum because they represent the common ground and shared commitments that unite us as Americans. Understanding them is at the core of why public schools were created in the first place. Closely reading and deeply comprehending these documents is essential to Thomas Jefferson’s vision that public schools should enable every American “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country” and to scrutinize the actions of public officials “with diligence, candor and judgment.”

High school English Language Arts standards call for students to analyze the historical and literary significance of foundational U.S. documents and speeches, Wiener writes. Examples include Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Students are expected to “understand Supreme Court opinions and dissents and decide for him or herself whether the Court arrived at the right decision.”

“Common Core articulates standards for speaking and listening that develop students’ ability to participate in democratic debate,” writes Wiener.

Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a fair hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

These are college, workforce and citizenship skills, Wiener concludes.

High school graduates will be able to evaluate the merits of U.S. Supreme Court decisions? “O brave new world that has such people in’t.”

I was in Junior Great Books from fifth through ninth grade. We started each year by discussing the Declaration of Independence. It took us three years to get past “all men are created equal.” We never made it past the “pursuit of happiness.”

Making Americans: Core civics


Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Social studies — including history and civics — is being crowded out of the classroom by the push to raise reading and math achievement, said Stefanie Sanford at a Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core. As a Fordham trustee and chief of Global Policy and Advocacy for The College Board, Sanford thinks the new standards will revive civic education.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.

The amount of time devoted to history and civics education “has been on the decline for decades,” says Sanford. Schools have shifted time from science, history, and the arts to English language arts and math. But reading achievement has stagnated in the last 40 years.

In 1971, the average reading score on the twelfth-grade NAEP was 285. In 2008, it was 286.

While the goal of improving reading achievement is noble, our efforts to do so have been misguided and have inadvertently undermined our efforts to improve civic education for two reasons.

First, student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content.

Research tells us that, once students have learned how to read, the best way to improve reading comprehension is to broaden students’ content knowledge and to expand their vocabulary. That means that, rather than shifting time away from history and civics, if we really want to improve reading achievement, we should redouble our efforts to teach important content. And that includes teaching U.S. history and civics.

Second, civics education cannot stand alone.

. . . civics education should be infused throughout the K–12 curriculum. Students in English classes should be asked to read and understand the Founding documents—not just for their historical significance but also for their literary merit. And they should be invited to study and analyze the great texts that are part of the Great Conversation. These are part of a well-rounded ELA curriculum, not an add-on that comes only if and when schools have time. We cannot expect to graduate a generation of culturally and historically literate American citizens unless our curriculum and instruction are infused with the great literary works that informed and drove our nation’s great history.

Sanford is the author of Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.

Schools for citizenship

Can you pass the U.S. civics exam?  Ninety-seven percent of applicants for naturalization pass the exam, according to CitizenshipFirst, which is campaigning to “restore the civic mission of education.” Most native-born Americans can’t answer six of 10 questions correctly.

CitizenshipFirst’s mission:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that American democracy cannot endure without an educated citizenry; that all students deserve to become informed and proud participants in American self-government; and that every generation must prepare the next to understand, protect and perfect the institutions of American freedom. These truths motivated the establishment of America’s school system long ago, and they must be an urgent national priority today.

We send kids to school to become citizens, not just employees, writes Robert Pondiscio, who left Core Knowledge to run CitizenshipFirst.

Our earliest thinkers about education weren’t thinking about college and career readiness.  They understood well that democracy, historically speaking, was something of a long shot.  There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  A woman asked him what kind of government he and the other delegates had decided on.  “A republic, madam—if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.  As Franklin knew, republics have a nasty habit of falling apart.  Of being overwhelmed by factions.  Citizens who can be relied upon to understand and peacefully exercise their rights and responsibilities—to keep the republic—are indispensable to a democracy.

School should be the place where we learn to become Americans, Pondiscio writes.

CitizenshipFirst is building a network of schools committed to “preparing students for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship, and full participation in our democracy.”  It’s also launched the Only in America Project to send “public speakers into classrooms to tell vivid, personal stories of immigration, political freedom, entrepreneurial success, military service” and other stories. The Band of Brothers Program will pair high schools with U.S. military units.

Planting the seeds at Mission Hill

A Year at Mission Hill, a 10-part video series on a experimental Boston public school, is now complete, writes Sam Chaltain in (Extra)Ordinary People.

Mission Hill founder Deborah Meier believes “democracy rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

We see a montage of children in various states of joy. We hear teachers sing the words of poet Kahlil Gibran at their school’s graduation ceremony (“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”). And we watch principal Ayla Gavins tell her staff she will refuse to administer new testing requirements under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

“The freedom of teachers to make decisions about their classrooms and their lives is essential, ” Meier says. “The whole point of an education is to help you learn how to exercise judgment – and you can’t do that if the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.”

Making classroom rules

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? asks Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land. According to the latest dogma,  good teachers get students to collectively write their own classroom rules.

It seems democratic and encourages “buy-in,” teachers believe, even if students are just as likely to break their own rules as ones set by teachers.

When Flanagan tried it in her own music classroom, students came up with a list of “don’ts” — as in don’t empty your spit valve on someone else’s chair — but “it never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.”

She offers ideas about creating classroom rules, such as:

 •You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

•No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog–your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

Don’t restate the obvious or load up on “don’ts,” she advises. But do give clear instructions when needed.  “Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.”

 •Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership–kids want to be leaders, too– is a function of respect.

“Carrots and sticks” can be counter-productive, Flanagan writes. Students’ good behavior is its own reward: They get to attend a “civil, well-managed” school.

School board lessons

After five years as a school board member, Peter Meyer summarizes what he’s learned on Ed Next. Among the lessons:

. . .  there are no absolute victories and no deafening defeats in the land of education governance; just the constant hum of the bureaucracy trying to control the flow of information and—if you’re lucky—the shouts and murmurs of the “the people” complaining. Unfortunately, there is simply no alternative to eternal vigilance, but it must be vigilance in the interests of freedom and equal opportunity.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to leave “the people” out of it. They gum up the works, for one. They are lazy and apathetic for another. But what are the alternatives? I believe it was Churchill who also said, “Americans always get things right—after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

“We have to get back to making democracy work again,” he concludes.

 

Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of “democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know “how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. [Read more...]

Educating citizens, not just workers

Pressured to prepare students for the workforce, America’s colleges have forgotten their civic and democratic mission, argues a new report: Colleges must educate citizens, not just workers.