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.

From ‘algebra for all’ to ‘algebra for none’

Thanks to the “algebra for all” movement, nearly half of eighth-graders were taking algebra or geometry in 2013, writes Brookings researcher Tom Loveless in High Achievers, Tracking, and the Common Core. In the Common Core era, only advanced — and advantaged — students will be accelerated.

California pushed 59 percent of students into eighth-grade algebra, though not everyone passed. Now districts have no incentive to offer algebra (or geometry) in middle school. In well-to-do Silicon Valley districts, parents are demanding eighth-grade algebra so their kids will be prepared for AP Calculus by 12th grade.

But urban middle schools with low-income, minority students usually place all students in the same math classes, writes Loveless. Smarter students can’t get ahead.

Accelerated math will survive in affluent school districts, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Parent pressure has been fierce. But students in lower-income districts won’t be on track for AP Calculus, unless they catch up in summer school or double up in math in high school.

Hector Flores, of San Jose, tried to ensure his son was on track to take calculus in high school — even sending him to a summer math institute. But the Evergreen School District placed him in an “integrated” Common Core eighth-grade math class, where he’s reviewing much of what he already learned. “He’s literally caught in the crack” of the Common Core transition, said Flores, a former math teacher. Now, to take calculus, his son will have to take an extra class in high school.

Low-income, black and Latino students who excel in math should have the chance to take the algebra-to-calculus track, writes Loveless. It’s not elitism. It’s equity.

Because of their animus toward tracking, some critics seem to support a severe policy swing from Algebra for All, which was pursued for equity, to Algebra for None, which will be pursued for equity.  It’s as if either everyone or no one should be allowed to take algebra in eighth grade.

Barry Garelick taught in a middle school that lets very few students take algebra in eighth grade, he writes in Out in Left Field.  A student asked him if she’d qualified for Algebra I. “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said.

“In the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good,” the vast majority of students will take a watered-down Core version of algebra in ninth grade, he writes. They’ll end up as “stupid people.”

‘Free’ college won’t raise graduation rates

College is too late, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in response to President Obama’s call for free community college in the State of the Union speech. Subsidizing tuition won’t help if students aren’t ready to do college-level work.

It’s easy to get students to enroll in community college, writes his colleague, David Brooks. Helping students graduate is hard.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free won’t change sky-high dropout rates, Brooks writes.

. . . community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

To increase graduation rates, spend some of that $60 billion to subsidize books, transportation, child care and housing, Brooks argues. That way students could work fewer hours and spend more time on their studies.

Community colleges also need funding for guidance counselors to help first-generation students develop a study plan and choose courses that get them quickly to their vocational or academic goal.

And they need to fix remediation, writes Brooks.

Actually, community colleges are trying all sort of remedial ed reforms, but it all goes back to Bruni’s point. If K-12 doesn’t work, then college won’t work.

When education isn’t the equalizer

Most Baltimore first graders classified as “urban disadvantaged” remained poor as adults, concludes a Johns Hopkins study. Less than half completed high school on time and only 4 percent earned a college degree. By the age of 28, just 33 of 314 reached the middle class.

Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.

Education “did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off,” notes the Washington Post.

Low-income white boys didn’t go far in school, but earned higher incomes than their black classmates. They were able to “tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore,” researchers found.

These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks.

Danté Washington, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, is one of the few success stories. His father died of liver problems when he was 12. A mediocre student with a short temper, he was “in and out of modest trouble.” But he finished high school on time. And he’s always worked.

Washington had a son when he was 17, and he has worked nearly every day since. He worked at Au Bon Pain, then MCI, and for many years since, at a publishing company in sales and business development.

When the Johns Hopkins researchers last interviewed him, he only had a high school degree. But in 2013, he finished a bachelor’s in business, earned at night at Strayer University. He owns his own home and, notably as he drives through his old neighborhood, a Lexus.

He wants to become a financial adviser, so that he can talk with people in communities such as this one about the things no one discusses here: retirement, equity, savings.

What made the difference for Washington? His mother had a steady job for the school district. In high school, he participated in programs for students interested in business, including a summer program on the campus of Morgan State University.


Dante Washington is seen in the backyard of his home. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Hard work, high hopes

Here’s my take on college-prep high schools for disadvantaged students, which will be part of Fordham’s upcoming (next fall) book, Education for Upward Mobility. 

It starts:

In a Texas border town along a curve of the Rio Grande, everyone takes college classes in high school. Half of the class of 2014 earned an associate degree, a vocational certificate, or a year’s worth of college credits, as well as a Hidalgo Early College High School diploma. For Mexican American students in a minimum-wage town, it’s better to aim too high than to take the easy path, says Superintendent Ed Blaha.

At a San Jose charter high school, Latino students (and a few blacks, Asians, and whites) struggle to get on the college track and stay there. Ganas (Spanish for desire, determination, or—yes—grit) is essential for Downtown College Prep’s students.

“Find a way or make one” is the motto of Providence St. Mel, an all-black private school, formerly Catholic, on Chicago’s West Side. Every year, all graduates are accepted at four-year colleges and universities, and more than half go to selective “tier 1” colleges.

I look at common elements of schools that are making a difference.

Downtown College Prep (see my book, Our School) is fighting San Jose Unified’s plan to move the flagship high school to a site with half the classrooms it needs and no science lab. DCP students would have to walk across the street to a district high school to use classrooms, labs and athletic facilities. Why would the district try to disrupt a successful charter — and disrupt its own high school? It makes no sense.

Environmental science students work on DCP’s teaching garden, a collaboration with a local nonprofit.

Cristo Rey: Work, study, get ahead


Students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Baltimore, at their employer’s office.

Combining academics, Catholic values and work experience is working for the Cristo Rey network of high schools, according to a new Lexington Institute report.

Twenty-eight Cristo Rey schools serve 9,000 students, nearly all low-income and working-class Latinos and blacks. Each student’s family contributes $1,000 for tuition, on average. Employers pay the rest — and provide one day a week of work experience for students.

Ninety percent of Cristo Rey’s 2014 graduates enrolled in college.

A new San Jose school is using self-paced, “blended” learning to help students catch up in an intensive summer program.

Cristo Rey is showing that “education can untie the Gordian knot of poverty,” writes Daniel Porterfield in Forbes.

The weekly work experiences helped students mature. They learned work etiquette and became problem-solvers. They figured out how to talk with adults of all ages and ethnicities. They discovered that they liked working. It gave them new skills and self-confidence.

The jobs showed them why school matters too. They could see that there was real opportunity in their city’s local economy—and that adults with college degrees had interesting careers that paid well.

In Putting Education to Work, Megan Sweas explains how Cristo Rey creates a culture of high expectations — and keeps improving.

Tech credentials pay for low-income students

Vocational certificates and associate degrees in health, transportation, construction, manufacturing and security lead to relatively high pay for disadvantaged students and low-scoring high-schoolers, according to a Florida study.

Different diplomas for different kids

What does a high school diploma mean? Common Core standards are supposed to guarantee that all graduates are ready for “college and career.” (Which college? Which career?)

Absent a miracle, that would man denying most 12th graders a diploma, writes Checker Finn in Education Next. Today, somewhere between 26 percent (ACT) and 40 percent (NAEP) are prepared for college.

Different Kids Need Different Credentials, Finn argues. States should issue a gold-star diploma that signifies college readiness and a conventional diploma that shows the student has passed mandatory courses “to the satisfaction of those teaching them.”

This is akin to the practice for many decades (until 2012) in New York State, where a Regents Diploma denoted a markedly higher level of academic attainment than a local diploma, and it’s somewhat similar to the practice in today’s England, where you can complete your schooling with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but if you’re bent on university, you stick around to earn a more-demanding A-level certificate.

Finn is “unpersuaded that college readiness is the proper goal of everybody’s high-school education” or that the new academic standards “are truly needed for success in myriad careers.”

. . . much as I admire the Common Core standards and hope that they gain enormous traction across the land, I have never seen, in any line of endeavor, a standard that was both truly high and universally attained.

About half the states have graduation exams, but they’re typically set at 8th, 9th or — at most — 10th-grade levels, writes Finn. Even then, some 12th graders — disproportionately disadvantaged students  — have trouble passing after multiple tries.

Ed Next has set up a discussion, but everyone agrees that differential diplomas make sense.

Support low-income and minority students to earn stronger diplomas,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg.

States should award a “diploma plus” to students who’ve achieved career or college readiness, writes Sandy Kress.

Gifted classes help achievers

Gifted classes help disadvantaged students with high achievement scores but average IQs, according to a study of urban fourth graders.

Non-disadvantaged students with IQs of 130 or higher did not benefit. Neither did lower-income students and English Learners with IQ scores of 116 or higher.

Students who “miss the IQ thresholds but scored highest among their school/grade cohort in state-wide achievement tests in the previous year . . . show significant gains in reading and math, concentrated among lower-income and black and Hispanic students.” Math gains persisted in fifth grade. Students also showed gains in fifth-grade science.

Gifted classes are “more effective for students selected on past achievement – particularly disadvantaged students who are often excluded from gifted and talented programs,” researchers concluded.

Mixed-ability algebra classes hurt higher-skill students, concludes another study on Chicago’s algebra-for-all policy, adopted in 1997.

Chicago moved poorly prepared students into algebra classes without additional supports for students or teachers, researchers found. “Simply mandating a college-prep curriculum for all students is not sufficient to improve the academic outcomes of all students.”

Who’d have thunk it?

KIPP boosts academics, but not character

KIPP schools do a great job of teaching academics, but the stress on character education isn’t producing students with more “grit,” persistence, self-control or other character strengths,  writes Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor.

KIPP charters — primarily middle schools — recruit low-income, minority students. In addition to “factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction),” KIPP schools try to develop “seven character strengths — zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence,” writes Steinberg.

Mathematica study compared students whose families had applied to a KIPP middle school but lost out in the lottery to students who’d won the KIPP lottery. If KIPP kids have more motivated parents, so do the children in the control group.

 . . . KIPP students outperformed the comparison children on numerous measures of achievement, across a range of subject areas. KIPP students also spent more time on homework. . . .

However . . . the KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.

While nearly 90 percent of former KIPP students enroll in college, only a third earn a degree. That’s triple the graduation rate of students from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, but far below KIPP’s expectations.

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.  - See more at: http://www.kipp.org/careers/kipp-team-and-family#sthash.rDwbdhNJ.dpuf

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.

Steinberg believes character education is not the best way to develop students’ self-regulation. Other approaches include: meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise and “cognitive behavioral programs, such as those used to help children learn impulse control.”

Some KIPP schools do use these techniques.