When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  ”astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

Empowering the best, testing the rest

How can we “create an accountability system that empowers excellent educators to create top-notch schools while ensuring a basic level of quality for everyone?” asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

Petrilli once believed that “educator autonomy, plus parental choice, would lead us to the Promised Land.”  At Fordham, which embraced “let a thousand flowers bloom,” he helped plant a few charters in Dayton, Ohio. The “flowers that turned out to be, err, more like skunk cabbage.”

Empowering educators was necessary, but not sufficient, he concluded.

You can’t just empower anyone—you have to empower a team of people who actually know what they are doing. And these people, collectively, must have the capacity to run a great school. They need to have a coherent pedagogical vision, know how to build a curriculum, know how to create a positive school culture, know how to build and follow a sensible budget, know how to put reasonable “internal controls” in place, know how to recruit a great staff, and on and on. These people, it turns out, are scarcer than I had realized at age 22.

And then you have to hold these schools accountable for getting strong results with kids.

The charter movement started with the idea that each school would commit to the results it would achieve, customizing the metrics to the school’s goals, writes Petrilli. In response to No Child Left Behind, charter leaders agreed to take the same exams and be judged by test scores like other public schools.

Petrilli suggests keeping testing and accountability as the default system, but with better standards and tests.

Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won’t lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the “typical” school in America becomes better than it is today.

All public schools—district and charter—could opt out by proposing a different set of accountability measures that might reflect the long-term success of their graduates or the willingness to face school “inspections.”

A new generation of teachers

“For the first time in memory, a majority of teachers have fewer than 10 years of experience,” write Celine Coggins, Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel in Expanding the Impact of Excellent Teachers in Education Next.

As the Teach Plus report Great Expectations: Teachers’ Views on Elevating the Teaching Profession shows, early-career teachers want clear standards of excellence, performance measurement, and overhaul of compensation and tenure. They also want to get out of their classroom walls and collaborate with peers to meet student needs in flexible instructional groups.

Schools must create an “opportunity culture” to develop, retain and deploy excellent teachers, they write.

Let’s agree: Schools should help grow citizens

How are we polarized about education? John Merrow counts the ways. We can’t agree on accountability, achievement, how schools should be run, the role of technology, the job of teaching and assessment, he writes. We’re polarized on the power of school vs. the limits of school. All the fighting is tiring.

We need to agree on the purposes of public education, Merrow writes.  ”The goal of school is to help grow American citizens.”  Then we have to define what it means to be a good citizen.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle told us. If we complain all the time but do nothing to change the situation, that’s who we are: whiners.

. . .  We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on. Do we agree that children should learn to write well? We know that the only way to learn that skill is by writing and rewriting, guided by someone who is knowledgeable. If we value good writing, we ought to be insisting children write and rewrite all through school.

Do we, like, want our children to, you know, be able to speak clearly, persuasively and articulately? The road requires practice, practice, practice.

The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.

“Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” said Aristotle.

The bee is on!

Throwing Things is blogging the National Spelling Bee.

Six-year-old speller Lori Anne Madison didn’t make the semi-finals. She failed to spell “ingluvies,” which means “the crop or craw of birds.”