Helping teachers teach in tough schools

It’s important to make high-poverty, low-performing schools satisfying places to work, concludes a new Education Trust report, Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning.

Despite widespread assumptions that students are the primary cause of teacher dissatisfaction, research shows that the culture of the school – particularly the quality of school leadership and level of staff cohesion – actually matters more to teachers’ job satisfaction and retention, particularly in high-poverty schools, than do the demographics of the students or teacher salaries.

The report looks at districts that are improving the teaching environment in challenging schools.

 

Teachers need to lead

Speak up, teachers! urges Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land.  And, if you’ve got the makings of a leader, don’t let the profession’s egalitarianism hold you back.

My friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach–a compelling speaker and insightful author–wrote this in a wonderful piece on “unselfish self-promotion: “We are taught that arrogance is associated with pride and that we should err on the side of humility. But is marketing our own ideas and work prideful if we really believe what we have to offer is useful, transformational, or helpful?

We need educators who will step up and say:  “My 20 years’ experience in the classroom–and the quality of my ideas and practice–make me an expert. Listen to me. I have confidence. I am a valuable resource.”

Women, especially, need to be more assertive, Flanagan writes.

Good teachers are not self-effacing. A timid, self-effacing person meeting 35 8th graders at 7:20 every morning is in trouble. So why aren’t accomplished teachers at the forefront of the discourse on their own issues?

When teachers do speak up, do they have the opportunity to lead? Are accomplished teachers held back by administrators, colleagues — or their own anxieties?

‘I teach to empower kids’

I teach to “empower kids to live satisfying and productive lives,”, writes Esther Wojcicki, a long-time English and journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, on Learning Matters. “I am helping grow adults.”

(Teenagers) tend to be energetic, creative and humorous, and their drive for independence empowers them to think outside the box. I love to see what far-out ideas they dream up. Some of them have turned out to be real winners. Kids are amazing — if you encourage them.

I try to create a classroom atmosphere in which students are not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are encouraged to take intellectual risks and occasionally fail, because that is the way they learn best.

Paly journalism students develop their own story ideas, she writes. Student editors assign the stories and supervise the reporters.  She lets them “do the work themselves.”

I know this is true because Woj was my daughter’s journalism teacher. Working on the newspaper as a writer, news editor and editor was one of the most important experiences of Allison’s life. Woj lets students lead, even when she’s the one who’s going to catch the flak. She really does grow adults.

Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

Success in numbers

It takes a “posse” to create a college graduate: By sending disadvantaged students to college ing groups of 10, the Posse Foundation has boosted success rates, reports the New York Times.

Posse chooses students with leadership, problem-solving and teamwork skills through a very competitive process.  A group of 10 meets during their senior and through the summer, then goes to the same elite college.

Posse Scholars’ combined median reading and math SAT score is only 1050, while the median combined score at the colleges Posse students attend varies from 1210 to 1475. Nevertheless, they succeed. Ninety percent of Posse Scholars graduate — half of them on the dean’s list and a quarter with academic honors. A survey of 20 years of alumni found that nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they had founded or led groups or clubs. There are only 40 Posse Scholars among Bryn Mawr’s 1,300 students, but a Posse student has won the school’s best all-around student award three times in the past seven years.

This is not about the SATs’ predictive power, as the Times seems to think. It shows that college students do a lot better if they have friends who support their academic goals and no financial worries.

DePauw was so impressed by the Posse Scholars’ success that the college now assigns all first-year students to small groups.  They meet regularly with an upper-class student as mentor “to talk about topics like time management, high-risk drinking and preparing for midterms.”

 

Training principals who can lead

For decades, I’ve heard about the most critical shortage in education:  Principals who can lead, not just administer, and create the conditions that enable teachers to teach effectively.  The Wallace Foundation is helping six urban school districts hire, train and support effective principals for high-need schools.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest district, aspiring principals get a year of “residency” training before taking over a school.  

Aspiring principals in the district spend 90 days training under successful school leaders, helping lead teacher meetings, working on projects to improve instruction and meeting frequently with mentors. They attend workshops and seminars, often with district Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, to learn leadership strategies, budgeting and other skills.

 . . . In New York City, research showed that graduates of their leadership academy went into the lowest-performing schools and within three years were outperforming similar schools in English language arts and mathematics.

The $75 million grant will include funds to research whether specially trained principals improve student achievement.

Training principals is cost effective, researchers say.

Extra boost from extra-curriculars?

Extra-curriculars are valuable, but how valuable? June Kronholz looks at the debate on Education Next.

With school districts struggling to keep their noses above choppy budget waters and voters howling about taxes, should schools really be funding ping-pong and trading-card clubs? Swim teams, swing dancing, moot court, powder-puff football? Latino unions, gay-straight alliances, the Future Business Leaders of America, the French Honors Society, the jazz band, the knitting club?

. . . There’s not a straight line between the crochet club and the Ivy League. But a growing body of research says there is a link between afterschool activities and graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a responsible citizen.

Most high school students participate in sports, band, theater, clubs or other activities.  Active students do considerably better academically than the disengaged. But is it cause or effect?

Some researchers argue that involvement helps students succeed by increasing their time with adult role models and making school more engaging, Kronholz writes.

When college students look back on high school, they remember extracurriculars and sports, not academics, says Tony Wagner, codirector of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

The takeaway, Wagner said, is that extracurriculars “teach a lot of the skills you need as an adult: time management, leadership, self-discipline, and persistence for doing work that isn’t extrinsically motivated.” That dovetails with Wagner’s academic work, which defines the “skills of the future” as including adaptability, leading by influence, and initiative.

“Kids who have a significant involvement in an extracurricular activity have a capacity for focus, self-discipline, and time management that I see lacking in kids who just went through school focused on their GPA,” he told me.

I was as managing editor of the school newspaper, editor of the literary magazine and copy writer for the yearbook. (You may sense a pattern.)

Seeking wise, creative students

Colleges admit students with strong analytical skills, but may reject creative, wise and community-minded students who’d also do well, argues psychologist Robert Sternberg.  After trying his ideas as a dean at Tufts, which attracts very well-qualified students, Sternberg became provost at Oklahoma State, which takes 70 to 75 percent of applicants.  The university is testing new essay prompts to identify applicants with hard-to-measure qualities, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Oklahoma State accepts students with a 1090 SAT (without the writing test) or a 3.0 grade point average and top-third-of-the-class ranking. Students with lower grades and scores can get in by doing well on an essay question, which might ask about their goals or special interests.

The university is asking current freshmen to answer questions Sternberg developed. Several will be chosen for next year’s applications.  For example:

“Music spans time and culture. Explain how the lyrics of one of your favorite songs define you or your cultural experience.”

“If you were able to open a local charity of your choice, what type of charity would it be, how would you draw people to your cause, and whom would it benefit?”

“Today’s movies often feature superheroes and the supernatural. If you could have one superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it? Who would be your archenemy, and what would be his or her superpower?”

“Roughly 99 percent” of admitted applicants have qualified on some combination of grades and test scores, Sternberg says. “Who believes, really, that ACTs and high school grades are going to predict who will become the positive active citizens and leaders of tomorrow?”

I do.  The combination of high school grades and test scores predicts who’ll complete a college degree, which predicts active citizenship, such as voting and volunteering.

A good writer can express creativity and devotion to community service — maybe even wisdom — by writing about goals and interests. Just because the question is boring doesn’t mean the answer has to be. A bad writer won’t do any better because he knows a lot about comic superheroes. I suspect few C+ students with mediocre ACT or SAT scores can write a good essay on any topic.

But it’s an experiment. Maybe Oklahoma State will find hidden gems in its applicant pool by tweaking the essay prompts.

Study links TFA selection criteria to gains

Teach for America teachers rated high on academic achievement, leadership and perseverance are more effective math teachers in grades three through eight, concludes a new study (pdf) by Will Dobbie of Harvard. Leadership and belief in TFA goals was linked to English gains, but less clearly. Teacher Beat reports:

TFA selects its recruits through a detailed selection process that uses a mix of scored assessments, including essays, a group activity, recommendations, and a sample teaching lesson.

The qualities it measures include: achievement (academic GPA or work performance), leadership (performance in leadership role), perseverance (ability to work through obstacles), critical thinking (outlining solutions to problems methodically), organization (attention to deadlines and clarity of instruction), motivational ability (ability to keep students on task), respect (attitudes toward low-income individuals), and fit (whether the candidate believes TFA’s goals are attainable).

Critical thinking, organizational ability, motivation, and respect for others were not linked to classroom effectiveness.  However, students in third through fifth grade taught by a teacher who scored higher on the respect measure were less likely to have a behavior infraction.

 

Without a strong leader, schools fail

All the talk is about teachers, but school leadership makes a huge difference, notes the Hechinger Report.

Of everything we’ve learned about the art and science of reforming a failing school in the past decade, school leadership is second only to teacher quality in terms of importance – and the more dire a school’s predicament, the greater the need for strong leadership. Because of this, the emphasis is now less on the lone dynamic teacher and more on the whole school environment.

“Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader,” said Kenneth Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies leadership.

There are many training programs for school leaders, but “few do a first-rate job of preparing principals and superintendents for today’s challenges.”