Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

Reformers take over failing Memphis schools

Tennessee is putting schools with very low test scores and graduation rates into a state-run district, reports the New York Times.  Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and poor, is the “crucible of change,” aka “a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers’ unions and some parent groups.”

Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.

There are signs of progress, but also complaints about “racial sensitivity.” That is, fewer than half the new district’s teachers are black, compared to 97 percent of students.

Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in in a very poor Memphis neighborhood, replacing all the teachers.  “More than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America,” reports the Times.

Mid-year tests showed rising scores. But parents complain of strict discipline.

 “They don’t understand black folk,” said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. “They don’t understand our values or events in our history.”

But Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother on an advisory council to the achievement district, said students are “engaged and learning.”  Children will get used to higher expectations, she said.

New achievement district school staffers are wooing parents in their boundary zones (they must take all who apply) with door-to-door visits and open houses.

 Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Ms. Oliver’s autistic son, “that just meant so much to me,” Ms. Oliver said.

But locals complain experienced teachers will be displaced.  “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Do state takeovers work? The Atlantic looks at New Jersey’s plan to take over Camden schools and potential takeovers in Ohio and Maryland.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky “probably because they don’t tend to change a whole lot,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. “The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that’s gone is the school board.”

That’s why districts are turning to nonprofit charter management companies  to take over chronically low-performing schools.

When students grade teachers

When students evaluate their teachers, they’re remarkably good at identifying who’s effective and who’s not, writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic. Students evaluations have proved to be “more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—­including classroom observations and student test-score growth,”  researchers have found, Ripley writes.

Some 250,000 students participated in a Gates Foundation study of student evaluations, using a survey developed by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson.

The responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)

Students were better than trained adult observers in evaluating teacher effectiveness, probably because students spend a lot more time with each teacher. And there are more of them.

Five items were linked strongly with student learning:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Teachers were surprised that caring about students was less important than controlling the classroom and challenging students, Ripley writes.

At McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C., the same students “gave different teachers wildly different reviews” on Control and Challenge.

For Control, which reflects how busy and well-behaved students are in a given classroom, teachers’ scores ranged from 16 to 90 percent favorable; for Challenge, the range stretched from 18 to 88 percent. Some teachers were clearly respected for their ability to explain complex material or keep students on task, while others seemed to be boring their students to death.

Memphis now counts student survey results as 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the annual review; 35 percent is linked students’ test scores and 40 percent to classroom observations.

The use of student surveys is spreading to Georgia and Chicago — and possibly Pittsburgh — Ripley writes.

Memphis gives up on bootstraps reform

Memphis is giving up on bootstrapping better schools and merging with the whiter, wealthier suburbs, writes Sarah Garland of Hechinger Report in The Atlantic. That could threaten “no excuses” pilot schools and other reform strategies, she writes.

Manassas, an all-black, nearly all-poor school, has a lot going for it: a new building, a new set of intensely dedicated teachers who willingly work on Saturdays, and the attention — and money — of national foundations and advocacy groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

. . . Last year, 111 of 131 seniors who applied to college were accepted. (The graduating class was 150.) The previous year, only 25 graduating seniors had been accepted.

A new city-suburban board will run the new district.

In part, the merger is about money. Under a 1982 law, suburban funding has flowed to Memphis schools, but the legislature is poised to repeal the law. “By choosing to dissolve into the wealthier surrounding district, the board essentially decided to give up the school district’s autonomy in order to keep the funds rolling in.”

Memphis school board members and administrators also hope to close the achievement gap by mingling “students, teachers, and the involved parents who help drive suburban success,”  Garland writes.

“The gap closes when folks go to school together, when they play together, when they’re in afterschool programs together, and when they live in the same communities together,” (Memphis Superintendent Kriner Cash) says.

But will white, middle-class suburban parents send their kids to urban schools with low-income, black students? History says no. In 1973, when a federal court ordered busing to desegregate schools, many whites “fled for the suburbs or private schools.”  Though nobody’s proposing involuntary busing this time around, some suburban towns are talking about forming their own districts. “Both opponents and advocates have warned that many white families could move out of the county altogether,” Garland writes.

 

‘Click-click’ credits raise graduation rates

K-12 schools are adding — and sometimes requiring — online classes, reports the New York Times.  Failing students try to “recover” credits online; successful students take electives and Advanced Placement classes that don’t generate enough interest to justify a class. But the quality of online learning is suspect, especially for weak students.

Memphis City Schools now requires all students to take at least one course to graduate, starting with this year’s sophomores. School officials say “they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace,” the Times reports.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course.

. . . “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

Idaho will give a laptop to every high school student and require four or more online courses. Critics complain the state will replace teachers with technology.

Chicago and New York City are piloting online learning programs, which include both credit recovery and advanced classes for high school students, as well as “personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.”

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

There’s little research on the effectiveness of online courses for K-12 students, reports the U.S. Education Department.

Even online advocates are “dubious” about online courses that let students who’ve failed a regular class “recover” the credits, the Times reports. These “click-click credits” are used to boost graduation rates.

Sheffield High in Memphis, once a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent, now hopes to graduate 86 percent of the class of 2011. Online classes have helped. The district buys software for the Florida Virtual School, then pays its own teachers extra to work 10 hours a week with 150 online students.

The Times watches Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course.

. . . he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Asked about social Darwinism, the 18-year-old student did a Google search, copied a Wikipedia entry and e-mailed it to the teacher.

Online classes aren’t always money savers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on HechingerEd. In particular, online credit-recovery classes don’t work without “some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical.”

Tennessee tries single-sex classes

A Memphis high school credits separate classes for male and female students for a jump in test scores.

MEMPHIS — In “Romeo and Juliet,” the plot thickens along slightly different lines for male and female students at Booker T. Washington High.

For boys, the story advances in the fights between the Montagues and the Capulets; for girls, it’s the timeless love story.

. . . “Boys like nonfiction. They like gory, bloody stories. They like protagonists who look like them, sound like them and act like them,” (Principal Alisha Kiner) said. “We know from research that girls are more comfortable with other girls. That’s why we all go to the bathroom together.

“We’re not afraid to compete and share our opinions as we are when we are in rooms with boys.”

An all-girls’ charter school is opening in a low-income Chattanooga neighborhood for middle and high school students: Applicants must test below proficiency in math or reading or attend a low-performing school that’s failed to make progress.