New ways to build skills, careers

On Community College Spotlight: Rethinking career education.

Also, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis are in Philadelphia today for the first regional community college summit.

And NBC News will feature advanced manufacturing training at Gateway Community and Technical College in Northern Kentucky on tonight’s newscast. There are jobs for skilled manufacturing workers in the area.

Mastery ‘restarts’ Philly schools

Taking over a failing school is too challenging for most charter school operators, who prefer to start their own schools from scratch. But Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools is taking the “restart” challenge, according to Benjamin Herold in the Hechinger Report.

Last year, parents were trying to flee Smedley Elementary. The district asked Mastery to take charge. This year, families are asking for the K-5 school to add another grade.

Under the “restart” model, a district outsources management of an existing public school to an outside provider, often a charter-school operator like Mastery. The new management is then expected to overhaul school staff, renovate often-woeful facilities, revamp a dysfunctional school culture, win over disillusioned parents, and dramatically improve student test scores — all while ostensibly serving the same kids as the year before.

Restarts are also controversial and politically sensitive, in part because they involve the use of public money to support privately managed schools. Unionized staff may be supplanted by non-union replacements, just like at charter schools.

Mastery, which uses a “no excuses” model, took over three low-performing  Philadelphia middle schools in 2005.  Scores improved dramatically.

At Pickett Middle School, for example, just 14 percent of students scored proficient in math before Mastery arrived in 2007. After Mastery brought in new teachers and pushed them to work together, almost 70 percent of students scored proficient in math last year—a gain of 500 percent in just three years.

The U.S. Education Department has specified four change models for chronically low-performing schools: So far 454 are trying “transformation,” the least disruptive model, while 135 are trying “turnaround,” 31 “restart” and 18 have closed.

Ed Week looks at restart efforts around the country, including “a Latino advocacy organization, several small charter operators, a nonprofit started by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a private company co-founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, and the American subsidiary of a British-based consulting company,” plus Edison Learning and Pearson Education.

Teaching in Philly and Taiwan

Claire teaches third grade at an inner-city Philadelphia school. Sister Nikka taught aboriginal students for a year in Taiwan. Scholastic discovered their blog here and asked them to write New Teacher: Two Sisters Tell Their Stories.

Monday, March 1, 2010:
How does your school begin the day?

Taiwan, 8:10 a.m.
I walk into the beautiful grassy entrance way of my school in Nan Ao, greeted by hellos from students scattered about the school grounds who are picking up leaves and sweeping. There are a few teachers dispersed amongst them. Everyone is cleaning and working together. There is music playing. In a few minutes, they will line up in the school courtyard to formally greet each other and begin the day.

All 200 students stand completely still and face the flag. A student band plays a solemn national anthem while another group slowly raises the flag. The students, in unison, bow towards the line to formally greet one another. Then they turn to their teachers, bow, and say, “laoshihao,” Hello, teacher.  -Nikka

Philadelphia, 9:22 a.m.
Packed together on cafeteria benches, students scramble to finish their breakfasts. The school climate officer begins to quiet the room. After several rounds of “SHOW ME YOUR QUIET SIGNAL,” (a peace sign) the school climate officer leads the staff and students through two recitations. First, the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, the school rules.

“School rule number one. There is no violence at our school. Violence will not be tolerated. If you feel that you have to be violent you will leave the school. If a teacher or a parent loses their mind and becomes violent they will have to leave the school.

“School rule number two. We have a beautiful school. Do not litter. We pride ourselves on our beautiful facility. Keep it clean and beautiful.”

“School rule number three. All students must be accompanied by an adult at all times. There are no hall passes. An adult is your hall pass. The only place you may be by yourself is the bathroom stall.”

As the climate officer reaches the end of the rules, students are still making their way into the cafeteria just in time for school to begin. -Claire

Claire’s school has no recess for fear children will be hit by stray bullets.  On the other hand, Nikka had a student who wanted to grow up to be a beggar.

Obama to students: Work hard

“Your life is what you make it,” President Obama will tell students at a Philadelphia magnet school in a back-to-school speech that will be broadcast nationwide.

And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.

. . .  here’s your job. Showing up to school on time. Paying attention in class. Doing your homework. Studying for exams. Staying out of trouble. That kind of discipline and drive – that kind of hard work – is absolutely essential for success.

Obama will confess that he was a slacker in high school, till his mother told him to get his act together.

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

Obama will promise to speak at the commencement of a high school that shows “how teachers, students, and parents are working together to prepare your kids for college and a career.”

The speech ends with a call to show respect for classmates and avoid bullying.

President Obama chose to speak at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration school, a high-scoring school for fifth- through 12-graders that primarily serves middle-class students. Masterman requires “high PSSA scores, excellent grades, and good behavior” for admission, according to the Inquirer.

What Philadelphia parents want

What do parents want from schools? The Philadelphia Daily News looks at the results of a Pew study of Philadelphia school parents, which included a poll and focus groups.

* Parents like charter schools. They really like them. A whopping 90 percent of parents who had chosen charter schools for their children – and an even higher 92 percent of Catholic school parents – approve of the choices they made.

* Parents don’t like district public schools. They really don’t like them. In the Pew poll, 58 percent of parents with kids in district schools said the overall job they were doing was “only fair” or poor. Nearly two-thirds of district school parents – 63 percent – said they had considered leaving the district for charter or parochial schools.

* Parents want safety and discipline in school. They really want it. Parents in focus groups rarely mentioned academics unless they were prompted to do so. Their positive evaluations of charter and Catholic schools – and their highly negative assessment of district schools – were based mostly on the perceived availability of safety, discipline and a caring environment.

* Parents want choices. They really want them. Most parents ( 72 percent) said they don’t have enough choices in schools, and increasing parental choice is the best way to improve education.

The Daily News worries that parents who are satisfied with their own school choices won’t care whether other children are getting a good education.

Maybe not. But would it better if nobody was happy?

District schools are improving to compete with charter schools, which have grown rapidly, the Daily News opines.  “But Father and Mother may not always know best – and educators need to know how to deal with that, too.”

I think this means:  Close low-scoring charter schools, even if parents are happy for safety reasons.  If students can move to higher-scoring, equally safe schools, sure. But remember that inner-city parents have very good reasons to value safety and discipline.

Via Flypaper.

How to raise graduation rates

What can we do to stem the tide of dropouts and help more students earn a high school diploma? The Hechinger Report and the Washington Monthly look at three cities that have tried to improve low graduation rates.

All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so.

New York City, which has created many small schools, has made significant progress.

Philadelphia is also improving, though not as dramatically.

Portland, Oregon, with more white and middle-class students, has made no progress at all. The city sends 20 percent of students to alternative schools with lots of support and very low expectations. Very few earn a diploma.

Also in the package: Small schools are beautiful — if they have real autonomy, good teaching and high standards, writes Thomas Toch. He also has a piece on the challenge of lowering the drop-out rate while raising academic standards.

Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes.

Twenty-four states now require graduation exams which typically test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test.

Next year, the U.S. Education Department will require states to use a uniform method of calculating dropout rates: the numbers are expected to go way up. That will give states and districts even more incentive to lower graduation requirements, Toch writes.

Schools can identify high-risk students.

If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.

But it’s not easy to pull off, especially in large, impersonal high schools.


90% of life is showing up

Nikka Landau teaches in Taiwan, where teacher absenteeism is not an issue. A teacher always shows up to work unless seriously ill. So do students.

Claire Landau teaches third grade in Philadelphia, where truancy is common for both teachers and students. She writes to her sister:

Your teachers and students go to school with a purpose. For a purpose. Here in Philly, school is a place you show up at (or don’t show up at) each day. This is true for students and it is clearly true for teachers as well.

. . . Raising attendance means schools must come up with innovative ways to make their communities feel responsible for the school and make parents feel accountable for their children’s performance in school. For teachers, raising attendance, means creating a space where teachers are supported and feel motivated to work hard and give their energy.

Finally, measuring attendance and demanding that both, teachers, parents and students do better would mean that, instead of continually passing the buck, we would all have to deal with each other.

Claire recalls a recent Friday: Six teachers out, no substitutes.

Philly charter school closes nightclub

A Philadephia charter school has closed the nightclub that’s been operating in the school cafeteria on nights and weekends.

Harambee Institute of Science and Technology, a K-8 charter for 450 students, bought a building in 2003 that had been an Italian-American social club; the liquor license, which expired in 2008, came with the building.

School district officials knew about Harambee’s liquor license.  “A January 2003 memo from district counsel to top administrators suggested holding a hearing on the matter,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. That never happened.

An all-black school serving low-income students, Harambee’s test scores are way above the Philadelphia average; in some grades and subjects, the school equals the state average. It’s not clear that students were harmed by eating lunch in a cafeteria that served liquor hours after the kids had left the building.

On the other hand, the extra revenue may have been needed to overpay the school’s business manager, who is under investigation; her husband’s construction company also has won millions of dollars in business from Harambee and two other charter schools.

Philly to grade principals on breakfasts

In annual report cards, Philadelphia principals will be graded on attendance, math and reading scores — and how many students eat breakfast at school, reports the Inquirer.

Philadelphia’s public schools have made all 165,00 students eligible for a free (tax-funded) breakfast, but only about a third show up to eat it.

Many studies have shown that breakfast boosts student performance and health.

District officials say principals will be held to different breakfast participation rates depending on estimates of how many children in their area eat at home.

In theory, school breakfasts are nutritionally balanced. The Inquirer’s commenters complain the breakfasts are high in fat and sugar. They also don’t want to pay to feed other people’s children or see their own kids pushed into eating a second breakfast at school.

Studies show “more children eat when breakfast is served in the first class of the day,” reports the Inquirer.  Most schools serve breakfast in the cafeteria before school to avoid wasting instructional time.  But the Pennsylvania Department of Education has opened the door to counting in-class breakfast as instructional time. That means Philadelphia principals will be pressured to order teachers to devote part of the first class period to serving, eating and clearing breakfast.

This will be done in the name of improving student performance.

Update: In other news, cost-cutting Harvard no longer serves hot breakfasts in most dorms.

School of the Future flounders

Philadelphia’s high-tech School of the Future (SOF), designed with help from Microsoft, was supposed to revolutionize education, writes Meris Stansbury on eSchool News. So far, we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work very well. (I had doubts when the school opened in 2006.)

It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement.

. . . From alternative school hours to laptops for every student, from a customizable school portal to campus-wide wireless access, and from a panel to design 21st-century curriculum to a new teacher hiring model, the SOF was thought to be a sure winner.

The school went through four principals in three years. Union contracts made it hard to hire teachers who were a good fit for the school.

Teachers received little training on how to use the technology to foster learning. Students had trouble using the laptops and worried they’d be stolen if they brought them home.

Although the technology itself was not supposed to trump basic classroom practices, Microsoft and the school’s planners had decided not to allow the use of textbooks or printed materials; instead, all resources were located online through a portal designed by Microsoft.

Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school’s wireless connection often would not work.

Just like Windows Vista, writes Lorri Giovinco-Harte at NY Education Examiner.

In a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Drew University Professor Patrick McGuinn found problems at every level.

“There is no clear definition of what project-based learning exactly is and how that can be step-by-step implemented in the classroom. Student remediation also didn’t fit with the project-based collaboration model.”

He added: “These teachers and administrators had to fly a plane while they were building it.”

Over time, the School of the Future adopted the district’s curriculum and assessments; it began to look a lot like schools of the present. However, school leaders are trying to learn from the early mistakes — they hired a tech support person! — and clarify the mission. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the School of the Future.

Update: Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia’s school of the future was William Penn High, a “showpiece packed with amenities, including a television studio, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a dance studio,” reports the Inquirer.  Now a wreck operating at less than 20 percent of capacity, the low-scoring school will be closed for two years for rebuilding. And, one hopes, rethinking.