The best of colleges, the worst of colleges

Washington Monthly‘s 2013 college rankings include the best community colleges as judged by a student engagement survey and completion rates. In addition, the Monthly analyzes why some of the worst community colleges are in the otherwise thriving San Francisco Bay Area.

Inside a ‘low-performing’ school

Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong, writes Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones after spending 18 months “embedded” at San Francisco’s Mission High. Rizga followed a Salvadoran girl who’d joined her mother in the U.S. after the rape, torture and murder of her beloved aunt.

At a San Francisco middle school, Maria learned almost no English in a special class for immigrants and then in a mainstream class.

At Mission High, the struggling school she’d chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers’ writing center, 826 Valencia.

But Maria, who’s still learning English vocabulary, scores poorly on state exams.  Despite a rising graduation and college-going rate, Mission High scores among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country.

The article — go ahead, read the whole thing — reminded me of The New Kids, a book on a small New York City high school for recent immigrants. The school pushes all students –who come from Tibet, Africa, Haiti, China, you name it — to college.  But they’re way, way behind in reading, writing and math. Some have missed years of schooling. Or they just haven’t had enough time to learn English. Can they really make it in college without the mentoring their high school provides? If the problem is just weak English skills, the super-motivated probably can. But what makes sense for the rest?

Rethinking special ed

Special education is costing more and more, yet results are disappointing, writes Rick Hess. Nate Levenson, a former superintendent who reduced special-ed spending while improving achievement, has written Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education.

Levenson suggests:

  • a relentless focus on reading, including clear and rigorous grade-level expectations for reading proficiency, frequent measurement, and early identification of struggling readers with immediate and intensive additional instruction, up to 30 extra minutes per day;
  • rethinking what special ed students are taught in general education classes to avoid overplacement of special ed students in special classes and keep them in front of the best teachers;
  • maximizing class time with content expert teachers.

Special education teachers know how to identify disabilities, but aren’t trained in how to teach math, English or reading, even though that’s their primary duty, Levenson writes.

Also in for some tough medicine is the practice of co-teaching, where a special ed teacher is paired with a general ed teacher in a regular classroom for students with and without disabilities. Levenson writes, “Co-teaching is like dieting. Lots of people want to lose weight and look good in a bathing suit, but actually doing so is hard.”

Miriam Freedman talks about what Massachusetts is doing to speed resolutions of disputes (SPED-X) and cut down on paperwork (Process Lite).

Some states, such as Massachusetts and New York, identify almost twice as many students as disabled as other states, such as Texas and California, notes Fordham’s  Shifting Trends in Special Education.  The poverty rate doesn’t explain it, writes Mike Petrilli. But it does correlate with per-student spending, adjusted for the cost of living. High-spending states have higher rates of special-education identification.

Thirteen percent of the difference in identification is correlated to spending, estimates Harvard Education Professor Marty West. “It could be that better-resourced systems identify more kids because they have the capacity to serve them separately, but even if that were the case there is a lot of variation that it can’t explain (look at Rhode Island and Texas, for example).”

Petrilli wonders whether tighter school budgets will result in smaller special-ed caseloads.

San Francisco school officials want to save money by mainstreaming all special education students, reports the New York Times.  That includes mainstreaming 16 students with severe behavior problems who attend a private, nonprofit school at district expense.

(Sylvia) Hewlett’s son attended six San Francisco schools before his ninth birthday. His mother said he sometimes became so frustrated that he physically attacked his teachers and classmates.

Ms. Hewlett enrolled her son, who is autistic and turns 12 in July, at Erikson four years ago. “Now the boy can write,” she said. “The boy can read. The boy can spell.”

Alternative programs exist for a reason, writes  Ms. Cornelius.  Seriously disabled students get a chance at an education and other students and teachers get a shot at a safe, peaceful classroom.

San Francisco may order ‘sad meals’

San Francisco may ban “happy meals” that come with a toy, unless the meal includes a serving of fruit and vegetables or meets the city’s nutritional requirements, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco’s “sad meals” should include “creepy, insulting and/or humiliating promotional toys with any meal that fails to meet the city’s exacting nutritional guidelines,” writes Zombie on Pajamas Media.

* Circular metallic stickers featuring a frowny-face and the words “I’m a fatso!” or “Lard-butt.” Parents will be required to affix the stickers to their children’s foreheads during meals eaten in public.

* Wind-up toys which speak any of ten different phrases, including “You’re morbidly obese!”, “Sure, keep stuffing your fat little face,” and “You make me sick, you disgusting pig!” Children can choose either the Sinister Clown, Nagging Granny, or Scary Bully designs.

* Miniature flipbooks featuring full-color photos of actual surgical procedures taken during heart bypass operations and liposuction sessions.

* A new line of collectible figurines called Chubbies, with names such as Friendless Fritz, Diabetic Debbie, and Acne Ashly.

Very few children eat most of their meals at fast-food restaurants. Obesity begins at home. Parents have to stop buying junk food — often for themselves — and start pushing fruit and veg.

$50 per kid for college

Every San Francisco kindergartener would get a city-funded $50 college savings bond under a plan proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, write columnists Matier and Ross.

The idea behind the Kindergarten to College program would be for San Francisco to seed an account for each of the 4,500 children who enter kindergarten in the city’s public schools each year. The students and their families would take it from there.

The money could be used only for college and would come out of the general fund.

All students would be eligible for the $50, regardless of immigration status.  However, many illegal immigrants don’t have bank accounts. Newsom, who’s planning a run for governor, is trying to figure out how to  deal with that.

The Jimi Hendrix district

Jimi Hendrix is the role model in San Francisco public schools, report Chronicle columnists Philip Matier and Andrew Ross.

“Remember the first time you heard Jimi Hendrix?” reads the cover of the district’s new 51-page education guide. “Our plan is as transformational now as his music was then!”

. . .  a portrait of the ’60s rocker – looking somewhat pensive, somber and perhaps stoned – graces the cover and every page of the manual.

The book also comes with a Hendrix poster and Hendrix-emblazoned canvas bag, which were handed out to a couple hundred administrators at Superintendent Carlos Garcia’s back-to-school confab in September.

Not everyone, however, is in tune with the campaign, given that the songwriter-guitarist died after overdosing on prescription drugs and alcohol at the age of 27.

Perhaps the superintendent was in a Purple Haze when he decided to spend the district’s limited funds on the just-like-Jimi campaign.

Rethinking seniority, tenure

Principals in Providence will be able to hire teachers based on their qualifications, instead of letting senior teachers “bump” those with less time on the job.

Education Commissioner Peter McWalters, who ordered the change, says he has the power to intervene in a chronically under-performing school district.  He wants to build a common school culture by giving principals the ”authority to select teachers who not only agree with the school’s mission but are best suited to the needs of those particular students.”

The teachers’ union hasn’t decided whether to fight the order.

Several states are considering delaying tenure for teachers, reports Teacher Beat.

In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland wants to grant teachers tenure after nine years, rather than the current three. . . . It would also allow tenured teachers to be dismissed for “just cause.” Currently, teachers can only be dismissed for “gross immorality” or “inefficiency.”

. . . In Florida, Republican legislators are preparing to submit legislation to give teachers annual contracts for their first 10 years in the classroom and then contracts of no more than five years after that. Essentially, that plan would make teachers at-will employees for their first 10 years.

. . . And, of course, there’s D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s proposal to push tenure-granting back from two to four years and require current teachers to forgo it for a year in exchange for the opportunity to win bonuses.

No Child Left Behind should provide incentives to keep competent teachers and dump the non-performers, reasons Teacher Beat. But is that really happening?

Teacher Beat also reports on a New Teacher Project study of how teachers are hired and evaluated in San Francisco: From 2005-2007, only five of 1,804 teachers were rated “unsatisfactory,” while  86 percent received one of the top two ratings.

No sodas for teachers

San Francisco’s school board may take soda machines from teacher break rooms, to force teachers to set a good example for students. Students lost soda and candy machines in 2003.

“I know of one school, and I won’t name names, where there is a soda machine in the principal’s office,” (trustee Jill) Wynns said, adding that it sets a bad example if teachers are telling kids not to buy caffeine-laden drinks but sipping one themselves.

What’s next? Rip out the coffee machine?

EIA Online thinks teachers are making too much of this, but I think they should tell the board to buzz off.  Teachers are adults.  If they want to drink soda (possibly sugar-free and uncaffeinated) on their breaks — or lunch on coffee and chocolate-chip cookies — it’s their own damn business.