A ‘culture of chaos’

Two weeks after a 17-year-old fractured the skull of Bartram High’s “conflict resolution specialist,” Philadelphia school officials sent a team to assess the troubled school, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Violence is “the new normal,” said a teacher.

A brawl erupted in the school cafeteria, students set off firecrackers and the 17-year-old who assaulted the staffer was seen at school for two days.

Administrators don’t remove problem students, say teachers. That’s created a “culture of chaos and disregard for authority.”

The cafeteria melee was captured by a cellphone camera and posted on social media.

. . . dozens gathered, with several students exchanging punches. A male school police officer attempts to separate the combatants as the room fills with screams.

In short order, a larger brawl erupts, mostly between female students. A female police officer attempts to break up one skirmish, then others. At one point in the video, that officer appears to fall to the floor.

“We have to go beyond police officers,” said Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get these young people to care for others.”

“The administration has begun attempting to crack down on students who come late to school, and those who ditch class or use cellphones, but many students, accustomed to having wide latitude in the building, aren’t taking the adults seriously,” reports the Inquirer

I’m sure many students at Bartram High would prefer a safe, orderly school where they can learn. But nobody can learn — or teach — in a “culture of chaos.”

Students at high-poverty high schools receive “an average of half an hour less instruction per day than their higher-income peers” due to disruptions and “poverty-related challenges,” according to a new study, reports Education Week.

A movie maker’s 5 keys to school reform

I Got Schooled offers “five keys to closing America’s education gap,” courtesy of M. Night Shyamalan, known for making The Sixth Sense, The Village and a number of flops.

After he made a fortune on his early movies, Shyamalan funded scholarships for inner-city Philadelphia children, he told the Wall Street Journal, but decided they were “socially and academically unprepared for college” because,”they’d been taught they were powerless.”

He began researching education reform to come up with his five keys:  “Eliminate the worst teachers, pivot the principal’s job from operations to improving teaching and school culture, give teachers and principals feedback, build smaller schools, and keep children in class for more hours.” Doing just one, two or three won’t help, the filmmaker concludes. Schools need to do all five.

Reality-Based Educator on Perdido Street School says Shyamalan is a bad filmmaker with same old, same old ideas.

As Stan Freberg used to say:  “Everybody wants to be an art director.”

Britain: Spending doesn’t improve schools

“There is no correlation at all between the level of per-pupil funding and educational outcomes,” concludes a Deloitte analysis of British schools, reports The Telegraph. The Department of Education had commissioned the study to provide support  for a “pupil premium” — extra funding — for disadvantaged students.

The report confirms what’s obvious to parents, editorializes The Telegraph: “Ethos is what matters most – and you can’t buy a good ethos. Head teachers who turn around a school are utterly priceless, in every way.”

We’d say “culture” instead of  “ethos” and “principal” for “head teacher.”

There’s evidence that a well-run school will use extra funds to improve, going from good to very good or very good to excellent. But more money doesn’t help if the school lacks strong leadership.

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.

 

Money for nothing

New Jersey courts ordered the state to spend a “huge amount of money” on failing urban school districts, writes Myron Magnet in a City Journal article on power-hungry judges. The “Abbott” money hasn’t equalized results.

The 31 Abbott districts received more money than the rich districts, because inner-city kids have greater needs. The court funded all-day kindergarten, half-day preschools for three- and four-year-olds and transition programs to work or college, plus money to build or update school buildings.

What are New Jersey taxpayers accomplishing with the $22,000 to $27,000 they spend per pupil each year in the big inner-city districts? On test scores and graduation rates in Newark, the needle has scarcely flickered.

As the E3 education-reform group’s report Money for Nothing notes, high schools in the state’s biggest city can’t produce substantial numbers of juniors and seniors who can pass tests of eighth-grade knowledge and skills, and the report quotes testimony to the same effect before the state legislature about Camden’s schools.

Urban high schools hire security guards — 20 for one Trenton school — rather than creating a school culture that encourages students to want to learn, Magnet writes.

(Inner-city students)  need teachers rewarded for merit, not longevity, and a curriculum that stresses skills, knowledge, and striving, not grievance and unearned self-esteem. They need a school culture that expands their sense of opportunity and possibility strongly enough to counteract the culture of militant ignorance and failure that surrounds them in the narrow world they know.

Without that, money doesn’t make much difference.

 

Rhee’s record

The case against Michelle Rhee is full of holes, writes Paul Peterson of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Washington Times. Ed Next has his full analysis.

Rhee was more effective than her predecessors, he writes, contradicting a recent study (pdf) by Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U.S. Department of Education.  And, contrary to a National Research Council (NRC)  committee’s preliminary analysis, which downplays progress, there’s reason to believe Rhee’s reforms made a difference.  

Like Ginsburg and the NRC committee, Peterson looks at NAEP data, since it’s a low-stakes test with no incentive to cheat. He excludes the scores of charter schools beyond Rhee’s control, which caused a blip in the data in 2007, inflating pre-Rhee progress. He finds progress accelerated after Rhee took over as chancellor.

 Once the data are corrected and adjusted for national trends, it becomes evident that during the Rhee years, fourth-grade students gained at a pace twice that seen under her predecessors in both reading and math. The gains in math by eighth-grade students were nearly as much, although no eighth-grade reading gains are detected.

Gains are not enormous in any one year, but over time, they add up. In 2000, the gap between the District and the nation in fourth-grade math was 34 points. Had students gained as much every year between 2000 and 2009 as they did during the Rhee era, that gap would have been just 7 points in 2009. Three more years of Rhee-like progress and the gap would have been closed. In eighth-grade math, the gap in 2000 was 38 points. Had Rhee-like progress been made over the next nine years, the gap in 2009 would have been just 14 points, with near closure in 2012. In fourth-grade reading, the gap was 30 points in 2003; if Rhee-like gains had taken place over the next six years, the gap in 2009 would have been cut in half.

The NRC committee claims that District gains “were similar” to those in 10 “other urban districts” for which comparable data is available.

In fact, D.C. students gained 6 points between 2007 and 2009 in both math and reading, while the average gain for the other 10 cities was just 1 point in reading and 2 points in math. In eighth-grade math, D.C. gains were 7 points, as compared to an average of three points for 10 other cities. Only in eighth-grade reading did the District lag behind, dropping a point while elsewhere, students gained 2 points.

The committee also admits that student and teacher attendance improved significantly during Rhee’s tenure, but questions the significance of the change.

Rhee said she wanted to change the culture, Peterson notes.  When students show up to learn and teachers show up to teach, that’s considered a very good sign. But Rhee’s enemies don’t want to give her credit for anything.

Why ‘doing what works’ doesn’t work

“Doing what works” doesn’t really work, writes Justin Baeder in Ed Week’s On Performance blog.

There is a popular myth that we can bring about improvement by finding out “what works” and then making sure everyone does the things that work.

If teachers switch from poor teaching practices to good teaching practices, it will help — but not a great deal, Baeder writes. Bad teachers won’t get significantly better results by adopting “best practices” that “work” for good teachers.

My concern is that we are now basing policy on the presumption that abstracted strategy-copying can bring about large-scale improvement. The Gates Foundation is spending millions to find out what teaching practices are “effective” so we can make everyone implement them.

This won’t get us very far, Baeder believes. To make a “sustained large-scale improvement,” we need to recruit and retain better teachers and principals and develop coherent systems that support teaching and learning.

In an earlier column, Baeder wrote about the “single explanations” fallacy described in Phil Rozenzweig’s The Halo Effect and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers: “Many studies show that a particular factor leads to improved performance. But since many of these factors are highly correlated, the effect of each one is usually less than suggested.”

Learning is influenced by many factors, Baeder writes.

The armchair reformers want us to believe that education works like this:
Teacher + Student = Learning

If we aren’t getting the level of learning we want, and we can’t change much about the student, the teacher is the logical place to focus. But what this simplistic model omits is the ecosystem in which the teaching-learning relationship exists.

Value-added models have shown that teachers are responsible for 20-40% of the variance in student performance, meaning 60-80% of student learning is dependent on factors other than the teacher. . . . Poverty matters. Parents matter. School culture matters. Student health matters. Teachers matter too, but they are far from the only salient factor in student learning.

A brilliant math teacher at my daughter’s middle school had success teaching the “new new math,” but less talented teachers — notably my daughter’s seventh-grade pre-algebra teacher — couldn’t pull it off.  Parents rebelled, forcing the school to offer a traditional math alternative.

Making integration work

Is economic integration a feasible goal? By creating high-achieving schools in high-poverty areas, charter networks such as KIPP and Achievement First, derailed the debate on school segregation, writes Dana Goldstein. But Rhode Island is creating charter schools that mix urban and suburban students.

The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) model, authorized by state law in 2008, lets mayors of neighboring towns and cities create regional charter schools.

RIMA’s first school, Blackstone Valley Prep, is located in affluent Cumberland, but draws elementary and middle students from low-income Pawtucket and Central Falls as well as Lincoln, another well-off town. Fifty-five percent of the students are black and Latino, 65 percent are poor, and 43 percent are English Language Learners.

In its pedagogical methods, BVP is a traditional “no excuses ” charter, with uniforms, an extended learning day, and privately-funded extras, including free breakfast and a gorgeous, newly renovated building. Administrators and teachers greet students each morning with a handshake and eye contact, the kids are expected to line up and walk through the hallways in silence, and there are songs and chants to help the students memorize their multiplication tables and phonics principles. Standardized test gains and scores are impressive.

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BVP kindergartners and first-graders “get their wiggles out” after their daily breakfast and morning meeting.

The no-excuses model doesn’t always attract middle-class and affluent parents, Goldstein writes. But there are 299 Cumberland and Lincoln students signed up for BVP’s next lottery as well as 431 Pawtucket and Central Falls students. That should boost the percentage of middle-class students.

RIMA is awaiting approval of five new regional charter schools in a partnership between Providence and the town of Cranston.

Goldstein also visited troubled Central Falls High, a failing school in a failing  town. New leaders are trying to change the school culture, she writes, but it’s hard when the teachers are demoralized after last year’s mass firings. Discipline remains a problem.

“The kids, when they’re here, need to know this is a place of learning,” (math teacher Anthony) Kulla said. “Right now they don’t.”

Central Falls High students are predominantly low-income and Hispanic.

‘Toxic’ transfers

High-poverty schools are bound to fail because good teachers don’t want to teach in “toxic concentrations of poverty” with low expectations and less parent involvement, writes New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty.

A Century Foundation study in Montgomery County, Maryland, showed that low-income students enrolled in affluent elementary schools outperformed  similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools, Herbert writes.

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment.

However, economic integration requires racial and ethnic integration, which “provokes bitter resistance,” Herbert claims. Despite our claims to be a “postracial” society, middle-class whites don’t want blacks and Hispanics to transfer in to suburban schools. (Why would they welcome “toxic” transfers?)

Herbert is confused about the meaning of  “postracial,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

There’s a practical problem with economic integration: Too many poor kids. The Montgomery County study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch; the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students came from low-income families. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Sara Mead writes.

We can’t solve our problems by trying to bus all the poor kids to the suburbs. The challenge is to create healthy, education-valuing school cultures in poor neighborhoods. My book is about a school that’s done that. I also recommend Samuel Casey Carter’s new book, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Character.

Schools of character

In On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character, Samuel Casey Carter profiles schools that “set high expectations for personal attitudes and behavior and created both good people and good students,” writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.

Carter looks at five traditional public schools, three public magnet schools, two public charter schools and two private schools ranging in size from 220 students to 2,624 at Hinsdale Central High in a Chicago suburb.

Mathews writes:

He describes in some detail, with many examples, the four traits that mark the path toward a school of strong character: a strong belief that culture determines outcomes, a nurturing but demanding culture, a culture committed to student success and a culture of people, principles and purpose.

. . .  in his next book I would like see him go deeper into each story and find the hidden flaws and the silent malcontents. I want to know what resistance had to be overcome to establish a school of good character. I want to hear from those who see such efforts as coercion rather than evangelism, if there are any.

A senior fellow with the Center for Education Reform, Carter studied the cultures of more than 3,500 schools across the U.S. before choosing his examples.

The schools profiled are: Arlington Traditional in Arlington, Virginia (PK-5); Osmond A. Church in South Ozone Park, NY (PK-8), An Achievable Dream in Newport News, Virginia (PK-12); Cotswold Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina (K-5); Grayhawk Elementary in Scottsdale, Arizona (K-6); Atlantis Elementary in Port St. John, Florida (K-6); Benjamin Franklin Public Charter School in Franklin, Massachusetts (K-6); Hope Christian in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (K-8); Providence St. Mel in Chicago, Illinois (K-12); Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton, California (6-8); Veritas Academy in Phoenix, Arizona (6-12); and Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois (9-12).

Carter co-authored No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools. This book looks at schools serving a mix of students, arguing that affluent students face character challenges too. Four of the schools serve predominantly low-income, minority students.

In researching Our School, I saw the importance of building a school culture that values hard work and learning. I saw kids who’d once mocked serious students as “school boy” or “school girl” cheer classmates for doing homework or earning higher grades. But culture isn’t magic. Once students have decided they want to learn, they need skilled teachers, a well-designed curriculum and a lot of extra help to fill in academic holes.