Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Kids need ‘serve-and-return’ parents, teachers

Skills such as self-control, resilience and grit are products of a child’s home and school environment, writes Paul Tough in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.

What’s most important is “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”

That sums up nearly all we need to know about parenting and teaching, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Brilliant Blog.

Warm, “serve-and-return parenting,” which can be done in many ways, “conveys to [children] some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world.”

Effective teachers “convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity . . . In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.”

In addition, writes Paul, students must be exposed to deep, meaningful, sensibly sequenced knowledge.”

Let teachers focus on teaching

Nearly every teacher finds or develops her own teaching materials, according to a new RAND study. Elementary school teachers often turn to Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). Nearly half of teachers spend more than four hours a week on this.

“Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the abilities of mere mortals,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Do you want your child’s teacher to have the time to analyze student work and develop a keen eye for diagnosing mistakes and misunderstandings? Do you want her to give your child rich and meaningful feedback on assignments and homework? How about developing warm and productive relationships with your child and your family?

Teachers should focus on how to teach, rather than what to teach, Pondiscio argues. Give them high-quality instructional materials.

A 2012 Brookings study by Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos demonstrated that the “effect size” of choosing a better second-grade math curriculum was larger than replacing a fiftieth-percentile teacher with a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher. This is a powerful result, especially considering that it’s relatively easy to give all children a better curriculum but extremely difficult to dramatically increase the effectiveness of their teachers. It’s cost-neutral too: A Center for American Progress report by Ulrich Boser and Chingos showed virtually no difference in price between effective and ineffective curricula.

“We want our best teachers to play a significant role in instructional design so that more children and teachers can benefit from their expertise,” he concludes. However, “twelve-plus years of a well-designed and sequenced curriculum would lead to better outcomes for children than the occasional year with a great yet isolated teacher.”

TFA drops social justice training

Michael Darmas, a Teach for America corps member, “high fives” a student at Holmes Elementary School in Miami. Photo: AP

Teach for America‘s Education for Justice pilot, which trained would-be teachers in social justice and cultural competency, has been canceled, writes Stephen Sawchuk in Ed Week. College students took courses for a year to prepare to teach in low-income, minority communities.

TFA is cutting 150 positions, including its national diversity office, notes Sawchuk. “Still, this is somewhat surprising news. After all, the pilot was one that TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard announced in 2014 to great fanfare.”

After nearly a year of E4J, Kailee Lewis, a future TFA corps member, believes telling teachers they’ll show low-income students “what’s possible when they work hard and dream big” is a false and dangerous lie.

This idea that ‘hard work’ can create something out of nothing neglects the fact that often in low-income communities there are multiple forms of oppression stacked against a child even before birth.

Education 4 Justice was teaching future teachers . . . to recognize their privilege and their oppressions.

I don’t see how this prepares someone to teach. If you think your students can’t succeed, even if they “work hard and dream big,” then what’s the point? Give the pobrecitos hugs and recess, but don’t bother them with fractions, grammar and photosynthesis.

TFA is expanding recruitment efforts among college juniors, rather than waiting till students are about to graduate. It will offer training for future teachers that takes “the best practices from E4J and other pre-corps pilots,” said an official statement.

Teachers may raise scores, but not happiness

Teachers who raise students’ test scores may lower their spirits, concludes a new working paper.

Harvard and Brown researchers looked at upper-elementary teachers’ “influence on math test scores and students’ self-reported behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in math class,” reports Teacher Quality Bulletin.

More than a quarter of the most effective teachers (based on test scores) were among the least effective when evaluated using student non-tested outcomes.

To further complicate matters, the non-academic outcomes don’t always correlate. For example, teacher scores on classroom organization had a positive correlation with student behavior but a negative correlation with happiness in class.

Do we prefer teachers with happy, low-scoring students to teachers with high-scoring but unhappy students?

Teachers need to know wrong answers

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” said Mark Twain. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Teachers need to know the wrong answers to teach the right answers, says Philip Sadler, a professor of astronomy who runs Harvard’s Science Education department. It’s hard for teachers to explain concepts unless they  “understand the flaws in students’ reasoning,” writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.


It takes a lot of “mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself,” says Sadler. “It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.’ ”

Sadler gave a multiple-choice science test to middle-school students, including a “distractor” — a common misconception — for each question, he writes in American Educator.

For example:

2. Eric is watching a burning candle very carefully. After all of the candle has burned, he wonders what happened to the wax. He has a number of ideas; which one do you agree with most?

a. The candle wax has turned into invisible gases.

d. All of the wax has melted and dripped to the bottom of the candle holder.

Fifty-nine percent of students chose “d.” Only 17 percent chose the right answer, “a.”

When Sadler tested the students’ teachers, they knew 85 percent of the right answers, but only 41 percent of the “right” wrong answers, writes Kamenetz. Students whose teachers were more aware of common errors “learned significantly more science, based on a retest at the end of the year.”

A first-rate teacher for every classroom

To “get a first-rate teacher in front of every student,” schools need to retain teachers long enough to build expertise, writes Marc Tucker on his Top Performers blog.

Attrition is higher in the U.S. than in top-performing countries, writes Tucker. Teachers who quit “typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching.”

“Most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years,” Tucker writes. Novices are motivated to learn how to do the job to survive — but, after that, “all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.”

A new, very large international study by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond looks at how schools support high-quality teachers and teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, he writes.

These high-performing countries work hard to hire the best possible teachers, then focus on building their expertise and providing “a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards” expertise, Tucker writes.

In these countries, novice teachers are less likely to quit and teacher effectiveness doesn’t plateau after three years. They keep getting better.

St. Paul seeks equity, finds chaos

Brawls broke out at two St. Paul high schools in October. Photo: KSTP News

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

Aaron Benner

Student behavior is getting worse, says teacher Aaron Benner.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students.

(Teachers) have no way to discipline. If a child is running around screaming, we let them run around and scream. If a student throws a chair at the Smart Board we remove the other students and call for help. If a student shouts obscenities, we simply use kind words to remind them to use kind words themselves. I am not kidding.

. . . The only consequence at the elementary level is taking away recess or sending the offending student to a ‘buddy classroom’ for a few minutes.

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher at Como Park High, wrote that teachers “now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

He did not mention race.

Black Lives Matter had threatened a “shut-down action” at the school if Olson was not fired.

The same day Olson was put on leave, another Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffering a concussion. “The two entered the classroom to assault another student over a marijuana transaction gone bad,” an associate principal told the Star-Tribune.  Two 16-year-olds face felony assault charges.

Massachusetts’ test for teachers is humbling

After years teaching middle school English, Peter Sipe decided to seek an elementary teaching credential in Massachusetts. Tackling the state teachers’ exam was “humbling — and motivating,” he writes.

He missed half the answers on the practice math test. “Questions 20 and 36, for example, gave me a bit of a workout,” he writes.

Then there was biology: “Why would some cells have more mitochondria than others?” He had to relearn bio.

With the help of knowledgeable friends, hours of study, and a kind and patient man named Sal Khan, I got better at the sample tests. But it was humbling. If you factor in my two graduate degrees, my fifteen-year teaching career, and the fact that I’ve written disparagingly about teacher preparation standards in these very pages, my humbling was squared (or cubed, or something).

That practice math test is not easy.

Why principals inflate teacher ratings

New teacher evaluations are a lot like the old evaluations, concludes a new study that includes interviews with 100 urban principals. Very few teachers receive poor job ratings, notes Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

In 19 states with new teacher evaluation systems, the median proportion of teachers deemed below proficient is up from less than 1 percent to less than 3 percent, researchers found.

At the start of the year, urban principals estimated that 28 percent of their teachers were performing below the proficient level, but planned to assign low ratings to 24 percent. At year’s end, fewer than 7 percent of teachers received “below proficient” ratings.

Some principals felt uncomfortable delivering bad news to teachers. Others told the researchers that they didn’t have adequate time to deal with all the documentation and support that comes along with giving a teacher a poor rating.

Principals also said they didn’t want to discourage teachers with potential to improve or didn’t think they could hire a better replacement teacher. Some said it was easier “to urge a teacher to find a job elsewhere than to go through the process of assigning and justifying a low rating.”

Focus on effective teaching, not effective teachers, writes Timothy Shanahan. It’s not about people. It’s about what people do.

For example, effective teaching employs instructional time more wisely.  It is teaching that gets started right away—no 30-minute circle times, no large portions of class time devoted to getting a head start on the homework—and such teaching keeps kids productively engaged throughout the day. Observational studies have long showed that effective teaching avoids long wait times by the kids; avoids disruptions; encourages more interaction per instructional minute; follows a sound curriculum intelligently; gets a lot more reading into a lesson; explains things better; notices when kids aren’t getting it and does something about it.

“I can’t teach you to be an effective teacher,” he writes. “But I can teach you to do the kinds of things effective teachers do.”