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NYTimes David Kirp Sees Promise in Community Schools

January 13, 2019 Leave a comment

The Community School Comes of Age, the NYTimes David Kirp op ed article from earlier this week, describes how the community schools are getting a foothold in New York City. I was heartened to read this, because the “community school” described in Mr. Kirp’s article is very much like the “network school” that is the overarching theme of this blog. Mr. Kirp uses NYC’s Island School, a K-8 school serving 50 students most of whom are homeless, as the prototypical community school and uses a recent RAND Corporation study as evidence that this model is succeeding:

A 2017 RAND Corporation study of the first wave of New York’s community schools concluded that they are generally on the right track. They are staying open longer and finding new ways to help their students. They’re working with families and relying on mentors to persuade students of the value of education.

These practices are critical, according a 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute (where I’m a senior fellow) and the National Education Policy Center. That study combed the voluminous research to identify the elements of a good community school. When schools both “support academic success and social, emotional and physical health” and “offer a promising foundation for progress,” the report concluded, research shows that students’ reading and math scores go up and they’re more likely to graduate. Fewer of them skip school. And they act out less often.

The broad mission of community schools can pose problems… especially when the administrators are pulled in many directions:

Most community school principals, the RAND evaluation noted, have built solid relations with partners — nonprofit groups, government agencies and businesses that can connect their school with essential services. But some reported feeling whipsawed between what they saw as competing priorities: giving students the extra support they need, versus increasing test scores.

“We’re mandated to do lots of different things,” one school leader complained. “There needs to be a real understanding of how much time do we have in a school day, in a school year.”

Mr. Kirp’s article included one very good and very consequential finding:

The community school approach represents a sea change, for it rejects the “no child left behind” belief that test scores are all that matter.Studies show that Americans are losing faith in that approach. In a 2018 survey of 3,000 adults, conducted by Columbia University Teachers College, two-thirds agreed that “students cannot develop basic academic skills without community resources, health and community services to students and families.” This isn’t a partisan issue — more than half of self-described conservatives concurred.

And this finding leads to an important question as we enter the 2020 election: which candidate will look at the fact that 2/3 of the voters agree that “students cannot develop basic academic skills without community resources, health and community services to students and families” and pledge to eliminate the test-and-punish approach that does absolutely nothing to provide the necessary community resources, health and community services to students and families? And more importantly, will the NEA and AFT use this finding to continue to push for schools to provide the community resources, health and community services to students and families? 

 

 

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LA Teachers Strike Breaks New Ground… Could Re-Define Union’s Mission

January 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Two recent articles I accessed through Diane Ravitch’s blog indicate that the teacher’s strike in Los Angeles is about more that wages, hours, and working conditions: it is about governance, support services, and equitable opportunity for students.

Capital and Main writer Bobbi Murray’s article on January 11, 2019, outlines the risks the union is taking by striking and the rewards it might reap, but as the subheading of the article indicates, their bold demands might make it difficult to know what constitutes a victory. Ms. Murray frames the issues this way:

For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.

Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.

“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.

All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.

“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”

In effect, the teachers in Los Angeles are not only embarking on a traditional strike that  pits teachers seeking higher wages and better working conditions against a school board that wants to operate as cheaply and efficiently as possible, it is striking against a group of presumably high-minded philanthropists who want to control public education and change it and it is striking to restore deep cuts to public education that have occurred since the economic melt down in 2008. Given these broad goals, what would a union victory look like? Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy offers this response:

“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that… The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”

Earlier this week Education Dive writer Linda Jacobsen wrote that the Los Angeles teachers are also seeking community schools, which provide wraparound services for students. In effect, the community school model describes how additional funding for schools would not only go into the pockets of teachers, it would expand the array of services available to students, making it clear that teachers are not only looking out for themselves, they are also seeking what is best for the children they serve:

Community schools are highlighted as part of the union-led Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools platform, nationally and in Los Angeles. And in a 2017 article for Center X at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Caputo-Pearl mentioned community schools in describing the union’s campaign to see the state or at least LAUSD spend $20,000 per student by 2020.

It would mean a nurse in every school. It would mean a librarian in every school. It would mean actually having restorative justice programs, staffed with people whose job it is to help develop restorative practices,” he said. “It would mean another one of our common good proposals around investing in a community schools model. It would mean more schools with wraparound services, with real breadth of curriculum in ethnic studies, music and the arts.” 

In several urban districts, teachers unions have been actively involved in supporting the community school model. Unions “provide a vehicle to quickly reach cohesiveness between schools and communities,” José Munoz, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, wrote in an email. “That communication power helps harness and scale best practices nationally.”

Community schools develop in many ways, but they typically include formal partnerships in which community organizations provide schools with wraparound services such as health, mental health and after-school programs, and a separate coordinator position is created to make it all work. Unions view the strategy as a way to address many of the nonacademic issues — such as food insecurity, mental of physical health needs, or a lack of enrichment opportunities — that interfere with students’ learning.

“All of these issues walk into a classroom whether you want it or not,” Karen Alford, a vice president for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City, said in an interview. Alford leads the union’s “community learning school” initiative in which the union is the lead community agency and pays for a full-time community school director (or coordinator) at 31 schools across the district.

These articles illustrate the broad frame the unions are using to define their demands, and also indicate that the unions… NOT the school boards, politicians, or administrators… are taking the lead in coordinating the services children need.

As one who forged partnerships with health departments, the department of social services, and several non-profits when I was a county superintendent in Maryland in the 1990s, it is sad to see that few if any school leaders are advocating for community schools today and even sadder to see that few if any political leaders are pushing for them. But it is very heartening to see that rank-and-file teachers recognize the need for such services and are willing to incorporate demands for these services in their collective bargaining battles.

Community schools that provide coordinated wraparound services to students are the best way forward to address the needs of children raised in poverty… and with the majority of public schools educating students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, it is essential that unions promote this model. Bravo to the teachers for standing up to the philanthropists who seek to strip them of their power and offer factory model schools that assume every child can succeed with grit and perseverance.

Springfield VT School Nurse Illustrates Need for Health Services Early and Often

December 30, 2018 Comments off

Decades ago, when I was Superintendent in Exeter NH in the mid-1980s, I questioned the value of having two full time nurses in an elementary school that housed 550 students. That was then, but a recent article in our local newspaper, the Valley News, profiling the school nurse at Springfield HS in Vermont describes the situation now. Valley News writer Nora Burr-Doyle does an excellent job of describing the role of the high school nurse in today’s word, which is far different than the world I grew up in and far different from the world in the mid 1980s:

Being a school nurse is about much more than giving out bandages.

Such has been the experience of Jenny Anderson, a longtime nurse working at Springfield High School who recently was named Vermont’s school nurse of the year. She’s seen the profession evolve plenty in her 28 years on the job.

Anderson and the four other nurses tasked with caring for the district’s 1,500 students do tend to cuts and bruises, but they also increasingly find they are helping students to manage mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.Anderson’s work also has included developing school nutrition policies and preparing for emergencies.

“To get out of our office and do extra things is difficult sometimes, (but) that’s really important, connecting with teachers and students who don’t come to the office,” Anderson said in a recent interview at Springfield High.

The article describes how a highly functioning school nurse operates, but it also makes two important points: that the public fails to appreciate the need for health series in schools and that by the time a child enters high school it might be too late to help them:

One of the goals of teaching the teachers is to help drive home the connection between academics and health. It’s frustrating, Anderson said, that others in the community sometimes struggle to see that link.

“If kids were more healthy, then they would just be so much better behaviorally (and) do better academically,” she said.

While the high school has health educators, the elementary schools do not, Anderson said. Though many elementary school teachers incorporate elements of health education into their lessons, such as gardening and hygiene, and guidance counselors address subjects related to social and emotional wellness, there is no standardized health education curriculum for the elementary schools, she said.

“I feel like risky behaviors are developed by the time they get to junior high,” she said.

Ms. Burr-Doyle does an excellent job of capturing the role Ms. Anderson plays at Springfield HS, but she also captures the way Springfield HS serves as a hub for social services in the community, especially for children whose parents do not have comprehensive health care provided by their insurance:

To try to improve access, the school district began working with Springfield Medical Care Systems this year to provide doctor’s visits and dental cleanings at the schools, Anderson said. As a result, a doctor comes to one of the district’s schools each week. A dental hygienist visits when the school has five or six students in need of cleanings, Anderson said.

“It’s small right at the moment, but I really feel we’ve helped some kids get the services that they need,” Daniels said.

As states struggle to interject mental health services into their schools, they might look to Springfield, VT to see how it could be done through the school nurse’s office and by collaborating with local health care providers.

Mental Health in Schools: Mission Creep? Mission Impossible? or Mission Essential?

December 27, 2018 Comments off

Over a decade ago when I was working as Superintendent of Schools I wrote an op ed piece for our local newspaper titled Mission Creep, a piece I later posted on this blog. The premise behind the article was that schools are being asked to take on far too many tasks that are beyond the scope of providing a sound academic education. It concluded with this observation:

Over the past fifty years public education had also absorbed responsibility for implementing social changes mandated by courts and legislatures. Schools became responsible for desegregation, educating severely handicapped children, and providing meals for poor children. During that same time period, legislators used public schools as a vehicle to show voters their responsiveness to issues in the news during the legislative session requiring schools to provide curricula on dental hygiene, gun safety, bullying, education on HIV and AIDS, and animal husbandry. Many of the social mandates are flashpoints for the public and result in erosion of support for schools and, in some cases, lower enrollments in public schools. The curricular mandates, taken in isolation, may seem reasonable. When they are required during the limited time students are in class, however, they supplant instruction in core areas of the curriculum.

That was then… and this NPR report of a survey result from Virginia Commonwealth University is now:

A recent VCU poll added a new question: whether or not people see providing mental health services for students as a core part of a public school’s mission.

Grant Rissler coordinates the VCU Wilder School’s Public Policy Poll. He says this question was new in last winter’s poll.

“Education is a key hub of so many other things policy-wise, especially related to youth. So I think the public and policy makers are constantly trying to figure out: what can we ask public schools to do?”

81 percent of respondents agreed – somewhat or strongly – that a student’s mental health should be part of a school district’s mission.

Virginia legislators will grapple with what that means next month. There’s already been legislation proposed that would require school counselors to spend more one-on-one time with students.

I wholeheartedly agree with the 81 percent who agree that schools should take on mental health issues… but I also believe they should do so by becoming community hubs for the provision of health and social services. Space for these services could be readily provided in rural areas where student populations are diminishing, in urban areas where public schools are expected to carve out space for co-located charter schools, and in suburban areas where the public has the funds needed to expand school space to accommodate health professionals of all kinds.

Tackling mental health might be mission creep and may be perceived as mission impossible… but in this era of social isolation and prolific guns, it is clearly an essential mission for public education.

 

“Reform” and “Personalization” Now Code Words for Privatization

December 23, 2018 Comments off

Several years ago I read Shopping Mall High School, the second book in a series overseen by Ted Sizer, who in the mid-1980s was called a “school reformer”. To jog my memory, I entered the term “shopping mall high school” into google and found this overview in Wikipedia:

The concept of a shopping mall high school was first introduced in the best-selling 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School : Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace by authors Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen. The book is the second report from “A Study of High Schools,” and is the successor volume to education reform leader Theodore Sizer‘s Horace’s Compromise. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, called The Shopping Mall High School “a sobering analysis of current conditions in our secondary schools and how they got that way.” In The Shopping Mall High School, the authors argue that high schools have come to resemble shopping malls in terms of variety, choice and neutrality.The book, often required reading for education majors in the 1980s and 1990s, exposed the realities of the comprehensive high school and set off a debate that would later incorporate themes about school vouchers and the marketplace.[2]

I was ten years out of graduate school when the book came out, but I made it required reading for the high school administrators in the district I led at that time and used a punchy alliterative phrase from that book to frame the ways I hoped to see high schools change. That phrase was “purpose, push, and personalization“.

In the estimate of the authors, and in my own personal experience as a high school administrator, I found that students who gained the most from high school entered with a purpose in mind. In some cases the purpose was clear: to be valedictorian, or make first chair in the band or orchestra, or make the variety team, or join the FFA to prepare to follow in a parent’s footsteps. In other cases it was more nebulous: to get into college or to work part-time to earn enough money for a car. When I conferred with entering freshmen to schedule their classes and develop their four year plans, I observed that students who knew what they wanted to get out of high school invariably performed better than those who had no idea what they intended to do for the coming four years. Without a clear “purpose”, the authors believed students found themselves drifting through high school the way aimless teens wandered shopping malls in the 1980s.

Once students were in high school, though, they often found the work to be more challenging than they imagined and— no surprise— found themselves districted from their purpose by socializing and the many temptations that present themselves in adolescence in America. To stay on course, then, students needed a push from a caring adult. Depending on the student’s life circumstances or motivation the push might be a nudge or might require more intense intervention… but there are very few students who can stay focussed on their purpose without requiring some kind of support from an adult.

The last point, “personalization”, meant that students needed to have someone in the school know them, connect with them in a deep way so that they could help aimless students find their purpose, provide the appropriate push to keep them focused on their ultimate goals, and serve as a mentor for them.

As one who hoped to transform secondary schools by injecting purpose, push, and personalization, I advocated for more counseling at the elementary level, interdisciplinary team organization at the middle school level, and the development and continual review of four year plans for all students at the high school– which required the creation of mentoring systems or the expansion of counselors. Each of these initiatives, though, required more funding… and in many years “new money” was not available. Each of these initiatives required varying degrees of “buy in” by the administrators and teachers in the district as well as some school board members… but most people found it difficult to argue against additional counseling, more “face time” between students and teachers, and more coordination among staff members.

The “shopping mall” model for high schools has not changed since the 1980s. What HAS changed is the taxpayer’s appetite for more spending, especially spending on “failing government schools”. This has set the stage for technology to “come to the rescue”. If Amazon Prime can figure out what movies you like and products you “need” and Spotify can develop play lists based on the songs you’ve liked, and Google can feed you articles you want to read, and FaceBook can provide you with social contacts… why not apply these algorithms to school… especially if the application of these new technologies does not require the hiring of new staff members who require benefits, leave time, and ever increasing wages.

“Now what are we going to call this idea”, ask the profiteers? “Well, we expropriated the term “reform”, let’s expropriate the term “personalization”… after all, several states have adopted the idea of “personalization” but they haven’t had the time or money to roll out the programming to support the concept. The door is now open for US to flesh out the idea and we can offer a fast, cheap, and cost-effective means to do so!”

My hunch is that somewhere in Silicon Valley a bunch of guys sitting around a table had a conversation like this and they’ve used their foundations and connections to promote the idea. This is not what states like Vermont meant when they adopted personalization… but the “reform” that swept the country is not what REAL reformers wanted either.

 

 

Good News For Underachievers (and the Well-Being of Students): Straight A’s Do NOT Translate to Success in Life

December 10, 2018 Comments off

In writing this post, I initially thought I would title it “This Just In: Grades Don’t Matter” because I thought that the lack of a correlation between high grades and “success” was as self evident as, say, the correlation between poverty and test scores. But I went with the title above because, as one who was labelled an “underachiever” because I failed to earn straight A’s in middle school I think it better reflects the reality of the mindset of public education when I attended school in the 50s and 60s, a mindset that persists today.

The post was prompted by an article in the Sunday NYTimes by Adam Grant titled “What Straight A Students Get Wrong”, and the “what” is that in the final analysis the grades you earned in high school and college do not matter once you get in the real world. In his op ed, Dr. Grant describes counseling a distraught college junior who had just received her first A-, a blot on her academic record that she was certain would doom her to some kind of second class citizenship in the future. Dr. Grant then revealed what underachiever like me have known for decades and used to comfort ourselves (or rebut our parents):

Getting straight A’s requires conformity.Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Dr. Grant then offers a long list of individualists who did poorly in school but made a name for themselves in their chosen areas of interest: Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have provided a much longer list, but those three clearly made the point.

He concludes his essay with advice for universities, employers, and students, suggesting to students that they recognize that “…underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life” and that getting a B might be the best thing for them.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a high school student I never aspired to be valedictorian, perhaps because I did not (and still do not) have the temperament needed and did not (and still do not) see the point in it. As a parent I celebrated the first B my children brought home in high school because I knew that they would no longer be able to become valedictorian and would, therefore, be able to dedicate their time to other pursuits… ones that satisfied their curiosity and not the needs of the schools.

There is a place for evaluation in school. Students need to master fundamental math skills and need to be coached to become good communicators. And once students have these baseline skills in place— and certainly by the time they are in college– there is no need for assigning letter grades or numeric grades. Narrative descriptions of a student’s performance are far more beneficial to the student and compel the teacher to get to know each student in their class deeply.

Alas… binary pass-fail grades on fundamentals and narrative descriptions once a student has progressed to higher levels of education do not yield rankings, and without rankings there can be no “competition” and without that, well, what? I suppose some will posit that without competition our “economic system” will collapse. I prefer to believe that without competition the well-being of children will improve and our political system will improve. Evidently I am not alone in this belief. The renegades who did not conform in school and spent their time working on computers send their children to Waldorf Schools and Montessori programs where doing things and being human is valued more than getting good grades and conforming to a system that measures skills needed in the early 20th Century. Maybe it’s time to re-think grades altogether… in doing so we would necessarily be re-thinking school.

Are We Becoming Bosnia? The Need for Economic AND Racial Desegregation is Urgent

December 2, 2018 Comments off

As I read this NYTimes article by Barbara Surk about Bosnian schools I was struck by the similarities between the schools described here and the so-called “co-location” of charter schools and public schools in New York City. To make my point I offer these two paragraphs:

The first is a paragraph is taken from the NYTimes article describing the a prototypical divide schools in Croatia:

The school in Travnik, a town 56 miles west of the capital, Sarajevo, embodies the divided country.

The right side for Croat students has been newly refurbished and painted blue by the Catholic Church. The left side for all other students has been left with chipped bricks and peeling yellow paint. Classes are staggered, with a half-hour gap between the two sides, to prevent students from socializing during breaks.

Then there’s the sprawling, indoor gym that only the Croat students use, while all those in the state school attend gym classes in the nearby park, including during hot summers and cold winters.

Now compare that to these paragraphs from a 2014 Room 241 blog post:

As charter schools enter shared space, the lack of bureaucracy and red tape that public schools face is readily apparent. For example, charter school administrators can order (and afford) upgrades like air conditioning, new paint for their spaces and remodeled bathrooms. While this advantage might seem minor, it creates visible differences between the public and charter schools housed in the same building.

Public school students in the building see these visible differences and wonder why their school goes without. The significant amount of private investment in charters allows them a variety of economic advantages as well, leading to catered lunches, upgraded technology, and a variety of other signifiers of their differences from public schools.This creates a clear impression of either being a charter school “have” or a traditional public school “have-not”.

A recent photo essay at MSNBC, “A Day in the Life of a Divided School,” illustrates these differences. The photos contrast PS 149’s crowded classrooms and unused violins in a storage closet — the consequence of a music program closed due to lack of funding — with Success Charter students shown in crisp uniforms with matching backpacks and the space and opportunity to play chess.

According to the NYTimes article, the Croat government is intentionally underfunding the schools for Serbs because they want to:

…(carve) out a Croat-only autonomous region in Bosnia, akin to what the Serbs have achieved in the war through brutal campaigns of expulsions and mass killings of non-Serb population. The Croats did not achieve that in the war, but nationalists have been pursuing it ever since peace took hold.

With some editing, I offer this rationale for the NYC’s decision to provide deregulated Charter schools with classrooms in public schools:

…The mayors want to carve out space in their schools for the children of upper-middle class families to offer them the kind of education those families might experience if they moved to the affluent nearby suburbs. The city government could not achieve that by fully funding all public schools to provide the same kinds of courses and services offered in those suburbs, but by providing “choice” for engaged parents they are able to avoid flight to the suburbs.

The collateral damage in this is that the tests used to screen the students eligible to participate in the “choice” programs that qualify children to attend these deregulated charter schools tend to result in social, racial, and economic segregation. This, in turn, hardens the division between the “haves” and “have nots” in the city. And the shame of this is that NYC parents, politicians, and “reformers” view this direction in their public school system as immutable, irreversible, and— int the minds of some— desirable because “throwing money at the problem” has never worked.

The Croats’ decision to underfund Serbian schools is clearly malevolent. Is the decision to underfund urban public schools equally so?