It’s a wonder they show up at all. I don’t know if I could do it. Yet, somehow, most students enrolled in urban high schools do actually come to school. Today, as I ventured into the Bronx to visit a school, I was reminded once more about what it takes for a teen to make it all the way to class. Every student has a story of a home life that is less than perfect. Many NYC students don’t have enough to eat, live in gang-infested neighborhoods, have parents who don’t have the capacity or energy to provide the care they should, suffer from extreme health issues, and live in substandard conditions. But what I saw this morning had nothing to do with that.
Today I was struck by the absolute harassment that occurred between the subway and the classroom. Not from gangs, or other kids, or thugs - from the police and security forces that are supposed to protect us. When the train doors opened, there were several officers on the platform who immediately questioned any teen wearing a hoodie and a backpack. They didn’t seem to be investigating anything in particular, and when they weren’t questioning kids, they appeared relaxed. Since I am older and had no back pack, I was able to move quickly and effortless to the steps and walk down to the street level. Waiting at the bottom of the steps were several more officers, engaged in the same type of questioning, and searching teens’ backpacks. Nobody noticed me, and I kept walking.
A couple of blocks from the train station a street was closed due to flooding and a police officer was standing by his car. Again, kids were being questioned. Finally, I arrived at the school. As I walked into the lobby, there were about a dozen students trying to get in the doors. No worries for me - I just waltzed right by and was not even required to sign in or show my I.D. (usually a requirement in NYC schools). The kids, on the other hand, had many worries. The security officers prodded them for details on their clothing choices, phones, etc., and scanned them with metal detectors. Some finally made it through the doors, but several others gave up and went home.
I know what some might think - this is all for student safety. Surely these kids were up to something. But I can tell you that is probably not the case. I have witnessed similar scenes too many times and heard too many stories from educators, students, and parents. Some NYC schools actually deploy staff members to the subway stations and school entrances to assist students with the police and security personnel.
So I ask you: if you were harassed by law enforcement and security daily on your way to work, detained multiple times and accused continually of breaking the law, when all you wanted to do was go to work, would you keep going?
As the year draws to a close, I reflect on all of the attention that school reform has gotten. There have been films and forums, outrage and outcry, but still no real systemic change that will transform learning environments for our children. We really do know what to do, and we are already spending enough money to make it all happen. But we lack the courage to change. Local school boards, parents, teachers, unions, policy makers, legislators, and even students themselves fear change so much that they become unwilling to do what is right. I hear my colleagues fret about being attacked, and then attacking parents and others themselves. Multitudes of people, from all stakeholder groups argue that they need more money, yet we are spending more than ever before. Bureaucracies keep increasing and the rules we know have gotten in the way of success, get more and more stringent.
Where I work, we are looking forward to a new project that would relax restrictions and increase technology, training, and other resources into a small group of schools that are willing to make changes. A group of educators got together and tried to imagine what schools would look like if they could make any changes that would be helpful. They struggled with this thought. It was very difficult for them to really re-imagine schools, and they did not believe that relaxing rules was really possible. They wanted a guarantee that things like “seat time” and union-driven scheduling would go away before committing to any change. What really struck me was the immediate gravitation toward the barriers. Every time one person would say something, another would chime in with a “well - we could not do that because...” The facilitator attempted to redirect the group telling them they needed to imagine so we could begin designing the schools our kids need, but it was not possible for them to do.
Charter schools are supposed to be places where this sort of re-imagining is possible, yet they become stuck just like traditional schools. In most communities, charter schools must live with the same computer-driven schedules for middle and high school students, seat time requirements, bussing and lunch schedules, and sometimes even state-adopted text books. Classes must be taught by teachers with specific certifications, creating unnatural segmentation of learning at the secondary level.
Even the film “Waiting for Superman,” considered a bit radical by many in the education establishment, concluded that all we need to do differently is make teachers better through improved human resources policies and training, and put kids in classrooms longer. While that would be a great start, I think we need to do much more to transform our students into the creative, divergent, collaborative thinkers they need to be in the 21st century. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some things that real reformers are already doing to create inspiring schools:
1. Eliminate grades as a way to evaluate and communicate the quality of student work - See this great article by Alfie Kohn
to learn more.
2. Incorporate the technology kids are using in the real world into the classroom, instead of banning it. My colleague Lisa Nielsen
has written volumes on the topic.
3. Consider altering daily schedules of schools to be in alignment with the biological needs of kids. You can learn more about this on my website
4. Make learning personalized, following the individual needs of children. Many groups are doing great work in this area including Kunskapsskolan
and School of One
5. Eliminate our high school credit (Carnegie Unit) requirements, and replace them with expectations of mastery. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development proposed just that in its High School Reform Proposal
Create teacher preparation and professional development programs linked to competencies that make a difference in the classroom. Use these to replace the current certification requirements that have little or no correlation to effective teaching. The New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are doing great work in this area.
We know what to do...all we need now is courage. Make 2011 the year when YOU have the courage to do what you can to begin transforming our schools to become what our kids need.
I have had countless conversations with fellow educators about teacher quality, teacher tenure, and the removal of teachers who do terrible things, or simply just can't cut it in the classroom. There is consistent agreement that our kids all deserve great teachers. There is agreement that schools and administrators should work hard to ensure that teachers receive the preparation and ongoing professional development to hone their skills. Everyone speaks emphatically about removing teachers who cause physical harm to kids. Yet, when it comes to the processes that should be employed to take really bad teachers out of the classroom, many of us part ways. I have seen this in action in my own experience. There have been multiple times in my career as an administrator when teachers, parents, and kids have alerted me to the wrongdoing of teachers. I don't mean just plain old incompetence. I am talking about terrible acts that cause terrible harm to our most innocent kids. Unfortunately in a few of these cases I had no choice but to remove teachers from classrooms. That's when it got strange. Every time this has happened, the very same people (teachers, parents, kids) who expressed the concerns about the teacher's treatment of students, became very upset when the teacher left. There was inevitably an outcry for the poor soul who had lost his or her job. There were occasions when people asked if they could contribute to the person's legal defense, or if there was some way I could take back the action of removing the teacher. Kids blamed themselves for the problem and cried when the teacher left. It seems we have become so conditioned to the idea that a teacher can't be removed, that when it actually happens, we believe we have done something wrong. I am not aware of any other profession that requires the same level of investigations and legal proceedings to remove an employee who is not meeting expectations. Most people really don't understand what school leaders must actually do to remove a teacher. For some good insight into this, read this article
by Barbara Martinez of the Wall Street Journal. So, as teacher unions, legislators, and school reformers grapple with how we determine what a good teacher is and does, we should at least find a way to remove teachers who are causing true ho
As my year of dedicating my blog to school improvement winds down, the media is cranking up with lots of stuff being slung about charter, traditional, virtual school, and vouchers for private schools. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, there is a battle for educational dollars being fought all over the country, and lots of misinformation as a result.
So, what is the difference among these options and what is all the fuss about? Assuming nothing, first let’s talk about good old fashioned public school. A public school is funded mainly through state and local governments. The United States Constitution does not address education at all, leaving decisions about education for each state to make. Every state has a provision for funding and regulating a “free and appropriate public education” for children between certain ages, generally covering kindergarten through grade twelve. Each state also includes compulsory ages for education, mandating that every child between those ages get an education. Most will allow parents to homeschool if they don’t want their children to go to an actual brick-and-mortar school. The United States Department of Education was not created until 1980, during Jimmy Carter’s administration. It generally accounts for about 7% of overall education dollars, but has a huge influence through programs like No Child Left Behind.
Most children attend traditional public schools, and most teachers in these schools are part of teachers’ unions; mainly the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. The teachers’ unions have had a huge influence, for better or worse, due to intense lobbying efforts across the country.
In 1991, charter schools were born in Minnesota and have been spreading ever since. These public schools - yes charter schools ARE public schools - offer parents in local school districts a choice outside of the traditional, usually district run, schools. Charter schools can be operated by non-profit organizations, for-profit educational management organizations, a group of teachers, or even a traditional public school district. The idea behind charter schools is to provide the operators of the schools with more flexibility in how educational services are delivered. Each school commits to its plan and its accountability measures through a “charter” with an authorizing authority. Each state that chooses to allow charter schools stipulates what type of organization can be a charter authorizer. Some states mandate that only the school districts themselves can authorize a charter. Some have specific agencies or organizations established just for this purpose, and others allow certain universities to provide this important function. Students who attend charter schools usually have to meet the same testing requirements as students in traditional public schools.
Contrary to much of what you see in the press these days, charter schools may NOT charge tuition and MUST admit all students in the same way traditional public schools do. In the event that there are more applicants than space will allow, the charter school holds a lottery, like the ones that have been depicted in recent movies.
There has been a lot of argument about whether charter schools are better than their more traditional counterparts. You can justify whatever position you believe by finding the study that agrees with you. It seems that there are great charter schools and great traditional public schools, and really terrible schools of both types as well. The argument really shouldn’t be about which is better; it should be more about what is better for each individual child.
Meanwhile, vouchers are beginning to take hold in some places. A voucher is when a state provides money for parents to use for education outside of public schools, usually in non-public schools. There is talk in Florida right now about creating vouchers for parents to use for a wider variety of educational options, including the purchase of computers for their children to access virtual schools (more about this option in a minute). There are two main types of vouchers; privately funded and publicly funded. Privately funded programs allow donors, usually large corporations, to donate money in exchange for tax breaks. A set amount of money is given to families to use for tuition in private schools. Publicly funded vouchers divert public dollars from public schools, allowing parents to use a portion of the money that would otherwise go to the local public school, for the private school of their choice. Contrary to much of what you might read, these programs actually SAVE public schools money since they don’t give parents 100% of the funds, and many of the students who benefit are high-needs kids, who generally cost much more to educate. This happens because parents most often have a strong desire to keep their kids in the “regular” school and aren’t looking for options unless their child is experiencing difficulty in school.
Although many people are adamantly opposed to using public dollars in private educational settings, this is really nothing new. We have been doing this for decades in preschool and post-secondary settings. Head start programs have long been offered by private preschools, and many states now allow vouchers for universal preK programs simply because local elementary schools lack the capacity to ramp up these programs without astronomical costs. Pell grants and other federal and state programs have long provided funding that post-secondary students can use at institutions of their choice, public or private. I could not have finished college without this funding, and I used it at a combination of public and private schools. Both of my children used this funding as well; one in a state school and the other in a very expensive private institution. Almost everyone I know has taken advantage of these programs, and I have never heard a soul complain that Pell grants shouldn’t be allowed to be used in private colleges or universities. So, I am completely baffled why this has become such a flashpoint in education reform.
Finally, virtual schools are programs that allow kids to get instruction via the Internet. Some of these programs have a “live” teacher who interacts with the student, while others are completely computer-driven. There are also programs where kids can attend a traditional classroom virtually in a Skype-like environment, and webinar-style programs where kids can share a screen with a tutor who might be across the street or across the globe.
In case you can’t tell by some of my earlier comments, I am for school choice for K-12 education, in all of its forms. For over a quarter of a century I have worked in education, in regular old public schools, charter schools, and private schools. I have been a member of the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and also worked in places without union representation. Here is what I know for sure. Every kid deserves the very best education available, and we should not be quibbling about who provides it, or how it is provided. Parents are the best people to determine what school is best for their kids and it is time we respected them enough to give them real options.
There really is no magic about special education. Many parents and teachers believe that once a child is identified, and an IEP (individualized education plan) is written, that magically a child will get what she needs. There is nothing further from the truth. To understand what really happens, we have to go all the way back to 1975. That was the year that Public Law 94-142 was passed. This groundbreaking federal legislation (now known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) ensured that every child would be educated in the public schools of the United States. Every child. Before that time, it was common practice for kids with special needs to be turned away from their neighborhood schools. Imagine being the parent of a kid with Down’s Syndrome told that your kid was not smart enough to be part of school. That’s what was happening before 94-142, and is still happening in other countries around the globe today. So, this legislation was needed and welcome. But, what is happening now is threatening to bankrupt our schools and undermine much of needed school reform.
Over 13% of our children have been identified as special education students. This means that we believe that a typical education program will only meet the needs of 87% of our kids. The great majority of special education students (currently over 40%) fall into the category of “learning disabled.” While specific learning disabilities are a very real thing, they are not nearly as common as one would suspect. In fact, in the late 1990’s, when our mandated standardized testing was beginning to get completely out of control, the percentage spiked to more than 46. That’s right, over 46% of students (over 6% of the total population) with IEPs, were supposedly learning disabled.* This got the government’s attention since the feds were responsible for funding much of the services for special education students. So they put in place something called RTI, Response to Intervention, which is now mandatory for all school districts. Before referring a student for an evaluation that may lead to identification in special education, the school must document multiple instructional and/or behavioral interventions for the student. Imagine that; if the kid isn’t learning, try something different. The problem with this approach is that kids who REALLY need services are being delayed for months or even years, while the school goes through the necessary gyrations to warrant an evaluation.
Teachers and parents really push to get the evaluations completed and have students identified. Getting a student identified as learning disabled usually just means demonstrating a gap between the student’s ability and achievement. In other words, if the student is behind in reading, but has no lack of intelligence, the student is learning disabled. It never occurs to us that perhaps the education the child has been receiving is lacking. Parents and teachers believe that once the child is labeled, there will be some magic that will “cure” their child and make her able to learn. They think that once a “special education” teacher is assigned, their child will make incredible gains and all will be well again. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are many incredibly good special education teachers, many don’t have much more to offer than mainstream teachers. In fact, there are huge numbers of special education teachers who have attained their certifications through “emergency” or “alternate” routes. They may have only taken a class or two, or are in the process of doing so. The surge in special education students has led to a shortage of special education teachers, so states have put emergency provisions in place to keep them in compliance with the mandates of IDEA legislation.
I have been working with special education students since 1982, and gotten to know thousands of kids. Out of all of these kids, I can think of a small handful who had real learning disabilities. Almost all of the students I have known with this label had no disabilities at all. They were simply suffering from a lack of appropriate instruction, mostly in the area of reading. Once I was able to provide quality, direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension, they were miraculously cured of their afflictions. In math, social studies, and science, I just needed to modify instruction slightly so they could use their strengths to become successful. If they had behavioral issues, I needed to find ways to adjust the learning environment, and/or modify their behavior, so they could learn. In other words, I had to be a good teacher and employ the multitude of tools and strategies I had learned over the years to meet the individual needs of every individual student. This is not magic. It is just good teaching. The answer to helping special education students is to help teachers become better at what they do. We need to stop labeling kids, and start improving teachers’ skills so that all can be more successful.
The seismic shift did not occur this week when our new Chancellor was announced. It started much earlier, sometime in the summer. That was the time when each of the city’s schools became part of 60 “Children First Networks (CFNs)”, designed to provide integrated operational and instructional support to schools. This less centralized model has been tested over the past several years, and is thought to be the most effective way to do things in the world’s largest school district. Prior to the summer, each school belonged to what was called a “School Support Organization (SSO).” There were many different models around the city, each with a different focus or approach. Some SSOs provided operational support, while others depended on more centralized services through the ISCs (Integrated Service Centers). So, as the summer approached, the majority of ISC personnel found themselves scrambling for operational positions within the CFNs. Most CFNs grew in size in order to provide all of the new services they were now required to provide, causing huge shifts in office space and resources.
Now that CFNs are in firmly in place, each one answering to one of 6 “clusters,” which are overseen by the Division of School Support and Instruction (DSSI), it is apparent what is happening. The NYC DOE is putting its house in order. It is creating more consistent policies and procedures for schools, and insisting upon absolute compliance. This district, arguably considered one of the nation’s leaders in innovation and reform, is settling into a top-down, mandate-driven bureaucracy. This is fascinating because as recently as a year ago, the running “joke” was that you couldn’t mandate schools to do anything in NYC. Now, just a blink-of-an-eye later, not a day goes by without a new deadline or mandate being announced to schools through the CFNs.
I guess I should have seen this coming. In my fairly long educational career, I have experienced similar evolutions in many school districts across a dozen states, and they always follow a similar pattern. A perceived crisis prompts those in power to encourage innovation and experimentation in an effort to improve results. Brave educators, community partners and others, excitedly exercise their new freedom to do what kids really need. The bureaucrats either give explicit waivers to, or turn a blind eye to, rules and regs to allow these empowered individuals do some great new things. There is great fanfare about encouraging results, and lots of media attention. Then bureaucrats become concerned about schools breaking the rules, and order is once again restored through mandates and compliance regulations. Until the next perceived crisis.
I am wondering about federal programs. This is the money the United States Department of Education doles out to states, which then distribute the cash to local schools. Both non-public and public schools are eligible for this funding. Each program is designated for a very specific purpose and has lots of strings attached. Part of my job at the moment is assisting and supporting (read forcing) schools to meet the compliance requirements of federal programs. I have always known how much time and money is spent on this type of requirement, but it is really hitting me in a big way this year. The requirements have become more and more burdensome to individual schools and school districts over the years. When I was the head of school of a non-public school I chose not to participate in federal programs. We could have qualified for a little money, but when I read the fine print regarding reporting and auditing requirements, I determined that our little school would need to hire additional personnel to meet the requirements, negating any positive fiscal advantage to each program.
Now that I am back in the public school world, I am wondering just how much each school and school district spends on compliance for these programs and if it is worth the price. Financially, how much better off (if at all) is a school or school district when it accepts this money? But, perhaps more importantly, how much energy is drained from the school organization to deal with the nonsense that accompanies the money? My principals are tired. Really tired. Nearly every day - no literally every day - someone from a central office contacts them to tell them of a deadline or requirement they must meet. Almost everything revolves around federal programs. People in Arne Duncan’s office would probably reassure us that we were ensuring that kids in poverty get the help they need through these programs; that we are working to level the playing field for them - to which I would say, “Hogwash!” These programs have been in effect for decades now, and despite the increasing compliance regulations, they have nothing to show for them. Our national results have been getting worse during the same time period that we have been making these ridiculous requirements of schools.
If the United States Department of Education really wants better results, it is time to really focus on JUST results. Use the Common Core State Standards as the benchmarks, and focus on developing authentic assessments systems that will do a better job of seeing what our kids can do. And then PLEASE get out of the way of educators who are on the front lines and let them focus on instruction instead of filling out forms.
Parents DO have a voice in their children’s school. If your child is enrolled in a non-public school you of course speak with your checkbook. This is a tremendous way to leverage influence over improving the quality of education. But parents of public school children have a voice too. Every public school that accepts federal funding, which is pretty much every public school, is required to have a group comprised of faculty and parents. Half of the group must be parents. This group might be called a School Advisory Council or a School Leadership Team, or some other name that a state requires. At first glance, it is not usually the place where parents choose to get involved. It doesn’t have the sizzle of Band Boosters or PTA, or other groups where participants raise money or are directly involved with kids. So many parents ignore this opportunity, and administrators have to actively recruit in order to get enough parents. But, this is generally the ONLY parent group in public schools that is tasked with school governance. It is the group responsible for how federal funds such as Title I and Title III are spent at the school.
Unfortunately, this group often functions as a “rubber stamp” to what the school leaders want, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Parents who can band together and make it their business to understand the purpose of these funds can make a tremendous impact. The role of this council is to create an annual plan of school improvement, and to use the federal funds to that end. This School Improvement Plan or Comprehensive Educational Plan, or other names adopted by states, spells out what results the school leaders will be accountable for each year.
The development of the plan follows an annual schedule each year involving the analysis of school data, development of goals, development of an action plan to reach those goals, and the budgeting of funds to contribute to the goals. This document creates the foundation for all school initiatives, and for the development of the individual goals of the school leaders. The federal government created this process so that school leaders would become more accountable for school results to parents. However, school leaders tend to play it safe and only include goals that are not as aggressive as they should be.
Parents can use this process and its leverage to force change in their schools. They don’t have to just be a “rubber stamp.” They can insist on seeing real data and pushing school leaders to demand more and create change in their schools. So, if you don’t think your school is getting the job done, get involved. Find a group of like-minded parents and work together with them on your school’s council to make it happen.
...you should meet some kids. I am so privileged to work with students at some special high schools in New York City. Our “international schools” accept students who have been in the United States for three years or less. These kids enter high school with little or no English skills, and are expected to graduate high school, meeting the same course and test completion standards as all other NYC students in just four years. Some come from regions where war is the norm. Others come from extreme poverty. Many are living in communities here where gangs rule the streets and attempt to keep them from coming to school. Yet, all share the same American dream. The most amazing thing to see is how they help each other. Each international school follows an instructional model designed to promote rapid language development. The kids work in groups of four or five, to solve problems, complete assignments, and encourage each other. There are usually several different languages present in each group, yet somehow they find a way to communicate. Despite all they have endured, and the daily struggles that create the context for their lives, they are optimistic. They will tell you they are lucky to be in a country where anything is possible. They will talk about hopes and dreams and the lives they want to create for their own children and grandchildren. They will tell you what anyone needs to succeed; persistence, hard work, and a good attitude.
So before you make up your mind about immigration, be sure to meet the kids who are our newest Americans. It will remind you why we are so lucky to live here, and why we should help and encourage others who have found their way to the American dream.
See how NYC teachers are changing the world through literacy! Trouble viewing?? CLICK HERE