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Monday, February 13, 2012

Urban Education is a pivotal piece of the urban puzzle

I've been working hard in 2012. So hard, in fact, that this blog has been far from my consciousness. But the topics are front and center every day. I read an article today that piqued my urban spidey-sense and I thought I should write. Better than grading exams, eh?  This is a bit long, but worth the read.

A good article on Camden, NJ public schools appeared in the Courier Post, hot on the heels of a recent spate of articles chronicling the return of the school super after a 4 month medical leave for an undisclosed condition. I have some experience with the Camden schools. I was a big sister for 3 years, visiting my local elementary school once a week. I responded to an RFP for a strategic plan for the School Board. Writing the proposal and making the pitch gave me a great view of the district. One of my former students is currently an appointed member of the school board and he and I have had numerous discussions about the state of urban ed over the years. I give that as full disclosure on Camden. You know my involvement in KCPS (and if you don't, read my previous blog entries).

The parallels in Camden to the current situation in the KCPS are stunning. Camden has the greatest proportion of low performing schools in the state and KCPS is unaccredited after years of probation. Both are in the catch-22 of NCLB and both states are on the fast track to a federal waiver (NJ got its and MO should be close behind).  Both districts are urban, majority minority, have a growing Hispanic population, and are dominated by poor families. East KC and Camden are similar, though the proportional condition is that Camden is much worse off than East KC. Both districts have had an endless supply of administrative and board mismanagement, distrust, and poor performance that keeps the district far away from ably executing its mission, which is to educate children. Camden has had their Super for 4 years and KCPS for 4 months.  Believe me, KCPS has a much better deal going than Camden in that department. Both districts suffer from violence, dropouts, gangs, and students who succeed superbly with little fanfare or mention. Camden has 3 signature high schools where the high performing students are steered (sound familiar KC?) and has 2 high schools that are rotting. Having spent time in a Camden elementary school, I have seen the frustration of teachers who are at wits ends with unruly kids and resort to parenting the students by yelling at them. My current little sister who is at ACE High School in KCMO (part of the district, though it is an independent contract school), finds her school a joke because they have no books to take home, don't get homework, and her science teacher has been out the whole year - and they go to other classes in lieu of science. At least in Camden at the elementary school they had band, chorus, art, and dance.

Parents in Camden are pretty much shut out of the picture, or to hear the board tell it, the parents won't get involved. The proposal I prepared for the board included a significant element of parent/resident engagement in the process in order to create stakeholders for the board going forward. The School Board, through their staff, literally told me that they didn't think parent engagement in a city like Camden was possible. They had tried and not succeeded. They let their ego stand in the way of moving forward. In KCPS there is a full-on effort to engage parents, give them a voice, and get that voice to the table. People here carp about it, but until you've seen the shut-out - as it is practiced in Camden - you have no idea how good we have it here. DAC and the SACS are a treasure.

The board in Camden is fully appointed by the mayor. I've written on this in earlier posts. They are a sad lot, though there are effective board members and non-effective board members. The sum, however, is that they have not held their Superintendent responsible in an effective way. I attended board meetings in Camden. It went something like this:
Board to Super: Where are your goals for the year? How can we evaluate your management when you haven't submitted your goals plan for the year and the year is nearly over?
Super to Board: My staff was supposed to prepare that and they haven't. I am still trying to get a straight answer from them. I will get back to you on this.
And that dance went on for months and continues to this day.
In the private sector, the Super would have been fired long ago.

The board in the KCPS is fully elected by the people. I've written on their experiences in earlier posts. They are a group that is moving the needle forward. From out of the ashes of a Camden-like board experience, this board is making headway. But the progress is small and the impressions of the community are fixed. I read daily in blogs and newspaper comments that the school board is the problem and always has been. 100 superintendents in 5 years, right? $100 billion spent on deseg with no results (except a nationally ranked debate team...).  How do you turn that impression around so transformation can continue?

Most people say that education is stymied by bad teachers, unions, too many TFA teachers (Camden got rid of theirs, KCPS increased theirs), too much administration, not enough administration (both districts have suffered from horrendous HR departments. KCPS is on the mend, Camden is not), micromanagement by the board, not enough management by the board, too little money, too much money, overwhelming poverty and social disorder that follows kids into the classrooms, and a revolving door of curriculum and other magic bullets designed to move the test-score needle. The anecdotal evidence is clear, isn't it? There are schools where poor, minority, urban children do well in school. If they can do it, why can't our public schools? Both Camden and KCPS have seen charter schools succeed and fail in their districts and both are in the midst of state legislative tinkering to make them charter school districts. In NJ, they passed the Urban Hope program that combines tax credits and charter schools in some fashion. MO is still figuring out what to try here.

Kids, children, students, scholars can learn. That is the bottom line. It is an irrefutable fact. They don't learn for all the stated reasons above. How do we know what to do? One of my colleagues would recommend a random trial experiment to see what works and what doesn't and to provide scientific proof, like a drug trial study. I find that laudable and laughable. Student learning is not the same in each student. A body generally has the same physical response to aspirin, person to person. While we account for patient differences like medical history, lifestyle, psych profile, etc. the human blood system or kidneys have a fundamental and predictable pattern of response to intervention. Can we say the same about kids? I've attended more meetings than I care to remember that detail a zillion different learning strategies from Montessori to Harlem Children's Zone. My mother was a proponent of the McGuffy Reader and flash cards. Homeschoolers are the ultimate solution - a school district of one. Do those students routinely perform off the charts? No. Do they learn? Of course they do. Again, what is the link between method, conditions, and learning? Thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject, tens of thousands of BA, MA, and Ph.D. students and graduates have read them. Movies, interest groups, and foundations have been formed and funded (Michelle Rhee, anyone?). And yet urban school districts in US cities are failing to educate their students. Why?

I remember the 60 minutes program from 30 years ago that documented the woman who ran an education academy in her house on the south side of Chicago and had remarkable results. I've seen it done in public and charter schools. But keep in mind, the bell-curve has statistical validity as a representation of the general universe. Not every child will perform at high levels? Or is the bell-curve a vestige of discriminatory education practices? We have no idea. But that story from Chicago still sticks with me. Kids can learn and succeed, even when people don't think they can. If we could just do what it takes. If we just knew what that is.

Like any parent, I want the kids entrusted to the public schools to succeed. Like any administrator, I believe we can find a public solution to this dilemma. Like any politician, I want to see results now, not in 4 years when another generation is lost. Like any citizen, I want to see the money spent well, obvious waste and ineffectiveness eliminated, and a reasonable return on my tax dollar. I don't see any of my selves getting satisfied anytime soon. This breaks my heart because education is time sensitive. You have to do it while kids are kids. They keep getting older and we keep dithering.

I think the lady in South Chicago got it right. The classroom is king. All the other stuff is just stuff that may or may not help and may or may not impede the success of that classroom. With the money we spend on administration, consultants, lawyers, et al., we could hire one teacher for every student and have a district of one. I think unions are a response to administration. I think bloated administrations with very highly paid administrators are empire builders that have to maintain the validity of their own presence.  I think the politicians are referees that are needed because the game has gotten so complex. I think principals are like higher ed department chairs - stuck betwixt and between and generally frustrated. So here are my suggestions for reforming urban education.

1. simplify the curriculum delivery system (new math comes to mind), and use technology daily. For the rest, see #2-7.

2. let teachers teach and hold them accountable for results and not what they put on their bulletin boards so the deputy superintendent can feel superior when they do a building inspection. But let's get the best teachers in there with the best assistance possible. Why are TFA teachers expected to perform solo? Why can't they work with another teacher in a classroom? And teachers - you must be a team player, not act as if you are untouchable and infallible. As an educator, I can say that. It won't be perfect, but try. The classroom is king, but you are not royalty.

3. let principals manage and lead. Hold them accountable for the results and not be fearful that if they try something different, the superintendent's ego will be bent out of shape. But neither can they be a building bully. It is not about your success, but the success of those students. Get that right and you will succeed. You work for the teachers, not the other way around. You are a leader, not a dictator. I've been an education leader. I can say that. Teachers will try to take advantage and principals will be pricks and prick-ettes. Transparency is key to keeping those problems to a minimum.

4. separate the district administration from the teaching buildings. Don't let them step foot in there beyond once per quarter. Let them manage the textbook orders so books actually get to the buildings. Let them manage the hiring and payroll so that it is accurate and exceptional. Make the recruiting and hiring of educators a priority. Let them provide for building maintenance, security, and supplies so teachers and principals don't have to buy it out of their own pockets. If there is abuse, fire, suspend and or prosecute someone. If there is an argument, mediate it. If there is a crisis, manage it. You won't hit 100%, but try.

5. tear down any perceived, historical, or real walls between parents and educators. Do whatever it takes. Repeat, whatever. it. takes.

6. keep the elected board, because we need referees. Hold them accountable with a scorecard of performance (and not that claptrap that the Do the Right Thing for Kids group has designed). Education performance of the district would be the number one item. Let them be the supreme court, town hall organizers, and keepers of the transparency. They won't be perfect, but try. Vote them out and keep communicating with them.

7. Keep the state out of this effort except to monitor performance with stated accountability measures. Drop that phony accreditation set of standards. REALLY? Where does paperwork flow stand in the grand scheme of education of a child? Performance of the basics is all a state can expect to monitor. That means equal protection under the 14th amendment, fiduciary reconciliation, and passing state performance tests that are not biased by economic class, culture, and gender. If kids don't know what a hope chest is, it should not mean they fail a performance exam.

I think if we follow this plan, we will see remarkable improvements in public education.
Carry on.


Anonymous said...

I saw this today about school success in Finland, and am wondering what u think of this article. Do you believe that if the U.S. followed Finland's model, urban schools particularly in low-income, disadvantage cities like Camden could improve?

gayle said...

So in full disclosure I came to Camden via tfa in 2005 to teach. There are a group of five of us former Camden teachers, all but one tfa, who meet Sunday nights at 7:30 to watch an hour of tv together. All, beside myself, are teaching or in leadership roles in well known Philadelphia charter school networks. All would return to Camden if the right opportunity presented itself. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

I think our weekly meetings shed light on the work it requires to be an effective educator. To begin, we chose the Sunday night day and time strategically. We have to get our work done by 7:30. The hour of tv is a reward. Yes, these urban educators spend a good amount of time working on weekends. But this is not new. We often talk about work in these weekly gatherings. One shares how she turned in an assessment test to an administrator at her school and got feedback that she should find a better nonfiction passage, another tells of working after school with a former student to write college essays, another talks of trying to figure out how to give advice about classroom management to a teacher who takes all feedback personally, and of course all this talk takes place while we are helping another colleague cut out school wide discipline cards that all students are required to have so that infringements carry over throughout the day instead of just in one class. What is the point of all the examples? These educators are working hard. They reflect on what is happening, ask one another for help, and continue to be driven by the need for their students to succeed. Each week I am amazed by their continued dedication, hard work, and long hours (I think being in a well organized charter school means less of the bs that tends to wear out teachers, but that is just my observation). I wonder what our school districts would look like if all staff involved had a student driven perspective and knew how to give it their all to have each student succeed (even while knowing students learn differently).

rachel³ said...

To add to your point #1, one of the "brothas" who comes over to my house often to visit us obsesses on the point that schools teach the wrong things to kids (black kids). He says schools should teach practical, technical skills (trades) so that people can work for themselves.