Chicago Teachers Strike: Who Is Responsible For Student Learning?

21 Sep

After more than a week on the picket line, Chicago teachers headed back to the classroom. According to the Huffington Post Chicago teachers will receive a 7 percent pay raise over three years with additional raises for experience and education; will only have 30 percent of their yearly evaluation based on student performance versus the previous 50 percent mandated; secured recall rights for laid-off teachers and negotiated provisions for better classroom conditions. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office was proud to report that “the new school day would be longer for many students” and under the new agreement students “would receive 2 ½ more years of instruction” by graduation. Though the vote was to end the strike leaving the contract itself to be ratified, it appears the dust is settling on this disturbing moment in public education.

While teachers are ecstatic to return to the classroom conceding that the current contract is a step in the right direction, in my mind, this strike boils to the surface an even more important discussion we should all have about our educational system: Who should be held accountable for student learning? Using the strike as a barometer for sentiments nationwide, it’s clear that too many teachers want to relinquish their responsibility to teach children who live in poverty and/or are lacking proficiency in critical subjects. They are sadly prepared to fight the point even to the detriment of their students.

There is overwhelming research that finds the relationship between teacher and student to be central to students’ achievement. Yes, parents must also do more to support their children’s educational attainment. While it is reasonably well understood that living in poverty undermines learning, teachers can’t be allowed to shirk their responsibility, even when early learning has been compromised. We need teachers who believe in children’s immutable capacity to learn no matter their zip code and who will not run from the challenges that may come with teaching children who aren’t as prepared to learn as we’d like them to be. The high expectations for every child often called for by reformers are predicated on this belief. Without it, as James Brown once said, “We’re just talking loud and saying nothing.”

What seems to be less understood is that school systems need to do more to support and invest in teachers’ learning and growth so they are better prepared to teach all children, especially those living in poverty. They must also invest in creating new partnerships with social service, youth development, and health organizations that can support the myriad of needs poor students face. The village necessary to rear and educate our children is needed now more than ever. Poor students who are underperforming can’t succeed if they attend schools that are islands unto themselves cut off from critical resources and the communities in which they reside. If we change our schools, we change our neighborhoods.

At the heart of the teachers strike we saw teachers fight to be appreciated and at the same time we saw the inherent conflict between teachers’ interests and those of our students. Teaching is a noble profession that deserves our highest regard, a fair wage, and continuous investment to ensure these professionals continue to be their best. In exchange, we need teachers to step up to their responsibility to teach armed with an unwavering belief that if they don’t give up, neither will their students.

Karen Lewis, Chicago teacher’s union president, said, “Teacher’s can’t be held responsible for learning when kids don’t have grocery stores in their neighborhoods.” In other words, Ms. Lewis and the teachers she represent believe that when children are battling much bigger problems at home, like their family’s socio-economic circumstances, they should be given a pass from their responsibility for student learning.

Well … I say, “Get real!

Bottom line, we need teachers in our nation’s schools who believe all children can learn and who are willing to assume responsibility for student learning or they need to find something else to do! It is of the highest honor to hold the promise of a life in your hands and have the responsibility for guiding it toward its purpose. For all its nobility, teaching isn’t an easy job. To be “called” to teach is to be called to serve. Serving mandates dedication, humility and passion for which it is reasonable to expect a fair wage and the opportunity to continue to learn. A teacher’s role in a young person’s life can be the difference between cook and Executive Chef: parolee and President.


To Everything There Is A Season

11 Sep

We have been working over the past 8 years to transform the lives and learning of minority children by celebrating and inspiring academic ambition.  From the beginning we’ve demonstrated that celebration and motivation are the keys to improving students’ academic outcomes. We’re proud of the many students that we’ve challenged thus far, and grateful to their parents and collective communities for stepping up to change the path of their lives.

We remain a long way from causing the change we’re after, but we have learned a great deal about the complexities of the public education system and the challenges to financing this work.  We’ve audited our processes, reviewed the landscape of education in this country and determined that the current conversation about education reform overlooks one important focus.

We’re convinced that learning is enhanced and transformed when the culture or conditions for learning in schools, homes and in our communities are aligned to foster learning.  Beginning with the 2013 school year, we will place an acute focus on school culture, and the dynamic educational and motivational shift that occurs when all connected to a school are aligned to focus on learning. What do we mean by “school culture”?

A collaborative educational system that celebrates the accomplishments of students and teachers, allocates the necessary time for teachers to collaborate and improve; invites parents to contribute their ideas and opinions, in addition to their resources; and coalesces necessary partners to support the myriad needs of poor students.

Why school culture?

Few are talking about it.  Research shows that schools with a positive culture foster academic improvement, cohesion, collaborative decision-making, professional development and staff and student learning.  Even as we tend to overlook it because we can’t adequately measure it, school culture influences what the school cares about, the way people behave, what the people in the school spend time doing, and what they celebrate. The school whose leadership does the best job of deliberately influencing culture does a better job at producing student and teacher learning.

As we focus on the link between school culture and performance we need your help.  We want to know:

  • What does culture look like in your child’s school or a family member’s school?
  • How does the school nurture and celebrate learning?
  • In what ways do the people in your child’s school work cohesively to foster learning for all children?
  • Are the teachers engaged and active in problem solving challenges or have they checked out?
  • What could the school do better?

Email me at and share what’s going on in your schools. Your stories and testimonials add value to the discussion, and are a critical factor in the success of our outreach.  Together, we can begin to disrupt the education reform debate to get this country focused on change that will make a difference in our children’s learning.

With investment, engagement, and support, we can make a difference.


Etienne R. LeGrand


The W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Culture In Action: Oregon principal flattens school walls

25 Apr

Often, it seems all too easy easy to find a public school where teachers and students are floundering in a toxic culture.  That is the sad, but undeniable, truth.  On the other hand, many schools are shining examples of the power and impact of a positive school culture.  That’s why we love profiling Culture In Action–where principals and teachers are taking charge of their classrooms, their hallways, their students and their outcomes to cultivate a culture that produces learning and growth for every student. 

That’s the kind of culture that Oregon principal Tom Horn is shaping.   A self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” Horn has transformed a troubled alternative high school—not to mention his teachers’ job descriptions—by introducing a radical project-based learning model.  And, as is almost always the case with a positive culture, progress at the Kennedy School of Sustainability began with Horn’s transformative leadership.

Here are some excerpts from an Education Week article profiling Horn’s success.  A link to the full article is also included below.

  • Transformative Leadership: By many measures, Horn’s leadership style—and his emphasis on beyond-the-classroom learning—appears to be working. The attendance rate at the 100-student high school…has jumped from 23 percent in the fall of 2006, when Horn took over, to a current rate of about 90 percent. The dropout rate is now at 12.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 2004-05. Test scores, though still below par, are on the rise. The once-stigmatized alternative school now has a 180-student waiting list. And for the first time ever, students from Kennedy are going to college. 

    This leadership doesn’t start and stop with Horn.  The district superintendent is also engaged in effort.  She notes: “One of the criticisms of the old alternative high school, and any alternative school, is that the standards have been watered down.  You lower the bar and that’s how kids are successful there. We had to fight that perception and make sure the rigor was present.”

  • Extreme Teaching: The teachers at Kennedy have an extraordinary—even potentially overwhelming—amount of responsibility. In addition to the overnight trips and projects that require much out-of-school planning, they are working with a demanding population: According to Horn, 38 percent of Kennedy students are homeless, 14 percent are teen parents, many have dealt with addiction issues, and all are at risk of dropping out. The school has a full-time counselor, but teachers need to be tuned into students’ mental health and emotional needs, too.
  • Project-Based Learning:  Horn determined that the students needed a unique curriculum to keep them engaged and in classes. Because of the natural resource-rich surrounding area as well as his own interest in green technology, he chose project-based learning and the theme of sustainability. He divided students into five cohorts, each of which would complete projects related to a subtheme—agriculture, energy, forestry, architecture, or water.  All of the projects were aimed at having “tangible positive effects on the entire community,” he explained. “We’ve flattened the walls of the school.” Since many Kennedy students had been demoralized in the traditional school system, Horn hoped getting kudos from community members might help restore their feelings of self-worth. In addition, he figured, the projects themselves, visible in the surrounding neighborhoods, could serve as a source of pride.

Click here to learn more about Principal Horn and the Kennedy School of Sustainability.

Is your school taking a lesson from the Goldman Sachs school of culture?

19 Mar

Did you hear the resignation heard around the world last week? An executive director at Goldman Sachs outed the company in a scathing New York Times Op-EdIn one fail swoop, Greg Smith resigned from and called out one of the foremost financial services firms in the world—rebuking the company for allowing its once positive culture to become destructive, even toxic.

Smith observed that, over time, Goldman lost interest in creating value for its clients, and corporate leaders “lost hold of the company’s culture on their watch.”  The characterization didn’t take many by surprise, and Goldman will have more than its fair share of splainin’ to do in the weeks to come.

Of course, I was instantly intrigued by the striking parallels between the ills of the culture Smith described and the troubles that are pervasive in the cultures of many public schools.

I have written on school culture previously, most recently when the Atlanta Public Schools was engulfed in a very public cheating scandal.  I argued that it was time for school culture to take center stage in the school reform debate.

School culture is typically an afterthought in education circles, rarely identified as a factor in schools’ success or failure.  Rather than addressing culture, education leaders and policymakers typically focus on structural reforms such as school size, teacher evaluations, or curricular enhancements.

Culture is a complex and powerful force that research has proven to be a strong predictor of performance and productivity in business.  Research has also shown culture to be one of the most important elements in a school’s success or failure in educating its students.

Culture represents the collective efforts of people in an organization to achieve a shared purpose or “to get things done.”  Researchers Pam Robbins and Harvey Alvy, in The New Principal’s Fieldbook, define culture as an “inner reality” that “reflects what organizational members care about, what they are willing to spend time doing, what and how they celebrate, and what they talk about.”

Business leaders embrace the import of culture more readily than do school leaders.  Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Zappos, are well known for their healthy cultures and success. The leaders of these businesses are deliberate and proactive about shaping and nurturing their companies’ cultures.  They must know what school leaders don’t – If left unattended, culture, like change, can seem to “just happen.”

Culture runs like a river underneath every organization, including schools.  It must be shaped by the school leader who is responsible for melding the past, present and future into a coherent tapestry and for enlisting the leadership of all who have a stake in the school’s success.  These cultural stewards are constantly assessing what the culture is now and how it may need to be reshaped to prepare for future success.  For real transformation to occur, school administrators, teachers, students, parents and the community must consider new ways to work collectively and cooperatively in pursuit of learning and achievement. Reforms and mandates are certainly part of the solution, but they have a better chance of succeeding in a positive culture than they do in a toxic one.  Culture influences everything that happens in a school.

Goldman’s leadership’s is now fighting to dispute Smith’s accusations in the court of public opinion.  Hopefully their efforts will include more than a hollow press release, but also an authentic assessment of the state of their culture and what it says about the company’s mission, values, and way of doing business.  For Goldman, there’s a lot at stake as their stakeholders and clients will certainly be watching.

But for our students, and the future of our country, there’s much more at stake.  The question is: who’s paying attention to the culture in our schools?  Good question…but I can’t say I have the answer.

What Black History Reveals About Education Then vs. Now

20 Feb

It’s Black History Month. The 28 to 29 days reserved every year for recognizing notable African Americans and significant milestones in black history. Most of us can recite from memory the names and occurrences that will grace Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Web sites, and student essays all over the country this month.

But when we reflect on black history, our attention is drawn to the powerful forces that inspired African American ancestors to overcome centuries of oppression—the pursuit of freedom, esteem for education and confidence to know they deserved everything this great country had to offer.

The unavoidable question relative to esteem for education is: what’s changed? What does our month-long look into black history reveal about esteem for education then versus now?

In answering this question, I’m reminded of a study soon to be released in the journal Demography finding that, in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as , much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

Despite this disturbing trend, educating our children is not about how much we spend on them. It is about intensive cultivation that need not cost a great deal to produce a well-educated child. It does require a significant investment in the priceless commodity of time that, for many low-income parents, can be in short supply.

This reminds me of generations ago when, with similar constraints on their time, black people worked just as hard at multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, yet they prioritized learning to read and getting an education. A difference it seems is a philosophy of education that has gone missing.

Theresa Perry’s essay in the book, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Black,” which discusses a historical philosophy of education held among black people of freedom for literacy and literacy for freedom. This powerful philosophy informed the routines and practices of individuals and their families’ commitment to education – – from Fredrick Douglas who carried his book with him every where he went so that he could practice his reading to Ben Carson who at his mother’s insistence read every night.

Through the many narratives described in Perry’s essay, it becomes clear that the pursuit of education was not casual. It was intensely, persistently supported and fueled by an explicitly and continually communicated belief system. This belief system was part of an ethos, a culture of learning, that stood in opposition to the dominant society’s view of the intellectual capacity of black people, the role of learning in their lives, the meaning and purpose of school and the power of their intellect. This insistence about getting an education came not just from mothers and grandmothers, but also from teachers and the preacher on Sunday morning.

In this post Civil Rights society when the intellectual capacity of black people is not as widely or openly challenged, this historical philosophy of education  no longer seems to act as a source of motivation, yet it must. As globalization and technological advances continue, we are all better positioned to make choices about the quality of our lives and those of our grandchildren if we are educated, than if we are not.

While the study revealed real gaps, these do not mean that parents with fewer resources to spend cannot support and foster their children’s educational attainment. As the time parents spend with their children is as central to their success as an experience at a summer camp, let’s consider spending this time more effectively talking about people, such as Ken Chenault or Mayor Kasim Reed, who are using their educations to lead Fortune 500 companies or urban cities; visiting library branches and free museum exhibits; reading together; discussing books and movies; and generally talking to children about what interests them.

Let’s also reengage our religious leaders and teachers in the telling the stories of their own and others success through education so that more children believe they are expected to achieve, and that getting an education really matters!

LeBron James Wants You to Wake Up…So Do I!!

17 Jan

Wake Up!  Wake Up! Mister Senor Love Daddy cried in Spike Lee’s 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing.” Now, LeBron James is using his celebrity to encourage young black boys (and hopefully Latino ones too) to Wake Up and get educated in a new commercial sponsored by the State Farm Insurance Company airing on television during NBA games.

Have you seen it? 

The ad challenges boys to stay in school and view education as the key to making their dreams happen; a powerfully important message that I completely buy into.

The truth is: we need many more ads in all forms of media with celebrity spokespeople espousing the importance of an education and its relationship to succeeding in school and succeeding in life.  But, I’d prefer the ads use celebrities with more authenticity to reinforce the point.

I am not “hating” on LeBron.  I’m aware that he graduated high school and has an unrivaled star power that will attract eyeballs to pay attention to the ad and recall it, a key metric of advertising success.

He’s a tremendous athlete, and for all I know, a great person. But the commercial leaves me wondering, because its messenger, while highly popular, reinforces the low bar we’ve established as a nation for educational attainment.  LeBron would be a stronger messenger if he embodied a college degree as well as a high school diploma.

In addition, Mr. James didn’t achieve his dream through education.  Black boys know this, so I can’t help but wonder whether the star power of the messenger undercuts the importance of the message.  Perhaps we think they won’t notice.

It’s a missed opportunity to reinforce how important higher education is to future success. The pool of high school graduates who earn $14 million a year or more is pretty small.

Getting educated in the 21st century doesn’t end at high school.  Our focus on graduation from high school sets children’s sights on a bar that’s set just too low. With this marker as our guide, black boys achieve the lowest test scores and the highest drop out rates in the nation.

I wonder if the low level of educational attainment of black boys, and of America’s children generally, has contributed to an increasing reluctance to expect more and to set higher targets.  Dare we dream?

We need more public messages that engage celebrities to inspire black boys to wake up to the need to prioritize school success to the same extent as they prioritize athletic and other pursuits.  There is a game to compete in, and it’s in the classroom.  It’s the game that matters most. Wake Up!

Halftime Message to Parents: You can get your kids back in the game!

27 Dec

It’s December!  The holiday season!  The end of the year!  And, for millions of parents and students all over the world, it’s the halftime of the school season.  This is the time when parents can usher their kids into the proverbial locker room, assess the good and bad of their performance and get revved up to win in the second half.  But, the question is: how many parents are doing that?  How many parents are not letting the excitement and celebration of the holidays steal all attention from the end goal of winning in school this year?

A new report gives parents some hope and encouragement in their ability to help coach their children to victory.  Recent findings show that simply reading and talking to your children leads to better academic performance, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.  I hope the OECD’s report can be the catalyst we need to help parents to become more actively involved in their children’s education in 2012.

I think we all agree that parents’ engagement in their children’s education is a key ingredient for student success, but what we typically focus on is the quality of parents’ involvement in the school: participation in the PTA, in fundraising activities, attending back-to-school night or attending the school play.  There is not enough focus on the quality of parents’ involvement in the home outside of directing parents to monitor television viewing time spent and helping children with homework.

The great news about the PISA findings is that parents who talk and read to their children, regardless of socio-economic background, help prepare them to learn and it is something every parent can do.  The report underscores what I hope is well understood by now: that reading to children early and often contributes to higher scores than students whose parents read infrequently or not at all.

It identifies concrete ways in which parents can stimulate learning in the home by asking frequently about what their child is learning; discussing books, movies, and TV programs, discussing political or social issues, and generally spending time talking with their children, hopefully over a meal.  It also helps us understand that students are never too old to benefit from their parent’s interest in and concern for them.

Ok parents, game on!  What are you gonna do to inspire your kids to excel when they return to school?  If you need some help, visit our web site ( and download the Parent-Student Contract.  It’s a tool you can review and complete with your child to set clear and specific expectations for their academic success in the next semester.

Talk is usually cheap, but in the case of talking to your children, doing so can yield academic performance rewards that will pay dividends later.  Let’s inspire our kids and give them the tools they need to compete in the classroom!