Tag Archives: academic achievement gap

Are Your Children’s Teachers Effective?

23 Jan

Across America, states are developing elaborate systems to evaluate the performance of teachers. These systems are important— knowing how well teachers do their jobs is a critical step to improving educational outcomes; but, judging the quality of teachers’ performance is difficult —and using the results of teacher evaluation systems effectively may be even tougher.

The development of these systems is spurred by federal funds under Race to the Top. To ensure states prioritize the need to assess teachers, leading advocate StudentsFirst is rating them for their compliance in implementing such systems, among other things. But what do these ratings tell us about the quality of teaching and education in these states? Not much at all.

It is essential to know whether the teachers standing in front of our classrooms are good at their jobs. Every child must have a quality teacher in order to learn and parents shouldn’t be forced to advocate for their child to ensure he is taught by the teacher(s) perceived as the best in that grade or subject. In case anyone’s still on the fence, we need all teachers in our schools to be of the highest quality — to be “best in class”.

Performance evaluation systems are necessary but insufficient. While they provide us with indispensable information about teachers’ effectiveness and identify new skills teachers’ need to respond new teaching challenges arising from poverty and new technologies, the system is missing the mechanism it will use to respond to the deficiencies it identifies. People don’t develop simply from receiving feedback, however meaningful or timely it is received. People grow and develop when they are provided with opportunities to build new skills and acquire new knowledge.

State education and district budgets are shrinking in the face of our commitment to improve the quality of our teaching force. Shrinking budgets notwithstanding, we must realize that spending on new performance systems to tell us how well our teachers are doing without the commensurate spending to help them be their best is short sighted.

Teachers comprise the largest segment of the workforce in our school systems and research finds they contribute 33 percent to learning. Many believe teachers are the single biggest lever to closing the gaps in achievement. If we buy this, it means we need many more great teachers and fast. Nationally, research finds that 31% of teachers change practice as a result of new knowledge and skills, but the changes aren’t sustained. So, in addition to the need to invest in developing new skills in our teachers, we need new approaches for helping them acquire and sustain the knowledge and skills they need to drive us to success.

Upgrading the quality of performance evaluation systems for teachers is a good first step. But absent a more robust approach, we’re left with more questions than answers. Once we learn which teachers are great, what are we doing to ensure they become even greater? What structures and processes do we have in place to leverage their know-how back into the people in our schools and districts? How are we using what we learn from these “best in class” teachers to inform whom we attract and recruit into our schools? For those who aren’t performing to par, what is our commitment to enhance their skills, beyond offering insightful feedback? Lastly, what are doing to retain this top talent?

Mandated policy solutions such as performance evaluation systems aren’t likely to be effective at producing higher quality teachers as discreet, stand alone pieces. Without a commitment to developing people, they become little more than a way to weed people out. These systems can be a key part of a larger system designed to attract, develop and retain quality people in our nations schools that drives us toward a simple truth – it’s the people in an organization that make it successful. Mandating only one of these interrelated pieces does not contribute to a high performing district.

To move from higher teacher quality to higher school performance we need to address the overlooked driver of more effective leadership of our school districts so that well-conceived policy solutions have a better chance of producing the higher performance we’re looking for. But that’s a blog for another day.

In the meantime, since we’re offering feedback, let’s add to the algorithm the percentage of states’ budgets allocated to invest in developing the very people on whom we’re relying to drive us to higher performance for our kids. If we going to keep score, let’s at least include all the things that matter.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

12 Nov

At a recent gathering held at The Westminister Schools, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, suggested we stop focusing on testing and focus on how to get all students more excited about learning.  The Westminster Schools hosted Connected Community, a dialogue about transforming Atlanta education featuring Dr. Noguera, a leading authority on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

I think he’s onto something, but I’d offer a friendly amendment:  Let’s focus on everyone being more excited about learning – students, teachers and parents.  My suggestion for how we get there is pretty straightforward.  Let’s all behave as if learning is exciting. Seriously.

Where would we start? District and school leadership would have to align all people connected to schools around this purpose. They would have to lead and demonstrate to parents, staff, students and the community what it means for everyone to be excited about learning and why it’s important to the school’s productivity and performance.  Without understanding what and why, these stakeholders aren’t in a position to contribute to the attainment of the result – they’re not on the team.

In case you’re confused, people matter in an organization and schools are no exception. I hope we’re finally on the verge of figuring this out.  And the good news is none of this should run afoul of union rules or education policies. Efforts to unleash positive energy and success doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money.  David Novak, Chairman and CEO of Yum Brands! writes in his book, Taking People with You, Achieve Breakthrough Results, that people want to feel appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they want to have fun, but they are more often overlooked and unappreciated. This is a missed opportunity for too many of our schools.  Putting people first doesn’t mean low standards.

Having fun or experiencing satisfaction at work is a theme echoed in an Education Trust report entitled, Building and Sustaining Talent.  It shares howthe conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction and results in increased learning for students in high-poverty/low performing schools.

And students are people who matter too. Clayton M. Christenson, the Kim B. Clark Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his book Disrupting Class, that despite our appeals to children that education is the key to their futures, the fact is that school is not most children’s first choice of places to be – past elementary school anyway.  In order for school to become a top choice for kids, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and they want to have fun. Working hard and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive and in many cases, it’s really okay to have fun while you work.  Ask the folks at GE, Target, Southwest Airlines or Yum Brands!.

It’s pretty well understood that children learn best when they are excited about and engaged in learning and this aligns with their need to have fun and succeed in school.  Likewise, teachers experience more satisfaction in their work and are more productive when their efforts are appreciated and recognized, and when they too have a little fun.  When children come home more excited about what they’re learning in school and are more knowledgeable, their parents become curious, excited and interested to learn what’s happening at their child’s school – or maybe they’re in shock.

Take this example of how a teacher inspired her students to learn offered by Dr. Noguera during his remarks. The teacher brought a hermit crab into her classroom to teach her students about the crab and its habitat.  As the children had never seen one, it made the hermit crab real and unleashed a level of excitement and curiosity in them to learn about the crab that the teacher hadn’t quite seen before. Voila! With this small innovation, the teacher produced excitement and a deepened engagement in learning from her students. I don’t know the results of the paper, quiz or test she likely gave, but I’m confident these  more deeply excited children did a fine job of demonstrating what they learned about a hermit crab.  Given the students’ positive response to her inventiveness, I’m hopeful the teacher became more inspired to look for additional ways to excite and engage her students.

My question is, what if anything did the school leader do to recognize and celebrate her inventiveness, the children’s enthusiasm for learning and parents’ curiosity about what’s happening at the school?

When we recognize and celebrate the creativity of teachers, enthusiasm for learning from students and interest from parents, leaders take an important step to act on what is valued and add meaning to what all the people connected to the school care about.  Actions always speak louder than words.

Etienne R. LeGrand is co-founder and president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Who’s Hurt When We Cheat?

22 Oct

From the flurry of reports in the media about cheating in our nation’s public schools, it seems children may not be the only ones in need of character education.  Educators, it seems, need it too.

Cheating scandals have surfaced in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Illinois, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas to name a few. It’s a growing epidemic according to investigative reports that educators appear to be inclined to ignore, minimize, deny, contain and gloss over as we fall further and further behind in global academic and labor measures.

Incidences of cheating are being blamed on everything from teachers seeking to earn job security and monetary rewards by producing artificially high test scores, school officials’ lackadaisical attitudes towards standardized testing and a lack of test security measures system wide.

I’ve yet to hear “the devil made me do it,” but I suspect we’re getting close.

In response to these scandals, there are calls for more attention to cheating prevention training, better standardized testing procedures, greater oversight by state and local officials, and calls for more federal oversight – a move that would undoubtedly lead to costly and complicated bureaucracy. Can you say federal testing police?  These solutions all but presume cheating is inevitable; but, what about not cheating?

When educators cheat our children are the biggest losers. The proficiency gains that have been touted to rationalize the distribution of bonuses and awards to educators have been as imaginary and ghost-like as inflated test scores.  Students’ confidence in the adults who they should be able to trust to teach them has been broken.

When our children lose we all lose since, as we know, they are our future. Even scarier is the reality that they are also learning that cheating is acceptable under certain circumstances like when you’re highly incented to perform, under pressure to achieve results or … when no one is looking.  Character is born in the private moments when we are called upon to consider and do what is right.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best – the function of a true education is to teach one to think intensively and critically – intelligence plus character that is the true goal of education.

It is disappointing that educators implicated and not yet implicated in these scandals think so little of their profession that they would choose dishonesty over integrity and their students’ best interests.  The actions of a few have compromised the veracity of the entire profession. Sharon Rideau, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, found in a survey of 3,000 Arizona teachers that 50% of them either had cheated or knew of a colleague who had cheated.  If she’s right, we’re in big trouble.

Let me be clear, not all educators cheat, but you only need one bad apple to spoil the bunch or sully the reputation of the entire profession. Even in Finland, a country that is out competing the US on most academic measures, only 1 out of 10 applicants becomes a teacher.  It’s a challenging, important job for which we only need the few and the ethical.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society.

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 etienne@webduboissociety.org 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.

Sincerely,

Etienne R. LeGrand

President

The W.E.B. Du Bois Society

It’s the Culture, Stupid!

15 May

Graduation ceremonies are book-ending the academic year and schools are closing for summer break.  Soon, the topics of education and the stubborn academic achievement gap will retire from public discourse for its annual 2-month hiatus.  But, sadly, the facts that continue to tell a disturbing story will reemerge just as strong by the fall:

  • There are significant gaps between blacks and whites in virtually every measure of achievement: NAEP math and reading test scores, high school completion rates, college enrollment and college completion rates.
  • Blacks are not faring well in high school graduation rates—only 55 percent, compared to 78 percent for white students and 72 percent for Asian students.
  • The dropout rate for black students is almost double the dropout rate for their white peers.
  • By the twelfth grade, on average, black students are four years behind their white or Asian peers.

But, discussion about this ominous academic achievement continually ignores one larger-than-life elephant in the room: the reality that African-American children are growing up in a peer culture and community network that, in too many ways, does not foster academic ambition. Instead, it’s a culture that, in too many ways, celebrates achievements in sports and entertainment more than academic achievement.

Consider these realities: Studies show African-American students are the least likely out of students in all racial and ethnic groups to:

  • Spend more time on their studies outside of school
  • To participate in academically-oriented peer groups or study groups
  • To believe success is based on effort rather than innate ability

They are more likely to view a C as a decent letter grade.  They spend 40% less time on homework than their white peers and 80% less time than their Asian peers.  And, nearly half of African-American fourth-graders and eighth-graders spend five hours or more watching TV on a typical school day.  This is compared to less than 20% of white fourth-graders.

It’s time administrators, educators and parents opened their eyes to the impact of the peer culture and community norms on how African-American children are faring compared to their peers in other racial/ethnic groups.  It’s time to consider new approaches for motivating student engagement in learning and commitment to achieve in school.

Consider the time and energy many parents invest in their sons’ and daughters’ athletic careers, yet they may not take 60 minutes to review their child’s academic standing or assist with homework. And, consider that students in general, and African American students in particular are often ashamed to excel academically. According to Lawrence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom, one out of every six students hides her intelligence and interest in academic achievement because she is worried about what her peers think.

We have to remove the blinders that relegate us to standard approaches to remedying this problem.  We have to recognize that school reform, while a viable part of the solution, is only a part of the solution.  We must supplement reform by confronting the overwhelming and powerful influence of peer, family and community culture—promoting a culture that routinely recognizes and rewards academic achievement as much as, if not more than, achievement in athletics and entertainment.

This is a battle we can win, but we must recognize the elephant in the room and see that a culture that respects education pays dividends.