Tag Archives: achievement gap

Leaders Wanted. Sheriffs Need Not Apply.

12 Feb

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools appeared as a guest on Jon Stewart’s “Comedy Central” show the other night. As she talked about her tenure in the nation’s capital, she sounded more like a wild west sheriff than the leader of a school district. In the westerns I’ve watched, sheriffs ride into disorderly towns thinking the worst of the people who live there, pull out their six-shooters, gun down the bad guys, and quickly establish order. That’s an approach that may work in Tombstone, but it has no place in our schools.

Hired to turn around a failing urban system and armed with a point of view that teachers are our best hope for achieving this objective, Rhee and others with this “sheriff” mindset make the mistake of taking aim at teachers rather than engaging them as one key element of a complex solution to our nation’s biggest problem.
This “shape up or ship out” leadership style assumes the worst intentions of teachers – – that they don’t care about the success of their students, and are content to take their paychecks and go home.

School leaders, who don’t trust the people they lead, or respect their intentions and capability, aren’t likely to earn their trust and respect in return. So from the beginning, the objective of achieving higher academic performance through higher quality teaching is in jeopardy before the extent of a teaching quality gap has been measured. There is no argument that quality teaching contributes to student learning. It is also true—though less well understood—that quality educational leadership contributes to student learning, too.

More and more educational research finds that a well-established fact in business applies equally well to schools: The quality of an organization’s leadership contributes to its performance and productivity. Many of our school districts and schools are in need of leaders who can motivate and inspire people to do their best, appreciate them for their contributions and who know that they need the “soft stuff” that comes from creating a great culture in order to succeed.

Sustained best-in-class teaching can emerge from best-in-class leadership. Despite our best efforts, it’s unlikely to emanate from mandates and laws that decree it to be so. We need leaders with the skills to “sell” their ideas for achieving success to many different groups of people, instead of simply ramming mandates down teachers’ throats. It is not quite clear yet, but while a background in teaching may be necessary to educational leadership, it is insufficient.

Effective educational leadership also requires a growth-oriented mindset that enables one to see the glass as half full, not empty; the know-how to listen to other’s ideas and engage their trust and talents; the talent to create and sell a strategy with clearly defied metrics that tell you when you’ve arrived at your destination; the capacity to establish the structure and processes to align and focus people to the goal and the forte to create an organizational culture that becomes the foundation for achieving the hard results we want.

How much more effective at producing results for kids might Rhee and other superintendents be if their leadership was less about bringing order to an unruly, dysfunctional organization and more about getting people on their side to achieve success? How inspiring might it be to work for an educational leader who believes in your capacity to contribute, who respects you, engages your ideas, is committed to providing what you need to contribute, and shows appreciation for your efforts?

By now you’re probably thinking this is impossible to achieve in publicly funded school districts, to which I have just two things to say: Being a leader who believes in the capability of her people to contribute and who understands the importance of motivating them to succeed isn’t against any union or government law. And what have we got to lose?

FaceBook was recently recognized as the 2013 Employer of Choice. Employees cite trust in the company’s leadership, clear priorities, company culture, perks, and the impact they are making as reasons they are happy to be working at FaceBook. With this in mind, I wonder what a survey of DC and other school district employees might reveal about working in these organizations? The unspoken reality is that we don’t seem to care. But didn’t you hear? There’s a new sheriff in town.

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Post Election Special News Report: Advice to President Obama

20 Nov

Tuesday, November 6, 2012, the United States of America re-elected President Barack Obama for a historic second term.  All eyes watched as the President took a slow, but sure lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney in what some assumed would be a close race.  During the days leading up to the election, President Obama made it very clear that the choice ahead for voters was not one of party affiliation, but one of two fundamental differences in strategy for moving forward. Now that the country has spoken and chosen the President, we are assured that the nation’s focus on “nation building” through continued investments in education won’t be lost, but my concern is that our failure to celebrate what is working and to learn from it makes the journey more challenging and a bit dispiriting.

On November 8, Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, served as keynote speaker during the “Dispelling the Myth” Awards at the 2012 Education Trust Conference in Washington D.C..  The event annually celebrates three public schools that are making huge strides in narrowing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students. He championed these schools for “showing that all children can learn—and that great schools prepare children for college and careers no matter their zip code, skin color, or their parent’s bank account, and national origin.  He also said, “The truth is we don’t do nearly enough to celebrate success in education.”

While he went on to discuss No Child Left Behind’s, failures and its future, it was this sentence about our failure to celebrate what’s working that caused me to pay closer attention.  At that moment I looked around the room to see there was no media present. No one to showcase and inform us that these public schools are  succeeding at educating our children.   The winning schools should be profiled on every national news program and print publication because they represent an incredible case study for how people are working together to create a culture in these schools that gets the hard results we all care about.  It’s as if this conversation is only important to those of us who work within education or when Education Nation rolls around. THIS bothers me.  It’s disheartening to know that the solution is right in front of us, but it’s not sensational and thus uninteresting.

What we celebrate signals what we care about.  Where education is concerned, we’re overlooking the opportunity to motivate greater success when we’re silent about the small wins along the way. We have to celebrate the first downs and the touchdowns.  And here’s the thing: we don’t need policymakers to give us permission to do this, but we do need the media’s help. We have to take action to indicate that we want to know about things like this and this means we have to let them know.  Shout from the rooftops.  Call your local and national media outlets.  Make sure you’re heard.  Success breeds success.

I’m elated about President Obama’s re-election and happy to see that his designees are at least aware of the fact that there isn’t enough focus on celebrating and recognizing success; but, beyond highlighting this fact in his remarks, what is Arne doing about it?

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.