Tag Archives: public schools

Celebrate First Downs, Too!

10 Apr

The indictments of 35 former Atlanta educators, including former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, have raised our collective ire once again at the harm done to children by their actions, but before we replace the smart looking “A” in the system’s logo with a scarlet letter, let’s not overlook what is hidden in plain sight. Most educators did not cheat.

This may seem little consolation at first glance, but we’d be fools to overlook this. We have a choice. We can stigmatize the 95 percent of educators that didn’t cheat and the entire school district because of the 5 percent that did, or we can build on this good news. The district has already taken important steps to ensure integrity and higher ethics, though there may be more it can do.

So, back to those educators who did not cheat. What shall we say about them or to them? We might simply acknowledge their honesty, integrity, and dedication in helping children learn in the face of education policy roulette. If all we discuss is what is wrong, we miss an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins we need to motivate educators to stay in the game and to win.

We can and should leverage this legitimate good news to reframe the dialogue from what’s wrong with APS to what’s right and to consider how we routinely use good news to breed energy and success into our district. If nothing has been taken to show appreciation for the contributions of educators who have continued to educate children against the backdrop of this ongoing investigation, something should be done to recognize their engagement beyond the check they receive every two weeks.

Most of us know more about APS’ failings than we do of real accomplishments. Here are a few good things I’m aware of as someone who pays attention to APS, but the general public doesn’t know about this, or other good stuff, because no one talks about it. And that’s got to change. For example, per CNN, Parkside Elementary School students won the 2012 Robotics Competition and an APS teacher was selected as a Georgia Teacher of the Year finalist.

Taking time to celebrate and congratulate people for moving things forward can drive greater productivity and performance in APS. After all, educators, like employees in other industries need a sense of accomplishment to keep them engaged and inspired to come to work each day.

Engagement is highly correlated to productivity and performance – – you know, those test scores and graduation rates we’re after. The 2012 Gallop Q12 survey found that over 70% of 1.5 million North American workers are either underperforming or sabotaging the work of their company and co-workers because they are either not engaged or actively disengaged. Instead of pressuring educators to perform, our students might fare better in school districts that know how to motivate educators to do what they already want to do.

Acknowledging and celebrating small wins can go along way to rebuild morale and deepen engagement and satisfaction that can yield greater success for more children. It can also restore public confidence and desperately needed hope that Atlanta’s children are being prepared to do great things. What we celebrate puts the culture of an organization on display.

Celebrating first downs – – each play that steadily advances the ball down the field is essential. Celebrations are the shared experiences that can keep people motivated and invested in achieving the ultimate goal. Educating children is inherently meaningful work. If Southwest Airlines can make its employees feel good about air travel and if Starbucks can make its employees feel good about selling coffee, then APS should have little difficulty making educators feel good about an even higher purpose – – educating our children.

When we simply drill people about performance without pausing to celebrate small victories, we wear them out. Weary people lose hope and without hope, some people lose their way.

Etienne R. LeGrand is an education strategist, co-founder and CEO of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society.

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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.

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

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.

Are black parents ready for the “parent trigger”?

29 Sep

As thought leaders, administrators and educators explore a myriad of solutions for what we all agree is a looming state of crisis in American education, the subject of parental engagement has made the short list of proposed strategies.

In a NY Times editorial last week, author Peg Tyre elevated this dialogue to another level when she raised then option of the “parent trigger”–a concept that is being proposed in more than 20 states to recognize and increase the impact of engaged parents and, I would argue, possibly bring another layer of complication.

According to Tyre, California was the first to adopt this trigger. Here’s how it works there: “parents whose children attend a failing school can band together. If 51 percent of them sign a petition, they can demand, and the district must provide, a new set of administrators to run the school. Alternately, the disgruntled parents can ask that a charter school operator be brought in to take over.”

On the subject of parental engagement in a child’s education, the research is clear: parents matter…a lot! Research consistently shows that parent involvement—in the home and at the school—has a significant influence on student achievement. Literature shows that students whose parents are involved in their children’s schooling have increased academic performance and overall cognitive development. For most people, that’s somewhat of a no brainer.

And while the notion of institutionalizing and operationalizing parental engagement has some appeal, how would it work in communities and districts where parents are systemically disengaged, uninformed and, themselves, undereducated?

Several research studies highlight the differences in the parental involvement of African American and Hispanic parents as compared to their white and Asian peers. This topic has also been reflected in discourse among educators and administrators. This phenomenon was reinforced for me recently when I encountered African-American parent who had no clue that her child had been truant for three weeks.

There are several reasons and barriers that inform this reality, but in many school districts, it is a reality nonetheless. If parental engagement is to elevate as the next big “it strategy” for reforming public schools, then attention must be paid to this racial/ethnic gap in parental engagement, and to getting more black parents up to speed to ensure this does not become yet another area where glaring disparity is perpetuated. If ever there was a case of “be careful what you ask for,” this is it.

I don’t propose to have a silver bullet either. In all honesty, it is a phenomenon that has left me at times dispirited in my work with African-American students over the past decade. But, I do think it has to start with this conversation. With juggling the various barriers and limitations in everyday life, many parents simply don’t have time or know how to support their child’s academic success…simply don’t know where to start.

We are trying to help with our parent-student contract that enables parents and children to talk about expectations for success in school and the behaviors that lead to it, and to hold themselves and their children more accountable to communicating and staying actively engaged during the school year. It’s a good start at helping parents express their commitment to their children, incorporate incentives along with consequences, and to set specific milestones for monitoring their child’s progress.

If you are a parent who is not fully engaged, or if you know one, let the discussion and the move to change start with you. How can you commit to ensure that, as parental engagement becomes a part of our public policy to reform education, minority parents are not left behind?

Climbing UP the ladder: From actor to teacher

26 Oct

TV sitcom star Tony Danza (well known from his roles on Taxi and Who’s The Boss) recently participated in a media blitz to promote his new reality TV show “Teach,” currently airing on A&E.  When we first heard Danza was leaving his family and cushy Los Angeles lifestyle to teach 10h Grade English at an urban Philadelphia high school, the first word that came to our minds was: “Gimmick!”

Why else would an actor leave his privileged lifestyle and the esteem that comes with a decades-long TV career to “slum it” in the halls of Philadelphia’s largest public school?

That’s what we first thought, and then we had to catch ourselves.  Why should we see it as a gimmick?  There is, arguably, no more noble, glamorous or prestigious profession than that of teaching.  How is it that one of the most critical careers of all time has descended to the position of bottom rung on the ladder…that we would automatically count it as a gimmick for an actor to elevate his standing to teach.

As we went on to further explore the story, we learned that this was actually (likely) not a gimmick for Danza.  He had actually studied to become a teacher before he took advantage of an opportunity to pursue a career in acting.  It turns out that Danza did what many of us always wish we could: he took advantage of an opportunity to walk down his own personal “road not taken.”

Kudos to him!  This is the kind of Reality TV we can all get behind.  We’re hopeful that this could help contribute to our efforts, and the efforts of others, to elevate the teaching profession higher up–to its rightful place on the proverbial career ladder.   Check out a couple of links below to some interviews with Tony Danza regarding this dynamic season in his life.  And, visit A&E’s site to check out some of the episodes you’ve missed.

We applaud his efforts and support the messages he’s sharing with the youth in his classroom: that they can “have a good time and have good grades”; that they should “get smart early”; and that “there’s only one way out and that’s an education…a real education.”