A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis
from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Volume 5, Number 34. September 29, 2005
Issue On the Web
Past Issues On the Web
From Jim's Desk (guest editorial by Jim Williams)
News and Analysis
Short Reviews of New Reports and Books
From Jim's Desk (guest editorial by Jim Williams)
Becoming a public high school teacher after nearly 30 years in business required that I adapt to a culture whose priorities, norms, and incentives are upside down. Public schools operate in ways that conflict with their core purpose--teaching children the basic knowledge and skills required to lead successful adult lives. These dysfunctional practices are a source of deep frustration for teachers because they understand that it's the students who are shortchanged.
Consistently, research shows that teachers are critical to improving student achievement. School officials celebrate teachers with motherhood-and-apple-pie ceremonies, but in practice they do not treat teachers as scarce, valuable resources. Instead of enabling teachers to focus on working effectively with students in the classroom, schools require teachers to invest excessive time, energy, and attention in overcoming daily obstacles. Unwelcome distractions include preventable problems (such as running out of copier toner and paper), redundant clerical duties (e.g. requiring teachers to keep both handwritten and electronic reports), and tracking minor administrative inquiries, all of which create ceaseless, unproductive diversions from classroom teaching.
At first glance, such diversions may seem trivial. But the cumulative impact of these messages day after day, both objective (the time and energy spent outside the classroom handling administrative tasks) and implicit (you aren't a "true" professional), make good teaching unnecessarily challenging.
A situation early in my business career contrasts vividly with my public school experience to date. I worked in a distribution operation located in a fast-growing market. Our corporate office was out of state. The explosive growth in my area was not typical of the rest of the company, whose policies and procedures reflected a mature, stable business. Our boss recognized our market's potential and told us he would provide the tools we needed to succeed. And then he'd get out of the way. He asked everyone for their input concerning efficiency and effectiveness, and when my co-workers and I made suggestions that produced a positive business outcome, he modified production schedules, adjusted staffing, and acquired the equipment needed to support our productivity gains.
Our boss recognized that many of the practices followed throughout the rest of the company interfered with accomplishing what was possible in our market--growing quickly and profitably while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction. His willingness to work with us created a sense of mission for me and my colleagues and created a local culture that emphasized results rather than procedural compliance. Moreover, our disproportionate financial contribution to the corporation's profitability earned us not only absolution, but recognition and appreciation.
I hope that the increasing emphasis within public schools on measurable outcomes will bring more local discretion for school-based leaders. To build high performing schools, they need the ability to shift focus away from process and procedure and toward empowering teachers and relentlessly emphasizing student achievement. But that hasn't been my experience to date. For example, by failing to include teachers in reaching significant instructional decisions, and using "top-down" communication methods, public school officials too often treat teachers more like hourly industrial workers from a bygone era than high-value professionals. Consider typical district-wide efforts to improve student performance. Most often, the emphasis is placed on implementing standardized curricula and installing instructional programs developed outside the school. This practice ignores the considerable evidence demonstrating how achieving high performance in any field results from engaging people on the front lines.
More than twenty years ago, business organizations began to understand the dramatic potential of collaborative management practices. I learned the value of collaboration while trying to address a major operational problem in my previous firm. We were losing money on our customer delivery operations, while simultaneously creating significant customer dissatisfaction. Partially out of desperation, I looked to collaborative management practice, which I had recently read about. I formed a working group of hourly employees to look into the problem. This group included representatives from every part of the business: delivery drivers, our dispatcher, warehouse clerks, and customer service representatives. We met on Saturday mornings (people were paid for their time) and looked at the problem afresh. The seriousness and creativity these people brought to the discussions was quite impressive and, in less than a month, we completely overhauled every function in our delivery system. Within two months, our costs were under control, we were making money, and we greatly improved customer satisfaction.
This approach to managing organizations is now widely accepted practice in
most places. Unfortunately, this kind of genuine collaboration with teachers
to address significant public school performance issues and outcomes is conspicuously
My sense is that most teachers really want a set of arrangements quite different from what they have. Unfortunately, teachers' organizations reinforce the prevailing industrial model: hierarchical organization, proceduralism, and "top down" communication. All of this increases adversarial discussions and discourages fundamental reform proposals.
Still, there is a large reservoir of dissatisfaction within public education, and that dissatisfaction presents a significant opportunity for school reform advocates. I'm optimistic that reformers can build support for alternative models of public education among a genuinely critical group of stakeholders: public school teachers. In the end, I would argue that choice-based school reform proposals significantly improve most teachers' situations. The challenge for reformers is to find ways to describe the inherent limitations of the existing system (which are quite familiar to experienced teachers) and then to present concrete ways that charter schools, and other educational alternatives, could benefit teachers. One selling point, obviously, is reduced administrative busywork.
Some heavy lifting (and stronger evidence of results in terms of student achievement) is necessary before a case for public school reform can be made to teachers accustomed to hearing status quo arguments. But if we fail to make the case, we will have missed an important opportunity.
Jim Williams teaches both special and general education high school students in Northern Virginia. He entered the teaching profession through the George Washington University Fairfax Partnership Project.
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News and Analysis
Next steps in Norfolk
Norfolk Public Schools finally brought home the big one--the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education. A bridesmaid in the competition each year from 2002 to 2004, the district took top honors this year based on the strength of increased reading and math scores, improved graduation rates, and significant reduction in ethnic achievement gaps. (These are profiled here.) The district is, indeed, a worthy champion.
But what's the next step? To find out, we went straight to the source: Norfolk's new superintendent, Dr. Stephen C. Jones.
For education reformers, there's good and bad news. Let's lead with the good.
Norfolk has embraced a data-driven approach to classroom learning. And it's paid off. Reading scores, according to the Broad Foundation, are up 14 percentage points among elementary students over the past four years, and 12 percentage points among middle school students. Superintendent Jones wants to build on this. The district has adopted a web-based program used to track and analyze reading data on every K-2 student. In the coming years, all grades will use this system. The goal, according to Jones, is that "all high school graduates [be] ‘powerfully literate'" by 2010.
Further, the data are used to hold not just students and teachers accountable, but principals and board members as well. "Data has to drive all we do," says Jones.
Now for the bad news.
Jones recognizes that one of his biggest problems is deploying his workforce strategically. "Education is one of the few industries where CEOs can't assign staff where the needs are." One way to do that is to build incentives for teachers to work with the most challenging student populations. In principle, Jones likes the idea. And there are school board members who would like to examine the idea more closely. But Jones has yet to make overtures to the unions, and he concedes that differentiated pay is "not a number 1 priority."
When pushed to describe what pay incentives for teachers might look like, were they to be adopted, Jones's vision is hardly radical. He showed no interest in tying teachers' pay to their students' performance. Bonuses distributed equally to all teachers in schools that make Adequate Yearly Progress, he says, would be fine. But paying more to teachers who realize greater student achievements than to those who realize less success won't fly with him. There are ways to reward teachers, he says, without giving it to them "in their paychecks."
Hiring teachers from sources other than education schools fares only moderately better. As a leader in Baltimore's school system, Jones used alternatively certified teachers to fill gaps in special education. But special education in Baltimore is hardly a model of efficiency. (See here and here.) Jones did say that Virginia Wesleyan College, in nearby Hampton Roads, has expressed interest in establishing some sort of alternative certification program that would benefit Norfolk, but details are sketchy.
Jones has bold goals for Norfolk's students. By 2010:
- All students possess the habits of powerful literacy;
- All students access exciting options and opportunities upon graduation;
- All schools exceed state and national performance standards;
- All achievement gaps are closed.
Whether or not these goals can be accomplished without breaking the teacher unions' stranglehold on their members' salaries and the education schools' stranglehold on teacher preparation remains to be seen.
Educators of all stripes will be watching.
"Norfolk's teachers win Broad acclaim," The Virginian-Pilot, September 23, 2005
A. Davis, Jr. and Jennifer
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While the spike in oil prices is leading some school districts to cut back on busing (see Christmas in September, below), the New York Times has found one district that is busing more kids than ever. Wake County Public Schools, which serves Raleigh, has for five years embarked on a campaign to integrate its schools along economic lines. The goal is that no one school have more than 40 percent low income students, thereby creating learning environments dominated by a "middle class" culture. Advocates point to dramatic increases in minority test scores to suggest the policy's working. But as Paul E. Peterson explains in the New York Sun, there's no way to know whether the rise in student achievement can be attributed to this program, plus, Raleigh's gains are dwarfed by larger increases statewide. And "progress" in North Carolina doesn't mean much anyway, because the state has some of the country's most lenient proficiency standards. By the Tar Heel state's lights, 85 percent of its eighth graders are reading proficiently, while the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows only 29 percent reading at that level. All this leaves little justification for Raleigh's social engineering, especially when high-achieving schools such as KIPP prove that it's possible to create a "middle class," achievement-oriented culture even in schools populated by poor children
"Erasing Inequality," by Paul E. Peterson, New York Sun, September 28, 2005
"As Test Scores Jump, Raleigh Credits Integration by Income," by Alan Finder, New York Times, September 25, 2005
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your merit pay where your mouth is
The list of high-profile political leaders who talk about merit pay for teachers keeps growing. Gadfly has already noted that New York City's school chancellor Joel Klein is a supporter. Now we can add Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to the list. He has laid out for legislative approval specific plans to incorporate teacher merit pay by next school year. The teacher unions are predictably unimpressed by Romney's ideas, but unlike California, where unions terminated Ahhnold's merit pay plan, the Bay State's chief appears ready for a fight. Will that be enough? If Massachusetts could actually get merit pay out of the legislature and into the classroom, it could be big. Josh Greenman of The Teaching Commission tells us that eight governors mentioned performance pay in their state of the state addresses this year, and another six have shown some interest in the idea. But all this "support" is for naught until someone finally makes merit pay a reality. Lace 'em up Mitt, Gadfly's in your corner.
wants teacher merit pay," by Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan, Boston
Globe, September 22, 2005
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shirt off their backs
First there was carnival-gate (see here), and now we have uniform-gate. Toledo requires all its public elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms. Low-income families can apply to the district for free uniforms, which are paid for by Lucas County Job and Family Services. But when some 50 parents whose children attend charter schools--which, after all, are public schools--applied for the free uniforms the district said, "No-go." We're not making this up. Toledo isn't the only place, however, holding tightly to its shirts. In D.C., charter school students were denied free t-shirts that were distributed by the District school system to low-income public school students participating in a help-the-homeless fundraising walk. A word of advice to charters--watch your pants.
"TPS says free uniforms are not for charter school students," by Ignazio Messina, Toledo Blade, September 27, 2005
"Why did I ignore charter schools?" by Jay Matthews, Washington Post, September 21, 2005
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Early this week, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue closed the Peach State's schools for two days in anticipation of an oil shortage caused by Hurricane Rita--a shortage that never happened. In Washington, President Bush praised the governor's decision, saying Perdue "showed some leadership" in "anticipating a problem." But parents around the state, forced to scramble over the weekend to find child care for Monday and Tuesday, disagreed. "It causes problems for these kids who need to be learning and not just hanging out," said Randy Faigin David, an Atlanta parent. Gadfly wonders if the Department of Homeland Security is preparing for a new threat on American soil--students sabotaging oil pipelines in the hopes of driving up gas prices and earning more "snow days" in September.
"Parents Protest Georgia School Closures," By Dick Pettys, Washington Post, September 26, 2005
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Short Reviews of New Reports and Books
our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education and What We Can Do About It
Joe Williams's new book is written with all the vividness, verve, and emotion of a Jonathon Kozol tome, but with a message that will make serious school reformers cheer. Hard-hitting, packed with inflammatory anecdotes and devastating details, Cheating our Kids puts a human face on today's education policy battles. Williams's day job is reporting, now for the New York Daily News and previously for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he harnesses his well-honed journalistic skills and considerable energy to report stories that make your heart ache and your blood boil. Like any good storyteller, Williams presents plenty of villains--union hacks, low-level bureaucrats, curriculum company executives--and roots for the little guys, the parents and kids. Sometimes, as with Milwaukee's voucher program, the little guy even wins. His message is populist, and his final chapter, "Parent Power," presents 12 rules for parent-activists. My favorites? "Don't trust PTAs to do anything other than raising cold, hard cash," and, "If an administrator tells you something can't be done, assume they are wrong and plow forward." This book is written for neophytes in the school reform wars, so hardened policy wonks won't find many new ideas. In fact--and I don't say this just because he signs my paychecks--it's hard not to hear in Williams's pages the echo of Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s 1991 manifesto, We Must Take Charge. Finn, then: "American education isn't going to fix itself." Williams, now: "If parents aren't willing to take drastic measures for their kids, the status quo will surely prevail." Be warned, though, that those looking for a discussion of what happens inside the classroom will also be disappointed. Like many reformers who are focused on incentives, accountability, and parental choice, Williams appears agnostic when it comes to the big instructional debates (traditional or progressive, content-rich or skills-only, etc.). Perhaps that explains his generally gentle treatment of the Bloomberg-Klein regime in New York City (see here), which has made a lot of progress on structural reform, but has been a disaster on curriculum. Nevertheless, Williams makes an important contribution through his storytelling and his urgent, impatient tone. The world will be a better place if thousands of parents buy this book and heed its message.
by Michael J. Petrilli
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Schools for the Poor
The United Nations' Millennium Development Plan, to provide basic education
for every school-age student in the world by 2015, is failing. Private schools,
says British education analyst James Tooley, could be a significant player in
helping the UN regain lost ground and reach its admirable goal. From Ghana to
Kenya, from India to China, Tooley's report details the large number of
private schools (mostly ignored by government bean-counters) that are already
functioning in impoverished urban slums. The numbers are staggering. In some
poor sections of Hyderabad, India, for example, Tooley estimates that fully
77 percent of children attend school at private institutions. Instead of continuing
to pour money into faltering state systems--money that often doesn't even
find its way to schools or students--Tooley says the UN should channel some
of those dollars to private schools. The UN, of course, is aghast at the notion
of funding private education, which it automatically associates with the elite
and which many member states wish would go away. But the private schools Tooley
examined tend to operate on smaller budgets and in worse conditions than the
local public counterparts, yet they still outperform those government institutions.
Read about it here,
by Michael O'Keefe
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Removing Barriers to Entry in the Teaching Profession
Larry Rosenstock and Jennifer Husbands
The Charter Journal (Not available online)
When High Tech High realized that
its teachers, once exempt from state credentialing requirements, would have
to meet similar standards under No Child Left Behind, the school complied with
the law, albeit in its own way. A top-performing charter in San Diego, HTH took
the bold step of creating its own teacher-training
program instead of simply adopting one of the many offered by the state.
That program launched in August 2004, following a four-year development process
(and bare-knuckled battles with regulators). High Tech High took pains to create
a preparation experience that would truly enlighten and edify its participants.
The program is "embedded in the daily practice" of teachers, and
it integrates onsite training specific to HTH with larger, overarching instruction
that would be applicable in any school. We salute their resourcefulness--and
their doggedness. When faced with what could have been an unpleasant distraction,
the school's leadership thought creatively and turned the accreditation
requirement into a positive addition.
by Liam Julian
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Department seeks a few good researchers
The Department of Education's research branch, the Institute of Education Sciences, will be incomplete until it hires two new Research Scientists: one in Mathematics Learning, Instruction, and Policy, and the other in School Finance, Policy, and Systems Evaluation. Applicants need a doctoral degree or equivalent experience, at least five years spent researching/publishing/reviewing for scientific journals, and U.S. citizenship. For additional information, call 202-219-1385, or surf over to here.
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Kinder Excellence in Teaching award nominations
If doctors and lawyers can make $100,000 a year, why not teachers? That question led Nancy and Rich Kinder to team up with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and offer the $100,000 Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award. This award will go to one outstanding teacher working in an underserved American community. Candidates must work full-time in a K-12 school where at least half of the students qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch. Because KIPP is intimately involved with the award's administration, no teacher who works at a KIPP school in during the 2005-2006 school year will be eligible for the 2006 award. Nominations will be accepted now through December 31, 2005. More information and a nomination form are available here.
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