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Why Denver’s next mayor must be involved in DPS

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

Does it matter what Denver’s next mayor thinks or does about public education?

Does the mayor of Denver have on obligation to work to improve our schools?  To improve the opportunities for our kids—the majority of whom are in the Denver Public Schools?

(I do not believe Mayors Peña, Webb, or Hickenlooper felt any such obligation. So what is different about 2011 that we might answer yes to these questions?)

Or is all the talk by mayoral candidates on reform only that—mere chatter, a token tip of the cap to this issue—or even worse, a distraction from more fundamental issues—like addressing a $100 million budget shortfall—that are the responsibility of the city’s leader?

Big city mayors have connected the struggles of their school districts to the quality of life and future well-being of their communities, and they have chosen to act.

Readers of The Denver Post get a decidedly mixed message.

In his April 26 column, Mike Littwin wrote that schools were one of the major issues in the mayor’s race, but he was quick to remind us, in parenthesis(“over which the mayor has little control”).  Vincent Carroll echoed this when he criticized the mayor’s race, as of May 4, for paying little attention to the city’s most pressing issues. Why? “Maybe the candidates were too concerned with letting us know their views of reform in Denver schools,” he wrote, before adding, “which the mayor doesn’t happen to govern.  It’s time they abandoned that dead-end theme and moved on for good to other issues.” And Joanne Ditmer began her May 27 column with this rebuke: “Sometimes it seems the candidates for mayor of Denver don’t live in the same city that I do.  They talk a lot about education, ignoring that it’s a Board of Education task.”

So should our next mayor use that political clout, or stay on the sidelines?  If the Post itself seems to waver, voters are putting education high on the city’s agenda.  According to the Survey USA poll in early April, the top concerns were: economic issues (31 percent), schools (25 percent), and budget (21 percent) (Post, April 15, poll of 588 likely Denver voters).

It was noteworthy, too, that candidates with the most tepid positions on education—Carol Boigon, Doug Linkhart, and Theresa Spahn—bowed out early and/or only earned single-digit support.  Some of them protested too much, methinks, harping on how they were NOT running for superintendent (as if we weren’t sure).  When they spoke of how the city could “join hands with DPS” and do more “to partner” with the district on recycling programs, for example, many turned away, certain that such tinkering in the margins was outdated—and no match for the challenges facing our schools.

In contrast, all three top vote getters insisted the mayor’s office could and would play a much bigger role.  And although James Mejia seemed nearly as eager to address education as Michael Hancock and Chris Romer, he remained lukewarm enough to win the endorsement of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  Voters favored the two who sounded more certain that reform must go forward.

Here are three reasons we have should expect our mayor to be a strong advocate for significant improvement in our schools:

Leadership. How can one be called the city’s leader and not care about and speak to the unsatisfactory education too many kids experience, or the unsatisfactory results, in our schools?  How can one impose restrictions on the role of a leader—to say he or she must be silent, or quiescent, regarding the quality of education of 70,000 or more students in the city?

I realize some consider Mayors Michael Bloomberg, Richard Daley, and Cory Booker taking on their school system as a power grab, more about control than good schools.  There may be an element of truth in that.  But many of us applaud city leaders who tackle one of their cities’ most profound challenges.  We see mayoral control, not as trespassing on someone else’s turf, but as an act of leadership.  Times change.  Realities sink in.  This is what is different about 2011—in Denver, and across the country.  Big city mayors have connected the struggles of their school districts to the quality of life and future well-being of their communities, and they have chosen to act.

I know too we are not talking about mayoral control in Denver. Yet. Both Michael Hancock and Chris Romer have indicated they do not see today’s situation in DPS calling for such intervention, but neither have ruled it out in the future.  Good.  A useful shot across the bow.  I see leadership here.

Who decided education should always be exclusively the Board of Education’s responsibility?  Lincoln’s words apply, do they not? “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.Why restrict the mayor’s role and his or her voice by insisting on all that city hall cannot do?  I apologize for pulling out the trite phrase, but yes, maybe it does take a village.  It seems odd to sideline city leaders who rightly feel a moral obligation to pull more folks and resources and ideas together to address such a huge problem for the community.  After all, if this is “the civil rights issue of our time,” don’t we need all hands on deck

Taxes.   As a Denver homeowner from 1991 to 2003, my property tax bill often included this note: “58 percent of these taxes are determined by and collected for the Denver Public Schools.”  Residents send the majority of their annual property taxes to the schools.  But throughout that time I never felt the superintendents expressed my views, and seldom heard school board members who spoke for the changes I was rooting for.  It was natural to hope that there were other political, business, and foundation leaders who could challenge the school district’s reluctance (at best) to embrace choice and charters in the 1990’s, to allow more site-based management by principals and schools, to demand more accountability, to rethink its policy of placing teachers in schools.  But those voices were muted, short-lived, or isolated.  Most of my money was passing into or through the 900 Grant Street bureaucracy—about whose stubbornness and stumbles our mayors were remarkably silent.

Denver voters of late have had enough of this.  Perhaps someday soon they will have had enough of the school board itself.  Until then, taxpayers have good reason to ask the person they elect as the city’s leader to actively seek significant improvement of the system—one their tax dollars maintain.

Jobs. When we don’t have a school district we can be proud of, it affects the city’s future, as well as current efforts to interest potential companies to locate here.  The Post’s Jeremy P. Meyer wrote on the mayor’s race and jobs, and quoted the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation’s chief economist, Patty Silverstein.  “Do we have the workforce that they are looking for?” is a central question, she said. Among their considerations: “education spending” and “the performance of public schools (“For Denver’s next mayor, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” Feb. 20). Former Mayor Wellington Webb told the Post that when corporations or high-priced athletes look to relocate, “One of the first things they do is look at the school system. And one of the reasons they locate outside of Denver is because they don’t have to send their kids to DPS” (“Schools near top of syllabus,” April 17).

Neither Romer nor Hancock plans to follow the hands-off approach of their predecessors.  On April 24 Romer told the Post: “ … the education reform profile of the next mayor will determine whether we continue forward or not. There’s just too much evidence that a mayor who looks the other way will allow the process to flip and we just have to be on the ball, which means I will help recruit candidates [for school board, I presume]. I will walk for candidates. I will help fundraise for candidates who share a reform agenda.” (See Vincent Carroll’s wise warnings about the consequences in the school board race.)

Michael Hancock told the Post: “I’ll hold school leaders accountable, and look for efficiencies between the city and DPS, so dollars focus on student achievement” (April 17). Again, there are plenty of folks who wonder if a mayor can really do this.  Given our present structures, isn’t it voters who must hold the school board members they elect accountable, and isn’t it their job, in turn, to hold accountable the superintendent they choose—and through him, DPS as a whole?  Aren’t we inviting too many chefs into the kitchen when we ask the mayor’s office to hold all these folks accountable?

It is a worry, I agree.  And yet the current situation is scary.  We already have Denver’s progress at risk because a board could be at cross-purposes with the district’s priorities.  True, if we add a mayor who is keen to have an influence on public education, the situation could become untenable.  I can imagine a superintendent might feel he or she has one too many “bosses” to report to—and decide the only sane choice is to just walk away.

The bigger worry, however, is that we continue the pattern set during the 21 years I have lived in Colorado—where a school district with enormous challenges and inadequate progress is allowed to trudge along, while the individual we vote as our city leader plays silent observer, or (more condescending) unquestioning backer and defender, of a system that cannot graduate 60% of its students.  That is asking our mayor not to lead, not to take a stand on an issue critical to the well-being of the city and its future.

Tony Lewis, director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, described it well in his look back: “What we have seen to date is mayors saying, ‘I support the superintendent, and I think he is doing a good job.’ But we have a bunch of failing schools. Have you heard a mayor yet say we should close those failing schools? Finally, we have candidates who are saying ‘This does affect the city’” (Post, April 17).

Failing schools surely deserve more attention (see Westword’s damning piece on North High, one of six Denver schools expected to receive $14.4 million in federal funding for turnaround efforts the next three years). The sad truth, though, is that so many schools are struggling.  By its own assessment, of the 132 in the district, the DPS 2010 School Performance Framework determined that nearly one-quarter —32—were Accredited on Priority Watch (18 schools) or Accredited on Probation (14).  Most schools (71) did not Meet Expectations.

So over half of the schools do not meet expectations, meaning—what, 40,000 students are in a school that falls below Denver’s own standards?  And we can’t expect the mayor to help?  I don’t think so.

Popularity: 13% [?]

In reform, we need determination, not hope

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

Have you heard or taken part in a conversation which challenged your optimism, your hope about improving public education?
I bet you have.  Aren’t these questions familiar?

“Don’t you feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall, trying to change the public school system in our country?”

“Can you honestly tell me reform has accomplished anything truly significant in the past twenty-five years in K-12 education?”

“Policy churn–choice, standards, accountability, teacher evaluation, and the next silver bullet— please!  Get real!  In the end, isn’t it all just moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic?”

If, as I suspect, you recognize those questions (perhaps you asked one just like it this morning), and now that big budget cuts invite the inevitable: and please tell me how you expect to do more with less—let’s try a different tack.  I am not sure hope matters.  Not as much as determination.

Change in Egypt:  We’re not moving, no matter how long it takes

Well of course hope matters. We saw hope recently in the folks in the center of Cairo, throughout Egypt.  But above all we saw determination. “We are not going anywhere until Mubarak goes.” They had every reason, after a 30-year dictatorship, not to hope, to fear that speaking up could cost them life or limb.  In spite of this, they were committed to see it through.  It was this determination—as well as their courage—we found so inspiring, and that now inspires many others in that region to protest and rebel, even, tragically, at the cost of their lives.

I am not sure hope matters. Not as much as determination.

Determination strikes me as a different quality, less flighty, less subject to moods, than hope.  It is closer to what made the words of Winston Churchill or Dr. King persuasive, rather than the we-can-win-the-future pep talk that today’s leaders want to sell us.  In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich critiqued this trend, “the American tendency toward mindless optimism.”

At the turn of the twenty-first century, American optimism seemed to reach a manic crescendo. In his final State of Union address in 2000, Bill Clinton struck a triumphal note, proclaiming that “never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” But compared with his successor, Clinton seemed almost morose. George W. Bush had been a cheerleader in prep school, and cheerleading— a distinctly American innovation— could be considered the athletically inclined ancestor of so much of the coaching and “motivating” that has gone into the propagation of positive thinking. He took the presidency as an opportunity to continue in that line of work, defining his job as that of inspiring confidence, dispelling doubts, and pumping up the national spirit of self-congratulation. If he repeatedly laid claim to a single adjective, it was “optimistic.”

Then things began to go wrong, which is not in itself unusual but was a possibility excluded by America’s official belief that things are good and getting better. There was the dot-com bust that began a few months after Clinton’s declaration of unprecedented prosperity in his final State of the Union address, then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001….

Ehrenreich supports her charge that we overlooked “ample warnings about a possible attack by airplane” prior to 9/11 with evidence.  She then finds a similar pattern in our “reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news” regarding the invasion of Iraq, how “vulnerable’’ New Orleans would be to a strong hurricane, and the financial crash of 2008.

Obama, 2012, and Bertolt Brecht

We feel grateful to leaders who raise our spirits and offer the dream of “a shining city on a hill.”  It’s easy to see why.  We honor Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.  Barack Obama now tries to embody that same yes we can spirit—no Jimmy Carter “malaise” speech for this president.  We are told this is how politicians succeed. Be positive. Whoever wins in 2012, pundits cynically assure us, will not do it by speaking the truth about our fiscal crisis and entitlements.  Sell hope. And smile.

We are told this is how politicians succeed. Be positive.

It’s true, Dr. King offered his dream.  But hear again a few words from that great speech: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro…. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” (No quick fix. In that very same year, after all, Alabama Governor George Wallace promised “segregation forever.”)

And recall King’s timeline, those prophetic words in his last speech: “I may not get there with you.”
Consider our frequent reference to education reform as “the civil rights issue” of our time.  But that struggle took centuries: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” while in solitary confinement.  When do we say the civil rights movement began? 1964? 1863? 1776? 1619? Perhaps a cautionary note for our fictional forecasts in education reform: “by 2014 all students will be proficient,” if we just pass this next bill, within a decade we can__________ (fill in the blank with the promise of higher test scores or graduation rates your governor made five or ten years ago, a goal your state hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving).

We must accept that we cannot raise our expectations, or the results, of our schools overnight.  The resistance is deep-seated.  In that “Letter” King responded to clergymen who called his actions “unwise and untimely”; he defended nonviolent protest and criticized “the appalling silence of the good people” and of “white churches (that) stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Sound familiar? In 1984 we were A Nation at Risk. It troubled us a bit, but look, we’re still here, surely that was hyperbole.  So a quarter century later we still tolerate politicians offering trite promises of “excellent schools for all,” even as we shrug at figures telling us that in urban districts close to 40 percent of our students drop out.  Even more troubling, our leaders insist school failure is “a problem” they will “fix” (during their four years in office!), a verb that that so vastly understates the scope of the crisis.

This is one reason I have criticized too much “happy talk,” the Denver Public Schools’ fantasy of achieving an 82 percent graduation rate by 2014, and wishful thinking in Colorado’s Race to the Top proposal: a goal of 85 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

What we need, if we want to rally people around a cause with the moral weight of civil rights, is a grittier truth.  Churchill spoke of the cost, the blood sweat and tears, for little England to stand up to a dictator who had conquered most of Europe.  King spoke not just of changes in the laws, but also in the heart—a more wrenching and profound transformation—where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp– a “grittier truth”

This is the tougher truth I hear from Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp, who exemplify the determination and long-term commitment to reform we desperately need.  Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Brian Williams on NBC on March 9: “This country needs to recognize this is a crisis and we need to take immediate and urgent action or we’re going to lose a whole generation of Americans.”

Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, spoke at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store on March 1 to a standing-room only crowd—many of them TFA folks who see in their classrooms every day why she presses now for “transformational change.” As Kopp puts it, “in the face of a problem of the magnitude and consequences of the one we’re addressing—one where whole communities put more children into prison than into college—there is only one morally acceptable option. Incremental change is not enough” (“Our ‘Chance to Make History,’” Commentary, Education Week, March 16, 2011).

We have to blame ourselves, if as voters—as some tell us—we won’t accept truth-tellers.  If we will not allow harsh facts to shake up our complacency.  Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Pity the country that needs heroes.” In the same way, pity the country that needs leaders to give us hope.  That we must discover for ourselves. I appreciate why it is rare to hear leadership that paints a clear picture for the country, however worrisome, so we stop whiffing on the tough issues. But it looks like a pattern, an irrational compulsion To Pretend, To Be Hopeful—without speaking the truth.

“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle …”

Two of the 20th century’s greatest figures found their own resources to maintain hope, but their message was never cheery.  The facts were obvious: King had seen lawmen unleash dogs and set fire hoses on kids, and crack the heads of those marching across Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge.  For years Churchill sounded the alarm (see While England Slept). Now the Nazi army gathered on the shores of the British channel. The Luftwaffe was overhead.  An invasion seemed imminent.

O.K. you’re right, in comparison, this crisis isn’t as earth-shaking. But if the nation is not at risk, can’t we agree that millions of young lives are at risk?  Boys and girls who are not getting a sound education.  Which has immense consequences, for them, and us.  No mere “problem” to be “fixed.”

And here the Cairo example—if we think “No matter how long it takes” actually means 17 days to bring about a revolution, perfect for our short-attention span—is misleading.  The timeline may, sadly, stretch well into the future.  Many of us who have turned gray in school reform efforts might need to say, with King, “even if I do not get there with you.”  In our case, though, hardly martyrs. Just folks trying, as he implored us, “to continue to work.…” To stay determined.

To effect dramatic improvement in public education, Ehrenreich’s advice might well apply:

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone— better jobs, health care, and so forth—there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets….But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

Popularity: 12% [?]

What Dostoevsky can teach us about unions

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

Some will call this a stretch, but one way to shed light on the reason we have teachers unions is to hear from a great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky; specifically, to look at perhaps the most widely discussed chapter (and most widely excerpted—it was in two anthologies I was assigned freshmen year in college) from The Brothers Karamazov.

I taught this chapter myself when I first offered a Russian literature class to high school juniors and seniors in Vermont.  Great works of art, we believe, are timeless.  Maybe it is not so strange to think these 20 pages might tell us about one of our most troubling issues in K-12 public education in America.

Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.

Like many teachers, I had experiences with the union that disappointed or frustrated me. Observing school reform from inside and outside the classroom, I have criticized the stance taken by teachers’ associations on several issues.  At the same time, I share a conviction that teachers’ views are given short shrift by policymakers and the district office, that class size IS a central factor in teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and that the latest obsession with teacher evaluation could, if badly implemented, do more harm than good.

But post-Tucson, after reminders to be civil and avoid “going negative” and President Obama’s request that we “expand our moral imagination,” I thought it might help to offer a quiet meditation—not a harsh attack—on unions.  It may shed light on why most public schools teachers join the local teachers’ associations.  If this comes close to a truth about the attraction, perhaps it also serves as a warning.

And yet it is an explosive topic.  A too-literal reading of this will assume I am anti-Catholic—or that the teachers union is in league (like the powerful cleric in this chapter) with the devil. Dear reader, it’s about an idea, a view of human nature.  If you don’t see the parallels, I can’t force them on you.  Or maybe, as Ivan Karamazov says to his brother as he concludes his tale, “It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student…”

The Grand Inquisitor

Ivan’s parable, called “The Grand Inquisitor” (Book V, Chapter V in the novel), is set in Seville, Spain, in the sixteenth century—“in the most terrible time of the Inquisition.”  The 90-year-old cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, sees that Christ has returned and begins to win a new following, and so has him taken prisoner.  The old man visits Jesus in his prison cell and tells Him how he and the Church have “corrected” His fundamental error—made 1500 years earlier.

Download “The Grand Inquisitor” for a variety of reading platforms.

In essence, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that He wanted human beings to be free—to choose to follow Him or not.  But this places too great a burden on them.  Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.  So in Ivan’s astonishing version of history, the Catholic Church has invited people to submit—to the Church, not to Christ—to secure some degree of happiness.  It has “saved” them, it protects them, from the suffering inevitable for those who live as free men and women.  Because His way would reverse everything the church is now all about, the Grand Inquisitor threatens to burn Christ the next day “as the worst of heretics”—a second crucifixion.

“For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good … let me tell Thee now, today, the people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet… I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born…”

“Thou didst think too highly of men…. So we have corrected Thy work…. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.”

According to Lionel Trilling, “no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern consciousness or has seemed so relevant to virtually any speculation about the destiny of man.”  Trilling, one of America’s greatest literary critics, says

“The Grand Inquisitor” is prophetic of the 20th century totalitarian state exercising “control over the actions of its citizens,” attempting “to win their acquiescence and attachment by providing (or promising) material and social benefits that will relieve them of care and anxiety.  It represents itself in a paternal guide, as taking responsibility for the well-being of its people, on condition that they delegate—actually surrender—to the government their will and initiative.”

School life

This teacher wondered why intelligent, thoughtful colleagues could turn to the union—could immediately think, “file a grievance!”—when so many options (like a rational conversation, or an open debate, with the administration) seemed possible.  I wondered why colleagues submitted to group-think and turned on a colleague I admired—who crossed the picket line that fall we went on strike.  Or why colleagues were so intent on keeping the new administration in check—running battles, it seemed, to test who was in charge (them or us); to make mountains out of molehills in order to keep the union’s power in tact—or as leverage for the next contract negotiation.  The union I saw gave voice to a few, yes—our union representatives—but it was striking how many teachers merely echoed their leaders’ complaints.

The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher. “United we stand,” I guess

The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher.  “United we stand,” I guess; no individual educator can influence an election or a piece of legislation, union money and lobbyists can.  But as the teachers union seldom expressed my views, I saw I would actually be surrendering my voice.  When teaching that Russian literature class in the fall of 1980—including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn—I picked up the Vermont Education Association’s material and was told VEA members should vote to re-elect Jimmy Carter.  Solzhenitsyn was in exile two hours away, in Vermont, for speaking up to a totalitarian state. The Soviet army was in Afghanistan; President Carter seemed surprised that the Kremlin could be so wicked. In contrast, Ronald Reagan understood the invasion as part of a pattern over the past 60 years—of an evil empire.

It is not that my vote for Reagan that November felt right.  But it mattered to me then, as it matters to many of us in the teaching profession, that we find our own voice.

Need for protection, or “the gift of freedom”?

My conflicts with principals surely made me wonder if I had colleagues who would stand up with me.  I wanted their respect.  What I did not want was their protection, or a structure that turned a difference of opinion into a labor-management issue.  Yes, a reprimand from the administration made me unhappy.  One winter I felt compelled to sign a piece of paper promising the administration I would never bring up the subject of the daily schedule—for two years I had questioned the block schedule—as long as I was on the staff.  Humiliating.

Another principal hurt my pride by coming into my classroom, as I taught, to inspect “the lesson plans that need to be on your desk.” It was my 15th year as a teacher, but it felt as if I were in year one, as if I needed to fear her judgment to try hard to be prepared each morning.

Many uneasy moments.  But there was always a choice.  Speak up; perhaps go too far and get fired; compromise; or resign.  It was up to me.  And I could live with that.  Not easily.  But you sign an at will contract—as I did most of my 18 years of teaching—and accept it.

Ivan’s parable is cynical to some, but it gives us one way to understand why so many teachers join and stay.  Is it a factor why most teachers prefer the safety of the union’s hold?  Does it explain union opposition, time after time, to reforms leading to more freedom—schools granted waivers to control their personnel decisions; more flexibility on employee work rules—expectations that go past 3:30, even on to Saturday, and beyond the 175-day contract; teachers allowed to skip much of the required coursework through the alternative license program?  Too much freedom!

The union’s grumbling resistance brings to mind the old folks in Footloose. Rock music? Dancing?  “No, no, no, that’s not a good idea.” Frightened of this new freedom.  Fearing a loss of control.

“All he wanted to do was dance”

I won’t say I am proud of leaving six teaching jobs.  Stability and continuity have their place.  And I would never argue a school community is well served by a principal who is allowed to mistreat his or her faculty.  It feels awful to be silenced by a principal.  But you can resign.

We all want to work in a healthy work environment.  I found the best—and the worst—climates in private and charter schools with no union “to protect my job.”  My conclusion?  That’s life.  “The gift of freedom” includes risks.  This is news?

When I started at a new school and struggled in my first month with the principal’s micromanagement, a friend said: caveat emptor (as if it were my fault I hadn’t seen these tendencies before I took the job).  But when you “buy” into a school there is much hidden from view; less benign patterns only come to light once you join the team and show up every day.  Again, c’est la guerre.

We’re big boys and girls, I want to say to the union; we can fight our own battles, thank you.  Your “security” does not make me more free.  Just the opposite.  Like most everyone, I always wanted a school community where I felt I belonged.  A few times I found it.  No need, from my experience, to seek that belonging—that safe haven—in a union whose beliefs I do not share.

Popularity: 17% [?]

Hire well, then trust your teachers

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

I split my 18-years of teaching between public and private schools (three schools and close to nine years in both “worlds”). Twenty years ago I had the chance to support and study the 1990 alternative licensure law in Colorado that welcomed new folks into the teaching profession, often without taking the usual education courses; this more flexible process felt similar to the way many of us had been hired in our first jobs in private schools.  I hoped it would be one of many approaches that had worked well for independent schools and that might be adopted by public education.

In Another View #68, “A skeptic on SB 191 takes a closer look” (Sept. 26, 2010), I raised a few concerns about the new law.  Here are two more, in which I put on my private school hat—and ask those hammering out the details of and implementing the Educator Effectiveness legislation, please keep these points in mind.

And to assure you this is more than theoretical, I know an incredibly talented young public school teacher who might move to a private school next year.  So that this teacher continues to work with young people, I celebrate such a change.  However, it will be public education’s loss.  I ask that we keep such gifted educators in mind as we take our next steps to put SB 191 in place.

We want public education to attract wonderful teachers.  Ask a number of terrific teachers in private schools if they would consider switching.  In most cases the pay in public schools is greater.  But in my experience a far majority who have found a good place to teach would not be tempted.  Yes, you’ll often hear: I don’t want that kind of class size or teacher-load, or the frequent discipline issues I hear about.  It would keep me from being the teacher I want to be. I am aware this can seem snooty, even a bit selfish.  You might say you have little patience for such an attitude.  OK, but it goes further.  Please bear with me.

Private school teachers will also say they enjoy the freedom to develop and teach the curriculum that they think best serves their students, without interference from the state, or the district—or from their own principal, who feels so pressured by test scores that the school begins to lose its way, to forget its mission.

In fact, a large percentage of independent school educators are devoted to their school in large part because of their belief in its mission—which will not change with a new governor, legislature, or superintendent.  And they are glad to be in a school environment where families and students are there by choice.  It is hard to overstate the many intangible benefits this produces.

OK, you say, but what does this have to do with SB 191?  How would implementing this bill affect a 22-year-old’s decision about whether to seek work in a public or private school?

Hiring

If Colorado fails to implement SB 191 wisely, I believe it will be one more roadblock to attracting bright, committed folks to teach in public schools.

The new attention given to teacher evaluation may put the cart before the horse.  Improving who enters the profession will pay far more dividends down the road than how we evaluate that six or fifteen-year veteran.  If we want people with the intellect, skills, and values that will make a powerful difference for students for many years to come, we need to expand—not tighten—the alternative licensure path, and we need schools of education to undergo huge changes—or go out of business.

The bright, motivated learner who has succeeded in some of our strongest liberal arts school entering the classroom through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project will certainly need mentoring and evaluation.  But who he or she is as a person at age 22 is ultimately more important than what checklist an administrator uses to see if a teacher is doing the job.

“How do we attract the best teachers?” That was the question posed by David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, to Bruce Stewart, former head of Sidwell Friends (the private school the Obama children attend in Washington), when NBC devoted a week to education reform issues last fall.  Can we bring “the best and the brightest” into teaching?  Stewart’s response:

“When I began teaching in the ’60s, we had that population of people.  And since then, because greater opportunities have opened up for young women and for minorities, there’s been a great brain drain from American schools.  I think we want to get those people back. If you look at Singapore, look at Finland, the reason they consistently are testing their population of students in the top levels of international exams, it’s the quality of their teaching force.  They all come from the top third of their colleges, universities.  In the United States, our tendency today is to have that pool of teachers coming from the bottom third of college and universities and from the bottom third of those classes.  That’s something we need to reverse and to change.”

I never minded the extensive application process at a good private school, which in one case—once I was one of their final candidates—included coming for a day, teaching a class, visiting other classes, meeting with the principal, dean, and department chair, having lunch with potential colleagues—being sized up by everybody, it seemed.  Quite a number of folks had read my file, had specific questions to ask about my past teaching; it was clear the school had talked with previous principals and employers.  I respected the time and care that went into the process.  This was the judgment stage, the critical determination if I was likely to be a good teacher in this setting, a good member of their team.

Once hired, there was a level of trust and respect that told me: you’re one of us. Yes, I was observed and evaluated.  It was not a job forever—I wasn’t vetted for a life-time job on the Supreme Court!  But I never felt that the real “judgment stage” had now begun.

Once SB 191 is in place, will teachers entering our public schools be given this vote of confidence?  Or will it seem that the evaluation process is based on mistrust—we really aren’t sure about you, we can’t assume we have hired well, so we now need to supervise and micromanage in a way that –well, sorry if you find this demeaning, but this is what the law demands!

Please forgive the analogy to the automobile industry—two weeks after I wrote how upsetting it is to be treated like we’re on an assembly line and we can be MORE PRODUCTIVE if we have LARGER CLASSES!  But take Toyota and the huge expense and damage to its reputation with all the recalls this past year.  The “new” Toyota insists it will care about “quality control” from day one.  It sure would seem cost effective!

In education, it would be a step backwards if we start with the assumption that our teacher training programs produce a defective product, and therefore we aren’t sure we want this “car” on the road.  (Yes, this introduces legitimate questions about our schools of education and teacher preparation—but that is a separate issue.)  Won’t it be less costly, and more responsible, to hire—in two stages: first, with great care, but then, with real confidence in the new person we bring in–ready to roll?

A warning then.  Let’s not create a system that assumes we hire with considerable indifference and then get serious about measuring if we have good folks in our classrooms.  We will not attract good new teachers to public education if our first message is: we do not trust you!

Cheer them on!

Another reason for my skepticism about this latest obsession with teacher evaluations: In the debate about teaching as a career some are “born” into versus one where you can learn the craft, I lean to the former.  Not a popular view if you think we should focus on “Building a Better Teacher,” to borrow a headline from last spring’s New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2010).  And sure, we do need to take the teachers we have and provide them with strong professional development, new tools and technology, and evaluations that reveal their shortcomings and new ways to better meet their students’ needs.

And yet many veteran educators like me would say we have known when some people “had it”—and when some did not.  Those who, in my view, were “born to teach,” who “had a gift,” were not perfect.  Though not universally loved, they were highly respected.  On a scale of 1-10, they were 9’s and 10’s.  And such men and women were probably there by year 2 or 3 in their careers.

I am thinking of teachers like Jane, Jim, Louise, John, Jack (colleagues, English teachers), Mike (history, fellow baseball coach), another Jane.  I think of Kathleen, today a celebrated master teacher, but when she began, 15 years my junior, I sensed she was already a better teacher than I was at age 37.  And here in Colorado, I think of many more, including C. and E. and L. and J.

And M, 30 years my junior, also “born” to teach, embodying all the kindness, humor, intellect, passion, and curiosity one could ask for, along with the right degree of goofiness to click well with middle schools students.  Several good friends too –and you know who you are.  10’s.  Among the best in the profession.

I doubt teacher evaluations would have helped them.  Yes, such teachers could help others, and often did—or will.  But it would be my hope that exceptional folks like them, who early in their careers demonstrate a special talent, should be rewarded with the appropriate trust and autonomy (which many will insist are bigger incentives than another $10,000).  In direct contrast to the recent push to monitor and supervise and judge, I say:  Let them close their door! Ask them what they need so the profession, or at least public education, does not lose them.  Don’t swamp them with unneeded observations.

I overstate. Yes, of course, keep that door open in another way: administrators and colleagues should visit and enjoy their classes; what they see will assure them, or remind them, of what their students are capable of when focused and challenged.  Learn what works from these teachers.  Visitors should follow up with meaningful conversations about what they saw; any good teacher is thirsty for another pair of eyes.  (I emphasize conversation, as opposed to my recent experience: an email from the administrator who sat in the back and took notes, and merely related what she observed.)

In such discussions no doubt our best teachers will be more self-critical than self-congratulatory, disappointed that they did not do more to compliment the soft-spoken student who made a rare contribution, that the conversation did not go deeper, or that those two students seemed to tune out for five minutes.  Two-way discussions, where the gifted teacher asks what the visitor saw, eager to hear another adult’s perspective on L’s focus, if B’s whisperings to his buddy seemed related to the task at hand, if that group of three in back was paying attention—and how else the brief disruption by K could have been handled. Still learning.  Teachers of this caliber are proud of their classes and are glad to open their doors; they chew over visitors’ comments—and use them to improve.

But it is not clear this is what SB 191 has in mind.  We must not create a system that is condescending to these folks.  I hope we see how petty it can feel, for our very best, to have the observer note “needs improvement” on item 24g from a three-page checklist of “skills to demonstrate.”

Nine of the 17 teachers I mentioned above were or are in private schools.  Fellows like Jack and Mike found a home and stayed 40 years at Emma Willard and Rice Memorial, respectively.  The many administrators who came and went over those years must have known their good fortune to have such educators on their staff.  The trust and respect Jack and Mike received surely played a role in their saying: I can teach here. I can have a good life here. I will stay.

As we look ahead 40 years, we’d like such terrific teachers to enter and stay in public education. Let’s make sure we don’t turn better teacher evaluation into unneeded exercises of micromanagement based on mistrust.  For if we do, we might drive a number of today’s best young teachers away—and off to teach in private schools.

Popularity: 13% [?]

Anger, blindness – and grading schools

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

“Do you see this? … Look there, look there!” King Lear, Act V, scene III

Last Thursday’s “Montbello vote stirs up passions” (Denver Post) ended with these paragraphs. It quoted from opponents of the turnaround plan, who referred to previous district efforts at Manual and North High.

“Where is justice?” said Ed Augden, who said the reforms of the past have left students of color in worse positions.

But Stacie Gilmore, co-chairwoman of the Far Northeast Community Committee that has been meeting since April on how to remake the schools, said the community needs to put the vitriol behind.

I would appreciate through this process going forward that we could really come together,” she said. “When there is so much fear and anger around an issue, it usually means here is a lot of hurt and pain. We need to start to heal as a community, as a city and as a people.”

During the Thanksgiving and Holiday seasons this English teacher often asked his 7th and 8th graders to write an essay on their values.  A time of year when we are more reflective, perhaps, of deeper hopes and beliefs.  This fall I ask myself to take on that assignment.

My themes are anger and blindness.  And there’s a suggestion, if it helps us to see.

Anger

First: Anger. Vitriol. Fear.  When there is outrage at efforts to make major changes in a school community, Denver’s Far Northeast, it is puzzling.  Puzzling because, according to the district’s 2010 School Performance Framework, 12 out of 16 schools there are either Accredited on Watch, Accredited on  Priority Watch, or Accredited on Probation. Puzzling because most of these 16 were among the 69 schools DPS rated as not “meeting expectations” in 2009 as well—and it’s been the case for too long.  Resisting change—when it is so necessary?  Isn’t this defending the indefensible?

An outsider to the community probably cannot understand.  An outsider without ties to the local schools—no friends and family who work there, no history with parents and grandparents attending those schools, no years of hearing “downtown” propose “solutions” that made little difference—and hence years (generations?) of mistrust that can’t be overcome even by a diligent effort to get community input—an outsider can try to empathize, but no, I can’t step inside the shoes of those in the Far Northeast community who feel they have not been heard.

Those close to the community tell me: “You have the legacy of so many failed reforms. Why believe this will be any better?” And as schools are often “a central crossroads” for the neighborhood, it is more than the school—it is the fabric of our community “they” are breaking up when decisions are made to turnaround and transform schools. And it’s not just 900 Grant Street.  They remind me of the suspicion and upset that comes from a history of feeling betrayed by top-down decisions from government agencies; by seeing your neighborhood transformed—in places gentrified; by a loss of the community you and your family have called home for decades.  They tell me it becomes “territorial, you and me versus them.”

Maybe it’s a bridge too far; maybe too many of us cannot connect with this anger, this mistrust.  And yet we must try.

But there is another kind of anger.  Like that also expressed Thursday night by Gregory Hatcher, a recent graduate of Denver School of Science and Technology: “There are too many students failing in the Far Northeast, and it’s not fair. It’s an injustice.”  Yes, where is justice, when year after year school achievement shows little improvement?  When so many drop out? When the results, for kids, are tragic?

Blindness

Second: We seek truth, but are often blind. Part of the tragedy of being human—an idea explored in western literature as far back as Oedipus Rex, on to King Lear, and one that continues to underlie our most enduring works of fiction.  In Oedipus the king uncovers the truth, which is so damning he blinds himself.  In Lear the blindness is first the King’s inability to see the truth and the lies in his daughters’ words, and a blindness to himself (as one deceitful daughter says, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself”); later the blindness is more literal, the gruesome moment in which Cornwall gouges out the eyes of Gloucester, who has also failed to see treachery in one son, devotion in the other.

The dramas build towards a painful realization of the truth, new “sight”—too late to change the fate of our main characters—but in time perhaps to offer them some redemption.

If self-deception and a refusal to accept the truth seems part of the universal condition, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it evident in debates about the economy, government entitlements, Iraq and Afghanistan, and –naturally—in K-12 education and how we look at our schools.

It would be arrogant to tell parents: You don’t see the truth about your son or daughter’s school.  But a question asked by DPS school board member Theresa Peña this past fall has stayed with me.  Ray Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles school district, was visiting Denver. Peña asked him about the challenge of finding parents more upset about schools being told to turnaround than about the ongoing low performance of their schools.

That’s my paraphrase of her concern. I sensed frustration in her voice: Where is the outrage, she seemed to imply, when the school in your community is consistently showing poor achievement and growth? Many of us wonder too: Why doesn’t that bring out local protest—rather than efforts by the district (and state and federal government) to say, “No more!”  To set up a process that compels low-performing schools to undergo major change—or to close.

Parents and community members (and teachers) might respond: what “truth” are you talking about, when you tell me our school is failing?  A truth based on state assessments? Based on data fed into a computer, a School Performance Framework (SPF) rating that knows nothing of the intangibles—the care, devotion, and tremendous effort we see in our school’s faculty day after day?  That fails to capture the marked improvement, the new climate we feel when we enter the school building these days….?

I hope it is not unfair to say, though, that this may be where emotion, loyalty, friendship—even familiarity–can blind us.  I would never say the whole truth was there in the 72-page power point presentation by the Far Northeast Community Committee, the “Proposed FNE Scenario,” given on Sept. 28, 2010, at Noel Middle School. (See just one small part of that presentation, page 5).  I would never say the all the facts can be found in CSAP tests, or the shocking rate of Montbello graduates unable to enter college without needing remedial classes, or the SPF rating.  But put them all together and they tell us something important, yes?  Add a different formula from the state—with similar results, putting 44 Denver schools in its lowest category, requiring a Turnaround Plan—and at some point we need to admit that the evidence is overwhelming.  We are fooling ourselves to defend the status quo.

Rating schools – what would help parents?

In response to Theresa Peña’s question, Los Angeles superintendent Cortines sounded sympathetic, but could only stress how vital it is to provide good information to parents.   Make sure families have the needed facts.  Colorado and DPS have made good progress here.  And yet, in spite of all the data, how can we still be in denial?  When one looks at the facts on page 5 from the FNCC about those six schools, how can a number of parents and community members join teachers to fight to maintain the current structures?  Which leads some to ask: in our goal of transparency, is it now all too complex – over 20 columns on Denver’s School Performance Framework? Is it possible to have TOO MUCH INFORMATION?

So now, one more question:  why not use all the information—and then give each school a letter grade?

Prior to the 2000 legislature Gov. Bill Owens presented his agenda of public education reform. I took issue with his plan to grade schools. In Another View #11 (Dec. 14, 1999) I wrote of the 15-30 page reports that I had helped work on for six schools as a member of an external team of 5-7 educators, after two–day visits. Even after submitting a report that detailed, our team would have said:

“… it is only a preliminary drawing, not a full portrait.  The comments are offered with a degree of  modesty that most educators consider respectful and appropriate.

“This is why I cannot fathom how outsiders who have never even been into the building would have the gall to grade a school community based on data and paperwork.  It is not respectful.  I find it exceedingly presumptuous.  I hope the state does not head down this road.

“On the other hand, I realize that the intent is not simply to give a school a B or a D.  The governor stated that the report card ‘will equip parents with the knowledge they need to make an informed decision as to which school is best for their child.’  This element I endorse wholeheartedly.”

For most of the past decade—many of them teaching in schools classified as Excellent or High on the state’s accountability reports—I would have held to that position.  I knew folks working as hard or harder, more gifted than me in reaching struggling students, in schools rated Low or Unsatisfactory.  If we were grading schools, these might have been labeled D’s and F’s—and that felt wrong.  The difference?  Not much, I suppose. Maybe it just seemed too harsh.

And yet now I hear the other side of the argument—and it seems time we consider it. Proving the Possible – A case study of Florida’s K-12 education reforms and lessons for Colorado (Oct. 2010), the recent report by Colorado Succeeds, recommends we borrow several practices from the sunshine state.  Among them:

“improve the Colorado Growth Model by replacing fuzzy school descriptors of Performance,    Improvement, Priority Improvement, and Turnaround with the letter grades A, B, C, D, and F ….An opportunity exists to more clearly and accurately label schools.  Parents can much more easily      understand grades, which convey a ranking scale in a way that a collection of descriptors will not. Many parents may not be too concerned if their child is going to an ‘improvement’ school; however, they will likely not be satisfied with a school that has earned a grade of C.”

Last spring the Arizona legislature passed SB 1286, which, according to Gov. Jan Brewer, “took an important step by changing the way schools are labeled.  We eliminated the ‘fuzzy labels’ of ‘Performing and Performing Plus’ and changed them to ‘A, B, C, D, and F’.”

And a number of other states just elected governors who plan to follow Florida and Arizona in making a similar change (see below).

If this were 1999 and we graded schools exclusively on CSAP achievement scores, I would still oppose this idea.  Or even 2008 when we were limited to CSAP, ACT, and growth scores. Kudos to Rich Wenning, associate commissioner at CDE, who has had a hand in how both the state and DPS have developed ways to include growth and a wide range of factors in assessing schools—for high schools even including college readiness.  Many now see the ratings as quite comprehensive, and—in great part—fair.

Is it nicer to call a school Accredited on Probation than to say it’s an F school? Sure. Does it oversimplify? Yes.  But is it helping parents? Is it communicating the appropriate urgency? Is it possible we have been more considerate of teachers, who will find a school grade discouraging, even humiliating, than of families—who want to make the best choices for their children?  Would we be less blind, less complacent, if we said that—by my count—this year Denver parents are sending about 10,000 students to schools Accredited on Probation, and instead we told them their child’s school received a grade of F?

Would it help us to see—and to act?  I am not sure.  But it seems a debate we should welcome.

The tragedy for Oedipus and Lear—for all of us—is when we see, too late to change.  The tragedy for many of our kids will be our fault, if we fail to open our eyes in time to improve their schools.

FNE Schools – School Performance Framework (SPF)

FNE Schools

SPF – Overall

07-08   08-09   09-10

Rationale (for Turnaround)

Green Valley 27% 32% 35% Consistent low performance, bottom 10% of all schools
McGlone 30% 33% 33% Consistent low performance, bottom 10% of all schools
Oakland 31% 29% 26% Declining performance last 3 years, 2nd lowest rated school in FNE
Ford 42% 35% 25% Declining performance last 3 years, lowest rated school in FNE
Noel 24% 30% 27% 2nd lowest rated middle school in the city
Montbello 45% 41% 35% Lowest rated comprehensive high school in the city. Graduation rate is only 59% and for every 100 students who enter as freshmen, only 4 go on to graduate and go to college without requiring remediation.

From presentation by the Far Northeast Community Committee at Noel Middle School, Sept. 28, 2010.

Part of a 72-page Power Point presentation.  Produced by A+ Denver and Denver Public Schools.

Grading schools – Governors and other states

Studying the education positions of gubernatorial candidates across the country earlier this fall, I heard at least half a dozen candidates—from both parties—support the idea of grading schools.  Here are statements from three recently elected governors, who are likely to bring this idea to their legislatures.

Pennsylvania: Gov.-elect Tom Corbett has called for “the General Assembly to develop a school grading       system to better explain educational success and identify those schools that are in need of the most assistance. A grading system is recognizable and allows families to become more involved in the education of their children through a system that readily explains the quality of education and educational opportunities their children are receiving. Parents often can ‘trigger’ a turnaround in low-performing schools and can continue to push high-achieving schools to do better. To calculate grades – A, B, C, D, and F – the school grading system would be based on student performance on state assessments and other objective measures of student achievement, including proficiency rates, learning gains, closing achievement gaps, graduation rates, accelerated coursework and college and workforce readiness.”

New Mexico: Gov.-elect Susanna Martinez’s education platform stated: “The Legislative Finance Committee currently grades the Public Education Department on several performance standards, but parents, students, and teachers have no easy format to understand the performance of individual schools throughout the state. We should adopt an easy to understand, easy to implement system of grading our schools based on the traditional school grading format. Schools will be assigned letter grades of A,B,C,D, or F and these grades will be posted to an easily accessible website for parents, students, and teachers to access, which will help to increase performance in our schools as well as increasing transparency in our school system. We can only take steps to correct failure if we first identify it, and reward success if we measure it.”

Nevada: Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval’s education position during the campaign included this goal:

Grade Schools Like We Grade Students

“Brian believes parents have a right to know how their schools are performing. Therefore, Brian will implement a simple, effective school accountability process that does two things:

■ Assigns a letter grade (A, B, C, D or F) to indicate school achievement; and

■ Evaluates student growth as well as proficiency scores for a more complete picture.

In high schools, the grade will include graduation and remediation rate progress.

Brian’s accountability model will include financial incentives for schools that earn an “A” grade and schools that move up two letter grades in any one year. Incentives will be paid directly to the school, to be allocated by a site-based committee of school personnel and parents, for instructional supplies or programs. … failing administrators will not be allowed to continue. If a school receives a failing grade, the school administration will be issued a warning. If a school receives failing grades in consecutive years, school administrators will be dismissed and replaced. Period. No more delays. No more excuses.”

And next door, in Utah, we hear “State ed leaders to consider grading schools”(Lisa Schencker, The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 5, 2010). “Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, plans to sponsor a bill to hold schools accountable by giving them A-F grades.  (Now) State Superintendent Larry Shumway said Friday his office is also working on a rule to grade Utah schools based at least partly on academic performance. ‘It’s probably something that’s coming anyway,’ Shumway told state Board of Education members Friday, acknowledging that most educators would probably prefer not to assign letter grades to schools. ‘I would just as soon see you all involved in making the rule rather than less connected people further from the schools than you are.’”

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Rethinking large urban middle schools

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr. is a veteran educator. This is the latest installment of his newsletter, “Another View.”

From Waiting for “Superman”:

After noting that many kids slip from being B students in fifth grade to C students in 6th and then D students in 7thgrade, Geoffrey Canada asks: “Either kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system.”

Here is one way to see how Canada’s point applies to us in Colorado.  Take a look at the declining percentage of African American and Hispanic students from this year’s junior class who scored at the proficient or advanced level, from 2005 to 2010.  Where were they back in fifth grade—prior to middle school—and where were they last spring, as tenth graders? Troubling, agreed?

Declining percentage of minority students scoring proficient or advanced on CSAP – Class of 2012

Black students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 53 54 47 50 50 48
Writing 42 42 43 36 33 30
Math 43 36 28 26 16 12
Hispanic students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 46 46 41 45 45 47*
Writing 35 37 39 30 28 24
Math 42 35 28 25 15 12

*This reading score—sadly still under 50%—was the only case where the 10th grade score was better than the 5th grade score, from 46 to 47 over five years. And just to be even more glum, as we know that a number of low-performing African American and Hispanic students drop out as freshmen or sophomores, what if they had stayed to take the test in 10thgrade? The scores for these groups would likely be even lower.  Even more cause for alarm.

The trend for all of Colorado’s students, regardless of race, is almost as disturbing. Especially in math.

Click here to read the full newsletter.

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For teachers: Words of encouragement

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

The teacher begins another year in the classroom.  Full of hope.

If this is you, perhaps these words and examples might strengthen your will, your resolve.

From The Denver Post, Nov. 19, 2006  – article by Jenny Deam:

Deam quotes Stephanie Rossi, Wheat Ridge High School. We have a responsibility to the public, taxpayers, parents, our principal, our colleagues. But here Rossi speaks for many of us.

She “knows many see hers as a profession under siege.  Nearly half of all new teachers leave within five years, citing low pay, poor working conditions and the drumbeat of failure if test scores don’t rise. ‘I could react that way,’ Rossi says sympathetically. ‘But if I gave in to the pressure, the fear, it would paralyze me in the classroom. My responsibility is to the kids. They are who get my energy.’”

“What we leave behind is not engraved in some monument but woven into the lives of others.” — Pericles

From The Denver Post, April 1, 2007 – article by David Milofsky:

Milofsky quotes T.C. Boyle, a writer, who continues to teach creative writing classes and workshops. Boyle said he was of two minds about the benefits of creative writing programs, aware that they do not work for a number of would-be writers.  But then he speaks for many of us, on the potential we see in a number of our students, which lifts our spirits and keeps us going:  “Given the right situation, a young writer can get what he needs to go on. I’m always amazed at the great well of talent out there, which is why I continue to teach.”

From The College (Fall 2007), St. John’s College (The Great Books Program):

Just as Boyle speaks of being struck by the talent in his students, Thomas Slakey, tutor emeritus at St. John’s, speaks for many teachers in commenting on how much students give back, how we too TAKE from the good discussions. (The job is NOT entirely selfless!) A reminder too of the rewards (and the value) of listening.  “The thing St. John’s really does, and does well, is help people learn to read well, to pay attention to what a text says one book at a time. That’s the thing that makes teaching there so pleasant, reading and learning from the students.”

“The heart that giveth, gathers.” –  English proverb

From The College (Fall 2007), St, John’s College:

Eric Salem, another St. John’s tutor, captures our challenge in preparing for classes where the readings can be intimidating, humbling; it is part of what makes getting ready for class both exciting and exhausting.  Salem says “the best thing about being a tutor at St. John’s ‘is that you’re always in the presence of things that are really great.’ The worst thing about being a tutor? Exactly the same thing.

“You’re in the presence of things that are great, but there’s always a strain,” Salem says. “You never feel as if you can stop and say, ‘Ah, I’m ready for this class.’ There is always more to think about. You always have to try not just to get hold of what’s going on in the book, but also to be open to what everyone else is saying, to respond to the best things in what people are saying–it’s hard work.”

“What greater or better gift can we offer than to teach and instruct our youth?” — Cicero

From the National Council of Teachers of English magazine, Nov. 2007:

Jonathan Kozol, author and teacher – article, “Bearing Witness,” by Deb Aronson.

“… teachers themselves have always been Kozol’s heroes. He admires them, he encourages them, and he celebrates them.

“His most recent book, Letters to a Young Teacher (2007), is a collection of correspondence between him and one such soldier, Francesca, a young teacher whose classroom he visited almost weekly throughout one year.  Although in this book Kozol continues to point out the deep inequities and just plain meanness inflicted on the poor through the public school system, Letters also contains a generous dollop of glee and optimism, which helps remind teachers everywhere why they took up this challenge.”

“It’s the first genuinely cheerful book I’ve ever written,” says Kozol. “This book is written as an invitation to a challenging but beautiful profession.”

He goes on: “There are hundreds of thousands of young, incandescent people like Francesca coming out of universities now who want to teach in inner schools. I meet them everywhere I go. They ask me, ‘can you help me find a job in an inner city school?’ Because they believe the front lines of democracy are there.”

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

From the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education:

“The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated. For it will then be seen as something reasonable and worthy of being lived, something concrete and realizable.”

From The Rocky Mountain News, May 31, 2008

John Temple, editor, on teachers like Will Taylor at East High School:

“What amazes me about the teachers I’ve come to admire during the past few years is how, with each class, they take the students in.  They embrace them as family, and they let them go. Then they do it again…. In my daughter’s case, I saw how a single teacher made a group of headstrong teens see that they could be something greater working together than if they sought the limelight for themselves…. I hope that each student can be exposed to at least one adult like Will Taylor, the choir teacher at East, who shows his students that not only can they create beauty but that they are capable of so much more than they ever could have imagined.”

“Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” — Leo Tolstoy

From “like captured butterflies,” in America and the Americans, collected essays by John Steinbeck:

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there as few as there are any other great artists.  It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

He writes of the three teachers who meant the most to him, who “had these things in common—They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell—they catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and very precious.”

Steinbeck writes: “I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts but only three who created in me a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger.” One of them was his high school teacher, who “breathed curiosity into us so that we brought in facts or truths shielded in our hands like captured fireflies…. I suppose to that extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher.”

The teacher begins another year in the classroom.  Full of hope.

Popularity: 54% [?]

Responding to Ravitch

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Publisher’s note: Educator Peter Huidekoper produces Another View, a newsletter he pens when not overwhelmed by the demands of teaching. This is his latest effort.

One must pay attention when a book on education—yes, education!—garners so much talk it is likely to influence policy.  Or it certainly hopes to. This reader finds Diane Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” both fascinating and disappointing.

It is fascinating to follow her review of education reform in America over the past twenty years—and to compare and contrast her look at standards, choice, and accountability, and the work of foundations, with what I have seen in Colorado over this time.  But it is disappointing to see how inaccurate and unfair she can be in her critique.

I admire many sections of the book.  I’d love to quote entire paragraphs on too much dependence on multiple choice tests and on her vision of good schools with a rich and rigorous curriculum.

But given the largely positive press she has received, including two reviews in The New York Times, I will focus on what I find unsatisfying. For I would be sorry to see her account go unchallenged. If you accept her position—get off the charter school bandwagon! Teach for America is no answer! tell those market-based foundations to take a hike!—you too might want to join the members of the National Education Association who gave Ravitch a standing ovation after she spoke at their convention (July 6).  Reformers have to ask themselves tough questions, and I’m glad she poses them. Why indeed so little progress? But praise her stance as “completely logical”? No.

The subtitle of her book, “How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” gives me the first topic; then I will address two others: new teachers and the curriculum.

1. Choice and Charters

Ravitch fails to show how choice harms public schools in part because, for a highly respected scholar, she proves surprisingly inaccurate in defining her terms.  Her definition of charters is a slippery one, and grows increasingly far removed from the truth. She first says they “were considered public schools under private management” (ch. 7–“Choice: The Story of an Idea,” 121).

She then says “private managers” and “private firms” operate many of these schools.  A page later she acknowledges charters can be managed by “a local community group,” which is most common in Colorado.  (Only a minority of Colorado’s 153 charters have a “contract with an outside company or agency” according to an email I received from Kelly Grable, Colorado League of Charter Schools, July 15. Fewer than 20 of our schools contract with for profit companies.)

But in this chapter—and in recent statements and speeches—she harps on the theme that charters are part of a movement to “privatize public education.” By the end of this chapter, she says charters now “are supposed to disseminate the free-market model of competition and choice” (146).

In a recent interview on “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez she went further:

(The Obama Administration has) said to the states in the “Race to the Top” … that the requirements to be considered are, first of all, that the states have to be committed to privatizing many, many, many public schools. These are called charter schools. They’re privatized schools…. And I think that with the proliferation of charter schools, the bottom-line issue is the survival of public education, because we’re going to see many, many more privatized schools and no transparency as to who’s running them…. (March 5, 2010)

She is wrong; charters are not privatized schools. Were the parents overseeing the charters I taught in “privatizing public education”? Ravitch’s misleading comments continue, including her claim that “charters often get additional resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student.” (I can hear most Colorado charters asking, where ARE those corporate sponsors?)  It’s not my experience, and it contradicts the study from Ball State University, “Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists,” May 2010, which states: “charter schools continue to receive nearly 20 percent less funding per pupil than district schools.”

She concludes this chapter with excessive harshness: “The rhetoric of many charter school advocates has come to sound uncannily similar to the rhetoric of … the most rabid haters of public schooling. They often sound as though they want public schools to fail” (146).  Again, Ms. Ravitch, definitions! Charters ARE public schools.  Is she listening to superintendents like Bennet and Boasberg who would argue that charters make the system stronger? And many charters have been pleased to share their strategies and lessons learned with non-charters in their community.  Haters? Really?

All of us who have worked for and taught in charter schools know they are not perfect. We have seen enough over the past 17 years (I’ve visited 50 in four states) to know that too many—even our own schools!—fall short of our expectations.  But the movement deserves more honest criticism than this.

Finally, it is too easy to say the advocates of a specific reform oversell it as THE SILVER BULLET, and then, lo and behold (what a surprise!), the idea proves far less transformative and magical…. Ravitch makes a habit of this, suggesting the most extreme (and naïve) voices urging a certain reform speak for all, when in fact many of us have been more moderate in our expectations.  One example: “The advocates of choice—whether vouchers or charters—predicted that choice would transform American education….They invoked the clarion call of A Nation at Risk as proof that America’s schools were caught in a downward spiral; only choice, they argued, could reverse ‘the rising tide of mediocrity’ …” (126-127).

“Transform”? “Only choice”? Were we all such “true believers” that we put so much faith in this one strategy?  In four issues of Another View #21-#24 in the summer of 2000, I examined what seemed at the time to be four key components of education reform: standards, choice, governance, and teacher development—a fairly common definition.  Few of us put all our eggs in one basket.

She does this again in looking askance at the push for small high schools as a meaningful option in our cities (as I did in Another View #44). “The movement’s ardent adherents believed that small schools were the cure to the problems of urban education” (205).  Of course by speaking of us as so simple-minded to think this was The Cure, we are bound to be proven wrong. But please first tell me who called it such a silver bullet?  Shame on us if we did. Most of us were more inclined to speak of it as one way to better meet the needs of many high school students. And we’d still argue that.

2. Opening the door to new teachers / alternative licensure

Ravitch again oversimplifies when she examines the recent trend to focus on teacher quality, which has given new life to the movement for alternative licensure.

The teacher was everything: that was the new mantra of economists and bottom-line school reformers. And not only was the teacher key to closing the achievement gap, but the most effective teachers did not need to have any paper credentials or teacher education. … there was no reason to limit entry into teaching; anyone should be able to enter the profession and show whether she or he could raise test scores. (184)

Not exactly.  The Gates Family Foundation, for whom I worked, partially funded the alternative licensure office at the Colorado Department of Education in the early 90’s, and later I evaluated an alternative licensure program for the University of Colorado at Denver. Paper credentials still matter—but they often have to do with what a person studied in college, the courses taken and how well they did, as well as previous work experience. (Just as this mattered at the private school that first hired me; of course the headmaster cared about my “credentials,” but they had nothing to do with education courses and a license.)

Alternative licensure programs and pathways like Teach for America do not open their doors to “anyone.”  This past spring, TFA selected only 4,500 applicants out of 46,359 applicants.  (Name me a School of Education as competitive as that!) Again Ravitch mocks TFA for what no one claims it can do: “it is simply an illusion to see TFA as the answer to the nation’s needs for more and better teachers.” Another straw man; another bow to the unions.  Of course TFA is not The Answer.  But do we believe public education in Colorado is stronger for welcoming another 150 TFA folks this fall to teach in our highest-need schools? Yes!

3. How ironic: The curriculum she admires – is here largely due to choice

My favorite section in the book is on the importance of a strong curriculum (“Lessons Learned,” 230-238).  Ravitch articulates how vital it is to develop a rigorous and well-rounded academic program.

One of the unintended consequences of NCLB was the shrinking of time available to teach anything other than reading and math. Other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed in many schools. (107)

So it is not surprising to see her praise the “sequential, knowledge-rich” curriculum of Core Knowledge (236). Here she sounds like the Ravitch who co-authored “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” (1987). But consider the irony, given her criticism of choice. (I tip my hat to Vincent Carroll, who made a similar point in “Don’t write off the ‘Orcs’ just yet,” Denver Post, May 15, 2010.  This would be the wrong week for me to be guilty of plagiarism!)

  1. In our Race to the Top application, Table 2 lists the major “recognized school reform models” in Colorado’s charters (p. 170).  Core Knowledge is first—49 charter schools; Expeditionary Learning and Montessori are tied for second with 4 schools each.
  2. Colorado has the highest percentage of Core Knowledge schools in the country, and only New York state has more of them.  Of the 770 public and private schools in the United States “using all or part of the Core Knowledge curriculum,” over 90 are in Colorado (see list at the Core Knowledge Foundation website).

Look back at the mid-90’s and recall how few Core schools existed prior to the early success of several Core Knowledge charters: Littleton Academy, Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy, and Liberty Common School among them. Schools that, in part because of their autonomy and clear academic mission, could stay committed to a well-rounded curriculum rather than succumb to pressures—from the state, the district, or even parents—to narrow their program.  Schools that—to speak to another of Ravitch’s criticisms—will neither be consumed nor compromised by tests.

Isn’t it fair to say that choice and charters in our state stimulated the rapid growth of public schools with the very kind of curriculum—“rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas”—Ravitch advocates?     So much for undermining education in Colorado.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Origin of a “new” species

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

The old, OLD man with the long white beard looked like he had arrived from another century. Was it Walt Whitman? Maybe Karl Marx? No, I knew by the finch merrily perched on his left shoulder. It was Charles Darwin. The bicentennial of his birth was nearly over.

Hello Mr. Darwin. Great to see you.  Have a seat. Still celebrating number 200?

CD: Yes. But I’ve been looking around.

Observing again? Another visit to the Galapagos?

CD: No. I’ve grown fascinated by another landscape.  Your cities, and their public schools.

Signs of evolution?

CD: Traces.  Nothing’s immutable. I made that point 150 years ago.

Even school districts?

CD:  I see change. More diversity.  A new species —these charter schools—nothing quite like them when I was back for my 175th.

A new strain. Enough folks thought they could create their own schools largely free from the district.  As cities and their school districts grew, local control started to mean control for 30,000 students – then 60,000 – then 100,000.  Soon “local control” lost its meaning.

CD: The districts are like iguanas.

Excuse me?

CD: On Galapagos. Without competition, they just got bigger. They took over.

I see.  So charter folks said let’s get real about local control. Each of these schools has its own mission, its own governing board, its own budget.

CD: Sounds like the Shrewsbury School, my boyhood school.

Charters borrow a lot from independent schools. But they’re public.

CD: Well, then, hardly a new strain. Perhaps common ancestors. Certainly a profitable variation for public education.  These schools are often smaller aren’t they?

Yes. One of the more obvious adaptations.  A more personal community.

CD:  And yet I also see most of the big old high schools are still here, some with over 500 freshmen.

Yes, and most of those 500 aren’t graduating four years later.  Which is why some call them “dropout factories.”  Still far too many of them.

CD: So these schools are becoming extinct?

You’d like to think so. But no, they keep feeding these dinosaurs and they lumber along….

CD: You’d be amazed at how long downward mutations can survive. It can take millions of years.

Don’t depress me.  Anyway, the new schools are more efficient too because they control their operations. Not subject to the latest mandate from the district office. Not bound by a union contract.  More freedom to hire and fire. A former superintendent wrote recently about a school district spending 27 months and $87,360 to fire one unsatisfactory teacher. None of that nonsense. They can create afterschool and Saturday morning programs without waiting for the local union to vote whether it would tolerate such a “drastic” change.

CD:  Charters have the money to offer such programs?

That’s part of the deal. They get the money. The money doesn’t go through the district.

CD: Go through? I don’t follow.

Here the district and state money might come to $7,200 to pay for a student’s education.  The charters can get nearly all of that. In our big districts principals don’t control the money, districts do. Recently one of our big districts spoke of distributing only $3,400 out of that $7,200 to its schools next year.

CD: Less than 50%? So the rest pays for what?

Transportation.  Utilities.  Insurance.  Hard to know, to be honest.  A director of this and that.  And their assistants. The central office.

CD: A creature designed to snare most of the money before it reaches the school?  Sounds like a spider’s web.  The struggle for existence is hard enough. No wonder the anger at district control.  No wonder the new – old – strain appeared.

Anger, yes. Lots of charter folks aren’t patient … not willing to jump through hoops, to ask permission from the state, the district, the union… they don’t feel you should have to ask—

CD: To ask if they can use their wings.

Excuse me?

CD: Sounds like a bird that’s nearly lost its ability to fly.  Now eager to take off.  I’ve traveled the country for my 200th and have observed a good number of charters serving kids especially well. They’ve taken flight. Even places where the landscape seems hostile to this new species, the numbers keep growing.  Some are flourishing.

Would you call this survival of the fittest?

CD: (Smiling) I saw a survey of a city where by a 3-1 ratio parents thought charters were better than the district’s other schools.

For more and more parents it seems a natural selection.

CD: (Chuckling) Well, it is encouraging.  (Mr. Darwin got up to leave. His finch chirped.)

Yes, but tragic that so many still don’t believe.

CD: In what?

Evolution, of course! They still think the current structure has always been here, as if God Himself had created school boards and money filtering through the central office and big schools … they believe these are permanent fixtures on the landscape.

CD: Hardly an intelligent design. Got a name for these folks?

Actually we do. We call them … creationists.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Don’t distribute me

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

“The idea that teachers should be effective in producing student learning outcomes, and that such teachers should be distributed to all students, not just those in districts or schools with more resources … is now dominating the education policy space.”

Paul Teske, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver

Executive Summary, Improving Teacher and School Leader Effectiveness (Aug. 2009)

We all want good teachers to find their way into classrooms and schools where students are not achieving at grade level.  We want strong teachers to work with such boys and girls and teenagers in the belief that solid teaching can lead to more than a year’s worth of progress, and that given several years of such teaching, many more students will be performing at the level expected in our reading, writing and math standards—and much more.

But how to get such teachers into these very classrooms is worth debating.

Here I think Race to the Top uses language—and behind it, a kind of top-down thinking—that we must oppose.

My argument is simply stated this way: Teachers aren’t pawns to be “distributed.”  Schools hire. They should choose who will work in their buildings. The state and districts and non-profits and lots of well meaning folks might try to recruit good teachers to come in to our community and our low-performing schools, but they shouldn’t DISTRIBUTE teachers. By doing so, we surrender to another kind of DIRECT PLACEMENT FROM ON HIGH.

Yes, it’s the word DISTRIBUTE that gets my goat.

In the Notices of the Federal Register of July 29, 2009, we read that the Race to the Top Fund “requires States to have made significant progress in the following four education reform areas in order to receive a grant: implementing standards and assessments, improving teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution, improving collection and use of data, and supporting struggling schools.” (All bold is mine.)

Further on, we read that among the “19 selection criteria that the Department proposes States may address when submitting their applications,” one is: (C) (3) Ensuring equitable distributions of effective teachers and Principals.”

What does this call for? “The extent to which the State has a high-quality plan and ambitious yet achievable annual targets to increase the number and percentage of highly effective teachers and principals in high-poverty schools, and to increase the number and percentage of effective teachers teaching hard-to-staff subjects including mathematics, science, special education, English language proficiency, and other hard-to-staff subjects identified by the State or LEA. Plans may include, but are not limited to, the implementation of incentives and strategies in areas such as recruitment, compensation, career development, and human resources practices and processes.”

(Note: Incentives and recruitment connote something very different than distribution. Can we please focus on the former, not the latter?)

Why is this notion of DISTRIBUTING highly effective teachers so offensive to me?

  1. This teacher doesn’t want to be distributed, thank you very much. Please don’t treat me as something to move around and place in a setting where I may or may not be a good fit.
  2. This teacher, whose principal in 2005 nominated him for The Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, in part because (or so she wrote) of his being ”extremely effective in raising student achievement,” has since applied to work in several Denver charters where there is high poverty, and none of the schools wanted to hire him. I might have wanted to be “distributed” there; some government agency might have wanted to place me there, if my record as a teacher seemed worthy enough; but the schools found better candidates and, probably wisely, concluded I was not the right fit for what they wanted in their faculty.  And isn’t this how it should be?  We must start with the school and its choice, not with a distant agency looking at the chessboard and saying: This pawn will go HERE.
  3. I recently visited classrooms in a charter school in its first year and was overwhelmed by the high quality of the teachers.  I believe they found themselves at the Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs for several reasons:
  • the school’s mission was so appealing to them—it fit their beliefs about how kids learn best and about the kind of culture they wanted to nourish and be part of;
  • the school head and its board understood the art of teaching well enough to be willing to hire based on the person, not the credentials, so that not having all the paperwork to be “highly qualified” did not matter;
  • the teachers were energetic and motivated and passionate enough to take the job—to make an enormous and perhaps risky commitment—even though they had some idea of the huge demands of helping to start a school, to have four or five preparations, and to work in a setting where many policies are not yet fully articulated, where so much is yet to be created;
  • they were wanted. They were seen as men and women who would click in this school, reading and discussing these books, with these kids, keen on this school’s mission.

Here is where the idea of our Innovation Schools—with waivers about the power to hire and fire at the school site, which borrows from the charter school model, which borrows in turn from the private school model—must be integral to our new approach to who teaches where.  The old model—the district will send you a teacher—must die.  How ironic—no, how tragic—it would be to enable more schools the authority and responsibility for choosing their staff—and then to decide, Oh by the way, we’ll distribute teachers your way too.

Instead, let the schools show potential teachers that this will be a place that matches their beliefs about teaching and learning, about the values they want nurtured.  Let an interview give both sides—the school and the teacher—an opportunity to see if this is a good fit. I’ve been hired by five schools and a couple of colleges and rejected by as many.  When rejected I try to content myself that they know better than I do whether I would have been the right person for the job.  It’s a marketplace, and it can be painful. But it is much better if choice—on the school’s part, and on the part of the teacher who believes this is where he or she can give their best—is central to the equation.

So please, don’t distribute us. Let us choose, and let us be chosen.

Popularity: 5% [?]

Colorado Health Foundation Walton Family Foundation Daniels fund Pitton Foundations Donnell-Kay Foundation