Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NM Charter Students Cost More

Until recently, I didn't think that district charters really took money away from public schools.  I thought that was just a myth that got thrown around in order to make charters look bad.  I figured that, if a student chose to attend a charter school, he would just take his funding with him. And since the district school had one less student to educate, it seemed fair, as long as the enrollment numbers didn't dip too low. 

It turns out that, in New Mexico, charter schools actually do receive a lot more funding, per pupil, than public schools.   Some of the details of how and why this happens can be found in today's article, posted below.  NM's Legislative Finance Committee arrived at a new funding formula that attempts to even things out for charters as well as for some other outdated funding issues.  And, under the new formula, charters tend to be allocated a lot less money than they are allocated under the current formula. 

What are my feelings?  It's really difficult to go from more to less funding.  I wish there were ways to lessen the blow, because schools get used to operating with a certain amount of money and there will have to be drastic changes made to accommodate a lower budget.  That said, I don't think it's fair for charter schools, on average, to receive more per pupil than district schools - even if they have special programs and higher overhead.  Overall, I'm for the adjustments made by the Legislative Finance Committee.  I think charters, with their greater abilities to be flexible than large districts, can make it work. 

By Ben Wieder
Stateline Staff Writer [Stateline.org]
December 12, 2011                                       

Some lawmakers in New Mexico say publicly-funded, privately-run schools are taking advantage of the state's rules to get more than their fair share of education funding.
  • One of Albuquerque's charter schools, Academia de Lengua Y Cultura, offers a dual-language middle-school curriculum, with teachers in some classes giving lessons in English and Spanish on alternating days.
  • Across town, the Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School, which takes students from sixth grade through high school, emphasizes seminar discussions and offers advanced international diplomas.
  • The Southwest Secondary Learning Center, meanwhile, reinforces math, science and engineering lessons by allowing students to maintain and fly real airplanes.
They represent three of New Mexico's more than 80 charter schools. While some of those schools look and act like private institutions - their leaders have freedom to run them as they see fit as long as students meet state standards - they are part of the public school system, charge no tuition and receive nearly all of their funding from state monies.

But unlike other states, where average per-student funding for charters is typically lower than it is for other public schools, a legislative report released last month found that charters in New Mexico receive an average of 26 percent more funding per student than traditional public schools. The report suggested that lawmakers change how schools are funded to address that.

New Mexico is unique in that the vast majority of school funding for all public schools comes from the state. These payments can be increased based on 24 various factors.
  • The report says that some of those criteria, such as per-pupil funding increases based on the percentage of enrollment growth and a school's small size, benefit charters disproportionately.
  • The state's funding formula has been adjusted more than 80 times since it was first created in 1973.
  • The report recommends a complete overhaul of the formula to remove or give different weight to some of those factors.
State Representative Rick Miera ((D-Bernalillo], chair of the legislative education study committee, says the goal isn't to reduce the level of funding for the schools, but rather make sure that adjustments are serving the purpose they're intended to serve. "We have all these little factors that have come in over the years," the Democratic representative says. "These schools qualify for small schools, but are they small schools?"

How New Mexico compares
Nationally, there are now more than 2 million students seeking alternative education programs who are enrolled in charter schools, thanks, in part, to recent legislation in several states that lifted caps on the number of charters and made it easier for successful charters to expand. Typically, charters are funded by states in one of three ways, according to Josh Cunningham, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL].
  • The most common is for states to give charters the same money for each student as they give traditional public schools in the same district.
  • In other states, funding "follows" students, meaning that they are assigned the same funding as every other student in their home district, even if they choose to attend a charter in another district.
  • Finally, a handful of states give the same level of per-pupil funding to each charter school in the state.
Cunningham says typical per-student funding for charters is lower than at traditional public schools, because many regular public schools make up a big part of their budgets from local property taxes and federal dollars that are harder for charters to obtain.

Traditional public schools also generally have more options for raising money to build and maintain facilities. There are some federal funds set aside for charters, and some charters also seek private support, but Cunningham says that normally doesn't make up the differences in funding between charters and their traditional peers.
  • In Minnesota, where the first charter schools in the country appeared, the funding structure for charters has remained fairly constant since they were first allowed in 1991, says Tom Melcher, the state's school finance director. Charters are funded the same across the state, he says, with adjustments made to match local property taxes that other public schools receive.
  • Florida is among the states with the biggest jump in charter enrollment in the past year, after it passed a law allowing high-performing charter schools to more easily expand. The state now has more than 500 charter schools serving more than 150,000 students, but funding isn't quite as equitable as in Minnesota. State money for charters flows through the school district in which a charter is located. The district can take out a small percentage of that money for administrative costs and can choose how much of its local property tax revenue to share with charters.
"There's only a few districts that do share that revenue with charter schools," says Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.
  • In Colorado, which functions similarly to Florida, districts can take up to 5 percent in administrative fees and choose how much or little of local property tax funds to share with charter schools. But Amy Anderson of the state Department of Education, says that most districts don't take out the full 5 percent fee and that districts now give charters a more equal share of federal and local funds. "With time, more and more districts have become better at recognizing that the kids in the charter schools are kids in their district," she says.
Are funding differences fair?
Charter school advocates argue that funding discrepancies between traditional public schools and charters are unfair, but NCSL's Cunningham says that doing more with less is what charters are all about. "Part of the concept of charter schools is doing things more efficiently," he says.
  • That's the view taken by Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which operates a network of 109 charters in 20 states and Washington, D.C. "We're leaner," he says. "We don't have the director of right brain instruction and the director of left-brain instruction."
Still, funding differences in each of the 20 states mean that different KIPP schools have to operate differently. KIPP schools in Newark, New Jersey, he says, receive two-and-a-half times the level of funding per student as KIPP schools in San Francisco. That means the California schools need to raise more money through donations to provide a comparable education.

On average, KIPP's schools across the country receive 85 percent of their funding from public sources and make up the difference with donations and other sources of private income, he says. The goal, though, is to increase the share of public money.
  • In New Mexico, some of the charter schools with the highest costs say the greater share they receive is justified. Leaders at the dual language Academia de Lengua Y Cultura say their higher costs can be attributed to the school's high percentage of bilingual students and special education students, whose education costs are eligible for higher funding in the formula.
The Southwest Learning Centers are mentioned in the report as an example of potential misapplication of the small-school label. They have students from fourth grade through high school who share the same building and the same upper-level administration, but are considered three separate charters, each of which qualifies as a small school better positioned for higher state funding.

Robert Pasztor, the schools' director of academic support, says the schools would not be able to offer the same technology-rich curriculum - with every student given access to laptops - and support a brand new gym if not for the benefits from the small-school adjustment, particularly since charter schools are on the hook for more of their facility costs. He thinks other schools in the state should follow their model, which yielded better state test results across the board last year than state and city averages.

"We in a sense have created this sort of 21st-century school house," he says. "No single school could afford this facility."

But John Arthur Smith, chair of the state legislative finance committee, says that isn't the intention of the small school adjustment. It was originally designed for small, rural districts, the Democratic senator says. "The bottom line is they're still gaming the formula."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do You Believe in Miracles?

I was recently mulling over my abilities as a parent to prepare my kids academically. I've noticed that, since my oldest went to preschool, I've begun to rely on his teachers to provide practice with letters and numbers. Then yesterday I sat down with my oldest to write a letter to Santa. And it appears that his letter writing skills haven't advanced much at all since he enrolled in pre-school. Things may have even deteriorated a bit since this summer, when we were doing more at home.

What does this mean and what does it have to do with the above post? First, while school is an important place where kids can learn a lot - particularly about socializing - there is NO REPLACEMENT for the specific attention and direction that a parent can provide a child. I write a lot about effective teaching, but do I really think even the most effective teaching can make up for a lack of parental attention to academic skills? No.... I don't really think so. A great deal of learning happens when a parent sits down with a child to read, write, review homework, etc. Even the best teachers have limited ability to instruct 20 kids at once and make sure they're forming good habits. It's my responsibility as a parent to turn off the TV and make sure my child knows the difference between a 3 and an E.

Does this mean it's hopeless to try and improve schools and teachers? No... far from it. What I truly believe is that schools and teachers could be a lot more efficient, effective, innovative, and successful than they currently are. But, it would be a mistake to rely entirely on schools getting better to improve the existing achievement gap. I guess, if we needed to choose between improving schools and improving parenting, improving schools might be easier. But why do we need to choose? We can certainly improve the status quo of public education from both sides of the issue and would probably be more successful for it. It's time to stop ignoring the 16 hours per day when kids aren't in school and find ways to better engage parents and communities.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Setting a Higher Standard for Teacher Entry in Iowa

Setting a Higher Standard for Teacher Entry in Iowa

I am all for raising the bar. I think this plan has the flaw that it relies on colleges of education to recruit more qualified teacher candidates without changing the incentives attached to choosing teaching as a profession.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Teachers Get Paid Less to Teach in Poor Schools

Teachers Get Paid Less to Teach in Poor Schools

I don't actually think this is true in New Mexico, but I'm not happy to see a study confirm that teachers get paid less anywhere in the nation to teach in poor schools.  It isn't surprising.  Jobs meant to provide services to poor people, in general, probably don't pay well.

I believe that there are a number of people out there who seek to do something meaningful with their lives - and teaching in a "poor" school certainly fills that need.  But it's certainly not enough for state and federal governments to trust the good-will of humankind to fix our nation's worst schools.  It won't happen.  There need to be monetary incentives or at least more respect and prestige attached to the most difficult teaching jobs.

Despite all of the talk about improving education, I suspect that the people at the top, or the people who fund the people at the top don't really care very much about improving rural or low-performing schools.  Definitely not at the expense of the resources and salaries enjoyed by the nation's highest-performing schools.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Overcoming the bad teaching days...

I had an awful day today.  I taught a 1-day lesson for the second day, and my students still didn't get the point.  The lesson was not over a new concept, and - in my opinion - they should have done fine.  I gave a few students ineffective "talking to's" outside... blah blah blah.

And I left school wanting to blame something or someone other than myself for what happened and what has been happening - lack of parental support, lax school discipline, not enough special education services, etc. Anyone but myself.  Of course - I'm mainly to blame.  I didn't scaffold the lesson enough.  I stepped out of the room to talk with a student and wasn't there to help/supervise my students. I didn't call any of my students' parents.  I wasn't enthusiastic enough.

In a way, I can thank my students for keeping me on my toes.  In another school, with higher performing students, a poorly planned lesson might be just fine.  But not at my school and not in many of the high-needs schools across the nation.  I think effective teaching and classroom management CAN overcome many of the gaps in other areas of students' schooling.  But is it also true that effective school structures can help minimize types of days like I had today?  Because even though a teacher may be very effective - there's no way to completely avoid bad teaching days.

In a high-achieving school, students might overcome obstacles and find ways to complete a difficult assignment anyway - because they want the good grade.  Or because their parents force them to.  But in a low-performing school, a day with a lesson that doesn't provide enough access (like my day today) is just lost.  So... I will try to be a better teacher tomorrow.  And I will keep in mind that the stakes are high for me to be an effective teacher every day.  But what can I advocate for my school to put in place to help minimize the time lost by my mistakes? Or by other teachers' bad days?

Study hall? Tutoring? Strict discipline policies? Rewards for good behavior/grades? None of the above?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's that time of year...

I'm not really talking about the holidays, in particular.  I'm talking about the slump I find myself in, thinking about what changes I can make in my teaching practice to really turn things around for my students who are struggling.

Today I'm in a fight with myself about whether it's worth teaching the lesson I'd planned for, even though we go on break tomorrow and only 2/3 of my students showed up.  Should I send them the message that today is an important day to be here, and that we will work hard right up until the end?  If I send that message, will they get it? Or will I just spend the next 2 weeks after break trying to convince the students who missed today that they need to come in during lunch to make up the lesson they missed?

With the 2nd semester coming up, it is time to step back and think about the big picture rather than each individual lesson.  And I've got to figure out how to do that without simply feeling weighted down with despair over my failures as a teacher.  I can't sit around and wait for parents to force their kids to come to school, for kids who are behind to take the initiative to improve their skills, or even for my colleagues to be the ones to call home regarding classroom misbehavior.  It has to be me.  I can be better.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Do We Mean by 'Public'?

What Do We Mean by 'Public'?

Hmmm. Charter schools.... I've written about this before. I work at a charter school, so I am obviously not anti-charter. And, in the case of my school and others organized a common interest, purpose, or culture, I think a charter fills a previously unfilled need. Then there are charters like KIPP or Yes Prep, that are places meant for high achieving kids in low-performing school districts. Yeah, it'd be better if public schools could rise to the challenge of educating high-achievers to the level of higher income schools. Yet, it's not happening. A charter school does seem to be a good option in the interim... a way for a highly motivated kid or family to more likely get into a good college. OK. That's my theory. I don't really know about the regularity with which charter schools are helping high performers that would otherwise attend low performing schools.

I guess, like everything, there's a large gray area. Of course there are both good and bad charter schools. And mostly schools that are neither good nor bad. And since we don't really have any trusted ways to measure which schools are "good" and "bad," there aren't really clear steps to in improving the "bad" schools.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Action

Today I go to take New Mexico's Reading Teacher Assessment.  Historically, I am a math and science teacher with a degree in biochemistry and most of my teaching experience in middle school science.  This year, I was asked to teach a reading class to students more than 2 years behind in reading.  I have mixed feelings, and I know a number of my colleagues blatantly disagree (for my sake as well as for my students' sake) that I teach reading.

My mixed feelings come from the reality that small schools serving primarily low-performing students have an unworkable number of constraints.  Special education - including gifted education, intervention classes, and even electives are extremely difficult to successfully provide when 50% or so of your students aren't on grade level.  This exact same thing happened in my last school.  Based on test data, we were required to provide extra interventions to something like 1/3 of our students.  We had to have all these teachers squeeze intervention math and reading classes into their schedules - qualified or not.  And I think schools work better when teachers come together to "make it work," even when circumstances are difficult.  I hate having colleagues who refuse to put in the extra work, because I often end up being the person who does agree to take on more for the good of the school and the students.  I might be making the wrong decision.... me teaching reading might not be for the good of the school or the students.  Maybe if I'd said "no," the school would have had to come up with a different, better solution. 

I also think that, if someone is a good teacher, they will very likely be a good teacher of any subject.  There is always some lag time when building a new curriculum - I'm not on top of my game like I was after teaching and perfecting 8th grade science for 5 years.  But I'm also not as bad as some other teachers who allow their students "free time" all the time and don't provide clear instructions or engaging tasks with meaningful objectives.  I know how to do all of those things for math and science, and therefore I'm not totally lost when it comes to doing them in reading.

There is more to being "highly qualified" than just taking a test or even taking college courses.  It really takes observing a teacher's classroom and the work that students are actually producing in that class.... 

Friday, November 11, 2011

If I ran a school....

I'd rethink the structure of the school day and school year to allow time for collaboration
I'd put a structure in place for teachers to discuss, collaborate, and share out
I'd have as many meetings that directly relate to effective teaching as meetings about other topics
I'd make sure my school had a teachers' lounge and would go out of my way to encourage teachers to get to know one another in and outside of school hours
I'd observe teachers and ask them to reflect back to me on what they're doing to improve their practice
I'd recognize teachers for effective teaching and for hard work as mentors, committee leaders, etc.
I'd hold community events at the school
I'd ask students to take surveys evaluating their teachers and ask teachers to take surveys evaluating me

Easier Said than Done

This morning's musings:
A few weeks ago, I observed a 1st year teacher and colleague of mine as a part of an alternative licensure program through a local community college. I had high hopes about how I would work with my colleague to give pertinent feedback as well as some expectations about changes I thought he should make in his classroom. Then it came time to debrief the observation - for me to deliver my powerful feedback and teaching tips.

The first roadblock was that my colleague and I could barely schedule a time to meet. We had to reschedule a number of times, and in between my observation and our meeting he actually went away to Boston for a conference and came back. When we did eventually meet, it was crammed into the last few minutes before he had to sub for a third colleague's class. Students were in and out of the room, the bell was ringing, I was thinking about the things I still needed to get done in order to teach for the day.

The second roadblock was that I choked. I spent quite a bit of time observing, taking notes, and formulating these notes into an observation form as well as a digestible set of ideas that I thought would help my colleague improve his teaching. But when I sat down, I started flipping through papers and hastily explaining why I hadn't just awarded all "exceeds" scores on the rubric. I hastily ran through my recommendations, and the debrief session ended without my colleague ever talking about what he might actually do to improve his teaching practice.

And now it's over. And now nothing will probably ever come of the time I spent observing, writing, and talking with my colleague. Refining one's teaching practice is a slow, difficult, personal process. It's not that I expected major changes after 1 observation. But I didn't expect to feel like the observation cycle was completely futile either. Maybe it wasn't.

Despite my debacle, there are a few positives that might come out of this situation. I'll do better next time - by scheduling a debrief session in advance of the observation, by carving out at least 30 minutes of time, and by inviting my colleague to reflect on what I've said rather than just listen to me talk in circles. I'm also glad for the experience because I've written before about observations and teacher evaluation as if it would be so easy to do things differently or better than they're currently being done. It's important to remind my self that that simply isn't true. Things could change, but it will require more than a minimal effort from a know-it-all teacher (me) to make that happen - even just in my 1 small school. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

APS Students Say School Grades Fail to Capture what Matters Most

I agree with the SuperSAC!  School is, after all, to engage and prepare students.  Doesn't it matter if they want to be there and if they feel that they're getting a good education?  I guess it's difficult to say how you're school is doing if it's the only school you've ever attended... but still... school culture matters!  If kids want to be in school, then socioeconomic status and parental support will matter less.

ABQ/ OPINION: Students Should Be Given a Voice in Schools' Policy

By Jenna Hagengruber, Team Member, SuperSAC
ABQ Journal
November 6, 2011  
On Oct. 17 a group of students from Albuquerque Public Schools met with the superintendent to discuss the school grading system.

This group is known as SuperSAC, an acronym standing for the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council.

We are a group consisting of two students from each high school in APS chosen to meet with the superintendent once a month to discuss important issues and decisions affecting education from a student's perspective.

One assignment for the students of SuperSAC was to give our schools a grade and to elaborate on why that grade was given. The students took this task very seriously, and during our past two meetings, we shared and discussed our ideas with the superintendent.

As a group of students varying vastly in personality, school, ethnicity and background, we came to some similar conclusions about the way we believe our schools should be graded. These criteria included grading on safety, college preparation, dual enrollment, teacher/administration involvement, parent involvement, attendance and extracurricular activities.

After considering how we would grade our schools, SuperSAC was presented with the Public Education Department's ideas of how they intend to assign grades. As a group, we feel that the PED's point system does not represent the most important aspects about high school.

Test scores, improvement of test scores and graduation rates are all highly relative and change as quickly as students in a class change. Although test scores can play a role in determining the knowledge one student has, testing is not always the most accurate way to determine a student's progress and preparation for the future.

This is due to the fact that students aren't always tested on what they've learned, and also tests often are aimed at a certain group of students rather than testing each student at his or her own level.
  • One measure of success in high school that we feel was overlooked by the proposed grading system is extracurricular activities such as athletics, drama, music and JROTC that help create a sense of community within a school. Without activities such as these, myriad students would no longer be motivated to work hard in school, making things such as attendance, graduation rates and test success decrease.
These activities bring individuals together, which helps create a sense of confidence and security within the student population. Furthermore, most activities have strict grade requirements that motivate students to be proactive in their learning, so they can continue to participate in the activity. They also build character, help with time management and are enjoyed by participants.
  • As the students of public education, we strongly believe several improvements could be made to the proposed school grading system. When decisions are being made about education, students should be asked for their opinion; when ideas on how to grade schools are being proposed, students' input should be considered; when a decision is being made about a school or a district, students should be involved in the process. As students, we are affected directly by these decisions and should be allowed to have a say in the outcome.

We are proposing that the Public Education Department create a student advisory committee made up of students from across the state that would meet on a regular basis to discuss any plans for education. We do not want to learn about bills and decisions only once they are in effect in our schools. We want to help create them and try to make New Mexico education the best it can be.

We are the students of public education. We are the now, and we are the future.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Today was a paperwork deadline day at my school.  And I didn't make it.  I am sick and took the day off, and I just finished writing an email to my boss about how I hope it's OK if I turn in my lesson plans a day later than planned.

It got me thinking about how that would not have been OK in college and got me wondering about whether it would be OK in most other jobs.  My friends have things "due" for their jobs - presentations, reports, etc. - and I'm guessing they would never be able to turn them in as poorly done, as late, or as infrequently as teaching typically allows.  On the other hand, perhaps the types of paperwork that are "due" in other jobs are more meaningful than a lot of the paperwork that teachers end up completing.  Lesson plans are useful, but they aren't - in and of themselves - an indication that student learning is actually happening.

Do I have any good ideas for what would be better?  Perhaps some artifacts of student learning, or surveys taken by students in addition to lesson plans.When I had to do those things as part of my master's degree, I always talked about how they distracted me from my real job - getting up in front of the students and teaching.  I don't really believe that's true.  I think teachers do need to be forced to step back and look at the bigger picture of where they are going with their teaching and then, when a unit is over, how it went. 


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Receiving Advice

I've written a lot about how teachers can improve their practice after their first few years on the job.  In particular, something I've wondered is how teachers could hold one another accountable for improving their teaching.  Today something happened that reminded me how hard it can be to receive advice from a colleague, when all you really want is sympathy/empathy for something that's going wrong in your classroom.

Some students recently transferred into my math class and I am having trouble making the math accessible/getting them to work up to my expectations. Today I tried getting tough with the students about their performance, and it didn't go well.  I expressed my frustration to my colleague and basically got rebuked for going about the situation incorrectly. Of course, she was right. I did handle the situation poorly.  But, it was still really uncomfortable to hear it from a colleague.  It's fine now, but I don't think I'd scale up my situation as a model for helping teachers become more effective.  Making someone feel bad usually doesn't make her want to change.  It just makes her angry and defensive (like I did with my students today...).   I don't think our nation will get anywhere by making teachers feel bad about the jobs their currently doing.  Evaluation needs to be more productive than that.

What are my take aways? 1. There are situations where colleagues can critique one another.  They include weaknesses that a teacher has asked for help in addressing...in situations where help is being solicited.  They probably don't include teachers simply going into one another's classrooms and giving suggestions on how to improve.  They could very well include honestly recognizing one another for things we're doing well.

2.  Sometimes evaluation has to be uncomfortable.  Teachers have weaknesses that they themselves can't easily identify, and there need to be situations where it's OK to broach the subject and expect that teachers make changes in their practice.  It's very possible that such criticism could come from a principal or other administrator - as long as the teacher respects and trusts the administrator's knowledge of instructional delivery.

3. Changes in teaching - the thought process and the creation of new resources - actually happen outside of teaching hours.  For this reason, I don't think that teachers' contracted hours of work (given the current structure of a school day) are sufficient for really improving teaching.  Teachers need structured time to talk to one another and to meaningfully reflect on their teaching.  The best teachers most likely put in a lot of extra hours doing this on their own time.  But, if the nation hopes for more effective teaching in general, teachers need more time and greater expectations for examining and improving their teaching practice.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Governors Talk Education, It's About the Economy, Stupid

When Governors Talk Education, It's About the Economy, Stupid

Although I'd noticed the talk about how we are hurting our future economy by having poorly educated youth, I'd never thought about the implications of framing education in that way. It makes sense, though, that we should be talking about education as much more than creating a skilled workforce. Isn't that part of the current Occupy Wall street movement? That the only value society places on people, things, endeavors, has to do with their literal, dollar amount values? Including public education. I guess it's a means to an end. In a capitalist society, you have to find ways to make things profitable in order to make them happen. So, I see why politicians are talking about the future monetary benefits of a strong public education system. Yet, it does seem wrong..... Public education is NOT a business and does not have a bottom line or profits (strictly speaking). How can we shift the conversation? Personally, I can be more careful with my words from now on. Other ideas?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unions Still Mulling Harkin ESEA Bill

Unions Still Mulling Harkin ESEA Bill

Evaluations seem to be the hot topic in my state as well as on Capitol Hill lately. Is it useful to talk about evaluations without asking what happens to teachers who receive poor evaluations? Or without asking whom will be evaluating teachers and how highly trained are they in this area? I don't really think so. I guess it speaks to the fact that I've been in education for a while now that I'm thinking, "this won't really change things in my classroom." Unless my district and school supervisors take these evaluations very seriously and put a plan in place that goes far beyond what this bill says, things will continue to proceed as they are now. I guess the idea is that data doesn't lie; that having data will preclude principals from simply checking "satisfactory" for every teacher. I'm not sure, though. If teachers and administrators don't really trust the data, then it doesn't matter.

That said, I've been given the opportunity to do some evaluations/observations for one of my colleagues. I found out yesterday, and I've really been mulling over how to make my evaluations meaningful. Potentially, I think that teachers could evaluate and help one another in ways that administrators couldn't, since they are out of the classroom. I am sure that I'll be able to give some valid feedback, but if the person being evaluated is not asked to immediately act on that feedback, it will fall to the wayside. That's at least what happens to me. I've been observed, had a debrief session, nodded my head about the ways that I could improve my practice, and then not done anything about it - because I was too busy to actually make a change. It's only when I was asked to demonstrate something that I'd done differently as a result of my observation, that I actually changed my practice. But how can I pull that off with a colleague? I guess we'll see. I'm going to try.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Can We Learn From Finland?

What Can We Learn From Finland?

I don't know anything but the basics on Finland: highest PISA scores, virtually no high stakes testing, low poverty rate, low racial diversity, selective teaching profession, etc.

According to me, what is the biggest difference between education in Finland and education in America? I think the selectivity of the teaching profession makes a big difference. I don't usually walk around insulting the intelligence of teachers - overall I think teachers are a creative, dedicated, smart group of people - but I have been in classes with or worked with a fair number of people who are exceptions. I suppose doctors or people of any profession might feel the same way - that there are people about whom you wonder, "how did they make it into this profession?" Having taken the entrance exams and college courses required to obtain a teaching lisence, I don't really wonder. Just about anyone who wants to become a teacher can. I mean, there are ads on the side of my facebook account that say "get a teaching license." Come on now.

Finland is selective and then gives its teachers opportunities to feed their ambition, their creativity, and their desire for respect. The United States does none of those things. So, not only are we not selective - but we make the profession unattractive to those driven, high-achieving people who manage to find their way into the profession on their own.

I also think the vast difference in poverty level impacts student achievement. I come from an upper-middle class family and experienced very few obstacles to making it to school on time, every day, with nothing to worry about aside from doing well in school. Not only am I faced with very different realities for my students, but I actually experience them within my own family. I am a teacher, for goodness sake, and have had to take days off of school for the types of "family emergencies" that I believe higher income students rarely experience. I have spent days at school (in my teacher role) unable to concentrate because of a "family emergency." I have been unsure about how to afford child care, how to maintain reliable transportation, etc. My situation is not dire by any means, but I have had a taste of some of the barriers that must be overcome by some of my students. And I know that my peers and I typically didn't face those type of situations while growing up in our suburban neighborhoods. For the 22% of American students who live in poverty and the countless more who live just above the poverty line - every day may provide a new obstacle to achieving their potential. Overcoming these obstacles will take more than emulating Finland's public education system.

Overall, I'm of the mindset that it's inappropriate to take something that works in 1 situation and assume that it will also work in all other situations. This is true for canned curricula, education legislation, and public school structures. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learned, but I believe Americans will have to figure out a system of education that works for us and our unique situation. Just because Finland doesn't use high stakes testing doesn't mean we shouldn't. It's important to note that public schools can be successful without high stakes tests, but it's also important to remember that we didn't even really know the extent of America's achievement gap until we examined our high stakes test scores.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Opinion Article in the Albuquerque Journal: Everyone Must be Held Accountable

I had an emergency staff meeting this morning, to discuss the number of students who are failing 1 or more of their classes.  The discussion was mostly around the effort teachers feel like they are going to, to provide opportunities for students to do make up work or to come in and get extra help.  And the students simply aren't taking the bait.  I believe this sentiment can be found in just about every school (and in particular those schools considered low-performing) - that teachers can go out of their way to provide opportunities for success for students, but at the end of the day - a high school student is allowed to choose to fail.

I'm glad to have read the opinion article by Dolly Juarez in the Journal this morning though.  Because my belief is that teachers and schools can't allow students to be so apathetic that they fail their classes. Schools either have to force students to do the work, even though they act like they don't care.  OR, they have to find ways to motivate students to care enough to do the work on their own.  It places a huge burden on teachers and schools - it's a totally different way of thinking than just "i'll provide the opportunities and the students can take them if they want to."  Yet, if low-performing schools want to make gains - we have to find a way to share the burden.  It's the only way.  Providing opportunities isn't going to be enough to overcome the pervasive apathy that can be found in low-performing schools across the nation.

ABQ/ OPINION: School Success Truly a Partnership
By Dolly Juarez [Co-founder of Southwest Learning Centers]
ABQ Journal
October 8, 2011

Recently, Ruben Navarrette Jr. editorialized about the lack of accountability in American public schools. He pointed to the recent decision by the Obama administration to allow states waivers on several of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Navarrette claims President Obama’s decision to scrap the timetable that teachers unions never liked is part of a movement away from holding teachers accountable. The columnist derides the notion that states can on their own create reforms such as raising academic standards, creating a fair teacher-evaluation system based on how well students do on tests and forging real change in low-performing schools.

As an educator in New Mexico for over 40 years, and as a co-founder of the three top-performing public schools in all of New Mexico, charter schools named Southwest Primary Learning Center, Southwest Intermediate Learning Center and Southwest Secondary Learning Center, I have no political ax to grind, merely an observation that holds true regardless of the administration that is in power. Democrats and Republicans alike have for many years promised that “they” are the ones who will really hold teachers accountable.

New Mexico’s position in the nation on educational criteria remains distressingly low. 
  • One out of two freshmen on average will not graduate from high school, and 
  • too many Hispanic, Native American and African-American children score significantly behind their Anglo and Asian counterparts on New Mexico-mandated tests in all subject areas. 

These children become trapped in a pattern of low proficiency in reading and writing that starts in kindergarten and continues throughout the K-12 educational system. Students with disabilities are failing to meet a satisfactory proficiency level despite the federal and state government’s attempt to create accommodations and reasonable testing benchmarks. It is clear that the status quo in New Mexico is not acceptable despite the best efforts of many educational reformers. An alarming number of New Mexico’s students cannot compete for a diminishing number of jobs.

Our belief when we founded the Southwest Learning Centers was that there had to be a better way. 

Yes, we hold our teachers accountable, but we also hold our students and our parents accountable. Our educational community is based on the premise that no one group can solely claim responsibility for our successes or failures, but rather it is our shared responsibility to ensure that every child is mastering content on a daily basis.

At the Southwest Learning Centers we believe that communication is the key. Successful intervention is much harder if a student has slipped behind and the parents are notified six or seven weeks after the fact. We identify problems and address them early with “the parents as educational partners” and strategically work through the issues, whether they are academic, social or behavioral.

Parents must collaborate with teachers to find meaningful solutions. In a typical classroom, you will find a diversity of learning styles and skill sets represented in the classroom. Instead of forcing everybody to meet at an arbitrary point, it is our belief that education can be tailor-made to meet the needs of each student.

By meeting the students where they are at and creating opportunities for them to succeed, our students have been able to achieve among the highest test scores in New Mexico. And 100 percent of our students with disabilities are achieving proficiency.

At Southwest Learning Centers, despite the fact that one out of three of our students is eligible for free lunch, we do not have an achievement gap. In fact, our Native American, Hispanic and African Americans students consistently perform as well or better than their Anglo and Asian counterparts.

Over the years I have heard a lot of rhetoric about accountability, but I ask policymakers to consider the notion that parents and students and administrators as well as teachers must be held accountable if we are to make measurable gains.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hechinger Report | Educated nation?

Worth Reading:

Hechinger Report | Educated nation?

Daily Wonderings on Teacher Evaluations and Data

Yesterday I attended an event to discuss current ideas about effective teaching and the recommendations for NM's future teacher evaluation system.  Here are the recommendations.  For the record, I'm OK with student SBA performance making up 50% of my teacher evaluation.  I do think, to a great extent, that although test scores aren't perfect, kids who score well on the test also tend to possess even the skills that aren't tested and that will help a student be successful later in life.

What we didn't have a chance to talk about in our discussion, and what I wonder about day-in and day-out, is the "so what?"  What if a teacher gets a bad evaluation?  The evaluations may play the useful role of identifying teachers who are more and less effective, but most schools kind of already know who's who.  Will the evaluations be the documentation that convinces the teacher herself that she needs to be developed?  That gets the ball rolling?  And then WHAT WILL THE DEVELOPMENT LOOK LIKE?  Is there any consensus out there about what types of development will actually make teachers more effective on a day-to-day basis?  Who is going to hold the teacher accountable?  Colleagues?  Principals?  How can teachers help one another become more effective?

It's not going to happen that once I realize that my value-added test scores aren't equivalent to 1 year's growth, I think "oh, I'd better start doing my best now."  I think MOST teachers are already doing what they think is best for their students.  And it's really going to take some work to make a difference in the practice of those teachers who are doing their best and still aren't making 1 year's growth.

I also wanted to remark on something that happened today at my school: one of the college engagement directors ran a report that highlighted all of the students who were failing 1 and then 2 or more classes.  And I was astounded.  Never before, despite having had electronic grade books for years now, has someone in one of my schools run an analysis of students' grades.  How simple and how silly that this is the first time something like that has come across my desk.  And I bet there are many other schools out there that have never run a similar report, or really any report that helps teachers meaningfully look at student data.

Although SBA data has been used as a reason to blame the teaching profession for the ills of the world, data in and of itself is not something to be feared.  As long as we keep in mind that students are people and not just numbers, we shouldn't be afraid of data.  It can help us see the forest from the trees in a way that day-to-day teaching just can't.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Study: Effectiveness Drops in Departing Teachers' Final Year

Study: Effectiveness Drops in Departing Teachers' Final Year

The article is about how teachers who leave in their 3rd or 4th year of teaching have an overall less-effective final year than the 3rd or 4th year for someone who stays at least 5 years.

Even more interesting to me is that the study the article was written about found that teacher effectiveness tends to level off after 3 years of teaching. I'm trying to think back about whether or not that was true for me. I definitely think I made the most growth in years 1-3, but I'd hate to think I haven't really improved at all since the end of my 3rd year. I'd say it's more likely that my effectiveness started to level off when my masters program ended and I was no longer regularly asked to examine my teaching practices and improve upon them.

At the end of the article, the author poses the question about whether we should put our resources toward making sure teachers are as good as possible before the end of their third year of teaching. An interesting idea... kind of worrisome though considering that most teachers are past their third year and public education as a whole needs drastic improvements.

Education Nation

I've been trying to catch what I can of Education Nation's Summit.

Albuquerque Public Schools' Superintendent Winston Brooks will be participating today... and right now I'm watching a panel called What's in a ZIP Code: A Look at Inequity Across our Public Schools.  I am always glad to hear national conversation about education that isn't centered around blame, and I wish I could be there in person. 

One of the things that I think may come out of this summit is more hype around the necessity for early childhood education.  If we (I'm not exactly sure who I mean by "we"... maybe the nation...) are planning to work hard to make public education an equalizer for minority and low-income students, we may as well start when we still have the best chance of impacting development and habits. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Re-Emergence of Open Enrollment

The Re-Emergence of Open Enrollment

Ahh... Michigan. Even though I grew up there, I don't know much about its current issues in public education. I hope I'm not wildly off the mark here, but it seems like all there is to open enrollment is being able to choose what school you attend rather than having to attend school based on where you live. However, in a city like Detroit, where just about every public school is failing, how does open enrollment make a difference? I guess if you live on the border to Grosse Pointe?

High Achievers Deserve Better

I got into teaching to do my part in making sure that all students have a great educational experience that can lead them to successful outcomes in life.  I've found, though, that I spend far more time figuring out how to make a difference for the huge numbers of students who are behind and failing than I do trying to challenge those students who are at grade level or above. 

And I don't think it's fair.  Of course, it's not fair to anyone to attend a low-performing school.  But, I don't want to forget about the students who, if they attended another school, would be placed in advanced classes; would participate in academic clubs or activities like robotics, debate, creative writing club, etc.  Not simply earning A's in all of their regular-level classes and still learning less than they could.  OK... great teachers might work hard to challenge their highest-level students with interesting and rigorous material, but I can't imagine that it will ever be as effective as attending a school where staff aren't so focused on all of the problems that they have time to consider how to raise the bar for even the highest performing students.

I'm writing all this in response to the Albuquerque Public School's negative response to starting an IB program at a district high school.  I think there are a number of students in APS who could really thrive in an IB curriculum but who cannot afford the tuition at some of the cities elite, private schools (that don't provide IB but that do have very high academic expectations).  I am a proponent of an IB program and hope the school board changes its mind on this issue.

Here's the article:

ABQ/ EDITORIAL: At APS, Mediocrity For All Trumps Innovation
By ABQ Journal 
September 21, 2011

One would think that in these challenging education times, attributes like innovation and creativity — especially when based on experience — would be rewarded.

In Albuquerque Public Schools, one would be wrong. Best to keep striving for equitable mediocrity.

At least that was the message from the APS Board of Education, which was overwhelmingly negative toward a proposal from Sandia High School principal Katy Harvey to start a challenging college preparatory program known as International Baccalaureate.

One might think that Superintendent Winston Brooks, who touts his experience on a national level with the Council of the Great City Schools, would have been on hand to champion an exercise in excellence, but he was a no-show. Instead, he was at a conference in Portland, Ore.

Rather than applaud the initiative it takes to raise the bar in a district where students have just better than a 60 percent shot at graduating, board members questioned the cost (a modest $40K to start and $10K a year in a district budget that tops $600 million), complained about fairness to other schools (which have the same opportunity to propose IB or any other program), and lack of bus service (which can be negotiated and/or supplemented by carpools rather than used to drive academic excellence into a ditch).

An IB program is a demanding one accepted by universities worldwide. It has a rigorous curriculum, mandatory community service and a 4,000-word senior essay.

The Sandia program would operate as a magnet and be open to students districtwide who are able to pass an entrance exam. Experience running such an exacting academic program — which Harvey has — and buying into it are essential for its success.

So the board proposal to put it out to bid among all APS schools seems custom-designed for failure.

Board member David Robbins was the lone voice of reason last week, pointing out that nobody on the board complained when Atrisco Heritage in the South Valley got a courtroom, a feature no other high school has, and that each school has or can add unique programs.

“I don’t think we need to say ‘no’ to any new program if we can’t make it available to everyone, because then … we’re really relegating ourselves to mediocrity in the district,” Robbins said.

New Mexico’s robust charter school movement has shown that parents and students are eager for a variety of educational opportunities, that one size truly does not fit all. IB is already available at one Albuquerque charter and some private schools, but not at any traditional public school in New Mexico.

APS has been handed the opportunity to expand its offerings to students while at the same time raising the bar, not only for its students but for its other schools.

It should seize it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Test is Not to Blame

Janet Murguia: Failing Schools--Not Just a Label, A Fact

My Response (I tried to post this at the Huffington Post, but it was too long... so I just decided to post it here.)

I agree with Ms. Murguia that a great majority of schools that serve primarily low-income and minority schools are failing.  Although NCLB and its associated tests aren't perfect, the law and the tests aren't to be blamed for the achievement gap that exists in our nation. It seems like it's time to move the conversation away from whether NCLB is of merit.  I agree that there are major problems using only standards-based tests to assess our students as well as with the idea that when a student is proficient on such tests, that he/she has achieved everything our nation hopes for in a K-12 education.  It's true.  There are major problems with NCLB. 

But, I believe we do need data that compares schools across the nation.  I believe that we need to keep having the conversation about how to improve schools serving low-income and minority students.  That's why I think we need to focus our conversations more on reform and what reforms will work.  Simply changing or doing away with testing will not fix public schools.  Too much energy is wasted using NCLB as a scapegoat for the problems with public education.  On the other side of the debate, too much energy is also wasted using teachers as scapegoats. 

We have a test, the test is one piece of data that describes how our schools and our students are doing, and we need to see that data as not an end-all-be-all but as a tool to actually help improve things. At the very least, the tests tell us a truth that low-income and minority students have trouble taking these types of tests and probably also have trouble with the reading, writing, and math necessary to get right answers.  Until a better assessment comes along, let's try and come together and face the facts that a very large number of students in our nation have skills that are too low.  Let's try and come together to focus not on the test, but on the reforms necessary to make a difference.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Moving Beyond 'Blame the Teacher'

Moving Beyond 'Blame the Teacher'

The above article analogizes what is currently happening in education (blaming teachers, seeking to make them more replaceable, etc.) with US manufacturing in the 1970's and 80's.  I don't know much about the history of manufacturing, but if what the article says is true - that Japan began to overtake the US in manufacturing because the US could not get beyond the idea that low production performance was the fault of blue-collar workers - it sounds similar to the current state of affairs in education.  Yes, there might be some complacent blue-collar workers and some complacent teachers out there, but demoralizing them further certainly won't improve performance.  Seeking to improve the systems in place (top down, one size fits all....) seems, to me, the more effective place to start changing US public education for the better.

I see the dilemma, why pay teachers more or treat them better if they aren't doing a good job?  Why reward them for their poor performance?  But, without better pay and better incentives - without more autonomy and the chance to be rewarded for hard work - the profession will continue to attract people who expect to work 8am - 3pm with a 3 month summer break.

Yes, there are always the students... teachers always have the reward that their students will look back, years from now, and think about how their 10th grade math teacher really helped them to understand geometry.  But, on the day-to-day, there's no reward or recognition for making sure you get all of your papers graded or that you make sure all of your students really understood yesterday's lesson.  There's no reward for staying late after work to call your students' families.  Even test scores are shoddy measures of these types of activities that good teachers do in order to make sure their students show up and learn every day.  Which is why they don't happen in every classroom.  What can be done to encourage and recognize teachers who figure out what will motivate their students and then do it every day until their students show progress?  How can teachers really be made partners in public education, rather than cogs in the machine?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Year Round Schools

Year Round Schools May End at APS

I just read the above article, and I really don't like the idea that the school board can just vote to end year-round schedules at 8 elementary schools based on transportation costs.  I know budgets are tight.  But, it seems like the issue should be decided by school parents and staff - not the school board of a massive school district.  The schedule change saves something like $33,500.  Yes, a lot of money to me, but a drop in the bucket when it comes to the budget of the district as a whole.  It's possible that parents, staff, and students would agree to the change or maybe even be in favor of it, but it's also possible that they really approve of the year-round school schedule.  I would.  I think it's ill-conceived to have students off of school all summer, when we are griping about how our nation is consistently out-performed. 

The article does state that the year-round schools don't show statistically higher test scores than other schools, but perhaps they get the same results without having to run the same early-back-to-school summer programs that other elementary schools do.  I bet it saves cost to simply  have all of the students in school rather than creating an extra program so the schedule looks more like year round schools.  I'm always befuddled by who makes what decisions in public schooling.  It clearly seems to me like this decision, based on the amount of money it really saves and the amount of impact it will have on families and school staff, should be made by the FAMILIES and SCHOOL STAFF MEMBERS involved!

Senate Proposal Would End "Highly Qualified" Designation

Senate Proposal Would End "Highly Qualified" Designation

Hmmm.... I have mixed feelings about ending the need to be "highly qualified" in order to teach a subject.

In my previous job teaching in a rural, hard-to-staff middle school - I saw a career engineer get turned down to teach math, because he was not considered highly qualified. I could see that he isn't highly qualified to handle things like classroom management and curriculum development, but he certainly wasn't lacking in the capabilities necessary to teach middle school level math. I think situations like this do happen and I also think that, up to about 10th grade, an all-around intelligent person has the content knowledge necessary to adequately teach all subjects. Not that the person would necessarily be a good teacher, but there should be a way to prove that you are content-competent without having to go back and take college courses. After all, we don't want to deter potential great teachers from entering the profession.

On the other hand, I don't know that it's a great idea to further lower the standards that it currently takes to become a teacher. The teaching profession should seek to become MORE professional and prestigious, not less so. And part of that comes from who is allowed to walk into a classroom and be called "teacher." Not everyone is allowed to be "doctor," "lawyer," or "accountant," even if they'd like to become one. So, if we are doing away with "highly qualified," what will replace it? How will we ensure that our teachers are more highly qualified in the ways that matter to students?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Charters Stepping Up to Train Teachers

Charters Stepping Up to Train Teachers

I think this makes great sense! I'm happy to see that New Visions for Public Schools, a network of 76 public schools, of which only 2 are charters, is on board with this hands-on training. Anyone willing to take this on in New Mexico?

Landmark Online-Class Mandate On the Move in Idaho

Landmark Online-Class Mandate On the Move in Idaho

I guess it's good to prepare students who may have to take online college courses, but I personally don't see enough merit in this plan to justify forcing students into online education when they could be taking class, in person, from a qualified teacher. Thoughts?

House Gives Bipartisan Stamp of Approval to Charter Bill

House Gives Bipartisan Stamp of Approval to Charter Bill

I work at a charter school and, overall, I think that charter schools do and should have a permanent place in public education. Like my school, many charter schools provide a more close-knit atmosphere for students who need it. Charter schools also have the ability to provide a less traditional education than most public schools (although my charter school still has lots of state mandates to meet that keep our curriculum fairly similar to the public schools around us). Sometimes, charter schools even provide a more likely path to a college education than nearby public schools. What I'm wondering today, though, is whether the "innovations" that occur in charter schools have ever been adopted back into any public school systems. Charter schools are often touted as places where school leaders and educators are free to try cutting edge new education techniques, with the intention that , once proven to work in charter schools, these new, successful, techniques will then be implemented back into public schools.

Am I behind the times? Is this no longer how we even think of charter schools? Should they be thought of as places to innovate in ways that may eventually help our public school system? Have any charter school practices been successfully implemented in surrounding public schools? Are there charter school practices that could be deemed universally successful?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Study Finds Few Links Between Teacher Characteristics, Performance

Study Finds Few Links Between Teacher Characteristics, Performance

A recent study found that certification, advanced credentials, and experience in the classroom have little or no effect on student achievement on math and reading exams. I'm definitely not surprised to find out that certification and advanced credentials have no effect. And I would think experience would only make a difference for the first few years of a teacher's career. So... what DOES affect student achievement? I know that Teach For America has lots of data about the qualities that a person displays (i.e. highly organized, evidence of perseverance, etc.) and the likelihood that a person will make significant gains (2 years growth) with their students. What else is out there? Most colleges of education and alternative licensure programs don't have the luxury of turning away people who don't possess particular qualities. Neither do most school districts - there simply aren't enough qualified applicants.

So, now that we know what doesn't affect student achievement in math and reading - what does? What that can actually be encouraged for those who are already in the teaching profession? Hours per week spent working? Charting students' proficiency on classroom objectives? Co-teaching? Having a strong school leader?

Having seen my own test scores rise about 30% or so over 5 years of teaching, what seemed to make the biggest difference for my students was 1) Just getting better at teaching... sticking with it past those first 2 years, 2) Talking and caring a lot about test scores and paying attention to what types of questions were asked on the state test each year, 3)More or less forcing students to learn skills/content that they didn't learn the first time I taught it in class (by making them come in at lunch or re-do assignments) 4)Being held accountable by high achieving colleagues, TFA staff, and graduate school professors. But those are just guesses. I really don't know what caused my test scores to improve - and I guess that's part of the problem faced by those who study education. It's easy to see whether or not someone has an advanced degree, but what does "talking and caring a lot about test scores" really mean? And would it necessarily work for every teacher who tried it?

And there's always the question - are the test scores really what we're after? Definitively not. They are an approximation of students' progress toward the real outcomes that we want - success in college, skills necessary to obtain a lucrative career, well-rounded and informed citizen. Yet, we can't let our lack of clarity of exactly what results we want and how to measure those results blind us to the achievement gap that exists in our nation.

So as not to end on a hopeless note, I'm going to cast my vote for #4. I think that we need evaluators, coaches, colleagues, principals, graduate school teachers, parents, etc. inside classrooms - pushing teachers and helping teachers (not blaming teachers) to continuously find ways to help their students achieve more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Study Groups: Worth the Effort?

Although the following article's headline sounds like something from The Onion, it does post an interesting question:  Why don't high schools encourage the formation of study groups?  I fairly well agree with the article, that study groups would require a lot of effort to implement.  And they work best when they are voluntary for students - making them possibly not worth the investment of paying staff to supervise them.

That said, parents hosting study groups in their homes is a great idea.  Parents who have participated in study groups could very effectively encourage their own children as well as a few others to study together.  But would it be difficult for parents who have never participated in study groups of their own to host such an event?  Probably.

I once read that low-performing schools need to embrace the co-parenting challenge in order to raise achievement.  I believe that's true.  It's not useful to ignore the obstacles that come along with groups of students who attend schools in low-income areas.  The school's only hope at success is to identify the obstacles and come up with creative solutions. 

At first glance, study groups seem like they may not be worth the obstacles that they'd come along with - transportation, finding time in working or very busy students' schedules, lack of motivation, lack of study skills.  However, learning how to participate in a study group would go a very long way for students who do enter college.  They also, if done successfully, could put learning in a really positive light.  And they take adults out of the equation - allowing students to monitor one another rather than asking a parent for help. 

I personally find study groups really enjoyable as well as helpful.  I think study groups could be a really great way to augment daily learning for students who attend low-performing schools - and I'm for anything that effectively extends the school day by helping students spend more time learning. Any other thoughts out there?

ABQ/ COLUMN: Studying in Groups Can Be Effective

By Leanna Landsmann [syndicated columnist]
ABQ Journal
September 6, 2011

Q: As a mom working on a master’s degree, I’m part of a study group and love it. When I see my son, a high school sophomore, struggle with his homework, I wonder why high schools don’t encourage the formation of study groups. Is there a reason?

A: Some high schools promote study groups. Others don’t for reasons ranging from educators remaining unconvinced of their effectiveness to a lack of staff to manage them. The vice principal of a Michigan high school says, “With budget cuts, we hardly have enough people to oversee study halls. Plus, study groups are hard to make work. Some students don’t want to be there, and the distractions, like one kid having a new iPad or a cute girl texting, are enormous.”

Educators who take this view may be missing a big opportunity to accelerate teens’ learning, says Atlanta adolescent-literacy expert ReLeah Lent. “Some teachers are still in the ‘I lecture; you take notes’ mode, which practically shuts down kids’ brains.” This is unfortunate. If effectively run, study groups can prepare students for college and careers, Lent says. “The Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines collaboration and teaming as essential workplace skills. Research tells us that collaborative learning develops problem solving, critical thinking, empathy, deeper understanding of content and even produces higher test scores.”

You may not be able to do much about a school’s policy, but Lent says you can help your son learn more and learn better by forming, managing and hosting a student study group in your home. “We know that learning is not a solitary activity. We’ve all had the experience of learning something more deeply when we’ve explained it and discussed it with others. Studying in a group is perfect for this generation of active multitaskers who can’t sit still, much less learn alone,” Lent says.

What’s a parent’s role with study groups?
“Call four or five of your son’s classmates’ parents to describe your idea and initiate meetings at homes for the purpose of studying, doing projects, talking through difficult content or reading assigned books,” Lent says. “Schedule meetings once a week, for two hours, no more than three. Choose the topic ahead based on assignments. Offer snacks and breaks. Because kids know from the outset that the purpose of the gathering is to learn, they take the group seriously and discover that learning with others is satisfying and effective.”

Help students and parents understand techniques that make the groups effective, such as encouraging members to think out loud, share ideas, hash out problems, discuss and compare class notes taken to clarify concepts. Reinforce the importance of participating each week and acknowledge and draw upon the different strengths each student brings to the group. Identify distractions that can become time-wasters, but “don’t hang over the kids demanding that they stay strictly on task. The idea is to have your teens create lifelong study habits that encourage thinking, discussing, and probing for answers; in other words, working with others in a quest to learn.”

The College Board offers practical tips at: www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/high-school/50432.html

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Push to End 'Social Promotion' Hits Obstacles in New Mexico

Push to End 'Social Promotion' Hits Obstacles in New Mexico

To me, ending social promotion is not an example of education reform. It is a mandate that students and schools improve without going far enough to provide the resources and ideas to make that happen. I recently saw a statistic that correlated high school drop outs with kids who had been retained in grades K-8. In some cases, multiple retentions may lead directly to a child dropping out of school. I think it is more likely that the same factors that led to a student being retained are at play in his/her decision to drop out. In any case, there's no way that I can see retention as a solution to low student performance.

In high school, it's possible that a student's apathy toward school causes her to fail and that retention might make that student reconsider the amount of effort she is putting toward school. Not in third grade. I don't think that retention would "scare" any third grader into finally trying to do well on his state test. No way.

So, while I hope that NM schools get better and social promotion becomes less necessary - I support Mary Jane Garcia (the "obstacle" in NM... according to the above article) and echo her doubts about ending social promotion.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Weighing Professional Development in a Tight Budget

Weighing Professional Development in a Tight Budget

I don't think any of the professional development that I've ever attended is worth having larger class sizes and fewer teachers...

NM Effective Teaching Task Force Recommendations

Here are the recently released NM Effective Teaching Task Force Recommendations for evaluating teachers and school leaders. I haven't had the chance to read them thoroughly yet, but they seem fairly reasonable.  The one thing I'm wondering about, though, is that teachers in un-tested (by a Standards Based Assessment) grades have 25% of their evaluation based on their school's letter grade A-F.  I guess that has the potential to get teachers to care about how their school does as a whole, but it seems more likely to de-incentivize working in traditionally low-performing schools.  I definitely think, considering how many low performing schools there are in New Mexico, that we need to create incentives for our best teachers to be working in our most difficult schools - and not the other way around.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Washington DC/ OPINION: My Favorite Teachers, Part 1 and 2
By Steve Mariotti [Founder, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship]
Huffington Post [Huffingtonpost.com]
August 29, 2011

I have taught entrepreneurship and business to low-income students for the past 30 years, and have often thought about the teachers who have had an impact on my teaching philosophy and career. I would like to present four great educators who touched me personally.

1. Jaime Escalante

Born in Bolivia, Jaime Escalante came to this country in 1970 to teach math. As his accreditation in Bolivia was not recognized here, he had to recertify his educational credentials. In the meantime, he worked nights as a dish washer. His first teaching position came in 1974 at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, which is located in an extremely low-income area. By 1978, he was teaching his students advanced calculus. Four years later, 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement exam in calculus, an astonishing number considering their backgrounds. However, many had the same mistakes on the same problems, which made the authorities suspicious. Each of his students was made to retake the test and each one passed it -- again. Seventy-three of his students had passed the Advanced Placement exam by 1987. Jaime became an instant legend through Stand and Deliver, a wonderful movie in which he was played by Edward James Olmos. I had begun to read about Jaime in the mid-80's and he instantly became an inspiration -- his effect on my career has been incalculable.

I was a 32-year-old teacher in New York in 1986, when I called Garfield High and left a message for Mr. Escalante. That night, I got a call at home, and through a thick Spanish accent I heard:

"Is this Mr. Mariotti?"

"This is me."

"It's Jaime Escalante. You wanted to talk to me?"

I almost fell over. The legend was returning my phone call. "I'm a special ed teacher in the South Bronx," I told him. "I really admire you. I'm going to in L.A. to accept an award and wanted to visit your classroom."

He said, "Of course."

Two weeks later, I was waiting in the lobby of Garfield High when Jaime walked up and gave me a hug. "Let's go, Steve." He showed me his classroom, a large, auditorium-like space, with each row of seats up a step, so everyone would have an unobstructed view of the front of the room. On the wall I noticed blown-up photos of the Los Angeles Lakers.

In his office Jaime showed me the large filing cabinets he used to stay organized. He had a lesson plan and handouts for each class in a folder. On any given day, he pulled out the appropriate folder and was good to go. We went back to the classroom. I sat in the back row, so I was looking down over the entire room. Jaime walked up a couple of steps, and seemed to be talking to me as well as to the students.

It was a brilliant presentation. He used three overhead transparencies: one to present the objective, one to show a sample problem, and one to demonstrate a more difficult example, which he would make explanatory notes on with a Vis-A-Vis pen. (To this day, these pens are the only writing instruments I use -- with the clips bent back, as Jaime did.)

The students would then break into groups to solve the problem, after which two of the groups would be called to present. In the last two minutes of the class, Jaime would give a lightning quiz that the students would self-grade in 30 seconds. He followed this same routine every day that I was there.

Many of my own classroom techniques were eventually based on watching this great educator. I learned the importance of emphasizing punctuality (later I would call it the "Lombardi rule" -- after football coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers -- but I really learned it from Jaime). I saw the importance of providing role models for the students, which is why Jaime had pictures of Einstein and Galileo and Newton on the walls, along with Lakers stars. He taught me the importance of group work in the classroom, and always being prepared. I also learned the value of drills combined with constant self-evaluation. Perhaps most importantly I learned the significance of visuals in teaching; he had basic mathematical formulas posted all over the room. In just 48 minutes, Jaime utilized teaching strategies that could reach any learner in the class.

He explained that he followed the same format every day so the kids would get to know the routine. He stood by the door and shook the hand of each student that came in. He closed the door the moment the bell rang, and no student was allowed to enter late. He had a "do now" problem already written on the board; the class was silent as each student thought about the problem. When the bell rang and after he closed the door, he would take out of his desk a large stuffed animal and randomly toss it. The first kid it touched had to go up to the board to solve the problem in writing. He tossed the toy four more times. Five students would then be at the board simultaneously working on the same problem, while the rest of the class watched.
You could hear a pin drop while they were working. Then, one by one, each student would present his or her answer and show how it was arrived at. Once the five had presented their solutions, Jaime would give the class new material.

Jaime had me over to his house for dinner twice, and we ate lunch together almost every day. In one of the highlights of my teaching life, he let me give a 20-minute lesson on math and business. Jaime was the greatest educator I ever knew personally. I was proud to call him a friend and mentor. He died on March 30, 2010. The last time I spoke to him was in the late 90's, when he was teaching in Sacramento. The last thing he said to me was: "Get the routine and the audio visuals right and assume the students can do anything." I have never forgotten that.

2. John Holt

A great book can change one's life. I read John Holt's How Children Fail in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan library in 1977. No book has ever had a bigger impact on me. Holt was a genius. It made me think that I wanted to be a teacher at some point in my life. That came to pass seven years later, in the South Bronx, when I had created a program to teach entrepreneurship to low-income children. Holt's concepts and methods had an important influence on my practice, especially the importance of driving fear from the classroom. So many students fail because they are afraid to make errors because they will be ridiculed and judged.

Holt attended Harvard, became an elementary school teacher, and then attracted a great deal of attention in 1964, when he published How Children Fail. In his three groundbreaking works (the other two were How Children Learn and Escape from Childhood: The Rights and Needs of Children), he argued for a teaching methodology that was student-driven. Holt believed that children had an innate love of learning and could teach themselves almost anything. He argued that the job of the teacher was to be a guide, coach, and reference source.

When I came across Holt's book in Michigan, I was in my second year of MBA studies, but decided to add classes from the School of Education. Our professor asked us to go to the library to find and read any book on education, and that's how I found Holt -- totally by chance. I wrote half a dozen letters to him with comments and queries in regard to teaching and education. He returned each with a written answer next to the paragraph that contained the question.

I continued to follow his work and I subscribed to his newsletter. The first time we spoke it was on the phone, in 1979, shortly after he had published Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story. In that book, he writes about teaching himself the cello at the age of 56, partly to discover how people learn. I spoke about my learning issues with letters and colors and he told me of his own. We laughed about how hard it was to admit one's weaknesses. After that, I called him maybe once a year just to chat. He would always speak to me and the conversations were always stimulating. I remember that in 1983 I thanked him for his life's work. I have never forgotten what he said:

"Thank you, Steve. I have enjoyed getting to know you."

"But we've never met," I said. "Yes we did. We exchanged ideas on teaching. How could we have been closer?"