Thursday, October 28, 2010

Study finds most inexperienced teachers in poor, minority schools

Results of a study released last week by the Association of Texas Professional Educators should come as no surprise to superintendents.

Conducted by Ed Fuller, a researcher in the educational administration department at the University of Texas at Austin, the statewide study showed that students in affluent white schools are more likely to be taught by an experienced, highly qualified teacher than those in poor and minority schools.

To measure teacher quality, Fuller created a Teacher Quality Index based on measures such as years of experience, certification status, academic ability and even stability at a school.

The major findings of the study are:

  • Even after controlling for prior achievement, student demographics and geographic location, teacher quality at the school level is associated with student achievement – especially at the secondary level.
  •  At the elementary level, teacher quality appears to be more equitably distributed than at the secondary level, but this is more likely a result of the combination of a lack of detailed data and the greater supply of elementary teachers than the result of any state or district policies to equalize teacher quality across schools.
  •  Students in lower-performing schools have substantially less access to teacher quality than students in higher-performing schools.
  • At all school levels, but particularly at middle and high school, students in high-poverty and predominantly minority schools have far less access to teacher quality than students in low-poverty and predominantly white schools.

It’s a challenge for school leaders. Educators know that nothing matters more to a child’s performance than the quality of the teacher in the classroom, yet convincing your best and brightest to teach in the most challenging settings can be difficult.

Teachers at an urban school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood often face overwhelming obstacles, especially compared to their peers at affluent schools.

Their jobs are more difficult, in many cases their commute is farther and their hours are likely longer, yet in most cases they get the same pay.

Fuller says it’s difficult to suggest positive changes at a time when an increase in education funding seems impossible – in fact, cuts are looming – but there are things school district leaders can do to foster teacher quality, which can vary not just district-to-district, but school-to-school within the same district.

“You can look at the working conditions in those low-performing schools and try to address that,” Fuller said.

Fuller advocates paying an extra stipend to teachers who choose to go to hard-to-staff schools, obviously a strategy that requires more money. It’s a program many districts are trying out. Fuller emphasized that the stipends have to be more than marginal to make a difference in recruitment and retention. An extra $1,500, he says, won’t cut it.

Even if districts can afford a healthy stipend – say, $7,000 to $10,000 - Fuller said leaders have to address working conditions or teachers won’t stay. That means hiring an effective principal that inspires loyalty in his teachers, and treats those teachers with trust and respect. Trust, Fuller said, fosters an environment where teachers feel they can be innovative.

Fuller said he’s conducted working condition studies in seven states and consistently the findings showed that the principals had a more positive perception of their own behavior than the teachers. For example, when the principals are asked whether they seek input from teachers, the answer was usually yes. But at many of those same schools, the teachers overwhelmingly answered no.

Fuller said working condition studies can provide valuable information for superintendents. He asks questions like: Do teachers feel supported? Are they motivated to buy into the school vision? Are they being involved in the school’s mission? Is the principal providing an atmosphere of trust and respect?

“That’s how you improve education, you create a team that supports each other,” Fuller said. “We don’t teach that in principal prep programs. We don’t even talk about it.”

Fuller also talked about the importance of equity in facilities and pointed to a mountain of research that has linked the effect of the condition of facilities to human performance, but conceded that addressing that also costs money.

He circled back to the point of collaboration and building a good team with quality leadership – at the principal level and beyond. Fuller is just finishing up a principal survey aimed at studying effective school leadership and preparation. The survey was commissioned by TASA, TEPSA, TASSP, ATPE and UCEA.

“It looks like one of the most important predictors of principal retention is the leadership behavior of the superintendent and/or the immediate supervisor of the principal,” Fuller said. “If superintendents can model the kind of collaborative behavior that creates good working conditions then it’s more likely their principals will follow that lead…There’s no cost to that.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Superman won't save us, we have to save ourselves

I finally had the opportunity to see the much-hyped movie Waiting for Superman not once but twice this week.

A group from North East ISD held a screening Monday morning in San Antonio, and Austin ISD hosted a screening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Tuesday night.

After the onslaught of media attention surrounding the film, including scores of reviews from advance screenings, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

It seems there have been two camps formed by those who have seen the film. For supporters of charters, it’s a window on what’s working and a two-hour promo for expanding and supporting charter schools. For mainstream public education, the film feels like a personal attack – highlighting only the negative and giving little credit for success in American public schools.

Here’s the way I saw the film: A powerful and moving narrative following the compelling stories of five children and their families. It had cool, catchy graphics and sprinkled footage of the 1950’s Superman series and other ‘50s-era film clips showing public schools as idyllic places as comic relief. But it was a completely over-simplified look at the problems and challenges of public schools. Director Davis Guggenheim picks and chooses both his statistics and his examples of good schools to lead the viewer to one conclusion – charter schools have the answer and teachers unions are the root of all that is wrong in education.

Of course, there are major flaws in those conclusions. First of all, Guggenheim – who also made the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth – all but ignores the fact that the vast majority of charter schools are not doing any better than traditional public schools in their area. In fact, many do much worse. The schools he highlights in Waiting for Superman are the exception, not the rule.

And while in some states teachers unions have hamstrung administrators, making it difficult to fire poor-performing teachers (New York City’s infamous rubber room where teachers awaited the outcome of grievance hearings for years while collecting full salaries is perhaps the most egregious example,) you can’t blame the unions in states like Texas where unions are essentially powerless due to right-to-work laws. Yet we still have more than our fair share of failing schools in poor, usually urban, areas.

Four of the five children featured in the movie live in some of the most blighted neighborhoods in the country and are zoned for struggling, in some cases failing, schools. The neighborhoods are plagued with high rates of crime, poverty and unemployment and have some of the highest foster care rates in the country.

Yet Guggenheim doesn’t address how these factors affect a child’s education. He points out that the successful charter schools adhere to a “no excuses” policy and a firm belief that every child can learn. He goes farther to suggest that bad neighborhoods don’t beget bad schools, but that maybe bad schools beget bad neighborhoods.

There’s nothing wrong with a “no excuses” approach and I believe every public school teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that every child can learn, but guess how those successful charter schools Guggenheim features pull it off? At SEED in Washington D.C., the children live at the school, removed from their neighborhood and all its influences 24 hours a day. Promise Academy in Harlem is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone created by charismatic entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada, where a community partnership provides a host of wraparound services beginning at birth for children and their families. As Canada puts it, they are transforming their neighborhood block by block. And at KIPP LA Prep, children attend longer school days, Saturday school and parents must commit to being a part of their child’s education.

You can’t watch the film and not pull for the struggling parents working so hard to get a better education for their children. They pin their hopes to a ball dropping out of a spinning basket, a name chosen out of a pile, or a number randomly picked by a computer. Most go to these lotteries with little chance of getting in because of few open spots and a huge number of applicants. But teachers at traditional public schools don’t get to tell their parents they must be invested in their child’s education. Their children don’t withdraw and go to a different school if they can’t make the grade. So how is that model a wholesale answer to the problems of public education?

Despite the contradictions, I encourage everyone – especially educators – to see the film. Any time we can get the entire country focusing on education, it’s a good thing. And it’s important that we don’t try to deny or minimize the problems. They are there, they are real and they are critical. We have to figure out how public education can once again be the great equalizer, how children from every racial, ethnic and economic background can receive a world-class education and be ready for college.

Guggenheim sums up what education needs at the end of the movie in five points: Quality teachers, more class time, world class standards, high expectations, and real accountability.

I agree with every one of those. The question the movie seems to think it answers but doesn’t is: "How do we get there?"

People who have devoted their lives to public education need to be at the forefront of this conversation. Why is it that the word “reformer” is suddenly only applied to newcomers? At TASA, we like to use the word “transform.” Our Academy for Transformational Leadership, for example, is about creating a new vision for public schools and shaking up the status quo.

My fear is that this movie will only polarize two different schools of thought when it comes to reforming education. My hope is that we can realize we all want the same result and politics and egos should be set aside. The focus should be on the children of this country.

We can’t afford to let this problem go unresolved.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Still waiting on "Waiting for Superman"

I had planned to wait to write about the new movie Waiting for Superman until I’d actually seen it – it’s the journalist in me that demands all the facts before writing the story. The documentary by director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for another provocative documentary – An Inconvenient Truth - opened in select theaters last weekend and won’t be showing in Austin until October 15.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that prior to the movie’s release I was sharing links of reviews and buzz surrounding the movie, but I wanted to leave it at that until I had the chance to see it for myself.

But the onslaught of media attention and relentless promotion of the film prompted me to change my mind. I’ll still write a proper review after watching the movie, but wanted to share with readers the basic synopsis of the movie and what its critics are saying.

Guggenheim claims he had refused to do a film about education for years, but was struck by a wave of guilt as he drove past public schools to take his daughters to the private school they attend in Los Angeles. How that translated into Guggenheim making a film that glorifies charter schools, vilifies teachers unions and, according to several reviews of the film, spends precious little time talking to classroom teachers before coming to the conclusion that America’s public schools are damning children to a life of poverty and, in some cases, incarceration, I can’t quite understand.

The film follows five children on a mission to escape their neighborhood school for a promising charter school. What it doesn’t examine, according to the reviews I’ve read, is the success (or failure) of charter schools.

Guggenheim seems to take for gospel that so-called “reformers” in education have the answer and that getting into a charter school is a ticket to success.  Yet tactics used by the reformers he highlights, like Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee, have not proven successful. Tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, for example, a key strategy of Rhee’s, has been shown again and again to be an ineffective method of raising teacher and student performance.

A new study by Vanderbilt University concluded that offering teachers annual bonuses of as much as $15,000 had no effect on student test scores. It suggested that teachers already were working so hard that the promise of extra money failed to convince them to work harder or change the way they taught.

It reinforced a Texas study last year, conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and the University of Missouri that concluded that the merit-based Texas Educators Excellence Grant (TEEG) program also had no impact on student achievement gains.

Also largely left out, the fact that only one in five charter schools do any better than neighborhood public schools, and in Texas, that number is even lower. Most in fact do much worse. Waiting for Superman prompted the Houston-based advocacy group Children at Risk to examine charter school performance in Texas.

The new report says: “While charters may offer some of our state’s ‘superheroes,’ many others – if not most – are underperforming.” The report also pointed out that many of the high-achieving charter schools included a demanding curriculum and a strong parent commitment – things that sometimes “weed out” some children from the program.

A study by education researcher Ed Fuller had similar results. Fuller focused on charter middle schools in Texas and found that many top-rated charters lost a large share of their students over time. He found that those students tended to be lower performing, leaving the academically stronger students at the schools.

And where do you think those students went? Back to their neighborhood public school, which doesn’t have the option of “weeding them out.”

Fuller told the Dallas Morning News: “Many students who remain in the schools do very well, but the evidence certainly suggest that expanding these charters will not substantially impact the education of the majority of students living in the urban communities that suffer from decades of unemployment and poverty.”

Also, Guggenheim’s film suggests that failing schools contribute to, or maybe even are the direct cause of, cycles of poverty and blight in a neighborhood. Never is the suggestion made that poverty and its byproducts are what make schools in poor neighborhoods the most challenging in which to teach.

While no blame is shared with the community, but left entirely on the doorstep of the public school, Guggenheim also seems to ignore that the successful charter schools he highlights take very seriously the importance of community in a child’s education.

At the Harlem Children’s Zone (charismatic founder Geoffrey Canada is a central figure in the film) for example, educators work hand-in-hand with social service providers, beginning services from birth, and taking care of parents, too.

Another school, SEED in Washington D.C., is a boarding school. The SEED Foundation uses the tactic of removing children from their neighborhood and surrounding them with positive support 24 hours a day. That’s wonderful for those children, but not a realistic solution for wholesale education reform.

All that said, I’m glad a film about education is garnering so much attention. I only hope that people who go see it understand that they're only seeing part of the story, and from a skewed perspective at that. And while it’s fantastic that the film is spawning a storm of education coverage (I’ve always known it was one of the most important beats to cover, why did it take a movie for NBC, CBS and ABS to figure it out?) I also hope journalists will ask the right questions, the tough questions, about reform.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Read the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss’ blog post on “The strange media coverage of Obama’s education policies.”

And check back with me on October 16. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Waiting for Superman.