Archive for the ‘ Education ’ Category

Thoughts on Senate Bill 7…

Last Monday, (6/13) Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 7– a new education reform bill.

The bill’s provisions will enable Illinois School Districts to…

1) Lengthen the school day and/or extend the school year

2) Fire poorly performing teachers more easily

3) Offer merit pay to teachers

Apparently, the bill’s provisions will also make it more difficult for teacher’s unions to strike. (This addition comes at a good time for Rahm, who announced earlier this week that  CTU teachers will not be given scheduled pay raises).

Overall, I’d say the provisions in this bill represent a specific political and ideological orientation towards education reform. It’s an orientation my education policy professor labels “business minded”. Put simply, business minded reformers are typically pro-charter, pro-merit pay and anti-union. In other words, the business minded camp is interested in  applying business principles (choice, competition, & incentives) in education policy.

Personally, I’m worried that Senate Bill 7 reflects “business minded” reform concepts more than it reflects research about what matters for improving student achievement.

I  do think that extending the school day is a good change (kids in Illinois spend less time in school than kids in any other state), however, it’s unclear how the state will fund longer school days without an increase in education funding. (This point is currently being argued by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group here in Chicago).

I’m also not opposed to firing poorly performing teachers, however– I think it’s important to point out that the image of the lazy, incompetent inner-city teacher (or the so-called “lemons” depicted in Waiting for Superman) is largely a myth (* See “Chicago School Reform: Myths Realities and Visions“). The “bad teacher” is a scapegoat (much like Reagan’s welfare queens) which enables us to avoid dealing with the root causes of urban social problems.

In my own experience working in two different inner-city schools–the vast majority of teachers I met were hard-working and cared deeply about their students. I suspect some of these teachers (myself included) could have been more effective if they had received more supports (like high-quality school leadership, training in cultural competency or classroom management, or access to more student data). There were of course, a few bad teachers (many of whom were persuaded to leave after a year of teaching). A much bigger problem, however, was that many of the most promising teachers left after just a few years . In most cases these teachers snagged jobs in the suburbs or at well-regarded charter schools where they could count on a less stressful work environment. Sure, firing incompetent teachers will benefit our schools–but it doesn’t really get at the larger issue of how to recruit and keep high quality teachers in urban schools.

As for merit pay… with the present budget crisis it seems unlikely to me that many districts will be experimenting with merit pay programs. Without more funding, this provision seems rather meaningless. Overall, I feel rather  ambivalent about the concept of merit pay. I think that teachers should be rewarded for their hard work–but in order to do this we need to find a holistic way to evaluate teachers (i.e. the idea of determining teacher pay on test scores alone strikes me a highly problematic). Personally, I prefer the idea of career ladders for teachers (i.e. exceptional teachers take on new positions as “teacher mentors” or “lead teachers” and receive a pay increase– much like a promotion).

Why Our Beliefs About Intelligence Matter More than Our Actual Intelligence…

In second grade I began to hate math class vigorously (to be clear about my feelings I actually scribbled “I HATE MATH” on the borders of just about every class assignment).  It began when the class was required to memorize our multiplication tables. At the end of every week, our teacher gave us a timed test where we were instructed to answer as many multiplication questions as we could within five minutes.

Those tests made my self-esteem plummet. As soon as our pencils hit the paper my mind went blank. It was like something in my brain just clamped shut. While the other kids were writing furiously, my own hand couldn’t form a single answer. Once time expired, I fled to the bathroom to hide my tears and wallow in self-pity.

As a second grader I formed a simple explanation for my struggles with multiplication—I sucked at math. It didn’t take long for “I suck at math” to become an unshakable belief in my brain. I truly believed that my intelligence (especially with regard to math) was fixed. On the occasions when I did earn an ‘A’, I regarded it as a kind of fluke rather than proof that maybe I could get “smarter” at math.

I brought up this example because I recently read an article by an educational psychologist (Carol Dweck) who argues that there are two types of learners. There are learners who perceive their intelligence as fixed (me), and learners who believe that they can become smarter through increased effort.

Learners who perceive their intelligence as malleable are more likely to view struggle as a natural part of learning and are more likely to earn high grades. In comparison, learners who believe their abilities are innate are less likely to put forth effort or persist through challenges.

It makes sense right? As a student I was probably more likely to give up on a math problem than another student who believed their intelligence was malleable—because I believed my math skills were limited. If I didn’t get a problem quickly, it confirmed my assumption that I “couldn’t do math” and I gave up.

Naturally, Dweck’s research makes me wonder how much of my struggles with math were actually a reflection of my innate limitations vs. a reflection of firmly held beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies. Is it possible I could have experienced more success in math class if I had believed that effort could make me incrementally smarter?

Alright, I know I’m talking a lot about my own experiences here, but I promise this piece isn’t just about me. I think this is important information for those of us who care about the achievement gap. That’s because perceptions of fixed intelligence are particularly problematic for Black and Latino students who may internalize negative racial stereotypes which imply that Blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than their White or Asian counterparts.

The good news is that we can change (at least to a degree) the way kids think about their intelligence just by the way we talk about learning. One approach is to actually teach kids some basic neurology. For example, teachers can share some age-appropriate readings about neuroscience experiments that document brain growth. Research has documented that kids who learn that the brain is like a muscle, which grows stronger the more it is worked actually experience learning gains.

It is also important for us to re-think some of our cultural attitudes towards learning. Studies that compare American and Japanese students reveal that Japanese kids view struggle as a normal part of learning, while American kids assume that struggle is a sign of stupidity. Educators can help curb these attitudes by emphasizing that struggle is a normal part of the learning.

Furthermore, we can use praise to reinforce ideas about malleable intelligence and to normalize struggle. For example, educational psychologist Carol Dweck argues that it is much better to praise students for effort than to tell them that they’re smart. Dweck argues that when children perform well on an assignment and we say, “wow, look how smart you are”, rather than “I’m impressed by the amount of effort you put into this”, we send the message that achievement is determined by innate abilities rather than by effort. Dweck’s research also documents that children who are praised for being smart are less likely to take on new challenges or academic risks because they wish to preserve the image that they are smart. Such children are also less likely to study because they are led to believe that learning should be effortless.

I’m not sure why some kids develop the attitude that intelligence is fixed, while other kids don’t. However, for adults I think the course of action is clear. The way we talk to kids about their learning experiences can send powerful messages—and can shape or distort the way kids think about their ability to succeed. It’s quite possible that our beliefs in our own abilities may be more reliable predictors of future success than any measure of intelligence.

The Problems with Special Education in Urban Schools

Discussions in the media about the “achievement gap” between whites and students of color typically revolve around discussions of teacher quality, innovative school models, high stakes testing, and to some degree teacher’s unions. It always surprises me that education reformers don’t spend more time discussing special education. At both urban schools I worked at, close to 25% of the student population was identified as “special ed”.  Special ed programs are particularly problematic for African American students — who are twice as likely to be labeled E.D. (emotionally disturbed), and three times as likely to be labeled as LD (learning disabled) or some other mild intellectual disability. Furthermore, African American students who are labeled special ed are less likely to be mainstreamed into regular ed classrooms than their white counterparts.

Not surprisingly, these statistics are misleading. African American students are not more likely to be learning disabled or emotionally disturbed  than white students. So why are large numbers of African American students misclassified as special education students?

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “The Over-representation of African Americans in multiple public systems”. In one breakout session, I listened to Richard G. Smith, the Chief Officer of Chicago Public Schools Office of Special Education and Supports reflect on the disproportionate representation of African American students in special ed. Smith pointed out that poverty is not a significant predictor of being placed in special education (so no arguing that Black kids get put in special ed because they are more likely to be living in poverty…)

Of course, racism is one key explanation. Teachers may be (unconsciously or consciously) more likely to expect less from students of color. However, in addition to this common argument, Smith provided a few interesting explanations. Smith pointed out that many kids who are labeled “LD” perform average or above average on IQ tests. He stated he believed many children placed in special education programs are actually “curriculum casualties”, (in other words the victims of years of poor teaching) rather than learning disabled. Smith also pointed out at that pre-K students are especially vulnerable to being labeled LD. Sometimes instructors misinterpret delays due to trauma or abuse as learning disabilities. This is problematic because only 5% of students ever leave special education.

Last, Smith pointed out that in most classrooms for kids labeled emotionally a small number of kids with actual emotional disturbances (such as schizophrenia) are usually mixed with “gang-bangers” (i.e students who may cause discipline problems but are by no means disturbed). Special education classrooms are hardly an appropriate solution for gang-affiliated students, or other kids who may cause discipline problems. I was speaking with a CPS principal earlier this week–and she pointed out that many “problem behaviors” that students enact in school are the same behaviors they need to survive on the streets. She stated that schools typically punish kids for fighting rather than teaching them alternative ways to deal with conflicts or manage strong emotions.

What are the consequences of over-representation? For one, kids classified as special education are less likely to interact with typical peers during the school day and may experience stigmatization. Furthermore, teachers may lower their expectations of special education students–and as a result these students may not realize their full potential, and may not feel encouraged to apply for college.

Clearly, schools need a reliable and accurate process for determining which students are coping with an actual disability. In the breakout session I attended, Smith argued that the “Response to Intervention” process provides a systematic process which limits individual discretion and personal bias. Smith also argued that educators must pay attention to other indicators of intelligence besides academic performance. Adaptive behaviors (how well a child does in the outside environment) and IQ tests can provide an educator more reliable information about a kid’s abilities than grades or test scores.

Community Organizing Groups in Chicago Demand Reductions in CPS Suspensions

At 10:30 am this morning, community activists, Southside residents and a handful of local politicians gathered at the Southlawn United Methodist Church for a public meeting devoted to the issue of suspension in Chicago Public Schools. The meeting was organized by the Community Renewal Society in collaboration with a number of other community organizing groups including Enlace Chicago, Family Focus Lawndale, and POWER-PAC.

I attended partly out of curiosity and partly out of support. (My own work as an organizing intern with the Gamaliel Foundation is also focused on suspension.)

For those of you unfamiliar to power-based organizing, public action meetings are essentially public theater. They are intended to portray the community as powerful, organized and unflinching. Typically, organizers select an “ask” (in this case “will you commit to reduce CPS suspensions by 40%?”), and invite “targets” (usually local politicians). The goal is to pack as many bodies into a room as possible, and to pressure the targets into conceding to the demands of the community.

When I arrived at the church a few minutes after 10:30, the drama was already underway. A pastor with a thunderous voice was leading the audience in an old gospel song “Victory is Mine”. The people were swaying and clapping; there was a palpable sense of urgency in the room. (The gospel songs, including a refrain of “We Shall Overcome”, struck me as a deliberate strategy to evoke memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Probably a smart way to appeal to the emotions of the audience, and to connect the issue at hand with the on-going struggle for racial equality.)

Once the meeting got underway, a variety of speakers (including two High School students) described the problematic aspects of suspension. The information they provided was rooted in solid data collected from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and Catalyst. Some statistics that were particularly powerful:

* In 2008-2009 40,000 students were suspended from CPS, and 600 were expelled. That’s one suspension for every 10 kids

* African-American males make up 23% of CPS students, but accounted for 48% of suspensions, and 57% of expulsions

* A student who is suspended just once is three times as likely to drop out of school.

* Attendance is the most crucial determinant of passing courses and graduation.

These findings mean that current suspension policies undoubtedly contribute to the high dropout rates in Chicago. Personally, I’m not surprised. These statistics correlate with my own experiences as a teacher. Almost every student who failed my class did so because he/she was absent for long periods of time and failed to make up the work. Suspended students often returned to my classroom feeling confused and overwhelmed. Sending work home is no substitute for classroom instruction.

The meeting appeared to be a partial success. The “High Hopes Campaign” (the name for the coalition of groups who organized the public action) received written endorsements of support from mayoral candidates Carol Mosely Braun and Miguel del Valle. Two local politicians, state representative Marlo Coleman and Alderwoman of the 8th ward Michelle Harris were also present and pledged their support.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “High Hopes Campaign” and its efforts to reduce suspensions–you can visit their facebook page at

Support Increased Education Funding in Illinois: Visit

This week, Illinois legislators will likely vote on a tax increase. Should the tax increase pass, the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is demanding that 5% of the increase be allotted towards the state’s public schools. Specifically, Raise Your Hand is suggesting that new monies be used to decrease teacher-student ratios and increase spending for early childhood education programs, vocational schools and High School selective enrollment programs.

If you would like to support Raise Your Hand’s campaign, simply click on this link: . The site will automatically generate a letter that you can send to your state representatives–encouraging them to vote for a tax increase in public education funds. I just emailed a letter using the site, and it took less than a minute.

Raise Your Hand is a wonderful, grass-roots organization that formed on the Northside of Chicago last spring. The group is compromised of Chicago Public Schools parents who advocate for education funding. Last spring, Raise Your Hand rallied against Prop 37 (which proposed budget cuts to the public school system)– and the proposition was overturned. This year, RYH also successfully applied pressure  to return TIF surplus money to the public school system, and organized a panel discussion for Mayoral candidates to discuss their views on education (you can view a video of the event on their website:

Can Computers Replace Teachers? What Should the Role of Technology be in Education Reform?

When I began teaching four years ago, differentiation was a major buzzword among school administrators. For those of you who have never taught in a classroom, differentiation is the idea that a teacher should tailor his/her lesson to meet the needs of different learners. Advocates of differentiation believe that it is not enough to “pitch to the middle” of the class—teachers need to find a way to challenge the kids at the top of the class without losing the kids at the bottom. Teachers who differentiate will make sure their lesson caters to visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, and special education students.

As a new teacher I was told “Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate”—but few administrators or even education professors bothered to specify how I was supposed to differentiate. When I tracked down special education teachers in my building and asked them how to better accommodate my students with learning disabilities they told me to simply have the kids complete fewer items on class assignments. I felt frustrated– giving some kids less work than others hardly seemed to fit the concept of differentiation.

Essentially, differentiation is wonderful in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. Most teachers I knew were already overwhelmed and did not have time to develop multiple lessons plans to meet the needs of different students. Furthermore, it seemed like although everyone agreed that differentiation was important—there was a lot of confusion among educators around what differentiation was actually supposed to look like in the classroom.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a “Freakeconomics” podcast about a new educational pilot program in New York City called “School of One”. School of One is a computer program developed by TFA alum Joel Rose. Put simply, the program crafts individual learning plans for each student, depending upon that child’s needs. Students can use the software to engage in online lessons, group work, or independent practice. Best of all, the program collects data on each student so that a tech guru back at the School of One office can monitor the progress of every kid.

I was intrigued by the “School of One” project because it seemed that this program could be a valuable classroom tool for teachers looking to differentiate for their students. The program accomplishes what no single human being can—it specially designs an individual learning “playlist” for each student. (On a side note: it was refreshing to see an innovative technology applied to solving social problems. I often lament how so many of our latest technologies, the Ipad, Facebook, Groupon etc, are solely geared towards making a profit.)

We all know that large percentages of teachers (especially in urban schools) fail to make expected gains with their students. The creators of School of One argue that we’re already recruiting plenty of talented and motivated teachers to work in our public schools. The problem, according to Mr. Rose, is an issue of design. In other words, we need to think differently about the way we structure the job for teachers. Perhaps having one adult lecture a room full of thirty students isn’t the most effective way to get kids to learn.

Personally, I think Mr. Rose has some pretty valid ideas. Teaching can feel like a Herculean task sometimes. Teachers must find ways to manage inappropriate behaviors, communicate regularly with parents, form meaningful relationships with students, plan stimulating lessons, secure funding for classroom supplies, interpret classroom data and find ways to motivate kids. As a teacher I was faced with the daunting task of engaging students who could not read in the same High School Spanish classroom with students who were college-bound. Perhaps Mr. Rose is right to think that we have not organized the job of teaching in a way that sets teachers and students up to be successful.

I think the “School of One” program offers some insightful suggestions on how we might re-think the role of teachers. I think one of the most impressive aspects of the program is its ability to collect and summarize lots of data on student achievement. It is difficult for educators to collect meaningful data on daily student progress. (Believe me, I’ve tried it.) With the School of One program, educators can easily track the progress of students and identify which kids are mastering the material. This way, teachers can step in and make sure a kid understands the material right away—rather than waiting until a student fails a quiz in order to take action.

One of the most important adjustments we can make in teacher training programs is to make teachers data experts. Right now, schools of education rarely emphasize the importance of data or teach educators how to collect and use data. The result is that few teachers are able to keep track of whether or not their kids are learning.

As a Teach for America teacher, I was required to keep data on my students. Essentially, this meant recording whether or not students mastered various objectives on quizzes and tests. While this data was useful for motivating kids (they were eager to achieve 80% mastery), I often wondered whether or not this data was actually meaningful. How did I know if I was testing the objectives in the right way? What was the correct measure of mastery? Furthermore, what does it mean when a student masters the academic material but then fails my class because he/she missed too many classes or failed to turn in important assignments? Is there a difference between mastery and preparing our kids for adulthood?

My point is, that teachers need to be taught how to do more than record data. In order to evaluate lessons and practices, educators need to be taught and encouraged to think thoughtfully and critically about what data means. The “School of One” program does not solve this problem—but it might be a useful tool for getting teachers to engage in data about their students.

“School of One” could be a great classroom aid for teachers (that is, if we could afford to provide laptops for students citywide). However, I believe this sort of program should assist—NOT replace teachers. One of the most important aspects of a teacher’s work is forming relationships with their students. Computer programs can’t express compassion for a kid whose parents are going through a divorce, or notice if a kid is coming to school everyday without breakfast. The discretion, empathy, passion and charisma of teachers will always be an important part of any quality education.

Note: To access the Freaknomics Radio podcast on the School of One use this link:

What “Waiting for Superman” Got Wrong

“Waiting for Superman” is the latest documentary about the educational achievement gap in America. The film follows six students from poor neighborhoods that are seeking entrance into exemplary charter schools. The movie also features interviews with some notable education reformers (such as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools).

I felt conflicted about seeing “Waiting for Superman” because I was told the film was “anti-teacher” and largely pro-charter school. (For the record I am not entirely opposed to charter schools—but I worry that charters are not a sustainable solution for America’s educational problems.)

Now that I have seen the film, I will acknowledge there are a few important truths that it got right.

Truth #1: There is a serious aspiration gap in America.

What I mean by this is: poor kids don’t want to grow up to be barbers, or construction workers or waitresses. If you ask these kids—by and large they want to go college. The movie interviews kids who like math, who want to be doctors, and who are serious about school. The kids featured in “Waiting for Superman” defy the stereotypes that claim poor kids can’t or don’t want to learn. The heartbreaking truth is that most of these kids are stuck in a broken school system and will never get the chance to pursue their dreams.

Truth #2: Poor families DO value their child’s education.

There are some seriously tough, determined, Moms in this movie. We see parents calling teachers, helping their kids with reading, and working extra jobs to pay tuition for their kids. Too often poor parents are wrongfully portrayed as disinterested in the education of their children.

HOWEVER…Despite the film’s positive aspects—I worry that the film presents an overly simplified view of educational inequity.

In one scene—an education reformer states that if we could remove the bottom 6% of teachers in the United States—our educational outcomes would be equal to Finland— the country with the best educational system in the world.

It is true the great teachers can affect substantial change. However, it is extremely hard to predetermine who will make an effective teacher. Our question should be: What is Finland doing to produce great teachers that we’re not doing?

My hunch is that Finland (like Sweden and other Baltic Countries) values teachers more (and pays them better) than we do in America. “Waiting for Superman” points out that doctors, lawyers, CEOs and other professionals are held accountable for their job performance in ways that teachers are not. (Only 1 in 2400 teachers has his/her certificate revoked). However, we also pay doctors, lawyers, and CEOs much more than we pay teachers—and we confer these professionals with much higher status. (It is likely there is some sexism involved in this—other female-dominated professions like nursing and social work often get treated the same way).

If we want better teachers, let’s face it—we’re going to have to make the job better. We ought to demand more from teachers—while also ensuring that they are well paid, supported, mentored, and work in safe places. I often think of pictures a friend once sent me of the Google workplace. The photos revealed an office space complete with a five-star dining facility, on-site masseuses, a gym and other amenities. I wondered—how can we convince enough of our brightest and most talented Americans to work as educators in our toughest schools—when large corporations such as Google can offer them generous salaries and so many job-related perks?

The central “bad guys” in “Waiting for Superman” are the teacher’s unions. It is true that unions have often protected outdated tenure practices at the expense of children. (Although recently unions in D.C. agreed to a proposal that included merit pay for teachers who give up their rights to tenure– a fact the movie omits.) However, to target unions as the root cause of educational inequality is completely misguided.

We live in an extremely capitalist society. Where the gap between the rich and the poor has become vast. That fact that the achievement gap exists is symptomatic of the fact that we live in a deeply segregated and unequal country. Property taxes pay for schools. Hence, schools in wealthy suburbs with high property taxes get lots of money. They pay teachers more—and tend to attract the best ones. Schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get very much money. Therefore, they often cannot hire sufficient numbers of teachers, tend to attract young and inexperienced staff, and often can’t provide basic resources for students. (I once volunteered at a school in Detroit that couldn’t afford enough toilet paper for students.)

This isn’t rocket science. It may not be politically palatable to ask the wealthy to redistribute tax dollars so that poor schools can get a bigger piece of the pie. But we ought to at least acknowledge the unequal funding structures are a large part of the reason why so many inner-city schools are “failure factories”.

Furthermore, we ought to acknowledge that educational inequality has been caused by decades of racial oppression, redlining, white-flight, city-wide corruption, and racist policies (especially post-World War II Veteran provisions which provided student loans and affordable mortgages to whites and denied them to blacks) that have facilitated white ascendancy into the middle class while keeping racial minorities locked into poverty. Not to mention our current political system is heavily influenced by powerful corporate interest groups and has little need to be accountable to the poor. In other words…there is some monstrous inertia behind the achievement gap. If we are going to devise solutions to this issue we had better be clear that bad teachers are only one part of the problem. Moreover, “Waiting for Superman” suggests that teachers exist in a vacuum. Let’s not forget that school culture, administrative leadership, city politics, dysfunctional bureaucracies and educational policies all have the power to set teachers up for success or for failure.