First Person

Week of 11/29/10: Teaching & learning tidbits

Colorado’s charter school law gets a B

The Colorado Springs Gazette analyzes a report that gives Colorado a B for its charter school law.

A report from the national Center for Education Reform has given Colorado a B grade for its charter school law. It’s not too bad, considering 29 other states received a C or lower because of the weakness of the laws. Colorado was sixth in the ranking behind Washington, D.C. Minnesota, California, Arizona and Michigan. The report lauded the first three because the laws promote growth of the charters.

Here, kids are encouraged to dream, not drop out

CBS Evening News covers a Chicago charter school that’s breaking new ground as part of its series, Reading, Writing and Reform.

Did your school day ever start with dancing, clapping and cheers? Not likely, reports CBS News chief national correspondent Byron Pitts. But Chicago Talent Development Charter High School is not like most places. Centered in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, it’s a new approach to an old problem.

“Our goal is to make it a game changer,” said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher.

What’s next for Michelle Rhee

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports on the next job for Michelle Rhee, the now ex-school reforming head of Washington D.C.’s struggling schools.

With a controversial, hard-charging school reformer’s name topping the list of Gov.-elect Rick Scott‘s Education Transition Team, South Florida teachers’ union officials braced themselves Thursday for an assault on teacher tenure and a radical restructuring of the education system. Rhee resigned in October as chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools amid outcry from unions after she fired more than 200 teachers largely over student performance.

Gates urges school budget overhauls

The New York Times reports on billionaire Bill Gates’ latest suggestions to school districts interested in improving. He suggests they end teacher pay increases based on seniority and on master’s degrees, which he says are unrelated to teachers’ ability to raise student achievement. He also urges an end to efforts to reduce class sizes. Instead, he suggests rewarding the most effective teachers with higher pay for taking on larger classes or teaching in needy schools.

School effort aims to engage parents

The Denver Post reports on a new initiative to get parents involved in school reform.

Much of the talk around educational reform has focused on the role teachers play in students lives, all but ignoring another big player: parents. One Denver high school is changing that narrative, creating a multi-school system that empowers parents with the goal of getting more students into college.

Colorado foundation secures nearly $2 million to fund educator effectiveness

The Colorado Legacy Foundation has secured $1.9 million in grant funding to support efforts by the state and local school districts to improve educator effectiveness.

“For the first time, a new state law requires Colorado to identify what makes an effective teacher and principal,” said CLF Executive Director Helayne Jones. “It also requires that at least half of every public school teacher’s and principal’s evaluation is based on their students’ academic growth. The need for resources to assist this work is urgent, and we’re pleased to be able to bring those resources to the table.”

In total the grant funding secured by CLF comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.75 million); the JPMorgan Chase Foundation ($51,000); the Daniels Fund ($70,000); and the Donnell-Kay Foundation ($30,000).

More U.S. teens getting high school diplomas

MSNBC reports on the increasing numbers of students earning high school diplomas.

blank high school diplomaATLANTA — The number of so-called “dropout factory” high schools in the United States has declined since 2002, translating into at least 100,000 more students getting a diploma, a new report shows.

But the report from America’s Promise Alliance released Tuesday also said that progress needs to increase fivefold for the country to graduate nine out of 10 students by 2020, a goal of the Obama administration.

Colo. students to be part of global math, science study

7 News reports on Colorado’s role in a new study that could shed light on America’s ranking globally in science and math education.

Colorado is among eight states chosen to have students tested in math and science for a study comparing their performance with students in more than 60 countries.

State education officials said Monday that the U.S. Department of Education chose Colorado, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina to participate in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. In Colorado, a sample of eighth graders in about 50 schools would be tested between April 4 and May 27. Individual test results won’t be available, but participating schools will receive school-level reports.

Student assessments to get overhaul

The Pueblo Chieftain tackles standardized testing revisions in Colorado.

The boards governing K-12 and college education in the state ratified an agreement Monday to change the way Colorado assesses students. The new model aims to better align the expectations for proficiency to enter college with the tests that measure growth through high school.

“Waiting for Superman” educator challenges Colorado business leaders

The Denver Post records comments of one of the nation’s leading education innovators during a recent Denver visit. Notable education reformer Geoffrey Canada looked out into a room of Denver’s business leaders Tuesday and pinned the future success of the country squarely on them.

“If the business community doesn’t get involved in this game, you are just going to watch this country decline,” said Canada, founder and chief executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “It is going to be your fault.”

Colorado foundation teams with Pepsi to help students in math and science

Colorado is competing for $250,000 from the Pepsi Refresh Project to help students succeed in college and excel in math and science. For the entire month of December, the foundation encourages the public to support public education by voting for “Colorado Legacy Schools” daily. The two projects with the most votes on Dec. 31 each win a $250,000 grant.

The initiative is focused on high-poverty, high-minority high schools and their feeder middle schools and aims to impact statewide policy with respect to the preparation of all students for college and careers in math and science.

Exclusivity of Greeley charter schools debated

The Denver Post reports on a charter school flap in Weld County.

A showdown is brewing over charter schools’ responsibility for educating low-income children. On Dec. 6, the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education will hold a special meeting to hear proposals from two charter school organizers asking to expand or build from scratch.

Union Colony Preparatory — the district’s first charter school — wants to expand its sixth-to-12th-grade school to include kindergarten through fifth grade. Newcomer West Ridge Academy wants to start a kindergarten-through-ninth-grade school.

2010 Centers of Excellence Schools announced

Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones this week announced the 32 schools identified as “Centers of Excellence” for the 2009-2010 school year.

Established by the Colorado State Legislature, the award recognizes schools that demonstrate the highest rates of student longitudinal growth as measured by the Colorado Growth Model among those that have at least 75 percent at-risk pupils in their student population.

The 2010 Centers of Excellence Schools are:

  • Adventure Elementary School, Mapleton School District
  • Atlas Preparatory School, Harrison School District 2
  • Beach Court Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Boston K-8 School, Aurora Public Schools
  • Bryant-Webster K-8 School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Bruce Randolph School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Centennial Elementary School, Harrison School District 2
  • Centennial High School, Centennial School District R-1
  • Center High School, Center School District 26 JT *
  • Cole Arts and Science Academy, Denver Public Schools
  • Cowell Elementary School, Denver Public Schools
  • Edison Elementary School, Colorado Springs School District 11 *
  • Fletcher Interm Science & Technology School, Aurora Public Schools
  • Force Elementary School, Denver Public Schools
  • Greenwood Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, Denver Public Schools *
  • Martin Luther King Middle College, Denver Public Schools *
  • McMeen Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Montview Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *
  • Moore K-8 School, Denver Public Schools
  • Nikola Tesla Education Opp. Center, Colorado Springs District 1 *
  • Nisley Elementary School, Mesa County Valley School District 51
  • Stedman Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Stein Elementary School, Jefferson County Schools *
  • Stratmoor Hills Elementary School, Harrison School District 2 *
  • Tollgate Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *
  • Virginia Court Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools
  • West Denver Prep, Federal Campus, Denver Public Schools *
  • West Denver Prep, Harvey Park Campus, Denver Public Schools
  • Whittier K-8 School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Wyatt-Edison Charter Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Yale Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *

*Denotes also 2009 “Centers of Excellence” award.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.