deepening the dialogue

Report Card For School Success

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Hi Marc,

I’ve been thinking about your question asking me for my metaphor for the concept of teacher effectiveness. The direct answer is that I am a firm believer in these three C’s for organizational success: collaboration, cooperation and communication. Therefore, while individual teacher effectiveness is important, in the end we need a team of effective educators to have a successful school. So with that, and with no slight intended to the work it takes personally to be a successful educator, let me challenge somewhat the concept of teacher effectiveness in and of itself.

I want to argue that effective schools, as organizations, help create effective teachers. Now, I realize that this is a bit of a chicken and egg argument, but let me take this further. I understand that there are “stars” in many schools, no matter how poorly functioning the school itself may be. Hey, these are the folks of “To Sir with Love” and “Stand and Deliver.” There are also less effective teachers in all of the top-rated schools. And while ideally we want the best performance from each individual, and operationally we must strive for each and every staff member in a school to be highly effective, the measure of a great school is a collective one, not an individual one.

So, here is my list of the attributes for a highly effective school. I do not claim to be the originator of any of these, so thanks to all those people who have been advocating for these ideas. Please note that I did not put this list in value order and certainly there are schools that beat the odds by not having all of the ingredients which may in and of itself tell you something about the value of each attribute. You may notice, I hope, several charter school characteristics that I suggest should be available to all schools.

  1. Strong school-wide accountability objectives that both create a culture of high expectations for all students and understands the need to start where the kids are at (I want to thank Dr. Art Pritchard for our excellent conversation on this topic).
  2. Teacher leadership and decision-making ability. Teachers must be valued as professionals and experts and supported as such. This attribute should be further elaborated to include evaluations, planning time, salary structure/benefits and other determinants for success.
  3. School level autonomy on matters such as programming, curriculum, budgeting and staffing and other policy decisions of importance. Without some degree of meaningful autonomy, it becomes very difficult to get buy-in around higher academic outcomes.
  4. The ability to determine class size and cut off over-the-counter enrollment. Please note that I am not necessarily advocating for low class sizes across the board. Nor am I advocating against them. I think there needs to be some school-level decision-making around this area and certainly most reasonable folks would agree that a constant influx of students is not beneficial to any learning environment. However, as a district we must serve all students regardless of their time of entry and this service should be equally distributed.
  5. Balanced enrollment of high needs students.  When Renaissance first opened as a New Visions School, we had an admissions policy of 50% random lottery and 50% selection to balance demographics, academic levels, special education and English Language Learners.  This created a specifically designed blended learning community that supported all of its members.
  6. Access to quality social and emotional support and educational resource services for students and their families. These can help level-the-playing-field with students who are more advantaged. While schools cannot be expected to reverse all the woes that poverty has on our students, we also cannot use poverty as an excuse to justify why children are not learning. As schools we can provide three hot meals to our students, after-school programming, tutoring/homework support, access to cultural institutions, counseling and connections to caring adults who can serve as lifelong role models for the young people we are charged with educating.
  7. A safe school community.
  8. A school where parents are valued and their participation is encouraged. I also feel that this participation is determined by the school community itself, not necessarily by an outside force.
  9. True measurements for authentic and sustainable learning beyond those of the required standardized exams. I was inspired by a workshop I attended sponsored by the UFT where this was discussed.

I would be interested in working on a system that would measure these attributes for each school and rate schools on each of the ingredients to build a successful program.  Since we are so entrenched in a climate that promotes accountable talk and outcomes, let’s take it to the next step, or what should have been the first step, and make sure that we are setting up the systems and infrastructure so that every school and every teacher and administrator can be successful.

Marc, I would really like to hear your thoughts on this new “report card” that I am suggesting.


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.