Vermonters for Better Education
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According to 1998 NAEP scores, 58 percent of our country's low-income 4th graders cannot read. According to Education Week magazine, 67 percent of low-income inner-city 8th graders cannot meet basic math standards for their grade level. These glum statistics paint a sad picture of two America's - one where students graduate with the skills necessary to access the American dream, and another where students (mostly low-income and minority) will leave school believing the American system doesn't work for them.
It doesn't have to be this way. At a recent Washington conference entitled "No Excuses," principals from high-poverty, high-performing schools shared their successful strategies with approximately 300 attendees from across the country.
As each principal made a presentation, several themes began to emerge throughout the day. The overarching theme was as inspiring as it was just: low-income, minority children are just as capable of achieving high academic standards as their more advantaged peers. Anyone who makes excuses when faced with low achievement among this class group is not viewing these children as true equals. Here is a look at the other themes that developed during the day, worth evaluating as Vermont struggles with new standards and education reform:
Focus on traditionalist curricula and strategies: So-called "progressive education" techniques hurt low-income children most of all, said Nancy Ichinaga, principal of the Bennett-Kew Elementary school in Inglewood, California. Seventy-eight percent of Ichinga's students are classified as low-income, yet her school has been one of the highest performers in Los Angeles County for 20 years. She dumped progressive methods espoused by her predecessor when it was clear that low-income children are almost exclusively dependent on their schools for education, bringing very little with them from their home environments.
"Poor children know only what schools teach them," she said at the conference. In other words, they don't bring to school a wealth of knowledge that progressive educators can build on and use as a guide. They need teachers to give them that knowledge.
Other principals spoke of how they use homogeneous grouping techniques, letting children of similar abilities learn together and moving children from group to group as needs change. Still others use E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum to achieve results, Direct Instsruction techniques, or simple college-preparatory approaches for all kids.
"We start college prep in the seventh grade," said Gregory Hodge, principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy in central Harlem.
Constant assessment: High-performing school principals use assessment "not as an autopsy but as a physical." They are constantly monitoring how they are performing. "You teach, you assess, you teach, you assess," said James Coady, principal of Morse Elementary of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Flexibility: Principals who succeed in achieving results are "risk-takers" said Harlem's Hodge, and each principal at the conference had his or her own tale to tell of how they used creativity and ingenuity to get around bureaucracy and red tape.
Tom Williams, headmaster of Healthy Start Academy in Durham, North Carolina, was the most colorful on this score, saying "they told us we could throw away the book (when setting up his school), and we did." At Healthy Start, 80 percent of the students receive free lunch, but Williams does not spend money on staff curriculum specialists, psychologists, guidance counselors, or assistant principals to help these children achieve results. Instead, he contracts out for these services when he needs them and uses most of his money to hire teachers. He is adamant in his refusal to "label" children as "abnormal human beings" and fights regularly with pediatricians to keep kids off Ritalin and other drugs. The result? His first and second graders score in the 80th percentile and above on standardized tests.
Rewarding good teachers: A common theme that ran through all presentations was the need to pay teachers more. However, this was linked to making teachers and schools more accountable as well. Teachers at Tom Williams's Healthy Start Academy receive a "superior health insurance and retirement program." Teachers at Michael Feinberg's KIPP Academy in Houston, Texas are paid 15 to 20 percent more than teachers elsewhere in the state. But Feinberg worries that his talented friends eschew teaching as a career because of its lack of "upward mobility." Knowing they would be rewarded for superior work, instead of just tenure, would be a major drawing card.
Responsibility: As the title of the conference implies, none of the principals was comfortable with passing the buck when looking at educational challenges. In many cases, the students they teach come from homes that we try not to imagine. But when the kids enter the door to these schools, they're in a safe haven where a "culture of success," as Harlem's Hodge puts it, rules. It's the school's responsibility to foster that culture, no matter what environment surrounds the child elsewhere. No finger pointing at too much television, too little family time, too much junk food, too little parental involvement.
"After all the finger pointing," said KIPP Academy's Michael Feinberg, "I started pointing the finger at us, the teachers."
Competition is good: While each of the principals was a strong advocate of public schools, they also recognized the value of competitive pressures and incentives. For the most part, in fact, their schools were beneficiaries of choice systems. It was Healthy Start's charter school status that allowed Tom Williams to "throw away the book" and create something new and better. In assessing the impact of competitive pressures, Morse Elementary's James Coady was blunt: "Competition is good. If schools are failing their students, they should close."
But the most compelling argument for school choice programs came from the keynote speaker at lunch. Ted Forstmann, the philanthropist responsible for private scholarship programs across the country, looked at the crowd and wondered aloud why these excellent educational strategies weren't being imitated left and right across the country? Why are we seeing only pockets of excellence rather than a culture of excellence? The answer, he pointed out, was in the virtual monopoly the public schools hold over education consumers. In any other field, Forstmann said, excellence is rapidly and shamelessly imitated. In education, it is not. Until the public school monopoly is broken, that sad state is likely to continue and the principals who spoke at the conference will continue to be isolated inspirations, not the trend-setters they would be in other fields of endeavor.