Cross-posted at my blog MotherTalkers.
With the release of Waiting for Superman, which was made by the same filmmaker behind An Inconvenient Truth, literally, everyone is talking about the state of our public schools. According to every pundit and their mother, it's bad, and it's all the teachers unions' fault.
You know this movie -- and topic -- has made it to the public consciousness when HBO host Bill Maher and R&B singer John Legend are sparring over it on a Friday night. (Disclosure: My husband was on the show, too. This is what he contributed to the topic: "Teachers don't get paid shit.")
Aside from my husband's erudite comment -- LOL! -- Maher's and Legend's stances represented the extremes of this debate. Maher blamed the high dropout rates in certain high schools and low performance of minority students on the impoverishment of their parents. Legend blamed poor performing schools on poor performing teachers. Here is more detail on their perspectives: Maher's can be found at the Huffington Post and Legend's at the Daily Beast.
I am saddened that either the media or reality has pitted teachers against parents. From my experience as a mother, former AmeriCorps volunteer, and board member of a new independent school, you need both. You need energetic, knowledgeable and passionate teachers who are on board with the school's teaching philosophy and needs of the communities they serve.
You also need very energetic, passionate and involved parents, who at minimum, monitor homework, help teachers in the classroom, and donate what they can in time and money for classroom supplies, field trips, and those little things that enrich learning, but are unfortunately being slashed due to budget cuts. This is no easy feat when parents are working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet.
OTOH, this is no easy feat for teachers who must educate an increasingly larger number of students living in poverty and with special needs -- on less money.
Still, I am thrilled so many people, including those without children like Bill Maher, have taken an interest in education and are talking about it. Here are the latest education articles I have seen in the press:
The tough-on-teachers "accountability" measures in places like Florida has actually had an undesired effect, according to Newsweek. It's actually the best teachers that are leaving underperforming schools.
In 2002, Florida became one of the first states to grade schools on student progress. But the result, the study shows, was a case of “accountability shock”: in the 60 schools deemed failing, about 30 percent of the workforce left—usually for jobs at higher-rated schools nearby. (The average school nationwide might see annual turnover of about 15 percent.) Since the best teachers were among the most likely to transfer, says Northwestern University professor and study coauthor David Figlio, accountability pressure may actually reinforce the gap between educational haves and have-nots; teachers, like athletes, want to play for a winning team. The solution, Figlio suggests, might be retainer deals for the best instructors at bad schools, something to compensate them for the rebuilding ahead.
On the flipside, Newsweek also ran an article on how the best principals can turn around failing schools. I was intrigued by this article on so many levels. In my experience, parents tend to judge a school by their child's teacher, but not the principal. I even had a friend comment to me that "principals don't matter."
But in my experience, our current head of school was very instrumental in turning around our uncertain start-up of 80 kids into a full-fledged school with 186 students. I often wonder why principals are not credited or even mentioned in the success or failure of a school.
Here's what Newsweek's Pat Wingert had to say about one experiment to place the best principals in the toughest schools:
By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement. Equally surprising, scores also rose in the second group of SSI schools, which were launched only four months before the tests were administered.
Among the most effective was principal Suzanne Gimenez. After two years at high-poverty Devonshire Elementary, she has boosted the reading score of her Hispanic students by 30 points and her school’s math score by 33 points. Her secrets? Posting a chart to track the performance of every student, plus instilling more accountability and discipline. Years of experience had taught her that “children of poverty perform better with a lot of structure,” she says. “Many of them don’t know where they’re going to get dinner or sleep. School needs to be the same for them every day.”
What do you think of your school's principal?
Lastly, Teach for America's Wendy Kopp got props in a Vanity Fair article. I did not know this but Teach for America, which places graduates from elite colleges into low-income districts to teach, is 20 years old. But here's my question to VF and all the publications out there singing its praises: Does it work? And yes, I have read individual studies in places like North Carolina. But what about a comprehensive study on its impact on a country as a whole. Do TFA teachers really match up or outperform credentialed teachers -- TFA's claim -- everywhere it teaches across the country? Also, what is the impact on students and a community of having such high teacher turnover since most only stay for the two years required of them? Now that's the story I want to read!