SIGnificant improvementS

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.

Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.

Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report).  Click to enlarge.
Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report). Click to enlarge.

The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.

In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.

“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”

Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”

California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.

Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.

“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum.  So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.

Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said.  “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”

What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.

Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience.  “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release.  “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”

Learning 2.0: Writing gets serious when schools become publishers

Ben Heckman, an 8th grader from Framington, Minnesota, is a twice-published novelist whose story was told in a New York Times piece about the growing number of young writers who break into print, usually with a little bankrolling from their parents. Hundreds of teenage and younger authors are publishing every year.

The Times story by Elissa Gootman also illustrates what I call Learning 2.0, the next full-scale upgrade of public education. The authors in her story all wrote fiction, but publishing non-fiction student work also is an important pedagogy, a departure from the century-old acquisition-and-storage model of learning. Publishing student work is an act of exhibition, an invitation for people to view and comment on it, and a validation of self worth of the writer. Publication says that students can do something, know something, and be something.

My exhibit “A” resides at High Tech High in San Diego, where 60 books are listed on the school’s web site, creating both examples of the school’s own ideas about its best work and the transparency through which others can judge it. (I’m writing a case study of the school that should be published soon.)

San Diego Bay begins about 200 yards from the HTH Point Loma campus. It serves as a social and scientific laboratory, and students have written four books about the Bay and its environs. One of them, San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration, was published by the University of California, San Diego, and supported by the National Sea Grant program.

Through a series of projects developed by teachers Jay Vavra in biology, Tom Fehrenbacher in humanities, and Rod Buenviaje in mathematics, students interviewed Native Americans, Chinese fishermen, and hunters. They followed the fortunes of tuna, sea lions, white sea bass, abalone, and dolphins. They applied Jared Diamond’s themes from Guns, Germs, and Steel to the Bay. They ended by saying, “Only when we realize that all the pieces of the bigger picture we call nature must be considered will we be capable of sustainably using the Bay, and the rest of the world’s environment, to its fullest extent.”

Several other groups of students, and their teachers, have produced “alphabet books” or dictionaries on academic disciplines. Andrew Gloag’s students published Absolute Zero, which illustrates physics terms. “A is for Antimatter,” writes Kathy Anderson, explaining that high energy antimatter engines are still sci-fi stuff, but that PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans of brain activity exemplify a practical application of the science.

Jenny Morris and a biology class at HTH Chula Vista wrote Alphabet Soup: The A-Z of Cell Biology, about which Morris comments: “This book is living proof that students will aspire to and reach the high expectations you set for them, if you provide a safe and supportive environment in which to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed.”

Dan Wise’s economics students produced posters explaining economic terms in language a junior high school student could understand. (Students had to test their examples on them. If a sixth grader couldn’t understand, start over.) Think: Could you define a “moral hazard” or a “free rider”? In the process of creating these examples, the students learned the underlying economics, concise writing, and design. They illustrated each defined term with linoleum block prints that became part of the posters, and the posters and definitions became part of a book, Economics Illustrated.

Ben Daley, HTH chief operating officer, sees great value in publishing student work: “I have observed the pride that many students feel at having their words and their work appear in print. One of my high school senior advisees solemnly observed to my advisory group, ‘I’m a published author now.’ I believe that micro-publishing is an opportunity that allows almost any teacher to work alongside students to produce high-quality products in which students not only absorb new information but also transform it to help make it their own, as well as develop important skills such as learning to work well in a group and the ability to effectively communicate one’s ideas.”

Exhibition also creates incentive among students. As HTH art teacher Jeff Robin says, “If you think that you are an artist, but your paintings are only in your mother’s garage, you’re really not an artist; you’re just cluttering up your mother’s garage.” Teacher and students need to know where the project will live. “If you know that the project will be displayed in an art gallery in downtown San Diego and your family and friends are going to be there, you are going to want to do a better job.”

Publishing does not substitute for practice in writing, just as performing does not substitute for practice in music, or playing does not substitute for practice in soccer. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000-hour rule, the length of time it takes to master most anything. Exhibition as pedagogy does not assert that it creates prodigies; it simply creates more opportunities for practice that is subject to critique. In a way, it’s serious play, and incentivized learning in ways that receiving a traditional red-penciled paper from a teacher decidedly is not.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. He writes the blog, where this piece appeared.

State leaders should embrace what Title I permits: arts funding

The status quo is “stalemate.”

The intention of the federal Title I program is to improve the academic achievement of children in schools with the highest percentages of children low-income families. That improvement is measured by improvement in English language arts (ELA) and math.

According to the guidance provided by the California Department of Education, a school may elect to use arts education strategies to improve student achievement “if, after conducting a comprehensive needs assessment, the school has identified research-based strategies programs incorporating arts instruction to improve the achievement for students in ELA or math for participating students.”

But that’s not what happens …

For the most part, school districts elect either to ignore the opportunities that arts education provide to reach students in transformative ways, or they provide those services “under the radar,” allowing students to benefit from those strategies, but choosing not to draw attention to those services.

Arts education fosters creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and teamwork – skills students will need to participate in a 21st century workforce. Employed effectively, arts education advances language acquisition and strengthens language arts and math comprehension.

In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote, “Title I, Part A of ESEA funds arts education to improve the achievement of disadvantaged students.”

Unfortunately, in California and in all but a handful of states, that message is not getting through. States are reluctant to incur the wrath of federal oversight that could jeopardize funding, concerned that even though the Secretary may support this practice, those overseeing the federal program don’t share his interpretation of the law.

And in California, school districts are reluctant to implement arts strategies for Title I that may run afoul of state interpretation. As a result, the very children who might most benefit from arts education as a resource to improve their academic achievement never get close to those resources.

The best way to replace the existing climate of “fear of reprisal” is with strong, decisive leadership. That’s what happened in Arizona, where Superintendent Tom Horne directed $4 million of Title I funding to support arts education at 43 schools throughout the state. In 2004-05, the first year of Title I-F funded arts integration programs across the state, the Arizona Department of Education found statistically significant gains in reading for students participating in arts integration programs funded across the state versus students not participating.

Last year the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released a report, “Reinvesting in Arts Education – Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.” It said, “PCAH believes that local decision makers need to hear clear, direct, and focused statements from the leaders of federal and state education agencies about how the arts fit within current education priorities.”

The time has come to move beyond the “status quo.” We call on Superintendent Tom Torlakson to work in partnership with a diverse mix of school districts to demonstrate how Title I can be utilized to support student achievement through the arts.

California’s children deserve to know what’s right about arts education.

Joe Landon co-wrote this piece with Danielle Brazell.  Joe Landon is the Executive Director of the California Alliance for Arts Education, a nonprofit organization that advances visual and performing arts education in K-12 public schools. Prior to joining the Alliance staff, Landon worked in the Capitol as a senior consultant for Speaker Robert Hertzberg and Assemblywoman Wilma Chan. Previously he worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and as a music and theater teacher.

Danielle Brazell transitioned Arts for LA from an ad hoc steering committee comprised of local executive arts leadership to a highly visible arts advocacy organization. She is the former Director of Special Projects for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Artistic Director of Highways Performance Space.

Innovators for youth honored

The founder of a network that provides support for gay students and the founders of two effective nonprofits that provide hope and training for at-risk youths in Oakland and Santa Clara County are among the five winners of this year’s James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards.

Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network; Christa Gannon, the executive director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth in Milpitas; and Olis Simmons, executive director of the Youth UpRising center in East Oakland, each will receive $125,000 to promote their transformational work.

Most indicators show more acceptance of gays and lesbians now – in society at large and in schools – than when Laub founded the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco 14 years ago. Since then she has helped the number of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in middle and high schools in California grow twentyfold, from 40 to more than 850.

But bullying of students with real or perceived differences in sexual orientation remains an ugly problem in many schools, compounded by its migration to social media beyond school borders. And then there’s the universal slur in middle school  – That’s so gay! that is hurtful to children already struggling with their differences.

The GSA Network confronts issues of harassment and works with teachers and administrators to improve school climate, but it does so by training and working with students themselves. “Our model is youth empowerment,” says Laub. “We train youth leaders to work with school administrators, teachers, and board members.”

Gay-Straight Alliance clubs are now in 56 percent of California high schools, and not just in liberal coastal areas. Eighty clubs are in the Central Valley, Laub says. There are between 13,000 and 15,000 members statewide in clubs ranging from a handful to dozens of members. There are about 1,300 students active in the Network’s conferences, trainings, and annual lobbying day in Sacramento. Laub estimates that about 30 percent of the activists are heterosexual teens, who joined to support their friends.

Some clubs are purely social; others organize school climate surveys and events to spread tolerance. All provide a sense of safety for students often struggling with loneliness and alienation. There are several dozen clubs in middle schools – a hotbed of cruelty – where students struggling with their sexuality and insecurity feel particularly vulnerable. Advocates trained by the Network have helped pass pioneering laws, including new anti-bullying rules for schools.

Keeping youths out of incarceration

Gannon, a Stanford Law School graduate, had planned on becoming a prosecutor but instead runs a program whose goal is to keep youths away from courts and county attorneys. Most of the 2,000 youths who take Fresh Lifelines for Youth’s 12-week course on self-motivation, life choices, and the legal system have been in Juvenile Hall or in trouble. Seventy of those youths are chosen for a more intense yearlong leadership program with 2,500 hours of community service, while 70 others work one-on-one with adult mentors. Its record of preventing recidivism through the Leadership program is impressive; the cost savings are impressive as well: $9,000 for the program versus $100,000 per year in Juvenile Hall. Gannon expects to introduce the program in other parts of the state in the next decade.

Options and opportunities in East Oakland

Simmons’ Youth UpRising provides mentoring, academic help, job training, art and music classes, and a free on-site health clinic serving 3,000 young people in an impoverished section of Oakland. From its founding seven years ago, it has grown into a $7 million yearly operation with 80 employees. It also runs four enterprises employing 45 local youths: a restaurant and catering service, a multimedia production team, a janitorial company, and a data processing group.

Two additional recipients of the 2012 James Irvine Leadership Award are Craig McNamara, who is inspiring a next generation of farmers through his Solano County nonprofit the Center for Land-Based Learning, and Patricia Dennehy, who directs Glide Health Service, a nurse-managed health center serving 3,200 clients in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,'” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.
Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,'” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”

Once more around the track of school reforms in Los Angeles Unified

In a new labor agreement that embraces local school autonomy, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has jumped from one school reform horse to another.

He dismounted the Public School Choice horse, thus ending the era when the school district sought to improve schools through robust competition among district-run school management teams, charters, and other complex operating arrangements. Under what has been called “portfolio” logic, the school district would assemble the best collection of schools it could, putting underperforming ones up for competitive bids while encouraging the ones that were doing well.

The labor agreement now being voted on virtually ends Public School Choice. For the next three years, no charters or external school management organizations can apply, and the district is forbidden to reconstitute a school that is making what the agreement calls but does not define as “reasonable progress.”

Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher saddled up a new filly — the daughter of school reforms past — called decentralization. The underlying logic is that diversity in approach to schooling is good, that many different models of instruction are needed, and that teachers and administrators know best how to design schooling and to self-regulate their jobs.

They were right to get off the old horse. It was dead or at least hobbled. The 2009 Public School Choice resolution offered by former board member Yolie Flores was an audacious idea, but political pushback tied its legs from the beginning. Its racing life was short. In the first round of applications, the school board rejected Superintendent Ray Cortines’ recommendations and awarded none of the newly constructed schools to charters. The persistently underperforming schools, which had been ordered to write competitive proposals, largely competed against themselves. Few charter or external organizations sought to run them. Conventional wisdom in the charter world is that taking over existing public schools is too fraught with pain and difficulty to be worth the effort; better to start anew.

However, the new decentralization horse does not have a good track record. LAUSD rode this horse hard during the 1990s, and both Deasy and Fletcher could learn from that trial.

The 1990s decentralization horse didn’t get fed enough. Schools that joined the LEARN project were promised budgetary flexibility, which largely never appeared, and added funding, which dried up after a few years.

There may be no food at all for the new decentralization mount. While the labor agreement promises formative assistance for struggling schools and help for planning newly decentralized ones, the state budget shortfall, with more in store next week, may truly empty the feedbag.

The 1990s decentralization horse often didn’t know where the finish line was. LEARN training focused more on adult process skills than hard-core analytics about student achievement. There was no agreement about how to measure the outcomes the schools wanted, and for most of the period California lacked statewide measurements.

The same ambiguity applies now. Will the decentralized schools be judged only by the state’s Academic Performance Index? Will teachers be evaluated by how much they contributed to test score increases? Teachers in general and UTLA in particular loathe so-called “value added” measurements, but they have not proposed an alternative. The expectations for decentralized schools, the means of evaluating them, and the consequences are all up for grabs. Without a finish line, the new school reform horse is as likely to spend its time chewing the infield grass as galloping on the track.

The 1990s school reform horse had inconsistent trainers. Teachers and principals attended sometimes extensive workshops and residencies. (Palm Springs in July. Bring gloves; your steering wheel will be too hot to touch.) They learned the process rudiments of what was called a professional learning community. But these schools were isolated within the larger LAUSD and UTLA organizations. The idea of teacher leadership was rejected by the administrative establishment as improper and by union activists as not being tough minded enough.

The 1990s school reform horse had a short season at the track. LEARN was approved by the school board in 1993 and got under way the following year. By 1999, the race was over. External supporters grew frustrated with LAUSD, and they moved on to foster charter school development, particularly those now called the Alliance Schools. Opposition in the district, school board, and union increased. Victory was declared, but the season ended.

Fletcher and Deasy may have saddled up a better horse. Using the union contract as a reform document gives reform a stable home. Contracts last longer than superintendencies or a union president’s term, and they are good at patterning behavior. Still, neither union nor district could resist the temptation to mire their new ideas on a slow muddy track of committee approvals, school votes, plan documents, and more approvals. It may never get to the starting gate.

I don’t know whether this horse will run, but I’m putting down my bet. See you at the $2 window.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

Big choices for LA teachers

Teachers and principals in the state’s largest school district will be able to free themselves from a range of district policies and restrictions of the union contract – if they choose to.

In a break from their ongoing battle over teacher evaluations, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher announced a tentative landmark deal this week, giving great flexibility over working conditions and educational decisions rules to teachers at individual school sites where a supermajority (60 percent) approves.

The district has been pushing teachers to adopt a “thin” union contract in the hope that, liberated to make their own decisions, teachers will take the lead on school transformation. From a menu of 15 options that create more autonomy, teachers will be able to select school curricula, replace the district’s pacing guides, choose teaching materials, hire new principals (and, to an extent, other teachers), set daily school schedules and, to a degree yet to be determined, the school site budgets. The principals and teachers must agree on alternative plans, which the district must approve and then monitor. They must show evidence that parents were consulted.

Two parents chosen by the School Site Council would be on an eight- or nine-person committee that would hire the staff, subject to the principal’s approval. However, the committee would have to follow contract requirements to give priority to laid-off teachers.

Both Deasy and Fletcher declared the agreement, which union members must ratify later this month, a win-win. For charter schools, though, it was a loss. As an enticement to UTLA, Deasy agreed to a moratorium on a two-year experiment, Public School Choice, in which the district invited community groups and charter school operators to bid to operate newly built schools and to take over some failing schools. A dozen charter schools, including some high performers like Aspire and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, were selected and opened in the last two years, sharing large campuses.

Saying he was disappointed by the decision to end school choice, Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., said there should have been room for both district reform and charters. “We are aware that we are sometimes used as leverage to bring about flexibility in district schools,” he said diplomatically. “We are in support of all public schools getting charter-like freedom.”

But Fletcher said that ending public school choice is an “overdue corrective,” because the district and school board had become “enraptured” at the prospect of turning to outside operators to solve district problems. The LA Daily News found (update: corrected link and source) that in the first year, a majority of the public choice schools, charters notably excepted, did no better or worse than the neighboring schools. Fletcher said the pact would save 690 district teaching jobs, though his calculation assumes every campus in the next round of school choice would have gone to an outside operator – an unlikely scenario.

Fletcher won’t speculate on how many schools will pursue the local initiative process, other than to say that plenty of teachers at successful schools are satisfied with conditions under the current contract.

Priority for “local initiative schools” will go to low-performing schools, those whose API scores were in the lowest four deciles; they’ll apply for the 2013-14 year. Staffs at the low-performing schools that would have gone through the school choice process will be required to seek flexibility waivers next fall. The district and the union would create intervention strategies for those schools.

Deasy said the “ground-breaking” agreement, “an incredibly daunting challenge,” was created on the understanding that “teachers and parents are uniquely qualified to have a relationship with their school.”

Local initiative schools will be a variant of the district’s 31 pilot schools, which are based on a model in Boston. Pilot school teachers, some of whom banded together to create district alternatives for the school choice program, have committed to a detailed process leading to a full-scale transformation. Teachers who tinker with changes ­will miss the larger potential that Deasy is counting on.

“It takes an incredible amount of work to plan, open, and operate a school,” said Paul Payne, a 10-year math teacher who’s part of the first-year Los Angeles River School, a 275-student pilot high school with an environmental focus.

“There’s a need for appropriate avenues for teachers’ voices in school reform,” Payne said. “Expertise is not in district offices but in the schools. But you cannot force teachers to embrace teacher-led reform. You can only give them the opportunity.”

No middle ground

The idea that hormonally-challenged young teens need a school of their own between elementary and high school turns out to be bad academic policy, according to a new study from Harvard University.  Compared with students who attended kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, middle school students did worse on math and English language arts in high school, and were more likely to drop out.

Researchers analyzed data for all 3rd through 10th grade students in Florida public schools from the 2000-2001 academic year to 2008-2009 – more than 450,000 students. They used Florida because the state’s student data system is the most extensive in the nation, following students from kindergarten through college, using unique identifiers to protect privacy.

The report poses a noteworthy juxtaposition to “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades,” a large 2010 California study by EdSource and Stanford University that examined the practices and policies of top-performing middle grades programs, whether they’re within a K-8 school or in a separate middle school. “Gaining Ground” studied 303 middle grades schools and surveyed more than 4,000 principals, superintendents, and math and English language arts teachers. It found “no clear association between grade configuration … and higher school performance on standards-based tests.”

Most significant policies and practices for middle school success. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge
Most significant policies and practices for middle school success. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge

Matt Rosin of EdSource, the senior research associate on the project, said the findings painted a clear picture of what sets apart higher performing middle schools. “In everyday ways they were more intense and intentional about accepting and sharing accountability for results and setting measurable achievement objectives,” said Rosin.

But results of the Harvard study seem to suggest that the best middle school reform would be to close them down and put the students into a K-8 environment.

“We know there are high performing middle schools that are doing a great job, but that doesn’t mean that the choice of grade configuration is irrelevant,” said Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the Florida study. “We find pretty compelling evidence that the transition itself does have substantial costs in terms of student achievement.”

Impact of middle school on student achievement to grade 10. (Source:  Harvard University) Click to enlarge.
Impact of middle school on student achievement to grade 10. (Source: Harvard University) Click to enlarge.

That evidence is disquieting.

  • Students who finish elementary school in 5th grade and move to middle school experience a significant decline in math and English language scores that continues into high school.
  • Even though middle school students enter 6th grade doing better than their K-8 counterparts, that advantage is reversed by 10th grade.
  • Florida students who attended middle schools were 18 percent more likely to drop out of high school than K-8 students.
  • High school absenteeism is higher for middle school students than K-8 students.

The Harvard study doesn’t have all the answers.  One of its conclusions is that “more research is needed to explain the negative effects of middle schools.” Few people disagree with that. Just last summer, at the National Forum’s Schools to Watch Conference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan remarked that “the middle grade years have sometimes been called the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of K-12 education” because too often they’re a time where students “sink or swim.”

At the same meeting, however, Duncan had strong praise for the EdSource/Stanford study for providing clear direction for improving middle schools. Stanford Professor Edward Haertel, the study’s technical director, said the Harvard evidence seems credible, and he doesn’t see a contradiction or connection between the two. “We didn’t look at movement to high school at all, and we weren’t focusing on transitions,” Haertel said.

Harvard’s West acknowledged that it’s still not clear what it is about the transition to middle school and the middle school environment that’s causing student achievement to fall. So he had some slightly equivocal advice for middle schools.

“I don’t think we understand what’s causing the problem well enough to mitigate it,” said West. “That being said, they should make efforts to actively do things.”

A bulwark against bad eating

With monster 49ers tackle Bill “Bubba” Paris heading a soccer ball to Brandi Chastain (her idea) and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson leading elementary school students in San Jose on a lap around the field while still in a suit, Torlakson on Thursday kicked off  Team California for Healthy Kids, an initiative to spread the gospel of healthy eating and exercise.

It’s not a new message, of course, but, faced with rising childhood obesity and asthma, cannot be said often enough. Between one-third and a half of minority children born this year will become afflicted with diabetes – an astonishing figure cited by Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Brandi Chastain receives a header from Buba Paris; they're part of Tom Torlakson's TEAM California for Healthy Kids (click to enlarge).
Brandi Chastain receives a header from "Bubba" Paris; they're part of Tom Torlakson's Team California for Healthy Kids.

The California Center and other health advocates have succeeded in working with the Legislature to pass laws driving  soft drinks and candy out of schools; it’s been a harder struggle, in part for lack of leadership and creativity, to bring good food into the schools.

A fresh food ethic is spreading, however, and reaching districts like Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, a low-income, predominately minority district in East San Jose, which Torlakson chose as his launching pad. At Ryan Elementary, kids have an open salad bar every day; through a federal grant, fresh fruit and vegetables from local growers arrive three times each week for distribution as snacks during breaks and recess; water is becoming the drink of choice; and students late for school no longer go hungry (serving breakfast in bags in the classroom has increased participation from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to Amber Watson, director of Alum Rock’s child nutrition services).

Companies like organic lunch provider Revolution Foods of Emeryville are finding they can make a business of lunch in public schools.

Team California has a website for passing along ideas and tips for physical activities like instant recess, quick exercises within a classroom. And Torlakson is hoping to inspire partnerships for after-school programs, collaborations with farmers markets and community gardens.

Certainly, if Torlakson could repeat the assemblage of star athletes that he brought together in San Jose – Paris, Chastain, pitchers Vida Blue and Bill Laskey, super marathon runner Dean Karnazes – in all 10,000 schools in California, kids would be inspired to change. Short of that – or without leadership at a district or community level – it will be a struggle to win over one student, one family, one school at a time.

Chastain, former Olympian and women’s professional soccer player, encouraged Ryan students to choose what’s best for them, regardless of what other kids are eating or doing with their time: “You are the leader of you; make choices that others aren’t making,” she said.

"Bubba" Paris gives a gentle, guiding hand to the press after speaking to the kids in Alum Rock. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Weis)
"Bubba" Paris gives a gentle guiding hand to a diminutive member of the press after speaking to the kids in Alum Rock. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Weis)

Paris, who protected Joe Montana in the ’80s when the 49ers won three Super Bowls, offered his life story as proof that people can will themselves to create a healthy lifestyle. Growing up in Louisville, Paris’ mother and grandmother showed their love in the food they made­ – “butter, sugar, and fatty things.”

“I thought that was normal; the love I found in my meals would live on” into adulthood. Rich foods with the worst ingredients were what he associated with family, comfort, happiness.

After he retired from football, his weight mushroomed to 400; he had high blood pressure and developed diabetes. He faced the odds of a short life.

He switched what he ate, lost 75 pounds (he’s still 325) and brought his diabetes and cholesterol under control. “I know how you can change things if you want,” he said, but more important is to start with a healthy lifestyle in elementary school.

Paris literally embodies America’s problem writ large. For the last 30 years, Goldstein said, the United States has undertaken a massive experiment to answer the question, What would be the impact on its children if the nation changed their food and activities by:

  • Putting a fast food restaurant on every corner;
  • Filling them up with sugary beverages sold in our schools;
  • Taking away physical education or simply making it boring;
  • Offering them alluring TV programs and computer games?

The answer is in, Goldstein said, with more than a third of children obese and overweight, with children today facing a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

“It is imperative,” Goldstein said, “that schools become a haven for a healthy environment.”

Turning teaching upside-down

Witty, brilliant, self-effacing, a seeming agnostic in the education wars over school choice and performance pay, Salman Khan is an unlikely revolutionary. But Khan, the former hedge-fund manager turned online tutor, first for his East Coast nieces and nephews and now for the world, is flipping education upside-down. Many teachers and their unions have been too slow to recognize that.

Salman Khan
Salman Khan

Khan’s 2,800 YouTube tutorials on everything from elementary addition to algebra to calculus and physics, are enabling millions of students to excel on their own time, at their own pace, moving ahead only when, by completing 10 problems in a row, they have mastered one discrete lesson at a time.

With backing from the Gates Foundation and Silicon Valley benefactors like John and Ann Doerr, his nonprofit Khan Academy has taken the next step. Teachers anywhere can freely use the software he has created in their classrooms and monitor every student’s progress in real time: which video she last watched, how much time she spent, which problem she was stuck on.

By using technology to guide students through drills and step-by-step basics – with badges and points to make it fun enough for students to stay plugged in – teachers are liberated to do small group tutorials, help students where they’re stuck, teach concepts, and do project-based learning.

It’s challenging and can be unnerving for teachers to watch the paradigm shift. In the traditional classroom, the time spent on each lesson – adding negative numbers or dividing fractions – is fixed. Following a prescribed calendar to get through the text, teachers lead students lockstep, whether they fully understand the material or not; mastery varies. But now, Khan said in a talk Thursday, “the variable becomes how long it takes to master a concept. What is fixed is mastery.”

Khan Academy is not yet the holy grail of differentiated learning, but it’s getting closer. The dashboard tools for teachers, while impressive, are still in their infancy, and this is only the second year that Khan has moved from at-home resource to in-school curriculum. The results, based on four math classes in two grades in Los Altos, are promising and intriguing. What was most surprising, Khan said, pointing to a multicolored graph tracking each student’s proficiency topic by topic, was the rate of mastery and the unpredictable patterns. One middling student plodded along, then something clicked, and she was off, outpacing even advanced students. For many students in a traditional setting, that point never comes. (The Silicon Valley Education Foundation also used Khan Academy and MIND Institute algebra tutorials last summer in some of its Stepping Up To Algebra/Math Acceleration Program classes with positive results.)

Khan was the keynote lunchtime speaker in San Francisco at the “Excellence in Action” national summit on education reform sponsored by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education – a gathering of conservative legislators, free marketers, entrepreneurs, and charter school administrators. The other keynoters were Melinda Gates and, scheduled for this morning, the devil incarnate, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, with his designs for online technology.

Bush’s promotion of teacher pay by testing and voucher-like funding of online courses, and Murdoch’s mere presence in the heart of anti-charter, progressive San Francisco spurred a picket Thursday organized by United Educators of San Francisco. Their poster branded them Enemies of Public Education.

It made for good theater and another skirmish in a divisive battle over public schools. What the protesters missed, by dismissing the conference and those there as destructive to public schools, were lessons from Khan and John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education in neighboring Palo Alto.

Integrating online learning nearly two hours per day, Rocketship’s five charter schools in San Jose (two opened this year) are producing test results for a student body of largely low-income English learners matching those of wealthy Bay Area neighborhoods. As with Khan’s videos, Rocketship’s online software lets students progress on the basics until they get it. Because of learning labs, Rocketship  uses fewer classroom teachers, while funneling the savings to pay them better and train them intensely.

Khan’s videos, Rocketship’s learning labs, and the best virtual schools are working for kids. Districts and teachers that resist the potential do so at their peril.

(Did I mention that within the past few months, trustees of San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified and Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto rejected Rocketship charter proposals? All three will be heading to the State Board of Education on appeal – more evidence of why an appeals process in California is critical for innovation. San Jose Unified, whose progressive teachers union president has endorsed  Rocketship and encouraged it to take over a low-performing school, will likely approve a Rocketship charter.  Had Santa Clara County board of trustees on appeal not approved the first and other Rocketship charters, there would be no Rocketship today – at least not in California.)